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.”

Press Release from the State of Tennessee, Sept. 5, 2019:

Registration through September 8 for September 14-19 event

NASHVILLE – More than 275 cyclists from nearly 30 states will gather at Natchez Trace State Park and Montgomery Bell State Park on Sept. 14-19 for Tennessee State Parks’ annual Bicycle Ride Across Tennessee.

The 30th annual ride will guide riders through some of Tennessee’s most scenic and charming communities, including Huntingdon, Lexington, Parsons, Charlotte, and Kingston Springs.

Each day will feature out-and-back rides returning to stay overnight at Natchez Trace State Park and Montgomery Bell State Park. Riders will pass key attractions along the way including Mousetail Landing State Park, the historic Charlotte Courthouse Square, and Brown Creek Lake.

In addition to the ride, interpretive programs are held nightly that allow riders to explore the parks and learn skills from park rangers. Programs this year include a historic van tour of Montgomery Bell State Park, an introduction to primitive weapons, a birds of prey program, and more.

The ride is non-competitive and suitable for a range of skill levels. Riders can register for a one-, two-, three- or six-day ride through Sept. 8. Registration begins at $99 for a one-day trip and $599 for the full 331-mile trip. The fee includes a fully supported route, lodging at two state park campsites, hot showers, meals (breakfast and supper), live entertainment and interpretive programming as well as an event T-shirt. Cabin and RV campground lodging is also available for an additional fee.

The Bicycle Ride Across Tennessee is sponsored by Tennessee State Parks and benefits The Friends of Montgomery Bell State Park, The Friends of Natchez Trace State Park, The Friends of the Cumberland Trail, and the Tennessee State Park Rangers Association.

More information on the ride, including a map of the route and registration instructions, can be found at www.thebrat.org.

Press Release from the Tennessee Historical Commission, June 6, 2019:

NASHVILLE –The Tennessee Historical Commission today announced the addition of eight properties to the National Register of Historic Places. They include a residence, general store, bank, former hospital and historic districts. The National Register nomination for Clover Bottom, the offices of the Tennessee Historical Commission (State Historic Preservation Office), was updated to include additional history and structures.

“Across Tennessee, communities continue to recognize and retain meaningful places that contribute to our state’s unique identity,” said Executive Director and State Historic Preservation Officer Patrick McIntyre. “This group of listings includes a former hospital in Memphis being revitalized using Federal tax credits, a former general store in Granville that is a focus for heritage tourism, and a large rural district in Bedford County in the heart of Tennessee Walking Horse country.”

The sites recently added to the National Register of Historic Places are:

Brown-Hancock House, Woodbury

Brown-Hancock House (Woodbury – Cannon County)

This 2-story brick I-house was built in 1869 and remodeled 1916-1918. Principal design features of the house include the 1-bay, 2-story pedimented portico, multi-pane windows, bracketed eaves and the sleeping porch and solarium. Originally the house was embellished with Italianate details but the 20th century redesign by Nashville architect Thomas W. Gardner updated the building with a modern classical design. His designs included a 2-story ell and the sleeping porch on the exterior and wood trim in the interior. Gardner was well-known for designing churches and for years was in partnership in Nashville with Edward Dougherty. The 2-story I-house with the 2-story portico has been documented as prevalent in Middle Tennessee and is often called the Middle Tennessee I-house.

Sparta Residential Historic District, boundary increase (Sparta – White County)

Historic home in Sparta

Twenty-nine houses were included in the Sparta Residential Historic District when it was listed in 1991. The district was listed for its collection of late 19th and early 20th architectural styles. Adjacent to the district is the house at 8 College Street that was added to the district with this listing. Constructed circa 1870, the Folk Victorian style gable front and wing house was restored in 2018. Important historic features such as the weatherboard siding, wood trim, and historic windows were revived, making this house eligible to be added to the existing district.

Sutton General Store, Granville

T.B. Sutton General Store (Granville – Jackson County)

The T.B. Sutton General Store was built in Granville in 1880 and purchased by Thomas Benjamin Sutton in 1925. During most of the time the store operated you could purchase dry goods, groceries, agricultural products, get a haircut and much more. The “whittling porch” on the façade was a favorite place for people to visit. Sutton stopped operating the store in 1968, and although it was open for a few more years, it was no longer the commercial and social center of the town. The changes in transportation and construction of the Center Hill Dam meant fewer people lived in or traveled to the area. In disrepair, the 2-story weatherboarded store was extensively renovated around 2000. This occurred at the same time others were looking at the potential for renovating buildings in the town and beginning “Granville Heritage Day.” In 2007 the owners donated the store building to Historic Granville Incorporated. Today, the store is the center of a thriving heritage tourism industry in Granville.

