In 1998, Gail Heil decided to found an old-time music camp and festival for the upper Midwest. Inspired by the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, Washington, where we had performed and taught a couple of times, she began planning a similar, but much smaller, event to be held in Southeast Minnesota. Her idea was to focus on traditional American fiddle music, featuring masters to teach the instrument, and also to put on a concert and an old-fashioned barn dance during a long weekend.
Looking around for the ideal location, Lanesboro became the natural choice. It’s a beautiful small town located on the Root River about 120 miles from the Twin Cities, and within easy driving distance of Chicago, Madison, Milwaukee, and Des Moines. Gail and I had been holding the Lanesboro Barn Dance at the Sons of Norway Hall there for several years. This building seemed to offer all that was needed for a modest camp/festival with a maximum of 60 students and a small staff, but it was evident after the first year that the Bluff Country Gathering had needed a larger space. The entire staff for 1999’s first festival was Dwight "Red" Lamb, Chirps Smith, Dan Gellert, and Gail Heil, and the limited student quota was easily filled. When it came time for the Friday night concert, which was open to the public, 140 people jammed into a space that should have held a maximum of 100, and the windows were opened so those who couldn’t get in could hear the show. This success convinced us that the Gathering was going to be an annual event.