October Court Day(s)

October 18-21, 2013

Court Day:

English Inheritance

To a Southern Tradition

(Reprinted from Southern Bell's "Phonews" winter 1965-66)

 

October Court Day at Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, is a mad melee of people and livestock gathered together for purposes of doing business. That business may range from the purchase of a coon dog to a winter's supply of sorghum molasses; from trading guns, knives or horses to just milling elbow to elbow with the thousands of curious sightseers who come to Mt. Sterling to see what Court Day is all about.

At the end of a few hot, dusty hours the visitor has managed to inch his way past sorghum sellers, gun traders, barbecue stands, medicine men, antique dealers, hat vendors, fortune tellers, horse handlers, jewelry peddlers, dog fanciers and a host of other hucksters. His nostrils have been assailed by an odoriferous blend of hot dogs, old leather, dust, popcorn, perspiration, tobacco juice, horses and hickory smoke. And above all the rumble rises the shrieking of children, the cry of hawkers, the laughter of the lighthearted and the raucously amplified twang of a hillbilly band.

What is Court Day all about? Well, it has come a long way - some old timers will say "degenerated" - from its original intent and purpose back in Colonial times. Then our American form of government was based on the English County System, brought to this country by the early settlers. One of the system's most important elements was the English Common Law, which was administered throughout the colonies. After the settlers had spread out over the countryside to farms where they were no longer confined to communities or forts, they revived the old English custom of setting aside an annual day on which county officials would sit as a court to adjudicate matters brought before them. This court was served by a sheriff, as in England. And the day designated for the meeting of the court became known as "Court Day".

It was only natural that Court Days should become business and social get-togethers in addition to legal occasions. The farmers brought livestock - as well as hound dogs and fighting cocks - to sell and trade. And they gathered to visit with friends they had not seen since the last Court Day. Old times were reviewed in the mellow atmosphere of taverns, whereas the streets became the scene of horse-trading and racing, cock fighting and wrestling matches. Patent medicine men, fortunetellers and itinerant peddlers also had their place in the sun.

Around the turn of the century October Court Day in Mt. Sterling was noted particularly for its livestock sales. Situated between the Blue Grass and the mountains, the town was the largest cattle and mule market in Kentucky, exceeding even Lexington and Louisville in sales. For a week before Court Day the roads leading into Mt. Sterling were crowed with droves of cattle and hogs. Flocks of turkeys and geese also walked to market, with drovers spending the night at friendly farms where they could pen and rest their livestock and poultry.

In those days mules provided the major motive power on the great cane and cotton plantations of the Deep South. So many mules from the breeding farms of Montgomery and surrounding counties also made their way to Court Day to be purchased by mule dealers from all over the South.

As Court Day approached, the dust rose for miles around churned up from the country roads and turnpikes by the marked-bound multitudes.

But Mt. Sterling was ready for the influx. Every home on a route leading into town had a fence around it to keep the cattle, hogs, mules, turkeys and geese out of the yard. It was no uncommon sight, however, to see men chasing livestock out of someone's yard, with the lady of the house raising sand over the trespassers. By Tuesday morning the stray pen in town was usually filled with lost horses and cattle rounded up by the police. Animals were released to their owners on payment of a 50-cent fine. Pranksters had a field day opening the stray pen when the police were not looking. So the roundup of strays provided a 24-hour chore for the overworked force.

Horse-trading was carried on mainly in the streets around the Court House. Cattle trading took place in the pens on Locust Street. Pistols, knives and dogs were traded anywhere. Circuses, minstrel shows, political gatherings and poker games rounded out Court Day noise and confusion.

Court Day today in Mt. Sterling is a far cry from what it was in days past. There is no association with the Court House. In fact that building is practically deserted, for the crowds flood down the hill to where the mass of humanity browses and barters from dawn to dusk.

Court Day is a nostalgic institution of the past, with little resemblance to its predecessor except the crushing crowds of people. It might well be called Sorghum Day (more is sold on this day than during the rest of the entire year); or Hound Dog Day (there are enough specimens of dogdom to house half the fleas in Montgomery County); or Knife and Gun Day (the number of weapons on display gives evidence that the South may be ready to rise again).

The old-time residents of Mt. Sterling are the first to tell you that the color and picturesqueness and romance have gone out of Court Day. They disappeared with the paved roads and motorized livestock transport. With the exception of the youngsters, who are given a school holiday, few townspeople even bother to brave the crowd. As one old timer puts it: "Today, October Court Day is nothing more than a conglomeration of sightseers and sorghum buckets."

Paradoxically, however, October Court Day at Mt. Sterling grows bigger every year. So it must have something.

 

Court Day has changed even more since this article was written over thirty years ago. If you were to venture to Court Day this year, you would not see any horse or dog trading. In recent years, I don't recall any fortunetellers, and as far as medicine men go, you might find a health food, vitamin stand. The predominant odor is old ham, sometimes over-powered by green peppers, onions and sausage. The more popular booths have sweatshirts, tee shirts and "as seen on T.V." signs.

The last sentence of the above article is certainly true. Over one hundred thousand people come to Mt. Sterling to the "granddaddy of all flea markets" (as it is sometimes called) on the weekend preceding the third Monday in every October.

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