By Sarah Mansheim
“There’s just not enough help,” says Williamsburg Ruritan Laurie Hedrick. Hedrick is talking about the cancelled annual Bear Dinner in Willamsburg, one of the town’s signature community dinners that has been going on for over 50 years. The other event, Williamsburg’s Ramp Supper, is also cancelled for 2015 as well.
“The Ruritans can’t do it anymore,” she says about the group of folks who help Williamsburg Community Action put on the dinners.
When asked if either dinner is likely to return in 2016, Hedrick answers quickly: “I honestly doubt it.”
Williamsburg resident Debbie Sizemore, who also has cooked for the bear dinner and ramp supper over the years, says that bear dinner “started sometime around 1963 and was initially a project of the local ‘Calamity Jane’ group. The first one started as just a dinner for local bear hunters. Over the years, it developed into a community fundraiser for various organizations. For many years, it was held annually in January but was later moved to the first Saturday in March each year.”
Since the bear dinner was moved to March, many people began to see the bear dinner as a harbinger of spring, the event became so important that if a person was running for political office, he or she knew they better show up at the Williamsburg Elementary School cafeteria to shake hands and eat. Folks from all over the Greenbrier Valley and across the state made an annual to the bear dinner, and the ramp supper was featured on the West Virginia Department of Commerce’s website as an annual activity.
But with an aging population and the absence of a local school, community support for the events has been dwindling. Two of the organizations the dinners raised funds for over the years was the Williamsburg Elementary School and Williamsburg Junior High PTOs. However, when Eastern Greenbrier Middle School opened its doors back in 1992, a host of junior high schools were closed including Williamsburg. Then, in 2006, Williamsburg Elementary closed leaving the community without an educational, and community, center.
Until last year, the bear dinner and ramp supper were still held in the former school’s cafeteria, but the Ruritans and Williamsburg Community Action not only had to pay for the food (bear is often donated, but the side dishes must be paid for) but for heating the building.
Hedrick says that some community members considered combining the two dinners in an attempt to keep the tradition alive. Unfortunately, she says, kitchen help is not the only thing organizers lack. They need help on the hillsides, too.
“Digging and cleaning ramps is hard work,” says Hedrick. “Last year, my husband passed out one mile up the mountain digging ramps for the supper. We just can’t do it anymore.”
Hedrick says she worries about cancelling the dinners and what it will do to Williamsburg’s community spirit. “Once the schools closed, there was a loss of a sense of community,” she says. “Once it’s gone, it’s not going to come back. Now, we don’t have the dinner – we don’t have anything left.”