Ralph’s Donut Shop a local Cookeville landmark for coffee, pastry and community

Cynthia and Mark Pullum operate what may be the sweetest spot in Putnam County. Ralph’s Donut Shop rolls out well over 5,000 yeast and cake donuts a day, which rounds out to about one-and-half million a year.

Five-year-old Charlotte knows exactly what she wants when she goes to Ralph’s. (Photo by Ken Beck.)

The wife-and-husband team has been the guardian of the legacy business for the past nine years, as they took the reins after the death of Cynthia’s father, the eponymous Ralph Smith who started it all.

The only downer about Cynthia and Mark’s success is that they rarely sample these delicious, deep-fried hunks of sweet dough.

Asked how many donuts he eats a day, with a smile on his face, Mark answered, “None. My wife doesn’t either. The donut shop is run by two diabetics. I might eat one a year.”

Nevertheless, they know about everything there is to know about donuts. Ralph’s Donut Shop was voted the best in Tennessee in a 2015 online “Donut Brawl” poll, and its glazed donut was selected one of best 25 donuts in America in 2016 by The Daily Meal.

Ralph and Evelyn Smith opened Ralph’s Donut Shop in September 1962 with only six stools. Today the sweet spot boasts 26 stools around two, long U-shaped counters and a small table that seats three. Ralph made the donuts, and Evelyn did the waitressing. This vintage photo rests on a shelf in the shop. Before the donut shop moved in, the building was home to Haskell Grogan’s grocery store and then a Greyhound bus station.

(Believe it or not, the average American is estimated to eat 31 donuts a year, while U.S. donut shops make more than 10 billion donuts annually.)

Much of the credit for the success goes back to Ralph, who was born in Carthage and grew up on a farm in the Smith County community of Buffalo Valley.

The World War II veteran and his wife, Evelyn, owned and operated the shop for 48 years, until Ralph’s death in 2010 at the age of 84.

Describing her dad, Cynthia said, “He was kind of gruff. He scared a lot of people with his voice, but he was jolly and loved to have fun. He was a big cut-up and loved to be the center of attention.”

She shared that their donut recipe was concocted by her father and Dallas Frazier, who also worked at the shop 48 years.

“My dad and Dallas came up with the recipe themselves. Dallas is every bit as important as Ralph,” said Cynthia.

Ralph and Evelyn sold their first donut in September 1962, and Ralph’s nephew, James Smith, was an eyewitness to the transaction.

“I can remember going up there the day they opened with my parents and my two aunts. One of the aunts said, ‘I want to be the first customer.’ She orders up a donut and a carton of milk, and it was less than a dollar. Ralph took that dollar bill and laid it on the counter beside the cash register and said, ‘That’s not going in the register.’ Later they had it framed and put on the wall,” said Smith, who lives in South Carthage.

“That place was a blowing and going back in the ’60s. Ralph and Evelyn put in some hours. A lot of the success was because of their willingness to work. Ralph was always smiling,” added Smith, noting that his uncle would not sell a donut over 24 hours old.

At first, the shop held only six stools for customers to sit in while they fueled up on donuts and coffee. In 1974, the couple remodeled the shop, and the result was 26 stools parked around two long U-shaped counters. Most mornings before 9 a.m. or so, it is not unusual for every seat to be filled.

From its inception until 1992, the donut shop operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Nowadays it is open 5 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

Nobody knows how many donuts have been produced here over 57 years, but Frazier, who also made and decorated cakes, takes a guess: “I’d say it’s up in millions or billions.”

He recollected that his first day on the job, Ralph told him there was a little problem.

“Ralph said, ‘I’m working two types of donut mix. I cannot get a good one out. One’s too tough, and one’s too slack.’ I asked, ‘What are you mixing?’ He said, ‘Eighteen pound of each mix.’ I said, ‘Let’s mix nine pound of each dough and see how it comes out,’ and that’s what they’re running today,” said Frazier.

CHOCOLATE OR GLAZED? These are but two of 40 donut and pastry choices at Ralph’s Donut Shop, a Cookeville landmark that served its first donut 57 years ago. The donut shop has been operated by Ralph’s daughter, Cynthia, and her husband, Mark Pullum (seen here), for the past nine years. Ralph’s Donut Shop was voted the best in Tennessee in 2015 and its glazed donut named one of the best 25 donuts in America by The Daily Meal in 2016. (Photos by Ken Beck)

As for how Ralph entered the donut business, Cynthia shared the details.

“My mom’s brother, my uncle Bill Elam, had opened a donut shop in Dayton, Ohio, in 1960,” she said. Bill’s Donut Shop is in fact still in business, run by two of his children and now located in Centerville, Ohio.

“Mama and Dad went up to Ohio for seven months and learned how to make donuts. Then they came back, and he drove a gas truck for Apple Oil Company. They saved their money and opened in September of 1962,” she said. “I remember telling my dad when I was 8 years old I was ready to come to work, and he put me on a Coke case washing pans every Saturday.”

Mark did not get his hands into the dough until 2010, the year they married.

“I got plunged into it. My wife and her brother [Jimmy] inherited it. She called me and asked me if I would run it. I been here ever since,” Mark said.

