Expanded Oktoberfest: Addition of the "Honor our Heritage" venue provides a family-friendly, alcohol-free option

09/25/12 ks

HAYS, Kan. -- When it celebrates its 40th year on Friday, Oct. 5, the Ellis County Oktoberfest will be bigger and better than ever.

The local Oktoberfest sprang four decades ago from the combined efforts of Fort Hays State University, the Hays Area Chamber of Commerce and county residents who shared a German ancestry. The idea was to create an event to celebrate the essence of the community and complement the university's Homecoming. It was intended to be the ideal town-gown partnership. After the Volga German Society was organized a few years later, it took over management of Oktoberfest.

Oktoberfest began in downtown Hays, but large crowds soon required that it be relocated to the city park on south Main Street. The combined Oktoberfest-Homecoming festivities have swelled from the original two days to four -- from Thursday through Sunday -- with many thousands of local and out-of-town visitors each year.

Now another organization -- the Ellis County Historical Society -- has joined the team, and the continuing spirit of cooperation will produce an expanded Oktoberfest in two adjoining venues. The original Oktoberfest will continue with beer, music, food and booths in Frontier Park, and the alcohol-free and more family-friendly Honor our Heritage venue, celebrating the history and traditions of Ellis County, will be added immediately north of the dike in Municipal Park.

"There was so much potential that was not being realized," said Dr. Edward H. Hammond, FHSU president and one of the leaders of the expansion. "Oktoberfest is an iconic German tradition, and given the majority influence of German descendants in all facets of our local community, it only made sense to emphasize that heritage with special demonstrations and activities. Fortunately, Don Westfall and the Historical Society were willing to take on the task of organizing the new venue."

President Hammond also tipped his hat to Eagle Communications of Hays, which has stepped up to be the one and only corporate sponsor for Oktoberfest. "With Eagle, we have the resources we needed to expand, and by having a single generous sponsor, it keeps the process simple," he said.

"Eagle Communications is honored to be a part of the 40th Oktoberfest celebration in Hays," said Gary Shorman, CEO of Eagle Communications. "The event showcases the traditions of Ellis County, and Eagle has been a local tradition since KAYS radio came on the air in 1948. We know it is a great partnership with these organizations to celebrate Ellis County's heritage."

Eagle will broadcast Oktoberfest coverage live on KAYS and HaysPost.com from the park beginning at 7 a.m. with the Eagle Morning Show with Boomer and Mike. Other Eagle personalities will broadcast throughout the afternoon. Festival goers who stop by Eagle's booths in both Municipal Park and Frontier Park will have opportunities to register for prizes, including an iPad, and have their photo taken to be included on Eagle's Facebook page. One lucky person will win $50 in cash

Activities and demonstrations at the Honor our Heritage venue will open at 9 a.m. on Friday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony by the Hays Chamber, featuring a variety of speakers, including clergy, and a patriotic song by Jackie Maxwell. Morning events, which are aimed at the schoolchildren who will be attending, include demonstrations of butter churning, corn shelling, rug braiding, soap making, goat milking, wool spinning, saddle making and wheat weaving. Westfall said organizers were especially pleased that local schools, including Hays High, TMP-Marian and FHSU, would participate by providing musical performances.

The afternoon activities at the Honor our Heritage venue will include presentations and reenactments on such topics as Boot Hill, the 7th Cavalry, Elizabeth Custer, Wild Bill Hickok and Abraham Lincoln. The closing ceremony at 5:30 will include music by Joe Dolezal.

"We are pleased to be a part of this and help represent the rich history of Ellis County through our historical presenters," said Donald Westfall, executive director of the Historical Society. "We look forward to the continuation of the relationship with the other participating organizations."

The opening ceremony south of the dike will begin at 11 a.m. It will include the tapping of the first keg, music by Joe Dolezal and a juggling performance.

"Everyone at the Chamber is honored to be part of this community tradition," said Tammy Wellbrock, executive director. "We all miss Francis Schippers, who played such a key role for so many years, and we are proud to continue our association with his sister Eleanor Schippers and the Volga German Society. It's more than an event for many people in Ellis County; it's their passion. The spirit of the German settlers continues to be seen in many ways, including Oktoberfest, which is such a unifying annual event for both current and former citizens."

The first major public event to kick off the four days of Oktoberfest/Homecoming is the bonfire rally at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 4, on the east lawn of the Robbins Center on the FHSU campus.

The four days of activities will formally conclude with a Polka Mass from 9 a.m. to noon Sunday at the Kansas National Guard Armory.

For a full schedule of Homecoming events and ticket information, visit http://goforthaysstate.com or call 785-628-4430. A complete schedule of events for the Oktoberfest celebration is available at www.haysoktoberfest.com.

"The partnership of Oktoberfest and Homecoming has a four-decade record of success, and we know this year's expanded version will build on that proud history," President Hammond said. "In future years, we plan to expand it further by starting a day earlier and working with the Hays Convention and Visitors Bureau to attract bus tours for new Wednesday and Thursday activities."

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