The Autumn Leaf Festival in Clarion is so important to the borough’s residents that on its official website, the festival is mentioned before Clarion University, the Clarion Area School District, and the recognition of being the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry Community of the Year. Such an important accomplishment takes time to hone. The Festival as currently celebrated varies greatly from the original festival.
The tradition of the Autumn Leaf Festival began in 1953 with the first recognized festival. It occurred simultaneously with the Clarion State College Homecoming. Those in charge of organizing the festival wanted to add some color to the town during this time. They asked the local businesses to decorate in a way to beautify the area. Ruth Neiger, of Brockway, served as Homecoming Queen that year.
In 1954, the Clarion Chamber of Commerce decided to utilize the changing colors of the leaves to attract visitors with a larger festival. The Chamber of Commerce offered two parades. The first started at 9:30 a.m. and continued until noon. Groups who participated included the Autumn Leaf Queen’s float, veterans from foreign wars, volunteer firemen, the Lions’ Club, seven Clarion County bands and the Girl Scouts. The Clarion State Teachers College, now Clarion University, held their homecoming parade with floats prepared and decorated by local fraternities. That year, 1,000 people attended the festival.
The Autumn Leaf Festival began to resemble the current festival in 1955 when more events were added. The local newspaper, The Clarion Republican, published posters, poems and advertisements about the new events. Some of the new activities introduced that year included the Autumn Leaf Ball, Farmer’s Day, farm implement shows, a fishing contest, “Tournament of Leaves” parade, and tractor pulls.
With every year came something new. In 1956, the Aunt Jemima character, known for her maple syrup and pancakes, helped the Kiwanis Club promote their pancake festival, which included a house-wives only pancake-flipping contest. In 1958, the Autumn Leaf Festival received permanent status with the formation of a committee to organize the growing number of events and activities. The first Autumn Leaf Festival half-marathon was held in 1977.
The festival began 58 years ago as a very small and quaint event. From the late 1950’s to the early 1970’s, the event grew from drawing a few hundred people to tens of thousands of people in a single day. As the university grew and attracted more visitors to the area, the community and total population began to grow. With this came more publicity for the event, which in turn drew more visitors, both young and old, each year. In addition to the number of people attending the event, the festival also grew in length over the years. In the beginning, the fair only consisted of a Friday to Sunday period. Now, the event spans of nine days. In keeping with its origin, however, the majority of the 40 or more events happen from Friday to Sunday.
Students at Clarion University get a “mid-semester break” that gives them from 10 p.m. Thursday to 8 a.m. Monday to enjoy the festival. One of the activities that the mid-semester break lets them participate in is the craft show. Kady Jones, the 2007 Homecoming Queen of the Autumn Leaf Festival said that the craft show is one of the biggest traditions of the festival, “It is estimated that about 10,000 people come to Clarion for the craft show. Craft stands line Main Street on both sides covering about a mile and a half of the street.” The homecoming parade, a tradition since the beginning of the event, occurs on the Saturday of the mid-semester break.
Another trademark of the activities is all of the food stands that take over Main Street, the center of festivities. Due to the influx of the visitors to the area, many restaurants and food companies set up booths to service all of the people who attend the event. In 2009, more than 300 vendors were granted permits to participate and sell their products. Many others were put on a waiting list because of limited space and availability. It costs a vendor from Clarion County $75 to participate and out-of-county vendors $100. Much of the revenue is used to pay for costs of the event which do not create their own income, such as public works overtime, banners, gifts and prize money for competitive activities. Any additional profits are put back into the Clarion community via several different projects.
In addition to the vendors who pay a fee for their license to sell their product, the Autumn Leaf Festival has many sponsors who donate money to put on events and activities for the festival. Currently, the main sponsor is National City Bank, now part of PNC. National City Bank donated $17,000 to the 2009 festival, enough for the festival to be called the “National City Autumn Leaf Festival.” Other major donors include Clarion University, Clarion Hospital, Colony Homes, and PennWest Homes. In total, the festival received more than $90,000 in sponsorship money from approximately 50 to 60 different organizations.
More than money is needed to organize an event as large as the Autumn Leaf Festival. Volunteers are needed to help the festival go as planned. Tracy Becker, six year executive director of the Autumn Leaf Festival operations from the Chamber of Business and Industry, has been with the Chamber for 24 years. The Chamber team consists of three full-time employees and two to four interns from Clarion University, “There are probably a good 1,500 volunteers, but it could very well be over that,” Becker said, “A lot of people get involved; it’s the biggest event of the year.” The PA Department of Transportation estimates more than 500,000 people travel through Clarion during the event.
There are many reasons to attend the Autumn Leaf Festival for Sonny Schmuck, who runs the SS Fragrances stall. After five years of attending the festival, he has built a loyal clientele for his specialty soaps. “Once you try my soap, you’ll come back for more,” Schmuck said. Schmuck is somewhat of an expert in being a vendor. He travels 10 months of the year to sell his soaps. He said the Autumn Leaf Festival is one of the best festivals, “The whole town is behind it,” Schmuck said, “and that is so nice to see, because it doesn’t happen everywhere. People are really glad to have us.”