WINFIELD — The festival along the banks of the Walnut River has started, although that’s not what the sign says.
Already hundreds of people have traveled to the Cowley County Fairgrounds to claim their old camping spots, hang out, drink beer in the morning and catch up with old friends.
The Walnut Valley Festival technically gets cranking on Wednesday with five days of bluegrass, folk, gospel and other styles. But the festival is famously as much about the community of festival-goers as about the professional acts.
They are parked on the west side in neatly packed-together motor homes and trailers; and on the east side, in the Pecan Grove, with its hippy heritage, in tents, awnings, lean-tos, even a parachute, along with trailers.
By late morning Saturday, the ladies of the OOCC – the “Out-of-Control Camp” – were just starting to gain momentum for the day. They were sitting in chairs underneath the trees of the Pecan Grove, enjoying their favorite beverages, laughing and trying to explain what makes the festival so special.
It’s the people.
It’s the music.
It’s the atmosphere.
Really, they agreed, it’s the intersection of all three that creates the “spirit of Winfield.” It’s a spirit marked by tolerance, togetherness and fun, sort of a like a family reunion in which you liked all of your relatives.
So what are the rules?
“Be nice,” said Theresa Resner of Goddard.
“Leave it as you found it,” said Yvonne Shively of Wichita.
“Be considerate,” Resner said.
Many of OOCC’s members – responsible professionals in real life – have come to Winfield since the 70s, when an Army tent and a bagful of hot dogs seemed enough. Each year, they’ve added comforts, once even a cappuccino maker. They freely acknowledging they aren’t the kids they once were.
But they remain the committed nuts they’ve always been, decorating their camps with inflatable dinosaurs and a disco ball, and making giant bubbles all night long. They’ve welcomed new members as they’ve gone along.
“They’re practicing the spirit of Winfield,” said relative newcomer Marguerite Gamble.
One of the things that makes camping here different, said Rex Flottman, the festival’s media coordinator, is that the festival’s instrumental competitions attract dozens of top-shelf musicians who have plenty of time to hang out and love to play for enthusiastic fans. These aren’t on the big stages, but rather intimate, even spontaneous, performances on handmade stages in the campgrounds. Every other person in the campground, it seems, can play a guitar or mandolin. Some campers say they don’t even make the few-hundred-yard trip to see the main acts.
The music is a real bridge for the campers, said Russ Meier of Wichita.
“There are no boundaries between the campsites,” he said. “People wander through and they’re welcomed into the group. That’s how you make friends here.”