Fifty-one years into an annual festival, one might think there’s little to be offered that is new.
The folks running the Mount Airy Autumn Leaves Festival, however, are doing their best to make it different each year, and this season’s event — set to get underway on Friday — is no exception.
For starters, the face of the event is changing, or at least the face of the person running the show, with Travis Frye taking over the post of programs and events coordinator for the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce.
“I’ve been here since July,” he said, adding that much of his time has been spent preparing for this weekend’s festival, under the close mentorship of Yvonne Nichols.
She is stepping aside at the end of the year, having run the festival for more than half of its 51-year run after taking the reigns from its original organizer, Dr. Dale Simmons.
Over the years, the gathering has grown to the point where it is routinely ranked along the Top 20 Events in the Southeast list published by the Southeast Tourism Society.
The event regularly draws crowds estimated at around 200,000, with Main Street and some side roads jam-packed with vendors and visitors.
Crafts, food and music
While the festival has drawn around 200 craft vendors in recent years, Frye said that number has continued to grow steadily. This year there are 243 vendors scheduled for the event, including 20 first-timers.
“Every single spot is filled,” he said.
Artists working in pottery, paintings, textile, jewelry, woodwork, metalwork, and a host of other crafts, in all sorts of media, come and set up. While many festivals feature artists and crafters who ply their trade as a sideline business or hobby, most who set up at the Autumn Leaves Festival do this sort of work on a full-time basis.
Not just anyone gets in. Nichols has said over the years she and others working with the festival spend hours upon hours studying those wanting a booth, to see if their material is up to snuff, or if those already here are maintaining high standards to receive an invitation to return.
As for the artists and crafters working the show? Those who get a booth for the first time often rave about the festival, and few ever give up that booth once they’ve secured a spot, returning year after year.
If the crafts aren’t enough to bring a crowd, the food certainly does. Again, this year the choices have grown.
“This year we have 25 food vendors,” Frye said. Of those three have never been to Autumn Leaves, including a food truck.
“Food trucks seem to be hot right now,” he said, adding he got the idea of inviting a food truck from the Mayberry Food Truck Fest.
There’s plenty of live music, too, playing non-stop. Gospel, blue grass, pop and rock, old time music, R&B — it’s all represented during the gathering.
This year’s festival gets underway on Friday, Oct. 13 and runs through Sunday, Oct. 15. The festival operates from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday. No pets are allowed in the festival area. Free shuttle bus service is available between some hotels and the festival. For more information on the festival and related activities and services, visit www.autumnleavesfestival.com.