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Ricefest draws record crowd
Festival features performers, food, games, taste of history
web 1116 Ricefest 2
Aniyah Holloway, 8, takes a look at the butterfly that Hampton Island Preserve volunteer Marcella Roze painted on her face at Saturdays Ricefest. Hampton Island Preserves face-painting booth was one of more than 42 booths set for the festival in Riceboro, which drew an estimated 3,000 attendees. - photo by Frenchi Jones

A record-breaking crowd inundated Riceboro on Saturday to celebrate the city’s fifth annual Ricefest.

Event Chairman Chris Stacy estimated the attendance to be more than 3,000, making this year’s Ricefest the largest since the festival’s humble beginnings in 2000. Before it became an annual event, only a handful of people assembled on the lawn of Riceboro City Hall to pay homage to the city’s historical staple crop — the rice plant — and the city’s Gullah-Geechee legacy, according to Ricefest committee members.

“It’s definitely grown even larger this year,” committee member David Miller said. “This year, for the parade alone, we had about 31 entries with more than 100 modes of transportation participating. One club had about 20 cars in this year’s parade. Last year, we only had 25 entries and not as many vehicles.”

Grand marshals Henry Relaford, 91; Dorothy Brunson, 102; and Stella Fitzgerald, 92; led the way for the Hampton Island Preserve horses, civic organizations, three-wheelers and Toys for Tots representatives, all accompanied by Mrs. Clause. The parade participants garnered thunderous applause from onlookers. 

“We decided to honor the older people this year,” Stacy said. “We wanted to make sure we hadn’t forgotten about them. They were and continue to be the pillars of this community. We wanted to thank them for all that they’ve given to the city.”

But the parade, having been a part of Ricefest for only two of the festival’s five years, wasn’t the only sign of growth, said committee member Linda Fagan, who was charged with securing vendors for the event.

“We had about 42 vendors register for the event this year — some locals, some coming from as far as Brunswick and Long County,” she said, “all offering a combination of services to include food, arts and crafts, jewelry, fresh produce, health-care providers and nonprofits.

“We have the Liberty County Health Department offering flu and tetanus shots. We have Liberty Regional providing breast cancer awareness and Right from the Start Medicaid,” Fagan said. “There is something for everyone out here.”

The aroma of fried fish and shrimp, sweet sugarcane molasses and, of course, a variety of homemade rice dishes enticed festivalgoers. Later, the rice dishes were judged in the annual rice cook-off.

Lewis and Saundra Henderson of Hinesville and their friend Johnnie Rollison stopped by Ricefest for the first time but said the delicious food, cultural exhibits and performances left them craving more.

“This is our first year coming,” Saundra Henderson said. “So far, we’re excited and we appreciate the history that’s being shared.”

If bouncy houses, face painting and the taste of freshly spun cotton candy didn’t catch the attention of the children — and some of the adults — in attendance, the African dancers from Savannah’s Abeni Cultural Arts Performing Dance Studio certainly did. The dancers’ graceful and energetic routine, performed on a newly constructed center stage, engaged audience members and drew cheers.

Riceboro Mayor Bill Austin said the committee had to make room for the anticipated number of people and vendors by altering the festival’s usual setup.

“What we wanted to do was make changes to the play area and centralize the stage so that everyone could see and have a good time,” he said. 

Austin said he couldn’t have been more pleased with the event’s outcome.

“We continue to have support from our donors and sponsors and we’re very thankful for that,” he said. “Next year, we hope to make the event even larger. We’re hopeful we’ll be able to get one of the marching bands from one of the local high schools or colleges.”

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