By Debbie Adams
The annual Dogwood Festival is Vinton’s best-known and most cherished tradition – now in its 67th year. It is one of the oldest festivals in Southwest Virginia and the oldest in the Roanoke Valley.
The Dogwood Festival began in 1955 as a fundraising event for the William Byrd High School Band to help purchase new uniforms. It was so successful that the town and citizens decided it needed to become an annual occurrence. Town Council, the Chamber of Commerce, the Woman’s Club, and many individuals kicked in donations and the festival was founded and has endured. This year’s Vinton Dogwood Festival is scheduled for Thursday, April 28, through Sunday, May 1.
The Dogwood Festival has also become a tradition for the family of Connie, Callie, and Gary Houff.
Connie has been volunteering in some capacity with the Dogwood Festival for about 15 years. She started out helping to recruit volunteers, vendors, and crafters, and assisting with the Dogwood Parade. She went on to serve for three years as president of the Dogwood Festival Committee – the term allotted in the festival’s by-laws.
She is now Committee Co-chair of the Craft and Food Vendor Committee along with her daughter Callie Houff Webb. They volunteered husband and father, Gary Houff, to help with the event as well. He does whatever needs to be done and acts as a goodwill ambassador at large.
Connie says she was initially inspired to volunteer for the Dogwood Festival by Vinton’s beloved Vice Mayor Billy Obenchain, who championed the Town of Vinton and the festival.
Callie not only volunteers for the event but was actually on the Dogwood Court as a senior at William Byrd High School in 2010. She says the fun she had on her own Dogwood Day is what led her to becoming a volunteer herself. She tells the girls on the court each year to focus on the day and enjoy the experience, which they will always treasure.
The Houffs say the Dogwood Festival has always been a big part of their family. Callie remembers when she was a little girl spending the day of the parade at her grandmother’s house on Meadow Street near the Vinton War Memorial.
Connie says the day of the Dogwood Parade was her mother-in-law’s favorite day of the year. She loved to sit on her porch and watch all the people lining the streets and walking by. They say it was a “really big deal” for the family to go to grandmother’s house – and part of the Houffs’ traditions each year.
Callie and Connie recruited friend Brittany Lane, who was on the Dogwood Court in 2010, to volunteer as well. Lane was a member of the same church as the Houffs; she and Callie have been best friends since they were preschoolers.
“I continued to volunteer for three years because the event was a big part of our community and I knew people looked forward to it,” Lane said. “It was a lot of work, but I learned a lot about working with other people and event organization through being on the Dogwood Committee.”
The Festival Committee is always on the lookout for “young blood” and second-generation volunteers to ensure that the Dogwood tradition continues in Vinton.
Callie moved to Charlotte after graduating from college, but now she is back in Vinton and back to volunteering. She wanted to get involved; she loves Vinton and helping the community. She has been surrounded by public servants her entire life, so that’s her nature – her father retired as a Battalion Chief from Roanoke County Fire and Rescue. Her husband, Shane, is a firefighter with the Roanoke Fire-EMS Department.
She married him in a wedding delayed for two months by the pandemic. She found out the news from her venue the weekend after her mother and the Dogwood Committee had to make the decision to cancel the 2020 festival due to COVID restrictions.
Mother and daughter organized the Virtual Dogwood Parades which took the place of an in-person parade during two years of the pandemic. Children and organizations were encouraged to create mini-floats to be shown on the Dogwood Festival Facebook page on Dogwood Saturday.
The Houffs’ oldest daughter also has a history with the festival. Sarah Houff Doss marched up Washington Avenue with the Marching Terrier Band and her clarinet in the Dogwood Parades each year and now helps with the festival doing whatever is needed.
The Dogwood Festival Committee is made up of volunteers– no one is paid– it’s a community service and labor of love. They eagerly welcome volunteers. In fact, the Festival Committee says, “volunteers are the heart and soul of the Vinton Dogwood Festival.”
Planning and preparing for the Dogwood Festival is a year-round task. Connie says once the festival is over, they generally take the summer off and then start up again in September meeting once a month until January when the meetings become bi-weekly and then weekly as the festival draws near.
All three Houffs and most of the other volunteers are involved with all aspects of the event come festival time– from drawing the lines on the downtown streets for vendors to helping manage the concerts, from set-up to clean-up. There are many different assignments available for volunteers, especially at the Friday night concert and on Dogwood Saturday.
The carnival is returning for all four days (Thursday and Friday from 6 to 10 p.m., Saturday from noon to 10 p.m., and Sunday from 1 to 6 p.m.)
There is a concert at the Vinton Farmers’ Market on Friday night at 6 p.m. featuring the Pizazz Band that plays soul, funk, beach, country, and rock music.
On Dogwood Saturday, the downtown streets will be filled with craft, food, and retail vendors. There is a car show from 10 to 4 at Thrasher Memorial United Methodist Church.
There will be entertainment on the stages at Vinton Baptist and the Farmers’ Market, including the William Byrd Jazz Band, the McFlys, Tim Martin and Brian Wheeling, Defy Gravity, and Mason Creek Bluegrass.
Lighthouse Bible Church is sponsoring the free Kids Zone. New this year is a youth activity zone hosted by Mineral Springs Baptist, with an Escape Room.
The highlight of the day will be the introduction of the Dogwood Court and crowning of the Queen at noon at the Municipal Building, followed by the Dogwood Parade down Washington Avenue and through the streets of Vinton, led by the Dogwood Court in horse-drawn carriage.
There are dozens of craft vendors, food vendors, churches, and organizations signed up for this year’s Dogwood event. The Houffs start by contacting last year’s vendors to see if they would like to participate again and then advertised for others who might be interested. They accept a variety of crafters and attempt to limit duplication. This year, Callie has been posting the products of some of the craft vendors on the Dogwood Festival Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/vintondogwoodfestival.
In addition to Connie and Callie, this year’s Dogwood Festival Committee is led by President Beth Abbott; Co-Vice President, Food Vendor Committee Chair, and Carnival Co-Chair Chasity Barbour; Co-Vice President and Treasurer Jeff Teass; Fundraising and Sponsorship Committee Chair Karen Obenchain; Queen and Court Committee Chair Susan Teass; Entertainment Committee Chair and Carnival Co-Chair Joey Nicely; and Media Committee Chair Mary Beth Layman.
The Dogwood Festival is financed through fundraising events, donations, and sponsorships, along with fees from concessions, vendors, and the carnival.
Anyone interested in volunteering for this year’s festival should contact Beth Abbott at email@example.com or call (540)556-6435. The committee will be delighted to hear from you, and it might turn into your family tradition as well.