The West Side Nut Club Fall Festival started out almost 100 years ago as a simple Halloween Party.
A handful of local businessmen decided in 1921 to form an organization to promote and support the city’s West Side businesses, so they held a masquerade street party on Halloween night.
That first festival drew 25,000 people, according to Nut Club Historian Dick Barchet, and cost club members just $340.
“People wore masks, and several of the restaurants and taverns on Franklin stayed open late,” says Barchet, a 44-year member. “It was just a one-night Halloween carnival.”
The Nut Clubbers, as they are often called, continued to add to the festival each year, but it wasn’t until 1940, when rides were added (a ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, and mini autos) that they finally made money, clearing just $300.
Nut Club also added things like agricultural exhibits, parades, even street dances to the event, and in 1942, a U.S. Navy recruiting station was placed at the First Federal Bank.
The festivals were halted during the war years, but when it returned in 1946, coordinators decided to extend it to its current week-long format. The next year, during its silver anniversary, Doris Buckman was crowned as the first Fall Festival queen, and it made a record-breaking profit of $500.
Over the years, the Nut Club continued to add food booths, and the first corn dog, Barchet believes, was sold in 1952 at 11th and Franklin by parishioners of Howell Baptist Church.
After that, the festival started to grow rapidly, and more and more nonprofit organizations looked to get involved. Nut Club members added the amateur hour in 1950, and more rides were added in 1958. By 1971, the festival was generating $20,000 in profits.
Today, the festival boasts nearly 140 food booths and an extensive offering of carnival rides. They’ve also added different classes (senior and college-aged) to its popular amateur hours, and estimates are that it draws between 80,000 and 100,000 visitors each year.
“It’s full almost every night,” says Barchet. “There are so many people now that it’s hard to estimate exactly how many.
“But with all of the nonprofit groups that have booths, people come down to patronize them. The younger people love the carnival rides. Those are the big draws.”
In 1990, the Nut Clubbers added their favorite festival event, Kids Day, which is always on Tuesday. Disabled children, Barchet says, are brought down to Franklin Street, and members of the organization spend the morning giving them free rides at the carnival and helping them play games. Kids Day, Barchet says, now draws more than 400 youngsters.
“That first year, it was a tear-jerker for all of us,” he says. “But today it makes us all so happy to see those kids have fun. If there are tears, they’re happy tears.”
Barchet says the Fall Festival now brings in about $250,000 for the organization, money that is divvied out to local schools, mainly those on the West Side. The Nut Clubbers — there are now more than 300 of them — give away grants and scholarships to students at the University of Southern Indiana as well.
They also donate each year to Wish Upon a Star, the Evansville Boys and Girls Club, and even Mesker Park Zoo. They’ve also bought new equipment for playgrounds on the West Side.
“Our mission is and always has been to enhance the West Side,” says Barchet. “That’s what our festivals are for, to bring people to that part of the city and show them all it has to offer.”
For more information about the West Side Nut Club, call 812-424-4881 or visit nutclubfallfestival.com.