People gather in
the Kansas town
once a year for folk music and fellowship
by Kenny Knauer
WINFIELD, Kan. The 27th annual Walnut Valley Festival at the Cowley County Campgrounds in Winfield, Kan., opened its gates as scheduled Sept. 17. The nationally acclaimed four-day acoustic/folk music festival runs Thursday through Sunday on the third weekend of September each year.
Despite its official name, it is known affectionately to its legion of fans nationwide and abroad as "Winfield," and this delightfully gentle and laid-back festival showcases dozens of nationally and regionally popular groups and individual artists.
This year's prizes totaled $40,000 in cash, gorgeous instruments and trophies awarded to the top three finalists in each of eight acoustic/flat-picking categories.
Despite the tragic death of its newly designated general manager, Brian Redford, the newly appointed veteran management team of senior festival supervisors and staff performed flawlessly throughout the four-day event.
Long-time festival fans have been concerned about the very survival of the nationally renowned festival, since the death last November of the festival founders' son, Brian Redford. Redford had just inherited the mantle of general manager from his parents, Bob and Kendra Redford, after many years of hard work as their understudy.
His untimely death sent waves of shock and anxiety through the bluegrass and acoustic music community, both regionally and nationally.
Since the founders had announced their impending retirement from active management, after years of loving care devoted to the festival, rumors spread that the festival would close, or move to Wichita, Telluride, Colo., or even to Branson, at Silver Dollar City.
There was not a clearly designated management team in place to replace Brian Redford, and local city fathers and businesses agonized over the potential loss of some 12,000 to 14,000 festival attendees, taking their shopping dollars with them.
In an interview with Rex Flottman, media relations director, and long-time director of photography at the festival, he said, "A series of 'summit meetings' was held to resolve the short- and long-term questions facing the festival, and an immediate three-year lease extension was signed with the city of Winfield and the county, securing the festival grounds.
"A senior and experienced management team of long-term staff was named to succeed the Redfords, and preparations for this year's festival resumed with scarcely an interruption. The management team has always taken pride in their efforts, but this year there's a renewed energy level; everyone is really excited," Flottman said.
Bob and Kendra Redford agreed to stay on as emeritus managers for the next couple of years, concentrating on talent-locating and logistical planning. Immediate press releases were issued to reassure the general public in the Winfield and Wichita, Kan., areas and surrounding states that the festival would continue as scheduled and advertised.
The festival mailing list was utilized to confirm the event's future survival with its legion of far-flung fans, to announce the three-year lease extension and to introduce the new staff/manager team.
Advance ticket sales were reported strong compared to other years, and many campers arrived three to seven days before the festival gates ever opened. Festival organizers had predicted near record attendance for this year's event, based on gentle weather forecasts and early response to advance ticket sale discounts.
There is such demand for the choice camping and recreational vehicle locations that there is actually a Land Rush set up on Thursday the week before the festival.
Determined people and support vehicles form a long, serpentine line throughout the campgrounds, and at the go sign, they flood though the campgrounds, looking very like the Walnut River's incursions in rainy years. As they claim favorite campsites, the scene looks much like the Oklahoma Land Rush that took place nearby in Arkansas City, Kan.
Just what is the magic of this acoustic and folk music festival in south central Kansas that inspires such deep devotion in its fans? More than a few engagements have been announced at the festival. I have met children of festival fans that have Winfield as one of their first names. I have even attended a few weddings in the Pecan Grove Campground along the way.
It is not just the superb music, playing continuously from four stages from early morning until 11 or midnight, nor is it simply the astonishing range of craft booths, artists and skilled instrument makers luthiers plying their lovely trade.
The real soul of this festival is in its people, the enduring fans, the devoted festival staff, and the openly friendly atmosphere of the Winfield community.
There is a certain laissez-faire attitude among long-time campers and first-year Winfield "virgins," a state of mind that says, regardless of your economic or social status in the outside world, here we are all just part of the festival family, with good music, great friendships cultivated over the years and hearty campground cooking as the sauce that blends it together.
It is in the early morning chant of the horse-drawn coffee wagon driver, warbling "Hot coffee, cold milk, doughnuts!" as he inveigles sleepy campers from their tents with mugs outstretched.
It is the sharing of group meals, the earnest decorating and improving of one's campground to win the coveted "best decorated campsite contest," and feeling the early morning rush of wings of an extremely low-flying resident flock of Canadian Geese as they strafe the campsite.
Up at the stage area, people stop in heavy foot traffic, exchange bone-crushing hugs and share pictures of their children (and grandchildren), Harleys, and favorite hunting dogs. As the aromas of espresso drift over the food areas, my haiku poem from last year's Festival comes to mind:
"Sure sign of Winfield,
campers patiently wait (for)
Autumn's first latte."
As the blowing of the ceremonial conch shell sounds the cocktail hour signal in the campgrounds and the sweet smoke of campfires drifts toward the Belt of Orion, tales of departed friends and family from the preceding year mix with spirited rounds of Meadow Marshmallow golf, played with sand wedges and florescent-paint-daubed marshmallows for visibility.
Nationally ranked artists (after competing on the main stages) seek the ideal "pickin session," and the dream of every backyard musician is attained, jamming all night with the best buddies a picker ever had.
Many popular acts at Winfield got their start at Stage Five, the (un)official campers' stage. This unpaid, but beloved people's venue, plays at sometimes ungodly hours to hordes of delighted fellow campers.
At this year's festival, Springfield's own Big Smith blew the crowd away with their melodies, harmonies and virtuoso instrumentals.
Springfield's bluegrass community has always played an integral part in the Pecan Grove Follies, with bands ranging from The Undergrass Boys to Home Grown, from the Wampus Cats to the Gallier Brothers (with Gary and Les snaring successive National Championships on the Dulcimer), the Garbonzo Bean Bluegrass Polka Band, the Wire Choir and many other incarnations.
If you go, the 28th annual Walnut Valley Festival will be Sept. 16, 17, 18 and 19, 1999. Winfield is about 45 miles southeast of Wichita, and from Springfield, you begin on Interstate 44 west and go past Joplin. Take the last exit in Missouri before the Will Rogers tolls begin, marked Baxter Springs, Kan., Highway 160/400 west. Take this highway all the way past Coffeyville to Arkansas City, then North to Winfield, about a 4 1/2-hour drive.
Ticket packages are available for two-, three- or four-day festival admission, with children under 6 free, and reduced rates for those 12 and under. A variety of unusual camping gear and campsites are visible, from Plains Indian tepees to yurts, from Winnebagos to parachute tents.
Motel space in Winfield is very limited, but there are a few more rooms in Arkansas City, and a wealth of rooms in Wichita.
For complete ticket and camping information, contact the Walnut Valley Festival Association, Box 245, Winfield, Kan. 67156. For media and press information, contact Rex Flottman or Larry Junkers, 316-221-2547. In this technological age, the festival even has a web site at www.wvfest.com.
Leave your cares behind, have a happy-camper attitude in spite of crowds and lines, and pack for two types of festival weather: hot and dry, or cold and rainy, and come on down next fall and join us in the Pecan Grove Family!
(Kenny Knauer is an organizer of the St. Pat's Parade, a participant with the Parks, Greenways and Open Spaces Committee of Vision 20/20, and a long-time member and volunteer on the steering committee of Founder's Park.)
community has always played an integral part in the Pecan Grove Follies.[[In-content Ad]]
Fishing retail shop Modern Outdoor Tackle moved; Healthy Spot LLC opened; and Springfield law firm Strong, Garner & Bauer PC changed names and moved its office.