Bluegrass music performed by one of the dozen bands at the Johnson-Witkemper Insurance Biggest Block Party Ever was as sizzling as the 92-degree heat.
That’s when Saturday evening’s event could have used the Biggest Block of Ice Ever to cool things downtown along Washington and Fourth streets in Columbus.
Marti Baker came prepared — sort of.
She sat in the shade listening to the tunes and waving a fan she brought. She said she was a fan of the event no matter what the thermometer read — and would stay until the end.
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“I should have brought five dozen of these things from home and sold them right over there,” Baker said with a laugh as she looked over others glistening with sweat.
Staff from 240sweet also came prepared for the day’s stickiness and ickiness. They were selling what they labeled frozen hot chocolate, with a rich, chilled cup of it sitting at the edge of their booth to temp passersby. Steven Hackney got a few puzzled looks from people.
“It’s like a milkshake consistency with the taste of hot chocolate,” Hackney said. “I’ve had to do a little explaining.”
The idea of the block party is to quench Columbus’ thirst for varied entertainment while also raising money for much the nonprofit Columbus Area Arts Council’s programming, such as First Fridays for Families, Noon Kids Concerts and JCB NeighborFEST. The evening featured rock, country, bluegrass and other musical styles, plus children’s activities and games in the Hilliard Lyons Kids Zone.
In the past few years, most of the gatherings have raised about $30,000.
Though the forecast Saturday morning called for rain in the afternoon, Mother Nature provided a beautiful, sunny canopy for the gathering. Rain came in 2014 just as the headliner was taking the stage.
Kathryn Armstrong, new arts council executive director, said she thought the crowd, a bit thin in the first hour, would be substantial by near dark especially with precipitation nowhere near. The event was slated to last until 11 p.m.
“Summer is such a busy time for so many people with multiple things going on. I definitely think a lot of people are waiting, and will be here later,” Armstrong said early in the evening.
Those already on hand were enjoying themselves. In the children’s area, volunteer Whitney Hartwell led kids in making homemade masks. Nearby 8-year-old Bobby Witt challenged dad Reggie Witt to an oversized chess match with pieces nearly as big as him.
Mary Witt, Bobby’s mother and Reggie’s wife, said the trio was glad to see such events in which the whole family could participate.
“We needed something to get us out of the house,” she said. “Even with the (earlier inclement) weather (forecast), we thought we’d still give it a go.”
Most people said they came for the mix of food and music. The staff at Indiana Smokehouse said they expected demand for items such as their signature pulled pork to increase as the night wore on and the crowd grew.
The crowd certainly seemed to enjoy the bands. Classic rock band Back in the Day got a few people moving and grooving when it kicked off a set with a dead-on rendition of Boston’s “Foreplay/Long Time.” Under the shady protection of store awnings along Fourth Street, young mom Leah Mills bounced 1-year-old daughter Savannah in her arms in time to the beat of the song while her husband, Elijah, grinned.
“We grew up with this music,” Leah said.
Nearby, Ed Niespodziani took in the tunes.
“I come to listen to it all,” said the founder of the American Pie concert performed annually at Columbus North High School.
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