Wakefield Ruritan Club aims to make Shad Planking great again
Wakefield Ruritan Club aims to make Shad Planking great again

The Wakefield Ruritan Club is trying to breathe new life into the nearly 70-year-old Shad Planking Festival held yearly in Wakefield, and they're off to a rough start.

Stumpers, politicos, members of the press and citizen comers clung tight to the rows of tarp canopies to get out of the rain. State Sen. Ryan McDougle, R–Hanover, stood alone on the stage to speak out against rapists and thieves having their right to vote restored to an audience of two men with camcorders and some overturned lawn chairs.

The Shad was gone by the time McDougle took the stage. Volunteers would later grumble off the record that they only cooked about 90 pounds of shad, roughly a quarter of what they normally cook, smoking the oily fish on planks of wood until the fat sears them to the grain like glue.

Shad planking isn't what it used to be, and Wakefield Ruritan Club understands that. In fact, they want that message to get out.

 

"I'm actually relatively young compared to some of the other members," said Eric Brittle, a Ruritan member who co-chaired the event. Brittle's in his forties, and he says his organization, and the Shad Planking Festival as a whole, need to appeal to a younger generation if they want to survive.

Shad planking and the associated festival were the purview of the state's Conservative Democrats in the years after World War II, but the event became slowly more partisan toward the end of the 20th century. Now the event is dominated wholly by conservatives, with only two of the nearly 20 speakers being Democrats.

"Now we're trying to swing that back to the middle," Brittle said.

Brittle believes the Shad Planking Festival can only survive as a bipartisan gathering. As the conservative presence increased at the festival over the years, liberal speakers stopped volunteering to come, and their supporters left with them.

The political aspect of the festival aside, shad planking is a major fundraiser for the Ruritans, and Brittle said the organization needs that money to benefit their community. Thus, it's in the Ruritans' interests to keep the festival bipartisan and attract a larger, younger demographic.

To that end, they've expanded the name of the event to the Shad Planking and Grapes and Grain festival, to draw in the region's consumers of craft beer and wine. Brittle said they've even increased vendor booths from about 15 to 45 in just a year.

Still, the changes are an incremental step in a massive change, a change some don't really notice and others aren't particularly happy with.

"You don't want to say it's a Republican event," said Brad Montague, director of communications and marketing for Ella Ward, who's looking to win the 4th Congressional District seat currently occupied by U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Chesapeake. But, Montague added, it's not a Republican event in name only.

That's why Ward, the only Democratic office-seeker at the festival, came in the first place, Montague said. She wants to show she can make friendly ventures across the aisle, and that she's still willing to speak with potential voters even if they've traditionally voted Republican.

That's hardly a stunning endorsement of the event's neutrality, and Montague said he can't really see a difference between this year and 2013, when he stumped for a Republican candidate. He noted the stage has moved from near the smoking pits to the opposite side of the field.

"People are disappointed," said Vernon Teall, a 20-year member of the Ruritans who's been coming to the shad planking for 12 years. He said attendees used to get more bang for their buck.

"You'd pay for your ticket and come in and get a meal," he said.

Jean Barker, who's been coming to the festival for 30 years, said she knows things have changed. She and her fellow Republicans used to hold a "pre-shad planking" in a local hotel for Republican candidates when the festival was still mainly run by Democrats.

"This is not your grandfather's shad planking," Brittle said. "It's not my grandfather's shad planking."

His grandfather was a Ruritan as well.

Brittle said there are going to be more changes next year, and the year after that, based on the feedback they get from guests and the vendors. He believes having an event like shad planking is too important to let die, because it lets politicians meet with their constituents outside the smog of the D.C. political scene, where people and politicians can be real with each other.

"It's gotta start here," he said.

Bell can be reached by phone at 757-746-6333.

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