MORGANTOWN – The 39th annual Green River Catfish Festival returned Saturday to Charles Black City Park, celebrating the final day of an event that drew more than 6,000 people to Butler County during the holiday weekend.
Robin Johnson, chairwoman for the festival, estimated Saturday that by the time the festival was over, as many as 8,000 people would’ve attended the event despite heavy rainfall threatening to put a damper on the festivities.
“We’ve had a wonderful year so far in spite of our weather,” Johnson said. “Mother nature always wants to bless us with her rain during our festival. However, our numbers have been up – we’re very excited about that.”
The yearly festival has provided summer entertainment for decades, essentially acting as the Butler County fair since its inception in 1981.
“We are a small town, but we’ve got big hearts and we enjoy all the people that come and visit us from different states and counties,” Johnson said.
Gates opened at 4 p.m. Thursday and Friday before moving up to 9 a.m. Saturday. Carnival rides opened each day at 6 p.m. Admission was $10 per person, but tickets included nearly everything at the event other than food.
The festival offered a variety of entertainment options – old-fashioned games, delicious foods, unique vendors, captivating art displays, a nightly concert series, canoeing and kayaking, a fishing tournament with thousands of dollars in cash prizes and much more, according to an official schedule of events.
Most events varied from day to day, but some were featured nightly, including “fishing for the little ones” at 7:30 p.m. and a drawing for $500 at 8 p.m.
The Butler County Arts Guild was also set up under a pavilion each day during the event, and member Adrianna Vossbrinck said the guild had been hosting demonstrations as well as coloring and painting for area children to enjoy.
“We’re just all about getting the community involved with arts and enjoying themselves and having fun,” Vossbrinck said. “We like to bring people together and let their creativity flow ... we like to involve that and just showcase it to everybody, especially the younger kids. They have fun when they do it, they’re just smiles all the time when they’re doing something.”
Saturday’s events included a tractor show, “catfish wrastlin’ ” and beauty pageants that showcased participants ranging from infants to 21 years of age.
Becky Hankins, pageant director for the festival, said the winners of the Little Miss and Mr. Pre-Teen, Teen and Miss Butler County pageants progress to state competitions, which are a showcase for the youngsters.
“Usually we have a really good turnout,” Hankins said about the beauty pageants. “Of course with the heat and the rain that affects some people, but we’re always surprised about the people that come out, and this year we are so blessed to have a tent with an air conditioner. It’s gonna be nice – our catfish festival committee has worked so hard to get us what we need.”
The 3 p.m. “catfish wrastlin’ ” event was open to the first 20 grapplers that signed a liability waiver to participate, according to a flyer.
“This will be our first ever catfish wrastlin’,” Johnson said before the event. “They will get into a water tank and the first one to come up with their 10- to 15-pound catfish will advance to the next round and then we’ll have a championship round.”
Participants had to be 18 to compete, and no nets or scuba gear were allowed in the water – only bare hands and proper swimwear. Timed heats were held to advance the competitors to the finals. When it was all said and done, the first-place wrestler received $150 and a prize belt, while second place got $75.
“We’ve had so many calls on (catfish wrastlin’),” Johnson said. “We’re excited to bring it to the festival this year and hopefully it will be the first of many.”
The festival’s final day also featured the SOKY strongest man competition, a livestock show and a cornhole tournament. Country artist J.D. Shelburne wrapped up the multiday event with an 8:15 p.m. show on the main stage.
Festivities at the festival unofficially began Wednesday with Special Friends Day, which allowed people with special needs to enjoy rides and activities a day before the festival opened to the general public Thursday.
Damien and Tiffany Camplin, co-owners of Up In Smoke, have been vendors at the festival for 10 years, providing items like smoked barbecue, funnel cakes, barbecue nachos and, more recently, catfish plates.
Damien Camplin said Saturday he’d been attending the event since he was a kid, and the special-needs day “was one of the coolest things” he’d ever seen done at the festival. Catering it was very special to him and his wife, he said.
Damien Camplin said it was probably the best thing he’s ever been a part of. “I didn’t get to watch them do the rides because we were cooking, but I watched ’em play basketball and hang out down there and, I mean, they were in their own world and just having a blast with it. It meant a lot to me getting to see them get out and enjoy just like others. The smiles on those peoples’ faces was worth it all – they were bigger than any you’ll see.”
Thursday and Friday brought a packed slate of events, including a terrapin race, a dog show, field day games and the largest Fourth of July fireworks display in southcentral Kentucky, according to organizers.
A Guinness World Record was also set Thursday, as participants conducted the world’s largest paper ball fight on the park’s upper tennis court at 7 p.m.
Morgantown-Butler County Chamber of Commerce President Deanna Embry said turnout for the world record attempt and the fireworks was “excellent,” but she would love for even more people to come to the festival next summer, when the event’s 40th year will be honored with a “coming home” celebration.
“(The festival) brings the whole community together and gives everyone a chance to catch up and you get to see people that you maybe only see once a year,” Embry said. “Of course we’ve gone through transformations and we’re trying to keep up with the times, but we still have our roots and we’re still doing that and we’re looking forward to having a very large event next year.”