History of the Festival
In 1953, the first recognized Autumn Leaf Festival™ was held during the Clarion State College Homecoming. Businesses were asked to decorate, adding a touch of color to the town. Ruth Neiger from Brockway served as Homecoming Queen that year. Little did she, or the others involved with the very beginning of Autumn Leaf Festival, know what it would become. Going back to those earlier years offers insight into the history of Autumn Leaf Festival™.
The following year, 1954, the Clarion Chamber of Commerce had an idea. Since the leaves were colored and beautiful during the fall, a larger festival would attract even more people to the area. Two parades were offered. The first was held from 9:30 a.m. until noon. It included veterans from foreign wars, Girl Scouts, volunteer firemen, the Lions’ Club, the Autumn Leaf Queen’s float, and seven Clarion County bands. Redbank’s band received a $50 prize for first place . Two and a half hours later, the Clarion State Teachers College held their homecoming parade with many beautiful floats made by local fraternities.
Early years of ALF™ did not include rides, but slowly, people became more interested. In 1954, 1,000 people attended the festival. Joe McCrae and the Rhythm Masters provided music at the ball while Betty Blair, Miss Autumn Leaf, reigned as queen of the ball.
The 1955 Autumn Leaf Festival™ offered a wider selection of events. The Clarion Republican, the local newspaper, published poems, advertisements, and posters touting the event and described scenic tours being offered. They included Helen Furnace, Cook Forest, Piney Dam, Dutch Hill at Lookout Point, and Foxburg Golf Course, the oldest golf course in the nation.
Other events included a fishing contest, Autumn Leaf Ball, Farmer’s Day, tractor pulls, horse contest, farm implement show, “Tournament of Leaves” parade, and entertainment by bands from Clarion, Clarion-Limestone, Redbank Valley, North-Clarion, and Keystone. Scouting groups joined in the march.
To help fund the festival, businesses donated money and the “fine-o-meter,” used to collect parking ticket fines, was introduced. Unfortunately, many didn’t take the red box seriously and problems arose when people did not pay. Although wet at the beginning, the event ended successfully with clear weather.
In 1956, the annual “Tournament of Leaves” parade was one of the highlights of the Clarion State Teachers College Homecoming. Clarion businesses donated monetary prizes for the float competition whose theme followed movie titles. Ardie Gourley reigned as Homecoming Queen. Bands from Clarion joint schools and Clarion College performed. Parade marshals were Donald Stroup, president of Clarion Chamber of Commerce, and Dr. Paul G. Chandler, president of Clarion State Teacher’s College.
Merchants held a three-day “Harvest of Values” to promote local businesses. On Friday, Aunt Jemima arrived in town to help the Kiwanis Club promote their pancake festival. Funds raised supported a Christmas program for underprivileged children, and James Arner presented Aunt Jemima with a key to the city.
Prior to Saturday’s parade, a pancake-flipping race was held on Main Street, and house-wives were the only ones eligible to enter. The weekend ended with college football and the homecoming dance. With fall’s foliage at its peak, all roads led visitors to Clarion County for the Autumn Leaf Festival™.
“October is a glorious time of year when her lovely maid of honor drips a flame of color and enchantment on all her bounds of nature” was part of a poem noted in the Clarion Republican in October 1957. The weather was quite good for the parade, however, the number of participants dropped from previous years due in part to an outbreak of influenza at Clarion College. Judges watched the parade from the Anderson Hotel. The Civic Club’s float, displaying Abraham Lincoln reading the Emancipation Proclamation, won first place. Other events included a street fair sponsored by the American Legion (offered rides for young and old), a model airplane meeting conducted by the Modelaires, a street dance on Grant Street, and the second annual pancake festival ($1 bought all-you-can-eat pancakes, sausage, and a beverage!) The Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2145 sponsored the Autumn Leaf Festival Ball. Interestingly, through the years, the celebration of fall was carried over in advertisements used by businesses throughout the days surrounding Clarion’ Autumn Leaf Festival™.
