Our story begins in small-town America.
The American Bantam Car Company of Butler, Pennsylvania built the very first “Jeep®” Vehicle, the BRC 40, in the early 1940s. The small auto manufacturer won the initial U.S. Army contract to produce these vehicles. However Bantam was unable to fill the high production demands of the military despite having the superior design. Willys-Overland MA and Ford Motor Company had also submitted prototypes, and were awarded the bulk of future orders. Only 2,605 Bantam BRCs (Bantam Reconnaissance Car) were ever produced. The history of the Bantam BRC is why the town of Butler is considered the “Birthplace of the Jeep.”
To commemorate and educate people on the roots of the Jeep, The Friends of the Bantam Jeep Association, Inc. (FBJA) launched a festival in 2011. The Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival, now in it’s seventh year, is held annually on the second weekend in June at nearby Cooper’s Lake Campground. The two day, family (and dog) friendly festival has on-site off-road trails, a Jeep Playground (with obstacles and a mud pit) and a Jeep History Exhibit.
A “Jeep Invasion” parades thousands of Jeeps into downtown Butler on Friday night and a block party ensues. A huge vendor area allows attendees to shop over 150 companies for parts, accessories, upgrades and gear. There is also a marketplace area (think Jeep flea market) to buy and sell used parts and memorabilia. Most Jeepers would be sold by this point, but how about all this additional fun:
- All-you-can-eat wing fest
- “Little Jeepers” playground for kids
- How-to clinics
- Best of Bantam era-specific judging area
- A WWII military encampment
- Outstanding food vendors
The 2017 Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival was held this past weekend and is the setting for our Jeep love story.
Our Story Begins
I needed a car. I wanted a Jeep. My budget however, was preventing me from getting what I wanted. I woke up on this particular Saturday knowing that I was going to purchase a vehicle by day’s end. It was February 6, 2016, and I was doomed to settle for a 2013 Ford Fusion. Or, so I thought.
A 2008 Wrangler X in “Detonator Yellow” sat on a used car lot outside of Binghamton, New York. Over my morning coffee I discovered the listing for the Yellow Jeep online. It wasn’t the color I wanted. It had two less doors than I wanted. It had 40,000 more miles on it than I wanted. It did have the main feature(other than price) that I did want in my next vehicle. It was a jeep.
I rushed to ask my wife if she was up for a short road trip, as Binghamton is only an hour from our home. I told her about the Jeep, the high milage and the lack of four doors. A lesser woman would have said to just get the Fusion. Not my wife. She said “I always liked yellow.”
We drove to Binghamton. We took a test drive that included dropping the Jeep into 4WD and running a trail along some nearby railroad tracks. We returned to the dealership, the Jeep covered in mud, and made ourselves a deal. An hour later, I had my Jeep. They washed it up nicely before snapping this picture…
Over the past 16 months my wife has endured what most women married to Jeep owners endure. The mysterious appearance of brown boxes on the front porch. Weekend family days that couldn’t get underway until I got out from underneath the Jeep. Upgrades that “force” you into other upgrades. And oh, that ridiculous Jeep Wave. How she tolerates me, let alone loves me, I have learned not to question and just consider myself very blessed.
In 16 months she has helped me build my 2008 Wrangler X into a truly trail-ready, show quality, canine-themed JK. It’s my daily driver, and we use it to pick up and drop off dogs for her dog grooming business. Hence, we named the Jeep (as all Jeeps should have names ) The RuBARKon.
The Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival is like the Woodstock of Jeep-dom. We registered online for “Bantam” months ago, and blocked the weekend off on our calendar. I feared that this event could potentially throw my wife into Jeep overload. She never ceases to surprise and amaze me, and this weekend was no exception. She loaded up on Jeep swag for herself, while making sure to secure a sweet Bantam T-shirt for my Father’s Day bundle. The bundle included a Bantam Jeep fest pin, which she affixed to the sun visor on her side of the Jeep. Every adventure we take together we make sure to memorialize it with a pin.
Bantam blew me away. I have never seen so many Jeeps in one place in my life. It was truly like an alternate universe. We arrived at Cooper’s Lake Campground late Friday afternoon and were overwhelmed by the thousands of Jeeps in the parking areas, running the trails and on display. The vendor area was amazing, loaded with legendary manufacturers like Skyjacker, Teraflex and Dana-Spicer. Jeep shops and dealerships had booths ready to fulfill your wildest Wrangler desires. We spent a few hours getting our bearings (and making a shopping list), knowing we would be invading Butler soon.
Invasion From The Planet Pentastar
Every Friday night of the festival, the town of Butler hosts the Jeep Invasion. Starting at just after 5 PM, Jeeps begin parading down Main Street. Over two thousand jeeps of all types are then lined up and down the main thoroughfare and the side streets. The invasion has twice set Guiness World Records for the largest Jeep parade. It’s like a pop-up Jeep-only car show, with food vendors and a DJ. Butler’s many fine establishments revel in the madness and offer great merchandise, food and music. The event runs until 9PM, and for 3+ hours, we were in Jeep Heaven.
