By Lorcan McCormick
Post Associate Editor
This year Gleason celebrates its 50-year anniversary of the Tater Town Special. The first chair of the Tater Town Special was Ruth Barham, and for half a century the Gleason Gazelles have put on a show that has united the community of Gleason around its shared heritage. For decades Gleason has been a mecca of sweet potato distribution; a key reason why many of the train routes work through Gleason stems from this fact.
“The 50th anniversary of the Tater Town Special – we wouldn’t be here without the gazelles that came before us. They started in ’74 and they just wanted to bring the town together in unity,” Jennifer Cook, current Gleason Gazelle President says. “It was just going to be a community-wide picnic and then that turned into a junior parade and then a grand parade at Huggins Park.”
The Gleason Gazelles are a civic organization organized by women of Gleason invested in giving back to the community they represent. While their raison d’etre is to put on the Tater Town Special, they also pursue a broader conviction of promoting Gleason as a whole. The Gazelle Choice award for a male and female recipient each receive a $500 scholarship and a benevolent fund managed by Charles Bookout that pours back into the Gleason community are two key facets of their charitable work.
While the Gazelles self-sustain the Tater Town Special annually, there was a noteworthy trial they faced early in its history in ’76. Torrential flooding rained out the events, which prevented the Gazelles from being able to payout the loan provided to pay for them. The only event that was held was the church service – the community of Gleason banded together to donate $5,000 to cover the loan; a provision by the community the Gazelles had not taken before or since. The church service is still annually held, but all donations go toward people in need in the community.
“The Tater Town Special has been the Tater Town special for as long as I have been alive,” says Jennifer Cook. “My mom was a Gazelle President, I am a Gazelle President, it is a longevity thing for my family. This is a small town that rallies around each other through good times and through bad. To get the community to gather together, that is our goal. A time of fellowship, a time of fun. We’re not about making money, we need enough to have another special and give back to the community, but it isn’t a profit thing.”
This year has a few additional treats to ring in the half-centennial anniversary of the event. A vintage car and tractor show, which will be honored in the memory of Spencer Collins, will be put on. Gleason Mayor Charles Anderson will be putting forward his own ’49 Packard and Red Billy ’52 Ford Tractor for the show.
“Gleason heritage is built on sweet potatoes and clay,” Mayor Anderson remarks. “Sweet potatoes longer than the clay. Gleason has been known as tater town. This year is the 50th anniversary and we are expecting a really good turnout with a variety of events. Kind of a bonding agent for the people around here as well as the people who grew up here, went to school here, and want to come back here. We have it every year on Labor Day weekend. It means a lot to me as the mayor; I’m proud of my hometown and proud of the Gleason Gazelles for sticking with it for 50 years. The younger generation has stepped up and done an awesome job with it every year. It’s small town USA at its best.”
Among other scheduled events for this year is the annual Bingo & Bake Auction on Thursday, Aug. 31, which generates funds, which go to the benevolent fund managed by Charles Bookout. Also scheduled is a 50’s theme block party scheduled for Monday, Aug. 28 and on Friday, Sept. 1, the Community BBQ & Youth Sweet Potato Cook-Off.
“It’s not just the Gazelles,” Jennifer Cook stresses, “the vendors in our town and those vendors are so gracious to help support and sponsor. And that is what makes the Tater Town Special. It’s about the whole community banding together to give the best that it can.”
This year’s Grand Marshal is the organization, WoodmanLife. A snippet from the brochure describes the group as, “WoodmenLife has been helping to protect the financial future of families while making a difference in hometowns across America since 1890. WoodmenLife Chapter 1149, locally known to Gleason, was launched in the mid-1980s. At that time, college student Wendell Verdell, was voted in as the chapter’s first president. Then, the Gleason chapter was low in membership numbers, but a vision emerged for growth that included the local Woodmen youth camp of that era. Many youngsters from Tater Town enjoyed summer fun at the camp located in the Liberty community.”
Events begin Aug. 27 on Sunday with the Praise Taters: Bethel Renaissance and run through to Sept. 3 with the community worship service.