Small-town festivals going by the wayside

Small-town festivals going by the wayside

RIDGE FARM – Organizers have high hopes for turning around an annual festival in Ridge Farm.

"We're changing a lot," said committee member Wanda Richardson, who is in charge of vendors. "I've sent out e-mails and letters to get food and arts and crafts vendors, but we'll take everything from Tupperware to flea market. We want to fill up the park."

While Richardson and her committee make drastic changes to the Ridge Farm festival to help it survive, other area festivals haven't been as lucky. The Catlin Civic Group will suspend its time-tested June Strawberry Festival because of a lack of volunteers. And the Potomac Artesian Festival fell by the wayside a few years ago for the same reasons.

Richardson said although the Ridge Farm festival site in Ward Park on Pilot Street is a little off the beaten path of Illinois 1 in southeast Vermilion County, people always seemed to find it.

The group just wants the number of attendees to grow.

The Ridge Farm festival initially coincided with the town's high school alumni reunion and operated along the downtown streets.

But times changed – and so did the location.

"Now, people just need to look for the water tower. The park's right under it," Richardson said with a laugh.

Finding small-town festivals is not the problem. It's a matter of bringing them to fruition these days – a lesson organizers in Catlin and Potomac learned the hard way.

"We never have a problem with attendance," said Pat Cardwell, a member of the Catlin Civic Group and the town's Strawberry Festival committee.

On Tuesday night, the group decided to cancel the 2006 festival, which has been on the first Saturday in June for several years.

Each year the club worked about a week in advance to bake homemade pie shells and shortcake and prepare strawberries for the festival's annual treats. A flea market and a Little League baseball tournament also marked the day.

"Naturally, it's a really big disappointment," said Lorri Weaver, the group's president. "We just don't have the people with the time. We are down to seven members, and we still needed volunteers for the prep and the day of the festival.

"People are just so busy with both parents working and kids involved in so many extracurricular activities ... I hope maybe the cancellation will draw enough attention from residents that we could try again next year."

Said Cardwell: "Last year, there were so few of us, it was hard for anyone to even take a break all day."

Festivals need foot traffic to thrive. Being busy is a good thing for raising money and providing some fun. But when organizers and committee heads become too few, it quickly adds up to disaster – even for a popular festival.

Loretta Burke was active with the Potomac Artesian Fall Festival and its organizing committee, and she knows first-hand. The two-day festival, aptly named for the abundance of artesian wells in the area, featured a parade, a talent show, a softball tournament, a car show, live entertainment and food.

"The festival started back in 1989," Burke said. "But people got tired, and though there were people to organize activities, there were not enough to hold the festival."

Now, Potomac sponsors an event on the Saturday before July 4, when village board members grill up all the food. Moving festivals to July 4 or Labor Day gives out-of-towners another reason to visit or come home in Rossville and Oakwood.

Meantime, the Ridge Farm Festival Committee is moving its event this year to Sept. 16-17. It originally ran during the second weekend in August, then switched for a few years to the second weekend in June.

And organizers want a new name for Rendezvous on the Ridge, a decade-old moniker.

"We feel we need a change in the name of the festival because there's negativity toward the name and the festival was poorly attended. Besides, everyone had trouble spelling rendezvous," Richardson said with a laugh. "We have new ideas and we want people to help us pick a new name."

People wanting to do offer suggestions can drop them at the Ridge Farm Casey's General Store, First Financial Bank, the post office, The Ridge, Town & Country or the grade school.

"We want people to know we are willing to try new things," Richardson said.

One new thing – and the reason for the date change – is a tractor and truck pull, committee member David Haase said.

"It was the one date the group had open, and we are told that the contest will bring in a lot of competitors and their families," he said.

Haase had been involved with the festival for several years. His business, Dave's Flower Garden, sponsored the Baby Contest. He and wife Maggie then took a break.

"I went to a meeting again when they said they really needed us because they didn't expect many to show, and there must have been 20 people there," Haase said.

Said Richardson: "The festival was in danger. People hated to see it get laid down. Once news got out, more people got interested and started coming to meetings or offered moral support."

Even with the active committee, it will take more people to put on the actual event.

"We want to have a goal of donating some money back for improvements at the park," Haase said. "Instead of letting profits roll over, we want to sponsor projects that will bring more people to the park for more than the festival weekend."

Meanwhile, the Catlin Civic Organization has decided that instead of one major festival, it will tackle a few smaller fundraisers to continue contributing to its community.

One of them is Tuesday, when Monical's Pizza of the Tilton and Danville area will hold a "Community Night." Twenty percent of customers' checks go to the Catlin group. To make the fundraiser work, customers pick up a coupon at the Catlin IGA, the First National Bank of Catlin, the village's post office or from members to turn in with their bills that day. Proceeds will help the Vermilion Association for Special Education program at Middlefork School.

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