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Looking back to Johnson County’s Bean Festival

I’m glad there are a number of special times set aside for Johnson County folks, as well as many people from outside the county, to get together for fun and fellowship. There are getting to be several of those special occasions. As I write this, Trade Days has closed for another year and I suppose plans are already started, or soon will be, for next years festivities.

Some other festivals that take place each year in Johnson County are the Sunflower Festival, the Pumpkin Festival, the Cranberry Festival, the Johnson County Fair and Old Butler Days. Also there are the Christmas Parade down Main Street, Mountain City and the Fourth of July Celebration at Ralph Stout Park that includes music, other activities and an outstanding professional fireworks display.
As I was thinking of those festivals and other happenings, it brought to my mind the annual Bean Festivals that were a delight to me when I was young. I could hardly wait to go to town and enjoy the parade, the carnival and other aspects of that special time.
I think about everyone knows, except possibly for newcomers to our great county, that in the ‘50s Johnson County was called “The Green Bean Capital of the World.” At that time nearly everybody who owned land had a bean field. Those fields ranged from less than an acre to many acres. A survey in 1947 showed there were about 5,000 acres planted in the county. In 1952 about 3,400 acres were planted.

At one time there were at least two bean markets where farmer’s beans could be sold at auction. One of the bean markets was located on Depot Street further down the street from where the Tri-State Growers is now. If my memory is right, there was also a market at one time in what is now the parking lot of Food Country. But the one I remember most is the one on Depot Street. Anyway, the growing and selling of beans was an important part of the economy of the county during those days.
With beans so important to the area, it was no wonder there was an annual Bean Festival. While I was thinking of the bean festivals, I searched and found my copy of the 1953 Bean Festival program book. In the process I also found a copy of a 1955 program book. I don’t have a copy of the 1954 program book. The festival included a Bean Festival Queen contest. In 1953 the distinguished judges for the contest were Buford Ellington, Tennessee Commissioner of Agriculture; Parke C. Brinkley, Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture; and L. Y. Ballentine, North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture. Ellington would go on to serve as Governor of Tennessee from 1959 to 1963 and again from 1967 to 1971. Those same three men also served as judges in the 1955 festival.
A typical farm scene is pictured on the front of both program books. A paragraph from the 1953 book reads: “The volume for the season handled through the local co-operative market operated as Tri-State Growers, Inc. was about 330,000 bushels. The average price for 1952 was a near record $2.80 per bushel. The value of green bean crop produced in the Mountain City area last year was about one million dollars.” The “last year” in the paragraph would have been 1954.

Another paragraph says that green beans go from Mountain City to all parts of the United States. The canners get about 80% of the volume with the fresh market and the freezers taking the balance.
The green bean industry is gone from Johnson County. But it is not forgotten. Especially for those of us who remember it. I think there are still many people around who took some part in the growing and marketing of green beans here in Johnson County. It was hot hard work to pick and get the beans to market. But when a final bid to the auctioneer was a good one for his crop, the farmer’s memory of the hard work pretty much faded until he found himself in a bean field in the hot sun once again.