Visitors showing up early to Saturday’s event on Main Street in Mount Airy were greeted by the smell of donuts and Polish sausage and the old-time sounds of the Mainline Gravy Soppers.
The sounds and smells heralded that they have arrived at one of the Southeast’s premier events, the 47th annual Autumn Leaves Festival.
This year’s event featured just less than 250 vendors from as far away as New Mexico, selling items that ran the gamut from the practical to the whimsical.
And attendees said the festival was one of their favorite events of the year.
“We came from Greensboro with a women’s ministry group,” said Carol Sherwood.
Sherwood came with a group of 14, caravanning in a van and three cars.
Sitting on a granite bench at the intersection of Main Street and Independence Avenue, Sherwood was all smiles.
“This is just great,” she said. “It’s a much nicer and bigger event that we have in Greensboro. There are more vendors and everyone seems to be having such a great time. I love to see people get up and spontaneously dance in front of the stage.”
But dancing, while certainly prevalent at the festival, took a back seat to seeing, being seen and shopping for hand-crafted items, according to Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce President Betty Ann Collins.
“The stores on Main Street I have talked to said they have just been having an incredible weekend,” she said, noting that the newly-opened Antique Mall that has opened in the former Fancy Gap Outfitters location had a record-breaking day Friday.
“They say it’s the best day they’ve had yet,” Collins said. “That’s just great news. The stores on Main Street are really reaping the benefits of the 200,000 or so who show up for the festival.”
And the stores aren’t the only ones having a great sales weekend.
“Several of the vendors are saying they’re having the best weekend they’ve ever had,” Collins said.
Perhaps a more mundane way of judging the crowd, Collins said volunteers were having a hard time keeping up with the amount of trash generated by the crowd.
“I can tell you this,” she said. “From the trash standpoint it was running over before noon Friday.”
The solution, since pickup wasn’t scheduled until after dark?
“We got bags and gloves and went out and emptied it ourselves,” Collins said with a laugh. “It was a monster of a job.”
And the crowds this year started arriving early Friday and hadn’t let up by Saturday afternoon, she added.
“We saw the crowd start building by 10 Friday, and started with a slow build, but it exploded before noon and continued growing throughout the day,” Collins said. “It’s hard to measure, but I can tell you the crowd this year is huge.”
The festival is the only street event hosted by the chamber, and revenue from the event is used to fund programming throughout the year.
But Collins said a study conducted among the non-profit groups who participate indicate that they raise nearly $500,000 during the festival.
“We’ve only done one economic study over the years, but in 2008 it was determined that the Autumn Leaves Festival brought in about $8.5 million to the area, when you account for lodging, gas, meals and purchases,” Collins said.
As for the crowd?
Walking past a hit-and-miss engine churning away at the Ted and Fred’s Ice Cream booth, one attendee became nostalgic.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve heard anything that sounds like that,” he said wistfully.
Reach Keith Strange at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1929.