Editor’s note: This is the first of a four-part series exploring the history and evolution of Valley Appreciation Day, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year when it takes place in Invermere on Saturday, July 21.
It’s been 25 years since the first Valley Appreciation Day (or Alberta Appreciation Day, as it was known), and as the years have passed the festival has grown in leaps and bounds, which is exactly what original organizer Bill Cropper had always hoped for.
“We knew this thing had giant potential,” Cropper told The Valley Echo. “We more and more began to realize we needed to be more proactive with what we offered here.”
Cropper first moved to the valley from Vancouver some 40 years ago, after a treeplanting excursion led him to discover the immense beauty of the Kootenays. Roughly 15 years later, as a local businessman who relied heavily on the tourists visiting the valley, he and his former wife decided they needed to have an event that not only celebrated visitors, but also gave them things to do when they came. In collaboration with the Invermere Business Committee, the idea of what was then known as Alberta Appreciation Day was born.
“It was extremely hokey, and the valley was pretty hokey,” Cropper joked. “We were a pretty unsophisticated group… but it was fun.”
Turnout to see the collection of musical acts, clowns and artists started relatively small, but with each passing year the crowds continued to grow. After five years, Cropper estimates they had about 1,000 people attend, and at its most popular he said they could easily get 5,000 people out on the streets. What made the festival unique at first was the absence of any commercial interests, as Cropper said that making money wasn’t the aim of the festival.
“We realized it was time to really step up to the plate in terms of presenting ourselves as a welcoming group of valley residents and business people to the influx that was growing by the year,” Cropper explained. “We didn’t want to leave the impression to tourists that we were there primarily just to make money.”
After time, they eventually did allow some businesses to take part such as Panorama Mountain Village and Fairmont Hot Springs resorts, mainly because they felt these groups also had something to offer visitors. Cropper, who was responsible for putting together the entertainment, also started to branch out in terms of the acts he hired. One particular act, a pair of German accordion players who had just arrived from Chicago, gave Cropper one of his fondest memories from his years with the festival.
“I think they were scheduled [to perform] at 11:30 a.m., and we’d set up a stage in front of the Invermere Inn,” Cropper recalled. “So 11 a.m. rolls around, and I said, ‘Where’s the two German guys?’ Somebody went into the bar, and there they were, at 11:15 in the morning drinking beer.”
Volunteers attempted to convince the two men to come with them to perform, but the Germans indicated with their small amount of English that they were busy with their beer.
“So [the volunteers] went back into the bar, picked up the little round table and their mugs of beer and said ‘Follow us,’” said Cropper, laughing. “And so here comes these two German guys marching down the street wearing their lederhosen and with their accordions. We put their beer table on the stage, plunked down their beers, and then they’d play… they were following the beer.”
While the festival had its rocky moments the first few years, Cropper credits an extremely hard-working group of about 20 core people that really kept it moving. Cropper also would like to note Norm Gagatek’s contributions, who from day one was involved with the technical side of the festival.
“I couldn’t have done it without Norm; there were always glitches and problems and Norm always ironed them out… he was a genius when it came to electronics,” said Cropper. “We surrounded ourselves with some of the more positive people in the valley, like the Lions’ Club, and the Rotarians, and the Kinsmen… there was a whole large group around the core that made it happen.”
The festival seemed to change location every few years as well, starting near what’s now Angus McToogle’s, then moving to near the Invermere Inn, then near the Bank of Montreal, then beside Gerry’s Gelati, and then to Pothole Park.
“We were always looking for the ultimate location,” Cropper said.
After about 10 years, the organizing committee decided to change the name to Visitor Appreciation Day, as they felt the previous name was too exclusive for visitors coming from outside Alberta. As the years went on, the name evolved to Valley Appreciation Day, something Cropper feels was a necessity to reflect the changing focus.
“It’s morphed itself,” Cropper said. “Valley Appreciation Day seems to encompass everyone, from visitors to our locals. It had to continually grow and evolve, and I think it did steadily.”
Eventually Cropper decided to leave the organizing committee after 18 years, in part to focus on his own business, which at the time was booming.
“I decided I’ve run with this thing for a number of years, it’s been very successful, and I’m proud of my part in it, but it’s time to press on and allow some new people in to open it up even further,” Cropper said. “I’m really glad I did because it did exactly that.”
He remains impressed with the direction the festival has headed and although he hasn’t had much time to explore recent festivals, he said he’ll make a special effort for this year’s 25th anniversary.
“I think it’s really important that we carry an attitude of inclusiveness, and I think Valley Appreciation Day has done a really good job of that,” Cropper said. “I think, in these times, it’s really important that we focus on things like this event… we are a tourist destination, and we definitely need to provide our visitors with entertainment and a positive view of the valley.”