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From Many Lands, One Community: Celebrating Barre’s Ethnic Heritage

by Emily Kaminsky
For four years between 1978 and 1982 and again in 1984, Barre celebrated its rich ethnic heritage with a festival full of live music and dance performances, crafts, games, a parade and food. Dubbed the Barre Ethnic Heritage Festival, it drew thousands of visitors to Barre each year but was discontinued when a murder occurred during the festival in 1982. Revived again in the mid-90s as the Barre Homecoming Celebration and then renamed the Barre Heritage Festival and Homecoming Days in recent years, the festival has been the pinnacle summer event of Barre ever since. Run primarily by a volunteer committee of the city for most of its history, the festival is now presented by the Barre Partnership, Barre’s downtown Main Street organization.
The festival’s roots can be traced back to 1975 when the Friends of the Aldrich Library published “Barre in Retrospect (1776-1976)” in celebration of the United States Bicentennial. That publication apparently led to the renewal of local interest in Barre’s ethnic heritage and history. The creation of the Barre Ethnic Heritage Studies Project followed in 1977. That project, directed by Karen Lane, who has been the Aldrich Public Library’s director now since 1989, received a grant that year from the United States Department of Education to trace the genealogical roots of Barre’s citizenry, publish a fantastic timeline of Barre’s history called “Barre, Vermont: An Ethnic Bouillabaisse,” open up a genealogical archive in the basement of the Aldrich Public Library—the “Roots Cellar”—and celebrate with an international festival to showcase and celebrate Barre’s heritage in July 1978.
That first year, the flyer promoting the event read “Barre is having a Party! An International Festival Sponsored by the Barre Ethnic Heritage Studies Project.” A promotional t-shirt underscored the focal point of the celebration: “From Many Lands, One Community.” Six city blocks were shut down for two days. By all accounts, the event was a hit despite some rain. Residents and visitors congregated for food; participants dressed in the garb of their forebears; there were musical and dance performances, and a parade.
The history that they were celebrating, and that we celebrate at this year’s Barre Heritage Festival and Homecoming Days, was incredibly rich and unique to Barre. While Barre began like many Vermont towns, with a charter in 1780 and settlements by “Yankees,” it was home for French-Canadian farmers and then Irish immigrants following the 1845 potato famine. However, it wasn’t until the Central Vermont Railway was completed in 1875, linking Barre to Montpelier, that the nascent granite industry began to kick into high gear and attract immigrants from all over the world. Scottish stone cutters were the first to arrive in 1880, followed by Swedes and Jews. In 1888, the Granite Railway Company opened the “Sky Route” from Barre Village to the quarries. Business boomed, attracting another influx of immigrants. Between 1880 to 1890, the population tripled from 2,000 to just under 7,000, with one-third of the populace being foreign-born. By 1894, the population had swelled to 10,000. Six neighborhood elementary schools had been built, North Barre being the last, in 1914.
By 1939, a survey showed 50 percent of fathers and 42 percent of the mothers of Spaulding High School’s graduating class were foreign-born. They came from 14 different countries, including Italy, Spain, Poland, Finland, Switzerland, Germany and Lebanon. While many of the children of these children stayed in Barre to raise their families, many others left and now return to Barre annually on the last weekend of July for the Barre Heritage Festival and Homecoming Days, to join their alumni celebrations and to visit with family.
This year’s Barre Heritage Festival and Homecoming Days takes place over five days starting Wednesday, July 23, and ending on Sunday, July 27, with the bulk of the activities downtown concentrated on Friday afternoon through Saturday evening. This year’s festival is, in a way, a tribute to the two people who played a lead role in the festival from the very beginning: Karen Lane and her husband Chet Briggs, who passed away this January. To honor Briggs, festival organizers have created, in his name, a heritage stage that will be located at Depot Square. Dance and musical performances will take place mostly on Saturday the 26th, and include Irish music with Hilari Farrington and Benedict Koehler,Italian village dance, Celtic Company, Robert Resnik with Marty Morrisey, Michele Choiniere featuring Franco-American and Quebecois folk music, and Grup Anwar, playing classical and popular music of the Middle East.
Also honoring Briggs this year is the third annual fundraiser soiree on Thursday, July 24, at the Old Labor Hall. Called “La Soiree Sucree” (the sweet evening), this ticketed event promises to delight the taste buds with a French dessert tasting and competition from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m. Professional and amateur connoisseurs of sweet treats are invited to enter the competition.
A wide variety of other activities are scheduled. The main stage at City Hall Park will feature a German oompah band, Prydein (American Celtic rock), the Tim Brick Band, the Nisht Geferlach Klezmer Band and Native Tongue Street Dance. Other highlights this year include the 58th Annual Paletteers Art Show and reception, open house activities and demos at Studio Place Arts, the hipster dance party at Espresso Bueno, the 31st annual Barre Rotary Breakfast, the Barre Farmers’ Market, the Cody Chevrolet and Cadillac Heritage Car Show, the Great American Fiddle Show, the First Annual Chili Eating Competition at Morse Block Deli, vendors and sidewalk sales, a parade on Saturday followed by a bathtub race, and the Barre heritage ethnic food tent, presented this year by the New England Culinary Institute.
With events and activities too numerous to list here, organizers encourage visitors to review the schedule online at www.barreheritagefestival.org. Barre—this bouillabaisse of a community—is ready to have another international party, and you are invited!