Riceboro Mayor Bill Austin, City Councilman Chris Stacy and Geechee Gullah expert Jim Becote organized the first RiceFest, which was held seven years ago at the community center.
“We wanted to find a way to celebrate to the Geechee Gullah heritage of the area and just come together (to) have a good time,” Stacy said. “Jim Becote, who has the Geechee Kunda Heritage Center and Museum helped me to organize it. What it has become in seven years is pretty amazing.”
Seven years later, this year’s RiceFest celebration featured a parade, various musical and performing groups, and the 2015 Miss RiceFest contest. The 2014 winner, Destiny Bacon, helped start the festival Saturday morning by leading the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance.
“This event has grown every year, and this year we were able to acquire some adjacent land as we expanded,” Austin said. “We have gotten a lot of support from Liberty County Sheriff Steve Sikes and Fort Stewart, and the businesses of Hinesville and Liberty County have been very supportive. More people have started to make set their family reunions during the weekend of RiceFest so it creates almost a homecoming-type atmosphere.”
RiceFest isn’t the only way that the Gullah Geechee heritage of the Georgia Coast has been commemorated and highlighted.
Highway 17 has been designated as part of the Gullah Geechee corridor, which is marked throughout the roadway between the South Carolina coast down through the Georgia coast and barrier islands.
The actual time for the rice harvest would have been September, but organizers felt the weather has cooled enough to have good turnout for the festival in early November.
Slaves from Africa who established the Geechee Gullah country in the area certainly understood how to grow crops like rice. West Africa’s soil and topography is similar to that of Coastal Georgia. Many staples of Southern cuisine were adopted from the Geechee Gullah culture.
University of Connecticut music professor Robert Stephens, brother of state Rep. Mickey Stephens, D-Savannah, has hosted a National Endowment of the Humanities conference that examined the Geechee Gullah culture found in the Low country and Georgia coastal areas such as Riceboro. State Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, gave one of the keynote addresses at the conference.
Saturday’s festival was a combination of lessons in history and Southern living. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves singing along to gospel hymns, and judges sampled some 20 different kinds of dishes made with rice.
“Some people cook traditional recipes; others may be something that they have come up with. We have different types of dishes that are dinner and some dessert recipes. A lot of people will normally add some type of sea food to the rice dish,” Sarah McIver said.
Austin has enjoyed seeing the festival develop.
“We have lots of good food and entertainment. Events for all ages. Considering we have been able to expand this year, it makes me excited to see what next year’s RiceFest will bring,” he said. “It’s a really good time and (I) have enjoyed being able to show off Riceboro, the City Of Pride, and honor the tradition and accomplishments Geechee Gullah culture that we come from.”