words: Dwain Hebda
images: courtesy Conway Area Chamber of Commerce
“He ketched a frog one day, and took him home, and said he cal’lated to educate him; and so he never done nothing for three months but set in his back yard and learn that frog to jump.”– Mark Twain, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”
With all due respect to a certain mouse, Conway, Arkansas may just be the happiest place on earth.
The self-proclaimed City of Colleges (there are three here) is one of the fastest-growing cities in Arkansas and has been for years. Recent commercial growth, including major retail developments, a second hospital and the lynchpin arrival of Hewlett-Packard a few years ago, has spawned sprawling housing and a bustling local economy.
Some of that development money has landed in the city’s historic downtown where restaurants and local retailers crowd into the city’s core. It’s the kind of place you go when you want a living postcard of Americana. And this May, for the thirty-sixth time, downtown is also ground zero for all things amphibian with the annual Toad Suck Daze festival.
“When they first started Toad Suck Daze, the reason they did it was to get people out of that winter doldrums,” says Mary Margaret Satterfield, director of the festival and special events for the Conway Chamber of Commerce. “It was spring, they wanted to get people out into the community and enjoy the weather.
“It’s a fun time to get out of your house, have some fair food, go shopping, listen to music. It’s just a great weekend.”
As community festivals go, there’s nothing quite like Toad Suck Daze, the largest free festival in Arkansas. There are many events that are older, such as Stuttgart’s Wings Over the Prairie Festival and World Championship Duck Calling Contest, and the Johnson County Peach Festival in Clarksville, which will observe the eighty-second and seventy-sixth showings this year, respectively.
And there are certainly those built around unusual themes from the whimsical (World Champion Cardboard Boat Races in Heber Springs), to the gastronomical (Watermelon Festival in Hope) and, shall we say, colorful (PurpleHull Pea Festival and World Championship Rotary Tiller Race in Emerson).
But nowhere do all the elements of classic American small-town pride come together better than Toad Suck Daze. Mary Margaret, who has been the point person of the event for fifteen years and attended several more during her growing up here, said the spirit of the event is the same as it ever was, a reflection of community pride.
“We are very lucky to be in the community that we are,” she says. “We are lucky that our downtown businesses support us and allow us to be downtown. We also work with our city very well.
“We also have a committee of sixty volunteers that work year around on the festival; ten different subcommittees that work on everything from the Kids’ Zone to the merchandise to entertainment and logistics. We also have another probably 250 to 300 that come on the weekend of the festival to help out.”
For as impressive as the festival’s statistics have become – 100,000 people are expected to attend the three-day event, nearly double Conway’s population – the most intriguing facts about the festival lie in the name itself.
Like many slices of local lore, the origin of the name Toad Suck is shrouded by time and distorted over more than a century of retelling. Several versions exist, but all seem to coalesce around traffic on the nearby Arkansas River.
In days gone by, steamboats, barges and ferry crossings were common at various points, and a port existed where Toad Suck Lock and Dam is now. At times, the river was not deep enough for steamboat and other traffic so captains would tie up at the port and wait for the waters to rise. In the meantime, crews from these vessels would make their way to a tavern that perched nearby for just such a clientele. Locals looked upon the ensuing drunkenness with disgust, saying of the human morass, “they suck on the bottle until they swell up like toads.”
Several alternative stories and theories have been advanced, such as the name wasn’t really Toad Suck but the locals’ mispronunciation of French names for the area or that when the water was low sailors referred to it as a suck. Some claim the nickname was applied to just one person, a bulbous ferry boat operator with a penchant for drink. Either way, the phrase stuck, perhaps in part thanks to the tavern in the prevailing story, which may or may not have been renamed Toad Suck Saloon as a standing tell-off to the city’s do-gooders. The truth is lost to history.
What is not in dispute is the uniqueness of the name or of the locals’ pride and marketing savvy using the moniker as the basis for the festival. Started in 1981 by community volunteers, Toad Suck Daze attractions revolve around the weekend’s signature event.
“You’ve got to point out the toad races,” Mary Margaret says. “For anybody who has been here or wants to come, that is what makes Toad Suck unique.”
Preparation for the races begins well in advance of the event, when the organizing committee distributes “toad toters” to schoolkids throughout Faulkner County to go into the wild and catch and transport their amphibious contenders. To service out-of-towners, a toad roundup is held by volunteers the Tuesday before the festival and the resulting stable of racers is kept on hand for visitors to select and enter in competition, which unfolds under the watchful eye of a designated Toadmaster.
“Our Toadmaster calls the races and does the Toady Woady [a dance similar to the Hokie Pokey] for everybody,” Mary Margaret says. “That’s the most unique aspect of the festival.”
Other attractions include concerts, crafts, 5K and 10K road races and an early-season taste of fair food through the festival’s many vendors. Grinning toad mascots are everywhere, no doubt smiling over the money the event generates for educational and community initiatives.
“Since 2010 we have given $70,000 to downtown Conway to help with beautification and economic development there,” Mary Margaret says. “Since the beginning of the festival, we’ve given $1.6 million in education initiatives and since 2012, Toad Suck Daze has awarded more than $100,000 to local early childhood education initiatives.”
About the only damper surrounding Toad Suck Daze is one of sheer physics, meaning, there’s only so many toad-racing, corndog-eating, toe-tapping, frog-hat-wearing festival goers you can jam into the city’s charming brick-cobbled core. Mary Margaret says the issue of moving the event is hotly debated between those wanting to give the festival room to grow and those who fear it will lose its soul at a new address.
“Being downtown is integral to Toad Suck Daze. The atmosphere downtown is something that we want to try to keep as long as possible,” she says. “The people who came before me did an amazing job growing the festival and really making it what it is today. We want to make sure to stay with that spirit.”
Toad Suck Daze | May 5-7, 2017
Downtown Conway | Free Admission