Sweet Lips and Rest of Tennessee Blow a Kiss

Times Staff Writer

It was sundown. The crisp, clear air in this West Tennessee hamlet stirred with sounds of wildlife--a symphony of chirping crickets and whistling partridges.

Sitting on an old bench and creaky chairs outside the clapboard Sweet Lips grocery were several town residents caught up in Tennessee Homecoming '86 fever.

The tiny town, population 85, has never had a parade, quilting bee, yard sale, bake sale or live band. But Sweet Lips is planning all that and much more this year.

"The biggest thing ever happened here afore, been a contest to see who whoops (spits) chew of tobaccer furthest," explained Royce (pronounced Ross) Kinchen, 75, a lifelong Sweet Lipper.

You can't get a haircut in Sweet Lips. There are no sidewalks, stop signs or street lights here. The post office closed years ago and the old two-room Sweet Lips school is now the Sweet Lips grocery.

But Sweet Lips has a new sign along Sweet Lips Road, a sign with the Tennessee Homecoming '86 logo, showing a quilted Tennessee state flag--red field with blue circle embracing three white stars--draped over an old wooden rocking chair.

Statewide Celebration

All of Tennessee is celebrating a statewide homecoming this year. H. Jackson Brown Jr.'s song, "Comin' Home, Tennessee," can be heard from Mountain City to Memphis and from Anderson Bend to Ugly Creek.

Two well-known Tennesseans are co-chairing the yearlong homecoming: Alex Haley, author of "Roots," and the Grand Ole Opry's Minnie Pearl.

The homecoming celebration is the brainchild of Gov. Lamar Alexander, 45, who is finishing the final year of his two terms (the maximum a governor may serve in succession here). He announced plans for the homecoming in his inaugural address in 1983 and again at the National Governors Meeting in Nashville the following year.

"It's a simple idea. We're inviting everyone who was born in Tennessee, whoever lived and worked here and moved elsewhere to come home and visit in 1986," the governor explained during an interview in the 1855 Capitol modeled after a Greek Ionic temple.

Special Events

He and Lee Munz, 53, executive director of Tennessee Homecoming '86, described special events planned or already held in some of the 741 participating communities, each indicated with red tacks on a 6-foot-wide map of the state in the governor's office.

"It's a statewide paint up, clean up and fix up," the governor said. "Each community and several communities within larger cities have at least one special project and one special celebration as part of Tennessee Homecoming '86.

"We have invited everybody to come home this year," he continued, "including Tennesseans who have become celebrities. It is the biggest celebration in the state's 190-year history."

The governor said 2,000 residents of Winchester wrote their hometown favorite, Dinah Shore, asking her to come home for their celebration on May 3. "Dinah's coming," he noted.

It's a community celebration--part history lesson, part hoedown, part family reunion, Munz noted, "a celebration of pride and heritage in Tennessee celebrating the importance of everybody's hometown."

For years the people of Boonshill, population 54, in the hills of Middle Tennessee, had talked about buying a decent fire truck. But there has never been enough money available in the tiny farm center.

This year, thanks to Tennessee Homecoming '86, they got the money. Peggy Bevels, 45, who describes herself as a "cold cream housewife," and the women of Boonshill staged a homecoming celebration to raise funds to buy the fire truck.

"We had a big community feed, a liar's contest, wood splitting and goat milking contests, a parade and a dance at the school house featuring two live bands," explained Bevels, who chaired Boonshill's celebration.

More than 2,000 people who formerly lived in and around Boonshill attended the turkey-and-trimmings feast along with family and friends of those living in the area now.

The homecoming raised $12,000, enough to buy a 1979 International fire tank truck that holds 1,600 gallons of water.

"Until now we had a 300-gallon mini-pumper, water enough only to fight a fire 15 minutes," said dairy farmer Loyd Helton, 47, chief of the 10-man volunteer department. "We don't have fire hydrants in Boonshill," he added, giving the new fire engine an appreciative pat. "But this should do us fine."

Alex Haley, 64, changed the title of his new book from "Henning" to "Henning, Tenn.," just to make sure the world knows exactly where his roots are.

Haley, co-chairman of the yearlong observance, had this to say about Homecoming '86: "I remember sitting on my front porch in Henning when I was a little boy, listening to my grandmother tell me stories about my ancestors, wonderful stories that eventually became 'Roots.'

"We need more front-porch storytelling because every time an old person dies, it's like a library burned down. We need to do more looking back. That's why Homecoming '86 is so important to me."

Co-chairing Tennessee Homecoming '86 "is right down my alley," said Minnie Pearl, 73. "I come from pioneer stock. I grew up on history. My father was a Tennessee historian. What this is all about is going back to the beginnings of a lot of little towns. I know all about that. I'm from one of them, Centerville.

"People grew up, moved elsewhere. Many left Tennessee. To them I say, y'all come back, ya' hear. These small towns are what America is all about."

Birdsong, Calfkiller, Jaybird, Nameless, Possum Hollow, Soddy-Daisy, Swannsylvania, Ten Mile Euchee, Ugly Creek, Wheel and hundreds of other tiny hamlets scattered throughout the state are conducting Homecoming '86 projects to improve their communities.

Planting Daffodils

The people of Bell Buckle are planting more daffodils along the eight-mile stretch of Sawney Webb Road leading to the tiny town. The daffodils already there were planted by students of Webb Academy in the 1920s to work off demerits received for disciplinary problems.

In Lewisburg, 39 industries have contributed $250,000 to build a 24-hour day-care center. In Diresburg, residents are planning to plant a dogwood tree. Lynchburg has a new park with a gazebo this year. Washington County is building a new library. At Pall Mall, a retaining wall is being built around the cemetery where World War I hero Alvin York is buried.

Beale Street in Memphis will be the site of a blues gathering during the month of May. Jonesboro, Tennessee's oldest town and storyteller capital, is hosting a ghost storytelling event this summer. It will begin at midnight in a 200-year old cemetery.

A Dumpling Festival

Manchester, where 550 townspeople work in a 50-year-old pajama factory, will host a street dance billed as the "world's largest pajama party." Dumplin is having a dumpling festival. Somerville, the state's poultry capital where 380 million eggs were laid last year, is staging a best-dressed chicken party. Poultry farmers are being asked to dress living chickens like country singers, ballerinas, etc.

Finger (pronounced Fanger) is having a big barbecue and square dance. At Lutts, where everyone is on a first-name basis, strawberry farmer Zell King, 60, has constructed a strawberry house--a four-story, red, rounded structure with a tiny green roof--especially for Tennessee Homecoming '86.

Special get-togethers are scheduled throughout the year to attract former Tennesseans back home. They include a journalists' reunion April 6 at Vanderbilt University and a literature festival in October. Outstanding Tennessee scientists met last month.

Homecoming Train

A Tennessee Homecoming '86 train, similar to the Bicentennial's Freedom Train, will carry Tennessee historical documents, memorabilia and displays on a four-day journey from the northeast corner of the state to the southwest corner beginning May 19.

Communities also are preparing Tennessee Homecoming '86 cookbooks with favorite local recipes. Nearly every county has a project in the works for the writing of a county history and the fashioning of a county quilt.

Last week, Gov. Alexander joined Mayor Richard Fulton in planting the state tree, a tulip poplar, on the grounds of Nashville City Hall. To commemorate the celebration, the state is presenting a tulip poplar to each of the 741 communities participating in the homecoming.

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