TRAVERSE CITY — It was a sad day for many in the community when they learned the annual Northwestern Michigan College barbecue would end its 65-year run.
Over the years nearly $2 million in projects were funded by the event and an endowed scholarship was established in 2015 that will provide support in perpetuity for local students with financial need.
Low ticket sales and steadily declining attendance over the past several years were given as the reasons for ending the barbecue. The event was held virtually this year because of the pandemic.
By 2019 attendance had dropped to about 4,000, but in the 1970s and ‘80s, the summer barbecue was the place to be, with more than 14,000 people attending each year.
Some people never missed it, saying it was a place to connect with people they only ever saw at the barbecue.
Local businesses would shut down for the event, with many posting signs on their doors telling people to head to the NMC campus.
Traverse City has since become a tourist destination with lots of activities that compete for people’s attention that weekend, such as festivals and soccer tournaments.
“The Traverse City community and the college have changed so much since the NMC barbecue began,” said Diana Fairbanks, executive director of public relations, marketing and communications. “Now there are more ways than ever to get involved, learn about and support the college.”
Events like the Taste of Success, which raises money for culinary students, and the Scholarship Open golf event have filled the fundraising space for the college, Fairbanks said. There are also a number of ways people can connect with the college, including a variety of in-person, online, credit and non-credit courses that people can take, as well as the Dennos Museum Center, International Affairs Forum, the WNMC radio station and more.
The barbecue was started in 1956 by the late Gerald W. Oleson and his wife Frances, founders of Oleson’s Food Stores. Through the years it has always been sponsored by the Oleson Foundation, which provided all the food.
When the barbecue started it was not just a fundraiser, but an inexpensive, fun, social event that entire families attended, Fairbanks said in July, when NMC made the announcement that the barbecue was ending.
Brad Oleson, a grandson of the founders and a barbecue committee member, missed just one barbecue in his 50-plus years. With low attendance it just didn’t make financial sense any more, Oleson said previously.
It also took hundreds of volunteers to get the event off the ground, he said.
NMC plans at some point to host a celebration for volunteers, supporters and community members.
Fairbanks believes the sense of ownership people have for the college will continue and they will continue to support NMC.
“The spirit of the barbecue lives on and is strong throughout NMC and our community,” she said.