Mark actually made his first visit to Ralph’s with his mother more than half a century ago  — literally before he was born. “She was eating donuts here when I was in the womb,” he said.

As a boy, Mark would come with his dad to town on Saturdays, and his father would give him a quarter and send him to get a donut. “I would buy a donut, and Ralph gave me my quarter back and would say, ‘Don’t tell your dad.’”

As for what it takes to make a great donut, the donut man said “patience and learning how to work with the dough.”

The shop, which employs a staff of 20, turns out 40 varieties of donuts and pastries. Their best-seller is the butter twist, followed by a tie between the apple fritters and lady fingers.

Cynthia holds a day job in the Putnam County clerk and master’s office, but works at the shop on Saturdays panning donuts and waitressing while Mark tends to farm chores.

She says the best thing about owning a donut shop is “watching somebody who has never had a donut before they take their first bite.”

About their tasty, doughy morsels, Mark said, “We just try to take our time and do it right. It’s all done by hand. Nothing has changed since it started. We’ve added a few things [to the menu], but otherwise it’s exactly the same as when Ralph was here.”

Retired donut guru Frazier explains that he had to bargain with Ralph before he was hired.

“I was working at a donut shop up the street, and he sent for me to come down there, and he wanted me to work for him. So I told him, ‘I got a job.’ He said, ‘Well, I need you.’ I said, ‘What do you pay?’ He said, ‘I can pay a dollar and a quarter an hour. I said, ‘Naw, I’m making that where I am. I have to have a dollar thirty anyway.’ He said, ‘I can’t pay that.’

“I started for the door, and Evelyn said, ‘You better call him back.’ He said, ‘I’ll pay you.’ I went to work for them about a week later.”

Donut maker Cletus Spivey, hoisting a batch of chocolate twists, is a third-generation employee at Ralph’s Donut Shop. His mother, Michelle, worked here 32 years and his grandfather worked here before he was born. (Photo by Ken Beck.)

On a typical morning, Cletus Spivey works with gusto in the kitchen making chocolate twists and cinnamon rolls. The Cookeville native clocks in between 1 and 2 a.m. and hits the ground running.

Spivey and his family have seen a lot of donuts come and go, too.

“I’m a third-generation employee,” he said. “My mama [Michelle] worked her for 32 years, and my grandfather Harry worked here before I was born.”

Dana Garrett of Bloomington Springs provides another veteran hand in the shop.

“I worked here 15 years ago for Ralph and then went to work at the car wash. Every time Cynthia came by she said, ‘Come back and work for us.’ I’ve been back about six months now.”

In her estimation, the old-fashion buttermilk donut is “the best by far,” she says. “I eat about two a day.”

The shop might be compared to the “Cheers” bar from the famed TV series, except Ralph’s regulars are hooked on donuts and coffee rather than beer and pretzels.

About the early morning crowd, Mark said, “We have a lot of old guys cutting up, aggravating everybody. We try to have fun with the customers. The older customers are like family. I’ve got a lot of their phone numbers, and if one of them doesn’t come in after a few days, I call them.”

Mark said his favorite moments at work are when the youngsters come in. “When they look at that showcase and see sprinkled donuts, they just light up,” he said.

Meanwhile, some of his most loyal customers make pilgrimages to the shop from many miles and even many states away.

“I’ve got one lady who comes from Knoxville once a month and gets 14 dozen that she takes back to her office. And there’s a lady from New Hampshire who comes every Christmas. Last time she brought me maple syrup. She wants me to open a shop in New Hampshire,” said Mark, who has no plans to make donuts in New England.

Dallas Frazier, Ralph’s right-hand man across five decades, provides some final words. He
stops by the shop every now and then and admits, “Oh, yeah, I eat a donut, but I don’t pay for anything.”

Asked what made Ralph’s Donut Shop such a popular place, he answered, “It’s got to be the merchandise. If you make something bad, people are not gonna buy it, but if you got something that’s good, people will keep coming back. They do make a good donut.”

Cookeville mom-on-the-go publishing (healthy) hamburger cookbook

Alane Boyd isn’t a woman with a lot of extra time on her hands.

The Putnam County software engineer-entrepreneur may have “retired” for the first time at just 35 after selling a successful company she and her husband co-founded, but her daily life remains a whirl of activity and enterprise — hence her Instagram handle: @the_hurricanealane.

Boyd spends most of her waking hours working in assorted roles as business consultant, marketing specialist, entrepreneur coach and motivational speaker. And that’s in addition to pursuing various avenues of philanthropy and volunteer activity in the local community and beyond.

“I’ve got a three-year-old, I’ve got multiple businesses, I’ve got a husband and I travel all the time,” Boyd told Center Hill Sun recently at her Cookeville office in The Biz Foundry.

Well-Heeled Homemaker

Typically the antithesis of a frowsy hausfrau, on any given weekday Boyd’s rarely spied attired in footwear other than her trademark stilettos.

All the same, Boyd’s foremost functions as a woman of industrious pursuits are far and away those of wife and toddler’s mommy. And in keeping with her unwillingness to compromise her ambitions, she’s wholly resistant to outsourcing her homemaking labors of love to unwholesome outside influences.

