Parade, ’40s music and food. Go back in time at Richland’s Atomic Frontier Day

Atomic Frontier Day recreated for Hanford 75th

Jillian Gardner-Andrews, WSU Tri-Cities Hanford History Project coordinator, shares details about the revival of the Richland Atomic Frontier Day event to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the startup of Hanford’s B Reactor.
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Jillian Gardner-Andrews, WSU Tri-Cities Hanford History Project coordinator, shares details about the revival of the Richland Atomic Frontier Day event to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the startup of Hanford’s B Reactor.

Richland will look and sound like the ‘40s and ‘50s on Saturday when it goes back in time to the biggest day of the year.

Starting in 1948, the community, with the help of visiting Hollywood movie stars like John Wayne, spent up to three days each August having fun and marking the start of the atomic age in its backyard with Atomic Frontier Days.

While no movie stars are expected at the Sept. 14 event, organizers promise a chance to relive the early days of Richland and reconnect with the town’s unusual history.

Events include a parade, with entries ranging from vintage military vehicles to Kadlec nurses and Girl Scouts wearing vintage uniforms.

Then participants can head to Howard Amon Park to walk through the steps of getting a “security badge,” see historical exhibits, watch ‘40s-themed entertainment, eat a traditional Hanford mess hall dinner and then dance to a swing band.

Starting in 1948 until about 1960, the community, sometimes with the help of visiting Hollywood movie stars, spent up to three days each August having fun and marking the start of the atomic age in its backyard with Atomic Frontier Days.

The event is free other than the $7 hearty dinner at the Richland Community Center.

Coleen Varvel, 95, of Richland was there for the first Richland Atomic Frontier Days in 1948, collecting the programs until the last one in about 1960, and may be back on Saturday, she said.

“It was a big deal, because nothing else was a big deal,” she said laughing, about the event in the early days of Richland when it was a government-owned town. “It was fun. Everybody was involved.”

Richland booming 75 years ago

When the first Atomic Frontier Days was held, it was three years since the end of World War II.

In 1945, Richland residents had learned that the secret project they had worked long hours to build at the nuclear reservation produced the fuel for an atomic bomb, helping end the war when it was dropped over Nagasaki, Japan.

Richland was a tiny farming village before it was taken over by the federal government in 1943 to provide housing and services for Hanford workers. It had 13,000 residents at the end of the war.

Sagebrush and a Hanford nuclear reservation worker in protective gear illustrate the atomic theme of a float in an early Atomic Frontier Days parade in Richland. Courtesty WSU Tri-Cities Hanford History Project

By 1947-49 a major expansion of plutonium-production capabilities was underway as the Cold War began.

It brought a population boom and the city expanded to 23,000, according to Michele Gerber, writing in “On the Home Front,” a history of Hanford.

The first Atomic Frontier Days was a celebration of the town that nuclear built and optimism that the atomic age would bring new wonders, this time for peaceful uses, with science and technology work being done by Richland residents.

The Atomic Frontier Days on Saturday was planned to mark the startup of Hanford’s B Reactor, the worlds’ first production-scale nuclear reactor, 75 years ago this month, as the Allies rushed to produce an atomic weapon before Nazi Germany.

John Wayne came to Richland

The 1948 event lasted three days and included visits from Hollywood stars John Wayne, Cisco Kid, Chil Wills, Roddy MacDowell, Monte Hale, Ella Raines and Ray Whitley, according to souvenir programs.

People said that Wayne “drank the city of Richland out of alcohol,” said Jillian Gardner-Andrews, the Washington State University Tri-Cities Hanford History Project coordinator.

Sharon Tate, 16, was a student at Columbia High School in Richland when she was chosen Miss Richland during the 1959 Atomic Frontier Days. The year before she was Miss Autorama in Tri-Cities. Tri-City Herald archive

Among the stars’ official duties was to judge a baby contest, help judge the Miss Richland competition, put on a western jamboree and attend a theater premiere of “Cisco Kid” at all three Richland theaters for children only.

Other events included a parade, jalopy races, a community singalong, a band concert, dancing on the tennis court after 10:30 p.m., a mutt show, an air show, a Richland Players pageant and sack races and other field events for kids. Sporting competitions ranged from bowling to trap shooting.

In 1959, some 2,000 people watched Sharon Tate be crowned Miss Richland at Atomic Frontier Days.

The beauty queen eventually made it onto the big screen, but her rise to stardom ended with her death by Charles Manson’s disciples in 1969 when she was 8 months pregnant.

Atomic Frontier Day 2019

The city of Richland, with the help of the WSU Tri-Cities Hanford History project and other supporters of the 2019 Atomic Frontier Days, has a full day of activities planned for Saturday.

