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Sparkling red: Cheerwine Festival gives downtown a ‘pop’-ulation explosion

By Mark Wineka
mark.wineka@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Mark Ridenhour is a self-professed Cheerwine fanatic, so Saturday — the date of the third Cheerwine Festival in downtown Salisbury — was like going to heaven.

Ridenhour’s office in his Mooresville home is dedicated to Cheerwine collectibles, such as signs, plates and bottles. He has formed a Cheerwine Facebook group.

He wore Cheerwine boxer shorts to the festival and shows off his Cheerwine keychain to anyone who asks — or doesn’t ask. His car carries a Cheerwine license plate.

Mark Ridenhour invited his brother, Steve, and wife, LaRue, who live in Asheville, to his home this weekend so they could attend the Cheerwine Festival in Salisbury.

That morning, they ate Cheerwine French toast before leaving the house. Mark said his mother used to put Cheerwine in his bottle when he was a baby.

“That’s my story and I’m sticking to it,” he added.

Mark wore a T-shirt to the festival that said, “In case of emergency, my blood type is … ” And then there was a picture of Cheerwine.

Click here to view more photos from the Cheerwine festival.

Red definitely served as the prevailing color Saturday for a festival held on an almost perfect day — except, maybe, that it was pretty darn hot.

“It’s a perfect day for a nice, cold Cheerwine,” Salisbury City Manager Lane Bailey said.

The temperature rose to just shy of 90 degrees, and it wasn’t unusual for festival-goers to seek shade and respite in downtown storefronts or under street trees.

The city of Salisbury and Cheerwine combined to put on this third festival, which started with the soft drink’s 100th birthday celebration in 2017 and has kept expanding ever since.

Saturday’s crowd easily could have been the biggest yet, though official crowd estimates have yet to be offered.

“I just love we can showcase our whole downtown,” said Craig Powers, the city’s assistant public services director, who remembered the first Cheerwine Festival had been crammed into just three city blocks on North Main Street.

“Now we’ve got the whole downtown.”

Aaron Kepley, executive director of Rowan Museum Inc., likes knowing that history really was at the root to this popular festival three years ago because of Cheerwine’s century in business.

“Salisbury needed a festival and by the looks of that up there,” Kepley said, nodding his head toward the crowds on Main Street, “we found us one.”

Bands, including the night’s headliner, Smash Mouth, were using the Rowan Museum’s second floor as a green room to relax in before performances on the Hotwire Communications Stage, set up on North Main Street just outside the museum.

Rowan Museum partnered with Cheerwine to provide a good Cheerwine history exhibit on the first floor, and Kepley said the day “brings in thousands” that view both Cheerwine history and Rowan County history as a whole.

“We look forward to keep being partners with Cheerwine,” Kepley said.

It’s amazing the brand loyalty Cheerwine evokes.

And everything Saturday seemed to be Cheerwine-infused in one way or the other — from the beer to the tacos, from the jellies to the sno-creams, from the hushpuppies to the biscuits, from the lattes to the ice cream floats.

Zach and Courtney Riggan said coming to the Cheerwine Festival with their four young children — Audrey, Avery, Josh and Natalie — was simply a given and has been on their calendar since they heard early in the year a third festival was happening.

Courtney used oversized Cheerwine T-shirts, some strategic cutting and, for the girls, some added lace to provide the children with special garments for the festival.

“Had to come, yeah,” Courtney said, as if it were a no-brainer. “Love Cheerwine — grew up with it.”

One of the first things the family did on arriving Saturday was to stand in line for a Cheerwine sno-creme. Zach said they also like Cheerwwine doughnuts and Cheerwine ice cream.

So they’re hooked.

Sharon Jones and her grown daughter, Hannah, traveled to the festival from Lexington. They were wearing matching Cheerwine T-shirts they bought at last year’s event.

“We met so many people (last year), and we wanted to come and see them again,” Hannah Jones said. She also was wearing the Cheerwine bracelets she had purchased at Sweet Potato Jewelry, one of the festivals many vendors.

Sharon held some other purchases — spices from Spicin’ and Dicin, Cheerwine-infused popcorn, “and we like the Cackalacky Sauce, too.”

Betty Chunn came with husband James, their daughter Sherina Steele and Sherina’s son Dyllion. “I love the food,” Betty said. “This is a major event, and this is enjoyable. I love love mixing and meeting with the people of Salisbury.”

Linda Perdue brought her 10-year-old granddaughter, Chloe Griffin. They found a place in front of Salisbury Square and Antiques to sit down, cool off and have a bite.

‘She’s a polar bear,” Chloe said of her “Nanna.”

“Yes, I do like cooler weather,” Perdue confirmed. Perdue said they enjoyed the crafts and kids’s play zone.

Chloe already had her face-painted by the time they had their snack. “You won’t see another rainbow tiger around,” Chloe said.

The day also featured acrobats with Imagine Circus, hula hoops, sand piles, bowling, climbing walls, intense spinning machines, dancing, juggler Pete Bogle, magician Glen Yost and stilt walker Michael Branson of East Coast Giant Stilt Walkers.

“I’m hoping someone will take a picture of me today,” Branson said, posing for yet another picture as he walked down Main Street.

The Cheerwine-sponsored scavenger hunt proved to be a popular activity before the live music started at 3:30 p.m. Through carefully worded clues, it asked participants to locate 10 different places throughout the downtown.

Angie Smith explained the scavenger hunters documented each of their 10 finds on their cellphones, then returned to the Cheerwine tent for verification.

Those completing the hunt successfully all spun a wheel for a small prize and were entered in the an overall drawing for a $500 prize from Diamond Direct.

Smash Mouth gave a rousing performance before winding up the evening and the festival.

But what about the Cheerwine fanatic, Mark Ridenhour? How did he become such a Cheerwine fan?

He and brother Steve grew up in eastern Rowan County drinking Cheerwine until their family moved to Asheville before they reached high school.

It’s hard to believe, they reported, but the closest they could purchase Cheerwine back in 1974 was in Old Fort. A funny thing happened when they shared Cheerwine with their new Asheville friends.

“We had parents calling my mom wondering why we’re giving their children wine,” Mark Ridenhour recalled.

That’s another Cheerwine story — and he’s sticking to this one, too.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.

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