Crowds soak in Peanut Fest return

Published 9:23 pm Monday, October 11, 2021

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Overcast conditions and spotty rain for much of the weekend did little to dampen enthusiasm for the 43rd annual Suffolk Peanut Festival after a year’s absence due to COVID-19 as thousands soaked in the entertainment, rides and other festival events.

It was that absence that spurred festival chairwoman Theresa Earles to run with the theme of “Music, Mullets & Motorsports: A Totally ‘80s Vibe.”

And from the music that permeated the festival to the roller skating rink to the Pac-Man straw maze, people were surrounded by the 1980s.

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Earles praised the turnout in spite of the overcast conditions, but noted they were advantageous in at least one sense.

“I think that the overcast (conditions) kind of feels more like fall in a way,” Earles said, adding, “I figured if we had a 60% chance of rain, we had a 40% chance of sunshine.”

She said the Shrimp Feast was well attended and received, and took in the crowd at the overflowing bleachers at the Demolition Derby, where for more than an hour, the crowd cheered as cars smacked into one another in the mud.

“I think the mud — it was more fun this way because people would get stuck,” Earles said. “It was fun to watch.”

Over the course of the three-day festival, there were two stages of entertainment, with Friday’s entertainment featuring orchestra, bands and choirs from several different middle and high schools, including Col. Fred Cherry, King’s Fork, Forest Glen and John F. Kennedy middle schools, and Nansemond River and King’s Fork high schools.

Melissa Sawyer, who came from North Carolina for the event, was happy to see it return and be able to share the experience with her 2-year-old daughter, Chloe.

“We come every year,” Sawyer said. “I’ve come since I was a little girl.”

Suffolk, and in particular, the festival grounds, will forever mark the spot where Audrey and Coen Schappel got to see their father, Travis Schappel, perform in concert for the first time, as he is the drummer for the Knoxville, Tennessee-based country cover band “Gone Country.”

The weather did little to deter Clarice Shrader and Jim DiGiovanni, who were adorned in rain ponchos while sitting in lawn chairs listening to the music as the Schappel children danced to it. Both enjoyed the performance, and he, especially, liked taking in the derby.

Lisa Kearns, who grew up in Virginia Beach and currently lives in Chesapeake, got to live out a lifelong wish of being a queen, having a crown put on her head after winning the peanut butter sculpture contest.

“My best friend in high school over here, Traci (Winslow), we’ve been talking about the Peanut Festival for years,” Kearns said, “because when we were in high school, before there was YouTube, we had a camcorder on our shoulders doing videos, and we wanted to be Peanut Festival queens, and when we found out this was ’80s themed — when we went to school — we decided we had to go.”

When both found out three members of the public could be part of the sculpture contest with the pageant princesses from the five Suffolk high schools, they decided they had to take part. Kearns’ spot at the sculpting table was next to the second-place sculptor, Jadyn Patton of Suffolk Christian Academy. Dori Mitchell of Nansemond-Suffolk Academy was third.

“I always like to do things that are really unique,” Winslow said, “and we thought, ‘we want a story to tell where we were in the world’s only peanut butter sculpting contest,’ and for her to take first place, it means the world to us.”

“That’s her beauty pageant answer,” Kearns quipped.

Peanut Fest Queen Abigail Conrod of NSA said she was enjoying her experience.

“It’s been so fun. Despite the rain, I’ve really enjoyed being here and having this experience with the other girls on the court,” Conrod said. “I’ve grown up in Suffolk and I’ve always heard my mom talk about it when I’ve been at the Peanut Fest parade, and I grew up being like, ‘Oh, I want to be a princess one day,’ and so I’m so glad they were able to bring it back.”

Earles, though she joked she again didn’t win the peanut butter sculpture contest, was thoroughly enjoying the festival, and reveling in the ’80s theme.

During the planning of the festival, she said she and other planners looked to take things out of big tents wherever possible to keep people from being clustered in small spaces, while trying to make people feel more comfortable being there. She said she has heard much positive feedback on this year’s event.

“You work really hard to put something together,” Earles said, “and then when it comes together, it brings you a sense of accomplishment and joy and you see people having a good time.”