If your budget is tight this year and your dream trip to Venice is on hold, now is a great time to hit the road to get reacquainted with the history and culture of the Mississippi Valley. And what could be more fun than visiting festivals along the river that mix history and culture with kitsch? Sure, towns in the Midwest throw festivals every year that follow the same basic blueprint: beer tent, fried food on a stick, and a classic rock/contemporary country cover band.
These 10 festivals are different, though. Some celebrate Mark Twain, others catfish, and one very grand festival pits competitors in an epic tug-of-war across the great river. So go to these festivals and connect with the history and culture of one of American’s great places, and yes, you will have plenty of opportunities to drink beer, eat fried Twinkies, and listen to your favorite Journey tribute band, too. Don’t forget the sunscreen and the Rolaids, though.
Folks in Hannibal are never shy about sharing their Mark Twain heritage, and why should they be? He’s a great writer and even better personality. Why not share the love and head to Hannibal over Memorial Day weekend for the annual Twain on Main Festival? The event highlights Twain’s literary works and builds a festival around it, complete with costumed actors, crafts, fried food, and a ceremonial floating of memorial lanterns in the Mississippi River. One of the featured books is Roughing It, a novel that grew out of Twain’s 3-month vacation to the Nevada silver mines that lasted 7 years. Don’t let the same thing happen to you; you still have 9 more festivals to hit this summer. When: Memorial weekend; free.
In the 18th century, fur trappers and traders—French, English, and Native American—met in the spring to swap the season’s fur harvest; some of the biggest events were in places along the Mississippi River. Inspired by this old tradition, folks with an interest in living history (and wearing buckskin) began faithful reenactments of the rendezvous experience. Among the best (and oldest) is the Fort du Chartres Rendezvous, which will be marking its 46th year in 2016. Set in a partially reconstructed 18th century French colonial fort about 55 miles south of St. Louis, vendors camp on site and dress in period clothing. Visitors can watch artisans demonstrate 18th century techniques (blacksmithing, root beer making) and can browse a wide selection of period crafts and food. The fort stages a tactical demonstration that replicates what a battle might have looked like, had Fort du Chartres ever been engaged in a battle, which it wasn’t. When: 1st weekend in June; free admission but there is a fee for parking.
For a Hannibal different experience after Twain on Main, head back to Hannibal for National Tom Sawyer Days, which will be marking its 61st year in 2016. Events include a fence painting competition that rewards those who can whitewash a fence quickly and ably (although the award probably should go to the person who convinces the most people to paint on his or her behalf), a mud volleyball contest taken so seriously that teams train weeks in advance, and, naturally, a frog jumping contest. If you forget to bring your own frog, they can supply one for you. When: July 1-4; free for most events, admission for concerts.
If there’s one fish synonymous with the Mississippi River it is catfish (or maybe carp, but there’s no CarpFest, yet), so why not celebrate the little sucker at Trempealeau Catfish Days? The Wisconsin town throws a good weekend party that includes bike tours, a motorcycle run, and a fishing tournament. Yes, it also includes catfish as food, just not on a stick; try a catfish burger made from locally-caught fish. Stick around on Sunday for the parade and fireworks. When: the weekend after the 4th of July; small fee.
If you’ve been to the Mississippi River, you’ve seen those giant but awkward towboats pushing rows of barges on the river. If you’ve wondered what it would be like to live and work on one of those boats, head to Grafton, Illinois for the Great Rivers Towboat Festival, where you can tour a working towboat (as long as the river isn’t acting up, like it does sometimes). When you are done checking out the boat, stick around and listen to some tunes and shop for a piece of original art, much of which has a river theme. When: July 23, 2016; small admission fee.
The grandest river festival, at least in terms of ambition, TugFest seems like an event that started as a friendly joke after one beer too many. On the second Saturday in August, the Mississippi River is closed to all river traffic for 3 hours so residents of LeClaire, Iowa can compete against their counterparts in Port Byron, Illinois in a tug-of-war contest with a very long rope. The only letdown is that no one gets pulled into the river: the 2,400-foot rope is just too heavy to move that much, even with teams of 20 tuggers. Even so, TugFest is great fun and shouldn’t be missed. You can watch the competition from either side of the river. If you get tired of watching the tugging, the rest of the festival feels like a county fair, complete with a midway and fried Twinkies. When: 2nd weekend in August; daily admission charge.
You’ve probably heard of Pitchfork or Bonnaroo and umpteen other music festivals, but RiverRoots Live in Davenport, Iowa is different from the rest. It features musicians whose style is rooted in the traditions of the Mississippi Valley—think blues, jazz, traditional country—plus you get to listen to them play on the banks of the Mississippi River in LeClaire Park. Proceeds benefit three local non-profits including the River Music Experience, a laid-back museum that highlights the native sounds of the Mississippi Valley. If the music isn’t enough to hook you (and it should be), RiverRoots Live is held in conjunction with Ribfest. Music may feed your soul, but someone’s gotta fill your belly, too. When: the weekend before Labor Day; daily fee.
In the 1880s, Villa Louis, the Dousman family home in Prairie du Chien (Wisconsin), was the site of an Artesian Stock Farm. I don’t really know what that means, but I think it has something to do with breeding horses. It wasn’t enough to just have a few horses milling about, however, so they also hosted carriage driving competitions. Local carriage enthusiasts resurrected the contest as the Villa Louis Carriage Classic. Since 1985 the competition has been sanctioned by the American Driving Society and the event has grown to become an important national event, if you’re into Artesian stocks or carriages. Several categories of competitions and exhibitions occur over the course of two days, including things like the Junior Reinsmanship and Antique Turnout. The Picnic Class is especially fun, as fully costumed competitors parade around the grounds showing off their antique carriages before disembarking for a picnic lunch. When: the weekend after Labor Day; admission fee.
I can’t put together a list of river festivals and not include New Orleans, but in a city with so many special events, which one should be highlighted? How about one that many people may not have heard of yet, because it’s pretty new? Downriver: Mighty Mississippi River Festival held their third annual event last year to highlight the importance of the Mississippi River in the life of New Orleans through storytelling, food, and music, all with a decidedly local flavor. It went well enough that they’re going to do it again, this time with a beer and oysters theme. Events take place at the French Market, Crescent Park, and the Old US Mint, and did I mention there will be beer and oysters? When: the 2nd Saturday in September.
There are few things as impressive as colorful hot-air balloons floating above you; add in the Mississippi River and a historic rivertown as a scenic background and you have the makings of a very memorable event. The balloons take off on Saturday and Sunday mornings for the competition, which is when you can watch them soar overhead; for a closer look, check out the balloon glow on Friday evening. While the competition is the main event, this is a complete festival, with live music and fireworks for your entertainment pleasure. When: mid-October; daily admission fee.
What are your favorites?
©Dean Klinkenberg, 2016