Ligonier bounces back with region's largest farmer's market, return of Fort Days

Jul. 10—More than a year after the pandemic closed summer festivals far and near, Ligonier is enjoying a comeback unlike any other.

The town's resurgence is fueled in part by the one festival market that continued to operate last summer — the Ligonier Country Market — and the news that its annual fall festival, Fort Ligonier Days is coming back in October.

The Market, located in a field in Ligonier Township at the edge of town, is the second largest farmer's market in the state and the largest in Western Pennsylvania. Every Saturday from May through September it hosts about 130 vendors who offer everything from grass fed beef and organic fruits and vegetables to plants, cut flowers, wine, cider, distilled spirits, artisanal cheeses to jewelry, local honey, baked goods and various crafts. Hours are from 8 a.m. through noon.

The outdoor market was able to remain in operation last year during covid-19 pandemic restrictions because of its original classification as a grocery store — an essential business.

The 46-year-old market has evolved from a farmer's market featuring just 12 local farmers to its current incarnation as a vast outdoor festival market.

Looking for a wedding present, a baby gift or the makings of a romantic evening?

The Market can fill the bill.

Its mission remains educating the public about the many roles agriculture plays in the community. It has regular children's programs focused around that mission.

Make it, bake it, or grow it

But for many, it is the variety of local goods that meet the Market's vendor criteria: make it, bake it or grow it.

Latrobe residents Katie Smeltzer and her 22-month old daughter, Abigail, took advantage of the warm weather and sunshine Saturday to sneak off to the market to check out the sweet corn and array of vegetables at the Yarnick's Farm stand near the market entrance.

"We love the flowers, fresh fruits and vegetables," Smeltzer said, while Abigail peeked shyly from behind a bouquet in her stroller.

Helen and John Buchko, of Sutersville, regulars at the market for five years, waited patiently in the long line snaking toward Gahagan's Flowers. Customers routinely wait in line 30 minutes to an hour to buy massive, made-to-order fresh cut bouquets at the market stand.

Already juggling their purchases of wine, cider, mushrooms, cheese and popcorn, the Buchkos said they've made the market a regular part of their summertime Saturdays.

"The variety they have here is amazing," Helen Buchko said.

"We were able to remain open last year because, first and foremost, we were a grocery store," said Ligonier Country Market Executive Director Cari Ann Frei.

Although shoppers were asked to wear masks and social distance last year, the outdoor market place thrived, attracting thousands of first-time shoppers drawn by the opportunity to get outside and experience something new during the pandemic.

Frei said they've come back in greater numbers than ever this year.

Volunteers and local police direct traffic. Parking is free, but those who attend the market are then routed through an exit that takes them around the local school and into Ligonier proper.

The Westmoreland County borough of 1,500 that dates back to the mid-1700s offers a distinctive town square — the Diamond — surrounded by an array of unique shops and eateries.

Local merchants said they can see the spillover from the crowds.

Kathy Brown, a longtime clerk at "The Finishing Touch," a gift shop just off the Diamond, said she loves to work Saturdays when the Market is in session.

"We get traffic from the market and I get to meet so many different people who come from there," she said.

Across the Diamond, Black Bunny Boutique owner Stephany Frede, likewise has seen the changes a year has brought. Most of them have been good.

Frede said she sees the impact of the Country Market when it sponsors its Night Market, a new event centered in town. Stores in Ligonier stay open for the event that is limited to food and drink vendors, the third Thursday of every month from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

And when Frede tried to find overnight accommodations nearby for a friend's visit, she quickly found that every Airbnb as well as local Bed and Breakfast spot in the region is booked solid through fall.

Dianne Stewart, who operates Abigail's Coffeehouse on the Diamond, likewise is seeing a strong return to normal.

"Business is better than ever right now," she said, as customers noshed on her homemade baked goods and specialty coffees as the clock ticked toward noon and the Country Market began to close shop.

Ligonier Days: They're back

Although the Country Market remained open last year, Ligonier suffered a blow when officials were forced to cancel Fort Ligonier Days. The annual three-day fall festival features live music, scores of crafters and food booths and one of the state's largest parades. It routinely draws tens of thousands of people to the small town.

The reconstructed fort and museum at the edge of town are once again open for visitors and Fort Days, which celebrates the 1758 frontier fort the British built during the French and Indian War, also will be back this year.

Jack McDowell, who chairs the Fort Days Committee, said the festival is scheduled for Oct. 8-10.

The festival, which typically features about 200 crafters scattered across five locations in town as well as several dozen food booths, evening music and fireworks, will be scaled back slightly this year, McDowell said.

He said the committee works to get a distinctive mix of crafters. But some of their regular vendors simply folded up shop last year after they had no outlets for their work.

The committee had cancelled the fireworks show that is typically the culmination of the event as well as live music on Saturday night.

And while the parade usually features a showcase college marching band, McDowell said all of the schools he's reached out to have told him they aren't ready to travel yet this fall.

Nonetheless, he said the parade organizers have lined up "some very good units."

He promised Fort Ligonier Days will uphold the traditions that have made it among the top 100 ranked U.S. festivals.

"We do firmly believe we have one of the best small town festivals in America," McDowell said. "It's unique. From the types of crafts and foods we bring to town to our parade. Our parade is really one of the few in the country that does not permit politicians and fire companies. We do allow the Ligonier VFD to play a role. They get to go down the parade route to man the booth to raise funds, but that's it."

"Fort Days 2021 will be special because it's happening," McDowell said.

Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, or via Twitter .