Mule Days festival draws thousands

For five days a year, the vacant lot behind Discount Grocery Plus in downtown Benson becomes a popular campground, complete with makeshift horse pens.

Terry Moore's house is just down the road, but he says he'd rather spend the annual Benson Mule Days festival in his RV at the unlikely campsite. Food vendors and carnival rides are about a block away, and Moore said the people - and animal - watching is hard to beat.

"You see a lot of horses and mules come by," he said, adding that it's more exciting than a traditional campground. "We sit around and talk about the pretty horses."

The festival, which wrapped up Sunday, draws more than 40,000 equestrian enthusiasts to Benson each September - a big boost to the town of about 3,000 residents. Visitors munch on funnel cakes and corn dogs and ride the rides, but that's where the similarities to other North Carolina street festivals stop.

Horses and mules rule the road. They're allowed to strut down nearly every street in town.

A dance on Saturday night filled an entire block with country grooves. And empty patches of ground throughout Benson turn into campsites.

With few hotels nearby, Benson has to get creative to house so many guests.

Vacant lots often have water and electricity connections, and property owners can charge upward of $300 to rent a chunk of their lawn.

Bonnie Barbee of Princeton has rented a woman's side yard for years. It's reserved for her every year as long as she keeps coming, and she's gotten to know the neighbors packed in around her.

On Saturday night, one even hosted a karaoke contest. "It's just a lot of fun," she said.

Down the street, Moore cleaned up his grill Sunday after cooking a hog for dozens of family members and friends. He hadn't packed light. "It takes about three trips to get it all here," he said.

Taming the revelry

Benson keeps a tight rein on the revelry.

A list of town ordinances are tacked to nearly every telephone pole. Livestock aren't allowed on the street after dark, and they can't "run at large." All temporary campgrounds require a permit.

And horses and mules need a clean bill of health from their veterinarian.

That last part is key because the equine events go on for days.

Mule-pulling contests and races were held Friday, and the arena competitions finished Sunday with a junior rodeo.

By Sunday afternoon, funnel-cake lines died down, and campers started packing up, worn out from five days of near-constant activity - and watching where they step.