Men grow their whiskers long. Children romp in pioneer costumes. Women hover around tables laden with beribboned canned and baked goods. Thousands gather in Cullowhee, N.C. each year on the last Saturday in September to be a part of the region’s rich history of mountain culture at Mountain Heritage Day.
You can be part of history by just being there, as the festival marks both its own 40th anniversary and the 125th year of the university that hosts it. Nestled in a green valley with a creek flowing through it, the campus of Western Carolina University has always been a natural environment for learning and progress – and the festival celebrates both in historic style.
The event began as Founders’ Day on October 26, 1974, at the inauguration ceremony of Chancellor H.F. Robinson. “The festival filled a need and yearning for a local exposition,” said WCU alumnus Scott Philyaw, director of the university’s Mountain Heritage Center, which organizes the festival. “It became known as the annual Mountain Heritage Day the following year.”
This year, multiple Grammy Award-winning David Holt – one of the musical performers from the early years of the event – will be making a return appearance with Will McIntyre. Holt has recorded with mentors whose listed names read like a “Who’s Who” of bluegrass, folk, country and blues artists. He and McIntyre, once a student photographer with WCU’s public relations office and now a professional photographer, have performed together in several countries. Local favorites Mountain Faith, Jeff Little Trio, Whitewater Bluegrass Company, the Deitz Family, the Queen Family and many more also will perform bluegrass, country, gospel and mountain music on two stages. A dance floor will be available for clogging teams or audience dancing.
Two exhibits in the free-admission Mountain Heritage Center, located in the nearby H.F. Robinson Building, celebrate 125 years of university history and 40 years of Mountain Heritage Day. The university began in a one-room schoolhouse, from which four women and one man graduated three years later. Artifacts ranging from photographs and commencement programs to cheerleader, sports team and mascot uniforms tell the school’s story as it grew. The festival’s exhibit commemorates long-gone events like candidate stump speeches, moonshine sniffing and tobacco spitting.
As always, you’ll see more than 100 booths offering handmade arts and crafts, also in juried competition; living history and craft demonstrations; shape-note singing; cooking, canning and baking contests; beard-and-mustache and chainsaw rivalries; an antique auto show; tractor and horse- or mule-drawn wagon rides; plus a tent featuring children’s activities all day. You can hear the report of black powder rifles, the rhythm of a logger’s mule engine, the clang of a blacksmith’s hammer and the slide of a shuttle through a loom.
Because the campus is located in Cullowhee, land of the legendary giant Judaculla, local Cherokee culture will be celebrated as well, with games of stickball and the courting ritual called “fish.”
The tempting fragrances of festival foods – from traditional to historic to ethnic, offered by vendors in trucks and booths – will blend in the fresh mountain air.
Other good traditions that won’t change include free admission and free parking. Visitors are encouraged to bring a blanket or chair, and an umbrella to shed unwanted sunshine or rain. Service animals are welcome, but guests are asked to leave pets at home. To learn more about how you can turn back the calendar and have the time of your life on Sept. 27, visit www.mountainheritageday.com.
Whiskers and period costumes are optional.