Maple Leaf Festival has colorful 50-year history
What started as an idea to promote Baldwin City 50 years ago that drew several hundred people has grown steadily to estimates as high as 30,000 to 40,000 people every year.
Yes, the Maple Leaf Festival has accomplished everything its founders -- credited to be Ivan Boyd, Charles Doudna, C.R. Whitley and Bill Horn -- wanted. In fact, it has done better than anyone could have dreamed back in 1957 when the Commercial Club put on the first-ever festival.
"Obviously, it did work," said Archer Carlson, long-time Baldwin City resident who was a member of the Commercial Club, adding that no one thought it would grow to draw 30,000 people. "That was too optimistic a figure to believe. But, that's what happened.
"It put Baldwin City on the map for fall programs," said Carlson. "Well, yes, it definitely has been a success. It wasn't though the effort of any one person. It was a group effort."
Roger Boyd, who like his dad, Ivan, was a professor of biology at Baker University for decades, recalls the festival's start and how his mom, Margaret, was as important to it as anyone.
"This was 50 years ago and I was 10, so my memory is rusty," said Boyd. "What I do remember is both my mother and father for several years prior to 1958 traveling around eastern Kansas and western Missouri to visit other festivals to see what they did.
"I also remember my dad being on TV spots promoting the early festivals," he said. "He always said that we were doing this for three reasons: 1) get people to come to Baldwin so they might consider moving here, 2) get business people to come visit so they might consider opening a business here and 3) give local clubs and organizations an opportunity to raise some money for their activities."
History shows that worked. But, why is the festival always the third full weekend in October? There's a reason and it's because of the abundance of Maple trees.
"The third weekend in October was decided on for several reasons," said Boyd. "My dad started recording when the trees would turn color and in the 1950s they were pretty consistently the third weekend. He also noticed that even though there was a peak, and we might miss it on occasion, there were always some early trees and late trees -- so, it would work out.
"The third weekend also seemed to be a weekend that didn't have any other activities going on," said Boyd.
The other usual question with the festival -- why are there so many Maple trees here? It's up to debate with several versions of the story repeated. But, long-time resident Loren Litteer points to a club as the beginning of the city's famed fall foliage.
"The origin of these hardy trees with the golds, yellows and red leaves has been the subject of comment and speculation for decades and has spawned numerous legends as to their origin -- including the interesting but totally false legend that a shipment of saplings arrived at the Baldwin train depot but were not claimed so they were taken out and planted," said Litteer. "Their actual origin, however, lies in one early citizen and his love for trees, especially maple.
"Over 80 years ago, in the 1920s, the owner of the local nursery and orchard -- most recently known as the Maple Leaf Orchard -- a Mr. A.F. Baker, brought his love for the beauty of the hard maple with him from his native New England and delighted to raise them," he said. "Mrs. Baker decided that these colorful trees should be planted throughout the then sparsely-treed community and proposed the idea to the Baldwin Garden Club, which agreed and tentatively contracted to purchase some 200 of the tree saplings."
Those efforts continued and maple trees began to dot the community.
"Of the original 200, Baker University purchased approximately half for planting on the university campus," said Litteer. "The Garden Club, meanwhile, canvassed the community and took orders for trees at 50 cents each. Each buyer had to promise to plant the tree, water it and tend it to make sure that the tree survived. Finding the citizens to be receptive to the idea, the trees were ordered. The project was such a success that the Garden Club is known to have ordered and sold at least one more shipment of the trees.
"Being a hardy species, most of the original 200 trees survived, grew and multiplied to create the fall splendor which inspired the creation of the Maple Leaf Festival in 1958," he said.
That started it. The local Boy Scout troop worked to continue it by selling Maple saplings at the festival for years.
"I remember, as a scout, digging up hundreds of small, local Maple trees for the scouts to sell," said Boyd.
For whatever reason, the Maple Leaf Festival not only took root, but flourished. Long-time Baldwin City resident Katharine Kelley recorded the history of everything that had to do with the town and area. Her Maple Leaf Festival notes from the first 25 years detail its growth.
In its first year, Kelley noted "350 rode the bus tours and 280 people were served at the barbecued chicken dinner Saturday evening." The second year it was a buffalo barbecue and "two yearlings fed 1,400 people." It wasn't until the third year that Kelley noted the "first parade."
"People weren't enthused about a parade until about that time," said Carlson.
That also helped spark more attendance. Kelley's notes from the fourth year included "attendance--2,000 both days." In year five, she noted "thousands of visitors." Weather was noted the next year "rain on Sunday-- but 'biggest' yet." The 1964 version was the last run by the Commercial Club. The next year the Baldwin City Community Maple Leaf Planning Association took over. The ninth year had 'Largest' attendance to date."
For its 10th anniversary, it was "'Bigger' than ever -- 4,000 visitors on both days."
In each of her notations, the attendance grew each year. For the 25th in 1982, her notation was "Good weather -- 20,000(?) for Saturday parade; 125 booths downtown! Good sales. Food concessions sold out. 80 booths at BPW in junior high gym."
The next 25 years saw similar growth and has resulted in the festival today being one of the premier events in eastern Kansas each October.