Bell Buckle, TN is a small town 50 miles southeast of Nashville on the way to Chattanooga with a population of 500.
One name origin legend says that early white settlers came upon a tree with a cowbell and buckle carved in it by Indians to warn white settlers away. A more believable legend says the cowbell and buckle were carved by surveyors to mark the area as good pastureland. A nearby creek was named Bell Buckle Creek and the town later took its name.
The Bell Buckle area was settled in the early 1800s. The Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad built a rail line through Bell Buckle in 1852 and a railroad depot was built in 1853. The town of Bell Buckle incorporated in 1856.
Bell Buckle became the major stockyard between Nashville and Chattanooga and enjoyed its greatest prosperity around 1870 when the population grew to more than 1,000. After the railroad boom ended, the population dwindled to 300 in 1960. Of today’s population of 500, about 15% live below the poverty line but Bell Buckle has many well preserved Victorian homes.
For a town of 500, Bell Buckle has a large voluntary fire department that serves the area with 5 fire fighting vehicles: a 1998 pumper, a 1974 pumper, a 1968 pumper, a 1994 medical truck, and a 1950 classic white pumper that was retired in 1996.
The Webb School, a college preparatory boarding and day school has been in Bell Buckle since 1886.
Bell Buckle’s past was rooted in the railroad, stockyards, cattle, and horses but today it is best known as an arts and crafts and antique destination. Its short main drag, Alley St., parallel to the Nashville & Chattanooga rail line, is populated by less than a dozen storefronts that house antique shops, coffee shops, and restaurants.
A large quilt is painted on the parking area in front of the shops. The most iconic image of Bell Buckle is a colorful mural on a building that depicts scenes from Bell Buckle’s past and present. Another mural shows John Lee Smith, aka Big Smo, glaring at you with a barn and sunset behind him. Big Smo is a Warner Bros. Country artist who owns Big Smo’s Kuntry Store in Bell Buckle.
If you’re hungry, there are restaurants, a tea room, coffee shops, and pies, fried pies, fudge, ice cream, banana splits, milkshakes, cobbler, and, of course, RC Colas and Moon Pies. You can’t walk 10 feet in Bell Buckle without having another opportunity to buy a Moon Pie. RC Colas are a little harder to find.
The annual RC Cola & Moon Pie Festival draws thousands to tiny Bell Buckle every year. Everyone knows what an RC Cola is but many people not lucky enough to be from the South don’t know what a Moon Pie is.
In 1917, a Chattanooga baker asked a Kentucky coalminer what kind of snack he would like to eat. The coalminer asked for a graham cracker and marshmallow cookie dipped in chocolate. The baker asked how big it should be and the coalminer looked up at the night sky and framed the moon with his hands. And Moon Pies were born. They are still made by the Chattanooga Bakery in Chattanooga, TN.
The original Moon Pie was 4” in diameter with 2 graham crackers, a marshmallow center, and they were dipped in chocolate. You can still buy the original size and flavor but Moon Pies are also made in vanilla, strawberry, and banana versions. A Mini Moon Pie is half the size of the original. A Double-Decker Moon Pie is the same diameter as the original but has a 3rd graham cracker cookie. They also come in lemon and orange flavors. Moon Pie Crunch comes only in peanut butter or mint. A Salted Caramel flavor was introduced in 2014.
There is a Southern custom, born out of poverty, of eating Moon Pies with an RC Cola. This inexpensive combination acquired the nickname “the working man’s lunch”.
Big Bill Lister had a popular song of the 1950s called Gimmee an RC Cola and a Moon Pie.
There are many Southern events that celebrate Moon Pies.
An annual Moon Pie eating contest is held in Bessemer, AL.
Newport, TN holds an annual Moon Pie Festival.
A Moon Pie eating contest was started in Oneonta, AL by Wal-Mart when they discovered they had ordered too many Moon Pies.
On New Year’s Eve, Mobile, AL drops a 12 foot banana flavored Moon Pie to welcome the new year.
Moon Pies became a traditional “throw” (an item thrown from a parade float into the crowd) of Mardi Gras krewes in Mobile, AL in 1956. Other Mardi Gras krewes followed along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Slidell, LA has the westernmost krewe to throw Moon Pies.
The annual Bell Buckle, TN RC Cola & Moon Pie Festival is the biggest event in Bell Buckle. In addition to the Alley St. stores, there are an equal or greater number of vendors selling everything from college sports team items, Mennonite honey, fudge, peanuts, jewelry, and other goods. A young Mennonite quartet sang Gospel music near their family's honey stand.
In the Alley St. storefronts, you can buy antiques, quilts, baskets, nick-nacks. Signs say, “We buy junk and sell antiques.”
And in spite of spotting one or two t-shirts from previous years, you couldn’t buy a t-shirt anywhere in Bell Buckle during the RC Cola & Moon Pie Festival. How am I supposed to prove I’ve been there and done that if I didn’t get the t-shirt? Oh, yes…photos.
Visitors brought many dogs and one pet miniature pig the owner claims and hopes will only grow to 40 pounds – or was that 400 pounds.
People came dressed as Abraham Lincoln and, of course, an RC Cola and a Moon Pie. A parade started late and didn’t last long. It consisted of the Marine Corps League carrying the American flag and Marine Corp flag, 2-wheel and 3-wheel motorcycles, Abraham Lincoln, Miss RC Cola and Miss Moon Pie, the Bell Buckle 1950 retired white pumper firetruck, farm machinery, and Nashville TV news and weather reporters.
Across the railroad tracks from the Alley St. storefronts, I was drawn to a 2-story shotgun building (deeper than it is wide) with two unearthly, alien looking sculptures in front of it. I asked about the building and found out it was occupied by a sculptor. The sculptor is Russ Faxon, a fine art bronze sculptor who created two famous music business sculptures in Nashville – the sculpture of Chet Atkins commissioned by Bank of America that is installed downtown at 5th and Union and the sculpture of Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl commissioned by Gaylord Entertainment that is installed in the Ryman Auditorium, former and sometime home of the Grand Old Opry.