What started as a simple idea in a Madisonville church parking lot morphed into a festival that drew thousands Saturday to Loudon Municipal Park.

The Fried Pickle Festival brought hordes of vendors, visitors and pickle-oriented foods.

The festival was birthed by Tammy Barker when visiting what is now her home church, Madisonville Church of God.

“The idea came when we went up to see Pastor (Josh) Benson,” Barker said. “We’ve known him since he was a little boy. When I pulled into Madisonville Church of God, like I said, we were just going to visit, and then we eventually become church members, I looked at my husband and said, ‘Josh has got to let me do a festival.’ Just that quick, it came to me. I said, ‘A fried pickle festival.’ My husband looked at me and he said, ‘Don’t start this’.”

After presenting her request to Benson a couple weeks after attending the church, the festival drew an estimated 6,000-8,000 visitors. Barker originally expected about 1,000.

“Pastor said, ‘What are we going to do?’” Barker said. “I said, ‘We’re going to do what you tell us to do on Sunday. We’re going to pray’.”

In 2018, the festival grew to 178 vendors, and 10,000 visitors attended to celebrate pickles in all of their fried glory.

Saturday’s debut in Loudon followed the upward trend, showcasing 208 vendors and attracting an estimated 45,000 people by 5:30 p.m. Saturday based on a head count from the Tennessee Department of Tourism.

“The first year, we never expected that crowd, so we just had a few fried pickle vendors,” Barker said. “I made it last year to where everybody that was selling food had to sell something pickle related, like if it was kettle corn, we wanted them to have a pickle flavor available. The main food vendors had to agree to sell fried pickles or pickled hot dogs and so on and so forth.”

Vendors matched other pickle-themed activities and characters, such as a pickle juice drinking contest or taking photos with the festival’s mascot, Mr. Pickle.

A petting zoo was available for children, and a variety of local vendors and music kept attendees entertained in the heat.

“We landed a venue, I think, large enough for us to have this at and capable enough to help us,” Barker said. “I can’t say enough good about the city officials. The police, fire department, rescue. I’ve never seen, and this is the honest to God truth, I’ve never seen a group of officials work together like they do. They have been wonderful to work with.”

Barker plans to book Loudon Municipal Park for festivals to come.

Among the tens of thousands that attended, some traveled from beyond state borders. Sisters Amber Woods and Janelle Sturgeon came from Ohio to visit their sister Audrey Morgan, who recently moved to Loudon.

“We came down specifically for the festival,” Woods said. “We love fried pickles. We actually planned this like a month ago to come down and stay with (Audrey).

“If you guys could just dial down the weather a little bit,” she added, jokingly. “If you guys could make a note for next year.”

For Knoxville vendor Kelsey Ball, the event proved to expand her clientele.

“I have never done a craft festival before, and my fiancé saw this on Facebook, and he asked me if I wanted to start,” Ball said. “I didn’t really know what to expect, so I kind of came into it with an open mind, but I think we’ve gotten a lot of love.”

Barker is already looking forward to the changes and hopes she has planned for next year. Backed-up traffic and long walks were among the complaints attendees made on social media, but Barker sees reviews as a chance to make the festival better.

She has been in communication with Loudon Mayor Jeff Harris in hopes of finding a shuttle for next year’s event.

The festival clings true to Barker’s original vision, but she has expanded what she hopes the festival will bring to communities like Loudon. A portion of this year’s proceeds will be donated to Loudon Shop with a Cop

, but Barker’s end goal is to help fund a youth center in Loudon County.

“My goal is to hopefully one day see a youth community center be built in Loudon County to where the kids can come and get help with their homework, shoot a game of basketball, maybe run track inside,” she said. “That’s a big goal, but that’s my vision is that enough sponsors will come on and that will be built and the Fried Pickle Festival will have everything to do with that.”

Barker also hopes to eventually make all events at the festival free.

“I know what it’s like to go to Dollywood or to a festival with three little boys, and I raised a nephew that was like my son, so I have four little boys,” Barker said. “For them to be wanting to do things and for you to be counting down to your pennies, for them to be able to do those things. Our pony rides and petting zoos and things like that, there was a small fee. But it’s my goal in the future to have those things be made free to the public.

“I know it’s a big goal but I know that when I was told it couldn’t be done ... the vision to have it all done,” she added. “People were telling me it was impossible. I said, ‘If I believe that, I believed in the greater power.’ The whole thing through all this, I just kept repeating when this all happened with my mom, her death so close to the festival, I was just like, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’ That is my motto through it all.”