It’s not often a town prepares to increase its population by a factor of 10.
But Benson is doing just that this week as it readies for the 64th Benson Mule Days celebration.
This year’s festival will take place Sept. 26-29, bringing carnival rides, live music and mules, of course, to Johnston County’s southernmost town.
On most days, Benson is home to about 3,300 people. Last year, low estimates for Mule Days put attendance at roughly 25,000 people, said Loretta Byrd, executive director of Benson Area Chamber of Commerce, which hosts the event.
And that’s not counting the mules. Paul Dunn, co-chairman of the festival’s mule events, estimates Benson will welcome 600 to 800 of the animals, which are a cross between a horse and a donkey.
“The only thing I can compare it to – you’ve seen Mardi Gras?” Dunn said. “Imagine that, with a person dressed to the nines in Western wear on a four-legged animal that weighs a thousand pounds.”
The festival opens Thursday, Sept. 26, with carnival rides and a concert by the Blue River Band and Boe Edens and the Dixie Driver Band. Attendees can watch a barrel race exhibition and an open barrel race.
Friday has the main mule events, with the mule judging competition in the morning. About 150 mules are taking part, Dunn said. The mule race will follow at 1 p.m.
“It’s hysterical,” Evelyn Aranda, the chamber’s executive assistant, said of the mule race, “because a mule will do what a mule will do and not always go where the driver wants him to go.”
The pulling contest will follow the race.
The festival continues into Friday evening with more music, a rodeo and then a street dance featuring the CC Ryders Band.
Saturday starts with an arts and crafts fair, which will run until 6 p.m. Barbecue, a trail ride and more live music will be scattered throughout the day. The music menu includes a performance of original cowboy hymns.
Saturday’s main attraction is at 10 a.m. This year’s parade will have more floats than last year, with around 135 entries, Byrd said. The parade averages around 15,000 spectators, she said.
Saturday will end with a second street dance, this time with music by local singer Amanda Daughtry.
The festival will wind down Sunday with a youth rodeo and one last chance to go on the carnival rides. Byrd said this year’s carnival, open daily, will offer more rides geared toward teenagers.
The festival offers free parking in community lots and paid parking in private lots, Byrd said. Since festival events are spread across Benson, people can take a free trolley to the various events. The trolley will operate from 5 p.m. to midnight Thursday, 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday.
Out-of-town visitors can find nearby hotels in Dunn and Smithfield, or they can camp in one of hundreds of available campsites. Byrd said the chamber offers 225 campsites, and many Benson-area residents open their lands to campers.
People come to Mule Days from all over, said Byrd, who estimated that 65 percent to 70 percent of festival-goers are from out of the area. Many come from South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and Florida, she said.
The event is family-oriented, Byrd said, and a chance to show community pride. A friend from another part of the state came one year and told her, “It’s a slice of Americana,” she said.
“Mule Days is a celebration of our heritage, and there’s something for everyone,” Byrd said.