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New and Noteworthy Last Updated: Oct 3rd, 2016 - 07:05:08


FESTIVAL’S RUSTIC BEAUTY CHARMS VISITORS FOR NEARLY A QUARTER CENTURY
By Marsha Keefer - Beaver County Times
Oct 3, 2016, 06:43

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It’s easy to spot the newcomers.

“Oh, my gosh! Look! It’s in the woods,” they gush, causing Linda McGaffic to stop and see anew what she and husband, Ken, saw 22 years ago.

“We just take it for granted,” she said of Old-Fashioned Christmas in the Woods, a juried crafts festival the second and third weekends in October that attracts more than 200 artisans from 30 states to a wooded retreat in nearby Columbiana, Ohio.

Maybe it’s not on a scale as grand, but the reaction is similar to first seeing Pittsburgh’s skyline upon exiting the Fort Pitt Tunnels from the west -- a view that’s unexpected, almost inconceivable.

First-time visitors to festival grounds on Route 7 likewise are taken aback.

They pull into a 70-acre parking area -- plowed under farm fields that once yielded strawberries and corn decades ago. And then proceed to a grove of trees -- hundreds of them in a 10-acre stand -- that conceal a magical marketplace within.

Wide, gravel pathways -- circles within circles and cul-de-sacs – are bordered by quaint, wooden structures resembling chalets and cottages where crafters not only sell handmade wares, but often demonstrate how they’re made.

A woman tats thread into lacy flowers. A woodcarver chisels faces into hardwoods. A potter imprints designs on flat-pressed clay. A man strings pine cones into garlands.

It’s as if being transported into a rustic, working village of yesteryear as many crafters also dress in costumes.

Unlike some period festivals -- for example, Penn’s Colony with a focus on the French and Indian era, Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival depicting the 16th century or Yankee Peddler Festival with a nod to pioneer America -- Christmas in the Woods is not reflective of a specific time.

It’s not a Dickensian Christmas, Ken said, though some crafters choose to dress elaborately in Victorian outfits. Women often don long skirts, shawls and bonnets, Linda said. Men dress up, too, in buttoned trousers and full-sleeved shirts.

“We just don’t want them to wear blue jeans and tennis shoes,” Ken said.

It’s quite a sensory experience.

Tantalizing aromas waft from food stands -- sweet kettle corn melds with savory pulled pork. Music -- from toe-tapping bluegrass to close, barbershop harmonies -- emanate from three entertainment stages.

And it’s beautiful, too, especially in autumn, when numerous trees -- elms and wild cherry, for example -- are ablaze with color.

A seed is planted

Ken and Linda McGaffic of Rochester are promoters of Old-Fashioned Christmas in the Woods. They own McGaffic Advertising and Marketing, a full-service agency in Vanport Township offering advertising options for commercials, billboards, brochures, multimedia ads, web designs, posters, banners and social media.

But it was apples that actually planted the seeds for what’s blossomed into two successful enterprises -- Shaker Woods Festival and Old-Fashioned Christmas in the Woods.

In 1982, Ken worked for another ad agency, handling the account for Ferguson’s Farm & Market, owned by Sam and Sue Ferguson who farmed land at the corner of County Line Road and Route 7.

“I suggested to him to have an apple festival,” Ken said. “And he said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, well, we’ll have the Rotary come in and make apple butter; we’ll have an apple baking contest because I figured he’d ask me to be one of the judges. And I like apple pie. That’s the truth.”

The two-day event in mid-October that year featured stagecoach rides, tethered hot air balloon, antique cars, country band, eight crafters, Rotarians churning apple butter and of course, an apple baking contest. An estimated 2,000 people came.

“That weekend it was hot, it was windy, it was cold, it was everything,” Ken remembered. “But we had traffic that was backed up a mile in both directions on Route 7.”

The festival even attracted the attention of police, Linda said, warning them “to do something” because of the snarled traffic.

