In the spring of this year, the sweet melodies of the fiddle accompanied by guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass and dobro will ring once more in the rolling hills of Union Grove. Fiddlers have so gathered to play traditional American string music and to compete for fiddling championships since 1924. 2019 will be the 96th consecutive year fiddlers have gathered in Union Grove for this purpose.
In the early 1920s, the community of Union Grove needed to raise local money to build a high school. H. P. Van Hoy was a teacher, community leader and a fiddle player. H. P., his wife Ada, his brother, J. W. Van Hoy, J. W.’s wife, Nettie, and some friends had formed a traditional string band. H. P. loved the music and conceived the idea of holding a fiddlers convention to raise money for Union Grove School. And so it came to be that the first Old Time Union Grove Fiddlers’ Convention was held at Union Grove School on the Saturday before Easter, 1924. Between 200 and 250 people attended the first convention to hear seven bands play, among them the Van Hoy Family string band which, in H. P.’s words, “really cut a shiny”.
By the 1950s the convention was attracting about 8,500 attendees and many bands annually. In the 1950s, J. Pierce Van Hoy, H. P.’s oldest son, became the primary organizer and promoter of the convention. Pierce was an exceptional promoter and he loved old time music. Recognizing the prestige of the Fiddlers Convention and the caliber of musicians who came to compete, Pierce proclaimed the Fiddlers Convention as the “World Championship” and it was widely accepted as such. By the 1960s, under Pierce’s able leadership, the Fiddlers’ Convention became an increasingly popular cultural event attracting people, fiddlers, and bands from not just the South but from all over the country. By the late 1960s attendees were estimated to reach nearly 100,000 attendees at the Union Grove School site and was world famous.
Due to large crowds and the culture of the late 1960s, the County School Board asked that the convention not be held on the school property so 1969 was the last convention at Union Grove School. In 1970 J. Pierce Van Hoy and Harper Van Hoy, H. P.’s middle son and fiddle player himself, decided to continue the tradition by each hosting their own fiddlers convention.
Pierce held the “World Championship Fiddlers’ Convention” at his farm beginning in 1970 and built the H. P. Van Hoy Memorial Coliseum during the middle 1970s. The Convention continued to attract more than 100,000 people annually and bands came from all over the United States until it ended in 1980.
Beginning in 1970, Harper and his wife, Wansie, hosted the Ole Time Fiddlers’ and Blue Grass Festival at the property known as “Fiddlers’ Grove” on Easter weekend. The date moved to Memorial Day weekend in 1974.
The Festival is a three day event. The program includes the certified Old Time Fiddler category, the Twin Fiddle category, and the Heritage Tune category. In addition to the fiddle competition, there is a band competition, the new “Hot Licks” competition, concerts, clogging exhibitions, “barn dances”, storytelling and children’s programs. The highlight of the Festival is the Fiddler of the Festival Playoff which is a competition among the fiddlers who won their respective individual categories for the prestigious “Fiddler of the Festival” award.
In 2000, The Ole Time Fiddlers’ and Blue Grass Festival at Fiddlers’ Grove was selected as a “Local Legacy” for the Library of Congress Bicentennial Celebration 2000 project. As H. P. Van Hoy used to say, fiddling in Union Grove is “as natural as saying grace at the table”. The tradition is now in its 96th year. May the tradition last another 100.
Submitted by Henry “Hank” Van Hoy