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Hie to the Handcar! 

Fourth annual Handcar Regatta explores our cultish and commune-riddled local history


The man shows up every year, as reliable as the sun rises each day, wearing nothing but a jock strap and sunglasses.

"He's just doing his thing," says Ty Jones, laughing. After all, the jock-strap man is just one of the many costumed "rabble" that makes the Handcar Regatta, aka the Great West End and Railroad Square Handcar Regatta and Exposition of Mechanical and Artistic Wonders, a place where anything goes. Gearing up for its fourth year, the festival's embrace of art, brazen costumes, kinetic sculpture and DIY craftsmanship has inarguably injected Santa Rosa with a burst of inspired ingenuity since its 2008 debut.

Yet cofounder Jones rejects the notion that the Regatta birthed any sort of grand awakening of the Sonoma County arts. Instead, he views the Regatta as a catalyst for bringing together the creative elements that were already sparking—to converge in one explosively popular day—on what otherwise was just another empty, dusty lot.

"The Regatta gave permission to people to see that something different could succeed," says Jones. "We just put it together in one place."

The story of the Regatta begins in 2007, when a group of local artists including David Farish, Skye Barnett, Dan Kirby and Clifford Hill built the Hennepin Crawler. They started toying with the idea of using the train tracks in Railroad Square as a raceway.

Concurrently, Jones and festival partner Spring Maxfield had been brainstorming an elaborate festival, designed to stand out from the pastel-landscape arts events prominent in Sonoma County. They, too, were eyeing the railroad tracks. The two groups joined forces, and a legend was born.

Jones credits a core group of volunteers including Farish, Theresa Hughes, Heather Prandini, Jess Flood and Meredith Johnson with the Regatta's success, especially in its first couple of years.

"I don't think the event would be what it is without these people," Jones says. "I liken the darn thing to a Christmas tree. Spring and I built the idea of this tree and everyone comes in with their talents and voice to decorate it. It becomes more than the sum of two people."

At press time, it's not certain if the Regatta will return to the railroad depot site in Santa Rosa, as construction for the long-awaited SMART train may be under way next year. So for possibly the last time on Santa Rosa's train tracks, this years' Handcar Regatta includes exuberant handcar races, music stages, homesteading exhibits, food, drinks, crafts and a VIP tent modeled on a 19th-century sanitarium.

And for the first time, people will have to pay to get in.

Jones says for the most part, there hasn't been a "terrible amount" of flack over the modest entrance fee. With popularity comes a need for more resources, he says. (Last year, attendance topped 15,000.)

Maxfield says that other than the door charge, things will stay the same. "We have a good formula going, and we're sticking with it," she adds. The Regatta continues to siphon imaginative fuel from a parallel universe where 19th-century Victorian ideas of science and mechanical inventions are very much alive—a steampunk aesthetic, if you will—but this year's "Utopian Societies" theme draws from close-to-home lore.

Inspiration struck while leafing through a book about the early history of Sonoma County, says Maxfield. The book contained photos of Thomas Lake Harris and Madame Preston, and Maxfield flashed back to "Utopia Now! (And Then)," an exhibit she'd seen at the Sonoma County Museum in 2002.

"Sonoma County's been a hotbed for communal living and experimental living, especially in the 1800s, with all of these communities coming from the East and settling here," she says. "The Utopian Society theme carried through Morningstar Ranch and Lou Gottlieb, [and] even now with the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center. It provided the perfect fodder."

Kernan Coleman, the artist behind the wry stories and drawings of "failed scientist" Erasmus. P. Kitty synonymous with the festival's branding, jumped right on board.

"Within a week, he'd written the story of Erasmus' brother, Crispin Thutmosis Kitty," explains Maxfield. "Where Erasmus is the failed scientist, the older brother is now the kind of wacko spiritualist and seeker of truths."

Jones says that while the theme can be a guidepost, what's more important is that people see their own participation as essential to the Regatta's creative heartbeat.

"That wild costume idea that you had in your head for 20 years? Do it," says Jones, implicitly approving another year of the guy in sunglasses and a jock strap.

"Just no Star Trek or Renaissance Faire," he adds, laughing.

The Handcar Regatta gets underway on Sunday, Sept. 25, at Railroad Square in Santa Rosa. 11am&–6pm. $8&–$10.

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