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Hometown Heroes Power Betty Zane Days in Martins Ferry

photo by: Robert A. DeFrank

Sisters Karlie Anderson, left, and Skylar Freese of Martins Ferry get some festive face painting during Betty Zane Days on Friday.

MARTINS FERRY — Elizabeth “Betty” Zane is known as the heroine of the Battle of Fort Henry, so it is fitting that the festival that today bears her name has been run by hometown heroes for the past 22 years.

Betty Zane Days was launched in Martins Ferry to commemorate Zane’s courageous act during the Revolutionary War, when it is said that she braved enemy fire in 1782 to retrieve gunpowder for the defenders of Fort Henry at the site of present day Wheeling. Zane later married and moved to Martins Ferry, where she is buried at Walnut Grove Cemetery.

Each summer for decades, the four-day festival has been held in her honor. And it has been a project of the Martins Ferry Fire Department for more than two decades.

Fire Chief I Tom Kelly recalls that up until 2000, a group of city employees had run Betty Zane Days with the support of the city.

“They came to me and asked me if I wanted to take it over,” he said. “They handed me a checkbook that had $400, so I gambled.”

“They were going to let it go, but Chief Kelly picked it up,” Chief II Ron Hilton said.

Hilton has been a member of the fire department for 30 years and has been part of Betty Zane Days throughout the department’s involvement.

“I’m a lifelong resident of Martins Ferry. I remember going to Betty Zane Days since I was young, and throughout the years I’ve been … working it,” he said.

Festival-goers have noticed several differences over the years. The fire department would eventually discontinue selecting a “Ms. Betty Zane” due to lack of interest and participation. Another change was shifting vendors away from booths to canopies. And the rides and entertainment have evolved as well.

“We used to have a lot more mechanical rides, bigger carnival rides. But due to insurance purposes and carnivals no longer in existence, we’ve gone more towards inflatables and those sorts of amusements,” Hilton said. “We always try to put on the best possible show we can, within our means. We’re not some big million-dollar organization. We’re a nonprofit, fundraising organization.”

“When we took over we had the Ferris wheel, we had the rides,” Kelly said. “A small company can’t afford to have recreational rides like that because we charge $10 a day for all kids to ride. If we were to have somebody come in with all these rides, people would have to pay at least $25 a ticket, so I’d rather see kids come two or three days than one time, or maybe none.”

“A lot of it’s stayed the same. We still have good support from the community,” Hilton said. “The community really backs the Martins Ferry Fire Department, which we really appreciate.”

“A lot of thanks goes out to our wives,” Kelly said. “If it wasn’t for some of the wives, it’d be tough, but they put in just as much effort.”

The weather is one factor that cannot be controlled. Hilton said the fire department was monitoring the weather this week, but only in extreme cases would the festival be canceled. He added that the scheduled corn bag toss tournament could be postponed or called off in the worst case.

“Usually we try to hunker it down if it (severe weather) only lasts 10-15 minutes and reopen it right back up,” Hilton said.

“We take a gamble … if it rains, we lose,” Kelly said. “We can’t make that money up. … What happens if it rains every day? We’ve still got to pay.”

He said the department was hit hard last year, when heavy rain caused organizers to cancel a day’s events.

“Last year we lost one day. It made a world of difference, it killed us,” Kelly said. “It poured real bad. I shut the whole thing down. If somebody gets hurt … safety’s first.”

“The dates are set in stone throughout the year. We’ve got four days to get this in, and we just try to do the best we can,” Hilton said.

Kelly thanked the band Twice as Nice, which played Thursday. The weather meant Thursday’s events were cut short, and the band did not charge the full amount.

“That was very nice, what they did,” Kelly said.

Kelly said the department has persisted with the festival in the face of rising costs for department operations and difficulty in gaining and retaining firefighters.

“We’ve lost a lot of people, a lot of volunteers,” Kelly said. “You have to go to school now to be a volunteer, and that costs money we pay for.”

He said the department pays more than $3,000 for an individual’s training, which can be reimbursed. Regulations also call for providing new gear for each new firefighter, since another firefighter’s gear cannot be shared due to the chance of sweat and contaminants. Many firefighters also move to paid departments in other areas but continue to do some work in Martins Ferry.

“There is a lot of family tradition, too. You’ll have sons, grandsons and granddaughters stay in the fire department, so a lot of it’s family oriented,” Hilton said.

Kelly added that the fire department also donates to community causes and events.

Kelly reminds everyone that a fireworks display will begin at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 6.

“Saturday we’re going out with a bang!”

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