Carthage Maple Leaf Festival celebrates 54 years of history

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Helen Hill, original committee member, shares personal account

Carthage tradition of 54 years, the Maple Leaf Festival has formed Carthage into the town it is today. The Carthage Maple Leaf Festival originated in 1966 and this year the town celebrates its 54th year all throughout the month of October. 

The Maple Leaf Festival has grown into something bigger than what it started as, acting as a traditional celebration of the town’s heritage. Helen Hill, one of the original Maple Leaf Festival committee members, spoke about her time as part of the original festival. Hill is the only original committee member still living; she was a committee member for five consecutive years. 

Carthage, Missouri

“It was really something,” Hill said. “Well, we had had a retail meeting and Bob Young was our state representative and he represented the retailers, and we were talking, saying, ‘a lot of the towns have something they’re famous for or something, like the biggest ball of twine or a salt mine or something. We thought, what can we have?’ and somebody said, ‘well, we have beautiful trees,’ and I said, ‘well, maybe we can decorate our trees and that’d be nice.’ So, it just went from there, you know. Decorate the trees, and we thought of all the things we could do and we decided that’s what we would do. …” 

“… We finally had something to make Carthage famous.”

Helen Hill

According to the Joplin Globe Newspaper Archives from October 18, 2001, page 16, “The Maple Leaf Festival, sponsored by the Carthage Chamber of commerce, was the idea of Robert Dale, former publisher of the Carthage Press and chairman of the festival planning committee. Dale saw his position at the newspaper as one of bringing the community together, and believed a festival would do just that.” 

Carthage Maple Trees

From there, Hill said they decided to focus on the town’s maple trees, saying, “we were excited about it, really. We finally had something to make Carthage famous.” Hill said after the idea’s conception they decided to raise money for the Festival. She explained that women sold items—like food—at Memorial Hall in order to raise money. The Festival committee tried to come up with ideas that would interest the community, as Hill said they “came up with some of the darnest things,” such as “maple flights” where individuals could take a flyover the maple trees. She said some of what they came up with they couldn’t do, though. 

“… And the fact that we’d said we would do it next year and we thought, you know, I had no idea how many years it would go. …”

Helen hill

“You know, I enjoyed everything we did, darn it,” Hill said. “I think that our people on our committee and everything we all got along so good and we were all so tired we just about sat down and cried when it was over. … And the fact that we’d said we would do it next year and we thought, you know, I had no idea how many more years it would go. …” 

Carthage Maple Trees

Little did Hill know the Maple Leaf Festival she contributed to starting would carry on as a town tradition 53 years later. At the Festival’s conception in 1966, it started as a combination of the new-coming festival with the Four States Invitational Band Festival. It wasn’t until 1967 that the Festival took the name “Maple Leaf Festival,” as it was then deemed a celebration of Carthage’s town and the beauty of their maple trees, according to Mark Elliff, Carthage Chamber of Commerce president and CEO. 

“I think it was the insight and the foresight of the people like Bob Dale and Marvin VanGilder … that realized, ‘you know what, this is good, people enjoyed it; we need to have something to kind of look forward to every year, kind of to celebrate our heritage,’” Elliff said. “Carthage, if you go back in the history of Carthage, Carthage has always pulled themselves back up. … So, it think back then those people realized that we are strong in wanting to keep going, keep persevering, from the history, and then we’ve seen it again in times like this. So, again, it’s just a celebration kind of bringing everybody together where it’s really the whole community is involved in different things.” 

Carthage Maple Trees

The original Festival began as a weeklong event, featuring a parade as its main attraction, which always took place on the third Saturday of October. Since then, the Festival has evolved into a monthlong event where the main attraction—still the parade, typically—is held on the third Saturday of October as well. 

“I just think it’s great that the people back in 1966-67 sat down and organized this to get it started from that standpoint and that their whole goal was for it to continue,” Elliff said. 

The Maple Leaf Festival impacted Carthage in many ways, though Hill discussed that most prominently it benefited their retail businesses, as the Festival drew crowds in from outside the town. 

“… It made our town famous, it really did, and we are famous for our Maple Leaf Festival.”

Helen Hill

“Well, I think it helped our retail,” hill said. “Any time you can do something to bring people from out of town. … I think it helped our retail business and the people got to know us. A lot of towns came to us when we had our main doings for that, and they’d never been there before, didn’t know what we had. It made our town famous, it really did, and we are famous for our Maple Leaf Festival. …” 

According to the Joplin Globe Archive, the Festival also had impact on surrounding towns, as the Globe wrote: “The crowds have continued to make their way to Carthage each October, the festival, which continues to be the largest in the area, has spawned a number of festivals in other towns that realize the importance of community gatherings.” 

Hill left Carthage in 1973. She said she misses Carthage but that the town has changed a lot since she lived there. Hill said she is “thrilled to death” that the Festival has become so successful since it first began. 

“You know what, I’m just so glad that Carthage is keeping the Maple Leaf Festival alive,” Hill said. 

Carthage Maple Trees

For Hill, the Maple Leaf Festival is a nostalgic topic today. She said she is glad she was part of the origination of such a prominent festival in her hometown. 

“I’m kind of proud of it, really,” Hill said. “To think it was through our retail meetings and thinking of things for the town and our beautiful trees, it just happened together, and I think about that every once and a while and I think, I was so happy that I was part of that. I’m glad I was part of it, that was my home, my hometown, and I was glad that I could do something. I like being involved, I always did—I always liked being involved and I really got involved with the Maple Leaf Festival. … It makes me feel good I was involved because I like my hometown.” 

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