A Southern Favorite: The Watermelon Festival
January 1, 1970
by Lauren Watson
One thing I’ve learned about living in the South is this: above all, respect your mama, your religion, and your traditions. One such famous tradition in the South is that of the annual Watermelon Festival.
The Watermelon Festival takes place in Tompkinsville, Kentucky. Throughout the year, Tompkinsville is not much more than a dot on the map; according to the 2016 U.S. Census, the population was less than 2,100 people. That number swells during September, the month the festival is held in. Every motel in town is filled to capacity as people flock from all corners of the United States to experience the community, entertainment, and fun the festival promises.
The Weeks Before
The weeks before the festival begins, vendors frantically gather, make, and advertise their products. Clothing, toys, and trinkets are all common finds, as well as a variety of food, recipes, and how-tos. Churches make informational pamphlets, artists mass-produce their work, food vendors stock up on groceries, and children chatter away with their friends, family, and anyone who will listen.
The Tompkinsville News prints reminders, promotional ads, and information on the different attractions the festival will hold on any given year. The local boutiques and mom-and-pop pharmacies paint their windows, vendors place picketed signs along the highways, and locals post on social media.
Where To Stay
Tompkinsville does not have a large variety of places to stay as a traveler, but one prominent location is that of the Tompkinsville Inn. They do not have a website up, but they are on Facebook and have a 4.0 rating on Trip Advisor. Many people find that the Inn fills up quite quickly, so one notable exception is actually camping out in Tompkinsville City Park. During the summer months, the gated area of the park closes at 11 p.m., but you can stay in another location of the park overnight for free, as it is open 24/7 during summer months. I personally like camping here because of the spectacular view of the lake, which is ripe with fish and great for kayaking.
The Morning Of
The morning of the festival starts at eight a.m. for consumers. For vendors, it starts as early as six a.m., to allow them time to set up their booths and merchandise. The festival is set up in the town square, with booths surrounding the courthouse on all sides. A small stage is set up in the courtyard, to be used by bands later that night. Food trucks pull in and set up. The sweet and greasy smell of festival food fills the air.
The town, meanwhile, is at a standstill, since half of Main Street is closed off for the festival. Police officers direct traffic for those unfamiliar with the proceedings, while all the locals are already using the side streets and shortcuts they know by heart. That doesn’t mean that nobody is going anywhere; in fact, it’s just the opposite. People park their cars and walk. Shocking, I know, but there are more people on the street than in their vehicles.
The thing with parking, though, is that people will park anywhere, and I mean absolutely anywhere. When the parking lots fill, they’ll park in the grass, on the sidewalk, and even in peoples’ driveways whom they don’t know (one time I parked on somebody’s lawn). Any other day, this would be unacceptable and just plain rude. Today, so long as you ask for permission, it is the norm.
The afternoon is usually hot and muggy, but that doesn’t stop the attendees from frolicking to and fro. With arts and crafts, face painting, and design booths, there’s always a wide variety of things to choose from before the night’s entertainment starts. I personally enjoy meeting up with friends and going from booth to booth to get the best deals on apparel and jewelry before finding a shade tree and sipping on some homemade lemonade.
If none of this seems appealing to you, don’t worry. You could also watch the parade, which features prominent community leaders, businesses, and raises awareness for current social problems. Or you could attend the car show, which features antiques from the 1930s and models from 2018. You could enter the cornhole tournament and compete to win minor prizes or the major prize of gloating rights. Last but not least, you could even watch the Watermelon Festival Beauty Pageant, which features contestants from toddler-age all the way to adults.
The Night Life
The night of the Watermelon Festival is a truly magical time. Fireflies are fluttering about, cotton candy and ice cream are being spread around, and blankets are being laid down. The concert is about to start. remember that stage I was telling you about? The one in the courtyard? Yeah, that one.
That stage will soon be the centerpiece of the night. The talent show, and not long after, one (or many) of the local bands will end the night with a spectacular send-off. The talent show starts at six and mainly consists of kids showing off their magic tricks, singing abilities, or stand-up comedy, and it usually lasts for about two hours, ending at eight. By now, the majority of attendees have found their ways back home or to their motel or campsite. Those who have stuck around are there for the bands.
The bands usually start playing at around 8:30 or so, giving time for all of the parents with young kids to leave and everyone else to get settled in. Every year, the lineup changes, but a few all-time favorites stick around, performing year after year. Keep in mind, the bands playing are all local, so don’t expect Chris Stapleton or Luke Bryan to make an appearance. The little-known bands keep up with the small-town, down-south theme the whole event has.
One thing to know about the Watermelon Festival, however, is that it’s a dry event. This means no alcohol is served or allowed on the premises, due to Tompkinsville being situated in a dry county. That doesn’t stop some festival-goers from sneaking some in, however, but just be aware the local police patrolling the event will be on the lookout. I, personally, have seen some people be forced to leave for being drunk and unruly.
Despite this, people don’t seem to mind so much. They’re still happy to have a good time dancing, playing games, and listening to the music.
I attended last year’s festival with my fiance, and we spent the majority of the night slow dancing and enjoying each other’s company. As the night came to a close, the only phrase I could use to describe my experience was utter contentment. The 39th Annual Watermelon Festival will be taking place this September, and I, for one, can’t wait.