The Autumn Leaves Festival draws thousands to Mount Airy for a full weekend in October each year, and many of the locals who attend enjoy reminiscing about the early days of the event.
A peek into the Mount Airy News revealed the beginnings of the festival, with many traditions the town enjoys today taking roots in one of the first festivals, which have always held the second weekend of October.
The first Autumn Leaves Festival was held Oct. 13-15, 1967, a time when local industry and manufacturing was thriving and tourism was a new draw. It was designed as a tourist-oriented event, one where locals could show off their talents and celebrate life in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The first mention of the festival in the Mount Airy News was in the Aug. 18, 1967 edition, an announcement of the first promotion by Dr. J. Simmons, chamber president and Jim Grimes, executive director at the time. The event was one that was already drawing excitement from those at the kick-off meeting, as they hoped it was an “affair that would eventually be of national importance.”
Tourism was always a main focus of the festival, which was described in that first article as “‘tourist oriented’ but home –based,” with an intention of encouraging “Mount Airians and all those ‘along the Blue Ridge’ to practice the friendliness for which the area is famous.”
“It will give pride for those who love the hill country to show visitors the sunrises and sunsets that cannot be duplicated anywhere else.”
The mayor of Mount Airy at the time, Ed Clark, held a ribbon-cutting ceremony, along with chamber representatives, early on Friday morning to celebrate the first festival, but the ceremony was not held downtown — it was at the National Guard Armory, which was once a big part of the festival. In the late ‘60s, Mayberry Mall was also added as a festival spot.
The armory served as a place to celebrate local industry, and by August of ‘67, 17 of 32 booth space were already sold for one of the most elaborate trade fairs ever seen in this area, which included displays by ProcterSilex, Renfro, Techform, North Carolina Granite, Pine State, Quality Mills, Adams-Mills, Perry’s Manufacturing, Workman’s Federal, and more.
The focus in and around the downtown area was on locally-produced crafts, art, and handmade goods, along with local entertainment, and it was quite large—spread throughout the downtown area, the armory, Reeves and other locations.
The chamber of commerce organized bus tours to the mountains to see the autumn leaves, which were in full splendor on the second weekend in October, according to the Oct. 13, 1967 edition of the newspaper.
Music was a huge focus of the first festival, with four bandstands set up throughout the downtown area, which was closed from Oak to Pine Streets. The first music included Donna Fargo and the Osborne Brothers, as well as entertainment by local choral, band, and theatrical groups. Square dances and dances for teenagers were held each night. Ralph Epperson manned a bandstand on the north end of the street.
Local arts and crafts were exhibited at Reeves Community Center, which was then known as the YMCA, along with exhibits prepared by gardening clubs and farmers, as well as nightly concerts.
The local Moravian church served suppers “in the manner that has made them famous, with waitresses in traditional costumes.” A booth sold ham biscuits for ten cents each.
Models wearing clothes from downtown establishments paraded through the streets and restaurants. An exhibit of automobiles was set up in the street. Local and state politicians made appearances, as well as Miss Mount Airy, who served as a hostess for the festival.
The State Campers and Hikers Association held a meeting during the first Autumn Leaves Festival and camped nearby for the entire event.
A still was set up, demonstrating the process of making moonshine and white liquor, still rumored to be an actual still, producing alcohol on N. Main Street.
The Surry County Quilters Guild set up on the street, as well as folks demonstrating milk and butter churning, cow milking, sauerkraut making, a corn shucking contest (won by the ‘67 Chief of Police E.V. Marion), cider-making, molasses-making, blacksmithing by Big John Martin from Bannertown, who brought his anvil and made horseshoes in front of F. Rees Clothing then put the horseshoes on the horses the next day, right on the street, according to an article published in October, 1988.
By 1969, the festival was expanding, with the addition of the now-defunct wagon train, the first which traveled under the direction of the police chief, according to an article in the September 19, 1969 edition of the newspaper. The wagon train began in Beulah, traveled to Lambsburg, Virginia, and along the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, through Cana before turning toward Mount Airy. Those in the wagon train stopped at pre-arranged campsites, with music, campfires, and food planned for every night. The festivities ended with a wagon train parade down Main Street on the Thursday before the festival began, a tradition that would continue for decades.
The first wagon train participants camped on Hamburg Street, at the Mount Airy Livestock Yard. The State Campers and Hikers Association also returned for many years, camping for the entirety of the festival.
By the 1980s, more wagon trains had been added, along with horse-pulling competitions.
Wagon Trains were a huge part of the festival for many years, with the largest run by the Pipers Gap Saddle Club. They were a nod to the days of the past when the region was a pass-through for travelers on the Great Wagon Road, many who chose to settle in the Mount Airy area, then known as The Hollows.
In later years, traffic became a program as well as negative attention to the few who chose to become intoxicated stopped the wagon trains, with the last one rolling through town in 2002.
A Kodachrome view of the first Autumn Leaves Festival
Paula Webster Graham grew up in Mount Airy. Her father Paul (Pete) D. Webster loved photograph, and although he was not a professional photographer, Graham said he often used Kodachrome film, which was popular at the time and used for slides, which Graham preferred. Webster photographed the first Autumn Leaves Festival in Oct. of 1967, using Kodachrome film—images that are now preserved for history, a colorful peek into the first festival.
Webster was a local sign painter and Graham said the festival brought in a lot of work for him. Many of the photographs he took of the first festival were a way of documenting the work he created. Graham said her early memories of the Autumn Leaves Festival include the never-missed ten cent country ham biscuits on Main Street, but her favorite was the industry displays at the armory building: “There were all kinds of trinkets, such as company promotions and candy given out.” Procter-Silex gave away a free toaster from their both every year.
Graham’s father’s photographs let us travel back to a time in the past, to a Mount Airy long-gone, one that still lingers in places, one of them being the spirit of the Autumn Leaves Festival.
Reach Jessica Johnson at email@example.com or 719-1933.