As Jeeps enter an leave the event, it reminded me of a less-pretentious catwalk, with supermodel after supermodel killing it on high heels made by Maxxis and Mickey Thomspson. Expectations, exceeded.
We drove back to our hotel, tired from our long travel day and our first dose of Butler and Bantam. The non-stop stream of Jeeps on the highway was surreal. I flipped every street-legal ambient-light switch switch I had, embracing my ridiculousness. I felt the safety found in the numbers of my Jeep brethren, and the comfort of my wife’s head on my shoulder. Best. Day. Ever.
Then came Saturday.
I don’t have the time or the words to fully capture just what an amazing event is the Bantam Jeep Heritage Festival. As the organizers say, “If there is a Jeep in your driveway, it needs to be here!” My wife and I gobbled down our complimentary Holiday Inn Express breakfast (festival goers get discounted rates on local lodging) and made our way to the festival site. We received the royal treatment as our RuBARKon build was to be among the Jeeps being shown by Rugged Ridge at their large booth. Rugged Ridge/ Omix-ADA are one of the event’s sponsors, and manufacture popular accessories and parts for Jeeps. Much of the design of our Jeep was based on Rugged Ridge parts.
We were guided up onto a display rock, alongside three other beautiful Rugged Ridge Jeeps. Their booth was located just a stones throw from the Jeep History Exhibit, a must-see museum of classic Jeep vehicles. A steady flow of traffic streamed into and around the Rugged Ridge booth, and it was such a gas to see ours getting so much attention.
The festival has something for everyone, and all ages. Our bags filled up quickly with Jeep merch, catalogs, and souvenirs. Our bellies filled up with Greek food, which won out a tight contest between Gyros or BBQ.
Public Display Of Affection
This Jeep History Exhibit sponsored by Omix-ADA helps tell the story of how Bantam won and lost the contract to build the vehicle that helped win WWII. Make sure your camera batteries are charged, because you wont see anything quite like this anywhere else. Every Jeep owner should know that their Jeep was “Born in Bantam”, and how it came to be the vehicle we know today.
If Jeep owners didn’t love to play with their Jeeps, they’d drive, well, a Fusion. Bantam has off-road trails located right on the Cooper’s Lake Grounds. Regardless of your ability or your Jeep’s capability, there is a trail for you at Bantam. Off site off-roading is available through Moraine State Park, open only to festival participants. Another off-site run takes an up-close tour of local glacial formations. Tire manufacturer Atturo Tire sponsored the first ever “Babes of Bantam” trail ride on Saturday. Open to only female Jeepers who get coaching and advice from female coaches the sold-out event was a huge success. A Babes of Bantam T-shirt is a nifty little souvenir included in registering for this ride.
The Jeep Playground is the place to take your Jeep to get dirty, muddy and climb over stuff. You don’t want to miss this chance to see what you and your Jeep can do. Open to Jeeps of all levels and ability,
A good love story has a happy ending (Yes, “The Notebook” culminates in the passing of hand-holding octogenarians, but trust me, that’s happy). I ended my first Bantam trip watching my lovely wife put our mark on the “Roll Call” banner that attendees are encouraged to sign and decorate. True happiness is being loved for who you are and what you love, or in spite of it. Regardless, that’s the love we all should seek out in this world. I found mine.
I found it in an olive-drab key with four little letters on it that each day unlocks unlimited possibilities. I found it in a woman who helped make that dream a reality, and turns a blind eye to the sometimes nightmare of being married to this Jeeper, whilst never turning a cold shoulder. And brother that key and her hand, you couldn’t pry either away from me. Not a chance.
Can’t Wait until 2018?
FBJA just announced the first ever Bantam Jeep Fall Fest. Trail-centric (no museum or vendors) Open to just 300 Participants. Public registration begins July 1, and the two-day event is September 29-30.
Friday evening, September 29:
Meet and Greet at Cheeseman’s Fright Farm located less than 10 minutes away from Cooper’s Lake. Here you’ll pick up your registration goodies, meet up with other Jeep owners and enjoy a bonfire. Discounted, unlimited haunted hay rides will be available for purchase during event registration. Cheeseman’s also has a variety of food available.
Saturday, September 30:
8:30 – 11 a.m.: Registration packet pick up for those who didn’t attend Friday’s Meet and Greet.
9 a.m. – 4 p.m.: Trails and Jeep Playground open all day. The Heritage Region Jeep Alliance and Rausch Creek Off-road Park are managing these activities.
5 p.m. – 6 p.m.: Catered BBQ dinner (optional, available for purchase during registration)
7:00 – 11 p.m.: Night rides on two different stock trails
A food vendor will also be on-site to offer breakfast and lunch items to attendees.