WILKESBORO, N.C. — The Boy Scouts who volunteer at MerleFest driving festival-goers back and forth are as much a part of the festival as the famous Hillside Album Hour, barbecue plates and pickin’ tents.
The Wilkes County Scouting troops have been providing shuttles between parking lots and the festival since the inaugural MerleFest back in 1988. Every festival-goer knows the white buses – some painted with American flags or bright stripes; others with just the troop number. And each bus has some variation of the same sign inside: “Your contribution is greatly appreciated.” It’s hard to miss – usually right above the tip bucket.
The four-day event serves as the main fundraiser for the seven Wilkes County troops. They raise enough money during MerleFest to fund almost an entire year’s worth of activities said Gary Jordan, Scout Master of Troop 335.
“The festival has been very good to us,” Jordan said.
Jordan said the troops sell popcorn during the year and occasionally receive donations from the community. Otherwise, MerleFest is the only other source of income for the Wilkes County troops. He declined to say how much the troops raise during the festival’s four-day run, but he said it covers at least 75 percent of their operating costs for the year.
The Scouts started out with a single activity bus in 1988, Jordan said. As the festival grew, so did the Scouts’ involvement. With the money they raised, the troops were eventually able to buy another bus, and then another. Today, there are 13 activity buses among Wilkes County’s seven troops. They’re dedicated to MerleFest for one long weekend in April, but the rest of the year the troops use the buses to transport Scouts to camp outings and service activities.
“If we didn’t have these buses, we couldn’t get all these Scouts everywhere,” Jordan said.
For the majority of festival-goers, the Scouts and their activity buses are the first and last things they see of MerleFest.
“MerleFest begins on the bus ride with the enthusiastic Scouts,” said Lee K. Cornett, volunteer coordination for the festival. “Not only do they save (attendees) money and the walk, it’s a safe and fun way to arrive.”
It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. MerleFest provides the fuel in exchange for the Scouts providing the buses and volunteers to man them. The troops accept donations from riders, and riders get to park at the festival for free.
For Scouts, MerleFest means long days and a lot of work. But it’s also a chance to spend time with other Scouts and meet people from around the world.
“I like that you get to meet people from all over,” said William Roberts, a leader of Troop 340 out of Roaring River.
“Yeah,” added his son Nikolas Roberts, 15, in his third year with the Scouts. “I just met someone from Arkansas.”
Buses start running at 7 a.m. and don’t stop until the end of the night – which can bleed past midnight into the next day’s morning. They service four lots and two hotels, and are known to make various other stops along the way to accommodate guests as needed.
It’s not all work and no play, though. Jordan said Scouts and leaders do get into the festival occasionally.
“We get to listen to some music,” he said. “Not a lot, but if someone has a favorite, we’ve got people (to relieve them).”
The Scouts are well-known for the shuttles to and from parking lots and the chicken meals they serve up each year in the food tent, but they also volunteer in other parts of the festival. Jordan’s crew of about 75 Scouts also helps carry chairs, pass out programs and assist elderly festival-goers to their seats, he said.
They’re an integral part of the well-oiled machine that MerleFest is known to be – an aspect outside of the music that has helped create the dedicated fan base that returns year after year.
“It’s run so well, and there are so many acts,” said Don Baker, who traveled from Belpre, Ohio, for his 12th MerleFest. “It’s hard to beat.”
“It’s work,” said Jason Blackburn, Scout Master of Troop 340. “It’s worth it.”
“Some of these Scouts come from poor families,” Blackburn said. “It really helps us out with summer camp.”