Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Fourth of July

On the morning of Fourth of July the humidity had broke and the sky was slightly overcast. We made the correct decision to delay our day at the Kutztown Folk Festival to the Fourth. It was much more comfortable to be outside.

I have been attending the Kutztown Folk Festival since I was young and Meryl and I have been going every year since we were married. This is always the highlight of our annual July Pennsylvania trip and even when we were not traveling overnight last year, we drove down for the day and back that night.

This is a celebration of Pennsylvania Dutch culture. It is located on the fairgrounds at Kutztown University. Kutztown is a little more than a hour's drive northeast of Lancaster. What you will find there is a combination of high class craft show, quilts, stage programs, entertainment, and demonstrations of early skills, and a large variety of Pennsylvania Dutch foods.

When we arrived the main fairgrounds parking was already full and we parked in the overflow lot on campus. The parking lot is large and there were several large RVs parked there. Parking is free.

The entrance to the festival is just across the road and you pay at the gate with cash or credit card. Before going there are discount coupons on the internet and also in local publications and brochures. If you are a senior you can get the senior admission price and use the discount coupon in addition. As soon as you walk onto the grounds of the festival you hear music playing in the distance and the chug chug of steam engines being demonstrated.

Set along each side of the walkways are craft booths set up under large tents. Even in the rain, you can walk through and stay relatively dry and on sunny days you can walk comfortably in the shade of the tents. The craftspeople who come to Kutztown are from all over the country and are selling the highest quality handmade craft. Other craftspeople are set up in two buildings. But Kutztown is so much more than a craft show.

As this is a celebration of Pennsylvania Dutch folk life there is a lecture tent where programs about the PA Dutch are presented. There is a large outdoor, covered theater with country music, polka music, an auction, a comedy show, and other entertainment. There are two things that have been a part of the festival since the beginning and these take place several times each day on each day of the festival - a reenactment of a Mennonite wedding and the reenactment of a hanging that took place in nearby Reading in the 19th Century. This was the hanging of a woman accused of murdering her out of wedlock child. I am not going to give away how it is done, but you watch the whole thing right through the point that she swings. Suffice it to say, this is a family festival and with a little explanation to young children it will not frighten them.

There is nothing Pennsylvania Dutch that does not include good eating and there are plenty of places at the festival to have snacks, a quick meal or a full dinner. There is even an all you can eat family style dinner under a large tent. The food booths have "Dutchified" names for the foods that they are selling Orange Drinka (orangeade), Dutch fries (homemade potato chip style fried potatoes), and Brodwurst sandwiches. You can watch a whole ox being roasted and as it cooks, pieces are sliced off to make sandwiches. I have a secret to share about eating at the festival. You will see food booths althroughout the festival grounds but if you go all around to the back of the festival grounds you will find permanently built stands that are part of the fairgrounds. These booths are taken over by local community groups and charities and they are serving the same foods found at the other booths but at a significantly lower price. We always go to the Lions Club booth and there the bratwurst sausage sandwiches with peppers and onions cost only $4 each. At the festival booths the same sandwich is $7. You will also find Dutch fries at the Lions Club booth and they are also much more reasonably priced. In addition you are benefiting the community group running the booth - and they are doing this as a fund raiser. If you want to sound like you are local, when you order your sausage sandwich with peppers and onions you say - "One sausage with" (more correctly, pronounce it "wit"). Take your food to one of the picnic tables set up under the canopy next to the Lions Club booth and sit in the shade and enjoy your lunch. Of course, you will find booths that sell shoo fly pie, watermelon, pastries, breads, cakes, birch beer (no alcohol), sarsaparilla, huge soft pretzels, ice cream, sweet treats, and so much more. This year there was one booth just selling kid food with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and chicken nuggets. There is even a small market to buy smoked meats and baked goods to take home. This market is one of the few places that sell a localized pie/cake, called Funny Cake. Funny Cake is vanilla cake with a bit of chocolate fudge swirled through in a pie shell. There are only certain areas of Pennsylvania where you will find Funny Cake and it is wonderful!

One of the highlights of the festival is the Quilt Competition and all of the hundreds of quilts on display are for sale. The winning quilts are auctioned off at the end of the festival. The quilts are beautiful and each one is made and submitted to the competition by local quilters. In the center of the quilt building is a demonstration of quilting by local ladies. Outside there is a try it yourself quilt and you will be given a free and quick lesson in how to do this for yourself. Even if you are not that interested in quilts, the quilt building is the only building on the grounds that is air conditioned and on a hot day in July this is a very welcomed stop.

If you like antiques, there is one building with antique vendors and there are a lot of unusual things to be found that comes from the local old farms. There is also a demonstration of antique steam engines.

We stopped and listened to one of the lectures being given about Pennsylvania Dutch language. The Amish and Mennonites speak German but there is a dialect of Pennsylvania Dutch that is spoken in this area that only a few still speak. There is an organization of speakers of this language. The gentleman giving the lecture was also talking about the "slang" used by people in the area that originated from Pennsylvania Dutch. When something is finished - consumed - it is "all", as in "The pie is all" meaning there is no more pie left. He commented that he has been working on his teenaged children to understand that while they are comfortable speaking this way, when they go to college (this was not an old order family) this would be considered very incorrect grammar. He was quite an entertaining lecturer. The next lecturer was speaking about religion. It is possible to spend the whole day being entertained by the programs and never look at a crafts booth and you will still have a good time.

The Wheaton Glass company that makes decorative glassware and vases has a demonstration set up on turning molten glass into vases. You can watch a blob of bubbling glass turn into a very decorative vase in a matter of minutes. Vases made the day before are offered for sale.

There is a lot for the kids also. There is a petting zoo. There is a live horse merry go round. There are puppet shows and children's music and sing along shows. There was a hay bale maze. They have been adding more hands on activities for kids.

Just in case, let me say that this is not a carnival in any way. There are no rides. There are no games. There is no side show. It is not a county or regional fair. It is a cultural festival of the plain people of this region.

Not only is this a festival of the Pennsylvania Dutch but it is also a festival of early Americana and it is a very fitting way to spend the Fourth of July. The festival is open every year from the weekend before July Fourth to the weekend after July Fourth from 9 am to 6 pm. There are lots of country fairs, craft shows, and folk life festivals in Pennsylvania. This one is unique and the largest.

We will go back again next year and the year after that. We had a great Fourth of July. We left the festival and drove back to Lancaster County for dinner. We later returned to the campground for our last night there. Several of the other campers had left that day and there were several empty spaces around us. When we backed into our site, we actually found a spot that was perfectly level. I suppose if they claim level sites there must be some spot in each one that is actually level. The leveling blocks went back inside the storage cabinet on the outside of the Roadtrek and we settled in for the night.

The next and last article of this trip will appear next week.

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