In this busy day and age, where the meaning of Thanksgiving is sometimes overshadowed by Black Friday sales or recipes on Pinterest, there is a multi-generational group of friends and family who have been gathering in Myrtle Beach on the same day since the early 1970s. Simply known as The Feast, it appears to be much like any family reunion or potluck dinner, but the story runs much deeper. Each year on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, a diverse cross section of friends and family converge at a Myrtle Beach State Park shelter to celebrate and give thanks.
The informal organizers secure the site each year setting up early and stoking the fireplace to battle the often brisk November air. Everyone begins to arrive, hugs are exchanged, pictures of children and more recently grandchildren are displayed on 21st century smartphones. This is a far cry from the revelry of the old days, but at its essence, The Feast is about friendship, gratitude and longevity.
As a child, I remember attending The Feast with my family and it was a great day at the State Park with many members of my family and extended aunts and uncles in attendance. Think of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with a twist…with many in attendance being chefs, musicians, artists and craftsmen, it’s a far cry from the dreaded holiday reunion so often portrayed in the movies. Really it’s a party, but a responsible one. A conscious party if you will.
Many from this group forged their friendships long ago at Coastal Carolina University, which at the time was a humble charter branch of the University of South Carolina. Many of us have great memories of college, roommates and the general freedom provided by youth. In today’s world, Facebook and other media platforms have made it easier than ever to stay connected with old friends.
This collective, though, has made its reunion, The Feast, happen for nearly 45 years running - and the latest rendition is scheduled for this Sunday. A bit of perspective, the first Feast happened when Richard Nixon was president, computers were mostly tools used at NASA and The Beatles had recently called it quits.
Aside from its longevity, The Feast began as a gathering of young adults celebrating the holidays the way they wanted, making their own traditions. Of course Thursday - Thanksgiving Day - was the day with family, but this was a day spent with friends and chosen family. It was day to let your hair down…waaayy down in some cases. But it wasn’t all incense and tie dye. This group of friends was as much about giving back as they were giving thanks.
So how did this tradition come to be? How have they managed to maintain it through the years, especially in the Myrtle Beach area when history is seemingly bulldozed in the name of progress at whim and a transient population comes in and out with the tide? And what are these folks - the original Feasters - up to now?
What a Bunch of Freaks
Gauging from interviews with people involved with The Feast since the beginning, the consensus is that it originated from an auspiciously named student club, F.R.E.A.K. (Freedom to Explore Every Aspect of Knowledge) at the USC- Coastal Carolina Branch, and community involvement and environmental awareness.
Buz Martin, of Murrells Inlet, recalls: “ The genesis of the whole thing was a group of students at USC in Columbia taking some time out and relocating to Manhattan’s Lower East Side in New York City. This was probably somewhere around 1968-1969. When we returned to Columbia we started a student organization and named it FREAK, the acronym came later. We weren’t overtly political, more arts and counter culture oriented. Not long after, a chapter popped up at Coastal in the Fall of 1970.”
The Coastal Carolina chapter disbanded, at least formally, the following year, but not before organizing events to recognize Horry County’s first Earth Day celebration in the spring of 1971.
Lead Sound Engineer for Conway’s Theater of the Republic, David Johnson, was involved that day. “ Well I was still finishing high school at the time, but we walked (U.S.) 501 from the old Conway High School all the way to Coastal picking up trash, about 50 of us, others at Coastal handled that stretch. We had adults following us in pickups so we could load up all the bags of trash as we walked. I think some people even rode horses.”
Other events included presentations by the Coastal Carolina science department about the impact and consequence of pollution on the environment. “The keynote speaker was Larry Schwartz, then a professor and later a good friend to many of us,” says Johnson. “One of my best friends, Richard Thomas, was so inspired that day he pursued graduate studies in science and eventually chaired the Biology department at West Virginia University.”
The FREAK club having disbanded and other members graduating or moving into different phases of life, it was decided to secure a shelter area at the Myrtle Beach State Park and have essentially a Thanksgiving get-together for the friends still in the area and those close enough to return.
“Early on and for many years later Shelly Rideout, the late Scott Jordan and Donna Catton-Johnson were mainly responsible for setting up each Feast with the park, prepping the site, starting the fire, and general organizing. In the beginning it was mainly all just us young adults, with a few babies, and pets,” recalls Martin. “Then it was us, kids of all ages, many pets. And new people began to be added to the mix.”
Martin also remembers, “Though a bit younger, Jeff Roberts (the late owner of Sounds Familiar record store in Myrtle Beach and a founder of the area non-profit, South By Southeast Music Feast) would attend occasionally. He was really a friend to us all, we bought all the classic albums from him... it was really a much smaller community then. Everybody loved Jeff.” The South By Southeast Music Feast - not to be confused with The Feast - organization presents a variety of Americana music artists in a semi-monthly concert series/pot luck supper at Myrtle Beach Train Depot and was founded in 2003 by Roberts and other area music lovers.
