River Town Days, an annual festival held at Bainbridge’s Earle May Boat Basin next to the beautiful Flint River, has grown so popular among southwest Georgians that it sometimes seems as if it’s been going on for many years.
But in reality, the festival has seen its rise in popularity just since 2004, the first year it was held. With 2012’s River Town Days looking to be one of the largest and most exciting one yet, a look back to how the festival was started may shed some light on just how far it has come.
River Town Days, presented annually by the Bainbridge-Decatur County Chamber of Commerce, is technically an off-shoot of the now-dormant Riverside Artsfest festival, which was a celebration of the arts. The Riverside Artsfest festival had events kicking off in January and continuing through March. Artsfest began in 1988 and continued until 2009.
Sam Griffin, the former publisher and owner of The Post-Searchlight, was chairman of the Artsfest committee for the first two years. For a 2011 article, he said there were two reasons the festival began.
“We wanted to bring the community together for a festival, and we also wanted to push the importance of education in the arts,” he said.
Artsfest featured many Saturday night concerts by acclaimed musicians over its 21-year-run, but as time went on, they became more expensive to put on, according to longtime Artsfest volunteer Jim Smith. The increasing cost of booking talent, as well as the sheer amount of man-hours required to organize all the events, ultimately led to Artsfest being put on an indefinite hiatus.
Artsfest also featured various art shows and classical music performances, usually centered around a different U.S. state that was featured each year.
The first River Town Days, organized by the Chamber of Commerce, was aimed more at the entertainment side, with the goal of bringing as many possible to the Boat Basin and thereby encouraging tourism.
The scope of River Town Days has increased each year, as evidenced by the booking of national touring act, the A1A Band, for 2012’s festival, as well as the vast variety of things to do.
For the first go-around in 2004, the festival focused mainly on local talent. There were also a multitude of smaller activities beginning early Saturday morning and concluding Saturday evening with a concert.
For the first year, there was a hodgepodge of acts which took the stage at the Performing Arts Center in the Boat Basin. There were karate kids, dancers and cheerleaders and various singers and musicians — including a saxaphonist and a bag piper. There were hunting dog shows, gator shows and even remote control boat races.
In the large, grassy field between the Performing Arts Center and the Boat Basin itself were a number of rides and activities for children.
One of the first festival’s highlights that is still going strong today was The Great River Rummage, which places a number of arts and crafts booths and yard and rummages in one long line down Hatcher Street, which connects the Boat Basin with the city’s other riverside park, Cheney Griffin Park.
Some of the things that took place in 2004 but are no longer a part of River Town Days included a 5K run, a barbeque cookoff and a tour of historic homes, although all three events lasted a few years before fading into the background for various reasons.
2005’s festival included a display of more than 40 boats, an air boat demonstration and a military bomb disposal unit. Displays of a helicopter and a fire truck, as well as trolley rides, were part of the 2006 festival. 2007’s festival featured a frontier village and military helicopter display and free pontoon boat rides.
2008 was the first year River Town Days featured a river raft competition, which challenged local busineses and groups of friends to build their own self-propelled rafts capable of racing through a course in the calm waters of the Boat Basin. Later years added a kayak race and a water-skiing exhibition and beginning in 2011, a parade of boats on the Flint River. 2011’s festival also a featured popular pirate ship ride, which will return in 2012.
Some recurring attractions have included locally-based nuisance alligator trapper Bennie West, experts on animals and Native American culture from the Parks of Chehaw of Albany, Ga., and energetic performances by local dance studios.
2009 and 2010’s festivals included a “Rubber Ducky Dash for Cash,” essentially a floating raffle in which people bought numbered ducks; the owner of the first claimed duck to finish won $5,000. A specially-marked duck that crossed the finish line before all the others could have won $1,000,000 for someone, but that prize was never won.
River Town Days concerts
2004–Patrick Boyd, The Rivet
2005–The Swinging Medallions
2006–Tina Brock, The Swinging Medallions
2007–The Tams, The Swinging Medallions
2008–The Tams, The Swinging Medallions (repeat performance)
2009–Evergreen, Atlanta Rhythm Section
2010–Midnight Matinee and Searcy Smith, the Leigh Mullis Band, Kinchafoonee Cowboys
2011–Wilson Dean Band, Kinchafoonee Cowboys
2012–Evergreen, A1A Band (an officially-endorsed Jimmy Buffett tribute band)