Photos from the First Annual Bluegrass festival, held in Madison August 12, 2007 show the family fun in store for those who attend. This year, the event moves to Mazomanie, about 25 miles west of Madison.
Tom Michele photos.

2nd Annual Gandy Dancer Festival Planned for July 20, 2008.
(updated 7/14/08)

Bluegrass music and train rides–they’re yours to enjoy free at the 2nd annual Gandy Dancer Festival, Sunday, July 20th in the Village of Mazomanie’s Promenade Park. And for this second time around acts have been added specifically for the kids to make this year’s event even more appealing to every member of the family.

“Last year was just as new for us as it was for the general public,” says Don Meyer, one of the event organizers. “What we saw were a lot of young families enjoying the music and the train ride but nothing more in the way of activities to engage the children.”

New this year are the free performances offered throughout the afternoon by storyteller and musician David Landau, juggler Jacob Mills, circus-themed acts by students of the Fabulous Flying Rumpus Family Circus, and balloon sculptures. Kids of all ages can also enjoy a model train layout located in the Community Center on the north side of the park.

As manager of the Mid-Continent Railway Museum, Meyer stresses the popularity of the train rides as the primary draw. “People love trains and we are grateful for Bill Gardner’s generous donation of these rides.” Gardner is president of the Wisconsin & Southern Railroad, making available his air-conditioned coaches so that everyone can take advantage of this opportunity to sample the comfort of train travel.

The free rides begin at 10:00am and take place every hour with the last departure at 4:00pm. Tickets will be distributed at the train depot that morning on a first-come, first-served basis beginning at 9:00am. The depot is located across Brodhead Street on the Promenade’s west side.

“It’s the music that is the draw,” says Carolyn Hegeler and Ellis Bauman, who share the organizational tasks with Meyer. Both are affiliated with the Southern Wisconsin Bluegrass Music Association and assembled this year’s list of entertainers. And both are pleased with the level of talent attracted to the event.

The musical performances will begin at 11:00am when Art Stevenson & High Water take to the stage for the first of their two sets. “Appropriate for a Sunday morning show, this first hour will feature gospel songs, which is a traditional element of bluegrass performances,” Hegeler says.

Other musical guests include the North Country Drifters, a new Western swing band performing at 12:30pm; the return of Art Stevenson & High Water at 2:00pm; the Water Street Hotshots, a jug band from Sheboygan, taking the stage at 3:30pm; and the Madison-based Cajun Strangers, recent award winners for the best album recorded outside the traditional home of Cajun music, at 5:00pm.

No doubt the true main attraction will be the evening performance (6:30pm) by featured guests Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands. Twice honored by the International Bluegrass Music Association as “Female Vocalist of the Year,” Ms. Lewis also won a Grammy for her 1997 album, True Life Blues – the Songs of Bill Monroe. The band’s appearance is being sponsored by a grant from the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission with additional support from the Evjue Foundation and the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation.

Hegeler and Bauman also made sure that musicians of every age and skill level can share in the performance experience during a jam session led by Art Stevenson. The session is open to anyone who would like the opportunity to play with some of the best local bluegrass talent. All that is required is that you bring your own instrument and find your place under the Exhibition Tent at 4:00pm.

Food service is another area of growth Meyer says. “Last year we had six food vendors, this year there are fourteen.” Food stands will be set up along the Promenade representing Mazomanie’s local service clubs, youth organizations, congregations and restaurant owners. “This is an example of how the community has embraced our bringing this year’s festival into their neighborhood. You will find a wide variety of homemade fare for sale that is synonymous with small town Wisconsin.”

The Promenade is a new park constructed on what was formerly the Milwaukee Road’s train yard in Mazomanie. Its transformation into a beautiful gathering place near the historic commercial district was made possible by the generous donations of long-time resident Fred Westland in memory of his parents. In making this gift to his home town, Westland has also created a most appropriate venue for a railroad-themed music festival.

The Gandy Dancer Festival gets its name from the slang term applied to laborers who maintained the railroad track. “We originally decided to use the image of the hard working Gandy Dancer to symbolize the dedication of the museum’s members and staff in preserving a rare piece of railroad history,” Meyer says. “But the roots of bluegrass are in rural dance music, so the image of a dancer also applies to the music and serves to blend the two basic elements of our festival, trains and bluegrass.”

And it’s hard not to tap your toes to the rhythm of the music. Bluegrass is lively. It shares the emphasis on improvisation that you find in jazz. And this year it is all for a good cause. Donation centers will be set up around the Promenade to allow guests to contribute to Mid-Continent’s flood recovery efforts.

“Our own train rides have been shut down since the June flooding,” Meyer notes, “which is costing us about $3,000 per day in lost revenue. Volunteer efforts and charitable gifts are helping us to recover and we hope to complete the repairs and be back in operation by the first of August.”

Free parking will be available at the Roundy’s Distribution Center and the Wicks Building Company, both located in the industrial park at Highway 14 and Walter Road. From there you can take the free shuttle bus to the Promenade, provided by the First Student bus company. Handicap parking will be available at the Municipal Building parking lot accessible from Cramer Street and in two lots near the Peoples Community Bank on Hudson Street. Signs will be posted designating the available lots. Please note that for this event Brodhead Street will be closed to vehicle traffic from Exchange to Hudson Streets.

The 2nd Annual Gandy Dancer Festival is a cooperative effort by event organizers the Mid-Continent Railway Museum, the Wisconsin & Southern Railroad, the Southern Wisconsin Bluegrass Music Association, Inc. and the Village of Mazomanie with promotional support provided by WORT 89.9FM in Madison, WI.

“Better than last year,” is the way all of the event organizers are describing the festival. “And last year was very good.” For more details you can visit the museum’s web site at And plan to attend this year’s Gandy Dancer Festival, July 20th in beautiful Mazomanie.

Related web pages:
Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands
Art Stevenson & High Water
The Water Street Hot Shots
Cajun Strangers
North Country Drifters
Wisconsin & Southern Railroad
Southern Wisconsin Bluegrass Music Association, Inc.
Village of Mazomanie