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Stephens City’s biggest annual event gets underway Memorial Day weekend.

The Newtown Heritage Festival, Inc. was organized in 1993 to bring the Stephens City community together to  awaken and honor the prolific history of the village once known as Newtown.  According to the By-Laws of the Newtown Heritage Festival, Inc., the purpose of the annual festival is to provide a forum for the citizens of Stephens City to celebrate, study, and embrace the rich cultural heritage and history of the town for both residents and non-residents alike.

At the request of the Town council, a group of local citizens came together to establish a festival that would celebrate and acknowledge the place of Stephens City in the Shenandoah Valley. Later, under the leadership of Tootie Rinker, first festival president, the volunteer festival committee began to organize a debt free, volunteer and donations driven event. The  monies reserved would allow for the organizers to pass on the savings with admission to all indoor and outdoor events—offered free of charge.

The focus would be to erase the town’s perceived historical obscurity as the small hamlet just south of Winchester and recognize Stephens City as the second oldest town in the Shenandoah Valley (est. 1758). The festival theme would feature the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth centuries, when the town, then known as Newtown/Stephensburg, became prosperous as a crossroads village with small scale industries, featuring production of the renowned Newtown Wagon. The Civil War would receive deserved attention as history reflected constant troop movements in the Valley causing the town to change hands thirty-five times, six times in one day alone, but with minimal destruction of private property.

The first festival included craft demonstrations and displays at the Old Stephens City School, Civil War  “Living History” encampments near Applegate Antiques (Ritenour-Miller house), self-guided walking tours of the historic district, a festival parade traveling north-south down Main Street, spring fling family fun at the United Methodist Church, an outdoor music concert at both the Old School and Newtown Commons and a carnival at Jamesway Plaza.  Four museums with distinct themes were set up on Main Street. Dr. David Powers gave an 18th century interpretation at the Stone House on the south end of town. The old store-front adjoining Mildred Grove’s home displayed old town relics and memorabilia. Old Time Apple Growers Association exhibited the town’s commercial farming industry at the Flower Center. The Turner Ashby chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Mosby Gang, a Civil War history acting troupe highlighted Civil War demonstrations. The festival drew 10,000 people in its first year and continued to draw large crowds going forward.

Newtown Heritage Festival music on the Commons. Photos courtesy Newtown Heritage Festival

The committee held a contest among the local schools to design a logo which best represented a freight wagon because of the town’s history as the Newtown Wagon makers. The prize was recognition from the festival organizers and knowing the design would be placed on t-shirts, coffee mugs and other related commemoratives. A male student from Aylor Middle School who won received this recognition and the opportunity to ride in the parade.

Newtown Heritage Festival displays commemoratives through the years.

According to current and three-time festival president, Tootie Rinker, the committee decided on a paperweight as the first commemorative for $10 because it was universal, and the new logo would fit. “We only ordered 250 and they sold out quickly,” she said. “We later chose a pottery item because the town was also known for its red clay pottery. We produced a red clay pot one year, but it was not popular with attendees. We tried other items but people were enamored with quality pottery. Folks really liked the Granville pottery items which are individually hand-thrown limited edition keepsakes and the committee continued with it from 1997 onward.”

The festival began with local artisans who displayed, quilting, basket weaving, chair caning, barrel-making and lath work at various locations about town. But as the years went on those folks passed away or no longer displayed their craft and the committee could not locate enough artisans to keep it going.

In the first few years, the Committee provided music with church or family bands located in both Newton Commons and the Old School. Later, there was interest in expanding the variety of music and the committee decided to compensate more well-known entertainers. The music venue then was consolidated at the Commons, where most people congregated. The festival acquired a number of extremely popular entertainers who drew large crowds, including Ronnie Dove and Ellen Irlene Mandrell.

