Vendors at the heart of annual folk festival in Kittanning
Hours before Thursday evening's start of the 43rd annual Fort Armstrong Folk Festival, Kittanning's Riverfront Park was buzzing with activity — filled with the aroma of roasting meat and the clang of hammers as vendors staked down tents along tree-lined paths.
At the north end of the park, a chainsaw wood carver named Randy Rupert unloaded sculptures of all shapes and sizes: groundhogs, bears, eagles, turtles, frogs and even a vampire.
Rupert, owner of the Wizard's Workshop in Punxsutawney, is a 1976 Kittanning High School graduate.
“I'm originally from here — I'm a hometown boy,” he said, adding that he enjoys coming to the festival year after year to meet up with old friends.
Rupert is soft-spoken, with a grey beard, glasses and tattoos inked along both arms. On his left arm, he sports a pinup girl with a chainsaw.
He said he started carving ice sculptures years before he got into wood. That was back when he worked as a chef and entered ice carving competitions around the world as a hobby. His ice carvings even made it on the big screen, featured in the movie “Groundhog Day.”
“But I dropped it like a hot potato when I got into this,” Rupert said of his switch from ice to wood sculpting.
Now, he does a lot of custom pieces and tree carving on-site for customers. He and his two assistants plan to sculpt pieces throughout the festival.
“We'll be carving all day and all night,” he said.
At a temporary blacksmith forge nearby, Flavious and Denise Brinsfield of Cowansville hauled in their anvils, hammers and vice for demonstrations during the festival. Amy Hinson, a nurse from Greenville, N.C., helped them unload tools. She has been blacksmithing for four years and is in Kittanning for the first time to assist the Brinsfields in forging iron ladles, pokers and hooks.
The festival demonstrations always spark a lot of interest in blacksmithing, Flavious said.
“That's how I got into it,” Hinson said. “I loved watching these guys.”
An early lunch crowd gathered at picnic tables lured by the scent from a beef tent — even though the festival activities weren't set to start until hours later.
“We try to be open for lunch for the courthouse staff and office workers,” said Brian Coil, food committee chair for the festival.
Behind him along the edge of North Water Street, a long metal cage filled with beef and ham rotated on a spit over a mesquite fire. Proceeds from the beef tent go back into the festival fund for next year, Coil said.
At a nearby lemonade and iced tea stand, Kittanning Rotary member Mike McElhaney unloaded crates of lemons.
“This is a shared operation with the folk festival committee,” he said. “They supply the lemons, we provide the volunteers and at the end of the day, we split the profits.” “Last year, the Rotary served 1,200 cups of fresh lemonade.”
McElhaney is the director of Armstrong Habitat for Humanity and will be running in Saturday's 8 a.m. “Raise the Roof 5K Race” at the Richard G. Snyder YMCA campus. Registration is at 6:30 a.m., and the $20 fee includes a tech T-shirt for each participant.
“People should come on out. It's a fast, flat track. It will be ideal conditions and will benefit Habitat for rehabilitating homes,” he said. “We have a lot of roofs lined up.”
Further along, past the hay bales set out along a grassy patch in front of the music stage, Karen Kronenbitter of Millersport, Ohio, unpacked her wares. This will be her seventh year coming to the festival selling handmade children's clothes, hair bows and country decor at “Country Charm and More.”
She said she enjoys shopping in downtown Kittanning whenever she gets the chance and likes to reconnect with other festival vendors.
“It's beautiful here along the river,” she said. “And the crowd is always nice and friendly.”
Brigid Beatty is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-543-1303 or firstname.lastname@example.org.