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Ryan & Brennish Thomson

Updated Feb 2, 2024

Wheatland Folk Festival

Remus, Michigan, Sept 5-7 1997

by Ryan Thomson

The Wheatland Music Organization is a non-profit organization governed by a volunteer Board of Directors. They produce an annual folk festival which always takes place the weekend after Labor Day. This year was the 24th annual family festival, and my first time to attend.


I was extremely impressed with how well the festival was organized. The program guide was one of the most informative I've seen, and the internationally known performers were of the highest quality. Best of all, the 15,000 attendees are so well provided for, that the huge popularity of the event caused all tickets to be sold out more than a month before the festival.


A large group of red shirted volunteers helps out with the 1001 tasks that go into producing a major festival. The staff is sort of like a large extended family, with a unified goal of preservation and presentation of traditional music and arts. Besides the festival itself, the Wheatland organization provides educational programs and scholarship funds throughout the year.


The festival itself is on the grounds(now owned by the organization) of a former farm, with large fields for motor camping, and a beautiful wooded area for tenting. Everyone comes for the duration, (2 1/2 days) of camping, and there is a choice of bringing your own food, or purchasing tasty meals at the dining building. There are lots of portable restrooms, plentiful water supply(but no showers), and well marked and maintained pathways between the various camping and performance areas. Handicapped parking and camping areas are provided.


The festival features the best arrangement and selection of kids activities of any major festival I've ever attended. Not only is there a children's stage and play area, but a virtual factory for the hands-on construction of toys such as bug houses, face painting, and other crafts. I got a real kick out of periodically visiting the children's area to see such things as a native American dancer and singer, numerous sand castles being built, and to watch kids assemble Dreamcatchers.


Several stage areas featured continuous and simultaneous concerts, dances, and workshops throughout the day and evening. The continuous activity kept me wandering throughout the several hundred acre site, so as to not miss anything. There was a special Saturday night dance/concert for teens from 10 pm - 1 am which featured a rocking Celtic/contemporary band. The audience area was packed for this show, and I was happy to see that the organizers had provided for this segment of the festival population. 


Some large festivals cater mostly to concert audiences, but Wheatland (to their great credit) also provides generously for music making within the ranks of the attendees. There were workshops on fiddle, banjo, hammered dulcimer, whistle, guitar, accordion, harmonica, dobro, dance, and more. Through out the camp ground were jams with just about any style of ethnic or traditional music one might wish to play. Late night jams went on in several locations with the exception of drumming, which was limited to the hours of noon to 10 pm.


Events at the dancing area went from 5:30 pm to 2:30 am on Friday night, and resumed Saturday morning at 9 am with yoga and stretching, finishing up at 2:30 am, started up at 9 am Sunday, and finished at around 5 pm. Participatory dance styles included: squares, contras, cajun, Tejano, swing, family dance(kids and adults!), Appalachian clogging instruction, French Canadian step dancing, and a "Texas swing" dance with Johnny Gimbal’s band. 


On Saturday morning I visited the dining hall for breakfast and encountered an informal group of fiddlers, banjoists and other instrumental music makers inside. Despite being hungry I couldn't resist pulling out my own fiddle to join them. After about 45 minutes of playing some fine old time tunes, I was informed that I could join the food line for a complimentary breakfast! What a nice touch to show appreciation for musicians and such a contrast to other festivals where I've been asked not to play in similar situations.


Other special festival features included: tables provided for gas stoves in special cooking areas in the campground, a ban on public drunkenness, free shuttle service to a nearby town for supplies, a ban on amplified music, workers available 24 hours a day at 6 "safety stations" to handle any problems that might arise, vendor areas with instruments, recorded music, and supplies, medical personnel, recycling containers, jam session areas with benches, and lots of friendly greetings with the words "happy Wheatland," to festival goers! 

For more information visit The Wheatland Music Organization web site .

Written by Ryan Thomson, 1997

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