WHAT DOESN’T resemble a sleigh or make a rooftop landing but delivers Christmas toys? It’s the Highway 41 Toy Convoy and Show topping the hill on Highway 64, entering Wartrace on the first Sunday in November, bringing Christmas joy to children in Bedford and surrounding counties.
Motorcycles, emergency vehicles, vintage and late-model cars and trucks, and practically anything with a motor and wheels gathered earlier at Raiders Academy off I-24’s Exit 111 in Manchester. They made their way with a police escort to Wartrace, determined to support Katy Ishee’s annual toy drive and car show.
The excitement begins long before they leave the academy.
Ishee said, “Everybody’s just out there walking around, and you usually pretty much know who the winners [of the show] are going to be because you’ll hear a buzz start in the crowd, and you’ll hear, ‘Oh, wow! Look!’ And every head in the parking lot swings around to look at this guy turning in. And when you see somebody like that, you know that’s a winner. It’s a response of the convoy and crowd to what’s coming in.”
Now in its 27th year, the Wartrace community and fire department hosts the event held for many years in Tullahoma, ushering in a new holiday tradition.
The story of the convoy began over two decades ago when a motorcycle club organized it. In its early years, the convoy faced challenges, but Ishee and others remained determined to deliver the true magic of the convoy and the joy it brings to children.
Not limiting the convoy to motorcycles was important to Ishee.
“When we started organizing this convoy, I told them I wanted it open to anybody that wants to help the children because Christmas is for everybody. It’s not just for bikers or hot rodders. So we all agree that we’d invite everything that rolls: cars, bikes, jeeps, trucks, vans, hot rods, trucks, motorcycles. Everyone is asked to fly the American flag to salute our country and our many freedoms. It’s just the most awesome thing, and we’ve just tried to keep it rolling for the kids,” said Ishee.
Door prizes are collected from local businesses in Wartrace, Manchester, Shelbyville, Tullahoma, Lynchburg, and Murfreesboro months before the convoy. To spread the word, Ishee gets the word out through various website ads during the summer and contacts local newspapers and TV stations weeks in advance. Then the helpers start to fall into place.
“A couple of weeks before the convoy, I’ll start getting phone calls from people asking, ‘Do you want me to do this? Do you want me to do that?’ And that’s how we get it done; it’s just friends of Highway 41 that have stepped up to help because there’s no club. It’s just me and my friends — whoever shows up to help. And it’s been really great because we’ve met so many good people that way,” Ishee said.
Good people like Fran Eley and her husband, Billy, purchase so many new toys, shoes, clothes, and electronics for the children and teenagers that they need an enclosed trailer to haul them in the convoy. Good people like Mike McClain and his wife act as Santa and Mrs. Claus and welcome all the children to the event. And good people like long-time supporter Samuel Jarrett, Wartrace Fire Chief Mike De Jesus, firemen Duane Drake and Ike Eichelberger, and Rodney Hall of Rodney’s Body Shop, who loads and stores all the toys and then separates them for each group that will distribute them.
And the good people of Wartrace turn out in large numbers to support the convoy as it fills up their small town with more good people, gifts, great rides, and good music by the Virgil T & Uncle Tom Band.
And it’s not just local people.
“We have many out-of-state folks come in for the convoy,” Ishee said. “One man drives down from Lake Erie, 589 miles one way. We are expecting folks to come in from across the state and from Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Alabama, and Ohio.”
Convoy participants may choose to compete in a cruise-in type show.
Ishee said, “When they come through the gate, they pay a $10 entry fee per vehicle, not per person. If you’re entering the show, it’s $20. Trophies are handed out to show winners. Everybody gets tickets, which they use for door prizes that we draw for later in the day.”
The collected items are distributed by the Manchester Police Department, Wartrace Fire Department, Coffee County Rescue, and Steve Gray’s Gene Taylor Christmas Foundation, with approximately one-third of them going to children in Bedford County, according to Ishee.
The story of the Highway 41 Toy Convoy and Show is a testament to the power of unity, generosity, and the spirit of giving. It not only brings joy to the children who receive the toys but also to the participants and volunteers who contribute to its success.