When the walnuts come out in Spencer



Half a century ago, a Roane County businessman named Henry Young helped turn the county's native black walnut population into a major cash crop.

Fifty years later, the annual West Virginia Black Walnut Festival is one of the state's largest festivals. Held every October in Spencer, the weeklong event features music, contests, crafts and one of the state's biggest parades, which kicks off Oct. 16 downtown.

"There are Saturdays here on grand parade day when we are without a doubt the largest city in West Virginia," said Spencer Mayor Terry Williams.

He says the festival draws as many as 100,000 people a year to the Roane County town, the majority of them on parade day. Parade master for this year's parade is former Army Pvt. Jessica Lynch. The parade starts at noon on Oct. 16.

But the mayor said there's more to the festival than a parade.

"I've been around it a long time," said Williams, who has been mayor for 28 years. "I grew up with the festival. It's a great homecoming for people to come back to their community."

Young and other local businessmen originally formed the festival to promote the many uses of the walnut and the tree on which it grows. Williams said Missouri's Hammons Nut Co. relied on Roane County black walnuts for decades. Although Roane County suffered a couple of bad walnut crops, Hammons is again seeking black walnuts from the area.

Originally, the festival lasted only a day or so and attracted people from Spencer and surrounding areas. "Now it's people coming from many states," Williams said. "We've had calls this week from people in Oregon and Washington State asking for bags of walnuts."

The 50th annual Black Walnut Festival runs from Oct. 14-17. Music headliner this year is country singer Tracy Byrd, who performs at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 15 at the Roane County High School stadium. Tickets are $10 in advance at the Spencer Municipal Building, or $12 at the gate. Children under 5 are admitted free. Baking contests, crafts, a golf tournament, flea markets, concessions and a carnival are also part of the festival. But Williams is particularly fond of the annual pancake breakfast, scheduled from 6 to 11 a.m. Oct. 15 and 16.

"There is nothing better than a black walnut pancake up here at 7 o'clock in the morning," the mayor said. "Come to think of it, I can't think of anything they're not good in."

To find out more about the festival, call 927-5616 or visit www.blackwalnutfestival.org

To contact staff writer Rusty Marks, use e-mail or call 348-1215.