The year was 1962. Brenda Lange and family were moving into their Vera Avenue home that February, and Ripon was kicking off the Almond Blossom Festival.
“We had a get-together that first festival with friends and family who wanted to watch the parade go by the house,” said Lange, who was 6 years old. “It was a perfect location, right on the parade route, but also only three blocks from the Community Center, where the carnival was located for the first 45 years or so.”
In those early years, the festival was much smaller, but Ripon was a town with a lot of civic pride. It was only a matter of time before it nurtured that seed into a four-day event that’s become a harbinger of spring and this year, according to organizers, is expected to attract 30,000 to 50,000 people.
The festival that celebrates all things almond kicks off today with an almond baking contest from 7 to 10 a.m., the Lions Club spaghetti dinner at 4:30 p.m. and the Almond Blossom queen coronation at 7 p.m., all in the Ripon Community Center. Also at 7 will be a fashion show in the Ripon High School multipurpose room. The carnival opens this evening and runs through Sunday, the festival’s conclusion. The carnival and festival are at Mistlin Sports Park, 1201 W. River Road.
“Every year since 1962, we’ve had a gathering at the house on that day,” Lange said. In the late ’60s to about the ’80s, members of the Modesto Area Model A Club would park their Model A’s in the home’s large, circular driveway, have coffee and doughnuts on the patio, then go line up for the parade, she recalled. “They’d then come back to the house, park in the driveway again and have a huge potluck lunch on the patio and stay the entire day!”
Almond Blossom weekend became a mini-reunion of sorts. “It’s a great spot to hang out for the day and walk to various things like the art show, the exhibits at the Community Center, etc.,” Lange said of her home, with its huge backyard and pool. “We’ve had relatives come from as far away as Virginia, Wyoming, Illinois, Oregon, Arizona and Nevada.”
“The night before each Almond Blossom gathering, we’d set up the pingpong table, the volleyball net and get the basketball, Frisbees and football ready,” she said. “I even remember a couple occasions when the weather was forecast to be very warm for that time of year and Dad fired up the heater on the pool and a few brave souls took a dip!”
Bob Lange died Feb. 18, 2010, of pancreatitis. “Even though his memorial service was held on Thursday, Feb. 25, that year, Mom insisted we carry on the tradition of Almond Blossom two days later,” Lange said. “She was adamant that Dad’s favorite day of the year not be canceled.” Three months later, Lange lost her mom, Aina.
“Home on the Grange – a Salute to Agriculture” is the theme for this year’s parade, which begins with the Almond Blossom queen leading some 100 entries from Stockton Avenue at 1 p.m. Saturday before finishing at the Community Center on Fourth Street. This year’s festival and parade honor the Ripon Grange. Saturday brings an early-morning breakfast at the Grange Hall and a fun run, featuring 1-mile and 8K races, at 8:30 a.m. and 9, respectively, at Stouffer Park.
Among the most well-attended events is the diaper derby, which begins at 10 a.m. Saturday in the Ripon Christian gymnasium. In the past, it’s been standing-room only as spectators lined up to see the racers, all babies not old enough or coordinated enough to walk.
The festival officially was founded by Clem Mulholand, who was Ripon’s Chamber of Commerce secretary. It has its roots in the Simpson Lee Daze festival of 1961, which honored the contributions the Simpson Paper Co. made to the community.
As for Brenda Lange and brothers Kurt and Scott, they’ll be front and center watching the parade from the circular driveway of the house Brenda still calls home. “The number of folks who come by varies, year to year, mostly based on the weather forecast,” said Lange. Her parents’ events brought 80 and 120 people, she said. “We normally see about 40 to 70, or a few more, these days.”
The Model A Club hasn’t come to the house since her parents sold their Model A, she said, and fewer members of the older generation are making the trip. “However, we’ll continue the tradition as long as this house is in the family,” she said. “It’s still a very special day and it’s always such fun to see who will stop by – we never know how many will come – but we always plan on at least 75, just to be sure.”
Longtime Ripon residents are familiar with the Lange home. For newcomers, it’s the corner property with tables and chairs set up in the front yard for the potluck lunch during this year’s parade.
“It’s going in reverse direction this year, so it will go around our corner later than usual,” she said. “It’s a small change in the ‘usual’ process, but with the weather forecast to be quite fine that day, I’m sure it will be another fun day. We’ll still miss Mom and Dad, but we know they’d want us to continue the 52-year tradition they started here at the house in 1962.”