Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Steppin' Out

August 4th & 5th, over 170 arts and crafts vendors will descend upon Blacksburg for the town's annual street festival, Steppin' Out. Additionally, the culinary arts are always well represented and music fills the air. And at night, there is just something special about smelling bratwurst, sipping on some fine cold beverage while you and a thousand of your closest friends groove to some live music in the middle of the street under the stars. Check out the music line up for Friday and Saturday.

The festival has been going strong as in it's current format since 1980, due to an unfortunate act of violence. The following apeared in the Roanoke Times on August 3, 2005:

The family festival slated to pack downtown with musicians, vendors and visitors this weekend owes its name to two teens: Edward Charles Disney and the boy who murdered him.
Although a Blacksburg merchant came up with the moniker for Steppin' Out, the two-day event wouldn't exist -- at least in its current form -- but for the events of Aug. 5, 1979.
In the early hours of that Sunday morning, following Blacksburg's western-themed Deadwood Days celebration, Gary Lee Reed, 15, shot and killed 17-year-old Disney just outside of town.
It was an early chapter of Reed's criminal career. At 41, under the name of Gary O. Shanks, he's still serving time in Keen Mountain Correctional Center for a slew of other convictions in Montgomery and Pulaski counties.
It was also a defining moment in the history of Blacksburg, a town that merchants were striving to put on the map as more than just the home of Virginia Tech.
In 1980, the town canceled any summer festivities at the request of Disney's friends and neighbors. And local merchant Richard Walters had to come up with a new theme, and a new name, to sell downtown on another festival.
This time, it would be family-friendly fun, without cowboys and six-shooters.
Walters, who owned a store called Books, Strings and Things where the River Mill restaurant now stands, is one of the few people active in the downtown goings-on of that era who is willing to talk about Deadwood Days.
Many of his contemporaries seem to pretend the annual western gathering, which took place on the first weekend of August for four years, never took place.
Steppin' Out was conceived with the hope that people would put on their dancing shoes and go out on the town for a few days, Walters said.
"And that didn't have the word D-E-A-D and didn't have a cowboy theme," he added.
Deadwood Days, on the other hand, found its roots in Deadwood, S.D., the mining town where Wild Bill Hickok was killed. Yet the event wasn't meant to encourage violence, said Blacksburg Mayor Roger Hedgepeth.
"The cowboys weren't envisioned as the shoot-em-up, B-movie type of cowboy," he said.
Still, the beer was flowing at area bars and the crowds were sometimes rowdy. The Roanoke Times reported that police charged more than 20 people with possession of marijuana and two with possession of cocaine at the 1979 event.
Steve Miller, owner of local art store Mish Mish, which opened in 1970, remembers that Deadwood Days got a little wild. "People would ride through town on horses with a six-gun on their hips," he said.
Then, Disney was abducted and killed. His body was found by some boys who were walking on Ellett Road in Montgomery County, according to the medical examiner's report.
Court records state that Reed wanted to take Disney's car and was considering a drive to California. He and another teen, 16-year-old Roger Dale Pack, were charged with capital murder, abduction and grand larceny.
Psychological evaluations of Reed taken after the crime determined him capable to stand trial, although they noted that he claimed to be under the influence of drugs and alcohol at the time of the killing. One report states that the 15-year-old might have taken as many as 10 Valiums in addition to drinking alcohol before committing the crime.
Reed was sentenced to 41 years for Disney's murder and served 13 before being paroled in April 1993. Pack was found not guilty of murder but ultimately was sentenced to 20 years for the other crimes.
Lois and Ralph Disney, Edward's parents, still live in Blacksburg. His mother said recently that her son did not know Reed or Pack.
Reed's adoptive parents, David and Becky Shanks, did not return calls seeking comment. Shanks declined a request for an interview.
After her son's death, Lois Disney attended the town council meeting at which members discussed the summer festival. She didn't speak out, she said, but many friends and neighbors did, lobbying for the town to take at least a year to recover.
There was no event in 1980. When 1981 rolled around, the three-day Deadwood Days became Steppin' Out, a two-day festival featuring merchants and craftspeople.
"Changing the name was a very important symbolic thing to do," Walters said.
He and Bev Patterson, then-owner of clothing store Fringe Benefit, were some of the event's early architects. They stood at the center of a coalition of downtown merchants who managed every detail of the festival, from vetting vendor applications to sweeping the streets.
Twenty-five years later, Fringe Benefit still plays a pivotal part in Steppin' Out. Camped out in the back of the store is Sue Drzal, executive director for the Downtown Merchants of Blacksburg, the event's annual sponsor.
She's managing this year's 25th anniversary celebration of Steppin' Out, which, as the merchants' largest fundraiser for the year, is expected to bring in 30,000 people.
Though the event always has given a boost to downtown, Walters said it started not as a money-maker but as a party. The Steppin' Out T-shirts, however, have become a hot commodity, selling enough to provide the merchants' budget for the year.
Drzal declined to say how much money the downtown merchants have put into this year's festival or how much they expect to get back.
The 25th annual Steppin' Out will include 170 craft vendors. More than 30 merchants will offer special sales, and about 15 food vendors will be participating.
That's a huge step up from the early years, when Walters and company operated on a budget of as little as $2,000. In 1981, the merchants expected 40 craftsmen and artists, who each paid $15 a day for a booth, according to Roanoke Times archives.
Now, Drzal said, a booth costs $135 for two days. And these vendors get a crack at crowds that have grown by about 13,000 people since 1984, according to news reports at the time. Walters, who stopped working with the festival in 1986, thinks Steppin' Out has succeeded because it has never been geared toward students.
And people needed something to liven up the monotony of the so-called dog days of summer, he said, whether it was about Will Bill Hickok or funky dance bands. Today, downtown would rather celebrate the latter and forget the former.
Hedgepeth said he still has the summer cowboy hats he used to wear.
But the reign of the cowboy in downtown Blacksburg ended in bloodshed, and many locals would just as soon pack Deadwood Days away in their closets with old clothing and photos.
"That certainly put a dark cloud over the whole town," Hedgepeth said.

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