August 3, 2006 issue

Seems Like Old Times: Laurel Bloomery Fiddlers’ Convention August 25-26

Story by Lois Carol Wheatley

The old train station has been converted into an outdoor stage. The old gristmill is a concession stand. The old blacksmith shop has been torn down to make way for the Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention, coming to the Old Mill Music Park in Laurel Bloomery on August 25 and 26.

 “We only have old-time music,” said Jackie Warden, who owns this historic creekside acreage and runs the annual show, now in its 81st year. “We have no bluegrass—just old instruments.”

It’s a fine line, this distinction between old-time music and bluegrass. As a very vague explanation, fans of old-time music will tell you that it’s about the songs, not the performers. The music follows the words instead of the other way around, if you can catch that drift.

If bluegrass does sneak in, it will show up in campers, tents and RVs that roll onto the field for the two-day event, bringing in a crowd of 600 to 700 people. Just about everybody in the audience will sooner or later perform.

“We just let them come in out of the fields when they’re ready,” Warden said, “and that way nobody gets bored and they just have a ball. They jam all night long out in the field. They go from trailer to trailer and it’s just fun.”

Hookups are available for camping trailers and there are restrooms in the old gristmill. Vendors arrive with various goods—it varies from one year to the next—and performers have their CDs on sale. “We ask everybody to bring their own lawn chairs,” she said.

“It’s a nice big creek behind the mill, and they try to get here a week ahead of time so they can get a good space. It’s nice and cool down there.”

Singing, playing and dancing both on stage and off take up about half the night, and by about 2:00 a.m. or so, the judges have reached some verdicts and are ready to hand out some cash—over $1,400 total—as well as trophies and ribbons.

“I have different judges come in from different places,” she said, “and then I have an emcee from Virginia, Jack Richardson. He’s very good and keeps it running smoothly.”

The competition categories are adult band, youth band, fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, bass, dulcimer, autoharp, harmonica, folk song, clogging and duet singing.

In the event of inclement weather, musicians can move to an indoor stage in a rustic and cavernous structure attached to the outdoor stage. This addition, while built to match the other venerable structures on the property, is relatively new. It was built by Warden’s late husband Douglas.

“My husband passed away almost three years ago and I’ve been trying to carry on [the fiddlers’ convention] for him because this was his thing,” she said. “He loved it.”

For last year’s convention, she had the property on the market and the word was out that the 80th would be the last.

“When my husband passed away I had it pretty rough for awhile because I have four teenagers and I just couldn’t do it any more,” she said. “I had two offers on the place but I didn’t want it to be anything except old-time music.”

Selling out would have meant more than giving up a chunk of history and a really big annual party. Her house sits on that 13-acre parcel.

According to song and legend, this is the oldest traditional music convention in Appalachia. And when you think about it, somebody has to do it.

“But it’s an awful lot for one person to take care of,” she said.

Directions: Take Highway 91 about ten miles north of Mountain City headed toward Damascus. In Laurel Bloomery there is an A to Z Market and Grill—where the United States Post Office operates just like back in the day—across from the fire hall. On the left is a red barn, and small roadside signs that say Old Mill Music Park will point the way. But it’s easy to miss unless the fiddlers’ convention is in progress. For more information call 423-727-9595.


Want To Go?

Date: Friday, August 25, and Saturday, August 26

Time: Performances start at 6:00 p.m.; registration on Friday begins at 3:00 p.m.

Location: Old Mill Music Park, Laurel Bloomery

Cost: $5 per day


Old Mill Music Park

Story by Lois Carol Wheatley

All things historic happened on this prime piece of real estate, and in most cases some ancient building or sacred relic survives to tell the tale.

Wagon trains from North Carolina followed Gentry’s Creek to this spot and joined up with other wagon trains coming out of Tennessee following Laurel Fork. The Daniel Boone Trail runs through this site, continuing through Cumberland Gap to vast unclaimed farmlands in Kentucky.

An iron ore forge was built here in the early 1800s, and when two more were built nearby the town got its name: Laurel Bloomery. A bloomery is a forge, not to be confused with the thing the laurel does in the spring.

A dam was built on the creek and then a gristmill. “The old water-powered gristmill was run by an underground turbine and the machinery is still in the mill,” said Jackie Warden, the current owner of the property. “We never did get it put together but the parts are over there.”

She also claims to have the largest single collection of old forge hammers, anvils and tripper wheels in the nation.

A blacksmith shop was built behind the mill. “We tore it down because it was falling down,” she said. An old ice plant was here and some of the bins, tools and block drums are still stored onsite.

At the turn of the century, the old Peavine Railroad stopped at the Laurel Bloomery depot on its way to Richmond and Washington. Rail service was discontinued in 1914 and the old train station is now an outdoor stage at Old Mill Music Park.

Warden’s father-in-law ran a mineral water operation on the banks of the creek. “They bottled the mineral water and they shipped it to Roanoke for people who had arthritis,” she said.

Her mother-in-law had a beauty shop on the premises. “She had some old machinery that you hook on your hair—electrical wires after you get it rolled. And it was the first electrical permanent wave of the 1920s.”

Warden has found some actual use for this Alfred Hitchcock style equipment. “We had a haunted house down here for the Foster Parents Association and we got that thing out and it runs. We put a guy on it and pretended like we were electrocuting him. And it scares you, especially if the lighting is right.”

She holds a trout rodeo in June and other events on a less-than-regular basis. The place looks like a state or county park rather than private property and, because of the little brown signs, people come up the driveway and stop to look around. Warden doesn’t mind a bit; she said she’s “tickled” to see them.