43rd Fort Armstrong Folk Festival continues to honor history, heritage

| Saturday, July 26, 2014, 6:08 p.m.

On the heels of what they consider one of their best fests in recent memory, Fort Armstrong Folk Festival organizers embrace their 43rd year with enthusiasm.

“We are really excited for this year's festival,” says Jessica Coil, executive director, which returns July 31 to Aug. 3 along the tree-lined banks of the Allegheny River in Kittanning. The event attracts an estimated 100,000 people in its run. “We're hoping that last year's greater attendance and sales was a sign that the festival is growing and gaining in popularity once again.”

The focus continues to honor Armstrong County's history and heritage, Coil says. This nod to the past, though, also includes some modern touches, with music and other expression. And, this year, for the first time since 2011, fireworks will be part of the celebration at 10 p.m. Aug. 2.

“We usually save fireworks for a big anniversary year, but we've had a lot of requests for them. We're hoping to do fireworks annually.”

An annual festival anchor is the juried arts and crafts. This year, a variety of crafters will be joined by some new ones, offering handmade, high-quality creativity, Coil says. Crafters will wear Colonial-style period clothing to emphasize the event's historical mission.

Returning will be blacksmith, spinning and heritage-music demonstrations, the John T. Crawford Camp re-enactors with their Civil War attire and displays and a Colonial-theme petting zoo.

The Crawford Camp is another festival anchor. “This group of volunteers does an excellent job reminding and educating our festivalgoers of our history and heritage here in the county,” she says.

Cars and other vehicles will provide a strolling exhibit, with muscle cars July 31, convertibles Aug. 1 and compact cars and tractors Aug. 2.

The popular horse-and-carriage rides will continue daily.

The food court once again will be full with traditional and new foods, and the entertainment schedule has a wide appeal.

“And we have plenty planned to excite and entertain the kids,” Coil says. Those activities include handmade wooden toys, pony rides, face-painting, reptile education in a program called “All God's Creatures,” and Buffo the World's Strongest Clown.

Keeping a fresh face on a long-running festival is an ongoing challenge.

“It is a delicate balance to keep things fresh; yet, keep what the people have come to love and expect from the festival,” Coil says. “It is difficult at times to add new things, due to budget restrictions, but we are always looking to enhance, yet honor, this 43-year tradition. One thing that will remain is our diligence in only accepting hand-crafted vendors. We feel that is the key to a high-quality festival.”

Ray Voller, veteran entertainment director, board member and musician, says his goal is to always book something for everyone, making the entertainment varied from year to year.

“What makes it difficult is that not only do many of the acts want to return, but also much of our audience wants certain ones back also,” he says. “To keep the lineup interesting, I try to accommodate as many people as I can.”

Voller, who is a dentist, says he is always interested in finding new acts, booking new talent and making the festival a memorable experience for everyone.

He selects acts that, like the vendors, meet high standards, he says.

Country, rock, oldies, big-band, bluegrass, jazz, bagpipe, folk, pop, easy listening, classical, classic rock and more are among the music genres represented. There's also a Festival Idol competition (7:30 p.m. July 31) and fiddle contest (2 p.m. Aug. 2). The Vogues will return with their classic hits, closing Fort Armstrong's main-stage entertainment at 7 p.m. Aug. 3.

The Summit Academy Percussion, an all-drums group, will offer a street performance at 6 p.m. Aug. 1. “They sound fantastic,” Voller says.

In nonmusical entertainment, Voller is enthusiastic to finally land Buffo the World's Strongest Clown for Aug. 3 North Stage (located in the park) shows at 2:45 and 4:45 p.m. “I've seen him many times and tried so hard to hire him in the past, but this year, he was finally available,” he says.

The entertainment lineup is found on the festival website: www.ArmstrongFestival.com.

“It takes everyone in the community to put on an event like this, and I'm proud of what is accomplished each year with countless volunteer hours and the amazing dedication of board members and all of our volunteers,” Coil says.

Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or rrutkoski@tribweb.com

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