Pioneer Festival has become tradition for Brooks family

Po Brooks drops apple fritter batter into hot grease during a previous Forks of the Wabash Pioneer Festival as her husband, Jeff Brooks, works in the background. The Brooks family has been involved with the festival since its beginnings in 1975.
Po Brooks drops apple fritter batter into hot grease during a previous Forks of the Wabash Pioneer Festival as her husband, Jeff Brooks, works in the background. The Brooks family has been involved with the festival since its beginnings in 1975. TAB file photo.

One Huntington County family has not only embodied the spirit of the upcoming Forks of the Wabash Pioneer Festival, they have also served over the years as pioneers of the festival itself.

As Mary Brooks, of Huntington, recalls, it all began in 1975, when Eiffel Plasterer had a show of tractors at his farm. She and her husband, Garl, thought it might be interesting to do something special during the show, so they made apple butter outside, drawing people’s interest.

Jean Gernand passed by and later called Mary to see if they would do it again, this time for a fall festival in October of that same year, to be held at Huntington North High School. They built a fire outside and cooked up apple butter in a copper kettle.

That became the inaugural year of what is now known as the Forks of the Wabash Pioneer Festival, and also the beginning of a Brooks family tradition that has spanned generations of involvement throughout the 40 years of the popular festival, now held at Hier’s Park.

Garl’s brothers soon joined in at the festival: Denver and his wife Benita Brooks showed tractors and crafted rag rugs, Bob and Bertie Brooks made and sold caramel corn and Don and Luwona Brooks helped out with various tasks such as setting up displays and organizing the Pioneer Village.

With four brothers and their wives, their nine offspring, and almost too numerous to count grand- children, great-grandchildren and spouses, a reasonable guess is that more than 50 family members have worked at what they feel is “their” festival, keeping the old traditions, history and crafts of the 19th century alive with old-time demonstrations, outdoor cooking and lots of great memories.

Over the years, in one way, shape or form, a Brooks family member has been involved with demonstrations including corn shelling, cream separating, ink making, metal working, crochet needlework, rope braiding, the Pioneer Village schoolhouse and kids’ games.

About 18 people from the Brooks family will participate in the 40th festival this weekend, their ages ranging from the late 80s down to 1-year-old Kallen Reimer, who is Denver and Benita Brooks’ great-grandson and Jeff Brooks’ grandson.

“This will be his first official year,” says Jeff Brooks, of Huntington, who mans the apple fritters kettle at the festival. “He will be into everything.”

Jeff’s cousin, Heather Brooks Clampitt, of Markle, who is Don and Luwona’s daughter, says families participate together to perform the different demonstrations.

“We live as pioneers lived,” she says. “They’re just alongside us, because we do it as a family unit.”

The younger children learn the ropes of cooking and making crafts from their parents, aunts or uncles and often take over a project to keep it going on. Everyone — even the little ones — wears period clothing and takes on the persona of a “pioneer,” showing visitors how it’s done, 1800s-style. Mary Brooks says the idea was to make the village as authentic as possible.

“I just like being there, doing something that somebody can see and watch,” she says. “We tried to bring in all the old things we could. We had a cream separator. Garl brought it in … That was an old thing that people hardly didn’t see.

“Then we brought in ink for kids and made different kinds of ink for them to write their names on a piece of paper. I got turkey feathers. Garl split them and made pens out of them.”

Mary Brooks switched from making apple butter — which was too expensive and took too long to make — to making and selling corn fritters. But this will be her last year as a participant at the festival, and she’ll let Jeff Brooks’ daughter take over making the tasty treat. However, she vows she will never give up her secret recipe to the public.

“It has been an enjoyable ride and I have loved every minute of it,” she says. “The people were great, coming to my booth and even stopping to talk to me.”

Her nephew, Jeff Brooks, and his wife, Po, cook up the apple fritters not far from her booth. They’ve been doing it for about 17 years. He says the first couple of years they made them nobody knew what they were. Now they can’t make them fast enough, with lines of hungry people waiting for each batch.

“My wife stirs up the batter — mixes the apples, the flour and everything together,” he explains. “She puts it in my pot of boiling — I say ‘buffalo tallow’ most of the time — but it’s just vegetable oil. Then I let ’em cook and I take them out when I think they’re done and usually one of my grandkids takes them 10 to 12 feet over to the cooling/powdered sugar rack. And they scoop ’em up from there and sell them to customers.”

Mary Brooks serves on the festival planning committee. Clampitt, too, is a member of the committee and also a member of Phi Chapter of Psi Iota Xi, now the main festival sponsor. Both have chaired the Pioneer Village — sometimes referred to as “Brooks Village.”

“I grew up with the festival, so I have a little different perspective, because I’ve been out there as long as I can remember,” Clampitt says. “For me, it was just the biggest pleasure to be able to finally work and have a responsibility.

“One of my clearest memories was that I actually got to work, and one of my first jobs was working the corn fritter booth. The job I got was, I got to hand the corn fritter to somebody. I wasn’t allowed to touch the money — just to hand the fritter out.

“The next big milestone was then when I was old enough to actually make change. That was like the big promotion.”

Later, Clampitt became the school marm at the one-room schoolhouse, teaching visiting children about how pioneer kids learned their lessons. Her daughter, Lucy, 6, also attended the school every time the bell rang.

“When we started the pioneer schoolhouse she absolutely loved that idea,” Clampitt recalls. “She would listen to it every time. And one time, I walked up and here she is, teaching school to a group of kids that just happened to be there. She has it down — she has the whole thing memorized, going through the lessons and teaching the kids, giving them all the instructions.”

Like Clampitt, her children have grown up playing different parts at the festival. She says it has fostered an entrepreneurial spirit in the Brooks family kids, but also has forged some treasured personal friendships as well.

“This is the only festival we do, but I think the kids feel like the whole area is ‘family,’ whether they’re family or not,” she explains. “They’ve adopted aunts and uncles from around, because the vendors in our area are typically the same year after year. They have a really neat relationship.

“My kids have been out there since birth, so they’ve napped in some of the tents and areas, from cousins and not cousins, and aunts and uncles.”

Other memories unfold in stories that formed over the years, including the one Mary recalls of the year her niece, Imogene Stetzel, decided to camp out on a lady’s property near Hier’s Park, paying her for the electricity her family used.

“Imogene had to go to the bathroom. When she opened up the door, out rolled this man,” Mary says, still laughing at the memory. “He was drunker than a skunk. He had a half-gallon of whiskey still left … He was sleeping in the Porta-Potty and fell over. Scared her half to death! She came running back and they called the police. You know, she took that bottle home. She still has it, as far as I know.”

There was also the time some of the cousins opened a Porta-Potty door to be welcomed by a disgruntled raccoon.

“They always traveled in groups after that surprise,” Clampitt adds.

With generations stepping up to take the place of the festival’s founding Brookses, now there are Bowerses, Clampitts, Doctors, Hierses, Thomases, Zezulas and more in between to continue the legacy of re-enacting the area’s pioneer days.

“We try and make it fun, but it’s a lot of hard work,” says Jeff Brooks. “We try and do something different or improve our site each year, to what it started as ... My folks were charter members and Mary and Garl were charter members. We don’t do any other festivals; this is the only one we do. This is the only one we care to do.”

“We’re all invested in the festival,” Clampitt adds. “It’s just been a lot of fun over the years. So many different family members have been involved. It’s just a really fun family time … There’s a lot of history.”