By Betsy Thorpe
Dozens of travelers leave I-40 at Exit 196 everyday, some to visit friends and family, others for fuel, refreshment or lodging. They all have a story to tell and we are here to share a tale or two that we heard at Exit 196.
Sunday evening a family of discouraged farmers from Housten County made a short visit to EXIT 196, following the exhibition of their award winning produce at The Tennessee State Fair. Accustomed to being at weather’s mercy, they were not discouraged by the Fair’s low attendance that resulted from the onslaught of rain that lasted throughout the week, but by the announcement from Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, that this is probably the last year that our State’s Capitol City will host the Tennessee State Fair.
The first Tennessee State Fair was sponsored by the Agriculture and Mechanical Association in 1869. Held at the “Old Fairgrounds” located near Cockerill Springs at the end of the West End Avenue streetcar line. State Fairs were also held at this location in 1873, 1879, and 1884 and was where Frank James, brother of outlaw Jesse James, claimed to have won a blue ribbon for his Poland China hogs during the period when he lived in the Whites Creek area under an assumed name.
On October 20, 1891 the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, then known as Cumberland Park opened. Originally built to host harness racing, the two hundred and seventy foot long grandstand could seat seven thousand spectators. The stables accommodated three hundred and fifty horses. An electric street car made trips every five minutes from the Wedgewood Avenue gate to the grandstand and clubhouse atop the fairground’s hill. In February of 1904, the Retail Merchants Association of Nashville appointed a committee to explore the possibility of holding a State Fair at Cumberland Park. The purpose of the organization was to urge the Legislature to appropriate funds for a fair to promote the interest of the livestock business in the state. On October 8, 1906, the first Tennessee State Fair was held at Cumberland Park. Stock shows were conducted each morning. The Woman’s Building was open in the afternoons and horse shows were conducted each night. Since 1906, with the exception of the World War II years, the Tennessee State Fair has been held annually at this location in Nashville’s historic Vine Hill neighborhood.
With “Agriculture and Commerce” being the Tennessee State Motto, farming has a long and valued history throughout the state. Today more than eighty four thousand farms exist in Tennessee, utilizing more than forty four per cent of the states land area. Generating more than sixty billion dollars in economic output, agriculture accounts for eighteen per cent of Tennessee’s economy.
Last year eighty of Tennessee’s ninety five counties participated in the fair’s competitive Creative Arts and Livestock categories, making it the largest agricultural event in the state. Nationally Tennessee ranks number two in the cultivation and raising of several agricultural commodities including, hardwood, equine, goats, and tobacco, and this year the State Fair hosted the second largest goat competition in the United States.
Wondering out loud if perhaps Nashville’s Mayor Karl Dean is ashamed of Tennessee’s rural culture, our visitors at EXIT 196 regretfully informed us that they do not feel welcome in Nashville and they doubt that they will ever visit their state’s capitol city again. It made us very sad to see them go.