by WT Cox
This year marks the 33rd year of the Ramseur Fall Festival. An event that has become a tradition in our small town. But how did this festival get started and why. I can answer those questions because I was one of the original founding members. Here is a brief history:
Back in 1985, I purchased the old Craven-Kivett clothing store building on Main Street and relocated Zack White Leather Co from Raleigh to downtown Ramseur. At that time, the Ramseur downtown was still thriving. There was over 20 small business located on the short stretch called the Downtown Business District. Soon, the Ramseur Pharmacy closed and Mickey Whitehead moved to the new Rite Aid located on Hwy 64. Soon after that, First Citizen Bank, formerly the Bank of Coleridge, moved into their new location located across from the old Coble Diary on Hwy 64.
While some businesses had moved away, still many chose to remain. Kermit Pell had closed his grocery store and the new owner Wayne Clark was in the process of opening a clothing store in the old building. Brady Appliance Service had changed owners and now Wayne and Darius Stutts operated the longtime appliance store. Pep’s Appliance had split between Jr. Blackard, who ran the appliance business, and Bud Whillet who handled the service end of the business and Grady Lawson ran the NAPA store.
Needless to say, Main Street was changing. The once “center of Town” was shifting toward Highway 64. There were still several businesses that chose to stay downtown, and we were one of them. Gooches Dime Store still operated as he had for decades, and the Ramseur Diner still served three meals daily, six days a week. The Town Hall was just around the corner and the Post Office still drew people downtown. There was Albert Chilton’s barbershop, Ramseur Beauty Shop, Allen’s Insurance, and The Ramseur Library among other businesses still located downtown. Centura Bank and Jordan Memorial Methodist Church were there too. All of these older businesses were struggling and there was a feeling that the “Town” had shifted their interest towards the 64 corridor to the north.
To bring the merchants together into one unified “voice”, the merchants decided to form a Merchants Association. In the spring of 1989, The Main Street Merchants Association was created and our first endeavor was to have a Bar-B-Que on Main Street to raise funds. Julian Butler did the cooking and the merchants sold sandwiches. It went so well that it was decided to try a festival in the fall. I had worked many festivals in my years of selling leather goods, but never put on a festival myself. The first thing we did was to get permission from our Mayor, June Bean who thought it was a great idea. Next, we polled all the merchants to get ideas as to the layout and dates. We contacted Dwight Holland of the Randolph Arts Guild to get his advice on how to proceed. Mr. Holland was one of the founders of the Asheboro Fall Festival and his advice was very helpful.
We decided on the third weekend in October because Asheboro had the first weekend for their festival, and Pittsboro had the second. The name “A Day on Main Street” projected exactly what we wanted to accomplish. It was the hope of all the merchants that people would come back downtown and shop. The next thing we had to do was raise funds and get permission from the State to block off Main Street. Since the road was a State road, permission from the Dept of Highways was needed. Also if we blocked off the street, we had to have a fire truck stationed across the bridge in Brooklyn to service that area in case of a fire. The Boy Scouts agreed to help with picking up trash and the Ramseur Fire Dept agreed to help with parking and coordination in exchange for help with their Christmas Parade.
The biggest cost would be the sound system and to pay for garbage pick up at the end of the Festival We solicited local merchants and citizens for donations and before long, we had enough money to start. Our first festival had over 40 groups contribute, and all the entrainment was on a volunteer basis. We did pay a $20 gratuity to help with gas, and usually had more people willing to preform that time allowed. We advertised through flyers and posters, and word mouth. It was a surprise when the big day finally came and the crowd was estimated to be between 7000 and 8000 people with over 150 venders showing up. The merchants, along with the Town decided to make the Festival an annual event and designate it a “Craft Festival”, with only hand made items or food allowed on the street. Since the charter for the Main Street Merchants Assn was for a non profit, all revenue that was generated from the festival was given back to the town, with the exception of funds need for the next event.
Over the next several years, the Ramseur Fall Festival grew … a lot. Local artist Neil Kivett drew a historical scene every year and we put it on caps, t-shirts and sweat shirts that were sold the day of the festival. Today, many of these shirts and caps are considered collector’s items. Within 4 years the attendance had almost doubled and the list of crafters and venders grew to over 200. A flea market section was created and the festival was expanded up Main and Liberty streets to include most of the downtown area. The simple stage that had originally consisted of a flat bed trailer donated by Harold Briles, was replaced with a 16’ x 40’ stage that we constructed each year just for the event. We had a midway with pony rides, a small Ferris wheel and games, antique cars, bubble gum blowing contest for the kids and yes, even a tobacco spitting contest… which now seems really gross just to think about it.
With revenue generated by the Festival, the merchants were able to purchase planters for the street, American flags that the Boy Scouts to put out for holidays, new Christmas lights and banners for light poles, plus we paid for wiring so merchants could hook up for electricity at future events.
One of the best results of the festival was the Ramseur Christmas Parade. This event had begun to decline but was given new life when cash prizes were offered for best float and bands from out of the county were bought in to perform. All this was a result of money donated by the Merchants Assn from revenue generated by the Festival. A $500 first place price for the best float… and generous second and third made our small parade popular with churches and groups wanting to celebrate Christmas. One year we had 11 major floats in the parade, and three marching bands. Dudley High School was always a crowd-pleaser with their high stepping and baton twirling show. The Ramseur Fall Festival soon became the premier community event and almost everyone looked forward to the third weekend in October. Over the years, more and more business gradually moved from downtown and the business district began to decline, and so did the Festival and parade. The Merchants Association ran the festival for several years. I was president of the Association for 13 years, and then when we moved our business out of the downtown area to Moffitt Street. The Festival was managed by Carol Akers and Wanda Simmons for several years. Eventually it was turned over to the Town. Managing an event such as the Festival is a huge endeavor. It requires a lot of work and coordination. As a merchant, it was hard to devote the time needed, but somehow come Festival Day, things worked themselves out. Now the Ramseur Chamber of Commerce is in charge and they have brought a more professional approach to managing and running the Festival.
They deserve a lot of credit for giving new life to the Festival and turning this event to something Ramseur can be proud of. Their goal is still the same as it was from the beginning, which is to bring more people to downtown Ramseur, to bring people together and to promote our Town.
Ramseur’s new motto is “Where Friends and Family Meet”… this is certainly true when thinking about the Fall Festival. Many former residents will make the trip back to their hometown during this time of year just to visit. I tend to like the old motto as well : The Finest Little Town In The World”. For people who truly know Ramseur, this speaks truth. The Chamber has injected our old Festival with new and better ideas. They have re-created an event that all of Ramseur can be proud of and certainly can enjoy. The third weekend in October is a special day for Ramseur. We hope to see you there.