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The Celebration – A Community Miracle



The late Ben A. Green called the first Celebration a “community miracle” but it has now become “the greatest show on earth”.

The statistics speak for themselves:

1939 27 classes 1980 68 classes

1940 30 classes 1990 104 classes

1950 46 classes 1995 115 classes

1960 56 classes 2000 139 classes

1970 65 classes 2003 152 classes

The steady rise and increasing popularity of the Tennessee Walking Horse and its annual Celebration is unprecedented. As the Celebration prepares to crown the 65th World Grand Champion walking horse, it is time to reflect on the events that led up to this show.

W. Henry Davis of Wartrace, Tenn., has been called the “Father of the Walking Horse National Celebration”. The story of how the Celebration began is one of dedication and sacrifice on the part of those who were responsible for its success. Originally the founders spoke of a “festival” for the walking horse.

The festival first occurred on the Shelbyville High School athletic field; a lot has happened since then. What started as a three-day event has ballooned into an 11-day extravaganza. What started as a trip to Winchester, Tenn., to obtain hay turned into the impetus for the new Bedford County event. Mr. Davis remarked, “I observed that there was a Crimson Clover Festival being held on the Court House Square. The idea came to me, ‘Why couldn’t Bedford County have a festival of some sort?’”

As with many ideas, this one festered until his enthusiasm became the idea for a walking horse festival. Davis returned home and visited the Peoples National Bank in Shelbyville, Tenn. He spoke to Mr. William L. Parker, who later became one of the corporate officials of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration. The interest in Mr. Davis’ idea was growing. The following Thursday night, a small group met with the Lion’s Club. A very distinguished group assembled, R.T. Murchison, Charles Pearson, Floyd Carothers and Fred Walker.

Dr. W.H. Avery, a member of the Lions Club, made a motion to appoint a committee of three to enlist the support of various other clubs in town. After some solicitation, Lion’s Club president Freeman Fly named a committee and the Rotarians did the same. Thus the “community miracle” was born.

Although the Celebration started with no money, what it lacked in funds, it made up for in enthusiasm. The group quickly grew and soon officers were named. William Baxter of Cookeville, Tenn., was named director-general; William Parker was the banker and chairman; Clyde Tune was named vice president and Phil Scudder was secretary-treasurer. These four were the original Executive Committee. The remaining officers were T. Franklin Boyd as finance chairman, Joe Shapard, W.H. Davis, Miss Ruth Reagar, E.L. Adamson, C.H. Eblen, D.L. Townes, Mrs. J.J. Campbell, C.L. Shoffner, Mrs. W.P. Cooper, Mrs. David Shapard and Mayor G.H. Hulon. There was no turning back now.

After much discussion concerning the financial requirements of such a show, a decision was agreed upon; they would sell tickets, box seats and advertisements in the “Blue Ribbon”. The name Blue Ribbon was the name they chose for the yearbook of the Celebration.

Two hundred citizens pledged $10 each to underwrite the $2,000 needed to begin work on the festival. The miracle continued as they put on a $12,000 show without any contributions from anyone!

This set the scene for things to come. Prior to the Celebration, there were only one-night horse shows and county fairs. What they needed now was a national show to present a “Master” Tennessee Walking Horse Show where people could exhibit horses of all ages. In doing so, they would provide a pattern for all other shows. The ultimate focus: Let the best horse win.

The first Celebration was complete with a parade and pageant. Even though it was discontinued soon after it began, what a way to embark on the new endeavor! The problem was that people were just interested in the horse and not in other activities. The versatile nature of the walking horse was promoted; the program depicted the horse harnessed to a plow, under side saddle, hitched to a wagon and ultimately in the show ring.

This promotion was sold to then Governor Prentice Cooper, whose hometown was Shelbyville, Tenn. The proposed home of the Celebration was sealed. This unique story answers the question many newcomers ask, “Why the Celebration?”

