SPIVEY’S CORNER — The Hollerin’ Capital of the Universe has been silenced.
After 47 years of the National Hollerin’ Contest in Spivey’s Corner, the event has been suspended, with the door open to one final event in 2018 to mark the 50th anniversary.
“We’ve been changing things up year after year after year,” said Aaron Jackson, chairman of the contest fundraising committee. “We made a decision to end it and possibly have one more event in 2018 if there is interest. We reached a point where the membership wanted to go a different way with fundraising.”
“It was a long thought-out decision,” longtime contest organizer and Spivey’s stalwart Wayne Edwards added. “We knew one day we were going to have to make that decision. It was a hard one to make.”
A letter announcing the decision was signed by the members of the Spivey’s Corner Volunteer Fire Department, The SCVFD Board of Directors and the SCVFD Fundraiser Committee. They thanked “all of the contestants, businesses and attendees who have supported this event for the past 47 years.”
“We greatly appreciate your help in making our community a safer place to live, work and travel through,” the statement read.
The event was launched in 1969, putting the small Sampson community on the world stage behind the drive and determination of Spivey’s Corner native Ermon Godwin.
When WCKB AM Radio’s John Thomas aired some recordings of old farm hollers given to him by Godwin, calls poured into the radio station. Cheekily, Thomas said a contest would be held in Spivey’s Corner and prospective contestants should contact his friend Godwin to enter. The contest was born.
“Ermon was Ermon,” Edwards said with a laugh. “He brought a lot of publicity to the tiny crossroads.”
The first contest was held the third Saturday in June 1969 at Midway High School and it fast became a summer tradition for many, while serving as the Spivey’s Corner Volunteer Fire Department’s big annual fundraising effort every year. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when there were people like Tom T. Hall and Dolly Parton singing at the contest, it hosted upwards of 5,000 people and extended almost a week.
Reviving a dying art
Edwards said he wished the contest had the kind of support it had in its heyday, but in today’s world of texting and social media, he said it was an uphill battle. Over the past four decades, most of the original practitioners of the art of hollerin’ have passed on, and despite efforts to boost the event’s appeal, the support had literally and figuratively died off.
“These were the men and women that were born and raised in the rural farming communities of southeastern North Carolina, long before telephone service made it easy to communicate over long distances,” Spivey’s fire department officials said in their statement. “Many of them passed this art on to their children and grandchildren, and those successive generations have kept the art alive by competing yearly in the National Hollerin’ Contest.”
Jim Grastie, a perennial participant in Spivey’s Corner, said he was saddened by the news.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Grastie, a two-time past champion. “I’m really disappointed. I’m kind of hurt now. That’s the only time I get to see some of the people I consider good friends.”
As times changed, members of the Spivey’s Corner Volunteer Fire Department revamped the event with the ultimate goal of making hollerin’ more appealing to a younger generation.
Repackaged as the Hollerin’ Heritage Festival three years ago, it moved to the second Saturday in September due to poor attendance and heat issues. The goal was for the event to continue to be a summer staple where attendees could have fun while getting a history lesson on hollering and its importance, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Tony Peacock, a six-time winner who earned three consecutive victories from 2012-14, said he was sad to see the event end.
“I wish the hollerin’ contest could continue. I have enjoyed being a part of it,” he said. “I appreciate what the fire department has done over the years. If I knew how to help I would. I hate to see it end.”
Sheila Frye, a 10-time Ladies Callin’ champion, said she loved passing on the history of hollerin’.
“I really enjoyed keeping that tradition of hollerin’ alive,” she remarked. “A lot of people nowadays can’t imagine how life was back then on the farm. I wanted to keep that alive and tried to get others involved. A lot of it was about educating. I’m really passionate about history and culture and, even though hollerin’ was no longer used, it was important to try to keep those traditions going.”
Edwards recalled Godwin’s hopes for the contest, which weighed heavily in the ultimate call to suspend it.
“It was Mr. Ermon’s wish for it to go out with grace,” Edwards said.
In “Hollerin’ Revived at Spivey’s Corner,” a book Godwin he co-wrote with Oscar Bizzell in 1993Mr. Godwin stated, “I’ve had lots of fun with the contest over the years, but I don’t want people making a joke of it. Hollerin’ is part of our heritage and I hope we can keep the contest going for many years to come. But rather than string it out after it loses its appeal, I’d say we should just forget it and go out gracefully.”
Jackson conceded that in the years before the festival, the “novelty (of the contest) had kind of worn off” with people looking at the event as “old hat.” Adding more to the event saw more people, and Jackson and others were optimistic. Attendance grew to between 1,500-1,800 with the addition of antique farm equipment displays and plowing demonstrations, living history exhibits and old-timey demonstrations.
“I thought it was building up again,” said Grastie. “They had a big crowd last year. It seemed like the last couple times they had bigger crowds.”
The hollerin’ camaraderie
Before there were longtime champs like Peacock, Frye and Larry Jackson, Grastie was the first ever two-time champion. For years, someone crowned champ could not compete again. Grastie and many others were in that boat.
A U.S. Air Force veteran living in Fayetteville, Grastie heard about the contest in Spivey’s Corner around the time it began but did not visit until 1979. Back then, there was a Hollerin’ Run.
“It was back during the running and fitness craze,” he laughed. “We started at the athletic field at Midway High School and ran around the community. There was a possum trot and a 10K race. If you participated in the run, you got free entry into the contest.”
He did not holler that first year, but the self-professed “South Carolina hillbilly” returned the next year and not only ran, but hollered. Hollerin’ was nothing new to him, but he conceded that he didn’t know what he would do once he got on the stage and “it came to me.” The weather, as it tended to be at the contest in the dead of Sampson summer, was sweltering.
He took third place. They put a R.J. Reynolds cap on his head — they sponsored the event that year — and gave him a $50 check. He would find out the next year that his first competition was also the last with cash prizes. Back then, competition was stiff, with guys like Leonard Emmanuel, Dewey Jackson, O.B. Jackson, Bobby McLamb, Dan McLamb, Mike Brown, Robbie Goodman and many others all in the running.
In 1985, Grastie won the whole thing. Even though he couldn’t win again, he kept going to the contest to see his friends. In 1993, the longtime rule was relaxed to allow past champions to compete. He took his second crown, the first person to ever do that.
Over the years, Grastie has experienced firsthand the kind of national attention the Spivey’s Corner staple has garnered. He was a guest on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, the Late Show with David Letterman and Good Morning America and numerous other radio and TV shows, demonstrating the art of hollering while helping to put Spivey’s Corner firmly on the map. Even though the limelight dimmed in recent years, Grastie kept attending the event.
“Now I’m the oldest,” he said.
He listed off all those old champs, and people like Iris Turner, Kevin Jasper, Peacock and Jackson.
“Even though we compete, there are no grudges,” Grastie asserted. “It’s just been a friendly competition and a lot of camaraderie, brotherhood and sisterhood.”
He referred to Godwin as “the godfather of hollerin” and said when he passed in 2009, Wayne and Janice Edwards, as well as others, really kept the event going.
Longtime participants said they hope the contest can enjoy a goodbye fitting of what it has meant to many over the years.
“I’m sad, but I understand,” Frye said. “I really hope they can have an event to commemorate the 50th anniversary. It’s a wonderful experience.”
“It’s just really sad,” Grastie added. “I’m hoping they’ll get back for the 50th and I’m hoping I can make it — and go for number three.”
Edwards said it is a prospect that will be much discussed.
“The fire department and everyone are going to look at that seriously,” he said. “We hope we can make that happen.”
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.