The Gathering at Chaffee's
The story behind Erie's Homegrown Festival.
Late July air is always thick with the lake's exhalations. Beneath a sheet of heat and a blanket of humidity, mirages ripple off Erie's hot pavement – adding a glossy clear coat to where these roads may lead – and a perspiratory sheen glazes over every face in this city. My car-turned-convection-oven has the windows down as wide as the sky, releasing the boiling air that gathered inside from the early morning sun.
In the trunk, I have my tent, chairs, an air mattress and pump (for which I've forgotten the batteries), a cooler filled with ice, cold beer, and snacks (you can hear cans swishing in the frigid water when I make my turn on to 26th Street), an assortment of pillows and blankets (that I've deemed shitty enough to use for camping), and a case of water (most importantly). In the back seat of my car, I have friends squashed in the tiny second row, their respective backpacks riding each of their laps. In the rearview mirror, I see them smiling with excitement while their anxious eyes stare up at an imaginary checklist, worriedly marking off the items in their bags, seemingly certain they've left something essential at home (phone charger, laptop, headphones?).
Leave it behind.
It might seem impossible to detach from our circuit board extremities, but the weekend will be more enjoyable without the prosthetic parts.
As we continue across West Ridge Road, the buildings disappear for a while and long stretches of farmland take their place. I've made the journey here before and I can assure you it's better to not be taking calls in the middle of the woods for two days.
At the entrance to our weekend home, there is a small line of campers, cars, and trucks; each vehicle sprouting poker-straight arms from each window – they look like tooth picks in a potato – holding a ticket or a few bills to be exchanged for a paper wrist band. Somewhere around here, you'll find Doug Chaffee, the man who organized this festival. He's got a burly exterior, toughened from decades of landscaping and outdoor work. Despite his façade, he's a family man and a business owner, and he knows how to throw one hell of a party.
While I drive along the fallow thoroughfare I see girls in their bright sundresses, bathed in a summer glow, walking barefoot along the path; I see guys, bearded and shirtless, blowing life into their campfires, stirring embers with a poking stick; I see children riding their bikes fervently through the trails, ice cream from the food vendors still smudged across their dirty faces. Strangers smile at me; some lift a solo cup towards the sun as if to say, "Welcome," and some simply keep dancing along the trail towards the stage. The air smells like campfire, greasy food, and a rich concoction of incense.
The place is alive.
With the car safely parked, I set out across tic-tac-toe board of cross-thatched field grass that crunches under my step until the shadowy threshold of the woods transforms the ground into hard packed dirt. The trees sing with the echoes of fireside chatter, the smoke filtering through the leaves, the sun's heavy stare beaming through the plumes.
When the campsite has been claimed, tents, groceries, backpacks, and folding chairs drop like anvils from our hands. While the men quarrel over which fiberglass pole goes in which section of the tent, debate how to properly attach the rain cover, and delegate who hunts for firewood, the girls pull back the tabs on a few cold ones, laugh while the men flex their primal sides, and they watch our weekend neighbors arrive. When they arrive, we'll meet some of the other people who helped make this festival flourish this year; they'll be hanging out backstage. While we're there, we'll see who is about to play, and have quick chat with the band.
As the sun climbs high over head, the field and the woods get polka-dotted with small slipshod colonies composed of festival goers establishing their poly-cotton homes, trying to make the surrounding woods a simplification of where they came from. Hammocks get hung, tapestries drape over folding tables, trees and chairs act as acoustic guitar stands, and car stereos become speaker systems.
But none of this preparation is done in haste. There is nowhere to be (except for maybe the stage), and the people you're with are the people you need to see. As others congregate in the wood, circles of tents overlap like Venn diagrams, and what you have in the middle is what you have in common: You're all here at The Gathering at Chaffee's.
From the moment fireworks blast off, the streams of sparks lead our eyes towards the stars until the last ember burns out. And this is what Doug Chaffee first began using to gather people together. They are a sign of celebration, commemoration, and culture, all of which involve a gathering. In 1980, Doug lit the fuse on a tradition that was conceived around these colorful, crackling, combustible cartridges, and 33 years later it's still burning. "It revolved around fireworks and a party that started back in the '80s," Doug says, pinpointing the festival's birth.
At that time, Doug was living in Fairview; his backyard was adjacent to the 4th hole of the Kahkwa Club and coincidentally the club's Fourth of July launching pad. Around the time of Doug's high-school graduation, he was working as a groundskeeper there, where he would help set up the firework display while friends gathered at his house to watch the rockets spray colors into the sky.