A daily question with which Boyd wrestles is, “How to manage it all and try to eat healthy?”

“BurgerFit,” a cookbook by Putnam County food show host, author and tech entrepreneur Alane Boyd, is coming out June 1.

In fact, she’s something of a fanatic about feeding her family well.

“Cooking healthy and tasty meals is my passion,” says Boyd, who also hosts an amiably instructional Youtube channel called, “Cooking With My Friends.”

She bills her program, “The best healthy cooking show on the internet.” On a typical episode, Boyd and her guests whip up quick and easy recipes usually intended to emphasize you’re “never too old or too young to start eating vegetables.”

Later this spring — just in time for grilling season — Boyd is set to release “BurgerFit.” It’s a self-published cookbook cataloging a bumper-crop of unexpected components and directions for rustling up healthy versions of “America’s favorite food.”

Does it sound counterintuitive or implausible to think of hamburgers as “health food”?

Well, bear in mind that Boyd is an engineer by trade. That means she specializes in developing systems that work.

She has appetizingly discovered that hamburger patties make an ideal delivery means for surreptitiously smuggling vegetables into an unsuspecting family member’s diet

“No one asks before they take a bite of burger, what is in it,” Boyd writes in the introduction of her cookbook. “A burger is a trusted food.”

Sustainable Slenderizing

When she was in middle school, Boyd began struggling with weight issues — a problem that followed her into adulthood. She and her husband, Micah, would often go out for drinks and dinner after a long workday. Invariably, they’d overindulge. She recalls often thinking, “I’ve got to get myself under control.”

But it took a “wake-up call” in the form of an early-onset high blood pressure diagnosis to finally convince her that lifestyle adjustments were required.

So, using the Whole30 weight-loss program, she shed 40 pounds and gained a new outlook on food and health. “A huge component of my success was replacing meals that I usually ate with bread and carbs with vegetables,” she said.

Over time it became apparent to Boyd however that while an elimination-style diet may have worked wonders for her, it carried little appeal to those around her — especially her family from Louisiana, where she grew up.

Hamburger Humbuggery

When Boyd’s kin from Cajun Country popped in for a visit, they bluntly regarded meals devoid of sugar, carbs, dairy and beans as preposterous and repellent. To their way of thinking, those were key ingredients in life’s happiness recipe book.

“They wouldn’t eat anything that I cooked,” Boyd said. “They’d just eat a piece of meat and then go to the grocery store and get bread, and they would just eat meat and bread.”

One of the things Boyd learned on her own journey to better health is that changes made to your eating habits need be enjoyable to become sustainable. They won’t last otherwise.

She inevitably concluded that healthy cooking for her meat-loving, veggie-loathing family would require a generous dollop of subterfuge.

“I started blending up the vegetables and making the burgers with them,” she writes. “If they saw me cooking the vegetables, I would tell them that was for my dinner and they didn’t have to eat them. When they weren’t looking, I would make the patties with the veggies.”

Over time, Boyd cultivated a sly culinary aptitude for the art of skillet skulduggery, all the while gaining evermore beguiling skills as a cunning cheeseburger enchantress. Of course, were she ever found out, Boyd understood that dark oaths and perhaps accusations of witchery might fly in her direction — especially from her brothers, who she said never made it a secret they were “opposed to vegetables.”

But that didn’t happen. On the contrary, Boyd’s assembled an ample menu of meat-and-veggie patty blends that unfailingly cast a satisfying spell over even the most ardent carnivore test subjects.

“Everyone would rave about how delicious they were, and then ask what was in them,” Boyd writes in BurgerFit. “I got very comfortable with not telling them the truth. If I did, they would never eat another burger I made them. I would brush the question off and name a veggie that I knew they liked that looked similar to the veggie in the burger that they wouldn’t eat. Green peas became greens, red beets became purple cabbage, carrots became sweet potatoes.”

Boyd hopes BurgerFit becomes a hit for making all manner of ground-meat creations, not just hamburgers and not just beef.

“You can use any type of ground meat you would like,” an FAQ page on Boyd’s website communicates. “Ground pork, turkey, chicken, etc. make delicious BurgerFit burgers. If you are vegetarian or vegan, you can even replace the meat with lentils, beans, or your favorite meat substitute.”

Most any meat can make a nice patty if the meat-to-plant-material ratios are correct, Boyd said. However, it’s generally not a great idea to try and force more than two cups of cooked and cut-up veggies into a pound of ground meat, she reports. Doing so runs the risk of burgers falling apart, and thus detection

Boyd keeps a stash of pre-made burgers on hand in the freezer for quick access and fast prep. And she doesn’t hesitate to “deconstruct” them for other uses, especially tacos.

The ultimate message of BurgerFit is that you don’t have to compromise great flavor to compose a burger that’s got more nutrition to it than meets the eye.

“Even if you don’t like vegetables, don’t have time, and don’t like cooking, BurgerFit burgers are so easy to make and taste so good, that you can’t help but make them,” said Boyd.

If you’d like to get an early look or pre-order a copy of BurgerFit, which is scheduled for release in early June, visit Boyd’s website at http://burgerfitcookbook.com/.

Flavor-making is the spice of life for Cookeville entrepreneurs

Part of running a successful small business is knowing how to focus your energies where they’ll do the most good.

