As difficult as it is to accept, this beloved, 45-year-old centerpiece of Bradley County charm and homegrown talent will not reach its 46th birthday.
In a painful — yet knowing — announcement by Dale Dotson, president of the Cleveland Creative Arts Guild, the annual festival is being discontinued at a time that will preserve its warm and endearing memories in the hearts of hundreds of thousands of patrons. Loyal followers have supported the Nillie Bipper — which was playfully named in honor of its founder, Billie Nipper — in a collection of locales.
In its beginning, this traditional first-weekend-in-October festivity was held on Knights of Columbus property on South Lee Highway, then on a private farm and later within the peaceful backdrop of Red Clay State Historical Park, the site where its growth and fame took root and grew to such a grand stature. However, to take weather out of the festival’s annual planning the Nillie Bipper was moved to the protectiveness of the Tri-State Exhibition Center nine years ago.
In its newest location, the festival continued to give loyalists a reason — and a way — to embrace the miracles of the wondrous season of color. Yet, in truth, crowd numbers grew smaller over the years and the downhome festival found itself competing with more and more events of comparable theme and of substantial size. Such options created greater challenge for local organizers to attract vendors, and festivalgoers found themselves lured to other parts of the Southeast Tennessee, North Georgia and North Alabama region in search of new experiences.
Too, crafts festivals — in whatever locale — have been challenged by conservative buying brought on by The Great Recession. Although the downturn, by definition, is supposed to be over, discretionary spending within average households still falls short of the old days.
It is a sad commentary on what can happen to that which is good, such as the Nillie Bipper, when the bad — a faltering economy — raises its unwelcome head.
It is for these reasons, and probably others, the Cleveland Creative Arts Guild Board of directors — whose community-minded volunteers have served as the festival’s backbone — felt compelled to make such a painful decision.
Dale Dotson, who poured her heart as much as any into organizing the Nillie Bipper each year, called the homespun festivity “... the Ocoee region’s most widely recognized and respected outdoor arts and crafts festival.” In a brief statement in which she described the Nillie Bipper as “... bowing out of the fray,” Dale acknowledged the decision to end the show’s long, long run was not easy, but its timing is inarguable.
“Across the board, there were wistful degrees of regret,” she said in a brief letter summing up the CCAG board’s decision. “After much debating and studying show statistics, the decision was made: ‘We should bow out while we are still a success, leaving behind wonderful memories of all the great festivals that we produced.’”
She added, “We hear that there will be many people that will miss very much not attending the Nillie Bipper again. Of course, the nostalgic years at beautiful and historic Red Clay State Park could never be forgotten. Our move to the covered arena at Tri-State Exhibition Center enabled us to become a ‘rain or shine’ festival.”
We will publish Dale’s letter of thanks to the people of the Cleveland and Bradley County community, and to those who labored for so very many years to organize the Nillie Bipper, in Sunday’s edition of the Cleveland Daily Banner. For those wanting a few more details, a news article announcing the CCAG board decision can be found in the Lifestyles Section of today’s edition.
Many should be thanked for bringing, and for sustaining, the Nillie Bipper Creative Arts Festival as the welcome mat for Bradley County’s entry into the beauty of another autumn. Among them is the artist herself — Billie Nipper, one of the most talented painters and sweetest ladies our Cleveland hometown has ever known.
We shall have more to say on a later date.
Until then, bravo Cleveland Creative Arts Guild! Your members have given Bradley County a marvelous gift, one for which we are eternally grateful and one which we will never forget.
Long live the Nillie Bipper in the stories told by those who knew it well!
It was a browser’s paradise. It was a shopper’s delight. And most of all, it was a little piece of heaven in our down-home season of autumn retreat.