Cohocton tree sitting contest returns, with big changes

Bob Clark

After being cut down, The Cohocton Tree Sitting Contest is back by popular demand Oct. 5-7.

After last year's contest, the Cohocton Fall Foliage Festival Committee made the decision to ax the contest for a variety of reasons.

For starters, the trees have had people climbing in and out of them for the contest over the last 40 years, and the trees are now quite old and several have large, unsafe limbs.

“We lost at least three trees to storms this summer,” said Rob Waite, tree sitting contest coordinator.

There also has been a lack of volunteers to watch tree sitters, according to Waite, which led to cheating among contestants in the past. Organizers also felt that the contest needed more action to bring in more participants and spectators.

To deal with these issues, the committee made four major rule changes to the contest to keep it running:

l The contest is now a team event. Teams of three to five people can form a team to compete. Tree sitters are only required to spend a minimum of two hours before they can get down.

l The teams will compete in three different competitions against other teams throughout the weekend. Each competition involve a number of physical events, like shooting baskets; and puzzles, like matching games. The events are timed, and the team with the lowest combined time from all three competitions wins.

“You don't win by how long you sit in the tree,” said Waite, adding the new rules allow any team to win, not just those who are capable of not going to the bathroom for three days.

l Contestants will not sit in the trees, but will sit in Air Chairs, swinging hammock chairs donated by the Air Chair Company, so the trees will not be harmed by people crawling up and down for activities and tree sitter shift changes.

l The contest will only run from 5-11 p.m. Friday, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday, and 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday for safety reasons, and to reduce the number of volunteers needed to watch contestants.

The prize money also has increased. The first-place prize this year is $300. The team in second place will receive $250, while the third-place team will receive $200. The youngest team will receive a $25 gift certificate to Carey's Grocery, and the oldest team will receive a $25 gift certificate to Laf-A-Lot. Three other special prizes of $50 each will also be presented.

The team format also allows charities to send teams to compete.

Several sitters in the past have donated prize money to charities, and the new rules make it easier for local charities to cash in.

“Teams can be from non-profit organizations, too, and donate the winnings to the organization,” Waite added.

There are 16 trees out in front of the elementary school, allowing up to 16 teams to compete. As of Friday, only two teams were registered.

“We want at least five or six,” Waite said, “If we get three more teams, we'll be great.”

The rules have gradually evolved over the years since the first contest was held in 1968.

Four residents sat in the trees during the first contest: Mike Gillman, Nancy Carey and Betsy Burns, all 15, and Edith Strobel, 84.

Very simple rules were enacted the first year, allowing the sitters to have alternates, which allowed contestants to go play in the Spud Jug soccer game.

Despite rule changes over the years, the contest has had greater staying power than the previous headlining feature of the festival - a phrenology convention. Phrenology is the pseudoscience of determining a person's personality by reading the bumps on their head.

According to the Oct. 13, 1968 edition of the Elmira Sunday Telegram, “The feature event of the festival, a phrenology convention... had been more or less a failure.”

The paper also reported that the “Cohocton Society to Keep Phrenology Alive,” invited all the 1968 presidential candidates to have their heads examined by society members, but none came to the festival.

The Cohocton Fall Foliage Festival runs from Oct. 4-7, with most events at the Cohocton Elementary School campus.

For more information, call Keryn Shaver at (585) 728-5635 or Rob Waite at (607) 556-3580. Tree sitting contest applications are available at the Wayland-Cohocton Central School Guidance Office and the Cohocton Town Hall, and on the festival's Web site at www.fallfoliagefestival.com.