It’s utterly tasty and delicious.
It’s steeped in tradition.
It possesses the power to bring people together.
Bologna is Lebanon.
But do you know what else Lebanon bologna is? It’s universal and timeless and resilient.
It’s hard to keep a good bologna down.
Last month, the Lebanon Bologna Fest and Winter Carnival was cancelled due to concerns related to the COVID-19 crisis. But the organizers of the popular local event, the Lebanon Rotary Club, recently vowed to continue staging it after the pandemic relents, hopefully in 2022.
“We in Lebanon, we’re proud people,” said Patrick Freer, a Lebanon Rotarian and the chairman of the Bologna Fest committee. “But we sometimes live in the shadow of Hershey and Lancaster. Bologna is a product that’s delicious and well-known, and it’s sold all over the country. We’ve got something special here. We should celebrate it. We should have an event.
“We felt that given the [COVID-19] restrictions for gatherings, we would exceed that amount,” added Freer. “There are a lot of hands-on restrictions. It was obvious when we started our typical planning in the summer. In July, we felt pretty good. But when the planning started heating up in September and October, we knew there was a good chance it wasn’t going to happen.”
Traditionally, the Lebanon Rotary Club’s Lebanon Bologna Fest and Winter Carnival was scheduled for the fourth Saturday in January and conducted at the Lebanon Valley Exposition Center and Fairgrounds at 80 Rocherty Road. This year’s 10th edition of the event had been slated for Jan. 23, 2021.
Now, the next Lebanon Bologna Fest and Winter Carnival will be staged at the Lebanon Expo Center on Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022.
“We considered a virtual event that could provide some entertainment,” said Freer. “But the technological expertise required to do it in a condensed way seemed challenging to us. It would’ve required condensing a one-day event into an hour, and we didn’t think we could pull it off. We were fully prepared to do a physical event.
“The impact of COVID-19 on the local economy is going to be long-lasting,” Freer added. “The Bologna Fest doesn’t keep us alive as an organization. We don’t rely on the Bologna Fest to exist. But it does make it difficult for us to give back to the community. It makes it more difficult to keep our organization together. The great thing about the Bologna Fest is that it brought the club together. Then after everything was done, we could have an awesome impact on a local organization.”
Over the past decade, the Lebanon Bologna Fest and Winter Carnival has certainly lived up to its billing. Staged in a festive atmosphere in the midst of a Pennsylvania winter, to celebrate Lebanon’s claim to fame, the event has consistently drawn more than 2,000 visitors.
The Lebanon Bologna Fest and Winter Carnival has featured food, music, family-oriented entertainment and games. Along with displays from two of the county’s remaining Lebanon bologna producers – Seltzer’s and Godshall’s Meats – the event has also included a Lebanon bologna eating contest, a cornhole competition, beer and wine tasting and performances by local dance and karate studios.
“It’s like a church festival you would go to in the summer time,” said Freer, a 43-year-old resident of West Cornwall Township. “But we focused the food on bologna. There are games. There’s entertainment. There are a lot of people meeting there. I think people love the atmosphere. There’s nothing really going on in the winter, and we tried not to compete with other [summer] festivals.
“My favorite part is the bologna-eating contest,” continued Freer. “We’re proud of [the overall event]. We really want to showcase Lebanon bologna. I also like that feeling right before we open the doors at 10 a.m., after we have spent six months getting ready for it, just seeing all the hard work come together.”
The Lebanon Bologna Fest and Winter Carnival is the local Rotary Club’s biggest annual fundraiser, and in the past, proceeds from the event have gone to local non-profits like Lebanon County Christian Ministries, the Lebanon County library system, the Lebanon Valley Family YMCA and Developmental and Disability Services of Lebanon Valley. But Freer estimated that through sponsorships, vendors and a $4 entrance free, some $100,000 a year has been injected into the local economy.
“The Rotary has been around a long time,” said Freer. “The Rotary is committed to the community, and as a volunteer organization it made sense to push the pause button for a year. When it becomes safe for gatherings again, we will be right back with the Bologna Fest. There are many people involved who make it happen.
“The first year we planned it, there was a day around Thanksgiving when the committee met at Mel’s Diner,” Freer continued. “There were some people on the committee who said, ‘We can’t do this.’ It used to be a two-day event, and that Friday of the event, it started snowing. At first, there weren’t many people there and then it started getting fuller. We just looked at each other and said, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’ Since then, the crowds have remained fairly steady.”
The local community has certainly embraced the leap of faith that the Lebanon Rotary Club took in 2011. Freer sold the idea of the Bologna Fest to the organization, after being inspired by a speaker at a training session for Rotary presidents in Philadelphia.
“One of the things he said was that the Rotary has gotten lost in the community,” said Freer. “We did so much in the community, but it was a little here and a little there, nothing big. That was the inspiration. [The Bologna Fest] was a way to change the direction, and have fun doing it. As an organization, we had the ability and talents to pull it off. We thought, ‘Let’s see if we can get some sponsors to step up’.
“Over the years, the general layout has stayed the same – an indoor carnival with entertainment,” added Freer. “Four or five years ago, we added a beer festival component, and we added a cornhole tournament. Things have gone well, and we’ve been tinkering with some other stuff.”
That is until this COVID-19 pandemic reared its ugly head. But the coronavirus is no match for the Lebanon Rotary Club’s commitment to the community.
“I’m optimistic for our community, that our economy will recover and that people will be wanting to support things,” said Freer. “However people may want to find entertainment, the challenge of the Bologna Fest is that it’s indoors. Next year, the spread of the virus may still be strong in people’s minds. It may be a reason to move it to the summer time, as an outdoor event. We’re doing this in the middle of the flu season.”
In that sense, the smoked meat may just be a ‘cure-all.’
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