The Maze opens Friday, Sept. 7, for a 10-weekend run that wraps up in early November. Traditionally, the fall attraction brings thousands of visitors and it remains Rural Hill's retail equivalent of "Black Friday," the event that makes the day-to-day operation of the 265-acre setting financially feasible. But the busy months that proceeded this year's annual August reprieve, and the new Historic Rural Hill Cultural Center and May Davidson Hall facility taking shape on the grounds, are clear indications that the historical local venue many people had long overlooked is continuing its evolution into a popular, year-round destination for folks from all over.
This year, according to Rural Hill executive director Jeff Fissel, the signs of increased awareness began in January when the "First Footin" ceremony — an ancient Scottish tradition involving a hike along the property line on New Year's Day — was combined with a 5K race.
"We had more people than we ever imagined," Fissel said. "When we got on the narrow portion of the trail and had to walk in pairs, the line went out of sight. We had people from Asheville, Chapel Hill and all over who just heard about it and wanted to take part."
As more events are held, and more people share rave reviews about Rural Hill's atmosphere with families and friends, attendance numbers continue to climb.
The combination of the Rural Hill Scottish Festival and Loch Norman Highland Games, held in April, is the farm's signature cultural event. The three-day event draws clan representatives, performers, professional and amateur athletes, musicians and classically attired party-goers to a full-blown celebration of everything Scottish. When the bagpipes blare to open next year's festival, it will mark the 20th year Rural Hill has hosted the event with each year's gathering bigger than the last.
And while that tradition remains firmly planted on Rural Hill soil, new additions to the events calendar have quickly developed a loyal and growing following.
This year's Easter egg hunt attracted hundreds of young participants, Bark in the Park attracted thousands of pets with their frolicking owners in tow and the N.C. Brewers and Music Festival in May was a complete sellout, prompting organizers to immediately book a return engagement for next spring.
In addition, the Warrior Dash, an international event featuring an obstacle-laden foot race, brought thousands of participants and just as many observers from all over the East Coast to Rural Hill and most recently, approximately 1,500 showed up for a Friday night Food Truck Rally.
"The Scottish Festival and the Maze are our main events, there's no question about that," Fissel said, "but through these other events, more people are finding out about us and that's great. We want to spread the word and get more people involved in events, and more people aware of what we have to offer."
The key, Fissel said, is matching the event with the venue.
"You have to be sort of a filter," he said, adding that organizers of each event are told up front that they are responsible for protecting the farm's antique grounds. "We try to decide what fits best with the atmosphere and the surroundings out here. Not every event is suitable for Rural Hill, but we want the ones that are to be the best they can be."
And the list of Rural Hill-hosted activities is set to expand when the new Cultural Center and May Davidson Hall is complete. The 4,000-square-foot facility was made possible through a bequest from May Davidson, the last direct descendant of the Revolutionary War-era family that first settled at what is now Rural Hill. The building, which features a large meeting/banquet room, caterer's kitchen, cultural classroom and museum and indoor restrooms — a major selling point, Fissel explained, for brides-to-be planning their big day — could be finished by November, about the time the Sheepdog Trials wrap up Rural Hill's list of activities for 2012.
"The new building will be a great asset," Fissel said. "We will be able to host events throughout the year without worrying about the weather, and it will also give us a lot more flexibility and more space for our educational programs."
Year-round availability will allow even more people to discover the spacious, special events venue, and whether they come for a wedding, a stroll through the Maze, a beer and music festival, a celebration of Scottish heritage or simply to keep their pet company, Fissel believes once they experience Rural Hill, visitors will want to return.
"I think we leave people with a very good impression," Fissel said. "I think we have a lot of people come to an event and, when it's over, immediately start making plans to come back. They tell their friends, co-workers and other people and help spread the word."
And for Fissel and the rest of the Rural Hill staff, that is the sound of success.