lewisburg — Energy was high in this “coolest town” Saturday, as the streets pulsated with throngs of people eagerly seeking the sugary delights of their dreams.
An annual event that provides funding for United Way of Greenbrier Valley and draws thousands of visitors into downtown shops and galleries, the Lewisburg Chocolate Festival was every bit as good as advertised.
United Way executive director Erin Hurst said her agency expected to reap more than $30,000 from this year’s festival, providing a terrific jumpstart for the 2019 fundraising campaign.
“We’re so grateful,” she said, pointing out the beautiful weather, the addition of several new vendors and the restoration of the popular chocolate mousse-eating contest, once a staple, but missing for the last two years.
With the Chocolate Tasting Experience serving as the festival’s centerpiece, sales of Tasting Tickets went through the roof this year, Hurst said. The event set records with pre-sales of 43,335 tickets and a reserve of 3,800 tickets that went on sale at 10 a.m. Saturday and were sold out an hour later.
Hurst explained that, while festival organizers expected to sell only 40,000 tickets — matching the number of chocolate “tastes” city merchants would have to sell — it became apparent in recent weeks that the demand was greatly exceeding the supply. And when she and her team appealed to those merchants/vendors to increase their inventory, more than half were able to comply.
“Vendors upped their tasting amounts at the 11th hour in order to be able to have some Tasting Tickets available for people to buy today,” Hurst told The Register-Herald on Saturday, remarking that this was also the first year it was necessary to ask the vendors to do so. She was heartened by the response.
“It really does take a village to pull off an event like this,” she said.
Another United Way outpost could be found inside the Greenbrier Valley Visitors Center during the day-long festival.
Pat Harper, executive director of Main Street White Sulphur Springs, was manning the United Way booth as the event got underway. She noted that the organization’s board members created the variety of chocolate clusters that occupied one table in the booth, while the other table was filled with an array of DeFluri’s truffles.
Chocolate tasting sales by United Way and three other vendors made up only a portion of the activities in the spacious Visitors Center.
In an alcove next to the front door, Frankford artist and author Truman Shrewsbury’s “Aberration” collection is on display all this month. Comprising paintings using oils, acrylics, watercolors and charcoal, the eye-catching exhibit also includes unique cardboard art pieces and a couple of Shrewsbury’s books.
“If I look at something and like it, I try to paint it,” the artist explained his use of different media. He indicated that he only began to nurture his talent after retiring.
“I took a class at the college, and I really got into it,” he said.
In another section of the Visitors Center, 11-year-old Sierra Clark of White Sulphur Springs and her grandmother, Lyla Clark of Renick, perused West Virginia State Park brochures as they waited for chocolate sales to begin.
The two ladies have made a point of attending the Chocolate Festival every spring for the past three or four years, Lyla said.
“It’s a tradition,” Sierra pointed out.
But it’s not the only tradition they honor.
“We’re planning our next adventure,” Lyla said, indicating the park brochures. “Every year, we visit state parks to celebrate West Virginia Day. This year, we’re going to go to Cacapon State Park; we’ve never been there, and we’re trying to find out more about it before we go.”
In recent years, Lewisburg has closed several sections of downtown streets to vehicular traffic for the festival. Although most of the vendors are located inside shops and galleries, the crowds of people — and the long lines at such venues as Harmony Ridge Gallery and Serenity Now — spilled over into the closed streets on Saturday.
Queued up in a particularly long line of chocolate seekers waiting to gain entry to Amy’s Cakes & Cones on Court Street, three generations of one family maintained a cheery outlook, despite a smattering of raindrops hitting the pavement around them.
Grandmother Connie McCoy, daughter Tammy Branhan and granddaughter Tierra McCoy all hail from St. Albans and said they planned to spend the day in Lewisburg, breaking up the chocolate consumption with lunch at a downtown eatery at some point.
“It’s our first year at this festival,” Connie noted. “Friends told us about it, and we decided to drive over.”
The ladies ordered their 65 Tasting Tickets in advance, Branhan said, and they were making good use of them.
By around noon, each had identified a favorite treat (or two): Tierra’s pick was Harry, Ron and Hermione’s Daily Espresso Patronum, and her mother’s choice was Hogsmeade’s Famous Butterbeer Tarts, both of which were featured at Harmony Ridge Gallery and created by the culinary staff of the Greenbrier Sporting Club.
And Connie? “Oh, I like both of them,” she said with a laugh.