Yvonne Nichols is a people watcher. By her own admission, she enjoys seeing people laugh and enjoy themselves, she gets joy and satisfaction from sitting back and observing others as they go about their business, and she finds satisfaction in visiting with others, bringing back old friends and seeing them.
So much so she brings a couple of hundred thousand extra folks to Mount Airy every year, all on the same weekend.
Well, she doesn’t actually bring them to town, but she oversees the annual Autumn Leaves Festival that attracts, by some accounts, around a quarter of a million people to the city the second week of October, year after year after year.
And while the undertaking is a massive amount of work, once the booths are set up, the visitors are filling the streets, all the little logistics have been worked out, she simply enjoys being there, in the crowd, chatting with others, watching the vendors sell their wares, individuals talking and laughing and having fun.
Overall the festival, set to begin Friday, is about to go into its 49th rendition, and Nichols has been at the helm of what is a nearly year-long effort to oversee the festival for more than two decades, since she signed on as an assistant with the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce 22 years ago.
“I was hired in August of 1993,” he said recently. “October of that year was my first festival. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, what it was about, but with the help and direction of Jim Andrews, I learned.”
Andrews was in charge of the festival, much like Nichols is now, though he was working part-time for the chamber then as director of the chamber.
Her reaction that first time through?
“That it (the festival) was big,” she said, drawing out the word “big” with a little bit of awe in her voice.
She might not have thought it was quite so big if she had any idea how the festival would develop over the years. At that time, she guesses there were about 50,000 people coming to town, walking the streets, checking out the wares being sold by 50 to 60 vendors, maybe picking up some food from one of a half-dozen food vendors on hand.
The festival boosts around 200 craft vendors and 20 food booths, not to mention multiple performance stages for bands, as well as rides and displays for kids and adults to enjoy.
And nearly a quarter of a million people flocking to Mount Airy to take part in the event.
“We try to add new things,” she said of the growth. This year, for instance, there will be a small train for kids to ride, a gravity ball — “That will appeal to the 18- to 45-year-old group,” she says — and even new food, with Mexican cuisine on site.
She said the festival also tries to accommodate as many vendors — and as many different types of craftspeople — as possible, though the festival has maxed out in that regard.
“I hate to turn down so many vendors, that really bothers me,” she said. “Some of these people have really good crafts. I’m getting a lot of calls, people wanting to get in, I wish I had the space.”
This year has been especially hard in that regard, with the threat of heavy rains associated with Hurricane Joaquin playing havoc on the area. She explained that a number of festivals set for this weekend in this region of the state have cancelled, meaning many vendors made long trips, or at least carved out a weekend to work at a festival, only to now find there’s no opportunity to set up and sell their work.
“I’ve been getting calls from many of those vendors, wanting to know if they can get into Autumn Leaves Festival,” she said.
Choosing who will be invited back from year to year, and who among new applicants will be allowed in, is one of the long-term projects she and others working with the festival are faced with each year.
She said the vendors are judged on a number of factors while here, and those who show off the best crafts and booth set-ups are often asked to return year after year.
Along with repeat vendors, Nichols said she gets a steady stream of applicants for individuals and families hoping to make their first appearance. She has them send photos of their crafts, along with information about who they are, how long they’ve been doing the work, and then she does a little extra detective work, checking out their websites, learning as much as she can about what they would like to sell at the festival.
“We try to keep a variety of vendors,” she said. “We try not to have all jewelry, or all florals, or an all-basket show. We try to have something for everyone.”
That vendor list, she said, includes individuals from a wide area — from all over North Carolina and Virginia, as well as South Carolina, Tennessee, she even has a vendor from Michigan and another from Ohio on hand this week.
As for the shoppers, Nichols said they all have a different reason for being here.
“For some it’s a reunion,” she said, explaining oftentimes people who visit are ones who grew up in the area and return this weekend, every autumn.
Others come for the arts vendors, “a lot of people come just for the collared green sandwiches,” she said of a well-known local delicacy served up at one of the food booths. “I’ve had people tell me they plan their vacation around that week every year.”
Last year Nichols said she even came across a couple from Hawaii.
“I asked them if they were here because of the Mayberry link, and they said no. ‘We came for the festival,’ they said. I couldn’t believe someone would come that far for the festival. Of course, I was very happy about that,” she said with a smile.
In addition to poring over applications from vendors, she spends time throughout the year studying other festivals. She attends a seminar by the North Carolina Association of Festival and Events, some years she’s visited other festivals, and over the past year she traveled to Floyd County, Virginia, to talk with crafters and vendors there.
For now, she’s in the midst of what she calls the busiest portion of her year, the final six weeks before the festival. During this period, her life is dominated by wrapping up loose ends, making sure vendor spots are positioned and marked, all the bands scheduled to play are still on target to be here, and that everything vendors and musicians need will be in place.
Once the festival rolls around and everyone is doing their respective thing?
“It’s just a pleasure to walk around and watch people…if you’re here on a Friday or Saturday night, it looks like the whole world has shown up. I just love people, talking, watching, interacting with them.”
After the festival is over and everyone’s packed up and moved on?
“I breathe,” she said with a grin. “But, it’s kind of like Christmas, after you’ve opened all the presents and everyone goes home. It’s a let down.”
Not for long, though, because a few weeks after the festival is done, the process starts all over for the next one. This year that might entail a few extra events, because the 2016 version will be the 50th festival.
When she’s not working on the festival, Nichols has plenty to keep her busy. She’s involved with her church, Highland Park Baptist, where she teaches the 3- and 4-year-olds.
“I absolutely love doing that,” she says. “They are our future. I’d like them to know as much about the Bible as they can.”
She enjoys reading and crafting some herself, and travel — not that she gets to do much: “I haven’t had much time to do that.”
She and her husband, Hal, will be marking their 56th wedding anniversary in December. They have a daughter, Dee, and son-in-law, Billy; a grand-daughter, Amanda (who is married to Seth Griffin), and a 5-year-old great-grandson, Reid Griffin.
“And he is precious,” she says, a lilt in her voice as she speaks of her great-grandson, relating stories of what he’s recently shared with her from school.
For now, though, the next few days for Nichols will be filled with last-minute preparation, making sure everything is good to go for another rendition of the Autumn Leaves Festival, and looking forward to the chance to simply walk among the crowds and enjoy.
John Peters can be reached at 336-415-4701.