words: Dwain Hebda
images: tuttgart Chamber of Commerce
Stuttgart, Arkansas, a farming community in the middle of the state’s breadbasket, boasts a picturesque Main Street lined with local shops, a gorgeous events center on the local community college campus and the impressive Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie.
Arrive for a visit February through October, and you’ll enjoy the friendliness of the people, the oyster po-boy at La Petite Cajun Bistro and the wide-open Delta sky.
But, when November arrives and with it, duck season, a multimillion-dollar industry in these parts takes center stage. Hunters by the score make their way to Arkansas’ famed duck hunting grounds, considered the finest to be had on the planet and none more so than in the rice fields and flooded timber stands around Stuttgart, the Duck and Rice Capital of the World.
A cultural and economic event of duck hunting’s stature doesn’t properly start with just a whistle, and the word “go,” however. For the past eighty-two years, the only suitable way to mark Arkansas’ favorite season is in the grand style of the Wings Over the Prairie Festival.
“It was started as a celebration of duck season and kind of the kickoff of tourism season for us here in Stuttgart,” said Bethany Hildebrand, executive director of the local chamber of commerce, which sponsors the event. “So that’s kind of the reason that it was started.”
By any measure, Wings Over the Prairie ranks among the very best community festivals Arkansas has to offer. The oldest festival in the state according to organizers, it’s only grown more popular with time. This year’s celebration, spread out over the week of November 18-25, is expected to attract between 30,000 and 40,000 people, roughly three to four times the normal population.
“We did a study probably ten years ago,” Bethany said. “Back then, the economic impact was about a million dollars a day during duck season as a whole. I would say the economic impact has only gone up from there. We’re set to do another study to give us a better idea, but certainly, the economic impact of the festival is huge for our local community.”
The centerpiece of the Wings Over the Prairie Festival—known before that as the Arkansas Rice Carnival—is the World’s Championship Duck Calling Contest. The competition annually draws the best duck callers from around America and several foreign countries, each of whom has won one of seventy-two sanctioned regional contests for the right to appear in Stuttgart. “We want the best of the best to compete on the world stage,” Bethany said. “It’s important to us to not just have anybody that wants to get on the stage and blow to be there. It’s important to the guys. They’ve worked hard and practiced hours and hours and hours to get here.”
Sanctioned qualifying events are scheduled in most states as well as Canada and New Zealand. While not all seventy-two cardholders make it to the final event in any given year, over time, all have sent representatives, including the Kiwis. “Funny story; duck hunting is actually pretty big in New Zealand,” Bethany said. “We were contacted probably seven or eight years ago by an organization that was running a calling contest down there. They wanted to know what it would take for them to get a sanction card. Well, for us that was an exciting opportunity.
“I think it was 2010 when they first came and that’s quite a trek for them to even come up here and get to see it. But it’s fun for us for it to truly be a world contest.”
The idea for the championship arose when Stuttgart city leader Thad McCollum noticed how heated the debate was among local hunters over who was the best caller. He, along with Dr. H.V. Glenn and Arthur Shoemaker, comprised the Duck Calling Committee for the first event, held November 24, 1936, sponsored by American Legion Post No. 48.
A total of seventeen callers made up the first field, competing for bragging rights and a hunting coat valued at $6.60. Mississippian Thomas E. Walsh made history that year as the winner of the inaugural event and as the first of only two contestants in history to win without the use of a manufactured duck call, depending on their vocal chords alone to make the sounds.
The modern event hosts various levels and categories of competition in addition to the world championship division, starting with callers as young as eleven. Regardless of age or division, Arkansans are formidable competition.
“Arkansas is at the top. We breed some of the best of the best I would say,” said Bethany. “The southern states are definitely highly represented, we’ve had quite a few from Tennessee, Missouri, Louisiana, some of those places. But just glancing at the list, Arkansas is at the top as far as sending the most people. For the last seven years, we’ve had somebody from Arkansas win [the world title].”
Arkansans also dominate at the festival’s other signature event, the World Championship Duck Gumbo Cook-off. Now in its thirty-seventh year, the cook-off is one of the best parties in the state that, even with a capacity for thousands of spectators, is one of the year’s hardest tickets to get.
Curt Ahrens has been directly involved with nineteen of those contests, competing in four of the first five and serving the past fifteen years as chairman of the event. “The first gumbo event was in 1981; it was held at the Grand Prairie War Memorial Auditorium and seemed like there were thirty-five or thirty-six teams,” he said. “I want to say ninety-nine percent of the teams were local. It was just in its infancy.”
Over time the party grew to include music and increasingly elaborate booths, which in turn attracted more spectators. The event outgrew the indoor digs, graduating to a circus tent pitched in the parking lot of a local rice mill in 2004. “We’ve got fifty-five teams now, and we’ve got about forty teams on a waiting list,” Curt said. “It’s become just an absolutely unbelievably popular event.”
One reason for such a wait list is there’s simply no room to add more competitors. Another reason is once a crew gets in, they rarely give up their spot. One team is on its second generation, having appeared in all thirty-seven events.
“We’ve got them from south Louisiana. We’ve got them from South Carolina. We’ve got them out of Memphis. One out of Alabama, Texarkana, Texas,” Curt said. “But still, the lion’s share, I want to say sixty percent of the teams, are still local. Some of the teams will their spots to their children, so they stay in the family. It’s such a coveted event to have a spot in the World Championship Duck Gumbo Cook-off, some of the spots have been grandfathered in.”
Prizes are awarded to the best gumbo, which by rule must be assembled on site and utilize duck as fifty percent of its meat used, as well as for the best booth. Curt’s brew never placed in the money, but he said Arkansans are always among the favorites to claim the title.
“About half the people make really good gumbo and the other half of the people make really bad gumbo. They’re just there to be there, you know?” Curt said. “If you’ve never been, everybody needs to go at least once. Some people may not like it, some people gonna love it, but you’ve got to experience it.”
Wings Over the Prairie Festival
November 18-25, 2017