Ironton Wizardfest: A magical journey to Harry Potter's realm through Appalachia
In the alluring hills of Appalachia, nestled away in Ironton, Ohio, the convergence of two remarkable worlds occurs each year when the enchanting universe of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter collides with the rich tapestry of Appalachian heritage. These magical worlds intertwine at Ironton Wizardfest, with Ohio University graduate Brad Bear at the helm.
"I went to OHIO Southern first," Bear said, reflecting on his journey from the academic halls to the magical festival grounds. Bear had been offered a full scholarship at Shawnee State University, but a chance visit to Ohio University Southern changed the course of his life. He was hooked once he explored the electronic media program.
“Southern was great for so many reasons. It had the program I wanted, but also the community feel, it’s close to home, it was affordable,” said Bear. He relocated to Athens after completing his electronic media degree at the Southern campus. On the Athens campus, he earned his bachelor of science degree in communications with an emphasis on video production and a minor in film. And Athens is where his love for the wizarding world bloomed, and where he leveraged University connections to bring him even closer to it.
“I used the most valuable resource that Ohio University has — the alumni network,” he said.
"I worked for ESPN, NBC, Turner Sports, Fox Sports. I got hired on as a producer as a post-grad internship. I was the youngest producer in that group at 24 at Turner Studios,” he said. And thanks to connections from the Ohio University Alumni Association, he got pretty close to working on one of the Harry Potter movies.
“The third movie was going into production, 'Prisoner of Azkaban,'" Bear recalled. "I got hold of an alumnus who was high up in human resources of Warner Brothers International.” Unfortunately for Bear, there was a small problem with the production assistant position he was vying for – Peter Jackson’s nephew wanted the job.
“Peter Jackson's nephew got the job, but I was that close. It was all because of the alumni network." When the television shows Bear was working on at Turner Studios were canceled due to a network sale, he returned to Ironton to work in Ohio University Southern’s electronic media program. After a decade, he struck out on his own. “As soon as I left the University, my business just took off,” he said. “The phone started ringing and it hasn’t stopped.”
Bear’s professional and educational background in film and media became the cornerstone of the festival’s creation. Six years ago, a call from a friend, Rick Jansen, ignited the idea for Ironton Wizardfest.
"I think there's something with this Harry Potter thing, and you like Harry Potter," Jansen said. Since Bear’s time in college, he has been a “deep canonical fan,” which made the suggestion from Jansen to start a festival for fans, by fans a perfect fit.
Along with Bear, a team of creatives worked tirelessly to get the festival off the ground.
“We have a huge Bobcat network that put this thing on,” said Bear. “My husband Seth, Amy Miller Daniel, Sean Daniel, Cat Cirner, Josh Ramsey, Matt DeLong, Lisa Pinkerton, Dennis Lambert. In our core group of volunteers, about 60 percent of them are Bobcats.”
And the collaborative work of OHIO alumni and their community paid off.
“It's really built up, and people are flying in from Seattle, San Francisco,” said Bear. “We want to introduce people from out of town to Appalachian culture. The theme works culturally for us. It’s still our culture, but it’s also perfect in the wizard world. Mountain medicine, blacksmiths, broom makers — all these things are complete crossovers.”
At the heart of Ironton Wizardfest is a seamless blend of Harry Potter-inspired attractions and authentic Appalachian experiences. The festival thrives on its unique offerings, including trivia competitions, apple cider brewing in cauldrons and a newspaper, The Ironton Prophet, with hidden clues for an immersive experience in a niche fandom event.
The journey from a whimsical idea to a thriving reality is far from solitary. Bear credits the unwavering support of Ironton's tight-knit community as the cornerstone of the festival's success.
"Ironton has been incredibly supportive," he said. "Local businesses, artisans, and volunteers all contribute to our magical marketplace and transform our town into a magical wonderland. It's a collective effort that breathes life into Wizardfest."
Collaborations with local businesses add to the festival's immersive experiences, from Ollivanders-inspired wand making workshops to exotic animal shows that could be imagined at the Magical Menagerie. In Ironton, magic isn't just in the air, it's woven into the very fabric of the community. The local library, hardware stores, shoe stores, the newspaper, mental health service providers, a historic theater and more all work together to provide residents and visitors with an unforgettable experience. Bear and his team have made the impossible possible, proving that a bit of magic is alive and well in even the most unlikely places.
Beyond the magic of the festival, Bear and his team strive to make it accessible and welcoming to everyone. They've added ramps and created quiet spaces for those with mobility and neurodivergent needs.
"We try to make [it] a good time for everybody," Bear said.
As Bear looks to the future, he continues to envision a growing and ever-enchanting Ironton Wizardfest.
"It's truly uniquely us,” he said. “It's handmade." In Ironton, a place where Appalachian heritage meets the wizarding world, Wizardfest is a testament to the power of imagination, community, and the enduring magic that resides within all of us.