HILLSVILLE, Va. — Not far from Mount Airy in rural Southwest Virginia takes place one of the biggest events in the country.
Half an hour up U.S. 52 (literally up, as you ascend the Blue Ridge Mountains) lies Hillsville, which in the 2010 census boasted a whole 2,681 residents in the town limits.
Come this weekend, the sleepy mountaintop burg will be host to hundreds of thousands of visitors for the annual VFW Labor Day Gun Show and Flea Market, which lasts from Friday until Monday (though many of the vendors pack up early and leave Monday).
This year the VFW celebrates its 50th year of hosting a gun show in its Grover King Post 1115 building.
While that is a long-standing attraction, the gun show itself has been overwhelmed over the decades by vendors outside the VFW building and along the street in both directions. The flea market portion contains a wide variety of items; even some craftsmen and artisans bring their wares to the sidewalks and lots for display.
“We sincerely hope that your time with us in Hillsville is enjoyable and we want to extend you the best of luck in finding many bargains,” Hillsville Mayor Greg Crowder said in welcoming the public.
“We would also want to express our appreciation to the Hillsville Police Department, the Carroll County Sheriff’s Department and the Virginia State Police for the support they provide year-round, but especially during this event. These departments always do a great job with traffic control and ensuring the safety of everyone,” said Crowder.
“Likewise, we would like to give a special thank you to all the volunteer rescue squads and fire departments that go beyond the call of duty in keeping everyone safe during this busy extended weekend.”
VFW Post 1115 was formed on May 15, 1935, when 27 veterans from WWI and another from the Spanish-American War chartered Virginia’s 37th VFW Post. The founders named the post after Carroll County’s first serviceman killed during the Great War, Grover C. King, who died in France July 15, 1918, three days short of his 28th birthday.
The 1115 Ladies Auxiliary came along April 9, 1954. The 40 charter members were wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of the men who served this nation.
How did this massive event get started? Like many things in life: because of tragedy.
Plato wrote that necessity is the mother of invention. Over the winter of 1966-67, the original VFW Post home collapsed under the weight of snow and ice.
When the weather warmed up in the spring of 1967, a Virginia native came back from his retirement home for a visit.
Glenn Jackson, who still owns Family Shoe Store on Main Street, told how he was in his 40s when Pierce Webb visited that year. Webb had retired to Florida and had developed a hobby for collecting and trading pistols and rifles.
Webb told Jackson that gun shows were popular in some other areas, and he wanted to see one in Carroll County.
Jackson knew the VFW needed funds for its monthly obligations, not to mention paying for a new home, which was under construction. He thought that a gun show at the post might be new and exciting and bring in some needed revenue.
The idea of men trading pistols might seem like something that would scare the authorities, but Jackson said Gene Pack, the Hillsville police chief, liked the idea and discussed it often, as did Dennis Quesenberry, a serious collector of fine guns. Chief Pack offered his assistance for security and traffic control.
In planning for the first show, Jackson advised the kitchen committee to prepare for at least 2,000 visitors that might want to buy concessions. They were overwhelmed when twice that many showed up.
After the second year, the show outgrew the space inside the VFW hall, and the outdoor flea market was added to accommodate the overflow. From there the event has grown and grown.
Money realized from the show keeps the Post in operation for the entire year, and a lot of the money is given back to the community in the form of donations to many civic groups and individuals in need.
The simple concession stand idea got a boost last year when the VFW opened a fully licensed restaurant in the Post.
Younger members of the post known as “The Young Guns” opened the Grill Sergeant’s Kitchen. The volunteer-run kitchen was open Friday to Monday of the show from 7 a.m.-4 p.m. This was a big hit a year ago.
Grill Sergeant’s Kitchen features amenities the post’s kitchen had not been able to offer in the past such as accepting credit and debit cards.
Also, in the past people had to hang around the concession spot, waiting for the food to be ready. Last year, the customers would receive a number with their order.
“You can mingle with people or sit in a chair, and when your food is done, they will call your number and you can pick it up. It will be more convenient for everyone,” said Mike Lara, senior vice commander of VFW Post 1115 and the manager of Grill Sergeant’s Kitchen.
Much work goes on behind the scenes to accommodate such crowds in a small, rural town. Keeping people safe is a top priority.
While police and emergency services will do their jobs, officials also give advice to those who attend.
Participants should take advantage of shade, said Everett Lineberry, Carroll County fire/rescue operations manager. Cooling stations with water misters will be provided during the festival and “cooling chairs” will also be available. These specialized chairs use a cooling vest worn by sufferers who also place their forearms in cool water to drop body temperature rapidly.
“One thing we see every year is it seems to be hot and dry so we have a lot of heat-related calls,” said Lineberry. “Sometimes though, we do have some pretty good storms coming through.”
Recognizing the potential for disaster in this, a new partnership was struck last year with the National Weather Service for hourly weather briefings.
“This gives us the ability to communicate faster and with more information so personnel on site can better prepare,” said Lineberry. “The County 911 Control Center can push out notifications to cell phones in specific geographic locations so we can use this technology for mass communication on a large scale.”
“We do see bee stings and cardiovascular issues regularly as well,” Lineberry said. “What happens is participants often think they will take their medications after they return from the festival, and the unfamiliar flea market environment causes complications. People should plan to rest and take their time at the flea market.”