For a decade Doug threw these annual Independence Day parties that revolved around close friends, cold beer, and some colorful explosions. Each year these gatherings grew in attendance in a gradual incline until the '90s when a transition from pyrotechnic entertainment to live musical entertainment occurred – along with a change to its present day location at 8296 Mill St. in Girard. And most importantly, the party went from private to public.
Unknowingly, Doug was feeding the flames for a festival that would later be named, "The Gathering at Chaffee's."
"For the first three years [in the '90s], we had one band for one night," he says. "[But] I continually lost my shirt on the thing because it was evolving from a private backyard party to an upper-scale starting-to-hire-bands-festival."
1994 was a milestone that distinguished the event as more than a party and more a local phenomenon. Word spread that summer, as more than 400 people turned up to the event. After replacing an unsteady stage built of bricks and pallets, Doug booked God Street Wine and Jake's Blues. In the '90s, God Street Wine was playing with Dave Matthews Band, Hootie and the Blowfish, and G. Love & Special Sauce, and Doug managed to book them for his stage. That year, for 10 bucks, you could see a local favorite in Jake's Blues and a huge national touring act, and you'd never have to see your cup run dry.
For the next three years the pace would be set. "We were going through 58 to 60 kegs of beer; Erie Beer said we set a record," he laughs. But while these gatherings were gaining momentum, Doug was still fueling the tank with money out of his own wallet.
1997 marked the first two-day gathering, but to patch the hole Doug had burned in his pocket, he changed the policy to a BYOB event, lest he be forced to discontinue not only his Fourth of July tradition, but also the highlight of hundreds of people's summers. But there were more than just financial troubles with the festival. Charging for The Gathering and eliminating its weaker elements could compensate for any loss in past years, but the emotional tolls on the horizon were more taxing. Between the land taking a beating with litter and vandalism, teenagers and tightwads sneaking in, fights occurring, and one devastatingly irresponsible parent who attended the festival, Doug had had enough.
But the summer of 1998 started strong. It was the year Chaffee's gathering became, "The Gathering at Chaffee's" dubbed this by a set of T-shirts designed by Dave Nieratko, owner of Grasshopper, sporting the more music-oriented title. But it was also the year Doug came to a fork in the road.
During the 18th year of "The Gathering at Chaffee's" an 18-month-old child was taken to the festival – not an uncommon occurrence, as Chaffee's is kid friendly – but the toddler had been abandoned. Doug was alerted of the situation and brought the neglected child into safety while others scouted the grounds for the mother. Hours went by with Doug and his family caring for the child while the mother was forgetfully taking to the land's festivities.
While Doug had always encouraged people to have a good time at his festivals, he had no issue getting the police involved when a person's safety was in danger. He phoned the State Police, and Child Protective Services followed suit. When the mother was finally found, she was too inebriated to take care of herself, let alone her child.
"I said, 'I can't do this anymore,'" Doug says, ready to let the tradition go. "I got parents who can't take care of their kids."
Devastated by the irresponsible mother, he was forced to make a decision: Stop the festival and this family-oriented tradition or let things proceed without changing this local legacy. When neither direction seemed like it could lead to a better place, Doug took it upon himself to pave his own path.
"The only way I could go on the next year is if we try to make money for some kind of child abuse organization," Doug said. The following summer of 1999, Doug starting raising money for the Children's Advocacy Center of Erie County, in order to continue these back-to-nature celebrations. Thinking a step beyond this singular problem and finding a solution to the greater issue put "The Gathering at Chaffee's" back on trail. But Doug wasn't out of the woods yet.
In 2000, his daughter Emma was diagnosed with Juvenile Diabetes. However, Doug has an incredible gift for parlaying tragedy into charity. "I didn't want to take away Child advocacy, so I just added to it," he says, as if there was no choice.
So in 2000 he started using The Gathering at Chaffee's to raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation as well. "It was never a venture to make money until the charities came about and then we started to say, 'Hey, let's do our best to try to make money for these [causes].'"
Since he started raising money for Children's Advocacy and JDRF, he's been able to donate over $10,000.
