Autumnfest Reflections

Autumnfest Reflections Through a 30 Year-Old Mirror

Dave Russell

To put thirty years into perspective, since the first Autumnfest in 1979, most of us know of a person who was born about that time who has now completed school, probably college, as well, has an established career or business, a home and family. In fact, probably brings his or her children to Autumnfest each year, following a tradition started by their parents.

The recent Autumnfest Gala, held at St, Joseph’s parish Hall to celebrate the festival’s 30th anniversary this year, revived so many memories for me that I was pleased when Paul Jacob, this years chairman, asked me to reflect on the formation, travails, and, more importantly, successes, associated with Autumnfest.

Many citizens of this area have forgotten one of the basic premises of the festival’s birth, i.e., Woonsocket had undergone a major transformation and its business district had moved into the Social area. New retail businesses coupled with banking buildings and restaurants had sprung up among those already established, and fresh landscaping along the main avenues lent a more aesthetic and pleasing visual panorama to the entire area.

Woonsocket wore a bright new coat of paint and an air of optimism began replacing the all-too frequent pessimism. However, the negative comments about Woonsocket from outside the area continued.

I recall how infuriated Andy Palmer, then Woonsocket Call Publisher, was following a particularly distasteful article about our city that appeared in the Sunday Journal. Andy, you might remember, dearly loved his city and anyone that criticized it unfairly would feel his wrath.

During that time, I was moderator of The Coffee An’ program and Andy was the panel member that generated the most interesting and controversial discussions.

He lashed out at the reporter of that negative article and I distinctly remember that incident as the impetus for the panel’s discussion on how we and every business and citizen should promote Woonsocket’s new image.

Roger Begin, an officer of Eastland Bank, located then in the Social district, was also a weekly panel member and offered his opinion that we should highlight the city’s improvements in a special way. Roger took the whole issue further when he met with city planning officials, Chamber of Commerce heads and other key people to begin tossing about various ideas on how best to invite those outside the area to witness Woonsocket’s reformation.

That was 1978, and those early meetings led to the formation of the first planning committee, later to become known as the Autumnfest Steering Committee, a name that lives on even today.

As manger of WWON, as it was known at that time, I was asked to be a part of that original formal planning body, and the rest of this story will include my reflections on those exciting early years when every committee member had no idea what they were doing, nor what to expect.

Roger and the other committee members agreed that we would hope to create a family festival that would have free admission and offer entertainment and events for all ages. It would be designed to attract people from all of Rhode Island, indeed, from all New England.

After establishing that the City of Woonsocket and The Woonsocket Chamber of Commerce would be co-sponsors of the event, we began digging into the details. Where and when could we hold such a festival? What would it cost and how would we support it? Where would necessary resources and volunteers be found? What would we name this new baby? How would we then protect it should it become an annual event?

I’m sure I’ve forgotten some of the other issues, but those are the obvious ones that had to be addressed if we were to even begin.

Location, location, location, is the realtor’s mantra, and it was our first hurdle. Discussions centered on obvious open spaces such as Barry Field, Cass and other city parks, but all were ultimately dismissed as the committee realized that a green jewel graced the very Social area that we were hoping to promote: World War II Memorial State Park. Soon, through the considerable influence of then Mayor Gus Ayotte, state legislators and business leaders, a permit was granted by the state for use of the park, along with the promise that other resources and equipment would possibly be available upon formal request.

One of our initial considerations was just when to hold this proposed festival. Should it follow in the shoes of the Mardi Gras celebrations of the 1950′s, or would a completely new time of year be best? Well, it’s obvious what happened and the major factor in choosing Autumn was the chancy weather that always plaques us in the early Spring.

Next, what to name this new bouncing baby? I wonder how many remember that we even held a citizen contest to see if there was a name that was unique, catchy, and one that would capture everyone’s imagination. Hundreds of names were submitted. The name Autumnfest was already in the mix, having been suggested by one or more committee members.

