Benson is bracing once again for its annual influx of thousands of two- and four-legged tourists.
The 66th Benson Mule Days festival opens Thursday night and runs through Sunday with mule competitions, live music, vendors, carnival rides and more throughout downtown. If the forecast for good weather holds true, anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 people are likely to turn out, said Loretta Byrd, president of the Benson Area Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the event.
People come from all over the United States to attend the festival, Byrd said, and a lot of them block off vacation time for the entire week.
“Mule Days is all about family and friends and reunion,” she said. “It’s about seeing people that you maybe only get to see once a year.”
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The celebration gets started Thursday night with free music in the Benson Singing Grove. BackTrax takes the stage at 6, and Russ Varnell and His Too Country Band take over at 7.
Carnival rides by Michael’s Amusements will also begin that evening at 500 S. Market St., and they will run throughout the festival. More than 100 vendors will set up shop throughout Benson, with the biggest cluster located on Parrish Drive behind the Singing Grove.
Most of the mule events are scheduled for Friday at Chamber Park, 355 J. Lee Road. That includes mule showing, jumping, racing and pulling competitions. Organizers will also bring back a lighthearted contest, introduced last year, in which owners dress mules up in costumes.
At 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, cowboys and cowgirls will compete at Chamber Park in a rodeo sanctioned by the Southern Rodeo Association. The competitions will feature a full slate of events, including bull riding, bareback and saddle bronc riding, calf roping, steer wrestling, team roping and barrel racing.
The rodeo brings in professional riders and ropers, who compete throughout the year at events on the SRA circuit, Byrd said.
“They collect points just like NASCAR drivers do,” she said.
Also on Friday night, the Hinson Girls will perform at the Grove from 6 to 8 p.m., and disc jockey Hugh Jackson will provide music and entertainment from 7 p.m. to midnight in the Parrish Drive vendor area.
On Saturday, the 66th annual Mule Days Parade will march down Main Street starting at 10 a.m., and Byrd said she considers it to be the main event of the weekend. Civic groups, floats, marching bands, beauty queens and more will lead off the procession, followed by riders on upwards of 1,000 mules and horses.
From 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, the Junior Woman’s Club of Benson will bring in more than 50 vendors for an arts and crafts show in the parking lot of First Citizens Bank, 301 E. Main St.
Musicians will perform throughout the day in the Singing Grove, including the Drifting River Bluegrass Band, the Hickory Grove Quartet and Full Reliance. For the past two years, Full Reliance has taken home the grand champion trophy at the State Annual Singing Convention, known to most as the Benson Sing. The Parrish Drive vendor area will host karaoke from 7 to 11 p.m., and the American Legion will hold a dance featuring Without Further Ado at 605 N. Wall St. The dance costs $8 per person.
The festivities wind down on Sunday, starting at 9 a.m. with a Mule City Cowboy Church Service in the Singing Grove. Attendees will have one last chance to go on carnival rides from 1 to 5 p.m., and a youth rodeo is scheduled for 2 p.m. at Chamber Park.
Parking will be available for free and in pay lots throughout Benson. Because events are spread out over town, a free trolly will be available to shuttle attendees among the Singing Grove, Chamber Park and the carnival rides on Market Street. The service will run 5 p.m. to midnight Thursday, 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and 8:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday.
Many visitors like to camp out during Mule Days, and the chamber has a few spaces remaining for rent at Chamber Park. The cost is $75 for Wednesday through Saturday nights. Many attendees also camp at the nearby RV parks on Interstate 95.
Those looking to book a room will find a number of hotels along I-95 in neighboring Smithfield and Dunn.
Mule Days began in 1950, Byrd said, and the festival is poised to grow in coming years as mules enjoy a resurgence in popularity.
“Owning mules is becoming more and more the thing to do,” she said. “People are showing mules more, and they’re figuring out that mules are very smart animals.”
Need more info?
For more information, including a full schedule of events, visit BensonMuleDays.com or call the Benson Area Chamber of Commerce at 919-894-3825.