TERRE HAUTE —
Pioneers think counterintuitively.
Where others see widespread apathy, they focus on the possibility for progress.
In a way, the 2013 Year of the River celebration began in the 1970s. A small group of local folks wanted to breathe new life into Fairbanks Park — the best location in Terre Haute to view and experience the Wabash — and created the Banks of the Wabash Festival.
Today, the festival, now a tradition, resumes for the 40th time. Its venue looks far different. And that was the organizers’ intention.
“The whole purpose of the group that started this festival was to rebuild Fairbanks Park,” said Ron Reeves, a retired Rose-Hulman administrator and treasurer of the original festival board, an independent collection of about a dozen forward-thinkers. Benches and picnic areas were scarce at the park, Reeves recalled, and the amphitheater lacked modern amenities.
Seems like the ideal spot to launch a new community-wide festival, right?
Yet, it happened, and it worked.
The festival started modestly in 1974 in a historic, low spot on the park’s southwest side, explained John Dice, a food vendor at the inaugural festival. Decades earlier, that same area of the park housed the city’s first municipal pool. In 1991, a fountain dedicated to American veterans was built there. In 1975, organizers expanded the activities beyond that spot, added a carnival, and watched the Banks of the Wabash Festival grow.
Crowd numbers were hard to calculate because there was no admission or parking charge, but total turnouts likely neared 30,000 people, Dice estimated. Part of the appeal was the festival’s creativity, featuring small-town activities at an urban gathering, such as small kids racing Big Wheel tricycles while “all the parents and grandparents were around them watching,” Reeves said. Another out-of-the-box twist involved McDonald’s restaurants dropping Ping-Pong balls, labeled with prize information for the finder, from an airplane. “Everyone was running to catch the Ping-Pong balls,” Dice said.
The Wabash itself was a focal point. Motor boats, hydroplanes, log rafts and “anything-goes-craft” raced on the water. And, in what seems eye-poppingly daring now, the Banks festival even included log-rolling and one-man row-boating competitions.
Log-rolling. On the Wabash. Really.
Floating logs, of course, aren’t an uncommon sight on the river, but they’re random, and humans aren’t standing on them.
“I remember people being up on the hillside watching, under the trees in the shade,” said Kevin Morris, who competed in the log-rolling in the late 1970s.
His first try came in 1979, facing a field of between six and a dozen rivals about 20 to 30 yards from the shore. With a public-address announcer calling the action, contestants stood on the log, gaining their balance, while log-rolling officials held the tree trunks still. Then, the logs were released and the fun began. Morris didn’t win — “I remember going in the water” — but, “I think I did fairly well,” he said. When a participant fell off, a waiting motor boat circled and plucked them from the water. The following year, real logs were replaced by foam-covered 35-gallon drums, presumably for safety reasons.
Morris fared better in the row-boat races. In his early 20s then, he’d grown up fishing and rowing on the Wabash with his dad and family. With his youth and experience, Morris won handily in ’79 and ’80, earning nifty, commemorative medals.
For him, the Wabash served as a home away from home. His family kept catfish, which he and his dad caught and cleaned, in the freezer year round. “Back in the day, there were a lot of people out on the river,” said Morris, now 55 and a Sony employee.
The spirit of adventure probably gave the Banks of the Wabash Festival its staying power. “It was a great show,” said Dice, who now coordinates the festival food and merchandise vendors.
Log-rolling, row boat races and aerial Ping-Pong-ball drops ended long ago, and the schedule is tamer these days. The independent festival board turned the operations over to the city of Terre Haute in 1984. “The festival got a little bit too big for us to handle,” Reeves said, “and that’s when the city took over.” Its name changed to the Wabash Valley Festival from ’84 to 2005, to the Fairbanks Park Arts and Music Festival from ’06 to ’09, and back to the Banks of the Wabash Festival in 2010. Crowds remain large, and admission and music free, with rides, food and arts-and-crafts merchandise for purchase.
Most important, as the festival evolved, Fairbanks Park gradually improved, including a $400,000 upgrade of the amphitheater, dedicated in 2002.
Last year, Reeves attended his church picnic at the park. He looked around, in a big-picture way. Reeves, now 77, was impressed.
“It was really what we wanted to have happen in the first place,” he said.
A city such as Terre Haute needs that spirit of positive change.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
BOW Festival once featured log-rolling, rowing events
TERRE HAUTE —
Pioneers think counterintuitively.
- Local & Bistate
Downtown housing approved
The State Budget Committee has approved a multi-million dollar project to provide downtown housing for Indiana State University students, part of a public/private partnership.
City saves more than $1M
The City of Terre Haute has canceled plans to help pay for construction of a new university housing facility downtown.
West Vigo Elementary earns an ‘A’
West Vigo Elementary has gone from an “F” last year to an “A” this year under the 2013 PL 221 category placement system, district officials say.
A hearty holiday meal
Cindy Drengacs, Keith Jeffers and Tracy Fuqua truly appreciated the donation of ham and food that they received Friday for their Christmas meal.
