The 73rd annual Kentucky Mountain Laurel Festival will take place today through Sunday in Bell County within the heart of the Pine Mountain range. The festival opens the summer season, celebrating the awakening of the beautiful flora and fauna that is indigenous to the Appalachian hills.
One of the most beautiful and plentiful flowers of the Appalachians is the Mountain Laurel. Its delicate petals of white and pink vividly contrast with the forest's deep green background, making it an eye catcher to many who have walked along Pine Mountain's paths or ridge line. It was such a lovely bouquet that festival originators chose the plant as its theme.
Lovelier than the flower, though, are the region's young ladies who compete for the titles of Mountain Laurel queen and princess. The selection of a new queen takes place in Pine Mountain State Park's Laurel Cove Amphitheater under a towering 150-foot high sandstone cliff embellished with laurel and rhododendron. The candidates for queen represent Kentucky's colleges and universities, and the judge's decision has traditionally been announced only a few minuites before the governor crowns the winner. The princesses candidates and attendants are chosen from Kentucky high schools.
"The splendor of Pine Mountain State Park's setting during each spring is difficult to equal," said Gov. Paul Patton, who has crowned the Mountain Laurel queen several times during his period in office.
"The colors that cover the hillsides and complement the park can cause the viewer to pause and drink in the magnificent view. When the festival events are added to this backdrop, you have something to which all Kentuckians can take great pride."
The festival began in 1931 following the culmination of efforts by Annie Walker Burns to honor Dr. Thomas Walker, pioneer explorer and the first white man to enter Kentucky. Walker camped at the present site of Pineville in 1750.
According to Mountain Laurel Festival publicity chairperson Bob Madon, the Pineville-based event ranks second only to the Kentucky Derby in beauty and splendor. While visitors attend the festival, he said southeastern Kentuckians "show them what true southern hospitality is all about."
Harlan attorney Jeff Brock has served on the festival's board of directors since 1993. This year marks his first year as president. Because the festival manifests so many wonderful memories for Brock, who has been attending the event since he was in the fifth grade, he wanted to be a part of the team that's carrying on the tradition.
"It's really one on the most beautiful settings in all the nation," Brock said. "Until you've experienced down-home fun among the breathtaking mountain alive with the sighs and sounds of nature, you don't know what you're missing. This festival is for Harlan Countians, too. We share the Pine Mountain range with Bell County, and it's a celebration of our heritage as well."
Harlan County's candidate for Mountain Laurel Queen is Misty Ann King, a sophomore at Southeast Community College in Cumberland. She is the daughter of Bob and Jean King and is pursuing a career in nursing. She will be escorted by Wayne Baker, son of Author and Christine Baker of Whitesburg.
"She's been working for a while now, trying to get everything down for the big day," said King's mother. "She's a little bit nervous, but mostly excited to be participating in an event as special as this. She wants so badly to bring the Mountain Laurel crown back to Harlan County."
The queen's unusual crown is hand-made of Mountain Laurel buds and blooms. The entire procession of queen and princess candidates weaves itself down grassy paths to a stage behind a reflecting pond. After the crowning, the audience joins together to sing "My Old Kentucky Home."
Past Mountain Laurel queens from Harlan County include Patricia Parsons (1950), who was attending Union College; and Laura Lynn Bradford (1990), who was attending Eastern Kentucky University.
Princess candidates include Tara Brittany Pope of Harlan High School, Jenna Fields of James A. Cawood High School, Maria Vanover of Evarts High School, and Megan Hall of Cumberland High School.
Attendants include Misty Noe and Ashley Cornett of Harlan, Lori Osborne and Heather Napier of Cawood, Loren Jackson and Anna Ewing of Evarts, and Kara Langham and Tina Lloyd of Cumberland.
The introduction of the Mountain Laurel queen and princess candidates will be held tonight at 7 p.m. at the Pine Mountain State Park Amphitheater. Entertainment will follow at 7:45 p.m. by musician Tiffany. General admission is $6 and reserved seating is $12.
On Friday at 8:30 p.m., the princess coronation will be held in the gymnasium of Pinveville High School. Admission is $5.
Arts and crafts booths will be set up on the Bell County Courthouse square today in Pineville and will be open to the public throughout Memorial Day weekend. A street carnival will also be located in downtown Pineville.
On Friday, downtown entertainment will be provided at the courthouse square until midnight, and a karaoke session will be held starting at 9 p.m. A reception and open house will be held at 3 p.m. at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Chris Arnett on 508 Kentucky Avenue.
On Saturday, the Kentucky Mountain Laurel Festival Fun run will get started at 8 a.m. in downtown Pineville. There is a $10 entrance fee for runners. At 10 a.m., the Gala Parade will march through the city with the grand marshal being former UK standout and Republican agriculture commissioner nominee Richie Farmer. Downtown entertainment begins at 11 a.m. and will last until midnight. The governor's luncheon will take place at noon at the Pine Mountain State Resort Park honoring Paul Patton. Admission is $20.
At 2 p.m. on Saturday, the Kentucky Mountain Laurel Festival queen's coronation will take place in the park's amphitheater. Admission is $5 and reserved seats are $8. The Grand Ball, which honors the 2003 Kentucky Mountain Laurel Festival Queen, will begin at 8 p.m., and entertainment will be provided by "The Sensations." The dance will be held in the gymnasium of Pineville High School. Admission is $20 for singles or couples. From 9 p.m. until midnight, a street dance will be held on the courthouse square.
On Sunday, the annual Kentucky Mountain Laurel Festival community workshop will be held in the Ray Harm Room at the state park lodge. The Queen's Breakfast will be held at 9 a.m. at the Herndon J. Evans Lodge. Admission is $15.