By Vinde Wells
Perfect weather and a worthy cause drew an estimated 4,500 people to the fifth and final Oregon Trail Days festival last weekend.
“It may have been our highest attendance ever,” said Beth Henderson, one of the festival organizers.
She said the two-day event, held July 19 and 20 at Lowden State Park, went off without a hitch.
“It was phenomenal!” she said Tuesday. “The weather was perfect and everything fell into place. Several people came up to me and said we should keep it going.”
The festival, featuring a Native American and western theme, was organized in 2010 to raise money for repairs to the renowned Black Hawk statue, which is situated on a high bluff overlooking the Rock River at the park.
Time and weather have caused significant damage to the 103-year-old concrete landmark which was created by sculptor Laredo Taft.
Since most of the money has been raised for the repairs, Henderson said it’s time to discontinue the festival, which has been held on the third weekend in July.
“We’ve met our goal,” she said.
Amy Trimble, also an organizer of the festival, said Tuesday that the event has raised $50,000 over its five year history for the statue repair fund and has increased public awareness of the statue’s condition.
“We’ve raised $50,000,” she said. “Where we were important was bringing in the media and for public relations. We brought in television stations from Chicago and Rockford.”
So far, $725,000 has been raised of the estimated almost $1 million that will be needed to repair the statue’s surface damage.
Henderson said one of the best-received events this year was American Indian dancer Ronald Preston, a newcomer to the festival.
“Ronnie Preston was just great. He was very educational,” she said.
Preston, a member of the San Carlos Apache nation, performed dances and explained the tradition behind them.
Other activities at the festival included a 5K run, breakfast at the Taft Campus, a quilt show, tipi camping, kid’s activities, and a Cowboy Arena where trick-shooters and whip wranglers showed their skills.
Participants in the Mountain Man area offered demonstrations from flintknapping to blacksmithing while kids could try their hand at hoop rolling, candlemaking, and flour-sack racing in the Pioneer Village, located in the Taft Campus.
Coral Grinage, Hammond, Ind., kept busy on Saturday following her five-year-old daughter Raquel Allen from one event to the next.
“We camped in a tipi,” said Coral, after taking part in a flour sack race. “Raquel was sound asleep but I heard a raccoon trying to get in the garbage.
“We may sleep in our car tonight,” she quipped.
Tom and Rose Rienstra, Stillman Valley, went down 200 steps from the statue to the Rock River to help paddle a replica of a Voyageur canoe.
Recent Oregon High School graduates Shannon Cullen and Douglas Shaw were two ferstival volunteers who helped navigate the large canoe up the east channel of the river to below the Black Hawk statue.
“I’m getting a workout today,” laughed Cullen.
Henderson said ending the festival is bittersweet.
“At one point, I just burst into tears,” she said. “So many thank yous go out to so many people. We had 200 volunteers who came out to help.”
The names of the winners of the 50-50 drawing and other prizes were not yet available on Tuesday.