NEW CASTLE — Setting its sights for hitting 150 years in age within the next decade, the annual GAR Bean Dinner at McElwee Park shows no signs of losing steam.
“It slowed down a few years ago, but in the last couple of years, we’ve set new records for attendance,” said volunteer coordinator Everet Beatty.
Volunteers made 70 pounds of beans, 70 pounds of potato salad, 20 pounds of coleslaw and much, much more, but Beatty said that even with that much food, organizers ran out of some items. Hundreds of people had streamed in and out all day long.
After the morning church service and the first wave of food, the Chestnut Ridge Bluegrass Gospel band from Knox County performed to the crowd, which split itself between the shade trees in front of the band tent and the food pavilion slightly up the hill.
Between shows, another wave of eating kept volunteers busy while the Walhonding Rube Band set up. The 22-member wind band, which has been in continuous operation since 1914, entertained the audience with a mixture of Sousa marches, polkas and popular standards. Emcee Karen Lock explained that the band was formed in Walhonding by a black barber from Zanesville named T.S. “Tommy” Thompson, who taught music lessons when he wasn’t cutting hair.
Most community bands have dwindled away over the years, particularly now that most Ohio schools have bands, but the Walhonding group has kept going strong, playing throughout central Ohio. Lock said she was the daughter of Tom Allen, one of the original players taught by Thompson.
Lock said the group added the “tempo di rube” sobriquet to its title in the 1950s as it was asked to incorporate some fun antics into the show at the Coshocton County Fair. The fun attitude has stuck ever since, with players cheerfully heckling each other between — and sometimes even during — numbers.
“It’s our cheap therapy,” Lock laughed. “With life, you’re not always in good health, then you get here and play and it makes the world a better place.”
The band started choosing a “Bean Queen” or “Bean King” from its own ranks a quarter of a century ago, after looking around and seeing that every other festival had a king or queen. Tuba player Leroy Lambert was crowned the 2009 Bean King and presented with a cardboard crown, a burlap sash and a “scepter”: a wooden stirring spoon with beans glued to it. He was also presented with several bags and cans of various beans. Alas, his self-declared favorite pinto beans were lacking.
When someone shouted from the back of the band that he had to store all of the trappings and return them for next year’s festival, Lambert turned to his wife, Georgia, in the audience, and drawled with mock solemnity, “Well, maw, it looks like you’re going to have to go to the store after all.”
The audience showed appreciation for both the music and the antics. Lock said documentation shows the band has been playing the Bean Dinner for at least 60-odd years, and there’s every reason to believe it has very probably been playing the festival ever since the band was formed 95 years ago.
Not everyone there was a veteran of the festival. One visitor getting a lively taste of rural America was Irene Nied, from Cologne, Germany. Back home, Nied teaches children who have social development problems, but during her vacations, she enjoys exploring unfamiliar places by bicycle. Having previously explored Germany, Belgium and France on two wheels, she decided to tackle a more ambitious itinerary this time, by obtaining bargain-rate passage on a container ship from Germany to Charleston, S.C.. From there, she biked west to Atlanta, north to Nashville, west to Memphis, north to Louisville, then up to Columbus.
Local lawyer George Ellis found Nied among the crowd on the Square in Mount Vernon Saturday during the Dan Emmett Music & Arts Festival, and invited her to visit the GAR Bean Dinner before continuing up the road. From northern Ohio, she plans to head to New York.
Nied said that she much prefers the towns and countryside of America to the big cities. But above all, she has been surprised to find how warm people are in this country.
“I didn’t think I would meet so many friendly people,” Nied said. “If I am lost and looking at a map here, someone will stop and help me. You won’t find that in Germany or France.”
Nied’s future plans include biking in Canada and Cuba, but her most anticipated goal is to bike through India, which she visited once before, in 2001. She said that she felt such a strong and immediate affinity with India, that she has felt homesick for it ever since. Nied said that after camping out Sunday night, she would be biking up the back roads toward Cleveland today.
It just goes to show how much fun and adventure can be found in a community festival, and why they are so important.
“You just gotta take time to do these things,” said Everet Beatty as he sat down in the pavilion, taking a break from tending the huge cast-iron pot of beans cooking over a fire, “to keep America what we are.”