SPRING LAKE — Steve Dittman knows exactly where he will be Thanksgiving morning. He'll be in the kitchen at the Sertoma Youth Ranch, spending the pre-dawn hours carving turkeys for the 400 or so dinner guests he's expecting later in the day.
It's a lot of work for the promoter of the ranch's annual holiday bluegrass festival, which runs Thursday through Sunday. But then again, there's something about seeing the same familiar faces year after year that makes him think of his childhood.
"It's like a giant family reunion," said the 63-year-old Dittman. "You get to see people you may not see for the rest of the year. And they're happy because they're around other people they know. It's a big time."
Dittman estimates that the Tampa Bay Area Sertoma Club will serve up more than 30 smoked turkeys to campers and RVers, who return the favor by bringing a covered dish to share. Later, everyone is invited to gather at the stage to listen to musicians play what Dittman calls the "best music to digest to you can possibly imagine."
Started by the Sertoma club nearly 30 years ago, the Thanksgiving Weekend Bluegrass Festival has become one of the largest bluegrass festivals in the South, drawing upward of 1,500 people over the weekend.
According to Dittman, the idea for a Thanksgiving festival came about as a whim. The club, which started hosting a Labor Day bluegrass festival in 1979, was hoping a move to later in the year, when the weather was cooler, would help attendance.
"I think there was some skepticism for Thanksgiving at first because it's such a family holiday," Dittman said. But when he noticed campers serving up turkey dinners with all the trimmings outside their RVs, he knew the idea was going to be a hit.
Dittman believes that the idea of a communal Thanksgiving feast works particularly well with bluegrass fans, who are used to camping together and sharing. He also thinks that for many, it just makes more sense than slaving away in a hot kitchen all day.
"A lot of the people who come out are retired, and that kind of thing just isn't in their lifestyle anymore," he said. "A lot of them tell their kids that if they want to have Thanksgiving dinner with them, they're going to have be able to enjoy it in the outdoors."
The weekend festival will feature performances by Al Batten and Bluegrass Reunion, Beth Stevens & Edge, Larry Gillis, the Bluegrass Brothers, the Gary Waldrep Band, Roger Bass and the Hillbillies, Carolina Road, Goldwing Express, the Bluegrass Parlor Band, and Smokey Greene.
Proceeds will go toward the ranch, which provides outdoor recreation activities for area youth and civic groups.
Logan Neill can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1435.