Saddle Up brings Old West to East Tennessee

Event drives in thousands to city
Feb. 25, 2013 @ 11:52 PM

The 13th annual Saddle Up event turned out one of its best years to date, returning popular cowboy entertainment and activities while adding a few new attractions.

The event, which began Wednesday with a free cornbread sampling and ran through Sunday, featured several concerts, a chuck wagon cook-off, a Cowboy Dance and Cowboy Church, and — new this year — a video presentation and Western photography exhibit by award-winning local photographer Ken Jenkins.

"This is Pigeon Forge's salute to the Old West, and Western lifestyle," said Pigeon Forge Special Events Manager Butch Helton.

Visitors could also take part in traditional cowboy activities, such as bull-riding and lassoing, as well as branding demonstrations on blocks of cedar wood.

Saturday featured the chuck wagon cook-off. Helton explained that seven wagon participants from across the country competed in the event. Each wagon was given an identical menu and identical ingredients to make the best meal they could.

Anyone at the event Saturday could buy a ticket and sample the different chuck wagon meals. The meals were judged, and winners were announced that night at the Saddle Up concert.

"Each wagon can feed 50 people," Helton said. "We were hoping we could feed everyone, but unfortunately we had to turn some people away. That's a good and bad problem."

Sunday's agenda included the chuck wagon breakfast, which sold out ahead of time, and Cowboy Church, which was free and open to the public.

"When they were out on cattle drives in the Old West, they didn't have a church nearby so they just got together under a tent somewhere, and they either had a minister in the group or someone played minister, and they'd have their own church service there," Helton said.

Helton said this year was without a doubt one of the best years Saddle Up has seen. They held 650 tickets for meals, but those sold out quickly.

Last year, 7,500 visitors came to Saddle Up, and Helton expected more this year.

"I am confident that number is definitely going to go up," Helton said. "This is a growing event, growing by leaps and bounds. It's phenomenal."

Brandon Barnes with Pigeon Forge Special Events said they actually over-prepared for this year's Saddle Up, but they still had more visitors than they expected.

"We prepared over and above for this year, and I was still amazed," Barnes said. "A big bus came in on us, and that was 100 tickets right there."

Helton said the growing event has helped bring tourism to the city during a traditionally slow period.

"We like to think we've played a small part in boosting tourism in the city," Helton said.

rhargett@themountainpress.com