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October 23, 2012

Autumn on the River bittersweet after community’s loss

Community leader Dan Waterfill died Monday after attending festival he loved

BETHLEHEM — Autumn on the River once again graced rural Clark County with fall color last weekend, but the death of one of its champions left this small community with a collective heavy heart.

Dan Waterfill, who helped lead the restoration of the Bethlehem School, which started more than two decades ago, died suddenly Monday morning at the age of 79, just a day after a festival he loved concluded for its 20th year.

“He will be missed very much,” said David Abbott, Autumn on the River co-chairman. “He was the backbone, and the one who kept us going. He always would say he could hear them coming over the hills. He said he could hear them, and that meant the festival was coming closer and that we needed to get in gear.”

Abbott shared that the last thing Waterfill said to him was that he had to go dance with his wife, Ruth Ann, as the final song, “What a Wonderful World,” was their song they danced to at every Autumn on the River.

Waterfill’s legacy will live on. The schoolhouse serves as the community center in Bethlehem, as it hosts wedding receptions, events and important meetings. Two decades ago, the building was falling into disrepair.

“I remember seeing it as a kid, and how bad it was. It’s a big difference now,” Abbott said.  

The schoolhouse is better now because 22 years ago, Waterfill got some Bethlehem folks together to save it.

“They jumped in to redo it. It was all boarded up, but they applied for grants and received donations to get it started,” Abbott said.

The next step was the Autumn on the River festival, which is Bethlehem’s annual fall festival that occurs every third weekend in October.  What first began as a small festival now lasts two days and hosts 65 booths.

“It first started out small. And we’ve been through rain, snow, wind and cold. This has survived all these years. The first year it sleeted,” Abbott said.

Abbott added that while the weather is often unpredictable, everyone comes to the festival for an enriching experience.

“We keep the down-home tradition going. You don’t have to bring a lot of money. You can sit on hay and watch the music, get something to eat and just enjoy the day in Bethlehem,” Abbott said.

Abbott said the event is like a big family reunion, and everyone pitches in to help.

Every year, Sarah Poole attends the festival.

“I just like hanging out with family and having a good time,” Poole said.      

It is also a time for schools and churches to raise funds, and booth fees go to support the Bethlehem Community Center.

“We are really having fun selling tickets for the New Washington wrestling team,” said Rita Maples as she assisted the kids as they fished from the duck pond.

Abbott explained that the entire festival is operated by volunteers who meet throughout the year to better the festival.

“I love the two days of the festival. It’s amazing, but it goes by fast,” said Abbott, who’s entire family is involved with the festival, including his wife who makes the persimmon pudding each year.

“Everyone is always talking, smiling and there are hugs. Everyone cares,” Abbott said about the event that attracts almost 3,000 people.

Funeral services for Waterfill will be at 2 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 25, at Bethlehem Community Church, with burial in Bethlehem Cemetery. Visitation will be from noon to 8 p.m. today at Grayson Funeral Home, New Washington, and after 10 a.m. Thursday at the church.

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