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Elk, Mendocino County--

The Great Day In Elk is a little hard to explain to outsiders. "It's a parade," say some. "No," say others, "it's a greased-poll climbing contest, it's a dunking tank, it's . . ." Still others insist it's a dinner and a dance.

Whatever it is, almost everyone agrees it's one of the best days of the year in this small town on the North Coast of California.

And economically, the town depends on it. The event generates almost the entire yearly budget for the town of two-hundred and fifty people.

The Great Day began twenty or twenty-one years ago--no one is too sure which, but this year's T-shirts say twenty-one--in a vacant lot in back of the fire house. "The first Great Day," said Ed Bird, president of the town's community board, "was a kind of Thank-God-The-Kids-Have-Gone-Back-To-School Day." It grew from that into a major event in a small town.

The day begins with a rag-tag parade down Highway 1 that shuts off that road for half an hour. Kids, goats, and all the who's-who of Elk parade down the highway in improvised costumes.

But this year the Great Day In Elk did not draw like it usually does. While it usually generates about $12,000, this year it didn't. Says Joan Gates, the town treasurer, "Our gross will be under $10,000." When the bills come in and get paid, the net will more likely be around $8,000.

"It will be enough," said gates, "but not enough to do any great expansive things."

But despite being smaller this year, the event had a "cozy town felling," said artist Kay Curtis, who exhibited her crafts work there. Sales, as attendance, was off about a third, she said.

The problem this year, according Bird, was competition from other events, bad weather, and a down cycle in tourism.

While the coast had been sunny in the weeks leading up to the Great Day, the day before The Day the sun refused to shine; fog settled on the coast like a cold wet swaddling blanket.

But perhaps worse in effect were other planned events. One young man who was getting married did not realize that September 9th was "The Day" when he picked his wedding date. And when he did realize his error, it was too late; the gold-embossed invitations had already been printed.

Many of the young man's friends decided that the wedding was the greater of the two events. And making things worse, many of those who went to the wedding were the biggest supporters of the The Day.

Said Bird of one such wedding-goer, "Ronnie works with me. He does the parade, and then he works with me all day. He makes sure there's never a warm beer in there."

But the lack of helpers, said Bird, worked out in a way "because we weren't rushed." That is, with down attendance, there was less need for help.

But another wedding, a football game, a soccer jamboree, and an annual wine auction called Winesong took their toll.

And if that didn't suck the wind out of the Great Day, down tourism did. Said Bird, "Usually a quarter of the crowd are tourists." But tourism, according to Bird, is "way down this year."

But still it was pretty good day. "The kids all had a great time," said Bird, "and the prizes were better than they've been in the past."

Cash registers did not sing, however. Said artist Curtis, "I made just enough to feed the kids during the day." Ususally she makes two to three times as much.


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