Thirty years ago, leaders with the Greater York Chamber of Commerce decided to host a celebration of the end of summer, so they planned a gathering at the York Electric Cooperative.
“Everybody got together and had a big barbecue,” said York resident Charles Plemmons, a retired Duke Power Co. manager who attended the original event. “The idea was formed from there.”
The celebration has snowballed since then, into a one-day event that draws tens of thousands of people from York County and beyond to enjoy family-friendly fun in the city’s historic downtown.
Plemmons said many people have played leadership roles in the festival’s growth and success. “There were many good people that we had back then in the chamber, and we still have,” he said. “The people with the chamber were willing to work, and work diligently to do the job.”
Plemmons was crowned and reigned over the festival as the first Duke of York, after someone came up with the idea. Later, he said, organizers decided to crown both a Duke and Duchess of York.
On Aug. 24, Summerfest will celebrate its 30th year with a downtown bash featuring live concerts, community entertainment, food, arts and crafts, children’s activities, an antique show and more.
Chris Farris, a York native and a local CPA who is co-chairing this year’s celebration with his wife, Karen, said the festival offers something for everyone.
“The merchants have an opportunity to promote themselves, and it also gives everybody that comes and entertaining day,” he said. “I don’t know anybody that goes who is disappointed.”
Summerfest evolved in 1984 from two previous attractions that showcased the city. The York Colonial Festival premiered in 1960. A few years later, the South Carolina Grape Festival debuted in 1965, and it continued for 15 years.
After the demise of the Grape Festival, chamber leaders introduced Summerfest with the support of the city of York. The event is now recognized as a Top 20 event by the Southeast Tourism Society.
The Olde English District honored Summerfest as the 1996 Attraction of the Year. And in 2002, the S.C. Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department named the festival its Most Outstanding Tourism Event of Festival of the Year for communities of 5,000 to 15,000.
Genevieve Polites, a former York chamber director who also attended the first Summerfest, said many of the volunteers who make the festival happen have been there since the beginning.
“Some local visitors to Summerfest were not even born when it began, and now many have their own children to bring to the event,” she said. “That’s what 30 years does.”
Polites said some of the things that remain the same are the golf tournament, moonlight bike ride, the car show and softball tournament, as well as the craft and food fair that have been there since 1984.
Children’s entertainment has improved with the addition of attractions like the Little Blue Choo and the monster ball water game, which was added last year, she said. A Downtown Live concert is held the Friday night before Summerfest, and last year a Saturday night closing concert was added as well, and will continue this year.
Farris said the core volunteers still do a great job of putting on the festival. “The day of Summerfest is a lot more hectic than the three or four months leading up to it,” Farris said. “There’s a whole lot that gets done between 4 a.m. Saturday morning and 9 a.m. Saturday.”
Farris — who enjoyed attending Summerfest with his friends as a teen — said the event means different things to him today. “Now I see it from the other side,” he said, “as an opportunity for the community to come together.”