Greg Sutton said he has attended the annual Fort Vallonia Days festival for as long as he can remember.
“I’ve probably been going as long as it’s been going on,” the Freetown resident said of the annual festival that has taken place the third weekend in October since 1969. This year’s event, the 47th, was conducted this past weekend.
Sutton said one tradition he follows — and that he shares with many others — is visiting the Driftwood Township Volunteer Fire Department on Main Street next to the Bluebird for a fish sandwich.
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The sandwich has been a draw for many of the thousands of people who have attended the event throughout the years.
On Saturday, nearly 50 people were lined up around lunch time to wait to buy one.
“It’s normally a much longer wait than this,” said Sutton, watching the line form behind him after purchasing his sandwich. “I guess it is only 11.”
Later in the day after the parade, the line grew longer and stayed that way for much of the afternoon and evening hours.
Coming back for more
Sutton said the reason he keeps coming back and getting the sandwich is because the department focuses on making a quality product.“They actually get cod fillets — which most people don’t, they get pre-breaded stuff — and they make a beer batter,” he said. “They make it in this beer batter, and they’re fantastic and always fresh.”Fire Chief Clint Wolka said the sandwich has been popular among the festival-goers for a number of years. That’s something he also credits to the quality of the ingredients and work it takes to produce them.
“We even cut them ourselves to get the thickness we want,” Wolka said.
Once the fillets are cut, they’re sent over to a group of volunteers to batter and begin the frying process.
“It’s definitely a hand-crafted sandwich,” he said, adding that the department has 18 volunteers on hand to help make the operation go as smoothly as possible. “That’s 18 volunteers between cutting the fish, battering, frying, serving and selling.”
Wolka said the department begins serving the sandwiches Friday before the festival for lunch and dinner. They also sell the sandwiches on both days of the festival, with Saturday being the biggest crowd.
It doesn’t take long for the sales to add up.
“Between the lunch and dinner crowds on Friday and the Saturday and Sunday crowds, we will go through about 4,000 sandwiches,” he said.
That gives the department a much-needed boost, Wolka said, as the effort brings in about $9,000 in profit. The money is used for equipment purchases and training for firefighters.
“Anything we can do to improve the department,” he said.
Sutton said while the sandwiches are good, he also gets satisfaction out of helping out the department purchase equipment and other items they need to serve the community.
Sutton has been a volunteer with the Pershing Township Volunteer Fire Department since 1981 and said he understands the need for fire departments to hold raise fundraisers to supplement tight budgets.
“The tax money we get only provides us money to fight fires,” he said, adding fire departments do a lot more besides fighting fires. “We make medical runs, and I know the county will call us when a tree blows across the road, things like that.”
Sutton’s wife, Laura, said buying the sandwich is a way of supporting local fire departments.
“I’m very proud of all our local fire departments, and they need our support to keep helping us, whether it be fires, medical runs or anything else,” she said. “They need our help in serving our communities.”
The festival also features another big tradition that relates to the time when Vallonia was first settled by the French shortly before 1800. About 1810, a fort was built on the site to provide protection to the 90 or so families living in the area from Native Americans.Donnie Grider and his wife, Sarah, have been helping the festival organize the tomahawk and knife throw for the past 25 years.The event allows participants to throw tomahawks, used by Native Americans and early settlers at Fort Vallonia, at wooden targets. Each participant gets two practice throws and then throws two rounds. The organizers take the best score of the two rounds and enter it in the contest.
Grider said about 50 people participate in the annual event, which includes divisions for men, women and youth.
One of those is Arlene Lang of Seymour. Lang was dressed in traditional settler attire that her brother made her and said she enjoys participating in the event.
“I just like all the people that are around here and the atmosphere,” she said.
Lang’s brother also taught her how to throw the tomahawk.
“I got my own in 2004, but I probably started throwing three or four years before that,” she said.
Grider said he looks forward to seeing friends at the event and that they all enjoy getting the younger people involved.
“People come to meet each other and socialize, but what we really like about it is the young kids that come here to learn,” he said. “We work with them more than anything, and if they want a tomahawk, we find one for them and don’t charge them. We just kind of get them started and compete against each other.”
Grider is the right person for a lesson on throwing the tomahawk. He helps and organizes tomahawk events in Friendship in southeastern Indiana and at the Jackson County 4-H Fair each year. He also used to compete at the Louisville convention center.
“I’ve done my competition, and I guess I’m retired from it,” he said. “Now, I guess my job is to start helping people with it. It’s something I enjoy.”