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 email@example.com.