Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
Demonstrators and participants make their way through the Kutztown Folk Festival in the Fourth of July Parade. Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, Kutztown University

Demonstrators and participants make their way through the Kutztown Folk Festival in the Fourth of July Parade. Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, Kutztown University

The Kutztown Folk Festival, originally called the Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Festival, is a milestone among American community celebrations. Observing 70 years in 2019, it is the first and longest-running folklife festival in the history of the United States. Although many other popular celebrations preceded the Kutztown festival, it has had a national impact as the first festival founded and designed on the folklife concept and eventually served as a model for the national Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Blending public outreach with ethnographic research, the Kutztown Folk Festival was originally envisioned as a community venture, both public and academic, with the goal of showcasing, preserving and celebrating the folk culture of the Pennsylvania Dutch region. In its earliest days, the festival was a revolutionary concept that transformed the very nature of American cultural celebrations and has inspired the creation of scores of folklife festivals nationwide.

The festival’s three visionary founder-directors were Alfred L. Shoemaker (1913–?), J. William Frey (1916–89) and Don Yoder (1921–2015), a triumvirate of professors in folklore, language and religion who founded the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster in the spring of 1949. This unique and interdisciplinary institute based on the folklife approach pioneered new ethnographic methods in collecting, preserving and disseminating the rich folk-cultural legacy of the Pennsylvania Dutch, based not only on oral traditions but also on the entirety of the culture’s folk processes in the arts and day-to-day domestic and agricultural life. The center’s signature publication, The Pennsylvania Dutchman, began as a bilingual weekly newspaper serving some 3,000 subscribers, exploring everything from material culture and farming to culinary traditions and genealogy.

The center and its publications explored the roots of a unique American culture, composed of the descendants of 18th-century emigrants from German-speaking lands throughout what is today southwestern Germany, Switzerland and the Alsace region in France. Identified by the English as “Dutch,” this moniker reflected the original use of the word embracing all of the diverse regions of Central Europe that spoke variations of the German language. This rural population settled much of south-eastern Pennsylvania and blended with diverse neighboring communities to produce a distinctly Pennsylvania Dutch folk culture. Their language, customs and traditions both contributed to and were shaped by the blossoming of a new American identity as they spread throughout the United States.

 

The wide array of highlights featured in the brochure for the 1959 festival include foodways, dancing, folk art, crafts and agricultural demonstrations.

The wide array of highlights featured in the brochure for the 1959 festival include foodways, dancing, folk art, crafts and agricultural demonstrations.
Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, Kutztown University

Within one year of the founding of the Pennsylvania Dutch Folklore Center, the launch of the Kutztown Folk Festival in 1950 marked a turning point for the intersection of scholarship and public outreach. The goal of the festival was to move beyond the staged theatrical musical performances of other existing folk festivals in an attempt to display the whole spectrum of folk-cultural experience in ways that were simply impossible in a traditional museum setting.

This new festival model highlighted the work of living practitioners of folk culture, not as actors in historical reenactments but as “bearers of tradition” in the present. This included bakers, barn decorators, farmers, soapmakers, weavers, woodworkers, blacksmiths, teamsters, basketmakers, beekeepers and even morticians — all providing a portion of the total interrelated picture of folklife.

Located in the heart of the Pennsylvania Dutch region in Berks County, Kutztown was selected as the ideal venue for this new venture because of its large fairgrounds, roughly equidistant from Pennsylvania’s two “Dutchiest” cities, Reading in Berks County and Allentown in Lehigh County. The festival aimed to highlight the Pennsylvania Dutch of the Berks-Lehigh region, where the largest number of speakers of the Pennsylvania Dutch language resided at that time. These communities represented the broader Pennsylvania Dutch cultural experience, composed of the descendants of the original Lutheran and Reformed congregations that settled the area, sometimes called the “church people” (Karrich Leit).

These church people were very much a part of the world and its fashions, unlike the plain communities of the Pennsylvania Dutch concentrated in Lancaster County (and the American Midwest), comprising the Amish, Mennonite and Brethren congregations. Conservative portions of this latter group tended to avoid public attention and would not participate fully in cultural celebrations like the Kutztown festival. The broader Pennsylvania Dutch community, however, was both civically and socially engaged and fervently embraced fairs and festivals as highlights of the agricultural year.

 

A delighted crowd laughs at the Pennsylvania Dutch standup comedy routine of Professor Schnitzel (Theodore Rickenbach).