Aside from a mere three instances – one where police had to stop by the festival for kids sneaking in, another in which a drunkard got stuck in a swamp, and that neglectful mother – the last 32 years of Chaffee's has always been a good ride. Its intimate setting mixed with good people and a homey vibe has kept it running smoothly. Through the years, The Gathering at Chaffee's has shifted its weekend in July as to not overlap with other festivals such as Blue Heron or downtown Erie's Roar on the Shore. For the past three years it's occupied the last weekend in July. But now Doug and a few new co-pilots are changing directions.
"I always took a back seat to promoting because it was never in my mind to make money on this until we started with the charities."
Last summer, the crooked i – one of Erie's premiere downtown music venues – took a turn steering the promotional wheel of the festival, helping Doug reach a record breaking turnout, playing host to over a 1,000 people.
This year, Tracy Evans, general manager at the crooked i and booking agent for Rubber Tramp Live, and co-Rubber Tramp Live booking agent Ryan Bartosek have been working with Doug to take Chaffee's to a new level. "Ryan and I were like, 'Let's see if we can take this in a whole other direction and make it even better,'" Tracy says.
By handling the promotional end of the festival and taking on some of the booking responsibilities, Tracy and Ryan have given Doug some reprieve from the stress of organizing entertainment and promoting so that he can focus on getting the land ready for its 33rd year. Moreover, this year's online ticket sales have increased twofold. "To have them help me out has been a huge relief in the last two years," Doug says thankfully.
"This year," Tracy says, "I think we're going to see a big difference, just by online sales alone. It's pretty insane… I've seen ticket sales from Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and towns I don't even know where the heck they are."
The family environment Doug has cultivated in his festival seems to be contagious, spreading beyond our lakeside county. Not only are people coming in from neighboring cities to enjoy the party, but their lending a hand too.
"We are very fortunate to have friends in the entertainment industry that just want to help because they just want to," Tracy says. Grey Area Productions in Pittsburgh and Buffalo's Appalachian Jamwich Magazine has spread the word to the surrounding cities that Chaffee's should be on everyone's to-do list. "They never knew about Chaffee's, but they will," Tracy predicts. Between the old-school method of fliers and today's promotional standbys of Facebook and Twitter, the message has boundless reach.
This word of mouth is not only important for the charities but also for Erie. "I don't think there is enough in this area for people [in their 20s and 30s] to do besides just going to a bar on Friday and Saturday night," Tracy says openly, sitting in a small beam of light shining through the Rust Belt Lounge's windows at the crooked i. It could be argued that there are plenty of events in this city such as Block Parties, Celebrate Erie, and 8 Great Tuesdays, but the issue is not about quantity, it is about quality. "People don't want to go downtown and see Sha Na Na, in my opinion," she says, referring to the pompadour-donning, ducktail-hairdo sporting '50s rock 'n' roll act and one of this year's Celebrate Erie's headliners.
Whether you know the bands at The Gathering at Chaffee's or they're news to you, Doug, Tracy, and Ryan have worked hard to pick bands that match the festivals upbeat vibe and please even the harshest music critics.
"There is always a great line up, whether it's all known acts or acts you've never heard, it's always good," Ryan says.
Although the geographical distance between downtown Erie and Girard is only 16 miles, the atmosphere of a Block Party and Chaffee's are worlds apart. "You're still close to the city but you feel like you're in the middle of nowhere," Tracy points out. The forest has a bright pure smell rather than the dark exhaust of downtown traffic, there is room to spread out on Doug's land instead of being restrained by the width of a street, and there is an inexplicable element of beauty that blossoms during almost all independent music festivals that can't seem to flower in the city.
Leaving the city for a weekend means pulling away from the distraction of cell phones, the numbing banter of television, or the fatigue of desk work – if you're willing to leave it behind. What also separates the crowd of a downtown event and a festival in the country is the proximity to everyday disruption. At The Gathering there are no sports games being broadcasted from big screen TVs on bar side walls – the night sky is thick with stars; there are no Touch Tunes pop hits piping through tinny speakers – live bands from day to night fill the airwaves; there are no open Wi-Fi networks to Google, Facebook, or Snapchat – just real face-to-face interaction in a real gathering of people – young and old – that are embracing what is beyond their glowing rectangles.
The Gathering at Chaffee's has a come along way with its performers. To date, a lengthy list of local talent and national touring acts have played the Chaffee's stage such as Broccoli Samurai, Hot Buttered Rum, Ekoostik Hookah, and God Street Wine – just to name a few; and, they consider it an accomplishment and a milestone in the festival circuit. "Playing Chaffee's is a big deal. Getting that gig is definitely an honor," Ryan says, "It's one of the biggest events that happen around here so you get a lot of exposure."
