The Jonesborough Novelty Band performs at the location of the dessert course each year (Charlie Mauk/Herald & Tribune)
From a four-course meal to a historical ride around town to see some of the area’s notable homes and buildings, Jonesborough’s annual Progressive Dinner, to many, is the perfect segue into the holiday season.
Now in its 36th year, Deborah Montanti, executive director of the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, said the event originally started as a way to celebrate and promote historic preservation in Tennessee’s oldest town.
“The folks who had spent their time and their love restoring these beautiful old homes wanted to be able to open them up and share them with the community, share the history of the community and by doing so encourage others to love and restore older homes,” Montanti said. “It has been a tradition now in Jonesborough for each one of these 36 years. We have folks who come from all over just to attend the Progressive Dinner. They begin their holiday season with the Progressive Dinner.”
This year’s dinner will be held on Dec. 7 and will host around 30-34 people in each of five different seating times –– 3 p.m., 4:10 p.m., 5:10 p.m., 6:30 p.m., and 7:40 p.m.
Montanti said when people purchase a ticket for the dinner, they select a time. Then all the people in that seating group meet and board a bus to start their tour.
“You get on a bus and each bus has a host or a hostess who talks a little bit about each of the stops that you’re on your way to, so you get a little bit of history, you get a little bit of architecture,” Montanti said.
On the tour, participants are also given a little information about the Heritage Alliance, as the event is the only fundraiser the organization hosts each year.
The meal includes four courses — an appetizer, soup, main course and dessert — hosted at different historic landmarks, including private residences.
“We often have three different seatings going at the same time,” she said. “We’re constantly on the move. It’s so much fun. The homeowners are so incredible and it takes about 100 volunteers to pull this off.”
Montanti said this year is special because the main course will be served at the newly restored and recently opened McKinney Center at Booker T. Washington School. The former school for African American children was recently reinvented to serve as the town’s cultural arts center.
“Here’s an institutional school building that was built to separate people in 1930 that has since been renovated, lovingly restored and now open as an inclusive community center,” Montanti said. “We are thrilled to be one of the first events in that building. We are very, very excited about that. The other homes run the gamut. We’ve got an early 20th century home, we’ve got some mid-19th century homes; then we’ve got a new home that was built using parts of a very old home.”
This year’s menu is not quite complete, but Montanti said those preparing the meal never disappoint. “The food is always delicious,” she said. “Each location has live music, so there’s entertainment at each of the homes along the way. Nobody ever wants to leave the dessert (portion) because it is a tradition that the Jonesborough Novelty Band always performs at the dessert. The Novelty Band is just the most fun group of people that you would ever want to be with.”
While there is a finite number of homes in Jonesborough that can be used for the event, Montanti said they still try to do things a little different from the previous years. “We try to mix it up, not only age wise, but architecturally and just give folks a variety. It’s very much a festive occasion.
“People traditionally use the Progressive Dinner as the kickoff to their holiday season. They’re relaxed and they’re having a great time and they’re seeing old friends, maybe for the first time since last year’s Progressive Dinner,” she said. “This year’s going to be an incredibly good year. I’m really excited about the mix of history and architecture that we have this year.”
The event is even mentioned in a recent issue of Southern Living magazine, which takes note of the uniqueness of the Progressive Dinner.
Tickets are $79 per person and can be purchased by visiting http://heritageall.org or by calling the Heritage Alliance at 753-9580.