By DENISE FEDOROW
A local festival that attracts visitors and artists from across the nation is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and the founder took time this week to share some memories.
Richard “Dick” Pletcher said that in 1962 he was a senior in college working in his father Lavern’s furniture store — Pletcher’s Furniture Village on East Market Street in Nappanee.
“It was time for Sidewalk Days and we decided we didn’t want to just put out “junk,” so we decided to put on an art show instead.”
Pletcher said he went to West Side Park Pavilion where local students were taking an art class and asked Dori Crane and Joseph Wrobel to bring the watercolors — which happened to be red barns — to be displayed on clotheslines in front of the store.
“We said, ‘This is really cool’ and we served lemonade and doughnuts,” he reminisced.
The next year they invited artists to submit their work to be judged for prizes and they received crates filled with artwork.
“About year three it was starting to get out of hand and we decided we better do it right or stop,” Pletcher said. “One man stopped and asked if he could sell (polished) rocks from the back of his van and people surrounded his van — that’s when the idea of the marketplace came about.”
The lapidary in a sense was one of the first vendors of the festival’s marketplace.
Pletcher said people began requesting Amish-related products and artwork and in 1965 he started offering tours of the countryside, factory showrooms and Amish buggy rides.
The year 1967 was a memorable one as it was that year they changed the name to
Village Arts & Crafts Festival and Pletcher sent a press release to the Chicago Tribune. By Thursday morning, Chicagoans showed up, expecting to see Amish people all over the place and on the tours they’d walk right into the homes, curious to see what they looked like. He said two letters to the editor of the Chicago Tribune appeared stating the visitor’s disappointment.
That was also the year that 3 inches of rain fell in six hours and there were no covers for the artwork. “It was a disaster,” he said.
The farmstead and acreage that is now home to Amish Acres came up for sale at auction in 1968 and Pletcher approached three other Nappanee businessmen about purchasing the property and his vision for it.
“We spent all of 1969 restoring the buildings back to original condition and the festival stayed downtown. We used the old busses that we gave countryside tours in to haul people out here for homemade ice cream,” he said.
By 1970 the festival was moved to Amish Acres grounds and the gazebo was located in front of the greeting barn.
“The gazebo is now in its sixth location and there is nowhere else to go but in the pond — which I’ve threatened,” he said.
He explained as the festival grew, the gazebo was moved and is now perched over the pond. Pletcher was asked if when the art show first started he envisioned that it would become the large event it is today, receiving accolades such as being named in the Top 100 events in North America by the American Bus Association and the Top 50 Outstanding Events & Festivals by Leisure Group Travel Magazine.
“No, obviously not. I had no thoughts about the festival at all — I had a lot of thoughts about Amish Acres,” he said.
He explained that while still in high school he and his dad took a trip to Lancaster, Pa. to the Amish House & Farm and the Pletchers felt if it could be done in Lancaster, why not Nappanee?
He said that thought stayed in the back of his mind and in graduate college he was taking courses in folklore and art history and interior design. He also spent hours in libraries researching folk festivals and German festivals.
“The festival became the business plan of Amish Acres,” he said. “The festival and Amish Acres are interlocking — one doesn’t work without the other.
Aside from the year of torrential rains while still downtown, other years stand out as memorable to Pletcher, too.
In 1972 “what was likely a tornado swept through the festival grounds Wednesday night destroying most of the tents. The Fort Wayne Tent and Awning Co. staff worked all through the night sewing tents so they could be ready for the opening of the festival.”
And in 1974 — “It was Aug. 9 — Friday night at 8 p.m. President Richard Nixon came on the television and resigned his presidency. I rolled out a television set into the gazebo and the festival stopped dead in its tracks as everyone gathered around to watch it.”
Pletcher said what they hoped to achieve with the festival can be summed up in the saying, “Where folks meet art and art meets folks.’ It gives people who normally don’t have a chance to come face to face with an artist the opportunity to do so and it gives a marketplace for the artists,” he said. “Are we a fine arts show? No. Are we a flea market? No. We’re a nice blend of arts and crafts that reflect the craftsmanship and culture of our area — that was our goal to promote the craftsmanship and culture of our area and I think we’ve accomplished that.”
Along with growth, some other things have changed over the years as Pletcher said the artwork has become more realistic and less abstract, reflecting what the customers want.
Also the dates of the festival have been pushed earlier and earlier due to the start of the school year. When the festival started it took place in early September, then it was around Aug. 17 for the longest time. Five years ago it was moved to the first weekend in August.
“We have so many school groups who work the festival to earn money and they wouldn’t be able to do that if we hadn’t moved it,” explained Jenni Wysong, one of Pletcher’s daughters and director of the marketplace.
A permanent collection of all winners has finally been created up in the Grille.
“We never had a place before — the winning artwork would be packed away. It was on loan at the library and then at the Nappanee Center when it opened, but we just reclaimed it and all the blue ribbon winners are located in the gallery. It’s fun to look at it and see how art has changed over the years,” Pletcher said.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary a timeline was created and will be hung on a clothesline along with old festival photos. The clothesline is in remembrance of the very first art show. They will also have videos playing of each year of the festival, a 1962 Chevy Impala on the grounds, gold flags by the vendors, ribbons lined with gold and all music from 1962.
“We’re working on good attention to detail to celebrate the old and our journey to get to where we are,” said Jenni.
A golden jubilee celebration will be held and five pioneers who helped start the festival will be inducted into the Hall of Fame (started in 1996). “Three of whom will be here and two will be represented by family members,” Pletcher said.
If you go
Hours: Thursday through
Saturday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission: $7 for adults, $6 for seniors (60 and older), active military, and students aged 12-17. Admission is free for children under age 12.
Address: U.S. 6 west in Nappanee.