Ed Johnson and the Olalla Bluegrass Festival


Sara Thompson

The next generation gets her bluegrass on at last year’s festival. Photo: Ed Johnson, KP News

The Olalla Bluegrass and Beyond Festival celebrated its quarter century mark Aug. 20. As founder Charlee Glock-Jackson said it came into being because of “an aligning of the planets.”

A group of activists saving a forest from developers, a wish to revive a community center, and a bluegrass-loving Little League president all came together in 1991.

Glock-Jackson said that in 1990, citizens in Olalla learned that the Washington State Department of Natural Resources planned a land swap allowing over 600 acres of land, including old growth forest, to be sold to a developer who wanted to build hundreds of homes. They swung into action, disseminating information, organizing letter writing and protests. Public meetings at the Kitsap County Courthouse and the high school were standing-room-only events, and the county ultimately reclassified the site from rural residential to resource protection. The developer backed out and the forest was saved.

The group held some fundraisers during this time. They prevailed on a local judge who had the key to the Olalla Community Center, which had fallen into disrepair, and used it as a meeting place. Energized by their success in saving the forest, the group was inspired to resurrect the community center. Glock-Jackson suggested a bluegrass festival and thought the Little League field would be the ideal location. This is where Ed Johnson, who has lived on the Key Peninsula for more than 50 years and is longtime contributor to the KP News, came in.

Johnson recalled coming home from work one afternoon. “My wife, Pam, now deceased, said to me, ‘I got a call from a lady in Olalla. She wondered if the Little League could host a bluegrass festival. I told her I don’t have to ask Ed. I can tell you right now he’ll say yes.’”

He was the president of the South Kitsap Little League at the time (there was no Little League on the Key Peninsula in those days), and had fallen in love with bluegrass during his early days in Los Angeles.

“I loved going to the Icehouse, a place where the entertainment consisted of a bad guitar player, a comedian, and a good guitar player,” he said. He and Pam thought the festival was a great idea, and at the next meeting the board agreed.

The festival was a great success and it became an annual event. The community hall was renovated, and once Ed completed his second term as league president, he became liaison to the festival. He makes sure that the South Kitsap Little League continues to host the event and that they provide parking service. The Little League keeps the proceeds from parking.

Perhaps most important, Johnson now serves, in Glock-Jackson’s words, as the “food and hospitality czar,” ensuring the performers are well cared for. The green room is where musicians rest and ready themselves for the performances, and Glock-Jackson says that Johnson’s reputation for providing for the musicians is what keeps many of them coming back. “Ed is the consummate volunteer and a gentleman in the classical sense of the word,” she said.

A week before the festival, Johnson gets to work in the kitchen preparing much of the food that keeps the musicians coming back each year: bran muffins, apricot brandy cupcakes, peanut brittle, meatballs and a hominy stew called pozole.

The festival has raised money for continued improvement of the old hall, as well as support for local schools and food banks. The land saved by the original activists was acquired from the DNR by Kitsap County in 2000 and is now called Banner Forest Heritage Park. The county signed a conservation easement with the Great Peninsula Conservancy in 2002 to ensure that the central 139 acres of old growth forest and wetlands was protected and maintained, and all timber harvesting was discontinued. The master plan for the park was updated last year with plans for habitat preservation, education and trails.

Johnson continues in his role supporting Little League in both Kitsap County and on the Key Peninsula.