A delighted crowd laughs at the Pennsylvania Dutch standup comedy routine of Professor Schnitzel (Theodore Rickenbach).
Ursinus College Library Special Collections

Inspired at least in part by other celebrations, the directors of the Kutztown Folk Festival had learned much from the efforts of other short-lived festivals founded by folklorist George Korson (1899–1967), who with Pennsylvania Dutch humorist William “Pumpernickel Bill” Troxell organized the Pennsylvania Folk Festival, holding it first at Allentown and later at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Union County. Integrating folksong, dance and skits into elaborate productions, these festivals were based in aspects of culture that were expressly performative.

Shoemaker, Frey and Yoder sought to integrate similar authentic performances into the Kutztown Folk Festival, but rather than a carefully orchestrated musical pageant, the festival featured a robust adult education program in the form of a seminar stage. Live demonstrations were the heart of the festival and were complemented with these staged lectures, meant to bring together both regional performers in music, dance, comedy and theater but also experts in hymnody, folk medicine, vernacular architecture, folk art, folk beliefs from the cradle to the grave, and the distinctive traditional dress of Pennsylvania’s unique religious communities.

In its first year, the festival consisted of only five large tents and was held for just four days, July 1–4. This time of year was selected because it was customary for local factories to shut down on the week of Independence Day, typically the hottest time of the summer season, and workers were sometimes given mandatory vacation. This allowed working class families to attend the festival as visitors and gave demonstrators and performers the ability to participate without infringing upon their day jobs. Nevertheless, even to this day, the festival contends with the scorching heat.

At the first Kutztown Folk Festival in 1950, an estimated 30,000 people attended over the course of the four-day event, and live performances were broadcast on local radio. An unusual highlight of the first Saturday was a contest held among 20 local farmers, each armed with a grain cradle scythe in a race to clear 4 acres of an 85-acre wheat field adjacent to the festival grounds. Others bound the crop into sheaves, which were later threshed by hand with flails. The whole harvest was broadcast play-by-play on radio station WEEU of Reading as if it were a sporting event. In addition to the daytime programming of demonstrations and crafts, events in the evening included shooting matches, animal-calling contests, wheelbarrow races, and a hoedown called by the popular dialect humorist Pumpernickel Bill.

Cofounder of the festival Alfred L. Shoemaker is pictured here with Milton J. Hill, who demonstrated his hex sign painting at the festival for many years.

Cofounder of the festival Alfred L. Shoemaker is pictured here with Milton J. Hill, who demonstrated his hex sign painting at the festival for many years.
Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, Kutztown University

Sunday morning was dedicated to a commemorative church service with prayers and the liturgy in old Pennsylvania High German, followed by the singing of traditional Pennsylvania hymns in the afternoon. This spiritual component of the festival greatly appealed to older generations of Pennsylvania Dutch people who had then only recently relinquished the official use of German in their local churches around the time of the First World War — and such a time was still well within their memory and recalled with nostalgia.

Monday’s programming featured a live antiques auction and a series of the best in regional live comedy acts from a coalition of Pennsylvania Dutch language societies called Fersammlinge. And on the final day, 15 of the best Pennsylvania Dutch storytellers competed in a contest of Parre (pastor) stories, a widely popular form of earthy, local humor poking fun at the fictionalized antics of country ministers run amuck.

Although it is obvious that the featured events of the first year catered largely to the interests of local people (especially bilingual speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch), the daily programming also included a wide range of food, entertainment and educational programming that were of equal interest to visitors from outside the region, including buses brimming with curious visitors from New York, New Jersey and Maryland.

The culinary aspect of the festival introduced classic favorites of regional home cooking to new audiences of visitors, including such dishes as Schnitz un Gnepp, a brothy ham stew with sliced dried apples and button-shaped dumplings; Fastnachts, fried potato doughnuts; Rivvel-Supp, a chicken soup with small dumplings; Drechter Kuche, or funnel cakes, dough poured through a funnel and fried; scrapple, a mush of pork, cornmeal and buckwheat that is sliced and fried; and blue balsam mint tea. These and other dishes were prepared by more than 80 cooks from local churches.

Phares Hertzog amazed visitors in the 1950s and 1960s with his reptilian friends and folklore presentations.

