A look into West Virginia’s lemonade city

Last updated: August 30, 2021

There’s no mistaking Bluefield. Thanks to its boomtown past and high altitude, “Nature’s Air-Conditioned City” is distinctively quirky. Case in point: free summer lemonade— if certain conditions are met.

Here’s how Bluefield became known for its citrusy celebrations.

Quick from the start

It’s not known for being shy. Though numbers and conditions fluctuate, Mercer County’s biggest city has loomed large for more than a century.

Bluefield got its start from coal. But unlike other West Virginia settlements, it had something special: the world’s largest bituminous deposit. Once mining began in earnest, the city started to bustle. Miners, communities and train yards brought momentum to the valley during the late 1800s. Even the mighty Norfolk and Western Railway based its local headquarters in town.

The coolest city in West Virginia

It wasn’t long before Bluefield dominated the region. For a time, residents had more cars per capita than anywhere else. Visitors noted distinctive traits, like impressive traffic jams and a bustling nightlife.

The city was also one of the first in America to have a skyline, prompting folks to dub it “Little New York.” In fact, one of the world’s tallest buildings— for a while— was the 12-story West Virginian hotel, a Renaissance Revival skyscraper. Now an apartment building, it still stands tall. Today, you’d have to go to Charleston before finding something higher.

Bluefield also changed with the times. Soon, people devised a new nickname for their beloved home: “Nature’s Air-Conditioned City.” The moniker is accurate. At 2,611 feet above sea level, Bluefield gets unusually cool summers. Temperatures rarely hit 90 degrees— a characteristic worthy of celebration. In fact, that’s what happened.

Who wants lemonade?

In 1939, Bluefield Chamber of Commerce manager “Eddie” Steele had a novel idea. Since the city had such mild summers, why not stir up some fun? He proposed offering free lemonade if weather reached 90 degrees or more. To make things official, temperatures would be recorded by Mercer County Airport.

Still, nature didn’t cooperate until 1941— the official start of Bluefield’s partnership with lemonade. It was a hit from the start. The chamber of commerce ladled free drinks, as did “lemonade lassies” and businesses throughout Bluefield.

Then— as now— anticipation makes things even more fun. You never know when drinks will appear! Bluefield’s lemonade days are truly fickle, too. Case in point: there was only one 90-degree day between 1960 and 1982. On the other hand, some years are much more thirsty. The standing record is 2007, when locals enjoyed 18 days of lemonade. Recently, it’s been four years since the last 90+ degree day – 2013 was the last time hot weather struck.

The great Lemonade Festival

While 90-degree weather might skip a year— or decade— celebrations still make it to “Nature’s Air-Conditioned City.”

First and foremost is the annual Lemonade Festival. Held by the Bluefield Preservation Society on Raleigh Street, it features a lemon hunt, vendors, live music and kids’ games. This year’s event falls on August 26. Look forward to the Randy Lamb Dancers and performances by Dan Turner, Angie Sharp and Chosen Road. The fun starts at 10 a.m. and wraps up by 2 p.m. That may sound early, but it’s for a great reason: the Bluefield Blues Festival.

Believe it or not, the city hosts two events in one day. The Bluefield Blues Festival picks up at 3 p.m. on Commerce Street with bands, craft brews and street vendors. Jonathon Boogie Long and headliner Bob Margolin are just some of the performers you’ll meet. The good cheer and lively scene doesn’t fade until 9 p.m., either. Care to join the party?

What’s your first memory of Bluefield lemonade? If you’ve experienced a 90-degree day (or days), share your story!