Ray Ewing was the Stephens City Mayor from 1994 through 2010. He remembers five significant players then on the festival committee like Tootie Rinker, Betty Wymer, Donna Steward, Mary Alice Barley, and the late Janet Carbaugh. “Betty and Tootie were real sparkplugs for getting things done. Donna headed the parade beginning in 2000 and continues with it today. It was these ladies’ long-term commitment that played a key role in sustaining the success of the festival” Ewing said.

Stephens City Cub Scouts march in Newtown Heritage Festival parade.

“The festival committee relied heavily on the town staff, especially Mike Kehoe who managed the logistics. The festival would not have succeeded without the full support and involvement of the town. The town’s acquisition of the Old School property and the Commons proved to be quite a boost to the festival, providing important venues for activities and entertainment,” Ewing added.

“One delightful event that sticks in my mind is the Lions Club sponsored Apple Crate derby because my eight-year-old grandson took part in it for a couple of years. He came in second one year and won a trophy. After the race he told me ‘Thanks granddaddy, this is the first trophy I have ever won in my whole life.’   I am certain there are other folks in the community who also hold such fond memories from this local and family friendly festival,” Ewing concluded.

In 1994, A Newtown Festival Handbook was published by the festival to better identify committee responsibilities, meeting dates, entertainment, transportation, and logistics. A fold out brochure was disseminated revealing the full two-day schedule of events, a town map identifying location of parade, museums, information center and parking and shuttle service.

The 1995 festival was the first to experience inclement weather as it rained off and on all day Sunday. However, the 1:30 pm Main Street parade went off without a hitch and the rain failed to dampen crowd enthusiasm. New that year were rides in the Newton Wagon built by Dennis Clem and pulled by tractor down Main Street. Clem’s Garage celebrated their 50th anniversary, sharing a six foot by 8-foot birthday cake with the crowd. The cake required fifteen cases of cake mix, 168 eggs and an unknown amount of frosting. Food options were abundant with local restaurants, churches and civic groups operating booths, food trucks and serving suppers.

1997 provided festival goers with the opportunity to purchase a print of the Stephens City Route 11 Toll House by local artist Chuck Thorn which was sold as a commemorative.

The 1999 festival activities began early Saturday morning with the 5th Apple Crate Derby sponsored by the Lion’s Club featuring homemade carts. The Derby took place on the Locust Street hill adjacent to town hall. Newtown Commons was the two-day site for the antique tractor and auto show. Trinity Lutheran Church served an authentic German style dinner at 11 am and the United Methodist Church served a country chicken dinner in the late afternoon.

The festival included an original Virginia freight wagon owned by Rod Graves of Luray. This wagon closely resembled a Newtown Wagon from the early part of the 19th century and displayed in a shed beside the Stone House Museum. The museum offered free horse drawn wagon tours of the historic district twice on Sunday afternoon. A highlight of the festival was an old-timer’s baseball game showcasing twenty-five former Stephens city High School players from the 1930s, 40s and 50s and occurred at the baseball field next to town hall.

2002 marked the Newtown Festivals 10th anniversary. The festival kicked off Friday night with the Miss Newtown Heritage Pageant. The Stone House Foundation featured an exhibit and presentation on Mudville, a business and residential community located just west of down-town and split by Marlboro Road (Route 631) and the railroad tracks. The Tavern (now the History Center), on the corner of Main and Fairfax Streets, served as the nucleus for the town’s history exhibits. Stephens City Volunteer Fire and Rescue hosted their famous barbecue chicken dinner at noon at the fire hall on Mulberry Street. The festival commemoratives were a hand-thrown limited edition batter bowl as well as a 10th Anniversary cookie jar, both selling for $25. A Sunday Decoration Day memorial service took place at Greenhill Cemetery, a precursor to future services at the brick Veterans Memorial on Main Street, dedicated in 2015.

Under the management of committee member Donna Steward, the 2 pm parade down Main Street continued to wow the crowds with local marching bands, floats, dignitaries, civic groups, automotive entries, firetrucks and military vehicles.

