Half century of ‘grape’ fun

Silver Creek’s Festival of Grapes returns for 50th celebration

OBSERVER Photo by Damian Sebouhian Chairwoman of Festival of Grapes Headquarters Lisa Romano holds the pillow and crown used during the very first Festival of Grapes held in 1967. Behind Romano are samplings of souvenirs for sale during the festival.

SILVER CREEK — The Festival of Grapes is turning 50 this year. That’s five decades worth of Western New Yorkers gathering to celebrate and honor a crop that has helped sustain the local economy by providing quality juice and wine to Chautauqua County and beyond.

“We have some of the oldest vineyards on this end of the country,” said Lisa Romano, chairwoman of festival headquarters in Silver Creek. “We are now in our fourth generation of grape growers here in our region. They have been tending the grapes since the 1800s.”

Speaking of grape tending, this year’s prestigious Grape Grower of the Year award has been given to Rosemary Hayes.

Rosemary Hayes, along with her late husband, Douglas, purchased Vine Cliff Farm on Rt. 5 in Brocton in 1959.

During the following three decades, Rosemary became involved with the annual spring tying and fall hand picking, but her proudest endeavor was her involvement with Federated Garden Clubs of New York State. During her 10 years as the NYS World Gardening Chairperson, Hayes raised over $100,000 for CARE projects in Africa.

In 1990, Douglas, who had served for many years as a member of the Board of Directors for Welch’s National Cooperative, died suddenly and Rosemary, then 65, decided to keep the farm and learn much more about managing and farming the 38 acres of concord grapes. The Cornell Cooperative Extension service held sessions to learn new trimming and tying methods and Rosemary began to seriously rejuvenate the vineyard. She took great pride in nurturing the entire 38 acres, increasing production and becoming involved with committee work for National Cooperative.

Today, at 92 years of age, Rosemary can still be spotted checking out the conditions of the vineyard in her little John Deere gator.

Festival of Grapes organizers have also released the name of the honorary position of Parade Grand Marshall: Silver Creek Mayor Nick Piccolo.

According to a press release the Festival Board members chose Piccolo in part for making “some significant accomplishments…including lowering taxes while keeping (Silver Creek) under the 2 percent tax cap, the completion of a number of mandated projects that ensured that the Village became compliant with DEC regulations, the demolition of the Seegert’s Dairy building and securing reimbursement from FEMA for damage that was done to village property during the 2009 flood.

“Collaboration with his colleagues on the village board and transparency in leadership and decision-making, with the ultimate goal of doing what’s best for the residents of Silver Creek, are what have helped Mayor Piccolo achieve his goal of making a difference.”

Although there have been some changes this year to the festival, all the events festival goers have come to expect and look forward to will be taking place.

The first major change: the festival will be shorter.

“We’re going from a five-day festival down to three,” Romano said, explaining that “the rides weren’t running (the whole five days) and most of the crafters didn’t stay open. We voted on it last year as a board at the end of the festival … and decided to condense everything into three days.”

Opening ceremonies will also be slightly different this year, as State Sen. Cathy Young will get the show started with an official proclamation in celebration of the 50-year milestone, scheduled to take place on Friday at 5:15 p.m. at the gazebo.

“We’ve got one in storage someplace for our 25th anniversary, so whoever was the political figure back then, they memorialized the 25th,” Romano said.

Another change relates to an upgrade in the Festival of Grapes headquarters, as organizers and the board recently moved to the building on 9 Park Place.

“This is our building now,” Romano said. “We’re calling it the Festival Center and it’s more than a headquarters. It’s a meeting place and a storage place. We list all the winners here when they come in. It’s a multi-purpose facility and we store all our souvenir merchandise here.

“We’ve got 44-pages of memorabilia and pictures. We have the original crown and pillow from the first festival. We’re asking people if they have any of this memorabilia to come and donate it back to us, because now we have a nice safe and secure spot,” Romano said.

New souvenirs for sale are imprinted with the 50th anniversary logo and include books, sunglasses, a travel corkscrew, USB cell phone port, sticky notes, T-shirts, sweatshirts and fidget spinners.