Phares Hertzog amazed visitors in the 1950s and 1960s with his reptilian friends and folklore presentations.
Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, Kutztown University

Attendance at the festival far exceeded expectations. The church kitchens, scram-bling to keep up with the demand, repeatedly restocked and sold out of food. But in confident anticipation of success, the festival had erected a traditional wood-fired bake oven for daily bread making that from day one has been a permanent part of the festival grounds and is still used today. Planning commenced to expand the programming for the following year, and the local churches made preparations for a series of outdoor dining rooms featuring full-course, family-style meals, which were much in demand.

Always the optimists, the directors allocated the festival revenue toward the creation of a research archive dedicated to the study of folklife for the center’s growing collection of research materials at Franklin & Marshall.

The second annual festival, greatly assisted by the positive regional media coverage from its inaugural year, was able to expand its programming to five full days and attracted 15,000 people when it opened on July 4, 1951. The total attendance that year was 45,000 people, and each day was kicked off with live broadcasts from the two most prominent Pennsylvania Dutch entertainers, G. Gilbert Snyder, also known as die Wunnernaus (the Busybody), and comedian Professor Schnitzel (Theodore Rickenbach). Even the famous radio comedy duo Asseba un Sabina, an aged and bickering farm couple portrayed by Harry Reichert and Paul Wieand, made regular staged performances of their most popular episodes.

These earliest festival years were rife with some of the finest of regional personalities: Aunt Sophia Bailer, powwow healer of the coal regions, who donned the late 19th-century garb of her youth to sing the old Pennsylvania Dutch spirituals; Lancaster farmer Benjamin Bennetch, who thatched a roof with rye straw at 89 years of age; basket-maker Ollie Strausser, who played the jaw-harp and harmonica through a customized Victrola horn; Mabel Snyder, the female undertaker with her ancient rural funerary paraphernalia; and Milton J. Hill, the region’s foremost painter of intricate barn star murals. These colorful participants were not actors but real people sharing the story of their culture.

Don Yoder, cofounder of the festival, served as emcee of the seminar stage. Here he hosts a presentation of Pennsylvania’s sectarian costume.

Don Yoder, cofounder of the festival, served as emcee of the seminar stage. Here he hosts a presentation of Pennsylvania’s sectarian costume.
Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, Kutztown University

What is perhaps most notable about these unique individuals was the fact that they belonged to a generation born in the late 19th century before the era of the automobile’s transformation of American culture. This generation grew up in a world without electricity when a majority of Americans still lived and worked on family farms and the bulk of day-to-day work was performed by hand. As bearers of tradition, these hardworking people never imagined that their stories would be of interest outside of their own small communities.

It was the bringing together and celebration of these individuals that not only laid the foundation of the festival for years to come but also provided ongoing sources for oral histories and fieldwork in folklife studies. Thus, the festival served not only to further academic goals but also to enrich the community’s awareness of the importance of keeping its traditions alive.

As the festival grew in size, the center began to refine its mission and focus on the inclusion of a broad range of ethnic and cultural identities within the Pennsylvania Dutch region. By 1958 the center had become an independent nonprofit organization separate from Franklin & Marshall and changed its name to the Pennsylvania Folklife Society, and with this change the signature publication formerly known as The Pennsylvania Dutchman took on the new name Pennsylvania Folklife.

With this newly acquired vision for the organization, the Pennsylvania Folklife Society began to formulate plans for the establishment of a permanent headquarters in Lancaster, as an open-air folklife museum, research archive, and fully operational farm. The advantages of this model were innumerable, because it would allow for cultural programming to take place throughout the year, with opportunities for picnics, apple-butter making, and harvest celebrations timed with the calendar year.

By 1960 the Kutztown Folk Festival had expanded to seven days of cultural programming, with more than 100,000 visitors in attendance. It was not long before this continued success led to the purchase of a property consisting of 45 acres of farmland located six miles west of Lancaster for the construction of a massive brick-end barn as the headquarters for the long-awaited folklife museum and archive.

The Kutztown Folk Festival continued to be immensely successful during this transition, and a fall Harvest Frolic was added to the annual events of the Pennsylvania Folklife Society in 1961. Proceeds from the Harvest Frolic were expected to finance the construction of the museum, but bad weather and the resulting poor attendance left the society deep in debt. Bankruptcy proceedings began later that fall, and although the thriving Kutztown Folk Festival was leveraged to stave off lenders for a year on the promise of repayment, the second Harvest Frolic in 1962 was not successful enough to preserve the new museum property. In 1963 the society was forced to liquidate the farm and its material assets. The whole ordeal took an enormous toll on director Alfred Shoemaker, who suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized for a time before he disappeared to New York City, where he spent his final days in obscurity.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This major setback for the society initiated a complete reorganization. Don Yoder took on full editorial responsibilities for Pennsylvania Folklife and began to publish a special Folk Festival issue every summer, which served as a festival guide for visitors. A judge appointed the society’s attorney, Mark Eby Jr., as manager of the Kutztown Folk Festival, and he became president of the society in 1964. Under Eby’s directorship, the festival continued for the next five years as an independent nonprofit organization unaffiliated with any academic institution. Then in 1969 the festival was purchased by Ursinus College and maintained Eby as director, and a for-profit corporation was established to manage the craft vendors of the festival, Folk-Life Associates Inc. of Lancaster.