Whether or not they share the “Feast” moniker intentionally is unimportant. We believe it may be a case of parallel thinking. The first SXSE events were casual affairs and covered dishes shared among friends while enjoying American roots music artists often scouted out in Nashville, Tenn., Memphis and elsewhere.
There are many SXSE members who have attended the pre-Thanksgiving Feast at M.B. State Park through the years and others who have not. They are entirely two different events, just to clarify. However they share many common attributes of good times, food and music. Another way they are similar is they make it a priority to give back to the community in various ways.
“Another thing to note,” Martin says of recent years at The Feast, “It’s far from being all a bunch of hippies these days, among the Feasters who still show up are professors, business owners, custom craftsmen of all sorts, contractors/builders, professional musicians and art gallery owners, etc. A few are officially retired but still keep busy. Some are world travelers who still make sure to be in the area when Feast time comes around.”
Back...to the Future
Recently a group of Feasters past and present spent a warm October weekend donating their time and efforts to The Starfish Project, which provides assistance for stroke survivors. Locally-based, The Starfish Project is the vision of Ralph Preston who lives in Murrells Inlet with his wife, my aunt, who was one of the original USC crew that relocated to Manhattan.
An accomplished photographer and experienced video producer, Preston is also a stroke survivor. His semi-retired status allows him to put effort in a completely hands-on fashion with minimal infrastructure. Careers in the computer and media industry also provided Preston an advantage in presenting and organizing his project through Facebook and blogging.
“Well, it could happen to any one of us.” says Preston, “It happened to me. I got to know this woman through therapy and stroke survivor support groups and one day she mentioned her roof was leaking. It made me think, ‘if we can make an impact for one person locally, maybe it could become contagious.’ A master of organization and detail, Preston secured charitable donations to cover the cost of material as well as assembling a team of about 15-20 people to donate their time and labor.
A crew of experienced builders and carpenters replaced the roof of the small Murrells Inlet home, while other teams repainted the exterior and overhauled the garden and landscaping. As participants in The Starfish Project, my wife, Jennifer Thomas, and I can attest that it was a full day’s work, with countless hours of planning done in advance to ensure that it could be done in the two-day window.
“We planned so that even if you had very little skill or even physical capacity to do the project, you could help by picking up unexpected materials or lunch for the workers so the project could keep moving. And, at the end of the day, we have dirt on our hands and hearts filled with love, and I couldn’t be happier,” said Preston.
Though still refurbishing some interior details that became apparent during the project, the home was transformed in less than 48 hours. As the saying goes, “Many hands make light work.” More information on the Starfish Project can be found on Preston’s blog: http://strokedvd.blogspot.com.
I’d Love to Change the World…But I Don’t Know What to Do?
So what can be learned from all this? Several things stand out - Friendship, Community, Creativity, Awareness and Local Impact.
Perhaps the closest to the original spirit of The Feast, F.R.E.A.K., and early grass roots Earth Day efforts, would be the work of Scott Mann, WAVE 104.1 radio personality, who works on behalf of the local music community and various local causes, whether it be cancer awareness or the annual Marathon for Meals at Broadway at the Beach, which is still be accepting donations until 6 p.m. Friday (see last week’s Surge cover story).
Much like early F.R.E.A.K. club, Mann enlists friends from the local music and arts communities to create a festival type atmosphere while making an impact here in Horry County. In addition to his long list of band connections, he often incorporates talented dancers and circus type acts from the artistic collectives, Over the Moon Productions and Hoop Song.
By creating an energetic and entertaining environment, Mann is able to engage audiences while creating awareness in the community. Also through his activism and influence, he does his part to dispel the myth of the lazy, unaware hippy or college kid. “If I could tell the young people anything, it would be that helping your community is one of the most important things you can do. When the world gives you good things, you should always take some time to give some back,” said Mann from his temporary home at Broadway at the Beach, helming the food drive.
Although many fraternity and sorority organizations at Coastal Carolina University are active in community projects multiple times a year, are there independent groups capable of organizing and making a difference as well? Or has the younger generation opted for a decadent life of getting “turned up” at the club or taking “Sunday Funday” to illogical extremes?
Perhaps a group of CCU students is planning a get together right now? Perhaps some of them will have read this article? Perhaps they’ll make something happen just because they can? Perhaps they’ll do it again next year and the year after that?
Perhaps they’ll still be getting together 45 years from now? Perhaps one of their kids will even write an article about it for the local alt-weekly? Perhaps.