Aug. 6, 2016 will mark the 100th anniversary of the first Mt. Zion picnic. If measured by longevity alone, this icon of rural community gatherings is legendary, but by any measure it would be labeled outstanding.
By 1916, Mt. Zion Cemetery had served as a burial place for at least 60 years. The spectacular scenery surrounding the cemetery is virtually unchanged today, but in 1916, the cemetery itself was not pretty other than for a few days following a cleanup.
Legend has it that prior to 1916, Mt. Zion Cemetery was atop the location list for all rabbit hunters in the area. Fortunately, a group of visionaries got together and proclaimed Mr. Zion Cemetery must be protected, cared for, and maintained into perpetuity.
I was born in 1937 in a log cabin less than a mile from Mt. Zion Cemetery. My birth date was July 26, only eight days before the 21st annual Mt. Zion picnic. That year, thanks to my older brothers’ insistence that I attend, and their willingness to carry me, I was awarded the prize for the picnic’s youngest attendee.
This year, I will not be the oldest attendee, but I will be oldest from my line of Nunleys. My grandmother, Lettie Fults Nunley, my mother, Fannie Bell Newman Nunley, my father, Jess Nunley, and my older brothers, Joe and Jue, are already permanent residents of Mt. Zion Cemetery.
My father Jess’ introduction to Mt. Zion Cemetery has always offered a striking illustration of how life and society can change in only one generation. My grandmother, Lettie, and a child less than 1 year old, died in the 1902 flu epidemic. At the time, the family, including Lettie and the infant, Jess, and two boys younger than Jess, were living in a one-room, dirt-floor house near the head of Fults Cove.
Jess was only 10-years-old, but circumstances required him to be the family leader. To prepare for the burying, Jess removed enough siding from an outbuilding to construct a crude coffin large enough to hold the body of his mother and his infant brother. He borrowed a wagon and team of mules and drove eight miles to Mt. Zion Cemetery where he helped dig the grave and bury them. It’s little wonder Jess’ attachment to Mt. Zion lasted the rest of his life.
The atmosphere at the picnic seems to promote camaraderie. I remember once during the mid-afternoon lull having an extended conversation with Mt. Zion’s two major distillers of strong spirits. They discussed their recipes, their equipment, and even their distribution system. They gave me an appreciation of the safety of their product and their sincere interest in getting it right every time. Also, some unique camouflage techniques for hiding stills. I should have made notes.
For several years, Jack Smedley and his band played for the enormous and ever-popular cakewalk and would continue entertaining until the crowd was gone, usually in the wee hours of the morning.
One night at about 10 p.m., the crowd was still very strong and Jack and the band were working hard when the sound of multiple loud motorcycles coming from the direction of McMinnville drowned out the band. When they topped the hill, brother Joe and I were standing on the side of the road behind the concession stand trying to look authoritative and friendly. The cycles slowed, but didn’t stop.
About two minutes later, they came back and brother Joe and I resumed our position. This time they stopped. What sounded and looked like 100 cycles turned out to be six. The riders looked the part of the wild ones, bandanas on their heads, some beards, cut-off shirt sleeves, and riding leathers. They got the machines parked and the two very large leaders approached brother Joe and me.
When they got close, I recognized them as neighbors of mine in McMinnville and as far as I knew, they were good guys. They apologized for the noise and our obvious fright and then requested a favor. With them was a friend from Florida who arrived that afternoon and was on the way to Nashville. The friend was a harmonica player and was looking for a place to play that night. They knew there was music at the Mt. Zion picnic and brought their friend to see if he could join.
When brother Joe heard the word harmonica, he got excited. Brother Joe considered himself to be an excellent harmonica player and up until then, I did too. The harmonica player turned out to be not just a harmonica player, he was a virtuoso. He had an overnight bag filled with at least 30 harmonicas of all sizes and shapes. I never knew the harmonica player’s name, but later learned he was on the way to Nashville for an audition. I understand he got the job but never heard anything else.
I hope you join us Aug. 6 as we begin the second century of Mt. Zion picnics. Whether you come early morning and stay until late night, or just stop by to visit the concession stand and leave a little money for upkeep, you will be with friends.