It was important to understand that the Brantleys, the Hunters, the Womacks, the Wilsons and Dements and Grays were lovers of the horse. Breeding was close to religion for them. It was their way of life. They took pride in improving the breed. Mr. Dement exhibited his walking horse at the Franklin County Fair by riding with a water glass in hand. In those days, mud was the medium through which the horses were ridden, driven and trained. A smooth riding horse was born out of necessity.

A registry for the walking horse was established in 1935. Few entries had cut tails in the earlier shows, in fact the Breeder’s Association stipulated that if two entries were equal the tie would go to the horse without the cut tail. Later, the cut tail was recognized for adding symmetry to the horse at shows and they quickly became the fashion.

The determination of the breeders, the dedication of the civic clubs and the people of Bedford County and Shelbyville made the Celebration a reality. They enlisted the financial assistance of the State of Tennessee and the state responded with generosity. Monies were given for ribbons, trophies and premiums.

The early Celebrations had an air of freedom about them; there was no crowd control or inspection of entries. As soon as the gate closed, people swarmed to the rail where at times, the excitement reached epidemic proportions! Competition was so keen that physical reaction was at times possible.

After World War II, the image of the walking horse changed. The crowd loved and demanded more action. Hoof pads and action devices came into use causing the entries to lift their front feet higher and to reach farther in front and in back. The walking horse now presented itself as a true rival to the already popular Saddlebreds. New trainers entered the industry and competition increased. As the walking industry goes, so goes the Celebration. Prominent trainers during those years were Floyd Carothers, Steve Hill, Winston Wiser, Urban Small, Vic Thompson and Toby Green.

The concept of the Celebration has remained the same, but each year other changes have been made. The Celebration grounds were constructed only nine years after it began. It was originally on the edge of town; it was moved to the middle of town and located on 50 acres of land which quickly became inadequate by the 1970s. The stadium first held 12,000 people and the barns housed 500 horses. By 1973 the stadium seated more than 25,000 spectators and housed more than 1,700 horses. Parking was always at a premium and spectators became accustomed to walking to the stadium.

The Celebration made many more changes over the years. In 1971, the show enlarged its schedule of events to include a spring Celebration. They named it the “Fun Show”. This new addition became another classic for the Celebration and the town of Shelbyville.

What began, as a small town festival eventually became a major factor influencing the economy of Middle Tennessee. The prize monies for the 1976 classes were in excess of $60,000 over the 10-day period. The Board of Directors approved an expanded program of horse shows including a western quarter horse show on Celebration grounds. The 1977 Fun Show added one extra night and a second annual multi-breed show was approved. Sponsored by the Celebration to focus on its illustrious history, cash prizes were offered in 1980 for “My Most Unforgettable Celebration!” The first Annual Stable Decorating Contest began in 1984 and was sponsored by the Walking Horse Trainers Auxiliary in conjunction with the Celebration. Barns on the grounds competed in various categories based on elegance, taste and beauty with equine flair. The Shelbyville/Bedford County Chamber of Commerce now sponsors it.

One of the great happenings of the 1990 (51st) Celebration was the opening of the Calsonic Arena on the grounds. It was promoted as America’s largest and newest equestrian facility. The new arena cost $3.2 million to build; the largest portion of which was donated by Calsonic Manufacturing Corporation. Therefore the new facility was named The Calsonic Area in honor the large donation of $2 million.

On December 5, 1989, Shelbyville and Bedford County officials, The Celebration and Calsonic Manufacturing representatives attended the ribbon cutting ceremony. Making the big cut was Kentaro Arai, chairman of Calsonic Manufacturing and Dr. Nathan Thomas of the Celebration’s Board of Directors. The premier event was “A Symphony of Champions”. People came from everywhere to be a part of history. Champion horses from a dozen of America’s largest and best-known breeds were presented under the spotlight choreographed with music from the Nashville Symphony. The 1990 Walking Horse Trainer’s Show, two Racking Horse shows, the Lone Star Rodeo, Joe Webb Riding School, a Nashville Symphony concert and other main events filled the calendar.