Thompson Creek Rural Historic District (Wartrace – Bedford County)

Comprised of 3,765 acres in Bedford County, the Thompson Creek Rural Historic District represents over 150 years of settlement patterns, agricultural history and architectural history. The collection of houses, farms and outbuildings spans the time from the earliest settlement circa 1810 to 1968 when patterns and development in the region were changing. Important to the continued settlement and farming of the region were the Duck River and Thompson Creek, which provided transportation and rich farmland. Farms produced corn, hay, wheat and livestock for consumption and sale. Buildings range from Italianate and Greek Revival influences to the bungalow form. In addition to this National Register nomination, a larger document detailing the history of Bedford County Agriculture was prepared as part of a mitigation for a federally funded road project.

Clover Bottom Farm Boundary Increase (Nashville – Davidson County)

Clover Bottom Mansion was listed in 1975 as an excellent local example of the Italianate style. The current nomination changes the name of the National Register listing, expands the boundaries, includes historic structures, and adds more information on the importance of the property. Settled in 1797 by the Hoggatt family, new documentation in the nomination details the agricultural importance of the farm and the significant role of enslaved African Americans. One of the larger farms in the area, changing farming methods and crops are represented by the landscape and outbuildings on the property. Two of the only surviving former slave cabins in Davidson County are located on the property. Recent fieldwork documented the historic archaeological value of the farm. This fieldwork adds information not found in the written record and presents a more complete picture of what life was like at Clover Bottom when it was a working farm. The state of Tennessee bought the farm in 1949 and used it as an institutional farm and for housing. Unused since 1980, in 1994 the mansion became the offices of the Tennessee Historical Commission staff.

Tennessee Military Institute Residential Historic District (Sweetwater – Monroe County)

The Tennessee Military Institute Residential Historic District is comprised of 3 houses located adjacent to and historically associated with the military school. From 1905 when the first house was built until 1970 when the enrollment of the school declined, the residences housed leaders and teachers at the school. The school began in 1873 as the Sweetwater Military College, changed its name in 1902 and moved to the High Street campus in 1909. President of the school Colonel Otey Hulvey was instrumental in expanding the school and lived at 1313 Peachtree in the district. Promotional literature for the school showed the President’s Residence and adjacent Quartermaster’s Residence. The military institute closed in 1975 and the school campus has been vacant since 2007. The 3 residences are no longer associated with the former school.

Barretville Bank and Trust Company Building (Barretville– Shelby County)

Located near Millington, the unincorporated community of Barretville is well-known due to the commercial importance of the Barretville Bank and Trust Company. Although the company was founded in 1920, the current bank building was not constructed until 1932. Renovated circa 1958, the new, modern style of the building reflected the bank’s modern banking practices. Around 1956, the bank was notable as the 8th largest bank in West Tennessee based on capitalization and when deposits were considered, the bank was the 4th largest bank in West Tennessee. By 1970, the company had operated 11 bank branches in 7 communities in West Tennessee. The building in Barretville was the headquarters for all of the branches and banking services. Today the building is used as office space.

U.S. Marine Hospital (Memphis – Shelby County)

Three buildings and 1 structure associated with the former U.S. Marine Hospital are representative of important trends in architecture and health and medicine in Memphis in the late 19th to mid-20th century. The US Marine Hospital Building was built in 1934 and 1937. The 3-story plus raised basement Colonial Revival hospital is the principal building in the complex. Designed in a broad y-shape, the brick building is embellished with limestone detailing. Built in 1884 and listed in the National Register in 1980, the 2-story plus raised basement nurses’ quarters/laundry and kitchen building reflects the Italianate style. It was moved to its current location circa 1936 when newer buildings in the complex were constructed. Also included in the nomination are a support building, the 1939 steam laundry building and the 1930s ornamental metal fence that delineates much of the property. Plans are to adaptively reuse the building taking advantage of the federal preservation tax incentives.

The National Register of Historic Places is the nation’s official list of cultural resources worthy of preservation. It is part of a nationwide program that coordinates and supports efforts to identify, evaluate and protect historic resources. The Tennessee Historical Commission, as the State Historic Preservation Office, administers the program in Tennessee.

For more information, visit http://tnhistoricalcommission.org.

A former Republican state senator and candidate for governor has been selected to oversee Tennessee’s system of state parks and natural areas.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation announced Monday that Nashville entrepreneur and marketing specialist Jim Bryson, who in 2006 ran an unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign against incumbent Democrat Phil Bredesen, will replace Brock Hill as deputy TDEC commissioner.

Jim Bryson

Hill, a Cumberland County native, was let go earlier this year following allegations of “workplace misconduct.”

