As a kid Ken Jessop remembers the Elmira Maple Syrup Festival as one long line. Even back then the festival attracted people from far and wide who came to sample the very Canadian sweet stuff and celebrate a community.
“The festival is running for 49 years now; I didn’t get to the first one, I can tell you that,” laughs this year’s festival chairperson.
“I remember my grandparents taking me into the festival and I remember lining up to get into town. I remember trying to get a pancake at the time and not getting one because there’s such a lineup. It just seemed a little bit more quaint back then.”Though it is his first year as chair, after nine years with the festival in various roles, Jessop is no stranger to the event or the tireless efforts of a volunteer-oriented community.
A native of Kitchener, Jessop visited the township frequently but when he moved to town with his family in 2004 he quickly caught the volunteer fever that runs high in many rural communities.
“Being a member of a smaller community I felt that volunteering in the community would be a great idea,” he explained.
Starting from humble beginnings, as organizer of the annual pancake-flipping event, Jessop worked his way up to a facilities position and eventually vice-chair before becoming chairperson of this year’s event, scheduled for April 6. Through his time with the festival he’s had an opportunity to directly participate in the gargantuan process of putting together the largest one-day maple syrup festival.
“As a kid I knew it was quite a large event, but I think as part of the committee and volunteering you really realize how much work it is to put it together and actually how many people we do attract,” he said.
Jessop said the last weeks leading up to the festival is when the pressure really adds up. As for the string of successes, well, he chalks that up to teamwork and an army of dedicated volunteers and the “hundreds of hours of volunteering that these people put in just to put on the event.”
A member of the Waterloo Regional Police Service for 22 years, Jessop is no stranger to serving the community, but it’s through the festival that he has been able to connect with a smaller, tight-knit community in Elmira and Woolwich Township, he said.
Organizing the festival is a good outlet for Jessop for whom the year-round effort is made even more worthwhile with the opportunity to be near his family and especially his two kids, now 14 and 12, who volunteer with the event every year.
“My entire family is involved with the festival. The day that I walked into the committee was the day that they started. They were just little tykes helping out with the festival.”
On that note, he added that getting youth into the tradition of the festival is essential to keep the event alive in future years. Though the festival has made many fresh changes in recent years, both in its execution and business plan, veteran members will have to retire at some point and the festival will always need new faces and new ideas to carry on this demanding Elmira custom.
“We want to bring new people in but be very aware of the tradition that we have for the festival and that’s something that we want to cherish and keep in this community.
“As our slogan says: Come Taste the Tradition. That’s basically what we are trying to achieve. At the same time we’ve got to make things a little more refreshing out there.”