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How Mule Camp Market came to be
Gainesville's fall festival traces its history back through numerous names, decades
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The history of Mule Camp Market has been an object of fascination in Gainesville for decades, as shown by this 1991 page in The Times showing off a 1974 festival, then called Corn Tassel, on Green Street. - photo by Nick Bowman

Before Mule Camp Market attracted thousands to the Gainesville square with concerts and crafts and carnival foods, there was Corn Tassel and its farmers’ fair showing off pigs and produce and the rest that fall had to offer.

Like the city itself, the fall festival has had different lives through the years.

Before Corn Tassel, which was named for a convicted murderer, there was the Home Federal Curb Market (alternatively called the Homesteader’s Curb Market), Gainesville’s unlikely fall harvest festival that started out as 11 booths of produce and food at the market’s namesake bank.

Mule Camp Market

When: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday

Where: Downtown Gainesville square

How much: Free

Before Home Federal Curb Market, there was James Mathis Sr., a watermelon salesman-turned-banker who wanted his town to have a harvest festival of its own.

Mathis started the humble Home Federal Curb Market in 1966 with the handful of booths on his property. He explained the growth of the event to The Times in 1991, only two years before Corn Tassel became Mule Camp Market.

“There is something in the air in the spring, and especially in the fall, that triggers our blood and our chemistry … and we want to go to a festival,” Mathis told Times reporter Betsy Jordan.

That year, the event was already attracting more than 30,000 people and enjoying prime space on the square as the city’s largest annual festival on public property. But that wasn’t always the case.

When Mathis was trying to get his farmers market off of the ground, he was forced to use private property because of a city ordinance banning both produce stands and the tying of mules and horses on the square — obvious elements for any farmers market worth the time of day.

The local law scuttled the market for a few years before Home Federal Savings and Loan could buy its own property on Green Street near the downtown square.

But in 1966, Mathis had his land and Gainesville had a market.

The event took place each October and started as an opportunity for extension agents to sell farm produce. By the 1970s and 1980s, not only had the farmers market grown, but quilt shows, food tents and carts, blacksmith demonstrations, cooking competitions, races, comedians and live music had been added.

A long-running fixture of the event beginning in the 1970s was the Elachee Nature Science Center’s Bean House, which was pretty much what it sounds like.

“The aroma of soup beans and cornbread, onions, slaw, butter-milk, iced tea (and for those non-bean lovers, Elachee’s chili) will fill the air at this year’s Corn Tassel Festival,” states an account in a 1985 Corn Tassel special section of The Times. “By the way, ‘sweet milk’ will be offered for sissies.”

Elachee’s chili must have been spicy.

Records at The Times of advertisements, reporting and photographs show a steadily growing event that, though it bounced around Gainesville, quickly became the festival closest to the city’s heart.

“The market’s constantly changing sights and sounds mix with the smell of animals and the sweet odor of cotton candy for a country fair flavor,” wrote Times reporter Alma Bowen on Oct. 12, 1979. “Yesterday around 4 p.m., the sounds of chatter, laughter and country music were punctuated by occasional shrieks of a steam engine whistle, and people scurried from booth to booth as if afraid something ahead of them would soon be sold out.”

One eye-catching event was noted in 1990: Kiss the Pig, in which people nominated someone through one-dollar votes to get kissed by a pig. The event raised money for the American Diabetes Association.

The festival has consistently drawn tens of thousands of people over the weekend, and in the 1990s began drawing more than 60,000 people.

The name was changed to Mule Camp Market in 1993, when the event was handed off from the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce to the Gainesville Jaycees.

The first Jaycees organizer of the festival was John Geyer, who said on Tuesday that the group of young professionals wanted to take an event that had become something of a “business showcase” back to its roots as a “downtown community festival.”

The festival’s name also got back to the roots of Gainesville, which was first called Mule Camp Springs before being chartered as the town of Gainesville in 1821.

Festival organizers set up a chili cook-off and invited well-known artists to sell their pieces at the festival.

“We wanted real artists doing their thing,” Geyer said of the Mule Camp Market’s early days, when creative types like Howard Finster and R. A. Miller were appearing at the festival.

Arts and crafts remain a huge part of Mule Camp Market, which now attracts between 75,000 and 85,000 people each year, said current Jaycees organizer Matt Smith.

So too does “the carnival type food, the corn dogs and the deep fried everything imaginable,” Smith said.

These days, the revenue from the event goes toward the Empty Stocking Fund, which buys Christmas gifts for children in need.

“It’s a lot of work for us,” Smith said of Mule Camp Market, “but when December rolls around and we spend four hours shopping for 250 kids, it makes all the time worth it.”

Geyer described the festival a different way, talking about the years the event was rained out and when it went off without a hitch.

“Mule Camp itself is a controlled crash. You know it’s coming, but Thursday night gets here and it’s like putting a big airplane down on an aircraft carrier,” he said. “It’s going to hit, and will it catch the wire and will it stop? Who knows.”

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