Photos Rob Smith
EVERY YEAR IT SEEMS, Rome, Georgia, has more to offer than it did the year before. Such things as fairs, festivals, concerts, parades, car shows, sporting events, and theatrical productions are filling up the calendar’s weekends, giving folks from the surrounding communities (and beyond) a growing list of reasons to come to town. This fall, local entrepreneur Tiffany Ballinger added yet one more reason to this list by spearheading Christmas on the Coosa, an arts and crafts festival and antique car show at Heritage Park on the weekend of November 6th and 7th.
Commerce on wheels
The idea of establishing a festival was a new one to Ballinger (a surprise, really, even to her), but it was a natural outgrowth of her upbringing. “I grew up in Silver Creek,” Ballinger says, “on the Lazy J Ranch, where I worked with my dad and my grandfather in the meathouse, making sausage and processing deer.” The experience of raising her own food, combined with a farmer’s work ethic, gave her a desire to launch out on a new venture of her own. “I always wanted to start a business that had something to do with a restaurant, with food,” she says.
When she learned last spring that someone was selling a used food truck, she jumped at the chance to buy it. Ballinger and her brother, Nick Ballinger, refitted the food truck for their own needs, rechristened it the Shuck Shack, and began selling roasted corn and BBQ pork at festivals, fairs, and other event around the area. The food truck’s menu varied according to the particular event’s needs; some customers wanted hamburgers and hotdogs, so that’s what the brother/sister team provided.
Looking to create more opportunity for the Shuck Shack, Ballinger decided to float the idea of starting an arts and crafts festival in the spring of 2021. For years, she had enjoyed attending such events as Ellijay’s Georgia Apple Festival and the Cave Spring Art Festival, so it seemed like a natural pursuit for her. “I put the opportunity out there of having a festival on Calhoun Highway. I expected maybe twenty or twenty-five vendors, but I wound up with forty-eight. That became the Dirt Road Festival we did in April, and it went really well.”
After that, some of the vendors from the Dirt Road Festival started asking Ballinger to host another event in the fall. She knew that Rome already had the Chiaha Harvest Fair in October, and she didn’t want to compete with that. “Chiaha focused more on Halloween and Thanksgiving,” Ballinger says, “so I decided we would do something more geared toward Christmas.” Searching for a venue, she considered Ridge Ferry Park on the Oostanaula River, but the space proved too large. “We only had forty vendors to start with,” Ballinger says, “so Heritage Park turned out to be the perfect location.”
Word of mouth
“I’ve gotten most of my vendors through word of mouth,” Ballinger says. “I told a few people, they told more people, and it grew. A lot of these vendors know each other, so I started getting emails and messages from all kinds of people asking if they could sell with us.” For Christmas on the Coosa, she only had to turn a few vendors away. It wasn’t because there was anything
wrong with what they were selling, but because their inventory was redundant to what others were already offering. As Ballinger puts it, “We didn’t need several vendors selling the same thing, we wanted variety. I felt bad telling a few people no, but I had to. Still, we wound up with eighty vendors, so that was plenty, and more than I had expected.”
Something for everyone
“Most of our vendors are not buying inventory from stores; they’re actually making the products they sell,” Ballinger says. “Many of them just do it for the joy of doing what they love to do. And they don’t want the overhead of owning a brick-and-mortar store.”
Variety was the theme of Christmas on the Coosa. The festival offered such things as handmade jewelry, floral arrangements, skin care products, wreaths, steel firepits, lemonade, cotton candy, ballcaps, home décor, woodcrafts, bicycles, face painting, and lots of other things.
The beautiful handmade products of some of the festival’s vendors can best be described as eccentric, even quirky. Ergamoca Art, owned by artist Jenny Walker, is a good example. Walker creates a sort of modern twist on the old tradition of stained glass. Working in a converted two-car garage at home, she takes all sorts of glassware (even colorful sea glass) and uses her own proprietary method to embed them into window displays, encasing them in window frames and picture frames.