In the following years, new generations of craftspeople and demonstrators carried the torch as the older generations retired from the celebration. This transferal of festival roles to subsequent generations mirrored the natural folk-cultural transmission of traditions, highlighting the festival’s unique role as a venue for cultural maintenance and sustainability.

Don Yoder continued Pennsylvania Folklife as the academic backbone of the festival but also took on advocacy in the field of folklife on a national scale (see “Don Yoder, Dean of Folklife Scholars,” Spring 2006). When the Smithsonian Institution launched its own folklife festival in the nation’s capital in 1967, it acknowledged Yoder’s contributions to the study of folklife. In 1970 Yoder testified before the United States Congress to advocate for the establishment of a national American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, which was founded six years later, and he was appointed to the Board of Trustees.

Bill Jones of Stone’s Throw Pottery throws reddish-brown earthenware clay to form a pot, which will then be fired, decorated and glazed. Redware pottery is a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch craft that has seen a significant resurgence in the years since the festival began.
Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, Kutztown University

For the next 20 years, the Kutztown Folk Festival continued despite major changes in the culture. No longer could the oldest members of the community recall the days before the automobile with any clarity, and the native speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch exponentially dwindled in number. Eby, ever the vigilant businessman, transformed the image and marketing of the festival from a homage to the culture’s elders to an appeal toward youth.

This shift in emphasis coincided with an enlargement of the festival to nine full days, which required the commercial aspect to become primary, favoring crafts vendors over demonstrators and theatrical productions highlighting the Amish over the old repertoire of Pennsylvania Dutch comedy and folksong, as well as the educational programs. Although Eby was criticized for this choice, he ushered in an era of financial stability that kept the festival going through two decades of momentous changes in new generations of American audiences.

In 1989 a disagreement between Eby and the Kutztown Fairgrounds Association ensued when the fairgrounds began hosting a competing craft festival on Labor Day. In response, Eby withheld rent owed to the fairgrounds and was sued. Eby was forced to pay, but the damage was done, and the fairgrounds association refused to renew the contract with the Kutztown Folk Festival under Eby’s directorship. As a result, Ursinus College chose to divest its affiliation in 1994 and sell the festival operation to a food concessionaire from Pennsburg named “Little Richard” Thomas.

Without a contract to use the Kutztown Fairgrounds, Little Richard attempted to move the festival up to the Schuylkill County Fairgrounds in Summit Station, where he hoped to continue the event for future years. At the same time, the Kutztown University Foundation and the Kutztown Fairgrounds Association continued the festival at Kutztown, changing the name to the Pennsylvania German Festival, reflecting its affiliation with the university’s Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, founded in 1991 and inspired by the original Pennsylvania Folklife Society. The new festival director and general manager of the fairgrounds association, Robert E. Kerper Jr., sought to bring about a return to authenticity and restore much of the cultural content that had been lost during Eby’s tenure.

Hex sign painter Eric Claypoole demonstrates his art on a barn constructed on the festival grounds. This tradition was passed down from his father, Johnny Claypoole, who also demonstrated at the festival for many years.

Hex sign painter Eric Claypoole demonstrates his art on a barn constructed on the festival grounds. This tradition was passed down from his father, Johnny Claypoole, who also demonstrated at the festival for many years.
Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, Kutztown University

The transitional year of 1996 literally split the festival in two, with both organizations vying for the celebration’s legacy. Little Richard assumed that he would be able to enlist the majority of demonstrators, craftsmen and entertainers to participate at the new location in Summit Station, but most of them remained at the original location in Kutztown, which had been greatly expanded to include the Heritage Center farm at Kutztown University. In response, billboards advertising the Schuylkill County festival were erected outside Kutztown during the festival week, telling visitors that they had come to the wrong location. The Schuylkill County festival suffered the most from the transition to its new location, and after legal settlement Kutztown continued as the sole inheritor of the festival’s legacy.

