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."

Sure, roof thatching. Wait, what?

"That's making a roof out of grass," Fooks said. "We have an area that features different types of roofing, tile roofs and what have you. But one of the more unique ones is making the roof that's made out of grass."

Fooks says that not only is this method of roof-making still used today, it's actually pretty solid: "It's absolutely waterproof and will last for decades"

Then there are the foods, most of which you won't find at your local ethnic restaurant, much less your national chain restaurant. Fooks said some of the more idiosyncratic delicacies include roasted ox sandwiches and pickled pigs feet.

"We have the only ox roast, I think, in the nation at this point, where we roast a whole ox and cut it up," he says. "The Pennsylvania Dutch are also known for a lot of their different spices and oddball foods too. They waste nothing. So you have pigs ears, pigs feet, all that kind of stuff. It's all pickled.

"Not everybody really wants to eat it," he adds. "But you can buy it if you like it."

For kids, there's a separate entertainment stage with puppet shows and storytelling, as well as pony rides and a horse-drawn carousel, said to be the last one left in the country, according to Fooks.

Families can trudge through the hay maze or participate in mural making. Oh, and mom and dad can also gather up the kids and learn how to build … a building.

"You put together a small post-and-beam building," Fooks said, "like the barns in this area were built from, except it's smaller."

Families, he said, can build it with a help from arpenters who'll be on site.

Fooks said visitors shouldn't worry about rain because most of the festival is covered by tents or convened in buildings. Instead, people might want to schedule their visits to avoid the crowds that gather on weekends.

"During the week we have good crowds too, but it's not quite so hectic," Fooks said. "I usually recommend people come during the week."

The 2011 Kutztown Folk Festival takes place July 2-10, at the Kutztown Fairgrounds at 450 Wentz. St. in Kutztown, Pa. Admission is $14 general, $13 for seniors, $5 for students ages 13-17 and free for children 12 years old or younger. Call 888-674-6136 or go to

The Kutztown Folk Festival is loosely divided into six sections. Here's what visitors can expect to find:

Folk art and crafts: Around 200 Pennsylvania German and other early American folk artisans will be on hand to demonstrate their skills in areas such as fine furniture, pottery making, clothing, musical instruments, hand-painted art, weavings and cut-paper art known as "scherenschnitte." Ivan Hoyt and Bill Schuster, "the last "hex sign artists," will sell barn signs, milk cans and decorative miniatures at the festival.

Pennsylvania Dutch quilts: The festival's quilt show is a considered a bona fide art show and will offer nearly 2,000 handmade Pennsylvania German motif quilts for sale.

Local music: From Pennsylvania Dutch fiddling to the brassy sounds of an ensemble known as the Sauerkraut Band, the festival showcases sounds you won't likely hear anyplace else.

Folklore and folklife: Seminars will be held on topics ranging from religion and family life to clothing and folk medicine. Visitors can also view traditional religious practices, such as Mennonite meeting house services.

Activities for kids: A puppet barnyard theatre, petting zoo and folk songs by the musical duo Echoing Heart are three offerings for young 'uns. There will also be a HexExpress (a unique train made of 55-gallon oil drums) and a Der Korn Box, which is the Pennsylvania Dutch equivalent of a sandbox, filled with corn kernels.

Food: Visitors can chow down on ham and chicken dinners, home-made soups, corn fritters, funnel cakes and baked goods created in a wood-fired stone oven. "There's nothing I like better than a cinnamon bun out of that oven with butter on it," Fooks said. "That's my favorite."

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad