Bozeman | The Sweet Pea City

Angie Ripple  |   Monday Aug. 1st, 2022

Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley have been known as the valley of the flowers since only native Americans roamed the area. In the early 1900’s over 17,000 acres of the valley were planted in edible peas harvested both for canning and seed. In 1906, Bozeman competed with Billings to gain the location for a lucrative sugar beet factory from Utah that was looking to place a new processing plant in Montana. In efforts to gain their business, a Mr. Buchanan suggested a “Sweet Pea Carnival” after seeing Dr. and Mrs. JM Waters beautiful sweet peas at the corner of South Olive and 4th Street. The Waters’ made a living selling sweet peas by the car load to Butte and Helena.

Mr. Buchanan dubbed Bozeman the “Sweet Pea City” and the first Sweet Pea Carnival was held in August 1906 seeing a surprisingly large turnout. Bozeman quickly became known as the Sweet Pea Capital of the nation, and was second only to Portland’s Rose Carnival in the idea of presenting a floral carnival. Visitors riding trains to Bozeman for the carnival were greeted with fragrant bouquets of Sweet Peas. The first events featured a parade down Bozeman’s dusty and unpaved Main Street, an especially grand king and queen coronation, and a baseball game. The edible and fragrant sweet pea flower was the Carnival’s emblem and was used to promote the festivities.

The Sweet Pea Carnival parades were an event that T. Bryan Story spent weeks preparing his horse tack for, according to his daughter Winifred Lovelace as quoted in an undated article from the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. Story also wrote the words to the song “The Sweet-Pea Carnival” in 1909 and participated in many Carnival parades and events. Impressive floats for the Carnival parade were designed and created using Sweet Peas and other flowers, and Main Street businesses were decorated with elaborate bunting and ribbons.

Although Bozeman did not receive the sugar beet processing plant the Sweet Pea Carnival continued to run from 1906 to 1914 as a day long celebration, it took a break in 1915, and the final Sweet Pea Carnival was held in 1916 before the first World War brought it, and the prolific pea harvesting to a halt.

In 1977 eight young creatives, Eileen Tenney, Nancy House, Bev and George Mattson, Kathy and Rich Helzer, John Sincell (deceased) and Marietta Sincell Johnstone, had the vim and whimsy to pull together a festival of the arts that they chose to call the Sweet Pea Festival. The name Sweet Pea was chosen for the festival because it brought back the memory of the Sweet Pea Carnival of yesteryear, yet having nothing to do with the agricultural competition that brought together the original Carnival. The idea was not to bring back the old Sweet Pea, but to create a festival of the arts with the flavor and memory of the original.

In August 1978, with help from a grant from the Montana Arts Council, and donations from First Security Bank and Owenhouse Ace Hardware; two still very vibrant businesses on Bozeman’s Main Street, the Sweet Pea Festival was born. The concept was intended to bring regional artists to Bozeman to display and sell their artwork, bring musicians and dancers, as well as performing artists and theatre; to include Montana Shakespeare in the Parks, a long lasting Sweet Pea tradition. The format for the first festival included a parade, arts and crafts, music, children’s activities, food concessions, flower show and Sweet Pea Ball, run, poster contest and t shirt sales. Remarkably most of the original format is still being used today.

Never believing they could possibly fail the eight founders had to learn how to ask for monetary help, orchestrate volunteers and market the event. “We worked long and hard, but still managed to have a good time. We couldn’t have succeeded without the help of many volunteers. We are especially proud to see families enjoying the activities, lining Main Street for the parade after watching children of all ages finish the run, children being creative with wood, nails, a hammer and paint, people of all ages having a tator pig and listening to music or dancing their troubles away in the bowl, artists selling their art, plus school and family reunions choosing the first weekend in August to come together to visit, while enjoying the wonders of the Sweet Pea Festival of the Arts.” reflects Eileen Tenney.

For the past 45 years now the Sweet Pea Festival has continued with the mission of “promoting and cultivating the arts.” The Sweet Pea Festival is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. All money raised in excess of what is needed to operate the Festival is given back to the community in the form of grants for the arts, art education, and special projects in the Bozeman area.

The magic and whimsy of the original Sweet Pea Carnival can still be seen in the eyes and expressions of both young and old along Bozeman’s Main Street during the Sweet Pea Parade, while dancing in Lindley’s grassy bowl, as Chalk on the Walk masterpieces are made, or the Sweet Pea Run is completed. Bozeman holds and welcomes a great many people that can come together to celebrate our “little city” each August.

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