By CHAD FRED BAILEY
Jonesborough Days officially turned 50 years old last year in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused the festival to be cancelled. In just a few days, the festival will make its 50th debut and celebrate all things Jonesborough has to offer. As with most events in Jonesborough, it is always good to go back to the beginning and take a peek at what it was once like and the reasons
it was celebrated to begin with.
Turning the pages back 51 years to May 29, 1970, the headline, “Jonesboro ready for Festival,” in the Johnson City Press-Chronicle. This article reads as follows:
“Jonesboro Mayor Lyle Haws will officially declare the town open for the Historical Jonesborough Festival tomorrow, immediately following flag raising ceremonies. Last week, Mayor Haws proclaimed Memorial Day weekend as Historical Jonesborough Days and invited all visitors. Both days are to be filled with fun, sightseeing, and possibly a little politics. In the morning at 9 a.m., Mrs. Robert May kicks off the festivities by playing patriotic songs on the organ at the courthouse. At 9:30 a.m., Boy Scot Troup 34, R. R. Johnson as scoutmaster, will raise the colors. The flag that will be used is one that previously flew over the White House. Then, Mayor Haws will officially open the town. Several political candidates are scheduled to speak after the mayor according to Mrs. Richter Moore, a member of the Jonesborough Historical Commission. The Knoxville News-Sentinel has featured Jonesborough as its tour of the week. Several visitors are expected to tour the historic old town. Various organizations in town will sell food during the outing. The Frank Bowman Explorer Post of Johnson City will lower the flag in the evening ceremonies. One of the members of the troop is Bobby McDavid who recently visited President Nixon. At 8 p.m., Jonesboro High and Junior High choral students under the direction of Mrs. Gerhard Ruetz will give an open-air concert near the courthouse. There is no charge for the concert. A street dance will follow the concert, Mrs. Moore said. Sunday, the town will be open for visitors to tour the many historical buildings. Churches of the town will be open both days, Mrs. Moore said. All roads leading into Jonesboro are now marked with signs proclaiming Jonesboro a historical town. The signs were ordered by the
Tennessee Historical Commission.”
By November 1970, a group of citizens were already planning the next Jonesborough Days, which became a staple event of the Jonesboro Civic Trust to fund preservation efforts throughout the newly formed historic district (listed in 1969). On November 12, 1970, “Jonesboro residents readying celebration,” appeared in the Johnson City Press-Chronicle. According to this article, since the theme of the event was to commemorate freedom and independence as a focal point. “Some of the ideas suggested [for the events future included] an antique auction, flea markets, covered wagon trails, a bake sale, farmer’s market, art show, music for several types of audiences, horse shows and athletic contests, dances and adult games. One idea engendered much discussion and excitement among local residents is the possibility of producing a history play, such as “Horn In the West” and “Unto These Hills.”… Committee members pointed out this week there are more than enough historical incidents, particularly concerned with the State of Franklin, to make such an effort worthwhile here. Long-term plans for the annual Jonesborough Days envision the town as a properly developed attraction drawing from the entire Southland, planners and citizens say.”
By 1971, the event had moved to July 4th weekend and showcase a wide variety of events. Articles in the Johnson City Press-Chronicle from May and June 1971, show tours of historic homes, a pageant, a horse show, old-fashioned games and competitions, a song and dance re-creation of Tennessee’s history, street dancing, old-fashioned church service and picnic, as well as displays of area ceramics, china, home-cooked and fresh foods, antiques, and automobiles, and dozens of other items, a film festival and old radio program.
This year’s Jonesborough Days Kickoff Dinner will most likely be the 50th as the first was held on July 1, 1971 at the Jonesboro Presbyterian Church. In addition, on July 1, 1971, the Old Great State Road sign was placed in front of the courthouse as part of the festivities.
In 1972, the event was called the Jonesborough Folk Festival and Fiddling Convention which ran five days from June 30 to July 4. One article in May of 1972, predicted that the festival would draw as many as 25,000 to Jonesborough.
As with the previous year, may of the events stayed the same with the addition of a barbecued chicken dinner, a fiddling competition and a political rally. In addition to the home tours, a farm tour was also added, which
included a beef-cattle farm, a milk-cattle farm, and a poultry farm. In addition to these tours, the Old Jonesborough Cemetery was also added as a spot for visitors to browse.
With the increase of interest in the event each year, probably one of the greatest highlights of Jonesborough Days was the 1973 Johnny Cash performance on July 6, 1973, at the Jonesborough Middle School football field was probably one the greatest memories that residents have had of Jonesborough Days past. It included Carl Perkins, the Tennessee Three, and Johnny and June Carter Cash. In 2018, 45 years later, a tribute concert to Johnny Cash was part of the festival on Friday, June 29. This concert allowed Johnny’s music back to Jonesborough through the Johnny Cash NOW, a Johnny Cash Tribute Band, who played a wide variety of Cash’s music.
Yet, the year 1974, changed up the event, when the 88th Tennessee General Assembly convened in Jonesborough. Instead of big bands and fun, politicians filled the streets as plans were beginning for the bicentennial celebration of 1976 were coming together. Jonesborough was designated the bicentennial town for Tennessee. This was a time to show off the town as many major renovations to the exterior of the courthouse and other sites around town had been completed. Plans were even discussed in a May 6, 1973 Kingsport Times-News article about putting the power lines underground before the event. Even through all the work of organizers in 1974, one thing hit that they never thought about – the rain! On July 6, 1974, the Kingsport Times-News read, “That thunderous downpour
broke more than the pace of Historic Jonesborough Days Friday – it smashed a tradition dating back to the first festival. Organizers have always crossed their fingers and blessed their luck in the past. But this year there was little to do but forget the lucky gestures and break for cover. Crafts stand operators clung to shelter like sea-whipped sailors waiting for the sun to clear the clouds away. But it didn’t happen. There are two days left, though, and festival promoters say the best is yet to come. It can’t rain two days in a row … can it? Besides, it will take more than showers to stop the show.”
The year of 1975 was probably the first year that fireworks were shot off during Jonesborough Days, literally and figuratively, as the town shot off fireworks as well as a Civil War battle reenactment held on the John Saylor Farm. The Second Maine Volunteer Cavalry Unit and members of the National Re-enactment Society were on hand on July 6, 1975, to reenact a skirmish of Carter’s Raid, which was actually happened during the winter of 1862-1863. During these raids, supply lines across the Tennessee and Virginia Railroad were burned.
The year 1976 brought Jonesborough Days to the national stage as an official bicentennial event which also included a parade and Bicentennial Birthday Party.
Yet, the party was not over in 1977, as Washington County’s 200th Birthday was celebrated, while the 1979 Jonesborough Days celebrated the 200th Birthday of the
Yet, by the 1980s, Jonesborough Days seemed via newspaper articles to keep the same traditions that have become synonymous with Jonesborough Days today – the parade and fireworks. According to “Jonesboro does it again,” in the June 13, 1982 edition of the Johnson City Press-Chronicle, “Jonesborough Days has become more successful with each passing year – with thousands of visitors flooding the downtown area.” Even if the livestock entered in the parade needed proof of liability insurance.
(The conclusion of this
article from 1983 to the
present will be showcased
in future editions of Digging
For Your Roots.)