For Putnam County taste-creators John and Amanda Brantley, that means concentrating on the two aspects of their business they love most — the making and the marketing of their highly palatable spice-package products.

The Brantleys specialize in concocting a variety of culinary enhancement delights. They share an appetizing talent for mixing up flavor-packed batches of meat rubs, cooking-spice blends and other multi-purpose chow seasonings.

John Brantley and his wife Amanda run a pair of Cookeville-based culinary enhancement businesses: The Lagniappe Spice Company and the Tennessee Spice Company

Among their best-selling grill-mates for making mouthwatering flesh and fish dishes are products with names like Dixieland Steak Seasoning, Bodacious Blackened Seasoning, Booyah BBQ Shrimp Seasoning and Caribbean Citrus Seasoning.

Other products they prepare and sell include peppery-taste-laced jellies and jams, kits for supercharging stone-ground grits, and a line of gourmet cocoa mixes irresistibly infused with mood-warming essences like hazelnut, raspberry, peppermint and mocha.

The Brantleys founded their business in 2010, with the idea of sharing their shared fondness for down-home cooking and Southern food culture — especially New Orleans flavors.

They sell their products through a pair of homegrown companies — The Lagniappe Spice Company and the Tennessee Spice Company. “Lagniappe” is a Louisiana Creole French word that means “a little something extra,” or “an extra blessing.”

“Our custom blends are rooted in our Southern heritage and are sure to enhance your favorite recipes, and hopefully, a few new ones,” their website declares.

Blessings of Being a Small Business

For the Brantleys, living up to their company name means striving for “a little better quality and more product in a bag,” and both at a price that’s affordable to anybody who wants to add some zest to their kitchen cuisine repertoire and pizzazz to their backyard barbecue proficiency.

John said their adventure in commercial spice-making all began when he discovered a particularly savory Big Easy-style seasoning blend that he truly relished, but couldn’t get past the fact that it was a little on the bold side. “It was just too hot to eat in any quantity,” he said.

So he decided to improve upon it by dialing down the heat a bit in order to make it a little more accessible to palates unaccustomed to blistering levels of capsaicin-saturation. The result was a blend that was so popular with his friends that he had trouble keeping it on hand. So he decided to go into the business of making it for profit.

“That’s kind of how we got started,” John said.

“And here we are, 20-plus products later,” added Amanda.

Nowadays, friends and customers often tell John and Amanda they ought to open their own store or restaurant. But the Brantleys say they’re pretty sure that would cut into the fun factor of what they do — and cause unnecessary headaches

“We don’t have a lot of interest in running our own storefront,” said Amanda. “If people can sell it for us and customers see us enough locally, and they know where they can get our products, then that works just fine for us.”

John says one reason he’s an entrepreneur rather than a clock-puncher for someone else is that he gets to organize day-to-day production activities and business operations so as to avoid otherwise avoidable headaches.

“I really like flexibility,” said John, who spent two decades working as a quality-control and research development scientist in the commercial food-manufacturing industry.

Lagniappe Spice Company and Tennessee Spice Company are available direct-to-customer online and at a range of local and regional grocery stores and local-products boutiques.

“Our stuff is carried from time to time in places like Opryland,” said Amanda. “There’s a growing demand for ‘Made in Tennessee’ labeling in tourist-destination spots.”

She said the state Department of Agriculture’s “Pick Tennessee” program has been a good boost for their business — although she’d like to see more PickTN-focused shows and events around the state to promote Tennessee-based products to other Tennesseans.

Home Cooking at Home Shows

John, who helps plan the Upper Cumberland Home and Garden Show’s kitchen demonstration lineup, said he’s particularly fond of participating in trade shows and lifestyle expos.

There he and his wife get to meet not just large numbers of people in short periods of time, but also come in friendly contact with people who might never come across their products otherwise — and who may, as a result of sampling a succulent morsel of John and Amanda’s handiwork, become regular customers.

John especially enjoys conducting demonstrations on “doing something a little different” in the kitchen that people maybe haven’t seen before — like fashioning a meat or seafood glaze out of Lagniappe’s spiced jams or jellies.

“He’s cooked pork tenderloins and steaks before. People alway seem to like that,” said Amanda.

At the Wilson County Southern Home & Garden Expo in February, John gave a lesson on how to whip up a savory shrimp dip guaranteed to please at any party.

John said the culinary demonstration aspect of the Upper Cumberland Home and Garden Show has really come into its own the past few years as Cookeville and the surrounding region continue to draw in skilled chefs and food-and-beverage entrepreneurs.

“It’s nice to be able to showcase local talent,” he said. “Cookeville is becoming a great place for really good food.”

PRESS RELEASE FROM THE UPPER CUMBERLAND TOURISM ASSOCIATION, AUGUST 28, 2018:

Level of visitor spending in Upper Cumberland climbs to all-time high

Nashville – Gov. Bill Haslam and Department of Tourist Development Commissioner Kevin Triplett announced today Tennessee tourism’s direct domestic and international travel expenditures reached a new all-time record high of $20.7 billion in 2017, up 6.3 percent over the previous year, as reported by the U.S. Travel Association. The announcement was made at the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum.

