This weekend, we took a trip out to rural Harvard, Ill., where they were hosting over 20 balloons in the town’s second annual Harvard Balloon Fest. The petite hamlet of Harvard is no stranger to festivals though, with its annual Milk Days (and appropriate town cow statue) having been a longstanding tradition dating all the way back to 1941. This makes Harvard’s Milk Days the longest ongoing hometown festival in the state of Illinois.
With 76 years of experience holding a town festival, and with a prime location between Wisconsin and Illinois (Harvard is only about an hour from Chicago, and 30 minutes from Rockford, with proximity to tourist destinations like Galena and Lake Geneva) Harvard decided last year to add something new to their lineup of events, hosting its first ever Harvard Balloon Fest.
Says mayor Michael Kelly of the decision: “As an amateur photographer, I have attended several balloon festivals to capture photos of these amazing colorful balloons. While attending a night glow and shooting photos, I was even more captivated by the huge smiles and children and adults alike with eyes as big as saucers as they walked under the 7 story balloons while they fired their burners to make the glow in the night air. It was there that I knew that our community needed to bring a balloon festival to Harvard.”
The fest ran throughout Labor Day weekend in 2016, and attracted 10 different pilots and their colorful balloons as well as a multitude of local businesses and entrepreneurs. The balloon fest was an immediate hit, drawing an estimated crowd of between 40 to 50,000 people from all over the country. This is roughly four or five times the regular population of the town, though perhaps due to experience, we didn’t notice a stifling crush of people when we attended. This year, the population of the town wasn’t the only thing that exploded though, with the balloon count going from 10 to 23.
The festival is held at Milky Way Park, which has ample space for food vendors, rides and games, all of which were plentiful. Food offerings included everything from local farm’s bounties to Cajun and Polish joints, so variety was never an issue. There was a full schedule of local music, and kids not only had a great open space to run in, but a playground and multiple inflatable attractions to tumble, bounce and run on. One of the nicest things about the fest is that it has no admission fee, so if you’re smart and use the Union Pacific Northwest Metra line, you can take advantage of the weekend pass fares and not have to worry about parking at all. The only down side to this option comes if you’re looking to be there for the morning or evening launches, since on Fridays or Sundays particularly you may not be able to stay for fear of missing your train. If you’d rather make the drive, parking is available, either closer to the grounds for $20, or on remote lots nearby for $10. A third option, and one we are considering entertaining next year, is camping on site. $35 will get you your own spot amongst the fields with water and electricity hookups to boot.
Hot air balloons, for all their grace and color, cannot be flown in even slightly poor conditions, which includes a requirement that the wind speed be under 8 mph and visibility good. Morning launches happened between 6:30 and 7:30 am with evening launches slated for the 5 to 6 pm window. Unfortunately, wind made the Friday night and Sunday morning launches a no go, though each time a launch cancelled, there would be on field activity from tethered rides to evening glows, which were some of the most mesmerizing moments in our experiences there.
Pilots were friendly and eager to take visitor’s questions, especially those of children enamored of the giant balloons, and an overall push to educate the public about hot air ballooning was evident in everything staff did. We spotted attendees and pilots alike who had come from other states and often, had participated in other balloon festivals in the US, including the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, which is the largest such event in the world, held every October at, appropriately, Balloon Fiesta Park and featuring over 500 balloons. The enthusiasm for ballooning was contagious, and by the time we got out on the field for Friday’s glow, we were completely under the spell of the graceful, floating jewels.
As fun as the fest was though, it did have its fumbles. One of these was communication. Despite tuning in to Harvard’s community radio station well before my hour long drive into the depths of McHenry county and being tuned in in the hour before the launch window, I never once heard any updates on the Sunday morning launch, despite the website touting this as a resource. Even with the radio resource, though, launch windows can be shut at any time due to things like high altitude wind shears, which were the culprit on Sunday even as the fog burned away with the sunrise. Organizers also neglected the Facebook page during the event, which left many without information hours after announcements had been made on site. In the future, we hope they’ll have someone dedicated specifically to current info on conditions and activities on both Facebook and Twitter that can help with such things. In addition, though shuttles were provided and came often to take people to and from remote parking and the Metra station, more are probably needed as the festival grows.
That said, if you chose the Harvard Balloon Fest as a Labor Day outing, we don’t think you’d be disappointed, whether you were staying all 3 days, helping crew, or just dropping in for a launch. We look forward to seeing this festival grow and more and more balloons glow. For more information on the Harvard Balloon Festival, you can check out their website or the event’s Facebook page and plan your flight of fancy for next year.