Walnut Valley Festival to celebrate 50th anniversary

Dear Friends, a bluegrass band with several members from Conway Springs and Clearwater, performs on Stage 5 in 2019. Stage 5 is the most famous “unofficial” stage at the festival, and draws local bands and national acts alike.

By Paul Rhodes

WINFIELD – The year was 1975, and I was a freshman at Kansas State University. I was headed to Winfield, Kan., to cover the Walnut Valley Festival for the yearbook at KSU.
I can remember the excitement like it was yesterday as I pulled up to the festival grounds on the Cowley County Fairgrounds, and waited in line as patiently as I could to get in. That excitement hasn’t changed in the 47 years since then.
This year, I and my family and friends, along with thousands of other bluegrass friends I’ve yet to meet, will mark the 50th anniversary of this unique and special music event. Maybe it’s simply because there’s so much more to this festival than four stages filled with four days of official performances.
Festival fans call this “Coming Home” each year, and it truly feels that way. I felt at home that first year in the fall of 1975. The festival was just four years old that year, and my editor at the yearbook was looking for someone to cover this phenomenon that was becoming all the rage with KSU students.
My hand shot up so fast I almost dislocated my shoulder.

Evan Ogborn, Wichita, plays backup for a performer in 2017. Now, Ogborn is part of the band Pretend Friend that will perform several sets on this year’s main stages.

That weekend in Winfield I slept in the back of my car and made more friends than I could keep track of. I took in the stage music, but I also fell in love with the mountains of music being generated in the expanse of the campgrounds in an area known as the Pecan Grove.
This grove of pecan trees along the Walnut River was where the festival campgrounds began. Over my years as a festival attendee, the grounds have grown to include a huge expanse that used to be soccer and baseball fields, and another picturesque camping area along the river known initially as the Walnut Grove, and now identified as the West Campgrounds. In all, more than 12,000 people will attend the festival during its four-day run.
The festival grew out of a folk music event that Southwestern College hosted for a few years in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. One of the original organizers was Bob Redford, who became synonymous with the Walnut Valley Festival over the years. He had help from knowledgeable people – both performers and behind-the-scenes folks – and the festival grew and thrived from that expertise.
And when Redford got an offer he thought he couldn’t refuse to sell the festival one year, he got up on Stage 1 at midnight and announced that he had torn up the contract and the festival would stay in Winfield. The festival grounds erupted, and people stayed up all night performing and celebrating.
Which wasn’t that different from any other Saturday night at the festival over the past 50 years.

Tim Henry of Cheney checks the fire on his food in 2019. Henry is famous for his campground meals that he has served to as many as 100 people over the years.

Once I had a family, I moved out of the Pecan Grove and out onto the ballfield area. We who had moved out there lovingly called it “The Prairie.” I was part of a huge themed camp on The Prairie for many years, and we even won the campground contest one year when we built an entire western town with a bridge into town and a windmill at the other end of town.
Those were memorable years as we focused on our lives – and some fun – around camp.
In more recent years, I picked up and started over in the West Campground, as far north as you can go and still be on the festival grounds. That’s where my girlfriend Kim and I started our lifes together at the festival, and our new camp just grew from there with family and friends.
And now, hopefully for the last time, we’re moving again. We want power and water for our new-to-us travel trailer, and we want to be closer to where the music is happening as we enjoy our “senior” years at the festival. And just to make sure our nightlife thrives, we’ll be camping near musician friends we’ve made over the years who will keep us entertained deep into the festival’s moonlit nights.
In a publication leading up to this 50th festival, four key things were identified by organizers from the early years:
• “Campground pickin’” was an important element of the festival.
• On stage jams were going to be recognized as legendary.
• The weather was regularly going to be terrible.
• And, in the end, it was worth doing over again each year.
Personally, I couldn’t agree more.
I have been fortunate to be a part of several communities over the years, and that sense of community is important to my well-being, and the well-being of my community members. Once a year, at the Walnut Valley Festival, I share my time and my spirit with another important community.
I cannot recommend this experience enough to newcomers. If camping is too much to start, begin with a day-trip to this year’s festival, which runs Thursday through Sunday, Sept. 14 to 18. The music on four official stages will be fantastic, there’s a wonderful food court with something for every taste, and you’re always welcome to wander the campgrounds and listen to the never-ending music jams.
For more information, visit www.wvfest.com.

Socks in the Frying Pan, an Irish band from County Clare, performs at the festival in 2017. The band will be back to entertain fans for this year’s 50th anniversary.
In 2017, John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band made a guest appearance at the Walnut Valley Festival.