For the 12th consecutive year, tourism topped $1 billion in state and local sales tax revenue, reaching $1.8 billion. That marks a 7.6 percent increase over 2016, higher than the national growth of travel related state tax revenues of 4.6 percent. Tourism also generated 184,300 jobs for Tennesseans, a 3.1 percent growth year over year.

The 2017 direct domestic and international travel expenditure for the Upper Cumberland region reached an all time high of $420.9 Mil. Overall the 14 counties in the Upper Cumberland saw a 6.3% increase in their tourism spending. Two of our counties see more than $100 Million – Putnam – $132.03 Mil and Cumberland – $121.54 Mil.

Chambers of Commerce in the smaller UC counties operate on very limited budgets and they cooperate with all the 14 counties and the Upper Cumberland Tourism Association on joint promotions.

“It is important to understand that travel & tourism creates jobs, drives economic growth and helps build better societies. The Upper Cumberland of Tennessee is a prime example of this, as our region and its natural beauty is expected to attract more tourists in the coming years” said Ruth Dyal, director of the Upper Cumberland Tourism Association. It will be vital for Upper Cumberland communities and private sectors to work together with the public to ensure that tourism growth is sustainable, inclusive and benefits everyone.”

Commissioner Kevin Triplett said. “The authenticity and Southern hospitality from our communities and partners gives visitors an unbeatable experience and inspires them to return. The numbers show Tennessee is a destination of choice for visitors around the world. However, we would not have these numbers if not for the capital investments, renovations and dedication made by tourism partners across the state to deliver great experiences that create wonderful memories.”

To view the full report, click here. For more information, contact Ruth Dyal, executive director for the Upper Cumberland Tourism Association at 931-537-6347 or by email at uctourism@gmail.com.

McMinnville-Warren County looking to cash in on wealth of outdoor riches

It’s almost always possible to imagine better living arrangements or conditions than one’s current circumstances.

But recognizing that the grass isn’t really always greener somewhere else often enables a person not only to enjoy a more contented and fulfilling existence in present time and place, but also to realize that opportunities exist right in one’s own backyard that others may in fact tend to envy.

To that end, business and political leaders in McMinnville have commissioned a comprehensive report demonstrating that, when it comes to the economic potential of tourism in the area, the grass is already pretty green in Warren County.

And it has the potential of getting greener all the time.

The “Adventure Tourism Plan for McMinnville-Warren County, Tennessee,” released in March after more than a year in the making, lends persuasive and meticulous support to a view that’s been dawning for the past decade on many who call the area home.

The plan’s thesis is this: As a result of its location and surrounding natural features and recreational assets — with hills, mountains, scenic rivers, lakes and exceptional beauty abounding that “cannot be created by the hands of man” — Warren County is distinctly suited to take advantage of Tennessee’s thriving tourism industry, with McMinnville serving as an “adventure hub.”

“Due to McMinnville-Warren County’s geographic location on the Eastern Highland Rim and at the foothills of the Cumberland Plateau, natural resources are in abundance with the Collins, Barren Fork, and Caney Fork rivers, Cumberland Caverns – a United States National Natural Landmark, and eight state parks/natural areas within 50 miles,” according to the plan, which was written by Griggs & Maloney, a Murfreesboro-based environmental-engineering planning and consulting firm.

Paid for using part of a $28,000 state tourism development grant, the Adventure Tourism Plan functions as a strategic blueprint for business, community leaders and entrepreneurs to grow the local tourism economy. It also serves as an impressive “inventory of places and activities” already attracting visitors heading out on Tennessee highways looking for adventure.

McMinnville Mayor Jim Haley

“For a long time, our community didn’t really see our natural beauty and our environmental assets as really a selling point,” said McMinnville Mayor Jimmy Haley. “But over the last few years, more and more people have been starting to see that using the mountains and caves and rivers and great climate and lushness all plays into a bigger picture. Those things already are here, we don’t have to build them, and opportunities are basically endless. So there’s no reason we can’t use that as an asset and strategy of get other people to come and appreciate it as well.”

Tapping TN Tourism

The backdrop for the bigger picture is that the Volunteer State as a whole is doing quite well in the realm of tourism development.

Tourism is among the state’s most booming economic sectors, with expenditures from the estimated 110 million people who visited Tennessee surpassing $19.3 billion in 2016, the most recent year comprehensive data is available. That was up 4.7 percent over the previous year, and marked the 11th consecutive year that tourism topped a billion dollars in state and local sales tax revenue.

In 2017, Tennessee earned a ranking — for the fourth consecutive year — among the Top 10 travel destinations in the U.S. And last year it was also deemed the fastest-growing state in America for international travel.

Visitation and spending by nonresidents in Warren County has been rising the past several years as well, as has attendance at state parks in the area, like Rock Island, South Cumberland and Fall Creek Falls.

While “laying a roadmap for the next 20 years” for tourism development in McMinnville and Warren County is a central purpose the adventure plan serves, Haley added that it can also be read as a promotional initiative for the entire region.

