— Bill Cosby
American comedian and actor
(b. July 12, 1937)
When the first Nillie Bipper Creative Arts Festival came to Bradley County in the late ’60s, I was just a carefree, 12-year-old boy entering seventh grade at Collierville Junior High School in a tiny town by the same name on the outskirts of Memphis.
At that young age, I had never heard of Cleveland, had never traveled any farther east than the western perimeter of Middle Tennessee, and had attended only one fall festival in my lifetime. That came a few years earlier in Falkner, Miss., where I was raised until midway through the fifth grade when Dad found a job with the Shelby County Health Department.
As we crossed the state line into a whole new world called Tennessee, I knew nothing of a beautiful lady named Billie Nipper nor the autumn pastime that she was bringing to another small town over on the other side of Chattanooga. I’m not even sure I knew the whereabouts of Chattanooga.
As a kid, I didn’t get too far beyond the dirt roads of my grandfather’s farm. So anything that was happening on the other side of the universe — say, like Southeast Tennessee — did so without my knowledge.
But less than a decade later all that changed. By then, I was a young man fresh out of college and a newlywed as well. Loading up our few possessions in an aging U-Haul and stuffing my little white ’72 Ford Pinto with clothing, wedding gifts and food, my wife and I crossed the state to a town where I had accepted editor Beecher Hunter’s job offer to serve as a reporter with the Cleveland Daily Banner.
In June 1977, we began our careers, and a life together, in Cleveland.
Not long afterward, the Nillie Bipper Creative Arts Festival became a part of that life. I don’t remember the first year we attended, but I know it was at Red Clay State Historic Park. I can’t say we attended every year, but many more times than not we were among the thousands browsing the random booths and sampling from the selection of home-baked goodies.
Sometimes we bought. Other times we just admired.
Sometimes we walked hand-in-hand. On others, we separated as I was more the wanderer while she took the time to study and to touch the beautiful arts and crafts of the vending professionals while conversing with them all.
Sometimes we basked in autumn sunshine in our tees and shorts. At other times we arrived at the crowded park draped in sweatshirts and blue jeans.
Sometimes we ran into acquaintances from town. On other occasions we walked the entire Red Clay spread without seeing a familiar face or friend.
Sometimes we snacked on popcorn or roasted peanuts or fried pies. Other times we settled on a soft drink or in the autumn chill we cherished the comforting warmth of a hot chocolate in white styrofoam.
Sometimes we imagined an artist’s colorful painting on our living room wall, but other times we agreed the money was best not spent.
Sometimes we smiled at the low hum of oversized windchimes, but a table away we laughed at the sharp clatter of their smaller sisters.
Sometimes we struggled to walk straight through a strong October breeze, and other times we helped vendors to pick up their blown goods from the plush Red Clay grass.
Sometimes we did the Nillie Bipper on rushed Saturday mornings, but often we dropped by on slow Sunday afternoons.
Sometimes we lugged large purchases to our awaiting car, other times we carried our solo buy in a tiny paper bag.
Sometimes we missed the popular show altogether from being out of town, and other times we marked our calendar months ahead.
Sometimes we browsed in silence, but at most shows we talked in delight.
Sometime was always the best time to visit the Nillie Bipper Creative Arts Festival. Its best years, in our opinion, came at Red Clay. But its eventual move to the Tri-State Exhibition Center came with understanding and perhaps hidden appreciation by those who feared the uncertainty of Mother Nature and her fickle moods on any given, vibrant autumn weekend.
Cleveland Creative Arts Guild President Dale Dotson was correct in her assessment that moving the Nillie Bipper to Tri-State made it a “rain or shine” event. And it did. In its new location we still enjoyed the autumn air and brisk touch of the downhome show. Likely it lost a small degree of festival feel when it left the beauty of Red Clay, but it never gave up its magic.
For us, the Nillie Bipper always was a special time.
We didn’t always buy, but sometimes we did.
We didn’t always attend, but the next year was for sure.
We didn’t always stay for hours on end, but we never left without a love for color and a zeal for the great outdoors.
We didn’t always mingle with the masses, but when we did it was good times with new friends.
Later today, or early Saturday, we would have made our annual trek to the Nillie Bipper. We would have run into Billie Nipper, she would have hugged my neck and I would have returned the favor.
Billie is a beautiful lady. Her arts and crafts show was always a moment to treasure.
But its 45-year run has ended. The CCAG board of directors made a difficult, but knowing, decision to close it out while the time for closing was good.
In our hearts, the Nillie Bipper was Bradley County comfort at its best. It wasn’t the biggest show. It didn’t boast the region’s largest crowds. Nor did it stake any claims to being anything more than what it was — a downhome festival with a hometown feel.
I’ll never forget her — the lady or the show.
Nice job, and thank-you Cleveland Creative Arts Guild. You gave area families a gift. And now it rests in quiet memory.
But that’s OK. In life, forevers are few. In love, such times are eternal.
No doubt, the Nillie Bipper was a shining star. Her glow lit the smiles of thousands. And her warmth gave cause to even more.