BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – The effort continues to grow as a group of Fort Madison volunteers try to resurrect the Riverfest of old along the Mississippi River in Fort Madison.
The group, spearheaded by Charles and Jenny Craft of Fort Madison, is building on the event which came back to the riverfront in 2016 for the first time since the summer of 1997.
This year’s event will take place Aug. 3-6 along Fort Madison’s Riverview Park and for the first time in almost 20 years, the event will feature a national entertainer.
Craft, an 18-year veteran of the U.S. Army and National Guard, brought the festival back in 2016 with the help of the city and many sponsors.
“Everyone kept talking how great Riverfest was. We’d been promoting mixed martial arts fights with sometimes as many as 30 fighters. So my wife and I started talking, ‘how hard can it be’. I mean, we’re dealing with six or seven bands and some vendors. This should be easier,” Craft said.
Craft said the 2016 event was a huge learning experience and one of the main things he learned was that he can’t manage everything himself.
“Last year I planned and managed the event and didn’t have a committee. I even did sound for our second stage to keep costs down. This year, I reached out and asked for help from people who expressed interest last year. We were able to form a committee and we meet at the Elks. I’m really thankful to them for allowing us to do that,” he said.
Growing up in Bushnell Ill., Craft said he was exposed to festivals a couple times a year. The community had a spring and fall festival and his memories of those days, coupled with his wife’s memories of Riverfest of the ’90s, sparked a fire that has resulted in the festival returning.
The first weekend in August, is the best time to hold the event, Craft said. Because of all the other local festivals including the Dry Creek Festival put on by Vinnie’s Santa Fe Tap and the Iowa State Fair in the middle of August, he said the festival will stay right in that first week of August.
“It gives people who budget for one festival, to have the opportunity to attend two if we spread it out from Steamboat Days,” Craft said. “Plus, we don’t want to pull people away from those other festivals. They have good music at those other places and we wouldn’t want to compete with that.”
He said he was on active duty in the 90s and wasn’t able to attend Riverfest in those days, but Craft said he is striving to recapture the feel of Riverfest, even the higher end music.
Thursday night’s music will be headlined by local favorite Cap’n Geech and the Shrimp Shack Shooters, a party band covering everything from the mid-70s to today, followed by a tent band to be named later. Craft said when the music is transitioned to the tent, it becomes a 21-and over show. The main stage music is for the whole family. Thursday night is also wristband night at the carnival with unlimited rides for those who purchase a wristband.
This year, the Ozone Ramblers will be back for a Friday night show following the opening act Bluzillion, a Chicago-style blues funk band. The Ramblers are a staple in the Midwest and around the country. The Ramblers are in the 39th year of entertaining crowds throughout the country. There will be a free teen dance in the riverfront parking lot on Friday night, as well.
Saturday night will be a very special musical night when former Fort Madison High School graduate Shawn Moss brings his nationally renowned Garth Brooks tribute band to Fort Madison for the first time. Shaun tours under the name Shawn Gerhard.
“This is really a special event,” Craft said. “He’s going to play under his real name and if you’ve seen the videos of him, if you didn’t know it wasn’t Garth Brooks, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.”
Moss will actually be following national country recording artist Buddy Jewell, who’s hit “Sweet Southern Comfort” is still on the charts. And the music’s going to start a little later this year. Craft said some really good music was going on during the day, but attendance didn’t really pop until about 7 p.m. for the entertainment.
Moss and Jewell worked it out so that Jewell would be opening for Moss since it was his hometown. He said he didn’t want everyone to think that this was a country theme festival. “We go with the best bang for the buck. Next year it could be a rock festival, but we’re really excited with what we’ve put together for this year.”
Craft said the keystone of the event is the carnival and his group worked with the help of Rusty Andrews to find a carnival vendor that would fit the feel of Riverfest.
“Luckily, we did find one and they turned out to be extremely clean and very safe. Rusty, who is very well deserving of the Citizen of the Year award, was a big resource in steering me in the right direction. He didn’t look at the carnival rides, he looked at the company’s trucks, generators and other equipment. All vendors should make their rides look clean and safe but the real tell is in how they take care of their behind-the-scenes equipment,” Craft said.
They settled on Connor Amusements out of Beardstown, Illinois, and Craft said he knew it was the right decision on Sunday morning last year.
“We did a charity breakfast for a girl from Illinois who was battling brain cancer, and the owner opened up all the rides and let that girl ride whatever she wanted for as long as she wanted. It was just a fantastic thing for him to do.”
Other entertainment will be the return of Riverfest games. Included this year will be pickelball, bags, kickball volleyball, and Kanjam, which is like horseshoes but with a disk that’s thrown toward a ‘kan’. Your partner can hit the disc into the kan with extra points for hitting the Kan or going in the Kan slot on the fly without assistance. Tournaments are set up for most of the events with some prize money returned, but pickleball will be just open play only this year.
There will also be the kayak/canoe float from the Riverfront to the Lee County Conservation area. Craft says anyone with a kayak or canoe can register for the float which takes about two hours. He said he hopes to have the U.S. Coast Guard on hand with boats and information.
“A lot of people in this area don’t know anything about the coast guard and the fact that they do help patrol these waters,” Craft said.
And don’t forget the food. Vendors will be back with funnel cakes, corn dogs, ice cream, hot dogs, popcorn, lemonade. Craft said they had six food vendors last year and the only overlap allowed was the hot dogs, which created a good mix.
The charity breakfast will be on again on Sunday from 7:30 to about noon. Funds raised will go to the American Legion Honor Flight program. Craft said it is important to him to see what he called “America’s Greatest Generation” honored for their service and hopes to send six or seven local veterans to Washington D.C. as part of the Honor Flight program.
“I’m really hoping people come down for that breakfast and shake the hands of one of these guys. When people see us in uniform today they’re pretty good about thanking us and these guys deserve the same,” Craft said. “And it’s a pretty ambitious breakfast – all inclusive pancakes, eggs, sausage, biscuits and gravy. Had a good turnout last year and looking for a great turnout this year.”
A donation of $7 is suggested for the breakfast.
In the afternoon on Sunday is the pro-jam with the Ozone Ramblers where local musicians with some serious skills can go up and jam with the band.
Craft said he logged last year’s event in the success column.
“In my mind, it was successful,” he said. “Ticketing and getting people to the gate was slower than we anticipated. Everyone showed up en mass at around 7 pm. and we weren’t really prepared for that but we’re adjusting to that this year.”
Committee member such as Doug and Shanna Krogmeier, Gena Simmons, Wes Holtkamp, Chris Summers, Jim Steffen, Andrews, and others have helped make this year’s planning much easier, Craft said. He also said support from the city, the city police and fire departments and park board have also made continuing the event easier to manage this year.
Holtkamp will be helping organize a 5K run that will take place on Saturday morning.
Tickets will be available at Hy-Vee and Fast Break locations about a month prior to the festival, so around the first of July.
“We’ll do this as long as the community continues to support it and grow and hopefully it gets bigger each year,” Craft said.