On the very edge of the Mississippi Delta is a small town called Charleston.
Like so many other towns in the Delta, Charleston almost faded into history. But now, it has come back to life, thanks to citizens who believed in its future and wouldn’t let it die. On one day each year, the small town on the brink of extinction more than quadruples its population with a celebration of music, family and all things Delta. This year, Sept. 20 is one of those days.
The Gateway to the Delta Festival began as an idea from Jess Dickinson, presiding Mississippi Supreme Court Justice, native of Charleston and talented bluegrass musician. Along with Carson Hughes, also a Charleston native and former C Spire director, and the Charleston Arts and Revitalization Effort (CARE), they created the first festival. A two-day event in 2011, the festival consisted of great bluegrass, blues and gospel music, plus arts and crafts vendors and brought in an attendance of over 700 people.
Two of the attendees that year were Ed and Becky Meek, former residents of Charleston. They saw potential in this newly-formed festival and went to work spreading the word of “Gateway to the Delta” and the good things happening in Charleston. The very next year, under the leadership of Cal Trout, the festival’s attendance swelled to almost 5000, as the festival became a daylong celebrations with the addition of class reunions, a BBQ contest and a 5k race. In 2013, Trout turned over the reins to Clarissa Champion Milner and Maegan Speir Elliott, and the growth continued. Attendance reached almost 6000 people and word of the festival’s success began to spread.
This fourth year promises to be the best yet. The centerpiece of the festival, the musical lineup, has garnered attention across the Southeast. The emcee for this year’s festival is Jim Dees of Thacker Mountain Radio fame. When asked about the festival and its slate of musicians, he had this to say:
“In just four years, the Gateway to the Delta Festival has established itself as one of the best in North Mississippi. They have done this not only with their charming, small town setting, but by booking a diverse range of musical acts that appeal to a broad range of tastes. This year they have a dose of country with Haggard Collins and HanaLena, real blues by Bud Welch and Garry Burnside, rock and roll with Jimbo Mathus, this region’s most promising newcomer , Holley Peel, and one of the most entertaining songwriters working today, Paul Thorn. That’s a line-up that would play well most anywhere in the country. Throw in great food and art and the Gateway Festival is truly a tasty slice of Mississippi.”
But, the festival offers more than just great music. There are activities for all ages. The day begins with the Healthy Delta 5k, a run/walk that gives the participants a chance to see Charleston, while burning a few calories. The festival will kick-off at 9am with the announcement of the 5k winners and the winners of the local Wellness Challenge. At 11am, the always popular Kids Zone opens. Activities there include inflatables, a petting zoo, face painting, games and even a mechanical bull.
Across the Square from the Kids Zone, competitors in the “Grillin’ with Scissors” BBQ contest will be facing off for the title of Grand Grilling Champion. Two other contest will be going on that morning as well: the “Taste of the Delta” Healthy Cooking Contest and the “My View of the Delta” Photography Contest. Both of these contests were introduced at last year’s festival and have returned for a second year. Of course, arts and crafts vendors and food vendors will keep people busy shopping and eating all day and into the evening.
As anticipation and excitement grows and more people begin to make their way to Charleston each September, the heart of the festival remains the same: a celebration of the Delta, of family, friends and the arts, and of never forgetting your roots.
For more information on the Gateway to the Delta Festival, visit their website and Facebook page or call CARE at (662) 647-0942.
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