Inflation and high gas prices fueled enough discontent to kick-start the beginnings of the Summerfair tradition back in late June 1977.
Wayne Powell was the publisher-editor of The Sentinel newspaper, which took the lead in organizing the multiday event built around the Fourth of July. Then as now, the goal was to provide local families with an option to traveling elsewhere for holiday fun.
Powell saw how local residents had rallied the year before for events that supported the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence. His hope was that excitement could build and carryover into subsequent years, but the spark from the Spirit of ’76 fizzled out.
“We couldn’t allow Carlisle residents to become apathetic, uninvolved or disinterested as were the people in most other communities throughout the country,” Powell said in an editorial published June 26, 1978. “The time had come … to return something to Carlisle.”
For him, the first step was to invite community leaders to a conference to discuss the feasibility of a summer festival. Those in attendance included David Stetson, executive director of the Carlisle Chamber of Commerce; David Swartz, former superintendent of Carlisle Area School District; and Susan McCallister, former secretary of the Cumberland County tourism bureau.
Powell introduced the concept as a return to the old-fashioned July 4 festival complete with a community picnic, a parade and band concerts leading up to the traditional fireworks display. A steering committee was formed in August 1977 to organize events, start subcommittees and recruit volunteers and community support.
“If we can secure involvement now in the early stages of the planning, we can have one of the best July Fourth celebrations the area has ever known,” Powell said. “Fortunately, we have many people in our community who have experience at organizing a project of this nature. We will need their expertise to make the summer festival a success.”
There were naysayers convinced a multiday event was not feasible. They were skeptical that enough support existed to organize a wide range of activities spread out over different venues. “But eternal optimism is both a strength and weakness of mine, so we prodded ahead for the full five days,” Powell wrote in the June 1978 editorial.
Hours of planning and preparation culminated in a stay-at-home celebration that ran from June 30 through July 4, 1978.
That first Summerfair premiered a schedule of activities that have become tradition over the years such as the ice cream social, a craft fair, a community picnic, a fishing derby at LeTort Park and a performance by the Carlisle Town Band. There have been such staples as the Peanut Carnival where children use peanuts to play games and “Anything Floats” where local teams of residents build homemade watercraft to compete in races.
But that first Summerfair also had a flair for ingenuity in two stage performances of an original pageant titled a “Summer Fair-y Tale.” The pageant took a light-hearted look at the history of Carlisle by using popular show tunes. Organized into scenes, the production included barmaids singing “Belly Up to the Bar, Boys” in the Eagle and Harpe Tavern and a chorus of townspeople singing “Who Will Buys?” in the Old Market House on the Square.
There was an “Anything Goes” competition that featured 10 fire and ambulance companies in events that tested their agility and strength. Plus, there was a “Feudin’ Fiddles” competition where each fiddler played two to three tunes in 10 minutes during the qualifying round. Judges then selected finalists for the second round of competition.