‘A VERY DIFFICULT DECISION’: Organizers agonized over calling off Riley Festival

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The Greenfield-Central Blue Fusion dance team performs while walking in the Riley Festival parade in 2019. File photo

By Jessica Karins and Shelley Swift | Daily Reporter

GREENFIELD — For the first time in half a century, there will be no Main Street parade in Greenfield in early October. No vendors selling unusual arts and crafts. No Poets at the Podium or music filling the air from the Entertainment Tent.

Citing worries over the pandemic, organizers of the Riley Festival on Thursday announced what had once been unthinkable: The festival, a staple of autumn in Greenfield since 1970, was being canceled.

The board of directors announced the move in an email Thursday afternoon, July 16. The event, which would have been the 51st annual festival, was slated to begin Oct. 3.

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David Berard, president of the board, said the festival’s organizers had been optimistic this year’s event could continue. As deadlines for booking entertainment and suppliers came closer, however, the pandemic still loomed large. Some volunteers and event judges said they were reluctant to participate. When Gov. Eric Holcomb decided to delay the state’s full reopening, originally scheduled for July 4, the board feared the event likely could not be held in a way that was safe for its many visitors and volunteers.

“This was a very difficult decision for our board of directions,” Berard said.

Berard said board members met with leaders at Hancock Regional Hospital and talked to the Hancock County Health Department about recommendations for the festival. While they could have required masks, it would have been difficult to enforce. They could recommend social distancing, but with many people packing together for the parade and musical performances, distancing would be difficult to observe.

It became clear to the board, Berard said, that the right option was to cancel the event entirely.

This is the first cancellation for the modern iteration of the Riley Festival, which celebrates the life of Greenfield resident and acclaimed “Hoosier Poet” James Whitcomb Riley. The city has celebrated the poet’s birthday in various forms since 1911.

Since the birth of the official Riley Festival in 1970, it has grown into one of the largest street festivals in Indiana.

“We’ve dealt some years with snow, some with 90-degree weather, high winds, all kinds of adversity, but no one could have predicted a major health crisis like this,” Berard said.

Nancy Alldredge, a longtime festival board member who has been involved with the event since its inception, said the decision to cancel was a difficult and emotional one.

“We are just so upset and sad we don’t know what to do,” Alldredge said.

Some board members, including Alldredge, were initially against canceling the festival. After discussing the issue as a group, she said, they came to a consensus that the event needed to be called off.

“It wasn’t unanimous, but a majority of the board voted for it,” she said.

Anita Turner, Alldredge’s daughter as well as a board member and organizer of many Riley Festival events, agreed that canceling was the right thing to do.

“The Riley Festival is a philanthropic organization first and foremost,” Turner said. “COVID-19 has forced everyone to look toward the best interests of others first.”

Despite that, Turner said, the decision was a hard one, and the board understands that many members of the public will be disappointed.

“Every board member loves the festival, and it’s heartbreaking to us as well as to the community,” she said.

Greenfield Mayor Chuck Fewell said he understood the board’s decision but was disappointed that the festival, which he hoped would boost the revenue of downtown businesses that have struggled during the pandemic, will not be held.

“I hate it, I really hate it for the people of Greenfield,” he said.

Fewell said the city will work to bring other events to the downtown area, ones that can encourage people to support local business without drawing the large crowds of a typical Riley Festival.

“I would love to open up everything, but in order to open up everything, we need to make sure that everyone’s safe,” Fewell said.

Brigitte Cook Jones, director of the Hancock County Tourism Commission, is also a longtime Riley Festival vendor at her church’s booth. As a historian, she also is an authority on the event’s history and traditions. She said she was sorry to see the event called off. Along with the Hancock County 4-H Fair, which was dramatically scaled back this year, the Riley Festival is one of the largest drivers of tourism to the county.

“It certainly is going to affect the tourism economy,” Jones said.

While Hancock County’s biggest events will not be bringing visitors to the county this year, Jones said she hopes other events will, like the Pennsy Trail Art and Music Festival scheduled for July 25 or new agricultural shows.

Riley Festival organizers are hoping some kind of event can be held in October, though they are not yet sure what it would look like. Organizers said they had considered the idea of holding some competitions virtually, as the county fair did, but were not yet sure if it would be feasible.

“We hope to have something to inspire the community and do it safely,” Berard said.

In the meantime, those looking to celebrate the life of the Hoosier Poet may consider visiting the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home and Museum, which is currently open to the public Tuesday through Saturday.

Stacey Poe, the home and museum coordinator, said canceling the festival is disappointing but not a surprise.

“We understand that all the festivals in the state and all over the country are being canceled at this time, even ones that are several months in the future, so we saw a pattern,” she said.

Poe is still optimistic about hosting the Riley Home’s annual birthday celebration for the famed poet, who was born Oct. 7, 1849.

Gwen Betor, a longtime hostess at the Riley Home, also hopes to still celebrate Riley’s birthday.

An ardent fan of Riley’s written works, Betor has faithfully attended the Riley Festival each year since moving to Greenfield 23 years ago. She’s been a hostess at the Riley Home for nearly as long.

“The festival is a really important and unique part of Greenfield,” Betor said. “I love it and I love Riley. Every day, I learn something new about him. I think he’d be chuckling every year about this festival held in his honor.”

If anyone could channel the thoughts of the late poet, it just might be Jeff Kuehl, who has served as a Riley actor at the local festival many times over the past 15 years.

Kuehl himself is able to wax poetic about how much the annual Riley Festival means to not only the community, but the state.

“I think that the town of Greenfield, especially its Riley Festival, reflects the heartbeat of Indiana,” he said. “It just brings so much heart and soul to the entire state. When you go as a group you can break off and enjoy so many different things like live music, crafts and food. I myself head towards the caramel corn and tenderloins,” he said.

His favorite tenderloin tent is a second-generation vendor at the festival.

The Greenfield Lions Club just might be the longest-running vendor at the festival. Each year, its members work in shifts to sell their popular “lion paws,” their version of deep fried, sugar-coated elephant ears.

Selling them is a fun fall tradition for the club, which gives the proceeds to local charities, said club treasurer William Landis, who has been helping out at the Riley Festival booth for more than 40 years.

The Lions Club has a prominent spot at the southeast corner of the Hancock County Courthouse, right on Main Street.

While canceling the festival will mean a financial loss for vendors, it will also impact downtown Greenfield businesses.

While some owners say their business is hurt by shutting down the streets for the four-day festival each year, others say the influx of visitors is a boon to their businesses.

After the sweeping pandemic forced the Greenfield Chocolates shop to temporarily close earlier this year, owner Jayne Hoadley is concerned about the economic impact canceling the festival will have on her business.

“For a lot of businesses, that’s a huge weekend for us,” Hoadley said, but she understands the reasons for canceling and supports the decision.

Hoadley was impressed that Riley Festival board members were stopping by downtown businesses Thursday morning to share the news in person.

“They’re going around to every single merchant and telling them in person, saying they’re sorry, and that they’re hoping to do something else down the road. They just don’t know what yet,” Hoadley said.

Hoadley buys the booth space in front of her Main Street shop for the Riley Festival each year, so her decorative front window is highly visible. She typically draws in a number of new customers at each year’s festival, she said.

“The Riley Festival generates a lot of revenue for us, and introduces us to a lot of new people. It’s disappointing that it won’t be taking place this year, but I absolutely agree with the festival board’s decision to cancel,” she said.