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MEMORY GAP Festivals shimmer through the years at Lake Anna

PHOTO BY KARLA TIPTON

Fireworks light up the sky and Lake Anna during Barberton BBQ and Music Festival during a past Labor Day weekend.

MEMORY GAP

By KARLA TIPTON

For more than a century, Lake Anna has shimmered at the center of Barberton’s special events and festivals.

“Another community can have a mum festival,” Parks and Recreation Director Lisa McLean has been quoted as saying in 2022, “But they’re not going to have Lake Anna right in the middle of town.”

The Mum Festival’s annual celebration at the lake began in 1991 to coincide with the city’s centennial celebration. After a pause during the pandemic in 2020, the festival returned in 2021 and 2022, and the 33rd annual event is scheduled for Sept. 23 and 24.

Yet the Mum Fest is a recent occurrence, compared to city celebrations stretching back decades. The Cherry Blossom, Labor Day, Fourth of July, the Lake Anna Arts Festival and ChickenFest have come and gone within the living memory of many, but their origins hail back to simpler days.

Early Years
In the years following the surveying and subsequent founding of the city around Lake Anna in 1891, the term “festival” described the humblest of events. These took place in Barberton, as well as in surrounding communities, such as Loyal Oak, New Portage, Copley and Clinton, to name a few.

Travel before automobile transportation required horse-drawn conveyances or passenger trains to get around. People also went by foot to festivals, parties, benefits and socials.

Even simple entertainment was welcomed in a world where farmers, factory workers and day laborers worked long and hard, sometimes 12-14 hours a day. The establishment of a 40-hour work week did not become commonplace until the 1930s.

After the financial panic of 1893, money was scarce, but local events offered respite.

“Although we hear much said of hard times, ice cream festivals are all the rage and always fall a little short of having plenty of it,” wrote the Akron Beacon Journal on Aug. 2, 1894.

Nearly every community boasted a brass band that performed around town. Barberton had the Silver Cornet Band, The Old Barberton Band and the Johnson’s Corner Band. Norton had the Loyal Oak Brass Band. To survive, the bands held benefits to fund their activities.

Many events were sponsored by churches. It follows that sermons were dished up with the entertainment to raise funds for good works.

It was all in good fun — yet not too much fun.

The temperance movement was in full swing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and alcohol was strictly forbidden at church events.

Keeping the flock safe from temptation also topped the list. “Moonlight excursions, picnics continued till after nightfall, meetings of the people where morals or good behavior are endangered, are also strictly forbidden,” admonished Catholic church administrators in the Akron Daily Democrat on June 2, 1894.

May Day
An early May Day celebration took place in 1916 at Lake Anna Park, across from St. Augustine’s Catholic Church. Lincoln High School students marched from the school on Baird Avenue to the lake, wrote the Beacon Journal on May 10. “A throne made of leaves and branches will be erected and the queen will be crowned.”

In the 1930s, May Day festivals were closely associated with the worker’s movement and the Communist Party. However, the May Day celebration at the Barberton stadium in 1937 was more about fun.

The pageant drew nearly 4,000 people and featured Uncle Sam and the high school band leading the procession of colorfully dressed students around the track, wrote Barberton librarian Phyllis Taylor in “100 Years of Magic: The Story of Barberton, Ohio 1891-1991.”

Golden Jubilee
In 1941, Barberton had a Golden Jubilee from June 29-July 3 to celebrate 50 years of the city’s existence. Barberton’s industries participated with exhibits and speakers. The Festival of All Nations was at the stadium. “The ‘minorities’ of the American way of life gathered in native dress to present the folk dances and the music of the ancient lands in Europe.”

Following that was a “tin pan parade” in which 300 children led their “freshly scrubbed and beribboned pooches and kittens” around Lake Anna, wrote the Beacon Journal.

Spectators gathered for the golden anniversary pageant depicting the founding of the Magic City. Barberton proved it was truly the city of Labor when a sudden wind and rainstorm blew down the stage. “Within 15 minutes after the storm struck, seven AFL carpenters… were reconstructing the stage and had it ready… only 10 minutes after curtain time.”

Cherry Blossom Festival
The idea for the Cherry Blossom Festival was sparked in 1957 at a meeting of downtown merchants and the president of the Barberton Jaycees. The organization became its sponsor, and by 1958, the first large-scale version of the festival proved a tremendous success, Taylor wrote. The festival originally celebrated the Japanese flowering cherry trees planted around Lake Anna in 1930.