“We have to quit thinking of ourselves as singular units,” he said. “When people come to McMinnville, they might decide to go up to Sparta to the Calfkiller Brewery or over to the distillery at Short Mountain. When someone is coming to Cumberland Caverns or the Isha Yoga Center or they’re coming here for the Muskie Tournament or one of our other music venues, or if they’re just floating down the river, they’re not worried whether it’s Warren County. They don’t know if it is White County, Van Buren County or Warren County. All the rivers converge at Rock Island.”

As large metropolitan areas in Tennessee and beyond continue expanding as time goes on, “more and more people are going to be looking for outdoor opportunities,” said Ryan Maloney of Griggs & Maloney, the agency that drafted the plan.

Undoubtedly, more and more are going to discover that the Upper Cumberland is a “jewel,” he said.

Choose Your Own Adventure

An “adventure tourism trip” is generally described by travel-economy analysts and marketing industry professionals as one in which an individual, family or group travels to an area outside their normal realm of day-to-day lifestyle preoccupations for the purpose of engaging in some form of physical activity in a natural environment or as part of some “culturally immersive experience.”

Adventure tourism encompasses more than just higher-energy, adrenaline-elevating activities like rock climbing, mountain and road biking, caving, backcountry backpacking, zip-lining and kayaking — all of which are common activities in or around Warren County. It could also involve consciousness-elevating pursuits like simply exploring some new natural landscape or setting out to gain improved knowledge of, or a better appreciation for, how people live or used to live in a place of historical or ecological interest.

“The definitions of adventure tourism vary as much as the activities,” explains the plan, which catalogs a dizzying index of adventure-seeking pursuits one can embark upon in the vicinity.

Among them are kayaking, rafting, canoeing, paddle boarding, trophy sport fishing, motorized water sports of all manner, road cycling, mountain biking, skydiving, cave exploration trips, zip lining, bungee jumping, geocaching, target shooting, hang gliding/paragliding, historical tours and a spectacularly scenic yoga sanctuary boasting the largest meditation hall in the Western Hemisphere.

“Within 45 miles a visitor can explore eight state parks, access over 125 miles of hiking trails, mountain bike trails, kayaking, numerous waterfalls, caves, zip lining and ropes courses, numerous fishing opportunities, an 18-hole golf course, and a 1,500 to 2,000 year old stone fort,” notes the report. Also nearby are “two recreational lakes and three rivers that could easily be listed as wild and scenic.”

Besides all the natural beauty and recreational draw of the area, visitors are also lured by “the cultural resources that represent the heritage of the communities (that) are the tangible link to the past generations who established McMinnville-Warren County many years ago.”

Many activities, places and events that “meld heritage and adventure together to form a more experience based tourism” are in Warren County, the plan states. And McMinnville in particular — a “quintessential small town” with an attractive and active downtown and “tree lined streets” — is ideally stationed as a jumping-off point for adventure tourism throughout the region.

“McMinnville is unique in that it can function simultaneously as both a hub and destination within Warren County and the surrounding region for Adventure Tourism,” according to the plan, which notes that four major urban population centers home to an estimated 2.92 million people are within an easy two-hour drive of downtown McMinnville.

“Just as the natural beauty and the landscape of McMinnville-Warren County has created business and commerce that is still evident in the landscape today, more and more people, both residents and visitors, are coming to experience and interact with the natural beauty of the area and experience the small town main street feel of McMinnville,” the plan’s authors wrote.

McMinnville is, in fact, one of 35 nationally accredited “Main Street” communities in Tennessee.

Mandy Eller, McMinnville-Warren County Chamber of Commerce president.

Like Mayor Haley, Chamber of Commerce President Mandy Eller is among those who believe it makes sense to market McMinnville and Warren County more energetically to visitors seeking physically active getaways and rewarding cultural experiences.

“That is an opportunity for the whole Upper Cumberland — maybe we can build it as a model and then they can do it across the whole region,” she said of the Adventure Tourism Plan blueprint.

Eller, who grew up the daughter of a nurseryman and then became the wife of one, said she’s always been engaged in the community. But she acknowledges there were times as a younger adult when she took some of the region’s beauty, history and outdoor recreation for granted. But once she had children of her own, Eller said she became determined to instill in them a sense of pride in their hometown and county. That in turn led her to discovering things about the area for herself that she never knew.

Her impression now is that she’s immeasurable fortunate to live and raise a family of her own in a land of unbounded allure, potential and promise.

“We are completely spoiled here, we really are,” Eller said.

PRESS RELEASE from the Brewers Association of Small and Independent Craft Brewers, July 19, 2017:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (July 19, 2017)Tennessee Brew Works has partnered with the Tennessee State Parks by creating a new Tennessee State Parks Beer, “State Park Blonde Ale,” with a portion of sales benefiting the mission of Tennessee State Parks.

The Tennessee State Parks and Tennessee Brew Works teams met almost two years ago. Sharing ideas over a common bond of craft beer with aims to better our land and community, they quickly became friends. Since then, they have been actively discussing projects and possible ways for the two organizations to optimize their synergies.

“Together we have found a way to make delicious Tennessee Brew Works craft beer and support Tennessee State Parks with our State Park Blonde Ale. We proudly support the mission of Beer StylesTennessee State Parks as they preserve and protect our natural resources,” said Christian Spears, founder and owner, Tennessee Brew Works.

