Friday, April 1, 2016

It's Festival Season in Tennessee!

Royalty crowned in festival season

It’s springtime in Tennessee, which means festival season is opening. Tennessee has long celebrated its agricultural heritage in parades, festivals, and carnivals. Tennesseans in rural areas relish these opportunities to showcase their crops and animals.

Festivals showcase participants' skills. Fairgrounds become spaces for family, friends, and neighbors to congregate to celebrate not only each other, but the tradition of agriculture itself. While the competitions for best-in-show may be the major draw, no festival is complete without the crowning of a queen. Historically, queens have become symbols of prosperity, charged with upholding the ideals of the festivals they represent.

The Mule Day Queen, Bettilynn Barnes, and the King Mule, “Brown’s Sunshine,” in Columbia, Tenn. April 4, 1949.
Department of Conservation Photograph Collection.

Mule Day is an annual celebration held in Columbia, the “Mule Capital” of the world. It started in 1840 as “Breeder’s Day,” a single day livestock show and mule market event held on the first Monday in April. Maury County's heavy involvement in the mule industry caused the event to grow over time into one of the largest livestock markets in the world. Today, Mule Day attracts more than 200,000 people annually and takes place over four days. In addition to mules, traditional Appalachian food, music, dancing, and crafts are featured. This year’s celebration began March 28 and continues through April 3.

King Sidney Farnworth and Queen Mollie Darnell at the May 1935 Cotton Carnival in Memphis, Tenn.
Library Photograph Collection.

The cotton market, Memphis’ economic backbone for many years, suffered in the Great Depression. In 1931, the chamber of commerce had trouble raising money to compete with other cities in the South. Arthur Halle and some businessmen met with Herbert Jennings, Loew’s State theater manager, to ask for donations. Jennings agreed to contribute - and recommended an idea to stimulate business. To help publicize an upcoming movie, he offered local retailers space to display cotton goods in his theater, and encouraged them to use their store windows to promote cotton clothing. The idea grew into plans for a cotton celebration with a royal court that involved people from across the Mid-South. By promoting the use and wearing of cotton products, the demand for these products stimulated sales. The plan was successful, as people increasingly demanded more cotton products. Today, Carnival Memphis (formerly the Cotton Carnival) is still going strong and hosts several events throughout the year.

Miss Patty Williams of Memphis, the Queen of the Strawberry Festival at Humboldt, Tenn. May 4, 1956.
Department of Conservation Photograph Collection.

The West Tennessee Strawberry Festival in Humboldt started in 1938. It was at first intended as a way to market the Humboldt community and West Tennessee in a challenging economy. Organizers went to state officials for support and created a celebration designed to bring together the community. Today, along with instruction for growing and selling strawberries, there are pageants, music performances, a golf tournament, a horse show, fireworks, recipe contest, carnival, parades, 5K & 10K runs, and a pet parade. This year’s festival is May 1 through May 7. The Middle Tennessee Strawberry Festival in Portland will be held May 10 through May14 and the Tennessee Strawberry Festival (East Division) in Dayton April 30 to May 7.

The Rhododendron Festival atop Roan Mountain. Conservation Commissioner Jim Nance McCord with Miss John Denton (left) Miss Rhododendron for Tennessee and North Carolina’s Queen Miss Diane Rowland. June 18, 1955.
Department of Conservation Photograph Collection.

Roan Mountain’s first North Carolina (Bakersville) Rhododendron Festival was 1946 and Tennessee’s first festival was in June 1947. Held at peak bloom, the festival at Roan Mountain features the world’s largest natural gardens of Catawba Rhododendron, boasting 600 acres of thickets. The flowers' bloom is so striking that the mountain at times appears pink or lavender. Festival activities include handmade crafts, food, traditional music, and an array of folkways demonstrations. This year’s celebration is June 18 and June 19.

Rep. Carroll Reese kisses the Queen of the Ramps, Charlotte Myers of Morristown, Tenn. at the Cosby Ramp Festival. May 6, 1956.
Department of Conservation Photograph Collection.

The Cosby Ramp Festival began in the 1954. Its initial aim was to bring tourism to Cocke County. The first festival drew a crowd of 5,000 people, including Governor Frank G. Clement. The following year, former President Harry Truman attended. The sixth festival attracted more than 30,000 people due to the appearance Tennessee Ernie Ford. Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Brenda Lee, Dinah Shore and other stars were said to have attended that year as well. The event includes a range of music (bluegrass, country, gospel, and rock n’ roll), Appalachian crafts, and delicacies featuring ramps. This year’s Ramp Festival in Cocke County takes place May 13 and May 14.

Miss Gail Hooper, the 1953 Catfish Queen, on a parade float at Pickwick Dam. August 3, 1953.
Department of Conservation Photograph Collection.

Begun in the early 1950s by Cecil Parris, the National Catfish Derby is held every summer in Hardin County on the Tennessee River at Pickwick Landing State Park. Today, Savannah is known as the Catfish Capital of the World because of the large size of the catfish caught in the river. The derby includes a six-week fishing rodeo in June and July, as well as a catfish cook-off and a catfish skin-off. Hardin County’s national recognition in the fishing industry has grown exponentially over the years. Another catfish event, the World’s Biggest Fish Fry, takes place in Paris, Tenn. The fish fry, first held in 1953, evolved from Paris’ Mule Day. Today it boasts serving more than 5 tons of catfish at the event annually. This year’s fry is April 23 through April 30.

These are just a few of the festivals that take place throughout Tennessee. Most communities host events celebrating different slices of local culture, be they agriculture, folkways, landmarks, or anniversaries. So go explore your state! And let us know what you find.

For more festival royalty pictures, see the photograph database:

Check out our Mule Day online exhibit:

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.

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