BATTLE MOUNTAIN - The people of Battle Mountain quite obviously have the ability to poke fun at themselves and, in the true spirit of American free enterprise, know an opportunity to turn a buck or two when they see one.
Labeled with the rather dubious distinction of being the "Armpit of America" by Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten in December 2001, this dusty mining town of about 3,000 located an hour's drive west of Elko got mad and then got even.
Last year, Battle Mountain banded together to stage the inaugural Festival in the Pit, celebrating with the slogan "Only Inches From Your Heart." Word of the event spread around the country, eventually reaching the marketing department of Procter & Gamble Co.'s Old Spice deodorant brand.
Old Spice, not one to miss a golden opportunity themselves, approached Battle Mountain community leaders early this year about the brand becoming the corporate sponsor for this year's festival, held this past weekend.
Thus were born such unique events as a "deodorant toss," where contestants attempted to heave Old Spice deodorant through a target. Then, there was the "Sweat T-shirt Contest," taking a page out of M-TV's spring break wet T-shirt contests except there were no bikini-clad young women, just men and children willing to be drenched with a water hose and to show off their "pits."
One of the highlights of the weekend was the beauty contest where several children, one dog and numerous men, including a few carrying a few extra pounds around the middle, stripped off their shirts and proudly showed off their underarms - "overall pit appearance" being one of the criteria for judging.
And, by all accounts, the success of this year's festival has all the earmarkings of becoming Battle Mountain's signature annual event, drawing interest not only from northern Nevada, but also putting the town on the map internationally.
"I'm thrilled with the number of people we have," said Shar Peterson, Battle Mountain Chamber of Commerce director, while taking a break during Saturday's activities.
More than 2,000 people were expected to crowd into Battle Mountain's Elquist Park before the second day of the three-day festival was over.
But the interest in the festival stretched far beyond the confines of northern Nevada.
Peterson found herself doing dozens of radio interviews with stations as far away as Miami and fielding calls from Australia. This year, media representatives included a television crew from Salt Lake City feeding tape to outlets around the country and, somewhere in the crowd, the man who was responsible for the whole thing, the Washington Post's Weingarten.
Weingarten understandably kept a low profile. While most people in the community have taken the his comments in stride and even embraced the town's newfound celebrity, there are a few lingering hard feelings toward the writer, Peterson admitted.
Still, the article seems to have had a positive effect.
"There has been more of a unity from this community than I have ever seen out of this," Peterson remarked.
The story led the town to take "a hard look at ourselves," she said. As a result, the community staged a cleanup effort and, of course, organized the festival.
It's this "why" behind the festival rather than the typical fare found at similar events in small towns everywhere that has made the Festival in the Pit unique.
"We looked for the good in it," Peterson said of Weingarten's armpit moniker. "It's those quirky little things that get attention."
Attending the festival as part of the "Old Spice Crew" was Rebecca Rose, who works for the Irvine, Calif., public relations firm PainePR. Rose was in Battle Mountain with P&G corporate representatives Kedric George and Kash Shaikh, who flew in from Cincinnati, to make sure Old Spice's name was front and center during the festivities.
Rose said the Festival in the Pit fit the "fun and irreverent" image Old Spice liked to project.
"There is no other opportunity like this," she said of the deodorant brand's involvement with the event. "The people here are wonderful."
For her part, Peterson would be more than happy to keep Old Spice as the corporate sponsor of the festival, which she hopes will continue as an annual event.
"We'd like to," she said. "This is great for out community. If they're willing, we're willing."
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