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Bell Buckle’s salute to famous snack MoonPies and RC Cola creates sweet fun

Not only can you take a bite out the world’s largest MoonPie at the 26th annual RC Cola-MoonPie Festival on Saturday, June 19 in Bell Buckle, but also anyone with a robust throwing arm could give a mighty heave and become the next world champion MoonPie tosser.

The whopper MoonPie will be whipped up by the Chattanooga Bakery, which began making MoonPies in 1919. The gigantic pie, 38 inches in diameter and about four-inches high, serves 300-400 people.

Jenny Hunt, public relations director for the Bell Buckle Chamber of Commerce, estimates that half a million MoonPies have been devoured here over the course of 25 previous festivals, which have been held every third Saturday of June (except last year) since 1994. The day-long event attracts 30,000 visitors who consume 8,000 RC Colas and 12,000 MoonPies, give or take a few.

Thus, the Bedford County community of 405 residents, not counting 300 Webb School students, lays claim to being “the MoonPie Capital of the World.” Not only that but earlier this year Southern Living magazine named Bell Buckle as the top small town in the South

Describing the day that MoonPie mania rules, Hunt said, “The atmosphere of this town takes over the crowd and with the old-timey tie-in to an old Southern snack, it’s a feel-good all day.

“We have race people (for the 10-mile and 5k foot races), and families and then those who come hell or high water for the giant MoonPie. When we start cutting, it gets crazy. Everybody has their hands out, and I want them to just be careful and not crush anybody. We have to have security now to protect the pie.”

Heather Williams, who has lived here for seven years and is in her fifth year as president of the Chamber of Commerce, described the town as “the quirkiest little village … Bell Buckle oozes charm. It’s a little like ‘Cheers.’ Here you can’t go far without somebody hollering your name. I went to my first potluck ever here and it was the best.

“The festival brings people from all over the U.S. Some plan vacations around it. We have a contest for whoever travels the farthest. One year it was a couple from Australia who just happened to be here, and so they scheduled their vacation the next year to come back.

“It’s a typical small-town festival with a parade and super energetic. The crowning of the MoonPie king and queen is a blast.”

The idea for the festival was spawned by a group led by Capt. Rodney Simmons, Hunt explained. One of the town’s early press releases about the event noted, “Known as the first ‘fast-food’ meal, these two Southern traditions, RC and a MoonPie, are brought together for a grand celebration Bell Buckle-style. The idea for the festival first began in 1994 as a way to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the MoonPie and to bring tourists to Bell Buckle. Bell Buckle called the Chattanooga Bakery to see about throwing a birthday party for MoonPie. Little could anyone have expected what a huge event this would become.”

Warm it up for distance

Getting to the details on how to win a MoonPie toss contest, this writer, who won the 1998 event and has the ribbon to prove it, chatted with two-time world champion MoonPie tosser Joe Hunt, who won around 2003 and 2004 and just so happens to be married to Jenny.

Asked point blank what it takes to win, Joe joked, “I can tell you that you have to throw it further than anybody else.”

Funning aside, Joe shared, “I’ve got an advantage. I played baseball all the way through college. I watched some of the others throw the MoonPie like Frisbees. That won’t win.

“A little heat is your friend,” he said, spilling the beans. “You need to get it warm. So put it under your armpit where it will melt. Then smother it like a ball and make a baseball out of it. And you need to get the air out of it (rules state that the single decker MoonPie must be thrown in its cellophane wrapper]. You can punch a tiny hole in it with your teeth and get the air out of it.”

Joe estimated that his best toss went approximately 200 feet.

This writer, who competed in the primitive era of the sport, waited to go last in the contest, trying to see what worked best for the other hurlers as they flung their pies from behind a line on the asphalt.

My method was to get a 40-foot running start and spin the chocolatey snack in the style of skipping a rock across water and hoisting it at a 45-degree angle. That did the trick and for one year I ruled as champion MoonPie thrower of the world.

Hey, it can only happen in Bell Buckle. I must confess I returned the following year to defend my crown and was soundly walloped, not even finishing in the top five. (I wonder if it was those five MoonPies I ate a few minutes earlier?)

