A 'berry' big turnout
The 13th annual North Carolina Blackberry Festival drew perhaps the largest turnout in its history Saturday.
The streets of downtown Lenoir teemed with people, many from out of town, at least some drawn by recent statewide publicity the festival received.
"We heard about the festival on 'North Carolina Weekend' on PBS," said Mike McLeod, who with his wife, Rena, drove up from Asheboro to see the festival and eventually head farther north to the Boone area. "It's been a good time. Lenoir is a nice little town."
Anticipating a larger-than-normal crowd, Lineberger's Killdeer Farms, which sells blackberries from the back of a tractor-trailer, ordered 1,200 containers. And the crowd did not disappoint. Folks began filling the streets at 9:30 a.m. Just two hours later, parking spaces were hard to come by. The sun blazed down on the hot pavement as visitors fanned themselves to stay cool.
Two people trying to beat the heat were 15-year-old Emily Bently and her 16-year-old sister, Stephanie. The two shared duties wearing a blackberry costume supported by hula hoops and football shoulder pads. They spent much of their time posing for pictures.
"It's good to see the adults get pictures with us, as well as the kids," Emily said as she ducked in the shade.
The Blackberry Eating Contest turned into a grudge match, pitting last year's champion, Curt Hiller of Lenoir, against Seth Eckard of Sawmills, who won the event two years ago. Eckard, a svelt 70 pounds lighter now, vowed to win back his crown. Preparation, however, was kept at a minimum.
"I ate a funnel cake with cherry topping this morning," Eckard sheepishly admitted before the event.
Before 30 seconds had elapsed, Eckard had edged out Hiller. His secret to victory?
"The key is to chomp fast," he said behind his blackberry-stained grin.
Later, the Collossal Blackberry Parade Brigade, led by a trumpeteering Joe Delk III, strutted down Main Street as it ushered in what the festival calls "the world's largest patchwork blackberry cobbler," a tabletop collection of 225 individual cobblers baked by local residents.
Deborah Ashley Smith, president of festival sponsor the Caldwell County Chamber of Commerce, attributed this year's success in part to a widespread ad campaign promoting the event and the activities beginning Friday evening, dubbed the Pre-heat Party.
"We've had more people and vendors than before," she said. "The Pre-heat Party had a big turnout, and the crowd grew throughout the evening. Today, the crowd has been consistently large in all quadrants of the festival. It's been absolutely wonderful."