FRANCES — In the summer of 1929, a gathering of Swiss friends took place along a shady stretch of the Willapa River in Frances. From those humble beginnings grew to be what is currently the largest Swiss club in America, the Lewis-Pacific Swiss Society (LPSS). For almost 90 years, the LPSS has continued their traditions and celebrated their Swiss heritage in the tiny borough near the border of Lewis County.
The club got out to a fast start. While much of the country struggled with hard times, the LPSS began to really grow during the 1930s, building their hall in 1932. The club was a gathering point for people of similar backgrounds, many of whom had immigrated to the country within a generation.
“A lot of the Swiss who came here were farmers, and there are a lot of dairy farms in the Willapa Valley,” said Adrian Cook, who heads up Swiss wrestling for the club. “There are other groups in Tacoma, Enumclaw. A lot of the Enumclaw farmers are related to ones who settled in the Willapa Valley.”
In 1939, the LPSS held their first bowling picnic, a tradition that continues today as part of their annual Oktoberfest event, where they feature a European style 9-pin bowling tournament.
In 1964 the LPSS hosted what would become their signature event — Schwingfest. A tournament of schwingen — the traditional sport of Swiss wrestling — the national sport of Switzerland, takes in early July each year. Wrestlers meet in the middle of the sawdust-filled ring, their right hand grasping their opponents belt in the back, their left hand on the leg of the shorts in the front. From there, the goal is to land the opponent on their back, even if for only a second. At the 2018 event, Willy Bony was victorious, and was carried around the ring on the shoulders of opponents — a traditional victory lap for the winner.
The winner of the tournament is presented with a beautiful bell on a thick belt, brought back from Switzerland. The event, the biggest of the year for the LPSS, draws hundreds of people from around the country and the world. The event also features the stone-throwing sport called steinstossen. More than twice the weight of a shot put, the stone can be tossed in a variety of ways — overhead, two-handed push or baseball-type throw. Some of the men taking part in the event this year had to put down their cup of beer in order to make their throws. The “American” version is easier than the traditional Swiss, where the stone can weigh up to 160 pounds.
And while sports celebrating brute strength may be a big annual attraction, the traditions promoted by the LPSS go deeper. Schwingfest, like all of the cultural events held by the LPSS, has always been a time to get together with family and friends and other Swiss folks to share heritage, share a story, or share a beer. Throughout the tournament, traditional songs can be heard being played by the ring side by Swiss polka musicians. Those musicians take to the hall stage later in the evening for a night of music and dancing.
Always on hand at the Schwingfest are the reining Swiss Miss and the court of the upcoming crowning at Oktoberfest. The young woman (age 14-25) is chosen for a year term and represents the LPSS at area events and parades. Hannah Cook is this year’s Miss.
The LPSS will hold their 49th annual Oktoberfest on Oct. 6, which will feature an outdoor 9-pin bowling tournament, as well as an evening dance, horseshoe and pinochle tournaments, food, crafts and vendors. Daytime admission to the event is free, with a $5 charge for the dance. Bowling is $1 a game, with entry in the horse shoe and pinochle tournaments are $5 each.