A Famine of Festivals

A Famine of Festivals
©2013 Kirby Sanders

There lurks within us all a remnant of the American Innocent who loves our local festivals. Every town and county and community has them. Yes there are the archetypal County Fairs, but also we have our smaller versions — where communities themselves gather to celebrate the bounty that binds them.

The spring, summer and fall harvest and “hell let’s just have a party” weekends that towns arrange simply to recognize and celebrate themselves as communities. The Athens TX Black Eyed Pea Festival — the Gilroy CA Garlic Festival — the Sparta WI Butter Festival — the DeKalb IL Cornfest — The Pella IA Tulip Festival — the Hatch NM Chile Festival. Even mammoth Houston TX has its high-profile remnant in the Livestock Show and Rodeo. Fort Worth has its Red Steagall Cowboy Gathering. I think Dallas has an annual Visit Your Money in the Bank day — or something like that.

Heritage Days, Pioneer Days, Stagecoach Days, Railroad Days — events where the community gathers to recognize who they are, why they are and what makes them a community. One people bound together in some small way or another.

Even the generic small college town springfests are fun and quaint in their own way — spring break for the kids too broke to expose themselves in Cancun with their demurely naughty bed races and bar hops along “the strip” leading into the campus.

We all know how the festival days go. Mom says “don’t get those new britches and dresses dirty.” Dad gripes because old man Johnson wants five bucks to park in his yard. The town square is packed with people. The twirlers twirl and the marching band plays. Blue and red and white ribbons festoon the favorite homemade pies and preserves and the Queen of The Whatever waves from her perch on the boot of a snazzy convertible. Local musicians play and cloggers clog and folklorico dancers swirl atop stages that are really flatbed truck trailers. Carnies shill games and rides on a carnival midway. Politicos make some boring speeches, the bank and the churches hands out free pencils and everyone runs off to see what treasures the local vendors have to offer.

These are the only places in the world where you can sample jalapeno ice cream or blackeyed-pea pie. The places where your first memories of the exotic and the unusual reside. Where Oddly Ollie the clown (whom everyone knows is really the creepy coach) performs and entertains or frightens small children.

Sometimes these community festivals celebrate only memories. There is one wonderful Grape Fest in a town that hasn’t produced a single grape in better than 50 years. Another with a Pickle Fest in a former company town where the pickle factory shut down in 1952. But it doesn’t really matter — the festival is the festival. Grapes are grapes and pickles are delicious and those are what made those towns into towns.

But there is a growing blight in the crop, creating a famine for our festivals. Corporate sponsorship.

What brings this to immediate light is a recent situation in Johnson County, Arkansas. Their annual Peach Festival is coming up — but local growers have been banned from selling or sharing their crops at the festival. A certain “largest retailer in the world” has sponsored the festival — and announced that they will supply all the peaches. Local producers not allowed to show or sell. The local producers are up in arms — but banned and helpless.

The twirlers will twirl and the marching band will play. The Johnson County Peach Queen will wave and smile from her perch on the boot of a snazzy convertible. The community will be judiciously directed past the cleanup on aisle five and Muzak will fill the gleeful air. Blue and red and white ribbons will festoon the coolers containing frozen pies by Marie Callender, Sara Lee and Paula Deen.

The producers whom the festival celebrates will be relegated to their truck stands on the outskirts of town. Hoping to snag an occasional wayward consumer away from the corporate orgy.

What lovely memories are we leaving to our children?

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