There are thousands of small-town festivals in the South. Most of them stink on ice. There's nothing to do but walk past endless booths of cheap "made in China" junk, some of which you feel obliged to buy your children against your better judgment just to apologize for dragging them out there. If you haven't seen one, Roger Brown's Master's thesis Ghost Dancing on the Cracker Circuit is a dead accurate and painfully funny depiction of the average festival. If you have seen one, the book is even more painfully funny.
Cleveland, Mississippi's Crosstie Arts & Jazz Festival is different. There's no Chinese junk for sale. It's all good quality handmade arts and crafts, except for two booths of hand-raised pets. There is a tent where you can talk to Mississippi authors and ask for their autographs. The music is several cuts above average; I dropped my jaw when I recognized the names of their "surprise" artists. Sales were steady for most of the vendors; people we talked to said sales were down slightly from previous years, and blamed high gas prices.
But the real treat for families was the "extensive children's area". Usually there isn't anything for children, or there's one poorly organized booth with nobody there. Crosstie has an entire side lawn set up for children with six different booths/areas for children. There was a stage for children's performers, a booth for making colored sand bottles and face painting, a booth for pottery making, a booth for beading, a booth for painting complete with a row of sturdy easels and clotheslines for drying, and an area with wading pools full of sand and children's play equipment. There were also some freebies donated by Cellular South. All of these activities and items were free to any child who came up there.
I spoke to the children's area coordinator, Miss Amy. Miss Amy is a former elementary schoolteacher, and she organized the children's area the way she had always tried to organize her classroom. Some of the supplies had been left over from last year. Other supplies were bought from a teacher's supply catalog because "they have the best prices." Volunteers from the local college, Delta State University, sat up and ran the children's booths. Other volunteers built the easels, and provided the sand toys and play equipment. Miss Amy's goal was to get the children to say, "That was fun! Can we come back next year?"
Children's attractions can make or break a festival. Too often the festival organizers do nothing for children, and rely on the parents to placate them with Chinese junk from the buy-and-resale booths. But, as my husband and I found out the hard way, the crowd that buys buy-and-resale doesn't tend to buy hand-crafted originals. We learned from experience there's no point in setting up at a festival where the majority of purchases are $5 or less kid's toys. So have other crafters, and few of us will bother with a festival that allows buy-and-resale booths.
The only alternative for the festival organizers is to actually do something for the children. Crosstie has the best organized children's setup I've ever seen. It made the whole trip more pleasant and more relaxing, and made us feel better about coming back next year. In turn the lack of buy-and-resale meant the quality of merchandise was much higher, which made us feel more like spending money and coming back next year.
I urge more festivals use Crosstie as a model for how to do things right. We could use some higher quality festivals around here.