Ethan Steinquest/Macon County Times B.J. Blankenship (left) and Monica Gann have teamed up for over 15 years to coordinate the Lafayette Lions/Lioness Clubs' annual Hillbilly Days, which will be held from Thursday through Saturday at Key Park.

Ethan Steinquest/Macon County Times

B.J. Blankenship (left) and Monica Gann have teamed up for over 15 years to coordinate the Lafayette Lions/Lioness Clubs' annual Hillbilly Days, which will be held from Thursday through Saturday at Key Park.

When it comes to Hillbilly Days, B.J. Blankenship has seen it all.

Although today he is known for coordinating the event as part of the Lafayette Lions Club, his involvement actually dates back to his childhood.

"The first time I attended it was in 1975 or '77," Blankenship said. "My mama took us to it, and I was like, 'Wow, they've got a bubblegum chewing contest.' I got in that, and I won because I had 56 pieces in my mouth at one time."

Blankenship recalled wanting to stay for a cracker eating contest the same day, but the family went home because he found his clothes covered in gum from his win.

"The trophy I got for it looked like a little bow-legged cowboy," Blankenship said. "My teeth hurt after it was all over with, and there was even gum in my throat. It started out without about 10 people, but got down to where there were just two of us. The other guy threw his in the trash can and said, 'I'm not picking that up,' so they told me if I put one more piece in my mouth I'd win."

At the time, the local Jaycees hosted Hillbilly Days, and there

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were some differences from the festival held today.

"Back then, you had to buy a little campaign pin if you didn't have a beard," Blankenship said. "If you didn't have it, you got put in jail - which at the time was a stockade like they had in Salem. They'd take you over there and put a peg through it, and you'd be sitting in it with your hands and head stuck through up by the courthouse."

The quarterback club also coordinated the event for a time, and Blankenship found his way back to the festivities when the Lions and Lioness Club took over in the early 1990s.

"There's something in my books from around 1991 where we had it at the park, because we had an old food wagon set up," Lioness Club member Monica Gann said. "Over the years, it's become more of a community service than a fundraiser."

Gann has worked with Blankenship on the event for more than 15 years, focusing on organizing its music competitions while he gathers booths and vendors. Proceeds from the festival go toward the clubs' various community service projects.

"A lot of these craft vendors, they've been coming for over 20 years," Blankenship said. "Several of the performers have too. I don't know what it would be like without Rob Pearcy (a long-time competitor who travels from Smyrna) showing up with this little feather in his hat."

Musicians are the festival's main focus, from gospel groups singing by the annual fish fry to fiddlers and banjos dueling over the weekend, but Blankenship has also seen a distinct cast of characters attend over the years.

"I had one guy that used to bring a pirate ship out of Frankfort, Kentucky," Blankenship said. "I'd be sitting there telling people where they needed to go, and I'd look over and tell my mom, 'There comes Charlie.' Sometimes, he'd take a year or two off, so you'd never know if he'd be there until he pulled in, but he'd always set up right behind the stage."

Several contests past and present have also contributed to the event's unique flavor.

"We started changing some things (when the Lions Club took over)," Blankenship said. "There was a greased pole one year right off the stage, and they put a $50 bill on top. It took all day long before somebody finally got the grease worn down enough to get up there. Everybody was sitting there watching the music, and they'd get excited, because all night you'd see people going up and down the pole."

Last year also saw the return of the hillbilly jail, which is based on the stockade setup Blankenship experienced as a boy.

"We used to use a cattle trailer for it, but I went and got a dog pen," Blankenship said. "Somebody will go and say, 'I'll pay you a dollar if you'll go arrest this one,' and they've got to stay in there however long. Somebody can pay a bail for them, and that helps us raise for money."

Public figures like Macon County Sheriff Mark Gammons and State Sen. Mark Pody can be seen playing along with the game and doing their time, a show of support that Gann is thankful for.

"(Hillbilly Days) is a lot of hard work, but a lot of fun," Gann said. "Just the camaraderie you develop, even with all your club members, is one thing, but there are so many people … it's the whole community pulling together for one common goal really."

Other events that have become community favorites include the year-long Mr. and Mrs. Hillbilly fundraising competition and the Itty Bitty Hillbilly Pageant.

"When it first started out, we had a hillbilly auction and cake walk on Thursday nights," Blankenship said. "We eventually gravitated toward doing a pageant where you have to dress in hillbilly attire, and that has really caught on."

Gann said that the pageant dates back approximately 10 years and has grown to include more than 90 contestants, but it has always allowed for children to express their sense of humor.

"The kids would come up there to compete, and they'd reach in their back pocket and pull out an ear of corn," Blankenship said. "They'd start gnawing on it in front of the judges, and one of them even walked up there with a cane pole and a bucket. She just pulled the cane pole up and had a little bluegill still on the hook."

The latest addition is a cast iron cooking competition, which is entering its second year.

"Your skillet or stew pot, whatever it is it has to be cooked prior and brought in with the cast iron," Gann said. "The prizes are cast iron skillets, and there are three categories - main dish, dessert and breads. We're hoping for that one to go over well this year."

Blankenship remains committed to improving the festival and hopes to see even more events added in the future.

"We'd really like to get an outhouse race going, and that's something we've talked about the past few years," Blankenship said. "You build an outhouse on wheels and have someone sitting in it, and you've got four guys pulling or pushing it."

Those efforts to build on to the event are also a tribute to those who have given their time to it throughout its history.

"We try to keep it grassroots like it's always been while still opening things up," Blankenship said. "When I think back to the Lions and people in the community that have worked on it over the years that are no longer here, (I know) we're keeping it going because it reminds us of them."

Hillbilly Days schedule

Thursday

Noon | Craft booth setup begins

6 p.m. | Opening ceremonies

6:30 p.m. | Itty Bitty Hillbillies Beauty Pageant

7 p.m. | Cake walk

Friday

4 p.m. | Fish fry

6 p.m.| Gospel concert

Saturday

10 a.m. | Flat-top guitar competition

10:30 a.m. | Mandolin competition

11 a.m. | Beginning fiddle competition (for age 16 and younger)

11:30 a.m. | Harmonica competition

Noon | Banjo competition

1 p.m. | Cast iron recipe on back pavillion

1 p.m. | Junior fiddle competition (for age 16-50)

1:30 p.m. | Senior fiddle competition (age 51 and older)

2 p.m. | 5th annual Ped Scruggs Memorial Fiddle Challenge (junior fiddle winner versus senior fiddle winner)

2:30 p.m. | Presentation of Billy and Joanna Roark Community Service Award

2:45 p.m. | Mr. Hillbilly/Miss Hillbilly Competition

3 p.m. | Buck dance competition (age 41 and younger)

3:15 p.m. | Buck dance competition (age 42 and older)

3:30 p.m. | Open mic performances

4:30 p.m. | Male vocalist competition (one song, two in case of tie)

5:30 p.m. | Female vocalist competition (one song, two in case of tie)

7 p.m.| The Big Show Bluegrass Band Competition