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The Stories Behind the Storytelling

Timpanogos Festival Celebrates 30 Years

Natalie Hollingshead | Photos by Kevin Kiernan Jul 1, 2019

Thirty years ago, Karen Ashton set up three tents in her Orem, Utah, backyard beside a horse pasture next door. She invited friends, family and community members to the first Timpanogos Storytelling Festival — and reminded them to watch their step.

From those humble beginnings, the festival has grown into an internationally known event attended by thousands. Eventually, the backdrop moved from her yard to the gorgeous Ashton Gardens at Thanksgiving Point (a nonprofit founded by Karen and husband Alan), and this Sept. 5-7 the three-day festival celebrates 30 years of telling tales tall and small.

Even though Ashton didn’t know exactly how the festival would unfold from the beginning, she always had the feeling it would be a success story.

“I think storytelling is so close to the heart of all human beings,” she says. “It’s the way we put life together, it’s the way we daydream, it’s the way we hope and wish.”

Attendees enjoying the entertainment at the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival.
Woman on a stage telling a story
Storyteller Sheila Arnold engages the crowd at the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival.
Big dog puppet with a moustache
Puppetss are used by performers to tell stories at the festival.

The Back Story

As parents of 11 children, Ashton and her husband have always been storytellers. But her formal introduction to storytelling festivals came when she attended the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee.

“I thought I was going to see little old ladies telling variations of ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ but I was blown away,” she recalls. “I heard tales from Africa and the Yukon, from Greek mythology, stories about the Civil War and slavery. These personal stories were told in a way that remind us that we are members of the human race, and we have a great deal more in common than we think.”

Ashton was an Orem Public Library board member at the time and hosted the first storytelling festival to raise money for a children’s wing. Decades later, the event is a can’t-miss weekend for many families throughout the United States, Canada and around the world.

“In our digital age, people have forgotten what it’s like to have someone spin a yarn and to be totally and absolutely captivated,” she says. “We’ve forgotten, because television and movies are so amazing. But the act of being told a story and developing the picture in your own mind is really addictive.”

band with four members perform on a stage
Joshua Creek performs at the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival.
Pizza cooking in a wood fired oven
Malawi's Pizza is one of many food options at the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival.
Horrifying puppet used to induce nightmares
Puppets are used by performers to tell stories at the festival.

Not the Same Old Story

The festival falls under the umbrella of the nonprofit Timpanogos Storytelling Institute, which hosts other events year-round, including school storytelling programs and workshops, public concerts, and an annual conference.

During the festival, tellers take to the stage at venues across the gardens and share a huge variety of stories. The evening events are based on themes such as Bedtime Stories, Shivers in the Night, My Favorite Stories and Laughin’ Night.

To hear Ashton tell it, the talent is so phenomenal that the main difficulty is deciding where to listen first.

“There is no way to see and hear all the stories that are going to be performed, so just make your choice, and sit back in your chair or cuddle up with your children if they’re with you, and just listen,” she recommends.

Although new talent takes the stage every year, many are repeat favorites from years past, including celebrated storyteller Donald Davis of North Carolina.  

“The Timpanogos Storytelling Festival is the most carefully programmed storytelling festival in the United States,” Davis says. “You can be guaranteed that the whole family will find fun, humor and excitement. It is a favorite festival for the tellers as well as those who come to listen.”

Beyond entertainment, Ashton hopes hearing stories will spark memories from the past and leave people with a sense of importance for their own oral history.

“My fondest wish and greatest triumph would be to get people to write down their own stories and tell them to their children or pass them along in any way,” Ashton says. 

peaches and cream dessert
Peaches and cream is a traditional treat at the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival.
Woman telling stories to an audience
Dovie Thomason shares a story of "the wolf" at the Shivers in the Night portion of the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival.
Woman stands next to a stool on stage
Clare Murphy tells a story at the Shivers in the Night portion of the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival.

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