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Fall festivals offer a unique opportunity for locals to engage with their hometowns

Valley Center Film Festival 2.jpg
Hugo Phan
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KMUW
Eric Scriven and Anne Hainlen work hard to make the Vally Center Fall Festival memorable for each attendee.

Looking to reconnect with your hometown? Fall festival season might present the perfect opportunity.

It’s Fall Festival season in Kansas.

Dozens of small towns across the state will host celebrations the next couple of months where people can watch a parade, enjoy a carnival ride and snack on fair food.

But the people who organize the festivals say they serve a much deeper purpose.

People like Eric Scriven. He’s the head of Valley Center’s Chamber of Commerce and the lead organizer of the town’s 60th annual fall festival, which kicks off Friday night.

It’s two days of music, food and a host of community events, like frog and turtle races, and a competition to see who has the town’s fastest crochet hook.

“As a lifetime Valley Center citizen, it's just something people look forward to every year,” Scriven said. “It's the one consistent we've had in our calendar.”

Scriven said he’ll work 100 hours this week to make sure the festival runs smoothly. But he also said it’s worth it.

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The opening day of the Neewollah which takes place in Independence, KS.

“You look forward to the rides and the parade, and there's so many memories of Fall Festival,” Scriven said. “Everybody in town has got some kind of a memory from Fall Festival.”

That’s the reason the festivals exist, and the reason they’re important.

“It's a great way to create community or to strengthen community,” said Marci Penner. She’s director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, a nonprofit that helps support small towns in Kansas.

“It's a time for everybody to come out, come together, have some fun.”

And that applies to both people who live in the town now and people who grew up there but moved away.

Anne Hainlen grew up in Valley Center and never left.

She has served as grand marshal of the Fall Festival parade, just as her parents and grandparents did.

“It's this generational thing that you watch and pass it on to your children,” she said. “And it's like every generation loves it just as much as the next.”

Valley Center’s population will more than triple this weekend during the festival. Hainlen said she looks forward to seeing old friends who return every year for the event.

“I just think it's community, it gives you a sense of home,” said Hainlen, who owns Anne’s Attic in Valley Center. “Whether you live here or you don't live here, you still go back home.

“So I think it means a lot to people.”

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The annual fall festival in Independence certainly means a lot to people there.

It’s a nine-day extravaganza called Neewollah, which is Halloween spelled backward. The festival dates back to 1919, although it skipped some years during the Depression and World War II, and again in the 1950s when funding was low.

Denise Hines is the generalissimo for this year’s celebration. That means she’s leading the large volunteer organization putting together next month’s event.

“Neewollah is a very big piece of what makes Independence what it is,” Hines said.

The festival is expected to attract about 60,000 people, which provides a significant economic boost for Independence and Montgomery County.

“Our local hotels … are literally booked for the following year before Neewollah ends this current year,” Hines said. “So it's impossible to get a room in a hotel in Independence for Neewollah if you haven't booked it before probably December of the previous year.”

In addition to all the things you expect at a fall festival, Neewollah also includes a musical performed by town members – it’s “Peter Pan” this year – and the Queen Neelah pageant for young women in the area.

“It's not just about getting up on stage and showing your talent and hopefully vying for the crown.” Hines said. “It's about so much more than that: building confidence, making friends, lasting memories.”

Hines grew up in Independence but moved away for college and eventually settled in Kansas City. But she and her family – her husband’s also from Independence – moved back.

She got involved with Neewollah shortly thereafter. Hines said it means too much to the community not to.

“The number of volunteers and the number of people that have put their heart and soul into this for so many years. That's why we would never want Neewollah to die,” she said.

“I just can't imagine Independence without Neewollah.”

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is a board member of the Public Media Journalists Association, a board member of the Kansas chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.