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Scenes from the PawPaw fest on September 17, 2022, at Lake Snowden in Albany, Ohio.

Pawpaw Festival illuminates education, art, Ohio’s native fruit

The Athens Pawpaw festival, originally a small one-day event at the Albany fairgrounds, has grown in numbers and attractions over the past 24 years. 

Chris Chmiel, founder of the festival and Athens county commissioner, spends his whole year preparing for the weekend-long event. 

“For me, it's like climbing a mountain every year,” said Chmiel. “It’s just like the biggest part of my life, really. (It’s) kinda stressful but kinda worth the stress ultimately.”

One of the recent changes to the festival is a transition of fiscal agents. Chmiel said a new non-profit was created for the festival: the Native Foods Education Organization. The current goal of the organization is to keep the festival going; though, Chmiel said it could take on new projects in the future.

“Luckily we’re blessed with a really great team,” Chmiel said. “We’ve got people who have been with the festival for like fourteen years … I think we’ve got a really solid group.”

Over the years, more educational tents have emerged. This year, tents included subjects like heritage, sustainable living, Ohio County Fair, holistic health, pollinators and, of course, pawpaws. 

The pollinator tent included Wild Ones, a group with the aspiration to encourage environmentally-friendly landscaping, a plant nursery called Natives in Harmony and Kevin “KC” Clark, “the Caterpillar Guy,” 

Clark, wearing a black “Got moths?” t-shirt, held four green caterpillars dawdling in the palm of his hand. Clark said his interest in insects was born in 1969 when a neighbor showed him how to raise caterpillars.

“You have to have the right habitat, you have to have the right other insects,” said Clark. “Those caterpillars depend on ants, it’s a mutualistic relationship.”

Now, Clark brings caterpillars to different schools and groups to educate children about caterpillars, moths and butterflies. 

James Hunt, from Akron, Ohio, came to the Pawpaw Festival for his second year. Hunt and his family were encouraged to attend last year’s festival by their neighbors.  

“Clean facilities, great for the kids, slept well,” said Hunt. “Fresh air, nice activities for the kids inside, great music and we love the bubble guy."

Though Hunt and his family had only attended one Pawpaw Festival previously, and they were glad to return.  

“We haven’t had a vacation in like four years because of COVID,” said Hunt. “This is our only time off and we chose to do this.”

ARTS/West, a local Athens arts center, often attends Pawpaw Festival but this year, for the first time, they have something to sell. 

Carter Rice, program specialist at ARTS/West and self-identified tie-dye aficionado, united his love for tie-dye and his work at ARTS/West. With encouragement from his boss, Rice started selling clothes he tie-dyed, some with an ARTS/West print, at the Nelsonville Music Festival.

A new reclaiming aspect of the tie-dye is incorporating acid mine drainage into the dye. The process is similar to normal tie-dye, but with the addition of soda ash to brighten the colors. 

“All of the things that we're doing are Appalachian-based,” said Rice. “The items we have received from UpCycle are all from the region, the acid mine drainage is from Appalachia. And I would consider myself an Appalachian artist because I’m from West Virginia.” 

This year was Rice’s first Pawpaw Festival. At the Nelsonville Music Festival, Rice tried a pawpaw for the first time on a nature walk with TikTok’s “Black Forger,” Alexis Nikole Nelson. 

“Now that I’ve seen it, I probably will always return,” said Rice.


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