Olden Days launched new ‘spirit’

Published 4:57 pm Tuesday, June 26, 2018

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The Olden Days festival has a rich history in Smithfield. The name harkens back to a time long ago, but the festival itself, for those who remember its origins, harkens back to a time not so long ago when downtown was struggling to keep its head above water.

There was no government-funded or endorsed events coordinator in town in those days. Stores were shuttered, concrete sidewalks were broken and (occasionally) patched, overhead utilities sagged on creosote poles and most storefronts, open or closed, had the look of 1950s vintage “upgrades.”

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Downtown Smithfield, in short, appeared to be on a downward slide in the mid to late 1980s.

Two volunteer organizations emerged during that period. One of them, Historic Smithfield, was to focus on the physical appearance of downtown. Using a matching donation from Joseph W. Luter III, the group raised the funds necessary to partner with the town of Smithfield to rebuild Main Street. It took several years of fund raising, planning and coaxing Town Council members before the “Downtown Revitalization Project” began in 1992.

In the meantime — and this is critical — the second organization formed. The Spirit of Smithfield aimed to end the malaise that appeared to grip the town, to bring about a feeling of ownership among Smithfield businesses and residents that would be critical if the physical rehabilitation of downtown was to be more than window dressing.

The group of intrepid volunteers who collectively — and correctly — identified themselves as the “Spirit of Smithfield,” organized fund raisers and festivals aimed at encouraging business and preservation in the town’s Historic District.

The most enduring legacy of that organization is Olden Days. The first one was held June 14 and 15, 1991, just a couple of months before the Main Street rejuvenation work began.

Despite the seedy backdrop of a Main Street in need of repairs, Olden Days was an instant success. The first one included a Victorian dance, a concert by the Virginia Symphony and one of the festival’s most popular elements — a raft race on the Pagan River.

In the years since then, Olden Days has changed in numerous ways. It was moved, briefly, to Memorial Day weekend, then back to June where it has remained. The pretty much all-volunteer leadership of the organization has evolved also as government has necessarily played a stronger role in the planning and execution of the festivals.

Now, Isle of Wight Tourism and the Town of Smithfield are looking to change the focus of the festival again. It’s time for that to happen. It has become more craft and antique auto show than family-oriented festival and organizers are appropriately looking for ways to attract a broader local audience a year from now.

Personally, I hate to see the name change. Olden Days is a perfectly good name. It’s innocuous, but more important, I think that it honors those intrepid volunteers who 30 years ago were determined that downtown Smithfield was too important to be allowed to die.

The old commercial district may not be everything we want it to be today, but it’s a darned sight better than it would have been had the Spirit of Smithfield had not worked to build the “spirit” of the community with events like Olden Days.

Let’s embrace change where it’s needed, but let’s try to keep a few traditions as well.