October 5, 2015 12:38PM
By NANCY LAVIN
Sun Staff Writer
RICHMOND — The time-honored celebration of tractor pulls and cow chip bingo partnered with some event “firsts” at this year’s Swamp Yankee Days Festival.
Old favorites like cow chip bingo, corn meal grinding and clam chowder drew in a steady stream of local residents and businesses to the Washington County Fairgrounds for the first day of the festival, which had been held in Hopkinton at Crandall Field in previous years.
This was also the first year with the Richmond-Carolina Fire District at the helm, after the Chariho Rotary announced in February that it would no longer be able to organize the festival due to a lack of volunteers.
Despite the change in venue and organizer, many visitors said the festival remained true to its country roots, and may have even improved with the changes.
Wood River resident Lisa Curran, who has been to the event “on and off” for about four years, said she liked the larger size of the new location.
“This place definitely gives it more of a country feel,” added Geri Santos, of Charlestown.
Both agreed that they missed the scarecrow making craft, which had been available in years past.
Ed Smith, president of the Chariho Rotary, said he was pleased that the fire district took over the event after his organization could not.
“I’m thrilled to see them keep it going,” he said. “They’re doing a great job, especially for the first year.”
The idea to take over the festival was proposed by Richmond-Carolina Fire Chief Scott Barber to two of his friends over their weekly morning breakfast at West’s Bakery in Hope Valley.
After gaining the support of his friends and the fire district, Barber and the other committee members kicked the planning into high gear in May. Barber said the group spirit of the planning made it easier.
“There’s no single person in charge of the event,” he said. “It was a total group effort, and everybody had a different vision to bring to the table.”
With the help of the fairgrounds for a new location, Barber said the hardest part was planning around bad weather.
“Total success relied on Mother Nature, since this is an outdoor event,” he said.
Luckily, Saturday’s cloudy skies stayed at bay, and didn’t stop visitors from venturing out.
Richmond resident Henry Vaillencourt, 8, attended the festival for the first time with his father, Jeff, who said he had attended in past years.
Henry fixated on the moving mini carnival display, a relic of Rocky Point Amusement Park, which both he and his father agreed was their favorite part of the fair.
For Curran and her family, cow chip bingo is always a highlight, though Curran said she did not purchase any deeds.
Exeter resident Ken Andrews said the best part for him is catching up with old friends he hasn’t seen. In fact, Andrews said he happened upon old friend Bill Rathburn, of West Greenwich, after 20 years of not seeing each other.
“This is like a reunion for us,” Andrews said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Both Andrews and Rathburn identified as “real Swamp Yankees,” both with ancestral ties to Rhode Island that date back to the 1600s.
“We’re a dying breed,” Andrews said, explaining that full-blooded Swamp Yankees are increasingly few and far between.
Rathburn added that supporting the local businesses and vendors at the event was important to him.
The event included standard fare like burgers and hot dogs from Pomona Kitchen, plus old favorites like fried pickles, courtesy of Hope Valley Ambulance, and “chowda” and clamcakes from the Chariho Rotary.
Local vendors selling sweatshirts, jewelry, vegetables and decorative items abounded, some regulars at the event and others in their first year as participants.
Jen York, owner of Magnolia Ride Farms in Ashaway, stood behind a table filled with her homemade goat milk soaps and lotions, which she said have been a popular seller since she started selling at Swamp Yankee Days three years ago.
“It’s always a fun festival to do,” she said. “I was a little disappointed though [in the location change]. The old location was really great. I think it was better at Crandall Field.”
Barber said this year was definitely a learning experience for the fire district in figuring out what worked well and what didn’t; however, Barber said the bottom line is about continuing the event for locals in years to come.
“It’s not just about us benefiting,” he said. “It’s about having a successful event for everyone involved, and to have a festival that can survive and sustain itself, which I really hope can happen.”
Swamp Yankee Days continues with a full schedule of events from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today. The second day opens with a classic car show and antique tractor parade, with the much-awaited cow chip bingo kicking off at 4 p.m. Admission is $5, and children 10 and under are admitted free. All admission fees go to charitable causes and events supported by the Carolina Fire District.