From Humble Beginnings to 50th Anniversary Gift Festival
September 1961. Just back from a two-year term with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), I took my mother to visit Edna Ruth Byler’s basement gift shop. Mrs. B, seeing my mother’s reaction to all those lovely things that didn’t carry the Old Mennonite seal of approval,
confided that the plain churches she visited were not a receptive market for many of her products. To which my mother said, "Give us
everything you can’t sell and we’ll sell them for you. We’re GC’s (General Conference Mennonites). We’re worldly Mennonites!" And so in a real way the International Gift Festival and Ten Thousand Villages was born.
That November, when Mrs. B came to Fairfield with her unsold worldly items we sold over $500 worth of merchandise! To Mrs. Byler with her unpaid bills, that was an answer to prayer! For our church, it was the beginning of a passionate commitment to fair trade. The second
year we (we being the Ladies
Service Guild) sold $1,200. The third year when we went over $2,000, the men decided that was too much money for the women to handle. Talk about angry!
But that was the best thing that could have happened. Not only did everyone in the congregation get behind "the International Gift Festival" (the name we chose for our sale), but it has resolved many a building issue over the past 50 years. Allwe have to ask is "How will
that affect our festival?"
In those early years we packed, repacked and inventoried everything ourselves. When we ran out of things, we’d send my dad for more stuff. One time (this was after The Mennonite Central Committee took over for Mrs. Byler) we were waiting for Dad to return when we heard his
car horn. He couldn’t get out as they had packed merchandise around him after he got into the driver’s seat!
Our 2nd Gift Festival my Aunt Annabelle Miller and Joanne Troyer came from Cory, Pa to help. Joanne went back to Cory determined that their church do something similar. A few years later, First Mennonite in Sugarcreek, Ohio (where my husband grew up) visited our sale then
started their own festival. When Mrs. Byler got sick and MCC decided to take on the fair trade business, a significant factor in their taking
over was that we had demonstrated a viable way of marketing that fit the Mennonite profile.
By now, we’ve gotten pretty sophisticated in our merchandising, but at first we simply set up tables with
white sheets to display the inventory. And as long as Mrs. B. came to our festival, she presided at a tea table, pouring tea or coffee for our customers, as regal as a queen, her covering her crown. In those early years when Ten Thousand Villages (then Self Help Crafts)
didn’t have a marketing program, they’d call me when a new church wanted to set up their own consignment sale. Could I help them get started? How did we do it?
I eventually wrote a small handbook for Self Help Crafts to use. We created our own brochures and material promoting fair trade before it was called that. After all, fair trade is an important peace issue, and Fairfield is a peace church. For at least 40 years we did not
retain any money from the festival to cover our expenses: it all went back to Ten Thousand Villages. But eventually the book-keeping got too complicated. Rugs and crafts separated. The store didn’t want us to use their credit card machine anymore. We had problems using MCC’s bulk mailing label.
Finally TTV asked us to assume all costs and get our own credit card machine. In return they now give us a percentage of sales to cover our rather extensive costs.
Before Self Help Crafts/Ten Thousand Villages became so well known, we’d travel to Lancaster and York for live broadcasts on WGAL and York TV stations. We’d bring in samples of crafts. We’d tell artisan stories. In the early 80’s, someone dared us to contact the Today Show.
We sent a number of
products like the bird whistles and info on Self Help and our festival and danged if Willard Scott didn’t blow that silly whistle and talk about the festival.
In the late 70’s we started inviting International Foreign Exchange Youth to present programs to middle schoolers who were bussed in to the church from several school districts. We ran the kids through the church in waves, 8 am until 3 pm on Tuesday and Wednesday of Gift
Festival week. And how the TV stations loved it! They flocked to the church to take pictures of the kids dressed in international costumes amidst the gorgeous crafts and our photogenic presenters! Unfortunately, those days are no more.
By the mid 80’s we were reaching some pretty sensational numbers. By then we’d outgrown the fellowship hall and the SS rooms. One year we cautiously put the money changers in the temple, and once we took that step it wasn’t long until we used the entire building. Out went
the pews and pulpit equipment and in came crafts and rugs. For several years we had a basket tent in the parking lot. That is until we had a horrific storm and boxes and baskets flew all over Fairfield! The following year we sold over $120,000 in rugs and crafts and almost collapsed from
exhaustion. We’d gotten bigger than we could handle and we decided to cut back. Our festivals now run in the $70’s and $80’s, about half crafts, and half rugs, though in 2005, our grand total was $128,000.
Over the years we tried all sorts of ploys to increase sales. We had musical groups come play. We had rug seminars. We tried a South American coffee bar to promote fair trade coffee. We had a Kenyan demonstrate the drums. We’d target certain countries and ask customers to
pack health and school kits for them. For several years, we had one of our members repairing damaged items for Self Help and had a
close out room (before the store started having warehouse sales) and sell them at reduced rates. Last year we added a 5th day to our sale days to accommodate Veteran’s Day and asked our customers to bring gift items to send our troops.
Fairfield Mennonite is a really tiny congregation. Consequently, we’ve had to rely on volunteer help from other churches and the community. It isn’t just the unpacking, selling and re-packing that is a challenge. We have these heavy oak pews we remove and store during
festival week. We bought a shed just to house the pews and all of our display equipment that’s evolved over the years. For the last ten years men and women from our local prison have helped carry pews, set up, tear down, work the kitchen, park cars. That partnership has led to other forms of prison
For years we participated in the local Halloween Parade. We’d get outfits from the Ten Thousand Villages international clothes closet, borrow the rick shaw, and walk the parade route with our big banner "Bring the World Closer" handing out brochures. One year we had a mock
up of the Taj Mahal in
front of the church. During school holidays and the summer we’d pack up our kids and head for the warehouse to help. Several years ago we sent Will Kammerer, one of our teens, to Pakistan on the learning tour.
Some have joined the church because of the festival. One year I tried to sell this rather charming fellow a rug. Right before he bought it, he turns to me and says, "There’s one thing I don’t understand about Mennonites. Why the Mennonite Church? Why not the womanite
church?" To which I responded, "Oh,
Bert, you need to join this church." And he did.
Joyce Shutt is a life- long member of Fairfield Mennonite Church
and served as Pastor from 1980-2000.