Melon Fest ends on high note

Published 6:14 pm Wednesday, August 5, 2009

MURFREESBORO – In athletic terms, the 2009 North Carolina Watermelon Festival “rallied in the late innings.”

While the 24th annual affair may be remembered most for its two days of rain, the festival closed with a bang on Saturday where one of the biggest final day crowds in the history of the event filled the festival grounds to capacity.

“We were very pleased with Saturday’s turnout,” said Watermelon Festival Committee co-chair Kay Mitchell Thomas. “Mother Nature threw us a curve this year, but Saturday was dry and the crowd came out in huge numbers.”

Thomas said she took note early on the size of the crowd, but really didn’t realize its overwhelming size until after Saturday night’s fireworks show.

“I walked through the amusement rides area and it was shoulder-to-shoulder in there,” she said. “Then I went up in the Ferris Wheel and from that vantage point you could really see just how big the crowd was. It was like being at the State Fair in Raleigh.”

The day got off to a busy start.

“We saw the largest crowd we’ve ever had at the pancake breakfast,” Watermelon Festival volunteer and long-time Murfreesboro resident Jennifer Moore said. “They kept coming and coming.”

Then, despite overcast skies, the sidewalks that line both sides of Murfreesboro’s Main Street began to fill, some areas five-to-seven people deep, to witness the festival’s annual parade. The state’s largest agricultural parade didn’t disappoint its throng of spectators as the event was packed full of various entries, including bands from Hertford County High School, Northampton-East High School and Northeastern High in Elizabeth City.

WAVY-TV 10 meteorologist Jon Cash served as the parade’s Grand Marshall. Reigning North Carolina Watermelon Queen Kensley Leonard of Southern Pines made her formal appearance in Murfreesboro by greeting the crowd from her colorful float.

Even the festival’s 5K road race, that leads off the parade before winding its way through the town’s streets, was large in number. Race organizer Lee Canipe said 107 runners registered, an all-time high.

Thomas said despite the size of Saturday’s crowd, there appeared to be no problems.

“They were very well-behaved,” she noted of the crowd. “I got a chance to talk to several people who visited the festival from out of the area, some from out of state, and they all told me they were impressed by the cleanliness and friendliness of our event.”

As an official with the North Carolina Office of Tourism, those comments were pleasing to Thomas.

“Not only did they tell me that they loved our festival, many said they were planning on leaving here and visiting other parts of our state,” Thomas said. “That’s what we refer to as spill-over tourism…a visitor plans to attend one event and then takes in other attractions while they are in the area.”

Another busy area at the festival was where free slices of watermelon were served. Thomas said it was a safe estimate that over 15,000 slices were consumed over the festival’s four-day run.

“We received a lot of compliments on the activities we had and that praise needs to be placed on our hard-working volunteers…they are the ones who make this happen each year,” Thomas said. “We also need to thank the North Carolina Watermelon Association and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. They sent people to help us on Saturday. And, of course, we need to thank our sponsors who are vital to our success.”

A pair of people noticeably absent from this year’s festival was two of the event’s founders, Percy and Lynette Bunch of Murfreesboro. Mr. Bunch remains hospitalized after undergoing surgery last month.

“We truly missed Percy and Lynette,” Thomas noted. “Their efforts over the years have led to the success of this festival.”

If there was one downside, Thomas said it was the number of amusement rides.

“The owner of the company who provides our rides admitted he simply didn’t bring enough rides to accommodate the large crowd we had, especially on Saturday,” Thomas said. “However, he promised to rectify that next year. He promised to bring more rides and bigger and better rides.”

The 2010 North Carolina Watermelon Festival, which will mark the event’s 25th year, is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 4-7, but may be held one week earlier.

“We’re still discussing next year’s dates,” Thomas closed. “We’ve got a lot of big events planned due to the significance of observing our 25th anniversary.”