Fishers Freedom Festival turns 25
By Dan Domsic
This weekend, the Fishers Freedom Festival will take over Roy G. Holland Memorial Park for the 25th year in a row.
What started out as a small community gathering in 1989 bloomed into a gargantuan endeavor, requiring 390 volunteers to operate this year, according to Jennifer Kehl, the festival’s executive director.
In its 25 years, aspects of the festival were added or changed but one thing hasn’t – the need for dedicated folks to make it all happen.
Don Dragoo, the president of the Fishers Freedom Festival’s board, Darcy Bryant and Rhonda Wright are three people from the original crew that came together to make the first festival happen. The trio, after all these years, continues to volunteer their time to Fishers Freedom Festival.
While they’re memorable highlights, the experience is more than a parade, food and fireworks.
It’s family, exemplary of Fishers, part of the town’s spirit, tradition and fond memories.
“I’ve been to CarmelFest,” Bryant said, “and I’ve been to the other festivals, and they do a very nice job… It’s just there’s something different about the Fishers Freedom Festival.”
“No matter how big we get, I don’t think we’re ever going to be unconnected,” Bryant said.
“We wanted to have something that celebrated Fourth of July, patriotism, something for the kids, something that was basically free,” Bryant said.
A group of friends put together the idea and the Fishers Freedom Festival was born. It took place for the first time in 1989.
Wright, who grew up in Fishers, wanted her kids to have memories from growing up like she did.
She said during the 1960s the town’s main street was cordoned off for activities and a fish fry.
“My reason for basically getting involved was I wanted my kids to grow up with a memory of something with the town,” Wright said.
The volunteers’ kids grew up with those memories, as well as having more watchful parent-figures than a small family might expect.
“We just became a family,” Bryant said.
And with the group’s kids, the Fishers Freedom Festival grew up and changed along the way.
“The first year we just had some free games for the kids with prizes and some clowns and music and a parade that went through Sunblest neighborhood, and it wasn’t really until the second year that we branched out to do a lot more things,” Bryant said.
A business tent was added along the way and more aspects of the festival expanded.
Fishers Freedom Festival’s Main Parade would eventually branch out of Sunblest, where Bryant pointed out it was commonplace for Fishers folks to offer parade participants a drink or a spray from water hoses at the curb.
But Dragoo said one of the most memorable moments from the festival’s history occurred years ago, involving the Main Parade after it switched routes to include 116th Street.
Rain fell on everyone standing ready in the parade divisions. There were no reports of thunder or lightning, so Dragoo made the call to go forward with the parade.
He gave participants the option to pack it in, and a few did, but the parade went on.
“I remember it was raining, and we pulled from Lantern Road onto 116th Street, and it was packed,” Dragoo said. “It did not scare people away or drive people away. Both sides of the road were just packed with people.”
While he didn’t start off in charge of the Main Parade, he still is today.
“The feeling is kind of hard to describe (after witnessing the crowd),” Kehl said. “I mean, it really gives you chills that, oh my gosh, all these people are out here enjoying our hard work that we’ve done over the months to get it ready for the town.”