Fall Jeep Fest draws a crowd

Published 9:30 am Tuesday, October 31, 2023

By Jennifer McDaniels

For the Enterprise

This year’s Jeep Fest not only brought in visitors to enjoy the fall season in Harlan County but also heightened attention to Black Mountain – Kentucky’s highest peak – as well as the opportunity to help with local charitable holiday outreaches like the Harlan County Sheriff Office’s Shop With A Cop outreach and the Mountain Santa toy drive.

“It’s exciting to see our club events continuing to grow,” said Garrett Taylor, president of Harlan County Jeepers. “This is our seventh event since our club was founded in 2020, and we’ve gone from 20 Jeeps during our first event to 100 plus Jeeps we had earlier this year for our spring event. There is proof that people are wanting to come to the mountains of Harlan County, and we are very excited to play a part in that tourism push. We’re just as excited to provide recreation for our local people, as well.”

It was too early to get this year’s fall Jeep Fest stats on Saturday evening when Taylor and Harlan County Jeepers vice-president Chris Miniard were interviewed as they took a break under the event headquarters tent.         

“I think what sets our club and events apart from others is our people – our membership,” Miniard said. “We couldn’t do these big events without our dedicated club members. Sure, they all want to get together and have a good time, but it’s important to them to promote their home, and that includes our scenic beauty and all our businesses. We’re also very thankful for our event sponsors who get behind us for these events. It’s all about teamwork when it comes to promoting Harlan County and working together to do something good and positive for our home.”

Taylor started Harlan County Jeepers in 2020 as a way to provide safe recreation during the COVID-19 pandemic. What started out as social distancing has evolved into an active Harlan County club that has stayed together because of strong friendships that have been formed with a shared vision of promoting the beauty and the people of Harlan County to the world.

“It’s just a good group of people who really have their community at heart,” Taylor said. “We come out, we ride, we mingle, hangout, and we just talk for hours and hours and hours and hours. It’s good times spent outdoors.”

Harlan Tourism director Brandon Pennington said local clubs like the Harlan County Jeepers made his job of promoting the area a lot easier, as well as enjoyable. Harlan Tourism partners with the Jeep club to help with event logistics of the festival grounds, helping getting their vendors set up, and collaborating with festival activities such as the popular Mountain Market, all the inflatables for the kids, and the entertainment such as this year’s headliner musicians, the Fleetwood Mac Experience tribute band.

The Jeepers have done an incredible job not only bringing visitors and new money to the area, but they also find great ways to bring our local community in on all the fun,” Pennington said. “They’re a great group to work with. Jeep Fest is a perfect event for the fall because there is no better time to experience the beauty of our mountains than when our leaves are showing their best colors. They are spectacular this year, with the brilliant burning colors cascading down the mountains. There’s nowhere else you can ride your Jeeps and have this kind of experience.”

This year’s fall Jeep Fest kicked off on First Street in downtown Harlan on Friday night with a Halloween-themed Jeep show, live music at the nearby Harlan County Beer Company, and a downtown ghost tour led by Toni Felosi and Thomas Marcum of Bloody Harlan Tours.

On Saturday, the fall Jeep ride began around 11 a.m. and included a giant, scenic circle that started out on KY 38, proceeded over to Keokee and Appalachia in Virginia, back over KY 160 (The Dragon Slayer) on Big Black Mountain, and then across Slope Hollow and back on to KY 38 to Harlan.

Three-year Harlan County Jeepers member Mistie Sanders led this year’s Black Mountain fall Jeep Fest ride. She said the opportunity for Jeep enthusiasts to experience not only the beauty of Black Mountain but also its culture was unbeatable.

“The leaves and the mountains were just beautiful,” said Sanders, whose Savage Jeep won first place in the Halloween-themed showing on Friday night. “It’s such a wonderful experience to ride these mountains together with friends and fellow Jeepers. My husband and I used to ride bikes, but he had eye surgery, so we had to sell the motorcycles. But then, we got into Jeeping, and it’s been like a whole new other family for us. I believe our Jeep club is getting some positive attention for Harlan County, and I encourage people to join up with us. If you like mountains, if you like riding in the mountains, and if you want the experience of having a whole, big extended family, then join up with us.”

Harlan County Jeepers Nora Hall rode the middle on Saturday’s Black Mountain ride, and Angie Miniard brought up the rear. Hall said they always aim to make each event ride different so that people can experience more of Harlan County. Hall said this year’s fall Jeep Fest participants were amazed when they got to experience the vista from atop the state’s highest peak on Black Mountain.

“People love visiting the highest point in Kentucky and the views from up there are spectacular,” Hall said. “They are always interested in the radar tower and the history of Black Mountain. And now that it’s known as the Dragon Slayer, we always stop by the welcome center in Lynch for them to sign the wall and to buy gifts. The ladies working there always greet everyone with smiles and they make sure that the groups feel welcome and appreciated for visiting our area.”

Money was raised during this year’s fall Jeep Fest to contribute to local charities that help provide happier Christmases for children in economically challenged families. Money was raised for the Harlan County Sheriff’s Office Shop With A Cop initiative and the Mountain Santa Toy Drive.

“The Harlan County Sheriff’s Office is excited to partner with Harlan County Cops for Kids, which will oversee projects like Shop with a Cop and Hooked on Fishing Not on Drugs,” said Harlan County Sheriff Chris Brewer. “I want to thank the Harlan County Jeepers for having a fundraiser for the upcoming Shop with a Cop. All donations will go to Harlan County Cops for Kids, which will be used to bless a few children in our communities during the Christmas season.”

Jordan Howard, who heads up the Mountain Santa project, taking over the reins from his late father, Mike Howard, who started the outreach, said he was grateful for the charitable work the Harlan County Jeepers do for their community.

“Well, first off, I got to give the Lord all the credit because if it wasn’t for Him to put it on people’s hearts to donate, I couldn’t continue this wonderful work,” Howard said. “It amazes me how people come together to give donations. I’m very thankful for the Harlan County Jeepers and all their members for putting this together with the donations because it means a brand-new toy for the children of Harlan County. I believe my father would be overjoyed and very grateful for the Harlan County Jeepers. Carrying on his Mountain Santa mission is the greatest feeling in the world to put a smile on a child’s face and to watch them open gifts is a blessing.”

Hall said one of the most incredible things about Harlan County Jeepers is the club’s desire to not only promote their home but to help its people.

“You won’t find a more giving group of people,” Hall said. “We always make sure that there is a charitable cause for each event. This year Shop with a Cop got the proceeds from the 50/50 pay, and we had everyone either bring a toy or donate money for the local Mountain Santa. I absolutely love the whole Jeep atmosphere. I love the community and friends that come along with owning a Jeep. When you buy a Jeep, you don’t just get an awesome vehicle. You get a whole family. I’ve been with the Harlan County Jeepers for three years now, and I can honestly say that you won’t find a better bunch of people to be around. They are my family now. I’m always encouraging people to join because I know that they are going to feel welcomed and appreciated in this club.”