MIDDLEBOROUGH — This old town’s first big push to draw in tourists will be launched this weekend with a three-day party to celebrate a centuries-old annual phenomenon.
Organizers expect thousands to gather for the first annual Herring Run Festival, which will take place primarily at the Oliver Mill Park on Route 44 but will have other activities all over town.
Crowds of alewife and blueback herring, as they do every spring, are already making their way up the Nemasket River, adjacent to the park and considered the largest herring run in the state. The annual 40-mile trek from Mount Hope Bay at the Massachusetts-Rhode Island border to spawning grounds in the Assawompset Ponds area in Lakeville is underway and, at the run’s peak later this month, more than 6,000 fish an hour could stream by, according to the Middleborough-Lakeville Herring Fishery Commission.
Last year, 850,000 herring — each averaging 14 inches long, according to the Northeast Fisheries Science Center — made the journey to the 5,000 acres of spawning and nursery habitat in the river’s upper reaches, where they lay eggs before returning to saltwater.
On Friday, the festival kicks off at the park around a bonfire at 7 p.m. and runs until 10 with ghost stories and musical performances. It continues on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. with more than 50 vendors, a beer garden, and a long list of performers and demonstrations.
A townwide discount on fried fish — no, not the herring — is in place at select restaurants over the weekend, and the party will shift to the Town Hall Ballroom on Saturday night for a magic show and concert. Musical performances and talks by local authors, who will sign their books, are scheduled from noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday at the Middleborough Public Library.
And then there are the guests of honor — the little fish that played a big role in the early history of many American communities — which can best be viewed at the fish ladders at Oliver Mill or at the herring run on Wareham Street, across from the Department of Public Works, town officials said.
Last week, after a year of planning, dozens of volunteers were out to spread the word, distributing brochures around the region through a partnership with the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, blasting social media, and posting local signs.
“This is the first big event to get ourselves out there,’’ said Selectwoman Leilani Dalpe, the town’s liaison for tourism and business. “And we will use the festival to get people into the rest of the town.”
Middleborough’s 72 square miles are rich with resources, Dalpe said, from cranberry bogs to cultural and arts organizations, Native American heritage, and historic buildings.
European settlers called the town Nemasket in 1661, a name later changed to Middlebury, and then incorporated the settlement as Middleborough in 1669, according to town history. Residents hid en masse in a fort on the Nemasket River during King Philip’s War, in 1675 and 1676, and after they fled to Plymouth Colony, the entire village was razed. It was later rebuilt. Middleborough’s population, according to the 2010 Census, has since grown to more than 23,000.
The name Nemasket came from a Native American settlement along the river that now bears its name, according to locals, and it may have meant “place of fish.” So capitalizing on the annual herring run, and its acclaim, was a natural, Dalpe said.
“It’s perfect, it’s there, and it’s ready,’’ she said. “And we are bursting at the seams with participants.”
“It’s a terrific way to highlight this beautiful and fascinating aspect of the town,’’ added Jane Kudcey, director of the town’s Office of Economic and Community Development.
Herring have been a constant in town waters for centuries, said Judy Bigelow-Costa of the nonprofit business group Middleborough on the Move, a cosponsor of the festival with the Friends of the Middleborough-Lakeville Herring Run.
It also has a place in other aspects of town history, she said, considering that Middleborough’s first town clerk, William Hoskins, was paid his annual salary in the slippery specimens in 1681, and, used as compost, the fish enabled the Pilgrims to grow corn and survive harsh winters in the New World.
Dalpe said Middleborough can easily rely on its assets to market itself. Neighboring Plymouth, she said, got itself out there decades ago and is now an internationally known destination.
And “America’s Hometown” is still working on promoting itself, said Betsy Wall, the state tourism office’s executive director. “It’s important to always diversify.”
Wall said Middleborough officials are doing everything right by collaborating, getting all the right people at the table, and recognizing what it is they have to sell to the world.
Travelers don’t come to Southeastern Massachusetts for theme parks, she said. “Visitors are looking for an authentic American experience,’’ Wall said, like a storied fish’s annual rite of passage.
While it’s impossible to predict the weekend’s outcome, Wall said she is sure people will attend the festival. To better the odds, the town must focus on logistics such as providing parking and public bathrooms, and generally rolling out the red carpet.
If they do, “that’s found money,’’ she said, and it will also probably foster a new sense of civic pride.
“Our arms are open and we are welcoming the world into Middleborough, a place of beauty and history,’’ she said. “This town has a lot more to offer than people think.”
Herring Run Festival
7 to 10 p.m.: Ghost stories and musical entertainment around bonfire. Oliver Mill Park (intersection of Route 44 and Nemasket Street)
10 a.m. to 4 p.m.: The herring will be running up the Nemasket River next to Oliver Mill Park, where there will be 50 or more local vendors, live music, a beer garden, and booths staffed by community and conservation groups. Free parking at the KOA Campground across the street, and GATRA bus shuttles.
4 p.m. and beyond: Festival fish specials at local restaurants including the Boston Tavern, Lorenzo’s Italian Restaurant, The Hideaway, Buddy’s Pizza Pub, Central Café, and Apazidis Family Restaurant.
7 p.m. to midnight: An evening of music and magic shows at the Middleborough Town Hall, 10 Nickerson Ave. E-mail email@example.com for advance tickets at $10 per adult or $25 for a family of up to six people. Cash bar and complimentary snacks.
11 a.m. to 4 p.m.: More music, food, demonstrations, vendors, and activities at Oliver Mill Park. Live musical performances and talks with local authors about their books at the Middleborough Public Library (102 North Main St.)
4 p.m. and beyond: Fish specials at local restaurants.
Source: Friends of the Middleborough-Lakeville Herring Run