Journey to the past

There are outdoor summer festivals and then there's the Kutztown Folk Festival.

The annual event, held each year in the Pennsylvania town that bears its name, is larger than life in every which way. It attracts around 150,000 visitors each year. It's been going on for 62 years. It lasts nine days and spans two weekends. It boasts the largest quilt sale in the nation.

In all, it covers a total of 29 acres including the parking lot.

The event has also been named as a top summer entertainment pick by USA Today and called a "must see" festival by the Washington Post.

All of which is pretty ironic, since the event made a name for itself by showcasing exactly what you don't find in bigger towns: the traditions of small-town Americana as exemplified by local craftsmen, quilters, bakers and other folks.

"The quilters who participate will quilt all year around," said Dave Fooks, who has served as the festival's director for 39 years. "Some will have a couple of dozen quilts depending on how hard they work."

The event, Fooks said, brings out more than 100 craftsmen, many of whom are from the nearby Amish villages and count the show as an important source of income.

"The vast majority of our craftsmen are professional craftsmen and this is a major event for them," Fooks said. "I started out as a woodcarver and did a number of shows throughout the year, and this was by far the most important for me. I did probably 50 percent of my yearly income with this one show.

"So you really work hard to try to be ready for it."

History lessons

The Kutztown Folk Festival didn't just grow out of some county fair or church bazaar. It was created by a trio of folklorists to show off the culture of the people from Pennsylvania Dutch Country, an area of the state in which the Amish, Mennonite and other German Christian sects settled.

According to Fooks, doctors J. William Frey, Don Yoder and Alfred Shoemaker dreamed up the idea of such a festival to mirror festivals showcasing native cultures they'd seen in Europe.

"Being from Pennsylvania, they focused on Pennsylvania Dutch at the time," Fooks said. "In 1950, (the Pennsylvania Dutch) had their own unique language dialect and very unique customs in America. They had really not homogenized into America at all."

Although the festival's founding trio was from Lancaster County (also an area associated with Amish culture) they chose Kutztown as the site for their event because "they felt the true essence of Pennsylvania Dutch culture in America was to be found in Kutztown," he said.

"We have farmers' markets here, almost everybody in the area spoke the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect, there was and still is a heavy older Mennonite population here," he said. "And also it was kind of out of the way and not really a tourist location. There wasn't a whole lot going on here, and so they really were able to get a lot of locals to participate."

It didn't take long for the festival to catch on. In fact, it was an instantaneous hit, Fooks says.

"The first year they had 32,000 people come," he says. "They were expecting a couple of thousand. So they did it every year thereafter."

Big business

These days, the Kutztown Folk Festival is big business, with so many events and attractions it takes multiple pages of the festival website to list them all.

"We've got five stages of entertainment, and all in the center different folklife demonstrations," Fooks says. "There's all kinds of old equipment, like steam engines, plus re-enactments, glass blowing and roof thatching."