Fall Fun Fest brings food and fun to Cookeville square

Putnam County residents fill the closed off square in Cookeville’s historic downtown Friday Sept. 9, for the 20th annual Fall Fun Fest.

Dozens of vendor stations offered food, crafts and community outreach Friday at Cookeville’s Fall Fun Fest, and at least three were hosted by Tech students or faculty.  

The music, arts and barbecue competition festival returned to the city square in downtown Cookeville this past weekend for its 20th year giving thousands of area residents another chance to indulge in Cookeville’s small town southern culture and become better acquainted. Visitors old and new anticipated events like Tony Stone’s Barbecue Cook-off and musical guests like Nite Fire and Black Widow. Food vendors reserved booths starting at $450, while in order to participate in arts, vendors paid $100 to reserve a craft booth. 

In all, it was a heavily-populated year for both food and craft. This is routine for the street fair, which regularly pulls crowds in excess of 20,000 visitors annually. 

The festival is organized and hosted by Cookeville’s Cityscape, a local non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and revitalizing historic downtown Cookeville. Board member and previous chairperson Randy Adams illuminated key details on how the event has engaged students and community members in general for so long. 

“Cookeville is a great community in which the public and private sectors will work together well,” Adams said. “You hardly see that anywhere else.” When asked how so many booths are organized to best represent the city, Adams said, “This is not a cheap operation. There is a lot of cooperation between the city, county and the university. Also, the Swallows Agency is our sponsor and they help us pay the bands.”

On Washington Avenue around 6 p.m. spectators were treated with the usual carnival food booths and small business tents, but they could also enjoy the seating area at the intersection with Broad Street where Nashville’s Black Widow band cranked tunes like “Uptown Funk” and other classics onstage. 

Also involved this year as usual was local PBS affiliate WCTE, who held the entire west end of the square for their own events. Carriage rides were offered for a few dollars each on an adjacent block as people were lining the streets near dusk. 

Of course Tech students and faculty showed up in force that evening as well, chaperoning numerous inflatable gyms for the children starting at 5 p.m. as part of the Service Learning Center’s ongoing active service projects. 

According to SLC’s assistant coordinator Kaitlin Salyer, the event brought in many new students to get acquainted in serving their community while earning work study and scholarship hours. 

“So we work with about 700 federal work study, scholarship and HPEO honors program students altogether,” Sayler said. When asked about students helping the children, she replied, “There are close to 50 student volunteers out here each night. I think it’s going great so far. We have a lot of new faces…I’ve participated in years past and it’s a lot of fun, great energy and a great community fest.” 

Among students wearing their light blue service project shirts, Andrew Neighbor threw in his experience working the inflatables that night for his community. 

“I’m here to help, and for scholarship,” Neighbor said. “I need to put in 75 hours a semester. It helps with somewhere around $3,000 a year. Each time you do something, you’re placed into a different job like at the rec center or just volunteering community service.” 

His fellow student staff mate, Jackson Ridge, spoke up about his own experience with SLC. 

“I’m here for work study,” Ridge said. “I applied to help pay for college and I need 110 hours.” He added, “I enjoy it so far and it’s definitely something I’d do again. I think it ended up being pretty big. I’m excited to be a part of this. It’s a cool way to be a part of this community.”

Among a dozen or so non-Tech-related mug stations and glasswork tents on North Jefferson Avenue was the booth for the Appalachian Center for Craft. Staffed that evening by craft center programs manager Gail Gantry, the booth exhibited recent glasswork dishes and other pieces by student artist Jon Watson. 

It also provided helpful information on upcoming one-day workshops at the Tech craft center in Smithville. Gentry explained the craft center’s involvement there. 

“We’re here representing the Appalachian Center for Craft, and the bachelor [program] of fine arts, our exhibitions and workshop program,” Gentry said. “The work in this booth is the work of our residents.” She also explained of what importance the weekend-long booth was to students reaching out to the community. “The value is in just learning to interact with the public and how to present their work.”

As for the cook-off, at dusk several local barbecue competitors participated in one of the street festival’s most anticipated events: The 27th annual Tony Stone Cookeville Cook-off. 

The Kansas City Barbecue Society-sanctioned event had the chance to judge local sausage grilling attempts, including that of Maryville-based food truck competitor Chairman of the Boar. 

Griller and food enthusiast Mike Theriault had the opportunity to shed light on his food truck’s attempts at taking home 1st place that night while giving out samples of his recently-cooked sausage. 

“The big thing about what we do here is, we gotta knock the judges off their feet tomorrow in the rib contest,” Theriault said. “We have to cook within a plus or minus five minute window…they judge with the local Mayor, sheriff and local celebrities at 7. It takes a lot of love and a four-stage process. Our biggest competitors are Under the Radar and Quen, Strewn and Brewn. They always bring their A-game.”

“We have vendors on a waiting list. We have to shut down part of highway 70 for 24 hours once a year,” said Randy Adams as the evening wore on. 

Speaking of new students visiting the event for the first time each year, he said, “What you’ll get to see here is Cookeville at its best. They’ll realize they’re in a community that’s involved, cares for them and embraces them.” 

Events unfolded as planned for Friday night’s events through 9:30 p.m. Unfortunately, the Fall Fun Fest was cancelled at 8 p.m. Saturday after an hour delay due to heavy rain, as announced on the festival’s Facebook page.