Malad Valley Welsh Festival

malad-welsh-festivalWelsh pioneers were the first to settle in the Malad Valley, Idaho,  in the 1860s. One of their many Welsh traditions was an annual cultural arts event called an eisteddfod, with roots going back 900 years. Today, Malad Valley has the largest per capita concentration of people of Welsh ancestry outside the country of Wales itself. In 2005, after a 90 year break, this annual cultural event, now called the Malad Valley Welsh Festival, was re-establishedy. Festival chair Jean Thomas gives us the details on this weekend’s event.

What are your own roots?
I am 100% Welsh as far back as my family history exists. All four sets of my great-grandparents emigrated to the U.S. from the Merthy Tydfil area of Wales in the middle 1800s for both economic and religious reasons.

When and why did you get involved with this event?
I suppose I am one of the people who likes to get involved in community activities. When I moved back to Malad after 35 years away, I decided that I would give back to the community where I was raised. My parents were very proud of their Welsh heritage, and my sister has done extensive research and writing about Wales and Welsh literature as she lived in England for three years and traveled extensively in Wales. My father was the last person in Malad who knew how to speak any Welsh (a children’s poem). So I suppose it was just natural that I went to the first organizational meetings and because everyone there knew me, I became one of the leaders.

Why is it an important event for the community there?
According to genetics researchers at Brigham Young University, Malad has the largest percentage of people of Welsh descent (per capita) of any city outside of Wales. Although it is changing, the phone book (and the cemetery) is dominated by Jones, Williams, Evans, Thomas, Davis, and Edwards names. We should have started the Festival a generation ago when the ties to those who emigrated to Malad Valley were stronger.

Who attends the event?
Last year we had over 1200 people from 15 states and three foreign countries, including Wales. Most of the attendees are from Idaho and Utah.

What can they expect this year?
Thursday is Family History Day where workshops on conducting Welsh family history, Welsh language, and related topics will be offered. This day is quite tentative. Friday and Saturday are the Festival days. Activities include a choral concert, a youth concert, and a piano duet concert; presentations on Welsh love-spoons, Welsh language, the emigration of Welsh Mormons to the Malad Valley, and the life of Welsh coal miners in the mines of Utah; pioneer games; wagon rides to historic cabins; displays from the first 20 families that settled Malad Valley and models of pioneer cabins; Celtic music and dance performances on the outdoor amphitheater; community breakfast and lunch; food and home craft vendors. A special event this year will be the re-enactment of a musical written for Malad’s centennial 50 years ago. An updated version of the original musical will be the finale event on Saturday evening to celebrate Malad’s sesquicentennial. These events are a bit tentative, yet, but will be confirmed in the next couple of weeks. Sunday concludes the festival with a male vocal soloist concert at the 130-year- old Presbyterian Church.

Will you remain involved with the event in the years ahead?
Oh, probably. I will retire from teaching at Idaho State University next year and will have more time to devote to the Festival.

How else are you involved with the Celtic community there?
I am the president of the Welsh Society, which meets every other month and has some activity to learn about Wales and Welsh culture and our pioneer heritage. We celebrate St. David’s Day every year.

Is enough being done to preserve and promote Celtic culture generally?
I think there is a revival of interest in Welsh heritage (or maybe I think that just because I have become involved in the last 10 years). Like with all heritage movements, I am not sure the younger generations are that interested, primarily because they are more likely to marry someone with a different heritage and think of themselves and their children as Americans (or Idahoans or Californians or whatever) than of the heritage of their grandparents and great-grandparents.

What can we be doing better?
We all need to support the events and activities that are held in the United States and elsewhere to celebrate Celtic heritage. That support could be financial but, more importantly, attendance at events. I am looking forward to retirement so that I can travel to festivals and events.