The grande dame of the Hodag Country Festival has died.
Hildebrand-Russ Funeral Home confirmed Monday that festival organizer Diane Eckert
died Jan. 6 in Tijuana, Mexico.
Along with her husband Bernie, Eckert co-founded the annual country music festival
which has become a summer tradition in the Northwoods.
According to Daily News archives, Bernie and the former Diane Grosskreutz were
married in 1956, about four years after Bernie started a building demolition
business in Chicago.
In 1959, the Eckerts relocated the demolition business to the Northwoods and built
the Motel Diane on Highway 8, east of Rhinelander.
In 1965, Bernie and Diane purchased the former Mike Burkhart potato farm in
Pine Lake, which became the location of the Hodag Country Festival and
the Oneida County Fair.
The first Hodag Country Festival was held Aug. 4-6, 1978 and featured such stars
as Freddy Fender and Jana Jae. For the first two years
the festival was operated by the Eckerts and two other promoters, Ernie Feight
and Ted Tschannen.
Tschannen left the operation after about two years. Feight and his wife, Josephine,
stayed with the festival until 1994. Feight sold his shares to the four Eckert children
and the festival became an Eckert family business.
Bernie Eckert died April 28, 2002. Since that time Diane Eckert and her children have
organized the festival.
The festival, which draws tens of thousands of visitors every year, celebrated its
30th anniversary this last July.
“We never dreamed the festival would grow so well and so big,” Bernie Eckert told the
Daily News in 1995.
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