For the last thirty years, the Lions Club of Chickamauga, Georgia has used the first Saturday in May as an excuse to turn the small, historic town on its end.
The annual Down Home Days festival has grown to become the club's largest event of the year. The three-day celebration begins on Thursday night with a Chili Supper and Bingo. On Friday night, gospel singing and praise services are held in a local church.
On Saturday, however, is when the real fun begins. The main street, blocked at each end, is surrounded by tents. Crafters rent spots and sell everything from handmade wooden children's toys to funnel cakes. Local musicians perform throughout the day, and there are games and activities for all ages. The festival has hosted entertainment by everyone from Jerry Clower to Goober from "The Andy Griffith Show."
Originally ending with a square dance, the festival now closes with a concert. In 1999 hometown heroes Confederate Railroad performed, and the success was such that the square dance was never reinstated. The 2000 festival hosted Montgomery Gentry the week after they were named the Best New Country Artist. In 2001 the Chickamauga Lions Club, with the help of award-winning radio station US 101, had special guests The Clark Family Experience, an up-and-coming country band.
The Down Home Days festival was establishedin 1971 to bring a sense of community to the town. It was intended as a way to bring the people of Chickamauga together, to give them a place and a reason to fellowship, said one Lion who helped to initiate the first festival. The event contiunes to grow each year, Lion Grover Newman said he had even heard of people planning their vacations around the festival. And its not just the celebrations on Saturday that are gaining recognition.
This year, having outgrown its former venue, the Chili Supper and Bingo was forced to move to the near-by Walker County Civic Center. But little else changed. The chili was made by Lion Willie Hasilrig, the same man who has cooked the meal for the last fifteen years. And the bingo games still brought people of all ages together for a little Thursday night fun.
Gospel night, a fairly new addition to the Down Home Days line-up, was held Friday nightat Fellowship Baptist Church in downtown Chickamauga. Music and praise swept over all in attendence as several denominations fellowshipped and worshipped under one roof. Guests included local choirs as well as nationally-renowned religious musicians.
Before Gospel Night came to a close, Lions were already busy a few blocks away, preparing for the day that would follow. Around ten p.m. on friday, a large yellow and blue trailer was pulled across the main street in Chickamauga. At the other end of the town square, a stage was erected.
One Lion took a moment to look out at the empty street. Having been a part of the festival every year since its inception in 1971, he knew the town of less than 2500 would not be quiet for much longer. By six a.m., gold vests would abound the city and the Lions in yellow staff shirts would be cooking pancakes in the trailer.
The next morning, true to his remembrances, the smells of a southern breakfast drifted across the square. A line of people awaiting pancakes, sausage and orange juice curved in front of the door to a dollar store and around a group of ten tables. A call could be heard to a Lion in a golf cart -- they needed more pancake batter in the kitchen. He sped away, returning a few minutes later with the batter.
At ten a.m., twelve hours after downtown set-up began, the Lions were finished serving breakfast. But their day had hardly started. They still had another twelve hours before the final chords of the closing concert.
The town quickly became covered by people, some having moved away long ago, only returning for the event. Others currently live in the area and said they were just hoping to run into a few old friends. But no matter how far they have come, they wandered through the crafts and tapped their toes to a few local bands just the same. They watched as clowns amused children and adults alike. The crowd soon found itself lining each side of the street, waiting for the town's largest annual parade to march past. By two p.m., the sound of sirens overwhelmed the tree-lined street, and children began to squeal with excitement. The parade was led by the Chickamauga Lion's antique fire truck and also included other antique cars and tractors. Music was provided by the Gordon Lee Marching Trojan Band, an award winning marching band from a Chickamauga high school. Following the parade, the band performed in the town square.
After the Harley Bike Ride, a local band called Southern Heritage warmed up the crowd for the Clark Family Experience. Bass player Aaron Clark watched the opening band, as brothers Austin and Andrew Clark talked of being amazed by the large capacity of the small town. The crowd stretched out as far as their video camera could record.
At five, the Lions closed the kitchen and began to prepare for the annual Harley Bike Ride. The trailer that had housed the cooking was removed and The Clark Family Experience took to the stage for a sound-check. As quickly as they had disappeared, people began arriving, each paying seven dollars and receiving a stamp on their hand. Lawn chairs and hay bails served as seats in the street.
The rest of the afternoon was spent with the crowd attempting to avoid the beating sun. The typical May Georgia humidity made shaved ice one of the most popular treats of the day, and vendors could be found selling it around every turn. The crowd became thinner by the hour, and by four, most of the people had dissipated.
At six-thirty, the Harley Bike Ride was within a mile, and the crowd screamed as they listened to the quickly approaching cycles. Within moments, hundreds of motorcycles began to filter past. Each carried a toy, a donation to Walker County's Stocking Full of Love. To the delight of the crowd and bikers alike, the river of chrome and leather continued for the next ten minutes.
The six oldest Clark brothers, collectively known as the Clark Family Experience, ran onto stage at eight-thirty. For the next hour and a half, the audience sang, screamed and some young girls even threatened to pass out while they watched the young country heart-throbs, whose producers include Tim Mcgraw. In addition to their current hits "(Meanwhile) Back at the Ranch" and "Standing Still," the band played everything from excerpts from the "Oh Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack to the Guess Who's "American Woman." The latter featured twenty-two-year-old fiddle player Ashley Clark on vocals and a guitar solo by seventeen-year-old Austin.
Twenty-four hours after set-up began and almost three days after the first public event of the festival, the Chickamauga Lions Club began the clean-up.
By Sunday morning, no signs of the thirtieth annual Down Home Days festival remained in downtown Chickamauga. But the events of the days before still echoed in the heads of the Chickamauga citizens. They had heard "Wipeout" from a hometown drummer, a rousing renditon of "Freebird" and the currnet country chart-topper "(Meanwhile) Back at the Ranch." They had bought handmade crafts, won giveaways, and had their faces painted. But most importantly, they had spent time with the people who mean the most to them, seen old friends and played in ball pits and raced remote control cars with their children. And that is what will bring the same people back to the festival next year -- the sense of community the Chickamauga Lions Club has learned to create, simply by turning the town on its end.
Click here to see pictures from the 30th annual Down Home Days celebration.