Memories Worth Sharing
The East Benton Fiddler’s Festival began in 1972 when Colby College student and bluegrass enthusiast, Greg Boardman sprouted a simple idea: why not bring a fiddler’s competition and bluegrass festival to Maine? The idea came into fruition when Boardman, then just a student, met Shirley Littlefield, an employee at his college who moonlighted as matron of the Littlefield family farm in East Benton. 36 years later Boardman has come a long way since his college days, but he and countless other premier fiddle talents across Maine still gather together at the Littlefield Farm to celebrate the rich tradition of their bluegrass music, the spirit of East Benton in July, and that special something about the Littlefield family that has left this unique festival nearly unchanged for a generation.
Shirley Littlefield passed away in 2004, but the Littlefield family has kept the festival going each summer, just as “Mum” would have wished. In her life Shirley kept busy – heading the Fiddler’s Convention each year while mothering nine children, as well as working with Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts, and handicapped children. In the 1980’s Shirley won the Jefferson Award for her work with mentally challenged children, and in 1982, she began a Special Olympics Program in Fairfield. Shirley also worked at Colby College for over 30 years, befriending, as well as offering her hospitality to many Colby students each year. Most notably, Shirley connected disabled children with Colby students by helping to develop the “Best Buddies” mentoring program. Since Shirley’s death, the family-oriented Fiddler’s Convention has evolved into a celebration not only of the music that headlines it, but also of the outstanding spirit of the woman who began it.
The history in Shirley's own words the Morning Sentinel 1994 The east Benton Fiddlers Convention was the brain child of a Colby College student. Greg Boardmen, a junior at Colby and was touring Scotland in the Spring of 1971, and through parts of mid Atlantic states during the summer. When he returned he mentioned to the Littlefield family about all the fiddlers contest he had been to and wouldn't it be nice if Maine had at least one. So Greg, Shirley and Red Littlefield organized the first outdoor fiddlers contest in the state.
The first contest was on July 27, 1972 and with only six contestants Mr. Boardmen won first prize. The original contest was held in front yard of the Littlefield farm, with 300 to 500 people attending. There was no advertising that first year except by word of mouth. All those who attended gave a donation and passed the hat to pay for the keg of beer. People parked across the road, there wasn't any problems with traffic. There was even people up on top of the porch listening to music.
For the following 2 years the crowd grew and still it was by word of mouth. Now the crowd had grown to much for the front yard and had to be moved to the front of the old blacksmiths shop. But with this move it caused a problem with the audience standing in the road and blocking traffic. We knew something had to be done and decided that the next year we would move up onto the big field.
In 1976 we moved the convention into the big field down the road. Now we had away to control the entrance and could charge for the event and not worry about who had and had not been paid. We now had a parking crew of eight. The parking crew were in charge of controlling the flow of traffic in and out of the field. Admission was $3.00 that first year in the big field. We now also sold t-shirts and had food concessions. The attendance was increasing each year by at least 400 people the attendance was over 1500 now.
In 1982 we had over 3500 people attend the convention and all the parking lot was filled and our neighbor opened up his field for the overflow. The young children would play in the running water in the brook, while their parents enjoyed the music and sunshine. One young boy decided he could make some money by selling frogs, but soon realized the other children could catch the frogs for nothing, so the frog selling business only lasted 2 hours. In 1982 a young girl from Denmark won the contest, proving that fiddlers come from near and far to compete. In the parking lot, one can look around and and find a car from almost all fifty states including Hawaii they think someday soon that to will happen.
We now are a yearly ritual for many families. Families can plan on an inexpensive afternoon for the whole family and everyone will have a good time. There is a family in Mass. who plan there vacation around the fiddlers. To date there has been a Wedding at the convention and in 1989 many people returned to pay their respects to one of the founders 'Red Littlefield' who passed away in June of 1989.
In 1992 we celebrated our twentieth anniversary. We had a contest for the oldest fiddlers t-shirt, which was won by Steve Lancaster of Albion long time friend of the fiddlers. The Virginians returned for the first time in six years. Many of the original group was there to remember the good old days, only now most of the hippie generation had children to bring along. Now the second generation of fiddlers fans has started and we hope they will continue to grow every year.
Many of the original musicians return year after year. Yodeling Slim Clark has been providing music for the last 17 years. Along with many fiddlers who are well known in Maine such as Tim Farrell, Fred Carpenter and many others. Joining the fun is always the group Country Choir and the East Benton Jug Band, which is just a jam session that anyone can join in on. Vaughn Meader will be there to entertain with his piano and humor and of course the one and only Scotty Marquis who has never missed a chance to strum his six string.
Remember the East Benton Fiddlers Convention is always the last Sunday in July, you can plan on it rain or shine. This year it will be on July 31, 1994. This year as in the past, there will be a truck located at the bottom of the field for returnables, the money earned will go to a charitable organization working with disabled children. Also this year there will be three different divisions of fiddlers: juniors, adults and seniors division (over 50 ) For more information please write to: Shirley Littlefield P.O. Box 215, Clinton, Maine.