As predictable as the summer heat wave it usually rides in on, the 45th annual Children's Festival starts today, covering the Britt Festivals grounds in Jacksonville with storytellers, craft booths, giant dragons and more than 1,000 volunteers.

This year's event, dubbed "Read Around the World," runs until Tuesday, July 12. It kicks off from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. today and continues Monday from 9 a.m. to noon and 6 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday hours are 9 a.m. to noon.

The annual summer festival began when the Storytelling Guild hosted an outdoor storytelling event in 1966. This year, the festival's popular "trash dragons," Roosevelt and Pebbles, will turn 20. Festival publicity chairwoman Lara Knackstedt said the dragons will probably have some variation of a birthday recognition, along with mention of the festival's original mascot, a dragon named Fred, who made local news when he "perished" in a warehouse fire in 1990.

"It was a very big deal," said Knackstedt. "I think it was even on the front page. Everyone was very sad."

The festival will include dozens of booths with crafts ranging from leather works and sand-casting to gold-panning and pottery. A stage will host a nonstop lineup of local children performing everything from ballet to karate.

After more than four decades, and accommodating more than 9,000 visitors each year, the festival now lures people who attended the festival as children and now bring their own children and grandchildren to do crafts, hear stories and feed the trash dragons.

"Our own (past festival director) Pat Blair has her grandkids up there on the hill running booths, so that's pretty neat to see those generations of local families returning," Knackstedt said.

"My husband grew up here, and they had the sand-casting, so we have his handprints and now we have our son's. There are small changes over the years but people are really fond of things being the way they remember them, so it doesn't change very much from year to year."

One of the few new features this year — a nod toward sustainability — is a Jackson County SMARTSWorks mobile drinking-water station. It will allow families to refill water bottles so they can stay hydrated.

Inexpensive snacks will be on sale at the Dragon Deli.

This year's festival queen, Cameron McCandless of Medford, said the festival runs smoothly thanks to an army of volunteers.

While up to 1,000 helpers will be on site during the three-day event, some 2,000 are involved in putting the event together each year.

"Making this event happen successfully takes a lot of volunteer power and support from the community, and we are very glad we have it," McCandless said.

"It really is impressive that a festival with maybe 60 booths would all be stemming from the fundamental principles of books and reading. There's nothing like this anywhere."

Admission to the festival costs $2. A schedule of events can be seen online at www.storytellingguild.org/childrens-festival.html. [Source: mailtribune.com]


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