Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

August 14, 2013

Big festival in a small town

An inside look at what Denver Days means to little community in northern Miami County.

By Carson Gerber
MC Weekly

---- — DENVER — It’s pretty quiet most days in Denver. With around 400 residents and a handful of businesses, the small northern Miami County town calmly hums along for much of the year.But every August, that small-town peace and quiet disappears as thousands pour in for food, games, music, tractor pulls, bike rides, eating contests, basketball tournaments, car shows, a parade and a slew of other activities.It’s all part of Denver Days, the annual four-day festival sponsored by the Denver Lions Club that’s grown into the town’s calling card since it first started 24 years ago. This year’s festival was held Aug. 8 through the 11.Troy Prior, a Lions Club member who’s helped organize the festival since its inception, said it’s pretty impressive to have such a long-running, activity-filled festival in a tiny town like Denver. “It’s amazing that it’s lasted this long,” he said. “It’s quite a distance for a festival to go. But we’ve kept people energized and excited about it, and that’s a tribute to the community.”That was the case on Saturday, as crowds lined up along Harrison Street to watch the 30-minute procession of floats, fire trucks, go-carts and church groups during the festival parade celebrating Denver and northern Miami County.But the festival hasn’t always been so popular, and its growth over the years hasn’t been an accident.Denver Days started in 1989, just two years after the local Lion’s Club was chartered. Once the group got established, members decided to bring a festival back to town.Prior said the last big event was the centennial celebration of Denver in 1972. Before that, he said there was a fall festival, where area farmers would come to sell their produce.“It’s in the spirit of Denver to have a festival,” Prior said. “It’s just evolved over the years. But the whole community has always come together to put something on.”Prior was one of the founding members of the Lions Club, and remembers what that first Denver Days festival looked like: About three vendors set up along the baseball diamond in town, with a few activities planned like a horse and tractor pull, a softball tournament and a tug-of-war competition over a mud pit.Bill Peppers, 79, was there, too, helping organize the first festival. He said the initial aim was just to foster a little community spirit and create some fun activities for people to watch.“We decided to do something where the community could get together,” he said.Twenty-four years later, that goal hasn’t changed, but Prior said it has evolved to become the four-day festival it is today, with carnival rides, lots of food and craft vendors and event-packed days.Prior said Denver Days is probably 10 times bigger now than it was that first year, thanks to heavy advertising, careful planning and a push to make the festival a little bit better every time.For instance, organizers one year decided to start a car show. That first year, it had around 25 entries. This year, more than 120 antique, souped-up cars and trucks rolled into town.Now, the festival has its own website, and is broadcast on local radio stations.Prior said he wasn’t sure how much bigger the crowds have gotten since that first festival, but he said he knows they’re much bigger than they used to be. How does he know?“We judge the turnout by the port-a-pots and the dumpsters, believe it or not,” he said with a laugh. “If we had a good crowd, all the port-a-pots are well used and dumpsters are full. If a dumpster is heaping full, it’s been a great year and everybody is making some money.”Jeff Hagan, a festival committee member, said the festival has had hiccups over the years, but organizers have learned from mistakes and turned the attraction into a fine-tuned machine that works well for vendors, locals and festival goers. “The vendors say this is the most well organized festival they go to,” he said. “They say the prices are reasonable. We don’t charge an arm and a leg to set up here. And they like the big crowds. People come to this.”Mark Thomson, owner of Becca’s Concessions based out of 12 Mile, was one of those vendors who said the festival was well organized. He said he’s been coming for 10 years, ever since he started his business.“I love it here. I tell people we need to do this every weekend here in Denver,” he said with a laugh. “There’re festivals I go to just to make money. And there’re festivals I go to to make money and have fun. This is one of those. I always look forward to coming here.”Hagan said festival organizers will begin planning for next year a week after this year’s activities end, and after that, the festival committee meets every month to hash out the details and small points that make Denver Days run smoothly.But even with all the planning in the world, Prior said they’re never sure exactly how the festival will turn out.“We refer to it as lighting the fuse on Thursday and seeing where the rocket goes,” he said. “But this week we’ve been fortunate with this beautiful weather. There’s been years where every sweatshirt in my house is being used, and if you had a coffee pot you’d make a bunch of money. And I’ve seen years where it’s been so hot you couldn’t do anything. But this year has been beautiful.”As the festival has grown, it’s also put Denver back on the map for people who might not be familiar with the area.“It’s a free festival,” Prior said. “It doesn’t cost anything to come, so you can come out here and not spend a dime, or you can spend all your money. But either way, I think this festival definitely gives the town a kick.” Hagan agreed, and he would know, since his family has owned a local grocery store in town for the last 63 years.“Families come in during the festival, and they’re buying a little bit more stuff here in town,” he said. “Overall, our business picks up throughout the week.” The festival may be good for business, but Hagan said in the end, that’s really not what it’s about. “It’s really about people getting together and having a good time,” he said. “That’s what it’s for. But you also want to promote the town, and let people know what we have here.”Prior agreed. For him, it’s just about having a good time. That’s why he said he always takes his vacation time during Denver Days so he can help out and enjoy the festival atmosphere.“It’s just a lot of fun,” he said, as he helped serve up grilled tenderloins at his sister’s concession stand. “I like it because I can watch everybody outside. Ever since central air conditioning came around, everybody always seems to stay in the house. This gives them a reason to get outside and chat.”“I don’t know if this festival will ever get real big,” Prior said. “We’ll never be like the Circus City Festival, but for a small town, we’re real busy.”Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, or at carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com.