Specialty tag brings hundreds of thousands in funding for historic park.

ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. (WJHL) – You’ve likely seen it on the roads throughout the state, but did you know that Tennessee’s “Don’t Tread On Me” tag came from Sycamore Shoals?

FW0001 belongs to the tag’s creator. (Photo/WJHL)

The tag has gone by many names since its release in 2017, but the design is built around the Gadsden Flag, a revolutionary-war symbol flown throughout the colonies. A rattlesnake takes center stage on a field of yellow with the words “DONT TREAD ON ME” inscribed below.

For a man in Carter County, a tag that simple was the result of years of work.

“Virginia had a Gadsden license plate that was doing extremely well, and we just got to thinking that it would probably do well in Tennessee as well,” John Kubenka, treasurer of Friends of Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, said. “So we started the process.”

Kubenka and the members of Friends of Sycamore Shoals (FSS) needed overcome several hurdles before the Gadsden tag could enter circulation:

  • Acquire the state congress’s approval for the design.
  • Submit the design to relevant state agencies for testing and completion.
  • Secure 1,000 preorders from those who already wanted the tag.

Kubenka, the proud owner of plate number FW0001, explained that the plate’s leading letters of “FW” stands for Fort Watauga, the military installation that formerly occupied the area. Today, a replica of the fort stands in Sycamore Shoals State Historic Site. When it was offered across the state, Kubenka said the tag was picked up almost immediately.

“The first year, we had pretty good response,” Kubenka said. “Didn’t really know what to expect, but we were pleased with it. But we’ve had increased sales every year since then, so it’s still ramping up.”

John Kubenka led the tag’s creation effort. (Photo/WJHL)

The tag wasn’t a local quirk either; registrations were coming in from the entire state. Kubenka thinks that more than 50,000 separate numbers have been issued by the Tennessee DMV, but he’s still watching the roads to see the most recent pressings.

Kubenka said a rough increase of 40% in sales every year is a massive benefit for the organization and site. In the fiscal year 2022, a Tennessee Department of Revenue report shows the #1-selling specialty tag netted nearly $479,000 for the nonprofit.

“It’s allowed us to do tremendous things for the park,” Kubenka said. “And I could go down a list of all the things we’ve done.”

Capital projects for the park are a large part of the organization’s work, including improvements to the site’s amphitheater and the preservation/furnishing of the historic Sabine Hill site.

The tag’s FW stands for Fort Watauga. (Photo/WJHL)

“We’ve done a lot of repairs to the Carter Mansion, various things around the park landscaping, we’re buying equipment for the maintenance department,” Kubenka said. “Just a lot of neat things that we’re able to do now that we couldn’t even dream of in the past.”

One of those neat things, Kubenka added, was the purchase of an original portrait of Landon Carter, Carter County’s namesake. The work will be restored and hung in Sycamore Shoals’ museum, all at the nonprofit’s expense.

“We’re a 501C3, so we’re our own separate entity,” Kubenka said. “But with our own relationship with the park, any money we bring in has to be put into the park. So it’s not like we’re spreading money around town, around the region. What we bring in stays in the park.”

Without the revenues afforded by the tag, Kubenka said none of FSS’s work would be possible. “Liberty!”, the organization’s flagship stage play, was on its last legs before the influx of money meant cast members could be paid. Prior to the Gadsden tag, Kubenka said the script was being rewritten every year because there weren’t enough volunteers to fill every role.

The site’s upkeep and improvement is bolstered by the tag’s revenue. (Photo/WJHL)

Flown by those who wanted to assert their 18th-century independence, the design is named after Sons of Liberty founder Christopher Gadsden. In recent years, the flag has taken on several meanings.

“When we started it in 2015, a lot of this stuff wasn’t even an issue,” Kubenka said. “But since then, some political groups have used it and therefore it’s slandered and that kind of stuff.”

Kubenka was adamant that the design was non-political from the beginning.

“For us, it’s all about history,” Kubenka said. “It’s all tied to the American Revolution. The Marines used the Gadsden Flag; they have since 1775. To us, it’s all about the history, and all the noise is just background noise for us.”

As a nonprofit, Friends of Sycamore Shoals is barred from getting involved in partisan work in the first place. As a historic group, Kubenka said their role in politics doesn’t stray far from the 1700s.

“It was more a symbol of independence, of self-governance, just not wanting to be controlled from afar,” Kubenka said. “Or with unreasonable requirements, I guess is the best way to put it.”

While many drivers may be unaware of the tag’s origin, Kubenka confirmed the organization does receive criticism for the flag’s use.

FILE – People listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a rally Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

“There are people who contact us periodically who are upset with us using the Gadsden Flag,” Kubenka said. “They had it, but they’re not going to get it anymore because they just now learned the history of it. Well, they didn’t learn the history, they learned the politics of today about it. And they’re upset with that.”

According to National Public Radio coverage in 2010, Congressional members of the Tea Party waved the flag for supporters and adopted its use.

Regardless of a driver’s intent, the tag’s revenues have brought new lifeblood into the historic site. Kubenka said several projects are coming down the pipe, all thanks to a tag you can spot all across the country.