Roy Hopkins is pictured stirring the coals in the pit under part of the barbecue prepared for the 1973 Sesquicentennial festival. Nearly 800 pounds of barbecue was sold during the weekend festival to festival-goers who were able to purchase barbecue by the sandwich, pound, plate, or shoulder. Leader archives/David Gwinn archives

What began as Tipton County’s Sesquicentennial in 1973 has evolved into the world’s oldest BBQ festival.

“It started from simple beginnings on Court Square, where one side of the square was blocked off from traffic,” reads a story about the event published in The Leader in 2001. “However, as the event and town grew, it became apparent that more space was needed.”

Since it began half a century ago, the event has changed from a fair held on the square, complete with parades and pageants, to a contest in Cobb Parr Park to determine who cooks the best barbecue. It still closely mirrors the Tipton County Fair and Bar-B-Q Festival which began taking place annually in 1979.


Back then the event began on a Thursday with Woman’s Day, which included homemaker demonstrations and a fashion show, and continued with arts and crafts, a livestock show, and the Miss Tipton County pageant on Friday;  the inaugural Covington Invitational swim meet, 10K run, treasure hunt and junior livestock show on Saturday; gospel singing and games on Sunday; and a demolition derby when the event wrapped on Monday evening. 

Back then, barbecue was served for lunch and dinner on Thursday and Friday, there was an open pit overnight Friday, all day Saturday, and for lunch on Sunday. The Jaycees cooked 800 pounds of barbecue that year and only had 40 pounds leftover. 

In 1976 the event, which was centered around the nation’s bicentennial, also featured the second signing of the Declaration of Independence, square dancing, the Rick Dees Show, motorcycle races, a tennis tournament, and a drawing for a 1910 replica Tin Lizzie, which was won by Mabel Teamer of Ripley.

In 1990, the event featured a country music showdown, ice cream eating contest, and Dixie Youth Baseball state tournament. That year Jaycee Rodger Beasley, who recently passed away, told the paper the event had become known as the “granddaddy of all cooking contests.” 

Who could have imagined, back in 1973, that the barbecue cooking contest would still be going half a century later?

Present Day

Over the years the event’s organizers have added things – like a sock hop, car shows, bungee jumping, team penning, cornhole tournaments, and more – to attract different people to the festival. 

Today the event’s primary focus is the barbecue cooking contest and it’s kept its most popular, traditional events: live music, the demolition derby, and a truck and tractor pull. 

This year’s event will kick off on Thursday, June 2 and continue through Saturday, June 4. 

In addition to the contest, there will be bounce houses and music on Friday and Saturday, the demolition derby on Friday, and the truck and tractor pull on Saturday. 

It’s an event 50 years in the making, an event you won’t want to miss. 

The Leader has published a commemorative 50th Annual World’s Oldest BBQ Festival special publication. It’s available in subscriber copies of the paper, online for subscribers, and at the event. You can also see the event’s Facebook page for more information.

Echo Day
Author: Echo Day

Echo Day is an award-winning journalist, photographer and designer. She is currently The Leader's managing editor.