Jonesborough, TN

The International Storytelling Festival - Tales Told Before They Are Lost

John M. Dabbs

Photo by Mike Erskine on Unsplash

We sat in a semi-circle. The humid afternoon was warm and wet after an early dawn rain. The air began to chill as the daylight waned. There were at least 80 people under the large tent. We sat captivated by the tale of a young man, his friends, and a hermit who kept his money hidden in a swamp. The tale, one of many told during the weekend, was only the tip of the iceberg.

International Attention

The first weekend in October is an excellent time of year in Tennessee. The climate is generally mild and free of excessive temperatures or weather extremes. The tales recited from generation to generation have become more well-known. There are traditions and cultures of storytelling in most societies.

The National Storytelling Festival began in 1973. It’s held in the town of Jonesborough, Tennessee’s oldest town.

The festival grew in such popularity, a permanent home built on Main Street is the center of the event. The International Storytelling Center holds many events throughout the year. The seating and offices within the building are adequate for most programs. The festival has grown beyond the vision of the founders.

The Festival

The three-day outdoor festival features performances by talented storytellers from around the world. After almost 40 years of running, the festival brings in over 10,000 spectators. The audience includes parents, grandparents, and even school groups.

The festival occurs across the town of Jonesborough in large circus-style tents. The layout of the small town lends itself to the disbursal of the crowds with easy walking.

The storytelling comes from performers on stage or from the head of the tent. The storytellers walk amongst their audiences to draw them in, allowing for vivid images in their minds.

The attendees can make their way from tent to tent, listening to tales. The six tents or so which hold the performances have allowed for an easy time by all. The proximity to one another is not an issue — it isn’t too close or too far.

Getting to and Staying at the Festival

Those wishing to come early and enjoy all the historic town has to offer should make plans early. Bookings are made at least a year in advance. The hotels are small chains, and very few — with a more extensive selection available in nearby Johnson City.

If you have the foresight, I would recommend staying at one of the bed and breakfasts in Jonesborough. There are a few historic B&Bs in town, within walking distance of the festival, such as the Eureka Inn. The decor and hospitality are worth it at this charming bed and breakfast.

Jonesborough is straightforward to find. It’s not far off of Interstate 26, and the interchange with Interstate 81 & 26 is only a few miles farther. The town is a stone’s throw from U.S. Highway 11E in Washington County, Tennessee.

You may fret from the traffic jams and parking, but remember this is not New York City. A traffic jam in this gem of a town is only three or four cars. Parking is at the nearby middle and elementary schools. Shuttles run to and from the parking area regularly.

Come & Get It!

Yes, my friends, the vittles are ready!

There are many opportunities to dine on the street or the quaint restaurants in town. If a down-home meal or carnival fare is not your bailiwick, more modern facilities are close by. Many locals and visitors eat at the Log Cabin Pancake House, Courthouse Diner, or Parson’s Table. Less adventurous travelers make their way a few more blocks to the Burger King or Old Town Dairy Bar. More food choices can be had in nearby Johnson City.

A Little Nip

If you should desire a little nip while you are in town, we have you covered. The Depot Street Tavern & Brewery and Tennessee Hills Distillery offer local brews for consumption. The distillery will let you sample their coveted blends. Though I’m not much of a beer drinker and can’t vouch for any of the local breweries, the atmosphere is lovely. I can attest to the taste of the distilleries of the area, and Tennessee Hills has a quality product.

Old Town Feel

The town of Jonesborough is reminiscent of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry or any other small town you may know. It’s a place for easy, simple, carefree living. The houses are well-kept, not too big, and the atmosphere is definitely family-friendly.

Many people bring their dogs or come to town with their children in tow. They can make a stop at the candy shop or the cake place for a tasty treat. Dogs are welcome at most places along the main street, and business owners offer treats to them on weekends. More than one shop owner will have a water bowl outside of their business. They refill them as needed and will often add a bit of ice to them in the extra-hot days of summer. The people here care – for everyone and everything.

My wife and I have made our way to enjoy Jonesborough many times. We’ve brought our dogs to the pet costume contest more than once for Halloween. Our Bull Mastiff won first prize one year, with a cowboy hat and Mexican poncho. He was adorable.

As Jed Would Say

As the ballad of Jed Clampet goes: Take your shoes off. Set a spell. This place exudes relaxation only as small towns can. It may even rival most of the wilderness areas I’ve had the privilege of seeing. You will feel at home here.

The festival is a great destination at the end of summer. We prepare for the end of summer and the beginnings of Halloween, and so does the festival. They have a night of ghost stories in one tent. Do not think they are the ones we used to tell as kids around our campfires or pajama parties. These ghost stories are from years past, of things that happened long ago, and there are no explanations. These can and will leave you hanging — wanting more.

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An outdoor enthusiast with a passion for travel and adventure. John is a professional consultant and photojournalist.

Johnson City, TN

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