Originally created 09/07/98

Unusual festivals yield hefty profits



AIKEN -- The rank odor of hog intestines smells sweeter to folks in Salley when their local tax bills arrive.

"If we didn't have the Chitlin' Strut, we would have to double our taxes," says Mayor R.N. "Bob" Salley, whose son Paul is in charge of boiling, dredging and frying 10,000 pounds of chitterlings, the dictionary spelling for a word that Southerners shorten. It takes an 18-wheeler load for the annual festival, which draws 40,000 people to the Aiken County town and usually clears $25,000 or so that is used to help run the tiny town.

The money is an incentive for 100 or more volunteers -- just about every adult in the town of 500 -- to help with the big event, now in its 33rd year, even if it does float a unique aroma through the crisp fall air.

Salley is one of hundreds of small towns in South Carolina and Georgia that rely on a festival economy to make ends meet or fund extras that otherwise would be out of reach.

Since the first year, when the Chitlin' Strut was held to raise money for Christmas decorations, Salley has used festival profits to supplement the town clerk's salary, buy fire equipment and defray expenses in almost every department of its budget, the mayor said. Chitlin' Strut money paid for a cookhouse with eight serving windows for the delicacy or digestive debacle, depending on one's taste. (There's a reason for those T-shirts that proclaim one "had the guts" to try chitlins.)

And the town used festival funds to pay off a loan that was used to buy the old Crescent City school for use as a community center, rentable hall and old school museum. The Crescent City Playhouse on the property is used for dramatic and musical performances that used to be a healthy drive away.

Springfield, population 450, has repaired aging water and sewer lines with profits from the Governor's Frog Jump and Egg-Striking Contest, held every year around Easter. Last year's haul went to the fire department for new uniforms and truck repairs, and this year's probably will go toward the purchase of an old rail bed -- a rusted relic from days when the railroad linked small towns.

If the town buys the rail bed from C&S, it will become a walking trail, Mayor Lloyd Morgan said. While that deal is still speculative, there is no other way Springfield could do more than watch the rails disappear beneath weeds.

The frog jump gets a lot of competition from other spring festivals, but usually draws 15,000 to 20,000 people and nets up to $15,000 a year for town projects. At one time, the winning frog -- usually a denizen of the black-water Edisto River -- got sent to Calaveras County, Calif., for an annual contest inspired by the whimsical work of writer Mark Twain, but that expense has since been ruled out, the mayor said.

"There is always some need," he said.

In St. George, proceeds from the World Grits Festival paid for the purchase and renovation of an old movie theater once owned by the Lourie family, which is prominent in South Carolina legislative, medical and mercantile annals. The theater provides a place for stage plays and concerts.

The World Grits Festival, which draws about 45,000 people to the town of 2,000, also has paid for its own building, which subs as a site for community events.

The town uses some of the money it makes to give scholarships to its youth as well, much like the Gilbert Community Club, which has sponsored a huge Fourth of July Lexington County Peach Festival for 40 years. Students who dip peach ice cream or do other work on the festival for three of their four high school years can earn $300 scholarships toward college.

"Grits have been good to us," said Nell Bennett, one of the original organizers of the World Grits Festival 14 years ago and still an active participant. The town hit on grits as a festival theme after some of the brand-name companies that sell 'em did a survey that showed St. George consumes more grits per capita than anyplace else in the world.

The figures likely were skewed by the fortuitous location of St. George within a holler of half a dozen old-fashioned camp meetings. The weeklong religious events are still popular in South Carolina and draw hundreds to the campsites, where it is traditional to keep two things hot -- the coffee and a huge pot of grits, good at any meal.

"It's not unusual for a tent holder at camp meeting to serve 70 or 80 people at a meal," said Mrs. Bennett, whose white hair contributes to her nickname, "Granny Grits."

Quaker, Pillsbury, Martha White and Jim Dandy sponsor portions of the festival, including the "Rolling in the Grits" competition that was once featured as Dateline NBC's picture of the week. The contest involves wetting down a vat of dry grits and seeing who can pick up the most by rolling in the goo.

The festival has been featured on the BBC and PBS, and so far, its T-shirts have reportedly been seen in most states, including Hawaii, and several countries.

The notion of that kind of success is often what motivates communities to commit to a festival -- one reason it's possible to find one somewhere any weekend of the year. Money is admittedly what small-town folks think about when they gather at someone's kitchen table to take the festival leap, deciding to celebrate okra, watermelon, catfish, among other edibles, or something more delicate like roses, irises or blossoming fruit trees.

South Carolina's Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism lists more than 80 such festivals that are registered with PRT, but the list is not complete. It doesn't mention Wagons to Wagener, the Allendale Cooter Festival or the Springfield frog jump, for example.

Chase's Calendar of Annual Events, one popular reference, lists 80 festivals in Georgia in 1998. That list also probably is not complete.

The sheer number is testimony to the economic boon a festival can be. In Georgia, the Bainbridge Chamber of Commerce is one of several that use their Web sites to promote nearby festivals that might mean business for local hotels and restaurants.

The chamber knows that Swine Time at Climax usually draws 20,000 people, the Rattlesnake Roundup at Whigham is good for up to 50,000, and a whopping 100,000 usually attend Mule Day at Calvary.

And the Big Pig Jig, a name so big now that it's copyrighted, is one of the best things going for Dooly County. It has been since 1982, when the community of Vienna combined an existing crafts fair, the county's annual hog show and a huge, whole-pig barbecue cookoff.

The festival draws 10 times the population of the entire county and offers $12,000 in cash and prizes at what's now known as BBQ City, USA. About 120 teams are involved in the cooking contests, and the event itself takes more than 400 judges and more than 400 volunteers.

The trick, festival organizers in both states say, is figuring out all the ways there are to make money on the big event.

They solicit advertising for festival programs, which they sell. They charge a fee for food vendors or artisans and craftsmen to sell merchandise, and some towns also collect for a temporary business license. There are T-shirts and other souvenirs. Beauty pageants and street dances can command an admission price, and pageant contestants are sponsored. At the Gilbert peach festival, baskets of fruit are auctioned, often for hundreds of dollars, to buyers who write off the public-relations value of the buy. There are contest entry fees.

"We have people all the time trying to figure out how to get in on it," Salley's Mayor Salley said, citing a hog farmer with his eye on the Virginia Smithfield Packing Co. lucrative strut deal.

"He told me he could supply us good clean chitlins that met USDA standards," the mayor said. "I told him the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) just requires the chitlins get swung around once to clean 'em, and we insist that ours get slung twice."