The festival season
For years, I was a regular at the Buffalo River Elk Festival in Jasper. How can you say “no” when you’re asked to judge a pie contest? I can attest that those ladies in the Ozarks can bake. In addition to tasting pies, I would buy homemade jams and jellies to take home to Little Rock, have lunch at Jasper’s iconic Ozark Cafe, visit the arts and crafts displays during the afternoon and then make the drive out past Mount Sherman for dinner at Nick Bottini’s incomparable Low Gap Cafe.
It was a comfortable routine, something I looked forward to each June. Last year, however, I decided it was time for a change. This is the festival season in Arkansas, and it’s important not to get in a rut. I’d never experienced the Purple Hull Pea Festival & World Championship Rotary Tiller Races at Emerson, which is just six miles north of the Louisiana border in Columbia County. A writer for the Wall Street Journal was scheduled to be in Emerson to cover the tiller races. It would have been an embarrassment to let the Journal scoop my column in what bills itself as Arkansas’ Newspaper.
The festival was a highlight of the summer. And indeed the Journal reporter was there, taking notes for a story that later would run on the front page. The decision was made to return to Emerson, accompanied by Paul Austin of the Arkansas Humanities Council and my 20-year-old son Evan. Leave it to the people of LA (that’s Lower Arkansas for the uninitiated) to create a festival centered on purple hull peas. According to the festival website: “Purple hull peas—a great reason for a festival if there ever was one—are close cousins to the more familiar but less tasty black-eyed peas. They are members of the cow pea (or Southern pea) family, just as are black-eyed peas and crowder peas. … Botanists believe the cow pea originated in Africa, specifically in an area that’s now the country of Niger.”
African slaves brought the peas with them to this country as food and as a forage crop for livestock. Emerson has a population of only 368 people, but Glen Eades decided in 1990 that it was big enough for a festival. He approached Emerson Mayor Joe Mullins, who liked the idea. An organizational meeting was held, and Eades insisted that there should be some type of competition associated with raising peas. Thus the tiller races were born.
Bill Dailey, the festival’s self-proclaimed “Pea R Guy,” writes: “At the first festival in 1990, 16-yearold Jason Hines of Emerson arrived with a tiller that had been modified for speed, and he easily won the race. After watching the 1992 race in which two modified tillers bounced along hard ground at a high rate of speed while the racers ran behind and struggled to maintain control, some festival committee members felt something needed to be done to reduce the speed of the race. It was decided that the 1993 race would be held in plowed ground. Fans of tiller racing were split over the new rule. Some thought the festival’s rule change had merit, while others supported the position of Hines, the then three-time champ, who argued against the change. This eventually became known as the Great Tiller Racing Controversy of ’93. The race has taken place on plowed ground ever since.”
In 1994, festival organizers formed the World Tiller Racing Federation. The track, which is just past Emerson High School, was standardized at 200 feet. A women’s division was added in 2002. This year’s event saw competitors come from as far away as Wisconsin. For $8 each, we had a lunch of purple hull peas, cornbread, sliced onions and tomatoes, homemade peach cobbler and iced tea. In addition to hosting the lunch, the Emerson School District cafeteria hosts a pea-shelling contest. That’s followed each year by what’s known as the Million Tiller Parade (Dailey does things with a wink and his tongue planted firmly in his cheek).
Last Saturday also marked the annual Brickfest in Malvern, which calls itself “the brick capital of the world.” We paid homage to that event by stopping for breakfast at Keeney’s Grocery in Malvern. Charles and Maureen Keeney have been operating their grocery store for 61 years at the same location. In 2000, they decided to also start serving breakfast and lunch. Charles Keeney, 81, makes some of the best sausage that can be found, and the biscuits at Keeney’s are my favorite in the state.
After breakfast, we stayed on U.S. 67 and went into Arkadelphia so we could buy tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers and peaches at the Clark County Farmers Market. It’s that alltoo-short period when both the Arkansas tomatoes and peaches are ripe.
Though this state is becoming increasingly urbanized, Arkansas clings to its rural roots with festivals that celebrate various fruits, vegetables, animals, fish and fowl. Traditional winter events range from the Gillett Coon Supper to the Slovak Oyster Supper. Summer is when the festival schedule is most crowded. The annual Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival at Warren was held on the second weekend of June. Tontitown will hold its grape festival the first week in August.
I’ve penciled in Saturday visits to the Johnson County Peach Festival at Clarksville on July 22, the Cave City Watermelon Festival on July 29 and the Hope Watermelon Festival on Aug. 12. Hope’s watermelons are bigger, but the folks in Cave City say their watermelons are sweeter. It’s time to find out as another Arkansas summer rolls on.