ERWIN — A larger crowd than expected poured into Erwin Wednesday to see the world-renowned Budweiser Clydesdales, backing up interstate traffic and filling every available spot of standing room within view of the team and its iconic beer wagon.
And while the first public appearance of the Clydesdales’ weeklong visit to the Tri-Cities visit did not bring out the largest group the Clydesdales have appeared before, handler Lane Soendker said it aptly: “For this small of a town, getting a reaction like this is pretty cool.”
Erwin Police Chief Regan Tilson estimated the crowd size as “larger than expected.”
Nearly three hours after the Clydesdale’s arrival in the Food City parking lot, Tilson said, “The interstate was a mess and it’s still a mess. We’ve got officers at the exits and intersections trying to help all we can.”
The horses arrived four to a trailer, immaculately groomed, with red-and-white roses and ribbons braided into their manes.
A team of handlers spent more than an hour carefully fitting them into their harnesses and hitching them one-by-one to the gleaming red-and-white wagon loaded with wooden crates of Anheuser-Busch’ “King of Beers.”
With the team hitched, their mascot dalmatian in place at the top of wagon and two green-suited drivers at the reins, handlers and assistants from the Clydesdales’ stables in St. Louis and Holston Distributing in Johnson City lowered the caution tape and allowed the crowd in for a closer look and a mass round of photographs.
Later, the crew parted the masses to clear a lane for the wagon to pull to the front of the store and, finally, to circle the parking lot. Food City officials took turns riding alongside the drivers.
Among the hundreds of people who came to see the spectacle were Grace Erwin, Liz Averett and Marjorie Chase, three senior friends from the Christian Care Center of Unicoi County who bundled up and came over to scratch the Clydesdales off their bucket list.
“That’s what they told us,” said Sarah Ballance, the care center’s activities director. Wrapped in blankets and escorted by Ballance, Patient Liaison Heather Mitchell and CNA Jenny Miller, Erwin, Averett and Chase also did not hesitate to wade into the six-to-seven-deep lines to have their photos made with the team.
Food City Events Manager Lisa Johnson later called it “an experience of a lifetime.”
“Let me tell you, this was one amazing event,” she said. “It was an experience of a lifetime given to us by our friends at Budweiser. And our customers truly enjoyed this experience.”