The 29th John Blue Cotton Festival sent thousands of people from throughout North Carolina and many states east of the Mississippi River home with a tinge of nostalgia for all things old-fashioned.
The festival is held annually on the grounds of the John Blue House in Laurinburg. Blue, a local farmer and innovator, constructed the Victorian home in 1891.
This year’s festival drew estimated crowds of 8,000 on both Saturday and Sunday, no small achievement for an event that began 30 years ago as an educational expo.
“When we first started the festival, we brought schoolchildren out,” said Jim Walker, festival committee member. “We didn’t have nearly what we do right now. We wanted to show the children how they washed clothes, how they made soap. We would set the grounds up on Friday and they would come in on Friday.”
The festival exhibits antique farming implements in the atmosphere of a county fair. More than 75 tractors from as early as the 1930s were on display this weekend.
Festival goers could purchase bags of cornmeal for $2, freshly ground in a grist mill on site, and a team of mules operated the pre-Civil War cotton gin at intervals throughout both days.
“I’ve enjoyed it, I was here about two years ago,” said Helen Burdell, visiting from Columbus, Ga. “When you live in the city like I do, you don’t ever see anything like this.”
Live music acts the Craig Woolard Band, Jimmy Blue, and Appalachian Blue provided entertainment, with local dance troupes taking over on Sunday.
One music enthusiast attracted attention with his unconventional dance moves. “I feel the music inside of me, I can’t explain it,” said John Caffrey, a retired Washington, D.C. fireman who now resides in Red Springs. “Sometimes I want to scream; I hear certain songs on the radio and I get teary-eyed. Music is like a drug to me; I get so wired.”
In good humor, Caffrey ignored a request by Woolard to join the band onstage and continued in his own style. Caffrey has become a fixture among the crowd at area festivals and music events.
“My only passion is music, and sports, I love sports, but I follow these bands all over,” he said. “I was in Rose Hill last week; it took two hours and two minutes to get there. I danced from two o’clock until nine. I drove over 200 miles to get home because I got lost, but it was worth it.”
Food vendors offered universally recognizable fair fare, with funnel cakes, chocolate-dipped cheesecake on a stick, and chicken-fried bacon with ranch dressing as well as Southern standards like collard sandwiches and fried pies. Other vendors sold handmade items from clothing and handbags to quilts and jewelry.
“We try to keep our festival old-timey,” Walker said. “We don’t let all vendors come in, just handmade crafts and antique type stuff. We probably turn down just about as many vendors as we allow.”
For many of Scotland County’s former residents and their descendants, the antiquarian extravaganza offers a chance to revisit their ancestral home.
“This is our first time coming,” said Janice Everett of Fayetteville, visiting with husband Frank. “We were looking for something to do for the weekend, and we didn’t want to go to the State Fair; there are too many people. We’re going to go to the cemetery next - my husband has a lot of family here.”
For others, the John Blue Festival has become an annual tradition, marked on the calendar and prepared for like Thanksgiving or Christmas.
“It’s a tradition in my wife’s family to come here every year,” said Paul Davis. “Apparently every year we have an extra kid to bring, so that’s what we do. We trek down from Summerfield, North Carolina. They like the collard sandwiches; I like the funnel cakes and the barbecue ribs.”
“My mom’s been coming every year but the first year,” added Davis’ wife Lori. “We like the collard sandwiches from Shirley’s Goodies.”