Frankie Ballard got the party started Thursday, headlining the first night of mainstage entertainment at the 40th annual Hodag Country Festival near Rhinelander. While the weather Thursday evening was a bit on the chilly side, the crowd was large and enthusiastic. A campsite on the Hodag Country Festival Grounds lauds the festival’s 40th anniversary.
7/15/2017 7:29:00 AM The tradition continues: 40th Hodag Fest underway
As they have every July for the last four decades, country music fans made their way to Rhinelander this week for a few days of honky-tonk heaven.
The 2017 Hodag Country Festival is in full swing and the happy Hodagers are feeling positive vibes.
For many, the Hodag is their summer vacation as well as a chance to cut loose for a few days with 30,000 to 50,000 like-minded souls. Over the last 40 years, the festival has not only generated a reputation as a fun party, it has acquired some traditions.
Chief among those is Marty's Party, the group that has been the traditional first act of every Hodag going back to the second one.
Marty Mullins is still very much involved with the group, which he says is made up of some of the best musicians in the state.
"We have opened up for 39 years," Mullins said. "It started out as a sound check and I have been building this band since then."
The story behind how Marty's Party got its start and grew into a Hodag staple would make a great country song.
"It all started with me and (festival cofounder) Bernie (Eckert), we were putting all the equipment up on scaffolds, all the speakers and stuff. When we got them all up and hooked up, one of the sound guys said 'It's a shame we don't have any instruments so we could check all this stuff out.' This is the day before the show," Mullins said. "So I said I'll get some instruments. So I went around and got a couple guys and we went up there and started jamming so they could check out all the equipment. And Bernie came walking by and threw a case of beer up on the stage and that's how it became Marty's Party and how the whole thing started."
The band was working out the set list Thursday morning. Mullins said it was just their second practice of the year. The run-through determines who will get solos during which songs, as well as ensure everyone is familiar with the material.
The group's producer decides who will do what during each song and provide each musician with that information on a sheet of paper before they take the stage.
"What they do here is what you will here later today," Mullins said. "And these guys are such fantastic musicians, every one of them."
Mullins said Al Jahnke is the group's bandleader. He is the one the other musicians contact to see if there is a spot for them in the Hodag Band, as they call themselves. Many have full-time bands they play with the rest of the year, but the second Thursday in July they come together to carry on the tradition of Marty's Party at the Hodag.
"These are musicians who play all over the state," Mullins said.
Another annual tradition that plays an important part in the success of the festival is the inspection by the Oneida County Health Department of all the food vendor operations. Todd Troskey was going through many of them late Thursday morning.
"The majority of our inspections were yesterday and today, and we'll do some spot-checking tomorrow," Troskey said. "Unless we have additional issues, we probably won't be out here on Saturday."
Troskey said the inspections ensure the various vendors are operating up to food code requirements.
"Most of them have been here for so many years, they know exactly what is required and what they need to do and what they can't do," he noted, adding that the health department started inspecting the food vendors in 2006.
"Since then things have gotten better and better every year, and our inspection time has decreased substantially throughout the years," Troskey said.
If a vendor is issued a temporary permit to operate through the inspection report, that means their operation is in good shape and there are no significant deficiencies, he added.
"If they have serious deficiencies, they would not be allowed to open," Troskey said. "They would be given plenty of chances to correct that and we would do re-inspections to make sure they have corrected those issues and they are then issued their permit to operate."
The Pine Lake Fire Department also inspects each booth to make sure all vendors are compliant with fire codes. One of the inspectors said the biggest problem they usually find is people not using surge protectors on their electrical equipment or not having an up-to-date fire extinguisher.
One long-time vendor with a prominent place next to the stage is Gone Country, which has been selling cowboy and other hats, along with country apparel, for 10 years now. Owned by Keith and Judy Kowatch from Orlando, the Hodag is one of many stops they make on the country music festival circuit.
"We're full-time country music festival vendors," Judy Kowatch said. "We have two other teams that also make the rounds of country music festivals and fairs, 80 or so events a year."
She was reluctant to say how many of the company's hats are sold, but noted it is "a lot."
For many attendees, Gone Country is one of their first traditional stops every year.
"We get here on Sunday and we start setting up on Monday, and I had people waiting here Tuesday morning before we put to the very first hats saying we're their first stop when they get here, every single year," Kowatch said. "And they will tell me what hat they bought 10 years ago or eight years ago, six years ago."
Kowatch said the company designs and produces its own products.
"So we have really unique products and good quality and really good prices, so our customers are very loyal," she said.
Because they produce their own hats, Kowatch said they take the time to make sure each hat they sell is custom-fitted to every customer.
"We love being here, this is our favorite event out of our whole season," she said. "We love the people here, we love the crowd here. We truly look forward to coming here."
This isn't someone just saying something to the local press to get a mention in an article. If you go to their website, on the bottom of their homepage is a photo of the Hodag statue at the Chamber of Commerce with "It's a crazy country" underneath it.
John Harrington is part of a group of people from the Marquette area that camp together at the Hodag every year.
"I've been coming for 23 years, but I only remember about nine of them," he joked.
In their camping group is Travis White of Tomahawk who has been to five Hodags, along with "Hodag Virgin" Josh Leist of Wausau.
When asked what keeps bringing them back for more, the veterans in the group were quick to give an answer that is common among those who attend the festival.
"This right here, the family, the camaraderie," Harrington said. "It's the music and the atmosphere."
Also new to this group this year are two young girls, one is Dani, the 8-year-old daughter of Kris Paluda.
"I've been coming for 18 years and she's old enough now that I'm comfortable with her being here," Paluda said, adding that one of the things she likes about the Hodag is that it is a family friendly music festival.
"We're all from the same area in the U.P., the Marquette/Ishpeming area, so we were friends prior to coming here," Paluda said of the core group.
But then we added to the family, too," another member who declined to give his name added.
"I see these people one time a year and it's here," White said. "And it is my priority to come see these people one time a year."
Sue Konz of Rhinelander has been attending the festival for the past decade, and recently got her brother hooked on the experience.
When asked what keeps bringing her back every year, she said it's about the music.
"Mostly the music and the people," she said. "We like to walk around and meet people."
Despite being a local resident, she said "you have to camp" at Hodag because it is part of the experience.
"You have to be out here," she said. "Everyday."
After her brother retired from a fire department in California, he and his family moved to Eagle River, she added. He has been coming three years now and has become so hooked on the experience he is trying to secure a permanent campsite to ensure a good experience in the future.
"You've got to know somebody," she said when asked how you get a permanent campsite. "And that is really hard to find. But he's on Craigslist starting today until he finds something. He'll grab a spot, he'll buy it for next year, and if it's not a site he wants and he finds another one, he'll keep that one and sell the other one. It's quite a business they have here."
For some long-time Hodag attendees, traditions associated with the festival have changed with the passage of time.
Carrie Orellwitz of Kaukauna has been coming for 13 years with a small group of friends, while her husband Gene has been coming for six.
Carrie Orellwitz said the reason for that is simple. "It was our girl's weekend, then our girls dwindled to the point where we started bringing our husbands," she said.
The festival continues through Sunday evening.
Jamie Taylor may be reached at email@example.com.
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