Surpassing the Hollywood epics of old with their casts of mere thousands, the 51st Autumn Leaves Festival is well on its way to boasting a cast of hundreds of thousands.
After a slow start on Friday with threatening skies, first-year festival organizer Travis Frye could not be happier.
“I’m tickled to death,” he said Saturday afternoon as Main Street became standing room only from one end of town to the other with festival-goers continuing to pour in.
An economic impact study was done in 2013, according to Randy Collins, president and CEO of Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce, and it showed the Autumn Leaves Festival’s estimated 200,000 visitors to have a $8 million impact on the city as a whole — hotels, restaurants, retail and gasoline sales.
He thinks that information is out of date.
“There’s not a hotel room for 50 miles,” he said.
Frye judged Saturday’s crowd to be better than average and credited that partly to the temperature.
“Sunny and 75. You can’t ask for better weather.” But mainly, he credits the good turnout to Autumn Leaves’ long-time reputation for having good crafts, good food and good music.
This year’s festival has 243 vendors, not including food, many of whom return year after year. There are vendors who have been coming to the festival for as many as 40 years. Turnover is low and there’s a long waiting list, but this year space was made for 20 first-time vendors. Frye says the festival team checks in on all of them during the course of the weekend.
“It’s a long festival, from 9 to 9 Friday and Saturday and 12 to 6 on Sunday. It’s important to keep up with how they’re doing.”
As of Saturday, a sampling of vendors appeared to be doing fine.
Brenda Kadlecik of Blue Haven Studio in Mooresville is one of the 20 vendors making their Autumn Leaves debut this year and said on Saturday that she was “happy to be here.” She said it was a good day with nice weather and earlier in the day, she had done some painting in front of her booth to engage the customers.
Lynn Shores of Lynn’s Creations, in her second year at the festival said, “We’ve sold a right many Christmas trees this morning.” Shores said that Saturday had picked up a lot over Friday.
Constanza Diaz of Greensboro had a booth full of hand-crocheted items and took the opportunity between customers to crochet additional stock. Diaz said she is in her sixth or seventh year at Autumn Leaves, and she added while crocheting furiously, “I’ll continue to come back until my hand falls off. People here really appreciate the handmade and the Chamber ladies are so nice.”
Thad Cox is an Autumn Leaves veteran with 30 years’ experience at the festival. He sculpts clay face jugs in his booth where customers can see the process of his work before buying the finished products.
He said of this year’s festival, “So far, so good.” He had his best show last year, and so far, this year is on track to be even better.
Saturday afternoon, Tim Frye, music director of WPAQ, said from the vantage point of the main bandstand, “We’ve had some great bands. I think the bands are having about as good a time as the crowds.”
Frye added, “the crowd is very well-behaved and happy. Everybody’s having a good time.” Even Friday’s damp morning weather didn’t matter. “The dance floor was full most of the time.”
Over in the center of town, the Duke Energy-sponsored music booth on Main Street was also pulling in the crowds. Late Saturday morning, a group of jammers included two guitar players, a fiddler, two folks playing washboards, three people on spoons, two banjo players, a hammered dulcimer, a washtub bass and two people playing limberjacks.
Randy Collins is of the opinion that if the food vendors are happy, the festival is going well. He adds that Autumn Leaves is known for its food, and two of the best-loved food choices may be unique to this festival, those two items being ground steak and collard green sandwiches.
Amish doughnuts are extremely popular also, with the line at times snaking all the way across the intersection of Main and Independence.
Kellie and Eric Walls came to the festival on the lookout for roasted ears of corn.
“We love the corn,” said Kellie. “We always look for it.” As for the Walls favorite vendor of roasted corn, “Doesn’t matter.”
It’s not just festival vendors selling ground steak sandwiches. Mark Easter of King and his sister, Tammy Hege of Clemmons, brave the line at Snappy Lunch to get their ground steak. Easter and Hege were born here and Easter has very specific opinions about local restaurants.
“Odell’s is the most fantastic restaurant, but Snappy Lunch has a better ground steak.”
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.