New month, new site for annual Bantam Jeep festival

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Organizers of Butler's annual Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival are in overdrive.

The celebration of the Butler-born Bantam Jeep will be Friday through Sunday at Cooper's Lake Campground near Slippery Rock -- a new month and a new venue.

The past two years, the festival was held at the Big Butler Fairgrounds in August, with most activities centered on a two-day weekend.

"We were excited about the changes but nervous, too. We were shifting to a bigger place with more room to grow and more flexibility to design [off-roading] courses but there were infrastructure challenges. We were shifting weekends from August [when there were competing events] to Father's Day weekend and we weren't sure of that impact. But, all signs are that things are going to be as good, even better, than ever," said Patti Jo Lambert, organizer and spokesman for the Butler County Tourism Promotion Agency.

Online registration ended May 19, four weeks earlier than last year, with 1,068 jeeps registered to participate in an array of activities that range from obstacle courses to show-and-shine competitions. With on-site registrations expected to generate about 300 more jeeps, she's expecting to see at least a slight increase in the total number, which was about 1,100 preregistered last year, 14 percent higher than the debut one year earlier. Participants are coming from 24 states as well as Canada.

The numbers don't reflect participants in the "jeep invasion," a free car-cruise style event that will be held Friday night in Butler.

The festival, the biggest three-day event that's held in Butler County and the biggest event of the year, second only to the Big Butler Fair which extended for a week, will bring thousands of people to the county's hotels, campgrounds, gasoline stations, restaurants and shops.

Ms. Lambert said last year's two-day event, held on a Saturday and Sunday, drew about 15,000 people. The jeep invasion, held the Friday night before the festival, lured some 20,000.

"This festival draws multiple audiences -- the jeep enthusiasts, the history buffs who are interested in World War II and the impact Butler had in terms of being the birthplace of the Bantam Jeep (the forerunner of the jeep), which was created for use by solidiers during World War II. And then there's the stuff for kids and families -- fun things to do on the weekend -- and the car buffs who just want to see beautiful vehicles in every shape, size and color,'' Ms. Lambert said, noting that Jeep Corp. again is sending to the festival a set of "concept vehicles" that can't be seen anywhere but in a magazine or at corporate headquarters.

While the list of activities planned for the three days is extensive, a few of the main events include the jeep invasion, which will shut down Main Street in Butler at 3 p.m. on Friday, followed by the car cruise at 6 p.m. There is no "gate fee."

Meanwhile, earlier in the day at Cooper's Lake, the off-roading events such as the "jeep playground" and the "mud pit" as well as the historical re-creation of a World War II encampment will begin at 9 a.m. The "playground" will feature rock piles and telephone-pole obstacles that jeep adventurers expect.

The encampment is set up by a group of enthusiasts from the Tri-State area who gather with authentic uniforms and equipment to re-create the way soldiers lived during World War II when the Bantam Jeep made its debut. The group will bring restored jeeps from the 1940s.

The "Great Pig-Out" -- a barbecue pig roast accompanied by a bonfire and concert -- will begin at 5 p.m. Saturday at Cooper's Lake. And there will be a Father's Day breakfast from 7:30 to 9 a.m. Sunday at Cooper's Lake.

Ms. Lambert said the event creates name recognition for Butler County, a boost to the local economy and also a sense of community spirit. More than 400 local volunteers are involved in bringing off the event.

"I think everyone sees this is a huge boost for Butler County is so many ways. Businesses in Downtown Butler have said it's their busiest day of the year [when we hold the jeep invasion.] Campgrounds and hotels are booked almost to capacity right now. Restaurants and gas stations know that people will be coming from all over,'' she said. Another factor is the business the prep work for the event creates. "We're creating jobs for caterers. We're buying supplies for the festival. We're retaining local services. The impact is wide-reaching," she said.

Festival hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday; and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday.

Information: www.bantamjeepfestival.com.

neigh_north

Karen Kane: kkane@post-gazette.com or 724-772-9180.


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