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Freedom Fest's return to school grounds hailed

By Kayla Carter
Staff Writer
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From backyard celebration to countywide explosion, the town of Unicoi’s annual Freedom Fest has made its transition into one of the best firework displays around, said festival-goer Maria Pinto.
“It was fabulous,” she said after comparing the festival to displays she has seen all over the east side of the U.S. “This was the best I’ve ever seen. It put all the others to shame.”
She said that she plans to keep coming back for the town’s firework show.
“Whatever they did this year, they need to do it over and over again,” she said. “This is something the town of Unicoi should be proud of.”
With a few unexpected snags in a previous attempt to throw a town Fourth of July celebration, said Travis Barbee, the town’s Parks and Recreation director, this year’s event was spot-on. “July 4 was my first day as parks and recreation director last year,” he said. “It was chaotic.”
Last year, Freedom Fest was held off Exit 34 just a few days after Johnson City held its firework display. An unexpected crowd of around 8,000 arrived for last year’s event. “Well, some people got to double dip,” Barbee said. “They went to the Johnson City fireworks and then also came to Unicoi.”
He said this year it was easier to have the fireworks on July 4, which was also when Johnson City held its show. “This year they decided to shoot on the Fourth as well,” he said. “With it being in the middle of the week, it’s really too late to shoot them the weekend after and too early to do it the weekend before. So, the fireworks being on the same day cut our crowd down some, but I think most of the people who live in town stayed in town.”
Barbee said this year they made a switch back to the Unicoi Elementary track field, which was much more efficient for motorists and close-by residents. “Everyone that drove down there was out within about 30 minutes, which was a lot shorter than the 2 hours at Wal-Mart last year,” said Barbee.
Town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch said the popularity of the school location may also have something to do with other annual festivals that are held there like the Strawberry Festival.
“I think the majority of the people who come enjoy having it down there [at the school],” Lynch said. “We moved it back to the school house by popular demand.”
Barbee said that he noticed residents hosting cookouts and get-togethers at their homes. “Everybody knows someone that lives down there,” he said. “People have a lot of cookouts because they can see the fireworks from their decks. I would say the whole section between Massachusetts Avenue and Wal-Mart, everybody in there was having barbecues. Everyone who lives down in there becomes real popular. So, people usually go to their house and watch them on the deck. It really was a big event.”
Lynch said the choice of location wasn’t only about traffic.
“It has more of a community atmosphere,” Lynch said. “People sit around and visit each other more than usual. It’s hard to explain. It’s just a better atmosphere. The locals really like it.”
However, Lynch said he noticed that there were a lot of visitors this year as well. “We had a lot of people from out of town there,” he said. “There were a lot of people from Johnson City who came over for this one. So, it was interesting.”
With about 3,000 to 5,000 people awaiting the main event, Barbee said, he helped with extra prep work before setting off the fireworks. “We had to get rid of the flood,” he said. “It rained so hard. There was about two inches of water every where.”
Barbee said sound equipment was wet and bands were asked to play a shorter set.
But the rain, which threatened to cancel the festival, was actually a “Godsend,” said Lynch. “It wet the ground down and made it a little safer,” he said. “It also cooled everything off. So, while folks were down there they weren’t miserably hot. It seems like the rain came in to cool it off and just made it all work out.”
Lynch said the festival compared to last year was more organized even despite Wednesday’s dreary weather early in the evening.
“It was a great festival,” said Lynch. “It went off very well. Of course, it poured the rain at first, but then the sky opened up. There was a slight breeze blowing. It was just beautiful that night.”
The festival’s fireworks display was a success, said Lynch. He thanked town officials and maintenance personnel for their hard work. “I thought personally the fireworks were the best it’s been,” Lynch said. “They all worked very hard for several days trying to get that display together. It was really something.”
Three individuals involved in the firework display received training in firework displays and safety, said Lynch.
“Mark Ramsey, Travis Barbee and Tony Street went to Nashville for training,” he said. “So, we’ve put some time and effort into making this thing happen. You don’t go out there and just light a fuse. It’s really got to be planned and choreographed safely. I was really impressed with this year’s job. It was a really professional display.”
Barbee said he was proud of the 20-minute display created for the festival.
Although the original Freedom Fest did not include such extreme planning, Lynch said the town has embraced the festival as a tradition.
“It’s a town thing,” he said. “But, actually the origin of this festival was really Mark [Ramsey] and his Sunday school class in his backyard. Later, it was asked that the town sort of pick it up. Mark is pretty much in charge of doing the fireworks. It’s one of his hobbies, I guess you could say.”
Lynch said he feels like the Freedom Fest celebration helps to unite a patriotic community. “It unites the community,” he said. “The festival gives us a sense of pride for our country and community. It helps the community in several ways. It’s just a few hours of a whole lot of fun and entertainment.”
Barbee said he thinks the celebration is very important to the community because it is consistently patriotic in nature. “I think there is a strong patriotic feeling in this community all the time,” Barbee said. “A lot of people know someone in the service or has been in the service. We’ve got a lot of veterans. It seems that if you watch the news, you become a little more cynical about patriotism, but if you come to a community gathering like this it shows patriotism is still alive.”
Entertainment included: Jim and Mary Fields, who are Elvis and Marilyn Monroe impersonators; The Acoustix; The Rhythm Brewers; and The Shadow Drifters. Hay rides were available for children.
Also, this year proceeds from refreshment sales benefited the town’s Ruritan Club. Lynch said he is already looking forward to next year’s celebration.
“I want to make sure to thank everyone who was involved,” he said. “I hope next year that we can do as good or better.”