The department’s press release is below:

TDEC Announces Bryson Deputy Commissioner for Parks and Conservation

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner David Salyers today announced the appointment of Jim Bryson as deputy commissioner of Parks and Conservation at TDEC.

“Jim’s experience in business, state government and community involvement, coupled with his passion for the outdoors, makes him uniquely qualified for this position,” Salyers said. “I look forward to working with Jim to make Tennessee State Parks the best run state park system in the nation.”

“I am honored to be chosen for this role and I look forward to serving Tennessee in this capacity,” Bryson said. “We have an outstanding record in parks and conservation in Tennessee, and I am committed to building on that success alongside the incredible staff. This is a special opportunity for us to preserve and enhance enjoyment of the great natural wonders of our state.”

Bryson is founder and president of 20/20 Research Inc., a market research consulting, project management and technology firm based in Nashville. The business launched in 1986 and is a global leader in online qualitative research software and services. Its QualBoard research platform is used by clients in over 90 countries and in more than 30 languages. Bryson served three terms as president of the Qualitative Research Consultants Association, an international association of research professionals.

Elected in 2002, Bryson served four years as a senator in the Tennessee General Assembly, representing Williamson and Davidson counties, and was his party’s nominee for governor in 2006.

Bryson’s love of the outdoors began in rural Arkansas, living near Lake Dardanelle and Lake Dardanelle State Park. He spent many days and nights in the park, on the lake or in the woods hiking, camping, hunting and fishing.

Bryson is founder and president of The Joseph School, providing a globally competitive education for poor and orphaned children in Haiti. He was a founding board member of the Marketing Research Education Foundation, focused on improving global childhood education. He is a member of the Nashville Downtown Rotary Club and First Baptist Church in Nashville. He received a master’s degree from Vanderbilt University after graduating from Baylor University. He and his wife, Carol, have four children and two grandchildren.

Press Release from the State of Tennessee, May 3, 2019:

SPENCER – State and local officials, alongside former Tennessee First Lady Betty Dunn and current Tennessee First Lady Maria Lee, today celebrated renovations to the Betty Dunn Nature Center at Fall Creek Falls State Park.

“This is a special day for Van Buren County and for Fall Creek Falls State Park visitors around the world,” Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner David Salyers said. “We were especially honored to have former First Lady Betty Dunn cut the ribbon on the facility she helped build.”

The renovations include new pathways, compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, from the parking lot to overlooks and down to the nature center. A new overlook was constructed and improvements were made to the existing overlook. The exterior of the nature center has been repaired, with new painting in addition to new stonework. The facility has a new restroom and gift shop.

The nature center offers hands-on environmental education through naturalist-led programs. Other programs include arts and crafts, movies, campfires, organized games and live musical entertainment.

In February 1974, the Tennessee General Assembly named the nature center at Fall Creek Falls State Park for Betty Dunn for her efforts in developing the facility. The nature center, near the north entrance to the park, is a popular trailhead.

Fall Creek Falls State Park is one of Tennessee’s largest and most visited state parks, encompassing more than 26,000 acres across the eastern top of the Cumberland Plateau. With cascades, gorges, waterfalls, streams and virgin hardwood timber, the park attracts a large following from those who enjoy nature. Fall Creek Falls, at 256 feet, is one of the highest waterfalls in the eastern United States. Other waterfalls in the park include Piney Falls, Cane Creek Falls, and Cane Creek Cascades.

Paddlesport fishing promoters chart course into international waters

A potentially sea-changing angling competition is set to launch on the vast, bass-rich reaches of Center Hill Lake at the end of May.

During the week following Memorial Day, elite kayak anglers from across the Western Hemisphere will converge on the Upper Cumberland to test their skills and try their luck against one another in a first-of-its-kind invitational tournament that organizers hope baits the hook for bigger fish to fry down the line.

The Caney Fork River’s impounded waters behind Center Hill Dam will serve as venue to a distinguished lineup of paddle-and-pole wielding mastercasters who’ll compete in this year’s inaugural Pan-American Kayak Bass Championship.

Drew Gregory will participate in the Pan American Kayak Fishing Championship on Center Hill Lake May 28-31.

Countries slated to ship angler-ambassadors here to contend against the USA Bass Kayak team for transcontinental bass bragging rights include Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Puerto Rico, Honduras and the Dominican Republic.

The overarching goal of the tournament is to lay the foundation for establishing an officially sanctioned world-championship kayak fishing competition — which could lead ultimately to recognition and embrace of the sport by the International Olympic Committee.

At a minimum, the multinational USA Bass-sponsored meet-up will elevate Center Hill Lake’s profile, and burnish the Upper Cumberland’s reputation as a paddling-angler’s paradise second to none.

