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In the dark of Winter, an idea is born
One dreary Winter afternoon in 1978, Worley Gardner and his friend Sloan Staggs from Romney, WV found themselves complaining to each other (again) how dull Winter was without the festivals and other gatherings of Summer where they could swap tunes and jam with other musicians. And suddenly they realized that they could change that for themselves and all the musicians that they knew. In that excited moment, the Winter Music Festival was born.
The first winter music festival was held the last weekend of February 1979 at Marilla Center (now the home of BOPARC's office). The charming but small main room held the performances and the square dance that Worley called in his inimitable style. Musicians looking for space to jam crowded into the boiler room. Despite the near blizzard conditions raging outside, the event was a huge success. Such a success, in fact, that the festival was moved to the Morgantown Arts Center the following year. Sadly, Sloan Staggs did not live to see the festival as it grew. The joy of the third year's festival was dimmed by the news that Sloan had died the very day of the festival.
But there was no stopping a good thing. Worley and his wife Margaret spent their Christmas personally writing invitations to musicians and dancers in West Virginia and beyond, as they continued to do for 14 years until Worley died. For the sixth year of the festival, Worley obtained the sponsorship of BOPARC, the local recreation board, and the festival, still growing, moved to South Junior High School where it remains.
On November 10, 1992, Worley Gardner died. Worley was renowned as a square dance caller and for the hammered dulcimers that he played, designed, and built along with his brother Asel. In October 1977 he performed as a featured musician at the Smithsonian's Festival of American Folklife. He was also featured in a CBS radio broadcast about mountain music in 1985. Worley was sorely missed by all those who knew him. The Winter Music Festival, renamed the Worley Gardner Winter Music Festival after his death, is one of his best legacies.
Determined to keep the festival alive, Margaret Gardner, who had always hosted the festival with her husband, led the festival committee until her death on December 29, 2000. After Worley's death, she was helped by a number of local supporters. As a result, the festival lives on and in fact continues to grow. Each year the festival is attended by over 300 musicians from several states as well as many appreciative listeners; music lovers from around the area. After Margaret's death the festival was renamed the Gardner Winter Music Festival so as to include Margaret in the name.
There are many of us who are deeply grateful to the Gardners for their contribution to keeping the rich legacy of West Virginia's traditional music alive, and for giving us all something wonderful to look forward to in the deep, dreary days of February. May it always be so!