BY KAREN GERHARDINGER| MIRROR REPORTER — When the first Roche de Boeuf Festival debuted on September 7, 1974, there was no hourlong parade, beer tent or multiple stages of entertainment.
The festival instead packed downtown Waterville with artisans, a bike parade, a costume contest, tractor-pulled wagons to drive people around town and a skydiver who parachuted into Pray Park. Waterville Playshop members performed an old-fashioned traveling show called “The Saga of Sally – or Can a Girl Find Happiness in a Boarding House in Waterville Town?”
Kids’ activities included a greased pig chase and booths for dart-throwing and fishing. Girl Scouts hosted a babysitting area so parents could stroll through the arts and crafts displays. Boy Scouts showed old-time movies for free, and guests enjoyed a strolling barbershop quartet as well as a Friday night square dance.
“We wanted an event that would bring the community together downtown,” said Kenny Blair, one of the four remaining festival founders.
As the city celebrates the 50th Roche de Boeuf Day on Saturday, September 23, Kenny will be joined by Annette Blair and Diana Waugh on a horse-drawn trolley as grand marshals of the parade, which steps off at 10:00 a.m. from the top of the hill. Dave Myerholtz, a former Waterville mayor, will be out of town for the special celebration, but he shared memories of that first festival.
“We had a dunk tank that they filled with water from the fire hydrant on Friday night. I was the first one in on Saturday morning, and the water was 60 degrees,” he laughed.
Kenny, Dave and the late Gary Waugh were members of the Jaycees, an organization for men under age 35. Annette and Diana joined in on the brainstorming and then the hard work to make the Roche de Boeuf Festival a reality.
While the Waterville Fire Association had a three-day festival each spring with gambling, a beer tent and carnival games and rides, the Roche de Boeuf Festival was created as a family-friendly event that supported the area businesses.
The name was an easy choice, the founders recall. The large rock that supports the historic interurban bridge near Farnsworth Metropark was called “Buffalo Rock” by Native Americans and translated into “Rock of Beef” by the French – who had no word for “buffalo.”
“It’s the icon of Waterville,” Kenny said.
“We always went around about how to spell Boeuf,” Annette said. Jaycee Don Blewett, who was to read a proclamation, needed help pronouncing it. So, the team unrolled some toilet paper and wrote “Roche de Boeuf” over and over again, then rolled it back up to give to him, Annette recalled.
The first event drew in a crowd that then-Police Chief Lowell Gingrich estimated at 10,000.
“Lowell was always pretty accurate,” Kenny said.
The Roche de Boeuf Festival exceeded the Jaycees’ expectations of bringing people together to have fun.
For $1.00, festivalgoers could take a few whacks at an old car with a sledgehammer.
“All the guys did it,” said Kenny. “They were taking out their frustrations.”
A dollar bill would also buy a paper plate. Participants would write their names on plates to place on the ground in Pray Park. Waterville resident Bernie Steinbaugh would then parachute out of an aircraft named Breezy and land on a plate. The winner split the prize money with the Jaycees.
The Waterville Rotary Club sold $1.00 tickets to sponsor a rubber duck. At the end of the day, the ducks were placed in the Maumee River where hovercraft would corral them and a winner would be picked.
“It was like another big party down by the river,” Kenny said.
Even when the men aged out of the Jaycees, the team continued to organize the annual festival for many more years, until it was passed on to the Waterville Area Chamber of Commerce.
Annette was in charge of the vendors, artisans and food sellers stationed around town. To organize the hundreds of participants, she used a map of the downtown on a posterboard, with Post-It notes denoting each vendor. It’s a system that is still used by the chamber.
“As a group, we catered – and happily so – to the crafters and vendors. They were the heart of getting people to come,” Diana said.
When Bowling Green decided to host a Black Swamp Festival on the same weekend, the organizers moved the Roche de Boeuf Festival to later in the month in order to still draw enough vendors.
The total cost of that first year was $278, said Diana, noting that the festival won a statewide Jaycees award.
Over the years, only COVID-19 canceled the festival, and one year it ended early because of pouring rain.
“Even if it was canceled by weather or something, this would still be the 50th Roche de Boeuf Day,” said Dave, who has participated in nearly all of the festivals: as mayor in the 1990s, or as part of the Boy Scouts and Waterville Rotary. He’s also driven the grand marshals in his yellow 1966 Ford Mustang for most of those years.
One year, Diana rode in the parade as she was named Waterville’s Home-town Hero. Annette walked along as a member of Herb Wyandt’s kazoo band. Kenny continues to be involved as Waterville’s public works director, orchestrating the garbage pickup and the inclusion of city trucks in the parade.
“We’re all people who have been in the community and supported the community for 50 years,” Diana said. “We came in and got involved.”
For the first few years, the Jaycees men wore white shirts, red vests and skimmer hats while the women dressed in period costumes.
As she prepares to ride in the lead vehicle – a horse-drawn wagon – Diana said she has quite a selection of Roche de Boeuf T-shirts to choose from. For the 50th anniversary, a special buffalo-themed T-shirt will be available at the festival’s information booth.
For information about the Roche de Boeuf Festival, visit www.watervillechamber.com.