In 1999 — with the Kutztown Folk Festival now fully re-established and reinvigorated at the original location and with the backing of both the Kutztown University Foundation and the Kutztown Fairgrounds Association — David Fooks, previously coordinator of the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center’s fall Heemet Fescht (Homestead Festival) at the Historic Sharadin Farm on the Kutztown Campus, became director. He served for the next 15 years with a renewed sense of purpose, emphasizing the traditional crafts that were a large part of his participation in the festival as a woodworker for more than 25 years. Fooks established a juried panel for craftsmen with the assistance of members of the Berks Chapter of the Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsmen, who were dedicated to the authenticity of handmade traditional crafts. The festival also began a juried exhibition of handmade quilts, which remains a popular element of the festival today. Award-winning quilts are displayed and then auctioned on the final weekend.

Scherenschnitte is the Pennsylvania Dutch craft of papercutting. Here, Judy Boyer cuts out finely shaped silhouettes of birds, animals and floral patterns and displays them in the traditional fashion against contrasting backgrounds.

Scherenschnitte is the Pennsylvania Dutch craft of papercutting. Here, Judy Boyer cuts out finely shaped silhouettes of birds, animals and floral patterns and displays them in the traditional fashion against contrasting backgrounds.
Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, Kutztown University

Fooks also revived the cultural programming. Through his connections with the Heritage Center and local Pennsylvania Dutch language organizations, he brought back bilingual comedy programming and installed William Donner as master of ceremonies for the seminar stage, with the mission of restoring the educational lectures and programs that were essential to the festival’s early mission. Pennsylvania Dutch programming was greatly expanded to include the Liar’s Contest, a bilingual storytelling competition; Schreiwer Fescht, readings of Pennsylvania Dutch language original writings and poetry; and the standup comedy routine of Ischkabibble and Tutti, played by Leroy Brown and Paul Kunkle, later replaced by auctioneer William Meck. Fooks also created a fund to assist local farmers in having their historic barns repainted with barn stars, a collaboration between the Kutztown University Foundation and the Hex Tour Association.

In 2014 leadership of the festival was passed to present-day director Steve Sharadin, a Kutztown native who had grown up working at the festival as a youth and served in various roles for 30 years, including assistant director under Fooks. Sharadin’s vision has been to maintain the spirit of the festival as both an entertaining and educational folklife display in keeping with its original mission.

As part of this effort, Sharadin has brought back a number of important original features of the festival, including the one-room schoolhouse and live barn star painting demonstrations. Sharadin has also expanded the entertainment into the evening hours, so families can attend the festival after normal working hours. The festival has grown to more than 200 artisans, dozens of folklife demonstrators, 40 food vendors, and more than 100 entertainers, manned by 1,000 volunteers and staff. On a busy day, the festival brings 20,000 people and has exceeded 130,000 visitors in just nine days.

Frank and Wes Stubbins from Wheaton Arts Center demonstrate traditional glassblowing each year at the festival.

Frank and Wes Stubbins from Wheaton Arts Center demonstrate traditional glassblowing each year at the festival.
Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, Kutztown University

In celebrating 70 years, the Kutztown Folk Festival continues as the premier Pennsylvania Dutch community event in the nation, building upon the cultural memory of generations of local families who have preserved their heritage in folklife, food and entertainment. Although demonstrators or visitors who have attended all 70 years are now rare, countless families have witnessed the festival’s positive impact upon the region’s culture. Unlike some community events that come and go, this festival has withstood the test of time by virtue of its folklife mission. Folklife has proven to be a resilient model for community enrichment, serving to engage participants with the realities of a culture that is always changing and adapting to the needs of each generation. The Kutztown Folk Festival looks not merely at the past but continues to showcase the cultural contributions of contemporary people, ensuring that with an awareness of roots, the traditions valued today are celebrated and carried forward for future generations.

 

The Kutztown Folk Festival is a nine-day event that is held annually in the summer. In 2019 the festival will be held June 29–July 7. For information on hours, directions, admission and activities, visit kutztownfestival.com.

 

Patrick J. Donmoyer is the director of the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University. He is the author of Hex Signs: Myth and Meaning in Pennsylvania Dutch Barn Stars and Powwowing in Pennsylvania: Ritual Traditions of the Dutch Country. His previous article for Pennsylvania Heritage was “Der Belsnickel: Nicholas in Furs or the Hairy Devil?” (Winter 2018).