Once upon a time, not so very long ago, two quaint reminders of Cookeville’s proud agricultural heritage stood smack-dab in the middle of the crazy-busy South Jefferson Avenue commercial strip. They were set apart, both architecturally and in purpose, from the countless businesses that surrounded them. Banks. Restaurants. Stores. Motels.
Now, one of those quaint reminders—the People’s Stockyard—is gone. Flattened. Hauled away. I can’t help but wonder how much longer it will be before the same thing happens to the Putnam County Fairgrounds.
As I settle in front of my computer to write this column, the 93rd annual Putnam County Fair has just come to a close. This year’s theme, “Adventures in Agriculture—Come Back to the Barnyard,” seems particularly fitting. Visitors to the fair, myself included, were treated to a wonderful glimpse into the past. A log cabin. Old-timey farm tools and equipment. Milk cows. Spinning wheels. Cast-iron cooking, which included free samples of melt-in-your-mouth cornbread. John Allen, fair board president, wanted the barn area to feel like going back to his grandparents’ farm.
It did, indeed.
The very first Putnam County Fair was held in 1856, just two years after Putnam County was re-established. It moved to its present location almost exactly a century later, in 1957. In those days, of course, that stretch of South Jefferson wasn’t anything like it is today. There was no Interstate-40. No mall. No “Restaurant Row.” No endless stream of bumper-to bumper traffic.
Not so any more. It does seem a little odd to have a fairground in the middle of all that modern busy-ness. Year after year, for more years than I can count, the subject of moving our fairgrounds to a less-lucrative location has reared its ugly head. “That acreage is just too valuable to sit vacant for much of the time,” the argument goes. “It’s silly to have outdated buildings and a big old grandstand taking up space that could be used for more important things. Not to mention all the land that’s only used for parking,” the naysayers claim.
“We need more places to shop! More places to eat! More places to sleep!”
I haven’t heard anyone in a position of authority who’s willing to say exactly might be built on the property where the fairground sits, but the most popular suggestion among people I hang with it that it would be the perfect place for a Target store. Well…maybe. But don’t we already have a lot of empty retail space in town? Consider, for instance, the recently vacated K-Mart, which sits on land where cattle grazed when I moved to Cookeville in 1986. Or the building that used to house the “old” K-Mart, which Hobby Lobby recently vacated. Or all those empty stores at the mall.
The rush to modernize brings to mind a poem by early-twentieth century writer Stephen Vincent Benet that seems somehow appropriate:
When the last moonshiner buys his radio,
And the last, lost, wild-rabbit of a girl
Is civilized with a mail-order dress,
Something will pass that was American
And all the movies will not bring it back.
Sure, we can have craft contests and canning contests and rodeos and tractor pulls and petting zoos and a fabulous midway at some other location in Putnam County. But if we move the fairgrounds from the spot where it’s been for 62 years, we’ll lose something rural that has always been a big part of our community. Something important.
And all those shiny new stores and restaurants won’t bring it back.
(August 18, 2019)