WINFIELD – Boyd Harper, 58, remembers attending the annual Putnam County Homecoming when he was growing up in Red House, back when the politics-and-parade event was “a big deal.”
“God knows how many people were there,” Harper said. “It could have been 15,000.” Pat Woodrum, 77, said her husband’s great aunt, Nora Miller, helped start Homecoming on her front lawn, across from the old county courthouse in Winfield where the event has recently been held. She said she remembers it began as a way for the local Methodist church to bring back those who had moved away. The event also gave politicians a chance to shake a lot of hands.
But despite Putnam’s large population increases in recent decades, including 30 percent growth between 1990 and 2010, Harper and Woodrum said attendance at Homecoming, now in its 85th year, has dwindled. But no one interviewed could say exactly by how much.
Organizers say competing weekend distractions from the Internet and the interstate have dropped participation. They also blame another trend common to communities across the nation – decreasing membership in civic organizations – for local Lions clubs’ inability to handle the event alone and attract young people. Woodrum said many Lions Club leaders, like her husband, Joe, have died off in the past decade.
Bancroft Mayor George Woodrum, president of the Hometown Lions Club and no relation to Pat Woodrum, said Putnam Lions clubs have hosted the event for the past 25 years, after taking over from the Winfield Volunteer Fire Department. He said the Poca, Eleanor and Hurricane clubs have now all disappeared, leaving only the Hometown, Winfield and Scott Teays chapters.
“It’s just got old, and complacent,” he said. “... The committee has shrank to the point where there’s only two or three or four of us that do it.”
This year, however, the City of Winfield is partnering with Lions Club organizers and others to revitalize Homecoming.
Organizers are planning to reintroduce discontinued attractions at the Sept. 13-14 event, like a 5K run, a car show and arts and crafts. They’re also considering possibly new attractions, though it’s hard to tell what hasn’t been tried before in a event that began in 1929.
Ideas include a “battle of the bands” among the four county high schools, a barbecue cookoff, a talent show and music acts that aren’t in the country, gospel, bluegrass arena -- though Winfield Mayor Randy Barrett said the band surely won’t be heavy metal.
The car show this year is more specifically dubbed a cruise-in, said Jim Winter, because the there won’t be prizes awarded and, thus, egos bruised.
“I asked the mayor, ‘How many people do you want to make mad that day?’” Winter said, adding that the judging required for competitive car shows also complicates things.
Winter, vice president on the board of directors for the annual Charleston Rod Run & Doo Wop, said the cruise-in, to be held in the former Food King parking lot, will simply invite people with vintage cars for a friendly time.
“We encourage the public to come through and look at the cars and reminisce,” he said.
Harper, a member of the Scott Teays Lions Club, said organizers are also considering opening the event to food vendors from nonprofits other than the Lions Clubs. He noted that blue laws used to stop restaurants from opening on Sunday, but now the event food, profits of which are supposed to support the community, must compete with the nearby McDonald’s and Subway. Barrett said he’s in favor of opening up to even commercial vendors.
Barrett said the organizers have agreed to recenter events on Main Street, where he said Homecoming was at its best. Homecoming has recently been centered on the hill where the old and new county courthouses are located, he said.
The organizers may still need to iron out some differences, though. Barrett said that while a longtime tradition may continue with candidates like U.S. Senate hopefuls Shelley Moore Capito and Natalie Tennant taking part in the parade, he wants to nix the usual time set aside for politicians to speak. He said people don’t want to listen to their speeches anymore.
“If we don’t have a spot for them, I’m not going to worry about it,” the Winfield mayor said.
Even in 1986, a Gazette article on Homecoming noted the “crowd had dwindled to several hundred by the time the congressional candidates took the microphone.”
But George Woodrum, the Bancroft mayor, told the Gazette the politicians will speak. He said it’s a tradition that won’t change “unless Homecoming is moved to Ohio or Kentucky.”
Organizers have begun holding meetings every two weeks at Winfield City Hall to discuss their ideas.
“We’ve got a lot more people working on it now,” George Woodrum said. “But hopefully with all of them involved, they stay involved, and we can hopefully make a new beginning.”
The money the Lions clubs raise from the event will go toward helping low-income individuals see and hear, in part through purchasing eyeglasses and hearing aids. Barrett said people with ideas for Homecoming should call Winfield City Hall at 304-586-2122.
“We’re just out here to bring it back,” he said.
Reach Ryan Quinn at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1254.