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Unicoi officials say expansion helped make 6th Strawberry Festival sweetest yet

• Nov 25, 2014 at 6:31 PM

UNICOI – Though festivals may seem abundant in May in Northeast Tennessee, the region’s “sweetest” one may belong to the town of Unicoi.

On Saturday, in the fields adjacent to Unicoi Elementary School, the town celebrated its sixth annual Wayne Scott Strawberry Festival.

When it was conceived in 2008, the festival was used as a method to celebrate the town’s annual strawberry harvest. From that original design, Unicoi Community Relations Coordinator Molly Campbell said the festival evolved to incorporate more of the qualities that embody the spirit of the town of Unicoi.

“The town of Unicoi is really big on arts and heritage,” Campbell said. “We build on the arts and on community.”

The festival began at 9 a.m. with a customary parade, which began at Unicoi Funeral Home, 4428 Unicoi Drive, and ended at the school. As the festival entered its sixth year, however, first-time event director Campbell said she worked to procure additional activities and agencies to perpetuate those notions of art and heritage. Some of those, she said, came at no cost.

“We had multiple art workshops provided by the Johnson City Arts Council through the Art Builds Communities grant, which is awarded through the Tennessee Arts Commission,” Campbell said. “(The town’s) history committee was largely involved, too. They brought the heritage pieces and helped people learn about the (Upper East Tennessee) Celtic Society.”

Campbell added that a magic act and an origami workshop also made their first appearances during this year’s event, which also featured music from Unicoi’s own Adam Larkey Band and the Sons of Bluegrass.

In addition to an increase in the number of activities, Campbell said the festival also saw a 30 percent increase in the number of vendors in attendance, as well. All of the vendors were area nonprofit groups.

“That is not like any other festival in the region,” she said. “The Strawberry Festival is all about promoting nonprofits. It’s all about nonprofit development and nonprofit fundraising.”

All those increases, she said, led to a noticeable spike in the festival’s attendance.

“This is about triple to quadruple of what we had last year,” she said.

Town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch, who was present for the event, said Campbell’s assessment on the number of participants was “about right,” and that, by his estimation, many of those in attendance were not from Unicoi County.

“In talking to folks today, I have realized that ... a huge portion of this crowd is actually from out of the county,” he said. “They just heard about it and decided they’d come on out today, and we’re glad to have them.

“We’ve gotten better every year,” Lynch said. “We’ve got a bigger and better stage, we may have possibly done a better job on promotion (and) we’ve got more events.”

What may have been the most appealing of those events, Lynch said, was the presence of costumed actors dressed as popular children’s characters like Tigger, Winnie the Pooh, and Blue, the dog from the children’s TV series “Blue’s Clues.” Campbell said Blue played an important role during the festival, leading children in a game inspired by the show.

“(They) actually played Blue’s Clues here today,” Campbell said. “Every child at the festival under the age of 12 got a Blue’s Clues gift, so they got all the clues right. We had 70 kids under the age of 12 get gifts from Blue’s Clues.”

Games like this, and other kid-oriented activities, are part of what made this year’s festival more successful than its predecessors, Lynch said.

“We focused on the kids this time, and the kids are really having a good time this time around,” he said. “That makes us happy.”

Although this year’s festival saw a sizeable increase in the number of events, activities, and vendors, visitors still took advantage of the chance to leave with some of the featured product — Scott’s Strawberries. George Ritchie, who works for Scott’s Strawberry and Tomato Farms, set up his booth and began selling buckets of strawberries around 8 a.m. Saturday. By 3:15 that afternoon, he said he hadn’t had a chance to take a break.

“It has gone really well,” Ritchie said. “People were lined up waiting to get them for a while.”

Whether or not people turned out for strawberries, children’s activities, supporting nonprofits or just to get out of the house, Lynch said he was pleased to see those people enjoying themselves in Unicoi.

“It seems to be a great event this year,” Lynch said. “I’ve been walking around talking to folks, and everyone seems to be having a real good time.”

Follow Max Hrenda on Twitter @MaxLHrenda.

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