Family hoedown keeps tradition alive at Kutztown Folk Festival
Jayda Rutherford (center) watches as older family members perform in the Miller Family Hoedown on July 1, 2018, during the Kutztown Folk Festival in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. (Matt Smith for WHYY)
Lester Miller has led American folk dancing demonstrations at the Kutztown Folk Festival for 40 years. At 84, he has become a familiar face delighting visitors to the oldest continuously operated folklife festival in America.
A traditional hoedown caller, he orchestrates the lively and energetic movements on stage during four shows each day. The demonstrations feature four generations of the Miller family, including four daughters, 15 grandchildren, and 27 great-grandchildren.
Lester Miller (left) plays with his great-grandson, Breckyn Losito, between performances of the Miller Family Hoedown. (Matt Smith for WHYY)
Sam Schaeffer (left) and sister Maggie Schaeffer perform in the Miller Family Hoedown with Kiersten Miller and Lucas Blatt (right) during the Kutztown Folk Festival.(Matt Smith for WHYY)
Young dancers (from left) Sarah Schaeffer, Eli Blatt, Jayda Rutherford and Caleb Rutherford, exit the stage following a performance of the Miller Family Hoedown. (Matt Smith for WHYY)
The genuine charm of the Miller family comes not only from the dancing, but from the efforts of a multi-generational family to uphold the traditions of the past while each new generation is born into a future that feels so much further from it.
“There is a satisfaction in seeing the people in the crowd and their eyes light up,” Miller said. “It’s energetic. And you don’t see that many family members all participating together any place.”
The nine-day festival draws more than 100,000 people from across the country to the small town just 70 miles northwest of Philadelphia to celebrate the traditions of the Pennsylvania Dutch.
When the Kutztown Folk Festival opened its gates in the summer of 1950, it was Lester’s grandmother, Emma Miller, who made the funnel cakes for the inaugural visitors. His mother also sold those treats at Viola Miller’s Funnel Cakes while young Lester hung around the festival grounds.
Now attendees can see Lester Miller’s own children and grandchildren perform with him during the hoedown demonstrations, making it six generations of the Miller Family that have been so deeply ingrained in this community event from its inception to the present day.
Members of the Miller Family perform for a crowd during the Miller Family Hoedown on July 5, 2018, during the Kutztown Folk Festival in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. (Matt Smith for WHYY)
The yearly gathering has become a unique reunion as the family spends the entire day together, either on stage or 50 feet from it in their staging area.
Miller’s daughter, Julie Miller, first hit the stage when she was 6 years old.
“This will be my 45th year dancing at the festival,” she said. “And yet every year I look forward to spending time with my family who also dance. As well as watching the new generation of dancers as they learn our family traditions.”
Hoedowns were at one time a ubiquitously popular communal celebration for German farmers in the Kutztown area.
“They used to do it in the fall,” said Lester Miller. “To celebrate the end of the harvest and throw a hoedown party in the barns.”
Faye Miller, the matriarch of the family, participated with her husband in hoedowning competitions at the festival until they started the formal demonstrations in 1974. She would go on to hand-make dresses for the female dancers and still does on-the-spot sewing repairs as needed.
Faye Miller works on a dress for one of the young dancers in the Miller Family Hoedown. (Matt Smith for WHYY)
“The Miller family is what the festival is all about,” said Steve Sharadin, director of the Kutztown Folk Festival, “Pennsylvania Dutch families passing on traditions and the culture amongst their own family and to those that attend the festival. Having someone like Lester, that has a link and memories of the earliest Festival, is amazing.”
When asked about how much longer he will carry the responsibility of maintaining this tradition of hoedown dancing during the festival, Lester Miller usually shirks off the question.
“I think they might have to drag me off the stage,” Miller laughed.
The Kutztown Folk Festival runs June 29-July 7 at the Kutztown Fairgrounds.
“They might have to drag me off the stage,” says Lester Miller when asked about the possibility of retiring from the hoedown. (Matt Smith for WHYY)
WHYY is the leading public media station serving the Philadelphia region, including Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared on WHYY.org.