Okra struts its stuff in rain

Midway through Irmo's 36th annual Okra Strut parade, a misty rain began to fall on the floats and marching bands, prompting festivalgoers to pop up colorful umbrellas to shield them from the elements.

The light rain dampened attendance but not enthusiasm for the annual town festival that pays homage to the green pod.

Festivalgoers who braved the weather consumed baskets of deep-fried breaded okra at $3 a pop, not to mention hot dogs, barbecue, corn on the cob and sweets.

"I felt compelled to eat them," said Meesh Hays,who came to her first Okra Strut with her 12-year-old son, Austin. "There are the hot dogs and French fries and other delights, but this is, after all, the Okra Strut."

Hays quickly pointed out that she was familiar with the slimy green vegetable that has put the town on the food festival map.

"This is my first Okra Strut but not my first foray into okra eating," she said.

Not so for one man from Indianapolis who dropped by one of two fried okra booths operated by the group that started the festival, the Lake Murray-Irmo Woman's Club, club president Judy Soltis said.

"He said no one would believe there is an Okra Strut, fried okra and an okra 'pod,'" Soltis laughed.

That "pod" costume is usually worn by a child of one of the group's members, she said, although there have been members who have donned the costume as well.

The woman's club began the festival in 1973 as a way to raise money for a town library. The first, a small arts-and-crafts sale, was held at Seven Oaks Park and drew a few hundred people. But over the years, the festival was embraced by community businesses and supporters and now draws about 60,000 over two days.

Soltis said 20 percent of festival proceeds go to fund the library, which was built in 1980, with the remaining money going toward scholarships and other community projects.

On Saturday, they expected to fry about 1,800 pounds of okra.

Festival administrator Jim Twitty estimated there were about 40,000 in attendance over both days, down from the robust 55,000 usually predicted.

A heavy downpour Friday night shortened that evening's activities by about two hours, he said. On Saturday, he said, "we've been very lucky," despite the intermittent rain.

"I think a lot of people are getting out to play," he said.

The festival is a popular destination for politicians, and there was perhaps none more prominent Saturday than 2nd District U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson.

The Republican, who gained nationwide notoriety for hollering "You lie!" at President Obama during the president's health care speech earlier this month, said he received a "fantastic" reception from Irmo townspeople, some yelling out "Go, Joe!" as he passed.

Wilson said he has walked in every Irmo parade, the first year as a volunteer for the late Rep. Floyd Spence, who Wilson succeeded in Congress.

Gubernatorial candidates, including Andre Bauer, Henry McMaster and Larry Grooms, were also among political figures working the festival crowd, along with groups including S.C. Fair Tax and the 9/12 Project of South Carolina.

But many festivalgoers simply used the Okra Strut as a good excuse to visit with their neighbors and enjoy some community fun.

Through the intermittent drizzle, children rode on fair amusements that included the "Round-up," "Mirror Maze" and "Spinner."

There was a cornhole tournament, lots of music and dancing at the showcase stage, and plenty of arts and crafts.

Six members of the Main Street Harmonizers sang barbershop harmony in hopes of gaining more members for the group that meets at Lexington Baptist Church.

For Katelyn Busch, 6, and her cousin, Rene Busch, 9, the Okra Strut provided their first experience riding a parade float.

Sitting atop one of the floats organized by Dance World, the girls declared it "a lot of fun," with one drawback - sore wrists from greeting the crowd.

"I couldn't stop waving," Rene said.