By Ken Wilson –
Pretty country town, warm and friendly people. If you think that’s a Chamber of Commerce cliché, a Hollywood screenwriter’s daydream, come to Madison on Saturday, September 2 from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. for the 25th annual Taste of the Mountains street festival, and talk to Steve Grant, owner of Blue Ridge Barrels.
Grant came down from upstate New York three years ago to work on his brother’s house and never left: “I liked the area and I really liked Madison, so I stayed and I never went back,” he says. “I like the country feel of a small town. There are cattle farms all up and down my road.” And the natives? Is old-fashioned Southern hospitality still a thing? “Everybody that I’ve met has been extremely friendly, very welcoming. I just think it’s a great place to live.”
Grant doesn’t have to argue his case. Sure there may be fewer than 300 residents in Madison, but the free party they throw each year, the “heritage festival of 18th and 19th century Blue Ridge Mountain culture” in its inventive 21st century variety, makes plain their hometown pride and passion—and folks have noticed. About ten thousand are expected again this year for the crafts and the country-cured ham, the bluegrass, Southern rock, and marching band show tunes, the kids games and the living history.
“Taste of the Mountains is unique in the fact that we only have Madison County businesses and food vendors participate,” says Madison County Economic Development & Tourism Director Tracey Gardner, “and that we encourage vendors to bring handmade crafts. We’ve gone from a handful of vendors to over 180. We’ve gone from local attention to national when the Festival was named one of the top 20 festivals by the Southeast Tourism Society in 1999, and was highlighted by Willard Scott on the Today Show in 2001.”
Chartered in 1792 and largely settled by families of German, English and Scots-Irish descent, Madison County was named for a family that owned land along the Rapidan River. In 1809 that same family would give the country its fourth president. Today the little town of Madison (0.2 square miles; population 229 in the 2010 census) is the county seat and boasts six structures on the National Register of Historic Places, including the county courthouse dating to 1828. The Greek Revival-style Kemper Residence (circa 1852) was built by Confederate Major General James Lawson Kemper, Virginia Governor from 1874 to 1877. Restored and furnished in period style, it is now home to the Madison County Historical Society and will be open to Festival visitors. Civil War re-enactors will set up a living history camp on the mansion’s lawn, portraying the 1st Maryland Regiment CSA, whose members fought for the Confederacy despite Maryland’s decision to remain in the Union.
Eat, Shop, Play
In addition to dozens of crafts booths, festival goers will find homegrown fruits and vegetables and homemade crafts along with the Madison County Farmer’s Market, which will be in full swing in nearby Hoover Ridge Park from 8 a.m. to noon. Also, the Fredericksburg Antique Auto Club of America will bring its cool cars.
New businesses taking part in their first festival include antiques dealer Four Calling Birds, named “for four beautiful little grandchildren,” and Steve Grant’s Blue Ridge Barrels. “We make a huge variety of wine barrel furniture and accessories,” Grant says, along with accessories including custom bars, fountains and wine racks, made mostly out of barrel staves.
While Grant is one of the newest proprietors in town, E. A. Clore Sons, Inc. is a Madison institution, a family-owned business that has been making handcrafted furniture for more than 180 years. “E.A. Clore has been the comeback story this year,” Gardner notes. “They were planning to close, but once they made the announcement, the public from all over quickly realized what they would be missing and they are now open and plan to stay that way. They will be back on the Library Lawn this year for the 25th!”
Ask E.A. Clore president Troy Coppage how Madison has changed over the years since the first Festival and you’ll stump him momentarily: “It would be easier to talk about how we’ve stayed the same, I guess. My wife frequently comments on how much she enjoys living here. She’s lived in four or five different places in her life but has never lived anywhere like Madison, that still has the small town atmosphere where most people still know one another and care about one another and look out for each another. I think that makes Madison somewhat unique, that it has retained its small town atmosphere to a large extent. She calls that to my attention on a regular basis, that nowhere else do people care about each other and look out for each other like we do in Madison.”
Madison standbys like Kite’s Hams, Pig ‘N Steak, and The Little Country Store, along with churches and civic groups, will be serving all day and Willow Hill Pet Salon will offer treats for pets. Two new restaurants now occupy the corner of Washington and Main: Bonanno’s Madison Inn, headed by Chef Tony, Madison’s newest U.S. citizen as of July 27, and MAD Local, named for its reliance on locally sourced beef, cheese and produce, and its 16 Virginia beers. North Cove Mushrooms, another newcomer, will park its food truck beside the Library Lawn.
Madison’s first brewery, Bald Top Brewing Company—“wildly successful,” Gardner says—will serve their beers, stout and ales in the Beer and Wine Tasting Tent on the Library Lawn. DuCard, Early Mountain, and Prince Michel vineyards will serve wine. Sampler tastings, souvenir glass included, are $10 (cash/check). Further pourings may be purchased individually.
Up on the Main Stage, this year’s headliners, Outlaw Whiskey, will play classic and contemporary country, classic and southern rock, and “whatever else feels right.” Leon Rector, The Bennie Dodd Band, David Leckie Gilmore, Dark Hollow Blue Grass Band and Madison’s own Jessica Weaver and the Silver Linings Band will entertain as well. Ruckersville children’s magician Wes Iseli will do tricks in the Madison Drug Company parking lot and the Virginia Tourism Corporation’s LOVEWORK sign on the Library Lawn in Kemper Circle will be selfie center.
Beginning at 9:00 a.m. free festival parking will be available at Madison County High School, where shuttle buses, including a handicapped accessible bus, will run to Main Street and back. Handicapped parking may be found on the old General Store lot on Washington Street, for the price of a donation to the Madison Free Clinic.