Five words — “the French Festival is cancelled” — five simple, innocuous words strung together. However, those words struck a blow to the community, businesses, and organizations of Cape Vincent never felt.
I am a member of the French Festival Committee. The committee last met at the end of February. I remember a couple hushed remarks then about the future of the Festival in light of the news overseas of the coronavirus but we stayed positive and kept on task: mass gathering permits were acquired, fireworks contract finalized and coordinating with DHS to set off the fireworks, reviewing of half of the vendors who were already registered, bands and parade entertainment that were partially or already booked, and what contracts, permits, volunteers, vendors, organizations, and sponsors that still need to be secured. As the head of the French Festival Sponsor Sub-Committee, I met with my team a couple times in early March, fully functioning and spearheading towards sponsorship acquisition. Then, by the third week of March, schools closed, businesses were shuttered, and New York residents were ordered to stay home.
The future of the French Festival was uncertain.
As history tells it, the French heritage in the Cape Vincent area stems back to as early as 1615 when French explorers first set foot upon our shores. In 1655, the French missionary priests Father Chaumont, Father Dablon, and Father Simon LeMoyne came to the area to establish missions and homes. Between 1790s-1800s, James LeRay de Chaumont acquired many thousands of acres of land in Northern New York. Cape Vincent was named after his son, Vincent. It was LeRay’s influence that drew many French emigres and refugees of the Napoleonic regime to come and settle in Cape Vincent. Many of their descendants still live in the area.
It was because of this French heritage and history that the French Festival was born! In 1968, Cape Vincent residents, June and Jack Walker, Gary, and his first wife, Jackie King, Jerry and Ida Radley, and Jessie and David Otis met to discuss how Cape Vincent could celebrate its French heritage and share that knowledge with younger generations. They partnered with the Chamber of Commerce with a budget of $300, the annual tradition got its start.
Two months passed after our last French Festival Committee Meeting, when on May 5th the Cape Vincent Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors decided during their monthly Chamber Meeting to cancel the 52nd Annual French Festival. A sound decision for the health and well-being of the community but one surely difficult to comprehend.
For the first time in fifty-two years, Cape Vincent was not going to be hosting the Annual French Festival. A yearly summer tradition that brought together so many families and summer residents in the North Country for a weekend of French-inspired fun, entertainment, pastries, a parade, and fireworks. But even more so, it meant that local businesses and community-based organizations that benefited from the weekend would be losing revenue and donations.
Cape Vincent has had its share of hardships throughout the years: The Blizzard of 1977, the Ice Storm of 1998, and the high-water flooding in the Spring of 2019; and the community has always rallied to weather the storm. So, how are the businesses and organizations in the Cape going to cope with the loss of the French Festival?
Even before the announcement of the French Festival cancellation, local amateur photographer, Alex Davis, son of long-time resident, Barry, started collecting donations for the Food Pantry and Ambulance Fund with the #FrontDoorProject, or also known as The Front Steps Project. The Front Steps Project is a nationwide project where photographers decide what local organization will inspire their communities and then photograph a family on their front porch for a donation.
With the reliance on social media for communication during quarantine paired with a grassroots swell in supporting regional products and buying local, the handful of Cape Vincent businesses that remained open during April and May certainly felt the love of the community. As with every other disaster encountered, the community as a whole collectively picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and kept moving forward. Information about take-out, delivery, and products (maple syrup, wine, Black Angus beef) available was shared amongst residents online and folks kept those businesses busy.
How is Cape Vincent businesses and organizations going to deal with the loss of French Festival? They are going to do what they always do – persevere with the support of the community! After any disaster, the community of Cape Vincent has proven it will always rebuild. The strength of the Cape Vincent community is what makes this town remarkable.
So, we do not have French Festival this year. That is okay.
Cape Vincent will be all right.
As the featured writer for the Cape Vincent Chamber of Commerce Monthly Newsletter, I have the opportunity to spotlight local businesses, people, and non-profits.
“The French Festival is Cancelled” was published in the Thousand Islands Sun newspaper, as well as the Chamber newsletter.