They're cooking gumbo in Stuttgart this morning. What's officially known as the World Championship Duck Gumbo Cook-Off of the Wings Over the Prairie Festival is informally called just "duck gumbo" by those who make an annual pilgrimage to the Grand Prairie for the event. The raucous party is as close as one can come in Arkansas to Bourbon Street in New Orleans on Fat Tuesday.
Dozens of teams, often wearing matching shirts, show up early to begin cooking for the hundreds of people who line up and wait for the doors to open at 11 a.m. Admission is $20.
It has become one of the most high-profile events of a festival that has roots dating back to Nov. 24, 1936, when the first National Duck Calling Contest was held on Main Street in Stuttgart in connection with the Arkansas Rice Carnival. The contest was sponsored by American Legion Post No 48.
"The contest was originated by Thad McCollum of Stuttgart after a dispute broke out among local duck hunters as to who was the best duck caller," Stephen Bell writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "A contest was created to settle the dispute. Dr. H.V. Glenn convinced the American Legion to sponsor the contest. The American Legion then appointed a duck calling committee of three men, with Glenn as chairman and McCollum and Arthur Shoemaker responsible for staging the event. Verne Tindall of Stuttgart later replaced Shoemaker as a committee member, and the contest was held. Thanksgiving was chosen because it occurs during Arkansas' duck season.
"Seventeen people participated in the first contest in 1936. The winner was Thomas E. Walsh of Greenville, Miss., who won the contest by producing the sounds in this throat rather than using a duck call. His prize was a hunting coat valued at $6.60, purchased by the American Legion from the John Oberly Clothing Store. The other other contestant to win first prize without use of a duck call was Herman Callouet of Greenville, Miss., who won the event in 1942. The only woman to win the contest was Pat Peacock of Stuttgart, who won in 1955 and 1956."
This year's festival began Nov. 23 with the annual Queen Mallard and Junior Queen Mallard pageants at the Grand Prairie Center. Shops in downtown Stuttgart held an open house last Sunday, a youth duck calling contest took place Tuesday, and a carnival on Main Street opened Wednesday. Friday saw everything from an arts and crafts fair to a calling contest for high school seniors. Today's activities began with 5K and 10K runs at 8 a.m. The World Championship Duck Calling Contest begins at 2 p.m.
I have vivid memories of my first time in Stuttgart on the weekend after Thanksgiving. It was 1976. The high school football team for which I was the starting center, the Arkadelphia Badgers, played for a state championship at what's now Carpenter-Haygood Stadium in Arkadelphia the day after Thanksgiving. On the muddiest field you can imagine, we lost to Mena following a series of controversial plays at the end of the game.
I had no desire to go to Stuttgart after losing that game. My father gave me no choice. We were to be the guests of Clyde Berry, a Stuttgart native and former head football coach at Henderson State University, and his son Trey, now the president of Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia.
I showered after the heartbreaking defeat, and we drove late that night to Stuttgart. The most amazing thing about the weekend was that my father killed three ducks with one shot on a bitterly cold Sunday morning. What's even more amazing is that there were three types of ducks on the ground--a mallard, a green-winged teal and a pintail.
"Red, do you have a funnel on the end of that gun?" Clyde Berry called out to my father.
As the winds picked up and the wind chill dipped into the single digits, we headed back to Stuttgart for breakfast. I think of that trip each year when Thanksgiving week rolls around. I remember sleeping on mattresses filled with duck down at Trey's grandmother's house and walking down Main Street to visit the carnival. I remember driving around the Grand Prairie that Saturday afternoon while listening to Dave Woodman and Jim Lindsey call a Razorback football game on the radio.
In an article for Delta Waterfowl magazine several years ago, Dr. Wayne Capooth of Memphis wrote about the first time he attended the Wings Over the Prairie Festival. The year was 1955, and Capooth was age 10.
"Here, after numerous carnival rides, Dad introduced me to Miss Sophie, the wife of Chick Major," he wrote. "From her, I bought one of her calls, a Dixie Mallard, which I still own and cherish. Chick and Sophie were local legends, whose Dixie Mallard duck call established a standard of call-making excellence. It just so happened that their daughter, Pat, was a contestant in the World Championship Duck Calling Contest. ... Standing as close to the calling platform as I could, I saw Pat win the Arkansas title and, more importantly, the first of two straight world championships.
"In 1950, at age 12, Pat won the junior world title. In 1951, she took the first of five straight women's world titles. Moreover, in 1960, she captured the coveted Champion of Champions crown. If that is not enough, in 1956 she won the first ever Queen Mallard beauty contest. ... Snuggling closer to the platform, I witnessed the first-ever Champion of Champions contest, won by Art Beauchamp of Flint, Mich. Every five years since, the Champion of Champions duck calling contest is held."
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 11/30/2019