Participants are expected to arrive early and stay late exploring various regional fisheries in addition to Center Hill — like Cordell Hull and Dale Hollow lakes, as well Cumberland River Basin moving-water jewels, like the upper and lower reaches of the Caney Fork and its multispecies-filled tributaries, the Falling Water, Calfkiller and Collins rivers.

A Natural Fit

The Cookeville-Putnam County Visitors’ Bureau is responsible for luring the event to the area.

This region is a “natural fit” for high-end angling tournaments and other adventure-sport gatherings with the capacity to draw substantial crowds of participants and spectators, said Zach Ledbetter, vice president of visitor development.

“We have an ideal destination for outdoor enthusiasts, especially those who want to compete on calm and bass-filled waters,” said Ledbetter. “Aside from the outstanding hospitality of our community, the value of our natural assets allows us to welcome anglers from all over the world.”

Ledbetter put together a bid package last fall that outshined efforts by other fishing destinations — including Columbia, S.C., Hot Springs, Ark. and Branson, Mo.

“Cookeville and Center Hill Lake quickly became the clear choice to host this historic event,” said Tony Forte, president of USA Bass and founder of the U.S Angling Confederation, a nonprofit sport-fishing advocacy group.

The public is encouraged to meet and mingle with anglers at the tournament launch areas — Ragland Bottom Recreation Area, Cane Hollow Boat Ramp and Rock Island State Park.

Forte said tournament officials “looked at Dale Hollow pretty hard, too.” But DHL lacked CHL’s logistical appeal, he said. Center Hill Lake is situated nearer Nashville and I-40 — and it’s neighbored by inviting communities like Sparta, McMinnville and Smithville in addition to Cookeville.

Tourism-focused businesses throughout the area may get a bite of extra business from the Pan Am event. “We really hope this proves advantageous to the host communities, and commerce is obviously part of that process,” said Forte. “If this event allows for some guided fishing trips and more stays in local hotels and meals in local restaurants and those kinds of things, then we’re all about it.”

That’s obviously what Ledbetter has in mind, too. And he echoed a sentiment shared by chamber leaders around the Upper Cumberland: visitors come here for numerous regional attractions, so it makes sense to work across county lines to promote events, activities and destinations.

Cookeville serves as a destination hub for the Upper Cumberland, Ledbetter said, and visitors will often roam out to explore the surrounding region using the city as a base camp. In fact, none of the Pan Am tournament launch points are actually in Putnam County — Cane Hollow is in White County, Ragland Bottom is in DeKalb, and Rock Island is in Warren.

“We push day trips a lot,” Ledbetter said. “Whether visitors just stay right here in Cookeville, or go out to places like Cumberland Caverns in Warren County or Granville in Jackson County, we consider it a win for all of us.”

Big Name Boaters

Forte said kayak angling has for the past decade been “exploding worldwide.” But as yet it “hasn’t evolved to the point where it’s making household names.”

“That’s part of what a tournament like ours is designed to do,” he said.

Chad Hoover

The Pan Am Kayak Bass Championship could launch competitive kayak angling onto the global stage — and likewise position the Upper Cumberland to anchor future international tournaments.

“I would love to see a world championship come to Cookeville at some point — where we invite all the nations’ best kayak anglers to come,” said Forte. “We’re hoping we can make that happen.”

If the anglers competing to win the Pan Am aren’t household names exactly, some aren’t altogether unrecognizable either.

The two biggest names on the U.S. team are probably those belonging to Chad Hoover and Eric Jackson.

Both are media-savvy adventure-sport entrepreneurs who’ve navigated their life’s passions into lucrative careers that allow them to spend a lot of their waking hours on the water for a living.

A resident of Hendersonville, Hoover hosts Youtube’s most popular kayak fishing channel.

Not only has Hoover been a kayak-fishing fanatic for two decades — long before its popularity caught on — he’s organized some of the largest North American paddlesport angling tournaments ever held. His KBF brand is one of the Pan Am tournament’s sponsors — although he himself is solely a participant.

Eric Jackson

Jackson is already a pioneering, world championship-winning athlete ranked among whitewater kayaking’s most accomplished competitors in the sport’s history. Propelling himself onto the winner’s dock to hoist aloft the first ever Pan Am kayak bass champion’s trophy would constitute a truly remarkable follow-up to Jackson’s brilliant 30-year whitewater paddling career.

There’s also the fact that the company Jackson founded is probably the most identifiable paddlesport boat-maker in the world.

Jackson Kayak’s immense White County factory headquarters bolstered the area’s allure to Pan Am organizers. JK is helping sponsor the event and will provide kayaks for anglers visiting from far-flung foreign fisheries.

