A group of civic patrons and merchants are looking for a way to bring attention to their downtown and business areas, which had recently undergone some renovations. It’s casually suggested that maybe there should be some sort of gathering for people to attend, with a few refreshments and some live music, to show that Oxford extends beyond the mall, and help drive traffic downtown.
Fast forward 25 years later, and the little mixer that could has now turned into Oxfordfest, an event that brings more than 20,000 people a year to the streets of the tiny downtown area to hear good music, taste great food, see their family and friends — and even get some early holiday shopping done.
Peggy Kirby, who has helped to plan the event since the beginning, “never gave it a thought” that the annual event would become such a big deal — or provide the setting for a reunion.
“You’ll hear [people] say, ‘Well, I haven’t seen my neighbor in … a month or two months,” she says of the fellowshipping. “It’s a good gathering for the community.” The event, which occurs every first Saturday in October, donates “every dime that we take in” to area charities and civic organizations.
“We’re just volunteers. We love our city, and … we just like for everybody to have a good time,” says Kirby. “We’ve had churches to buy sound systems and pews … It just makes us feel good that we can give them a vehicle to do that.”
Kirby, a nurse by trade who has lived in Oxford for more than 50 years, has fond memories of several aspects of the festival over the years — most notably, the time when Barney Fife — or rather, the closest resemblance they could get — came to the festival years ago.
“To see the smiles on so many people’s face … he worked the crowd beautifully,” she remembers of the impersonator, whom she says had Fife’s looks and mannerisms down. He’s not the only celebrity to have stopped by Oxfordfest, though. The real Mayberry crew as well as “Leave It To Beaver’s” Jerry Mathers and Bob Denver of “Gilligan’s Island” have all made appearances in the past. But while the star quality was nice, “We just decided that was an expense, and we’d rather promote our local people,” Kirby says.
More than 200 vendors running the gamut from mums from Rainbow Omega, college apparel, funnel cakes, pony rides and other businesses from all over the Southeast will help to round out the fun, which will snake around Main and Choccolocco Streets. Included in the daylong music roster is local band Daybreakk, as well as author and artist Rick Russ, who will be both painting and signing his work.
The festival is so full this year, says Kirby, that some vendors had to be turned away.
“We just didn’t have any place to put them,” she laments, estimating that more than 250 booths will be occupied this year. It’s notoriety has only gotten bigger, and the city of Oxford carries more weight in its name than its small population suggests — just ask the residents of South Carolina, where Kirby experienced a fun moment of validation when she mentioned to another woman that she was from Oxford.
“She says, ‘Oh, you’re that little town that has that big festival!,’ she remembers. “That makes you feel good, to know that you’ve done something to draw attention to your community.”
Erin Williams is a graduate of Faith Christian School and the University of Alabama. She is a performing arts aide for the Washington Post Style section.