News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

May 21, 2014

41st Banks of the Wabash Festival — annual kickoff to summer — opens today at Fairbanks Park

TERRE HAUTE — The sizzle of fresh elephant ears, the bright lights of midway stands with games and prizes, and the aroma of sandwiches mean only one thing in May at Terre Haute’s Fairbanks Park -- the Banks of the Wabash Festival has returned.

Luehrs’ Ideal Rides has also returned for the 40th year to provide family fun at the annual riverside festival, which kicks off today with the carnival opening at 6 p.m.

Wednesday saw the carnival operation go through a round of state inspections in preparation for the 10-day stay.

“The state inspectors are here today, and we do our own inspections on a daily and weekly basis,” said Luehrs’ president Andy Schoendienst. All of the rides are inspected according to the manufacturers specifications.

This festival is the first Indiana engagement of the season for the Belleville, Ill.-based company so a state inspection is required

“We’ve been here every year since 1975. The name of the festival has changed three or four times since then,” he noted.

Indeed, articles from the Tribune-Star archives show that the festival started in 1974 in a low spot in the park where the city’s first municipal swimming pool had been located.

In 1975, organizers expanded the activities beyond that spot — a fountain dedicated to American veterans was built there in 1991 — and the carnival was added as the Banks of the Wabash Festival grew.

Those early festivals included homegrown entertainment such as log rolling on the river and watercraft races.

 The organizers of the festival handed off the annual event to the city of Terre Haute in 1984. At that time, the name was changed to the Wabash Valley Festival, and that continued through 2005. From 2006 to 2009 the event was known as the Fairbanks Park Arts and Music Festival. It returned to its namesake roots in 2010.

Today, the carnival rides range from the mild for child merry-go-round to tummy tossers for the older crowd.

“We always bring a wide array of kiddy rides, family rides and for the more challenged at heart, the thrill rides,” said Schoendienst, who is proud of the family-run operation. He married Lorelei Luehrs, daughter of company founder Hub Luehrs. Along with Lorelei’s sister Jean Clair and her husband Joe, they are the third generation to own the company, purchasing it in 1996.

Luehrs’ Ideal Rides employs about 85 people in addition to some seasonal temporary help. At midday Wednesday, with the rides set up and the midway ready to open, most of the employees had gone off to do grocery shopping and take care of personal and family needs.

Schoendienst said the festival’s economic impact for the community includes the business that local mechanics receive from servicing trucks for the carnival company, and the electrical supplies and equipment purchased to operate and maintain the rides. Not to mention the multiple boxes of Square Donuts shared by the Luehrs staff during the morning.

While the public can appreciate the clean carnival atmosphere, what many people enjoy most are the carnival foods. Elephant ears are a favorite, and most people expect to find the standard fare of popcorn, cotton candy, lemon shake-ups and hot dogs.

“This seems to be an event that people appreciate every year,” Schoendienst said of the community.

Carnival rides open at 6 p.m. tonight for “Bargain Night” as all rides take one ticket only. Tickets cost $1.50 each, or 16 for $20. The festival continues through Saturday, May 31.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

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