BRANCHVILLE -- The 48th annual week-long Raylrode Daze Festivul begins Sunday in Branchville as community members and visitors come together to celebrate the town's rich history.
The first festival began in 1969 as a way to keep Branchville on the map.
“During the heyday of travel by rail, Branchville was the hub,” said Tom Jennings, festival chairman. “We were booming.”
Townspeople would see travelers going to and from Georgia, Charleston and Columbia meeting at the Branchville railroad junction -- the world's oldest.
Boarding houses were available, and different businesses were able to make good profits off of the visitors.
“Any given Saturday night in Branchville was like Raylrode Daze all the time,” Jennings said. “It was that many people.”
He said there were so many people, in fact, the town would blow a siren at night as a signal that it was time to go home.
“When travel by rail declined and passenger trains were stopped ... Branchville began to wither,” Jennings said. “Without those people there, we started to dry up.”
The people of the town thought of starting the Raylrode Daze Festivul originally to help out the merchants.
Nine businessmen agreed to pitch in $100, with one contributing $200, for a total of $1,000 to spend on the first festival.
“They planned this festival and didn’t have any idea what it was going to do,” Jennings said. “They were completely, 100 percent overwhelmed with the crowd.”
The Churn, a restaurant on the town’s main road, saw so many customers that it ran out of food.
The main attraction was a staged bank robbery and gunfight that took place at an actual bank in Branchville.
“When it was all over, the person that was doing the announcing said, ‘You have just seen a performance by the Branchville Street Players,’ and that’s how it got started,” Jennings said.
In a short amount of time, several people got together to turn a vacant lot in Branchville into what is now known as "Branch Junction," a sort of town within a town built with an Old West feel.
Boone Walters was instrumental in the designs for Branch Junction.
“Boone was a very dedicated festival worker and gunfighter for years, and Branch Junction was his baby,” Jennings said. “He took great pride in the presentation of Branch Junction, how it was to look each year to resemble a Western town.”
Through the years, buildings were added on and a stage was built.
The gunfights continued to be an annual feature at the festival.
The junction has also seen its share of difficulties, however.
In 2007, the Red Dog Saloon caught fire.
“We were able to salvage the train cars and a few of our barrels,” Jennings said.
Many festival pictures were stored in the building as well and were lost in the fire.
The following year, in March 2008, a tornado went through the town, demolishing buildings. The twister ripped off the roof of The Churn and, as Jennings described, left Branch Junction "in toothpicks."
“Probably, that’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to Branch Junction,” he said.
Jennings said they rebuilt the Western town replica and it was in better condition than the previous set-up.
“It seemed like every year we were rebuilding or patching or doing something with the buildings,” he said. “Since we’ve had the tornado, we haven’t had to have a whole lot of maintenance on the buildings done.”
They were able to add porches, sidewalks and rebuild the Red Dog Saloon with additional donated money, Jennings said.
In the months following the tornado, the town was still able to hold its Raylrode Daze Festivul on schedule.
“I feel like the groups that have taken on the festival throughout the years have done their best to keep to the traditions that the early pioneers of the festival set forth,” Jennings said.
Jennings has served as the festival’s chairman since 2001, as treasurer a few years prior to that and has worked with the festival off and on since high school.
He said he is concerned for future generations because the time will come when he and the present board member will have to take a back seat. He said there doesn’t seem to be much interest among younger people in the town to learn about the festival and take the helm.
“There’s so many things going on in the world, and everybody’s byline is, 'I’m too busy,'” Jennings said. “I would hate to see it stop, but if we don’t get some people interested, it’s just inevitable that it’s going to have to stop.”
Those involved in the festival have to love it because it involves long hours and hard work, he said.
“You just can’t come in here and say you’re going to run the festival. We have a set of bylaws that we go by, and you need to learn it,” Jennings said. “You need to know how things work and what you can and cannot do.”
This year’s celebration will kick off at 2 p.m. this Sunday, Sept. 18.
“We have something planned each night,” Jennings said.
Some of the biggest draws this year will be the spike driving contests, corn hole team tournaments and the new “Howl at the Moon” 5K Run/Walk.
The 5K will get underway at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 24, at the Orangeburg County Broadband Office, 140 Bridge St.
All proceeds will benefit the Friends of the Orangeburg County Animal Shelter.