Dr. Dale Simmons was amazed when, during the first Autumn Leaves Festival in 1966, “some fellow from Greensboro” came all the way to Mount Airy – three times – just to see a cow milked.
Simmons recalled how the cow had been dry on the determined man’s first two visits to the festival, but the third time was a charm.
Milking a cow on Main Street, “that just tells you a little of what we were doing,” in the early days of Autumn Leaves, he said, and how there was an interest to see those kinds of things.
Simmons founded what would become an annual fall-themed celebration while chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce board 50 years ago.
He will be honored for his contribution at the festival’s opening ceremonies Friday, which will be held at 11 a.m. at the bandstand on Independence Boulevard.
We just felt the 50th anniversary of the festival was the appropriate time to take a moment to thank this guy,” said Randy Collins, president and CEO of the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s pretty amazing what one person can do. He had a lot of help, but it takes that one person to push something through. We credit Dr. Simmons for making that happen.”
Simmons, a retired physician and Mount Airy native, was born and raised in the Bannertown community.
He attended what became Wake Forest University for college and medical school and was in the first graduating class from the Winston-Salem campus.
After his residency at what would become Forsyth Medical Center, Simmons joined the U.S. Navy, spending many years on the West Coast and abroad.
Simmons returned to Mount Airy after his military service on an extended visit while waiting on a job offer (which he later received) in California and scoping out other Eastern cities to set up a practice.
He hadn’t intended on staying.
“I’ve always heard you don’t go back home,” he said, but nothing else seemed right except home.
Simmons established a practice here and dove into the community.
By the time he left in the early 1990s for a position in Raleigh as state health director, he had to resign from five boards in one week.
“I was into a lot of things, and I need to tell you why,” he said.
His father was a stone cutter who quit school in the sixth grade to work at the granite quarry and worked his way up to a superintendent position.
“Even that, the pay was so poor,” said Simmons, who also started working at a young age.
“I worked in the grocery from seventh grade until the night I went to college,” he said. At the store, he cashed people’s paychecks and saw, week after week, how little a $1-an-hour job earned.
“Women were making less than that,” he said. On the weekends, he’d deliver groceries.
“I saw how people were living,” he said.
Simmons worked hard throughout the years to strengthen the community, serving as county health director and with various civic groups.
“This guy obviously had a vision for what he wanted the community to be,” said Collins, who had recently spent some time with Simmons in preparation for the celebration Friday.
The Autumn Leaves Festival was part of that vision.
“One thing was jealousy on my part,” he said.
Having missed out while in the Navy, “I was delighted to see the leaves when I got back,” he said. “Every year I would take hundreds of pictures of the foliage.”
But the area had so much more to offer than pretty pictures.
Simmons work within the community brought him into contact with various aspects of the culture that impressed him.
“People just don’t know what we’ve got here,” he remembered thinking. “People in Mount Airy don’t appreciate it, and people not from here haven’t seen it.”
What can I do, he asked himself.
“I thought, why can’t we do a festival and why can’t we show people what we’ve got?”
He drummed up enough support to make the Autumn Leaves Festival a reality.
As it was conceived, the festival’s focus was indeed about showing, not selling.
“We’re not here to charge people lots of money, we’re letting people know we’re friendly and we want to be friends,” Simmons recalled telling people, also insisting ham biscuits be sold at a maximum of 10 cents apiece.
Booths were set up along Main Street to display an incredible variety of skills, with crafts such as apple butter and quilt making, but industry was also represented from furniture to plastics.
Vendors were told, “we want you to show how you developed your materials,” Simmons said, recalling the blacksmith’s horses backing up to his booth to be shod, right during the festival.
“These people enjoyed showing their wares,” Simons said.
One local craft – making moonshine – was a little trickier.
“Someone said, one of the things we do is make liquor, so why don’t we put a still on Main Street,” said Simmons, who answered, “No, we can’t put a still on Main Street and make liquor.”
He agreed to allowing a non-functioning still be set out during the festival.
Once things were underway, Simmons was alerted that, “sure enough, they’re making liquor.”
Spotting a revenuer watching the public operation, the founder thought for sure the whole lot would be thrown in jail and told the law man that they’d have the still removed within the hour.
Simmons was surprised when the revenuer said to let them keep at it.
“Those guys are coming around and comparing recipes,” Simmons said, making the revenuer’s job easy.
“We had things like that all weekend.”
The festival’s success was a boon for many reasons, not the least of which was that the chamber was close to broke, without enough funds to pay for the event, Simmons said.
“I thought we’d go $10,000 into the hole.”
The former chairman shared that news at the chamber meeting a week before the festival.
“I’m not going to let you lose,” he told the group. “If we can’t make it, I’ll pay for it.”
Another member offered to split the loss with Simmons after the meeting, but it turned out to be unnecessary.
Ticket sales for concerts by Donna Fargo and the Osmond Brothers, who essentially performed for free – “that’s what sustained us,” Simmons said. “They were great concerts.”
The festival endured and continues as one of the largest street festivals in the state.
“It’s done a lot for this town, a lot for the state,” Simmons said. “It’s been worth it but you didn’t know how it was going to turn out.”
Simmons admitted that the festival’s increased emphasis on profit bothers him some.
“The one thing I think comes through every year is you see the same people every year who use the festival as a way to get together,” he said. “That’s still very positive. It keeps the name up but channels that joy of being together and appreciated.”
Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.