Asking Joe if he would be coming out of retirement and entering the contest this year, he retorted, “Because you’re here, probably yes.”

Jenny added that MoonPie toss has become so popular that they have had to put spotters on the site. For those who have never attended the festival and witnessed this sport, please note that many lackadaisical bystanders have been known to get smacked in the head or on the body by off-course, wobbling MoonPie missiles, but, other than embarrassment, no injuries have been reported.

Other Bell Buckle attractions

While the MoonPie Toss remains the sport of chocolate-snack kings, Jenny, sadly reported the festival had to drop the watermelon seed-spitting contest because “we couldn’t find watermelon seeds. It seems everybody’s growing seedless melons.”

She and Williams also put in a plug for the village’s major event, the Webb School Arts and Craft Festival, held each October and which draws 125,000 guests over two days.

The duo noted there are seven must-see places or persons to meet should you brighten their fair city. These include the Bell Buckle Café, the Bluebird Ice Cream Parlor, the gorgeous mural in alley (the hot spot to take your picture), Bell Buckle Park, Tennessee poet laureate Maggi Vaughn, sculptor Russ Faxon and Phillips’ General Store.

If you need directions, just ask when you get there as these highlights are all within walking distance.

This writer suggests tourists make their first stop at the Bluebird Ice Cream Parlor (hey, life is short, eat dessert first, I say) and say howdy to the hamlet’s true superstar, Nancy Phillips, 85, who makes 125 fried pies in a cast-iron skillet seven days a week. Note that she gets off around 2 p.m.

Phillips has been making fried pies since she was 7 years old and whips up a variety of flavors but creates her banana pudding fried pies and lemon fried pies only on Saturdays.

Said Phillips, “When I have time, I like to talk to people about Bell Buckle and what Bell Buckle’s meant to me. It’s where I was born and grew up and where I’m still making fried pies. I’ve been in business in this town for 50 years, since my husband and I started Phillips’ General Store.

“I’m glad to have a place to be and have something to do. The students from Webb School call me Mama and Mama Phillips in several different languages,” said the woman who is a mother figure to everybody in town.

The thriving half block that makes up Bell Buckle today is pretty much nearly the spitting image of what it was a century ago but almost went before the wrecking ball 45 years ago. The block has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975.

As for whom Bell Buckle tolls, it tolls for thee.

FFA Ham Breakfast moves to Wilson County

The Annual Tennessee FFA Ham Breakfast has relocated to Wilson County as part of the new Wilson County Fair-Tennessee State Fair arrangement.

The move marks a new era for the Tennessee FFA Ham Breakfast as capacity will nearly double, allowing more business, community, and state leaders to support Tennessee FFA through their sponsorship. Even more attendees will also be able to place their bids for the two Grand Champion Hams that will be auctioned for the benefit of the 26,000 FFA members across Tennessee.

“The Tennessee FFA Ham Breakfast has quickly become a favorite tradition of the fair,” said Congressman John Rose, chairman of the event, said in a news release. “This year, we will have the chance to take the event to new heights with greater seating capacity and a renewed energy around the State Fair as we relocate to Wilson County. This is one event that FFA supporters do not want to miss. It’s a good time, for a great cause.”

The Tennessee FFA Foundation is working closely in partnership with Wilson County Promotions to ensure a successful transition for the event.

“Wilson County Promotions has supported this event in the past by attending the Ham Breakfast and even buying one of the hams a few years ago,” Wilson County Promotions Executive Director Helen McPeak said in a news release. “This year, we welcome the TN FFA Foundation and the Ham Breakfast as it takes place in the Farm Bureau Exposition Center during the dates of the fair.”

Funds raised from the Tennessee FFA Ham Breakfast support the agriculture education and career and leadership development programs of Tennessee FFA. This year’s event will be held Monday, Aug. 16 at the Farm Bureau Expo Center.

There are over 26,000 Tennessee FFA members across the state, aged 12-21. To learn more about Tennessee FFA, go to www.tnffa.org.

Guitars4Vets offers avenue for healing for combat veterans

Veterans are combating post traumatic stress disorder through the smooth strumming of guitar strings.

Guitars4Vets, a group which serves veterans, gives the program participants 10 free one-hour private music lessons and loans a guitar to them for the duration of the lessons.

