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Woodland Shrimp Feast celebrates 25th anniversary

WOODLAND – If you like socializing and eating, then the Woodland Volunteer Fire Department Shrimp Feast is right down your alley.

Located along U.S. 258 in the Northampton County town of Woodland, the Shrimp Feast has long been a favorite summer event, drawing at one time as many as 2,000 hungry patrons. This year’s event, set for 4:30-8:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 17 – marks the 25th anniversary of the “Feast.”

The Shrimp Feast began in 1985 when the Woodland Volunteer Fire Department decided they were tired of having two to three barbecue plate dinners a year.

“We formed a committee of about three or four people to try to find a fundraiser that would generate more money than our traditional barbecue sales,” said Fire Chief Cleve Bowen. “What they came back with was something I think many of us were skeptical about at first, but the more we talked about it, the more we began to like the idea of holding a steamed shrimp event.”

As Bowen stated, nobody else was doing anything like in the immediate area, and that first year, with 600 tickets sold, the event was overwhelmingly a success.

Sidney Joyner, one of the fire department members who was on the committee to find that alternative fundraiser, said growing the event was a step-by-step and year-by-year process.

“We made some mistakes that first year,” Joyner said. “We took a look at what went wrong and what went right and we eliminated the things that didn’t work and we enhanced what did.

“By year two, we felt like we knew a little more about what we needed to do, but we quickly learned there was even more knowledge to be gained in putting on this type of event,” he added.

After the second year, a businessman and farmer from neighboring Rich Square, Jimmy Outland, made the fire department a deal they couldn’t turn down.

A piece of property located right on the Woodland town border was offered to the fire department for them to use at a minimum cost per year.

“This gave us the opportunity to do some things that would be more permanent,” Bowen said. “We were able to put up tent frames, build cooking areas and set up a trailer to store many of our supplies, all of which could remain in place all year. Simply put, it gave us a place that could be called home to the Shrimp Feast.”

By year three, the Woodland Shrimp Feast had grown to about 800 people and then, the department decided to increase ticket sales by 200 each year until they hit 2,000 tickets.

“We went slow to get there, but we were turning down so many people each year that we felt pretty good about reaching that 2,000 goal,” Joyner stated. “And then, before we knew it, we were there – the 2,000 ticket mark.”

Bowen and Joyner both would admit they were nervous about getting that many people together, both for food quality reasons and for security reasons; however, over the course of time, the quality problems seemed to work themselves out and the security issues have remained very minor.

As things seemed they couldn’t get any better for the fire department’s annual event, the worst-case scenario brought the event to a spiraling halt, leaving a black eye that has been slow in the healing process.

“It was our 12th year,” Joyner said. “It started out as any other Saturday for Shrimp Feast. It was hot, sunny and there was a chance of rain, but we had no idea of what was in store.”

As the crowd poured through the gates on that July afternoon, storm clouds began to build in the west.

Not long after the food had begun being served, one of the worst electrical storms hit without much warning.

Within 30 minutes, a once full Shrimp Feast field has been converted to an empty wind swept mud hole.

“It hurt us,” Joyner said. “The next year ticket sales reflected it and as we began to take measures to rebuild, a second storm hit us that really made us think it was done for good.”

But, the fire department didn’t give up. They regrouped, realized they could not control the weather, and they continued their efforts to bring the Shrimp Feast back to what it had once been.

“This has been our main fundraiser for many years now,” Bowen said. “We rely heavily on the event for operational funding and it has been a struggle to get back on track.”

Celebrating its 25th year, the Woodland Volunteer Fire Department is once again on track for the third Saturday in July.

“We can’t control the weather,” Joyner said. “Anytime you have something outside, you run the risk of weather destroying your plans. But an event like this needs to be outside and it wouldn’t be the same any other way.”

Since those two years of storms, the Woodland firemen have managed to keep the event going and have, like the early years, managed to grow year-by-year.

Through the years, the fire department has also worked hard to keep ticket prices at $25, which includes all the steamed shrimp, corn on the cob and coleslaw you can eat.

Also included in the price of the ticket are the beverages, which consists of draft beer, water and tea.

For more information about the 2010 Woodland Volunteer Fire Department Shrimp Feast or to secure your tickets, interested persons should contact Joyner at (252) 587-3561.

The Shrimp Feast field is located just south of U.S. 258 West in Woodland.

Jay Jenkins is the publisher of Eastern Living magazine and a regional manager for Cooke Newspapers North Carolina, LLC.