It was a classic, halcyon fall afternoon in Caledonia Saturday, with every parking lot, side street and driveway jammed to capacity as thousands turned out for the eighth annual Caledonia Day festival.
This year’s event T-shirts touted the town as “A Place Where You Can Fit In,” and vendors and entertainers did their best to fulfill that promise, offering a variety of wares and activities designed to please eyes, ears and palates.
Farming, the centerpiece of the town’s jigsaw-themed T-shirt, also played a heavy role in the festival, with hay bales, pumpkins and cotton bolls on every corner and a row of bright green John Deere tractors rounding out the tribute to agriculture.
Retired Caledonia farmer Phillip Bell, 59, gave up farming row crops in 2004 after escalating commodity prices and low profit margins took an economic toll. But Bell still farms hay, and he still loves the old tractors — so much so that he restores them in his spare time.
“Are you a farmer?” a little boy asked incredulously.
Bell tipped back his white cowboy hat, grinned and nodded.
He said he enjoys bringing the tractors to events like Caledonia Day, because it supports the town he’s lived in all his life.
“Farming is a very important part of the economics out here,” Bell said. “In recent years, it’s been superseded by people using Caledonia as a bedroom community for Columbus. A lot of what was farmland is now subdivisions.”
On the other end of Main Street, Roy Parker, of Hamilton, Ala., held the reins of Toby, a four-year-old Belgian draft horse, as the animal blinked sleepily against the setting sun.
Parker and Toby spent the majority of the day offering buggy rides as a fundraiser for True Life Worship Center in Caledonia. With only two hours left before the close of this year’s festival, Parker said he and Toby were taking a brief break.
“This is the first time we’ve stopped since 8:30 (a.m.) this morning,” Parker said.
As for the Whitaker family, they were still going full-tilt, showing no signs of stopping just yet as they manned the booth for their homespun company, “Doodle Dots.”
Shannon Whitaker, who grew up in Caledonia, said she and her mother-in-law, Theresa Whitaker, had stayed up late for the past few weeks, hand-painting the plywood signs that her husband, David Whitaker, and her father-in-law, J.R. Whitaker, trace on wood and cut into whimsical shapes.
Signs proclaiming allegiance to either Mississippi State University or the University of Alabama were most popular, but the family also sold a number of MSU cowbells, wooden crosses and Christmas items. Still, the football-themed items were the hottest sellers, which didn’t surprise David Whitaker at all.
“Football is life,” he explained, with just a hint of facetiousness. “When you’re born, you decide your team, and you basically stay with it the rest of your life.”
As an Alabama native, his pride runs crimson, and he wasn’t ashamed to show his colors Saturday.
“One of (our) kids’ first words was ‘Roll Tide,'” he said.
Shannon Whitaker just rolled her eyes and smiled.
Though she lives in Detroit, Ala. now, she’s still a Bulldog, through and through. And no matter where life takes her, on the third weekend in October, she knows where she will always be — back in Caledonia, the town where she got her start.
As for next year’s Caledonia Day festival, one of this year’s organizers, Jackie Savage, said earlier in the week that plans are already underway to make it bigger and better than ever.
A wrap-up session for this year’s event, along with preliminary discussions of the ninth annual Caledonia Day, will be held Oct. 25.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
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