ELLERBE — So much depends upon a little red berry. Or, rather, two little red berries that have become the symbol of Ellerbe’s first strawberry festival.
For the past few months, Ellerbe’s Downtown Merchants Association has been playing over its head, its meager list of about 10 members — only three of them actually merchants and not all of those, downtown — planning a festival it hopes will draw people and money to this town of fewer than a thousand people.
“We are receiving calls constantly from people — vendors and performers,” an enthusiastic Mark Buckeridge told Town Council members this week, during the citizens’ comment section. Buckeridge — only five days into his presidency of the group — has been an active member since he and his wife, Donna, reopened the Ellerbe Springs Inn, campground and Spring House restaurant on U.S. 220, north of town a few years back.
“One of (the potential entertainers) wishes to do it for free — so he’s in,” Buckeridge joked.
The event is in only the planning stages, but the association already has received requests to let it run into the evening and not just 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., as planned. But that will come later, if at all. It means more planning and more expense — things the core planners have in short supply.
The initial festival, planned for May 12 — the day before Mothers’ Day and at the peak of the strawberry harvest — hopes to court food vendors and performers, much as the Peach Festival does in nearby Candor, in Montgomery County. Ellerbe resident and director of the Richmond County Extension Susan Kelly — who well knows how the Candor festival is organized — attends almost every council and merchants’ meeting, providing guidance.
At last week’s meeting, festival organizers selected a logo: two strawberries dangling from a block-letter “ELLERBE” and cursive “Strawberry Festival,” rendered by Donna Rogers of Porch Light, a graphic designer from Charlotte.
This week, the association sent out emails and launched a Facebook site formally announcing the festival, and the cost of sponsorship and other forms of participation.
Still, members worry publicly that not enough people are in on the planning. Perhaps the word “Downtown” keeps them away? Or church, because meetings are on Wednesday nights?
Members actually have gone door to door at local businesses, hoping to stir up interest but finding little.
“(We) just can’t seem to generate interest,” lamented former association president Nancy Sellers.
Even Mayor Lee Berry, an association member, will be unable to provide much assistance the day of the festival. Owner of the Berry Patch on the Interstate 73/74 Bypass, Berry will be hawking his own recently harvested wares on the day of the festival.
Town Council member Fred Cloninger, who attends the festival-planning meetings, has voiced his own concerns in public.
“It’s kind of a shame,” he said at Monday’s meeting of the Town Council, “(at) the last merchants’ meeting, there were three merchants there (actually four: the Buckeridges, Berry and Heather Raines, who opened The Woodpecker on Ellerbe’s Main Street last July).
“Ellerbe (could be) the shining star of Richmond County,” said Cloninger, a mobile maintenance supervisor at Vulcan Materials Co. for 30 years and a recently elected council member. “We need to make it that way.”
And so the merchants’ committee soldiers on.
The drive to put Ellerbe on the map isn’t new. It’s something the merchants’ association has been working on since 2016, when interested parties resurrected it. Since then, it has met monthly at Ellerbe Springs.
Two years ago, members said they’d like to see a cleaner town — the council is advertising for a part-time employee but has received only one application — as well as an attractions sign on the bypass. Ellerbe Springs and the Rankin Museum of American Heritage have their own highway signs, though they’re smaller than attractions signs.
Late last year, the town bought back an old rest stop next to Ellerbe Springs Inn, which workers are repairing for its reopening April 1, a month before the nascent festival. State financing is paying to replace windows and doors damaged by vandals, as well as clean up picnic spots and driveways.
The town will ask merchants to hand out brochures at the stop on weekends and holidays, guiding potential diners and buyers to Ellerbe.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]