Decades of tradition: Fort Vallonia Days celebrates 50th anniversary



Everything was where it was supposed to be and located in all the same familiar places.

Main Street was shut down, the Driftwood Township Volunteer Fire Department had its fish sandwiches for sale outside the department, the trail ride began early and all the traditions were the same as they have been for the last 50 years.

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Even though everything was the same, this year was different.

This was the year Fort Vallonia Days reached a milestone of 50 years. The historic festival highlights this community’s heritage and the way things were when it was settled in the early 1800s.

You could almost feel in the air how much more special it was as people made their way along Main Street and the grounds of the festival, which includes a replica of the fort, demonstrations, activities, music, food, flea markets and more.

Jackie Gibson, president of the Fort Vallonia Days committee, said it was amazing to think about how the small community has been able to sustain the festival all these years.

“It’s exciting for a little town like ours to keep something like this going,” she said, adding between 50 and 75 volunteers help put on the festival. “With the 50th, we wanted to make things even more special.”

A walk into the fort — originally constructed in 1812 and rebuilt during the first years of the festival — was a walk back in time as demonstrators showed festival goers how settlers made things.

Blacksmithing, woodworking, sewing, bows and arrows and basket weaving skills were on display inside the fort.

“That’s what this festival is all about,” Gibson said. “Seeing those demonstrations inside the fort kind of takes you back in time.”

The fort’s garrison house was open for visitors and teepees, tents and tomahawk throws all were on display for people to see.

The fort’s construction was ordered by then Gov. William Henry Harrison, who went on to become the ninth president of the United States, to protect about 90 families from the American Indians, who had become a threat to settlers.

One of the traditions since the festival’s inception has been the Wes Hartley Memorial Muzzleloading Shoot.

The contest celebrates the heritage of muzzleloading long guns, which were commonly used in the early to mid-1800s.

Twenty-six participants met early Saturday morning to take part in the 50th shoot and another 50 or more were spectators.

“To have 50 of anything anymore is really special,” organizer Colton Fleetwood said. “To have 50 festivals and 50 shoots is really cool to have these events to keep going.”

The shoot is named after Hartley, who was a gun maker in the area until his death in 1968 before the festival began, Fleetwood said.

“The guys that started the shoot thought it was a good way to honor his memory,” he said.

Over the years the event has sparked family traditions as multiple generations participate in the event.

This year’s winner, Jeff Neal of Brownstown, has competed since he was 8 years old and started with his father, Don, who has won four times and helped start the shoot.

“I started 38 years ago,” he said. “I’ve got second twice and this is my first, so it’s pretty cool.”

Neal also has competed alongside his sons Tyler, 20, Braden, 17, and Bryce, 14, which makes it special.

It’s also special because of the camaraderie among the competitors.

“It’s the friendship and people that make this,” he said. “This is a family tradition, and it’s something my dad and I have always done.”

Competitors shoot at an “x center target” and measure shots to a thousandth of an inch.

Neal won with 201 thousands of an inch from center

“That’s less than a quarter of an inch and tells you the accuracy of what we’re able to obtain with muzzleloading rifles,” Fleetwood said.

He said seeing the Neal family and others compete with multiple generations is special.

“Being able to pass that down from father to son, grandfather to grandson and on down is something you don’t see a lot of in most things,” he said. “Being able to teach and pass down knowledge you learn onto somebody else and keep it alive is really special.”

“To be able to win this is really hard,” Fleetwood said.

He is the secretary of the National Muzzleloading Rifle Association and said it’s great to do something local to promote the sport.

“To me, it is really important as an outreach,” he said.

Fleetwood also loves the tradition of the festival, going each year since he was born.

“I’m 23, and I’ve been to 23 festivals,” Fleetwood said.

Gibson — who has worked on the committee since 1994 — said Fleetwood is not the exception and that many families have built traditions around the festival.

“We have a lot of people that have a lot of pride in this festival,” she said. “When you come here, you see people you haven’t seen in forever.”

Her favorite part is seeing everyone she knows and all the people that come to the festival

“There are so many people that come here,” she said. “It’s amazing to think how many people come here.”

Another tradition is the Driftwood Township Volunteer Fire Department’s fish sandwiches.

The line to get a sandwich stretched a half block from the stand by 10:30 a.m. Saturday. By 11 a.m., it was past the Bluebird Cafe and toward the pavilion a full block away.

Bill and Debra Kirby came from their home in Monroe County and were waiting in line for sandwiches, which they said were a “must have.” The couple have been coming to the festival for more than 20 years.

“It’s for a good cause to begin with and it’s such a good sandwich,” Bill Kirby said.

The department buys the pieces of fish, makes their own batter, coats the fish in the batter and fries them up before piling fillets high on a bun for customers.

All the proceeds go to benefit the fire department.

Christopher Holloway is from Indianapolis and has family in the area and has attended the festival since he was a kid.

He too is a fan of the fish sandwiches. He also likes the slow pace of the festival.

“It’s way slowed down from a big city,” he said. “It’s relaxing to be here.”

During the parade, more than 30 of the original founders of the festival served as parade grand marshals, and it looks as though the festival they founded will continue for more generations.

“It’s something we just do down here in Vallonia,” Gibson said.

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