Flashback to 1988: The first Ribfest
The year was 1988 and the summer was hot. The timing was perfect.
The Exchange Club of Naperville, a new organization chartered the previous year, was throwing its first major fundraiser, and the event, called Ribfest, was set for Father's Day weekend.
Ribfest memoriesThe first Ribfest in Naperville was 27 years ago, not necessarily fresh in mind for folks looking forward to noshing on ribs this year. So as the 28th annual event approaches, 10 Naperville leaders and Ribfest planners look back to 1988, or the first year they got involved.
"The original idea came to me through Glen Ekey, who used to be the executive director of the park district. He had a summer home in Michigan. His neighbor there was a ribber. Called himself 'Billy Bones.'"
-- Bruce Erickson, Ribfest "historian" and one of the founders of the event
"'Billy Bones' was a personal friend who's since passed away ... I knew he was in the rib cook-off business and we started talking and decided that might be something that would work for us down in Naperville."
-- Glen Ekey, former Naperville Park District executive director
"We had no idea what we were doing. We had one little beer truck with three spigots. We were selling beer tickets and when we had to close down, there were some not very happy people."
-- Annmarie Siwik, Naperville Exchange Club charter member and longtime Ribfest sponsorships coordinator
"I was just a volunteer. I sold beer tickets."
-- Emy Trotz, Exchange Club member, Ribfest entertainment chairwoman and Naperville mayor's secretary
"It was at Rotary Hill. I actually worked it as a policeman. I remember how it grew. I think it's a phenomenal thing for the community and a phenomenal thing for all the charities that the Exchange Club supports."
-- Ray McGury, Naperville Park District executive director and former Naperville police officer
"That first year it was very clear that it was popular and was not going to fit on that site."
-- Gary Foiles, Naperville Park District recreation program manager
"I brought my children as an attendee. The second year I got more involved."
-- Jan Erickson, Naperville Riverwalk administrator
"I had to paint the ballot boxes they (festivalgoers) used to vote (for their favorite ribs). We had to paint these boxes pink. I used to do a majority of the setup."
-- Adam Stevens, park specialist who started working for the park district in 1993
"My kids were little and all they wanted to do, of course, was go on rides or play silly games. My son won a 6-foot long giant snake. It was in his room until he went to college."
-- Stephanie Penick, Positively Naperville publisher, who came to Naperville in 1993
"It was an eye-opening experience for people like myself who came from a smaller town. Our children were extremely happy that they were finding amusement right in the downtown area of Naperville. That was unheard of. To us, you had to go to an actual amusement park to go on a ride."
-- IdaLynn Wenhold, executive director of KidsMatter, who came to Naperville in 1995
A traveling rib vendor called Billy Bones brought a handful of his barbecuing buddies to Rotary Hill and Naperville got its first taste of a festival that would put the city on the summer celebration map.
The hill filled with people. The beer ran out. The consultant who helped organize the fest was paid $17,000. And the Exchange Club's founding members finished Father's Day weekend knowing they needed to make some changes.
The timing wasn't so perfect after all, and the place of the fledgling festival was all wrong, club leaders decided.
On Father's Day weekend, the weather can be "iffy," said Bruce Erickson, a charter member of the Exchange Club and one of three people who planned the first Ribfest.
Plus, the grassy terrain of Rotary Hill along the Riverwalk was scenic, but it didn't offer enough space for the festival to grow.
"We realized right away it wasn't big enough," said Glen Ekey, the man who connected Exchange Club leaders with their first ribber and gave them the idea for a fundraiser highlighting ribs.
Exchange Club members wanted Ribfest to grow. It was organized to raise money for charities that work to end child abuse and domestic violence -- the chosen causes of the Exchange Club nationally and locally. But Annmarie Siwik, a charter member of the club, said the first year generated only $3,000 or $4,000 for charity.
Erickson said that meant Rib America, the consultant hired to administer the first fest, had to go.
"As we started planning that winter, we thought none of us saw something they did that was magical," Erickson said. "From the second year on, it's been put on by the Exchange Club."
But even with one less costly contractor to pay, the festival had to deal with space and scheduling constraints. And that's where Ekey, who worked at the time as executive director of the Naperville Park District, came in handy again.
The park district in the 1980s hosted a Fourth of July celebration with music and fireworks in Knoch Park, separated from Ribfest's original location at Rotary Hill only by Naperville Central High School. That meant the district already was closing the ball fields, fencing off the park, bringing in porta-potties, pitching stages and doing all the behind-the-scenes setup needed to host a festival.
The event was missing a few key pieces, Ekey thought.
"I was trying to find an event or an activity that could complement our Fourth of July fireworks," Ekey said. "In order for it to work, however, it really needed volunteer involvement."
The next year, the two events joined forces. Ribfest gained a better weekend and a larger location -- Fourth of July weekend in Knoch Park -- and the park district's fireworks event gained the volunteer support it needed from Exchange Club members and their friends and families.
The rest is history.
The first Ribfest on the Fourth didn't have any jumbo screens showing close-up shots of performing musicians. There weren't VIP skyboxes or shuttle buses bringing people in from remote parking. There wasn't digital signage on suburban tollways promoting the festival, or social media accounts tweeting all about it, or iPhone and Android apps with maps of the festival setup.
"It was a very family-oriented atmosphere in those days. It was very much a Naperville event," said Gary Foiles, a longtime Naperville Park District employee who's been involved with the fest since the beginning. "We didn't really advertise outside of Naperville. It was still kind of a local festival."
Admission, according to the park district program book from 1989, was $2, except on the Fourth of July, when it was free all day.
The program book advertised "approximately 15 of the world's best ribbers, including some local restaurants" and it encouraged locals to come hear performances by Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows, The Box Tops, and Johnny Rivers.
Although the festival was small by today's standards and took up only the north side of Knoch Park, it had all the basics. Ribs and tunes and fireworks. A small carnival. The beginnings of a tradition. And enough interest to justify bringing Ribfest back for another year.
From 1989 until about 1997 when Ekey retired, the park district and Exchange Club jointly managed the festival. After that, the club took over full responsibility for the event, but continued using park district land.
Siwik said technology has played a major role in advancing the festival to a four-day extravaganza that attracts visitors from throughout the region.
Technology has allowed tickets to be sold online and Siwik to keep track of the businesses she's courting as Ribfest sponsors through a contact management system. It allows increased marketing to a broader area and it's part of what has helped the festival raise more than $500,000 for charity each of the past two years and draw 20,000 guests a day last year.
A few Ribfest regulars like Siwik, Ekey, Erickson and Foiles remember its roots. Many ribbers like Desperado's, Armadillo's, Texas Outback's and Butch's have been coming back year after year. Thousands of suburban residents count themselves as Ribfest regulars, and thousands will flock to this year's fest Thursday to Sunday, July 2 to 5.
But many who attend now weren't around when the first slabs were served and the first fingers were licked, when the first brews were poured and the first notes were played.
"Just to watch it expand and watch people continue to really enjoy it over the years," Ekey said, "I'm proud to say I was a part of it."