Tahlequah’s Red Fern Festival offers attendees a stroll back in time to old-fashioned family fun.
It’s a way to show children how their great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents lived and played, and tell stories about, “the good ol’ days.” And it’s a way to enjoy what is best about life in Tahlequah, for many folks, including spending quality time as a family, enjoying sunshine, and chatting with old friends and perhaps meeting new ones.
The event, slated for the last weekend in April since 2007, has brought the best of the novel, “Where The Red Fern Grows,” by Wilson Rawls, to downtown, since the movie was filmed here.
Storytelling is new this year, with Gayle Ross kicking things off Friday, April 25 at 1 p.m. A cake walk, music and turtles races are some of the festivities for Friday, which ends with an outdoor showing of the movie, “Where The Red Fern Grows,” at Norris Park.
Hound dog Field Trials are unique to the event, and a car show, chili and BBQ cook-off, duck race, checker and horseshoe tournaments are among the highlights of Saturday, April 26.
“This year, the festival covers almost all of downtown,” said Drew Haley, Tahlequah Main Street director and event coordinator. “We’re stretching the event down Water Street, so whether you start on the north end or south end there’s something to down to the Cherokee Capitol Square. The idea is, wherever you park you can make a loop.”
Inflatables were popular with the youth last year, so even more are coming this year, said Haley. There are old-fashioned games on Saturday morning, including a tug-of-war, sack races and hop scotch. A checker tournament is for all ages.
A horseshoe tournament will be held for adults.
The 5Cs Car Club show is always a big draw with about 100 classic, collectible cars on display, with owners who love to talk about cars, restoration and more, located at the Cherokee Capitol Square.
“Downtown businesses will have sidewalk sales,” said Haley.
Kiwanis is hosting the annual barbecue and chili cook-off, a fundraiser for their many children’s projects.
A dunk tank is sponsored by Cherokee County Relay for Life and TMSA, said Haley.
“You’ll be able to dunk some of your favorite celebrities, like Mayor Jason Nichols, Police Chief Nate King, some school teachers and others,” said Haley.
Music will include the Bluegrass Travelers, Barton and Sweeney, Combs Bridge (Wes Combs and Mark Sweeney) and Doc Fell.
“Gayle Ross is our first guest performer. She’ll be in front of the gazebo at Norris Park, her stories go back to that time,” he said. “It’s another way to tell stories from that era.”
On Saturday, “Hankering for Hank,” with Jim Paul Blair is also new to the festival.
“His show will close the festival Saturday, it’s a traditional show with music from the era,” said Haley. “He’ll be on the Cherokee Casino main stage.”
Food vendors, arts and craft vendors and all the activities will provide something fun for everyone in the family, said Haley.
The hound dog field trials is one of the traditional activities of the festival anticipated by adults and youth, presented by the Muskogee Coon Hunters Association.
Jimmy Lee, coordinator of the field trials, said he enjoys promoting the sport that he loves and sharing it with people.
“It enables me to reach children and people who might not know anything about our sport. Field trials show people how we train our dogs,” Lee said. “And we get people who don’t know anything about it interested in it.”
Lee always brings several dogs and picks children out of the crowd to help handle the dogs.
“Last year, one of the dogs won $59 and the boy thought he’d hit the jack pot.”
All the entry fees go back to awards for next year, he said. There’s a treeing contest, in which a live raccoon in a cage is put up in a tree and the dog that barks the most wins. Another competition, the drag race, involves spraying scent along the creek up to a tree. The dog that gets to the tree first and the dog that barks first – not always the same dog – also win points.
Lee said the event gets bigger and bigger each year. He has been participating since the first festival. Last year, about 60 or 70 dogs were involved.
“We’re out here to have fun and enjoy ourselves, and show kids we’re all good sports. I enjoy the fellowship and meeting new people who also enjoy the sport,” said Lee.
The field trials are a different deal than hunting, he explained.
“Some dogs that hunt good don’t know what to do around a crowd, and some people bring dogs that have never hunted and they jump right in and follow the other dogs,” Lee said. “The only thing we’ll guarantee about Saturday is that you’ll have a good time.”
Ferns will also be for sale at the Red Fern Festival, and children can catch free-range, hand-caught crawdads in a crawdad mud hole.
“It’s become Tahlequah’s traditional big event,” Haley said. “It gives exposure to Tahlequah to about 15,000 visitors. We expect perfect weather, if [this happens], it will be packed.”
Tourism Director and founder of the Red Fern Festival Kate Kelly said the great thing about it for her is all the stories she hears people tell.
“People can relate to this time, to the book and it reminds them of their own stories,” she said. “I enjoy strolling around the festival and visiting with people. Something about the Red Fern Festival really strikes a chord and they want to share their stories.”
Kate enjoys the stories the older men tell about coon hunting.
“Old men who used to take their hounds out, I like to hear their stories,” she said. “It’s not just a place for funnel cakes and arts and crafts. People have a personal connection with the story and want to share.”
One year Stuart Peterson, who starred as Billy in the movie, came to the festival. He was a huge draw, Kelly recalls.
“He and his wife were so gracious, everyone wanted to talk to them,” Kelly said. “He was surprised at all the outpouring of affection for him.”
Relatives of author Wilson Rawls have also attended the festival, she said.
“His family came out one year and enjoyed the festival,” said Kelly.
The first year of the festival, 2007, was the state’s centennial year, said Kelly. The festival was recognized as an official centennial event.
“We were quite proud of that,” she said.
In 2008, the festival earned the Red Bud award for Best New Festival from Oklahoma Tourism.
“Every year the festival has grown,” she said, “and since Main Street took it over it’s become fabulous; every year Drew takes it up a notch.”
For more information, go to www.redfernfestival.com. Festival maps will be available in the Thursday and Friday editions of Tahlequah Daily Press.