Distinctly Americana

The popular community celebration Aromas Day carries on during transition

SMALL-TOWN VIBE From local bands and classic cars to yard sales, antiques and kids' activities, Aromas Day offers a connected community feel. Photo: Robert Eliason

Unlike the annual celebrations in so many neighboring communities, Aromas Day has no agricultural emblem. It’s not about garlic, or artichokes or strawberries (though Aromas, just on the other side of the Pajaro Valley, could plausibly be nicknamed “Strawberry Fields Forever”).
Yet even without a handy marketing icon to draw in the curious from the outside world, and with an event name that means nothing to anyone who has never visited, Aromas Day still manages to attract huge crowds every August.  
How does it do that?
“It’s just very simple and sweet,” said the event’s coordinator Leslie Austin. “I’ve heard people describe it as one of those events that reminds people of their childhood.”
Indeed, Aromas Day is nothing if not a big helping of Americana in a distinctly California wrapping—live music, great food, art in the park, classic cars, kids’ activities galore, yard sales everywhere and a serene and unpretentious community vibe.
This year’s event takes place Sunday, Aug. 26. On that day, Aromas will likely welcome more than 5,000 people—roughly twice the community’s population—to the festival that blocks off the town’s center from vehicular traffic.  
The day begins with a breakfast at the Aromas Community Grange and culminates with the Aromas Day Parade at 2pm. The Main Stage will feature a variety of musical acts from mariachi to folk to rock ’n’ roll, and the Kids’ Corner will host folklorico dancers, ukulele musicians and even Santa Cruz’s famous Surfing Magician.
There are big expectations for Aromas Day 2018, but behind the scenes, this year’s event marks a significant transition for this tiny town in the Anzar Hills famous for a footprint that bleeds into three counties. As part of the parade, Aromas Day volunteers will honor Rich Saxe, for years one of this community’s most familiar faces, and one of the event’s most dependable volunteers. Saxe died in June after several months of suffering from a brain tumor. His passing followed quickly on the heels of the January death of Michelle Faeth, another crucial name in Aromas. Together, Saxe and Faeth were foundational figures in Aromas’s tight-knit community, involved in nearly every community-building project and on nearly everyone’s community phone list.
“Rich was central to everything,” said longtime Aromas resident and activist Wayne Norton. “He was the gear that everything worked off of. If Rich didn’t lead it, he was involved in just about everything.”
The third leg of that stool of Aromas community support is another busy community builder, Jan Saxton. The former director of Aromas Day was married to Saxe, and was an everyday presence for both him and Faeth as they grew ill and died. This year, Saxton has stepped away from her role at the top of the Aromas Day organizational chart.
Saxton said that she cried the day she surrendered her hat that read, “I’m in charge.” But she has no tolerance for the notion that Aromas Day cannot survive and thrive without her and Saxe.
“Nobody is Mr. or Ms. Aromas Day,” she said. “Aromas Day only happens because there’s a team of about a dozen people who show up, who are dedicated to the task, who know their jobs and who do it every year. We make decisions together, as a group. Everybody brings their experience, their knowledge, their skills and their personality, and we all hash it out together. They are great volunteers, and that’s why I knew I could hand off the leadership to Leslie. She was getting a seasoned team that could step into the middle of maelstrom and carry it forward.”
“Jan created an infrastructure that ensured that this event would keep going,” said Saxton’s successor Leslie Austin.
Besides the volunteer team, Aromas Day comes about with the support of two local institutions, the service organization known as the Aromas Eagles and the town’s largest employer, Graniterock. Among the construction company’s many contributions is to provide a street sweeper to clean the streets at dawn of the morning of the event.
Aromas Day has many moving parts and the to-do list is daunting. Much of the downtown area is closed to traffic, which can be a significant inconvenience to those who live nearby “The hardest part, really,” said Saxton, “is getting it across to the residents that live in the blocked-off area that we really don’t want them driving around that day.” That task takes some diplomacy. Most residents understand and are cooperative and supportive, but not everyone. And that was where Rich Saxe was particularly valuable.
“For a guy who was 5-foot-7½ when he stood up straight,” said Saxton, “he had a huge presence.”
Saxe had an even more outsized presence at the Aromas Grange. The beautiful Aromas Community Grange Hall, in fact, stands as his most significant legacy. Beginning in the late 1990s, Saxe spearheaded an effort to change leadership of the Grange from a conservative old guard to a baby-boomer generation that wanted to open the hall to a variety of community groups.
With help of a lone conservative old-timer named Clyde Gailey, Saxe and his team took over leadership of the Grange, which is now the town’s showcase venue and meeting place. “It was remarkable,” said Austin. “It went from this place that was always closed that no one could ever use because if you used it, you might hurt it. The world was changing, but the Grange was not. And then in walked this group of hippies with lots of energy and a desire to do great community things, and they just blew the doors wide open.”
Saxe took a proprietary interest in the Grange and eventually spearheaded an ambitious remodel of the building’s kitchen (Today, a handmade sign dedicated to Saxe hangs in the Grange kitchen). He took a leadership role in the Grange organization as well. “From the moment started with the Grange,” said Jan Saxton, “he was in love with that building and he wanted to maintain it and wanted to perpetuate it for everybody.”
At the same time, Saxe was pushing the community to give more of itself for the greater good, to take on more commitments to the Grange, Aromas Day or other community projects. “One of the things that he struggled with was his understanding that he was unique,” said Austin of Saxe’s drive to serve the community. “His way of being in the world wasn’t really an expectation he could have of the entire world. And yet he did. He really felt that everyone should participate in the community at the highest level, and that’s what I loved about him. If anyone ever took civic service seriously, it was Rich Saxe.”
Yet, said his spouse, that drive for volunteerism did not come naturally. At Saxe’s memorial service, which took place in the hall that he worked hard to maintain, much was mentioned of his consuming love for solitude and the wild places of remote California.
“If he could have lived up in the High Sierras and never come down, he probably would have been a happier guy,” said Saxton.
By his example, Saxe has inspired many in his hometown to reach a little deeper to volunteer for the good of the community. But he did so, said his spouse, not because of a natural drive to be at the center of a community. In fact, the opposite was closer to the truth.
“Many, many years ago, he sold insurance,” she said. “And he made cold calls, and he knocked on people’s doors. He did it, partially, because he was terrified of it. Just like he learned to scuba dive because he was always uncomfortable in the water and afraid of drowning. He was just one of those people who challenged himself. When he found an area he didn’t want to go, he’d go anyway. Those skills served him well when he was building community because he had to face all kinds of people in all kinds of situations. But he knew himself, knew what he wanted and he put all of his efforts into making that happen.”

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