Joan “Jo” McDevitt, a friend of the Fergusons and one of the crafters, looked toward the nearby woods on the property and suggested moving the festival there, Linda said.

A year later, Shaker Woods, was born.

Sue liked crafts especially that of the Shakers, a charismatic Christian sect founded in 18th-century England that eventually settled in America. The Shakers believed in a celibate and simplistic lifestyle, “but were very innovative people,” Linda said. “They were the first ones who invented clothespins and were wonderful woodworkers.”

Sue also liked the Shakers’ motto: “Hands to work; hearts to God.”

Thus, the name Shaker Woods. Over the years, the event grew into a premier craft festival over three weekends every August. This year marked its 34th season.

In the beginning, the Fergusons, with the help of the McDevitts, felled some of the trees in the woods to clear paths; spread gravel to stabilize them; carved spots for craft booths.

“He (Sam) was careful,” Linda said. “He didn’t want to take down a lot of trees. So there are actually booths that have trees in them.”

Over the years, the McGaffics and Fergusons became good friends.

“We approached him 22 years ago about putting on a Christmas festival,” Ken said, encouraged by a number of crafters who also supported the idea. “He said, ‘Sure, you guys can do it.’ We did that for 22 years on a gentleman’s agreement. We didn’t have a contract or anything.”

The McGaffics lease the woods to stage Christmas in the Woods.

“I want to emphasize, if there wasn’t a Shaker Woods, there would never be a Christmas in the Woods and it was because they (Fergusons) were generous to us that they let us do that,” said Ken.

“We knew that it would take off,” he said, because of the reputation of Shaker Woods.

An annual tradition

Mother Nature can be capricious, especially in October.

“We’ve had were it was T-shirt weather and we’ve had horizontal sleet,” Ken said.

“Snow last year,” Linda added.

“I told the crafters I paid a lot for that special effect,” said Ken. “But what’s amazing is the fact that people come anyway. They’re kind of geared for that type of weather and it doesn’t bother them,” adding that cooler weather puts people in a buying mood.

Come they do. Ken wouldn’t quantify an exact number, but said “we get tens of thousands over the four days.”

Ginger Carpenter of Hopewell Township has been going at least the last seven years; sometimes with girlfriends, sometimes with her daughters. There’s so much to take in, she said, that they make a day of it.

She, too, appreciates the rustic beauty.

“It’s just beautiful, especially in the fall with all the leaves changing colors,” she said.

And she doesn’t care if a few snowflakes fall. Snow, she said, makes the experience dreamlike -- “sort of like magic, like Christmas is.”

The crafts are “good, quality,” she said, “and different and unique.”

“The vendors are all so nice,” she added, willing to answer questions and guarantee their products.

“There’s so much to do there,” she said. “You can’t see it all in one day. It’s just a quaint, little place. Love it,” she said.

Old-Fashioned Christmas in the Woods has become an annual tradition for many folks, the McGaffics said.

“I get the same people coming up every year talking to me…It’s kind of neat they recognize you, you recognize them,” Ken said.

“A lot of girlfriends will get together,” Linda said.

Three or four years ago, one woman came from California just for the show, Ken said. One of his crew asked her if the trip was worth it.

“I’d be back in a heartbeat,” the woman said.

Many out-of-towners stay at area hotels and book reservations for the next year before departing, Linda said.

“We get people from over 30 states,” said Ken. “We know where they’re coming from because they sign a register and we direct-mail the program to people that sign the register. They come from all over the country.”

They come by bus, too -- usually eight to 10 tour groups each year.

In 2008, Country Living magazine, boasting a circulation of 11 million readers, ran a three-page article with photographs on Christmas in the Woods.

“That was a big boost for us,” said Ken.

Many of the juried artisans -- woodworkers, jewelers, potters, weavers -- are from the tri-state area, but also come from New York, Michigan, Missouri, Virginia, North Carolina and Illinois, they said.