Fans of Tennessee Brew Works will recognize the beer’s distinctive label artwork, created by Nashville native Bryce McCloud. The State Park Blonde Ale features the image of State Naturalist, Randy Hedgepath. Randy has served the park service for more than 30 years, working as a Ranger Naturalist at South Cumberland and Radnor Lake State Parks. He was appointed State Naturalist by the Tennessee State Parks in 2007. As a former National Park Service Interpretive Specialist, Randy is also one of the most sought after interpretive specialists in the southeastern United States.

Tennessee Brew Work’s State Park Blonde Ale is light, crisp American blonde session ale with subtle floral notes, created with high quality grains and hops. The new beer will be distributed throughout Tennessee and served on draft and in bottles at the Tennessee Brew Works Taproom, 809 Ewing Avenue in downtown Nashville and the Tennessee Brew Works kiosk at the Nashville International Airport.

“Tennessee Brew Works and Tennessee State Parks have combined our mutual appreciation for local craft brew, spectacular landscapes and the great stories of our state. Utilizing Tennessee Brew Works craft beer sales for the benefit of our Tennessee State Parks system is a perfect pairing.

A portion of the sales of the State Park Blonde Ale will be provided to the Tennessee State Parks Conservancy, our non-profit partner, and used to support efforts to preserve and protect our state’s natural and cultural assets. We look forward to the release of the State Park Blonde Ale statewide this month,” said Brock Hill, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Deputy Commissioner.

About Tennessee State Parks

From its beginning in 1937, Tennessee State Parks were established to protect and preserve the unique natural, cultural and historic resources of Tennessee. The public interest has also been served by a variety of benefits for citizens and communities produced by our state park system, promoting stronger communities and healthier citizens across the state through diverse resource-based recreation while conserving the natural environment for today and tomorrow – preserving authentic Tennessee places and spaces for future generations to enjoy. There are 56 Tennessee State Parks to explore.

About Tennessee Brew Works

Tennessee Brew Works was born from a love for craft beer. A startup which began over a home-brew session, they ultimately celebrated their first professional brew in August 2013. Tennessee Brew Works is 100% owned and operated by folks in Tennessee. They are guided by their motto: “We work hard to create high quality craft beer that makes Tennessee proud. Our culture places importance on family, friends, and community, and we hope you’ll be a part of it.”

Rule of thumb: Stick with the standards

Once something of a dying art, home canning has enjoyed a mini resurgence as more and more people rediscover the joys of country living. And county fairs are a great place to see what others in your community are putting in jars — and maybe, if you’re up for a challenge, seeing how your efforts stack up against the competition.

If you’re hesitant to try your hand at canning for fear of making a mistake – or making someone ill — think about taking a course in canning. Local county extension offices offer classes that walk a would-be home canner through the dos and don’t of food-preservation safety.

Also, the USDA publishes time-tested canning guidelines and recipes on a “Complete Guide to Home Canning” webpage that’s easy to find and follow.

Judging in the home canning arts category is no joke to Shelly Barnes, an agriculture extension officer in Wilson County. Food safety is the number one concern for canned goods, she said.

What judges like to see are entries that have clearly been properly processed in clean mason jars, with brand new lids and rings.

So, for example, a bright red jar of tomato sauce that has not been processed long enough is sure to be skipped in favor of a browner product. And if your jelly jars are sticky with jam, that is an indication that something went wrong in processing and it will not likely winning a ribbon.

In fact, Barnes said she’s not above refusing to award a blue ribbon if no entry is worthy of one.

The Competitor View

Tapatha Ray of Smithville knows a few things about blue ribbons. Last year she won an astounding 55 of them in the Dekalb County Fair.

Her farm sells produce at the farmers market on Saturdays. But what doesn’t sell is carefully preserved for winter use by her customers and family. When county fair time arrives, Tapatha chooses samples from her store to submit for judging.

Ray said that in her experience, what “doesn’t work” is getting too creative in canning competitions and coming up with odd concoction and mixtures that judges likely haven’t seen before.

“One year I added bright red peppers to my pickles and those jars were not chosen, probably because they were not your usual pickle,” said Mrs. Ray.

Taste-Testing Taboo

It’s pretty obvious to anybody who’s tried them that home-canned foods taste better than their store-bought counterparts.

So it might seem a little strange that Tennessee fair judges don’t typically perform taste-tests on the contents of the jars they’re evaluating. Wilson County Fair’s Barnes said that’s because they have no way of knowing whether the submissions were in fact properly packed, processed and handled. And the equipment required to check for safety is expensive, she said.

In sum, if you want to make a winning impression at your local fair, choose your produce carefully, use proper mason jars, measure the “headspace” and make certain to follow established guidelines and conservative recipes.

Catching a judge’s eye in a good way often means signaling that you’re confident enough in your canning skills to put traditional simplicity to the competitive test.

Nicole Sauce is a homesteader, publisher, podcaster and local coffee roaster. Reach her at LivingFreeInTennessee.com.

Time to mark your calendars to start setting aside a little early evening time on the third Friday of each month for dropping by the Sparta Green Market.

