In 1989, Karen Ashton, President of the Friends of the Orem Public Library, was looking for projects to promote community involvement in the Library. Mrs. Ashton had been volunteering at the Library for years, presenting Storytime for preschoolers and helping with other Children's Library programs. When she saw an advertisement for a National Storytelling Festival in Tennessee, she decided to attend and gather more ideas for stories and programs for the Orem Library.
She went to the National Festival expecting to find ladies telling stories to children in a library. Instead she found thousands of adults crowding into tents, listening to dynamic performers relating tales of history, culture, folk and family life, as well as magical stories of "what if . . .!" The entire town of Jonesborough (population 3,000) had mobilized to accommodate the 10,000+ people who annually attend the three-day festival.
Mrs. Ashton recognized in the storytelling festival the idea she was searching for. A festival brings people together and increases understanding by allowing them to communicate through stories. It fosters the simple, old community and family values‚Äîfamily members and neighbors talking with each other again, sharing family history and experiences. A storytelling festival is an active experience, not passive entertainment.
The Friends launched the first Timpanogos Storytelling Festival just eight months after Mrs. Ashton presented the idea. The Ashton family opened their home to the community, set up performance areas on their property, and persuaded neighbors to do the same. Livestock was moved, fields mowed, and tents raised (with the midnight help of Alan Ashton). Three Eastern storytellers of national fame and local talent including James Arrington, Marvin Payne, and Gaye Beeson performed for two incredible days.
News of the Festival spread rapidly. By the second year the Friends had expanded the hours of the Festival, planned an additional evening performance at the SCERA Shell, borrowed another field for a fourth performance tent, and invited school groups to the Friday morning performances. The biggest surprise was dealing with all the school buses. One Provo elementary school brought their entire student body, instead of just the single class that had been scheduled! Five of the best storytellers in the nation were on the program, and auditions had been held to determine the successful regional tellers (ages 8 to 68!). Acoustic musicians performed during the intermissions throughout the day, supplementing performances by storytellers on the fiddle, banjo, harmonica, and spoons.
The Timpanogos Storytelling Festival has grown each year ‚in both audience size and prestige. Attendance at annual Festival events total 26,000 and the Festival is recognized throughout the national storytelling world as a standard setter. The Festival and its organizers have received national media attention and awards. Storytelling event organizers from around the nation attend the Timpanogos Festival for training. The Timpanogos Storytelling Festival has garnered this reputation not only because of the great talent featured, but also because of the scenic setting, the terrific audience, the extraordinary community support, and its excellence in organization.
In 1999, the National Storytelling Network honored Karen Ashton with the Leadership Award in recognition of her exemplary leadership and significant contributions to the community through storytelling. In the same year, the Utah Storytelling Guild (spawned by the Festival and now supporting the Festival) received the National Storytelling Network Service Award. Janet Low, Festival Coordinator, was awarded the Service Award in 2000 and Debi Richan, Festival Vice-President, received this national award in 2004.
The Festival draws individuals and groups from across the nation and Canada. The Utah Valley Visitors Center provides material on attractions and accommodations in Utah County to ticket-buyers living outside of Utah and Salt Lake Counties. Families spend vacations in Utah, planned around the Timpanogos Festival. The reputation of the area has spread‚Äîeven the national storytellers bring their families to spend additional time enjoying the scenery and attractions of Utah County.
The Timpanogos Storytelling Festival has become the National Festival of the West. It will preserve through stories, music and art, the memories of Utah and the West while creating a forum to explore cultures beyond the West.
In 2005, the Festival opened at the new Mt. Timpanogos Park in Provo Canyon. Designed by the City of Orem for the annual Festival, the park allows Festival growth to continue with more and larger performance tents. The possibility of a connecting access between the Olmsted (owned by Rocky Mountain Power) and Canyon Park is being explored to facilitate the use of both venues and to accommodate even greater future growth.
The Timpanogos Festival is not a small event. It requires significant donations from businesses and foundations and thousands of volunteer hours from individuals and community groups such as the American Legion, Kiwanis, Golden Kiwanis, youth groups, student clubs, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and the Utah Storytelling Guild.
Considering all the work involved with organizing an annual Festival, Karen Ashton commented, "If just one family leaves the Festival and begins to share stories with each other, it will be worth it."