PRINCETON — The Princeton Optimist Club announced Tuesday that the Black Patch Heritage Festival would be canceled this year due to health concerns regarding COVID-19.

This marks the first year since 1969 — a 50-year stretch — that Princeton will not have a Black Patch Heritage Festival.

All other shows associated with the Optimist Club and the festival — like the street fair, parade, gospel singing at First Baptist and beauty pageant — are also canceled.

The festival celebrates the area’s rich history of growing black patch tobacco or dark-fired tobacco, primarily used in chewing tobacco, pipe tobacco and snuff.

The festival is traditionally held the Saturday after Labor Day, and was scheduled for Sept. 12.

“It’s still two months off, but it takes a lot to put it together,” Optimist Club Treasurer George Kilgore said. “We have been discussing this for a couple of months now — the pros and cons — and we’ve talked with the health department and the city and county leadership.

“We just feel like, now, there are too many unknown variables to proceed with it.”

The Optimist Club made the unanimous decision at its meeting Tuesday.

Kilgore said he wanted to give vendors and those hosting fundraisers during the festival adequate notice of the cancellation.

He said that the uncertainty of the pandemic two months away as described by the health department helped in the decision-making process.

“Last year, we had close to 100 booths set up on the street, and it was packed full from one end to the other,” he said. “If we had to do any kind of social distancing between the booths, it would be very difficult to do that.”

Kilgore added that several vendors and visitors to the festival are from outside of Caldwell County, adding to the risk of spreading COVID-19.

“That’s what (the vendors) do for a living: they’re on a circuit and they do different festivals,” he said. “Not knowing where they might have been the week before or two weeks before and not knowing what exposure they may have had — not that any of them would come in knowing they were exposed — it opens up for a lot of things to be brought into our community.”

Kilgore said that funding was another consideration this year. The Optimist Club puts out a booklet at the festival featuring the history of the festival and supported by advertising from local businesses.

“We did not want to go to any business in our community and ask for a donation at this time,” he said. “All the businesses have been hurt and they’re struggling — some going under — and we did not want to ask our local businesses to fund Black Patch, and our club does not have the funds to do it without the funds from the booklet.

“Just, bottom line, there were so many variables that we just weren’t aware of. The last thing any of us would want is to be a part of someone getting sick.”

The festival began in 1937 as a five-day festival celebrating black patch tobacco. It was held as a multi-day event until 1942, when World War II forced the festival to end temporarily.

In 1970, the Princeton Optimist Club brought the festival back and sponsored it ever since.

Kilgore said he was disappointed, but felt like it was the best decision for the community and the vendors.

“We do know that whatever decision we made, some are going to support it and some would think we probably made the wrong one,” he said. “We just had to go with what we felt was the best.

“It wasn’t a quick decision. We had been discussing it, actually, since April. We knew that, two months out, we needed to make a decision just to let everybody know where we were with it.”

Kilgore said that the club plans on bringing the festival back next year.

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