By Keith Whitson
Downtown Erwin had a shining moment Saturday as the 57th annual Southeastern Autorama brought a crowd of car enthusiasts and admirers to Main Avenue and a partial span of Love Street. The sunny weather offered perfect opportunity for strolling and enjoying all the event had to offer.
This was the first year in many years since the Autorama had returned to the downtown area and, it proved to be quite a success. This year the event also had no entry fee and no admission fee and was shortened to one day.
Where else do you get such a rare opportunity to take in so many decades of classic and newer automobiles in one setting? There was everything from the finest, most pristine restoration to new models to an old jalopy that would someday be restored.
To me, the setting made all of the difference this year. The past few years the event has been held at the Unicoi County High School track. Although the fenced in area offered overnight protection for the automobiles, it offered no desirable surroundings. The oval shaped track with its barren field offered no relief from the hot sun.
As I strolled south, down Main Saturday, I noticed cars on the right hand side and chairs and congregating on the left hand side in the shade of the buildings. The recent downtown renovation offered a beautiful scene with scattered benches and much opportunity for visiting with friends, viewing cars and socializing.
It also offered a chance for those in town to check out the stores that were open, providing an increase in foot traffic and business.
The front porch of the old Erwin Hotel offered the perfect stage for entertainment throughout the day. The large parking lot at the Courthouse Annex provided space for food vendors with a wide variety of offerings.
The front entrance of the courthouse was the stage for a Community Pinewood Derby. Entries were separated into age categories and cars raced against each other on a special sloped track. Young and old gathered around to cheer on the cars as they raced down and across the finish line.
I remember Conrad Beam and Jim Hobbs who started the event back in 1960. Conrad was owner of the Big Hat Grill on Jackson-Love Highway. He also started The Elms. Both were unique and held area-wide acclaim for good food, and brought many visitors to Erwin. Conrad and Jim also envisioned the Autorama as being a venue for bringing folks to town. This event truly is a tribute to their memory by keeping the show strong over the years and carrying on their vision.
Something that has changed is the date which the show is held. The event was originally later in the year, but has moved up in recent years. There was always a little saying among locals that “it was sure to rain because the Autorama was coming to town.” Luckily this year provided perfect weather.
I did notice that the event holds a charm for all ages and visitors. For some it is the nostalgia of reflecting back on cars of their times or a model they may have owned as well. For some it is the rare chance to view part of history. For those like me, it is a chance to admire the beauty and art of the automobile.
Whether it is an older home or an older car, I appreciate seeing things restored back to their grandeur. I look at these cars and think of the many, many hours that have been put into finding authentic parts, re-chroming bumpers, repainting. rebuilding engines and restoring bodies.
At one time those cars rolled off the lot as new and beautiful to proud owners. They carried someone to work day after day, carried a sweetheart on a date, went on family vacations, hauled the groceries home from the store, visited family and went to church on Sundays. It is only fitting that they are once more the pride of their current owners.
Saturday’s Autorama brought participants from near and far as well as attendees. As I strolled along, I could overhear stories being shared with friends and loved ones about the time they had a car just like this one and the good times they experienced in them.
For many, the Autorama brings a good chance to reflect of years past, admire the workmanship of automobile makers and restorers alike, as well as visit with friends.
Welcome to town Southeastern Autorama.