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Posted on Fri, Aug 21, 2009 : 10 a.m.

The concrete origins of Ypsilanti's Heritage Fest

By Laura Bien

It all started with a sidewalk.

The completion of the nice, new sidewalks and street repaving in 1978 Depot Town didn’t seem like much of an event to some. Not compared to the Rolling Stones’ July concert at Detroit’s Masonic Hall, or the release of the hot new summer movie Grease, playing at Briarwood, or even the upcoming Drum Corps championship at Rynearson Stadium.

And it wasn’t--until the Depot Town Association, led by president Tom Dodd, hit on the idea of transforming a mundane municipal improvement into a whimsical “Sidewalk Celebration.”

DTA member and artist Carolyn McKeever drew an elegant ole-timey poster, and the festival was on!

Visitors could look forward to such delights as “Plain and Fancy Walking,” bluegrass and jazz, and the excitement of ceremonial sidewalk dedications and ribbon-cutting, by no less an eminence than “Hizzoner” Mayor Goodman. There was even a beer garden and a “Color T.V. Raffle”! Activities were planned from noon until dark.

“Dancing to live band music, exhibits from art to history, old-time movies, buggy rides, and more will enliven Depot Town tomorrow,” said the July 14 Ypsilanti Press. “City officials, including Mayor George Goodman and City Manager Steve Shutt, will dedicate concrete and asphalt wherever they encounter ribbons to be cut on a route from the Alibi Bar [now Aubree’s] lot to the Huron River, then back to the railroad.”

“’It’s going to be a wide-open party; we’re telling the community to come down and play with us,’ said Dodd.” Aside from the beer garden, most of the activities were free.

The day after the festival, the Press ran a picture of a crowd in Depot Town. “There was music, there was dancing, there were draft horses prancing,” says a caption, “and it all took place Saturday in Depot Town during the Sidewalk Celebration. When sunny skies and lots of heat helped bring out the crowds, they found plenty to do and see.” On Monday, the Press ran more pictures, of the musicians Stoney Creek, dancers from Ann Arbor’s A-Squares, a classic car, and a food tent.

“During all that local hoopla,” says Dodd in a personal email, “Rich Baird [of the Visitors and Convention Bureau], Nathalie Edmunds, and I stopped in to the Eagles Hall for a moment of air conditioning and posited on how we ought to have this kind of a celebration as an annual event.”

The next year, in 1979, Ypsilanti organizations along with a horde of volunteers planned to repeat and expand the event, renaming it the Ypsilanti Yesteryear Heritage Fest. An August 19, 1979 Press editorial urged residents to attend. “On the basis of the enthusiastic support of thousands who will participate in what is hoped to be an annual event, the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday event should be a blockbuster of fun.”

The Press boosted “Heritage Days” by including an iron-on T-shirt decal so that readers could make their own shirt. It also printed an elaborate souvenir program packed with information about the events and such well-written historical essays as a story about four 19th-century firms still in existence in 1979: Peninsular Paper, the National Bank of Ypsilanti, Mellencamp’s, and the city’s oldest business, Mack & Mack Furniture.

The slate of events featured some with a charming home-grown quality, such as the frog-jumping contest, kids’ field events, and a contest to make one’s own float and race down the river. The range of fun free events, combined with mild, 70-degree weather resulted in an unprecedented turnout of 50,000 attendees, raising around $200,000.

Now in its 31st year, Heritage Fest attracts around 100,000 visitors and offers an even greater, if not dizzying, range of delightful things to do, including the popular “Nightmare Cruise,” historical walks with Ypsi city historian James Mann, and a chance to see Buffalo Soldiers reenactors and even kettle-brewed beer.

“Today, folks down in Depot Town often refer to the celebrants as "Yesterfesters,” says Dodd. And when you wander over to Depot Town, take a quick peek at the sidewalks--where it all began.

Images: "Sidewalk Celebration" poster used by permission of James Mann and Tom Dodd, from their book Down by the Depot. 2 Ypsilanti Press images "Ypsilanti Yesteryear" image courtesy the Ypsilanti City Archives Ypsilanti Press image

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Lisa Bashert

Tue, Aug 25, 2009 : 12:03 p.m.

I love the Ypsilanti Yesteryear language -- so alliterative and fun. Is that the "iron shirt" Edward was referring to? I think that one should be re-printed--I'd buy one. The current t-shirts are covered with advertising logos, which I don't care for.

Laura Bien

Mon, Aug 24, 2009 : 10:27 a.m.

What a wonderful place for a first date! My sweetie and I went there Fri. and all day Sat. and had a lovely time--and it felt like a date, as well. Very fun, with that end-of-summer poignancy-magic. Thank you for your nice comment, Mr. H.

Randy Hildebrandt

Sat, Aug 22, 2009 : 1:14 p.m.

Ypsilanti Heritage Festival 1981... this is where I had my first date with my high school sweetheart. And now we just celebrated our 21st wedding anniversary! Great memories. Great article.

Laura Bien

Fri, Aug 21, 2009 : 1:58 p.m.

Ed: Yep, I did do make an "iron-on" decal on newsprint? Took up a whole page of the paper, too.

Laura Bien

Fri, Aug 21, 2009 : 12:13 p.m.

Yes indeedy, ypsihistor. The whimsical vision of, really, one man, flowered into a gigantic fest.

James Mann

Fri, Aug 21, 2009 : 9:10 a.m.

Great things come from small beginnings