Although it’s still six months away, plans for the 50th Annual Raylrode Daze Festivul are already underway.
The perennially popular event celebrates Branchville’s rich railroad history. Held each year the last full weekend of September, the festival’s early kickoff was held Sunday, March 18, with a gala.
“We’ve kind of already started,” festival chairman Tom Jennings said. “We decided to do a gala, and what we did was we asked townspeople to come dressed in old-timey attire like we used to do when the festival first started.”
The event was held on Railroad Avenue in downtown Branchville.
“We had a meal, and some of our former queens entertained us,” Jennings said. “And it was just a fun evening of just reminiscing and visiting with townspeople and former festival officials.”
The town rented a big tent and decorated a stage, he said.
“I guess we had about 135-140 people present,” Jennings said. “That’s kind of like our official kickoff for the festival.”
“As far as the festival goes, we are still making plans,” he said.
The biggest event that’s already been scheduled is the booking of country music artist Cody Webb, who will be performing Saturday night.
Webb is best known for his hit song, “She’s Carolina.”
Jennings added, “We’re working on some new activities during the week prior to the festival. We kick off the Sunday before ... but the festival officially opens up on Sept. 28."
Beginning that Friday, the festival will continue through the weekend until about 5 p.m. Sunday, he said.
The usual attractions will be returning including the parade, carnival rides and concessions, entertainment and competitive events and performances by the Branch Junction Can Can Girls and the Gunfighters.
Former Branchville police chief Boone Walters, who is a former Branch Junction Gunfighter, is heading up a plan to bring back many of the past gunfighters for a special performance for the festival’s 50th anniversary.
Walters said he thinks the gunfighters have been popular through the years because “I think it brings back the old feeling of Westerns in everybody.”
“Most everybody came up with ‘Gunsmoke’ when it was on. And I guess (it’s) just sort of that excitement of seeing everybody out there portraying stuff that they’ve seen on television,” he said.
Part of the appeal of the old Westerns was that they had clear-cut good guys and bad guys, Walters said.
Back when he was still wearing his six-shooters, he and the gunfighters would tell a story with their performance, which “had a little bit of serious stuff in it and had a lot of comedy in it,” Walters said.
But the former gunfighters won’t be the only past performers returning, Jennings said.
“We’re hoping that we can get as many of our former queens to come as we can as well as Can Can Girls,” he said.
“We just invite everybody to come out and help us celebrate our 50th annual festival,” Jennings said.
The first festival was held in 1969, and the event has been held continuously every year since.
“It was started as a kind of way to keep Branchville alive, per se,” Jennings said. “The passenger trains were cut off in the early ‘60s, and the town was starting to kind of dry up.”
So town officials came up with the festival as a way “to keep things going,” he said.
Professional promoter Clarence Atkinson lent his skills to the cause and “sort of steered them in the direction of a festival commemorating our railroad heritage,” Jennings said.
Members of the town’s business community got together and put up the funds for the first festival, he said.
Some of the attractions were impromptu creations, he noted.
“That’s how the gunfighters got started,” Jennings said. “There was a lot of people here, and there was nothing for them really to do. So someone came up with the idea of robbing the bank, like an old Western gunfight.”
The performance went over well and became a fixture of the festival, he said. The area known as Branch Junction - a replica of a Western town - was created in the 1970s “because falling down on Main Street when you got shot was a little hard,” Jennings said, laughing.
Jennings said Atkinson’s wife, Lois, came up with the idea for the Can Can Girls, “and that’s been a festival tradition that’s continued since ’69 as well.”
The popularity of the Raylrode Daze Festivul surprised its organizers, he said.
“Everyone was just overwhelmed with the crowds that came ... and they decided they would try it again,” he said.
Jennings added, “Each year kept building upon the previous year, and it evolved into what we have today."