Teen girl reported missing
A Terre Haute family is hoping that their missing teenager will be found in time to celebrate Christmas with her family.
Man seriously injured in truck, SUV crash
An accident between a box truck and an SUV in southern Vigo County Friday night sent one man to a local hospital with severe injuries, authorities said.
Better to give
It wasn’t a letter to Santa that caught the attention of the students and staff at Dixie Bee Elementary this year.
It was a letter to Principal Mika Cassell from a third-grade girl that has made a difference for many children.
'Suspicious' house fire on north side
A late Thursday house fire on the city’s northwest side has been deemed suspicious.
Vigo County Jail Log: Dec. 20, 2013
The following individuals were booked into the Vigo County Jail by area law enforcement on Thursday and Friday, based on jail records.
ISU gets OK for downtown housing project
The State Budget Committee has approved a multi-million dollar project to provide downtown housing for Indiana State University students, part of a public-private partnership.
West Vigo Elementary goes from assessment basement to penthouse
West Vigo Elementary School has gone from an F last year to an A this year under the 2013 PL 221 category placement system, district officials say.
Vigo County’s three major high schools — Terre Haute North Vigo, South Vigo and West Vigo — all achieved an A grade, as well, this year.
School at heart of grade-change flap drops to ‘F’
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Indianapolis charter school at the center of Indiana’s grade-changing scandal saw its grade drop from an “A” to an “F” in school grades released today.
Holiday Writings: Retiring courthouse employee has been writing Christmas poems for 26 years
What began more than two decades ago with the inspiration of the Christmas season has turned into a 26-year tradition for a Vigo County man.
MARK BENNETT: Album turns memories into musical Christmas message for Terre Haute’s Dave Frey, band
In a way, Dave Frey walked in the footsteps of Charles Schulz.
Both men worked hard to let Linus Van Pelt explain the “true meaning of Christmas.”
Downtown event boosts Basket fund
Wrapping up another successful year, Miracle on 7th Street’s organizers gave a gift that keeps on giving. The Miracle Committee, which puts on the annual downtown holiday event, on Thursday presented a $2,000 donation to the Tribune-Star’s Christmas Basket Fund, one of the charities benefiting from the event.
NAMI provides support through holiday stress
A group of people sat around a table inside a Terre Haute church Thursday night and shared advice about holiday stress and how to deal with it.
Increase in Vermillion tax going toward roads, development
Effective Jan. 1, Vermillion County will collect a higher income tax rate, which county officials say will help maintain roads and target economic development.
19-year-old facing battery, neglect charge
A 19-year-old Greencastle man was arrested Thursday afternoon on suspicion of allegedly physically mistreating a 3-year-old boy, according to Indiana State Police.
Bleed Blue continues Dec. 23 at Terre Haute donor center
Indiana Blood Center and the Indianapolis Colts and will bring their annual Bleed Blue Blood Drive to Terre Haute on Monday, Dec. 23. Participants will receive a regulation-sized Colts football featuring punter Pat McAfee, while supplies last.
Vigo County Jail Log: Dec. 19, 2013
The following individuals were booked into the Vigo County Jail by area law enforcement on Wednesday and Thursday, based on jail records.
30 feet at a time
Black smoke from a roaring engine the size of a minivan signaled another adjustment to the massive drill.
MARK BENNETT: ‘Longest Night Service’ a time to reflect, remember
Holiday images rarely depict hurt or struggle.
Vermillion County crash injures seven
A two-vehicle crash in Vermillion County on Wednesday injured seven people — including two children, Indiana State Police said.
Police looking for robbery suspect
Terre Haute Police are seeking a suspect in an armed robbery at a northside convenience store.
Ham giveaway is Friday
Terre Haute Catholic Charities Foodbank and B&S Plumbing Heating & Cooling Inc. are cooperating to help less fortunate families in the area by offering meals this holiday season.
McDonald’s to close at Riley children’s hospital
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A McDonald’s restaurant that served up burgers and fries for years in a central Indiana children’s hospital is closing its doors amid concerns that fast-food sends the wrong message to patients.
Food assistance available Friday to families in need
Terre Haute Catholic Charities Foodbank in cooperation with B&S Plumbing Heating & Cooling Inc. are helping less fortunate families in the area by offering warm smiles and hearty meals this holiday season.
Companies unveil Indiana investment plans, 1,000+ new jobs
STATEHOUSE — Gov. Mike Pence and executives from seven companies announced today new investments in central Indiana expected to create a combined 1,013 new jobs over the next few years.
Vigo County Jail Log: Dec. 18, 2013
The following individuals were booked into the Vigo County Jail by area law enforcement on Tuesday, based on jail records.
Environmental concerns will shorten new trail along river — for now
It’s easy to imagine, even on a frosty day, how scenic a planned new hiking and biking trail near the Wabash River will someday be.
- More Local & Bistate Headlines
- Downtown housing approved