Memories of Festival of the Forks

Memories of Festival of the Forks
By Tom Garnett
Former Executive Director of the
Greater Albion Chamber of Commerce

Note: On Saturday, September 21, 2002 the 35th Festival of the Forks was celebrated on a beautiful day under sunny skies. I was privileged to have been invited by Russell Rown to join himself, L.J. Rutz, and Herm Knuth in the celebration. The festival organizing committee invited us to participate in the evening parade riding in one of the dignitary cars marked with a sign reading “Festival Founders”. I was both excited and proud to participate as one of its original founders. During the day long festivities many fond memories of the first festival held in 1967 returned to me. Thirty-five years have passed since the festival was conceived and organized. The festival is as important to this community now as it was then. For this festival and the contributions it has made to Albion these many years cannot be taken for granted. As in 1967, Albion today faces challenges that will also be resolved when a cross section of community leaders with a common vision and the determination for a successful future come together. What makes Albion great is its rich ethnic, economic, and social diversity — continuing to be its most valuable asset. The spirit of Albion will be tested but never defeated as long as community leaders face their challenges with creative energy as they did in 1967. The success of Albion will always come from within the “heart” of Albion’s people who have the courage and strength to meet today’s challenges with the benefit of yesterday’s achievements. And so it is with a sense of pride of once living in Albion and always belonging to its past that I share my memories of the birth of the Festival of the Forks.

The year is 1966. I was selected to be the next Executive Director of the Greater Albion Chamber of Commerce assuming the position in August of that year. Herb Jones, chamber president and Vice President of College Relations at Albion College, convened my first chamber board meeting in Albion, soon after my arrival as chamber executive director. There was lengthy discussion at the meeting regarding steps that might be taken to bring the chamber back into a strong community leadership role. After considering numerous approaches, it was decided that the chamber should plan, organize and implement a community-wide “town hall meeting”. The event would be held at the Parker Inn and citizen leaders from businesses, churches, community non-profits and citizens-at-large would be invited to attend. Special consideration would be given to broad community ethnic representation. The Albion Town Hall meeting was called for a weekday evening and was held in the Parker Inn ballroom in November 1966. The many who attended were given a challenge by Herb Jones acting as the meeting chairman, to contribute to the development of a plan for Albion’s future. All gathered were given an equal opportunity to put forward their ideas utilizing an effective technique of bringing the best suggestions with the broadest support to the front for community action.

As the meeting progressed many ideas came forth. Each was recorded by a table chairperson and then table by table each chair’s report was announced to the chair of the meeting. A final list was then offered to all gathered and a vote was taken by all to determine which of the recorded ideas for action would be supported throughout the community.

When the final vote was tallied, the idea with the most votes was a “community festival” to celebrate Albion, its rich heritage and its broad ethnic diversity. The meeting was adjourned with a heightened sense of excitement about what had been accomplished and the selection that was made to begin planning a community festival.

Soon following the meeting Herb Jones met with me to discuss who should be asked to chair Albion’s first community festival. We reviewed our town hall meeting notes and recalled which table group presented the idea of a community festival. Russell Rowan, M.D. was the spokesperson for this table group and we felt he would be our first choice to ask to chair the planning of this first festival. We contacted Dr. Rowan and asked him to lunch at the Parker Inn. After presenting him with our choice for chairman of the festival, he agreed without hesitation.

After careful consideration to leadership and community representation the first festival committee was formed:

  • William Aris
  • Mrs. Jack Burch
  • Herlen Cheek
  • Tom Garnett
  • L.J. Rutz
  • Russell Rowan
  • Mrs. Juan Solis
  • Miss Audrey Wilder

After initial planning began, others were added to the planning committee, including Fran Costianes, Tom Feldpausch, and Herman Knuth.

In February 1967 the committee met and outlined the purpose of the festival, which was to be a celebration of all the people of the Albion community, their rich heritage, and their many contributions to the strength and character of Albion. The month of September was chosen when the festival would be held. This month would provide broad participation by all elements of the community including schools (families were back from vacations) and Albion College students and faculty would also be back to school. In May of 1967 the planning committee chose the name for the festival, “Festival of the Forks”. I recall how strongly Audrey Wilder felt about selecting this name and she did an excellent job of convincing the others on the committee. Audrey expressed that the heritage of Albion had deep roots beginning with the settlement of “The Forks” at the confluence of the Kalamazoo River in the area now known as Rieger Park and this historical fact should be recognized in the festival’s name. The name “Festival of the Forks” then took its place in Albion’s history.

Careful explanation was required as the first festival and its name was announced to the community and to the media in the surrounding area. I recall a conversation with a reporter from the Lansing State Journal who had called inquiring about the festival. She asked, “If this is going to be a festival for forks, what about the knife and spoon?”

Vern Bobbitt was commissioned to design the festival logo and it was to become the emblem for Albion’s community festival for the next 35 years. On September 30, 1967 the first Festival of the Forks was celebrated. The rest is history: a small mid-western community with a strong loyalty for its people and its future, bring together to celebrate all its differences and viewing them all as an asset to be protected.

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