Grainger County Tomato Festival

The Grainger County Tomato Festival was organized in 1992 to promote our world famous Grainger County Tomatoes. Our mission is to promote all Grainger County agricultural products, specifically the Grainger County Tomato, and to promote the many local artists, authors, talent, and craftsmen we have in our area. Over the years we have added a number of special events making the festival one of the largest free festivals in East Tennessee and has been named by Parade magazine as one of the top ten free festivals in the USA. The festival is always the last full weekend in July in Rutledge, Tennessee. Be sure to mark your calendars! You don’t want to miss it. It’s always a three day festival, and we have numerous vendors with food, crafts, art, authors, and commercial exhibits.

We also have a living history section where people are dressed in period clothing exhibiting what life was like during the Revolutionary War. There are vendors in this area as well selling handmade items like leather goods, wooden toys, and iron tools. These craftsmen are demonstrating their craft right there on the festival grounds, and they love to share their knowledge. This is an educational opportunity for the entire family.

Another crowd favorite is the tractor and engine exhibit and its not just for the guys. The ladies are included thanks to the pink tractors. The folks that own these wonderful machines are right there with them and love to talk about all that is involved with restoration and use.

We have several misting tents scattered around the festival grounds that cool the air by about 15 degrees. We do welcome dogs and you can find many water stations for your pups to get a drink to cool off. It is July and it will be hot so please keep that in mind when you bring your pets out for a day of festivities.

​The Tomato Wars is so popular that we had to add an extra day to accommodate all the sign ups, which is a great thing because it’s a fundraiser for Yoke. We have had tv stations and news stations sign up and battle it out with the too ripe to sell tomatoes that the Grainger County tomato farmers have donated for the event. It’s not so clean fun for families, businesses, and church groups to get in on the action. Sign your teams up as soon as the applications are on the website.

​We would like to thank Appalachian Electric for sponsoring us for 25 years. Without Them and many other sponsors we could not have a free festival.

TOMATO FESTIVAL HISTORY

While visiting Dr. Hill’s office in 1980, I happened to pick up a copy of the Ford Times. I read about a Colorado tomato festival who’s main attraction was a sophisticated tomato war. Combatants roamed a hillside armed with ripe tomatoes and attacked their foe without mercy. I remember thinking that this would be fun to do in Grainger County since tomatoes were abundant.

In 1983 I happened to stop by the Optimist Club‘s yard sale at the Cox & Wright grocery. I spotted a 16mm projector which looked promising. Since somebody said they thought it worked, I took a chance. As I collected my new treasure, I happened to run into Doug Smith. We got to talking about Grainger County and the discussion naturally migrated to tomatoes. I mentioned the article in Ford Times and we discussed the idea of Grainger County Tomato Festival. He said he would look into it. When I arrived home I found that sadly, my treasure was nothing but a lifeless boat anchor but the possibility of actually having a festival made it ok.

Nothing visibly happened for many years although the wheels of destiny were turning. In the fall of 1993 Dave and Elaine Lietzke published an announcement for a tomato festival organizational meeting. Present at the first meeting were Dave and Elaine, Albert Scearce, John Standifer, Gene and Fay VanOsdale, John Beckwith, Karl and Carolyn Lakes and several others. Plans were made for the first festival. The last week in July was chosen as the date because by that time tomatoes would be plentiful and low in cost. The school system was contacted and they agreed to let the committee use the high school and grounds for the festival. The committee planned throughout winter and spring. A picture from a Burpee’s seed catalog inspired the first T-shirt design. Publicity was sent out and WCRK Radio became our official radio station. Dave Lietzke obtained a proclamation from Gov. Don Sundquist which stated that Grainger County had unique soil, that tomato production was an art passed on to seceding generations and that tomato lovers declared that our tomatoes were one of the best ever eaten. The festival recruited around 40 vendors and designed a stage which was constructed on the hill in front of the vo-tech building.

The first festival was in July of 1993. It was a one day event and for a new festival, quite successful. The first tomato wars came off with only a few minor injuries. The committee learned a lot that first year. They learned that when you place booths on a hill and the grass gets damp, people tend to slip and fall down. The committee also realized that the tomatoes used in the wars really did need to be soft and ripe if injuries were to be avoided.

The festival continued to grow and by 1996 it became a two-day event. The committee grew in numbers and organization. A set of bylaws was written and approved. Donna Barnard joined and served as chairman for several years. Wendy Leedy helped out with art work. In 1998 the Rutledge Lions Club became our official sponsor and helped out with the festival in general. They took over T-shirt sales and this became a fund-raiser for them. The number of vendors and attendees steadily grew. The tomato wars were taken over by Tim Brabson and Clayton Home employees. It became a fund raiser for Special Olympics. Doug Smith organized the 5K Fun Run, which continues to be an important part of the festival. A beauty pageant, art show and various concerts were added and expanded.

By the year 2000 getting power to everyone became a real problem so Perry Hensley joined the committee as chief electrician. A second music stage was added and Saundra Jarvis joined the committee to take care of the music and programs. Getting working sound equipment was a real problem so Cotton Eyed Joe was contacted and they agreed to take over the festival’s sound needs. Friday afternoon was added as early shopper day. In 2001 Kelly Longmire became the chairman and brought new ideas to the committee. The festival was growing at such a rate that more money was needed to put it on. The committee does not receive money from the county or any towns within it and booth rent did not cover expenses. Kelly started fund raising for the festival by asking businesses to become sponsors. Ann Cason became publicity chairman and set to work. Both efforts were successful, resulting in bigger festivals with more people.

By 2004 the festival had grown to a three-day event with three stages of live music and more than 120 vendors. The art show added a civil war encampment and limited its vendors to fine arts and traditional crafts. The Relay for Life had a successful fund-raiser and rally on Friday night. The festival has no accurate way to count attendance but it was much larger than previous years. It cost almost $16,000, all raised through private donations and booth rent, to produce the 2004 festival. It also took hundreds of hours of committee member’s time. None of the committee members receive payment for their time.

Over the next few years the Festival’s focus continues to change. We have added a Living History area focused on traditional & old time events. There is more emphasis on tomatoes & agriculture and the number of antique tractors grows every year. We continue to help local non-profit organizations raise much needed funding. The 5K run is now a professional level event. In addition to the Grainger County Opry, always a popular event, we have added Gospel and Country music concerts.  All free of charge.
   – John Beckwith

This article is reproduced from the Grainger County Tomato Festival website. For more information please visit their site at:

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