It’s the beginning of August, which for those of us living in and around Blacksburg, means the blocking off of Main Street and the beginning of Blacksburg’s biggest festival- Steppin’ Out. The annual street festival, which features hundreds of arts and crafts vendors and tens of thousands of attendees, has been a Blacksburg tradition since the late 1970s. It began as an effort to revitalize the downtown and generate revenue for various local charities. But while digging around in Special Collections’ Vertical Files (where we collect news clippings and articles on various local subjects), I discovered that in the early days, the festival had a much wilder, and unfortunately, darker side.
The annual festival was first organized in 1976 as ‘Deadwood Days’, based off of a successful annual festival of the same name held in Deadwood, South Dakota. The original Deadwood Days festival commemorated the shooting of Wild Bill Hickok, an infamous outlaw of the Old West, on August 2, 1876, in the town of Deadwood, and the Blacksburg version was held for the first time a week after the shooting’s 100th anniversary.
Thus, for the first four years, the three-day festival had a Wild West theme, and really lived up to that theme in more than just the decor. A 1980 article in the Montgomery News Messenger described it as “a rip-snorting, music-and-dancing-in-the-streets gathering enjoyed primarily by the under-40 crowd,” adding “It has also earned the reputation of a three-day ‘beer bust and drug festival.’” Festival events during those first four years regularly ran past 1am, with increasing rowdiness and numerous arrests made by the Blacksburg Police for marijuana and cocaine possession.
All of that came to a head in 1979, when the Deadwood Days festival was marred in tragedy. After leaving Deadwood Days on Saturday night, a 17-year-old Blacksburg High School student was shot dead by two teens that he’d given a ride from the festival. The teens had reportedly been drinking heavily at the festival, and “had no trouble getting ‘all the beer they wanted’ from downtown bars in the hours immediately proceeding [sic] the murder.” In the aftermath, community members blamed the “free-wheeling, shoot-’em-up atmosphere” of Deadwood Days for encouraging the murder, and in July of 1980, just one month before the 5th annual Deadwood Days festival was scheduled to begin, the Blacksburg Town Council voted 5-1 to ban the event.
In the wake of this decision, one council member was quoted in the Blacksburg Sun saying the festival would have to be planned “two steps this side of Mary Poppins if it is even to come off in 81 or 82.” And in August of 1981, with the strong support of Blacksburg’s downtown merchants, a family-friendly arts and crafts festival called “Steppin’ Out” was held. The festival changed from a three-day to a two-day festival, with an ending time of 9pm, and included more kid-friendly activities and a much more wholesome atmosphere. Needless to say, Steppin’ Out was still a hit, and 2014 will mark 33rd year of the this downtown Blacksburg tradition.
So if some curiosity for Blacksburg history suddenly strikes you while enjoying this weekend’s festivities in the historic downtown, remember that the Vertical Files in Special Collections has information on many of the buildings, events and people that have made this town what it is today, and we’re here to help you answer your local history curiosities Monday through Friday, 8am to 5pm, every week. But until then, enjoy your weekend, but don’t get too wild!