Joe Pye Festival is fun, festive, still growing | TribLIVE.com
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(Front, from left) Bill Godfrey, Billy Rich and Helen Strzesieski. (Back, from left) Mary Jane Zdila, Dan and Tom Branas, Pat Babinsack and Linda Gaydosik join each other in anticipation of the Joe Pye Music Festival at the Natrona playground ampitheater on Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014.

Usually, weeds are something to be avoided.

But organizers of the Joe Pye Festival in Natrona hope crowds will come together to celebrate one particular weed: the Joe Pye.

The perennial plant produces large, puffy flower heads, providing a nectar source for honeybees, monarch and swallowtail butterflies seeking crucial nectar for pollination.

The weed inspired the name of the annual fall music festival, now in its 10th year, sponsored by the Climate Reality Project and the Natrona Comes Together Association. This year’s festival will be Sept. 14 at the Natrona amphitheater and playground.

Gretchen Schmitt of New Kensington founded and coordinates the ecologically friendly event.

“I want our youth to learn all they can about their environment and what is around them,” Schmitt says. “This festival showcases all things related to ecology in a fun, festive setting.”

The day will include music performances, harvest venues, Pennsylvania produce and ecologically inspired booths, craft tables and beekeeping demonstrations.

“Bring your lawn chairs and a picnic basket for some fun along the Allegheny River,” Schmitt says. “We will have limited hot dogs and baked goods for sale, but we are encouraging everyone to pack a picnic lunch.

“September is National Honey Bee Month, and the Joe Pye weed and honeybees rely on each other for successful pollination and honey production, so I wanted to offer my beekeeping knowledge with demonstrations,” Schmitt says. “Pennsylvania has witnessed an 80 percent loss of the honeybee population this past year alone.”

The festival was created by Schmitt after her five brothers complained she was always involved in work that was for “girls” (for example, she directed a past Pittsburgh Victorian Gibson Girls event).

“I wanted to incorporate my love of country, bees, and the environment and provide something for all,” Schmitt says.

The music will kick off at 11 a.m. with Tom Branas and Turn on the Mic Entertainment, which showcases an Elvis impersonator, country and doo wop.

“I’m 73 and still putting on that Elvis suit,” says Branas, who, alongside his brother Dan, have performed for more than 20 years. “The crowd always enjoys Elvis songs.”

Dan Branas was raised on a family dairy farm in Portage. “I would sing on the tractor while doing field work,” Dan says. “My neighbors half a mile away could hear me. I’ve been performing since the ’70s.”

Onstage at 2 p.m. will be the Roy Rubin Showcase Band, showcasing the fiddling and singing talents of Fiddlin’ Billy Rich, John Evans, Tony Barge and Roy Rubin.

Barge of Ellwood City will perform classic country. He has performed with Brad Paisley and Merle Haggard. His performances have included venues in Las Vegas and Nashville.

Rich is a well-known fiddle player. “I’ve been playing since I was 5,” says Rich, who will be traveling from Wheeling, WVa., to perform. He’s performed with Tammy Wynette, Bill Anderson, Freddie Hart and Buck Owens.

“All of our musicians and entertainers are volunteers, here to help Natrona celebrate,” Schmitt says.

Attendees are encouraged to participate in the Green Ecology Chair Contest. Participants decorate a chair with an ecological theme, with go-green ideas based around solar/wind energy, green gardens, Save the Earth, renewables.

“You can really be creative,” Schmitt says.

Chairs will be displayed on the stage and sold during the event, with prizes awarded.

Schmitt also will conduct a climate-change seminar from 10 to 11 a.m.

“I will be speaking on the global climate crisis,” Schmitt says. “My program addresses global warming and the impact of carbon pollution and climate change.”

Joyce Hanz is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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