Following its successful run in Lowell, Massachusetts, the National Folk Festival relocated from 1990-1992 to Cambria City, a historic borough of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. A Rust Belt city of about 20,000 residents about an hour east of Pittsburgh, Johnstown’s richly diverse community, rooted in its 19th-century industrial legacy, provided a location ideally suited to the festival’s celebration of local and national cultural heritage.
Founded in 1800 where the Conemaugh River’s tributaries meet, present-day Johnstown was originally home to Shawonese and Delaware peoples. A shipping port in the 1830s, it became a dominant producer of iron and steel by the 1850s, leading to exponential growth for the city and its surrounding boroughs, including Cambria City. By the 1870s, the borough’s original Irish and German iron workers had been joined by new arrivals from Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Poland, and Ukraine, among others. Over the next century, the diverse communities cohabiting the ten riverside blocks of Cambria City interacted with and influenced one another while maintaining distinct traditions. Many of their historic houses of worship were still in use into the 21th century, preserving culinary, musical, and other cultural traditions in the borough. Tragically, in 1889, Johnstown suffered a flood that destroyed much of the city. It was rebuilt and recovered quickly but endured subsequent major floods again in 1936 and 1977, resulting in its moniker, “Flood City.” Despite these setbacks, Johnstown remained a key iron and steel producer throughout the mid-20th century, until manufacturing gave way to other industries.
The Flood City Music Festival’s roots go back to 1989, when the Johnstown Area Heritage Association (JAHA) worked with a broad range of community groups and committees to produce the 100-year commemoration of the 1889 flood. Among the most popular events was a large street fair in Cambria City. Based in part on the success of that event, JAHA, city, and commonwealth officials applied and were selected to host the National Folk Festival in the borough from 1990-1992. With historic steel mills serving as its picturesque backdrop, the three-day, Labor Day weekend festival was an enormous success each year, drawing crowds of over 100,000 and featuring over 100 performers and craftspeople. The festival emphasized Cambria City’s varied Eastern European cultures, and many of the neighborhood’s residents and churches held complementary social and cultural events that enriched the 52nd, 53rd, and 54th National Folk Festivals with an unmatched variety of culinary offerings and foodways demonstrations. The event also showcased the city’s industrial legacy, with a prominent display honoring past and present iron and steel workers.
Out of the National emerged the Johnstown Folk Festival, debuting in Cambria City in 1993. An independent festival produced by JAHA, it was renamed the AmeriServ Johnstown FolkFest in 1994. As it grew, space limitations led JAHA to move the festival downtown to a site that would become the People’s Natural Gas Park, now host to diverse public events and entertainment year-round. Renamed the AmeriServ Flood City Music Festival in 2009, the festival contributes financially to JAHA’s many cultural initiatives and continues to attract thousands of visitors annually to historic Johnstown.