By WHITNEY BURDETTE ∙ firstname.lastname@example.org
Each Memorial Day weekend, people can hear the "chop, chop, chop" echo off the Webster County hills.
The holiday to some may mean the beginning of the summer season, but to woodchoppers, it's a time to hone their skills with an axe or chain saw.
The Webster County Woodchopping Festival attracts woodchoppers and lumbermen from throughout the United States and the world. According to the festival's website, woodchoppingfestival.org, lumbermen come from as far away as Australia and New Zealand to compete for the Southern U.S. World Championship Woodchopper title.
The festival began more than 50 years ago, when Webster County native Arden Cogar Sr. began competing. In 1960, the Webster Springs Lions Club sponsored the first woodchopping event at Camp Caesar 4-H camp. The festival struggled for a few years, moving back and forth between Webster Springs and Diana. Eventually, the festival settled in Webster Springs, where it has become a world-renowned event.
Commissioner of Agriculture Walt Helmick, a Webster County native, said the woodchopping festival is a can't-miss event.
"I'm very supportive of the Woodchopping Festival," he said. "As a Webster County native, it's a very special event to me. I was there this year and it was good to be back with the Cogar boys who have brought so much fame to our state as timber sports world champions. It's an event that you just have to do at some point."
Helmick was referencing Arden Cogar and his son Arden "Jamie" Cogar Jr., who also is a competitive lumberjack.
"Webster County has been synonymous with world champions for several years," Cogar said. "Paul Chris won a world title in the 1930s and competed in the Rhododendron Festival. My father was a multi-time world champion. He has since passed it on to me and my cousins."
Five of the top 10 lumberjacks in the U.S. are from Webster County, Cogar said. Of those, only two work in the forest trade. Cogar, Jr. is an attorney in Charleston.
But the weekend-long festival is more than just woodchopping. Other events include car and truck shows, a motorcycle show, West Virginia State Fireman's Rodeo Championship, a parade, arts and craft shows, the West Virginia State Turkey Calling Championship, live music, a gospel sing and fireworks. Tom Clark, director of the festival, said it's a good time for Webster Countians to come home.
Webster Springs is home to fewer than 1,000. However, about 50,000 people descend on the small town each Memorial Day weekend.
"It's basically a coming-home tradition for people who live in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains," Cogar said. "The woodchopping side of it presents some of the best competition from around the world. We'll have as many as eight or 10 different countries represented, competing for various woodchopping events."
Woodchopping events include the Springboard, Jack & Jill Crosscut, Axe Throw, Standing Block and Hot Saw, among others. More than $26,000 in prize money is awarded each year.
"We're pretty solvent," Clark said. "One weekend of rain doesn't wipe us out financially because we watch our Ps and Qs and try to bring in quality entertainment and still save money."
Clark pointed out the event is family-friendly, meaning no alcohol is permitted or sold.
"It's family-oriented and we want to keep it that way," Clark said.