Corn Island Storytelling Festival Returns
“I’ve been a storyteller all my life. I suppose because I grew up on the front porch of my grandmother’s country grocery store,” says Bob Thompson or Colonel Bob as he’s known. “Front porch in the summertime around the pot-belly stove in the wintertime” is where Bob’s grandfather told stories.
“I was always pretty good at public speaking,” he says.
Thompson got an engineering degree at the University of Kentucky and immediately went to work explaining engineering and speaking at big corporations. Thompson, author, storyteller and arts producer, spins stories from the front porches of Americana on 91.1 FM Radio and online for Louisville Saturday Mornings at 8 A.M.
In 1985, Thompson and his wife moved here to Louisville. Lee Pennington was one of the professors at Jefferson Community College, Lee still lives in Middletown. According to Thompson, Pennington was involved in the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, TN in the beginning. “Lee wanted a storytelling festival in Louisville and started it the next year,” Thompson says.
Pennington and his wife, Joy started the International Order of E.A.R.S. in 1984. The International Order of E.A.R.S., Incorporated referred to as EARS, was a membership organization. It started “around the time the mini-series ROOTS had come out,” says Bob, it was “resurgence in interest in the spoken word, oral history.”
The purpose of EARS, according to the by-laws written by Lee and Joy, “shall be to support and encourage the preservation and perpetuation of the age-old art of storytelling, to provide for the preservation and perpetuation of stories, tall tales, legends and yarns that might otherwise fall into oblivion, to provide an opportunity for the storyteller and the storytelling enthusiast to gather together for the purposes as deemed necessary and appropriate.”
Thompson became involved in the organization after Lee and Joy recruited him through Jefferson Community College. In 2002 or 2003 Lee and Joy had done the Corn Island Storytelling Festival for 20 years and decided they wanted to give it up for retirement.
They both thought Thompson could be the technical director since he was an engineer. He was on the board of directors.
The Corn Island StoryTelling Festival started at the downtown campus, then the southwest campus.
“The first year there were 215 storytellers and about eight to 10 listeners” Thompson says. “We had it at the Water Tower. The ghost stories started getting big. It was a two-day event, big tents, 10 or 12 storytellers. We also had it at Tom Sawyer Park.”
According to Thompson, the concept was the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough.
The Corn Island Storytelling Festival runs both Friday and Saturday. About 1,000 school kids would be bused in on Fridays.
“People wanted ghost stories,” Thompson says. “My own theory is most people haven’t seen a ghost but if they ever want to they want to hear someone who has seen a ghost so they know how to conduct themselves.” Typically on Friday and Saturday about 500 to 600 people (outside of the 1,000 school kids) would come to hear stories and about three to 5,000 people would come for the ghost stories, “the most we ever had was about 8,000” at Long Run Par, Thompson adds.
“We found Long Run Cemetery,” Thompson says.
Long Run Cemetery is where Abraham Lincoln’s grandfather was buried.
“It was overgrown, nobody knew it was there,” he adds. Lee figured out the history.”
Over two back to back Saturdays the organization got around 50 volunteers out there and cleaned a lot of it up.
“We cleaned it all out and got permission to have our ghost stories out there,” Thompson says. “We had the place packed, traffic was out Long Run Road.”
The storytelling festival was out there for two to three years according to Thompson.
“It got to be so popular we started having an environmental impact so we started having issues having the show there,” he says.
The storytelling festival went over to Long Run Park and had it there for 5-7 years.
“One year we had it at Locust Grove in the beginning,” Thompson says.
When the festival first started, the third or fourth weekend in September and October were the driest months in Kentucky, so Thompson thought that would be a good time.
“Other people started figuring it out too. The Jeffersontown Gaslight Festival came along, and we started having too much competition,” he says.
That’s when Thompson says he decided to take a break and thought that the festival was starting to get away from the roots of storytelling.
“Storytelling is looking at each other in the eyes, getting the body movements and the vibe,” he says. “It’s a universal thing. Storytelling at its best is a few people getting together, sharing their stories, any steps you take away from that, putting someone on the stage, putting lights on them, putting lights on the audience, it detracts from that. Having 5,000 people becomes more of a Woodstock atmosphere than interpersonal storytelling.”
In the 2008 to 2010 era, Thompson still wrote grants for Jefferson County Schools because he had a heart for storytelling in schools, especially for kids in schools who might not have the resources or alternative programming.
“We went to Boys and Girls Haven, St. Joseph’s and put storytellers in there,” he says.
About that time, John Gage with the radio show Kentucky Homefront 91.1 Saturday mornings at 8 o’clock had taken a similar break. Thompson and Gage had been friends for a long time. Gage had about a 10-year run and three or four years that he didn’t do shows. He was coming back and Thompson and Gage decided to merge the organizations and the two entities would be under the International Order of E.A.R.S. and Gage would produce the show. Thompson would be the storyteller.
