Heading north out of Cooperstown on state Route 80 this past weekend it would have been hard to miss all the cars. They lined the sides of the roads and jammed the parking lots surrounding The Farmers’ Museum. Yet stepping into Harvest Festival transported the people who came in those cars back to a time when horse-drawn carriages were the norm and the harvest was one of the most celebrated events of the year.
“Schools would close and everybody went to the fair,” Gwen Miner, the Supervisor of Domestic Arts for the New York Historical Society and Farmers’ Museum said. “It was a big social event. It was a showcase to bring the best-of-the-best and then find out why it was the best.”
The Farmers’ Museum has been holding Harvest Festival for 34 years.
“It really started out to replicate what an agricultural fair was like in the 19th century,” Miner said. “The first agricultural fair in this county was held here in Cooperstown. I think it was in 1812, if I remember my dates right, so it was early.”
Miner says that back then the fair was held somewhere around where Bassett hospital is located.
This year’s Harvest Festival had a mix of the old and the new. Several favorites that have been with the festival for years were back.
“I’ve been here almost 30 years. Since ‘82 — 1982 not 1882,” Dickens the Clown joked.
Dickens now travels more than 800 miles to participate in the fair, but it wasn’t always that way.
“I was teaching at Binghamton (University), so I started doing this when we were living there,” he explained.
Dickens the Clown wasn’t the only person participating in the festival who had come a long way. Silhouette artist Lauren Muney had made the journey to Cooperstown from Baltimore. Muney makes her silhouettes the same way the people who lived in the 19th century made them — by looking at her subject and cutting the profile into the paper. She isn’t aided by any form of lighting, and therefore, does not trace the silhouette on paper before cutting it out.
“In the beginning of the 19th century they wanted to get more exact so they started shining a light, but it didn’t look really good,” Muney explained as she cut out 9-year-old Colette Leinhart’s silhouette. “It actually looked pretty ugly. It was actually better when an artist did it.”
Muney said she taught herself how to make silhouettes four years ago using the “silhouette masters” as a guide.
“Most people don’t know that there are masters, but I definitely know,” Muney said. “I just thought they were so spectacular. There are so few people doing them, only about 10 people in the whole United States and maybe nobody in Canada. They brought me up to Canada and told me there was nobody.”
Just a few feet away from where Muney was working a large crowd had gathered. They were listening to an Andean group that was performing their music at the festival for the first time.
“The name of the group is Andes Manta,” Lisa Overholser, a folklorist from the New York Folklore Society, said. “They live in the Hudson Valley, but they’re four brothers from the Ecuadorian Andes. They make a lot of their own instruments. They learn from each other and other musicians in Ecuador.”
On a card table set up next to where Andes Manta was performing the brothers were offering up some of the instruments they had made and CDs of their music.
“They have a Pan-pipe making workshop after this,” Overholser said. “They teach kids how to make the Pan-pipes that they are playing.”
Most of what the group plays is arrangements based on traditional melodies.
“A lot of that music celebrates the rhythms of harvest, the rhythms of life,” Overholser said. “They work with a lot of school groups. They do a lot of workshops and festivals. They also tour around the United States. They really are just a gem because there’s not many Andean groups. There’s a lot of South American groups that play salsa or something like that, but they are Andean. They’re a really good representative of that particular type of music.”
Harvest Festival is the most popular major event the Farmers’ Museum puts on, according to organizers. It brings in somewhere between 2,000 to 2,500 people over the course of the weekend. Next year will mark the festival’s 35th year.
“We’ll be researching past harvest fests,” Todd Kenyon, marketing and public relations manager for the New York Historical Association and Farmers’ Museum, said. “Thirty-five years, we’d love to make it special.”