Written July 31, 2011. By Karen Lane, Director - Aldrich Public Library
Barre celebrated its history and heritage in 1970 at Thunder Road. The Barre Heritage Festival featured an historical pageant commemorating Barre’s past performed by a cast of several hundred local citizens of all ages. The nine-day event, held in late July, was produced by committees of volunteers, including the Ladies Sunbonnets & Dresses Committee and the Brothers of the Brush.
Music from around the world! The food of many nations! Shop windows with displays by each of Barre’s ethnic groups! Stories and games for children! A pedestrian mall on Main Street! Outdoor cafes! Balloons! A parade! These were some elements chosen by the Barre Ethnic Heritage Festival Committee when they were asked to imagine what would make a wonderful Barre Ethnic Heritage Festival.
The first Festival on July 21-22, 1978 was a success beyond the committee’s imagining, drawing 5,000 people to the Granite City, and for the first time celebrating the rich history of all the ethnic groups who settled in Barre. The Festival captured the imagination of the people of the community and drew visitors from surrounding towns. The Festival fostered a renewed interest in Barre’s world-famous granite industry which had attracted graniteworkers from across Europe to settle here.
The Barre Ethnic Heritage Festival in 1978 was a home-grown event that included performances of Scottish, Irish, Italian, French Canadian, Spanish and Middle-Eastern music and dances. There was food from Scotland, Poland, Spain, Italy, Greece, Scandinavia and Lebanon. There was a parade with music by the St Andrew’s Society Scottish Bagpipes and Drums, floats showcasing the heritage of Barre’s ethnic groups, children on decorated bicycles, and the gigantic birds of Bread and Puppet Theater with founder Peter Schumann as Uncle Sam on his mile-high stilts.
The Barre Ethnic Heritage Festival was held each July from 1978 – 1982 and again in 1984. The festival, with its authentic celebration of Barre’s ethnic roots, attracted more and more people each year. By 1982, a crowd of 30,000 came to the festival, put on by 19 ethnic committees, with 21 window displays, 11 bands in the parade, and dozens of performances at the gazebo in City Hall Park and in Depot Square, plus an Italian tent, the Quartier Francais, the German bierstube with music by the Schnicklefritz Band, and the Polish “Karchma” on West Street where the Victor Krzanowski Polish Orchestra entertained.
The Barre Ethnic Heritage Festival was held jointly with perennial summertime events such as the Barre Rotary Club Breakfast, the Paletteers Art Show in City Hall Park, the Friends of the Aldrich Library Book Sale and exhibit of sculpture by Frank Gaylord, the Congregational Church Strawberry Festival, the Barre Jaycees games in City Hall Park and Soap Box Derby.
The murder of Pamela Brown during the 1982 festival put a tremendous damper on the event. The large crowds attending the festival had taxed the capacity of everyone involved – city officials, festival managers, and food vendors alike. The 1984 festival was held on Auditorium Hill rather than on Main Street in an effort to achieve better control of the festivities.
The Barre Ethnic Heritage Festival evolved into the Barre Homecoming Celebration, signaling the a desire to carry on the popular event but without attracting unmanageable crowds. In recent years and with changing leadership, the event has taken on a fresh flavor of its own. The past few summers have brought forth a renewed interest in the community’s unique cultural history and heritage, and with it a new name: The Barre Heritage Festival.
This year’s celebration embraces elements such as ethnic food that have given Barre its unique character and its greatest pride. Music from a variety of traditions will be heard, and events like the Rotary Breakfast, the Paletteers Art Show and the Library Book Sale remain on the schedule after more than 30 years. Popular contests like the Lions Club Tow-Down and the 5K foot race have joined the list of things to do, and there will still be a parade! As always, Barre loves a good celebration, and this year we should have no trouble enjoying the Barre Heritage Festival.
Karen Lane served as Project Director of the Barre Ethnic Heritage Studies Project and helped to plan and carry out the Barre Ethnic Heritage Festival from 1978-1982.