Often enough, what is called a folk festival is merely a make-believe exercise in nostalgia. The genuine article is more like Hinckley's Buzzard Day. Overwhelming numbers of people have never heard of or attended this high-flying bash, but it has been held each year since 1958 on the Ides of March in and around Hinckley, Ohio.
In a general way Buzzard Day belongs to the welcome-to-spring category of celebrations, being similar in spirit and intent to such gatherings as Groundhog Day at Punxsutawney, Pa., Swallow Day at Capistrano and Irish Day on Fifth Avenue. Hinckley is a crossroads village of 200, about 25 miles south of Cleveland, but Hinckley township has some 4,500 residents, many of whom are Cleveland commuters. Scenically the pi�ce de r�sistance of the countryside is the Hinckley Reservation, a rugged woodsy tract of 2,000 acres owned and operated by the Cleveland Metropolitan Park System. In it is a dense, deciduous woodlot fronted by an open field in which, from time immemorial, buzzards (more accurately turkey vultures) have roosted during the spring, summer and early fall months. The area is designated by park authorities as Buzzard Roost.
Several explanations have been advanced as to why the buzzards come back to Hinckley every March. One is that when the first whites came into the Western Reserve at the beginning of the 19th century, they found a gallows on what is now Hinckley Ridge. On the gallows dangled a Wyandot Indian squaw whose activities as a witch had provoked her associates to the execution point. Around the gallows circled a flock of buzzards, whose descendants have returned every year since in hopes of an encore.
Another story is that on Dec. 24, 1818 a large posse of men and boys staged a grand hunt for the purpose of securing food and ridding the area of varmints at the same time. According to report, the gang bagged 300 deer, 21 bears, 17 wolves and a big mess of smaller beasts. Afterward, in the true folk spirit, everyone wandered off and got drunk, leaving the remains of the kill to freeze on the ground. In March, when the carcasses were just beginning to soften, they were found by the buzzards. Again the theory is that from then on generations of vultures have thought of Hinckley as a neat place.
Twenty years or so ago in the course of a buzzard conversation somebody suggested that not only did the birds return every year in March, but that they arrived precisely on the 15th, or at least a buzzard was certain to be seen around the roost on that day. This caused some back-and-forth, but sure enough a buzzard was spotted at the roost on that 15th and in several successive years.
In 1958 a local turkey farmer and Chamber of Commerce member named Carl Neu suggested the obvious: that the buzzard thing should lend itself to celebration, formalization and capitalization. His Chamber colleagues picked up the idea and have been running hard with it ever since. As presently constituted, the festival is a two-part affair. March 15 is the day the buzzards officially return. There is a duly empowered buzzard spotter, a ranger from the Hinckley park, who logs in the first bird seen at or near Buzzard Roost. Establishing the exact time of arrival is important because a local radio station runs a kind of buzzard pool. The listener who comes closest to guessing when the first official buzzard is sighted wins a prize—a round trip to Buzzards Bay, Mass. Then, on the nearest Sunday to March 15 the Chamber of Commerce puts on a buzzard breakfast at the Hinckley Elementary School. This affair usually attracts more than 2,000 people, who buy enough breakfasts and buzzard souvenirs to raise two or three thousand dollars.
"The money is important," says Del Painting, a local insurance agent who is currently the Chamber's Buzzard Day spokesman. "We contribute to many local programs—Little League, Pony Tails and Scouts—with what we make off Buzzard Day. But the publicity is fantastic. We must have had millions of dollars worth. Buzzard Day has put Hinckley on the map."
Occasionally buzzards arrive early, which causes some embarrassment to Hinckley, tending to take the edge off the March 15 celebration. This difficulty has been handled in a manner that does credit to American ingenuity. Any buzzard seen around Hinckley prior to March 15 is designated as a "pilot buzzard." Only a March 15 bird is regarded as "official." (For the record, the first pilot buzzard was spotted this year on March 4 by the Hinckley fire chief.)
On the official day a fortnight ago a small hardy band of serious buzzard folk gathered in the morning gloom and slush at Buzzard Roost. The key figure was a park ranger named Bud Berger, the official buzzard spotter. Berger is more a cop-ranger than a naturalist-ranger and did not appear to be particularly enthusiastic about his assignment.
In fairness, he was somewhat preoccupied, because of reports that a large group of college rowdies carrying beer was infiltrating the park. Berger left the spectators gaping skyward and went off on a patrol to look into the matter, followed by Denny Cheatham, a WHIO-TV ( Dayton) news photographer. When they returned, Cheatham was triumphant and insufferable. "Sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but we were riding along out there and Berger points way off into the woods at a little black spot that I think I saw. He says that is the official buzzard and that it arrived at 9:35. Gang, you are beat."