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'Mule Fest' Vs. 'Mule Day' — A Tennessee Town Is Taking Sides

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The pandemic has canceled a lot of events. In one Tennessee county, it took away a beloved one - a campy agricultural celebration called Mule Day. From member station WPLN, Paige Pfleger reports.

PAIGE PFLEGER, BYLINE: Mule Day might sound silly. But for the people of Maury County, it's serious business.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good day. It is 11 o'clock in Columbia, Tenn., for the 2016 Mule Day Parade.

PFLEGER: The annual four-day event has a parade, competitions for the best auctioneer and the mule equivalent of a dog show. But the pandemic was the, whoa, Nellie, that ground the festivities to a halt.

CHAZ MOLDER: We know in elected office that, you know, any decision you make is going to be met with some ridicule. And certainly, that was no different here.

PFLEGER: Chaz Molder is the mayor of Mule Town, also known as Columbia, Tenn. Molder knows the community and the local economy really needed Mule Day this year.

MOLDER: But what I have even more conviction about than my love and support of Mule Day is conviction about doing the right thing during the global pandemic that we're currently in.

PFLEGER: He says canceling Mule Day was a grueling decision. And as he expected, it did not go over well.

JODI HOFFMAN: My instant reaction was, we can't let this happen.

PFLEGER: Jodi Hoffman lives in Maury County. After she heard the news, she started a Facebook group aptly called Save Mule Day. Now it has 8,000 members.

HOFFMAN: We need to make our voices be heard. So this is something for my town. This is something for my community.

PFLEGER: The group became a planning ground for a Mule Day event in May. Only they couldn't call it that because they don't have permission or even the blessing of the official group that has put on Mule Day for decades.

LOUISE MILLS: We don't appreciate them, just because we couldn't have a Mule Day or didn't think we could do it safely, coming in and saying, well, we're going to do one anyway.

PFLEGER: Louise Mills is part of the Mule Day Office. She says Mule Day has a historic reputation to uphold. It dates back to the 1800s. It's a grand event, drawing people from across the country. What if people come to this rogue event expecting the traditional Mule Day only to be disappointed and never come back? Plus, Mills says the event might have the unintended consequence of undermining the next official Mule Day.

MILLS: We do have one major sponsor. They do a lot for us. And so they let us know that if we did continue with Mule Day, then they would no longer choose to be our sponsor.

PFLEGER: All of this uncertainty has been percolating for months with the event's traditional spring date drawing closer. Meanwhile, a prominent leader has been quietly championing the community's stubborn love of Mule Day - Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles. To some of the community's delight and others' dismay, Ogles announced on Facebook there would be a mule fest in downtown Columbia. There would be a concert with country star Trace Adkins and even a parade. But the big reveal leaves a lot of questions. There's still no permits. The new date overlaps with Memorial Day, and there's no word on how actual mules are going to be involved. The announcement makes even some supporters wonder if the organizers put the cart before the mule.

For NPR News, I'm Paige Pfleger. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.