If asked to name the core of the Jeep universe, many would answer Toledo, Ohio. Butler, Pennsylvania, has a bone to pick with that, given that the first jeep vehicle was built there by the American Bantam Car Company in September, 1940. Bantam has long endured the proverbial “raw deal” by not being better remembered for developing a jeep-type vehicle, but Butler intends to correct that. For 2011 and the following four years, Butler will be hosting a Jeep Festival at the fairgrounds. It’s intended as a lavish, all-encompassing event for Jeep and 4x4 fans, but the pivot point is the connection to Bantam and the development of the jeep.
The ’11 Bantam Heritage Festival started off with a bang. Butler had the idea to set a new world’s record for the biggest Jeep parade. The Guinness World Record people were drafted to certify the result, 1,106 Jeeps. Miles and miles of Jeeps of every type and description, including four restored ’41 Bantam BRC40s. Butler police estimated the crowd lining Main Street for the parade at 35,000, a pretty good turnout for a city of 14,000.
Just a few miles northwest of Butler on Route 422, the Butler County Fairgrounds hosted 35,000 Jeep fans Saturday and Sunday, August 13 and 14, as well as 91 product vendors and 664 registered show-and-shine Jeeps. If it was a Jeep, had even a minuscule amount of Jeep DNA, or shared in Jeep history, you found at least one example there, whether rusted, restored, or built-to-hilt. Sponsors were many and varied, including Jeep and Quadratec in the anchor positions but 4Wheel Drive Hardware, Nemacolin Offroad Driving Academy, Rausch Creek Off-Road Park, and 25 more helped the Butler County Tourism & Convention Bureau carry off the event.
One of the motivations behind the Festival is to acquire and restore the last remaining Bantam factory building. Owned by AK Steel, Butler’s largest single employer, it isn’t used and is falling into disrepair. The idea is to turn the building into a museum. AK Steel has indicated that it might be willing to donate the building, but the repairs and renovation would be the responsibility of whatever organization is formed to manage the process. Step one is to raise lots of money, and to that end the Festival managed to put $20,000 into the coffers. Hopefully that’s just seed money.
American Jeep fans came from as far away as Texas and California for the festival and five other countries were represented, including Australia, Iceland, and India. Next year will probably be even better, so what’s your excuse for not going? Info on the 2012 Bantam Heritage Festival can be found at www.bantamjeepfestival.com.