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Just inside the gates of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration fairgrounds in Shelbyville, the aroma of donuts wafts above the smell of sawdust and horses.

Since 1960, the Shelbyville Optimist Club has been serving up the world famous donuts that have captured the taste buds of millions over the past six decades.

You can only buy the fried and glazed donuts during the 10-day show, which begins two weeks before Labor Day and spotlights Tennessee’s walking horses. And for many, the donuts are as memorable as the show.

“Growing up going to the celebration has always been something we looked forward to every year,” said Mandy Pinion, of Eagleville, who has been attending the show since she can remember. “Hanging out with friends, trying to pick winners, and eating fried donuts are essential memories that will last a lifetime.”

For civic and nonprofit organizations in Shelbyville, the TWHNC is a big moneymaker. Each Club sells a variety of concessions, such as hamburgers, football boosters, cotton candy sold by the group and donuts from the Optimist Club.

Shelbyville Optimist Member Brent Pewitt holds a dozen of the donuts sold at the club booth during the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, which takes place the 10 days leading up to Labor Day weekend each year.  Since 1960, the club has served millions of fans around the world.

Donuts, however, were latecomers in the concessions lineup.

After the Shelbyville Optimist Club was formed in 1958, members wanted to get in on the revenue action. TWHNC’s board of directors told the group that they needed to come up with a unique product to sell. Clubs were already selling foods like hot dogs, candy apples and hamburgers.

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In 1959 club member George Baker, who sold breakfast and lunch to factory workers from his mobile catering service, suggested they could sell the same donuts he made.

“He told them they could sell donuts and coffee and (club members) laughed at him,” said Brent Pewitt, who runs the donut stand’s operations.

At the following year’s celebration, club members were a little more eager to hear Baker’s idea. They approached the board, which agreed to the club’s plan.

The members expected to have a booth under the bleachers inside the celebration like all the other bands. Instead, the council offered part of a barn outside the arena gates. The club, which had 50 members at the time, needed to do its own renovations to make the rudimentary building usable.

So they poured a concrete floor, built a wall and put a window in the front.

“The second night the line was up the road,” Pewitt said.

Donuts were 10 cents a piece or $1 a dozen.

World-famous Shelbyville Optimist Club donuts are baked during the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, which takes place 10 days before Labor Day.  They are fried, glazed and served hot.

The popularity of donuts grew, so club members approached the board and asked for additional space.

“They remodeled this barn and then they built a kitchen out back, probably in the late 1960s,” Pewitt said.

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A decade after its debut, the club again approached the board with a request – and the money – to construct a new building. Members of the Optimist Club demolished the original barn converted into a gazebo and built the one that stands today.

Same recipe for over 60 years

The original operation was not so simple. But over time, the process has improved. What hasn’t changed is the recipe: it’s the same mixture and frosting used 62 years ago.

But now the process is much more efficient and runs like a well-oiled operation, both literally and figuratively. An industrial-size mixer from the old Whitman’s Bakery is used to make the dough, which is then dropped into a boiling tub of cooking oil. Workers – paid and volunteer – use wooden dowels to flip donuts as they fry.

Once the donuts are golden brown, they are lifted from the oil onto a metal tray to drain momentarily before each is dipped in a sweet glaze. From there, donuts are sorted and slid onto a serving platter while volunteers on the other side wrap and serve.

The whole process, from start to service, takes about 15 minutes.

But the result is one that tantalizes taste buds around the world. People ship them all over the world, Pewitt said.

“You can also freeze them,” Pewitt said. “I can attest to that because as a child I ate them for breakfast six months out of the year. My dad (Earl Pewitt) would bring them home and I would freeze them.”

About three of the donuts can keep your hunger at bay until lunchtime, when you’re ready for the next trio of treats, Pewitt joked.

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One-of-a-kind “magical” flavor

Frozen or fresh, the taste is like magic, Pinion said.

“I don’t know if they put magic into the donut batter or the fat they’re fried in, but they are truly one of a kind and extremely addictive,” Pinion said. “The fact that you can only buy them 10 days a year also makes them irresistible.”

For many, it’s as much about memories as taste.

Lisa Mitchell, whose father Jim Puckett was a foot horse trainer, was able to introduce her 5-year-old grandson to the celebration – and donuts – this year. And she was able to enjoy it herself.

“They’re warm with just the right amount of sweetness,” Mitchell said. “I don’t like them being a day old. Only fresh and warm during the show with ice milk.”

You don’t have to attend the celebration to get your own dozen Optimist donuts. During the day, simply enter through the main gates entering from Jessup Place. Turn right just past the arena and look for the booth, located across from the Blue Ribbon Circle event venue. Anyone on the show grounds can point you in the right direction.

Donuts are $8 per dozen and can also be purchased individually and in half dozens. Proceeds go to community projects funded by the Shelbyville Optimist Club. Check out the group’s donut stand page on Facebook.

Contact reporter Nancy DeGennaro at [email protected] Keep up with restaurant news by joining Good Eats in the ‘Boro (and beyond) on Facebook and follow Murfreesboro Eats on TikTok.