MIFFLINTOWN -This summer, two of the area's most popular annual traditions will combine to produce what the organizers hope will be the musical event of the summer.
Big Tree Music and Art Festival, the brainchild of area arts enthusiasts Nick and Katy Hohol, will return to Arch Rock after a two-year absence. This year's festival, scheduled for Father's Day, June 15, will also be the inaugural summer outdoor Food Pantry Benefit Concert, continuing an annual tradition begun in 2008 by musicians Erica Shellenberger and Rotten Belly Michael - both of whom will appear at the day-long event.
A cross-section of the county's finest musicians and artists will provide entertainment, and the show will be topped by the homecoming of Nathaniel Hoho and his band, Walking Shapes. The festival will be held at Laurel Rock Farm in Arch Rock, near the site of the original, legendary Big Tree Festival.
Kathy Queitzsch, executive director of the Juniata County Food Pantry, is thrilled by the news.
"We are so excited to hear of the re-birth of the Big Tree Music Festival this summer, and very grateful and honored to be the beneficiary of this event. This will be the seventh year that our local musical talent have generously come together to share their gifts to benefit our residents in need. But this year we don't have to wait for the Save Thanksgiving benefit concert to enjoy their wonderful sounds."
The Save Thanksgiving concert, held each November, is expected to continue, but a conversation Pastor Bill Esborn had with some of that benefit's organizers brought to their attention the additional need the summer months bring to the Food Pantry and the county residents who rely on their services.
Queitzsch agrees. "Like everyone else, the Food Pantry's finances suffered from the long, hard winter and high heating bills as we tried to keep groceries on the shelves for more than 350 struggling families. After a particularly rough start to the year, the timing of this event is a godsend to the Juniata County Food Pantry and our neighbors in need."
In addition, the Food Pantry will again provide the Summer Backpack Lunch program to children who normally receive free or reduced lunches during the school year. This is the second year for this program. Many of these children go without meals during the summer as their families are unable to meet the increased demand for food. Children registered for the backpack program will received a free backpack (provided by a grant) which they can fill up every week at the Food Pantry with the ingredients for five lunches.
"The Big Tree Festival comes at just the right time to help us fund this program to keep our children from spending their summer vacation in hunger," Queitzsch said.
How the projected summertime Food Pantry Benefit concert became the rebirth of the Big Tree Festival was an organic process. Many of the organizers had been involved with the original Big Tree, and realized that the concert they were planning shared most of the ideals of the event. So they approached Nick and Katy Hohol and asked for their blessing in using the name, which so many Juniata residents hold in fond regard. The original Big Tree Family and Friends Festival, held in September 2009, outgrew its original modest aims, drawing hundreds of music fans to the Hohols' Arch Rock property and the towering, ancient buttonwood that gave the gathering its name.
By the following year, the crowd had doubled, drawn by a line-up of local talent. Art was included in the festivities, with paintings on display, artists at work, face painting and other kids' events. The official name was changed to Big Tree Music and Art Festival to reflect a broader view of the county's creativity.
The following year, an even larger crowd and an unexpected thunderstorm made it clear that the Big Tree needed to move to a bigger venue. No festival was held in 2012 or 2013, and it seemed like the Big Tree might never bloom again.
The couple was glad to see their original idea given another go.
"The Big Tree had outgrown our yard," Katy said.
"The spirit of Big Tree Music and Art Festival doesn't belong to Nick and I, it belongs to Juniata County," she said. "It's a spirit of music and art that's unique to Juniata County. It's a time for family, friends, fun and recognition of the wonderful, creative people Juniata County has to offer."
So the couple was happy to not only give their blessings, but to become actively involved in the planning. "After hearing of the additional help the Food Pantry needed during the summer months, we decided to partner with Laurel Rock Farm and offer our help," they said.
The original aim of the Big Tree was to pay the musicians, a goal future festivals may return to. The difference this year is that all the profits will go to the Juniata County Food Pantry - the bands are donating their talents for free.
"This is a real Big Tree," Katy said. "Nick and I had already talked about moving the festival to Laurel Rock Farm. Dave Britcher's beautiful facility is ideal for an event like this, and there's plenty of parking, which had become a real problem at our place. And rain won't stop the show - we can just move inside."
The festival is being held at the barn, a popular and spacious attraction at Laurel Rock.
To underline the connection to the original concert, the posters, programs and T-shirts feature the original classic artwork by Brian Geckle and Allison Smith. The musical line-up adheres to the Hohols' original goal of spotlighting the area's diverse pool of talent.
Artists confirmed include Jack Armstrong III and his band Aces & Eights, the traditional Hindu music of Bajans, the jazz/soul elegance of Blue Heron (featuring Delphine Kirkland), the solo guitar pyrotechnics of Austin Burns, alt-rock edginess from Con Spirito, original country from Earl Davis, the return of folk heroes the Heggs, a much-anticipated set by the Labour Party, the debut of Landing Leslie, the area's pop princess Pishima, raw rock from the Roads, the legendary Rotten Belly Blues, festival favorites the Truth Junkies, incendiary blues/rock from Erica Shellenberger and 61/49, and from NYC, Nathaniel Hoho and his band, Walking Shapes.
There will be art on display by local artists, including Brian Geckle, and vendors selling food, crafts and merchandise.
The suggested donation for the day-long festival is $10. However, as with every Food Pantry benefit, no one will be turned away. Any donation of a food item - even a can of beans - will get you in.
"This event is specifically for people who are struggling financially - we're certainly not going to deny them entrance to their own party," the organizers said. "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."