It’s a Twain-worthy tale right here on our Mountain. On Signal however, the “celebrated” are toads, definitely not frogs. “If you bring a frog you get disqualified!” says Tracy Sprout. That’s how serious this Signal Mom / co-founder of the annual Sprout Family Toad Race feels about the competition she and her son Will created.
In its 6th year, this little toad race has become a big deal in our neighborhood and is yet another reason I love living on Signal Mountain. Here, families still gather on a hot summer afternoon to race toads, uncover a dish, and share it on a blanket around a bon fire with neighbors.
Let me catch you up because it’s a spectacle rivaling that in Twain’s Calaveras County…plus, you may have a long-legged champion you want to enter. Not to worry if you don’t have a toad, you can rent one from 12-year old Will Sprout for $2 (an increase from the 25 cents he charged as a 6-year-old).
The story begins in 2012 when kindergartner Will caught 45 toads in the woods off Corral Road. “As is every Mother’s dream,” Tracy says, “he brought them to me in a 5-gallon bucket and said ‘Mom, let’s have a toad race!’ What could I do, but say with equal enthusiasm ‘Yeh, let’s do it!’”
Using her own childhood memories of turtle races at her grand parents’ as a guide, she got to work.
“We draw a chalk target of concentric circles in the middle of our driveway,” Tracy says. “Kids start in the inner-most circle with their toads under a red Solo cup. With my official Toad Mistress megaphone, I reiterate the rules, stress good sportsmanship, my husband Joe fires the starter gun…and they’re off!” First toad to the outermost circle wins.
Word has spread about the race causing the number of families participating to grow from a handful six years ago to thirty or forty in recent years. “We have to have multiple heats now,” Tracy said.
Some heats go lightning fast. Others, require vigorous coaxing from their kid sponsors, and sometimes, an especially lethargic group requires a motivating (but careful) stomp or two from Tracy. Will says “You never know who’s gonna win. We’ve had fat ones, skinny ones, old and young ones take the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place trophies.”
Speaking of the trophies, the Sprouts hand make the metallic golden statues comprised of a spray-painted log with a ceramic frog on top. Orthodontist plaster is used to create the glamorous toad images. Last year, a toad hat competition was added, complete with a toad-sized photo booth for modeling.
As soon as you win or lose a Signal Toad Race, you find yourself strategizing for next year’s competition. Tracy tells me, “I’ve actually received calls from people saying, ‘we found our toad and have him in training!’ Folks have even texted me pictures of their toad practicing on an obstacle course.” Calaveras had nothing compared to Signal.
Several things amaze me about this race. First, that the Sprouts would put so much energy and excellence into it. Amazing, but not surprising if you know them. I became a fan of this outdoorsy, hospitable clan when I helped them buy their house on Signal nine years ago. Riding by their yard every day takes you back to your own childhood: a homemade fort, an obstacle course made out of yard tools, or Joe teaching his kids the finer points of shooting a sling with laser precision. This family lives, works (Sprout Roofing & Construction), schools, and churches on our hilltop and is a prime example of the fabric that makes our community so special.
Secondly, there is a magical and immediate bond these toads create between neighbors who may arrive at the event as strangers. “There’s a lot of camaraderie between the families,” Joe and Tracy said.
My wife Beth and I go every year even though we don’t have kids young enough to race. We go for the Mayberry-ness of it. This August, I can hardly wait to take my granddaughter–the youngest of our 4 generations currently living on Signal. At 2 years old, she’s just old enough to have a toad in the race and the time of her life! That’s thanks to the Sprouts…and this Mountain that seems to bring out the best in all of us.