Back in 1980, when the first Together Days was held in Westbrook, it was intended to be a one-time only community party. Little did the organizers of the first event know that the idea would be such a success and still going strong 26 years later.

On June 3 and 4, the city will celebrate its 26th annual Together Days, and the event has grown quite a bit from the simple one-time community gathering it started out as.

The Westbrook Woman’s Club was the driving force behind the origin of Together Days. Nancy Kelson, who chaired the first Westbrook Together Days Committee for the Westbrook Woman’s Club, said last year that the festival was not intended to be an annual event.

“We were doing civic projects every year,” she said. “This was our project that year. We did it more like a large picnic for the town. We only meant it to be just that one year.”

“It was started as a little community get-together,” said Westbrook Mayor Bruce Chuluda, chairman of the 26th Westbrook Together Days organizing committee. “Just to bring people closer together in the city.”

In fact, the first festival wasn’t even called Westbrook Together Days. Back then, the party was called “Westbrook Together ’80.”

Kelson said the original idea of Together Days was to give Westbrook residents an excuse to gather together and spend time with neighbors, something Kelson said was happening much less. “We were getting so we weren’t a close town,” she said. “We used to have things (like Together Days) way back. I thought it would be something nice for the town.”

During the many planning meetings prior to the festival, Kelson said the event would have to celebrate Westbrook, and what it had to offer. “Everything was Westbrook,” said Kelson. “We didn’t take anything out of Westbrook.”

Like more recent festivals, the original festival, held in Riverbank Park and other sites around Westbrook on June 21, 1980, featured a parade, a wide variety of foods and entertainment.

In addition, Westbrook Together ’80 featured a golf tournament, a tennis tournament, a road race, and canoe and boat races on the Presumpscot River. There was a special all-day showing of slides at the Manchester Legion Post Home that offered a glimpse into Westbrook’s past. The evening’s program featured an outdoor bean supper hosted by St. Mary’s Church. Following the bean supper, the S.D. Warren Band as well as Don Doane’s Band entertained residents.

Kelson noted the first festival was all done on a shoestring budget. “We didn’t have a lot of money to begin with,” she said. Kelson said while the Woman’s Club initially provided some money, the organizing committee had to rely on donations to put on the event. Published reports at the time estimated the total cost of the festival at $600. Kelson said the committee was so successful at soliciting donations they were able to keep prices down. For example, Kelson remembered the bean supper, which attracted over 900 people, cost only $1 per person.

Former state Rep. Ron Usher also had a hand in the beginning of Together Days, and was in charge of the parade for the first several festivals.

Organizing the parade for the original Together Days Festival was a large task. Usher approached many local businesses and convinced them that participating in the parade would be a good way to get their names known and boost their business.

Also, the parade organizers decided to generate the most interest in the parade and Together Days, they would try to include as many people in the parade as possible. That way more people would come down to the parade to watch their friends and family march.

“We thought when we discussed the parade, the more people you have involved, the more people come to see it,” Usher said. The plan worked like a charm, according to Usher. “There was a very good crowd,” he said.

When the first festival was such a success, plans were quickly formed to make the festival an annual affair. The Woman’s Club ran the second event. After that, the club stepped aside, and other civic organizations took up the task of running the festival. Usher pointed to the willingness of a wide variety of groups to pitch in and make Together Days an annual affair as part of the event’s strength.

“Usually something in a community gets started, but workers fade out,” said Usher. “That’s part of the success story of Together Days.”

Together Days continued to grow and expand and reached its 10th anniversary in 1989 with the Westbrook Chamber of Commerce taking over the role of event organizer, a role that the chamber still plays to this day.

The 10th annual Westbrook Together Days is notable because it was the only time the event was held in the fall. Originally, the festival was scheduled for June 6, 1989, but torrential rains postponed the event for the first time in its history. Published reports at the time said Westbrook received one-and-a-half inches of rain. That morning, three inches of standing water collected around the electrical outlets in Riverbank Park, killing the electrical power and forcing the cancellation of the festival.

There was no rain date scheduled, and after some debate, organizers decided to reschedule the festival for Sept. 16. Sunny skies dawned over Westbrook for the rescheduled festival, which went off without a hitch.

The next year, organizers moved the date of Together Days from later in the month to June 2, 1990, and factored in a rain date for the next week. Maine Gov. John McKernan served as the parade’s grand marshal, and noted Maine humorist Tim Sample provided the entertainment.

In 1991, Together Days expanded to two days for the first time when the city decided to include the event as part of Westbrook’s 100th Birthday celebration. In honor of the 100th anniversary of the founding of Westbrook’s government, all of Westbrook’s living mayors marched in the parade. Elmer Currier, then Westbrook’s oldest living mayor at 95, served as the grand marshal.

Throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century, Together Days continued to be the highlight of Westbrook’s early summer calendar. “I think residents have grown to look forward to it every year,” Chuluda said.

That certainly was the case last June, as the city celebrated its largest Together Days ever to honor the 25th anniversary of the event.

Chuluda said in his estimation last year’s 25th anniversary Together Days festival drew the largest crowds in the history of the event. “I think it was spectacular,” he said. “Words can’t express how happy I was with the turnout.”

Over 60 groups participated in the parade, with members of the Westbrook Woman’s Club serving as grand marshals to honor the club’s role in organizing the first event.

The Woman’s Club also served as parade judges, and they awarded first place to the Westbrook School Department float, which showed the accomplishments of students at Westbrook High School. Second place went to the Westbrook Fire Department for their vintage 1867 firefighting apparatus that was returned to the city last year after spending years in a museum.

Chuluda said he was pleased with the parade, and he has high hopes that this year’s will be even better. “The parade was awesome,” he said. “Hopefully, this year’s will be bigger.”

This year, in addition to the traditional parade, Together Days will feature the usual assortment of food and craft stands, and entertainment throughout the day. Chuluda said this year’s festival would feature an auction with merchandise donated by local merchants and a chicken barbeque, with the proceeds going to help pay for future Together Days. The popular rubber duck race on the Presumpscot River will also return for a second year, Chuluda said. The festivities will conclude with a fireworks display on Saturday night.

Chuluda said he is keeping his fingers crossed that the weather cooperates as well as it did last year, when Together Days was held under nearly ideal conditions.

Together Days may have grown since 1980, but Kelson said the general idea of unifying the city remains the same. “It’s just a nice time because we all go our separate ways as we get older,” said Kelson. “A lot of times, you just don’t do anything.”

Usher said many people who have moved away look forward to returning to Westbrook for Together Days. “You see people you don’t see on an average day. There’s a lot of shaking hands,” Usher said. “Certain families will sit in the same spot all the time.”

Community spirit is a big part of the reason Westbrook Together Days has been successful for the last quarter century, said Chuluda. “It’s a chance to get down there and see friends and neighbors and have a good time,” Chuluda said. “It’s just a real friendly time.”

For more information on this year’s Together Days festival, visit the American Journal’s Web site at www.keepmecurrent.com.


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