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art smathersSitting down next to each other, it’s pretty apparent that Pat and Zeb Smathers are father and son.

Besides the immediate physical resemblance (one of height, finely combed hair and hearty laughter), the two men, ages 61 and 32, are both attorneys who practice together, each with the exact same zest and passion for their hometown of Canton. 

Alongside that enthusiasm comes the political and economic pursuits of Pat, who himself has been involved in numerous business endeavors in the community, not to mention his tenure as mayor (1999-2011), chair of the Democratic party, and run for lieutenant governor. That ambition has also rubbed off on his son, who currently serves as an alderman on the town board. 

At their office in downtown recently, they spoke of the long and storied history of the Canton Labor Day Festival, what the event means to them, to their community, and to the future of a town ready to reclaim the economic and residential fruits of their future. 

Smoky Mountain News: When someone mentions the Canton Labor Day Festival to you, what comes to mind?

Pat Smathers: First thing that comes to my mind, when I was growing up as a young kid, were the rides behind where the armory is, and then riding in the Labor Day parade in the 1960s. Our family business, Smathers Market, always had a float in the parade, throwing out candy to all the kids. It was always a big celebration — it was the biggest thing at that point in time. 

Zeb Smathers: For me, it’s nostalgia and memories. No matter what age you are, you always have great memories of the Canton Labor Day Festival. I can remember Phil Smathers, the fire chief and my cousin, and waiting around that Monday morning hoping for a telephone call from him to ride in the fire truck. It’s those memories of the rides, the food, and seeing people that’s intertwined with our town that gives us that goosebump feeling. It has that unique warm sort of feeling — it is that sense of belonging and memory. 

SMN: Why the rebranding of the event for this year?

ZS: I think the thought process has always been, “How can we do things better?” No matter whether a project is a success or a failure, it’s about evaluating it and finding ways to make it better. If you’re not asking that question, you’re not really doing your job, and I think for a long time we weren’t asking ourselves, “Where’s Labor Day going?” “What can we do better?” and “How are we evolving?” Last year was still a success in our eyes, but when we had a work meeting for this year, we wanted to know what more we could do with the celebration. If we don’t have the same sense of pride in the event, then we’re not giving those cherished memories to the next generation or people that have moved here. We’re not resting on our laurels of the past — we’re pushing ahead and making new memories. 

PS: The rebranding this year is a good thing. Labor Day, like everything else, you always have to have the change that reflects the times. If you go back and look at Labor Day, when it first began in the early 1900s, it was a Labor Day celebration that was instituted by the paper mill. The mill wasn’t unionized until the 1960s and Canton was a true company town, with a company store, company doctor and company housing. So, when we first began with the celebration it was a mill-sponsored event. It was athletic contests, live music, and so on. Then, in the 1960s, when I was coming along as a child, the role of the mill and Labor Day started declining and the town started picking it up, with more civic and church groups in the 1960s putting the event together. And as things have had to change, with regulations and such, those civic groups took over. What the town is doing now I think is a continuation of what they’ve always done — change and evolve with the times.

SMN: Does this rebranding also mirror the rebranding of the community, perhaps a litmus test for the trajectory of where Canton is going or could be going?

ZS: I think there’s a sense in Canton, and on the town board, that to grow Canton, whether it’s economics or infrastructure, we have to bring in new people. Now, there are perceptions about the town that we have to overcome. So, when an opportunity comes to bring new people in and showcase our community, that’s very important to us. We want to get people’s attention. If someone decides to eat at a restaurant here or open up a store, then we’re doing our job. It’s still providing music and entertainment like always, we’re just changing the way of displaying the event with new types of people to expand upon it. And, as we grow and change, we don’t want to lose who we are. At the end of the day, hence the name “Labor Day,” we take pride in a day’s work. It’s that blue-collar swagger here. It’s not getting us too far away from that, it’s how do you evolve? How do you change and grow? It’s a foot in our past, with the other foot pivoting into the future. 

PS: Every town is unique. Some celebrate Christmas, some Memorial Day or the 4th of July. In Canton, we celebrate Labor Day. And what does that say? It says we’re an industrial town, we’re proud to be an industrial town, and we will continue to be an industrial town. 

ZS: As it has been said in the past, “Canton is a town that works,” and that’s a theme that continues to this day. It’s about staying true to our traditions, to understand the importance of trying to new things and working together, where our future has huge opportunities, but it’s going to take us thinking outside the box in doing these things. A lot of people might say the mill, this town, this celebration, should not be here, but to last this long, and to keep trying new things, is a testament to the strong will to survive and prosper that is in the spirit of Canton to move forward.

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