For the first time in its nearly half century of existence, the Hollerin’ Contest will not be held in June, with a “huge gamble” taken by organizers to move a revamped edition of the annual event to September.
The National Hollerin’ Contest was born out of the need to fund the Spivey’s Corner Volunteer Fire Department, established in 1965, and still serves as the department’s main fundraising event. The first contest was held the third Saturday in June 1969 at Midway High School.
“This will be our 45th year this year,” said Aaron Jackson, chairman for the department’s fundraising committee. “It will not be on the third Saturday in June, which is one of the reasons I’m here. So, 44 years on one day is a pretty good string and we’re really taking a gamble, we think, with changing our day. But we’ve had decreased attendance, and also the humidity is terrible. It really makes for a long day.”
This year’s event, called the Hollerin’ Heritage Festival, will be held Sept. 14 at the Spivey’s Corner fire station, with gates to open at 11 a.m., Jackson told the Sampson County Convention and Visitors Bureau during its meeting earlier this week.
While it has been going on for the better part of five decades, the contest did not garner national exposure until Charles Kuralt covered the Spivey’s Corner staple as part of his “On the Road” segment. “At that point, things just really exploded,” said Jackson.
Among the many publicity stunts used to promote and tout Sampson County, Spivey’s Corner and its annual contest, event founder and Spivey’s “unofficial mayor for years” Ermon Godwin and others made a bid to host the Olympic Games and the Super Bowl — for which they would build the Hollerin’ Dome. The latter reply even prompted a response from then-National Football League’s commissioner Pete Rozelle.
“He said that with all the activities going on in Spivey’s Corner, there was really no way they could make the NFL players hold fast to their curfew, and they couldn’t make it,” said Jackson.
Jackson said NBC crews actually shot a great deal of footage at Spivey’s Corner leading up to the 1984 Super Bowl — the one for which Godwin’s group submitted a bid — but it never aired. Two years later, in 1986, there was a 27-second snippet of that footage.
“I haven’t seen it,” said Jackson, “but it happened.”
In 1983, Godwin wrote President Ronald Reagan and asked him to be a judge for the Hollerin’ Contest. Reagan declined, but wrote back. He said he had heard about the Hollerin’ Contest and told Godwin they had something similar to hollering in Washington D.C. — it was called Congress.
They were just a few of the many activities Godwin engaged in to boast the accomplishments in his town. And the Hollerin’ Contest was his main baby. Godwin passed away in 2009 and he has been honored in subsequent contests, Jackson said.
“He did a lot for us, and that’s where you get the national and worldwide notoriety from with the Hollerin’ Contest,” he said. “But, as I said, the attendance has kind of fallen and we’re looking to revamp this.”
Several years ago, organizers began to tinker with the Hollerin’ Contest and it adopted a sort of beach theme, with some help from DJ Joey Warren, who will be there again this year. New visitors have been attracted to the event, but the attendance just has not been there.
“It didn’t really go as well as we hoped it would go, but we’re just trying to do some things that would help us out a little bit,” said Jackson.
With fewer people able to holler in the traditional way, Jackson said, event organizers have set out through the new event to share the heritage of hollering, the first form of long-distance communication — it can be distress, communicative, functional and expressive.
“This idea we have is to try to put all these things together, have 18th and 19th century agricultural heritage in one spot, with living history exhibits, to put hollering in context and describe to people that it was a functional part of life during that period of time,” Jackson remarked.
As part of the revamped festivities, there will be antique farm equipment displays and demonstrations by the N.C. Workhorse and Mule Association, along with the living history exhibits such as quilting and blacksmithing. There will be live music, food, a barbecue cook-off, a classic car show and an antique tractor show.
Through the tractor show, visitors will be able to vote for a winner through donations in a bucket for the tractor of their choice. All the money is donated to the fire department, and the tractor owner with the fullest bucket gets a “Best in Show” trophy.
The children will have their fair share of entertainment, with inflatable rides and face-painting, as well as other fun to be had, Jackson said.
And the 45th annual National Hollerin’ Contest is going nowhere, but it will be part of a bigger offering that really pays tribute to the art and history of a long-enduring form of human communication.
“We’re planning on having some of our past champions do a little seminar, so people can go in and learn how to holler and give them an idea of what it was used for and how it’s actually done,” Jackson said. “We just hope that this will revitalize it and add more life to it.”
Jackson said the event hosted about 1,500 people last year, which he said was a good turnout for the event in recent years. However, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when there were people like Tom T. Hall and Dolly Parton singing at the contest, it hosted upwards of 5,000 people.
“This was a really big deal in the late 70s and early 80s,” he said. “This was more like a week-long event.”
There was also alcohol at that point — that is no more.
“It is a family event now,” said Jackson, “and that kind of takes away from some people wanting to be out there, but we wanted to make it a family event. Last year, we really had a good year.”
Jackson said he and others are hopeful the Hollerin’ Contest can return to its former glory, and are optimistic that the modifications being made to the event will be a move in the right direction. The goal for the next several months, he said, is to get the word out on the revamped festivities in Spivey’s Corner and encourage everyone to be there.
“That’s the objective,” said Jackson. “It’s a huge gamble changing a date after 44 years, but we hope we’re going to be successful.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at email@example.com.