Every summer, around the first week of August, the streets of Blacksburg are filled with festivalgoers to partake in the entertainment, vendors, crafts, food, and drink of Steppin’ Out, but many people do not know that the event was once called the Deadwood Days Summer Festival.
Stop in and visit with John Kline of John’s Cameras and Vinyl Records at 213 Draper Road NW in Blacksburg and he can tell the story of a time in the 70s when the event looked a lot different than today. How does he know? Kline has been a Blacksburg business owner since the beginning of the festival in 1976. He even has the posters to prove it.
“In the summer of ’76 it was pretty slow, I mean like real slow,” Kline said. “Deadwood, South Dakota had a party a mile long, a parade, so we became the sister city to Deadwood, South Dakota.”
According to Kline, the Blacksburg Town Council met during that time and decided to bring in business with the creation of Deadwood Days, mirroring the event in South Dakota.
“We had Associate Press, we gave Willard Scott on The Today Show a t-shirt, Deadwood Days. Everyone dressed up in cowboy outfits; it was a bit wilder, I mean a lot wilder,” Kline said.
Previously, Kline also owned a store across the street from his current location on Draper Road that was called DaVinci’s Attic that had a variety of surplus items.
“I took a big weather balloon, filled it full of helium. I put a Deadwood Days poster on it and let it go up, well we had it tethered, and it crossed over Main Street,” Kline said.
That night, Kline and friends took the same balloon and sent it up untethered with glow lights attached, appearing much like a UFO in the sky, causing quite a stir with the people viewing the night sky. The balloon was tracked all the way to West Virginia, Kline said.
“Steppin’ Out has been going for 42 years but they didn’t have it in ’80,” Kline said.
According to a Roanoke Times article published on July 9, 1980, in Virginia Tech’s Special Collections and University Archives, Blacksburg Town Council voted 5-1 rejecting the festival’s request to hold the event that year.
The original Deadwood Days in South Dakota was held in remembrance of the shooting of Wild Bill Hickok, a famous gunfighter and outlaw on the western frontier. The Blacksburg Deadwood Days began to resemble the wild west when the event increasingly became a place of lawlessness and out of control partying resulting in numerous arrests, the article said. When a local teenager was shot and killed after leaving the festival, the 1980 Deadwood Days Summer Festival was canceled.
In 1981, the family friendly Steppin’ Out festival began after local merchants got together to change the face of the event. This August, Steppin’ Out 2023 hosted thousands of visitors and over 200 vendors according to Downtown Blacksburg, Inc., the organizer, and host of the festival.