In the second of our series on collections, we’re exploring the history and memorabilia – particularly the paintings – of the Tall Stacks Festivals held right here in Cincinnati.
Tall Stacks originated as a festival to celebrate the bicentennial of Cincinnati in 1988. Fourteen riverboats (aka tall stacks) dotted the Ohio River, and a crowd of over 700,000 people came to see them. Among the festivities was a race between Delta Queen and Belle of Louisville, the same boats that race in Louisville in the days leading up to the Kentucky Derby.
Because the festival was such a hit and drew such a large crowd, the city of Cincinnati decided to continue holding the festival, although not annually due to the large amount of work and funding needed to make it happen. Subsequent events were held in 1992, 1995, 1999, 2003, and 2006, with crowds numbering up to 900,000. The festival has been tentatively scheduled to return a few times since, but funding, logistics, and the lack of working riverboats has caused it to be cancelled each time.
In addition to seeing the riverboats, festival visitors could talk to volunteers dressed in period clothing and have their pictures taken, listen to music performed by several groups, eat food from numerous vendors, and of course, buy souvenirs. Memorabilia commemorating the event included pins, sweatshirts, t-shirts, trivets, mugs, hats, Christmas decorations, puzzels shot glasses, posters and photos. But the most sought after, and most valuable today, were the prints of a painting commissioned by the city and created by a local artist.
Frank McElwain is a Cincinnati native and resident of Walnut Hills. His paintings of the city are well-known and adorn the walls of many local businesses and homes. Organizers of the 1988 festival approached McElwain and asked him to create a painting depicting the riverboats that would be attending the festival. Imagining how 14 boats would look on the Ohio River at one time, the artist created a scene that included every one of them before they ever appeared in Cincinnati.
Only 500 prints were made of the painting, and 475 of them were sold for $300 each. The remaining 25 were remarques, which means the artist added a pencil sketch on the border of the print, and they sold for $500. The prints were so well-received that McElwain was asked to paint renditions for the next five festivals as well. Sometimes the paintings were during the day, other times they were at night. The 1999 painting focused specifically on the river and the boats because McElwain thought the construction of the new stadium made the riverbank an eyesore. But the one constant throughout all the paintings was that all the riverboats attending the festival that year were included, even the year when 19 boats participated.
Today, souvenirs from the Tall Stacks Festivals are quite collectable, especially in the Tri-State area. The most sought after memorabilia are the McElwain prints because of their uniqueness and limited number. A remarque print from the 1988 Tall Stacks Festival can sell for up to $2,200 because they sold out immediately at the inaugural event and are hard to find.
If you were fortunate enough to attend a Tall Stacks Festival, enjoy your memories and souvenirs, because it doesn’t look like the festival will be returning anytime soon. And if you would like some memorabilia from one of the events, it’s out there, you just have to look for it.