HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) — For more than 20 years, the WhistleStop Festival has been dubbed one of the premier BBQ competitions in the South. Now, it could be ending.

The festival began in 2001, and until last weekend… no one knew that 2022’s fest would be the last.

“I’m hoping that there’s such an outcry that WhistleStop needs to be here,” said Lex Vanegas, a member of the Smoke Me Silly BBQ team. “It’s part of the Huntsville culture. I hope they’ll just bring it back indefinitely.”

Brian Walker, a member of the Hickory Hangover competition BBQ team, told News 19 he is hoping that someone out there like EarlyWorks is trying to generate funds for the cause.

“Without WhistleStop… we really need to put something else together to replace it because the community is going to be hungry for it, there’s no doubt about that,” Walker said.

For both competition teams, this event was more than just barbecue.

‘Our families would actually come here from out of town just to go to that venue,” Vanegas added. “My dad lives, usually, out of the country — he’s Colombian. He’s been to many competitions, but his favorite is Huntsville.”

“You’d have people that would come out to support their friends that were cooking/competing, people that would come out to check out the music or other festivities that were going on out there,” Walker continued. “You had a big, broad, wide group of different people that were there for different reasons, but they all looked forward to it.”

EarlyWorks Executive Director Bart Williams says this decision comes after a months-long evaluation of what activities and events it uses for fundraising.

He says after careful deliberation, the board of directors has chosen to take a different path and move away from the festival.

“We have hopes of changing this museum into a world-class – a world-class children’s museum with a major capital campaign on the horizon,” Walker added. “Because of that, our focus is going to be on that. WhistleStop takes about 10 months out of the year to plan and put on and that’s not where our focus needs to be.”

For Williams, saying goodbye to WhistleStop is bittersweet.

“It’s like saying goodbye to an old friend,” Williams said. “We have the memories; The volunteers that have been with us, the cooking teams that’ve been with us…we thank all of them…the sponsors that’ve been with us for forever. Over the 20-21 years that we ran WhistleStop, it probably made about $1.5 million for EarlyWorks [collectively] over that time… and that’s nothing to shy away from. It really got us to where we are today.”

Williams says a master plan for the museum was unveiled to the public back in November. He added they’ll re-introduce that plan to the community in the next couple of months.