In 1958, the Autumn Leaf Festival™ earned status as a permanent event. The Chamber implemented a committee to organize the festivities. Both high schools and college worked together producing impressive floats for the parade. With bands, cars, horses, marching units, and drill teams, joining the floats, this year’s parade lasted an hour and 15 minutes and was thought to be the best and longest ever seen in Clarion. The Clarion Republican quoted this year as “Best Autumn Leaf Festival Yet is enjoyed by Thousands”.
The 1959 Autumn Leaf Festival™ was also a great success. Activities included a community hymn sing, the Pennsylvania State Police rodeo, teenage rock ‘n roll show, a U.S. Air Force Band performance, an Agriculture Day parade, the ALF™ parade, and Clarion College Homecoming. A number of celebrities were in town during the week including David Lewis and Jerome Reeves of KDKA-TV, Gilbert Love of the Pittsburgh Press, and Pennsylvania Governor David Lawrence.
Agriculture Day was a celebration in itself with contests in fiddling and corn-husking. The “Ag-Day” parade included eight floats and four bands while the Autumn Leaf Festival™ Parade included 46 floats, 15 bands, and drum and bugle corps, all following the governor. A total of 106 units participated.
Some 300 people packed the college stadium for the hymn sing. William McDonald conducted the 75-person choir. The rock ‘n roll record hop, held in the VFW auditorium, featured the “Crests” who recorded the number one hit “Sixteen Candles”. Just 17 years old, Walt Smith, the only blind disc jockey in the world, played records from 9 a.m. to noon.
The “lucky seventh” or 1960 Autumn Leaf Festival’s events ranged from free pony rides to parachutes and from the Tommy Dorsey Band to “Mrs. America.” The opening of that year’s event was the Army Sports Parachute Team on Sunday. Monday included the street carnival.
Wednesday evening, the Clarion College Theater Department presented “Dream Girl.” Thursday evening, the famous Four Saints and Top Hats of the U.S. Air Force Band appeared and the second annual Bi-County art show exhibit was held. Friday was designated as agriculture day featuring a parade, an exhibit of farm machinery, and the first open-air barbecue.
Saturday, the final day of the festival, offered a full day of events. The parade included KDKA-TV personalities Marcy Lynn, Faye Parker, Josie Carey, Sterling Yates, Don Riggs, Johnny Costa, and John Hills, in addition to “Mrs. America 1961”, Rosemary Murphy.
Saturday concluded with the Autumn Leaf Ball, held at the high school auditorium, where the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra played at a cost of only $10 per couple. Saturday also offered the second “Little Kadey” contest for girls and the new “Alf” contest for boys. “Kady,” the symbol of Pittsburgh’s KDKA-TV, became associated with Clarion’s Autumn Leaf Festival™.
Lastly, the 1960 festival created a “boom” of tourists visiting Cook Forest. An estimated 10,000 people visited the Fire Tower and Seneca Point Saturday and Sunday.
A look at the not so long ago 1970s takes us to the 1977 Autumn Leaf Festival™. Although rainy, activities were well attended. At the “Opening Leaf Cutting Ceremony,” the 26-member U.S. Honor Guard Drill Team from Washington, D.C., performed. Clarion County native Barry George, of Rimersburg, was a member of the drill team who exhibited tosses, strategic maneuvers, and two shootings. This year, the first Autumn Leaf Festival™ half-marathon was held. Other activities included the Art Show, Clarion’s Homecoming game, concert/dance, train or fire truck rides, Miss Teen Autumn Leaf Festival™ Pageant, Gong Show, Kids’ Parade, carnival, and food stands highlighted by the Farmers and Merchants Day Craft Show and Auto Show on the closing weekend.
The 1977 parade contained more than 100 units, and another successful Autumn Leaf Festival™ was had by all ages. Although recent festivals contain similarities to those in the beginning, they have become more organized, structured, and longer in length. The 80s and 90s finds ALF™ capturing the beauty of fall foliage as well as bringing special memories to life.
All information was obtained from The Clarion Republican. The years 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1977, and 1991 were our resources.
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