Marilyn Morris is a forward-thinking kind of gal. As head scarecrow of the Meaford Scarecrow Invasion and Family Festival for 18 years, she has navigated her way through one year at a time, stopping only long enough to evaluate last year’s results and look for ways to improve on next year’s event.

Morris is the skilled organizer at the helm of the Meaford Scarecrow Invasion and Family Festival that has evolved over the past 20 years from a few scarecrow displays in downtown Meaford during the Big Fall Weekend to a widely-acclaimed event that has captured the hearts of residents and visitors from across the province and Canada.

This year the big day is on Sept. 30. Once again the event features the parade and family festival and the many events happening in the municipality each year in celebration of the fall harvest.

This year the Scarecrow Invasion celebrates its 20th anniversary.

“Time has gone by just like that,” Morris said with a snap of her fingers. “When my husband Richard and I bought property in Meaford some 23 years ago, we recognized immediately that Meaford was a bustling small town with the type of community spirit that put me back to my own roots, growing up in Alberta, where volunteerism is a way of life.”

Morris was particularly drawn to the vision and enthusiasm one man, George Potopnyk, a businessman who in 1996 inspired other downtown businesspeople to build scarecrows and display them during the Apple Harvest Craft Show.

“George recognized the economic potential of Meaford and no one beat the drum harder than he did,” she said. “His scarecrow idea was a hit. In 1998, George asked me to pull together a band of people to grow the scarecrow idea.”

“Meaford can be very engaging. What’s unique to Meaford is the way newcomers are welcomed and drawn to the community’s spirit. Many of the volunteers are like Richard and I were,” Morris said. “Newcomers arrive with each their own background, experiences, and skill set. They are made to feel welcomed, their skills are put to use, they develop new friendships and new skills, and everyone contributes. No one person is left holding the bag.”

The early days of the parade and festival were modest compared to the provincially-acclaimed invasion and festival that has been named among Ontario’s Top 100 Festivals and Events for three years in a row. The first parade route was down Sykes Street from the Meaford United Church down the street to Market Square where Brad Johnston of Barbetta Orchards treated everyone to apples. Children and adults walked together on the sidewalk and sat on hay bales.

“Scarecrows capture everyone’s imagination,” Marilyn said. “The scarecrow theme works because it’s fun.”

Fast forward to today and the scarecrows are about to celebrate their 20th birthday. A total of 250 scarecrows have taken to the streets.

The theme for the 20th anniversary is Celebrating 20 Years with Music. The OPP Golden Helmets Precision Motorcycle Team will start the birthday celebrations off on Sept. 30, with a pre-parade show on Sykes Street at 5 p.m., followed by a parade at 6 p.m. and family festival at the Rotary Harbour Pavilion at 6:30 p.m.

Morris first realized Meaford had  something big going on with the invasion and festival in 2002 when the community backed the idea of trying for a Guinness world record for the greatest number of scarecrows.

“A town in Portugal had created 1,000-some scarecrows,” she said. “Meaford doubled that number with 2,221 scarecrows. It did not set a world record, but the media coverage that it gleaned set Meaford Scarecrow Invasion and Family Festival on the world stage.”

Each year that followed lent more and more validation to the event. In 2004, Meaford hosted the International Plowing Match and Rural Expo. The invasion and festival team of volunteers helped build 500 scarecrows for the event. During the past 10 years, the event has become a popular destination for coach tours, and has received both community and provincial awards.

“All of which is very validating,” Morris said. “The real litmus test, from an administrative point of view, was in 2011 when we were granted not-for-profit status, a designation that affirmed that we were a viable organization.”

The community’s acceptance of the event has been very significant.

“High on the list of achievements of the past 20 years is the rapport the Scarecrow Invasion and Family Festival has developed with the community. Meaford embraces the scarecrow invasion. It belongs to the community. Our children grow up with scarecrows – they help to build and dress them, and take pride in their creations. Our executive and volunteers are dedicated. Our sponsors are proud of the invasion and feel it is part of them,” said Morris. “The scarecrow Kazoo Band is out and about the municipality year-round entertaining and promoting the event. The Meaford Museum has a permanent display of scarecrows and the invasion’s history. The library creates a scarecrow poetry garden and has invited the library’s camera club to be this year’s official invasion photographers. The annual municipality and library photography contest this year includes a scarecrow category.”

Each year the Invasion becomes more popular.

“The collaboration among community groups is not to be underestimated. The fall is a great time to be in Meaford with celebrations like ours happening throughout the municipality.”