'Dukes of Hazzard' devotees gather to celebrate the hit 1980s TV show
At 'DukesFest,' hundreds display their General Lee cars, dress up as Boss Hogg and Enos, and tell tales of a simpler South.
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The show was a midseason replacement that became a sleeper hit, capturing the South at a peculiar crossroads. A decade after the civil rights movement, the new South was rising, stock car racing was hot, and shows based on Southern themes – remember the movie "Cannonball Run"? – were box office gold. Critics say the "Dukes" producers played brilliantly on those themes – a success that still lingers today, to the surprise of many of the show's actors.Skip to next paragraph
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"As long as this goes on, we don't have to grow up," says Ben Jones, who parlayed his stint as Cooter Davenport on the "Dukes" into a term as a Georgia congressman.
Still, Duke fandom, in a nation where Confederate flags are a touchy subject, can come at a price. Some critics have faulted the show for perpetuating stereotypes and portraying a "simple South," one that didn't touch on race issues or the traffic-choked suburban angst that has come to define much of it today.
Still, a large majority of Southerners surveyed in 2005 didn't find the show offensive. Some see a reason for that. "The appeal of the 'Dukes of Hazzard' is not based on race, but it's much more a conflict between father and son figures and between the sons and the system," says Bill Ferris of the University of North Carolina and coauthor of the "Encyclopedia of Southern Culture."
Which is a universal theme. Many of the fans at DukesFest have come from north of the Mason-Dixon line. Chuck Shoup of Pittsburgh wears Duke-themed sunglasses. He goofs off with Kevin Shook and Julian Witt, who are dressed up as Roscoe and Enos. In true "Dukes" fashion, Mr. Shook and Mr. Witt drove to the festival from Spotswood, N.J., in a '90s-era Caprice that was a former police car, complete with a lightbar. The duo put Hazzard County stickers on the doors. They were pulled over three times and could have been charged with impersonating an officer, but were given only warnings.
"Thirty years later and I still love it," says Shoup of the show, as Shook, playing Deputy Enos, shackles him with plastic handcuffs.
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Plot points, car chases, jumps – all are hotly debated here among self-identifying rednecks, in a scene that's as much about pop culture as regional solidarity. Hazzard County cop cars, even the Batmobile, are on hand. People line up to get a $5 autograph from John Schneider, who played Bo Luke, and Catherine Bach, who played his leggy tomboy cousin Daisy Duke. "The classic cars that you see, the 'Dukes of Hazzard' General Lee cars, they've all been handcrafted by people, brought back to life by the families who own them, as a hobby for the whole family," says Ms. Bach.
Shaffer's gambit to bring his own General Lee to DukesFest began in 2003, after his grandfather, Clarence, passed. The two had shared a love of the show, and Clarence, on various flea market trips, would always find new "Dukes" memorabilia to add to his grandson's collection. Shaffer would help his grandfather refurbish old Edsels, which they'd drive together in a local Memorial Day parade. A generational bond grew around lug nuts and chrome bumpers. In his will, Clarence left enough money for Shaffer to buy a '69 Charger.
What began as the rusted shell of a car purchased on eBay took five years to transform into the bona fide General Lee that found its way to Hampton this weekend. It's now patent-leather shiny and nearly all-stock – right down to the General Lee's license plate number.
Shaffer put the Dixie horn on the day that he left for DukesFest, without which the General Lee isn't a General Lee. He says the car is his reminder of the South, in his own garage. Granddad would, no doubt, approve.
"I always wanted one so other people can enjoy it as much as I do," says Shaffer. "When people see this car, they can have the flashbacks, just like I do."