Springtime Is Primetime

Speaking of which, home-water advantage for Tennessee anglers like Hoover and Jackson won’t likely play as big a factor in the Pan Am championship as might typically be expected, according to a pair of veteran anglers well accustom to competing in bass tournaments on Center Hill Lake.

The Pan Am’s timing coincides with what’s typically some of CHL’s hottest bass fishing, said local pros Josh Tramel and Adam Wagner.

Tramel lives in Smithville and Wagner in Cookeville, and both have earned more tournament wins and money finishes on the lake than either can rightly recall. Each could stock an enviable trophy room just with Center Hill Lake hardware they’ve collected over the decades.

Already this year Tramel has landed an FLW first-place trophy on CHL in a tournament that saw Wagner place 5th. Wagner netted a victory on Dale Hollow Lake over the winter — his 11th career victory in FLW Bass Fishing League competitions, tying him at third for most FLW tourney first-place finishes of all time.

Pan Am anglers will compete for inches rather than pounds.

Tramel and Wagner say black bass on CHL in late May will likely be holding in relatively shallow water, and probably in a mood to bite and fight. That’s good news for anglers unfamiliar with the lake’s perplexing range of deeper-water structure, around which bass will spend most of their daytime hours after water temps start their summertime climb in June.

Tramel expects Pan Am tournament anglers will locate fish in water less than 15 feet deep — maybe even less than 10 feet in some areas. “The 10- or 12-foot range will catch them at that time of year,” he said.

Another nice thing about spring fishing is that anglers can choose from a variety of plugs, plastics and presentation tactics that will yield success, said Wagner.

“It’ll be really, really good in late May,” he said. “That post-spawn bite over there is always good. You can catch them on topwater, you can catch them on a Carolina rig, you can catch them on a crankbait or a spoon. There are just a whole lot of things you can do to catch fish on Center Hill at that time of year.”

Tramel said Pan Am competitors might have difficulty tracking down paunchy females, but aggressive males will be guarding schools of recently hatched fry and “will be hitting pretty good.”

“It’s a really good time for like two-and-a-half to three-and-a-quarter-pounders,” he said.

Like Wagner, Tramel expects surface-swimming lures will make for good fishing during the tournament, which isn’t always the case on Center Hill.

“Topwater will be a player. There will probably be a lot of fish caught on topwater at that point,” Tramel said. “There’ll also be some good fish caught on a shakey head, drop-shot sort of thing. My favorite thing would be pitching at that point in the year — pitching a jig or some plastics, bigger-profile type baits.”

One of Tramel’s standard strategies on CHL is to keep moving. He avoids spending too much time in one area if he’s not hooking up — even if he’s already boated a couple in the vicinity. It’s kind of unusual to catch multiple keeper-size fish in one location on Center Hill, he said.

If they were competing in the Pan Am tournament, both Wagner and Tramel say they’d want to launch from Cane Hollow or Ragland Bottom.

“With either one of those, you wouldn’t have to go far at all to catch fish,” Wagner said. “You could basically put in and start fishing. All the area around both Ragland and Cane Hollow is pretty good.”

“I fish around Cane Hollow a lot,” Tramel said. “It is up in Falling Water River and there are just a couple different sorts of structure-types, but historically the fish will be hitting back in there.”

Located in the heart of the Center Hill Lake, the Army Corps of Engineers-managed Ragland Bottom recreation area offers a wealth of fish-habitat diversity in many directions.

“There’s a lot of versatile water around there where you can do a lot of different things,” Tramel said. “You’ve got the main channel, you’ve creeks and pockets and all different kinds of structure that the fish can get in to.”

Certain areas of the lake are better for smallmouth than largemouth, and visa versa, Tramel noted.

“Whereas in Falling Water, you’re going to be targeting largemouth primarily, around Ragland Bottom you’re going to have access to whatever bass species you want to fish for,” he said.

Spotted bass caught on Center Hill have lately been running smaller than smallmouth and largemouth, Tramel added.

Wagner disclosed that Davies Island, located about two river miles north of Ragland, is a Center Hill sweet spot.

“It’s got some very good current through there, especially when they’re really pulling water (at the dam),” he said. “There are a lot of spots there, where current hits, that are really good.”

Davies Island is positioned at the confluence of the Falling Water and Caney Fork river arms. The island is four miles in circumference and “a huge population of fish” tend to congregate around it, said Wagner.

Fishing in a kayak is quite a bit different than fishing in a boat. Whereas stealth and maneuverability are a kayak’s chief attributes, bass boats can obviously cover a lot more water.

Tramel and Wagner agree that not being able to zip across the lake at 60 miles an hour in search of covert bass cover would dramatical change how they’d approach a tournament.

