While the “Midland Area River Days Festival” as we know it didn’t begin until 1985, the City of Midland held a “Riverdays” celebration starting in the early 1950s. In those days, the festival coincided with the 4th of July and consisted of baseball games, log rolling competitions, a parade, and a brilliant firework display in the evening.
In July of 1985, Hugh Starks made arrangements with the J & K Steamboat Company of Lansing to bring their 50-passenger stern-wheeler into town for four days of river cruises. Hugh, who passed away in 2010, worked for Dow Chemical for over 40 years and was the first chair of the Riverdays Committee.
“…there will be the tinkle of a player piano when the ‘Grand Queen’ sails up the river for a four-day visit to Midland,” said Starks in an article from 1985. The Grand Queen riverboat was well received and returned to Midland for a week-long stay the following year.
“As I think of Eileen and Hugh Starks, I’m reminded of poet T.S. Eliot’s writing about one’s value of not only impacting the present but generations yet unborn. Introduced 38 years ago, the Starks’ River Days vision is so good, it has become entrenched in our community and is recognized as a “must-do” annual event for individuals and families. It has all the elements (natural and cultural history, diverse entertainment, and just plain fun) to be of benefit and enjoyed now and in the future. One of the highlights of my time in Midland (1990-present) was having the good fortune to have experienced Eileen and Hugh’s leadership and vision, not only as they developed River Days, but it’s noteworthy that they were also the catalyst for many other community-wide initiatives impacting present and future generations,” said Dick Touvell, Executive Director Emeritus of the Chippewa Nature Center.
1987 marked the beginning of increased activities. Michigan celebrated its 150th birthday, and the Midland Area Community Foundation planned a six-day celebration called “River Days Festival….a Rendezvous at the Forks.” An array of activities were designed to honor the state’s sesquicentennial. These activities included the riverboat, the Drum and Fife Corps, reenactors of the French voyageurs and Native Americans, a trout pond, and, of course, music. More than a history lesson, the Riverdays Festival in 1987 was a chance to acknowledge the vital role of the rivers in Midland’s prosperity for 150 years. Hugh and Eileen Starks were the co-organizers of the event. As stated in an August 1987 MACF publication, “Recognizing our heritage and working to realize a vital future along the riverfront will continue to be a Midland Foundation commitment.”
Building upon the success of the 1987 celebration, Riverdays Plus in 1988 added a lumberjack show, horse show, and petting zoo. One noteworthy event of the 1988 River Days included the rescue of the Princess Laura riverboat. Longtime Riverdays volunteer Bob Johns stayed at the riverfront overnight to monitor the electrical equipment he had installed for Saturday’s activities. During the late night hours, he was disturbed by the sounds of laughter and running feet. A quick survey revealed that the boat had been cut loose and drifting off under the Tridge. Bob jumped in and swam after her, only to realize he could not pull the large boat back in. So he returned to shore for rope, retook the plunge, and towed Princess Laura back to her base! Bob continued to volunteer with River Days until he passed in 2020. In 2021 the entertainment mainstage was named “Bob Johns River Days Stage” in his memory.
Moving forward, the event name was changed to “The Midland Area River Days Festival” to align with the Community Foundation. Milk jug races, games, nature walks, and canoe rides were all festival components at one point or another. The Midland Rotary Clubs Cheeseburger Dinner and Lion’s Club Chicken Dinner became staples of the festival. Fireworks became an annual part of the event in 1991 when the Tridge celebrated its 10th anniversary. They continue to be supported by the Gerstacker Foundation and have been renamed the Esther Gerstacker Fireworks in honor of Esther’s love of fireworks. In 2018 the Balloonfest was incorporated into the festival and remains the weekend’s highlight.
To carry out River Days’ purpose of being an inclusive community celebration by the river to honor the past and embrace the future of Midland, a hard-working committee representing various organizations and businesses assists in planning. This group plans and carries out activities that unite the community. River Days would not be possible without the many volunteers in our community who help make this event successful each year.