The Mountain Laurel blooms again

If you had come to the amphitheater on Pine Mountain on Memorial Day weekend a year ago you would have found something missing.

The green cove deep in the heart of Appalachia would be empty, missing the large crowd that gathers annually to see who will be crowned the Kentucky Mountain Laurel Festival Queen. One of the many long-established events put on pause by the coronavirus pandemic.

An Eastern Kentucky tradition stretching back 90 years, the Kentucky Mountain Laurel Festival has been held since 1931. Only twice have events halted Kentucky’s second oldest festival — WWII and the COVID pandemic.

With restrictions loosened, all the traditions, and people, returned in full bloom this past weekend in Pineville.

This year’s festival signaled another step in returning to a pre-pandemic state of society for many. The Mountain Laurel Festival would be one of the first larger events, after the Kentucky Derby, to return.

The popular four-day festival — named after the plant Kalmia latifolia, a shrub that yields tiny pink and white flowers — drew nearly 9,000 people for a pageant, carnival rides, arts and crafts, a 5K run, a parade through downtown and a grand ball.

“I don’t think there is a better example of getting back to normal than getting to resume one of Kentucky’s oldest festivals where we celebrate time-honored traditions and things that are so unique to us as Kentuckians,” Gov. Andy Beshear said during a Saturday luncheon at Pine Mountain State Resort Park.

The festival has no shortage of unique, long-standing traditions: passing down the scepter and cape, picking the mountain laurel flowers that make the queen’s crown the morning of coronation and throwing the escort of the new queen into the reflecting pool.

“Being in this cove, it really feels normal again and I can’t tell you how good normal feels,” General Chairman Jacob Roan said.

Crowned KMLF queen in 2000, Kristy Nelson Burnett, lost her 20th anniversary to the pandemic, but she was excited to have it back this year. “Last year was weird, not having the festival and it being a part of my life for the past 21 years.”

When asked to describe the festival, the 2019 queen Lauren Bohl said “One word, tradition. I think that is what makes it so special.”

Each year the candidates for queen are tasked with creating a unique personal curtsy to perform during the pageant. Intricate marches involving all the candidates and their escorts are rehearsed before the festival.

“After the year we had nation-wide, world-wide, this is just something, at times you didn’t know if you were going to have this feeling again,” said third-generation board member Roan.

See video here.

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