“It’s an hour format, local musicians the first 30 minutes,” Thompson says. “I got to be a professional storyteller. I do storytelling festivals around the region, Mississippi, this area, Illinois, Western Kentucky.”
Thompson increasingly became a writer and would tell his stories on the radio show,
“That’s been going on for 15 years now, long time on WFPK,” he adds.
The University of Louisville’s Marketing Director had gone to the Corn Island Storytelling Festival as a kid and he said he’d like to do something like that again on U of L’s campus.
“That was when I was waiting to get a sponsor,” Thompson says. “I was looking for a partner and U of L came along. We had a couple of rainouts in 2007-2008, we used to say we went 20-25 years without a single rainout. The next year 911 happened and the crowd had gone down and the cash flow didn’t cover the cost of the festival for a couple of years.”
That was one reason Thompson decided not to continue to do the festival. One year after the call from U of L Bob got a call from Blackacre Conservancy’s Executive Director, Dale Josey to have Corn Island StoryTelling out there.
That’s when Thompson and Josey got together to expand to Blackacre.
“I’ve had three grandchildren and written two books,” Thompson says. “Both books have been published by the University Press of Kentucky (UPK), a scholarly publisher for the Commonwealth of Kentucky. I did so well I was asked to do another book and it will be out in the fall. I’ve also backlogged a couple hundred original stories.”
“It’s amazing the people that Bob has attracted,” Josey says.
Storytellers Bobby Norfolk, Roberta Brown, Bob Thompson, Them Calloway’s, and Jamie Eller will all be at the Corn Island Storytelling Festival this year. Bobby is an internationally known story performer and teaching artist, three-time Emmy Award winner, one of the most popular and dynamic story-educators in America today. Roberta, The Queen of Cold-Blooded Tales, has been a part of Corn Island Storytelling for more than 30 years. Thompson is the Chairman of the International Order of EARS and the producing director for its Corn Island Storytelling Festival. Barbara Calloway coordinated and guided the Spirits of LaGrange Ghost Tours and founded Ghost Stories on the Square in LaGrange, KY where she served as the Chair of the Historical Districts Commission.
Robert Calloway is a retired art teacher who sponsored “The Tale Tell Knights of Castle Heights” in Lebanon, Tennessee, where he coached students in preparation for the National Youth Storytelling Olympics. Jamie, a native of New Albany, and veteran re-enactor with a wide variety of 1800’s characters will be the emcee.
Blackacre State Nature Preserve and Historic Homestead is a 200-year old property and the Log Barn was built in 1795.
“We were looking for a way to raise our visibility. People bring us ideas on what they want to do.” Josey says. “We thought, ‘what about an American Tradition that no one else is doing but we want to bring to a modern audience.’ That’s how I reached out and I found Bob. It’s been a great partnership.”
The Corn Island Storytelling Festival is behind Blackacre’s Log Barn.
”If you can imagine an old barn, stories, that’s an oral tradition we wanted at Blackacre,” Josey says. “We’re looking for novel ways of getting different generations together.”
Early in the evening, there will be family stories and later the stories get creepier and creepier.
Corn Island Storytelling Festival was a national event. Newsletters went out worldwide. Last year, there were almost 400 people who attended.
“The last year we had it at Locust Grove, and Bobby Norfolk, national and phenomenal storyteller was on stage, there was an old 1930s transformer on this pole above an old church that was still alive, we got the city to fix it so we’d have electricity on the stage,” Thompson says. “That year there were 2,000 people in the cemetery. He was a wonderful storyteller and right in the middle of the story the breaker tripped and Bobby didn’t miss a beat, he said, “and then The lights went out!” and built it into this story. He was a pro. We got the generator hooked up before the end of his story but it was one of those moments.”
Blackacre will pull up its wagon and have hay bails around it. Under the tent, kids will be on the hay bails and Blackacre encourages adults to bring their own chairs or squat on the hill. This is a two-day event, JCPS schools, Title 1 schools on Friday and open to the public on Saturday morning. This year on Friday the 18th, Blackacre will have kids go tent through tent and hear stories from folks who lived in the revolutionary period and discover an 18th-century village. The lighting will be provided by the Corn Island Storytelling Festival and there will be music playing as the audience walks in.
Thompson explains what people like about storytelling is, “It’s the interpersonal relationships. They like to sit and listen to someone and look at their eyes, and they form an opinion if this is a true story or not. I wouldn’t say whether if the story is any good or not, whether that story has a moral or not, they take something non-verbal away. Storytelling at its best both a verbal and non-verbal experience. That’s the root of storytelling as far as I’m concerned.”
The Corn Island Storytelling Festival at Blackacre starts at 7:30 pm, lasts about an hour before intermission, where kids can buy popcorn, peanuts and more. When the audience comes back, the stories get a little scarier and the festival will shut down around 10:00 pm.