What has about 200,000 feet, smells like a blooming onion and lights up the sky? If you live in or around Marietta, you know the answer. It’s the Ohio River Sternwheel Festival, and this weekend it’s happening for the 45th time. Since this milestone event had to be postponed a year due to the 2020 pandemic, this year’s festival is creating even more excited anticipation than normal. The sternwheel boats have arrived and line the levee in a kaleidoscope of colors, the festival committees are working tirelessly to finalize a million details, and out of town folks are arriving for what has become known as Marietta’s unofficial homecoming.

Greta Guimond, second generation legacy volunteer and Chair of the Membership Committee, agrees. “The Sternwheel festival is about families and the traditions they keep – whether they come to the riverbank from just down the street or travel back home to Marietta – because it’s just what you do every second weekend of September.”

Sternwheel Fireworks (Nate Knobel)

Beginning at 6:00 pm Friday, the confluence of the Muskingum and Ohio Rivers will become a hub of music, pageants, concessions, vendor booths and kids’ activities. The weekend also includes a car show and ends with some of the sternwheelers racing to the enjoyment of spectators on the levee. And although all these activities are enough to earn the Sternwheel Festival a spot on any must-attend list, for many the main attraction is the magic that lights up the sky on Saturday night – fireworks. Lots of fireworks. Amazing fireworks. Loud fireworks. A half hour nonstop extravaganza of color, light, shapes, and sound. And this year, the Harry J. Robinson Fireworks are expected to be a dazzling display that will pay proper tribute to the co-founder of the Sternwheel Festival, Harry Robinson himself.

Robinson owned the Lafayette Hotel from 1973 until 1984, during which time he invested in major improvements while promoting tourism to his beloved city. In 1976, he co-founded the Ohio River Sternwheel Festival as a way to preserve Marietta’s riverboat heritage and draw thousands of visitors for the celebration. His goal was to make the fireworks show an event that would become a major attraction and he crisscrossed the country to view fireworks displays and bring home bigger and better ideas. Harry’s last year to chair the Festival was 2005, and the committee decided to name the fireworks after him as a tribute to his dedication. Robinson passed away in 2011, but he left a legacy that continues to draw thousands of people and seems to get bigger each year.

Sternwheel boats on the levee (Nate Knobel)

The Saturday night fireworks are indeed a feat of engineering, choreography, precision timing and of course hours of hard work and a large budget. But they are not the solo act of the weekend, because visitors also enjoy hours of free live music by nationally known acts. Early in the day, the banks of the levee will start to populate with camp chairs, and by evening there will be little space that hasn’t been claimed. On Friday, the music begins at 7:00 pm with local favorites Steve and Bev Pottmeyer. Saturday’s entertainment begins at noon with the Marietta High School Wall of Sound and continues through the evening. From blues to country to classic rock, the variety of music guarantees plenty of toe tapping and clapping, and even a bit of singing along.

This year’s performers include A Thousand Horses, Michael Grimm, The Desert City Ramblers, and Parrots of the Caribbean, to name a few. The full line up can be found on the festival’s website.  It’s a true testament to the skillful fundraising and hard work of the festival committee that they can offer this entertainment year after year, free and open to the public. They rely on donations and fundraising to finance the festival, and planning for next year begins even as they tear down the stage from this year.

It wouldn’t be a festival without food, and this weekend will feature a smorgasbord of concessions including the beloved blooming onion. Local non-profits will be on hand with their own booths, serving the crowds while supporting worthy causes. Just steps away, artisans and vendors will have booths of their own products and other booths will feature games and kids’ activities.  There are countless details and moving parts, and the weekend’s success is due to over 100 volunteer committee members (and 40 subcommittees) who plan and coordinate those details.  The current board includes President Dennis Blauser, Director General Jennifer Miller and Vice President Jennifer Starkey.  

While some of the volunteers perform visible tasks like manning the welcome booth and collecting donations, others work behind the scenes, long before and after the streets are filled with people. There are supplies to be unloaded, levee areas to be cleaned, tents to erect and festival merchandise to be prepared. Throughout the busy weekend, you can spot committee members assisting concessionaires and vendors, directing traffic, answering hundreds of questions and solving dozens of problems. And of course, checking the weather forecast, the one factor that is so important but out of their control.

Festival food (Melanie Tienter)

When asked why she gives her time to help with the festival, Guimond doesn’t hesitate. “I am proud of my river town’s heritage. I want generations to come to experience what ‘community’ means at the Ohio River Sternwheel Festival weekend… like watching the Sternwheeler boats with colorful names and paddlewheels float into their weekend place of honor, running into old friends down by the fountain, losing track of time alongside thousands of others while big city fireworks light up our small town sky, seeing the pride of the owners of the vintage cars who make the annual trek to Sunday’s show, and how everyone talks about their annual guilty food treat they look forward to every year.”

Ask any volunteer and you are sure to get a similar answer, because they share that sense of pride and spirit of community.

Sunday’s schedule begins with a church service and includes the car show, more great music, and the Captain James E. Sands Memorial Races. At 2:30 pm, Michael Grimm will cap the weekend with the final musical performance. As the final spectators gather their blankets and fold their chairs, the last remaining sternwheelers will ease from the dock and churn their way back home, with waves goodbye and promises to return next year. Most of us will also return next year and the year after, enjoying this special tradition that only a river town like Marietta can deliver. And what about the volunteers who made it all possible? After a brief recovery, they’ll be back at work, making plans for Festival number forty-six.

So grab your chairs and a cooler, and enjoy a huge dose of small town fun. The music is free, the food is decadent, and the fireworks are amazing… and for that we say thank you to the Ohio River Sternwheel Festival Committee. If you would like to join the festival as a volunteer next year, email Greta at OhioRiverSternwheelFestival@gmail.com!