04/25/10 — Pickle Festival proves as popular as ever

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Pickle Festival proves as popular as ever

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on April 25, 2010 1:50 AM

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Jose Garcia, 8, packs pickles at the Mt. Olive Pickle Co. booth at the N.C. Pickle Festival Saturday. The 24th annual event featured fun, entertainment and events for all ages.

MOUNT OLIVE -- It was a duel of dills, a showdown of kosher spears.

It was brother versus sister in the Mt. Olive Pickle Co.'s Pickle Packing Challenge at the 24th annual North Carolina Pickle Festival, and 6-year-old John Olexa knew he had victory in the jar.

"I beat her," he declared, after stuffing cucumbers into three pickle jars faster than his sister, Cheyenne, could do it.

John lost the next round to his father, John Olexa Sr., but they both got pickle packing stickers as Renee Olexa cheered for her family.

"We are having a blast," Mrs. Olexa said.

The Pickle Packing Challenge was just one of the ways Mount Olive welcomed more than 30,000 visitors from near and far this weekend to celebrate all things pickle.

Music from three entertainment stages drifted over the crowd, while hungry fairgoers snapped up pizza, funnel cakes and snow cones from dozens of food booths. An overcast sky kept temperatures comfortable and the crowd lively, in comparison to the heat of the 2009 festival that drove festival-goers into the shade.

Mt. Olive Pickle Co. President Bill Bryan attended the festival along with outgoing company mascot Mr. Crisp. Bryan said he had been concerned about the weather affecting the day that people from all over the community had worked so hard to create.

"I just hope the weather is good. There has been a lot of hard work that's gone into making this a great day for people," he said early Saturday.

Fortunately the clouds only produced a few light showers late in the afternoon.

There was plenty of entertainment for all tastes at the festival. At the BMX biking demonstration on Center Street, Mount Olive resident Becky Carter sat with her grandchildren Amanda, 11, and 7-year-old twins Alan and Sarah Johnson, watching the riders perform ramp jumps, 360-degree spins and even one-wheeled acrobatics with their bikes.

"Whoa, awesome!" Alan said, as he clapped for one rider soaring high above the ground on his bike.

Alan might try bicycle tricks, though his twin sister wouldn't, Mrs. Carter said.

"He would crash into me," Sarah added.

At the dance stage on North Center Street, the Pickle Princess Court introduced themselves to an admiring audience. Miss Overall Majestic Pickle Pageant Princess Blair Mozingo served as Master of Ceremonies, taking time out to sing a crowd-pleasing rendition of the song "Broken Wings" by Martina McBride. The pageant winner said she enjoys the chance to meet people and have fun at the festival.

Heather Gross, 9, watched the Pickle Court's introduction from her seat on the ground. Her favorite part of seeing the pageant princesses was watching them perform.

"I liked the dancing," she said.

The festival also gave some of the more adventurous pickle patrons a chance to try an unusual activity: Camel riding.

Cracker, a 7-year-old dromedary camel, seemed docile enough to Rainier Horn. Victor Horn prodded her into climbing the stairs to the mounting platform and stepping over onto the humped and hairy back.

"It's not too bad," she said, as the handler led the camel around the ring.

It was the first time the camels made an appearance at the Pickle Festival. The animals are usually calm with humans, handler Jason Wilkie said.

"They will spit at each other, they normally don't spit at people," he said.

A lot of people come to Wilkie during festivals to mark "riding a camel" off of their list of things to do before they die. But for the Horns, it was just about trying something new.

"It's a new experience. You got to live and learn," Horn said.

Vendors selling hand-made crafts, toys and jewelry set up their booths around downtown Mount Olive. Heather Baldwin of Jacksonville-based Heather Leigh Designs started creating her own bracelets, earrings and necklaces when her husband, serving in the Marine Corps, was deployed overseas. She enjoys the creativity of coming up with new designs, and it was her first time vending at the Pickle Festival.

The bottlecap earrings at her booth, one of the most popular items she sold at the festival, didn't take too long to make per pair, though.

"About five minutes," Mrs. Baldwin said.

Local organizations also used the festival as an opportunity to raise money for their causes. The Mount Olive Presbyterian Church offered paid parking on Breazeale Avenue with proceeds going toward Relay for Life, while volunteers with Amateur Athletics Union basketball team the Purple Magic sold baked goods to raise money to send the children's team to the national games in Florida. The festival also teamed up with the Food Bank of Eastern and Central Carolina to collect canned food for needy families.

Town commissioner Kenny Talton and his family were among those out enjoying the day. For many people in Mount Olive, the annual Pickle Festival is a way to reconnect with their home town and old friends, he said.

"The weather couldn't be better. ...This is like a big family reunion," Talton said.