By CYNTHIA McCLOUD ∙ For The State Journal
KINGWOOD — To Robert Cuppett, it seemed like growing buckwheat is another Buckwheat Festival tradition he needed to adopt.
Cuppett, of Bruceton Mills, is first runner-up to King Buckwheat Kyle Cool, who'll reign over the 72nd Annual Preston County Buckwheat Festival from Sept. 26-30 this year. Cuppett's sister Candace Cuppett was Queen Ceres in 2007. Their dad, Robbie, was King Buckwheat in 1987, and his brother, their uncle, Jeffrey R. Cuppett, wore the crown first, in 1983.
The Preston County Buckwheat Festival is a harvest celebration, homecoming and massive volunteer effort held in Kingwood.
Kings are chosen through an application process that includes a farm tour where candidates demonstrate their agricultural knowledge.
When Cuppett, who is president of his Future Farmers of America chapter, made the court, he decided he would grow buckwheat, planting the short-season crop in mid-June and harvesting it in August.
"This is my first year doing it," the 17-year-old Preston High School senior said. "It will be a completely new experience. I will be raising five acres. You don't hear much about it so I started doing research. It's actually worth a good bit of money and it's sold all over the world. It's gluten-free and replaces wheat in recipes. Other cultures use it for noodles. Buckwheat is a great feed source for livestock."
And that's part of the Buckwheat Festival's roots in 1938.
"Late in the Great Depression, rural West Virginia and Preston County found economic recovery slow and tedious. Local farmers grew buckwheat, although mainly for animal feed, as an ‘insurance crop' because of its short growing season and good quality; it was thought that perhaps this grain might spur agricultural economic growth. For this reason and for its uniqueness, buckwheat was chosen as the focus for an end-of-harvest homecoming when farmers could relax, have fun, and compete," writes Tom McConnell in "Golden Harvest, 50 Years At The Buckwheat Festival; KVFD Festival Genesis: Farmers, Buckwheat and a Dream."
Today McConnell is program leader of the West Virginia Small Farm Center at West Virginia University Extension Service. The Buckwheat Festival is now the Kingwood Volunteer Fire Department's major fundraiser for the year.
Few farmers raise buckwheat anymore. The flour to make the festival's signature buckwheat cakes and sausage dinners has to be ordered from elsewhere. Cuppett will take his harvest to the Hazelton Mill in Preston County.
"They're one of the only mills in the state that still grind buckwheat," he said. "They grind it the old-fashioned way with a stone."
But the whole-hog sausage is a solely Preston County product.
"The pigs are raised in the county, then taken to Preston High school where they are slaughtered by students in the animal processing program," said Buckwheat Festival General Chairman Stan Betler.
To assure a consistent product, firefighters make the sausage and mix the batter for the buckwheat cakes. Working in walk-in coolers below the kitchens in the KVFD Community Building on Brown Avenue, firefighters grind the pork and season it with their own spice blend, mix it and form it into patties to be fried.
The kitchens served 80,000 dinners last year, Betler said. And that doesn't include the meals served by area churches, Scout troops and other fire departments throughout the week.
"Even though the Kingwood Volunteer Fire Department sponsors it, it's a community effort," Betler said. "It takes hundreds of people and thousands of hours."
Betler chose the festival's theme this year — "Where Volunteers Make It Happen" — to stress the importance of volunteers.
Coronation of the royalty occurs on Friday afternoon on a football field across from the fairgrounds.
All week, 4-H and FFA members show the animals they raise, then sell them on Saturday night in the Cow Palace Arena. For fun, children and adults compete in the Ag Olympics. Events include milk drinking and nail driving. These contests are like ones from the festival's early days when, on the courthouse east lawn, there were sack races, hog calling, husband calling, eating contests, and rolling pin throwing. Today, lamb dressing — which is exactly what it sounds like, dressing a lamb in a costume in a timed event — draws a standing-room only crowd.
Gardeners, home cooks and crafters enter canned goods, photographs, flower arrangements, needlework, vegetables and handicrafts to be judged against their neighbors'.
The festival used to give away a car, but now the $5 ticket buys a chance at winning $10,000 cash. A car show is held on Sunday, Heritage Day.
A huge carnival of thrill rides and midway games set up in Firemen's Field, the heart of the fairgrounds, bordered by Brown Avenue, South Price Street and Tunnelton Street.
Fire companies from surrounding counties and states travel to Kingwood for the Firemen's Parade on Thursday night. Marching bands, Scouts and youth league athletes are a big part of the School Day Parade on Friday afternoon. Animals and young farmers are the feature of Saturday's Farmer's Day Parade.
Preston High's home football game that weekend is dubbed "The Buckwheat Bowl." Throughout the day, festival goers can watch woodcarving, play bingo and shop among more than 100 crafters.
Neither the fire department nor the county Economic Development Authority or Chamber of Commerce has any idea of the economic impact of the festival on Preston and even surrounding counties. But it is "significant," with 100,000 people visiting the festival every year — a few more or less depending on weather.
Today, the Buckwheat Festival always begins the last Thursday in September. It has been held 72 times since 1938. None was held in 1942, '43, '44 and '45 during World War II.