PLYMOUTH FALL FESTIVAL HISTORY
History summary provided by Sam Hudson’s book
THE STORY OF PLYMOUTH, MICHIGAN: A MIDWEST MICROCOSM 1956
The Plymouth Fall Festival grew out of a community family picnic, sponsored by the Plymouth Rotary Club. The idea for the picnic was suggested by Don Lightfoot, a member of the club’s Youth Activities Committee.
Don proposed that Rotary sponsor a chicken barbecue to raise funds to buy equipment for a playground at the end of Wing Street.
About 500 people attended the event, held at the Playground on May 20, 1956.
During the outing, President-elect Don Sutherland, of the Rotary Club, presented the playground equipment, and Mayor Russell Daane accepted it for the City.
On May 24, 1956 the City Commission, by resolution, thanked the Rotary Club for the gift, and Don Lightfoot for suggesting the idea.
A second picnic was held June 9, 1957, at the Hamilton Street Playground. As in the preceding and succeeding years, Rotarians prepared and served the 500 chickens used that year. The price of the meal, consisting of barbecued chicken, corn-on-the cob, potato chips and coffee was $2.00 for adults, and $1.25 for children. The profit, $505, was again spent for playground equipment.
The site for Rotary’s “Third Annual Plymouth Community Chicken Barbecue,” held September 18, was the athletic field of Plymouth High School (now Central Middle School). Tickets that year were reduced to $1.50 for adults and $1.00 for children. The purpose was to raise money for Rotary’s Youth Benefit and Community Service Fund and to extend a welcome to our neighbors to visit Plymouth.
No festival was held in 1959.
From these three barbecues, held on neighborhood playgrounds,
grew the first Fall Festival, which took place in the fall of 1960.
In that year, the scope of the outing was broadened to include more than a dinner. Kellogg Park was first used as the site, and the term “Fall Festival” was first applied to the event. I believe it was Harold Guenther who proposed the name.
THE FIRST FALL FESTIVAL
I was (Sam Hudson) President of Plymouth Rotary Club that year.
I wanted to make sure the affair was chaired by a man who had the ability to
organize and administer what appeared to be developing into a major happening.
Now that it was to be more than a barbecue, we had to be sure that all of the elements were coordinated.
I asked around and was told that Frank Arlen, a past President of the Rotary Club
and a local industrialist, was the man for the job, if he would take it.
I had lunch with Frank and urged him to be the general chairman. He said he would consider the responsibility only if he had a strong committee to back him up.
I assured him that I would appoint the club’s entire board of directors as his committee. He agreed to take the job on those terms. With Frank Arlen as general chairman, the committee heads for the first Fall Festival were Rotary board members Earl West, in charge of site preparations and facilities; Harold Guenther, host committee; Robert Beyer, serving committee; Perry Richwine, soft drinks, dessert
and coffee; Robert Maurer, tickets; and Carl Caplin, chef’s committee.
I was chairman of the publicity committee.
We went to unusual lengths to make sure the 1960 event would be successful.
Frank had heard that Manchester, Michigan, had been staging a large and successful barbecue for many years. He and I drove to Manchester one sunny afternoon, while the barbecue was on, with the idea of learning what we could from their experiences.
We watched the Mancunians perform, and we talked to Bill Baker, President of the Manchester Jaycees, and Luthur Klager of the Optimist Club, both of whom were very cooperative. Frank, who knew what he was looking for, we came away full of ideas
for improving our barbecue techniques in Plymouth.
Frank Arlen, who was very thorough, went at the job of chairing the first Fall Festival like a time-study man and efficiency expert. We not only applied some of the ideas we had picked up at Manchester, he introduced some thoughts of his own.
He “automated” our serving line and improved our cooking techniques at the charcoal pits. He checked and double-checked things that had to be done so many times that I thought the committee chairmen would revolt. They didn’t, and the first Fall Festival in Plymouth was a huge success.
Much of the credit was due to Frank Arlen, to the commit tee heads, and to the individual members of the club who worked twice as hard as they ever did in their vocations. Part of the success was also attributable to the comprehensive publicity campaign we put together. We wrote to other Rotary clubs inviting them to attend. We made radio and TV contacts, encouraged local merchants to refer to the event in their ads, had window posters placed in stores, issued newspaper releases, made house-to-house distribution of circulars, and posted directional signs at appropriate locations.
The Club’s auxiliary, the Rotary Anns, helped by making telephone calls reminding people of the big day.
I got Kenny Williams, paint foreman at Evans Products Company, to hand-letter a 6-foot banner which we strung across Main Street at Mill. Kenny also silk-screened some hardboard signs which Dan Olson and I posted at entrances to the city. The Plymouth Mail gave us excellent advance publicity. We announced that door prizes, scrounged from local industrialists, would be awarded on the afternoon of the event at a drawing open to all who bought barbecue tickets.