The organization was started in 2007 in Wisconsin by Patrick Nettesheim, who then opened a Nashville chapter in 2016.

Nettesheim had a student named Dan Van Buskirk who was a Vietnam-era Marine. Van Buskirk expressed how much the music was helping him with his symptoms of combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder.

The two decided to set up guitar lessons for veterans at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Milwaukee, and the success of it led the duo to establish Guitars4Vets, which currently has 120 chapters nationwide and has gifted more than 4,000 guitars and 40,000 lessons to veterans.

Guitars4Vets partners with the Veteran’s Administration through the recreational therapy department.

When finished with the program, participants receive a new guitar, capo, picks, music books, bag, tuner, stand and other accessories. After the 10 lessons are done, graduates can participate in weekly jam sessions with other graduates and guitar teachers.

Patrick McGuire has worked as the Nashville chapter coordinator and an instructor with the program since 2017. He has seen firsthand the therapeutic power of music in the lives of the program participants.

“I think it’s amazing,” McGuire said. “I think the very fact that learning the guitar is such a difficult thing, it requires a lot of their focus, and it pulls them away, at least momentarily, from some of their difficulties. At least that’s how it’s been described to me. The goal is to help them recover.”

Damon Williams Jr. is a naval veteran, Nashville resident and student of McGuire’s in Guitars4Vets. Williams always enjoyed writing lyrics and singing.

When he received physical therapy four years ago for nerve damage in his right hand, he saw an advertisement for Guitars4Vets on an electronic bulletin board at the VA hospital.

Williams realized guitar lessons would be a good way to exercise and maintain dexterity of his hand in a way that traditional exercises would not. He soon found the lessons provided benefits beyond the physical.

“It was the dual benefit of something to focus on, something to keep your mind from wandering,” he said. “You have to be present in the moment when you’re playing the guitar. Music always stills the mind, but as I was playing, it gives your mind a focus. That way, it isn’t racing off in a million other places.”

Guitars4Vets is rewarding for both the participants and instructors alike.

“This is really what it’s about,” McGuire said. “Half of it is about learning to play the guitar, but the other half is about the positive human interaction, connection and healing. We don’t need to know necessarily what they’re dealing with, but the power of music will do it.”

The program even proved to be a respite during the pandemic.

“During this quarantine period, at least for me, it’s been a lifesaver, and I got a chance to learn a lot, because I spent a great deal of that time. Instead of being in my own head, I’ve spent it on guitar. Just playing a chord sometimes feels like a great accomplishment. You have a mission, still,” Williams said.

All of the program instructors are volunteers. The cost for a veteran to participate in the program is $200.

For more information about how to donate, volunteer or receive guitar lessons, visit guitars4vets.org or call 855-G4V-HERO.

Pegram plans expansion of sewer plant

In the sewer board meeting prior to last week’s Pegram Board of Mayor and Alderman meeting Mayor John Louallen said that it is critical to aggressively pursue immediate expansion and long-term issues with the town’s sewer plant.

Louallen said that Town of Pegram Engineer Brad Bivens is working with waste waster engineers and expects to start bringing options to the board.

“Jim Stinnett, Pegram Sewer Operator, is aware of that and Brad is working with Mears Wastewater engineers at his firm,” said Louallen.

Louallen said he hopes to schedule a meeting with Bivens and aldermen at the sewer plant to receive information.

Louallen said that the town has purchased a recirculation pump for the sewer plant.

“It looks a thousand times better,” he said. “There’s no sludge or buildup there.”

Louallen said that residents in the Beverly Hills Road area off of Highway 70 had recently requested speed bumps. Bivens has recommended surveys of residents and traffic studies before taking any action.

City Attorney Martha Brooke Perry said that there is a proposal to ban tobacco products in any city park.

“This would also include chewing tobacco and vaping,” she said.

Louallen said that proposal will be discussed at the board’s next work session.

The next meeting of the Board of Mayor and Alderman is scheduled for Monday, June 28 at 7 p.m.

All-County Softball

Cheatham County Central pitcher Harper Dee has been named the County Softball Player of the Year by the Cheatham County Exchange. For details and photos and a list of the rest of the team, go to Page A11.