Mike Higgins stepped up to organize the Crawfish Festival and helped it see bigger crowds than ever

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Emile Lemoine looks over at another contestant with his cousin, Gano, in the adult crawfish eating competition. When the crawfish come to Tualatin one weekend every summer, people from all around follow suit.

What some visitors this past weekend may not have known is that this year’s Crawfish Festival almost didn’t happen. When the Tualatin Chamber of Commerce relinquished the reigns last year, many thought it marked the end of a crawfish-wielding era that started in 1951.

As a community, Tualatin natives prepared for the worst. What is summer without boiling pots of crawfish, anyway? But under the leadership of Social Media Northwest’s Mike Higgins, this year’s festival pulled a total of 16,454 attendees over three days, a dramatic increase over last year’s estimated 7,000 visitors.

“This was the maiden voyage for the three-day festival. As we kind of sketched it out and planned it, we just had no idea what to expect on Sunday,” Higgins said. “You try to accomplish everything you want to accomplish, and we came pretty close.”Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: LACY JACOBY - People dance late into the evening as The Aphrodisiacs perform at the Tualatin Crawfish Festival.

Ultimately, the festival saw 2,800 visitors on Friday, 9,831 on Saturday and 3,823 on Sunday. Not bad for a festival that started, in part, as a way to rid the Tualatin River of an overwhelming number of mudbugs.

The biggest complaint received, Higgins said, was that crawfish were unavailable on Friday night and were instead saved until Saturday and Sunday. Next year, he said, visitors can expect to find crawfish on all three days. Though there was a long line for crawfish on Saturday (spanning nearly the length of the lawn at times), dedicated connoisseurs were rewarded with plenty of the river-dwelling crustaceans.

“(My daughter’s) main favorite food is crawfish, so we cannot miss this,” said Kim Tran of Tuscon, Ariz., who visited the festival with her family on a long weekend trip to Oregon.

“(They’re) so tasty and juicy,” said 9-year-old Hannah Tran, a small smile creeping onto her face.

While festival attendees flocked from across the country, such as Ronnie and Frances Vinson from Virginia, most were locals, returning to the event they’d been visiting since childhood.

“I feel like it’s always the same good group of people. It just gets better. It never really changes, it just gets better,” said Karen Ban Horn, a Tualatin High School graduate who recently moved back to town with her husband, Ryan Redfern. “I love seeing all the people in the community, just because I’ve been a part of the community for so long. There’s people you only see once a year here, you know?”

Though Ban Horn has been attending the festival for years, this year marked the first time for her husband and their dog, Baxter. Even with a wheelchair and a cast on her leg from surgery for a torn ligament, Ban Horn refused to miss the festival.

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: LACEY JACOBY - Justin Goodrich and Alexis Goodrich (6 months) enjoy live entertainment at the Tualatin Crawfish Festival. “I was like, ‘I’m going,’” she said beneath her bright red crawfish hat. “Just wheel me over there. I’ll bring a blanket and set up shop.”

Tigard residents Verlene DeRosia and her mother Lena DeRosia had similar feelings about the festival. After living in the area for decades and currently being “Tualatin homesick,” the pair has rarely missed the chance to come enjoy what the Crawfish Festival has offered over the years, both as attendees and volunteers. This year, they were just visiting and enjoying the chance to catch up with old friends.

“It’s like a big family group. You can say, ‘Hi’ to everybody. It’s compact, but not crunched. Something for everybody,” Verlene DeRosia said. “You can see people you haven’t seen for a long, long time.”

Adam Harris of Tualatin also enjoys the community aspect of the festival. This year, he came with his young sons Henry and Ukiah while his wife worked at their Sherwood LEGO shop.

“We usually come every year — you gotta do it. It’s nice because it’s really Tualatin’s big event. It’s a community type thing, so we like that. Plus, we like the crawfish, even though I can’t eat them because I’m allergic to them,” he said, laughing about the trick of fate. “I can have a couple here and there.”

Unlike Harris, Beaverton resident Alfred Rodriguez was looking forward to eating as many crawdads as his heart desired. He didn’t even have to wait in line and was able to hold down the table and watch the main stage’s entertainment while his friends waited to gather the freshwater lobster feast.Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Ethan Stein, 12, of Portland, slurps watermelon in the watermelon eating competition of the Tualatin Crawfish Festival.

“I grew up outside of Chatanooga, Tennessee, so crawfish is kind of the summer thing,” Rodriguez said. “Summertime and you’ve got crawfish. So, this kind of makes you feel like you’re at home.”

A few minutes later, his friends arrived with enough crawfish in hand to make the long line worth it.

“Well …” Rodriguez said, eyeing the basket of crawfish and corn in front of him, “we’re about to indulge.”

Though festival attendees all had different reasons for showing up, what returning visitors agreed on was that the festival has grown — a lot — in the years they’ve been coming, specifically this year. Higgins said that in a perfect world, the festival would have gathered a crowd of 20,000 throughout the weekend. Overall, however, he said he’s pleased with the results and simply hopes to continue improving the festival for next year, hopefully closing in on that 20,000 number.

Several months after stepping up as the Crawfish Festival’s organizer, Higgins was hit with an unthinkable tragedy: His 17-year-old daughter, Maddi, was killed in a car crash. Many wondered if he’d have the ability to put on the festival at all.

“It was really therapeutic to dig in and focus,” he said. “I felt like it kind of saved my life this year.”

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