The wait is over. After much anticipation and a year forced off, Wilson County’s beloved fair is finally ready to begin.

The Wilson County Fair — Tennessee State Fair formally kicks off with a large opening ceremony tonight in the Farm Bureau Expo Center that will feature Gov. Bill Lee as a guest speaker. The event will be followed by a military flyover and a parade. It all starts at 5 p.m.

Festivalgoers come for the Birthing Barn, the tractor pulls, the carnival, and the fruit and vegetable competitions, which makes sense given the state’s storied history so steeped in agriculture. It’s easy to misconstrue a visit to the fair as a field trip to a farm.

However, there really is so much more being offered that reflects the region’s heritage and creativity.

The baking contest committee chair, Debbie Stephens, talked about her competition on Tuesday as the entries poured in. The baking contest has six classes: quick breads, yeast breads, cookies, cake, pies and candy.

Stephens said the entries are usually family recipes that date back generations. “Most of the time, what they bring in is their grandmother’s recipe or their mother’s recipe.”

Sometime though, modification of those dishes happens organically.

“They just love it, and it evolves through the years into a wonderful recipe,” Stephens said.

This contest is open to Wilson County residents only, but Stephens said that some of the judges will be from around the state.

“I try my best to get those people who know food, know what should be in food, and especially who know appearance,” she said. “Because that is one of the basic things we look for.”

As the owner of Depot Junction Cafe in Watertown, Stephens knows a thing or two about food and she has enlisted a couple of her chefs to help judge the competition. Professional experience is important because as Stephens said, “People know what to look for when they’re in food service.”

Helping Stephens set up the entries for the baking contest was Alyssa Dragan, the Lebanon High School Future Farmers of America vice president. Dragan also serves on the Youth Fair Board, although it’s just her first year.

Dragan admitted she isn’t the most refined chef, but not for lack of trying, “I burn most of what I make,” she joked while setting out entries into the baking contest. “But I can make pasta.”

Dragan will be surrounded by animals the remainder of the week.

“I am working every other shift in animal-related events, like the cattle show and sheep show,” she said, adding that she was happy to be able to pull at least one stint inside the air conditioned showroom at the Expo Center.

Fine Arts brings out Wilson County’s best

It wouldn’t be the same fair without the fine arts competition that has become a staple and main source for displays halls of the Expo Center, which highlight the diverse array of talent around Wilson County. These exhibits have already been entered into the contest and the winners chosen. They feature such categories as paintings, drawings, sculptures, wood work, digital art and recycled art and will be on display for the opening ceremony.

Chairman for the fine arts competition, Clyde Rountree, is a local designer. He and his wife Christine have been involved with this competition for over a decade.

On Wednesday, Rountree said that he sees the art competition as a launchpad for talented local artists looking to make a splash.

“Where else as an amateur artist are you going to get potentially 500,000 people to see your work?” he asked.

Rountree also figured out a way to popularize the arts in the area through youth art scholarships funded by commemorative prints of entries from previous years sold during the fair.

He and his wife developed the idea out of an experience from several years back, in which they recognized a need holding back youthful artistic talent. He said they saw a young girl looking at her own artwork and approached her to compliment her talent.

“Who are you taking art lessons from?” he asked. She said she couldn’t afford to take formal art lessons, and it was at that time, they realized the best way to expand the area’s appreciation of the arts was by investing in younger artists looking to break into the trade.

Since the start of the scholarship, Rountree estimates that they have raised nearly $10,000 to donate to young local artists for supplies, instruction and even tuition for students going to college to study art.

Rountree is grateful for the fair as an outlet for the young artists but also as an avenue to discovery. “We wouldn’t know who these young artists were, if they hadn’t submitted an entry in the contest.”

After judging the artwork and setting up the displays, Rountree said that he and his wife reached a joint conclusion about what makes this area so unique. “The fair is a byproduct of this area.”

Expanding on that, he said he really appreciates the passion with which these local traditions are passed down, and how one can see young people taking up the mantle of their parents and grandparents in a way that indicates they’re proud of their roots.

“Then you see how volunteer driven the fair is,” he said, “You’ll really see it. You can step back and appreciate it.”

While the chairman didn’t want to spoil any news by giving away the “grand champion,” he did say that this would be a first in the competition’s history, at least his time with it anyways. It will be the first time someone from the professional and amateur class didn’t win the top award, which means some local artist under the age of 18 is taking it home.

Rountree said that with so much history here, he sees opportunity for expansion in an arts category. Just brainstorming, he suggested, “Why not have a storytelling competition, or one for poetry?”

“That there isn’t a songwriting contest at the Wilson County Fair is crazy,” he said. He hopes that the art side of things continues to grow and is happy to be a part of making it possible.

What is tablescaping?

As Rountree pointed out, art is hardly limited by mediums. Another competition new to the fair this year is putting that mantra to the test.

The event is called “Tablescaping” and will debut this year according to a press release from Wilson Rides Inc. Executive Director Gaye Lynn Wilson.

Wilson hopes the new competition will showcase just how far people are willing to go to set nice plates and saucers for the honor of “Best of Show”, “Blue Ribbon” or “People’s Choice” award.

The tablescaping competition will take place in the Expo Center’s Main Hall today. While no one will ultimately dine on these perfectly set up arrangements, it shouldn’t detract from all the hard work that went into creating them. Wilson hopes this tradition that is popular around the country will appeal to the festival goers and if nothing else showcase the “countless hours of designing, money, sweat and tears, all in the hopes of claiming top honors for the most creative, impeccably set table.”

While any theme for the design is left up to the creator, the rules governing the competitions dictate that each table setting must include a menu, six place settings and follow guidelines for proper table settings.

Besides the decor and the menu, participants are also judged for how well their table is set, by a team of judges who will be particularly concerned about things like silverware and glass placement. Judges for the event include Miss Tennessee 2021, Lisa Patton, local celebrity and former weather forecaster for WKRN-Channel 2 and Paula McDonnell, owner of Square Market Furniture and Gifts in Lebanon, along with many more.

This year’s fair promises to have something for everyone so don’t miss an opportunity to rejoin your community, celebrate its rich heritage and maybe enjoy a snow cone or two.

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