“In a bass boat, I can run from one end of the lake to the other in not a whole lot of time,” Tramel said. “In a kayak, you better start where there are some fish, or you’re probably going to be in trouble.”

State park boasts splendiferous waterfall, swimming hole

One way or another, Cummins Falls State Park leaves you breathless.

Located in southern Jackson County just northwest of Cookeville, this aquatic getaway ranks as Tennessee’s eighth largest waterfall. The site also lays claim to being one of the 10 best swimming holes in the U.S., according to Travel and Leisure magazine.

It’s a mere 12 miles off of Interstate 40 (Exit 280), but be warned this is no place to wear flip-flops. You’ll have to cautiously make your way down the trail to the cool waters of Blackburn Fork State Scenic River and then hike along its streambed before you reach the gorgeous gorge.

Hikers and swimmers alike have a ball at Cummins Falls State Park, which boasts the eighth largest waterfall in Tennessee and one of the Top-10 swimming holes in the U.S. It’s a vigorous descent by foot to the falls on the Blackburn Fork State Scenic River, which has served as a scenic spot and swimming hole for residents of Jackson and Putnam counties for more than a century.
(Photo by Ken Beck)

There you will spy the magnificent 75-foot-high falls, which will take your breath away. Later, as you scramble back up the trail, you may find yourself once more gasping for air. It will be worth the effort. Cummins Falls is a purely natural Tennessee treasure that you can see, hear, touch, smell and taste (although we don’t recommend you sip the water).

Park manager Ray Cutcher is a 43-year veteran of Tennessee State Parks, and he’s has been at Cummins Falls since the day after the state purchased it.

“The coolest feature is the waterfall and the plunge-pool below,” said Cutcher. “The waterfall creates the magnificent swimming hole below. The ledges beneath to climb up on make it such a unique experience that people keep on coming here. In addition it’s a wild and rugged area so you have to take a pretty good hike.”

Cummins Falls was dedicated as the Tennessee’s 54th state park May 22, 2012.

Steep Soggy Slog

The ranger noted that visitors should expect “a rugged, strenuous hike that will be rocky and slippery. Sometimes a walking stick will help while crossing the stream. You will walk through water so wear footwear, like an old pair of tennis shoes.”

He also advises that you bring water or sports drinks (no alcohol allowed) and cautions this may not be the best place to tote babies or small children.

“On a typical weekend day we can draw 5,000 to 9,000. We have become such a popular place that in the very near future we’re going to have to limit the number of people in a day,” said Cutcher, adding that likely would occur in 2020.

As evidence of its growing popularity, the park saw its attendance double this past March from March a year ago.

Hours for the day-use park are 8 a.m.-6 p.m., but the gorge area closes at 5 p.m., so those at the waterfall must start walking out at 5 p.m. in order to depart the park by 6. Visitors will find the parking lot, restrooms, trailheads and designated picnic area above the falls. An overlook of the waterfall is nearby and can be reached by foot on a trail about a half-mile long. ADA access is available upon request.

Cummins Falls State Park manager Ray Cutcher has been at the park since the day after the state purchased it in February 2012. He alerts visitors that the trail to the waterfall presents “a rugged, strenuous hike that will be rocky and slippery.” Some 5,000 to 9,000 people visit the park on a typical weekend day.
(Photo by Ken Beck)

The route descending directly to the falls is about one mile along uneven terrain with tree roots and other hazards, and part of the hike includes walking upstream through the river, thus it can be slippery.

On a serious note, there have been five drowning here since the park opened. The plunge pool, a natural area with no manmade features, is 15 feet deep in places. There are no lifeguards, thus swimming is at your own risk.

It is also important to pay attention to the weather as sudden heavy rainfalls can cause flash floods. Such an event occurred in July 2017, causing two drownings and stranding 48 people for part of a day. Heavy rains also may require the pool and the hike to the 200-foot-deep gorge to be closed for two or three days.

Longtime Local Leisure Spot 

The site has been no secret to folks here in Jackson County and in nearby Putnam County as locals and their ancestors have enjoyed hitting the ole swimming hole for more than a century.

“The Cummins family had owned the area since 1825,” said Ranger Cutcher. “For over 100 years they operated a mill on this site. The Cummins family didn’t try to restrict use to the area so it kind of became a public recreation area.”

The trek to the base of Cummins Falls may be a little too demanding for some. But views from above are sure to dazzle and delight, too. Nine-month-old Emily Shinall and her mom, Christina, enjoy the pleasant vistas from a safe vantage.

 

“People came here with grain, and while waiting for the grain to be ground would make it a little vacation and stay a few days and swim and fish,” Cutcher went on. “The mill washed away in 1928, but people still continued to come because it was such a local treasure. People never were kept out of this area.”