The steering committee agonized over that huge stack of names until someone said, “Wait a minute. We’re trying to be too cute. Let’s roll that name Autumnfest around a few times again.” When we did, it became clear that it said all we were looking for in the simplest way possible. Autumnfest was thereupon formally born.

Later, the name Autumnfest was officially documented in Washington, D.C. archives and is fully protected under law.

As the full Committee began its deliberations on just what form the celebration would take, it became clear to everyone that we were developing a sort-of experimental airplane. How would we equip it, what would it ultimately look like, and, would it fly?

We had set the Columbus Day weekend of 1979 for the first take-off, but I, for one, was skeptical. In fact, at one meeting early in that year, I boldly suggested to Roger Begin and the rest that we postpone the inaugural Autumnfest until 1980, allowing us a full year and one-half to assess every aspect more thoroughly.

My proposal was voted down on the grounds that we had already come too far; the enthusiasm was too high to resist; circumstances might not be as favorable in a year.

So, like hacking through a dark forest, we plunged on. Fortunately, the committee chairpersons, chosen to head the various segments of Autumnfest, had no fear. They marshaled their volunteer forces and seemingly relished the challenge of dealing with the great unknown.

It all came together, in a manner of speaking, on that second weekend of October 1979, but not without serious palpitations the night before the scheduled opening day. A fast-moving but heavy rain and windstorm lashed Northern Rhode Island in the evening hours and into the night. I recall the committee meeting in one of the huge rented tents at the World War II Park as the rain pelted against the canvass.

We had done all we could, and now, like depressed golfers standing drenched on the first tee, we stood wordlessly watching the sheets of rain possibly drown all our hopes. The obvious question was, would Autumnfest be washed away even before it had a chance to float?

As an aside, I’ll never forget working that entire afternoon before the storm, stapling cardboard direction arrows to posts at every road entering Woonsocket. Former Chamber President, Jim Bilyak, drove the pickup truck as we made the rounds and I did the stapling from the back of the truck.

The cardboard signs were hand-made and colored orange with crayon. All that, because we had no budget allowing for professional signs to be made. Well, the next morning, after that fierce rain and wind had subsided, there wasn’t a single cardboard arrow left that was pointing in the right direction.

Amazingly, opening day dawned with a visible promise. The clouds were racing through the skies on the remnants of that fierce overnight wind, and the sun began showing itself through those last storm clouds.

However, we did not escape without some damage. The very first stage was set up in a flat area next to the retaining wall that surrounded the reflection pool. It had a wooden base and a canvass cover on top to protect performers during inclement weather.

A heavy gust of wind blew up under that canvass which acted like a sail. It lifted that entire structure up and over the retaining wall and deposited one end in the water with the remainder resting on the embankment. Luckily a group of city workers arrived early and with some of the committee members assisting, the stage was lifted and deposited in its original place. The show must go on.

The Woonsocket Rotary Club was all too aware of that old show business adage. Members quickly embraced the Autumnfest concept and became its working partner. Funds raised from the early beer gardens were funneled back to Autumnfest and the sturdy, indispensable, Rotary stage is the entertainment focal point to this day.

Most of the committee members had made predictions on how many people would attend Autumnfest that first weekend. The guesses ranged from hundreds to a couple of thousand. Our headquarters was one of those tiny tear-drop shaped trailers parked at the end of the first parking lot. That lot also held the huge Rotary beer garden tent, and some of the very first food booths, most of which were operated by area community service organizations. Those organizations were given first choice to participate because the committee felt it was a fitting way for them to raise funds for their work, while formally assisting Autumnfest.

I remember setting up an amplifier with two bullet-shaped speakers attached to tripods. That would be our P.A. system to keep those few hundred guests, we thought, informed with necessary information for their welfare and their enjoyment.

Contrary to our predictions, we all stood at the door to that little trailer with our mouths agape as we received the answer to how many would attend Autumnfest. In the early afternoon of that first day, the sea of milling people was so thick, one could barely move but a few feet at a time. My P.A. system was completely worthless as every word was drowned out by the thousands of happy, laughing, people greeting each other like it was a family gathering at Thanksgiving.

