When the weather finally warms up, Fort Wayne residents come out to party. And we party all summer. A seemingly endless string of festivals has us celebrating cultures, food, lifestyles, our rivers, history and more.
Beyond the fun factor, these celebrations bring people and their money downtown. And not just Fort Wayne residents — many of these festivals draw people from outside Allen County and even outside Indiana.
The economic element is important, but so is the diversity of the various events that bring together people of different ethnicities, religions and socioeconomic status. When you’re all there for a party, those differences seem to melt away.
We’ve chosen to focus on three festivals — one that celebrates our geography, one that celebrates a culture and one that simply celebrates a beloved food:
Three Rivers Festival
In three years, the Three Rivers Festival will celebrate its 50th anniversary. The granddaddy of them all, this nine-day festival celebrates Fort Wayne’s most unique geographic feature: its three rivers that all meet in a confluence in front of the water filtration plant downtown.
Jack Hammer, executive director of TRF, is passionate about the beauty of the Maumee, St. Marys and St. Joseph rivers, and he wants to expand activities in and around the waterways. He has seen the beauty firsthand, on river cruises where he has seen morning mist on the water and herons and turtles along the riverbanks.
With plans in the works for riverfront development, Hammer sees TRF capitalizing on those changes.
“We will continue, as the city and river project grows, to have more and more events along the river and involving the rivers,” he said.
In 2013, Hammer brought back the raft race, a popular TRF event for years until insurance costs shut it down in 1998. He also got nearly 4,000 people on the rivers in two days of the festival last year by offering free pontoon boat rides from Headwaters Park West. This year the free rides will be offered three days, with 10 boats taking people on 10-minute rides.
With so many events being held outdoors, weather has a big affect on TRF attendance. In 2012, the year of the drought, attendance was down 20 percent, Hammer said, acknowledging there’s nothing he can do about it.
“I never worry about the weather because I understand the good lord’s got a handle on that,” he said.
The big events associated with TRF are the parade, the raft race and the fireworks. Concerts also are a draw, with bigger-name acts booked for the weekends and regional musicians on weeknights.
“We try to keep ticket prices low,” he said.
Of course, Food Alley also is a perennial favorite, and Hammer doesn’t see the trend toward healthier eating affecting the TRF food choices anytime soon. Deep-fried Oreos, elephant ears, corn dogs and other fair food are treats, not everyday food for most people, he maintains, and many people return to Food Alley year after year to find their favorite vendors.
Although it’s difficult to determine how many people attend the festival, Hammer puts the number at somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000 annually. The festival doesn’t target a specific age group.
“It is family-friendly,” Hammer said. “It’s about bringing the community together.”
Each year the goal is to have a “bigger, better” parade, fireworks, etc. But for the festival’s 50th anniversary, which is already in the planning stages, expectations will be even higher.
“We want to make sure the 50th celebration is treated with a fair amount of pomp and circumstance because we do represent Fort Wayne,” Hammer said.
When you’ve got a good thing going, don’t expect much to change. That’s the opinion of Frank Makridakis, 2015 Fort Wayne Greek Festival chairman. The beloved festival put on by Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church at Headwaters Park celebrates its 35th anniversary this year.
Around 10,000 people attend the festival over four days; Makridakis estimates only about 10 percent of attendees are Greek.
“Apparently we’re doing something right,” he said.
For many, the attraction seems to be the Greek food. Gyro sandwiches sell the best, Makridakis said. Lamb dinners are also popular, as is cheese and spinach spanokopita. In past years Greekfest has sold mini octopi, but this year the festival is serving full-size octopi that are cut up, boiled, grilled Grecian-style and served on a bed of rice with a roll. This year they expect to serve 400-500 octopus dinners. Makridakis said octopus is delicious if cooked properly — and these will be.
Of course, no Greekfest meal is complete without a wonderful dessert, such as baklava and karidopita.
Entertainment includes live Greek music and Greek dancing performed twice a day by church youth.
Makridakis said Greekfest is a way for Greeks to share their culture, traditions and food.
“Come down and party like you’re a Greek,” he said. “It’s a nice clean atmosphere. It’s a celebration of life, of tradition. At the end of the night you’ve got everybody dancing. Its a great time.”
There’s no doubt Fort Wayne loves food, and when the aroma of barbecued ribs wafts out of Headwaters Park, people start flocking in to pig out.
Like Greekfest, organizers of Ribfest don’t want to mess with success.
“Occasionally we look to change things up, but we’ve got a pretty good thing going the way it is,” said Mark Chappuis, co-chairperson of the festival. “We find people just love great barbecue.”
The festival brings some of the best national barbecued rib teams to town and also brings emerging blues artists to the event for entertainment. Beer is available to wash it all down, which has lead to the slogan the festival is the ultimate in rockin’ blues, brews and barbecue.
The rib vendors sell more than 20 tons of pork each year, and Chappuis said annual attendance is about 40,000 people. He estimates about one-third are from out of town.
This is the 18th year for Ribfest, which is held at Headwaters Park. Chappuis says the park is a great venue.
“We’re actually outgrowing it,” he said. “Our whole rib alley is in the parking lot. We could honestly use double the space.”
He says the wonderful smells provide a natural attraction to the festival.
“It’s almost primal that humans kind of like to gnaw on bones, I guess,” he said, “when bones consist of great barbecue with flavors and smoke and seasonings. It just kind of sells itself.”
Various styles of ribs are sold, including regional favorites such as St. Louis style, Carolina style, Kansas City style and Texas style. All use rubs, and most will put sauce on the ribs unless the customer asks for them dry. They’re preparing and cooking the ribs right there, so customers can ask them questions.
“Most ribmasters are happy to talk to the public,” Chappuis said.
The festival is family-friendly, with activities for kids. Chappuis said it’s “very laid back and relaxed.”
Sides such as salads, coleslaw, cornbread, beans, and macaroni and cheese are offered by many of the vendors. Chappuis said most vendors are proud of their mac and cheese, as well as their ribs.
He’s seen more people coming in groups to order several types of ribs and then sit around a table sharing them. It’s a way to sample more without spending as much money.
It wouldn’t be considered diet food, but Chappuis said most barbecue lovers put those concerns aside.
“The ribs are clearly a fattier cut of meat,” he said. “I guess it’s one of life’s simple pleasures.”