They don’t hang people anymore at Mt. Sterling’s annual Court Day, but the essence of this highly social and nearly indescribable event remains the same
– folks gather to eat and trade as well as to buy and sell, but most of all they gather to socialize.
"It’s a love-hate thing," says Jim Browning of the Montgomery County Historical Society.
"You either love it or you don’t."
Mt. Sterling native Ollie McCormick loves it. "Just the excitement of it, just knowing it’s that time of year again," he says.
"I like to see the people, the old tools, and the antiques."
McCormick can remember waking up as a boy and seeing the cars parked along Maysville Street.
"You would just know it was Court Day," he says. He still gets that thrill when Court Day arrives each year.
"Part of the excitement is seeing the vendors come to town. When it gets close, every time you look up, you see a truck or trailer coming into town pulling a load of merchandise," McCormick says.
Gerald Atkinson of the Mt. Sterling-Montgomery County Tourism Commission describes the October Court Day Festival as a 200-year-old trade day.
"That’s what it started out to be and that’s what it still is today," he says.
"You can buy, sell, or trade just about anything you can think of."
Atkinson says people started trading around the courthouse while waiting to see what verdicts the traveling circuit judge would hand down.
"They were waiting to see who was going to hang," he says.
"They don’t hang people anymore, but the trading is still going strong."
However, October Court Day has changed in size. "It used to just be local people and the ones that came out of the hills, but now people come from all over," Browning says. Court Day has turned into three days of dawn-to-dusk trading, drawing thousands.
Atkinson estimates 220,000 attended the 1999 October Court Day Festival and it is anyone’s guess how many will come out this year.
"It keeps growing year after year by word of mouth more than anything."
"One of the mysteries of Court Day is that it’s a happening without any organization," McCormick says.
"These days there’s a little advertising, but in the old days there wasn’t any at all. People just knew to come."
Bargains and Temptations
There are many attractions that bring people to Mt. Sterling every October.
"There is nothing else like it, it is truly unique," Atkinson says.
"The variety is what brings me back, because you never know what you are going to find."
Visitors will find bargains and temptations galore, including clothing, shoes, accessories, camping equipment, guns and knives, music, toys, and almost anything you could need or want. Many area antique dealers also showcase their best stock during Court Day. Artists and crafts people will also display everything from paintings to pottery to woodwork. Last year there were more than 600 vendors offering goods.
For the avid people-watcher, this three-day event is also a great opportunity. People travel from throughout the state and around the country to take part.
"I go to see the people and talk to people," Atkinson says.
"I just sit and wait for folks to go by."
All that activity is going to leave any Court Day visitor with a big appetite. Don’t worry. Every kind of food from burgers to country ham can be found as you meander through the displays. Many local groups get into the act, with the Montgomery County Cattlemen grilling rib-eye steaks and the congregation of Mt. Sterling Methodist Church serving up chili in the church’s Main Street basement.
Through the weekend you will also hear gospel singers, bluegrass bands, jazz performers, and country musicians offering up their talents and providing a musical backdrop for the event.
Mt. Sterling’s Court Day can be traced back to pioneer days, Browning says. At the turn of the 19th century, the Kentucky General Assembly decreed that each county should hold a monthly court meeting to conduct business, which became known as Court Day. Mt. Sterling’s geographic location at the foothill of the mountains meant this day became a trading day for many of the surrounding rural communities. The October Court Day was traditionally the last trading day of the year for much of eastern Kentucky as families traveled in to sell off the summer’s work and prepare for winter.
"It was because of the time of year that it became as big a thing as it is," Browning says.
"The crops were in, so families were able to leave the farm. They had things to sell, like their surplus stock, and they had things they needed to buy, like supplies for the winter. Court Day was just an excuse to come to town and trade."
And it still is for people like Bobbie Romans of Berea and Lisa Dailey of Bath County.
"I’ve been coming for 20 years and still love it. I just like to come and look at all the goods," Romans says.
"There is so much to look at, I can’t get enough," Dailey says.