'It's a wonderful thing': Mahomet Music Festival brings community together for 'one last hoorah'

Two years ago, Jolene Sowers wanted to know what the Sangamon River Music Festival was all about, but the Tilton resident had no idea just how much that inquiry was about to mean to her.

"My husband (Todd Sowers) proposed to me here two years ago tomorrow," she said.

Now renamed the Mahomet Music Festival, the couple still "make it a point" to come back.

"It's just good, clean fun," Jolene Sowers said. "I think more communities should do stuff like this."

Initial estimates from the festival's committee reported Main Street crowds topping 3,000 Friday night with 7,000 to 8,000 in attendance on Saturday.

"Overall, we had our best attendance," village President Sean Widener said.

Drawing in the crowds were two nationally recognized country headliners, Mark Chesnutt, who performed Friday, and Rodney Atkins, who took the stage on Saturday.

"I just like all of the different music," said Vicki Howell, a Farmer City resident who was in attendance Saturday night awaiting Atkins' arrival. "We watched Mark Chesnutt last night, and now we're hoping Rodney Atkins is just as good and hoping it doesn't rain."

Despite the hovering gray clouds, the rain stayed away the majority of the festival, but weather variances provided a different vibe each evening of the festival.

"Yesterday, I had my jeans on and coat on and blanket on, and the tonight we're sweating," Howell said while laughing.

Christian band Carrollton performed Saturday morning.

"I love their work," Mahomet resident Petra Kroll said. "I was surprised at how long they went. That was a real treat. They just played hit after hit, and it was really good."

Six other local acts took the stage, including Mahomet's very own Onoliegh Pommier, who played with Jake Loban to bring a taste of Nashville to her hometown.

"I think this is really good," Howell added. "For one, it brings in the local acts. I've noticed most of the acts have been from Mahomet or the area and everybody gets a taste of different kinds of music."

But for Howell's grandson, Landon Howell, 7, of Mahomet, the six carnival rides, giant slide and bouncy house from Clay County Amusements were the highlight of the festival. His favorite?

"Riding the dragon!" Landon Howell said.

The Dragon Wagon, a small roller coaster, was also a hit for Mahomet resident Natalie Brand's two daughters, Hannah, 8, and Sarah, 5.

"They love it as you can see, they keep going on it," Brand said. "This is their third time riding it."

Eleven months ago, Brand and her family moved to Illinois from South Carolina. She was thrilled to participate in the Mahomet Moms Offering Moms Support's parade float Saturday morning.

"I think the whole thing is great," Natalie Brand said.

"Just being able to get out and be able to be with the community and have something for the kids to do — it's just really great," she said. "I think it just kind of brings us together. It's one last hoorah before summer is kind of done."

Fellow parade entrants Cora, 8, and Allison, 6, Howard of Mahomet danced their way through the parade route with the Shamrock Academy of Irish Dance.

"That was really fun to watch," said Liz Howard, the girls' mother, as she stood in line to watch the two go down the giant slide.

"The kids wanted to go on the carnival rides," she said. "I think probably the scrambler is their favorite one."

The youngest festival-goers couldn't get enough of the vehicle-themed merry-go-round filled with various vehicles.

"This is his third time on the ride," Mahomet's Mary Stech joked about her 3-year-old grandson, Wesley Bolger. "He rode the firetruck and a dune buggy and now a car."

Stech walked in the parade along with the Upper Sangamon River Conservancy, which held its eighth annual Duck Race fundraiser in conjunction with the village's Parks and Recreation Department.

"It's a wonderful thing," Stech said of the festival. "It brings in a lot of people. For the Upper Sangamon River Conservancy, it's a great way to get our voice out there about cleaning up the river and what our mission is all about, so from that perspective, we always look forward to it."

Near the main stage, the Mahomet Lions Club sold wristbands for alcohol purchases with the help of approximately 40 volunteers.

"The money we take in for the wristbands, we donate that back to the Mahomet Music Festival," club president Lisa Haynes said.

The remainder of the proceeds from beer sales go toward providing eyeglasses and hearing aids for those community members in need. The Mahomet Lions Club also donates funds to the Mahomet Area Youth Club, the Lions Club's camp for blind or deaf children, Helping Hands and the summer lunch program for low-income families.

"This is our major fundraiser for the year," Haynes said. "All of our profits from the Music Festival go back into the community. We have to buy the beer and the supplies, but all of the profits go back into the community.""Thank you to the all our volunteers and the community for supporting the Lion's Club," she added.

On the east side of the festival were more than 40 vendors. The Mahomet-Seymour Baseball Club encouraged attendees to throw their best fastball past a radar gun to try to tack their names to the day's board of fastest pitchers.

Blake Wolters and Nick Skillings stole the show, clocking in with an impressive 72 mph. The record-holder for the club's fastest speed is Notre Dame commit and Mahomet-Seymour graduate Brooks Coetzee, who hurled 84 mph last year.

The club uses the proceeds from the fundraiser to keep costs low for players.

"That's one of our goals," club organizer Jen Savener said. "We like to keep the club affordable for all of the players."

With this year only being the club's second year in attendance, Savener said the club is still "working the kinks out," but enjoys the camaraderie it brings for the players and the community.

"One of the best things is it really gets the club members involved," Savener added. "The boys love working it. It just brings a sense of community to the club."

Main Street business owner Erik Burgwald of Burgwald Eye Center didn't mind the hustle and bustle the weekend activities brought to his store.

The optometrist welcomed hundreds of festival-goers to his eye center, where he offered more than 600 cool treats during an ice cream social Saturday.

"It's just a way to expose people to the office," he said. "It's hot during the parade and everybody loves ice cream, even the older people."

The festival requires more than 70 volunteers and a great deal of effort made by village staff.

"Overall, we've heard a lot of positive feedback," Widener said.

"I want to thank village staff and public works," he added.

Festival chairman David Parsons is already hard at work planning next year's Aug. 23 and 24 festival.

"We literally started today," he joked. "My promoter and I spoke and we have to get something booked in the next three to four weeks. We spent a couple of hours talking about what direction we're going to go in. There's just no rest on this one."

But each year, the vigorous planning pays off tenfold.

"People don't see it, but it's a huge event, and it's been commented before that other people come to Mahomet to see how we do it and they repeat it in their communities," Widener added. "I hear it from other mayors and communities that they come and learn from us."

Parsons said the village's efforts put Mahomet on the map, and that was reason enough for his committee to see the need to change the name from the Sangamon River Music Festival to the Mahomet Music Festival this year.

"That's why we changed the name," he said. "It's Mahomet's festival. It's nice to put their name on it and promote Mahomet. You go back to the comments we're hearing from people out of town and they're just so impressed with this."

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