Pawpaw Festival sees large crowds and traffic accidents in 24th year< < Back to culture
ALBANY, Ohio (WOUB) – Fans of the pawpaw united this weekend in Albany to celebrate the eponymous fruit at the 24th annual Pawpaw Festival. Amid the music and fruit-themed revelry, tragedy struck when several vehicular accidents occurred on U.S. Route 50 by Lake Snowden on Saturday afternoon.
Heavy traffic lined the highway Saturday in front of the festival at Lake Snowden. According to festival founder Chris Chmiel, a multi-vehicle accident occurred involving a speeding vehicle, ending with medical evacuation via Medflight helicopter. As of Saturday evening all involved were in stable condition.
In the immediate aftermath of the accident a second accident occurred involving passing traffic. No injuries were reported with the second accident. According to a Facebook post from the Albany Area Volunteer Fire Department, several other close calls occurred because of people slowing down to take photos with their cell phones of the accident.
“[P]ut the phones down. Nothing you have to text or pictures you can take are more important than my firefighters. And lastly if you sneak a picture of an accident, don’t post it! That is someone’s family, friend, or loved one. Their loved ones don’t need to find out through Facebook that there has been an accident,” the statement read.
The event left Chmiel feeling uncertain about the future of the Pawpaw Festival.
“It’s been a little stressful today,” Chmiel said to the crowd prior to the pawpaw eating contest on Saturday evening. “We had an accident out on the highway. Luckily everybody is stable. We don’t know if we’re going to have a Pawpaw Festival again next year or not, so enjoy this one while we’re here.”
The crowd immediately murmured their shock and sadness following Chmiel’s statements, with several people asking “why?”
Chmiel explained that the Festival was getting “too big.” He told WOUB that if they do continue they will need some cooperation from some “key partners” to address the issues created by increasingly larger crowds.
“It’s just tough, we don’t want people to get hurt coming to the pawpaw festival. We’re just trying to figure out how to be successful but not have anyone get hurt,” Chmiel said.
Chmiel has been running the Pawpaw Festival for the last 24 years and says he doesn’t want to see it shut down, but wants to make sure that it is a safe environment for attendees.
Following the accidents, entrance was limited to pre-sale tickets only, with the goal of decreasing road traffic.
Those able to get in enjoyed the music, beer tent, vendors and kids areas that have become yearly staples for the festival. Attendees also had the opportunity to take part in seminars about beer making, sustainability and the pawpaw, a unique fruit beloved in the region.
“It’s North America’s largest native tree fruit. It’s related to 2,100 tropical tree fruits.” Chmiel said. “That tropical flavor that you get from a tree that grows here in Ohio and Appalachia, I think that makes it pretty special.”
People drive from all over just to get a taste of the pawpaw. This year the Festival put up a map to allow people to place a pin where they traveled from. There were pins from not only Ohio but from all over the world.
Santina Vanzant drove with her family from Cincinnati. As an Ohio University alum, she and her friends use the Pawpaw Festival as a way to reconnect.
“It’s a little mini college reunion. We all have kids now and we heard this was a really good spot to bring children to and we’re having a really good time,” Vanzant said.
Anton Krieger drove down from Cleveland and is such a big fan of the pawpaw that he entered the pawpaw eating contest. Ten contestants sat in front of the crowd and had to make their way through one pound of pawpaw pulp and 20 seeds with the goal of leaving their plate and each scene clean without using their hands.
After a sticky few minutes Krieger came out victorious.
“Cleveland rocks, Columbus is the worst city in the world, Athens we love you,” Krieger said to the crowd after he won.
Pawpaws are Krieger’s favorite fruit and he hopes that the festival continues so that he can come back next year to defend his title.
Editor’s note: A correction has been made to properly identify the highway in front of Lake Snowden as U.S. Route 50. A previous version listed it as State Route 50.