The year the festival got too big

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By Mary Stone and Bev Ringenberg

Special to the Beacon


Many present Cedar Keyans prefer to stay away from Gainesville on football weekends when the population nearly doubles and traffic is at a standstill.  But, only long time locals remember when Cedar Key’s population expanded to a reported 50,000 in 1975 for the Sidewalk Art Festival1 – the year the festival got too big!

Beth Davis, 5th generation resident and owner of the Salty Needle Quilt Shop in Cedar Key, vividly remembers that year.  Beth’s mom, Marie Yearty Johnson, was the chairman of the festival in 1975 and their house was ‘festival central.’ Artists made reservations by calling and with Marie often away from the house working on festival “stuff,” Beth’s dad, Webster Johnson, got mighty tired of answering the phone and ultimately just told artists who were calling “Sure, come on down to Cedar Key, that will be fine.” Needless to say, careful records were not kept but the Gainesville Sun reported 400 artists in town that weekend and there was no doubt that the tiny town of 600, with one road in and out, was overwhelmed.

Locals recall running out of food at the park on the first day.  Shelves in the Market were empty.  Luz Kraujalis, daughter of Walter and Shirley Beckham, remembers overflowing hotels, visitors sleeping in cars, on boats and tents scattered all around town, backed up plumbing and running out of everything from bread to toilet paper.  Many people reportedly just left because there was no place to park and “massive traffic jams.”2 All of this was probably not much fun for Cedar Key’s single police officer, George Daniel, either.

So, it’s really no surprise that the Town Council was considering canceling the festival entirely because of numerous complaints from local citizens. In an article in the Tampa Tribune titled “Cedar Key Arts Festival Doomed?” by Rick Ballard2, Festival Committee Secretary, Harriet Thompson reported going to the council “almost on our knees” and apparently convinced the town to “give us another chance.”

Changes were made, the number of artists was limited to 200-250 and limited to “fine arts and sculpture eliminating all craft and photography,” advertising was restricted, rules were made about camping and increased law enforcement assistance was brought in from the Sheriff’s Department and Gainesville.3

The 1976 show, which was dedicated to founder Bessie Gibbs, was considered a success and as reported in the Tampa Tribune, “Over the past few years the festival had emerged from the ranks of the unknown to one of the finest and most highly respected art shows in the Southeast United States.” Historical Society Articles from 1977 and 1978 report crowds of approximately 35,000 and balance seems to have returned.  There are no articles after 1978 at the Historical Society about the Spring Arts Festival, but locals report that the quality of the festival gradually declined and the event no longer was a venue for fine artists and craftsmen in the middle years from 1980-2005.  It was not until 2006, that efforts were made to bring back a juried Fine Arts event, now known as the Old Florida Celebration of the Arts.  And, again, the festivals reputation is growing, but this time, organizers are working hard to keep the venue “just right” with 120 fine arts booths with representative work from all medium including ceramics, drawing, glass, mosaics, painting, mixed media, photography, metal, sculpture, jewelry, fiber/leather, and wood while attracting a crowd that makes everyone happy – artists, locals and visitors alike!

So, please plan to join us April 12 and 13th for the 50th Annual Fine Arts Festival in Cedar Key. For more information go to www.cedarkeyartsfestival.com or call 352-543-5400.


Thanks to the Cedar Key Historical Society for their assistance.

1 “Crowd Swarms Cedar Key Sidewalk Arts Festival” by Bill Griffin, Gainesville Sun, 1975 (an article in the Tampa Tribune in April 1976 expanded this number to 70,000 and one in 1997 (Tampa Tribune) said 100,000.

2 “Cedar Key Festival Doomed?” by Rick Ballard, Tampa Tribune, April 21, 1976.

3 “Annual Rites of Spring in Cedar Key” by Edward Hamilton (UF Student Journalist), no date.