As for what’s new this summer Cutcher said, “We’ve started doing some different evening programs, like night hikes and campfire programs, and we also have added a few photography and painting programs. These are things that people normally don’t have access to and they are fee-based.”

The park continues to offer Junior Ranger Camp with four-day sessions for children ages 6 to 12, running June 24-27 and July 15-18. Cost is $25.

Preservation Collaboration

Since 2006, local outdoors enthusiasts and the Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation had been working to protect Cummins Falls. Through combined efforts, the property was rescued from a proposed housing development at a public auction in 2010.

A stroll along the base of Cummins Falls is exhilarating, but footing can be treacherous.

It was accomplished via kindred spirits as the foundation recruited conservation buyers in Dr. Glenn Hall, Mary Lynn Dobson and Robert D. McCaleb, who temporarily secured the land. Through fundraising efforts the foundation then was able to purchase the land in 2012.

Cutcher said the park plans to purchase another small piece of property where the mill once stood. “We don’t have ownership but our friends group is holding it. And we got a Recreation Trails Program grant to build an observation deck at the main overlook. We hope to have it built later this year.”

While too late for this year, every February the Friends of Cummins Falls State Park hold an annual Cummins Falls Marathon with four certified routes: a marathon, a half marathon, a 5K and a 10K.

The last event drew approximately 300 runners with about 70 participating in the marathon. The race route is steep so, just like seeing the magnificent waterfall, the experience likely would prove breathtaking.

 


Cummins Falls State Park

Hours for the 282-acre day-use park are 8am-6pm.

The gorge area closes at 5pm. People at the bottom of the waterfall must start walking out at 5pm. in order to get back to the parking lot and be out of the park by 6 p.m.

Directions: From Interstate 40 Exit 280, go north 7.7 miles on Highway 56; turn right on Highway 290 and go about 1 mile and turn left on Cummins Mill Road. Go three miles and turn left on Blackburn Fork Road. Drive about 300 yards and turn left.

Park address: 390 Cummins Falls Lane, Cookeville, TN.

931-520-6691, (931) 261-3471.

tnstateparks.com/parks/about/cummins-falls

Press Release from the Cookeville-Putnam Visitors’ Bureau, April 4, 2019:

MANCHESTER, Tenn. – Each year, hospitality and tourism leaders from across the state join together for the Tennessee Hospitality & Tourism Association’s CVB/DMO Conference. Taking place this year in Manchester, Tenn., March 27-28, the Cookeville-Putnam Visitors’ Bureau team not only attended but was featured as an influential destination.

Vice President of Visitor Development Zach Ledbetter was invited to speak to the group of more than 100 Tennessee tourism representatives, sharing best practices and showcasing “How Smaller Destinations Can Do Very Big Things.”

Zach Ledbetter, vice president of visitor development, Cookeville-Putnam County Visitors’ Bureau, addresses questions regarding best practices during a panel discussion at the Tennessee Hospitality & Tourism Association’s CVB/DMO Conference in Manchester, Tenn. last week.

Ledbetter, who leads the charge for marketing Putnam County as a travel destination, served as a speaker during an extensive panel discussion. Topics addressed included the roots of tourism in Putnam County and how events such as BlueCross Bowl gave the visitors’ bureau and the community the confidence to move forward with recruiting and hosting additional visitor-driven events, e.g. motorcycle rallies, fishing championships, etc.

Additional presentation bullets included development of a strategic marketing plan, creation of established branding pillars, inventory of existing tourism assets and packaging those assets to increase visitation to Putnam County.

Ledbetter also addressed questions from the audience regarding challenges in how to compete with larger as well as similar-sized destinations by leveraging a limited budget with smart and strategic targeted marketing investments, e.g. digital media buys, press releases. Additionally, taking advantage of location and proximity to destinations such as Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga was also covered.

The two-day conference offered specialized sessions and workshops aimed to educate and enhance industry knowledge, expanding the abilities of Tennessee’s convention & visitors’ bureaus and destination marketing organizations.

Putnam County’s most recent economic impact statistics (2017) demonstrate $132.03 million in direct tourism expenditures, an increase of 7.3 percent, landing a spot among the top ten counties for percentage increase over the previous year. Putnam County also saw an 8.1 percent increase in payroll with $24.89 million generated by tourism-related jobs. A 5.4 percent increase showed visitor spending generated $2.7 million in local tax receipts for Cookeville-Putnam County, while employment numbers have grown to 1,060 hospitality industry jobs.

Press Release from the State of Tennessee, April 2, 2019:

Link: https://www.tn.gov/agriculture/news/2019/4/2/local-farms-creating-unforgettable-memories-this-easter.html

NASHVILLE – With spring in the air and warmer weather within reach, farms across the state are offering exciting activities for the upcoming holiday. From riding ponies to getting pictures with the Easter Bunny, you can spend a whole day of family fun making memories that last a lifetime.

