Heritage fest moving ahead; events cut, music still on tap

The Oil Heritage Festival, an annual event celebrating the community and its storied history, is set for next week.

And while marking its 42nd year this time around, the festival will be markedly different than in previous years as a result of coronavirus pandemic-related health restrictions.

Several traditional events have been canceled due to social distancing directives while others have been modified to conform to the health rules.

“We are planning to hold this festival and we are moving forward every day,” said Susan Williams, executive director of the Venango Area Chamber of Commerce that sponsors the festival. “But anything and everything can change due to the virus as well as the weather.”

The festival has averaged 40-plus events over the years, but that roster has been cut by about 15 events. Activities ranging from the children’s fun fair to the downtown parade and food vendors have been canceled because of social distancing rules.

Music still on tap

A key element of the festival, though, remains relatively intact.

“There will be live outdoor musical performances Tuesday through Saturday at different sites and a DJ at the car show,” said Williams. “We feel confident we can do those.”

The performing groups include Pine Valley Boys, the Porter/Huber Quartet, the Wyllis Street Band, High Above 80, Mostly Brass and Lawyers, Guns and Money. All the concerts, which are set on both sides of town, are free and open to the public.

While food offerings are limited in the festival, there are a few that remain on the schedule. They include a new event, a chicken barbecue sponsored by the Elks Club on July 22, the annual YWCA spaghetti supper, now a take-out event, on July 23, and the ice cream social on July 24.

There are events tailored for youngsters on the festival schedule. They include the summer playground program, bike rodeo and fishing derby.

Buttons to help finance the celebration are on sale at $5 each with nightly drawings held for cash prizes.

The buttons as well as event tickets and souvenirs and schedules are available at the festival headquarters at 42 Seneca St. The headquarters opens July 22.

Some early events

While the bulk of Oil Heritage Festival activities are set from July 23-26, the festivities will begin a few days earlier than the official schedule listing.

The annual Hop Homan & Chops Cunningham memorial softball tournament is set for this Saturday and Sunday. The expanded summer playground program starts Monday and will run through July 24.

Also on tap are a July 21 concert at the Venango Museum parking lot and the Elks Club chicken barbecue, heritage art show reception and Town Square concert, all on July 22.

The Tiny Tot Contest is set for July-25.

Sponsors stay loyal

Most of the key sponsors for the annual festival have remained loyal even as the schedule has been modified.

“Our sponsors have overwhelmed me with their support,” said Williams. “About two-thirds of them were able to help this year. I think we can cover expenses and will break even. This is typically our big fund-raiser but not this year – we won’t generate money but I hope to cover our costs.”

As uncertainty persists about whether health directives will change in the ongoing pandemic, the chamber had considered canceling the festival.

“Our sponsors obviously value it by offering their financial support,” said Williams. “I work for the business community and it has shown through its support that they want the festival. It’s a way they feel they can give back to the community. And, it’s about pride in our town, too. This is an opportunity to show that.”

Still, the debut of the festival next week could fall victim to changes in the pandemic.

“It’s day-to-day as the threat of COVID looms,” said Williams. “If it is not safe to gather even with masks on or at a distance when we get to next week, and if our cases continue to rise, I need to reserve the right to cancel it. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.”