|Just in time for the 35th anniversary of Uncle Dave Macon Days, longtime organizers of the event discovered documents from its humble beginnings.
Gloria Shacklett-Christy shuffles through a cache of recently uncovered documents from the first years of Uncle Dave Macon Days. (Photo by J. Fagan)
Macon, nicknamed The Dixie Dewdrop, was a banjo-picking, original member of the Grand Ole Opry known for hit songs such as “Cripple Creek” and “Keep My Skillet Good And Greasy All The Time.”
He called Rutherford County home and lived on a farm near the Kittrell community on the old Woodbury Pike.
When he died in 1952, such notables as Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb and Bill Monroe served as pallbearers for his funeral.
The annual July event celebrating Macon’s old-time music began as a banjo-picking contest on the front steps of the Historic Rutherford County Courthouse in 1978, and it was a dream brought to life by local druggist Jesse Messick.
Messick owned Rexall Drugs on the Murfreesboro Square, and enlisted monetary support from fellow downtown business owners to get his dream off the ground.
In documents unearthed by volunteer Gloria Shacklett-Christy, who serves as the festival's president, and Public Relations Director Patsy Weiler, Messick’s handwriting can be found in the margins of press releases and on small slips of paper noting which businesses had paid the requested $25 donation.
“C.B. Leatherman - YES, Ruby’s (Dress Shop) - YES, Flower Center - YES,” one note reads.
Some businesses even gave in-kind contributions such as boxes of pencils and rolls of stamps.
“Each merchant will be given an opportunity to sell his particular wares in his booth on the sidewalk. … Don’s Kitchen could sell hot dogs,” reads another.
Messick forgot to pick up the Courthouse key that first year, so the contest was relegated to the east lawn.
It has been held outdoors ever since, and later grew so large it was forced to move into larger facilities at Cannonsburgh Village on Front Street.
Ramsey Macon, Uncle Dave’s grandson, emceed that day and Herschel Mullins, owner of Mullins Jewelry, entertained the small crowd with a rendition of “Birmingham Jail” on his harmonica.
A letter from then County Mayor Ben Hall McFarlin Sr. was found that congratulated winner Charles D. Emery for his participation in that first banjo contest, and handwritten notes in a Rexall Drug prescription book detail plans for the next year.
One of these notes mentions Jewell Fagan Haynes, an original piano player of Uncle Dave’s (and this reporter’s third cousin), who Messick later recruited to play piano at the festival until her health declined in the early 2000s.
From those humble beginnings, Messick pursued his high hopes for “Dave Macon Day”, and enlisted the help of local writer George Parrish, a columnist for the now defunct Murfreesboro Press, as the event’s PR man.
His 1979 press releases were discovered in the box of documents as well.
“A Belgian television station has already expressed an interest in covering the event and we expect all the major networks to have their cameras here, including NBC, CBS, ABC and PBS,” reads one release. “President Jimmy Carter has been extended an invitation to attend the second annual Uncle Dave Macon Day in Murfreesboro. … Invitations will be sent to U.S. Sens. Jim Sasser and Howard Baker, Rep. Albert Gore Jr., Gov. Lamar Alexander and State Reps. John Bragg and Frank Buck.”
The motorless parade that kicks off the festival each year actually began as the “Gas-Saving and Motorless Parade” during the energy crisis of the Carter administration, and was originally envisioned by Messick as a conservation measure.
Local volunteers made up the entire workforce of the event, and a letter from Mary Huhta to the “Murfreesboro City Beautification Commission” assured members the Square would be ready for the festivities.
“Joyce Fullerton says the planter on the Square has been replanted and Jesse Messick has volunteered to paint it – it’s looking good,” it reads.
Many of the facets of the original festival continue today, but none more central than the all-volunteer labor force that plans and executes the particulars of the event each year.
“There are no big I’s” and little U’s,” Weiler said. “We’ve all cleaned grounds, sold programs and worked the gates.”
Many such as Billy Henson, Ken Frizzell and John Balch have been working as volunteers for 30 or more years.
“It all started out so very humbly, but Jesse had a vision for what it would grow into,” Weiler said. “I think it has met and exceeded that vision. … If he were here today he would be proud of the hard work folks have done to make it happen.”
Striving to preserve the traditional music and dance of Rutherford County and providing a place for all generations to come out and have fun together is the overarching goal of this family focused event’s organizers, but attendees are treated to blacksmithing demonstrations, antique car shows and even Civil War reenactments.
These historic documents that tell the story of Uncle Dave Macon Days’ beginnings are being preserved and catalogued by Rutherford County Archivist John Lodl, and anyone who might have additional pieces of the story are encouraged to visit Shacklett’s Photography on the Square at 105 S. Church St. so Gloria Shacklett-Christy can add them to the collection. Shacklett-Christy can also be reached at 615-893-2369.
“We would like to encourage the general public to allow us to scan any festival memorabilia they might have from the past festivals,” Weiler said. “Gloria has agreed to allow people to drop off items at Shacklett’s Photography.”