Sunday, May 01, 2005

Up to Downs and back again

I meant to follow last week's post immediately with one about the Kansas Storytelling Festival in Downs, but by the time I got to it, I was knee-deep in the Kansas City Storytelling Celebration. Now I have a moment to breathe.

The Kansas Storytelling Festival started in 1994. This date sticks in my mind, as it was one of the first festivals I was invited to since I became a full-time storyteller in 1993.

Downs is a pretty little town in north-central Kansas, between Osborne and Cawker City (home of the biggest ball of twine). It's not far from the geodetic center of the continental US. The Downs Art Council is active, hosting the storytelling festival, the festival of the trees, and an acoustic coffeehouse called "Downs Unplugged," among other events. They've got a great corps of volunteers who dive right in to the work of putting on a festival.

At the first KS Storytelling Festival, I had several performances. Most, if not all, were attended by a set of four blonde sisters, ranging in age from six months to six years (I think). The Koops girls were my first Downs groupies. Even the little one, Jenny, listened attentively. Now the oldest is on her way to college, and Jenny is 13.

This year was my fifth time at the festival. Lots of the locals know me and greet me by name when I arrive. This time, I got there at lunchtime, just pulling in at the same time as Jim "Two Crows" Wallen and his wife Deb.

We went down to the Railroad Inn for lunch, a tiny restaurant right next to the tracks. We peered around, trying to find an empty table, and I spied Terry Koops (the uncle of the blonde girls, I think--Koops is a common name in this Dutch-settled town), sitting with a friend. We pulled up chairs to his table and I began the introductions before we even ordered (incredible fried chicken, and if I'd had room, I would have had the strawberry shortcake). Terry is famous for having won the liar's contest at the festival many years in a row. In fact, they told him he couldn't enter anymore. The prize is, of course, a shovel of the kind often found in barnyards. No subtlety there, but it is a liar's contest...

Anyway, that was a good start to the festival. We were welcomed everywhere we went. I was put up in the home of the Bihlmaiers, a gracious couple who've moved into town from their farm (Margaret even gave me some of her chokecherry jelly to bring home). The stories flowed all weekend. The first year of the festival, it was mainly locals who came to listen. Now there are folks from all over--Oklahoma, Missouri, Colorado, other parts of Kansas, as well as the locals.

Hmm, I was going to write about the Kansas City Celebration here, but I'll save that for next time.

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