Lake Wales Pioneer Days Makes Epic Return For 45th Annual Event
by James Coulter
Gail Ward remembers the good old days fondly when her great grandmother would make homemade chicken and dumplings and banana pudding every Sunday. So to help relive those good old days, she dons her bonnet and apron and shares her most cherished tradition by making her comfort food during Lake Wales Pioneer Days.
Since 2007, Ward and her husband, Jimmy, have participated inthe annual historic festival hosted by the Lake Wales Museum. She had previous experience working as a Civil War reenactor in 2006. The following year, she was approached and invited to participate in Pioneer Days.
This year, they handled the chuckwagon tent by cooking chicken and dumplings over an open fire with banana pudding and vanilla wafers for dessert. Attendees who dropped by the tent could try free samples of the good old-fashioned Florida Cracker cooking.
Her secret to making good chicken and dumplings? The seasoning and the butter. But more than simply making good food, she loves being able to attend the festival as a way to relive cherished memories of days gone by as well as share traditions and history with the next generation.
“I love it,” she said. “Just the thrill and enjoyment of it keeps me coming back.”
Gail was one of the many vendors and demonstrators who attended Lake Wales Pioneer Days, the annual historic festival hosted by the Lake Wales Museum and Cultural Center. Many other reenactors dressed in historical costumes and demonstrated crafts like broom making, sewing, and metalworking.
Paul Wiedorn has been blacksmithing for the past ten years. He previously worked in Maryland at the Chesapeake Forge, and he has since retired and moved to Bradenton, Florida. He has since been hosting demonstrations throughout the state.
This year was his first attending Pioneer Days in Lake Wales. Someone else was scheduled to attend and demonstrate, but they were unable to attend. So a representative from the Southwest Region of the Florida Artist Blacksmith AssociationapproachedWiedorn and asked him to attend.
Wiedorn loves being able to demonstrate his craft. He makes items like hooks and metal turners. When it comes to metalsmithing, he says there are two cardinal sins most blacksmiths make, according to his experience: hit steel that is too cold, and sell wares that are too cheap.
“It is an artistic endeavor,” he said. “For years, I wanted to see if we could do it. It was something I wanted to do when I retired, and it is amazing that the art has been resurrected by the Florida Artist Blacksmith Association.”
Aside from historical demonstrations, the festival showcasedvendors from other local businesses and merchants and offeredother activities, including food trucks, live music, and arts and crafts. A children’s area was provided to offer pumpkin painting, yard games, and even a petting zoo.
The museum invited Stephanie Eckstein to organize the pumpkin patch and children’s area. The children’s area offered free pumpkin painting with the purchase of a pumpkin. She had been attending the annual event for the past ten years, so participating in it was nothing short of an honor for her.
“It is such a great community event,” she said. “It is a fantastic event. The weather is great, the activities are perfect, and the participation is really good.”
Every year, Lake Wales Pioneer Days honors a local individual within the local community by naming them Pioneer of the Year. This year, that honor was bestowed upon Gladys Howell, a local 95-year-old resident who has been living in Lake Wales for the past 50 years.
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, last year’s event was canceled. This year had the event make its epic return, with the turnout more than exceeding initial expectations, explained Lake Wales Museum Director Jennifer D’Hollander.
“The most exciting thing is that people are more than willing and ready and excited to come back to the festival because we have not had a festival for so long,” she said. “I was concerned that maybe we would not have as many people, but it was the opposite. We have a tremendous crowd, and we could not be happier.”
For the past 45 years, Pioneer Days has been keeping the local history and tradition of Lake Wales alive. Not only is the event great for residents to relish in their collective history, but also enlightening for out-od-town visitors who are new to the area, D’Hollander said.
“I think because it is a festival for everyone,” she said. “There is something here for everyone to enjoy and experience to shop and learn, and it is all about the community, and the community comes together to put it on. There are so many different organizations and volunteers that are involved. It is a community festival for and by the community.”