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Mixed reviews on 'Vandalia lite'

By Laura Reston

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On a brisk Saturday afternoon, visitors lounged on the Capitol grounds, munched corn on the cob, and gathered to listen to spontaneous musical performances at the annual Vandalia Gathering. Yet many festival-goers voiced their disappointment about the downsized attractions and smaller crowds.

"This is Vandalia lite," said David Fisher who attends Vandalia every year.

This year, the festival, a celebration of traditional West Virginian culture and history, occurred over two days instead of three. Dancing and clogging competitions, craft vendors, outdoor stages and the liars contest -- all traditional components of Vandalia -- will take place at next month's sesquicentennial celebration.

The crowd seemed more subdued as visitors noted that the number of people, performances and vendors had severely declined from previous years.

Steve Little comes to Charleston from his home in Gallipolis, Ohio, for Vandalia every year. He said he and his wife enjoy perusing the wares at the arts and crafts fair, where he frequents the stall of a photographer who specializes in pictures of birds of prey.

This year, Little could not buy anything from his favorite vendor because the arts and crafts fair has been rescheduled.

Given the lack of vendors and dance shows, Jody Herndon of Charleston, who has performed at Vandalia before, said that the festival was boring.

"I'd rather sit at home and watch TV," he said.

Herndon attributes the smaller crowds to a cavalier attitude from the organizers of the festival.

"Nobody wants to come," he said, "because they feel they're not appreciated."

Performers from previous years received a letter in March from the commissioner of Culture and History explaining the changes and encouraging them to participate in the sesquicentennial celebration in June, but many ordinary visitors were confused about the changes to Vandalia's schedule.

Glen Cecil of Davis Creek, who attended the first Vandalia festival 37 years ago and who now leads a traditional bluegrass band called Front Page, reclined under a large tree that he had staked out at 7 a.m.

"People are sour," Cecil said. He especially didn't like the decision, made before last year's Vandalia, that banned camping around the Capitol.

"That's going to make a lot of people mad," Cecil said.

Bruce Hill, who attends the festival every year as a guitarist for a group called Ridge Top Grass, didn't like the changes.

"A lot of people feel let down," Hill said. "Maybe I'm old-school, but I don't like change. If it works, don't fix it."

Randall Reid-Smith, the commissioner of the Division of Culture and History promised the crowd at Friday night's Vandalia concert that the festival will revert to its normal schedule next year. Reid-Smtih said that, as long as he is commissioner, there would always be a Vandalia Gathering.

Herndon remained skeptical. He said he thinks downsized crowds are likely to continue.

This year marks the beginning of "the decline of Vandalia," he said.

Many festival-goers said the event, although smaller than previous years, was still enjoyable.

"It's a great family day," Sarah Kingston said. "It's all about food, music and having a good time."

Nearby, 8-year-old Maia Daughterty proudly announced that she had eaten two whole ears of corn on the cob.

"It's funnel-cake madness," one vendor shouted from his booth as he lifted a crispy funnel cake onto a paper plate sprinkled with powered sugar.

Visitors perched on the steps of the Culture Center, juggling barbeque sandwiches and lemonade as they chatted with neighbors and listened to the music emanating from musicians on the lawn.

As the afternoon progressed, more people flocked to set up lawn chairs on the grass. Old men and teenagers congregated in small circles to listen to bluegrass.

Indoors, musicians strummed their banjos during the banjo contest, playing to an audience that sat under quilts from the quilting competition the previous evening. Later that afternoon, fiddlers competed in the fiddle contest.

"The showcase of local musicians is incredibly important," Leigh Anne Strickland said. She added that Vandalia offers West Virginians an opportunity to celebrate their culture and history.

Debbie Vass, who recently moved back to West Virginia with her husband Keith, echoed the same thought.

"We don't see the good in this state enough. We only see the bad," Vass said, as she bit into her barbeque sandwich. "We're a land of cynical people."

She said festivals like Vandalia encourage people to engage with their community and their historical roots.

Steve McComas, a fiddler from West Hamlin, agreed about Vandalia's importance in remembering the state's history.

"We don't forget where we come from," McComas said. "My grandfather carried this fiddle in England during World War II."

For many musicians, Vandalia has fostered a lifelong community.

Although her husband only gets to see many of the people at Vandalia once a year, Cathy Hill said the Vandalia musicians have become his "bluegrass family."

Similarly, McComas said that, to him, Vandalia has come to resemble a homecoming as he and his band reunite over their common love of music.

"Some people are born to ride motorcycles or drive racecars," Cecil said. "We were born to play music."

Reach Laura Reston at laura.reston@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5112.


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