Pickle-packed turnout thrills festival crew
By Steve Herring
Published in News on April 26, 2009 2:00 AM
Five-year-old Skyler Bland takes a thrilling ride on a giant slide at the 23rd North Carolina Pickle Festival on Saturday. She is the daughter of Jeanie Bland. Nearly 30,000 people turned out to taste the treats and to enjoy the day.
MOUNT OLIVE -- Saturday was Brandon Day's third birthday and given the choice of how to celebrate it, he chose the North Carolina Pickle Festival.
So did another estimated 30,000 people, making it the largest ever in the 23-year history of the event.
There also were a record number of vendors, 125, at Saturday's festival, including many who were offering their wares for the first time.
Local churches, civic groups and others had booths selling everything from cookbooks to food, baked goods and other items for fundraisers.
The record-setting event actually started Friday night as more than 600 people attended a dance and concert by the Band of Oz at the Mount Olive Airport.
On Saturday, vendors were setting up their booths before 7 a.m., and by 9, the quiet downtown had been transformed into a sea of people, with the aroma of a variety of foods wafting through the streets.
Even at that early hour, the humidity already was signaling that a hot and muggy day was in store. Although temperatures rose to near 90, it didn't seem to slow the throngs of people, many of whom could be seen taking refuge in the shade to eat a bit of Polish sausage or funnel cake or simply to take a water break.
Some visitors, like Chase and Jeff Wagner, were keeping cool in the water balloon launch contest, soaking each other and anyone else who might be in range when the balloons burst.
The game was just one of the scores of activities available to the crowd, which Police Chief Ralph Schroeder estimated to be a record.
"I don't think we had 30,000, but I think we were close," Schroeder said. "There were a bunch of people here. I think we had more than last year, and last year,we had 25,000. So I'd say it's pretty close to 30,000. It has been shoulder to shoulder all day. Up until the last couple of hours, it has been pretty tight. I mean people five- or six-people deep on every block.
"We were thinking it was going to hurt us, with the air show going on at the same time, but it doesn't seem to have slowed it down. We estimate 600 at airport, maybe 650. There were more people last night than there have been in the last several years because the weather was pretty good."
Schroeder, who was downtown all day with his department, also brought in extra officers from the Wayne and Duplin sheriff's departments to patrol the streets.
"I think there is a great crowd for this time of day,' said Bill Bryan, president of the Mt. Olive Pickle Co., when he was interviewed about 9:30 a.m., "and it does seem larger to me. Of course, the weather has been great.
"We have had a difficult economy and maybe people are looking for fun one day, some inexpensive fun -- a good day with the family, and we certainly have it here with all of the festivities going on. I hear they had a great crowd last night for the band at the airport.
"It is one of the largest crowds in memory, and it looks like we are just going to have a good day all day long. There is nice steady flow, and we have a good little breeze right now. It is wonderful experience for people to get out and have some fun with their family and see a little bit of downtown Mount Olive, which is always a good thing to do."
Tonya Messimer, Drew Messimer, Brittany Messi-mer and Julie Day and her son, Brandon, all of Goldsboro, had stopped by the Cucumber and Vine street sign to take advantage of an empty bench.
"We got here about 10, and it is the first time we have ever been," Tonya Messimer said. "We like it, and we love the cars and the pickles. We are just getting started good. We are planning to eat. Everybody is looking at the ribbon fries."
Then it was off to the children's rides.
"The main reason we came is that (Brandon) wanted to come for his birthday," she said. "We said, 'Do you want to come to air show or the pickle festival' and he said the pickle festival."
Asked what he liked the most, Brandon picked his yellow Mt. Olive Pickle Co. balloon.
He said he had popped his first one. So he was being very careful with this one.
Rebecca Edwards, 18, was busy panning for gemstones at Glitter Gulch Mining, one of the festival's new attractions.
"I just like it. It's awesome," she said. "I have come every year since I was 8."
Ms. Edwards said she enjoyed the singing and entertainment but that "I like all of the stages. I like everything about it."
Her efforts at panning turned up tiger's eye, jade stone and amethyst.
"It has been great, and everybody has been patient," said Kim Bowers, who served as chairman of the vendors committee. "We are full. We have vendors in places that I never thought we would put vendors. We had more vendors set up on Friday evening, which really helped this morning. The typical challenges are the traffic issues in the morning, but everybody has been in a festival mood. The first question I got this morning was 'Where are the pickles?'"
Close to 125 vendors selling food, arts and crafts and other items were set up for the day.
"A lot of church and civic groups are out this year," she said. "A lot of fundraising for the community is going on, a lot of raffle tickets going on. Church groups are doing barbecues and selling baked goods. So you can definitely feel the Mount Olive local flavor today.
Ms. Bowers agreed that a sizable crowd had gathered by the festival's 9 a.m. start.
"I think several key things have really helped us this year," she said. "One is that we partnered with the Wings Over Wing event (at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base) and we have both been publicizing each other very well. That is definitely paying off.
"Another thing is just with the good weather. People have been seeing it is a good time to come out and the Pickle Festival continues to win awards. That word continues to get out and people hear about it, and we have a lot of first-time vendors this year."
The classic car show continued to be a festival favor-ite and attracted return participants.
Damon Kennedy of the Scotts store community entered his 1950 Chevy 3100 pickup. It was his third year competing in the event.
"I worked on it some and my dad (the late Ed Kennedy) did a lot of it, him and couple of friends of his," Kennedy said
"I worked on the truck about two years," he added. "It is a good show and has been growing a little bit every year. I believe this year has about topped it out. There are a lot of cars. It is a good show. That is what you work for being able to display. Good crowd and people enjoy coming around looking at them."
As festival-goers packed the downtown streets, Jammie Royal, the town's public works director, and his crews were working throughout the day to keep the trash containers cleaned out while waiting for the big cleanup to get under way as the festival wound down.
"Everything is going real good, and we are trying to keep it up so maybe it won't take so long to get out of here," he said late in the day. "I hope to be cleaned up by 7 to 7:30."
Schroeder said the crowd was well-behaved.
The only problems reported were a couple of people who fell on or near the railroads tracks, another on West Main and two others apparently passed out probably from the heat and possibly the rides at the old Belk's parking lot. Several were transported to Wayne Memorial Hospital. Schroeder said he did not know their conditions.
The number, he said, was about normal.
"You have some injuries," he said.
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