Festivals put many of America’s small towns on the map and are irreplaceable for Main streets across the U.S. While they bring memories and an economic boost, 2020 took away nearly all of America’s small-town festivals. As we enter summer 2021, we take a look at why American festivals are as much fun as they are a key role in the economy.
“We southerners like our sweets,” said Nancy ‘Mama’ Phillips, rolling dough on a table. “It’s gotta be sweet!”
People visit Mama Phillips at Bluebird Antiques and Ice Cream Parlor to have one of her famous fried pies.
“It is delicious,” a woman said, taking a bite of a lemon fried pie. “Two-and-a-half-hour drive. Worth the trip.”
“People say, ‘What’s the special ingredient in these pies?’” said Mama Phillips. “I say, ‘It’s love!’”
Everyone loves Mama Phillips in little Bell Buckle, Tennessee, from her son, Billy, in the antique shop a few doors down to her good friend, Hillary Parker, at the Bell Buckle Café.
“Small town, laid back, easy-going,” said Parker. “Everybody knows everybody.”
“Nobody cares how much money you make,” added Billy Phillips. “Nobody cares what kind of car you drive.”
No matter where you’re from, you know a town like Bell Buckle.
“I’ve been here basically all my life,” said Mama Phillips. “I am 85 years old.”
Like many of those towns across the country, Bell Buckle’s known for a festival, a big one too. It’s the RC Cola MoonPie Festival.
“It was called the poor man’s lunch during the depression,” said Mama Phillips. “It kept some people from going hungry cause you get an RC and a MoonPie for a nickel.”
The festival is a big deal for the small town.
“Supports us for the year,” said Parker.
In fact, Jenny Hunt of the Chamber of Commerce says the festival takes little Bell Buckle from population 405 to more than 30,000 people.
“We see an uptick in the sales tax revenue for 60 days past the event,” she said.
Lemons are a theme in this small town---from the fresh-squeezed lemonade in Parker’s café to the lemon potpourri in Billy Phillips’s shop to Mama’s lemon fried pies. In 2020, Bell Buckle was truly served lemons.
“Dark days,” said Billy. “That sounds really ominous, but it was.”
COVID-19 canceled the festival in 2020.
“It broke our hearts, but it had to be,” said Mama Phillips. “It was devastating, really. We persevered the best we could.”
Bell Buckle’s story is the same as many towns that were served lemons.
Looking at the map, 2020 saw the cancellation of festivals like Deltarado Days in Delta, Colorado, the Florida Seafood Festival in Apalachicola, and Paul Bunyon Days in Fort Bragg, California.
These stories don’t just end here.
“We gotta get the happy part in,” Billy smiled.
The old saying goes, ‘When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.’ However, the people of Bell Buckle have been given lemons and are serving up a 55-pound lemon MoonPie for their festival. MoonPie has brought back their lemon flavor for the first time in a decade just as we see the return of the festival.
“Oh my gosh, are we back in business,” said Billy. “We’ve never seen this much excitement. People want to come back to the normalcy of their life.”
In the return of the American festival, Paul Bunyon Days is set for 2022, the Florida Seafood Festival is back in November, and Deltarado Days is in just a few weeks.
“This is the crowning glory right here,” said Mama Phillips, sprinkling powdered sugar over some fresh fried pies. “I’ve been blessed in my life here in Bell Buckle.”
Mama is there for encouraging words as much as she’s there to serve up a delicious pie.
“What keeps you going is looking forward,” said Mama Phillips. “Don’t look back. Keep going, looking for positive things that you can do, that you can share.”