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Canal Fest draws to end Hungry, festive crowd pushes eight-day event to celebratory close

After eight days of serving up sausage sandwiches, chicken fingers and pizza logs under a blue tent on Sweeney Street, the members of Active Hose Fire Company No. 2 were ready for some relief Sunday.

The volunteer company had logged 1,217 orders by Sunday at 3 p.m. But the closing day of the 25th annual Canal Fest of the Tonawandas meant even more work for the firefighters in the days ahead.

"After today, we start loading everything up. Cleaning it up takes a couple of days," said Active Hose President Matthew Piwtorak, 25. "It's eventful. It's our biggest fundraiser of the year."

People swelled the streets of the City of Tonawanda and North Tonawanda again Sunday on the last day of the largest festival along the Erie Canal.

Debbie Darling, a City of Tonawanda resident and a special adviser to the festival, said attendance for the event was higher than in recent years. She attributed the increased business to several other events that brought people into the region, including the Bassmaster Elite Series Empire Chase tournament in Buffalo.

Even a downpour Thursday did little to dampen the festival spirit.

"Thursday night, when we had that thunderstorm that rolled through, we had people walking around with umbrellas," Darling said. "Cruise night, it was just a sea of wall-to-wall people."

The midway was bustling again Sunday as children took their last spin on carnival rides before they packed up for the year.

Hamburg resident Don Parent waited for his children, 15-year-old Jessica and 12-year-old Tyler, as they rode on a steel pendulum ride called "Freak Out" that twisted above Niagara Street. Parent, who used to live in Tonawanda, returned to Canal Fest for the first time in about five years.

"It's a lot bigger since I was here last," Parent said. "It's a good day out with the kids."

Bernadette Bell of Buffalo brought her 7-year-old daughter, Alexandria, and her niece to see the rides.

"I would return," said Bell, a nurse. "The kids are really enjoying themselves."

On Sweeney Street in North Tonawanda, Lockport resident Jamie Hedley and her family found a shady spot to enjoy some rest after checking out the craft booths. Her family filled three cars on their way to the festival Sunday.

"I love coming here," Hedley said. "I come here every year."

As the festival wrapped up, organizers were already looking to next year.

Darling said several ideas to keep improving the event are already in the works, including widening opportunities to sponsor the all-volunteer festival and continuing to promote the Erie Canal.

She described the festival's final day as bittersweet.

"This is such a sad day," Darling said. "For eight days, we're all together. We work all year. Our paycheck is seeing the children's faces light up."


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