2022 Swiss Wine Festival: Mike Danner’s dream a reality for 50 years
Tonight (Thursday) the 50th Swiss Wine Festival begins its four-day run in the Paul Ogle Riverfront Park.
For many people, the festival is the culmination of a year’s worth of volunteer work and effort.
For Mike Danner, its the continuation of a dream and a mission that he had more than 50 years ago.
What everyone knows now as one of the best festivals in the State of Indiana began as an idea in the mind of Danner when he was in high school — and it gained momentum and life after Vevay celebrated its Sesquicentennial anniversary in 1963.
“In 1963 I was in high school and that was the Sesquicentennial, but a little bit earlier than that when I was a junior in high school I started thinking about having something that would be an annual event as a festival,” Danner said. “The Sesquicentennial was 50 years and the Centennial was 100 years; and there was nothing in between those dates. So I was thinking that we needed an annual event in Vevay because we didn’t have anything. I traveled a lot as a teenager. I crossed the country a lot and I saw festivals and different things going on in other places; and I thought this was a great opportunity to push the history of this area — which we have a lot of with the grapes and the wine and the commercial wine starting here successfully.”
Danner said that the Sesquicentennial was very successful under the leadership of Joe Ricketts; and when that was over, the community waited for a few years without any type of celebration.
“Then 1967 came up, and I was old enough then to try and get committees together and get things started on an annual event that would celebrate the history of this community,” Danner continued. “I was thinking about the history; and to have something fun for the community to do.”
At that time the county was embroiled in the matter of consolidating Patriot High School and Vevay High School into what is now Switzerland County High School — an issue that caused a lot of division within the county and community. In Danner’s mind, that made it even more vital to find a way to bring everyone together.
“I knew we needed something to pull the whole community together that would represent the whole county and not just Vevay or not just for people away from here,” Danner continued. “We needed something that we could have fun at.”
Danner felt that the community also needed a stronger park system that would give children places to play and have fun; and the community already had a strong retail business segment, fueled by the agricultural community here.
“Most of the stores were doing okay, but you never had a time to paint up, fix up, or do whatever and get ready for an annual event. There just wasn’t anything going on,” Danner said. “That to me was important. We needed a reason to clean up our stores and paint them up and do all the work that you do. The semi traffic then was about one or two a day, so we figured that we could put this event on right in the middle of downtown and have a festival — and so we did. We blocked off Main Street from the Methodist Church to just past Ferry Street; and then up Ferry Street a block or so; and then down Ferry to Cheapside Street where there was a little bit of a park (now where the Switzerland County Public Library sits). So we used that area.”
Danner said that the first year the festival didn’t feature a carnival with the exception of a few kiddie rides; but entertainment was spread out, being held at the river to west on Main to where the Little Lambs Daycare is now (then the supermarket owned by Lloyd Farrar).
“We put on a big dance out there in the parking lot,” Danner said of the event on the east end. “Most things were centered at the courthouse, where we had arts and crafts, a few organizations sold food. It was more of a fun time for people from this county and relatives who had moved away and gave them something to come back to. It started out being pretty good. That was in 1968, but we started planning in 1967.”
Danner said that he had a pretty strong central committee during those early planning stages, including local business owners like Joe Ricketts, Ozzy Osborn, Jr., Lloyd Farrar, Chester Perin, Lois and Max Rosenberger, Doc McKay; along with Russell and Vera McSwain and Mike and his then-wife, Carolyn Wiley Danner — who headed up the group.
“We worked day and night that first year,” Danner recalled. “A lot of things didn’t get done in some cases until the morning that it happened, but we got it done. I had $1,000 donated by the Chamber of Commerce to start with; and before the festival started I got another $1,000 so we started in 1968 with $2,000 to put the festival on.”
Danner said that the first Swiss Wine Festival was so successful that everyone wanted to continue the event for a second year — and that started a very successful, and growing event.
“The Wine Festival lasted up until about 1974. Then it stopped until 1979; and at that time it restarted as the Alpine Festival,” Danner said. “Then they had a good run until up around 1987, when the Wine Festival started again. It was still up town. Paul Andrew and Jeannie Allen and others took charge of the festival then and did a good job.”
The five year gap of time was a result of the Swiss Wine Festival becoming a truly huge event — and event so big, in fact, that it was nearly impossible to control, as hundreds of thousands of people tried to make their way into the town of Vevay.
“When you put 120,000 people into a town of 2,000, you might have problems,” he said. “A lot of people were afraid of the motorcycle groups that had come in that last year. The problem with that was not the problem that they thought that they were having with them — they were very organized — our big problem was that we were growing so fast year after year that we didn’t have enough port-a-lets, didn’t have enough garbage pickup. People were coming from all over, and they were partying into the night. We had good entertainment and we had a history that we were trying to promote, but things were getting to be too much of a big party. At the time I wanted to save it and clean it up. I had 200+ boats at the river. We had so much going on at the river that it was like a whole other event down there.”
Danner said that everything shut down in 1974 — the end of the ‘big festival’ —as the town grappled with the overwhelming number of people who came.
“We asked them for one more year, but looking back had it gone another year, it would have brought 150,000 people in here and there was just no room,” Danner said. “There was no parking. We were blocking roads clear through Madison. The State Police had me come down to the high school and told me that we had to get cars parked an off the road faster, because traffic was backed up clear through Madison. We were charging $1 per car to park and hauling them into town on school buses. The ferry coming across the river was really filled with passengers who had parked over there rather than carrying cars.”
After the festival came back as the Swiss Alpine Festival after a five year absence, the community began to slowly build back the annual festival — still uptown but without alcohol; and that continued until about 1995 when the name ‘Swiss Wine Festival’ returned.
“In 1995, when Kirk Works took over the festival, I had worked with him on the creation of the Paul Ogle Riverfront Park as members of the town park board along with Kip Meyerhoff and Walter Cotton and couple of other people, and at that time we took the festival to the river,” Danner said. “The reason that we went to the riverfront was that at that time we were working with extension cords and we didn’t have the sewer system built into it for food booths and we didn’t have the water that we really needed to tap into. By the time the first round of wine festivals had stopped because it got so big, we were out of room and just too crowded. Too many people were afraid that something might happen. Moving to the river gave us the opportunity to solve many of those issues — and it’s very successful there today.”
The creation of the Paul Ogle Riverfront Park was not just a vehicle for the expansion of the festival, but truly the realization that Mike Danner had as a teenager — to provide a long term place for children to play and have fun while parents and others had a year-round park to use and enjoy.
Danner said that his family is coming into Vevay this year to gather and celebrate 50 years — they are creating a special float representing the Danner family that was designed by his daughter that they will ride on in Saturday’s Grand Festival Parade.
And as he looks not only back at the past half century, Mike Danner also looks ahead at the new leadership of the festival and the great things that are happening — but also remembers the selfless work of many who laid the groundwork for what will be enjoyed by tens of thousands of people over the next four days.
“We started out with Bavarian and Swiss music, and those bands — like many people who were on our board — they’re gone,” he reminisced. “There’s just a handful of us left. In 50 years you lose a lot the people who donated a lot of time and effort into getting the festival to where it is today. There’s been a lot of volunteers over the years. We have a huge group of people down at the river who step up every year and they do their job. The boards are great. I think about Billy Leap. He worked on my ‘Swiss Belle’ restaurant and getting things set up down there; and he works every year as the electrician and trouble shooter. He’s one of so many people who you know you can call on and they’ll be right there. That’s really what makes all of this so special.”