AUGUSTA — The annual festival held in Augusta every summer has come a long way from its roots, as a raucous race down the Kennebec River in rafts made of any available material.

The Whatever Race was stopped years ago — some participants had taken to drinking alcohol, and organizers didn’t want it to become dangerous. To continue the celebration in a family-friendly form, the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce began holding festivals in other parts the city, most recently in Capitol Park.

On Saturday, the festival’s evolution continued with several new offerings, including two bandstands from which country music and classic rock could be heard, and a motorized ride that resembled an old-fashioned steam train.

But its greatest change was actually a return: This year’s festival was held in plain view of the Kennebec River, in the newly renovated Mill Park.

Though some parts of the park lacked grass Saturday, after some recent renovation, several visitors were impressed with the new space.

“I like the more central location,” said Michelle Noiles, of Augusta, as she watched her 2-year-old son, Aiden, totter around an inflatable bounce house. “I know the neighborhood enough, and it’s in walking distance for some people I know.”


Noiles also appreciated that the event was free and targeted toward children. “You’re not passing beer tents,” she said.

Elsewhere in the park, children made sand art, waved bubble wands, posed for caricature drawings, had their faces painted and took rides in a carriage pulled by clopping horses. Some of them ran through an inflatable obstacle course that resembled a large block of cheese, under the watchful eye of a muscular rat in a tank top.

“I love playing the games,” said Zara Lali, 12, of Augusta, who came to Mill Park with her father and her 2-year-old sister.

Zara was craning her neck, trying to figure out where they could board the train that was pulling passengers in loops around the park.

Under a pavilion, a group of medieval history buffs wore tunics and armor and thrashed at each other with wooden swords and maces.

One of the history buffs was playing a recorder in the pavilion, and she managed to repeat the tune of “Roadhouse Blues” by the Doors — “Let it roll, baby, roll!” — after a band played the song elsewhere in the park.


Along with the train, the live music was an addition to this year’s festival. It was meant to draw an older audience, said Katie Dougherty, president and chief executive officer of the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce.

After moving the event, organizers decided to call it Kennebec River Day in Mill Park. It’s part of a larger series of events held around Kennebec County in June and July, called the Whatever Family Festival as a nod to the old river race from Augusta to Gardiner.

Between 2,000 and 3,000 people have attended previous iterations of the Saturday festival, and a steady crowd came to this year’s despite showers in the morning and afternoon.

This year’s festival coincided with several improvements that have been made in Mill Park in recent months. Its grounds were leveled, a walking path was extended and several black street lamps were installed, Dougherty said.

“We wanted to grow to a bigger form and bring it back to the river,” she said of the festival.

This is the 40th anniversary of the Whatever Family Festival, which also includes Greater Gardiner Riverfest — held last weekend — and an Independence Day celebration in downtown Augusta.


Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

Twitter: @ceichacker


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