CHANNAHON — A record crowd and record fundraising dollars were seen last year at Channahon’s Three Rivers Festival, and organizers are hoping for the same this year, the event’s 25th anniversary.
The festival is held at Central Park on U.S. 6 in Channahon. It got under way Wednesday, Aug. 7, and runs through Sunday, Aug. 11, which is one of the things that separates this community festival from others, according to co-chair Mike Rittof.
“It goes a full five days,” Rittof said, “which is longer than most of them. ... I think what also sets it apart is the variety of entertainment and events. We have a little bit of everything. We try to be like a mini-county fair.”
This year’s festival indeed has dozens of events and attractions, from the carnival rides to a teen dance party, bingo, a Channahon Fire Department safety house, the beer garden, a beautiful baby contest, a petting zoo, a cupcake challenge, a pie-eating contest, a 5K run, wine-tasting, bands and a lot more.
There is even an Illinois Secretary of State-issued special license place for the anniversary festival.
Riffof said the humble beginnings of the festival were rooted in an idea his uncle, Steve Rittof, picked up from Carbon Hill’s Homecoming celebration around 1972. Steve Rittof owned a bar in the town and, as Channahon’s mayor, brought the idea home.
Back then, it was called, “The Channahon Homecoming,” and was held at the location of today’s Pioneer Path School.
Mike Rittof said they had to set up the beer tent off school grounds. There was a carnival, entertainment, a greased pig contest, and just about all the food vendors were local, such as the Boy Scouts. A Sunday church service was held at the tennis court. There was also a Homecoming Queen. Becky (Holland) Manion was the very first.
In the late 1970s, the village of Channahon turned the homecoming festival over to the Channahon Emergency Squad, which was an ambulance service housed in the fire station. The squad used to raise money to operate by going door-to-door and asking for contributions of $10 from each resident.
After another five or six years, the Channahon Lions Club took over operations, then, in 1989, when Mike Rittof was mayor, he and Channahon Park District Director Chuck Szoke worked together to form another organizational umbrella — and the event became the Three Rivers Festival.
There were five organizations that divided the proceeds from the event. They were the Channahon Fire Department, the Channahon Lions Club, Channahon Pony Baseball, Chanooka Braves Youth Football, and an organization associated with the history of the I & M Canal, the latter of which eventually dropped out.
The other four organizations remain sponsors of the event to this day.
“It means a great deal for Channahon baseball,” said Channahon Pony Baseball Vice President Jason Bisbee. “It means we can keep our costs down for the families and for the community. It also means we can offer a quality environment for baseball and for the kids to learn to love the game as much as we coaches do.”
Bisbee said he has a lot of respect for all the volunteers who work to make the festival such a success.
Other groups also receive stipends for service at the Three Rivers Festival, such as the organizations that clean up during the event or help direct cars for parking.
The Citizens Police Academy Alumni organization hosts the first aid/lost and found booth at the festival. Alum Jean Chudy said it’s an event she always looks forward to.
“I think it’s a great chance for everyone to meet their neighbors and family and friends,” Chudy said. “I feel it is just a great, and exhausting, five-day event. From behind the scenes I have learned about the money that is raised for the organizations that chair the event. All of the money goes right back into the community.”
Chudy said the Citizens Police Academy Alumni has been able to use grants from the festival to purchase an equipment chest for the police department’s Polaris Ranger, which will allow the officers to lock up potential evidence, equipment, and other items and a welcome banner that the department can use at such events as National Night Out.
“I think they also strive to have something for everyone,” Chudy added. “The guys will enjoy the bean bag tourney and the Car and Bike Show. The ladies may enjoy the Cup Cake Wars and the wine tasting. The kids, of course, love the carnival rides and winning the gold fish. I personally have helped deplete The Feed Loft’s inventory of fish food every year.”
“Today, we have grown considerably,” Rittof said. “The entertainment has increased immensely, and it’s become more of a regional thing than only local. ... But after all the years, it’s still a family, fun-filled event.”