An Elkinite’s appreciation for the Mountain State Forest Festival.
This story was originally published in the October 2020 issue of Wonderful West Virginia. It was updated in September 2023. To subscribe, visit wonderfulwv.com
Written by Savannah Carr
Images courtesy of the Mountain State Forest Festival
When I was growing up in Elkins, October was my favorite month. The air would turn nippy and carry a lively buzz, and the changing of the leaves intensified the scenery. This meant one thing was on the horizon—the Mountain State Forest Festival.
The Forest Festival was all we’d talk about in school the month before. We’d talk about which carnival rides we were going to ride and what foods we were most excited to eat—Shirley burgers and Kiwanis corn dogs, of course.
Following a Saturday opening ceremony, streets downtown closed for carnival rides and amusements all week. But what we were really waiting for was Forest Festival Friday. School was closed, the day would start chilly, and usually a fog hung thick in the mountain air. Downtown was filled with the smells of fresh cut timber from the lumberjack competitions and campfire smoke from the primitive campgrounds. Midday, the most magnificent part of the Forest Festival would begin: the descent of the royal court down Davis & Elkins’ Coronation Hill in their Coronation Day outfits all of them hand-sewn and fitted in the previous months by Miss Connie, the royal seamstress, in colors like misty mountain blue, morning moss green, and royal cardinal red, all colors found in Elkins’ vibrant fall landscape. All 40 princesses walked down the hill in their embellished velvet dresses, followed by two maids of honor and, lastly, Maid Silvia. The governor and other dignitaries would speak, and she would be crowned queen.
Later that night screeching sirens, honking horns, and flashing strobes animated Elkins during the Firemen’s Parade. Fire departments from all around came to display their enormous fire engines. Riding atop the biggest and shiniest, Queen Silvia would make her grand appearance.
On Saturday my family would gather for the Grand Feature Parade. Exhaust fumes, cigarette smoke, and the smells of greasy fair food filled the two-mile parade route. The parade would kick off with the antique cars and classic hot rods. Log trucks followed with blaring horns, scattering candy on the streets. Bands from all across West Virginia would come to Elkins to participate. Festival officials and employees of local businesses would ride shiny metallic, elaborately decorated parade floats with loud music playing. But when I heard the iconic dun-dun dun-dun of “The Charleston,” I knew the Elkins High School marching band was approaching.
The Mountain State Forest Festival, one of the state’s oldest festivals, celebrates fall foliage and the state of West Virginia. It plays an important role in the economies of both Randolph County and West Virginia, all while promoting appreciation for the beauty of the mountains and the resilient people who live here.
“It’s a cultural landmark that showcases West Virginia in all its autumn glory,” says Director General Robbie Morris. “The festival promotes the development and conservation of our abundant natural resources, and our mission is to provide a fall celebration for the citizens of the state, their guests, and visitors of this great natural beauty,” Morris says.
In 2020, for the first time in over 70 years, the Mountain State Forest Festival will not take place. This is a perfect opportunity to learn from longtime organizers about the festival’s past.
A Tradition Takes Root
The Mountain State Forest Festival has celebrated the state’s rich woodland resources for nearly a century.
“In early spring of 1930, representatives of the Elkins Business Men’s Association and representatives of the Elkins Women’s Club met to discuss the staging of an Elkins homecoming event,” says Cliff Marstiller, president of the Mountain State Forest Festival Board of Directors. The members conferred with other festival associations in the area, including a group in Winchester, Virginia, that was planning the Apple Blossom Festival and suggested the idea for a homecoming be dropped and instead an annual festival hosted.
“They were very surprised by this recommendation,” says Marstiller. “They said Elkins had nothing to stage a festival around like apples. To that remark, the Winchester group said they were very familiar with the beautiful mountain scenery around Elkins. After more discussion, the Winchester group suggested that Elkins stage a Forest Festival, and that the festival be held in the fall at a time when the leaves would be at peak beauty in different colors.”
It must have been the right idea at the right time. What started as a small three-day festival has grown over the decades into a full-blown nine-day event with an extensive royal court and an array of events attended by tens of thousands of people. In addition to opening and closing ceremonies and the coronation, carnival, and Grand Feature Parade, there are a Children’s Parade, an ATV race, the Distinguished Guest Dinner, the Queen’s Ball, the Cabaret, and of course a lumberjack competition. “Altogether, there are over 100 events included in the Mountain State Forest Festival,” Morris says.
Because Randolph County has no specific festival grounds, the activities are held throughout the city and downtown Elkins.
Children as Royalty
One of the Forest Festival’s unique and charming features is its royal court. It’s headed, of course, by Queen Silvia, who is appointed by festival officials. She is a young woman from West Virginia, but not the Elkins area, who shows great pride in the state and its agricultural industry. The court includes two maids of honor—always from Randolph County—who accompany Queen Silvia during her activities. The 40 princesses who participate in the festival are selected from all over the state, and their appointments are made by state dignitaries.
And then there’s a minor court: a crown bearer, a scepter bearer, four flower girls, two train bearers, and court jesters. They, too, are appointed by festival officials and they are local Randolph County children. The court also includes a mascot named Woodly the Elf—a tradition begun in 1969 by Arnold Schultz, who drew the first Woodly. A grade school–age child from Randolph County is chosen each year through a poster contest to portray Woodly the Elf. Traditionally, the court has also included two Boy Scouts and two Girl Scouts. The royal scouts help Queen Silvia plant a new tree to grow in her realm.
“The festival is especially fun for children,” says Morris. “They are treated like royalty the entire week of the festival. It’s a neat experience for all involved.”
It Takes a Community
Hundreds of people work together to make all aspects of the festival possible. During the 2006 festival, then-Governor Joe Manchin III planned to crown Queen Silvia LXX—an important and long-established tradition. He was on his way to Elkins from Phillipi and was running a few minutes behind schedule. His event planner called then-Director General Cliff Marstiller and asked if he had the governor’s tuxedo ready. In fact, Marstiller did not have a tuxedo ready and thought the governor was bringing his own. Realizing no one had a tuxedo for the governor, the community and Forest Festival staff banded together to pull a tuxedo out of thin air. It included pants, a jacket, a shirt, and shoes from an assortment of local businesses and community members.
“We couldn’t make it happen without the help of all the volunteers and local businesses that make it possible each year. The festival is a community-wide effort and I am thankful to be a part of it,” Morris says.
Citizens Bank of West Virginia in Elkins used to hold a writing competition for fourth and fifth grade residents about the Forest Festival’s importance to Randolph County. I won the writing competition when I was in the fourth grade. I wrote in my story how much I loved the Forest Festival and how significant it was to me because it was a tradition for us to go together as a family. I also wrote about meeting neighbors and friends downtown and how meaningful that was to me. Winning was one of the first times I realized how much I enjoyed writing. It is extremely special to come full circle and now write about the festival as an adult. Although I am saddened by the cancellation of the 2020 Forest Festival, I know next year will be even more memorable and can’t wait to celebrate with friends and family.
The Mountain State Forest Festival Association Board of Directors has already begun thinking about the 2021 festival. “We’ll regroup, re-engage our volunteers, and be ready for October 2021 and the 84th Mountain State Forest Festival,” Morris says. “With support from sponsors, patrons, and the community, the festival will be back and leave its mark on Randolph County and the state of West Virginia.”