The monthly festival of fresh food, open-air local shopping and lively music begins Friday at Metcalfe Park near Liberty Square in downtown Sparta.

Starting at 4.pm., it’ll include a full pavilion of food and craft vendors, talented musicians and entertainment for kids.

Green Market chairwoman Margaret Petre says to expect more than two dozen booths and attractions at the May 19 fest, including local beef-raisers, bakers, produce growers, face painters, balloon-animal designers and honey producers. Featured musicians scheduled to perform include Green Market veteran Whitney Newport, a keyboardist back for her third season, and guitarist Eli Payne, who’ll be playing the market for the first time.

The Green Market takes special pride in attracting and displaying “top quality products from the Sparta area,” said Petre.

In addition to free entertainment and educational booths, the market provides a vibrant hub for buying and selling local meat, fruits and veggies, honey, flowers, eggs and a whole lot more, she said.

“An evening event in Sparta is a good way for families and friends to eat dinner downtown, visit local businesses, enjoy the Green Market, and listen to a free bluegrass concert starting at 7 p.m.,” Petre said.

Don’t forget: it is always a good idea to bring chairs and an iced cooler for meats, poultry or other items you might purchase at the market. Also, because Sparta Green Market is in fact a “green” outing, organizers encourage shoppers to bring reusable bags for produce and other goods they purchase. No smoking or pets are allowed.

For more information, contact Ms. Petre at spartagreenmarket@gmail.com, or send a message on Facebook.

It’ll take time to overcome technological stagnation resulting from prohibition

Harvest time has come and gone for the second year of legal industrial hemp cultivation in Tennessee.

The non-psychoactive cousin of marijuana is billed as a potential boom crop in the 21st Century. It has numerous uses and applications as food, fiber, fuel and health remedies, as well as in construction materials, automobile parts, furniture and cosmetics.

But hemp’s potential has been slow to bloom in Tennessee since the state Legislature and federal government lifted the ban on growing it in 2014.

Sixty-four applicants across Tennessee gained approval by the state Department of Agriculture to grow hemp in 2016. As in 2015, licensed growers ran into headaches acquiring and sowing their seeds in a timely fashion.

Five permits were granted to Upper Cumberland growers, including one in DeKalb County and one in Cannon County for a total of four acres.

Seed Scarcities

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration tightly regulate and control industrial hemp cultivation. They require that seed be imported from outside the country and certified as capable of producing only miniscule amounts of THC, the naturally occurring chemical cannabis plants generate that gives people a “high” when ingested.

“Tennessee producers are growing seed from Canada, Italy and Australia this year,” according to a state agriculture department spokeswoman.

That’s neither sustainable nor conducive to long-term growth as a crop sector, said Clint Palmer, a Ph.D. student at Middle Tennessee State University who is working to expand industrial hemp’s presence in the state.

State agriculture officials are expected to release a report on this year’s hemp crop yields later this fall.

“Without having a domestic seed source, we are not going to be doing what we need to do,” said Palmer. “My goal is to create varieties for the state, which I hope is about a five-year process.” Seed that isn’t acclimated to this region won’t produce optimum yields, he said.

The other big issue is the question of what to do after harvest. Turning hemp into goods and materials for mass markets requires industrial processing, and that requires building infrastructure, which isn’t necessarily cheap.

“We are still struggling as an industry to be able to gain legs, and that is very unfortunate for us. We don’t have the infrastructure to support processing at this time — that’s pretty much where we are at,” said Colleen Keahey, director of Tennessee Hemp Industries Association. “We are waiting to see processing become available. We hope to start engaging with other agricultural industries to possibly partner together and see how we can resolve some these problems.”

A lack of processing and hemp-product manufacturing facilities is “the gaping hole” in plans for developing a successful cannabis sector in Tennessee agriculture, according to Palmer.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg situation,” he said. “We’re kind of in a waiting game right now. People are looking for investors, trying to grow the industry.”

Presently, growing hemp for extraction of therapeutic oils is the most profitable direction to take a crop at this time — although that sector is still obscured by regulatory and legal uncertainty. Furthermore, elevated profit levels for cannabinoid medicinal compounds aren’t likely to last as other states legalize and expand hemp production, said Palmer.

“They fetch a pretty price right now, but it won’t be like that forever,” he said.

Future Holds Promise

Despite the slow start for the reintroduction of hemp, there is nevertheless “reason for hope” that hemp will carve out a productive niche on the agriculture landscape, concluded University of Tennessee plant sciences professor Eric Walker in a 2015 analysis of hemp’s prospects for the future.

“Yields, quality and consistency of today’s predominant crops have increased drastically since their introduction; therefore, it stands to reason that the potential of industrial hemp in the United States is essentially unrealized, and as these research and applied processes of introduction, development, improvement, and refinement continue, industrial hemp yields and quality will only increase,” wrote Walker. “Likewise, if industrial hemp grain and fiber products are proven to be economically viable and sustainable, industrial hemp will again resume its status as an established crop in United States agriculture.”

According to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, where hemp maintained a more prominent and indispensable role as a cash crop than in Tennessee prior to the criminalization of the cannabis plant family, China, Russia, and South Korea are the leading hemp-producing nations, accounting for more than two-thirds of the world’s industrial hemp supply.