Tahlequah Daily Press

Local News

May 2, 2012

Red Fern Fest draws record attendance

TAHLEQUAH — Mother Nature threatened to dampen spirits of attendees at this year’s Red Fern Festival but held back, providing only cloud cover and moderate temperatures throughout the weekend.

Tahlequah Area Chamber of Commerce Tourism Director Kate Kelly said she couldn’t be more pleased with this year’s event, and that the threat of possible bad weather had no influence on attendance.

“Since we don’t charge admission, there’s no way to finitely quantify [attendance],” said Kelly. “But after talking to local firefighters and food vendors, who seem to have an accurate read when it comes to crowds, we’re estimating we had about 6,000 to 8,000 people this year. We feel it was a success.”

The sixth annual Red Fern Festival stretched from the base of the campus at Northeastern State University south to just beyond the Cherokee Courthouse Square.

Weekend events included a Friday-night showing of the “Where The Red Fern Grows,” based on the novel by Wilson Rawls, about a boy and his Redbone coon-hunting dogs growing up in the Tahlequah.

A statue of “Billy,” the main character in the novel, stands in the middle of Norris Park, where the movie was shown Friday night.

“Seeing all the people in Norris Park Friday night for the movie was incredible,” said Kelly. “I think all of Tahlequah was there, along with part of the rest of the state.”

Kelly had an opportunity to watch some of the children’s events this year, which she thoroughly enjoyed.

“There are so many different aspects to the festival,” said Kelly. “I loved watching the kids around the crawdad hole. I got to see the children’s games for the first time this year, and what I thought was so wonderful was that there weren’t just little kids, but teenagers taking part in sack races and jumping rope.”

The festival touts its family friendliness, and Kelly said this year was no different.

“We saw so many families out enjoying themselves, which is what we hoped for,” said Kelly. “The music was excellent, the smell of barbecue smoke was in the air. I’m truly happy with the way things turned out.”

Mayor Jason Nichols attended several of the festival events, and agreed with Kelly about the crowd turnout.

“We had more than ever before this year,” said Nichols. “Everyone was well-behaved, and it went off without a hitch.”

One of the favorite events is the Chamber’s Leadership Tahlequah Duck Race. According to Mary Kay Masters-Jobe, this event also had record participation. Attendees could purchase a rubber duck for $5.

Purchased ducks were rounded up on the west end of the Town Branch creek, and floated – or raced – to the finish line at the bridge behind The Branch restaurant, right before reaching Muskogee Avenue.

“We had 951 ducks in this year’s race,” said Masters-Jobe. “I know we sold more than in previous years, and I don’t think we lost a single duck.”

Cash prizes were awarded to the first three finishers, which included Melanie Stopp, first place, $300; Lauren Monroe, second place, $150; and Patti Morton, third place, $50.

Most would agree, a successful festival must include food, and this year’s attendees had plenty to choose from, including the Kiwanis Club Chili Cookoff. Tasting kits could be purchased for $5.

“This year, we had 11 teams entered, but they all participated in a number of categories, from chili to barbecue to best church cooking,” said Patti Morton. “We raised close to $6,000 for Kiwanis, which funds children’s interests. You smell the barbecue in the air, and it just brings people down.”

Morton believes a charity event held in conjunction with Red Fern was key to its success this year.

“I think this year, it was especially important they had Help-In-Crisis’ Walk A Mile In Her Shoes event,” said Morton. “You get 350 men in high heels who bring their families down, and well, that really makes a difference.”

Categories and winners for the Chili Cookoff and Barbecue Extravaganza are listed.

• Crowd-Pleasing Barbecue: First place, Roxie’s Barbecue; second place, Sweet Willies Barbecue; and third place, The Soul Shack.

• Crowd-Pleasing Chili: First place, Sweet Willies chili; second place, First Baptist Church; and third place, Ace High Hospitality.

• Community Servants Challenge: First place, Hope Hospice; and second place, Go Ye Village.

• Best Booth Challenge: First place, Sweet Willies Barbecue; second place, Ace High Hospitality; and third place, Hope Hospice.

• Best Church Cooks: First place, First Baptist Church.

This year’s Red Fern Festival also featured the 5C’s 25th Anniversary Car Show. According to President Mitchell DuVall, they, too, had a record number of entries.

“We awarded first- and second-place trophies in 37 categories, and had over 200 vehicles around the [Cherokee Courthouse] Square this year,” said DuVall. “We seem to grow every year, and are really happy with the turnout.”

Specialty trophies included: Best of Show, Robert Flippen, 1923 Studebaker touring car; Mayor’s Trophy, Larry Smith, 2007 Corvette; Chamber’s Choice, Cotton Hamby, 1957 Ford Anglia; and 5C’s 25th Anniversary Trophy, Mitchell York, 1933 Chrysler.

Kelly thanked all the volunteers, and is already beginning the planning phase for next year’s festival.

“Without the people who volunteered time and energy, this literally could not have happened,” said Kelly. “This is not hyperbole, this is solid truth.”

Tahlequah Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director David Moore appreciates the work of Kelly and Tahlequah Main Street Director Drew Haley.

“I just want to send out a special thank you for the hard work and dedication to Kate Kelly and Drew Haley for putting together such a successful festival,” said Moore.

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