FREDONIA – They streamed in groups of five, 10, sometimes more onto White Street Friday afternoon, as if drawn by magnetic force. By 4 p.m. hundreds of college students had gathered on front lawns to enjoy the warm sun and cold beverages.
Some chugged beer from a funnel, while others used a wiffle bat. In another drinking game, participants hammered nails into a block of wood between swigs.
Two Fredonia village police officers stood watch in an SUV at the end of the street. When students began spilling from the sidewalks into the street around 5 p.m., the officers had seen enough. Soon after, a dozen law enforcement officials, including state troopers and a Chautauqua County sheriff’s deputy, herded away the festive crowds.
Fredonia Police Chief Bradley C. Meyers said he figured most of them would walk to other student-rented homes on Canadaway Street, where his officers probably would have to go through the whole routine again.
In February, SUNY Fredonia officials pronounced Fred Fest dead on the campus of 4,000 students. But off campus in this picturesque village of stately homes and tree-lined streets, the end-of-semester celebration remains very much alive.
“They can try to get rid of it. It’s not going to go away,” said Lorenzo Amato, a senior from Glens Falls, clutching a can of Busch Lite. “We’ve had a stressful semester. We want to celebrate as a whole. We want to make sure everyone has fun and everyone celebrates the way we can.
“I know this is my last hurrah,” he added. “I want to make the best of it.”
Some students said Fred Fest was just part of the college experience, akin to similar festivities at campuses in other college towns.
“I’ve seen more bad stuff happen not during Fred Fest, than during Fred Fest,” said Kara MacIntyre, a senior from Geneseo, who carried bottles of Leinenkugel in a small backpack. The big parties were “a good way to meet people who aren’t in your classes,” she said.
The college’s decision to cancel the festivities prompted no shortage of outrage from students, many of whom took to social media over the past few months, vowing to continue the tradition of massive, alcohol-fueled congregating at student-rented homes in the village.
“I think there’s a lot of kids saying, ‘Screw you, Fredonia, we’re going to do it anyway, even bigger,’” said Alex Raia, a freshman from Victor, near Rochester.
Several students said trying to cancel Fred Fest would lead only to more problems. In the past, the college put on a campus-wide barbecue and brought in bands and other activities, as part of a slate of weekend activities in advance of final exams for the semester.
This year, it has spread those events over several weeks and banned visitors from staying in dormitories, all in an effort to discourage a crush of out-of-towners traveling to Fredonia for the sole purpose of partying.
Without events on campus, more students will head earlier and more often into the village to partake in the festivities, which largely revolve around drinking.
“I think they should make the on-campus stuff better, make it a reason to go to campus,” said MacIntyre.
Meyers said he supported the college’s move. While Fred Fest always has been a challenge for Fredonia police, “it just blew up in a matter of five years,” largely due to the evolution of social media, he said.
The weekend began attracting young people to town who had no connection whatsoever to the college.
That’s when Meyers knew something had to change.
“Every year the behavior was getting a little worse and the crowds were getting bigger and bigger,” he said. “Doing nothing wasn’t going to fix it.”
Both Meyers and college officials said they were not naïve enough to think the off-campus partying would stop after the college put an end to its campus activities.
But Meyers he anticipates the college’s move eventually will break the momentum of more out-of-towners descending upon Fredonia and adding to the masses.
Some students supported what the college was trying to do. Mads Goc, a sophomore from Grand Island, said she does not want Fredonia to have the reputation of a party school.
“Drinking’s not my thing,” she said. “It just seems dangerous to go to these big parties.”
Besides, “this is a town that a lot of people live in, and sometimes the college students forget that,” Goc said.
But others wondered if Fredonia students weren’t being punished for the misdeeds of visitors in the thousands from as far as Ohio and Florida.
“What ruins it for us is people coming from other areas,” said Jennifer Herrman, a junior from Rochester.
Meyers agreed that most of the arrests and incidents over the years involved young people who were not Fredonia students. Fredonia students generally have cooperated with police during past Fred Fests, he said. The break-up of the parties on White Street Friday afternoon happened without incident.
Still, Meyers worries about whether such cooperation will continue as the crowds swell on Saturday.
“It’s going to be a long weekend,” he said. “It usually is.”