On Saturday night, September 14, over 1000 people gathered at Santee’s Town Center Community Park East to celebrate the fourth annual Santee Bluegrass Festival. Originally the Santee Wine and Bluegrass Festival, the event quickly outgrew the old name with the addition of craft beer breweries and local and regional restaurants. Proceeds from the festival help to benefit the Santee Teen Center, the Recreation Scholarship Program and various park improvement projects through the Santee Parks & Recreation Committee (SPARC).
“The Recreation Scholarship Program provides financial assistance for qualifying Santee children, teens and seniors,” explained Ken Fox of SPARC, who helped spearhead the inaugural event. Without this program, many residents would not be able to take part in the many recreation activities and classes the city provides. SPARC later turned the coordinating of the festival over to the Santee Community Services Department. “We couldn’t do it without them,” Fox said.
“It does our hearts good when we can look around and see all of the people who help us support what we’re here for,” said Special Events Supervisor Cherie Meek about the festival. “We’re supporting our Teen Center and we’re supporting our recreation programs for people who can’t afford it, and any work projects that we may have that the general fund can’t support. This is what this all supports.”
“We love events that bring the community together – inexpensive events,” said Bonnie LaChappa of Barona, a Diamond Sponsor of the event and a sponsor of the Santee Summer Concerts. “This is just a fun night. This is the fourth time I’ve been here, and it’s a lot of fun. I wouldn’t miss it. Santee knows how to throw an event. We’re just proud to be able to be part as a sponsor.”
While the gates officially opened at 5:30, people began lining up long before. Because of the nature of the event, this was an adult-only crowd with many couples enjoying an evening of entertainment without the children. Participants who planned to partake in samples from the many beer and wine booths received a commemorative wine class, while non-drinking designated drives received an engraved water bottle and all the water and soda they could handle. Eighteen wineries from as far away as Santa Maria and Los Olivos and as near as Alpine and Escondido took part in the event. Breweries ranged from Santee’s own Manzanita Brewing Company and Butchers Brewing to points across the county.
Food vendors were also well represented, with everything from barbecue to burgers, shrimp cocktail to fish tacos, and cupcakes to designer cookies. One of the most popular this year was Slater’s 50/50, which came from Liberty Station in Point Loma to take part. The line stretched at least two-dozen deep most of the night for a quarter of one of their classic hamburgers. Also popular were Coops West Texas BBQ, Anthony’s Fish Grotto – which ran out of their shrimp cocktails early – and Hooley’s Irish Grill & Pub.
Of course a bluegrass festival would be nothing without the music, and this event had a pair of great local groups showcasing their talents. Opening the evening was the group Box Canyon, who had even penned a titular song for the festival. Also on hand were The Tail Draggers to keep the fun going on into the night. An excellent sound system and well-placed speakers enabled patrons to hear the music anywhere in the venue.
While the food, drinks and music are a large part of the fun of the Santee Bluegrass Festival, the most important element is the fundraising. In addition to the proceeds from the ticket sales, local and regional businesses and individuals donated dozens of items for a silent auction. With everything from a pair of beach cruiser bicycles to a Taylor solid body electric guitar to San Diego Zoo packages, there was something for everyone on the four tables.
“Obviously the best thing about this is it shows the community knows how to come together, do something that’s adult oriented, and have a great time just out in the community,” said Santee Vice Mayor John Minto about the festival. He then pointed out another important benefit of the event: “It’s just another way of us supplementing the programs that we have in Santee using something other than tax dollars.”
Santee Councilman Rob McNelis agreed with his colleague’s assessment of the event. “This is what Santee is all about,” he said after helping to kick off the event. “I think this and the Fourth of July event are two of my favorite events we have all year. This is Mayberry USA right here. This is where the whole community comes out, they see their friends, they break bread together. It is just fun and wholesome family evening, except without the kids. I love it, I absolutely love it. Just look at this crowd. Everybody has a smile on their face – everybody. This is what it’s all about right here. This is why I am proud to be in Santee.”
People from all walks of life and all parts of the community – as well as from as far away as England – enjoyed the small-town atmosphere and camaraderie of the night. “This is great,” said local realtor Virginia Hall. “It’s a fun festival, you get to see a lot of the people in the community that we’ve known for years, and just a really great time to enjoy yourself.”
“I don’t think anyone is really listening to the music, just drinking the beer and eating the food,” joked her husband Ronn Hall, a local insurance broker and former President of the Santee Chamber of Commerce. “It’s great,” he said, admitting that he tended to bid on almost every item on the tables.
Even the vendors enjoyed being out in the community and helping to support the Parks and Recreation Department’s services. “We love coming to this event,” said Manzanita Brewing Co. co-founder Jeff Trevaskis. “We’ve been here for three years now. It’s gone from three or four breweries to fifteen and eighteen or nineteen wineries. Love the music, love to support Santee.” Over those three years, Manzanita has grown from a small start-up to a thriving local business that last year opened up a much larger site and this year expanded into distilling spirits.
” We’re going to do some revolutionary kind of stuff with our spirits,” Trevaskis hinted. “We’ve designed and built our own still so it takes the alcohol burn out. We’re going to do some really neat things with liquor now that we’ve started. It’s not going to be anything that’s traditional. It’s going to have traditional names but not traditional flavor and mouth feel, so were going after a soft, light, delicate mouth feel.”
The success of the Santee Bluegrass Festival is just one more sign that the formerly sleepy bedroom community is coming into its own. “Santee is no longer this tiny little town,” said Santee resident and business owner Thomas Hootman, who served as Master of Ceremonies for the evening. “It’s got a tiny town feel, but everybody knows this is where the magic happens.”
Asked if the event would continue to grow, Meek admitted that she thought the festival had reached its perfect size. “I think we’re probably going to stay where we’re at,” she said. “We don’t want it to get too big because then it kind of takes away that community feel and that intimacy of the event.”
“We have lots of support and it feels good to be able to work so hard on it for months and months and then come here and see it all come together with so many people enjoying it,” Meek continued. “I just have to thank all the supporters, everyone who helps us put this on. It’s countless hours – volunteers, and staff and local businesses, sponsors. It takes all of us to pull it off.”
For more photos of the evening, visit Recovering Teacher Services on Facebook.