Northcotts point to deep connections with valley and annual Western celebration
By Marcy Stamper
When Clayton and Lauralee Northcott ascend to the throne — or, more aptly, the saddle — as this year’s ’49er Days Grand Marshal and Lady, they will bring prodigious connections to the valley and the 71st annual ’49er Days celebration itself.
The ’49er Days have been an annual event since Clayton was a toddler, and he reckons he has been to nearly every single one — missing just two years when he was living out of the valley.
Lauralee has her own long history with ’49er Days events. As director of the junior high school band, she led the band in the parade for years. She also had a standing gig playing her own music at Sam’s Place during the ‘49ers weekend.
Until three years ago, Lauralee enlivened the ’49ers festivities with the Dollar Watch Cowboy Jamboree, a variety show that mixed cowboy music and poetry and original skits to evoke the golden age of radio. All the ’49er royalty got to join the cast on stage at the Winthrop Barn.
But Lauralee’s most serendipitous and meaningful link to the celebration will be the dress she wears this weekend, which has itself been in the parade at least twice. The exquisite dress nabbed the best-dressed-lady award for Clayton’s mother, Della Northcott, in 1962. Sixteen years later, Della’s granddaughter, Kelly Martin, wore the dress when she was Grand Lady.
The floor-length black gown, thought to be at least 100 years old, turned up when Della discovered it in a trunk in her uncle’s house in the mid-1940s. It is assumed the dress was left behind by early homesteaders. “I don’t know where it came from,” said Lauralee, noting that Della’s uncle, Guy Sharp, had been a bachelor his entire life.
The dress, in remarkably good condition, is sewn entirely by hand and adorned with black lace sleeves, white lace trim, and buttons covered in fabric. It takes two people just to fasten the hook-and-eye closures, said Lauralee.
Lauralee mused about what the dress revealed about the morals — or sartorial tastes — of the era. “They were so chaste that, even with the lace, they added a fabric backing,” she said.
Lauralee was tickled that the dress fit her almost perfectly, requiring just minor adjustments by Donna Martin (Clayton’s sister, who also designs and sews all the dresses for the junior royalty).
Clayton and Lauralee reminisced over the photos of Della wearing the award-winning gown in the 1962 parade as she marched with her twin sons. Clayton studied a nearby car for clues to its owner. “When somebody owned a car that fancy, you knew whose it was,” he said.
In the 1960s, before the North Cascades Highway, the ’49ers celebration was a largely local affair, said Clayton. Generally the only people who came from outside the valley had grown up here and made a point of coming back to visit during the ’49ers weekend. “It was a chance for families and friends to get back together,” he said.
Clayton remembers a lot of homemade floats and other conveyances in the parade. His brother once fashioned a “go-cart-type thing” out of an old drag saw. “It probably broke down two to three times during the parade,” he said.
Clayton also recalls a group of bagpipers and drummers who faithfully came from Penticton, British Columbia, to march in the parade.
“It was a great time, with a beard-growing contest and another contest for best-dressed women. The Saturday-night dance at the Barn was the highlight,” said Clayton. “The ’49ers was a big thing,” he said, noting that the weekend was quite a bit rowdier than its modern incarnation.
Still, some things about the parade haven’t changed too much — there were always lots of old cars, awards for the best float, and a mounted division, said Clayton.
In addition to presiding over the royal coronation on Friday night, Lauralee will host cowboy poetry and music in the park on Saturday.
This isn’t the first time Clayton has been asked to be Grand Marshal, but he had always declined. Feeling he was finally old enough to take on that mantle, this year he said ‘yes.’ “I figured I would finally do it if I lived to 75,” he said.