I’m proud to be from Pineville … even though I lived there only one weekend.
I just returned from the Kentucky Mountain Laurel Festival, hosted by the people of Pineville. The town of 1,732 rests rather snugly between the Cumberland River and Pine Mountain in Bell County, the southeast corner of Kentucky.
I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to the festival, but I don’t think the experience will ever leave me. The highlight of the weekend is the crowning of the queen; the 19 candidates each represented Kentucky colleges. I attended because my son Steele was the official escort of his girlfriend, Shelby, who represented Campbellsville University.
The first KMLF was held in 1931, making it the oldest continuous festival in the United States. I’m sure many things have changed in the past 83 years, but I sensed that many had not. The event is dripping in tradition, and I got soaked. Gladly. I drove to Pineville thinking the event might be a bit hokey, and it was, but it’s a happy, wholesome hokey.
As (ahem) parents of an escort, we were invited to a couple of receptions. Mary Beth and I left work early on Friday to attend these parties, and they truly set the tone for the weekend. The first included queen candidates, their escorts and members of the governing board. Many of the latter are Pineville natives who moved away but return each year for the festival. It was there I first learned about the leadership structure that guides and funds Mountain Laurel. The four-day event is a massive undertaking, but it’s a labor of love.
As my friend (and past queen) Libbi Justice Taylor later told me, “These people are carrying on the work their families did for the festival in previous generations.”
The Mountain Laurel Festival is a quirky-quaint celebration of community that combines the comfort of tradition with the beauty of youth. The queen candidates wear long white dresses and gloves, they promenade in an old fashion Grand March, and they aren’t allowed to drive. But their skin is smooth and their laugh is giggly. And for each of them, a limitless future lies ahead.
The reason the girls gathered in Pineville was for a chance to be crowned queen. And the coronation (that’s really what they call it) was gorgeous. In a fairy tale setting, each candidate strolled across a carpet of grass against a backdrop of pines, and the audience sighed. Even the candidates were caught up in the splendor.
“It’s just … so … beautiful,” the girl from Eastern Kentucky University whispered as she wept. I had to chuckle when I heard about her breakdown. And while the coronation was cool (even under a baking sun), the highlight of my weekend was the Saturday morning parade. It was honey-dipped in hometown sweetness. Bands marched, floats rolled and topless queen candidates waved. By that I mean they were riding in convertibles.
All the college kids stayed with local families, and Steele was hosted by a friend I worked with years ago. The rest of my family (including my in-laws) stayed in a cabin at Pine Mountain State Park. In reality, though, we were all hosted by the entire town.
And on Sunday morning, when the festival leaders told stories about Mountain Laurel stalwarts from years gone by, I could no longer laugh at Miss EKU. I got a little teary-eyed myself.
Heck, it was all just … so … beautiful.