By Debbie Adams
The Vinton Dogwood Festival celebrates its 66th anniversary this year. Many prominent business and community leaders have served as President of the Dogwood Festival through the years, some more than once—a “who’s who” of names familiar to those native to Vinton or longtime residents.
This year’s President, Beth Abbott, might not be as familiar a name, but she has been a familiar face in Vinton for several years as an enthusiastic volunteer with the Dogwood Festival and other local organizations and events.
Abbott grew up in Lancaster County, Virginia, where she met her husband, Todd. They moved to Roanoke County in 2000. She is currently the Business Development Manager at Elwood Staffing. She is a member of Thrasher Memorial United Methodist Church where she plays and sings with the Humble Praise group.
Abbott says she loves going to Vinton’s festivals and parades with her husband and their son, Jeremy. At one event, there weren’t enough volunteers; she got involved; and she has stayed active in Vinton ever since. “I love being a volunteer.” She has served on the board of the Dogwood Festival for several years in several positions.
“I knew the Past President, Connie Houff, from Thrasher UMC,” Abbott explains. “She asked if I would be interested in helping her with the crafters at the Vinton Dogwood Festival. Of course, I couldn’t resist. Before I knew it, I was a member of the Board.”
Abbott says she is devoting every spare moment to the Dogwood Festival these days. Planning for the annual festival is an ongoing process.
Otto Goode was the first president of the Dogwood Festival, held in 1956. He was chairman of the Band Boosters instrument committee and band uniforms were the reason for the first Dogwood event. Profits from the festival went towards buying new uniforms for the William Byrd Band. The Governor of Virginia, Thomas Stanley, attended the first festival. Nineteen bands marched the parade route.
Goode served as president until 1959, when Dr. Herman L. Horn took on the job and welcomed actor Steve McQueen as Grand Marshal that year. Horn was followed in 1960 by Nelson Thurman, who had served as Vinton’s Mayor and in the Virginia Legislature. The 1960 festival included a pageant with 800 participants, including 600 school children.
W.E. Cundiff was president of the festival in 1961. Twenty-eight bands participated with Bob Denver (of Gilligan’s Island fame) as the parade marshal. He was followed in 1962 by Charles Jennings. The 1962 festival was remembered for the extreme heat which left 125 band members and parade goers needing rescue squad attention. There were 28 bands in the parade that year and 13,000 in attendance.
Wallace Cundiff was named president in 1963 with singer Bobby Vinton as the guest celebrity. Cundiff was followed by Armand Sanderson in 1964 for the parade featuring 33 bands and Minnie Pearl.
The 10th annual Dogwood Festival in 1965 was led by World War II veteran Hildrey Pollard with Vinton visited by 15,000 spectators.
Dr. Herbert Keaton took the reins as president in 1966. That year some 20,000 dogwood trees were planted before the festival began. James Sims was Dogwood president in 1967. The 1968 parade was cancelled due to heavy rains and thunderstorms when Francis Holdren was president. Beloved William Byrd High School Principal Bob Patterson served as president in 1969 when the festival lasted an entire week and featured 37 marching bands in the parade.
Dr. W.W. Joness was festival president in 1970 with Virginia Governor Linwood Holton as the parade marshal; then Robert Saunders in 1971.
In 1972, Dick Cranwell was president for the 17th annual Dogwood Festival. In the following years, Roger Smith, Stephen Brown, James Musselwhite, and Roanoke County Treasurer Fred Anderson headed up the festival. In 1977, when Steve Musselwhite was president, the spectators numbered 25,000.
The list continues: Deal Tompkins, Sidney Johnson, Ed Reynolds (Miss America Kylene Barker was the Grand Marshal), Thomas Hard, Mayor Charles Hill, Nita Echols (30,000 came out that year in 1983), James Reynolds, John Hartsock (the Dogwood Queen that year rode on a Vinton Messenger float, not the traditional Woman’s Club float), Larry Musselwhite, Bill Cundiff, Sam Cundiff, and Anthony Amos.
Dogwood Presidents in the 90’s included Anthony Conner, Gary Janney, Don Davis, Chris Keaton, Joe Bush, Bryce Mayer, Michael Gilmore, Jim Echols, Todd Bailey, and Andy Nicely. More recent leaders have included Mike Stovall, Vince Bennett, Joey Nicely, Stephanie Guess and Penny Peters, Bill Tyree, Barry Robertson, and Connie Houff (in 2019-2020).
Abbott notes that the Dogwood Festival is an independent organization, not officially affiliated with the Town of Vinton or the Vinton Area Chamber of Commerce, “but we all work together to bring family fun to Vinton. We also have a common goal to drive revenue to our local businesses during the Dogwood Festival event.”
It was heartbreaking for the members of the Dogwood Festival Board and the community when last year’s festival was cancelled due to the pandemic.
“It was extremely difficult to make the decision to cancel the Festival last year,” she says. “It was Dogwood’s 65th year, and we had a lot of special surprises planned for the community. We have learned a lot about the pandemic in the past year, so we are most comfortable planning an outdoor event. Many of us have been affected personally by COVID, so we need to mindful and respectful of that, too.”
There are still COVID-19 restrictions in place for this year’s festival—again cancelling the traditional parade through the streets of Vinton and moving the crowning of the Dogwood Queen from the Vinton War Memorial to the Municipal Building stage.
“The new restrictions gave our committee members some very creative ideas!” Abbott says. “Mary Beth Layman is organizing a drive-by and walk-by parade. She is encouraging local business owners and residents to decorate their storefronts and lawns for Dogwood Festival. Connie Houff, Callie Webb, and Brittany Lane are working on a shoebox parade! There is a new event following the crowning of the Dogwood Queen this year. We may leave that as a surprise for now!”
Other Dogwood Festival Board members this year include: Food Vendor Coordinator and Town of Vinton Liaison Chasity Barbour, Treasurer Jeff Teass, Secretary Rena Whorley, Sponsorships Coordinator Karen Obenchain, Retail/Business Coordinator Brittany Lane, Craft Vendors Coordinator Callie Webb, Entertainment Coordinator Joey Nicely, Media Coordinator Mary Beth Layman, and Queen’s Court Coordinator, Susan Teass. Most have been volunteering with the Dogwood Festival for years.
The 2021 Dogwood Festival is scheduled for April 23 and 24 with a concert by Fuzzy Logic and Mended Fences on the evening of April 23, Festival Day on Saturday, April 24 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Movie Night (Disney’s “The Lion King”) at the Vinton Farmers Market at dusk that evening (with free popcorn and free admission).
The Festival on April 24 includes music and performances, arts and crafts vendors, business vendors, food trucks, a car show, a Kids’ Area, interactive parade activities, the introduction of the Dogwood Court, and the crowning of the Dogwood Queen.
The Vinton Dogwood Festival Committee puts in countless hours to stage the event and collaborates with local organizations and area nonprofits. The festival is funded entirely by donations, sponsorships, and fundraising events, along with fees from concessions and vendors.