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Fulton’s history and love affair with bananas was built by the railroad

South Fulton residents celebrate the Banana Festival in 1964.
Tennessee Good Old Days
South Fulton residents celebrate the Banana Festival in 1964.

The two towns of Fulton and South Fulton along the Kentucky-Tennessee border are capping off their 60th annual Banana Festival with its famous “one ton banana pudding” this weekend. But the communities’ love affair with the fruit wouldn’t be possible without the railroad industry, connecting the rural towns to markets across the globe.

According to local historian Berry Craig, the Illinois Central Railroad connected New Orleans with Chicago, with a lot of the cargo being shipped consisting of bananas and other tropical fruits from Latin America. Fulton, Kentucky and South Fulton, Tennessee — located roughly halfway between the two cities — served as a distributing point for bananas.

There were several trains that traveled the Illinois Central Railroad through Fulton. One of the most notable trains was nicknamed the ‘City of New Orleans’ and was the daytime companion train of the overnite locomotive the ‘Panama Limited.’ The trains would stretch hundreds of feet, Craig said, painted brown with the green logo of the Illinois Central Railroad at the nose of the engine.

He said in the 1880s the Illinois Central Railroad developed refrigerated railroad cars and these cars had to be periodically re-iced to keep the cargo chilled. The city of Fulton served a key role in that: it was one of the only ice plants between New Orleans and Chicago.

“It was said at one point that more than 70% of the bananas eaten by Americans passed through Fulton,” Craig said.

Craig also said the Banana Festival first gained notoriety when an 8th grade student wrote to NBC News reporter Chet Huntley from the Huntley-Brinkley Report to come and cover the event. Huntley sent a TV crew to Fulton and gave the festival national exposure.

Amtrak assumed passenger transportation through Fulton in 1971, keeping the name the ‘City of New Orleans’ for its trains. An Amtrak station is still in operation in Fulton.

Banana Festival Committee member Nathan Lamb said the festival is a great opportunity for the public to escape the stress of everyday life. Lamb said the festival is a great way for people who want to attend a festival but are deterred from large crowds.

“You can get out and see people that you haven’t seen because of the hustle and bustle of everyday life,” Lamb said. “The festival has a great turnout but isn’t large and intimidating enough that it will discourage people from actually going.”

The final day of the Banana Festival is Saturday, with a banana eating contest that morning and the famous “one ton banana pudding” served in front of the Meadows Hotel following at 4 p.m. CST parade.

Mason Galemore is a Murray State student studying journalism. He was the editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper. Since then has explored different publication avenues such as broadcasting. He hopes to travel as a journalist documenting conflict zones and different cultures. He remembers watching the Arab Spring in 2011 via the news when he was a kid, which dawned in a new age of journalism grounded in social media. His favorite hobbies are hiking, photography, reading, writing and playing with his Australian Shepard, Izzy. He is originally from Charleston, Missouri.
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