Large-scale attraction had humble origins
DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Historical re-enactments are a trademark of the Tamaqua Heritage Festival. Seen here in 2008, 'Mrs. Kehoe' leads a funeral procession from the depot to the cemetery, recreating a Tamaqua scene from the 1870s.
The largest single-day festival in eastern Schuylkill County had its start as a display set up inside a downtown landmark.
The Tamaqua Historical Society started the Tamaqua Heritage Festival back in 1984 as a way to celebrate and promote the town's rich heritage, and display items from its collection.
"Looking back, it is hard to believe how it has grown and how much time has passed," said Dale Freudenberger, society president.
"During its first year, the entire festival consisted of a large display of historical photographs, artifacts and memorabilia inside the 1850 Anthracite Bank Building located at 133 West Broad Street, the former home of Mr. and Mrs. Sam Beard," said Freudenberger.
Vacant at the time, the site was offered for use by Tillie Woods who inherited the building and gave the historical society permission to use the entire first floor to showcase all of the historical displays and artifacts on the second weekend of October.
In addition to the historical displays, there were also three craft vendors set up in a small room inside the building. The crafters were also long-time members of the historical society. A limited menu of food and baked goods was sold from the first floor kitchen area.
"The food was prepared by historical society members," said Freudenberger.
Out in front of the building was one antique car, a 1934 Plymouth displayed by member Jim Santore.
Located just around the corner from the former Anthracite Bank Building the historical society owned and operated the 1848 Hegarty Blacksmith Shop. The blacksmith shop was open for tours and blacksmith Donald Campbell from the Hazleton area agreed to operate the shop and provide blacksmithing demonstrations throughout the day.
"In those days, the blacksmith shop was the only property that the historical society owned," noted Freudenberger.
"Several hundred people came throughout the day and were thrilled for the opportunity to see all the historical artifacts on display in the buildings," said Freudenberger. The affair was such a success that the historical society decided it should become an annual event. "It was a great way to showcase our local heritage and get more people interested in preserving and promoting our local history. After that, the rest is history," said Freudenberger. "And my how the event has grown!"
Today, the annual Tamaqua Heritage Festival encompasses an area of about seven blocks in downtown Tamaqua, all within the Tamaqua National Historic District and draws thousands of visitors.
The society owns and operates three historic properties including the Hegarty Blacksmith Shop, the 1801 log home of Tamaqua founder Burkhardt Moser, and a local history museum and archives located in the historic 1905 First National Bank Building on West Broad Street.
Over one hundred crafters and vendors line the festival area and the downtown becomes jammed with people. Approximately seventy five cars come out for the car show and food is offered by a dozen vendors or more in the downtown area.
"Historical displays pack the museum building which is currently undergoing renovations to make it a first class local history museum," said Freudenberger.
Major interior renovations are planned at the museum over the next few years. Additional historical tours, exhibits and reenactments are offered from time to time. Fall foliage train rides, music, strolling performers and a dozen other local organizations are all part of the festivals today.
Approximately seven to ten thousand people attend each festival. For many who attend the festivals in Tamaqua, it is a time of homecoming to get together with family and friends they have not seen since the last festival. Many stay for the weekend with family or friends and visit the festivals together.
In 1990, the Tamaqua Historical Society created a second festival to celebrate local heritage during the summer months. It was named the Tamaqua Summerfest and is held each Father in June. This year marked the 19th year for the Tamaqua Summerfest which is about the same size as the Heritage Festival and similar in design.
The 25th Annual Tamaqua Heritage Festival will take place Sunday.