After 52 years, it appears the annual Autumn Leaves Festival is still one of the most popular events in the Southeast, with organizers saying this year’s event may be the largest yet.
“I think it’s a combination of a lot of things that keep the festival so popular,” said Travis Frye, program and events director for the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce, which puts on the annual festival. He was discussing what makes the three-day annual event, which gets underway on Friday, such a big hit.
“I think it’s the rich musical heritage we have with bluegrass, old time, and gospel music…we showcase them in front of everyone, for everyone to hear and see. It’s really unique, we have so much talent in our region.
“We also have food for the soul — ham biscuits, collard greens, the ground steak sandwich.” he said of two regional dishes seemingly unknown outside of the Surry County area, but available at food booths during the festival. “It’s really a Surry County thing, to see the ground steak sandwiches and the collard greens. Those are things you can’t get anywhere else.
“And we have the crafters. We have over 200 this year.” Those crafters make a little bit of everything — pottery, window decorations, woodwork and wood carvings, paintings and drawings, birdhouses, wine bottle paintings, and the list could go on and one.
“It’s a perfect storm we have here at the autumn leaves festival.”
The gathering, which draws an estimated 200,000 people over the three-day event, has its roots in the celebration of the local tobacco and apple harvests, Frye said.
As is the case with many such events, Autumn Leaves Days has morphed quite a bit over its existence, from a one-day gathering to the current three-day festival.
In those early days the festival was a one-day downtown event meant to celebrate the harvest in a community that still was largely agrarian and to take advantage of the fact that hundreds of thousands of tourists were traveling nearby highways, meandering along the Blue Ridge Parkway to see the brilliant fall foliage.
As it was conceived, the festival’s focus was about showing, not selling. Food prices at vendor booths were strictly controlled by organizers, and many of the displays allowed visitors to take part in demonstrations, such as milking cows and doing crafts.
Booths were set up along Main Street to display a large variety of skills, with crafts such as apple butter and quilt making, but industry was also represented, from furniture to plastics.
Much has changed over the decades, but a few things remain the same: some crafters not only sell their wares, but they have ongoing demonstrations showing how they make the items they sell; the variety of both food and craft goods seems to grow every year; and visitors continue to rave about how friendly the town is, even when crowded with visitors.
Crafts, food and music
This year, Frye said the festival has expanded once again, adding nearly 200 feet of space for more vendor booths.
Turns out, it was needed.
“We had nearly sold out of our booths by Aug. 1, and by Aug. 31, they were all sold,” he said.
Most years organizers continue to get interest from vendors right up until the event opens, with a few sometimes able to slip in over that last week or two. This year, despite the expansion of vendor space, there will be no late entries available.
Not just anyone gets in. Organizers 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, but it’s not just the local specialties such as the collard green sandwiches and ground steak sandwiches that bring people in.
Other booths offer hot dogs, hamburgers, barbecue, funnel cakes, a variety of flavored drinks, and the like, along with the Surry County specialties.
This year, Frye says, more food offerings are on tap.
“We actually have several new food booths,” he said. “We have one that’s a regional booth that’s specifically for cobblers — if you like sonkers, if you like cobblers, this is an addition you’re really going to enjoy. And it’s being done by someone from Surry County.”
And another booth will offer what he calls “meat candy.” That’s chicken and steak kebabs wrapped in bacon, and then covered in caramelized brown sugar.
Frye said the always popular children’s area will be back, which includes inflatables and train rides, so parents can give the kids a break from shopping.
That doesn’t even touch on the live music, playing non-stop at multiple stages. Gospel, blue grass, pop and rock, old time music, R&B — it’s all represented during the gathering, with a special emphasis on the locally grown blue grass, old time, and gospel music. All totaled, Frye said 35 different musical acts are scheduled to perform.
This year’s festival gets under way on Friday, Oct. 12 and runs through Sunday, Oct. 14. The festival operates from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday — although the official opening ceremony takes place at 11:30 a.m. Friday — and 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 http://www.autumnleavesfestival.com/