Monday, April 2nd marks the 175th Annual 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.
Sweet potatoes are in no way related to the familiar white potato. The white potato has more genetic material in common with a tomato than a sweet potato. Sweet potatoes are genetic cousins of the morning glory. This plant needs a long, warm growing season and can only be planted after the last frost and the ground has warmed.
Last frost in these parts usually comes before the 15th 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 19th Century became the 20th 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.
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 less significant role. 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. There are also several beauty contests, ranging from Baby Miss and Mr. Tater Day to the one to crown the reining queen.
The lemonade is still available, with vendors squeezing fresh lemons into cups as the customers wait. Corn dogs have replaced the bar-b-q goat or hog cooked in a pit. Instead of chickens and milk cows for sale, cheap sunglasses and Hank Williams Jr. wall hangings are the normal merchandise.
But, if one knows where to look, over under the shade trees at the city park, there will still be a few ‘tater slips' offered. Usually there is a group of older gentlemen in bib overalls, trading stories, swapping pocket knives and the occasional dog or shotgun. The true significance of the day is not lost on them. Their sharp eyes and seasoned trading methods are an art to behold. While they love to make the best deal and come out on top, they are all true gentlemen and would never make a dishonest trade. Their word is their bond and can be counted on absolutely.
Tater Day is said to be the oldest continually observed trade day celebration in the country and is also likely the only celebration honoring the sweet potato plant. 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.