Where it all started
In February 1985 the Queenstown Promotion Bureau planned an Arrowtown Autumn Festival to help promote Arrowtown. The Bureau chief, David Bradford said it would become an annual festival that would have a number of low key events that would be in keeping with the historical image of the town. The first festival opened on April 20 and was a huge success with all the events getting capacity audiences. This set the scene for the following 30 festivals. I don’t think anyone ever expected it would go for this long, but it continues to be enjoyed by a new generation.
Right from the start the festival was not seen as a money making venture, but one that would break even. In addition to promoting Arrowtown it was also about local people celebrating the end of summer and the coming of the Autumn colours and also the end of the busy visitor season. It also allowed the then farming community to come to town and have a bit of fun. The events have always been produced by the people for the people, revolving around the districts history both gold mining and pastoral and people were encouraged to dress in period costume, which they did in large numbers.
Original events included the opening day market, parade, barbershop quartet competitions, variety concerts, street entertainment and the miners hop. There were sheep races and wheelbarrow races down the main street with one sheep going AWOL and ending up in one of the shops. Almost everyone in the town of 800 got involved in some way. During the 1990’s the festival grew from strength to strength. The market and festival parade was eagerly anticipated as was Kevin Lynch’s and Peter Doyles lunch time entertainment in the blocked off main street. Who can forget the Clamperts from the Crown Terrace in their old truck and the Miners Band serenading the dancing girls. Some of the original miners band are still playing today.
On the day the tickets went for sale at the museum, queues would circle the building waiting for the doors to open, such was the popularity of the events. Ducks and Drakes night, Gaudy Gala, a full German Beer Festival night with Um Pa Pa band were all sold out within the hour. 4 wheel drive days to Macetown, country field days at Millbrook corner with the Dennison’s always winning the sheaf tossing were fun for all the family. Marques were erected on Butler Green and Wilcox Green to cope with the size of the events. David John’s original comedy plays were the first to sell out. They had a two night season with the hall packed each night. Slightly Monty Pythonesque, they were great fun for both the cast and audience. One of the biggest crowds ever assembled was for the men’s ballet. Over 300 packed the hall and Jimmy Shaw the then fire chief was understandably nervous. The Annual Autumn Festival Art Exhibition has always been a highlight and the opening event of festival. I have enjoyed curating 26 of them.
The Festival has always been a great way to celebrate and reflect on Arrowtown’s colourful history and to enjoy each others company. It has also enabled visitors to enjoy all the qualities that make the town special. It has been successful for so long due to the huge number of hours put in by volunteers over the years. For it to continue to be successful, another generation will need to keep volunteering and come up with new fun events that capture peoples imagination.
Saturday 20 April 1985 was when the Autumn Festival began again – on an operating budget of $3500 raised from Arrowtown and Queenstown businesses
Where we are now
Now running for 30 years the festival attracts large numbers of locals and visitors.
Each year people come in droves to take in the stunning scenery and see festival attractions such as the street parade, the Arrow Miners Band play on the Old Red truck and the Buckingham Belles Can Can at the lunchtime entertainment.
Many long held festival traditions like the Art Exhibition, the Grand Variety Concert, the Vintage Cars, the Shotover Country Music Concert and the Arrowtown Entertainers Musical remain very popular today and each year new events are added to the programme mix to keep it fresh and interesting.
While the festival has grown a lot over the past few years and now has around 50 events over 10 days, it still remains very much a community festival with many locals either performing, volunteering or taking part in some way every year.