By Bryan Hay
Originally posted in 2017, this blog has been updated with 2019 dates.
Kutztown Folk Festival, 70th Anniversary
June 29 – July 7, 2019
Growing up on schnitz und knepp, singstundes, and a medicinal dandelion wine my grandmother kept by her bed, my Pennsylvania Dutch DNA gets churned up this time of year in anticipation of the Kutztown Folk Festival. The nine-day celebration of Pennsylvania German culture spreads out across the Kutztown Fairgrounds with enough apple butter and cottage cheese, sausage sandwiches, Kutz fries, pepper cabbage, corn fritters, shoo-fly pie, and chicken pot pie to power a barn raising or two. I’ve been attending this event since I was a kid. I’m always delighted, not only in the culinary but also the cultural delicacies served up in family-style abundance.
I usually enter the festival through the north gate, so my path takes me past the gallows to see the re-enactment of the 1809 Hanging of Susanna Cox. Unable to defend herself because she could not speak English, she was convicted and sentenced to die for murdering her child. Cox was the last person hanged in Berks County. Her tragic case led to the creation of the court of appeals system in Pennsylvania. Still, year after year, I secretly long for someone to courageously step in and issue a stay of execution. After all, poor Susana has h ad to repeat her fate multiple times daily, for decades, and never once enjoyed a last meal or at least a funnel cake at the festival.
I had a nice chat with Festival Director Steve Sharadin about how an unwavering commitment to cultural authenticity has made the Kutztown Folk Festival so popular over the years. “I think it has to do with the fact that the festival has stayed true to being a celebration of Pennsylvania German culture,” he says. “That in and of itself makes it a unique, special event.”
Started in 1950 by three folk life professors at Franklin & Marshall College, the festival grew out of their desire to preserve Pennsylvania German culture and present it to the rest of the world. “They chose Kutztown in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country,” Sharadin says. “One of the professors described our borough as ‘an idyllic little town.’ ”
Local families and craftspeople eager to show off techniques used a century earlier and passed down through the generations set the stage for what has become one of the most popular and unique summertime festivals on the East Coast. “They demonstrated to the world everyday household chores and what it took to do everything from washing clothes by hand to baking bread in an outdoor stone oven,” Sharadin says. The festival is still tied to its local origins and receives steadfast support from the community.
“We have 15 nonprofit service organizations directly involved in the festival,” Sharadin says. Visitors still enjoy the mainstay attractions that have been around since the beginning: the hex sign exhibit, antique stalls, agricultural demonstrations such as baling and corn milling, and the Pennsylvania folk life seminar stage. If you need a break from the July heat, a step inside the air-conditioned quilt barn will provide not only a refreshing cool down but also a floor-to-ceiling display of thousands of hand-stitched quilts in traditional Pennsylvania Dutch and contemporary designs.
New this year at the Kutztown Folk Festival is a Fraktur demonstration that will be presented by the Schwenkfelder Library and Heritage Center and the Mennonite Heritage Center in Harleysville (Fraktur demonstrations are not being held in 2019). Fraktur, a colorful Pennsylvania German art form, was commonly used on marriage certificates and painted furniture. A class will be held each day of the festival in the one-room schoolhouse for kids and adults to try their hands at creating Fraktur designs. The schoolhouse, a part of the festival in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s and brought back last year, will be open twice a day for PA Dutch dialect lessons and to show what it was like to learn in a one-room school. Another recently added feature is the aerial hex sign painting demonstration where local artisans are perched 14 feet up against a simulated barn to paint intricate hex signs and barn stars. Their works will be auctioned off at in the quilt barn at noon on July 8 (Quilt auction will be held on Saturday, July 6, 2019). Proceeds will support the preservation of barns in Pennsylvania’s Americana Region, as well as the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University and the Dutch Hex Tour Association, which provides tours of hex signs in Berks County.
“There’s so much pride here in Pennsylvania’s Americana Region,” Sharadin says. “So many people come from so many areas to this small town and the Kutztown Folk Festival to see a community and a way of life that continues to be preserved and celebrated. We’re still passionate about it and proud to live it.” As the old folks would say, “Mer hoffe mer sehn eich datt.”
Check the 2019 Kutztown Folk Festival Calendar for daily entertainment and events.