Lee's Summit Journal

Burnt District Festival ‘an opportunity to show what makes Harrisonville vibrant’

During Harrisonville’s 2017 Burnt District Festival parade, parade participants from Pryor Downs farm, Pleasant Hill, waved to the crowd from the family’s horse-drawn wagon.
During Harrisonville’s 2017 Burnt District Festival parade, parade participants from Pryor Downs farm, Pleasant Hill, waved to the crowd from the family’s horse-drawn wagon. Courtesy photo

For more than a decade, Harrisonville residents have transformed the burnt embers of a painful past into a celebration that lights up the city with joy.

Held on the historic Harrisonville Square Friday and Saturday, the Ninth Annual Burnt District Festival brings back favorites, including the Reunion Garden, two days of live music and dance performances, a carnival and Saturday’s parade.

“This festival brings our residents together,” said Bing Schimmelpfenning, executive director of the Harrisonville Chamber of Commerce. “High school classes and families host reunions all weekend in the Reunion Garden. Area businesses and vendors have a chance to showcase and sell their products.

“We keep everything local and the festival is really beneficial for our community.”

The ninth annual festival’s schedule includes local dance and gymnastic performances on the Pearl Street Stage and tours of the historic Sharp-Hopper log cabin. Visitors can listen to the music of “Damaged Goods” Friday evening in the Reunion Garden, and Harrisonville’s “Wildwood” headlines Saturday with country and Southern rock.

Other events include a motorcycle show, baby contest and farmers market. More than 100 vendors will sell crafts and food. A carnival runs from 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday.

Coordinating all the details of the Burnt District Festival is no small undertaking, Joe Fester says.

Fester, Crown Realty agent and Burnt Festival Committee chairman, has worked with his team over the past year putting all these details in place to ensure the expected crowd of more than 5,000 festival-goers have a great time.

“My function is to make sure that all of the different areas of the festival are organized,” Fester said, adding that volunteers and sponsors make it happen. “We all keep the pieces moving forward and coming together.”

Throughout its nine-year history, “coming together” has been an ongoing theme at the Burnt District Festival.

“We bring different generations together here,” said Amanda Stites marketing and publicity manager, listing participants ranging from experienced quilters who display their work, to an art show with pieces from high school students.

The youngest in the crowd will enjoy the petting zoo, supplied with animals from FFA members.

“The older kids share their knowledge with our young visitors, who then might get involved with FFA in the future,” Stites said.

Though fun is on tap, those coordinating the event keep in mind lessons learned from the dark days that led to the area becoming known as the “Burnt District.”

In August 1863, the United States government issued an order requiring everyone in Cass County who lived beyond a one-mile radius of Harrisonville or Pleasant Hill to vacate their premises within 15 days. Union troops confiscated all grain, hay and food supplies from the area farms, and burned the buildings to the ground.

Around 40,000 refugees, mainly women, children and the elderly, fled to escape the burning, murder and deprivation. By Oct. 1, 1863, most of the district had been destroyed. More than 2,200 square miles of western Missouri was in cinders, including 2,800 family farms.

Two years later, rebuilding and recovery began in the aftermath of the destruction. By 1870, the county’s population had grown from a few thousand to more than 90,000, as Northerners relocated and settled in the area.

“The burning is a sad part but important part of our history,” Stites said. “However, this community is strong and we were able to rebound and grow back stronger than before. Like the story of the phoenix, Cass County rose from the ashes and that’s what we celebrate in this festival.

“We’re a close community that bands together, and this festival is an opportunity to show what makes Harrisonville vibrant.”

For more information, visit www.harrisonvillechamber.com/Harrisonville-Burnt-District.php