Terry Young after being crowned Sardine Queen in 2018

Terry Young after being crowned Sardine Queen in 2018.

One of the area’s quirkiest events, the International Sardine Festival in Aberdeen is more than an annual ode to the oily fish. 

Organizer Jamie Boles said the festival, which returns Friday after being canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, is like a “big reunion for old friends.”

“People come back year after year for the fellowship and to have a good time,” said Boles, an Aberdeen native who has represented Moore County in the N.C. General Assembly since 2009. “It’s a way to take your worries away for three hours.”

The event was founded 29 years ago by the late Randall Moss. Remembered as a “jokester” by Boles, Moss invited a group of about 30 friends to join him for a sardine lunch at Aberdeen Lake Park after his daughter forbade him from eating the odorous fish at her business across the street.

“I threw him out and he said ‘well, I’ll start a festival,’” Kay Moss said. “It all grew from there.”

Hundreds of people now gather at the lake every October for free sardines, Moon Pies and R.C. Cola. More than 1,800 sardine tins have been purchased for this year’s celebration, according to Boles.

As is tradition, the event will include the the crowning of a new Sardine Queen. Tonya Thomas, the reigning queen, has held the title since 2019.

With the coming municipal election less than a month away, the festival may seem like a good opportunity for candidates to rub elbows with voters. But Boles said political speeches and signs are strictly prohibited, per the wishes of Randall Moss.

“Mr. Moss was a jokester, and the whole thing started out as a joke,” he said. “He never wanted it to be organized or formal. It was just about everyone coming out and having a good time.”

Boles added that the event supports a “good cause,” with proceeds from the sale of commemorative T-shirts benefiting local youth organizations. The shirts will be available for $20 and can be purchased with cash or a check.

Kay Moss said the festival gives sardine-lovers like her father a chance to “meet friends and have fellowship.”

“People come from everywhere,” she said. “I think it has put Aberdeen on the map.”

The International Sardine Festival runs from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Friday at Aberdeen Lake Park.

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