As popular as Oregon’s German-American Festival has been, GAF Society Chairman Timothy Pecsenye stresses his organization faces the same challenges as any other non-profit organization.
The GAF started in 1966, was incorporated in January 1967 by seven ethnic societies, and later purchased Oak Shade Grove for its German-Swiss Cultural Center. The festival helps pay for maintenance of Oak Shade Grove and its “Germanic-style” clubhouse, but each society continues its own fundraising events.
The 35-acre Eischen’s Grove (now Oak Shade) was purchased in 1969 — considered the first piece of the GAF Society’s existence.
The cooperation by the seven unified Swiss and German societies and the cultural center in Oregon remain unique in the United States, members say. Before moving the GAF to the now 100-acre festival site, the festival was held at Raceway Park until 1974, and then at the Lucas County Recreation Center until 1986.
Organizers say the GAF remains the area’s oldest, largest, and greatest festival, but Pecsenye admits he may be biased in saying the German fest has the best food.
The three-day festival remains so popular organizers began a shuttle service two years ago to help people get to Oak Shade Grove from three parking lots.
The festival requires 2,000 volunteers to make thousands of pounds of mashed potatoes, thousands of links of bratwurst and other German sausages, and potato pancakes stacked to a hilt. Plus, there are parking attendees, bartenders, a massive clean-up effort, and more.
“The public doesn’t even see the clean-up,” Pecsenye said.
Some of the volunteers include members of other non-profit groups, who may receive a stipend for their efforts. One group at this year’s festival was an Erie Mason, Mich. softball team, for example.
One of the organizers even attends committee meetings from his home in Germantown, Maryland, Pecsenye says. The man arrived this year at the festival with his 4-year-old son, who was dressed as a chimney sweep — a German symbol for good luck.
However, Pecsenye says the GAF faces new challenges every year when it comes to volunteers and finances. After the completion of construction on Interstate 280 and the good weather at this year’s 43rd annual fest, an increase in attendance left no doubt the ethnic festival will continue in 2009 and beyond.
“Planning (for 2009) has already started, because if there were some details that we left out, we said, ‘Well, we will have to think about it for next year,’” Pecsenye said. “People think about the festival for its great entertainment value.”
But Pecsenye admits that in the previous two years, attendance came close to 18,000 — cutting it close for the GAF to break even. This year, the festival drew 25,000, bringing it closer to normal numbers, but he would like to see it go higher.
Three years ago, the numbers were close to the mid-20,000 range, but going back even further, he says, attendance was even higher.
“If you have four of six years of rain, the utility bill doesn’t stop because your primary fundraiser is weaker than normal, your insurance company doesn’t stop because you had a bad year, and neither does the electric company. When you string three or four years of them together, that makes a difference,” Pecsenye said.
Now that the Ohio Department of Transportation’s Maumee River Crossing bridge project is nearing completion, he expects the festival to continue on track getting back to previous numbers. There is still another concern that has changed things — high school football.
There currently are two bills pending in the Ohio legislature that Pecsenye is keeping an eye on. One would require school districts to begin classes later in the summer. This year, high school football started on August 22, and that doesn’t include scrimmages played two weeks prior, plus two-a-days that started July 31.
Considering the time families need to transport student-athletes, band members, and other club members to and from events, Pecsenye says the end result is a decrease in volunteers for the GAF.
The other pending bill is in regards to allowing communities to opt out of regional transit authorities. He says his group would like to be able to contract with TARTA for shuttle service, which it cannot do now in Oregon.
Pecsenye says one more reason for possible decreases in attendance at ethnic festivals could be the challenges facing organizers resulting from mixing of ethnicities within American culture. In Northwest Ohio, Pecsenye estimates that about 30 percent of the population remains German or Swiss, which he said still “gives them something to build on.”
For the festival to continue being successful, Pecsenye says “it depends on attendance; it depends on people; and it depends upon the ability to change within the times.”
He added that organizers also have to adjust to changes in behavior toward consumption of alcohol. The GAF has started importing German beers, which, Pecsenye says, provides better quality.