Maker’s Mark Turned This Deserving Small Town Into a Winter Wonderland

“Home for the holidays” has never felt more fitting than in 2020 when many of us are canceling our usual travel plans for more lowkey festivities. For 65 million Americans, they’ll be doing that in a small town, and that’s a fact Maker’s Mark thinks we should celebrate. 

Earlier this year, they launched the Small Town, Bright Lights contest, where people across the country were asked to nominate a small town that deserved a once-in-a-lifetime holiday makeover as a reward for its remarkable character in 2020. Out of hundreds of responses, they chose Ripley, Tennessee — a rural community in West Tennessee that came together to save their local hospital, which was on the brink of shutting down before the pandemic began. (More on that community effort in a bit.) 

Ripley’s prize isn’t your average holiday light display. The town (which was nominated by Ripley native and current Ripley Mayor Craig Fitzhugh) was decked out by Maker's Mark’s team of holiday lighting experts and window display artists, who transformed the streets into a full winter showcase. The display is certainly social-media worthy, complete with brilliant lights, festive window displays, a synchronized music and light show, and a magnificent tree. Mayor Fitzhugh even helped illuminate the town square in a blanket of holiday lights as he pushed down on a barrel shaped “plunger” that switched on the bulbs for the very first time. While he did so, he thanked Maker’s Mark for recognizing Ripley as the most remarkable town in America as the socially distant (but united!) townspeople took it all in.

Maker's Mark held the Small Town, Bright Lights contest to honor the unique personalities these towns, like Ripley, have. “We've been crafting Maker's Mark Bourbon in our small town of Loretto, Kentucky, since my grandparents' vision led to the creation of Maker's Mark more than 60 years ago," said Rob Samuels, Maker's Mark chief distillery officer, in a press release. "It's safe to say we have a soft spot for all the little things that make small towns special, including an undeniably strong sense of community. In a year that's been filled with challenges for a lot of people, we know that's never been more important, and we want to finish the year by celebrating some good with a celebration of lights and seasonal cheer unlike any other for one remarkable community."

So what exactly makes Ripley remarkable? Here are a few reasons: 

Classic Southern dishes are ubiquitous here  

Big cities get all the hype when it comes to restaurants, but we definitely have a soft spot for small town joints like Kissell’s Kitchen, which sits right in the heart of downtown Ripley. Here, the slogan is “Peace, Love, & BBQ Grease” — all three of which can be found in its signature dishes like smothered chicken and barbecue plates. Just around the corner, Hen House has breakfast covered with stick-to-your-ribs options like biscuits & gravy and waffle plates.

You can spot waterfowl and bald eagles in their natural habitat

Ripley is home to the Chickasaw National Wildlife Refuge, a 25,000-acre hardwood forest in the Lower Mississippi River floodplain. This spot is actually one of the most important wintering spots for the states’ Mallard duck population, and thousands can be seen from the Lauderdale County Wildlife Observation Tower. Here, bald eagles are also known to make winter pit stops, as are more than 250,000 species of birds.

You might find treasure in its downtown 

Shopping local is especially important right now, and you may be surprised by what’s right outside your door. In Ripley, for example, Outside the Box is a huge warehouse of antique and repurposed goods and furniture. There’s also Hall of Heroes, a comic book shop with a massive variety of playing dice for RPG games. 

Their sense of community was stronger than ever this year

Even before 2020, rural hospitals were seriously struggling. In fact, 120 rural hospitals closed in the last decade, creating a health crisis for those communities. That was nearly the case for Lauderdale Community Hospital in Ripley, which filed for bankruptcy in March — right when the COVID-19 pandemic began to ramp up around the country. The community came together to keep the doors open after a scheduled bankruptcy auction was canceled. Then, the hospital started raising money itself to feed the community’s elderly and shut down nonurgent services to focus on helping COVID-19 patients in bigger cities like Memphis, Tennessee. After a year like this one, taking a moment to celebrate that community spirit is what the Maker’s Mark Small Town, Bright Lights campaign is all about.