The Thurston Classic: Meadville’s Historic Hot Air Balloon Festival | Visit Crawford County, PA

published on May 2024

The Thurston Classic: Meadville’s Historic Hot Air Balloon Festival

Family-friendly, Fun and Amusement, History and Culture

Every June, the skies of Meadville, Pennsylvania, come alive with a dazzling display of color and excitement at the Thurston Classic Hot Air Balloon Event. As one of Crawford County’s most anticipated annual traditions, this event celebrates the rich history of ballooning in the area, dating back to the daring feats of the Thurston family in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Visitors can look forward to an array of spectacular sights, including the enchanting Joyce Stevens Memorial Night Glow and competitive balloon flights. With free admission and activities for all ages, the Thurston Classic offers a perfect weekend getaway filled with awe-inspiring moments. Join us this Father’s Day weekend to witness the magic of hot air balloons and learn more about the heritage that makes this event truly special. 

The History

The Thurston Classic honors a rich legacy of ballooning in Meadville, Pennsylvania, dating back to the 19th century. This tradition began with Samuel Sylvester Thurston, who, inspired by renowned balloonist Professor John Steiner, made his first ascension on July 4, 1860. Over the next 25 years, Samuel conducted 215 public demonstrations, thrilling audiences with his aerial prowess and cementing Meadville’s fascination with hot air ballooning.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Alic Thurston made his public debut on July 4, 1891. Despite a dramatic first flight that saw his balloon entangled in electric lines, Alic’s adventurous spirit prevailed. He constructed several balloons, including a massive 65-foot high model named “Meadville,” capable of holding 35,000 cubic feet of gas. Alic’s flights often pushed the limits of what was possible, with ascensions reaching altitudes of 19,000 feet and journeys covering over 175 miles.

The modern Thurston Classic began in 1988, commemorating the daring feats of the Thurston family and celebrating Meadville’s bicentennial. Organized by passionate volunteers, the event quickly became a regional highlight. Each year, the skies over Crawford County fill with vibrant hot air balloons, creating a picturesque and unforgettable spectacle. The legacy of Samuel and Alic Thurston continues to inspire and captivate new generations, making the Thurston Classic a cherished tradition in the area.

Modern Day  

Today, the Thurston Classic has grown into a beloved annual event that attracts thousands of visitors to Meadville each June. This vibrant celebration of hot air ballooning spans several days and features a variety of activities that delight attendees of all ages. The event kicks off with the captivating Joyce Stevens Memorial Night Glow, where balloons are illuminated against the night sky, creating a mesmerizing display of color and light. 

Throughout the weekend, spectators can enjoy the sight of over 30 hot air balloons taking to the skies. These balloons, piloted by skilled aeronauts from across the country, participate in multiple launches from the Allegheny College Athletic Fields. Morning and evening flights offer breathtaking views as the balloons drift gracefully over Crawford County’s scenic landscape.

A key highlight of the Thurston Classic is the variety of unique and recurring balloons that grace the event, including favorites like the “Patriotic Eagle” and “High Kitty.” The event remains fresh and exciting each year, with new additions joining the lineup.

The Thurston Classic is more than just a visual spectacle; it is a community event that fosters local pride and camaraderie. The support of volunteers and local businesses is instrumental in its success, ensuring that the festival remains free and accessible to all. Families are encouraged to bring blankets and chairs, settle in for the evening, and enjoy food from local vendors while watching the balloons.

As the Thurston Classic continues to soar, it remains a testament to Meadville’s rich ballooning heritage and the enduring spirit of adventure that began with the Thurston family. Each year, this event brings the community together, drawing new visitors and creating lasting memories. Whether you’re a long-time attendee or a first-time visitor, the Thurston Classic offers an unforgettable experience filled with wonder and excitement.

Plan Your Visit

This year’s Thurston Classic will take place from Thursday, June 13 to Sunday, June 16, featuring all the beloved activities and stunning balloon displays that make this event so special. Stop by the Allegheny College Athletic Fields for the Night Glow, morning and evening balloon flights, and exciting competitions. Arrive early to secure a good spot! 

Don’t miss out on any of the fun—download the Visit Crawford App to plan your visit. The app provides detailed event schedules, maps, and information on local dining and accommodations to help you make the most of your time in Crawford County. 

Download the Visit Crawford App here.

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