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A Bit of Fiddle Festival History, Who Don’t-Its and Who Does-its

By Sandra Cooper

The National Oldtime Fiddlers staff will be present at the July 19th Chamber of Commerce luncheon meeting to answer any questions or concerns, suggestions, ideas, etc. Hope to see you all there!

Check Out Videos Below

The 64th National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest and Festival is being wrapped up, bills paid, and the annual meeting is being scheduled by its organizers to discuss the results.  It is also the time of year when we look at what went well, what could be improved or changed, and what may need to be added or eliminated.  It’s also the time when we are asked questions and receive comments from both the local community and from those who attended from across the country and world as contestants, musicians, or spectators.

It is a time to clarify, again, the infrastructure of how the event is organized.  There continues to be a vast amount of confusion in the general understanding of “who is in charge.” Many believe the City of Weiser is responsible for its organization.  Some believe it is the Weiser Chamber of Commerce’s baby.  Others believe that it just simply “happens” each June as a result of historical tradition and that the townsfolk just “do it.”

All of these ideas are right and all of them are wrong.  Let me explain the history, the framework, the legal entities involved, the “players,” if you will. The event is many-faceted due to the evolution of the event from its birth in 1953, and a brief history of how it all started seems to be in order.

The Weiser Square Dance Festival was held April 18, 1953, at the East Side Gym (located where the Weiser Middle School Gym is now.). Chamber of Commerce Secretary Blaine Stubblefield convinced the Weiser Chamber to put up a $175 prize for an old time fiddle contest to be held during intermission at the Northwest Mountain Square Dance Festival.  That first contest was won by “Dad” Roberts of Harpster, Idaho.  Unfortunately, Dad drowned near his home on the Clearwater River soon after and never had an opportunity to defend his title.  The fiddle contest was extremely popular; the square dancing went away within a few years but the fiddle contest grew in size and popularity each year, becoming the National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest in 1963, drawing competitors from all over the country.

It was a real community effort in those days with business leaders heading up committees that worked to make it all happen.  The event has undergone more changes over the years than a group of seven-year-olds playing dress-up.  There were the infamous “hippie-years,” “the biker- years,” the beard-growing contests, the old-fashioned long dresses, brocade vests and arm garters and facial hair, the shotgun-wielding “vigilantes” whose antics these days could well get them shot or at the very least, punched in the nose.

It is common for many of us who have been here from the event’s inception to wax nostalgic about “the good old days.” It’s also easy to forget the public nudity, the wide-open, “anything goes” (and it did!) atmosphere at the campground on Mortimer’s Island and elsewhere, the drug-overdoses and alcohol poisonings, busted noses, and other emergency room visits that tax-payers got to pay for, since few came with the means to pay.  

Weiser had a well-deserved reputation for being one big, wild party in the good old days.  There were a lot of wonderful things as well, no doubt about it.  The business community was thriving, the economy was sailing along with occasional ups and downs, the beautiful Washington Hotel was the heart and soul of much of the activity and it buzzed with all the energy of a bee hive. Musicians gathered there to play, folks danced and had a great time into the wee hours. 

The contest grew and had many categories of contestants. Back then, ladies had their own division, kids had theirs, as did the men and seniors.  Names like Vivian Alftin, Loyd Wanzer, Benny Thomasson, Manny Shaw, and Byron Berline became household names. Folks like Sammy Bush, Jana Jae, and Mark O’Connor grew up competing on the contest stage year after year and went on to have amazing professional careers.

In that sense, they were the good old days.  Then, in 1973, the Washington Hotel burned, everything got shuffled around and the event continued its journey of evolution, right along with the changing social and political scene.  The Vietnam War era came to a close, and the hippies faded away. Sometime after that, the bikers went away.  You can hear a dozen different stories of why that happened, but I assure you it had absolutely nothing to do with anyone or anything at the Fiddle Office, although we seem to be the scapegoats in several of the stories.

Interestingly, many of those former hippies may still be found in Stickerville, the Museum or Slocum Hall campgrounds, returning year-after-year to play music and relive a part of their youth.  Many are accompanied by their children and grandchildren and arrive in 40’ motorhomes. Occasionally, you will hear a balding Baby Boomer discreetly sharing a tale of his wicked behavior at Mortimer’s Island back in the seventies.  The fleeting moment of nostalgic yearning is usually quickly replaced by, ”Thank God I’m still alive” or a similar sentiment.

