Thousands gather on the Western Carolina University campus in Cullowhee 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. This year, those attending on Saturday, Sept. 27, 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.
The event began as Founders’ Day on October 26, 1974, at the inauguration ceremony of Chancellor H.F. Robinson. It became known as the annual Mountain Heritage Day the following year.
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.
This year, multiple Grammy Award-winning David Holt of Fairview – one of the musical performers from the early years of the event – will be making a return appearance with WCU alumnus 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, Buckstankle Boys, Roan Mountain Hilltoppers, Whitewater Bluegrass Company, Foxfire Boys, Crooked Pine Band, Phil and Gay Johnson, the Deitz Family, the Queen Family and Woody Pines also will perform bluegrass, country, gospel and mountain music on two stages. A dance floor will be available for audience dancing when not in use by clogging teams, including Smokey Mountain Fire Cloggers and the Dixie Darlin’ Cloggers.
Because the campus is located in Cullowhee, land of the legendary giant Judaculla, local Cherokee arts and culture will be celebrated by the Tsa-la-Gi Touring Group as well as two Cherokee stickball teams, the Hummingbirds team from Cherokee at 2 p.m. and — for the first time at the festival — the age 11-and-younger Big Cove youth team at 11 a.m., will demonstrate the traditional competition that is older than written history. Visitors will see new a new logo and new directional signage at the festival, some of it featuring the Cherokee language in honor of this integral part of the area’s saga of civilization.
The annual Mountain Heritage Day 5K has been planned just since the beginning of the school year by class members of new WCU instructor Charlie Parrish’s Sport Management 435 course. They remain ready to accept online registrations with a newly redesigned website at claws.wcu.edu/sma/5K/, complimenting the university’s redesign of the Mountain Heritage Day site itself, at mountainheritageday.com. Students in different groups planned the marketing of the event; amount of entry fees; cooperation with local law enforcement on the route; acquisition and distribution of supplies like runner’s bibs, T-shirts, awards and refreshments – all of the details of the race. Entry fees support an endowed scholarship fund created by Sport Management Association, a student organization which reached its goal last year to make an award to its first recipient, Liberty Cozart. The race begins at 8 a.m., and should be finished in an hour so that the route may be opened for festival traffic.
This year, a revised parking plan should make it easier for demonstrators and vendors to have access to the festival grounds separately from attendees, diverting their usually-larger vehicles from the traffic flow.
More than 100 booths will line the festival’s “midway,” offering handmade arts and crafts, also in juried competition. Bordering activities will feature 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.
Punctuating the day’s sounds will be 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.
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 traditions that will not 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 the festival will turn back the calendar starting at 10 a.m. on Sept. 27, visit www.mountainheritageday.com.