The Barre Heritage Festival is right around the corner, and recently I found out how the festival came to be. During the late 1960s, when “urban renewal” was in full swing around the country and Barre was working on its own economic development strategies, there were heated debates over how to do it.
The redevelopment of parcels on North Main Street and construction of the Beltline (Route 62) up to the hospital were proposed and discussed by a great many of Barre’s residents. These development proposals created some tension because of the different visions of Barre. However, another proposal to spawn economic development brought the community together because it focused on the community’s shared history of immigration and their ethnic heritage.
So in February of 1970, in a public meeting in the Barre City Council chambers, the idea of a festival celebrating Barre’s history and heritage was proposed, and the Barre Heritage Festival was born. A production company from Fostoria, Ohio, was hired to provide guidance on how to structure it. Ideas gelled, parts moved, and the first festival was held July 18–26, 1970. This was a production unlike that of today. There were hundreds of community members serving on over two dozen committees that worked on things such as volunteers, ethnic food, window displays, ladies’ sunbonnets and dresses, and beards of the “Brothers of the Brush.”
The highlight of the event occurred at Thunder Road. “The Nation’s Site of Excitement” had never seen as much pageantry as it did in 1970. A spectacular theatrical performance, with costumes, lights, props, and the like dramatized the retelling of the history of Barre and of its shared history of immigrants seeking economic opportunity in the granite industry. It worked. Friendships were rekindled and family members shared meals together again.
The festival was not repeated the year after, or the year after that. In fact, it was not until July of 1978 that the Barre Ethnic Heritage Festival Committee brought back the event, not for the sake of getting people to speak to one another, but to celebrate and cherish their shared history.
The festival grew from 5,000 participants in 1978 to over 30,000 by 1982. The event was held jointly with perennial summertime events such as the Barre Rotary Club Breakfast, the Paletteers Art Show in City Hall Park, and Friends of the Aldrich Library Book Sale.
The tragic death of a young girl during the festival in 1982 sent shockwaves through the community. A more toned-down festival was put in place, but eventually the festival ceased to be held.
In the mid-’90s, the festival was resurrected once again, and it has developed into a major annual city event during the final weekend of July, with more than 15,000 people enjoying the fireworks, food, musical performances, children’s activities, and shopping. It’s different than the first festival in 1970 but is still a celebration of the community’s shared history and a statement of unity. For all their differences, the Italians, Greeks, Scots, French-Canadians, Lebanese, Spaniards, Germans, and other ethnic groups, be it businesses, neighborhoods, churches, or native tongues, there was something greater that bonded them: the pursuit of a better life and freedom.
Learning the history of the festival and what it means to the community can’t help but touch upon the current national dialogue on immigration that affects so many. It reminds us that we are all connected, and our social fabric is stronger because of our differences. That is something that should always be cherished and well worth celebrating.
Joshua Jerome is the executive director of The Barre Partnership