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Union Grove, N.C., was once the place to be in the Spring, gleaning some of the best vintage music on the planet

Contributed To The Press • May 26, 2019 at 12:00 PM

By Bob Cox

Union Grove was a township and unincorporated community in Iredell County, North Carolina.

At the 2000 census, the population was 2069. Union Grove Township was established in 1865, but the Union Grove Post Office existed prior to the Civil War.

Within the Union Grove township is the Union Grove Milling Co, Union Grove School (formerly Union Grove elementary through high school), Union Grove Volunteer Fire House and two Methodist churches.

In the later half of the 20th century, Union Grove was famous for a Fiddler's Convention, which was held in Union Grove from the 1920s to the 1970s. The Fiddler's Convention was originally established to benefit the Union Grove School. Two conventions, one in 1974 and the other in 1979, impressively drew 75,000 and 130,000 old-time fiddle fans respectively. People from across the South eagerly attended the annual event.

April 14, 1974

Union Grove Old-Time Fiddlers Convention

An estimated 75,000 people turned out despite intermittent rain for the final day Saturday of the Old Time Fiddlers convention at Union Grove.

Authorities said the number would have been larger, but at the request of promoter J.P. Van Hoy, they began turning away visitors about noon.

The convention began Friday. The spectators jammed Van Hoy's 300-acre farm to hear 250 groups play, with names like Henry and the Street Fiddlers, play country, old-time and bluegrass tunes. The attendees loved it.

Many of the spectators camped out on the grounds, their cars and motorcycles circling campfires.

"This is generally a peaceful group," said one newsman. "The most violent activity was a couple of Frisbee games."

Van Hoy said that most of the spectators were young people. Although there were no reports of violence, the Iredell County Sheriff's Department said about 200 persons had been arrested, mostly for drug possession.

“They just called from Union Grove and said there was another busload coming in and I would have to clear out the jail, said jailer Roy Lambert. “The jail holds about 40 prisoners,” he said. “The overflow was distributed among several jails in neighboring counties,” he added.

You have mostly young people that are coming in from all over the country," said Captain Earle Green of the Highway Patrol.

"Most of them are fine young people, but we are up here to control traffic and help people get around. When we see laws being broken, we can't ignore it; we have to deal with it."

March 25, 1979

Union Grove Old-Time Fiddlers Convention

In 1979, forecasters said it might rain, but for an estimated 130,000 revelers who camped out, the sentiment was "rain! Are you kidding?" The only thing that would hold this crowd down is knee-deep snow," said sheriff's deputy, Max Shaver.

Some 200 bands and individual performers filled the mountain air with the twang of bluegrass music Friday night as preliminary competition began at the Van Hoy spread.

The mostly young crowd moved about the tent city that filled the 70-acre pasture and its 500 rented adjacent acres Friday night. It was an outing that people took seriously.

"You're our guests," the rotund 60-year-old Van Hoy told a cheering throng Friday. Van Hoy's father founded the convention in 1934 as a way to raise money for the local school and it became a multimillion-dollar operation. It was second to none.

"Ninety-five percent of you folks are all right and straight, Van Hoy said, "But if you see your neighbors doing something wrong, just quietly tell them to behave."

The fun and music was expected to end that night or early Sunday. According to one deputy, "there is always one idiot who doesn't find the place until Monday."

The End of the Journey

The annual Fiddler’s Grove festival, which drew thousands of musicians each Memorial Day to a campground in rural Iredell County, ended after four decades. Hank Van Hoy, whose father Harper started the festival in 1970, said Saturday that the decision to end the event was painful.

But he said it was sparked by multiple factors, including the difficulty of organizing the festival while working full time and the cost of putting on the event. He said efforts to bring more innovations to the festival, including a competition for younger musicians, didn’t increase crowds enough. The 2012 festival held in May was the last.

“If we can’t do a festival with high quality and a family atmosphere, we just felt it best to not go on,” said Van Hoy, a lawyer who lives in Mocksville and who had served as master of ceremonies for a number of years.

The annual Fiddler’s Grove festival, which drew thousands of musicians each Memorial Day to a campground in rural Iredell County, was ending after four decades.

Hank Van Hoy, whose father Harper started the festival in 1970, said Saturday that the decision to end the event was painful. But he said it was sparked by multiple factors, including the difficulty of organizing the festival while working full time and the cost of putting on the event.

He said efforts to bring more innovations to the festival, including a competition for younger musicians, didn’t increase crowds enough. The 2012 festival held in May was the last.

“If we can’t do a festival with high quality and a family atmosphere, we just felt it best to (not) go on,” said Van Hoy, a lawyer who lives in Mocksville and who had served as master of ceremonies for a number of years.”

Reach Bob Cox at [email protected] or go to www.bcyesteryear.com.

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