Highline Hysterical Society File: Burien’s Forgotten Festival

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Photo courtesy Highline Hysterical Society.

by Stefan Hovland

Burien is more than just a town with a funny German name and a Strawberry Festival.

It holds a deep history of togetherness and community festivals. This is best seen in the long-forgotten springtime Caterpillar Festival. All residents of Burien know those annoying tent caterpillars which come out every spring and devour all the plants in sight. These bugs, which are seen as a nuisance, were once given a full day of celebration.

In the early 1910s, the young town of Burien started celebrating the emergence of the several species of caterpillars after the start of spring. Along with the common tent caterpillars, several farms of silkworm caterpillars were located in Burien. In the early 1900s Burien and several other towns along Puget Sound had become well known for their silk; an industry brought to the area by the Asian immigrants. The yearly festival showed Burien’s love of these insects whose industry played a large role in establishing their city.

The festival mainly consisted of food, music, and caterpillar-themed games. One of the most popular events was the caterpillar races where residents would put their insects to the test against other home-raised caterpillars. In the 1920s, the caterpillar festival was canceled as the Puget Sound silk industry collapsed and the celebration was no longer family oriented. Local men had turned the festival into a day of gambling on caterpillar races.

With the silk industry collapse, the silkworms and caterpillars were soon considered pests like they are now. Burien residents hated the infestation of caterpillars which debilitated the town. The Toonerville Trolley, which ran down Ambaum from Seattle to Burien, was frequently shut down due to the pests. The trolley would lose traction and often gave passengers an exciting ride down hills due to the squished caterpillars which covered the rails. The caterpillars of the area led to the demise of the trolley as passengers frequently had to push it back up the slick caterpillar-covered hills.

As April brings in caterpillar season, remember the role that these fine cretures once played in the development of Burien. The silk industry put Burien on the map.

These caterpillars were once celebrated every spring, but are now seen just as nuisances which destroy our plants and stop our light rail systems.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Stefan Hovland is a Burien resident who is currently attending the University of Washington, where he is a history major. He is single-handedly attempting to bring back this long-forgotten Caterpiller Festival in May, and asks that anyone finding caterpiller tents over the spring to carefully save them in a plastic container and deliver them directly to his home. In his spare time, Stefan helps covertly destroy native species throughout Burien’s Parks while spreading seeds for ivy and blackberry bushes. He also interns as a botanist for the Highline Hysterical Society.]

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