Oregon’s Alpenfest – Western U.S. Bavarian Festival
Tucked into the Northeast corner of Oregon is a small town with a big heart called Joseph. Located in Wallowa County, near Wallowa Lake, and at the foot of the tall jagged Wallowa Mountains, it’s known as the “Alps” of Oregon or Little Switzerland. This is where you will find Oregon’s Alpenfest.
These Alps are home to one of the longest-running Swiss-Bavarian cultural festivals and the only one in the western U.S., Oregon’s Alpenfest. The festival is held on the last weekend of September each year. The community gathers at the foot of the “Little Alps” and pulls out their Tirolean finest to celebrate all things Bavarian; Beer, bratwurst, polka bands, yodeling, alphorns, accordions, and folk dancing.
Alpenfest was first celebrated in the Joseph area in 1975, and was created by area business owners to attract visitors and boost tourism at the end of the summer season. The event ran for 33 years before closing up due to dwindling attendance. In 2011, a group of business owners in nearby Joseph decided to revive the festival. Today, the festival has been rebranded as Oregon’s Alpenfest. The festival extends from the original site, The Edelweiss Inn, down into the towns of Joseph and nearby Enterprise.
The current event is still centered in the Edelweiss Lodge located near the Tramway. Lights glitter, children run, vendors sell handicrafts that include; glassware, jewelry, woodworks, metalworks and food such as Brats, Beer, donuts, baked goods, streusel and more. If you’re lucky, you might even see a mountain dog lounging around the foot of the stairs to the Inn.
A spectacle by itself, nearly a hundred years old, the Edelweiss Inn was built in the 1920’s as a club house for the area’s Elks Lodge. The building has since served as a dude ranch lodge, dance hall and roller-skating rink. It’s currently the community event center now owned by the Tramway.
The old building has charm, although it has become rough around the edges. At first glance the well-used wood floors call you in to dance, the exposed log rafters barely hold in the party. Parts of the building appear to be held together with bailing wire and prayer, but the warmth of The Edelweiss Inn welcomes you none the less. For $18 you can enter and join the festivities as the vibrations of dancing make you smile, you wedge yourself amongst the crowd to find a place under the glowing strands of twinkle lights to enjoy the evening’s food an entertainment. The Polkatones, and the Tirolean Dancers of Oregon, tear up the floor with may traditional folk dances. The dancers break for other special performances such as the blowing of the alphorn and Swiss yodeling. The entertainment was constant, colorful and engaging. It was fun!
What’s For Dinner at Oregon’s Alpenfest
Dinner was another $12 and included a Bratwurst meal of artisan smoked bratwurst from Hines Meat Co in La Grande, Oregon. Plenty of sauerkraut, strudel baked fresh, daily from Sugar Time Bakery in Enterprise, Oregon. The regional microbrews from Terminal Gravity Brewery of Enterprise, are known throughout Oregon and beyond. They create an Alpenfest beer seasonally that coincides with the event and there is a ceremonial tapping of the brews first keg at Terminal Gravity’s brewpub. Other brews come from East Fork Brewery in nearby Joseph, and Side A Brewing in La Grande. Oregon’s Alpenfest is a great opportunity for local breweries to share their craft.
Of course, you can’t spend your whole weekend eating and drinking at the Alpenfest. Head down to Joseph, Oregon and tour the many galleries that are still open in the town. Joseph sits about a mile north of Wallowa Lake, at the base of the Wallowa Mountains and along the edge of the Eagle Cap Wilderness area. The area has a plethora of rivers that wind through the area which was originally home to the Nez Perce who called it “The land of winding waters”.
Once a sleepy town, turned arts community, it is renowned for the bronze foundries and for the works of bronze sculptor Austin Barton, Shelly Curtiss and Steve Parks all residents of Joseph. Their work can be seen all along the main street of the town. Beautiful sculptures of western art adorn the city, and art galleries are plentiful. Woodworkers and Jewelers; also craft beautiful pieces. These as well as the bronze work are purchased and shipped all over the world.
One Jeweler caught my eye, Stewart Jones. He studied architecture in college and was required to take some sort of art class for his architecture degree. He chose metal arts. Once he got started with metalwork he never turned back. Today he has a beautiful gallery Stewart Jones Designs on Main street in the historic 1911 bank building, complete with a couple of vaults.
Stewart’s studio is huge, and his work benches are positioned in the gallery area so you can watch him work on his design and jewelry projects. There is a drafting area, a platinum bench, gold or silver bench and a circa 1860 Swiss rose engine.
He showed me his pride and joy, the Swiss Rose Engine. He demonstrated how it works creating beautiful patterns in precious metals as settings for stones in necklaces. The machine itself is a work of art, and a dream come true for those that like to push buttons, turn gears and watch history at work.
Stewart and his wife Catherine also own a nearby Bed and Breakfast, that I hope to return and try.
Where do you want to eat while in Joseph?
Although there are several nice restaurants and cafes, Stewart suggested that we stop by The Dog Spot for a meal. An interesting name, a business catering to dogs, and they serve food. Walking in, you will find the canine retail area on the right and a small comfortable seating area on the left where several tables are set for either lunch or dinner.
The Dog Spot is Owned and operated by Chef Arion Canniff and his wife, Amy. They moved to Joseph and set down roots to be near family. Chef Canniff has over 30 years experience in the food and beverage industry, working on every continent except Antarctica. He has designed, opened and operated restaurants in practically every cuisine style.
Chef Canniff opened The Dog Spot in Joseph as a “Retirement” gig and walks about 5 minutes to work each day. The menu changes monthly, to reflect his culinary mood, utilizing his culinary experiences with themes from around the world. Chef Canniff is bringing the flavors of his life to Joseph, one meal at a time. I love to meet people and make new friends, you’ll never know who you might find until you say hi. The Dog Spot is one of the local’s favorite spot for a meal, and it is not just for dogs.
Get out and explore, as the Wallowa area is beautiful, driving around the serene, scenic lake you see the trees, the looming mountains and spacious park areas unfold all around. The wildlife is abundant, with doe wandering with their fawns and bucks hunkered down between lake cabins, hiding from opening day of rifle season.
It was also spawning season for Kokanee, which are landlocked sockeye salmon. The river that ran through the cabins and parks to the lake were teaming with bright red Kokanee making their final run.
Joseph is a 7+ hours road trip from Bend Oregon, stop at a few diners along the way, such as the Country Café in Grass Valley. Donnette Hendrix of the Country Café whipped us up a breakfast and conversation. The Silver Spur Café in Mt. Vernon, Oregon was another meal stop on our journey. Rachel Sharp was busy cooking in back while her Mother-in-law chatted us up about the fresh pies that another relative makes daily.
Only 4 hours from Boise, Idaho or Spokane Washington. If you are up for a journey you might want to head over and visit this Oregon jewel.