When Harry and Julia Ledbetter lived in their farmhouse at the end of a long dirt road in the tiny hamlet of Beckwith, Cumberland County, they could not have imagined that several decades later, the property they sold to a young family would become the site of an annual summer festival of music and food, dancing and camping.
“The Beckwith Bash came from our idea to throw a party for friends and neighbours to show appreciation for their help and support while we were travelling,” explains musician Eric Fresia who, along with his wife, Catherine Bussiere, a filmmaker and photographer, bought the 15-acre homestead near Port Howe in 1994.
“We were burning old garden debris but the fire took off and burnt the lower field – our neighbours helped us put the fire out before the Shinimicas Fire Department arrived,” he chuckles. “After seeing the area so nicely cleaned, I decided to build the main stage there.”
In the past ten years, the Beckwith Bash has grown from a small party celebrating the release of the first CD of Fresia and the Offsprings, the band Eric formed with his two youngest children, to a multi-performer, multi-stage, smorgasbord-of-food arts festival. When the band now known as simply Fresia released their second, two-CD album at the 2012 Bash, it included a tribute to the property’s previous owners, a song called “Harry and Julia Auditorium,” and daughter Charlotte’s debut CD.
The bash, however, was never only about Eric’s music; from the start, he wanted to provide a venue and an audience for other up-and-coming musicians. Kim Harris, Catherine MacLellan, Erin Costelo, Willie Stratton, and Wintersleep are among the many musicians who have shared their talents on a warm, sometimes wet, August evening. Over the years, other artists like poets, dancers, and drummers have been invited to perform, and everyone is welcome to join in the spontaneous jam sessions around the late-night bonfire.
Over the years, as interest in performing at and attending the Bash has increased, so too has the infrastructure. The sauna that Eric built next to the pond first operated as the canteen but now it gets transformed into a safe and fun play area for children. For the Bash in 2012, he constructed a 30-foot x 40-foot outdoor patio with natural slate paving stones, and a pergola covered in grape vines; this space became the outdoor dining room. Within a few years, he added an adobe wood-fired pizza oven and an outdoor kitchen.
“Food has been part of the festival from day one,” says Catherine, who prepares the Bash’s signature dishes of gumbo and baklava.
“I don’t think we could have the Bash without gumbo,” she says of the dish inspired by a music tour in Louisiana. “People expect it. And we’ve been throwing pizzas for the past three Bashes; that’s very popular. Another speciality is the cinnamon buns and cowboy coffee we offer the next morning to thank the campers for helping to clean up the property.”
Perhaps the most memorable Bash was the “wedding bash” of 2015, when oldest son, Isaac, now 26, married Haley MacPhee the day before the Saturday festival. Even the bride’s family, from Cape Breton, appeared on the main stage playing and singing traditional East Coast songs.
“The wedding bash was a great idea but we were exhausted,” Eric says. “We had about five hundred people in attendance. The wedding on the Friday was beautiful, the bash the next day was a huge success, but the late-night party in the field was a bit much,” he says with a wry chuckle.
Like their music, the Beckwith Bash remains a family enterprise. Even Isaac, the non-musician, contributes; he designed every poster as well as the double-B logo.
“Our three kids and their friends have been integral to the Bash since the first year,” Eric says. “We never could have done it without their help. The kids have been there for every event, working as hard as Catherine and me.”
This August, Eric, Catherine and their three children, along with family, neighbours, and fans, will celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Beckwith Bash.
“I can’t see trying new things,” Eric says of the plans for this summer’s milestone festival. “We will stick with the model of good music, good food, good people. A few of our favourites will be back along with a few new artists, and the kids and I will play, one of the rare times our trio performs these days.”
Eric admits this might be the last Bash in Harry and Julia’s back field as he wants to go in other directions, but it won’t be easy to give up a festival that has come to mean so much to so many.
“The third weekend of August feels like Christmas,” says Catherine with a laugh. “The Bash is exhausting but there is great energy leading to it, and during it. I love the gathering of happy spirits.”