Creation of a Blossom Day in Salem began in 1920 and was established by Salem’s Commercial Club to promote the success of Salem’s local fruit industry.
As noted in the Capital Journal: “On some day between April 5 and 20, when blossom season is at its most gorgeous in and around Salem, arms will be thrown wide to thousands of visitors and tourists.” The Commercial Club coordinated with local Salem community groups like the Cherrians, Elks and the Knights of Columbus to offer visitors an escorted motor car tour, with automobiles driven by white-uniformed Salem Cherrians to view not only cherry blossoms, but also out to fruit farms in the surrounding Willamette Valley to view the blossoms from prune orchards and other flowering fruit trees. Thousands of visitors came to Salem to take part in the tour that first year.
It was so successful that the Commercial Club determined to host a second Blossom Day in 1921. It was set for April 16, 1921, and it was noted in the Capital Journal: “Just one week distant is Salem’s second annual Blossom Day, set for Sunday, April 16, when hundreds of Salem automobiles will meet the trains and escort the visitors from other towns over a given route through orchards just at the outskirts of Salem. Here the trees are thick with beautiful blossom clusters, and the orchards with their even rows are a fairyland bower. Thousands of people visited Salem on the first Blossom Day a year ago and plans are being made to accommodate as many this year.”
The Capital Journal even advertised that 1,000 automobiles were wanted for the tour to be driven by the Salem Cherrians since so many visitors were interested in attending. The day’s tour ended with the Cherrian band playing in Willson Park.
As part of its promotion of Salem’s fruit industry, the Commercial Club provided key information to all participants. They shared that Salem had 10,740 acres planted in prune trees, 946 acres of cherry trees, 3,692 acres of loganberries, 1,238 acres of strawberries with other fruits on an additional 6,000 acres. The Commercial Club emphasized that all of this fruit is manufactured into finished product before leaving Salem – so the Willamette Valley has ideal conditions for fruit farming.
The Commercial Club continued to work with the Cherrians to host Blossom Day tours in April every year for the next several decades. Each year the date for the annual Blossom Day auto tour was determined by studying the weather and orchard conditions to determine the best time to tour the flowering fruit trees.
Blossom Day was eventually taken over by the Salem Cherrians, which continued to sponsor the event through 1968. The Cherrians changed the focus of their event, from promoting trade to focusing more on sharing the beauty of Salem and the Willamette Valley. The Cherrians added a contest for the best pictures of blossoms, tees in blossom or orchards in bloom.
On the 52nd annual Blossom Day held in 1965, the auto tour route went through Eola Hills of west Salem to view cherry, pear, peach and apple blossoms. Blossom Day included an open house at the Capitol with tours and music. The Cherrians also worked to cross promote Blossom Day event with Salem’s annual Cherry Festival, held later in the summer.
The Cherry Festival started as part of the Oregon State Fair held in September. In 1905 the Cherry Festival was organized as a separate event by local Salem business leaders, with the hope that it would become much like Portland’s Rose Festival with an annual parade, ball and coronation of a queen.
On June 26, 1910, the Oregon Statesman reported: “Like the Rose Festival, the Cherry Fair will grow in importance each year and Salem will become the Mecca of thousands of interested people who will judge of the city and its enterprise and wealth by the spirit and enthusiasm that is put into the Cherry Festival. Besides doing this, it will bring to the city growers from all over the country who… will receive the benefit and gain new ideas concerning that in which they are most interested, the growing of the luscious Oregon cherry.”
The Salem Cherrians organized in 1913, with their original purpose to promote the Cherry Fair.
In 1968, the Knights of Columbus took over sponsoring the event after the Cherrians disbanded. In 1971 the event was expanded to a two-day event which became known as “Blossom Drive,” and signs marking the route were put up to guide participants along the 22-mile drive. In 1999 a Salem auto club, initially known as the GM Haulers, took over sponsorship of the Blossom Day drive.
The Salem Auto Club Council has continued to sponsor the Blossom Day Drive and even added a game with prizes. For example, their 86th annual Cherry Blossom Drive and Poker Run in 2014 advertised that participants that year could get a card and a map – and then at each of seven identified stops along the way, participants could draw a playing card – with the best five-card poker hand at the end of the day winning $100.
In 2015 the first Cherry Blossom Day hosted by the Capitol Foundation was celebrated at the Capitol Mall on March 28, with a photo contest, arts and crafts, and a fashion show in partnership with Tokyo University. Starting in 2017, Cherry Blossom Day has been celebrated in Salem at the Capitol on the third Saturday in March. This year it was celebrated on March 18.
The auto club is planning its 94th annual Cherry Blossom Poker Run for Saturday, April 15. It begins at 9 a.m. at Walery’s Pizza in west Salem and concludes at the Antique Powerland Museum in Brooks. The event is open to the public. For more information visit salemautoclubcouncil.org.
Kimberli Fitzgerald is the city of Salem's archeologist and historic preservation officer. She is a regular contributor to Salem Reporter's local history column.