The Dansville Online
  • Foliage Fest has sat its last sitter

  • It’s hard to believe, but the most famous event at the Cohocton Fall Foliage Festival is gone for good.

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  • [REFERENCE:Tree sitter Burns cropped.jpg]

    [REFERENCE:Tree Sitter (Carey).jpg]


    It’s hard to believe, but the most famous event at the Cohocton Fall Foliage Festival is gone for good.
    Festival Chair Tom Cox said by phone Thursday that the reason why the tree sitting contest has permanently ended is due to the age and condition of the tree limbs.
    The more than 60-year-old sugar maples that grace the Cohocton Elementary School grounds have become too brittle to safely hold the weight of contestants for the duration of the festival.
    According to the rules, the one who spent the longest time in the trees (bathroom time counted against contestants) and had the least amount of carry-on weight with them was the winner, barring anything that would have gotten them disqualified such as dropping items or having had something handed to them with the exception of a hot drink from a tree watcher.
    Tree-sitting began in 1968. During that time, none of the competitors had been injured despite participants climbing the trees at night and one who fell from a tree in the late ‘70s after having the bright lights that were used to film “On the Road with Charles Kuralt” shining in the trees during the wee hours of the morning.
    For the past three years, the festival committee decided to require contestants to sit in Air Chairs to curb climbing the limbs. But it was decided prior to last year’s event that the contest would have to come to an end.
    As far as whether nixing the contest will effect festival turnout from now on, Cox said, “It may and it may not.”
    According to questionairs, “Very little is mentioned that they came for the tree-sitting,” he said. Most people come for the craft show.
    Despite the competition’s immense popularity in the media, few people in recent years came out to watch the contest begin or see who was announced winner in the end. The number of contenders have dwindled, too. During its peak in the ‘70s and early ‘80s the number of contestants ran in the 40s. Last year, there were eight.
    Cox recalled a few of his most memorable experiences of the contest throughout the years. In the late ‘70s, he noticed that a wooden snow fence that wrapped around the school was missing. When he inquired where it went, he found out that it had gotten so cold that night that the watchers decided to keep warm by using it as kindling.
    “No one got upset,” he said. Back then, the sentiment was, “these things just happen.”
    Other memorable moments were when Dunkin’ Donuts showed up for two years to shoot photos for its calendars. Tree-sitters were featured for the month of October. Cox said the contestants certainly didn’t lack coffee and donuts that year.
    Page 2 of 2 - Tree sitting was the brainchild of then college sophomore Tom Carey, who wanted to find something fun and unique for the festival. He, along with Frances Burns, was the tree-sitting organizer during its early years.
    When it was first initiated, it was not a contest.
    In its first year, Edith Strobel, former writer and editor for The Cohocton Times Index, then in her 80s, was placed on a ladder next to a tree and although did not actually sit in a tree, is considered the very first tree-sitter.
    Carey recruited his sister Nancy, her friend Betsy Burns, plus alternates Tommy Cragg and Mike Gilman as the first tree sitters, who were bribed to do so because a lot of press coverage was expected.
    It’s first year was also a heavy presidential election year, Carey said, and he invited the candidates to come to Cohocton to sit in a tree and “go out on a limb for the voters.” But of course, no one did.
    The first-year sitters perched in trees on Carey’s parent’s yard. “By the end of the weekend, there wasn’t much yard left,” he recalled. About 20,000 people had walked through the Carey property, and they quickly put the kibosh to that. It ended up at the school from then on.
    The rules for early contests were much more relaxed – some brought up guitars and walkie talkies for example, and there were prizes offered for such things as the best poem written while sitting in a tree.
    The uniqueness of the event has not only caught the attention of Charles Kuralt and Dunkin Donuts, but also National Geographic who wrote about the festival twice and awarded it the best festival on the Appalachin Trail to attend in the Finger Lakes (a 2005 article can be read at nationalgeographic.com); as well as getting the attention of Paul Harvey who covered it every year; was featured on CBS?News with Walter Cronkite; live telephone feeds from various radio stations including the British Broadcasting Company who broadcast it throughout Europe; in newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal, Stars and Stripes, plus German, Australian and Vietnamese newspapers; and is a question in Trivial Pursuit’s Baby Boomer edition.
    When asked how the contest became so famous, Carey answered he didn’t know for sure, but perhaps it was a “down to earth thing, except up in a tree.”
    About it ending after 43 years, Carey commented, “I?guess things change,” and that the contest gave the Cohocton community and festival a boost. But the festival will continue successfully nonetheless.

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