Kittanning's Fort Armstrong Folk Festival endures storms
Wearing a feathered cap and thick, round-frame glasses, Bill Vlasic sparked a gas-powered torch along the Allegheny River and cranked the heat to 1,300 degrees.
About a dozen patrons of the Fort Armstrong Folk Festival in Kittanning's Riverfront Park watched with wonderment as he meticulously twisted two glass tubes against each other over the flame. Within five minutes, the flame licked one of the tubes under his direction into the shape of a sea turtle about the size of a walnut.
Vlasic's admirers applauded as he coolly shut down the torch and placed his work on a table alongside the dozens of other lamp work pieces he's selling at the festival.
“I've had a lot of practice,” said Vlasic, 82. “I've been doing this for a long time.”
Vlasic has participated as a vendor at the Fort Armstrong Folk Festival annually, without fail, for the past 41 of its 43 years. He is, by far, the longest-tenured vendor at the festival, traveling each year from his home in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, to sell the latest Vlasic Glass pieces.
He was originally recruited to participate in the festival in 1973 by the event's founder, who saw his displays at a similar festival in Youngstown, Ohio. What keeps him coming back, he said, are the “friendly people and the park's beautiful setting.”
“Where else can you get this?” he said, gesturing toward the river as it gleamed in the sunlight. “The leadership is really good here, too. I go to a bunch of these all throughout the area, and they're not all as well organized as this is.”
Jessica Coil, the festival's executive director, said more vendors participated in this year's festival than any other. There were 63 vendors in the artist market and 18 food vendors at the festival, which kicked off Thursday and ran through Sunday night.
Had it not been for the intermittent thunderstorms during the weekend, Coil said, the festival would have likely brought in more patrons than ever before.
“We're very pleased with the turnout,” she said. “We were jam packed on Thursday and Friday. We slowed down a great deal with the storms on Saturday, though, and we got a late start on Sunday with the morning storm, but then it really picked back up again.”
Sean Fox, who's sold merchandise from his Greensburg-based company Unique Magnetic Jewelry at the festival for the past five years, said he looks forward to it every year as an opportunity to expand his clientele.
Like Coil, he believes the storms led to a drop in participation, but was satisfied overall with the turnout.
“The storms definitely hurt, but we always do really well here,” he said. “The people are so friendly around here. I have people who come up to me and they know me by name now.”
Among the festival's regulars is Kittanning's own Lori Luke, who, at 54, hasn't missed a Fort Armstrong Folk Festival since she was 10 years old. She spent every day last week at Riverfront Park to pick up some food or browse the merchandise, she said.
For her, the festival is more than a fun way to spend the afternoon. It's part of the lifeblood of the borough.
“It brings Kittanning back to life,” she said. “I know people who plan reunion weekends around the festival or make plans to come back to see everyone. It's part of the town's identity. It's a great tradition.”
Along with the dozens of jewelry, art and food tents set up along the river, the festival featured a steady stream of entertainment on the park's two stages. The acts included everything from rock performances to fiddle contests and from reptile shows to feats of strength.
On Saturday, the rain dissipated in time for a fireworks show at 10 p.m., Coil said.
“It was nice to get that in,” she said. “Over the entire four days, though, I think people had an opportunity to see some great entertainment and exhibits. We work all year around to put this together, so it's nice when it works out like this.
“It's an important thing for Kittanning and the area at large.”
Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or firstname.lastname@example.org.