There were years that there was only a contest. There were no vendors or carnival rides or free entertainment or parades.  There was just a mysterious something that happened at the high school where it seemed like only fiddlers were welcome and no one really knew much about what it was all about.  After a short while, the festival returned with vendors lining State Street, folks camping around town, musicians playing on street corners, and a general “street fair” feeling began to return, complete with carnival rides. 

In the beginning years, the Weiser Chamber of Commerce, the now defunct Jaycees and others in the community formed many committees who organized it all and things went along for some time, until 2004, when the decision was made to form a non-profit 501 c 3 Corporation that would allow the organizers to obtain grants, and private donations from supporters would be tax deductible.   All of this occurred as a matter of financial necessity, as it is an expensive endeavor to organize and coordinate a growing national event.  

The National Oldtime Fiddlers, Inc. was formed and melded with the National Oldtime Fiddlers Association, a group of old time fiddler supporters with a paid membership.  A governing Board of Directors was elected that oversees the planning and execution of the June event, as well as presenting several other events throughout the year. We have two full-time employees and a volunteer board of eight members. The relationship with the Weiser Chamber of Commerce continues to be one of cooperation, goodwill, mutual respect and support, but we are separate entities. 

It must be mentioned here as well that the City of Weiser is more than wonderful in providing workers to set up bleacher seating in City Park, hang wooden fiddles, install banners and power boards, and set up barricades, signage and candlesticks for the parade, not to mention the security provided by law enforcement, and a hundred other unseen tasks that make our event possible. 

In spite of the major organizational change in 2004, some of the previous “festival” activities continued to be carried on by groups at large within the community, and nothing was done to change that during the inception of the non-profit and its operation independently.  For the most part, the community organizations operate independently and are not associated with the operations of the NOTF, Inc.  There are many organizations that benefit by holding events during the 10 days known as Fiddle Week.  It is an opportunity to add a variety of activities for attendees to enjoy and a way for them to put much-needed revenue into their coffers for various community projects. 

For many years, the Memorial Park vendors and stage and beer garden have been independently managed by the Xi Nu Sorority and Weiser Elks’ Lodge, and all their proceeds go to fund community projects.  The Weiser Community Senior Center provides a wonderful breakfast and runs a shuttle bus to several different stops around town all week. The Friends of the Library Book Sale is a great place to visit for bargains and a great read!  There have been car shows, rodeos, Bikers’ Rodeos, antique tractor pulls, yard sales, yard sales, (did I mention yard sales?!), and many more activities, all put on by our friends and neighbors.  The folks at Stickerville Campground come early and leave mid-Fiddle Week so they can travel to the next big festival in Washington, but they put on some awesome workshops and a whiz-bang Swing Dance at the SRH Museum’s ballroom!

There are lots of activities most years, but it takes an awful lot of work, time and money to do it all.  Some years it seems like there are almost too many choices, while other years, not so much. This may have been a lighter year, although there was the Bikers’ Rodeo (You can see some great bikers’ videos on Living in the News!!) the Senior Breakfast, Elks’ Dinners, Library Sale, one terrific parade, workshops at Stickerville and the high school contest site, an old-fashioned sidewalk sale downtown and Kids’ Day on Tuesday, Antique Tractor Pull, etc.  I am sure I am forgetting something and I apologize.  Oh, yes, our very own free entertainment and vendors at City Park, Banjo Contests Saturday and Sunday before the official opening of Fiddle Week (with homemade pies and engraved trophies as prizes). There are the awesome and corny novelty contests (Spouse calling, fiddle jokes, worst job I ever had, etc.) between banjo contest rounds, and the prizes were awesome and corny as well. (Can’t beat Moon Pies and RC Cola!) What a blast we had! 

So, it may not have been such a light year after all.  So, if you couldn’t find anything fun to do, shame on you.  You didn’t look or ask or you had it in your head that you weren’t going to have a good time.  One of the best ways to enjoy yourself is to volunteer.  These events can’t happen without volunteers, whether it is as a ticket-taker, information booth attendee, entertainer, ‘go-fer’ or many other jobs available with other local organizations.  Just ask!

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