People enjoy bluegrass music during the 2016 festival.
People enjoy bluegrass music during the 2016 festival.

For the past 25 years, musicians from across the country have gathered in southeastern Minnesota to share their love of bluegrass music. The Southeast Minnesota Bluegrass Association (SEMBA) has been hosting a musical festival in the fall for a quarter of a century, inviting bluegrass musicians to workshops, jam sessions and concerts throughout a long weekend in August.

This year’s festival is set to take place this weekend, Aug. 17 to 20, at Cushon’s Peak Campground near Houston. Performers will be coming from Illinois, Tennessee, Missouri, Alabama, Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin. Shows will be Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 1 to 4:45 p.m. and from 6:30 to 10:15 p.m. Sunday morning gospel music will be played from 9 to 11:30 a.m. with more music on stage from noon to 3:20 p.m. Workshops are planned on Saturday from 9 to 10 a.m. and open stages will be offered on Thursday from 11 a.m. to noon; on Friday from 10 a.m. to noon; and on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

To add to the festive spirit of the weekend, jamming sessions will be held throughout the campground. Bring an instrument and join in the fun.

Admission for all four days is $35; $32 for Friday through Sunday; $20 for Saturday; $16 for Thursday or Friday; and $10 for Sunday.

One can find a complete schedule on the SEMBA website, www.SEMBA.tv.

Through the years

A number of individuals have worked through the years to make the festival the event it is today. Darrell and Barb Ottman provided a history of the SEMBA organization and its fall bluegrass festival.

Bluegrass music is an art form that is indigenous to the United States, having originated in the Appalachian Mountains by Scot-Irish immigrants. Bluegrass music has never lost touch with its roots.

SEMBA is dedicated to providing exposure to this native music art form so it will not be lost to future generations. Telling the story of bluegrass music in southeastern Minnesota is a multi-faceted saga.

“This story of bluegrass music is much like a big oak tree with the roots being the various activities which are the system and foundation for the life of the tree,” the Ottmans wrote. “Each segment has its own story and is important.”

There are a number of pioneers involved in this story. Credit is to be given to Bob Loy, who was perhaps the first in the area to consistently promote bluegrass music. Loy, who came to this area from Ohio, had a wonderful legacy. His uncle and father were bluegrass musicians all of their lives and provided him with great role models.

Loy owned and operated a music store on North Broadway in Rochester in the 1970s where he gave music lessons and sold instruments. There would be bluegrass music played almost anytime of the day but once the door was locked at the end of the business day, there would be jam sessions at least twice a week that could go to 2 or 3 a.m. It was strictly acoustic bluegrass music and bluegrass musicians would come from the area to be a part of this activity.

Loy decided to wet his feet and sponsor a bluegrass festival. He contacted the 5 Js Campground, which is now the Deer Creek Speedway, in early 1976 and arrangements were completed to hold the festival on July 30, 31 and Aug. 1 of 1976. It was a completely new event for this area and, according to Loy, 2,000 attended.

Loy sponsored two more festivals — one in 1977 and another in 1978. The Stier Family (Welcome Home Band) then took over and sponsored a couple more festivals at the 5 Js. Some of the performing bands at these festivals are still actively playing bluegrass, such as The Platte Valley Boys and Middle Spunk Creek.

When Loy no longer had the music store, jamming then took place at Waldo’s Pizza, then located in the Northbrook Shopping Center in Rochester. The jamming was usually one night a week and Loy, along with Bob Hill and a number of other area musicians, would jam until closing.

 Ernie Tuff of Rushford was doing his part to promote bluegrass music in the area during the 1970s. Tuff held a number of one-day festivals and concerts at the Ernie Tuff Museum, located north of Rushford on Interstate Highway 90. Some of the biggest names he had were Bill Monroe on Sept. 16, 1982, and the Carter Family on July 17, 1983. Tuff also had the Drifters (Hank Williams, Sr.’s original band) on Aug. 22, 1982. His events also included some area and regional musicians, including Don and Myrt Otis, Beaver Creek Bluegrass from Iowa and Sandy and Charlie Good.

Jam sessions

Wanting to get together to jam during the time when there were not other venues to attend, some bluegrass musicians and the Ottman family started a jam around the fall of 1980 with the first one being held in Linda Ottman’s garage. When cold weather hit, the jam moved to Darwin and Helen Steinbring’s basement. As time went on, it moved to the Grand Meadow Legion. There were some held at the Spring Valley Legion and then the Spring Valley Community Center.

Occasional jams were held at Good Earth Village. When the Spring Valley Community Center was no longer available, the jam moved to its current home at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Spring Valley. This jam is held the first Sunday each November and December.

This jam is currently thought to be one of the oldest ongoing bluegrass music jams in the State of Minnesota having been in existence for over 35 years.

SEMBA also sponsors a jam at Good Shepherd Nursing Home in Rushford during November and December. In addition, SEMBA sponsors the Rochester Acoustic Jam held on Fridays at 6:30 p.m. at Peace United Church of Christ.

