In Estill Springs, you might say it is tradition to get good things from the land. The indigenous Cherokee and the settlers who came long after them enjoyed the mineral springs that coursed through the town until the construction of Highway 41A dried up the springs in 1940. And generations of inhabitants of Franklin County have taken advantage of the area's long growing season for farming a variety of produce for their own enjoyment and that of the region's consumers.
Near the end of a shaded country road in Estill Springs, one family is carrying on the tradition of living off the land while simultaneously providing food and entertainment to visitors from all across the region. The Dixon family has been farming the land known as Grandaddy's Farm since May of 1951. Over the years, the farm has provided food and income for the family and often eliminated the need for trips to a grocery store for up to a month at a time. Today the farm's fall market and family activities make up a festival atmosphere that has been growing in attendance each year since it opened to the public seven years ago.
"It just keeps growing and expanding," Grandaddy's Farm Co-Owner Andrew Dixon says. "And as long as it keeps doing that, we'll be here and keep going. We've grown into a true destination for families. We're on a dead-end road, so we don't get much business from people who just drive by and then decide to stop. You have to be coming here."
The farm obviously didn't start out as an agri-tourism destination. Instead, it was started as a moonlighting job for Andrew Dixon's grandfather, Charles Dixon. Dixon worked in a nearby hardware store and began planting some row crops that included soybeans, corn, and wheat. The family consumed much of the food that was grown on the farm and sold more and more of it over the years to supplement the family income until it was enough for Charles Dixon to take on farming as a full-time job.
Decades later, the Dixon family is still running the row crop and agri-tourism arms of Grandaddy's Farm, and it is more successful than ever. Charles Dixon's son Steve and wife Karen are co-owners of the farm, as well as Andrew's brother Philip and sister Stephanie Edwards. The farm produces corn that is purchased by Tyson's feed mill; their wheat goes to nearby Chattanooga, where it is processed and used in a variety of commercial products, such as Little Debbie snack cakes; and the soybeans become soybean oil in neighboring Alabama. Grandaddy's Farm even raises some cattle and sells a little straw.
But for Andrew, the primary focus of his job is on the agri-tourism operation-something that kicks into high gear each fall. "We started doing this to have another way to add income to the farm," Dixon says. "This allows all of my siblings to stay together on the farm as long as we want to and work together."
Grandaddy's Farm is open to the public every Tuesday through Saturday from September 15 through November 3 this season. The big red barn houses the fall market, where shoppers can browse a selection of more than 100 varieties of gourds, squash, pumpkins, chrysanthemums, and much more that are grown right on the property. "Some varieties," Dixon says, "you probably won't see anywhere else in the area."
"We sometimes have people who pick up a certain squash or other vegetable and they haven't seen it before," Dixon says. "They don't know what to do with it. Most people use them as decorations, but we encourage dual purpose. After they use them for decorating, they can eat them. And we provide good recipes at the market for free so people will know what to do with the things they buy."
Other family attractions at Grandaddy's Farm include pumpkin patch hayrides, a corn maze, animal feeding and petting, pig races, a nature trail, and a hillside slide. The farm also features enough yummy concessions prepared fresh from homegrown ingredients to keep you coming back time and again throughout the day.
The Grandaddy's Farm fall events are largely a product of the Dixons' own ideas about how to have a good time. Andrew Dixon says they didn't have a lot to go on in the beginning, but they stuck to their family-fun concept and it has worked well. "We didn't know much about how other pumpkin patches did things when we started," Dixon says. "As kids, we'd never really been to a pumpkin patch until we started doing one ourselves. Then it grew into what we have today. We like to add new attractions that we think are good for families to enjoy together. We want to offer things that kids and parents both can do. Our hillside slide, for example, has had people from age two to ninety-two on it."
While the theme of the event changes from year to year, the concept driving the project has always been family togetherness. After all, it is keeping family close by that inspired this annual harvest celebration to begin with, and it appears to be working out very well for the Dixon family and those who choose to visit them with their own families.
Lee Morgan is a freelance writer and author from Dickson, Tennessee. His writing has appeared in dozens of publications ranging from the Tennessean to the Honolulu Star Bulletin. A former restaurateur, Morgan remains in the food service business as kitchen manager of new Nashville eatery and entertainment venue, the Stone Fox.