What began as a small gathering of Appalachian storytellers has evolved over a generation into one of the nation's premier gatherings of storytellers. The National Storytelling Festival, held every October in Jonesborough, is the most prestigious storytelling festival in the nation. Sponsored by the National Storytelling Association, which is headquartered in Jonesborough, the national festival began in 1973. “We all live in a network of stories. There isn't a stronger connection between people than storytelling,” emphasizes Jimmy Neil Smith, the association's executive director. (1)
The first festival in 1973 attracted about sixty people, but numbers rapidly increased. In 1975 organizers created the institutional predecessor to the current Association. By 1980, one thousand people were attending the event, and by the mid-1980s five thousand listeners were convening every October in the Jonesborough historic district. Today, an estimated ten thousand attend the annual gathering. One of the festival's most popular places is the Swappin' Ground, where visitors can take their turns–in no more than ten minutes–telling grand tales.
The former National Storytelling Association is now the Storytelling Foundation International; it has developed into one of Tennessee's key folklife institutions. Its National Storytelling Center, designed by Ken Ross Architects in association with Robert A. M. Stern, opened in 2001. Located next to the restored Chester Inn, the center has a library, a story archives, a three-acre park, and an education and interpretation facility. The foundation also has launched a site on the World Wide Web, reaching storytellers who have yet to make the fall trek to the festival.