The Three Rivers HarmonyFest celebrated its 20th year in 2013! HarmonyFest has a history that is as interesting as it is intricate. From its humble beginnings, HarmonyFest has grown to be one of the defining events of Three Rivers and surrounding communities.
HarmonyFest was created to bring people together in celebration of the cultural and ethnic diversity of our community through music, food, art, and social connection. It’s a powerful tradition that has been an integral part of our community for over 20 years. From the first strum of the guitar strings to the last beat of the drum, as the crowd sways, laughs, dances, and sings along to the tunes – the energy of HarmonyFest undeniable!
HarmonyFest was born in 1991 out of a group called the Human Relations Committee (HRC). The HRC’s job was to help keep the peace between local landlords, renters and neighbors. Original members of the HRC included Leo Gray, LaDoris Hunt, Rev. Matt Deames and Marty Spaulding. Though all played a role, it was Spaulding who first developed the vision for this festival.
Marty Spaulding was a local business man who owned a music store in downtown Three Rivers. He was also a DJ for a radio station in Kalamazoo. Marty’s knowledge of the blues made him something of a local authority on the genre. Marty’s love for Three Rivers, his work with the HRC and his passion for the blues were what finally lead to the birth of HarmonyFest. In June of 1991 Marty presented a new vision to host a one day music festival in downtown Three Rivers that was free to everyone. After hearing his dream, the HRC decided to make it a reality.
Because there was little time to plan, preparation for the first festival was a whirlwind. The sound equipment was just what Marty had available at his store and the stage was an old hay wagon. Thanks to Marty’s connections the group was able to schedule a full roster of bands. Because of Marty’s background, performers in those years were all blues bands. In fact, early on HarmonyFest was known solely as a blues festival. HarmonyFest was a big hit its first year and it became an annual project of the HRC – however, things were still far from organized. “Those early years were an education in what it means to be flexible!” laughs Gay Warner as she recalls joining the HRC and working to get the festival off the ground.
However, like many good stories, this one has its tale of difficulty and failure. Even as the festival grew, the HRC was facing new challenges. Marty left the group when he accepted a position as City Commissioner, and Matt was forced to step down because of term limits. With much of the driving force behind HarmonyFest gone, there was a serious void in leadership within the HRC. So it was that just as the festival was gaining momentum, it died.
The festival had only been gone for one year, but many people from the community were already feeling the loss. It was then that Gay Warner stepped in to take matters into her own hands. She went directly to the mayor to present a solution. Gay told Tom of the HRC’s failure to produce the festival and suggested that if the HarmonyFest was ever to be resurrected a new committee must be formed. So a new cast of players joined with some of the old to form the HarmonyFest Board of Directors. After months of work the HarmonyFest was reborn and has continued to draw thousands to Main Street in the historic heart of Three Rivers.
Since its rebirth many board members have come and gone. Yet in all the change one thing remains the same–a passion for the vision of HarmonyFest. Because the belief in its mission, many have given hearts and souls to ensure HarmonyFest’s continued success. No board member has ever been paid and, more often than not, they have given their own money to help keep the festival going. HarmonyFest does not receive any tax money they rely solely on donations from the community to keep the music alive!