The fes­ti­val sea­son

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - Rex Nel­son Se­nior Edi­tor Rex Nel­son’s col­umn ap­pears reg­u­larly in the Ar­kan­sas Demo­crat-Gazette. He’s also the au­thor of the South­ern Fried blog at rexnel­son­south­ern­

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.

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