Staff Photo: John Bohn David Blackmon plays the fiddle with The Kenney-Blackmon String Band during he 29th annual Fall Festival held on the Duluth town Green on Saturday. The festival offered many live performance choices of art, music and dance.
DULUTH -- Let's time-travel back 30 years to the first Duluth Fall Festival: It's a cold, rainy, late-October day, the city's celebrated Town Green is but a weedy asphalt parking lot, its festival center an old cotton warehouse, and the festival itself a smattering of vendors and a couple of hundred soggy attendees.
But don't underestimate the seed that is planted. The people who run the fledging jubilee will clear $300 profit. They will call it a roaring success.
Now, Saturday, the dichotomy between the festival's humble beginnings and its matured, 30-year-old status is striking.
There are 275 vendors, orderly waves of an estimated 80,000 attendees, a fleet of shuttle buses, a volunteer army of 400 in pumpkin-colored shirts and a full-fledged carnival. There's a "Man's Corner" to feed football fixes, a massive ATV dubbed the "Camo Limo" and a buff mime in a push-up contest with off-duty soldiers.
And there's Kathryn Willis, the festival's 81-year-old chairperson, extolling the festival's greatest achievement: The more than $2 million it has channeled back into downtown, which built the concert hall, bought a park and helped make that big lawn a reality.
The festival, Willis says, serves as a homecoming destination for college students and past Duluth residents alike. The local volunteerism infuses it with a more personal air than other autumn festivals that dot metro Atlanta, she says.
"We all do it because we love Duluth," says Willis.
Volunteer Doug Mundrick is a former city councilman who considers himself an expert salesman of festival pickles. He points out that the only compensation for volunteering is unlimited cold water.
"It's community volunteers," Mundrick says, "that's what makes it unique."
Vice chairman Jim Adkins reflects on the festival's digs back in the 1980s -- "It was not real pretty" -- and takes in the magnitude of Saturday's crowd. Save satellite photos in which everyone stands very still, he says, the only way to accurately calculate attendance would be to charge for entry.
"We just don't want to," Adkins says. "We just want everybody to have a good time."