Depot Days. | Caleb Suggs

Depot Days draws crowd

Hope Thompson

Hartselle Enquirer

The third Saturday of September every year, the City of Hartselle enjoys celebrating its annual Depot Days festival. Sept. 16 marked the 37th celebration.

The morning began early for city police officers and volunteers as they began directing traffic and offering assistance before dawn. Vendors and booth holders began setting up their tents in the early hours of the morning, and before 8 a.m. downtown Hartselle was humming with excitement as vendors lined Main Street, Railroad Street and parts of Hickory and Sparkman streets to showcase their crafts and merchandise.

Shop owners and restaurants opened their doors a little earlier than usual Saturday morning in anticipation for the day’s events.

By noon all traces of cool air were replaced with close, humid heat; however, despite the heat, Hartselle locals and shoppers from out of town filled the downtown area on the hunt for a great bargain deal or a unique, handmade craft to take home.

We were given small windows of relief from the heat as a few rain clouds moved in and shrouded the sun, accompanied periodically a few cool sprinkles of raindrops. 

There were numerous choices for cool drinks, such as fresh-squeezed lemonade and shaved ice snow cones. The Hartselle High School Band Boosters sold soft drinks for $1 to hot, thirsty shoppers as they strolled down Main Street. Lunchtime highlighted a great variety of lunch options. Not only were the downtown restaurants open, including Bentley’s, Cahoots, Willie Burgers and the Freight House, but there were also quite a few food vendors on the street. The options ranged from funnel cakes, cheeseburgers and nachos, to alligator and shark on a stick. Mary and James Terry, owners of Iron Gate Salon & Vintage Collectibles located on Sparkman Street, remarked on the delicious steak sandwiches provided by the Cattlemen Association.   

As some Hartselle residents and myself would agree, the annual Depot Days festival is perhaps the most-anticipated event of the year. Much preparation and planning goes into this event every year, beginning several months in advance. The Hartselle Area Chamber of Commerce organizes the entertainment for this festival, as well as the schedule of events for the day. Much consideration is also given to the organization of the vendor placement, as well.

Chamber of Commerce president and event coordinator Danielle Gibson said she was pleased with Saturday’s turnout. “We estimate between 18,000 and 19,000 attendees every year for this event. This year we really think it was closer to 19,000.” Gibson said she thought the event had grown drastically from years prior. “We had some really good bands today,” Gibson said. “We also had a big car show and about 70 tractors in the tractor show, and some 150 or more vendors that turned out today.”

Bette English, a member of the Hartselle Historical Society since 1989, said she was also happy with how many people turned out for the festival. “I enjoyed the drum line, and I loved the parade of the tractors,” English said. “That’s the first year that has ever been done.” English said she was glad to see so many people who came to enjoy the festival both from the area and from out of town.

Not only did the outside festivities do well this year, with entertainment from the Huntsville Drum Line and other musicians and performers, but business in the retail stores and restaurants downtown seemed to boom. Melissa Bright, owner of Whinny Wisdom on Main Street, said, “This is my second year for Depot Days as a merchant, and business has been very good.” Bright praised Gibson for her hard work to organize the day. “Danielle has done a wonderful job with logistics for this event.”

Some of the new shop owners downtown were a little nervous about business, as this would be their first Depot Days to be open in Hartselle. Denise McNeill, owner of Indigo’s Boutique, said she was curious how well business would do. She said shse was overjoyed with the result. “Business is going great. I’m glad I ended up getting some extra help today,” she said. McNeill’s sister and business partner, Monica Jones, shared the same feelings about the day. Jones explained, “We didn’t know what to expect, but we’re happy with the turnout.”

Beth Partain, apprentice at Greco Fiore Designs, said she was impressed with how much foot traffic she experienced Saturday in the store. “We have definitely been getting a good number of walk-ins,” she said. “Everybody is so cheerful when they come in too.”

It can be a bit difficult to move around during Depot Days, as the streets tend to be crowded, and for those who have limited mobility, it can be especially difficult to enjoy all the festivities. First Christian Church in Hartselle provided a free shuttle service and free handicap parking for those who found it difficult to move about the crowd. Cindy Stephenson of First Christian Church expressed her pleasure concerning the shuttle service. Not only did the service provide people with comfortable accommodations for mobility, but they also provided the service for those who became tired from the heat. “We helped people that just couldn’t go anymore,” Stephenson said. We might actually need more help next year and an extra booth set up. We want to help everybody.” Stephenson said she was absolutely delighted in the public’s appreciation for the helpful service.

As the day came to a close Saturday, there was an interesting history lesson I learned. As I walked around and spoke to some of the native Hartsellians in attendance, they told me the Depot Days festival has not always been known as the Depot Days festival. About 40 years ago, the festival was called Hee Haw Days or Mule Days. Truman Bridges, a native to Hartselle and participant in the Depot Days tractor show, explained that at one time farmers would lead their mules and horses up and down Main Street as a sort of parade, as part of Hartselle’s history as a rural, farming town. “There used to be a barn here in town where farmers could trade their mules for a better one,” Bridges said. “They used the better ones for the competition every year.”

According to Bridges, farmers would pick out the best mules they had and “clean ‘em up” to parade down the streets of Hartselle. It was essentially a contest to see which farmer had the best mule. “They were judged on how they minded and how they did in a crowd,” Bridges said.

However, I also learned that Mule Days didn’t stick for too long. Fred Smith, owner of Adventures Unlimited Travel Agency, said the whole parade was just a little too messy for downtown. “Jim Waddell, who has since passed away, wanted to get Mule Days started,” Smith said. “He wanted to incorporate a carnival theme. Of course, that was hard to do because animals are messy. So they eventually moved Mule Days over to the Sheriff’s Posse grounds.”

Bill Slate, a native of Hartselle and founder of Slate Gallery and Framing, reminisced of a year when his father, H.L. Slate, was one of the judges for Mule Days. “My daddy, Mr. Fred Bennet, and Mr. E.R. Roberts judged the wagons one year – can’t remember what year exactly, but they used to start the parade at First Christian Church and go all the way down Main Street.”

I learned Mule Days ended around the late 1970s, according to most who reminisced about it. It was during the early ’90s that the Hartselle City Chamber of Commerce renamed the event Depot Days and moved the festivities downtown on Main Street.

The festival that started out as a mule parade for local farmers to show off their livestock and as a way to bring a small, rural, farming town together for a day has always been meant to be family-friendly and enjoyable for everyone – and that is still the goal today.

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