The Strawberry Music Festival is headed back to Tuolumne County on a new site with a deep history.
The outdoor music event returns to the region this weekend after two years away to a new home on the Westside property on the edge of the town of Tuolumne. The site was the longtime home of one of the largest lumber mills in the county and is now owned by the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians.
“We couldn’t be happier,” said festival spokeswoman Jodi Barnett. “The site is very naturally scenic, yet the town is also very close. There’s a lot of potential to return for the future.”
The festival, which kicks off Thursday evening and runs through Monday morning, had called Camp Mather home since its inception more than 30 years ago. But in 2013, its Labor Day festival was canceled due to the massive Rim fire. Then last year, the city of San Francisco, which owns Camp Mather, turned down its permit.
So organizers uprooted the event to Grass Valley in Nevada County for its Labor Day and Memorial Day festivals instead. But Barnett said they’d always had an eye on returning to Tuolumne, where its offices are based and the festival was born in 1983. After San Francisco’s denial, Tuolumne County officials suggested the Westside property as an alternate location. But the idea came too late to get the plan finalized for last year.
“We know it’s a great venue and offers new opportunities not at Camp Mather,” said Tuolumne County Administrator Craig Pedro. “We’re very comfortable with the folks from the Strawberry Music Festival and also very comfortable with the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk. They were looking for other potential uses and this seemed to be a perfect use.”
The land was first developed in 1899 as the West Side Flume & Lumber Company, which became the West Side Lumber Company. According to the Tuolumne County Historical Society, the Pickering Lumber Company bought the mill in 1925. The mill and its pond operated on and off until a strike closed it for good in 1962. According to the historical society archives, the building burned down later that year.
In the late 1970s, the site was bought by Taco Bell founder Glen Bell. He built a museum and theme park on the land, called the West Side and Cherry Valley Railway. It offered train rides, boat excursions and RV parking, but closed a few years later. After that, the property bounced around to various owners before being purchased in 2002 by the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians.
Pedro said bringing the festival in right along the border of the town also opens up more economic and community opportunities. In years past, Strawberry has brought in about 6,500 to 7,000 people – between staff and concertgoers – to Camp Mather. But its more remote location, just outside of Yosemite some 50 miles east of Westside, made it harder for people to come and go.
The Westside site is within walking distance to the Tuolumne Memorial Veteran’s Hall, community swimming pool and the Tuolumne City Memorial Museum, which will all be open to festivalgoers. The more convenient location will also allow for more drop-in day and night attendance in addition to the weekend-long camping options.
“I am particularly thrilled ending up in a location that has greater economic impact on the county,” Barnett said. “We’re excited to be in a more mainstream area so we can participate in the economic and artistic landscape locally. Tuolumne businesses deserve our patronage. It’s a great community to support in that way.”
Barnett said organizers are looking at Westside as a long-term home for the festival. The tribe, which owns and operates the nearby Black Oak Casino, originally bought the property to develop the land into residential housing and an 18-hole golf course.
“This is sort of a barn raising, this is something people can be part of in creating the first festival here and how it’s shaped for the future,” Barnett said. “We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t have an eye to the future. We like the place, and we’ll want to hear from our people, when they come, on what they have to say.”
The evening headliners this year include Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin with the Guilty Ones, The Wood Brothers, Keller William’s Grateful Grass and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.