The 2008 festival celebrated the Stephens City, Newtown, Stephensburg 250th anniversary (1758-2008). To launch the historical celebration, Sherando High School, for the first time, had the annual spring concert preform outside of the school building. The school’s concert and symphonic bands held a pre-festival concert under a tent on the Commons lawn for public viewing. Over one hundred teenagers, members of the school’s concert, symphonic and marching bands practiced for one year and eagerly preformed music scores and pop melodies.

The festival had nine museums along Main Street featuring historical exhibits and living history experiences. The highlight of the annual walking tours included an archeological dig at the home of the town’s first settler, Peter Stephens, on the southwest side of Main Street, near Stephens Run.

The Old School had museums, including a classroom with items displayed from that earlier era and the actual teachers who instructed back then. It was immensely popular with former students who could reminisce about school days with their beloved teachers. The artifacts were all from Dennis Clem’s collection.

The Newtown Festival celebrated 20 years in 2012. Business sponsorships and the sale of festival items continued to support the event. This year, a stoneware flowerpot was sold for $25. Saturday afternoon’s parade down Main Street featured a descendant of town founder Peter Stephens, floats, restored freight wagons, fire trucks, sheriff’s vehicles, classic convertibles, and the Sherando Marching Band. A massive fireworks display (the largest ever in Stephens City) climaxed Saturday’s events.

Sherando High School Marching Band.

According to Rinker, interest in the Newtown history aspect started to wane around 2015 as attendees desired great food, good music and spectacular fireworks. “But Rick Kriebel has given us a unique way to showcase our prolific history and brought it back to life,” Rinker said.

Rick Kriebel, Stone House Foundation Manager of Collections and Programs, wrote a narrative for a tractor drawn wagon history tour down Main Street. “I focused the tour on the town’s most important places on Main Street. Frontier history, African American history, Great Wagon Road, and the Civil War were top priorities,” Kriebel said. “From there, my next priority was writing in a way that could engage people. You are out in the open air, looking at the places where history took place and because it is geographically bound you can point out where stuff happens.”  The 2019 wagon tour was a great success.

The family focused event continued to be a big hit, year after year, with locals, out of towners and entertainers alike. Admission to the festival, concerts and exhibits continued to remain free. “The festival is put on by the town residents for the people of the community,” Rinker said of the all-volunteer event. “It’s a family celebration and we want people to be able to afford it.”

Committee members continue to volunteer their talents to ensure the festival’s success. Adrian O’Conner’s knowledge and music contacts have enhanced our ability to obtain top notch entertainment. “When I took over as president in 2012, I drew upon some from friends in bluegrass music and recognized how eclectic our local talent (Robbie Limon, Souled Out, Springfield Exit, etc.) was,” O’Conner said.

“We had some stumbles along the way — an ill-fated Friday high-school “Battle of the Bands,” for e.g., — but then we hooked up with Souled Out and now we have a true “heritage” gold mine in Heather Butler and the Newtown Music Center. Frankly, I was lucky to see all this fall in place. What serendipity!”

The craft show under Kim Begnaud has expanded to obtain increased vendor participation at the Commons and more varied hand made products.  Amy Groah has built relationships with food vendors and knows how to negotiate and arrange to have the best food available at the festival.

Newtown Heritage Festival has the best food vendors every year.

“In the 1990s, when we started thinking about the festival, we thought, our town merited the same approach to promoting history as other small towns had. We believe Newtown Festival is one of the best of its type in the entire Valley” O’Connor said. “We do it and continue to do it on a shoestring budget. We try to put in a new and fresh event each year and grow the festival,” O’Conner added.

The 30th Annual Newtown Heritage Festival (May 27-28) begins Friday evening and continues with a day full of activities from 10 am until after dark Saturday, concluding with massive fireworks at 9 pm. For more information, call 540-869-3087.