The streets in Watonga may not be paved with cheese, but in October, they come pretty close.
On Oct. 11 and 12, the town will play host to thousands of visitors eager for a taste of the Watonga Cheese and Wine Festival. An Oklahoma tradition since 1976, the festival was recently renamed to include its latest offering: a wine competition naming the best vintage by Oklahoma vineyards and wineries.
In the nearly four decades since its inception, the festival has expanded to include not only cheese tastings and cooking contests, but also an arts show, quilt show, a fiber arts show, live entertainment, a vintage car show, a parade and the Race the Rail competition – a 32-mile bike race to beat the AT&T railroad to the nearby town of Geary and then back. In addition, this year presents the 33rd annual Rat Race, featuring 1k, 5k and 10k runs. New to the 2013 festival is Karaoke Night, as well as a street dancing celebration.
The event has become so popular that over the years it has led to major transformations in the town, says this year’s festival committee chairman, Andy Barrett.
“The Main Street area of downtown Watonga was renovated with new sidewalks, lighting and Centennial Park over the past 15 years, which better accommodate the festival,” he says. In addition, he says the town’s downtown armory has been repurposed so it can house the more than 100 vendors that will arrive for the event.
The original Watonga Cheese factory opened in 1940, making the town a byword for finely crafted, natural cheeses. The company had its ups and downs, but the Watonga location eventually closed permanently after sustaining major damage from a 2007 storm. A new location operates out of Perryton, using the original recipes passed down through the generations.
The Watonga Cheese Festival initially began as a way to showcase the food that put Watonga on the map; now, although the cheese factory that made the city famous has closed its doors, its spirit lives on every October. For more information about this year’s festivities, please visit www.watongacheesefestival.com.