LOOKING BACK: Aqua Festival was a Seneca Falls happening (2024)

“Have a ball, have a ball, have a ball in Seneca Falls. The annual Aqua Festival starts soon. Big parades with marching bands, majorettes that look so grand. Fireworks! And toy balloons! Dancing underneath the stars at the Aqua ball. The aquacade, fall pageant, and the races, see them all!”

If you lived in Seneca Falls in the 1960s and ’70s, this jingle may be familiar to you, as it played each summer on radio stations to announce the upcoming Aqua Festival. This three-day festival had it all — from a massive parade to a tremendous floating aquacade. It is estimated that in the first two years, about 60,000 to 75,000 people attended the events here in Seneca Falls.

But what was the Aqua Festival and how did it bring so many people in the community together?

Well, as all significant events normally do, the Aqua Festival started with half a dozen meetings. In 1960, the Seneca Falls Chamber of Commerce wanted to develop an event that would draw people to the Town of Seneca Falls. A committee was established to brainstorm and, after nearly six months of meeting, the idea of a summer event revolving around the waterways was born.

The waterways here in Seneca Falls have always played a large role in our history. It was a way that people progressed to this area and moved products to and from the Finger Lakes region before the popularization of railroads. Seneca Falls industries used the water as a power source, many of them relying on massive waterwheels to operate their machines. It was how many activist and political movements — like abolition, women’s rights and temperance — moved to different parts of the country. Plus, the townspeople of Seneca Falls habitually used the water as a source of recreation. People would fish from the canal and lake, and some would go on boat rides, ski, and even canoe in the water.

For those very reasons, the Seneca Falls Chamber of Commerce decided on a summer festival surrounding the canal. It was an event that grew from a small idea to a massive festival within only half a year.

The committee had three goals. First, it wanted an annual event that could be done by the town. Next, it wanted to expose tourists to the canal and its history. Then, of course, the committee hoped to make the aqua festival into a fundraising event for the town.

One problem the festival committee initially faced was funding. To bankroll an event like this, the committee attempted to ask some of the local banks for a loan. It was rejected by most, but a promise was made by one local banker that made this event possible. He said that if the committee could return with $2,000 worth of bank notes signed by local businesses, he would approve the loan. The committee easily obtained those signatures, allowing it to secure the money it needed. It would take the committee two years instead of one to repay this loan, but on the weekend of Aug. 11, 1961, the first annual Aqua Festival took place in Seneca Falls.

Activities galore

The Aqua Festival was 3-4 days of numerous family-friendly activities and events. The streets would be so congested that it would be nearly impossible to get through town. This was especially true on the Ovid Street bridge, where crowds would gather to watch the water festivities.

There was always a large street parade through town during the Aqua Festival featuring marching bands, floats, antique fire engines, equestrian riders and classic cars. A grand marshal of the festival, along with the Aqua Queen candidates, would always lead the parade. Rod Serling himself even participated one year as grand marshal. Later in the festival’s history, this parade became so popular that it was nearly two hours long and included band competitions. A massive fireworks display was normally done along Van Cleef Lake that included both air and ground shows. These shows were always an hour long, lighting up the night skies with booms and flashes of color.

Aqua Festival weekends would additionally include a large fair, amusem*nt rides, refreshment stands, pony rides and a large Ferris wheel along the canal off Water Street. There was even a fishing challenge downtown, where a deep tank was filled with different-sized fish. If you reeled in the largest fish, you would be awarded $100. Boat races to Van Cleef Lake, as well as speed boat shows, were prevalent too. Ski clubs from around New York State would come to the festival to participate in the waterway.

The beauty pageant and aqua ball both also were big parts of the festival experience. All 600 seats would be sold out at Mynderse Academy as local girls competed to be the Aqua Queen. One night during the festival, a stage would be set up to host the Aqua Ball, which normally featured large bands and the crowning of the Aqua Queen.

The most significant event by far was the Aquacade. Hosted by numerous businesses in town, the festival committee would release a theme a few days beforehand for businesses and organizations to create these massive displays. The floats would start near the Veterans Memorial bridge, go down to Van Cleef Lake and then back — that way, everyone could see both sides of the floats. These floats were later judged for a variety of categories, including most beautiful, best-depicted theme, best originality, and exceptional merit for both constructed floats and cabin cruisers in the parade.

In 1962, there was a massive fire during one of these aquacades. The Seneca Falls Jaycees float, which featured a smoking space shuttle, caught fire and caused the evacuation of the float. No one was seriously injured, only having to take an unexpected swim in the canal. The incident caused quite a scare for the spectators, as well as for those who were aboard the flaming vessel.

Did you know that Walt Disney Studios even endorsed the Aqua Festival one year? In 1967, the festival theme was a tribute to Mr. Walt Disney himself, who had died the previous year. The festival chairman received a letter from the studio, expressing its appreciation toward the tribute and wishing everyone a happy Aqua Festival weekend.

If this festival was such a massive success, then why did it last only 10 years? It seemed too big to fail, but unfortunately, that is what snuffed it out. The running of a notable festival like this, the yearly planning and the time it took to lay the groundwork, caused burnout among many of the committee members. This, along with a lack of replacement volunteers to help, led to the festival’s final run in 1971, 10 years after its debut.

In recent years, however, we’ve seen a rebirth of the Aqua Festival through our local Canal Festival hosted by the Seneca Falls Business Association. Canal Fest, with its duck race and carnival, is a modern reminder of the extraordinary parades, fireworks and aquacade that once played a significant role in this town each summer during the 1960s and early ’70s. A reminder of the great Seneca Falls Aqua Festival!

“See the Aqua Festival, you’ll have a lot of fun. In Seneca Falls, there’s fun for everyone!”

Daisy Nicosia is the archivist, curator and researcher at the Seneca Falls Historical Society.

LOOKING BACK: Aqua Festival was a Seneca Falls happening (2024)
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