Thursday, June 4, 2009

Moonshine Festival

By Colleen Kiphart

Every Memorial Day weekend for the last 39 years New Straitsville, Ohio has held their Moonshine Festival. The event, organized by Ken Burgess, celebrates the region’s fabled history as “The Moonshine Capital of the World”.

It is a 45-minute drive to the festival from Athens. You can either take State Route 33 most of the way there or back roads, but each route gets you there in under an hour. I took the back way, riding along winding roads lined with trees and steep inclines. It really set the mood for a laid-back rural summer fair. Like any small-town event it has a full slate with a parade, vendors, local food, the crowning of the Moonshine Queen, and a headlining musical act on Memorial Day. This year featured Nashville recording artist Ricky Lynn Gregg.

My visit to the festival got off to an inauspicious start when I realized that there was no definite location listed for the festival, just New Straitsville. It was not a specific park, fairground, or school parking lot. No, it was just the entire town of New Straitsville listed as the venue. So, going by my extensive knowledge of small towns (thank you Andy Griffith reruns) I searched for “Main Street” and went from there.

My directional gamble on Main Street paid off, and I rolled right into the heart of the celebration. The Moonshine Festival consists of a car show, a dunking booth, carnival rides behind the main thoroughfare, about a city block’s worth of food and craft vendors, and, in the center of it all, a small main stage for music.

I spoke with festival organizer Ken Burgess in his office behind the stage and had to strain to hear him over the barbershop quartet that was singing karaoke-style. “This is important to our history,” he says. “It is the heritage of the village, and it really keeps the village alive.”

Burgess expects this year’s festival to bring five to seven thousand people into the village. That’s a huge addition to the normal population of New Straitsville that, according to census reports included only 787 people in 2007.

Main Street was lined with members of the populous, people sitting in folding chairs watching the hustle and bustle go by. Many filtered into a local fire station to enjoy a pork dinner or lined up in front of the dunking booth to soak their friends. Classic pop music from the car show competed with the more temperate, mellow music from the main stage, which competed directly with the noise of the carnival rides behind it.

It took me about an hour to really see everything. I glanced at the vendors, considered playing a game, but in the end I spent the most time in the New Straitsville Historical Society’s Museum speaking to Sheryl Blossmer. She told me how due to conditions in the mines of New Straitsville, the town became the birthplace of the United Mine Workers. The walls of the storefront museum are lined with photographs and information. There is not an inch of wall space that is uncovered.

One of the items that most interested me was the information about the Works Progress Administration in the Great Depression coming to work on the “longest burning mine fire in history”. The blaze, which began in 1884 and burned for more than 117 years, was ignited in a coal miner strike.

There is little discussion about the coal-dusty history of this town back out on the main arcade. This is a time when the villagers revel in people coming into town for a glimpse of moonshiners in their natural environment. And there are moonshiners still about. Asked if he thinks white lightening is still being produced nearby Burgess doesn’t even hesitate, “Yes,” he replies with full confidence.

Further reading/links:
History of New Straitsville:
Festival information:
WHIZ Zanesville:


Bob Cook said...

Colleen, I'm a Barbershop singer. What do you mean by "barbershop quartet that was singing karaoke-style."? Did you mean acapella (unaccompanied vocal music)? Or is there a new Barbershop genre I'm not familiar with?

Colleen K said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Colleen K said...

Hi, Mr. Cook. I'm glad you found your way to the blog!
Thanks for your question. When I said karaoke-style I meant that it sounded like they had recorded music behind them. Unfortunately I am not as well-versed in styles of music beyond my personal taste, and the tunes they were singing were in a style I associate with barbershop quartets. In fact, until your comment I did not realize that barbershop quartets were entirely acapella.
The songs were well sung, though. I hope my reference does not come off as too flippant towards the style. There was a nice sized crowd watching the singers. I took a video of the event that might be posted. Parts of the performance are on it.

Bob Cook said...

Colleen, thanks for the explanation. If you want to hear some barbershop by the younger set go to OC Times

Those guys are international champions. They are fantastic.

Unknown said...

"Asked if he thinks white lightening is still being produced nearby Burgess doesn’t even hesitate, 'Yes,' he replies with full confidence."

I always thought this was odd. Moonshine is Illegal, but people act like its just their little secret. As long as they don't get caught making it, it's all cool. They even have this festival named for it. Yeah, it may be part of your towns heritage, but that doesn't make it a good thing.(Slavery is part of the south's heritage etc. etc.) To me, New Straitsville having a moonshine festival is like Meigs County having a Crystal Meth Festival. (that last thing is sarcasm by the way)

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