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35th Ole Brook Festival a gleaming success

They said it was going to be big, brimming and beautiful.

And it was.

The 35th annual Ole Brook Festival lived up to expectations thisweekend, taking advantage of nearly perfect weather and drawing anestimated 8,000 people into Railroad Park, the highest attendancenumbers ever reported for the venerable festival. Around 200 foodand crafts vendors sold to the crowd.

Brookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce Festival CommitteeChairman Jeff Doremus said the weather, which reached a high of 77degrees and produced nary a drop of rain, was one of the criticalfactors to the festival’s success.

“It’s been a spectacular day,” he said. “By 10:30 (Saturday)morning, we were jam-packed.”

Of course, good weather alone does not a festival make. Doremuspointed to several other improvements to this year’s Ole Brookfest, including an extended Friday night, an enlarged children’sarea and more and varied food vendors.

Doremus said the Friday night activities helped to jumpstartSaturday’s traditional festival, introducing a younger, relaxedcrowd to a cool evening of music and nighttime shopping. The Fridaynight concert played a large role in the night’s success, he said,with local and area performers Hannah Belle Sutherland, VondaLaird, The Colonels and Ghost Town drawing sizeable crowds.

“People turned out to listen to them,” Doremus said. “As thenight progressed, each band built on the last one. These werequality local bands – people know them, and they turned out tolisten.”

Another boon to this year’s festival was the introduction of theMississippi School of the Arts, which is becoming a stronger forcein the community under the leadership of new director SuzannaHirsch. MSA students performed dances, created art and placed inthe Ole Brook talent show, with 17-year-old Olivia Broome and16-year-old La’Porsha Mays finishing second and third,respectively.

Brookhaven High School’s Ashley Stephens was the overall winnerfor the second year in a row.

Hirsch said her students’ performances all across the festivalSaturday introduced the school to new faces, and even helped get ahead start on recruiting future students.

“This is just the beginning of MSA’s being out in thecommunity,” she said. “I want to try to get the students across thestate, not just the city, and let people see how wonderful theyare.”

MSA student Ana Castro, 16, said she and her fellow arts studentwere received enthusiastically throughout the day.

“Everyone had a smile on their face and they accepted us,” shesaid. “And we showed them we have mad dance skills.”

MSA students drew crowds, and so did the vendors, who werenumerous and more diversified than previous Ole Brooks have beenable to claim.

“We’re loving the food,” said Wesson’s Brittany Smith, who wasattending her third Ole Brook Festival. “That’s one of the thingswe came for, that and the fellowship, seeing all the people weknow.”

Brookhaven’s Beatrice Tyner wasted no time Saturday. As an OleBrook regular, she knew what she wanted from the festival and camearmed with a shopping list.

“I have shopped, shopped, shopped,” she said. “I come her everyyear to get my Rainbow and Watkins products, but this is the firsttime I’ve been able to buy bed linins. There’s a lot of new stuff,new faces.”

Vicksburg’s Steve Shoemaker called the festival “wonderful” ashe remarked on the friendly atmosphere in downtown Brookhaven.

“It’s just a good environment,” he said. “You don’t see a lot ofcrazy stuff going on. You can tell it’s really familyfriendly.”

A combination of good food, quality vendors and friendly facesis what makes the festival an annual success, said Pleasant Hill’sMildred Newell, who never misses an Ole Brook Festival.

“Once you start coming, it’s like you can’t miss it,” shesaid.

With so many people crowding the streets, there were plenty ofopportunities for vendors to close the deal. Even localorganizations, who are always represented at Ole Brook, said thisyear’s festival was a breakthrough.

“It’s definitely gone better than we expected,” said Donna Ebey,a volunteer with the Brookhaven Animal Rescue League. “We’veadopted out five dogs and sold lots of T-shirts and drinks. Veryseldom do we adopt out five dogs in one day. It frees up morekennel space for us to take in more animals. We can bring more inand adopt more out.”

The Boy Scouts of America cashed in on Ole Brook, selling around600 chickens on sticks.

“We’ve had a lot of people supporting the Boy Scouts,” saidtroop leader Jimmy Sones. “It’s been a nice day, and the peoplehave been great.”

Not far from the BSA tent was local restaurant owner DonnieMitchell, who dispensed around 500 hamburgers throughout theday.

“We’re very pleased, and we’ll be back next year,” he said.

Next year is already being discussed at the chamber. Doremussaid early plans for the 2010 festival include upgrading downtown’selectrical outlets, make further improvements to the children’sarea and install seating in the food vendors’ area. He saidfestival organizers may need to take up more space downtown for abigger festival next year.

“We’ll continue doing what we’re doing,” Doremus said.