NEWPORT — Every year Dexter hosts the Maine Red Hot Dog Festival and Hartland hosts the Potato Festival.

Now it’s Newport’s turn to start a tradition.

The first Riverwalk Festival, which the town plans to turn into an annual event, was held Saturday, beginning at 10 a.m. with a parade down Main Street and ending with a street dance on Water Street until 11 p.m.

Town officials and residents alike said that the town was ready to have its own celebration to bring the community together.

“I think it’s great. It’s a way to get more of a community feeling in town,” said Jennifer Bryant, who had a table for her small business, Whispering Wethers Farm, at the event. “They definitely needed something.”

Debra Ricker, a member of the event committee and the wife of Town Manager Jim Ricker, said people often would comment about how almost every other nearby town had annual celebrations, but Newport had none.

After nearly two years of planning, the festival came to life.

“It’s wonderful,” Debra Ricker said. “This park was my husband’s vision.”

The park along the Sebasticook River featured children’s activities such as bounce houses and a dunk tank, as well as a craft fair and farmer’s market. There were also art displays and a car show throughout the day.

The turnout for the day was “tremendous,” Jim Ricker said.

He got the idea for a festival after the creation of the Riverwalk, a park along the Sebasticook River.

“We had the venue, so I thought we should take advantage of it,” he said.

An important part of the festival is the free activities for children, he said.

“That’s something that got lost a long time ago,” he said, as county fairs that used to be free imposed ticket costs.

Now, he said, it can be hard for a family of five to go to a local fair, so the town wanted to provide some free and fun games for families.

To keep the children’s games free, the town turned to businesses for support.

“The business community has come together to create this,” Debra Ricker said. Most of the sponsors and donors were local small businesses, she said, and while the events committee still needed some town support, they’re hoping to be completely self-sufficient next year with full business participation.

Phyllis Mosley, a Dexter resident and one of the artists from the Sebasticook Valley Arts Alliance, said she thinks the number of vendors probably will double next year.

One of the tables featured an art activity for children and adults that will preserve the day for the community.

Timothy Goulet, a member of the Newport Historical Society committee, brought tiles to decorate. Later they’ll be arranged and framed by an artist and hung in places around town, such as the Riverwalk Yoga Center, before coming to rest at the town’s Cultural Center.

“I was thinking of what we could do that would best represent all the artistic talent in the town, and get our voices on the record,” Goulet said. Before the parade even ended, about 30 people had completed a tile.

Members of the Kennebec Chapter of Trout Unlimited, which aims to preserve and protect coldwater fishing waters, also attended the event and presented a slideshow on the environmental changes in Maine lakes and rivers before demonstrating how to fly-fish.

The town of Newport realigned the Sebasticook River 15 years ago to match its original flow, which was disrupted a century ago by the installation of the Main Street Dam and a spillway. The dam was taken out, a fish ladder was put in at the North Street Dam, and the old impoundment area was drained to create the park now known as Riverwalk, which was crowded with vendors, the arts and children’s games Saturday.

The realignment has helped fish migrate up the river to the fish ladder, which helps them continue on. It’s one example of a push to bring Maine rivers and lakes back to their natural standing.

Before the 1970s, when the Clean Water Act was approved, there were whole towns that “smelled like sulfur” because of their paper mills, according to Willie Grenier, a member of Trout Unlimited and a retired teacher in Clinton.

Acid rain from the pollution nearly destroyed Maine fishing, he said, and nearly every town along the Sebasticook and Kennebec rivers dumped waste into the water.

Grenier showed one photo from 1958 that showed bad milk being discharged into the river near Newport.

The push to keep the waters of Maine and elsewhere clean is imperative, he said. “There’s no planet B.”

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour

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