One of the largest events held each year on the Erie Canal – the 34th annual Canal Fest of the Tonawandas – is still going strong in 2016, with new leaders taking the helm.
The eight-day festival from next Sunday to July 24, is held along the shared Erie Canal waterfront in North Tonawanda and the City of Tonawanda and it is jam packed all day long and throughout the evening, closing down at 11 p.m., with free concerts each night in Gateway Park on the waterfront. In addition there is a two-day arts and crafts festival, an antique fire truck night, a bike night, a cruise night and one of the largest parades in this area.
With no admission, free parking, a midway and a variety of ethnic and specialty foods, it makes sense to plan to head over to Gateway Park on the Erie Canal several times during the week or pop in every day for a different experience.
Canal Fest Corp. President Peter Chenier Jr. of North Tonawanda took over the top role from Larry Denef, who had headed the Canal Fest Board for 15 years. Denef continues to book the musical acts and serve as an adviser, said Chenier.
Chenier said approximately 30,000 to 50,000 people attend each year, but the true beneficiaries are the approximately 50 social service and community groups that use the money they raise in a week at Canal Fest to fund programs for their entire year.
The biggest draw for the week is the Canal Fest Parade, which begins at 6:30 p.m. July 19 in the City of Tonawanda and ends on Webster Street in North Tonawanda. But it almost didn’t happen, said Robert Grehlinger, who is co-chairing the parade with his wife Lauri with assistance from William Davignon and his wife Melissa. The two women are daughters of Bill Manth, who had long co-chaired the event and was set to take over. After his death in November no one immediately stepped up to chair the parade, said Grehlinger.
He said they figured someone else would do it, but by April when no else had volunteered they took over.
“They were thinking of canceling it,” said Grehlinger. He said Manth usually starts sending out invitation postcards to groups in February.
Grehlinger, who had helped on the parade, but never ran it, said Manth would start talking about the next parade the day the previous one ended.
But despite the quick turnaround, about 90 groups will be participating in the 2016 parade, making it on par with the nearly 100 to 120 that have marched in previous years.
Grehlinger said they are happy to continue Manth’s legacy and plan to organize the parade in 2017.
“What would Canal Fest be without the parade?” said Grehlinger.
But in addition to the parade there are loads of other activities.
Chenier said the $100,000 cost to host Canal Fest is offset by sponsors.
Top events include the arts and crafts festival from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. July 23 and 24; the 18th annual car cruise from 6 to 10 p.m. July 20 in both North Tonawanda and the City of Tonawanda; and the 11th annual bike cruise, from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Friday on Webster Street in North Tonawanda, which was so popular last year some bikers were turned away.
Also the third annual antique fire truck muster from noon to 6 p.m. next Sunday; the Tim Frank Memorial four-mile run, which begins with registration at 4 p.m. July 21 on Webster Street as well as a race for the little ones, the Diaper Derby, which is also held July 21 at 6 p.m. at DeGraff Memorial Hospital at the corner of Tremont and Main streets.
Two water-themed events will be held July 23, the Sika boat-building contest and the duck race to benefit Community Missions.
The Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum at 180 Thompson St. will celebrate the 100th birthday of its 1916 carrousel with carnival games, basket raffles and games at the museum from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and next Sunday. Admission to the museum is $1.
Fireworks will close out the week at dusk from the Renaissance Bridge on July 24.
Chenier agreed that there were enough events to draw people every day and said there are also so many different types of food.
“It’s not just typical greasy fair food,” said Chenier. “With all the different nonprofits there is a German tent, a Polish platter and the Elks have sandwiches and the Renaissance has their Italian sausage.”
He said if you can’t afford to eat out every night you can still stroll around and enjoy the free events and free music.
And it is also a way to connect with your friends and neighbors.
Chenier said he receives email from all across the country from people who plan their vacations around Canal Fest, as well as groups contacting him to find out future dates so they can plan their class reunions around Canal Fest.
“We see a lot of high school reunions that plan their events during Canal Fest. They will meet at a hall and then when that closes they will come down to walk around and continue the reunion at Canal Fest,” said Chenier.
Discount presale tickets for the midway are available in advance of Canal Fest, none will be sold once Canal Fest 2016 begins. Tickets are available in the City of Tonawanda at Lane Jewelers, 28 Seymour St., and Tops Markets on Young and on Niagara streets.
Advance ride tickets are available in North Tonawanda at Tops on Meadow Drive, Budwey, 535 Division St., The Corner Store, 1091 Oliver St. and the Herschell Carrousel Museum, which will also sell advance ride tickets on their website , www.carrouselmuseum.org.
A full list of all the events, directions, sponsors, advance ride tickets, and also dates for future Canal Fests, are online at www.CanalFest.org. Information and updates are also on Facebook at Canal Fest of the Tonawanadas.