Southern Faces: A shootout, a famous actress and a Cornbread Festival–Exploring South Pittsburg, Tenn.

South Pittsburg, Tennessee has the charm of a 1950s town with the modern-day convenience of good WIFI and a nice Italian restaurant on the corner. The town also has a history museum where you can talk to the locals on Saturday morning. If you are lucky, you will get to talk to Bob Sherrill. He’s been the voice of the South Pittsburg Pirates—football, not baseball—for 60 years. I won’t tell you how old he was when he started but he is still going strong. And he is still promoting the town he calls home that hosts one of the most unique festivals in the Southeast.  

Bob Sherill, voice of the South Pittsburg Pirates

How do you like your cornbread?

Hosting a festival celebrating the South’s second favorite bread (biscuits have to be first, right?) was a natural fit for South Pittsburg. Lodge Manufacturing Company set up shop in the town back in 1896 and is still there more than 100 years later. If you are from the South, your mama or your grandmother probably had a cast iron skillet from there. While the skillets are good for frying bacon, many dedicate them to making cornbread. My Lodge skillet has made cornbread that turned into the holiday dressing for the past five years. No one but me has ever cooked in it and certainly nothing has ever been fried in it. A woman’s cast iron skillet is special.

A quilt honoring the Cornbread Festival hangs in the South Pittsburg Heritage Museum

It was in 1996 that South Pittsburg leaders decided to create an entire festival dedicated to cornbread. It was a natural fit with Lodge occupying the town for the past 100 years to create and entire festival for cornbread. It’s always held the last week of April and besides cornbread, arts and crafts and tours of the Lodge Company, the town officials managed to share some good entertainment. Country singer Billy Dean is performing on Saturday night and gospel music singer Jason Crabbe is performing on Sunday. Admission is just $7 and that includes the concerts.

Revisit South Pittsburg history

1942 South Pittsburg High School letter sweater

History lovers will enjoy visiting the South Pittsburg Heritage Museum. You will first notice a large bell. This is the old chapel bell from Primitive Baptist Church (more on the church later). Also in the museum are mementos from the town’s sports history. Many of the items showcase the South Pittsburg High School football team. You will also see a 1942 letter sweater from the school’s basketball team.

The museum pays homage to the town’s iron-forged history and its love for cornbread. A quilt celebrating the festival is displayed toward the back of the museum—make sure you see it because it is beautiful. While the museum is small, there are too many artifacts to list so you will just have to go and see it for yourself!

Historical sites

Primitive Baptist Church

Primitive Baptist Church, also known as the Chapel on the Hill, is located just at the edge of town at the intersection of Elm Avenue and Eighth Street. The first services in the church were held in 1889. The church has stood at the same location despite nearly being destroyed by fire in 1954. South Pittsburg received ownership of the church and has worked to preserve it. Primitive Baptist Church is in the South Pittsburg Historic District, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

A historical marker in downtown is a remembrance of a bloody shootout that killed six law enforcement officers, including Sheriff G. Washington Coppinger and Police Chief James Connor and injured several others. The gunfight happened in 1927 at the intersection of Third Street and Cedar Avenue. The National Guard was called into the city by then Gov. Henry H. Horton because of the violence.

Marker describing the Christmas night shootout in 1927

Another downtown historical marker honors the life of actress Jobyna Lancaster Ralston-Arlen. Born in South Pittsburg in 1899, Jobyna moved to Hollywood and made several silent movies. Jobyna was in the first picture to ever win an Academy Award, “Wing.” She married actor Richard Arlen and retired from the movies in 1932.

The Princess Theater

The restored Princess Theater

While Jobyna never starred in a live production at South Pittsburg’s Princess Theater, her movie was the first one shown there. It was known then as the Imperial Theater and it opened its doors on July 29, 1921. The name was changed to “Palace Theater” three years later and renamed Princes Theater in July 1934. While a movie has not played there since the 1980s, local theater groups still use the renovated facility for plays.

Need another reason to visit South Pittsburg?

Harvey’s Pirate Restaurant

We always look for a local restaurant wherever we go. I already knew I wanted to go to Harvey’s Pirate Restaurant before our visit. I loved the older look of the place but I loved the service and food even more. You will be greeted warmly and your tea glass will never be empty. Try the hamburger steak! Next time, we plan to try the Italian restaurant.

If you can’t get out the to Cornbread Festival, get off I-24 and spend some time in South Pittsburg. And if you see Bob Sherill, tell him we said “hello!”

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