The results are colorful works of glass art that sparkle in the light. Ergamoca Art also does custom pieces, incorporating the customer’s personal glassware into the designs. The use of people’s antiques and family heirlooms gives the work a nostalgic vibe. “I’ve always been artistic,” Walker says, “and I’m glad I can use my talent to make things that touch so many people on an emotional level. And for me, doing the work is very therapeutic.”
Then there’s Janet’s Designer Bottle Lights, owned and operated by Janet and Terry Woodall. Beneath the Woodall’s tent, hundreds of bottles crowd the tables, showing off a wide variety of brands, shapes, sizes, types, and slogans. Each bottle is filled with Christmas tree lights, perfect for use as a nightlight or just a unique piece to use as a conversation-starter.
The themes of the artwork and logos on the bottles range from sports teams to children’s room décor. Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 is a big seller. “People always want Jack Daniel’s bottles,” Janet says. “We can’t keep them in stock.” Janet got the idea for this business when Terry worked as a bartender. She was intrigued by the great variety of interesting bottles he worked with. She took some of Terry’s empties, decorated them, and filled them with lights. The lighted bottles were a hit with their family and friends, and soon afterward Janet’s Designer Bottle Lights was born.
Several of Christmas on the Coosa’s vendors are brand new businesses that were birthed from the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Point Blank Pepper Company is one such vendor. Rich Newton lost a long-time job in the hospitality industry due to pandemic cutbacks, so he started this new business from his home.
He took the idea of old-fashioned southern bread & butter pickles and applied it to peppers. Experimenting with recipes in his kitchen, Newton finally settled on a range of products to introduce to the public. There are his Smoke Rings, a mix of hand cut jalapeños and mini sweet pepper rings in a sweet, spicy bread & butter brine.
Newton also offers Hallo Rings, jalapeños in sweet ghost pepper brine. Besides the pepper ring products, Newton produces table sauces in a range of spicy heats that are sure to elevate any number of recipes. The company’s name, Point Blank Pepper Company, its logo, and branding were inspired by Newton’s deep respect for the military.
Cars and kids
One event at Christmas on the Coosa, the Car Show, gave attendees not only the chance to see a great display of vintage cars, trucks, and motorcycles, but also gave them the opportunity to contribute to a great cause: the Specially Gifted Foundation.
Specially Gifted Foundation, established in 2020 by Bree Kernion Lanham and Marcie Price, is a non-profit organization that helps special-needs children and their families. The foundation’s website explains: “We believe that children with disabilities deserve to be loved and valued as equals in our society.
We respect the unique journey that each of their families face and are dedicated to enriching their lives by providing them with a special gift or opportunity, beneficial resources, and a sense of community.” Tiffany Ballinger is proud that the Car Show at Christmas on the Coosa was able to contribute to this worthy endeavor. “All the profits from the Car Show went to Specially Gifted,” Ballinger says. “We didn’t want any of the money from that to go to us.”
More to come
Through the adventures of starting the Shuck Shack, the Dirt Road Festival, and Christmas on the Coosa, Tiffany Ballinger has acquired a renewed appreciation for her own hometown. “I’ve learned that Rome is a community that will support you,” she says. “Even when you don’t believe in yourself and you have your doubts, Rome is there for you.”
Initially, the crowded event calendar for Rome and the surrounding communities was a genuine concern, but Ballinger found her worries were ill-founded. “The weekend of Christmas on the Coosa there were so many other things going on around town, but the people still came out to Heritage Park. The turnout was great. I was so thankful!” And the good news is, Rome can look forward to visiting Christmas on the Coosa again next year.
In 2022, Ballinger’s festivals will return, but this time, expanded. The Dirt Road Festival & BBQ Cook-off will be held on April 30th and May 1st. Also in the new year, Ballinger will team up with Rome-Floyd Parks and Recreation to co-host Christmas on the Coosa & Chili-Fest on November 5th and 6th at Ridge Ferry Park. Vendors interested in participating in either of these events can contact Tiffany Ballinger at firstname.lastname@example.org or 706-233-2520.
For more information, visit @ChristmasontheCoosa on Facebook