The only thing participants need to do in advance is stop by the Richland Community Center to buy tickets for the mess hall dinner. A limited number of tickets still may be available Saturday at the door.

AFD PUD float
A colorful float for the Benton-Franklin PUD drives past community members lining the sidewalk in front of the Uptown Shopping Center in Richland. Courtesy WSU-TC Hanford History Project

Here’s the rundown on Saturday’s events and some tips for attending:

Parade: The parade starts at 11 am. on Jadwin Avenue at Symons Street near the Uptown Shopping Center. It will follow Jadwin south to Mansfield Street, just north of the Federal Building.

Entries include Miss Richland 1951 waving from a convertible, a replica of a government alphabet house, WWII veterans in vintage vehicles and one of the buses that Hanford workers used to catch each workday to get out to the nuclear reservation.

On stage: After the parade people are encouraged to make their way to Howard Amon Park on Lee Boulevard.

Opening ceremonies are at 1 p.m. at the fingernail stage.

They will be followed by a bomber flyover at 2 p.m. and then the family of the Day’s Pay crew will take the stage at 2:15 p.m. Hanford workers donated a days pay during WWII to buy a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber christened Day’s Pay.

Starting in 1948 until about 1960, the community, sometimes with the help of visiting Hollywood movie stars, spent up to three days each August having fun and marking the start of the atomic age in its backyard with Atomic Frontier Days. Courtesy WSU-TC Hanford History Project

Entertainment will continue on the stage through 6 p.m., including performances of theater, musical theater, dance and symphony with a ‘40s theme.

In the Park:

Starting at 1 p.m. participants can relive the experience of new Hanford workers, with the security badging booth the first stop.

During the Manhattan Project era — the WWII years when the nation was developing atomic bombs — many workers arrived at the Pasco train station and then hopped a bus to Hanford, said Becky Burghart, Hanford Site manager of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

There they would get their housing assignment, sign up for banking, visit the labor office and get their security badge.

Visitors to Howard Amon Park can take their security badge around to corresponding exhibits, collecting stamps, and then head over to the “security office” at the Richland Community Center to have their picture taken and be issued a souvenir security badge.

“It’s a great souvenir item and a great way to learn about the history of the Manhattan Project,” Burghard said.

Richland residents enjoy an earlier Hanford Frontier Days. Courtesy Department of Energy

Throughout the afternoon at the park, visitors can tour exhibits, including the Wanapum band bus with information about local Native American culture. The National Park Service and Battelle have activities planned, many of them for kids.

At the Richland Community Center: The center at 500 Amon Park Drive will open displays keyed to Hanford and early Richland history starting at 1 p.m.

Historic photos and Hanford artifacts will be exhibited.

Organizers are setting up a scene from one of the government-built and furnished alphabet houses for early Hanford workers. They are called alphabet houses because each model was identified by a letter of the alphabet.

atomic frontier Days.jpg
A program for the first Atomic Frontier Days in Richland in 1948, then a three-day event.

A ‘40s Hanford office scene also is planned.

The National Park and Northwest Public Broadcasting plan a “Remembrance Room,” where short video recordings will be made of memories of Hanford and Richland in the 1950s and earlier.

Organizers are hoping that both people who lived through the era and also their children or grandchildren who have stories passed down from earlier residents will stop by.

Photos also can be dropped off, with all information archived at the Hanford History Project.

Hanford construction camp mess hall.jpg
Tables at a Hanford mess hall for 1940s construction workers is set for the next meal. Courtesy Department of Energy

Mess Hall Dinner: Many WWII Hanford construction workers lived in dormitories and ate at one of the site’s eight mess halls.

CG Catering is providing a $7 buffet-style dinner similar to what workers would have been served in the 1940s — meat loaf, mashed potatoes, Jell-O, green beans and ice box cake.

Meals will be served at 4:30 and 6 p.m. at the Richland Community Center. It is the only ticketed item of the event.

Food vendors also will be at the park.

A couple dances at the night dance of an earlier Atomic Frontier Days in Richland. Courtesy Department of Energy

Swing band: The day ends with a free concert 6 to 8 p.m. at the fingernail stage. Local band Less Stress and the Testers will play swing music and swing dancers will perform.

Parking: Some of the parking near the park will be converted to a large handicap parking zone. Other parking is available at the community center. Visitors also can park at the Federal Building lot on the 900 block of Jadwin Avenue and walk over.

Ben Franklin Transit will run a bus shuttle back and forth from the parking lot at Fran Rish Stadium at 739 Stevens Drive.

Seating: A limited number of chairs will be available at the fingernail stage. Bringing chairs or blankets to enjoy the performances there, including the evening swing music, is recommended.

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Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.