The Three Rivers Festival has been entertaining and exciting families throughout the Northeast Indiana region since 1969. Founding Board Members Joan White, Bob Walda, Elston Ehrler, Tommy Manny and Ruth Whearly sought to create a local event that would allow a family to enjoy downtown at very little expense. The five thought that holding a festival would help revitalize Fort Wayne’s downtown area. With the help of the Fort Wayne Convention and Visitors Bureau, local City officials, local businesses and numerous volunteers, the first Three Rivers Festival was born. The Festival was originally designed to help promote local businesses and celebrate the diversity and culture of Fort Wayne and the surrounding region. These initial Board members founded the Festival in a spirit of cooperation with local government, businesses, and the community.
Festival board members worked closely with the City, Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation, and the Fort Wayne Convention and Visitors Bureau to attract events to the Festival, and members of the community pitched in as well. The Fort Wayne Convention and Visitor’s Bureau was also responsible for helping plan, promote and host the Festival in the years before 1975. The Festival would not have been possible without the strong support from the City of Fort Wayne. Each year the City would contribute $10,000 for use by the Festival, as well as helping stage the event through the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department, and by providing city utilities (water and power) free of charge to the Festival.
Many of the most popular festival events, including the opening day parade, the raft race, and the event/beer tent, have their origins in the first four years of the Festival. In the early days of the Festival, activities and events were difficult to book; therefore, almost any event could be a part of the Festival. The difficulty in booking events was just the start in a long history of obstacles to overcome when planning and producing the Festival. Each year it seemed as though Festival organizers had to overcome at least one major obstacle, from the controversy surrounding moving the parade route, to doing battle with adverse weather. From the start, the Festival had to surmount the protests of business owners in the community who complained that the Festival created too much traffic, noise and disruption to their businesses.
During its first 10 years the majority of the Festival was concentrated on or around The Landing. This historic stretch of merchant buildings along a section of the Erie and Wabash Canal, which ran between Toledo, Ohio and Evansville, Indiana. In 1975, a fire set by arsonists burned down two of the buildings on the landing, though this did not deter Festival-goers in that year, particularly the children of the region. In fact, what began as “kiddie rides on The Landing” had grown into a full-fledged Children’s Fest, which remains extremely popular today. In 1993, the Landing was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Due to business growth on the Landing and changing landscape in the immediate area, the festival moved northeast to Headwater’s Park in 1997.
The Festival board appointed its first Executive Director, Bill Hausman in 1975, making the Festival a year-round entity. Despite the obstacles that the Landing fires presented, the Festival managed to attract more than 1.5 million people to Fort Wayne, only to be topped by the next year’s attendance mark of over two million. From there, the Festival grew in number of events offered, from 60 at its beginning in 1969 to 190 events in 1985. The Board worked to keep events affordable for all throughout the Festival’s growth – almost 90% of all events were free and open to the public. Through this period of growth, community support grew as well – each year more than 500 volunteers helped organize, staff and run events for the Three Rivers Festival. Volunteer support, as well as contributions from local businesses, has helped the Festival maintain its emphasis on always being affordable for Festival-goers, as in the early days.
Demonstrating the persistence that is the Festival’s hallmark, the staff and board of directors continually strives to provide affordable, family-oriented fun to people throughout the region. Three Rivers Festival continues to be the place to go to see old friends, make new ones and celebrate the region’s diversity and heritage through the Festival’s love of community and culture. The fruitful cooperation between local businesses, local government, local media, and the community as a whole has and will be maintained as the Festival continues to provide affordable, family-oriented fun into the future. The Festival continues to strive to celebrate, in a way like no other, the region’s diversity, culture and spirit through exciting, entertaining events and activities for all ages.