Blue Ridge BBQ: A festival of firsts

Published 10:28 pm Thursday, March 7, 2013

As the Blue Ridge BBQ and Music Festival commemorates its 20th anniversary this year on June 14-15 at Harmon Field, volunteers reflect on the decades of firsts that made the event possible.

Twenty years ago, June 1994, the very first Blue Ridge BBQ Festival was held at the Harmon Field in Tryon. 
Members of the chamber of commerce held the event to raise funds to help support chamber activities.

Then chamber president Charlie Neff called on Tryon resident Jim Tabb, an internationally respected barbecue judge, to look into having a local barbecue event. Tabb took the challenge and has been active behind the scenes ever since. 
Twenty-four competition cook teams and as many judges participated in 1994, and by all measure, the event was a great success. People seemed to really enjoy eating great barbecue while listening to toe-tapping music.

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The first winner was a team from Bellevue, Wash., known as Beaver Castors.

The second year of the festival saw its first serious rain. That together with some
high entertainment and other costs resulted in a substantial financial loss. But civic-minded business people stepped up to the plate. They individually guaranteed a bank loan that would ensure the festival would continue. That loan was repaid in full from festival-generated funds by 2000. The first carnival rides were added in 1995.

The third year the festival returned to Harmon Field, which is still its home. The Foothills Craft Fair first became a part of the annual festivities that year.

When the National Barbecue News created the Spirit of Barbecue Award in 1999, the very first winner was the Blue Ridge BBQ Festival. What is so special about the “Spirit” award is that winners are chosen by the cook teams that participate in competitions all across the country.

The festival’s first fireworks were added in 2004.

As the festival grew, parking problems were alleviated by adding the first tram transport from parking fields to the main gate in 2000. Then Chairman Andy Millard is credited with this and a number of other ideas that have made the event so successful.

In 2004 the first all-girl barbecue team, the Wood Chicks led by Lee Ann Whippen, won the Grand Championship. This was a proud moment for Lee Ann’s father, who just happens to be the festival’s founder, Jim Tabb.

In 2008 (our 15th anniversary) when the Kansas City BBQ Society launched its “Great American BBQ Tour,” Tryon was its very first stop. The tour visited BBQ festivals across the country, giving cooking demonstrations and BBQ tips to the crowds that gathered around its colorful mobile RV/stage. They’ll return this year to help celebrate the 20th anniversary.

Last year, the first teenage cook team participated. Two 14-year-olds, Madison Arrowood and Allison Hembree formed the team called Hawgs and Kisses. The ambitious duo entered every possible category and scored two second place awards — dessert and whole hog. That would have been considered a great outcome for some of the most experienced teams.

Look for more exciting firsts to be announced.