Rich and Jean Nixon, for instance, come from Au Gres, Mich., a small town on Lake Huron about 200 miles north of Detroit. This will be their 14th year.

“It’s just a delightful show to do. We just love it,” said Jean, who with her husband operates the Au Gres Sheep Factory. They design washable sheepskin dusters and ornaments and creatures from natural fibers like wool and alpaca. Their designs have sold worldwide through major catalogs like Swiss Colony, Coldwater Creek and Land’s End.

Jean also specializes in needlefelt that she described as a process of matting dry, raw or spun fibers using a sharp, barbed needle to create 3-D figures.

The Nixons now have cut back to about eight art shows a year in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Virginia, but Old-Fashioned Christmas in the Woods, Jean said, “is by far our best show of the season…If we had to give up any show, it wouldn’t be that one.”

The appeal, she said, is the beautiful area that “lends so well to our product” and to the “amazing crowd” the festival attracts.

“It’s got all of those little, pretty cottages in there. That’s such a plus…What better place to go Christmas shopping?”

For some, crafting is a hobby; for others, a livelihood, said Linda, and Christmas in the Woods provides “an outlet for them,” she said.

“We have people that tell us ‘you helped me put my kids through college,’” Ken said.

The McGaffics only accept so many artisans in each medium, Linda said.

“If the show has 200 crafters, I don’t want 50 to be jewelry people. We try to have a variety,” she said.

Billed as Christmas in the Woods naturally prompts some to ask if all the crafts are Christmas related.

“No,” Linda said. “It has a Christmas theme and Christmas decorations and we do have people that do Santa Clauses, but there’s a lot of other things, too, so when people are out there buying things for gifts you can buy a piece of jewelry or you can buy a basket or a piece of furniture. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a Christmas item.”

Five or six years in, the McGaffics and Fergusons decided that Shaker Woods and Christmas in the Woods should be distinctly different. After all, there are only about six weeks between when one festival ends and the other begins.

Initially, a lot of crafters exhibited at both shows, but soon “we agreed we weren’t going to share crafters anymore,” Linda said. She estimated there are still about 25 who attend both shows, but only because they were “grandfathered in.”

“When you come to Christmas (in the Woods) you see a lot of different things than you saw at Shakers, which entices people to come to both shows,” she said.

Typically, about 25 new crafters participate each year.

Vendors accept cash, check, or credit card, but gate admission is by cash or check only. However, ATMs are available.

Admittedly, the target audience is women, but once men take in the entertainment and food, “then they become believers,” Ken said.

Three stages offer varied entertainment such as Celtic group, steel drum band, dueling pianos, country vocalist, hammered dulcimer, bluegrass as well as strolling musicians.

“We’re a craft show that has entertainment, we’re not entertainment that happens to have crafts,” Ken said.

Fifteen to 20 food booths serve up diverse fare -- pirogi, Italian sausage, fruit cobbler, cheese steaks, french fries, chicken wings, potpies, Ken ticked off -- with plenty of picnic tables and benches to sit and dine.

The festival has grown into nearly a year-round enterprise for the McGaffics.

“Applications go out in December,” said Linda. “Now is crunch time,” she said, about a month before opening weekend.

Programs had to be completed, advertising spots finished, the woods decorated.

They string garland, bows and battery operated lights on fences, ticket booths and entertainment stages. The only electrical service is for food booths and entertainment stages. The McGaffics prohibit generators; they’re too noisy and emit fumes.

They summed up in one word the appeal of Christmas in the Woods: “atmosphere.”

“It’s a blessing,” said Ken, also an associate pastor at Wildwood Chapel in Hopewell Township. “We look at it as the hand of God who gave us an idea to do this and we’re just blessed by being able to do it…being able to help people.”

It’s more than a business enterprise, too, he said.

“It’s the friendships we’ve developed with most of these people.”

© Copyright ChristmasInTheWoodsOhio.com

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