The festival was at the lake until 1970, when it moved to the Barberton stadium area on land now occupied by the high school building at Morgan Street and Barber Road. That same year, “midway rides” first appeared at the event. The Cherry Blossom Queen contest annually crowned a young woman to preside on a colorful float in the parade.

Yet for many years, the event was a financial drag on the Barberton Jaycees.

The Beacon Journal article of May 4, 1970, written during a historic week of anti-war protests and the Kent State shootings, cast in sharp relief the generation gap that divided the country at the time.

The article noted that Bob Hope, a symbolic figure of the World War II era, who “played before some of the world’s largest audiences… but less than 6,000 persons saw the show in the city’s huge high school stadium.”

The Barberton Jaycees labeled the five-day festival as “the most artistic financial flop in 14 years of sponsoring the Springtime money loser.” And yet, the festival continued annually for nearly 50 more years.

From the 1970s until 1984, the Cherry Blossom Festival was relocated around town, to a downtown parking lot, the Austin Plaza and back to the stadium. In 1989, it returned to downtown near Lake Anna, where it stayed until 2019.

After the COVID-19 cancellation in 2020, the Barberton Jaycees struggled to garner the community support and funding necessary to bring back the event. Residents complained the festival attracted crime and family unfriendly crowds. The organization dropped sponsorship.

The Cherry Blossom Festival had come to the end of its run.

ChickenFest
The Barberton ChickenFest came to Lake Anna Park for about a dozen years, beginning in 1988, and was later sponsored by The United Way of Summit County. The ChickenFest featured many food booths, including the local chicken houses: White House, Belgrade Gardens, Hopocan Gardens, Milich’s Village Inn and Terrace Gardens (which is now gone, but once resided on land now occupied by Barberton Primary School).

July Festivals
For a few years in the mid-1980s, Barberton celebrated the Fourth of July with an ethnic food festival, concerts and a fireworks display at Lake Anna Park. For several years after that, the Lake Anna Arts Festival became the July event, sponsored by the Friends of the Barberton Library.

Labor Day
The longest running annual celebration at Lake Anna Park has been the Labor Day event. One of the earliest ones was held in 1904, sponsored by the Barberton Trade and Labor Council.
On Sept 1, the Akron Beacon Journal headline announced “Union Men of Barberton will enjoy the annual celebration,” calling it the “largest event of the kind ever held in the city.”

On parade day, the newspaper proclaimed, “Labor Day Celebration in Magic City” was “up to all expectations, the parade, the speaking, the races and all other parts of the day’s entertainment coming off successfully. Fully 2,000 people congregated along Tuscarawas avenue and Second street.”

In 1951, Barberton stood out as hosting the only “city-sanctioned labor festival,” wrote the Beacon Journal on Sept. 1. As “the only official Labor Day celebration in the Akron area,” the event featured a huge parade and marked the first appearance of the annual fireworks display.

Through the subsequent years, the event stood out as Barberton’s most important and best attended annual event, sponsored by worker’s unions with speeches by labor representatives.

According to Taylor’s 1991 book, “the annual Labor Day celebration has brought many important politicians to Barberton,” including Hubert Humphrey, Howard Mezenbaum, George McGovern, John Glenn and Walter Mondale.”

In 1956, Akron’s one-time television news network WAKR, broadcast the Labor Day Parade and estimated the crowd at 35,000. The attendance continued to increase annually, until breaking records with a turnout of 100,000 in 1968.

As the labor force in Barberton decreased in the 1980s, and unions fell out of power, their sponsorship ended.

After more than 120 years, the celebration of Labor Day is still held annually at Lake Anna Park. Now called the Barberton Labor Day BBQ and Music Festival, it features food vendors, live music, a fishing derby, a car show, a parade, and, of course, a fireworks display over the lake. The 2023 event is scheduled for Sept. 1-3.

Mum Festival
Yet for three decades, it has been the Mum Festival that has captured the imagination of thousands. With its colorful displays of flowers and the photo-friendly floral arch, it has become the most popular annual event at Lake Anna Park.

This year, the two-day event offers free entertainment for the family, food vendors, arts and crafts, water ski shows, canoe races and a display of 17,000 chrysanthemums. More than 80,000 people attended the event in 2022.

Karla Tipton is a local writer and historian, as well a descendant of one of Barberton’s founding families, who has written for magazines and newspapers across the country. She will be providing the local history column “Memory Gap” regularly for The Barberton Gazette & Norton News.

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