Motorists might gape occasionally at horse-drawn carriages in the tourist town of Frankenmuth, but when a Percheron named Janie began towing riders around nearby Vassar on Saturday, it made news.
Horses pulled carriages — carrying riders — for free, from 4 to 7 p.m. during Vassar’s first Holly Jolly Festival, “and there was a continuous line of people waiting for a ride, so that was cool,” said Betty Burley, director of the Vassar Chamber of Commerce and organizer of the fest. Burley estimated more than 600 visitors attended the festival that ran from noon to 7 p.m., including more than 250 children, each of whom received goody bags containing treats.
“I think it was a pretty good turnout for a first start,” Burley said. “I was excited just to see everyone come together and see the kids having a good time. It was a small town with a lot of Christmas spirit.”
Burley said Vassar – spiffed up by holiday light displays at various businesses and enlivened by the Holly Jolly Fest – has staged a “500 percent turnaround” from December of 2015, when city Councilman Dan Surgent labeled the city “so drab” when it came to holiday decorations.
Eighteen businesses participated Saturday in an “elf hunt” that challenged children to visit those stores and find a miniature stuffed elf somewhere at each business. Children then wrote the elf’s location – at each store – on an entry sheet. Kids then wrote their names on the sheets and returned them to festival organizers who drew names of winners of two bicycles and other gifts.
Some businesses offered special prices or special products – sometimes for free – while others hosted activities for children. Vassar True Value Hardware set up an activity allowing children to make seven-piece metal “snowmen” from nuts, bolts and washers.
Balloon artists at 1Life Fitness provided free holiday-themed balloons. The first 300 visitors to Sam & Ruby’s The Corner Deli/Café received free hot chocolate courtesy of Frankenmuth Credit Union, with children receiving free hats made of whimsical cloth antlers. The low cost of the festival appealed to many visitors, Burley said.
“Some people may not drive; some people don’t leave Vassar,” Burley said. “It was just nice to bring a little bit of a Christmas festival to our town.”
Burley said one visitor remarked that “it’s really nice just to be able to bring my family out here and not have to spend an arm and a leg.”
Vassar Public Schools students played their part, with some dressing as elves and others playing music or singing Christmas carols for the crowd at Veteran Plaza along East Huron Avenue (M-15). Sally Hagadorn of Vassar brought her grandson, 15-year-old Kaydin Hagadorn of Saginaw County’s Carrollton Township, and showed him a memorial brick – one of dozens set in the ground at Veteran Plaza – in memory of Sally Hagadorn’s parents, the late Mac and Nancy Stacer.
Rich Higley of Vassar and his wife, Dani, brought their daughter, Lexi, 2, and their nieces, 9-year-old Kylie Periso and 7-year-old Starr Periso, both of Vassar, to the festival.
“The art class came from the Vassar schools and painted the (business) windows, the city of Vassar put up decorations and I think it was the true meaning of the Christmas spirit here, because everybody was pulling together and making it happen,” Burley said.
While 18 businesses greeted customers on the “elf hunt,” another 15 businesses or organizations made donations to help sponsor the festival, which follows on the heels of the inaugural Fall Harvest Festival that drew hundreds of visitors to downtown Vassar.
“We’re adding more businesses each time that we do stuff,” Burley said.
Tom Gilchrist is a reporter for The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org