Marion and Gladys Rupel haven’t missed an opening ceremony for Branchville’s Raylrode Daze Festivul in the event’s 46-year history.
The couple, who have been married for 65 years, arrived an hour ahead of the 12 noon start time hand-in-hand to secure their favorite spot in front of the Southern Railway Passenger Depot.
Mr. Rupel is proud to say his hometown is home to “the world’s oldest railroad junction.”
The historical marker near the depot notes the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company began the first successful scheduled steam railroad service in America on Dec. 25, 1830 and by 1833, its 136 miles of track from Charleston to Hamburg made it the world’s longest railroad.
The depot was built in 1877 and in 1910, the sheds and the waiting room were added. The dining room was the first passenger dining room where trains would stop for breakfast and dinner. It claims the distinction of having had three former U.S. presidents dine there: President William McKinley, President Theodore Roosevelt and President Howard Taft. The Southern Railway Passenger Depot stands today as a symbol of Branchville’s rich railroad history and contains Branchville’s Railroad Shrine and Museum.
The “festivul” marks a yearly time to reconnect with old friends, said Mr. Rupel, 91.
“It’s like a big town reunion,” Mrs. Rupel, 84, added. “This may be the only time we get to see some people that come from near and far, and that makes it even more special.”
The great-grandparents didn’t just come for the fellowship, they say. They came to eat.
“All of the food vendors are our favorite; we love to eat.” Mrs. Rupel admitted.
The autumn breeze on Friday carried the aroma of the hot French fries, Polish sausage sandwiches, elephant ears, hamburgers and grilled alligator across town.
Since 1997, Jimmy and Marie Moore have sold out of their farm-raised alligator kabobs at every Raylrode Daze Festivul.
What makes their gator kabobs such a hot commodity?
“Our light Cajun recipe … that has been a crowd favorite,” Mr. Moore said.
With more than 900 skewers on deck to accommodate the all-meat arrangements, Moore is excited that the Raylrode Daze Festivul always signals the start of alligator season.
Shark, catfish and chicken kabobs, along with fries, are some of the other signature delicacies that sell quickly, he said.
Six queens got to miss a little school work at Branchville High and Lockett Elementary Friday to help kick off the celebration. Miss Raylrode Junction Brittany Hess, Miss Teen Raylrode Junction Lynasia Felder, Junior Miss Raylrode Junction Elizabeth Hutto, Young Miss Raylrode Junction Keelie Summers and Little Miss Raylrode Junction Carlee Ott were all guest speakers at the morning’s celebration.
“The railroad is what has made the greatest economic impact in Branchville,” said Tom Jennings, Branchville mayor pro-tem and Raylrode Daze Festivul president.
“It would be safe to say that almost every family in Branchville depended on the railroad either by directly having a family member employed by the railroad or by the businesses that benefited from the visitors that stayed in town waiting on their overnight connections or by the shipping of agriculture products or other goods,” Jennings said.
The last passenger train came through Branchville on Oct. 26, 1962. “Sadly, that ended an era of travel by rail for the area,” Jennings said.
“So many people eagerly anticipate our festival,” he added. “So many people look forward to the fellowship that they will share during our special weekend.”
Branchville is not a withered, dried-up ghost town, Jennings noted.
“For those that don’t share our enthusiasm and to the naysayers, don’t be too quick to say that it won’t work. Remember, he railroad is what makes Branchville, Branchville.”
Festivul-goers on Saturday can enjoy the annual parade beginning at 11 a.m. Also on tap are carnival rides, arts and crafts, concessions, the Can Can Dancers, the Branch Junction Gunfighters and more.
On Sunday, local churches will hold a joint worship service beginning at 11 a.m. Also scheduled to perform are the Branchville High School Band and the Lockett Elementary School Choir. In addition, a Hay Bale Stacking Contest will be held, along with the closing ceremonies of the 2014 Raylrode Daze Festivul.
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