Herald Staff Writer
The original news release for the first Barberton Mum Festival in 1991 proudly declared the event to be “the first annual Mum Celebration.”
That wasn’t 100 percent honest.
“It was intended to be a one-and-done,” former parks director Lisa McLean, the “Mother of the Mum Festival,” told The Herald in 2021.
1991 was the Magic City’s centennial celebration. Various city entities were ginning up ideas to celebrate within their spheres. The Barberton Beautification program is now under the Parks Department but it had been founded as its own department in 1987 and at four years of age was coming into its own. McLean was in charge of it.
“We were looking to do something special with flowers,” McLean said. “I talked to Ramsey Yoder and asked for a few thousand mum cuttings. He told me he’d been wanting to give the city mums for a long time.”
In celebration, Yoder Brothers introduced a new mum variety that year called “Anna.”
Next came scouting a location. They finally settled on the northeast corner of Lake Anna Park.
“Lake Anna turned out to be ideal,” McLean said.
That inaugural affair was a modest one. It wasn’t called a festival yet, but a “celebration” and was only a day. With 12,000 plants, they had a little over half in the ground that goes in the garden today. There were no food vendor trucks and trailers and no craft vendors. The entertainment was one band at noon and a choir at 3:30. Barbershop quartets and magicians strolled around and there was a face painting booth.
A choice they made that year was a good, solid flop, McLean said.
“We wanted it to be upscale,” McLean said. “We hired a caterer to provide fine meals. Of course, we had to guarantee they’d sell a certain amount. We didn’t come close to that so it cost us quite a bit.”
The committee learned that year that people going to an outdoor festival want fair food, so they’ve made sure that’s what’s at every festival ever since.
That first year had a somewhat iconic feature. While they skipped a full carnival, they did bring in a ferris wheel, set up directly adjacent to the mum garden.
“We wanted to be able to take people up and give them that vertical perspective,” McLean said.
The mums are arranged in specific patterns of color an texture. It was simple at first.
“Bill Aulenbach, our first designer, used to open up his closet and look at his neckties for inspiration,” McLean said. “They were very geometric.”
The design has gotten more elaborate as the years progressed, with recognizable images and sometimes words in the blooms. After several years, though, the ferris wheel view of the garden went away.
“We lost money, for one,” McLean said. “We were charging a couple dollars per ride but if we wanted to cover the actual cost, we were going to have to charge more than I think people would’ve been willing to pay.”
She said the main reason, though, was growth of the festival itself.
“As we got bigger and we were selling more mums, where the ferris wheel had been became our holding area,” McLean said. “We ran out of space.”
McLean said more than anything, the festival that grew out of her “one-and-done” has been an amazing way to tell a Barberton story, with the Yoder Brothers working for O.C. Barber, then spinning off into their own business after Barber’s death to become one of the world’s leading purveyors of chrysanthemums.
“Another community can have a mum fest,” McLean said. “But they’re not going to have Lake Anna right in the middle of the town and they don’t have our story to tell.”