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A Brief History of Ye Olde Fiddlers Picnic

A Brief History of Ye Olde Fiddler’s Picnic

Howard Appell - The Livingston County News


On a Sunday in mid-August the sound of fiddles, banjos and guitars would ring out about the hills around Hemlock. Amateur players from miles around would gather at Hemlock Lake Park to take their turn on stage, or join any number of off-stage sessions, performing for an audience of hundreds and sometimes thousands of appreciative picnickers. From 1933 until 1969 “Ye Old Fiddlers Picnic” was an eagerly awaited and thoroughly enjoyed event for the people in Livingston and Ontario counties and for many others who gladly drove the distance down from Rochester or up from the southern tier.

An early reference confirming area musicians gathering for an impromptu public performance is the Livonia Gazette of January 15, 1926, which noted that banjoist Alva Reed, fiddler Riley Ward, piano player Walter Green and bones percussionist William Davison had on the previous Saturday evening performed “a musicale of pronounced merit” at a local candy store. Their repertoire featured a large number of familiar reels, hornpipes and traditional tunes. Such public performances presumably occurred on a frequent basis. The August 19, 1927 Gazette notes, “Old Fiddlers Hold Picnic,” and reports, “Riley Ward conceived the idea that the old fiddlers ought to have a picnic, so he issued invitations for them to meet him at Lakeville Park last Monday. Old fiddlers and their wives and many others assembled accordingly and had a gay time in the afternoon and evening. This was the first annual.”

While the above item may indeed record the first official gathering of fiddlers under a “picnic” banner, older residents of the area, such as Mabel Belcher Proctor of Honeoye and her cousin, Betty Belcher Wesley of Hemlock, remember the earliest picnics taking place at Alva Reed’s farm, located on Richmond Mills Road (the first farm going east past the Richmond town line.)

Edna Ingerick, Alva Reed’s granddaughter, lives on Reed Road, around the corner from the old farm. Edna still has one of her grandfather’s home-made banjos. She also has her mother Annabelle Reed Rowley’s written memoirs, a musicians’ group photograph from one of the earliest picnics, and a scrapbook of news clippings which confirm that the original Hemlock Fiddlers picnic took place at her grandfather’s farm in 1933. Two hundred people attended this first event and it took just two years for the picnic to outgrow the farm. Starting in 1935, “Ye Old Fiddlers Picnic” was held at Hemlock Lake Park, use of which was graciously donated by the City of Rochester.

Annabelle’s memoirs fondly recall Saturday evening and Sunday afternoons in the second decade of the last century, when the farm house would host her father’s many musician friends and the playing would continue past her bed time. These gatherings would evolve into the grand picnic on Hemlock Lake, where attendance by musicians and audience continued to grow at an astounding rate. Some of the players recalled during this era were the Burns siblings from Honeoye--brothers Ralph and Walter on fiddles and sister Ruth on piano and Betty’s father Albert Belcher, another fiddler of some renown. Even though electronic amplification was yet to come to the stage, Betty’s invalid mother was able to hear the music more than three miles away, at the family’s Allens Hill farm.

Sometime during or shortly after World War II, stage performances became amplified and electric “country & western” bands began to proliferate. However, according to a 1956 newspaper clipping, fiddlers were still in abundance, including a Bert Robbins of Shady Grove Tennessee, who had allegedly performed at the Grand Ole Opry, and 91-year-old fiddler Harlie Weiant from Avon. There was also a particularly vigorous fiddler named Harold Benson from Little Genesee who managed to snap the neck of his fiddle, but was undaunted because he had “16 more back at home.” Benson and James LaPiana, who played guitar and mouth strap harmonica simultaneously, got their photos in the newspaper.

The 1956 stories note the newly elected officers of Ye Olde Fiddlers Association: Harry L. Schoff of Holcomb, president; Mort Post of West Henrietta, vice president; Harold Rossborough of Geneseo, secretary; Roy Swan of Canadice, treasurer; Matt Barry, past and honorary president.

The 1956 picnic was also noteworthy in that it marked the final appearance by an ailing Alva Reed, whose doctor had forbidden him to attend the event. Reed told a reporter, “If I’m going to die, I’d just as soon die right here!” He would die six months later.

The picnic always retained its tradition of free admission for the audience and free performances by the players, but changing times were evident from a 1958 Rochester newspaper headline reading, “Rock-n-roll Sour Note to Fiddlers.” Although these same performers would be considered appropriately traditional today, the article complained of . . . “a mumble jumble of western and rock-n-roll,” . . . “newfangled guitars and bass fiddles strummed by kids all dolled up in cowboy outfits or shorts, piano blazing and teenagers highfalutin’ it on the platform.” Eighty-one-year-old fiddler George Steffen was quoted, “We don’t play this kind of music. It’s too fast and there’s no time to it!”

The “real music,” according to the story, was no longer on the stage, but now “behind the scene” where the old timers gathered in a circle and swapped tunes. The 1956 show ran from 12:30 to 9:00 p.m. and featured an impressive 40 acts.

In 1961 there were reportedly 10,000 persons in attendance and 2,500 cars to park. Loudspeakers had to be hung in trees. The oldest attending fiddler was 97 year old Mike Harrington of Lima. An estimated one hundred fiddlers, bands and singers performed.

Attendance grew to 11,000 in 1963 and to 15,000 in 1964. Concern was being expressed by officials in the City of Rochester Water Bureau that the event was “outgrowing the park,” while the fiddlers association was investigating the possibility of relocating the picnic to Genesee Valley Park in Rochester.

Major problems with litter would cause of the picnic’s permanent departure from Hemlock Lake Park. After a 1967 picnic left an especially messy park in its wake, the city’s Water Bureau asked the association to put a sum of $2,500 forward to cover the clean-up expenses.

One association member’s response was to note that the city keeps a park maintenance crew on duty anyway and to ask, “so why should the fiddlers have to pay for a clean-up?” Another member explained that the association operated with zero income and zero outgo. (The custom of soliciting donations from the audience would not emerge until the 1970s, after the picnic left Hemlock.)

The picnic was relocated to the nearby Hemlock Fairgrounds in 1968. The Association’s relationship with the Hemlock Fair Board was brief, because 1969 saw the return of the picnic to Hemlock Lake Park. For this final event on Hemlock Lake, the association posted a $500 bond to cover potential clean-up work.

In 1970 the picnic moved to Wayne County Fairgrounds in Palmyra. For the next decade-and-a-half, the event was very well attended, although the presence of motorcycle gangs and absence of any sizable number of fiddlers made some attendees long for the “good old days.” During the 1970s, many fans of old time acoustic music abandoned the picnic in preference to trendy bluegrass and folk festivals with pre-booked professional talent and not-so-cheap admission fees. The Palmyra version of the Fiddlers Picnic expired in 1984 amidst fair organizers’ liability concerns and a national insurance crisis.