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There are many aspects of the Kutztown Folk Festival that are square, from the dancing to the meals to the traditional hex square patterns painted on barn wood.
But the event itself must not be too square, as it is expected to attract up to 140,000 visitors over nine days.
The festival, now in its 68th year, opens Saturday and runs daily through July 9 at the Kutztown Fairgrounds.
“Since 1950, the first festival, the theme has been focused on Pennsylvania German culture, and that is still true today,” said Steve Sharadin, festival director.
While the festival’s focus makes it a consistent event for longtime visitors, this year’s version will have some new features. One of the biggest attractions is a display on fraktur, which will be put on by the Schwenkfelder Library and Heritage Center and the Mennonite Heritage Center, two Pennsylvania German-focused nonprofits in Montgomery County.
Fraktur, an early form of Pennsylvania German art featuring detailed lettering and vibrant colors, was first used on important documents such as birth certificates and marriage licenses, though it could later be found painted on furniture, as well.
Volunteers from the heritage center will lead a hands-on fraktur class in the festival’s one-room schoolhouse, which returned last year after a 20-year hiatus. The schoolhouse also will host a daily Pennsylvania Dutch dialect class.
While Sharadin expects the fraktur display and class to be a big hit, another addition is even bigger – literally.
“This year, we’re going to have one of the largest portable steam engines that was ever made,” Sharadin said. “It’s a 1910 Case model 75 traction steam engine. That’s going to be quite a sight to see. It weighs about 26,000 pounds.”
The wood-fueled engine will be operating every day and will power various pieces of farming equipment.
According to Sharadin, who has been involved with the festival for about 35 years and is in his fourth year as director, one of the event’s main selling points is its local feel, which comes in part from the contributions of many nonprofit organizations in the area.
“A lot of our visitors come from outside the immediate area, and I think that’s one of the things that keeps them coming back,” he said. “They understand that the vast majority of this is put on by the immediate local population.”
Based on past crowds, Sharadin estimates 140,000 people will attend the festival this year. As per tradition, one of the most anticipated attractions will be the quilt auction, which is the largest in the country. The auction will begin at noon on July 8.
“We have about 2,000 quilts that are brought in,” Sharadin said. “We accept about half to 75 percent of them to be sold at the festival, and the top 25 out of like 1,500 are then chosen to be sold via auction on the second Saturday of the festival. So, it’s always a standing-room-only crowd.”
Like last year, the auction also will involve four-sided structures painted with hex-square patterns by members of the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University. All proceeds from the hex square barn stars will go to the heritage center and the Dutch Hex Tour Association.
According to Patrick Donmoyer, site manager of the heritage center and leader of the barn star demonstrations, this year’s barn stars will come from panels taken from local barns.
As more and more historical barns in the area are torn down, Donmoyer hopes including these authentic stars in the festival and auction will highlight the preservation of the structures.
Now that the barn stars are returning for a second year, Donmoyer plans to promote them more than last year.
“Many people were very excited to see the process unfold,” he said.
Absentee bidding is permitted at the quilt auction, and auction items can be previewed in person or online, either on the festival website (kutztownfestival.com) or the Zettlemoyer Auction Co.’s website (zettauction.com).
In addition to those who created the quilts, 200 craftsmen and artists will be present at the festival.
“Each year we switch out some of the craftsmen, and so there’s always some new, really good craftsmen as well as everybody’s returning favorites,” Sharadin said.
Other returning festival favorites include the Lester Miller square dance family, which will perform four times a day on the Hoedown Stage, and the Celtic Martins, a dance group with daily performances on the Main Stage.
On July 7, the groups will face off in their second annual folk dance competition. The complete stage schedule of new and returning performers is available on the festival’s website.
Donmoyer says one thing that makes this festival so unique is that anyone interested can participate, whether they are ethnically Pennsylvania German or not. This helps keep the festival focused on culture rather than on just history.
“People are sometimes nostalgic they think that culture is something that happened in the past,” he said. “The culture changes, it grows, it adapts.”
“It’s a very unique festival in all that we offer,” Sharadin added. “Not just the theme of it being the Pennsylvania Dutch/Pennsylvania German culture, but also the fact that it’s a great value.”