ELLERBE — They came from Asheboro and Mount Gilead. Lewisville and Denton. Albemarle and Rockingham and, yes, Ellerbe.
And though for a time it might have looked as if most people were there for the various nonalcoholic “coladas” served in carved-out pineapples — the lines for the drinks blocked the streets several times during the heat of the day — the real draw was strawberries.
As in Ellerbe’s inaugural Strawberry Festival, which — if it was proof of nothing else — showed that a tiny group (seven) of dedicated people can throw a doozie of a party for hundreds.
“This will be the first night I’ve slept in six months,” said a red-faced and sweaty Mark Buckeridge, co-owner of the Ellerbe Springs Inn and president of the tiny Ellerbe Downtown Merchants Association, which conceived the festival late last year and managed to attract vendors, bands and attendees from across North Carolina.
From organizing vendor spaces Friday night to setup on Saturday, Buckeridge said, “It’s working out fine.” No one hassled for better spaces or complained about where he was placed: “They were just excited about it.”
Just before noon, Town Commissioner Fred Cloninger stood watching the crowd from a vantage point near the town park, where he could see strawberry sales proceeding apace — shortcake, ice cream and fresh berries in little plastic baskets. (Both the Lambeth family’s Derby Farms and Lee Berry’s Berry Patch had to run back to their farms to restock, said Susan Kelly, Richmond County Cooperative Extension director and a festival coordinator.)
Another of the seven organizers, Cloninger professed himself “real tickled” at the crowd.
At the merchants’ association booth, Ellerbe resident Paige Stoner sorted through sizes so her brood — Rylee Stoner, 7; Will Smittle, 5; and Ryder King, 5 — all could have festival T-shirts bearing two eponymous berries.
Nearby, Joe Dawkins of Mount Gilead stood in the middle of Page Street, holding a strawberry door decoration made of red and green mesh ribbon.
“She wanted it,” he said, pointing at his still-shopping wife. “We don’t have a door to put it on. She just wants me to hold it all the time.”
Sandra Castle of Lewisville said she had found news of the festival on Facebook and decided to attend.
“When I was young,” she said, “we would come this way on the way to the beach, and I thought it was such a nice place.”
Linda Allen of Rockingham came with friend Francis Thomas, who wore a broad-brimmed straw hat to ward off the sun, which she thought might make her look like a “senior country hick.”
“There’s more people here than there are at the (Farmers Day) parade in the fall,” Allen said.
To which Thomas added: “This is a wonderful little old farm town, and this (festival) is the perfect fit.”
Kelly said Monday that the crowd thinned mid-day but surged back in the evening.
“There were people parked all over Ellerbe,” she said. A couple of vendors ran out of food — the Methodist men, out of hot dogs and the pizza vendor, out of slices. One vendor also didn’t show because his family was ill.
But those who attended did land-office business.
Slightly after noon Saturday, state Sen. Tom McInnis stood in the shade along Page Street, watching the crowd surge through the vendor tents. He wore his red campaign shirt but seemed more interested in looking than in pumping hands.
Apparently, he liked what he saw.
“This,” he pronounced, “is what you call economic development.”
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]