According to mental health professionals, holidays can be a time of stress. The thought of cooking and planning activities can be overwhelming.

However, local farmers are stepping up to the plate this Easter holiday. Tennessee farms are providing the ultimate stress relief that is sure to entertain the whole family.

“At our farm, there are no mad dashes — just a day filled with nonstop Easter egg hunts, farm-wide scavenger hunts for older kids, and, of course, pictures with the Easter bunny!” said Jimmy McCulley of Amazin’ Acres in White County. “We encourage you to bring your camera to capture the amazing memories with farm animals, the bee line zipline, the jumping pillow, milking a cow or goat, racing ducks, and more!”

One farmer has been planning events for years. “At Falcon Ridge, our annual Easter egg hunt provides families the opportunity to enjoy a day on the farm,” Bart Gilmer of Hardeman County said. “Our visitors can hunt eggs, get a picture with the Easter Bunny, visit the Petting Zoo, and much more without the work of planning an event.”

Don’t have kids and on the hunt for an adult Easter adventure? Look no further. “It’s time to find your inner child and get hopping to Lucky Ladd Farms for Nashville’s famous Bunny and Brew – Adult Egg Hunt,” said Amy Ladd of Lucky Ladd Farms of Rutherford County. “We will have live entertainment, fun lawn games, pre-hunt lite bites, and all-you-can-drink brew and coke products.”

Don’t get stressed — hop on over to the farm this Easter and let the farmers do the planning. The sounds of laugher and joy of all ages will fill the air making for life-long memories.

Go to www.PickTNProducts.org or use the free Pick Tennessee mobile app to find a farm near you. Follow “PickTNProducts” on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to learn more about current seasonal recipes, products, and activities.

Press Release from the Upper Cumberland Tourism Association, March 26, 2019:

Cookeville, TN – The Upper Cumberland Wine Trail wineries will hold their 2019 Upper Cumberland Wine Festival on April 13, from 12:00 noon to 5:00 pm at the Pioneer Village in Historic Granville.

The UC Wine Trail wineries come together only once or twice a year for a tasting festival. Wines will be available for purchase during the event. Wine Festival tickets are $15 available in advance on line www.uppercumberlandwinetrail.com. This year we added special group tickets for 5+ at $12 per person. Day of the festival the tickets are $20 per person at the gate.

Until Friday, April 12 close of business, advance tickets are also available at Sutton Store, Cellar 53, DelMonaco, Northfield and Chestnut Hill wineries. Photo ID required for entry – no exceptions. Tickets are non-refundable. Event will take place, rain or shine. No coolers or outside food/drinks allowed.

The festival ticket will include a souvenir wine glass and coupon for 10% off purchases at Sutton General Store, Granville Gifts, and Granville Antiques & Gifts.

The Upper Cumberland Wine Trail wineries at the festival include Brush Creek’s Cellar 53, Crossville’s Chestnut Hill, Baxter’s DelMonaco, Jamestown’s Highland Manor, Livingston’s Holly Ridge, Sparta’s Northfield Vineyards, and Cookeville’s new Paris Winery.

This is a day the whole family can enjoy. To participate in the wine tasting you must be 21 years or older. Visit the Upper Cumberland Wine Trail’s website uppercumberlandwinetrail.com or Face Book site for updates.

The festival will coincide with the launch of Historic Granville’s 2019 Summer Season, presenting special exhibits at the Homestead and Museum with the 1960’s Mayberry Decade. Granville’s Genealogy Festival will feature the Carver and Fox families.

Guests will have the opportunity to step back into time as they stroll through Historic Granville to visit the Antique Car Show, Sutton Homestead, General Store and Granville Museum. Several gift & antiques stores will be open for some shopping. Granville is nestled on the banks of the Cumberland River. This peaceful sleepy town comes alive for the yearly festivals. It’s a perfect day to dress in 60’s attire with your friends, or plan a group ride to Granville, group discounts are available for the Wine Fest.

Plan now to stay for dinner and a show as a special Blue Grass Dinner Show featuring the Bilbrey’s is scheduled at the Sutton General Store. This dinner will offer attendees their famous family style southern cooking. Dinner is served at 5 p.m. The 11th Anniversary of Sutton Ole Time Music Hour & Radio show begins at 6 p.m. Make reservations soon at 931-653-4151 as this will be a sold out show.

For more information about the festival, go to www.uppercumberlandwinetrail.com or https://www.facebook.com/UpperCumberlandWineTrail. For more information about Historic Granville, go to http://www.granvilletn.com.