The 52nd annual Autumn Leaves Festival is a mix of old and new.
The festival’s legacy of celebrating the tobacco and apple harvest is represented by a booth which has been a part of the festival since its inception, in which apple butter is stirred up before the eyes of visitors in 50-gallon batches. Situated across the way is a purveyor of wine slushies, a modern delicacy which would have been unknown 52 years ago, representing an industry new to the region.
Gurney Royall of Meadows of Dan, Virginia, was stirring that bubbling cauldron of apple butter late Saturday morning, as he has done for the past 40 years. While he stirred, he explained how his wife is related to Addie Wood, who made the apple butter before him, how she lived to be 102 years old, and was so frightened by the first car she ever saw, she ran and hid.
Royall also said that some people believe the Mayberry Trading Post in Meadows of Dan was the original Mayberry, and that Andy Griffith came across the name when he brought chestnuts up there to sell because he could get a half cent more for them there than he could in Mount Airy. Royall is quick to admit there’s no evidence to support the theory. He’s just putting it out there.
Royall represents old-school Autumn Leaves. At opening ceremonies the day before, organizer Travis Frye singled out the apple butter booth as the only one to still be with the festival that has been around since the first year.
But even the apple butter booth has seen some changes. The apple butter kettle is heated with propane from a canister outside the booth.
“We used to use wood,” said Royall, “and one time, it got so hot, the asphalt caught fire. You can’t do that anymore. There are rules.”
Representing new-school Autumn Leaves on the other side of the street, at the booth whose marquee reads “Wine Slushies” there are no actual wine slushies, except perhaps the samples being handed out. There are instead packets which can be used to make wine slushies from the customer’s own wine.
Randy Collins, president and CEO of the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce, which owns and produces the Autumn Leaves Festival, said festival organizers moved the main-stage bandstand this year for several reasons, but mainly safety, leaving a gap at the bandstand’s former location on Independence Boulevard near Renfro Street.
“We needed an anchor there,” said Collins, “and one of our chamber members stepped forward and arranged for Frank and Chris Fleming to bring their cars to fill that space, creating another another new addition to the festival.
“We thought about trying to get someone from NASCAR, but that is so expensive and they aren’t available on weekends. But Frank and Chris have been so good to come out as a service to the community. They brought us their toys at no charge.”
The “toys” the Flemings brought were a group of modified race cars that race on dirt tracks such as the Friendship track in Elkin and modified racing cars that race on paved tracks like Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem.
Frank Fleming’s Body Shop and Chris Fleming’s Automotive Specialists are both Mount Airy businesses. The men were born and raised in Mount Airy and make their homes here.
“We’ve been overwhelmed by the response,” said Chris Fleming. “So many people walked down and said, ‘we looked down the street and we saw your cars’. I hope we can give something back to the city.”
Collins said that attendance figures won’t be available until the festival is over, but he thinks they’re going to be good. Even with the festival’s expanded footprint, streets continue to be full.
“Perfect weather brings big crowds,” he said, “and the icing on the cake is cool, fall weather like today.”
According to Collins, the conventional wisdom was that Friday was local day, when local folks visited the festival. Kids would be out of school for teacher workdays, and they’d come to visit. Then on Saturday, the big crowds of tourists would turn up.
“But people are telling me this was the strongest Friday they have ever seen. They say Friday is usually a strong day, but not like it was yesterday. And then at nine when we were supposed to close, people didn’t want to leave. They wanted to stay all night.”
Looking toward Sunday, Collins said, “People come from church in their Sunday best. We’ll be here from 12 – 6 p.m. Then on Monday morning, Main Street will be back in the hands of the merchants.”
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.