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franklin county times

Bolton celebrates 30 years of his vision

 

The founding father of Franklin County’s Watermelon Festival Bobby Bolton looks at some old photos from past festivals. Bolton hopes to one day see the festival grow so big to where it will become a week-long event. | Nathan Strickland/FCT

 

It has been 30 years since the birth of Franklin County’s own Watermelon Festival and founding father Bobby Bolton hopes his vision to bring folks together and have fun will continue to grow.

“I hope to see it get so big to where the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce has to extended it over a week-long period scattered across Franklin County,” he said. “That would really make my day.”

Bolton said the very first Watermelon Festival took place in 1980 at the old Moody Lot — located where the A.W. Todd Center is now — and featured a few arts and crafts, a fiddler’s contest and a watermelon contest.

“Back then I was apart of the Russellville Merchants Association and we would toss around ideas of what to do to bring more people into the area,” he said. “I knew that the soil in this area was just right for growing watermelons, so I came up with the idea of a festival and pitched it to the association. They kind of laughed about it at first but they went a long with it.

Bolton said one of his farmer friends, J.C. Grissom, got on board with the idea and told him “If you get things together, I’ll grow the watermelons and furnish them for the event.”

Bolton said they drew a pretty good crowd for the first year and the second year was even better.

“The reasoning behind the good crowd the first year is because we kind of tied it into a political rally so it did well. The very next year, we began to talk it up for the next year because we were wanting it to be an annual thing,” Bolton said. “I remember as part of the second year festivities, we began to get a lot of interest from other counties to join in the festivities.

“A man by the name of Walter Kilgore came up from Jasper and brought one of the best tasting melons I have ever ate.”

Bolton said there were some actual movie stars to headline a parade that was established for the second year of the festival.

“Tennessee Wagon Master Norman Fowler was contacted and he brought two of his oxen down to headline the parade,” Bolton said. “These were not just ordinary oxen, these oxen made their film debut in “The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James. In a couple of scenes during the movie you would see Kris Kristopherson and Johnny Cash tilling the land behind the oxen. After the movie, Norman named the oxen Frank and Jesse for their role in the movie.”

The Watermelon Festival is no stranger to big names.

Bolton said former President of the United States Jimmy Carter’s brother, Billy actually served as Grand Marshal of the event in the early years of the festival. 

In two or three years it became so popular we let the Chamber take the reins of the festival,” Bolton said. “I believe they have done a fantastic job with everything they have added to it.”

Bolton said this year’s festival should bring in many out-of-state people because of it’s popularity now days.

“When you come to the festival, pay attention to all the car tags and see how many people are from out of state,” he said. “I bet you last year I seen at least eight or nine.”

Bolton said he knew from the get-go the festival would be a huge success in Franklin County.

“I had done some research on different festivals throughout the U.S. and I knew it would work if they would just give it time.”

Bolton said he is glad to see multiple things come in but the watermelon contest is still very close to his heart.

“I think the antique tractor shows and car shows has brought in a lot of interest, but I still love going to see who brought in the biggest melons.” he said. “I would love to see more events like this scattered out all year long. Maybe one day we will.”

Bolton said he is glad to see city officials take the initiative to revamp downtown and believes the festival will truly benefit from it.

“I appreciate the fact that we have leaders here who care enough about our main street downtown to make it more presentable,” he said. “I think when it is completely finished it will be something that all of us should definitely be proud of.”

Next year, Bolton hopes to help the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce put together a memorial book commemorating the past 30 years of the Watermelon festival.

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