Family hoedown continues tradition at Kutztown Folk Festival


Lester Miller led demonstrations of American folk dancing at the Kutztown Folk Festival for 40 years. At 84, he’s become a familiar face delighting visitors to America’s oldest continuously running folk festival.

Calling it traditional hoedown, he orchestrates the lively, energetic moves on stage at four shows each day. The demonstrations feature four generations of the Miller family, including four daughters, 15 grandchildren and 27 great-grandchildren.

Lester Miller (left) performs with his great-grandson, Breckyn Losito, between performances of the Miller Family Hoedown. (Matt Smith for WHY)
Sam Schaeffer (left) and his sister Maggie Schaeffer perform in the Miller Family Hoedown with Kiersten Miller and Lucas Blatt (right) during the Kutztown Folk Festival. (Matt Smith for WHYY)
Young dancers (left to right) Sarah Schaeffer, Eli Blatt, Jayda Rutherford and Caleb Rutherford leave the stage after a performance by the Miller Family Hoedown. (Matt Smith for WHY)

The real charm of the Miller family comes not just from the dancing, but from the efforts of a multi-generational family to uphold the traditions of the past as each new generation is born into a future that seems so much further away.

“There’s a satisfaction in seeing people in the crowd and their eyes light up,” Miller said. “It’s energetic. And you don’t see a lot of family members all participating together anywhere.

The nine-day festival draws more than 100,000 people from across the country to the small town just 70 miles northwest of Philadelphia to celebrate the traditions of the Pennsylvania Dutch.

When the Kutztown Folk Festival opened in the summer of 1950, it was Lester’s grandmother, Emma Miller, who baked the funnel cakes for the first visitors. His mother also sold these treats at Viola Miller’s Funnel Cakes while young Lester hung out on the festival grounds.

Now attendees can see Lester Miller’s own children and grandchildren perform with him at hoedown demonstrations, making it six generations of the Miller family who have been so deeply ingrained in this community event from its inception to ‘nowadays.

Members of the Miller Family perform for a crowd during the Miller Family Hoedown on July 5, 2018, during the Kutztown Folk Festival in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. (Matt Smith for WHY)

The annual gathering has become a unique gathering as the family spends the entire day together, either on stage or 50 feet away from it in their gathering area.

Miller’s daughter, Julie Miller, first took to the stage when she was 6 years old.

“This will be my 45th year dancing at the festival,” she said. “And yet, every year, I look forward to spending time with my family who also dance. As well as watching the new generation of dancers learn our family traditions.

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