Marshall County Tater Day
In 1843, Marshall County, Kentucky was founded. The hardy pioneer residents were farmers scratching out a meager existence on little farms, living on what they could grow, catch, or make. Very little in the way of socializing or entertainment came into their lives. So the first Monday in April was a very important day. They all packed up their wagons with children, trade goods, and extra livestock, then headed into the town of Benton for Tater Day
Yes, we celebrate the passing of winter by honoring the ‘Tater' here in Marshall County, Kentucky. Not just any ‘ole tater either. We think the sweet tater is pretty grand in these parts. Tater Day was so named because the farmers used that day to trade sweet potato slips in the early spring. They are not grown by cutting the tuber into chunks like the white potato. They have to be encouraged to sprout, and the little plants are then pulled off of the parent 'tater' and planted. The little plantlets are called 'slips'. These slips were what the farmers needed to start their sweet potato patch each Spring.
Last frost in these parts usually comes before the 15 th of April, so the farmers would be very busy with crops and planting shortly after the first Monday. There would be no time for socializing or celebrations. All hands who could possibly do so, would be busy preparing the soil for the coming season. Tater slips needed to be at the farms and ready to plant as soon as the ground was ready.
Tater Day was about more than just taters though. The Mule Pen at the bottom of the hill was a busy place. Sometimes the same mule would change owners several times before being tied to the back of a wagon, and finally taken to its new home. Hogs, chickens, geese and milk cows were swapped and traded for also.
One of the busiest areas, and often one that drew the most crowds, was the Huntin' Dog Corner. Half grown pups from the previous year were paraded about, sometimes with the prized parent nearby, to show the potential of the young ones. Lots of stories and speculation went on as to which dog had the most possibilities. Occasionally, even the older and experienced dogs went to new homes, but this was rare. A good huntin' dog was part of the family, and rarely would a farmer part with one.
As the years went by, Marshall County became more populated. The town of Benton actually looked like a town. Tater Day became a larger celebration. There might be the novelty of Half Moon, the Piute Medicine Man, or a Snake Oil salesman selling his Magic Elixir, guaranteed to cure gout, rheumatism and the Vapors. Ladies could buy pots and pans, or calico by the yard. Politicians saw this as an opportunity to speak to voters. The tater slips were still around, but this day was also used for many other purposes.
The 19 th Century became the 20 th Century. Farmers and their families still left in their loaded wagons before daybreak, to travel the eight, ten, or twelve miles into Benton. The roads were dirt, and often rutted and muddy. More activities were appearing, as modern conveniences came to this isolated part of the state. The addition of a movie theater was a great success, and the operators showed the current film back to back all day long. Vendors selling various food and drink items found a ready made customer base, and the uncommon drink of lemonade was a big hit.
It wasn't until 1960 that Tater Day began to change and lose momentum. There seemed to be too many modern ideas and not enough of yesterday to draw the people. Even the old swapping-ring had been moved to the city park. The medicine man was missing as well as many other features that had made a sort of carnival atmosphere attractive to the people.
Then in 1962 a renewed interest was sparked by the Kiwanis Club when they recognized the possibilities of Tater Day becoming a drawing card for business in Benton. The Kiwanis Club formed a committee to plan new activities for the revival of the fading tradition. The committee led by Dr. Robert McCrory, Burl Flatt, and Earl St. Marie planned a day of celebration. A band concert on the court square, a parade featuring antique cars, buggies, vintage farm equipment and people wearing old style clothing made up a big part of the morning program. Later in the day an auction was held with a percentage of the sale price going to the Kiwanis Club. Following the auction a horse show was featured at the racetrack. Many classes of horses competed for the prize money.
From this initial push by the Kiwanis, Tater Day seems to grow larger each year. Some resistance to the growth of Tater Day developed. A law banning hand bills was enforced when they advertised the activities for the day. Even the schools objected when the children "played hooky" in droves. The school bus drivers seemed to be in on the conspiracy as they conveniently made stops up town both morning and afternoon for children to get off or board the buses. Tater Day continues to grow and all of Marshall County welcomes it. To cooperate the school board passed a resolution to dismiss school for the occasion.
As more and more conveniences became available in Marshall County, the sweet tater slips were becoming harder and harder to find. The availability of commercially canned vegetables, and fewer people planting gardens for their existence shuffled the sweet potato to a back room. Very few people actually plant sweet potatoes in Marshall County any more.
Tater Day has become a huge flea market and carnival, with rides and cotton candy. Hot rods have replaced the mule-drawn wagons going up and down the streets. Miss Tater Day reigns over the festivities and heads up the parade riding in the back of a convertible. Chances are, she wouldn't know a sweet potato plant if she fell into a pile of them. Schools all over west Kentucky are dismissed on this day, as it was getting harder and harder to keep students from playing ‘hookey' on Tater Day. Instead, there is a giant parade all through town and marching bands from many schools participate. This little town of 3800 swells to a population of close to 60,000 .
On the Saturday before Tater Day, the Tater Day Trot and the Tour De Tater get local athletes involved with the celebration, drawing runners and bikers from all over the area. Billed mainly as a ‘fun run' and ‘bike ride for all', both events have divisions for fun seekers, as well as serious athletes.
Tater Day is probably one of the oldest continually observed celebrations in the country, and is also likely the only celebration honoring the sweet potato. Times have changed, and the need for growing one's own food has all but disappeared, but still we come each April. We celebrate the passing of winter, we meet with friends and neighbors, and we still love our taters.
Date: April 2013