History: Parade of Mermaids contest played out at lake
By Ross Schneidmiller
Liberty Lake Historical Society
Wearing a red knit swimsuit with white stockings and slippers, Miss Ruth Harkins was overcome almost to a point of weakness. She had just been announced the 1922 Inland Empire Mermaid Queen in a beauty competition sponsored by Spokane's evening paper, The Spokane Daily Chronicle.
A flurry of excitement began days earlier when the paper announced:
"Chronicle Wants to Find Most Beautiful Mermaid"
To find her, the Chronicle conducted a special contest that ran from Aug. 1 and continued until Saturday, Aug. 19, when the final selection was made at a parade on the shores of Liberty Lake.
Entry in the contest was made by photograph only. Recent photographs could be submitted or new pictures could be secured free through arrangements made with five different photographers. Additional studios needed to be added to handle the demand. The first entries in the contest were five store girls from the Palace Department Store. They made their entries early the next morning and were photographed by a contest photographer.
Each day leading up to the event, the Chronicle published studio pictures of the entries on the front pages of the paper. Between headlines and photos, the newspaper created quite a buzz.
Lew Hurtig, manager of Liberty Lake Park, donated $100 in gold coins to be given as first prize. As enthusiasm built, businesses started offering additional prizes. If the winner wears a Spokane Knitting Mills bathing costume, an extra $25 will be awarded her, the business announced. Wanting to get in on the publicity, Olympia Knitting Mills Inc. gave two of their popular "Wil Wite" bathing suits. These would be awarded the first- and second-place finishers, regardless of what bathing costume they competed in. Other business firms entered requests with contest managers to have the mermaid queen as special guest at various entertainments and public gatherings.
"Meeting at the Davenport Hotel on Wednesday, the 17th of August, the judges selected the finalists from the 117 photos submitted," the newspaper reported at the time. "Miss Margaret Mahoney, swimming instructor at the YWCA, gave each contestant consideration from the athletic point of view, while J. Don Alexander, president of the Alexander Film Company, considered each contestant from a motion picture cameraman's perspective. General health, development of figure and general American girl beauty were the points that Dr. John O'Shea, past exalted ruler of the Elk Lodge, considered when passing on the contestants. Fitness to represent the Inland Empire as mermaid queen appeared to be first with Mrs. Walter Orton, Spokane Club woman."
The day of the event began when the 50 finalists were paraded up Monroe Street having left the Chronicle building at 12:30 p.m., heading for Liberty Lake. The motorcade consisted of a fleet of 20 brand new Hudson Phaeton Super-Six automobiles. These convertibles gleamed with their rich dark blue body and wheels accented by the glossy black fenders and motor cover. The fragrance of the hand-buffed leather seats filled the air, as the contestants received a large, crowd-applauding sendoff befitting a Hollywood starlet.
"Upon arrival at the lake, they were given a special dressing area in the large 300- room bathhouse to change into their costumes," the newspaper reported. "Bathing attire was not required by the contest rules. The judges, however, stated they were of the opinion that grace and beauty of figure of the contestants could best be judged in bathing costume, rather than street and sport clothes."
The 50 mermaids appeared before the judges at 1:45 p.m., and the beach parade was staged at 4 o'clock, where the winners were announced. After being presented with the five gold coins in front of 4,000 spectators, Miss Harkins declared, "It seems like a dream. I am afraid someone will pinch me and I will wake up…"
The contestants were then treated to a dinner and a dance in their honor.
The event was repeated in 1923, with Mrs. Rea Dea being chosen the winner.
A week after Mrs. Dea was announced mermaid queen, it was announced she would be the subject of the butter statue to be displayed at the Spokane Interstate Fair. Sponsored by the Hazelwood Dairy, the life-size figure symbolized the freedom of the American girl and was molded with a rustic background of butter.
This author, being the father of daughters, likes the idea that a beauty contest winner can be fit and healthy and commemorated in butter as opposed to the starvation-equals-beauty mantra advertisers peddle today - would someone please pass the rolls?
Ross Schneidmiller is president of the Liberty Lake Historical Society and a lifetime resident of Liberty Lake.