30th Caroline Summerfest begins Friday
— In 1987, when Pat Bernstein, press secretary for the late Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, pitched an idea for a cycling event that would have bicyclists traverse the state in a multi-day tour, she had no idea that the momentum created would ripple across the Chesapeake Bay to Denton.
Unbeknownst to her, a much-beloved event called Caroline Summerfest would emerge from a statewide cycling event and continue for 30 years.
This year’s Caroline Summerfest next weekend will attract more than 10,000 visitors to downtown Denton to sample a variety of foods provided by local organizations, visit vendor booths and shake hands with politicians.
Celebrating “30 years of magic,” Caroline Summerfest will feature daylong musical performances on the county seat’s historic courthouse green, the popular Rivah Run on the Choptank River, a car show and cruisein, and traditional street fair activities for all ages.
After two years of development, Schaefer’s initiative called Cycle Across Maryland launched its inaugural tour under Bernstein’s leadership in 1989. CAM’s purpose was to promote the state, as well as cycling as a family activity.
Although mapping out the event was a huge undertaking, the community coordination required for traffic control, lodging and hospitality was another massive part of the puzzle for Bernstein and her team, and they turned to communities like Denton.
“We relied on community leaders like those we found in Caroline County and Denton to make the event possible,” Bernstein said.
In addition to traffic control from Maryland State Police and the local jurisdictions, each town where the cyclists stopped for the night needed to provide hospitality.
“Host towns were encouraged to plan for 1,000 cyclists in the inaugural year. Other commitments were an evening meal and breakfast, and some sort of entertainment at the destination,” Bernstein said.
Dr. Allan Gorsuch was assistant superintendent of schools for Caroline County when he learned about CAM’s inaugural tour. “We offered two options at North Caroline High School — bivouac camping outside on the grounds, as well as indoors in the gym,” he said.
Those cyclists looking for additional amenities like air conditioning were invited into the homes of members of the Denton Woman’s Club for a nominal fee.
Sue Simmons, head of Caroline County Recreation and Parks, and other county and town departments worked on logistics and got the word out to locals who were interested in checking out the entertainment and welcoming the cyclists.
So on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 1989, the cyclists arrived in Denton after a rough couple days of rainy weather. They settled into their accommodations, enjoyed an evening meal and were even treated to fresh peaches that were picked from a local orchard.
The entertainment portion of the evening was a small, block party-style event on Market Street in front of courthouse. Cyclists were driven downtown by their host families or by school bus drivers who volunteered their time.
Nonprofit organizations sold festival foods at the event. Music provided by Swing Central, a popular Baltimore five-piece ensemble, attracted cyclists and residents alike.
Event organizers realized something very special had just happened.
“I remember that Sue Simmons and I were literally standing on the courthouse lawn at the end of the evening,” said George Weeks, human resources corporate manager at Maryland
Plastics in Federalsburg. “I turned to her and said, ‘You do know that you have no choice, but we have to continue this?’”
That moment marked the birth of Caroline Summerfest.
Cycle Across Maryland would trek across Maryland for another 19 years, completing its last trip in 2008, its 20th year. But the “accidental” signature event of Caroline Summerfest continues to grow and evolve. Over the next 29 years, its event footprint would ultimately expand to two days and encompass the tree-lined courthouse lawn and four blocks of the county seat.
“Over the years, we added themes starting in 1996, fireworks in 1998 and a pedestrian parade in 2008,” Simmons said. She continues to serve as event coordinator for Summerfest in partnership with Denton Town Administrator Don Mulrine.
The event typically draws between 12,000 and 14,000 festival-goers.
“Caroline Summerfest is a huge undertaking that relies heavily on the strong partnership between the town and county, the financial support from our corporate sponsors and the more than 200 volunteers who help execute the event,” Simmons said. “It is a labor of love.”
This year’s Caroline Summerfest will be held from 5 to 10 p.m. Friday, Aug. 17, and from 2 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 18.
So what’s the secret to the longevity of this accidental signature event?
“To me, it’s the diversity,” Weeks said. “Over the years, we’ve seen other events fall to the wayside, but Summerfest has grown and evolved to become the heart and soul of Caroline County. There’s so many things for kids and adults to do.”
Weeks said nonprofits and businesses have had success doing outreach at Summerfest.
“Over the years, I’ve worn different hats at Summerfest — as a Rotarian, a corporate sponsor, vice president of Habitat for Humanity and with the Chamber of Commerce,” Weeks said. “The event provides a great way for businesses and nonprofits to successfully market directly to families. It always amazes me to observe the sleepiness of the Thursday before Summerfest and then in contrast how the whole place seems to fill up on Friday.”
For Debbie Bowden, director of Economic Development for Caroline County, the economic impact that events like Caroline Summerfest have on the perception of a town can’t be understated.
“A jurisdiction needs to put themselves out there. It’s all about marketing and branding,” she said. “Summerfest, and events like it, inform festival-goers of a location’s culture and the attitude of the area in a very organic way.”
Although Caroline Summer fest was created through happenstance, its impact on the hundreds of thousands of people touched by the event is far-reaching.
“A lot of what we did accidentally to provide entertainment for our visitors turned out pretty good,” Gorsuch said. “If you have a really good idea, you’ll find a way to make it happen. Summerfest is one of those success stories that’s a part of our history and that we are all proud to be part of.”
To learn more about this year’s Caroline Summerfest, visit carolinesummerfest. com.
Many visitors to the 2012 Caroline Summerfest dressed as “Wizard of Oz” characters since the 1939 film was that year’s festival theme. Costumed as characters were, from left, Sandra Callahan as Dorothy, Brenna Callahan as the Cowardly Lion and Benjamin Callahan as the Scarecrow.
Caroline County’s two high schools joined forces at the 2017 Caroline Summerfest in Denton. On the left is North Caroline High School’s Band of Blue performing with Colonel Richardson High School’s Spirit of the Revolution Band.
American Corner resident George Jackson will have his 24th annual Christmas Scrolls for deployed U.S. Troops at Caroline Summerfest in Denton on Friday, Aug. 18, and Saturday, Aug. 19.
Brayden Brooks enjoyed the kids’ giant sandbox at the 2016 Caroline Summerfest in downtown Denton.