Yankee Peddler Festival turns 50!
The idea was born in the early 1970s when a florist, party coordinator and the owners of an advertising display business began thinking of ways to celebrate the country’s bicentennial.
By Matthew Rink
Posted Sep. 7, 2012 @ 12:01 am
Sep 7, 2012 at 7:11 AM
The idea was born in the early 1970's when a florist, party coordinator and the owners of an advertising display business began thinking of ways to celebrate the country’s bicentennial.
They were in the business of putting on large, extravagant parties for the top companies in Cleveland.
“We’d do huge parties for 600 or 800 people,” explained Bob Yappel. “My brother and I would build a big dragon’s head and a torii gate with smoke coming out of it. Our other partners would bring flowers in and another woman coordinated everything. That’s when we had the idea of doing something for the bicentennial, but we didn’t want to do anything indoors.”
Forty years ago, on an 8-acre chunk of Clay’s Park Resort, Yappel, his wife Gretchen, and his business partners put on the first Yankee Peddler Festival.
“It’s been a long time,” Yappel said Thursday, as he traced the terrain of the festival grounds in a golf cart. “It’s a big thing for some of the crafters and entertainers who have been with us a long time. It’s a milestone. But to me it just feels like it went by too fast.
“We thought it might go to the bicentennial in ‘76 and then peak or disappear,” he said. “We were definitely aiming for ‘76. That’s why we picked the motif of the show.”
Saturday’s 40th anniversary festival will showcase the traditional crafters, entertainers and food vendors that have made the three-weekend festival a major draw.
Having expanded to 75 acres over the years, Yankee Peddler recreates pioneer America. There are covered wagons, blacksmiths, a militia and hearty offerings like bean soup, beef stew and turkey legs — all set in a shady, wooded setting where foot bridges span small streams.
Cynthia Eglin is a leathersmith who traveled 1,500 miles from Bandera, Texas, to take part in the show for the first time. She is among a handful of new crafters recruited each year by the Yappels, who trek to shows across the country to find new talent.
“I got to talk with them and learn how things are done here and how unique this is and why they do it,” she said. “To me, that’s very important because they keep the era going and that’s awesome.”
Eglin, who works primarily with elk skin, creates coats, bracelets, bags and other items that she describes as a “native, southwestern” motif.
Larry Blankenship and his son, Matthew, of Mansfield, have been coming to Yankee Peddler for a dozen years. Their business, Prairie Rose Products, has been a mainstay of the show for three decades under them and the previous owner. They make soaps, salves and lotions.
“The three weekends here, we’ve got customers who have been coming to us for a long time,” Larry said, as he pieced together the skeleton of his booth. “That’s why we come back. It’s a good show for us. We enjoy this. It’s a great setting. It’s a relaxed atmosphere. Beats corporate life.”
Yappel has vowed not to stray from the original formula even through cultural changes that have challenged the economics of the show. Crafters must make original, one-of-a-kind artwork and, when possible, be willing to demonstrate their skills to festival-goers. He’s shooed away vendors who buy their product and then attempt to resell it.
At one time, Yankee Peddler was the only act of its kind on the east coast, having studied the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Los Angeles. Yappel has even helped other crafters build spinoffs of the Peddler, but most were unable to preserve the traditions that he and his later partners, Frank and Betty Cajka, have established.
“It worked really well because the craftspeople in Ohio fit the mold really well,” he said. “There was none of these street shows like Legacy Village, where there’s tent after tent after tent.”
There were times when 100 buses a day would roll into the festival grounds, but many of those trips have been diverted to regional casinos, where an older crowd doesn’t have to fight the potential rainstorm and can get $25 in free slots play. And the younger crowd isn’t as drawn to the custom-made knick-knacks as their parents.
But Yappel, who’s weathered from the sun over the last two months in preparation for opening weekened, says there is no end in sight for the festival — or its presence at Clay’s Park. Bob and Gretchen now run the show with their son, Christopher, and Frank Cajka Jr.
“I don’t think it ever entered our mind to just let it go and quit,” he said. “...We’re here for the long haul. Every year there’s rumors that we’re moving or we’re dying. It’s not true. Clay’s Park is a great place to hold this event. It fits our theme well. We would never considered moving.”