Weston Babelay: Can axes save the family farm?

Betty BeanNortheast Knox, Our Town Leaders

Two and a half years ago, Weston and Penny Babelay were on vacation in South Carolina and decided to check out a new recreational activity. They had such a good time doing it that they decided to bring it home with them, and 865 Axe Throwing was born.

Weston is a 2001 graduate of Gibbs High School and a graduate of Eckerd College (a private Presbyterian liberal arts school in St. Petersburg, Florida). He stayed in Florida for several years after graduation, finally returning home in 2015. Penny is from Colorado and is a graduate of Longmont College. They met at the John Knox Center, a Presbyterian summer camp in Blount County, where she was program director and he was director of guest services. They have been married for three years and are very much a team.

Weston and Penny Babelay

“There wasn’t an axe throwing location in East Tennessee yet, and we wanted to have the first one in Knoxville. And we were! Now, we’re the only outdoor range in East Tennessee – maybe in all of Tennessee,” Weston said. “There are six others now. Maryville was first; two are in Sevier County one’s in Knoxville, and maybe one in Gatlinburg. We worked with Smoky Mountain Axe House in Maryville, and they helped us get started,” he said.

Home is Babelay Farms, which once occupied more than 900 acres in northeast Knox County. The main crop was flowers. The Babelays’ greenhouses and nurseries provided the inventory for the largest wholesale florist supply business in East Tennessee, and family-owned retail shops in Fountain City and Halls. The Babelays were been prominent in the region for more than a century, and not just in business. Back when community clubs were the heart of Knox County rural life, Weston’s grandmother, Virginia Babelay, was the engine that made Ritta run. She and his grandfather, John Paul Babelay had the first in-ground swimming pool in the community, and a generation of country kids (including my siblings and me) grew up fishing in the Babelays’ pond and learning to swim in the Babelays’ pool, thanks to the family’s boundless generosity.

But time is unkind. The older folks passed on and the bottom fell out of the wholesale florist business, which had been the family’s bread and butter for nearly a century. Big chunks of land were sold off and the old greenhouses stood unused and vulnerable to vandals. Things looked grim. Then Weston came home and started work on turning things around.

“I’m the fourth generation of Babelays trying to keep the farm going,” he said.

So far, so good. The axe throwing business is booming and they’ve added a mobile component, a trailer that has allowed them to provide entertainment at events like a Viking Wedding and a Bigfoot convention. They’ve joined the “Not Your Average Farm Tour,” a monthly event featuring 865 Axe Throwing, Rocking Chair Farm and its alpacas, and the winery at Seven Springs Farm in Union County. These tours happen on the last weekend of the month and will continue until November. They are thinking about other activities, including craft fairs, a corn maze and a wedding venue.

865 Axe throwing is located at 5821 Babelay Road, on the spot where the old retail greenhouse used to be. Weston and Penny Babelay can be reached by email at 865axe@gmail.com or by phone at 865-599-0053.

For information about axe throwing hours, location, cost and rules of engagement (closed-toe shoes; beer, wine and cider OK) check out the web page at https://865axe.com. Coaching, axes provided.

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.

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