English Park bore witness to the first-ever Uncle Billy’s BBQ, Bourbon & Beer Festival this weekend. The event had relatively few hiccups, and a higher-than-expected turnout.
Altavista On Track (AOT) hosted the event. George Sandridge, the town’s main street coordinator and executive director of AOT, said an estimated 1100-1200 people attended the festival, well over AOT’s previous goal of 800.
“I think for a first-time event, it went great,” Sandridge said. “We had a great turnout, we had great weather, the music was great. The breweries and distilleries had a great selection.”
Bourbon, beer and barbecue vendors surrounded a large field near the entrance of English Park. Bands Five Dollar Shake, Midnight Express and Shades of Gray performed on the Booker Building’s outdoor stage throughout the day. Contestants in the barbecue competition filled the park closer to Eagle Trail. The day was capped off with a performance from a trio of fire dancers known as Dragoonis Flame, Whitney Adrenaline and LadyGoon at 7:30 p.m., followed by a fireworks display at 8:15 p.m.
Sharon Williams, the town’s community development director and town liaison to AOT, said she thought the event was well-received.
“We’ve been given great feedback on the elements that people enjoyed,” Williams said. “We’ve heard a lot about the fire dancers, because that was an unexpected surprise that we had held out on until the end. And then of course they enjoyed the fireworks. They enjoyed the different elements that they had for the children. So we’ve been hearing the kids loved the face painters and the balloon twisters and the caricature artist and the juggler. I even had the caricature artist do a drawing of me. People enjoyed the barbecue competition.”
Williams said there was a surge in ticket sales roughly 48 hours before the start of the festival. A large amount of people also purchased tickets at the gate. She pointed out that the cancellation of the Blue Ridge Country Festival in Danville, which was also scheduled for this weekend, may have boosted attendance.
“This was a great learning experience for us,” Williams said. “Obviously we tried to pay homage to the nostalgia of the old Uncle Billy’s Day, and perhaps that confused people just slightly because they were expecting something a little different. But I still think that what we put on was a great family event. And I think we brought some new experiences to the town that we hope that we will be able to carry forward in creating this new tradition.”
Jeremy Funderburk, an AOT board member, said he thinks AOT will try to streamline the event’s ticketing process next year.
Attendees spent time enjoying each other’s company in lawn chairs and tents, listening to music and milling around vendors’ stations. Frank Prohaska, a Chicago native, moved to Altavista two years ago with his wife, Deb, who is originally from the area. The pair said they were drawn to the festival because of the barbecue and bourbon, and because of the fact that it paid homage to Uncle Billy’s Day, which Deb Prohaska said her family attended for years.
“For a first-time event, it looks like they’ve done a pretty good job trying to line things up with the different breweries and the distillers,” Frank Prohaska said when asked for his impression of the festival. “It looks like they could have used more food stations around. But it looks like they’ve done a really good job in trying to lay out things for the entire family to be here. And so it’s a terrific venue. I’m sure next year it’ll be even better because they’ll have all the hard stuff already accomplished, and all they have to do is just add to it. And it should be a lot of fun.”
Michael Hanbury, a tasting room manager for Richmond-based Reservoir Distillery, which was one of the festival’s drink vendors, said he took the many repeat customers who came to his booth at the festival as a good sign.
“It’s great man, it’s a beautiful day, everybody out here is real nice, the music’s great, the food’s awesome,” he said. “It’s a good day to be outside drinking whiskey.”
While locals and tourists from as far away as Minnesota relaxed, along with many more from in and around Central Virginia, contestants in the barbecue competition were hard at work for much of the day on the other side of the park. Dodge City BBQ was all smiles while awaiting the results of the competition.
The team of two married couples, Darrwin and Taneka Chandler and Anthony and Marva Womack, competed in multiple categories.
“We feel like we won, no matter what,” Marva Womack said. “It’s been nothing but love everywhere, the whole city, I mean even out at stores, shopping, everywhere it’s just been all love. Yesterday and today.”
Darrwin Chandler, the group’s pit master, has cooked most of his life and has years of experience in restaurants, but has been barbecuing for the last five-and-a-half years.
“It’s become a passion,” he said.
When asked what style his barbecue is, Chandler responded:
“Love. Just love doing what you’re doing, basically,” he said.
The group received many compliments for their work. For his part, Anthony Womack said he was pleasantly surprised by people in their 60s and 70s calling their barbecue the best they’ve ever had.
“For somebody to say that, that’s been around for a while, that blows my mind,” he said.
He also emphasized the group’s faith, and that their mission is God-anointed.
Taneka Chandler said eventually Dodge City BBQ wants to open up a brick-and-mortar restaurant. It was their first festival, and like the rest of the contestants, they stayed up virtually all night cooking. But a lack of sleep hardly dampened their spirits.
“I think we’ve got the bug,” Marva Womack said.
Winners of the barbecue contest were announced roughly halfway through the festival at 4:30 p.m. Altavista police chief Tommy Merricks won the professional chicken category and Cory Welch won the professional pork, ribs and brisket categories. Dennis Booth won the amateur chicken category. Jason McNeel won the amateur ribs, pork and brisket categories.
Merricks also came in third place overall in the professional category, Buddy Hancock came in second and Welch came in first. Booth came in second overall in the amateur category and McNeel came in first.
A car cruise-in hosted in conjunction with the festival in the Eagle Trail parking lot also drew a crowd. Backwoods Rod & Customs hosted the event from 3:30 p.m. to 7 p.m., their last car cruise-in until next April. Backwoods Rod & Customs owner Phillip Hypes said he is currently looking for a new location for next year’s cruise-ins.
As darkness fell over the festival, Shades of Gray stayed on stage to provide background music for the final entertainment of the day—the fire dancers. One of the band’s vocalists said the performance left her “mesmerized” while onstage.
When all was said and done, the fireworks display began. AOT will be evaluating the event soon to determine what changes might be in store for next year’s festival. Williams said she thinks the theme of barbecue, bourbon and beer will remain consistent, but provided the following information via email after the festival when asked to comment on what the event meant for the town, and the nod it made to Uncle Billy’s Day:
“The Town is excited about AOT creating a new annual event for Altavista and homage to Uncle Billy’s Day. Going forward the event will probably be renamed, as there was some confusion between the AOT event and Uncle Billy’s Day of the past.”
Sandridge and Williams played major roles in booking entertainment and vendors for the event, and handling countless other logistical matters. In many ways Williams took on a lead role in planning the event.
“This whole thing would not have been possible without Sharon,” Sandridge said.
Both agreed that the festival was a success as an economic tool, not only by drawing new people to town, but also by providing funding for AOT’s grant and loan programs for local businesses. Williams pointed out that AOT board members are not salaried, and Sandridge, the main street coordinator, is a town employee, and is not paid through AOT, despite his heavy involvement with the group.
“I really want to thank all the volunteers for their help, I want to thank public works for their assistance that day, they made sure everything ran smoothly, the Altavista Police Department, the officers that we had there, they were quick to respond when needed,” Sandridge said.