Evansville, Indiana, USA
The West Side Nut Club’s Fall Festival
West Franklin Street, Evansville, Indiana
Equipment: An empty stomach and a whole lot of patience
Time: 2.5 hours driving from Bloomington, Indiana, 1-3 hours at the festival, 2.5 hours back
Cost: ~$10 to eat and ride
In a medium-sized city, mix the following:
The West Side Nut Club
The Ring O’ Fire
Chocolate covered crickets
Live musical acts
Shake vigorously; the more chaotic the better. Add patrons liberally, approaching maximum capacity. Let stand for 6-7 days.
Walking into the Evansville’s Fall Festival is like walking into a gigantic, living ulcer. And I mean that in the best way; I think there should be a little time everywhere for hundreds upon hundreds of people to gather in a small space, eat fried and double fried foods and waste money on carnival games, watch amateur acts and dodge crying babies. Evansville has it all down to a science. The first full week of October, the West Side Nut Club puts on the show, cordoning off four blocks of West Franklin Street to line with more than 100 food booths, stages for entertainment, and rickety yet exciting rides. You’d be hard-pressed to find one of the 100,000 plus Evansville locals who had never been – a good number of people go just to see what all the fuss is about every year.
But the heart of the Fall Festival lies in the regulars, the people who look forward to it and go every day for its week-long run. Everything opens at 10am, and it’s no surprise to find walkers there before that. There’s no admission price, but it’s hard to resist the endless corridor of tempting and exotic-sounding foods. Then again, I’ve never had to try very hard to resist the deep-fried Snickers bars or various cow parts sandwiches. There are plenty of perfectly delicious – if completely non-nutritious – specialty foods, everything from dumplings to tenderloins to bean soup. For the most part, if you can conjure up a stereotype regarding Midwestern grub, you’ll be able to sample it, and it’s most definitely the food that keeps a lot of folks coming back.
The rides and games are primarily utilized by kids up to high school age, although everyone is welcome. Tickets cost $.50 each (with discounts on large purchases) and there’s nothing too high-tech: a mini roller coaster, rides that go in a circle very quickly, kiddie rides for the little ones. The games are typical carnival fare: ring tosses, water gun target practice, skee-ball. A good proportion of Evansville teenagers have accompanied a first date to the festival, and all it takes is a look around to cement the reason; for the distracted, the lights, the noises, and the smells can combine into a pretty intoxicating atmosphere.
Families gather at one of the stages at intervals for performances. Sometimes there are local bands – usually country or bluegrass efforts, but there have been some rock acts in the past, sometimes there are contests, like the Queen contest, in which a young lady is crowned Queen of the Festival, and sometimes there are celebrity speakers, like Jared Fogle. You know, the Subway guy. Yeah, Jared came to the Fall Festival. It’s the only street party around that has a ‘Pet Parade’ in addition to a regular parade, and there’s no shortage of people watching, which is what some come solely to do.
All in all, it sounds like a pretty cheesy, mediumish town’s attempt at unity. And in some ways, it is; nobody’s going to deny that the spectacle is garish at times or that there are already enough calories in a Snicker’s bar without deep frying it. The funny thing about the Fall Festival, though, is that there’s something that makes it a step above most little festivals. Maybe it’s that the booths are run by not-for-profit groups to raise money for good causes. Maybe it’s that the people are genuinely friendly and you’re bound to see someone you know, whether you’re from there or any of the surrounding counties. Whatever it is, it’s kept the thing up and running for 83 years. If you’re in the Southern Indiana area, you’ll be sorry you missed it.