Friday, June 23, 2023

Learning about the Pennsylvania Dutch Culture at the Annual Kutztown Fair

It’s nearly impossible to visit the Kutztown area without absorbing at least a little knowledge about the region’s rich Pennsylvania Dutch heritage. To this day, the town is rife with remembrances of a culture that harkens back to the period between the late 1600s to the early 1800s when Germans arrived in large numbers, bringing with them customs, crafts, recipes, resilience and rigor. This group of hard-working people, known as the “Deutsch,” or German, eventually became known by their Americanized appellation--the “Pennsylvania Dutch.”

Three American folklorists recognized the importance of both preserving and celebrating this proud heritage.  Dr.'s Alfred Shoemaker, Don Yoder and J. William Frey conceived of the idea to bring a folk festival to the region and in 1950, the Kutztown Folk Festival was born.  

The event turned out to be a rousing success that attracted nearly 25,000 visitors over a period of just four days and to this day, visitors come from miles around to this day to get a glimpse of the Pennsylvania Dutch way of life.

The annual event returns, once again, to the Kutztown Fairgrounds and runs from July 1-9. Organizers estimate that nearly 130,000 visitors will travel to the area to get a glimpse into the colorful and curious Pennsylvania Dutch culture.

Prepare for some Guten Essen’

Guten Essen’ means good eating, so consider ditching that diet and splurging a little. The Pennsylvania Dutch pride themselves on serving hearty, stick-to-your-ribs fare that satisfies even the greatest of appetites.

Cooking for a crowd is Diana Heffner’s bread and butter. The former restaurant owner has pleasing the masses down to a science. She’s been serving hungry folks at the festival for years now, turning out nearly 100 breakfasts and 200 lunches and dinners each day, on average.

Items on the menu include homemade chicken pot pie, ham and green beans, pork and sauerkraut, meatloaf, roast beef, chicken, pepper cabbage, red-beet eggs and the ever-popular shoofly pie. If you’re the type who enjoys a good debate, you’ll always find a willing participant to spar on which shoofly pie is superior—wet bottom, or dry bottom.

Steve Sharadin, Festival Director, mentions schnitz und knepp when describing another perennial festival favorite. The ham dish comprised of dried apples (snitz) and knepp, (dumplings, or rivels), is a big hit at the fair and few pass up the opportunity to enjoy this authentic Pennsylvania Dutch experience.

Homemade ice cream is extremely popular in the dog days of July.

Those “in the know” can also be found sniffing out pig snout over at the farmers’ market set up by Dietrich’s meats. “They preserve it so that it’s extremely tender,” said Sharadin.

Many visitors are also enticed by the heavenly smell of fresh bread, baked onsite daily in a 19th-century bake oven.

Bread is baked onsite daily in a 19th-century bake oven.

Live Music Strikes a Festive Chord

The 15-piece Shippensburg Blaskapelle German Brass Band will entertain the audience with beer-drinking songs, time-honored melodies and rousing polkas. Add to that various fiddlers, folk singers, country dancers and the Virginia-based, world-famous strolling Sauerkraut Band to continue the merriment throughout the nine-day extravaganza.

Cultural Enrichment

Those interested in learning more about education in the days of yore may want to make it a point to visit the one-room school house display, which features antique desks, blackboards and informational placards describing how schools were run in the past.

A one-room school house gives visitors a glimpse into the days of yore.

To pull back the curtain further, historians will be on hand to discuss additional Pennsylvania Dutch curiosities, like the hex signs that adorn many a barn situated along the sprawling countryside. A professional hex sign painter will practice his art on site to demonstrate how it’s done and those with questions can learn more about the colorful signs from representatives of the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center.

Hex signs adorn many a barn.

An old-fashioned ride operated by a mule.

During the festival, a variety of quilts will be on display and available for purchase, with the top 24 reserved and selected by a panel of judges for an auction slated to occur on the second Saturday of the festival.

According to Heppe, the crowd-pleasing auction attracts an audience of at least 1,000. One of the highest-selling quilts commanded an astounding $15,000, with others selling for amounts $7-8K range “Most auction for a little bit above $1,000 or more,” said Heppe.

Arts, Crafts and Education

Nearly 200 nationally recognized folk artists and traditional American craftsmen will be in attendance to share the fruits of their talents. Visitors can watch craftsmen transform materials like raw sheet tin material into pieces like mugs, coffee pots and lanterns, to name just one of the many demonstrations that will take place during the event. 

Interesting handmade crafts are everywhere.

Those curious about Pennsylvania Dutch folk art that includes calligraphic script seen on various documents from house blessings, to marriage and baptismal certificates, can learn more by attending a class on Fraktur conducted by the Schwenkfelder Museum & Library based in Montgomery County.

Those who are curious about the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect can gain some insight into the language by attending any of the daily classes conducted by Keith Brintzenhoff, a long-time festival participant and musician.

Doreen Buchman is just one attendee who enjoys returning year after year. When pressed to pick a favorite activity, she chose the quilt auction. “I’ve purchased three over the years,” she said. Buchman said that overall what she enjoys is the variety. “There’s everything from hex sign painting, to broom making, and glass blowing,” she said, describing the walkways lined with booths, barns which house the crafters and the enthusiasm of the craftsman who enjoy sharing their skills. “It’s a family oriented event that appeals to all ages,” she added.

The quilt auction is a popular event.

Buchman says that she’s been to many festivals, but enjoys the Kutztown Folk Festival the most for its authenticity. “It’s fun and you feel like you are part of what this area is all about and that’s the Pennsylvania Dutch Heritage.”

To learn more, visit their website at

Admission: $16

Students (13-17) $6

Children (12 and under) FREE

Parking: Free