The Fort’s Tastiest Tradition
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For more than three decades the Fort Wayne History Center has been making local history of its own through its Festival of Gingerbread. The annual contest has become a Fort Wayne holiday tradition, gathering thousands of attendees at the center to admire the local gingerbread makers’ craftsmanship and celebrate the spirit of the season in a unique way.
“Over the past three decades the Festival of Gingerbread has become one of a precious handful of holiday events that really truly becomes synonymous with the Fort Wayne holiday experience,” says Todd Pelfrey, the History Center’s executive director. “We’re just really really privileged to be able to continue to offer this.”
Gingerbread houses can be traced back to 19th century Germany where making heavily decorated houses began after the publishing of the fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel” in which the two children find an edible house in the woods. The confectionary houses became popular during the holidays, then became something of a tradition imported to the U.S. by German immigrants.
Fort Wayne’s tradition began in earnest in 1985 when some volunteers at the History Center were looking for a fun holiday event. That first year featured a few dozen entries, and the festival has only grown since then. The basic premise of the contest has remained essentially the same: participants of different age and skill levels can enter their gingerbread creations for display and for cash prizes. The general public can view and enjoy the gingerbread creations as well as view the Center’s other exhibits at no additional cost.
The festival’s size and scope have increased tremendously, to the point where 12-13,000 people visit the event each year. That number accounts for about one-fifth of the History Center’s total annual attendance, and income from admissions is an important resource for the Center’s operations. The festival has also expanded to include all manner of events and holiday-themed programs that go beyond the grand display of all the gingerbread creations.
The 2016 programs include a storytelling event on December 4, a program on the Science of Sugary Structures on December 10 and, of course, an appearance by Santa Claus on December 3. This year will also mark the appearance of the Gingerbread Pursuit, a four-mile race that the event planners instituted a few years ago, on December 10. Runners who participate in the race can also use their race bib as free admission to the festival the morning of the race.
While the additional events and programs enhance the festival’s appeal and give attendees an opportunity to engage with the spirit of the season, its focus remains on the contest and display of the gingerbread works of art. The majority of entries are gingerbread houses, but they don’t have to be. Some of the participants get very creative with their projects, turning in sculptural creations that may have little to do with architecture.
“Most of the creations are houses. But that’s certainly not required,” says Pelfrey. “We’ve had everything from gingerbread pianos to Barbies to rocking chairs and end tables and all manner of objects replicated in gingerbread.”
One of the things that makes the festival interesting every year is to see how local and popular culture is reflected in the designs submitted for competition.
According to Pelfrey, there are often several submissions reflecting important events or anniversaries going on at the time. For example, when the Komets celebrated their 60th anniversary in 2011, there were a number of Komets-themed entries such as miniature ice rinks made out of gingerbread. Classic movies with important anniversaries are sometimes celebrated in gingerbread as well. Pelfrey anticipates that this year will see a variety of entries related to the state’s bicentennial year, which has proven to be a significant item of interest in 2016.
Another intriguing element of creative submissions is the Historical Theme competition in which participants submit designs that recreate and celebrate historical structures or objects. There are no strict guidelines as to what an entry has to be to qualify for the Historical Theme, other than including a written description of explaining the content, so entries can range from local landmarks (the City Hall Building that the History Center calls home is a perennial favorite) to far-flung icons from around the globe like the Egyptian pyramids.
The judging of the competition is something that’s done very carefully. All entries are judged anonymously, meaning that the evaluators don’t know the names of the people who made each entry. The History Center’s board and staff sets up the criteria – which is a points system that’s not publicly disclosed – but stays out of the actual judging, leaving that up to independent judges, many of whom have been participating in the festival for years or decades. Each group of judges also rates just one category; for example, the judges for pre-kindergarden through 2nd grade do not also judge the adult category as well.
“The system for judging has been in place, and refined, over the past 20 or 30 years or so,” says Pelfrey. “And essentially, if one makes a good, sturdy, beautiful gingerbread creation, they will score high. That’s essentially the way the point system produces the winners.”
Some of the entries can be very elaborate, with bells and whistles like LED lights and sound. Entries are allowed to be electrified as long as they are done so with self-contained battery packs. There are specifications for the size of the bases, and each entry must use gingerbread in some capacity; other than that, the sky’s practically the limit in terms of vertical size and materials, meaning that you can anticipate an astonishing variety of gingerbread creations.
The festival starts with a reservation-only preview gala on November 22, then with a full opening on November 25. It runs through December 11.