Going nuts in Brevard

Bright white tufts of fur with pale bushy tails in tow scamper down the streets of Brevard, clambering up tree trunks, sprinting across clipped green yards and pausing to reel in the occasional nut. No, these aren’t optical illusions, and relax—you aren’t having a heat stroke, either. They are Brevard’s white squirrels, caught in their daily routine.

The furry founder of the fest: Brevard’s iconic white squirrels might not be as well camouflaged as their wood-brown kin, but they don’t seem to mind the extra attention.

In honor of these pint-sized local residents, Brevard will host the fifth annual White Squirrel Festival on Memorial Day weekend. Festivities kick-start with a Memorial Day parade, and following the procession, an absolutely free street festival takes over downtown. Local artists paint the backdrop, area eateries cater with tasty regional fare (no fillet of squirrel on the menu, thankfully), and live music provides the soundtrack.

“We use the white squirrel as a symbol of stewardship, in hopes of drawing attention to our outdoor facilities and our wildlife populations,” says Madrid Zimmerman, executive director of the White Squirrel Festival. “Residents should cherish what we’ve been given, and hopefully, take an interest in protecting it. But why not have fun at the same time?”

According to the organizers, 20,000 people came out for the event last year, and 2008 promises to be bigger than ever, with an expanded musical lineup full of talent.

Take the Jeff Sipe Trio, for example. Sipe, a founding member of Aquarium Rescue Unit, cut his percussionist teeth playing drums behind legendary musicians like Jimmy Herring, current guitarist for Widespread Panic. He’s toured with slam-grass legends Leftover Salmon, and even laid down percussion for Trey Anastasio. His pedigree leaves little doubt that Jeff Sipe is a “drummer’s drummer” and an absolute machine on the skins. Grammy-winning saxophonist Jeff Coffin, of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, joins Sipe for Saturday’s performance.

And then there’s keyboardist extraordinaire Patrick Smith, who has spent a fair portion of his career touring with the North Mississippi Allstars and shredding with Buddy Guy.

Also worthy of note is local favorite (and national headliner) Edwin McCain, who rounds out the festival with his signature brand of troubadour rock. Best known for his heart-on-sleeve 1998 anthem, “I’ll Be,” the platinum-selling McCain has been crafting a more rock ‘n’ roll sound in recent years. He’ll be playing a folk-meets-soul set at the White Squirrel Festival, backed by his band.

But the festival isn’t just about music. One of the more popular events is the humble Squirrel Box Derby, in which racers (divided by age groups) build their own boxcars and race them down Jailhouse Hill. This breakneck stretch of asphalt tears right through the heart of the town, making for a highly entertaining—if harrowing—break from the other events.

“We want citizens invested in their festival,” Zimmerman explains, “and the box derby was created to get more residents involved by conceiving, designing and building their own racers. It’s become a real competition and a source of pride.”

Patrons can also showcase their photographic chops during the weekend, with a $50 prize going to the best photo of the festival’s namesake animal. And for squirrel-obsessed regional artisans, a squirrel-feeder competition is also scheduled.

“Plenty of different people can appreciate what we have, which is admittedly a lot,” says Zimmerman of Brevard’s unique charms, adding that one of the aims of the festival is to serve as a catalyst for future growth in the area.

So on Memorial Day weekend, should you stumble upon some furry white squirrels basking in paparazzi popularity, please remain calm. You’ve discovered some of Brevard’s most distinguished—and distinguishable – citizens living large at their namesake celebration.

So go nuts. They are.

[Brandon Bouchillon is a freelance writer based in Kingsport, Tenn.]

who: The White Squirrel Festival
what: A family-friendly street party
where: Downtown Brevard
when: Saturday and Sunday, May 24 and 25 (Free. www.whitesquirrelfestival.com or 884-3278)

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