The following year Ron Thomas, chief executive officer of the Celebration, booked eight additional events including multi-breed shows. The arena sat approximately 4,500 for horse show and up to 8,000 for other events. Two rows of box seats accommodated up to 1,200 people. The ring size was chosen to duplicate the size of the historic Celebration stadium, 150’ X 300’. Adding the size of the warm-up ring (100’ X 250’) the total square footage under the roof was 126,000’. Adjacent to the arena was a 7,000 square foot Hall of Fame Club overlooking center ring from a row of windows on one side, a show office, a multi-color message center and scoreboard, state-of-the-art sound and lighting system, a modern concession stands and public restrooms located on either end of the stadium.

As announced prior to the 53rd Celebration in 1991, a new judging system was implemented. The Five-Judge-System rather than the Majority Opinion Scoring System (in place since 1983) was chosen in response to numerous requests from spectators, exhibitors and trainers. “It was our hope that the five-judge-system will make people feel better about the manner in which horses are viewed for world and world grand championship honors,” said Ron Thomas. The judges awarded points for each entry, 10 being first place. When the points were added, the entry receiving the most points won.

Continuing to improve its services, The Celebration hosted the first Celebration Mule Show on July 16 -18, 1993. It was success to say the least. Over 500 entries came from 20 states and competed for $25,000 in prize money. The crowd numbered over 10,000 that year and it has steadily grown over the years.

The Walking Horse Museum opened its doors in the spring of 1993. The only walking horse museum of its kind, it quickly became a tourist attraction and served as an educational tool. The director of the museum was Barbara Simmons. The 2,500 foot structure opened with displays of breeding, training and showing. The back of the museum was dedicated to the current and past champions. At a cost of $400,000 and a completion time of 12 months, this facility became a shining example of the industry in motion.

The Celebration of the Century took place in 2000 and awarded over $650,000 in prizes and trophies. The $25 million dollar impact on Bedford County and the surrounding areas makes it a vital part of the economy of Middle Tennessee. The turn-of-the-century Celebration boasted 225,540 visitors and 2,300 walking horses from across the nation. A record was set with 441 horses in 21 championship classes.

New ideas and progress are what the Celebration is all about. A new covered warm-up ring next to the Calsonic arena and 27 new barns were added to accommodate the influx of horses. Older barns were scheduled to be remodeled and updated over several years. A new firehouse building and maintenance shop was added. The new Celebration Plaza was designated as the new winner’s circle where all the champions are photographed. The fountains,crepe myrtles and granite benches all add to the exhibitor’s special moment.

Now expanded to 11 days and 10 nights, the Celebration continues to grow and make plans for the future. It is an enduring institution for those faithful who make the journey to Shelbyville each year.

The 64th Celebration of 2002 reflects the dedication of all involved. A total of 2,547 horses were entered 5,015 times in 153 classes. Twenty-nine classes were split due to an abundance of entries. For the first time in history the two-year-old class was split four ways. The Elite Owners on Walking Horses class was extremely popular. Eleven stallions,one gelding and one mare competed in the Stake.

The Celebration Dog Show, trade fair, barbeque and live entertainment delighted everyone. The children loved the petting zoo, face painting and other give-a-ways. A Celebration Moment that began the year before remembered those who had passed since the last Celebration. The Moment was touching and stirring for those in attendance. Another tradition started in 2001 with the “Move’n On Down” feature. Upper level ticket holders were given the chance to watch from a ringside box.

The Celebration history would be nothing without mentioning the "seventh inning stretch”, “All Shook Up”, and the four section hollering contest usually won by the west end. And of course nothing says Celebration like the Optimist Club donuts! Enjoy!

Through controversy, and challenges to the industry, the Celebration remains the mainstay of the walking horse world. The 65th Celebration of 2003 will be vastly different from the three-day festival of 1939. The excitement and commitment of those who love the breed will ensure the continued progress of the Celebration!

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