The first Fall Festival took place in Plymouth on Sunday, September 11, 1960, from 12:30 pm. to 6 pm. The good weather, ordered by Rotary’s chaplain, the Reverend Henry Walch, came as scheduled, and the festival got under way.
The City had agreed to close Penniman Avenue, between Main and Union. The concrete block barbecue pits were set up in the parking lot, owned by Chuck Finlan, adjacent to the Penn Theatre. Picnic tables and chairs were set up in Kellogg Park which was colorfully decorated by members of the Rotary Club. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the late Horace Thatcher, then over 70, up on a ladder tacking streamers from tree to tree. The eighty members of the Rotary Club had sold tickets, at $1.50 for adults and $1.00 for children, buttonholing their relatives, friends, customers and anyone else with whom they came in contact.
As I recall it, the late Ken Harrison was the top ticket-seller that year. Now, the Rotarians had to roll up their sleeves, tie on their white aprons, and produce. They had to barbecue the chicken halves, boil the corn-on-the-cob, serve the meal, and keep the tables free from debris. At the end of the day they were happy but exhausted.
As the Plymouth Mail reported on September 14, “A bunch of sore backed, sunburned Rotarians folded up the tables, put out the fires and dragged themselves home – confident that they had successfully put on one of the biggest shindigs of its kind ever attempted in Plymouth.”
The attendance at the Park was estimated at 3,500. We served almost 2,800 dinners, more than double the number served on any previous occasion.
Among those who attended from out of town were Rotary District Governor Charles A. Bell and Mrs. Bell, who came from Windsor, Ontario. While Frank Arlen devoted much of his time to barbecue logistics, others applied themselves to planning the “Festival” aspect of the event. Our aim was to encourage cultural activities in the community, so we invited organizations of that nature to participate with us in the Park on that first Sunday.
I believe Wayne Dunlap agreed to oversee that phase of the operation. Joining us for the first time were the Three Cities Arts Club, which displayed paintings and other forms of art; the Plymouth Theatre Guild, which performed a one-act play, “The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party;” and the Plymouth Historical Society, which showed pictures and documents from the City’s past. All of the displays were covered with gaily-striped parachute silk tents, as a precaution against rain.
At 3 p.m., the Plymouth High School Band, which had performed at the dedication of an addition to the Post Office, marched to the Park and gave a concert. Throughout the afternoon, the Penn Theatre showed old-time comedies at 10 cents admission.
A popular feature at the first Fall Festival was Wilford Bunyea’s traction steam engine, parked near the barbecue pits. Live steam from the engine was used to boil the corn. Shrill blasts from the engine’s whistle treated the munching crowd to a sound not heard since the steam locomotive became a thing of the past.
The money raised that year was donated to the Plymouth Rotary Foundation, a non-profit organization whose funds were used for charitable purposes, including support of the Crippled Children’s Society.
The use of the “little man” as a trademark of the Fall Festival began early in the 1960’s. The job of publicizing the barbecues, and later the Fall Festivals, was delegated to me for several years.
About 1962, I was searching for a humorous cartoon character to use in Festival ads and flyers. I came across the little man, wearing the colonial hat and coat, and blowing a bugle, (used in main header on this site) in a stock-cut book issued by Cobb Shinn. I bought the right to use the illustration and began to incorporate it into Festival literature. The “little man” caught on immediately; merchants began to use him in their ads, and the figure soon became a symbol of the Festival.
Eventually, the Fall Festival was more than the Rotary Club could handle on its own. Other organizations were invited to join in the event and a Plymouth Fall Festival Board encompassing more than Rotary was established. The Festival was expanded from the one-day event sponsored by Rotary, to a several-day affair with many segments of the community represented.
In spite of a deluge on Friday, September 5, the attendance at the 1975 Fall Festival shows how much the event has grown since that Sunday in 1960 when Rotary served 2,800 dinners. In 1975, Rotary served 16,000 chicken dinners; Kiwanis, 2,556 pancake dinners; the Jaycees, 2,500 rib dinners; and the Lions, hampered by the rain, 1,700 fish dinners. The arts and crafts show attracted 8,000 visitors, and the Antique Mart drew 3, 400.
There is no doubt, in terms of sheer numbers, that the Plymouth Fall Festival has exceeded the wildest expectations of its early planners. Whether it has gone too far in one direction – the satisfying of the stomach and not enough in another – the satisfying of the mind and the spirit – depends on your viewpoint. I know that some of us, who were in at the beginning, hoped it might develop into a minor league Edinburgh Festival of art, drama and music.
Those who are young, and to whom gustatory delight is still a prime consideration, may prefer the direction the Festival has taken. Many of their elders, however, who need no help in expanding their girths, must be forgiven if their tastes run less to Kielbasa, and more to Kandinski, Kafka or Kreisler.
Those who serve on the Fall Festival Board have no easy job in piloting the event in a direction which will please all of us.