June Russell has vivid memories of the some of the earliest days of the Santa-Cali-Gon Days festival on the Independence Square.

So many activities, creating a sense of excitement.

“What impressed me was not only how nice the people were but the participation. ... People were into it.” she says.

Russell was in the midst of it all. In 1947 – the second time the festival was held and the last until it was revived nearly four decades later – she was voted one of three festival queens.

A little history

Sue Gentry, a reporter, editor and columnist for The Examiner for decades, reported that the Independence Chamber of Commerce held a Santa-Cali-Gon festival in 1940 and again in 1947. It was revived in 1973 and has been held every year since.

It was a different time and a different festival in 1947. The event was held on a Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in mid-September, not over the Labor Day weekend as it is now. A parade was held each day, and the first day’s parade drew a reported 35,000 people.

Organizers put a good deal of emphasis on highlighting that the Santa Fe, California and Oregon trails all started or passed through Independence. Today, as the chamber tweaks the festival from year to year, there’s a renewed emphasis on that heritage.

“We’ve got to get back to our roots,” the chamber’s president and CEO, Frankin Kimbrough, has said.

The chamber’s 1947 program lists a “pioneer camp” on Liberty Street and an “Indian village” on Maple Avenue. Children took pony rides, a barbershop quartet concert was held at the Memorial Building, and the Jackson County Shrine Club had a “Silver Dollar Casino.” A kangaroo court of the Whisker Club issued warrants and threw clean-shaven men into a dunk tank.

“People had fun,” Russell says.

Window exhibits on the Square promised “a pleasant hour (that) can be spent viewing 120 years of progress of Independence, Queen City of the Trails.” The grand opening ball, at Memorial Hall on the Saturday evening before the festival opened, was to be “a gala affair with everyone in costume.”

And there were queens – three of them, drawn from 27 contestants – one queen a day, one for each trail. On the Thursday before the festival, The Examiner reported, the three were crowned before a crowd of more than 1,500 at Memorial Hall.

New to town

June Russell was June Andrew at the time. A native of Essex, Ontario, she had graduated in 1946 from Graceland College, where she met Maurice Russell. He was in college, then the Navy during World War II, then college again. They married in December 1947 at Stone Church and have been together ever since, 66 years.

She was 21 and had been living in Independence since shortly after graduation and was working in the records department at the old Independence Sanitarium. The Optimist Club nominated her for queen, and she was voted queen of the first day, Miss Santa Fe.

She has a photo of herself, leaning into a microphone to address the crowd outside the courthouse. She says, with a laugh, that she can’t remember what she said that day, but other details are clear. She holds a bouquet of yellow mums, given by the Sanitarium.

She’s wearing the only long dress she had, her bridesmaid’s gown from her sister’s wedding a month earlier. “My mother was a beautiful seamstress,” she says.

There were a few prizes: a walnut plaque and “a lovely gold wristwatch with my name engraved on the back.” The Optimists gave her a large silver plate, which she still has.

“The Optimist Club was so nice,” she says.

The Santa Fe Trail ends in New Mexico, and that state took note of the festivities in Independence – and of Russell. The state’s director of tourism came to the festival and spoke.

New Mexico’s governor sent a letter – presented by local business owner Orin Moon – thanking her for “the splendid way in which you represented our state,” and he named her an aide-de-camp on his staff. The governors of California and Oregon did much the same for the other two queens.

June and Maurice moved around a little but have been in Independence since 1955. She goes to the festival sometimes.

“I do when I can,” she says, but adds that the barbecue smoke sets off her allergies.

Today, she says, she makes sure to take time for what she enjoys.

“The best thing in my life is my children, my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren,” she said.

She writes nursery rhymes for the littlest ones.

“They’re just silly little verses,” she says, “but it’s fun.”