China Grove Farmers Day returning to its roots
By Shavonne Potts
CHINA GROVE — It’s been hailed as the hottest day of the year by folks who never miss the annual China Grove Farmers Day event.
Not many who attend likely know why the annual event, about to be held for the 30th time, has been on the third Saturday in July. But Barbara Doby with the South Rowan Historical Society knows all. She was a part of the committee that planned the very first event in 1982.
“It’s because this was a textile community,” Doby said.
Every mill closed down around the July 4th holiday and the mill workers had just returned back to work.
“It was around payday,” she said.
The community could have fun right in its backyard.
The event day may have been chosen for its proximity to allow people to buy from local merchants, but it was also a way to feature local produce.
“This is a farming community,” she said, and the festival was held around the time farmers brought their produce into the market to sell.
This year’s Farmers Day starts at 9 a.m. Saturday in downtown China Grove.
Farmers Day had its beginnings with the China Grove Board of Trade, which wanted to have a festival like many other towns
The first group consisted of Judy Haire, who was with F&M Bank at the time and was the board of trade treasurer; dentist Randy Lassiter; attorneys Tom and Carole Brooke; artist Kay Kluttz; and Gene Long, who was president of the China Grove Board of Trade at the time.
“We were excited to do something in the town,” Doby said.
The first year, the event stayed pretty much along the sidewalks of downtown, but throughout the years, the event stretched farther into the roadway and farther down Main Street.
Sponsors over the years included Cannon Mills, Phillip Morris, F&M Bank and the local YMCA. China Grove resident and radio station owner Carl Ford held a live broadcast from the event, Doby said.
“It belonged to everybody,” she said of the event.
Politicians shook hands, and even the military had a presence. Doby recalls it was about the fourth or fifth year they planned to have the military chorus from Fort Bragg to perform. When the group was unexpectedly called away, Doby got on the phone and called Washington. She had called every member of Congress who was on the military committee. Two days later, Doby received a call informing her that if she promised not to call Washington again, the chorus would be there, and they were.
‘My favorite day’
Even though it was hot, people would wait in line at food booths for hot dogs, cold lemonade and homemade ice cream.
“I’m very proud of it. I’ve seen it grow. I’ve seen the community grow,” Doby said.
Doby said the community gets excited at this time of year.
“Not many small communities like China Grove have a festival like this,” Doby said.
In 1982, Molly Lassiter was just 3 years old when she was dubbed Little Miss Farmers Day. Molly’s picture appeared in the Salisbury Post that year. Her mother, Martha, dressed her in a straw hat and overalls with a little bandana tied around her neck.
“I made her put that straw in her mouth,” Martha said smiling.
Molly said she remembers the photo and that year’s event.
“Farmers Day was always my favorite day of the summer,” she said.
Molly said she counted down the days until the event like most children counted down until Christmas.
Her father, Dr. Randy Lassiter, was always part of the planning committee. A Lassiter family tradition was to help set up the event, and Molly remembers getting to blow up balloons the night before festivities started and waking early to help set up.
As Molly grew older, she performed with her dance studio on stage at the Farmers Day event.
“Another great tradition that comes to mind was dunking my dad in the dunking booth,” Molly said.
The annual event in Molly’s mind was always such a “wholesome family event,” she said.
Molly has traveled the world and has not gotten to return often to the event that she so loved as a kid.
“We come together to honor the men and women who dedicate their lives to transforming earth, seed, sun and water in the wholesome foods that nourishes our bodies and souls,” she said.
Today the 33-year-old is in a graduate program in California studying environmental science and management and celebrates from afar.
“Appreciating local farmers and the sustainable food they have given us for generations, particularly the south and Rowan County, has taken on a new dimension for me,” Lassiter said.
Memories flood back
Jon Higgins, now 37, was just 8 when he entered and won a greased pole contest. After a glance at a black-and-white photo printed in the Salisbury Post, the memories started flooding back.
“I remember that,” he said, smiling at the photo.
The local firemen greased the pole, and anyone who could climb to the top would get the prize — $10.
Higgins climbed and he climbed, and every time, he slid back down.
“I could get about half way up. You can see my face in the picture. I was giving it what I had,” he said.
Higgins doesn’t remember if it was his mother or his father who suggested he rub sand on his chest for friction.
“Sure enough, that last time I made it,” Higgins said.
Higgins doesn’t remember much else from that day, just climbing the pole and, of course, walking away with $10.
When he can, he attends, although work prevents him some years. But one thing he can count on is seeing someone he knows and getting to reminisce about the “good old days,” he said.
Performer to organizer
As a South Rowan High School cheerleader, Amanda Eller reveled in the hoopla of performing during the event, even in the heat.
“It was wonderful. We loved it,” Eller said.
Her memories take her back to the fireworks at the end of the night and the street dance.
Eller has spearheaded this year’s event along with her committee and hopes the event grows from here on out.
This year’s event will include local farmers, artists and other vendors. The opening ceremony will begin at 9 a.m. on the main stage.
Farmers will have their goods and produce available for sale.
Performing on the main stage from 2-4 p.m will be Night Moves Band. There will also be a performance from Center Stage Dance Company at 6 p.m.
On the children’s stage, Burns and Co. will perform a magic show.
In years past, many of the main stage performers featured beach or shag music. Playing from 7-10 p.m. at the main stage is local country music band, Darrell Harwood and the Cool Water Band.
Eller said it was important to her to feature a local band.
Another local band, The Nostalgia Band. will perform from 8 to 10 p.m. Friday night at Hannah Park.
Looking to the future
Councilman Lee Withers has been at the forefront of Farmers Day activities over the past four years.
As organizers looked to the future, there was a need to get the event back to its roots with a focus on farming.
“When it originally started, it was based on the farmers and produce growers bringing their goods to market. And our heritage. That’s what I wanted to get back to,” Withers said.
Withers said although he’s not spearheading this year’s event, he’s still a part of it. He’ll help set up and attend with his family.
Withers was in agreement with the need to have someone attend to the daily operations and issues that may arise with an event of this caliber.
“We really needed to have someone run day-to-day operations in order to take it to the next level,” he said.
The community is lucky to have Eller to continue, he said.
Doby said Eller is someone she would’ve chosen if the decision were hers because “she won’t back down.”
As to the future, Eller said she hopes that more businesses become involved.
This year, some restaurants, including new bakery The Frosted Butterfly and Brian’s Grill, will be open on that day with longer hours.
Eller said she’s received lots of help and support from organizers past, including Doby, Withers and Janice Jenkins.
Others who have helped for this year include town staff members and department heads: Josh Dillon, sponsorship; J.R. McMillan, volunteers/sponsorship; Board of Trade member Michael Hanzlik, entertainment; and Alan Lambert, also a member of the Board of Trade.
For more information about the Farmers Day celebration, go to www.chinagrovefarmersday.com or contact Amanda Eller via the China Grove town hall at 704-857-2466.