ASHLAND — The first-ever Balloon Festival was mostly a celebration of toy balloons, and Ashland’s position as “The Balloon Center of the World.”
At the time, Ashland had positioned itself as a powerhouse of toy balloon manufacturing, making up to 8 million balloons everyday. Some estimates hold that around half of the world’s balloon supply came from Ashland.
It was 1963, and most of downtown Ashland had shut down to allow thousands of people to come together for parades, pageants and live entertainment. Five area balloon companies even created a pop-up balloon factory where festival goers could watch balloons be made.
The Ashland Balloon Festival was underway.
Meanwhile, at Brookside Park, 37-year-old Don Piccard of Sioux Falls, S.D., ascended in a hot air balloon that carried six people. It floated for a quarter-mile before landing in a field between Ohio 58 and U.S. 42. Piccard had said the hot weather was not very good for flying.
The Balloon Festival carried on for some years, happening again in 1964 and 1965. But it didn’t stick.
“I don’t know how many years it went on for, but it went away,” said Scott Brown, an Ashland native who helped form the city’s second iteration of the balloon festival — which celebrated its 32nd year on Thursday.
In 1990, the city threw a 175th anniversary celebration. The organizer back then, Rick Spreng, wanted to honor the past by inviting hot air balloons and their pilots for a group start from Freer Field.
He said he invited balloonists to his house, which happened to be near Freer Field — close enough, in fact, to walk to the field.
“We sat on my back deck and formulated the possibility to get some of their friends for the anniversary,” Spreng said. He had just had his first balloon ride shortly before that meeting, so he knew the draw and loved the idea of bringing the activity to more people.
Around eight or nine balloonists came out that day for the celebration. And just like that, this unique event was here to stay.
Brown said residents loved the event, so they brought it back in 1991.
“We saw the potential you could have with it. We saw how many people came for one day, so we thought we could add to that,” Brown said. “Some of the pilots were interested in adding more days.”
By 1992, the event became a weekend festival, attracting 2,000 people to witness the balloon launch, and in 1993 it went to a three-day event. The organizers eventually added a fourth day, meant for media flights, fundraisers and public tethered rides.
In 2001, the BalloonFest added the event’s iconic “balloon glow” and in 2002, the event was incorporated, forming the BalloonFest Board of Trustees.
At that point, Brown, Spreng and the late John Sidle became some of the event’s main organizers.
Sidle started helping the organizers right around the time Brown did.
“When he first got involved, there was no personal interest in balloon flight,” Spreng remembered. “But as he became more involved, he made friends with other pilots and he eventually bought his own balloon and flew himself.”
Sidle, who served as a volunteer in a number of Ashland organizations, died in October of COVID-19. He was 60.
Spreng said Sidle’s strength was his knowledge of and friendship with the pilots.
“He had no problem getting pilots to come to the festival,” he said.
The record was 39 balloons that showed up in 2005, according to a historical account written in 2015. There have been various shapes, such as Santa Claus, Red Dragon, the Purple People Eater, a monkey and even a man who flew over to BalloonFest on a cluster of helium-filled balloons.
A memorial service for Sidle was held on Thursday, the first day of BalloonFest, to honor his contribution to the longstanding event.
Spreng said Sidle’s smile will be what sticks in his mind of his friend.
“He truly had a love for BalloonFest,” Spreng said, fighting tears. “He had this wonderful smile…you just knew that he loved what he was doing. We all miss him.”
The Life section is supported by Brethren Care Village in Ashland.