For 51 weeks each year, life is pretty quiet in the eastern North Carolina town of Benson. Downtown goes dark shortly after sunset and everything is shutdown on Sunday afternoon. Although the town sits at the intersection of I-95 and I-40, just east of Raleigh, the community’s 3,300 residents don’t worry about traffic jams or rowdy parties — with one exception. For 61 years, during the final week of September, Benson has played host to Mule Days — a small-town festival like no other. During the week of Mule Days, the town’s population typically increases more than 20-fold, to nearly 80,000 people who come to join in the revelry. Mules and horses outnumber cars on the local thoroughfares. Street vendors serve up a battery of fried food that would rival any state fair offerings. Kids coax their parents into laying down dollars for a make-shift carnival. Artisans come from all over the country to peddle their wares. A constant slew of rodeos are held at two separate livestock arenas in this community that doesn’t have a movie theatre within 15 miles. Massive campgrounds pop up overnight in the empty fields scattered throughout the rural town and families make it a point to drive hundreds of miles in order to ride their horses in the 3-hour long parade that takes a serpentine course in and out of Benson’s downtown neighborhoods Saturday morning. Many locals make plans to leave town during the week of Mule Days, frustrated by the traffic jams and around-the-clock parties. For others, the energy of the festival is an exciting reminder that life in a small town doesn’t have to be Mayberry-esque all of the time. Either way, everyone agrees there is nothing quite like Benson Mule Days.
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