Once a Year, Swarms of Music Fans Converge on This Clean-Water Plant Site

A campground on a North Carolina clean-water plant site hosts visitors to a music festival and doubles as a disc golf course.

Once a Year, Swarms of Music Fans Converge on This Clean-Water Plant Site

Photo courtesy of Kayla Mounce, Wilkes Soil and Water Conservation district

During the last week of April every year since 1998, hundreds of travel trailers, mobile homes, pop-up tents on wheels and backpacking tents converge on the wastewater treatment plant in the Town of Wilkesboro, North Carolina.

Their owners set up camp on a campground at the plant site that was created to support some of the tens of thousands who attend a renowned four-day music event, MerleFest. Providing more than 700 campsites on 69 acres of the 80-acre plant site is just part of being a good neighbor and helping out, says Sam Call, utilities director.

“Some of the campers have been coming since the beginning” Call says. “We have become friends with many of them over the years.” The Wilkesboro Wastewater Campground includes 200 modern campsites with RV hookups for electricity and freshwater, two heated and air-conditioned warm-water showers and a holding-tank dump. There are more than 500 tent sites. 

Campers jamming

Late-night impromptu music jam sessions are a tradition among the campers. Several years ago, returning campers nicknamed the experience SewerFest. Call wasn’t enthused about the name because of its negative connotation. “But I’ve gotten over that and sort of embrace it now. We sell T-shirts, coffee cups and other merchandise with the SewerFest logo to raise funds for different causes.”

More money is raised by the sale of firewood, ice and various foods and drinks. The proceeds from this year’s festival will go toward construction of an all-inclusive playground being built at the site. “We try to spread it out for community causes all over town,” Call says. “Last year, part of the proceeds went to the high school band.”

MerleFest, named after the son of American music legend Doc Watson, is held 4 miles away on the campus of Wilkes Community College near downtown Wilkesboro. A free shuttle between the campground and the festival is available for the campers.

Hosting headliners

Billed as one of America’s premier musical festivals, MerleFest draws many well-known musicians to 13 performance stages scattered throughout the campus. Past performers include Dolly Parton and the Doobie Brothers. Headliners for the 2020 event are Willie Nelson and Allison Krauss.

More than 30,000 people attend the festival, which serves as a fundraiser for the college. “We get people from all over the world and all walks of life,” Call says.

Preparing for MerleFest and managing the campground takes a real commitment by his staff, of whom he is proud. Plant operators team up with other town staff members to host the event.  

A smaller annual two-day music and food event, Carolina in the Fall, occupies the campground each September. When the festivals are over, the campground property reopens as the 18-hole Rolling Pines professional disc golf course. Carved out of hills covered with loblolly pine trees, the course is open to the public.

Room to grow

Land for the golf course and campground was acquired in the early 1990s when the plant needed more room to expand the plant to its current 4.9 mgd capacity. The owner wouldn’t sell only a portion of the property, so the town bought the entire 69 acres.

“That’s when MerleFest began attracting more people than the other campgrounds around town could handle,” Call says. “The idea of a campground caught on, and SewerFest has grown to what it is today.”

Although an 8-foot-tall fence isolates the plant’s treatment operations from the public, an attractive wooden carved sign mounted on a decorative stone support welcomes visitors to the disc golf course and campground. “I’ve got a great staff who helps to make this all work,” Call says. “It’s not always easy, but sometimes it just takes hard work to accomplish good things.”


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