Scarecrows pop up in Costa Mesa

In recent months, they've cropped up in the darndest places — at City Hall, on the train at Goat Hill Junction Railroad, even leaning against the fence during youth baseball practice.

They may look out of place in a city whose farming days are mostly past, but the four scarecrows that have made the rounds to publicize Costa Mesa's upcoming Scarecrow Festival have a symbolic meaning as the city celebrates its 60th anniversary.

Quite a bit more than 60 years ago — from 1938 to 1941, to be exact — Costa Mesa held an annual festival for which residents built their own scarecrows, with some creating entrants out of flowers, auto parts or other oddball materials. This year, as Costa Mesa celebrates its history (and prehistory), the festival will make a return.

"We've had ties to this going way back," said Charlene Ashendorf, chairwoman of the 60th anniversary celebration's educational and historical programs committee. "So our committee felt, what a great way to really bring the community back. It's just a fun thing to have and a fun thing to do and also, agriculturally, it really just elevates our community's history."

On Oct. 12 and 13 at Goat Hill Junction, the city will host its Scarecrow Festival, with a contest, train rides, pumpkin-painting and an antique organ display. Before then, on Aug. 29 and Sept. 7, scarecrow-making classes will take place at Creative Outlet Studios in Costa Mesa.

Participants in the classes, which cost $10 and last two hours, are invited to bring material such as fabric, sticks, bamboo, cans, bottles, pipes, string and, of course, straw for stuffing. All scarecrows deemed appropriate will be displayed at the festival.

When they go up, they'll continue a tradition that thrived in Costa Mesa until World War II swept it aside. According to Art Goddard of the Costa Mesa Historical Society, officials hit upon the Scarecrow Festival after the city suffered a series of setbacks during the 1930s: an earthquake, a flood and the Great Depression.

"In a way, Costa Mesa's answer to those challenges was, 'Let's have a party,'" Goddard said.

The Santa Ana Journal, on June 6, 1938, described the inaugural event: "A hillbilly orchestra whined from atop a truck ... an eight-year-old won five gallons of gas and wondered what to do with it ... old-timers wagged their beards and said Costa Mesa had never seen such carryin's-on. It was the Mesa's first annual Carnival of Scarecrows, and it attracted some 7500 persons, off and on — who used to remember Costa Mesa as a wide place in the road."

The event grew in the coming years, according to the historical society, with 1940's Carnival Queen even making the cover of Look Magazine. The following year, the crowd was estimated at 25,000.

Then war came, Costa Mesa changed and the festival stopped and would stay dormant for decades. A display at the society headquarters, advertising this year's event, declares it "The Return of the Historic Scarecrow Festival."

That effort may start in earnest with the classes at Creative Outlet Studios, but Ashendorf and her committee have gotten an early jump. Of the four scarecrows that have toured the city, one depicts Costa Mesa-Newport Harbor Lions Club President Mike Scheafer, while two others depict Charles TeWinkle, the city's first mayor, and his wife. The fourth, generic one is simply named Ima Scarecrow. (Say it out loud.)

"Our vision is to bring out scarecrows from the woodwork that are creative and unusual," Ashendorf said.

If You Go

What: Scarecrow-making class

Where: Creative Outlet Studios, 2035 Placentia Ave., Unit F, Costa Mesa

When: 6 to 8 p.m. Aug. 29; 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sept. 7

Cost: $10

Information: (949) 945-7990 or http://www.costamesais60.com

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