From 1996-1998, the National Folk Festival took root in the Midwest for a three-year residency in the city of Dayton in southwestern Ohio. NCTA Executive Director Joe Wilson was familiar with the leadership at Cityfolk, a well-established local nonprofit arts organization with an extensive history presenting folklife and other cultural programs. Cityfolk’s experience created a solid foundation and provided the strong organizational partnership necessary to launch the National and its successor, the Cityfolk Festival.
Dayton lies along the Great Miami River about an hour northeast of Cincinnati. An area previously inhabited by Shawnee and Ohio Valley Native American tribes, the town was founded in 1796 by English, German, and Irish settlers, who were soon joined by predominantly Hungarian, Polish, and Lithuanian immigrant workers. From the mid-19th through the early 20th centuries, Dayton prospered as a manufacturing powerhouse and hub of innovation, producing a long list of visionary, native-born entrepreneurs including the Wright brothers, who launched the world’s first airplane and laid the foundation for the city’s still-thriving aerospace industry. Reaching its peak population in 1960, the city entered into a decades-long period of decline as its manufacturing industry waned, until turn-of-the-millennium industries like health care and defense helped stabilize the economy. The city’s demographics also changed dramatically in the 20th century—from 3% of the population in 1910, the city’s African American community grew to 40% by the 1990s. Primarily descendants of the Great Migration, Black Daytonians were often separated from other communities geographically, contributing to a notably segregated city culture. A major goal shared by National Folk Festival organizers was to mitigate this division by bringing all of Dayton together to enjoy traditions representing all of its residents, in a location where all would feel welcome.
By 1996 when Cityfolk was selected to coproduce the National in Dayton, it boasted 16 years of experience presenting diverse cultural events throughout the city, as well as an Ohio folklife program. The NCTA recognized in Cityfolk a partner that was sensitive to Dayton’s unique cultural assets and challenges, and experienced at the complex logistics of coproducing an event the size and scope of the National.
Downtown Dayton, a riverside district among the city’s most culturally mixed, was selected as the festival site. The National’s debut was an extraordinary success, attracting well over 100,000 attendees—more than had ever gathered before in downtown Dayton. Approximately 40% of festivalgoers were African American, an unprecedented turnout for both Cityfolk and the National Folk Festival. Coinciding with Dayton’s bicentennial, the three-day event featured over 100 performers and craftspeople, a quarter of whom were from Ohio and the greater Midwest. It also included a dance pavilion, a family area, a Dayton Stories program featuring accounts on local history, and an area called “Working By Hand: Ohio Traditions of Needle and Wood.” The National maintained its powerful momentum throughout its three-year tenure, demonstrating Daytonians’ enthusiasm for a unifying cultural event, and the importance of continuing the tradition with a legacy festival.
In 1999, following the National’s departure, Cityfolk launched the Cityfolk Festival, which would become a signature event for the organization and an integral part of Dayton’s cultural life. Beloved locally and nationally, the event continued to present folk arts from across the country until the organization folded in 2013, and with it, the festival. For 18 years, the Cityfolk Festival helped transform Dayton into a top arts destination, bringing together people from all walks of life in celebration of culture and community.