Peoples' choice

Townsend festival brings back barbecue with menu of music, crafts, fun

Photo with no caption
By Lance Coleman
Blount Today

The Townsend in the Smokies Spring Festival and Old Timers Day barbecue competition is back. Only this time, it’s a people’s choice award.

Convention and Visitor’s Bureau vice president Herb Handly said the competition took a hiatus during the 2006 festival because it seemed festival goers had lost interest in the event. That’s why in 2006, they simply held a barbecue tasting
without a competition.

Then the phones started ringing and people wanted to know why there wasn’t a competition. "We’re going to bring back the barbecue competition," he said. "Because we’re sensitive to the people who called and said they wanted it, we’re bringing it back."

In past years, the barbecue competition at the Spring Festival and Old Timers Day in Townsend was decided by judges who often would end up eating 50 different samples.

The new competition will be different from in past years. Instead of a panel of judges, it will be a people’s choice approach. People vote for their favorite barbecue and the person with the most votes wins.

"We realized there was more interest in a competition and we realized we needed to bring it back," he said.

The Townsend Spring Festival and Old Timers Festival is a two-weekend event. Last weekend, the festival brought about 4,700 people to the center. More than that is expected for the second weekend, which continues today through Saturday, May 5.

Handly spends a lot of time planning events and organizing programs. On Saturday morning April 28, he looked like a man enjoying the fruits of his labor. With a box of pop corn in hand, he watched the crowds in the parking lot as people milled through the arts and crafts area and listened to a bluegrass jam on the front porch.

Handly said the spring festival was started in 1999 to take advantage of the traffic for the Cades Cove Old Timers Day. Eventually, that event was moved to the visitors’ center and now they are held on consecutive weekends in late April, early May.

In 1999, Deborah Nye was hired as events coordinator for the visitors’ bureau. "We started looking for activities to increase the size of the festival. Before then, they didn’t have arts and crafts. It was just story telling and music," Handly said. "It began to grow from then on, and it has increased every year."

Handly said there are factors that will drive the crowds, weather being one of them. To keep interest high, the organizers keep adding new things.

"We always try to keep it fresh," he said.

Handly said the addition of activities at the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center near the Park also gives festival goers more to do. The center opened in February of 2006 and showcases the cultural history of area’s early settlers and the Cherokee Indians who were there before them.

Handly said there are 10 food vendors and 30 crafts vendors for both weekends.

While there are 25 Gospel and bluegrass musical acts scheduled on the Clara Peals and Lois Gunter stage behind visitors center, bluegrass music also is heard on the front porch of the visitors center throughout the day and night. "Anybody can come and jam on the porch," said Nye. "We welcome that."

Activities this weekend include antique cars, pony rides, wildflower walks and hikes with a ranger, a multitude of crafts, arts and music, as well as the barbecue, food vendors and historical events at the Great Smoky Mountain Heritage Center.

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