Celebrating Flowers, Art and Local History

by Dee Fisher

It’s nearly summer again, and with summer comes the annual round of festivals throughout the Midwest! Nearly every weekend brings another celebration of local products and history, bringing visitors from miles around.

One of the first area festivals is in Van Wert–the annual Peony Festival. Traditionally held the first weekend of June, the festival includes two days of downtown fun and food, along with a Grand Parade on Saturday evening.

The Peony Festival was first held in 1932 to celebrate Van Wert’s reputation as “The Peony City.” Charles Wassenburg, a dry goods merchant in the city, had established a nursery for several varieties of flowers, including the peony.

Sarah Pleas of Spiceland, Indiana had cultivated extensive gardens of many blossoms, including the peony. She and Clara Anderson of Van Wert had begun corresponding several years before, drawn together by their love of flowers. Around the year 1905, Miss Anderson asked another Van Wert flower lover, L. J. Germann, to make the 100-mile trip to Spiceland to purchase some flower samples for her garden in Van Wert.

Among those samples was the Jubilee peony, a variety that first bloomed in 1904. It was noted that this blossom was “a gorgeous white flower, and one of the most striking blooms when properly displayed.” Lee J. Bonnewitz, a Van Wert merchant, entered a Jubilee peony in the American Peony Society’s New York show in 1916, and left there with second place in the Amateur Class for Jubilee Peonies. Mr. Bonnewitz went on to be president of the Society and a noted commercial flower grower.

With all the local emphasis on growing peonies, it is not surprising that the community initiated a Peony Festival. Nor was it a difficult thing to choose to call the festival queen by the name of Queen Jubilee!

The festival was suspended during World War II (starting in 1942) and was not restarted until 1955. Unfortunately, it was again suspended after 1960 due to lack of leadership. It was not until 1992 that the festival was once again a going concern.

Since then, the festival has continued to grow, incorporating both traditional events and some new ones. Most events are held downtown in or around Fountain Park, with the exception of the Saturday morning free Fishing Derby at the YMCA’s Camp Clay east of Van Wert, and the Garden Tours, held at various private locations throughout the town and surrounding countryside.

The festivities begin at Fountain Park on Friday at 10 o’clock in the morning with the Optimist Youth Art Show. The ever-popular Craft Show begins at 11 o’clock and continues through the day and into the evening. Carnival rides are available for the younger set in the Jefferson Street parking lot just off Fountain Park. Later in the day, there is a car show on East Main Street, open to classic cars and street rods of all kinds.

Food is available from several food vendors that line Jefferson Street from noon throughout the afternoon and evening. The day ends with a concert in the park featuring Groove Essential, a Indianapolis-area band that performs everything from classic rock and 80s hits to big band and jazz standards.

Saturday’s park activities get underway at 10 o’clock with the second day of the Craft Show. Throughout the afternoon in the park, there will be strolling performers, including a magician and a caricature artist, children’s activities, and inflatables to play in. For adults (and kids!), the local YMCA and DeMolay are holding a Color 5K Run/Walk. The kids have a free fun run at 10:30.

Saturday evening concludes with the Grand Parade at 5 o’clock, followed by a Saturday night concert featuring Section Ate, a local crowd pleaser that plays a mix of 50s, 60s, and 70s rock, as well as country dance music.

Sunday features the final day of the Garden Tours, and local youth groups help with clean up in the park. It’s also the first day of rest for festival volunteers! “The Peony Festival committee works very hard during the festival itself, so we need that time off,” says Zoe Longstreth, president of the committee. “However, our job begins again in August, when we start work for next year’s festival.”

The festival is completely funded by donations from the public, from local businesses and foundations, and through fundraising activities run by the festival committee. Although these activities can vary from year to year, some are annual staples of the community. These include a quarter auction, a “give-back” of 10% of receipts from the Orchard Tree (a local restaurant), a coupon activity at the Marsh Supermarket that gives a percentage of sales back to the committee, and a spaghetti supper.

“The cost of the festival is more than most people think. We work very hard to keep events free or nearly free and, of course, family-friendly,” Zoe explains. “Most of my volunteers believe that the fundraising activities throughout the year are possibly more work than arranging the festival itself!”

This year will see two new events added to the festival: a teen dance (grades 7-9) and an adult beverages (beer) tent, just recently okayed by the town council. “We are starting a push to get more 15 to 25-year-olds attending the festival,” Zoe says.

“Right now, we are mostly reaching younger children and their parents or grandparents. We’re working on more activities for the single set and young couples without children.”

One other new feature at the festival is the addition of handicapped parking. “Van Wert Carts and More is providing golf carts for our volunteers to ferry our less-abled patrons from an area close to Fountain Park to where the action is,” Zoe explains.

The Van Wert Peony Festival is the first weekend of June every year. Check out their website or Facebook page for more details. Zoe welcomes any and all suggestions and ideas and, of course, new volunteers!

Van Wert Peony Festival

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