Planning for 12th annual Blackberry Festival spans the year

Jul. 10, 2013 @ 07:35 PM

Planning for the North Carolina Blackberry Festival never really stops.

In its first year, the festival drew a thousand people and 25 vendors to Broyhill Park. Now, 12 years later, it draws about 13,000 people and around 150 vendors, and it is spread through downtown Lenoir.

Preparations for the 2013 Blackberry Festival started the week after the 2012 festival ended, said Deborah Ashley, president of the Caldwell County Chamber of Commerce. Organizers meet in late July each year, after the vendors have packed up and the blackberry juice has been washed from hands and mouths, to examine what went well, what could’ve been better, and what needs to change in the year ahead.

By April, the primary event coordinator – this year it’s chamber staff member Libby Killian – is spending at least two and a half days of each workweek working exclusively on the Blackberry Festival.

Each year, the festival is made from a million moving pieces: vendors selling food, crafts and other wares; local musicians; the Blackberry Princess pageant; the recipe contest; the blackberry-eating contest; kids’ activities; and of course, the Colossal Cobbler Project.  

Organizers tweaked this year’s festival in a number of ways, moving the annual Parking Lot Pickin’ to Friday night, adding new categories to the recipe contest (including a new jams and jellies category), centralizing food vendors in the middle of town and setting blackberry vendors on the edge (so festival-goers taking blackberries home don’t have to lug tubs of blackberries through the streets). And as the year went by, all those moving pieces started to come together.

Then came the planning for the patchwork of blackberry cobbler – the world’s largest, the chamber calls it, because as far as anyone knows it’s the world’s only.

The idea came from former News-Topic publisher and chamber president Dick Mitchell. Ashley refers to him as the “father of the Blackberry Festival” and said that six years ago it was his dream to get the festival in the Guinness Book of World Records.

That’s how the patchwork of cobblers started: It was supposed to be the world’s largest blackberry cobbler. But that would have required spending money on outsized baking supplies and, it turned out, on the hefty sum required to get Book of World Records judges in attendance.

So a giant blackberry cobbler was out. The question, then, was what the chamber could do that no one else had ever done.

The answer came as organizers considered the old-time nature of the festival, Ashley said. It could be something like a quilt, they thought. And then it hit them: A patchwork.

This year’s patchwork will be made from more than 200 individual cobblers, servings of which will be doled out for free to everyone at the festival. The berries are donated, and the cobbler “kits” – blackberries, sugar, flour, butter – are given, free, to anyone willing to bake a cobbler.  

Each year, various corners of the community bring the Blackberry Festival together. There’s the chamber, of course, and various City of Lenoir departments (police, fire, City Hall, recreation). The county’s public information department helps spread the word. And then there’s all those people who take home blackberries and flour and sugar and come back on Saturday, cobbler in hand.

“It really is a culmination of a community,” Ashley said.