by Mike Templeton
In honor of the 2023 John Roger Simon Sorghum Festival, we are revisiting this article about last year’s festival, which was the first festival after a four-year hiatus! This beloved community celebration takes place at John Roger Simon’s historic well-preserved 5th-generation French homestead on the banks of Pond Creek, framed by the farm’s 500-plus acres of forested Appalachian hills. The event is free to the public and features the making of sorghum syrup, heritage crafts demonstrations, southern food, and the jamming of musicians playing old-time music.
Immerse yourself in Ohio Appalachia, celebrate the natural bounty and cultural cuisine and enjoy the changing of seasons. The event will be back for its 39th season October 7 & 8, 2023, from 10am-4pm both days. Keep reading to learn more about the history/uses of sorghum and how this festival came to be.
As part of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition’s focus on Appalachian foodways, some months ago we featured an article on the sweet staple of Appalachian food and culture, sweet sorghum. Sweet sorghum is central to Appalachian foodways and cultural life, and in order to celebrate the sweet crop of Appalachia, there is an entire festival in Appalachian Ohio devoted to sweet sorghum. After a pause since 2018, during which many thought the festival had ended for good, the celebration of this Appalachian staple will make its comeback with the help of the Arc of Appalachia.
The John Roger Simon Sorghum Festival ran for 37 years straight on Simon’s farm but stopped after 2018. Simon is 83, and others involved with the festival are also getting on in years. It just became too much to sustain. Through a collaboration with the Arc of Appalachia, the festival is finally back in action. Nancy Stranahan, Executive Director of the Arc of Appalachia, told me “John Simon and his generation founded the festival and ran it all these years. John told me he didn’t think he could keep it up anymore.” That is where Stranahan and the Arc of Appalachia stepped in. Stranahan told Simon, “We think we can.” By “we” she means the collaboration between Simon and the Arc.
Nancy Stranahan explained that the motivation to get involved with reviving the sorghum festival is rooted in the work of Arc of Appalachia: “We are in Appalachian Ohio. We work in the Appalachian counties. This is our heritage we are preserving as much as we are preserving the natural world.” Readers may also recall that we explored the Arc of Appalachia in another article. The Arc of Appalachia is a non-profit dedicated to preserving “the beauty, balance, and biodiversity of the wildlands of Appalachian Ohio.” With more that 7500 acres of land under their stewardship, the Arc works not just to preserve the natural wildlands of Ohio, but also to work toward restoring it to the natural balance that once characterized Appalachian Ohio. With their collaboration with John Simon, the Arc of Appalachia can now include the preservation of Appalachian Ohio tradition as part of their work.
The John Roger Simon Sorghum Festival is held at John Simon’s farm, itself a miracle of historic land preservation. Simon’s farm is situated on more than 500 acres of forested land in the Appalachian foothills of eastern Ohio. One of the most striking features of Simon’s land is that it is thick with old White Oak trees. Stranahan explained that it is rare to find a White Oak forest of this size and magnitude. The farm is also the site of Simon’s fifth-generation French homestead, which is another standout instance of historic preservation. It is hard to imagine a more idyllic setting for the sorghum festival—or any other festival or event.
The festival will see the return of some of the original craftspeople. Stranahan said they have about fifteen craftspeople lined up that will include chair caning, quilting, and other traditional mountain crafts. But she was careful to say that “this is not a craft fair. These are primarily demonstrations.” Nancy Stranahan said that “most of the older sorghum makers will be back, and many of the musicians that have played the festival in past years will also return. We are still looking for musicians to come out and jam.” The music is, of course, traditional Appalachian music, not Bluegrass specifically, more what we call old-time music (something else we profiled on this blog).
There will of course be sweet sorghum which is the reason for and heart of the festival. Featured will be demonstrations by sorghum makers boiling it down for all to watch. There will be plenty of sorghum for sale and plenty of sweets baked with sweet sorghum. Another staple of the sorghum festival has always been hotdogs and Bea’s famous meat sauce, both of which will be in plentiful supply as the festival returns in October. The long-term plan is to keep the festival going. As Nancy Stranahan said, “Our motto is: another 37 years!” This collaboration between John Roger Simon and the Arc of Appalachia is just getting started with the sorghum festival. With the farm, the sorghum, and a mutual dedication to preserving the natural and cultural history of Appalachian Ohio, it seems a good bet this partnership will have much to reveal in coming years.
The Arc of Appalachia presents the 38th Annual John Roger Simon Sorghum Festival on October 1st and 2nd at the John Roger Simon Farm in West Portsmouth, Ohio. The festival runs from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. Admission is free and free parking is provided, although parking is limited so get there early. In addition to sorghum making demonstrations, the festival will include music and traditional Appalachian crafts. Maybe you could also allow time on the road to Portsmouth, Ohio to explore one of the 23 regions preserved by the Arc of Appalachia. As the weather takes its annual turn to Fall, there is no better time to hike the Arc of Appalachia on the road to sweet sorghum.
Information on the John Roger Simon Sorghum Festival can be found at this link: https://arcofappalachia.org/simonsorghumfestival/.
More information on the Arc of Appalachia can be found at this link: https://arcofappalachia.org/.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He is the author of the forthcoming The Chief of Birds: A Memoir. Available later this year from Erratum Press. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.