Faced with a failing downtown area 15 years ago, civic leaders in South Pittsburg, Tenn., decided on a recipe for revival.
The result was the National Cornbread Festival, a two-day event on the last weekend of April that now brings in more than 50,000 visitors annually and has pumped new life into the town. Backed by the Lodge Manufacturing Co., which produces cast-iron skillets, the Cornbread Festival was born and is still made possible by the efforts of local volunteers. The proceeds go back into the community and have helped pay for landscaping around town and the renovation of parks and ballfields.
A Friday night street dance opens the festival each year, and the event includes a carnival, arts and crafts, music on nearly every street corner and food vendors with every type of cornbread imaginable.
"I think the No. 1 thing that brings people in is the food," said Beth Duggar, one of the festival's board members. "But then all the other sights and sounds and just the friendliness of the town brings them back again.
"It's run completely by volunteers who are just proud to showcase our little town to all those visitors."
While the Cornbread Festival is now the biggest tourist draw for the town, there are many other quaint reasons to take the short drive west of Chattanooga. The main street running through the heart of town is lined with a thriving downtown area, complete with department and antiques stores and restaurants ranging from Stevarino's Italian pub to the Dixie Freeze, which serves old-fashioned hamburgers and ice cream.
Any plan to visit in the fall should include watching the high school football team playing at its Beene Stadium home. Most of the businesses close up early to allow many townsfolk the chance to pack the stands and watch the Pirates, one of the most storied football programs in state history.
AT A GLANCE
-- Population: 3,295.
-- Best things to do: Friday night football in the fall (South Pittsburg has won five state championships and is the only program in Tennessee to have played for a state title in all six decades of the state's playoff format); Hammer's Department Store; Dixie Freeze (old-fashioned burgers and fries, plate lunches and ice cream); Stevarino's Italian eatery and pub.
-- Biggest employers: Lodge Manufacturing (about 250 employees).
-- Miles from downtown Chattanooga: 30.
-- Date founded: May 23, 1876.
-- Historic info: Because the city is on the banks of the Tennessee River, it was expected to attract so much industry that it would become the "Pittsburgh of the South." That is how the city's name originated, although the industry boom never materialized.
-- Most-famous residents: James T. Fitzgerald was the second American test pilot to break the sound barrier; Jobyna Raulston was a silent film and Broadway actress in the 1920s; Eddie Moore was an All-SEC linebacker at the University of Tennessee and was the first pick by the Miami Dolphins in the 2003 NFL Draft.
-- Unique traditions: National Cornbread Festival (the last weekend of April).