Around 1970, a group of Eastern Shore sportsmen and women conceived an event that would ultimately grow into a regional tradition spanning generations – the Waterfowl Festival. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge had been built in 1952 opening up easy access to what was once a relatively isolated Eastern Shore of Maryland. A second span was only a few years away and would further speed the development and changes that the area was experiencing.
This group of ambitious enthusiasts envisioned an event that would share with visitors the unique Eastern Shore heritage that they treasured, in the hopes of preserving it before it was lost, while raising funds to protect the wildlife and habitat that were integral to the area’s way of life.
Enlisting numerous local individuals and organizations in their plans, they staged the first Waterfowl Festival in November, 1971, timing it to coincide with the opening of goose hunting season. The introduction to the first event program describes an event that will “capture the true romance, the excitement, engendered by the [area’s] wildbirds and the hunting sport they create.” Those early expectations were that event would “grow into something extraordinary.”
Few would argue that this vision has not been fulfilled over the past four decades. The Waterfowl Festival has grown from three small exhibits in downtown Easton to more than a dozen venues throughout the town, with an annual economic impact to the area of nearly $6 million.
The event’s first exhibits were Carvings, Paintings and Artifacts. Ten years later, there were eleven exhibits and a decoy auction and Calling Contests. A shuttle bus system also had been introduced to get people around town to all the venues.
By the time of the twentieth Waterfowl Festival, the number of exhibits had grown to fifteen, with four events, including the immediately popular Retriever Demonstrations. Food, music, kids’ activities and more special events went along with the growth of the Festival, broadening its appeal to families and those simply looking for a fun weekend getaway.
The nonprofit organization’s benefits to conservation have grown from initial proceeds of $7500 donated to Ducks Unlimited to a total of more than $5 million in conservation grants to hundreds of projects by more then fifty organizations.
Going beyond its initial strategy of investing event proceeds in other organizations’ conservation and education projects, the Waterfowl Festival now actively partners with some grant recipients in collaborative efforts. Direct participation allows it to enlist multiple organizations and agencies in larger-scale projects with greater environmental significance.
Founded in 2011, The Festival’s new conservation arm, Waterfowl Chesapeake, will further enhance the ability of the organization to fulfill its mission in support of waterfowl and the environment.