The Sunday night fireworks show drew so many visitors that the entire park was grid locked before the display. Early that afternoon, Roger Begin saw the vast numbers surrounding him and knew the minimal fireworks display we had ordered, the budget wouldn’t allow for anything more spectacular, would not be worthy of such a huge gathering. He called a quick meeting and we agreed that we certainly would be justified in increasing the display because it was obvious that more funds would become available when all the proceeds were counted after the event. Roger then called the fireworks company in New Hampshire and we more than doubled the display.

After the tens of thousands attended the first Autumnfest parade, with visitors driving in from all around Southern New England, we had our answer. Despite some skeptics, Autumnfest was born bigger than any of us could ever imagine. It was also clear from the comments later that area residents wanted more and would support the festival, rain or shine.

Many reiterated that they enjoyed particularly the wonderful feeling of community and pride in our city. Those emotions were enhanced by Autumnfest’s family-style attractions such as the grassy Kiddie’s area across the pond where children thrilled to puppeteers, magic shows and the like.

The Heritage Theatre, Old-Time Sing-a Longs, and Industrial Exposition tents were filled throughout the weekend, and the Arts & Crafts booths surrounded the areas around the reflection pool and tennis courts offering only hand-made and home-made items, in keeping with a fast rule at that time. I, for one, wish that those attractions were still included, but I recognize the simple fact that circumstances over time require a new direction.

Following that inaugural Autumnfest, It wasn’t difficult to see where changes and improvements needed to be instituted immediately. Crowd control was essential to alleviate the gridlock at certain travel points within the park, more police presence was needed, and stipulations for some uniformity for concession booths, rather than the haphazard shantytown look of that first year. Seemingly simple things such as continual trash pickup and disposal became paramount when we realized how vast the crowds would be. Those crowd numbers also presented us with a plumbing problem. The rest room facilities at that time simply could not handle the overflow. (pun intended)

Once we had the basics down, it seemed that everyone realized we had a special event that deserved attention so they pitched in whenever and wherever they were needed. City, State, and local officials cooperated with any reasonable request and volunteers sprang up like weeds in a flower garden.

At that point, there was never a question raised as to whether we should have a second Autumnfest. There was still a great deal of tweaking to smooth over those rough spots, but it was abundantly clear that all of Woonsocket expected another Autumnfest, and many more after that.

That’s exactly what happened, although no one warned us that thirty years would slip by that fast. Those passing years have left me thinking about a few good friends that were so much a part of the early and continuing success of Autumnfest. It’s always risky to mention anyone when so many were involved, but those that have left us deserve, I feel, special consideration.

I know that Roger Begin and the other early committee members still with us would agree that Mayor Gus Ayotte was a cog without whom the wheels would not have turned. Autumnfest would have spun out on the first turn without Gus, a dear friend who really loved Autumnfest and what it meant to his city; Norm Rock, one of the originators of the Mari Gras celebrations of the 1950′s, brought his experience to assist in this new baby called Autumnfest. Norm and I frequently clashed over what to do and how to do it, but there was no mistaking his goal to once again serve the city he, too, loved;

J. Harold Monroe, then Woonsocket Chamber of Commerce Board Chair, who was the epitome of a community leader. As was so typical of Harold, he did mountains of work behind the scenes, but hid himself behind those mountains, so to speak, and deftly let us take the credit while he smiled benevolently in the back row.

In later years, dedicated volunteers like Gene Cloutier, continued the tradition and everyone knows how much we miss Gene.

Of course, literally hundreds of others deserve mention for their dedication over these thirty years, but, with true volunteer mentality, the vast majority is pleased to serve without special recognition.

I’d like to salute all those that fit that volunteer category for their efforts to sustain this unique event. Some of them have tenaciously clung to the steering wheel for decades while being buffeted by various forces that might have overwhelmed those with lesser dedication. For example, I proposed Paul Jacobs for the Steering Committee in the early 1980′s, and he’s still there, serving as Chairman this year.

That’s commitment, my friends. That’s Autumnfest, my friends. May Woonsocket see a 60th anniversary in thirty years.