This year's lineup fits the festival's spirit, pulling from Erie's finest as well as some national touring acts. Headlining this year are the jam rockers Cope, and the well-seasoned Buffalo band Aqueous, coming back for their third year at Chaffee's.
Cope churns out a smooth rock 'n' roll sound that mixes in with their jams, resulting in something that feels good on the ears and puts listeners in a good mood. Aqueous, on the other hand, has a tighter, darker appeal, bridging a sound between festival monsters Moe. and the intensity of Rage Against the Machine that often results in a dancing frenzy.
Mike Gantzar, guitarist and vocalist for Aqueous feels right at home at The Gathering, noting Doug's hospitality and support. "I think the best part about [The Gathering at Chaffee's] is it seems like a family," he says. From frequenting the crooked i's stage and playing Chaffee's the last two years, Aqueous has gained a substantial fan base in the area, along with some close friends "We've only been involved for a few years but there is a core group of people that are just so happy to see you, and we're so happy to see them that it almost feels like a homecoming."
The stage is always a magical platform whether it's inside or outside, big or small, in Erie or Girard. But the audience and the musicians have a much different view from where they're standing. When the crowd watches the band playing on stage and they're listening to the music, it comes to them in its entirety, like a finished painting, whereas the musicians, while performing, each hold a brush with a different color, with each hit of the drum, thump of the bass, and strum of the guitar representing a brush stroke. From a musician's perspective, there is nothing worse than walking off stage not knowing what you've painted. But at Chaffee's, no matter what side of the stage you're on, it's a good time. All performing bands can give their best shows because Doug has built a stage that can handle a weekend of almost non-stop music and has assembled a formidable crew to ensure things go off without a hitch.
"It's run really well, it's organized, everything is taken care of, there is nothing sketchy about it, they hire good sound guys, they accommodate you, and make you feel comfortable," Mike says about performance time and the overall weekend experience. "It's so organic and you can tell there is just no other intent than just to have a good time."
It seems every decade that The Gathering at Chaffee's persists, it also evolves from fireworks to music, from backyard party to a two-day festival. Now in its 33rd year, another transformation could be on the horizon. The land's capacity is 2,000 people, a number that Doug, Tracy, and Ryan would all like reach, and a number that could generate enough revenue to provide substantial funds to each charity, and take The Gathering at Chaffee's to a whole new place. "If we hit that 2,000 I can see changing the venue so we could still do it." Doug continues, "I would look forward to seeing that happen."
The intimate atmosphere of the festival is alluring, and can even be a selling point of The Gathering, but intimate doesn't necessarily mean small. "If it got bigger, and say [Doug] had to relocate, that's fine," Ryan says. "I still think because the 'Gathering' has existed for [over] 30 years, the intimate vibe is always going to be there."
Tracy adds to this communal vision: "I want to get it to where there are two or three stages going on, and grass as far as the eye can see."
In an area like Erie County, where the weather changes with the hours, and every outdoor event is a game of roulette, The Gathering at Chaffee's has built that into its appeal. "A lot of the people that have been coming over the years say, 'You can't have a gathering at Chaffee's without rain,'" Doug laughs. As the place gets muddier, the people get louder, the music carries on, and the dancing just gets dirtier.
The Gathering at Chaffee's begins July 26 and runs through July 27, and ticket prices and further information can be found at TheGatheringatChaffees.com. You can still get your "Not so Early Bird" tickets online or buy them when you arrive.
There are no buttons to push to turn the music on or off, no city lights to dull out the stars or the moon, and for a few days we can unplug. But this warm July weekend is also in support of something greater than a care free couple days; a portion of the proceeds goes to Children's Advocacy Center of Erie County and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
I watch people drift in and out of the forest and field, as if a gentle current directs them while the fire glows softly at our feet. Our circle gets bigger as passersby stop to say hello and invite us to the stage. The impulse to check the time has finally faded with the day, and a longing for time to stop all together has replaced it. And it may very well be through the haze of seasons past – a full year since I camped out on Doug's land - but I recall as I neared the stage, a crowd of people, everyone gathered in front of the music - shoulder to shoulder, seemingly close enough to be a family.
Matthew Flowers can be contacted at mFlowers@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @MFlowersER.