Bluegrass in the barn

In the early 1980s, the Ottman family decided it would be fun to have some bluegrass music events during the summer at the little white barn on Pete and Burneice Ottman’s acreage. The family members cleaned out the stanchions and stalls, remodeled the area and built a stairway to the haymow. Carpeting was then put down in the mow and miscellaneous furniture provided seating. Musicians came from all over the area and region to jam.

These events ran from Friday evening until Sunday afternoon and there would be music all of the time from morning until late in the evening. A number of people would bring their campers and there was always room for one more and the coffee pot was always on.

It was affectionately referred to as “Pete’s Pickin’ in the Pasture” and was a summer event for a number of years. Attendance at times ran into a hundred people or more.

Money Creek Haven

Howard Otis has been involved in support of bluegrass music for a number of years. Once he and Margie moved from the Twin Cities to their acreage near Rushford, they became acquainted with bluegrass music when one of Howard’s Navy friends came to visit and was playing bluegrass music.

In 1993, Howard and Margie Otis sponsored their first festival at Money Creek Haven after talking with Bud Fitting, the campground owner.

Bob Lewis of the Bob Lewis Band had encouraged Howard and Margie to consider sponsoring a festival and was one of the bands performing at the festival along with Scott Amos’ Bluegrass Addiction and Sandy and Charlie Good’s band, Bluegrass Breakdown.

Due to rainy weather, the festival was in the red $1,300.00. But, Howard and Margie persevered and made the decision to continue with bluegrass festivals.

During the fall and winter of 1993-94, the catfish dinner fundraiser was born and continues to be held twice a year.

Their 1994 festival had the return of Bob Lewis Family, Bluegrass Addiction, Bluegrass Breakdown but also Shorty Powers and Lorene Clark and Bob Loy’s band, Bluegrass Tradition. The attendance increased to 715 for their 1995 festival although the festivals were still in the red.

Due to the physical makeup of Money Creek, where permanent campers could view the festival performances from their campsites, more campsites being made permanent and people coming into the campground without paying admission, solvency for the festivals was in jeopardy.

Adding a spring festival

In 1996 Howard and Margie took over the purchase and sales of t-shirts and hats to help fund the festivals. It was during the 1996-1997 season that Howard envisioned hosting a second festival in the spring, perhaps on Memorial Day weekend, at a different facility since Money Creek Haven already had an activity on that weekend. It was finally decided to have the May venue at Tom and Judy Vix’s Cushon’s Peak Farm, hopefully as early as 1999.

The 1998 festival was the last at Money Creek Haven but had an attendance of over 900 and came close to breaking even. It was at that time the festivals moved to Cushon’s Peak Campground, formerly known as Tom and Judy Vix’s Cushon’s Peak Farm as Money Creek Junction Bluegrass Festivals.

Forming SEMBA

Howard gave thought to forming a family corporation but instead elected to pursue a corporation at large. The original SEMBA board members were Jon Owens, Darrell and Barb Ottman, Al O’Byrne, John Campbell, Roberta Anderson and Howard Otis. Howard served as treasurer and festival director for the SEMBA board of a number of years.

The SEMBA corporation became official on Sept. 9, 1998. The May and August festivals have been under the auspices of the SEMBA board since that time. The festivals were called Money Creek Junction Bluegrass Festivals for a number of years and continue to be held at the location of what was historically the Money Creek Junction Railroad Station. Due to confusion regarding Money Creek Haven and Money Creek Junction, the SEMBA board voted to change the name of the festivals to SEMBA Bluegrass Festivals.

SEMBA was fortunate to have input from other bluegrass organizations, which assisted SEMBA in formulating how it would operate. The Backbone Bluegrass people from Strawberry Point, Iowa, shared their experiences as well as Irma Spray from Tri-State Bluegrass.

Cushon’s Peak

The first years at Cushon’s Peak Campground required collaboration between Tom and Judy Vix and the SEMBA board. The first camping experiences were primitive, with basic electrical services and no water available or bathrooms or showers. Campers made do with port-a-potties and a make shift shower on a trailer.

The outdoor stage was designed and built by SEMBA volunteers and campground staff as well as the addition to the end of the concert building and construction of the indoor stage.

Upgrades to stage lighting have been done. In 2015 a big project was the SEMBA Welcome Barn, which was financed completely by donors. It is a multi-purpose building used for storage, jamming and festival ticket sales.

Great support

SEMBA has support for its programming from other areas including the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council, Inc., as well as an anonymous private benefactor who has supported SEMBA School Programming for 18 years. Many area businesses also provide raffle items, monetary donations and support in advertising in SEMBA’s publications.

On average, over 100 volunteers work four hours or more at the festivals. There are also many volunteers working at fundraising events as well as other venues SEMBA sponsors.

“If it were not for the work and dedication of all of the people noted in this article, bluegrass music would not be as well established as it is today in southeast Minnesota,” the Otts noted.