Monday, April 27, 2009

The early years of the festival

We're about to leave for Concordia for a week of prep before the May 2-3 Kansas Sampler Festival. Susie Haver and Tammy Britt have been working hard for months to prepare. WenDee takes care of a lot of technical things on this end. It's exciting for all the work to finally start bearing results.

In 1990 I had to leave my job as elementary guidance counselor near Philadelphia, PA because of ongoing episodes from a 1983 head injury. Time to move home with the parents... Best thing that ever happened. The only job I could hold was with Dad. He had written a coffee table/photo essay book on Kansas and people had been asking how to get to those places. So on my good days we traveled the state and researched. The result -- Kansas Weekend Guide.

We had a book-signing party on an early November Saturday in 1990. We had invited places in the book to help celebrate and they filled one tent. It was a sleety, cold day. We didn't advertise much. But despite the weather and the location of the event being held on a farm near a small town, one thousand people came!

It was easy to figure out that people were hungry for information about what there is to see and do in Kansas. We gave the event a name, the Kansas Sampler Festival, and rallied the family and Inman volunteers to make it happen. For eight years we held the festival on our farm. That was one great work crew.

It seems like we grew by about a thousand every year and in the final year, 1998, eight thousand people attended. The parking lot was the alfalfa field. The tin shed was the Tin Shed Cinema where communities showed slide shows. Exhibits were located in many tents and the grain elevator. The pond deck was one music performance area. Dad built a grass-earthen stage for another musical venue and we put a 40x80' tent over it. The audience sat on straw bales and filled the tent act after act. Food vendors used the claim shack and metal shed as a staging area and people ate in front of Mom's flower garden. Willis Loganbill gave horse and buggy rides along the creek, through the shelter belt, down tractor graveyard row, and through the prairie.

BY 1993
The festival was using every available area between trees and outbuildings. We needed more room. The Kansas Sampler Center was being built on the east side of the creek in what had been a wheat field. More land was taken out of production and planted into prairie. Trees were planted and a horseshoe driveway was built. A footbridge was built over the creek so people could walk from one side to the other. We filled all that area with more tents and demonstration areas. Food vendors lined the creek.

Finally, the alfalfa field parking lot had to be rotated. We had really beaten it down after 8 years of parking on it. Without a parking lot, we couldn't stage the festival. It had been really fun having the festival on our farm. Our farm dates back to 1874 when my great-great-grandfather came over to America in the Mennonite migration and settled here. It had been a great backdrop for this Kansas celebration.

We either had to end the festival or figure out another plan. We decided to let communities bid on it and move it from one host to the next every two years. It's worked superbly and more people had the chance to attend and more communities could exhibit. We're grateful to hosts in Pratt, Ottawa, Independence, Newton, Garden City, and now Concordia for taking such good care of the event. Leavenworth County will be the host in 2010 and 2011.

I'll always have great memories of how my family, especially brother Murray, Mom, and Dad worked so hard to get the farm ready. The Inman volunteers plus others from Wichita and Hutchinson were absolutely amazing. They treated this festival as if it were their own -- and it was.

It all happened because Mom and Dad were willing to risk the liaibility and step up to the task of preparing the farm for thousands of people. It was a special eight years for all involved. The Kansas Sampler Foundation wasn't even started until 1993 so it was a Penner Family and Friends event for the first few years.

It's exciting now to move from town to town and have communities from every corner of the state move with it. They know that the only way to smash the myth that there isn't anything to see and do in Kansas is to stick together and make a strong collective impression. And we do.

The most common reaction from the public is, "I had no idea Kansas had all these things to see and do."

Come to Concordia's city park May 2-3 to see how the festival has grown. Meet over 130 communities and see their exhibits. Hear musicians and historic performers as they provide a sample of their talents. Entrepreneurs sell products, authors sell books. Food vendors offer Kansas grown or made foods.

It's one big, giant Kansas party and we hope you can come. If you do, I can promise it will help you "Get Kansas!"

I'll be on The Stump. KE #2 Marci Penner


Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing this terrific story! I have been curious how the organization came into being. I appreciate all you are doing, and admire your energy and zeal.

Connie - KE #81 said...

I have attended and worked 16 Sampler Festivals and loved everyone of them. Thanks Mom & Dad Penner, Marci, WenDee and everyone involved behind the scenes for giving us this terrific opportunity to showcase Lucas!

Larry Hornbaker, KE 2013 said...

I have a number of friends in Hutchinson who fondly remember the days of the Sampler Festival out at the Penner farm. I'm trying my best to share my experiences and get them to come to the festival in the current format. I started coming the the festival much later, in 2002 at Independence.

Janet said...

The first Sampler I attended was at the farm. I fell in love with the concept and learned so much about Kansas. Marci you are the best!