Storytelling Saves Jonesborough

Festivals, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Traditions
on June 4, 2000

Jimmy Neil Smith can lean out his office window in Tennessees oldest town and see the architectural evidence of 200 years of history. The 18th century cabin where young Andrew Jackson lived while he studied lawand fought his first duelis still here, along with a string of well-preserved 19th century brick buildings which today house coffee shops, antique stores, and art galleries. And on the square stands the majestic early 20th century courthouse whose clock in the tower still chimes on the quarter hour.

As prosperous as Jonesborough looks now, Smith remembers when his Appalachian hometown was at risk of becoming a town of the past.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Jonesborough was just another dying Southern town, he explains. People were beginning to bypass Jonesborough and go to other cities in the region to shop, and eventually, to live and work. The town was in a state of decay.

Unwilling to stand by and watch the deterioration, Smith joined a group of people trying to save its community. With a dwindling population of only 1,500, and little opportunity for jobs, the effort took considerable brainstorming.

It was finally decided that Jonesboroughs future lay in its past, Smith recalls.

An ambitious preservation and restoration plan was devised. The long-term strategy involved stripping the modern facades off historic buildings, burying power lines, and planning events to attract tourists.

Meanwhile, Smith, a high school journalism teacher at the time, was on a trip to deliver the school newspaper to the printer, when he had an idea that would ensure Jonesboroughs recovery.

Several students and I were in the car listening to a Jerry Clower performance, Smith says. We were laughing and enjoying his stories so much, I found myself asking, Why dont we bring storytellers like Clower to Jonesborough to tell tales together?

With committee approval, thats what he did. Working with an entertainment executive, Smith booked six storytellers, including Clower, for what he optimistically called The National Storytelling Festival.

Thanks to a small article in Southern Living, and modest regional promotions, 1,300 people came out on a Saturday night in October 1973 to hear Clowers famous coon-hunting tales. The Sunday afternoon event attracted only 60 but those who came, clustered on hay bales before the wagon stage, enjoyed the experience so much the festival was designated an annual event.

From this humble beginning, the festival has grown into a three-day extravaganza generating nearly $3 million in regional revenues and taxes. Audiences as large as 10,000 have come from every state and half a dozen countries to attend the festival (Oct. 6-8 this year).

Although I quickly became sold on the merits of storytelling, that was not my initial focus, Smith says. My main focus was community and economic development for Jonesborough.

Whether he meant to or not, Smiths work has sparked a worldwide storytelling renaissance. By the third festival, he had quit his teaching job to lead the organization that would become Storytelling Foundation International. Today, 300 similar festivals occur around the country, inspired by Jonesboroughs success.

Smith also has remained active in Jonesborough development efforts. As former alderman and mayor, he championed the building of a new visitors center, post office, library, and town hall.

There are so many tangible improvements in this town that wouldnt be here if not for the hard work of Jimmy Neil Smith, says Sue Henley, a local business owner. Hes a true visionary.

Smith, too humble to accept that designation, says workaholic is a better description. Im on a mission, he says. I live and breathe the importance of this work.