NEWFANE — This year’s 50th annual Newfane Heritage Festival promised to be a traffic-stopper, as the volunteer fire department’s Route 30 coin drop regularly rakes in $10,000 and the adjacent First Congregational Church food, arts and crafts booths reap $35,000.
Then the coronavirus put the brakes on it all.
The Indigenous Peoples’ weekend event — which typically attracts an estimated 10,000 people to this town of 1,621 — does more than back up countless motorists bumper to bumper for miles. Since 1971, it also has been its organizers’ biggest fundraiser.
“It’s one-quarter to one-third of our budget,” says church bookkeeper Billie Stark, who hopes this year’s substitute online auction will help offset the cancellation of everything else.
Vermont’s fall foliage usually draws upward of 3.5 million visitors who spend nearly $500 million in six short weeks. But while economists focus on the money made by stores, restaurants and hotels, community nonprofit groups rely on a variety of seasonal fundraisers to bring in bushels of green.
Drive from Newfane to neighboring Dummerston for last year’s golden anniversary Apple Pie Festival, for example, and you could have sampled one of the 1,500 crusty confections that Congregational Church parishioners sold outside the nearly 175-year-old white-clapboard citadel.
Volunteers swarmed the church for two full weeks to turn 90 bushels of fruit, 950 pounds of flour and 400 pounds each of sugar and shortening into pies for visitors who usually double, if not triple, Dummerston’s population of 1,777. The congregation’s reward: some $20,000 — about one-fifth of its $100,000 annual budget — to maintain a building that doubles as a community center and polling place.
This year, however, a recent post on the church Facebook page tells a different story: “Limited to 250 pies. Drive-thru only. No walk-ups or parking. When they are gone it is over. Safety first.”
“Some people were skeptical about even being able to do this, but fears were allayed when we started talking about baking pies at home,” says Pastor Shawn Bracebridge, who made 24 himself. “We didn’t want to miss a year of the tradition.”
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Through such efforts, the 90-member congregation expects to pull in a fifth of its usual Indigenous Peoples’ Sunday payoff.
“We’re finding people are anxious to buy pies and also make donations,” Bracebridge says, “although this is a big loss for our budget.”
Such sentiments are echoed in Newfane, where some 200 Heritage Festival volunteers annually raise money for a historic building that houses everything from after-school programs to Al-Anon meetings to senior meals and blood pressure checks.
“We looked around to see fall fairs canceling right and left,” churchgoer Cheryl Liston says.
That’s why Liston and fellow parishioners, while forgoing this year’s festival, hope to fill part of that hole with a first-ever online auction featuring 150 donated goods and gift certificates.
“We have an elderly congregation and going online is a bit of a challenge for some, but there are younger people who think this is great,” Liston says. “It won’t replace all we’d make at the festival, but at least it will give us some money for our efforts.”