This weekend should have been a fun one in Somerset.
The annual Master Musicians Festival was scheduled to be held July 17 and 18. Blues Traveler was going to be here. Festival Field was going to be rocking.
But as with so many things, the ramifications of COVID-19 have spoiled the fun. Festival Field was quiet this weekend; no songs but those of birds. No dancing, but the swaying of the grass in the wind.
“It’s just sad,” said Tiffany Finley, executive director and board president of MMF for the last decade. “I’m trying not to be bummed, but my body today has felt this uncontrollable emotion of sadness.”
Indeed, for someone as familiar with the MMF routine as Finley, it’s almost muscle memory — each year at this time, you do a lot of work to set up the event in the field behind Somerset Community College and then take it down again.
But what a lot of people might not consider is that “Festival Field” is more than just a nice place to hold a concert.
What had been just an empty field behind the college, located off of Monticello Street in Somerset, was transformed in the mid-1990s into a public-access nature trail and educational asset to the college. Credit goes to retired biology professor Loris Sherman, who led the Somerset Community College Earth Day Festival for many years.
“It was (Sherman’s) idea from the very beginning,” said Cindy Clouse, SCC’s Vice President of Institutional Advancement. “... It was just an open field. There was nothing there.”
The SCC Nature Trail is more than just pretty scenery — it’s home to a variety of outdoor animal life and vegetation. There are 15 marker signs along the way that desribe different tupes of trees you might see, or the birds in the area; for instance, marker no. 13 explains how to differentiate types of birds by the shape of their beaks.
The trail — as well as it signs and features — was developed over the years by students enrolled in Service Learning sections of SCC Human Ecology classes.
Some of those features include an established wetlands area; natural grasses in a “no-mow” zone; a butterfly garden; and a batbox — which sounds like a tool from the 1960s “Batman” TV show but is in fact similar to a birdhouse, an artificial place for bats to roost.
Clouse said that grants for organizations like Eastern Kentucky PRIDE (Personal Responsibility In a Desirable Environment) help pay for the signage and different aspects of the nature trail.
It’s a great place to get your exercise in as well. Many people use it as a walking path, and if you want to get a bit more active, there are tennis and basketball courts located at the front of the area (though they are currently closed due to COVID-19 concerns).
While there is a gate, the trail is free and open to the public for use at any time; the gate is just there to prevent cars from driving through, said Clouse.
Going deep back into the clearing, one will find a bench set up in a memorial area dedicated to three individuals who died in a plane crash on those grounds on November 20, 2003. For those only at Nature Trail during the music festival, the memorial might go unseen in the area behind the stage, but an image of the Beechcraft Bonanza airplane that had just taken off from the nearby airport can be seen on the bench, along with the victims’ names.
A whole trip around the trail — including covering most of the two loops on the southern side — will take you approximately .90 miles. It’s a nice, brisk walk in the midst of nature, yet not so far removed from civilization as to feel unsafe; indeed, the college’s buildings are only yards away.
MMF brought another feature to the trail’s grounds — electricity. In 2005, the festival moved from Somersport Park to SCC — “I think that we were outgrowing the parking that was available at Somersport, as well as the available infrastructure,” said former MMF director Robyn Baker.
She noted that the festival solicited donations and volunteer workers to install an underground power system that would provide electricity for the stage and all the vendor sites, leaving it in place year-round. Near the front of the trail, you’ll notice several electrical outlets coming out of the ground.
Baker said workers from South Kentucky RECC, Kentucky Utilities, and area cable companies volunteered their time and skills to install the electrical infrastructure.
“It was cool when it was finished,” said Baker.
Festival Field and the SCC Nature Trail have become something of a local marvel: A sylvan clearing with beautiful views that allows you to feel at one with nature, and enough modern touches to allow a large-scale music festival for this area to take place there each year. For MMF, it’s the perfect home, but it’s worth visiting any other time of year as well.
“People ask us all the time if we want to move to various places and give us suggestions,” said Finley. “Our answer is always the same: We have the best set-up that we could have at SCC. It’s the best location, the best parking. It’s right in the middle of Somerset. The college is so good to us. It’s just magical.”