From Tom Sheppard: “Folk Harbour: The First 25 Years of the Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival”

The group of individuals who would eventually start the Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival met under a series of coincidences and over time the idea of a festival similar to that in Gloucester, Massachusetts was formulated. Gloucester and Lunenburg have a long history of co-operation and competition, especially in the schooner- and dory-fishing days. This is still played out in an annual series of dory races. The original thought was that this would become a music festival celebrating and promoting British, Irish and Scottish folk music the scope certainly has grown since then. Jim Pittman’s vision, according to Bill Plaskett, was that “there would be a festival where fishing boats from all across the Atlantic would fill the harbour. Lunenburg would be at the centre of this new geographical area, not restricted by political boundaries”. John Houston pictured this on a map that he doodled one day, showing “more courses across the oceans than pathways over the land. Folk Harbour can only be found on such a map. It is situated at the head of the bay that is the Great North Atlantic Ocean….. People would come to the head of the bay, this little place called Lunenburg, and it would be Folk Harbour. Everybody would be at home there.”.

Formation of the Festival and Society

The Certificate of Incorporation for the LFHS from the Province’s Societies Act was signed on May 30, 1986. There were several serious music-lovers who energized the early days of the Society and who created the first Festival in 1986. Ron Kelly, a one- time Hollywood movie maker, who stayed in town after he completed his film in Lunenburg, agreed to chair the newly-evolving group of traditional or folk music enthusiasts. He led us through our early meetings at which several people agreed to be on the first Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival Committee.

The founding group included Bill Plaskett, Alma Houston and her son John Houston, Dorothy Read, Val Meister, Ken Matheson and Jim Pittman, who preferred to be a worker and remained off the organizing committee. By all accounts, Alma was the fire that kept this idea burning. She provided business direction to the fledgling organization and had the most to do with getting our getting organized properly. Other early volunteers included Earl Meister, who took over many site responsibilities such as sound, chairs, tents and food vendors. As with many volunteer organizations, turnover was a problem. However, we didn’t expect that our leader would resign before the first opening day! We managed to work together to pull it off. We were all filled with energy and willing to do whatever was necessary to make things work out, all the while unknowingly learning how it was done so that we were able to repeat it the following year and many years since.

These individuals formed the first Lunenburg Folk Harbour Society Board of Directors: Bill Plaskett, President; John Houston, Vice President, Rosemary Richards, Treasurer; Earl Meister, Secretary. The Festival Committee was, at that time, separate and had as its Chairman, Ken Matheson, who was a witness to the Certificate of Incorporation. Ken ran the first 10 Festivals and the Ken Matheson Program for local performers is named in his honour. He was assisted by these volunteers: Program Committee: Val Meister and John Houston; Site: Chris Anderson and Earl Meister; Finance: the Houstons, Ken Matheson and Rosemary Richards; Fundraising: the Houstons and Roger Pike.

Val Meister and John Houston were the all-important Program Committee for many years. Of all of the founders, Val is the only one still involved and contributes through the Young Fiddler’s Workshop that is presented in her name annually. Over the years Val set up the billeting system to house our performers and acted as Education Chair. John, after many years being involved with the festival, has now spent more and more time on his movie productions in Halifax and the Far North.

Bill Plaskett has, after his initial years of intense participation in many aspects of the festival, returned several times as a performer including appearances with his son Joel. Jim Pittman was a man of many ideas and endless enthusiasm in forming this festival and along with Bill is one of the two real founders who urged us all on.