THOMSON - These days, Thomson has the blues.
But before the Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival became a McDuffie County fixture, there was a living, breathing, busy art scene in downtown Thomson.
The same organization that created such an environment now controls the blues.
It's name? The McDuffie County Activities Council.
"There was a collection of artwork that some folks in Michigan together, and it toured the eastern part of the US (during the early 1970s). Thomson was selected as one of the stops," said original Activities Council board member Bob Ballard. "It had a lot of valuable art in it - collections from New York, Michigan, and that sort of thing. As we were preparing to have that train stop here in Thomson, where people could come in and see this artwork, that group got together and said we needed to continue that sort of thing."
That's exactly what they did.
From the early 1970s to the early 1990s, the Activities Council provided affordable housing for all kinds of artists to make Thomson their home. The council was able to buy several buildings on Railroad Street through a generous loan from a local woman, and they began to attract several artists and their families almost immediately.
The organization also created an annual arts and crafts show - CraftArt South - which brought in as many as 150 local artists to show off their work every year.
"It became a great part of the community," said Ballard.
Over the years, however, interest waned.
"The emphasis changed, the artists changed the way they did things, people's lives changed, and fortunes changed, and everyone just moved on," Ballard said.
After many of the artists moved on, during the late 1990s several new members of the council changed the organization's focus to the blues festival, which was acquired from the Thomson-McDuffie Tourism Bureau. The event has grown steadily in reputation, and Activities Council board members are excited about its future.
"This is trying to build up that brand and put Thomson on the map for something else - a blues festival," Charlie Knox said. "There are people all over the south who know the festival. While it's not a huge one yet, it's been drawing a pretty steady following. Thomson will become known for a top notch festival, and the benefits will go back into the community."
Though the festival is the council's primary focus each year, it provides small incentives for local art and music groups, such as the Thomson High School band. Board members also hope to start several art and music scholarships.
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