In 1953, the secretary of Weiser’s Chamber of Commerce, a guy named Blaine Stubblefield, asked the Chamber for $175 to hold a fiddle contest, to be held during the intermission of the annual Weiser Square Dance Festival.
Gradually, the square dance festival faded into history. But the fiddle contest remained.
• • •
Now that they’re retired, Cindy and Bruce Campbell like to travel. As they meet people — and they will, as they’re a gregarious couple — they invariably exchange hometowns.
Bruce: “Somebody will say where are you from? We’ll say Weiser, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, there’s a fiddle contest there.’”
They allow a little twinge of pride at the connection.
Cindy: “Especially when you stop and think about how much effect we’ve had on the contest.”
For nearly 40 years, Cindy and Bruce have volunteered at the annual, six-day-long National Oldtime Fiddlers Contest & Festival in Weiser. That’s not enough to be the longest-serving volunteer, but for time invested in leadership capacity and sweat equity — they’re top of the heap.
Bruce: “It’s just a way of life for us. We just do it because it has to be done — it needs to be done. It’s good for the community.
“We’ve been doing it for so long, we don’t know anything else.”
Cindy grew up in Weiser, but she and Bruce met and married (48 years ago) at their first jobs as teachers in McCall. When jobs opened up in Weiser, they took them. Cindy taught elementary school and Bruce taught typing, accounting, counting, business law and economics.
Shortly after they moved, Bruce remembers working outside in the yard. He struck up a conversation with a young passer-by who was visiting Weiser for the annual fiddle contest. She asked if he ever went.
“I said, ‘No, not really,’ and she said, ‘Well, you should; it’s rather good.’ ”
So when his principal, who chaired a committee, asked Bruce if he’d consider working for a shift or two, Bruce was primed. As was Cindy.
Cindy: “(A friend) always calls us Team Campbell because if you get one, you get both (of us) in some capacity.”
Bruce, the business teacher, ran the calculator, tallying up the judges’ scores. Cindy was in charge of turning the microphone off and on. It wasn’t rocket science.
Cindy: “The first time we volunteered, we were scared to death we wouldn’t do it (right). I think that’s the way with so many people — but once they know they can do it and they enjoy it, then they want to continue.”
That was their experience as well. The next year, in 1978, Bruce was asked to take over the role of judging chair, which means lining up experts to judge the fiddle playing.
Cindy: “Bruce said … (he’d) do it if I would help him. I said OK, we can do this. (She laughs.) That was kind of how we got started.”
When Bruce became the general chairman of the entire contest in 1980, Cindy moved into his old job as judging chair — and into the volunteer roles they still hold 36 years later. In addition, Bruce has been president of the contest board since it became a nonprofit in 2004, and Cindy is, of course, vice-chair.
Cindy: “We almost consider some of these (contestants) just like our kids — keeping track of what they’re doing (during the year). It’s … it’s just in your blood. It’s something that leaves you feeling good.”
Bruce: “They’re just great people; that’s why we do it. Every year, they say it’s a big family reunion — and it is. They pull out and say, ‘Well, see you in 51 weeks.’”
Cindy: “One of the sayings is … coming to Weiser and being with the rest of the fiddlers is as important of a date as Christmas.”
Over six days, the fiddle contest hosts more than 200 fiddlers, some as young as 4 years old, all whom are vying in a dozen categories, including the top honor: the coveted National Grand Champion.
Cindy: “I think one of the things that amazes me … that the fiddlers and accompanists are so close … but yet they don’t let friendship get in the way of their competitiveness. … One minute you’re competing against your best friend (and the next minute) your best friend is backing you up on guitar.
“They’re so supportive of each other.”
Weiser was once among the largest of the fiddle contests, and although Cindy and Bruce don’t know how it ranks now, its reputation still beckons.
Bruce: “There’s been times we’ve had to issue a second prize-check because some little kid won’t let his mother cash the prize check because they want to frame it and put it on the wall. …
“A lot of contestants say we don’t have to give as much prize money as we give, because what they really want is the title so they can put that on their resume. …”
The contest — and its accompanying festival, which includes entertainment in town — is important to the town of Weiser as well. The Campbells estimate the week brings 4,000 to 5,000 visitors and millions of dollars annually to the community. (The festival has a paid executive director and adminstrative assistant.)
Cindy: “It’s something we can do for our community. I think we do it for ourselves, too. We get pleasure out of it. ... ”
Six or seven years ago, the contest director resigned. At that time, it was a paid position, but as the board was figuring out what to do, Cindy quietly did what needed doing, without pay.
Cindy: “I started doing the things that would have been the contest director’s job. I never consider myself as director — I just take care of the contest.”
That’s quibbling over semantics, really, because every day, October through June, Cindy shows up at the Slocum Hall office 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. During contest week, Bruce and Sandy arrive at the high school at 7:30 a.m. and, except for the janitor, they’re the last to leave after the day’s contests are over, sometimes as late as midnight.
Bruce: “I do get tired the third week in June. I get pooped, you know. … (But) we’ve done it (for so long). We’ll just keep doing it. (He laughs.) Which is OK.”
They love what they do, although they don’t figure they can do it forever. And it takes hundreds of volunteers to put on the contest.
Cindy: “Most of my volunteers (in the judging room)… have been doing it for years. It’s like: ‘I’ve been wondering when you would call.’”
Bruce: “If we can get somebody to come help, we’ll generally get them hooked; they’ll want to come help more in the future. It’s just talking them into coming the first time.”
Both of the Campbells hope the spirit of giving will become infectious. As a kid, Bruce remembers watching his father volunteer.
Bruce: “After we started as adults, we tried to volunteer to do things.
“Still do. I’ve been out of teaching for 17 years, but I still run the clock at the football games and the girls basketball games.”
Cindy: “I think that when people work together, it is so amazing what you can put on — or what you can accomplish. And the joy that it brings to other people …”
Bruce: “It’s become a way of life.”
Want to go to the National Oldtime Fiddlers Contest & Festival?
It’s held every year during the third full week in June.
Contest: 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday, June 20-24. Night round begins at 6:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday, June 25. Grand champion round is Saturday night. See FiddleContest.org for detailed schedule, tickets, camping.
Festival: Noon-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, June 21-25. Live music and entertainment, food, art and crafts, carnival, instrument raffle and banjo silent auction. City Park, on East Court Street beside the Courthouse. Parade is noon on Saturday in downtown Weiser. See schedule at FiddleContest.org.
Also: Weiser banjo contest. 2-8:30 p.m. June 18 and 19. Sign up or listen. See BanjoContest.org
Want to volunteer? Call 208-414-0255.