Kutztown Fair, Folk Festival are summer celebrations with deep roots
If it is summer,it must be time for the Kutztown Fair and the Kutztown Folk Festival. Folks from all over the Lehigh Valley and points beyond never seem to tire of these annual events whose roots are as American as cotton candy and funnel cake. This year the Festival will run from June 30 to July 8 and the Fair from August 13 to August 18.
The Kutztown Fair had its roots in a particularly 19th century American event known as "battalion day." On that day or days the local men who were part of the militia would drill and take rifle practice.
These events had also become a social affair. Along with showing off their skill with firearms, militia members, particularly the officers, could also show the young ladies how handsome they looked in their uniforms. An evening ball or dance was often a main feature of battalion day’s social life.
Starting 181 years ago, in 1831, Kutztown held a series of events around battalion day. That first affair was held in mid August and promised “good music, plenty of food and beer and pretty girls.”
By 1836 the battalion day events had grown into a fair held in September with elaborate militia displays of battlefield tactics, horse races and even a hot air balloon ascent. The promoters of the 1836 fair admonished the country girls that “since the Kutztown ladies will be dressed up in the latest fashions they have seen in our stores,” they had better look their best for the gallant young heroes of the militia.
The Civil War of the 1860s apparently took a lot of the fun out of playing soldier at battalion day fairs. According to the 1916 Centennial History of Kutztown, the immediate postwar version of the fairs assumed a more edgy violent tone. “Men of brutal disposition looked forward to determining who would be known as the bully for the coming year,” its authors wrote. “Fights and brawls were common. This did not elevate life.”
Apparently these problems with brawlers ended battalion days. But the folks of Kutztown still wanted to have a fair. So in 1870 the Kutztown Agricultural and Horticultural Society decided to sponsor them. These were widely successful events that included not only agricultural displays but also horse racing.
Politicians found it an easy way to meet with large numbers of voters. In 1872 the Kutztown Fair even attracted Democratic presidential candidate, former newspaper publisher, and social critic Horace Greeley. Although no match nationally that year for incumbent Republican president and Civil War hero U.S. Grant, Greeley undoubtedly pleased at least some in the fair crowd that day. He carried Berks County in the general election by 2,460 votes.
In 1903 the owners of the fair’s property decided to develop the land where the fair was held. But the fairs were so popular that the Kutztown Fair Association was created and purchased three parcels of land on which the fair is still located today. A horse racing track was built and became a major attraction. From 1905 to its destruction by fire in 1942 it attracted sulky horse racing fans from up and down the east coast. Among the horses that delighted the crowds was the legendary Dan Patch. In the 1940s auto races were held but ceased in 1947 following a fatal crash.
Not everyone was interested in races. Special prizes were offered in the early 20th century for agricultural items. The best ear of corn brought its grower a box of cigars. Fancy needle work winners went home with an American Beauty Corset. And the prize for the largest pumpkin was a shave and a haircut from a local barber. It was, as they say, a simpler time.
Although in its own way the Kutztown Fair always reflected the life of the Pennsylvania Dutch people, the Kutztown Fairgrounds made it official in 1950 by hosting the first Kutztown Folk Festival. Then called the Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Festival, it was a concept created by three young professors from Franklin and Marshall College, Dr. Alfred Shoemaker, Dr. J. William Frey and Dr. Don Yoder, who were interested in seeing the folk culture preserved.
Yoder, widely recognized as the most important figure in the field of Pennsylvania Dutch studies today, recalled how the idea first came to them. “We were in the Library of Congress in 1949, going through the card catalogue, and could find no reference to sources on the folk culture that didn’t call it German or recognize it as an American hybrid culture,” says Yoder. He prefers the term Pennsylvania Dutch be applied to those German speakers who came to America prior to 1830, settled originally in southeastern Pennsylvania and spread west, south and north following the American Revolution.
The Kutztown Folk Festival was such a success that it attracted visitors from all over the country and was featured in National Geographic magazine. Unfortunately, in the 1990s the festival made headlines of a different, less-positive sort. In 1994 Ursinus College, which had bought the festival in 1965, sold it to Richard “Little Richard” Thomas, the concessionaire who ran many of its food stands.
Thomas’s inability to reach an agreement with the Kutztown Fairground Association and his anger that the association had developed a Kutztown Pennsylvania German Festival managed by a non-profit associated with Kutztown University, led him to move the festival to the Schuylkill County Fairgrounds at Summit Station and later to Adamstown in Lancaster County.
The battle of the dueling festivals lasted from 1996 to 2003, when Thomas suspended his operation. In the summer of 2004, David Fooks, a vendor at the Kutztown Folk Festival since 1978 who had managed the Pennsylvania German Festival since 1998, reopened what now calls itself the Kutztown Folk Festival. And if the weather holds the crowds should be as large as ever this year.
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