HUNTERTOWN — This year’s Huntertown Heritage Days Festival marked not only Huntertown’s 150th anniversary but the 20th anniversary of the festival itself. Fittingly, two individuals who were instrumental to starting the festival were given the honor of leading Saturday’s parade through downtown.
“It’s exciting that it’s still going. There really should be more grand marshals because it took a whole group and a lot of hard work,” said Susie Hoot, one of this year’s Heritage Days grand marshals and one of many who helped get the annual festival off the ground in 1998.
The spirit of the festival is owed largely to the annual carnival that used to take place behind Huntertown High School where the Lions Club currently hosts its baseball games.
“It was just the highlight of the summer, and everybody who lived anywhere around here was there,” Hoot said.
When that event — and eventually the high school — disappeared, community members organized the Willow Creek Festival, which was an even bigger affair, considering it was even featured on Good Morning America one year. Much like the carnival, despite its popularity, that festival eventually became defunct, leaving residents without a largescale community event in the summer.
Enter Dottie Mack — possibly one of the most prolific figures in Huntertown’s recent history. The editor of the Northwest News at the time, as well as the founder and first president of the Huntertown Historical Society and the co-founder and first president of the Huntertown Chamber of Commerce, Mack was determined to revive the summer festival.
“At a meeting of the historical society, I suggested we have a festival concentrating on the history of Huntertown,” Mack, Hoot’s fellow grand marshal, said.
Hoot was also a member of the Chamber of Commerce at the time, and had been the chairman of the Willow Creek Festival board. She remembers the beginnings of the Heritage Days Festival taking shape during a meeting attended by a small group at the Willows restaurant in Huntertown. During that meeting, she said, the group selected a name and date for the festival. At that point, she and Mack got together to recruit some volunteers.
“That lady knows everybody,” Hoot said of Mack. “She got a barbershop quartet to come out, and she knew this person and that person. Between the two of us, we came up with a lot of people we could contact and get the first event off and running.”
While Mack recalls there being about $750 left over in the Willow Creek Festival fund, Hoot said there wasn’t much in the way of funds the first year — which was made up for by great volunteers. Leafing through an old scrap book last month, she identified photographs of several present and past community members without whom she doesn’t believe the first year would have been possible, including Jenny and Keith McComb, Sherry Myers, Daryl and Peg Hoot, Jerry and Bonnie Betley, Dan and Marcia Holmes, Olive Gerard, Lorna McComb, Scott and Dana Mitchell, Alison and Travis Bowersock, Shirley Underwood, Sharon Lonsbury, Jodie and Daneta Betley, Jamie and Amy DeBolt, Pat Freck and Amy Hoot.
“It was a combination of really, really good people,” Hoot said. “Without all those other people, it never would have happened.”
Many of the events from the first year remain intact, while some have evolved or disappeared and others have been added. That first year, visitors participated in pie baking contests, wood chipping contests, tractor square dancing, baseball games, kids’ games, a fish fry and a family movie projected onto the Huntertown school building. Of course the parade, including a performance by the Carroll High School marching band, was a big hit — and still remains a staple of the festival.
“I think every little town should have a parade,” Hoot said.
Mack recalls the historical society raising $4,500 the first year by commissioning 12 paintings of historic homes in town, which were submitted by local artists. The paintings were auctioned off during the festival, but not before the historical society had them lithographed, printed and sold as part of a yearly calendar. Mack still has her personal calendar from that year, as well as an original painting of the Hunter Homestead, which she still prizes to this day. Copies of the lithographed paintings still hang in the dining room of the Willows.
During the first Heritage Days, trolley buses were hired to take members of the public on tours of all 12 homesteads featured in the paintings.
“Those were the days, my friend!” Mack wrote in a brief history of the festival’s origins.
“That first year, it was amazing,” Hoot recalled. “I don’t know how many thousands of people we had, but I just remember looking around and thinking, ‘Wow, we did all this.’”
Over the years, new events would be added to the three-day festival, including a town pageant, talent show, cake walk, sack races, an obstacle course, a baby crawling contest, quilting and an old-timers baseball game. One year, an Elvis impersonator even came.
Hoot said she helped organize the festival for the next three or four years until it was time to pass the torch.
“You always need new ideas, new workers because we had worked our workers to death,” she said. “It wouldn’t continue to happen without great people.”