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Party like it's 1892 at the Panguitch Lake Heritage Arts Festival

PANGUITCH LAKE, Garfield County — Way down south, with a population of less than 1,500, there’s a little town called Panguitch. A 20-minute drive away, there’s Panguitch Lake. And on August 10-11, near the shores of this little lake 14 miles from this little town, will be the Panguitch Lake Heritage Arts Festival.

There will be live music, arts and crafts demonstrations (you can make a homemade candle!), storytelling, square dancing, a Dutch oven dinner — and that’s all just on the first day.

This is the festival’s fourth year and organizers expect it to be bigger than ever, in part because of a major change this year: moving the festival from the first part of September to the first part of August.

“In September, everybody’s back to school, (and we) just couldn’t get a decent audience,” said organizer Clive Romney.

Clive Romney, a key organizer of the festival, will not only perform as a musician but will also serve as the "game master," teaching and hosting several pioneer games the second day of the festival.
Clive Romney, a key organizer of the festival, will not only perform as a musician but will also serve as the "game master," teaching and hosting several pioneer games the second day of the festival.
Clive Romney

For those looking to escape the summer heat, Panguitch Lake is a welcome relief — sitting at an elevation above 8,000 feet, it’s liable to be about 20 degrees cooler than temperatures in Salt Lake or Utah counties.

The Panguitch Lake Heritage Arts Festival is about more than just cooling off. It’s about celebrating the community and history of the area.

According to Romney, from 1892-1895, Panguitch Lake served as “the center of entertainment in the Southwestern United States.” Thanks to the lake's cool summer temperatures and a horse racing track, locals, including those who worked in Washington County's Silver Reef Mines, flocked to the area during the summer months, where Romney said an opera house and nightly fish fries provided plenty of diversion. Fishing, too, has long brought people to the lake — "Panguitch" is a Paiute word meaning "big fish."

Panguitch Lake resident Arthur Clark has a long family history in the area. His grandfather was one of Panguitch's early settlers, and Clark's family has been in Panguitch and up at Panguitch Lake ever since.

"It's just a wonderful, wonderful area," Clark said. He's somewhat hesitant to gush, though, because he doesn't want too many people to settle in the small community.

Nino Reyos is a Native American performer who will appear at the Panguitch Lake Heritage Arts Festival this year.
Nino Reyos is a Native American performer who will appear at the Panguitch Lake Heritage Arts Festival this year.
Nino Reyos

Families, like Clark's, with deep connections to the area are in part what led Romney to change his career from what he refers to as "commercial music" to "heritage music." After learning about the history of his own grandfather, Romney decided to set about collecting other heritage stories from around Utah.

Once he gathers these local tales, he puts them to music — it helps him process them, he said.

A few years ago, Romney met Monte Bona, the executive director of the Mormon Pioneer National Heritage Area. Impressed by Romney's work, Bona recruited Romney to collect stories in Garfield County, including Panguitch and Panguitch Lake.

When he completed the album of stories from Garfield County and Panguitch Lake, Romney wanted to share them with a wider audience. Taking the album to the Garfield County tourism board, they suggested reviving the lake's 1890 festivities to promote the album of local stories and music.

Now in its fourth year, Panguitch Lake Heritage Arts Festival continues to grow and Romney still collects stories. But more than trying to recapture the glory of Panguitch Lake in its 1890s heyday, the Heritage Arts Festival aims to honor the people who made it glorious.

Panguitch Lake is the backdrop for the Panguitch Lake Heritage Arts Festival.
Panguitch Lake is the backdrop for the Panguitch Lake Heritage Arts Festival.
Lisa Badger

Stories of Panguitch Lake include that of Alice Syrett, who saved the town from a flood when the Hatch Town Dam broke in 1914. Using her skills as a switchboard operator, Syrett called and warned the townspeople up and down the valley to leave the area, manning her post until the flood took out the telephone lines. Not a single life was lost, and according to a record of Garfield County, her actions forced residents to reconsider negative opinions of the telephone service.

There's also the tale of longtime Panguitch resident Dianne Kelsey's grandmother, who was born while a visiting theater troupe was performing a play called “Hazel Kirk.” Her great-grandparents, inspired by the play, decided to name the baby girl Hazel Kirk. Kelsey's father's name was also Kirk.

These stories demonstrate a history of people who counted on one another, and that’s the type of community Panguitch Lake wants to represent during the weekend festival.

“As we understand whose shoulders we’re standing on and what they went through to create the world that we have inherited, we end up being more grateful, we end up being more knowledgeable, both about them and about ourselves, and more understanding,” Romney said. “And heaven knows the world needs more understanding today. … These stories engender that. We need it.”

If you go …

What: Panguitch Lake Heritage Arts Festival

When: Friday, Aug. 10, 4-9 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 11, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.

Where: 25 Highway 143, Panguitch, Garfield County

How much: Free, but donations during the Dutch oven dinner are welcomed

Web: panguitchlakefestival.com