Emerson, Arkansas, located in Columbia County just above the Louisiana state line is small town America personified. Home to 358 mostly happy souls. There are no historical sites, no great museums, no ex-president was born here to brag about and to tell the truth, the good folks I talked to didn’t know why Emerson originally came into being except maybe as a hub for the many farms and the timber industry in the area. Even with this lack of historical significance, the people who call it home are right proud of it. Emerson is perhaps most well-known in the state of Arkansas for its basketball and track teams. The Pirates have run and jumped and dribbled to so many state championships and won so many trophies, they’ve had to add several trophy cases and numerous shelves to hold them all.
So that’s about all Emerson is known for and it most probably would have stayed that way except for one resident, Glen Eades. Glen was bored. Emerson was mostly boring – so boring there was no police department. Glen had an idea – a festival honoring the one delicacy grown in every garden worth calling a garden, the purple hull pea. And so, after discussing it and eventually convincing the area’s most influential residents, the annual Emerson Purple hull Pea Festival was begun. Glen, being a fella with no lack of ideas, soon had another stroke of brilliance – what instrument does every gardener have? A rotor tiller. And thus the World Championship Rotary Tiller Race was added to the Pea Festival. If you haven’t had a mess of purple hull peas with ‘maters and cornbread, then you haven’t tasted down-home southern cooking at its finest and if you haven’t seen somebody till 200 feet of dirt in about 6 seconds, then you haven’t seen tilling at its fastest!
Due to work commitments and the fact momma-woman and youngest daughter wanted to attend the festival (actually youngest daughter didn’t really want to go, but she only gets 1/2 a vote and the parents wanted to go so…), we couldn’t make it for the Friday Senior Day festivities and that was a shame. I didn’t get to participate in the “Senior Walk For World Peas,” I didn’t get a free purple hull pea lunch (free for those of us who have survived 55 or more years), we didn’t get to hear the Dudneywood Silver Hair Choir, and we didn’t get to see the Purple hull Pea Festival ‘Pea-tacular’ Fireworks show.
It’s a haul from Greenbrier to Emerson so I got up at what-the-hell-am-I-doing-its-still-dark thirty, took a shower and shaved so I’d look my prettiest, and threw my camera gear in Big Ford Truck. Wanting to be a good guy and let my girls sleep as long as possible, I waited until the last-minute to wake up momma-woman and the child, a mistake I keep making and never seem to learn from. I am a morning person. They are not morning people. Even with me stumbling around in the dark, singing in the shower, and scrounging around in a drawer for clean underwear, momma-woman can sleep on. I usually carry a chair and whip into the bedrooms when I have to get them up early on the weekend. This morning was little different. After a good bit of “Let’s go, let’s go!” and “What are you doing now?!” we hit the road south.
Several hours later, we found ourselves at the Emerson High School parking lot. I knew we must be close to the action because there were a lot of cars parked everywhere, but all was quiet; where were the people? Where was the festival? I finally saw an older gentleman and two ladies coming out of the white building I was parked by so I went up to them and asked, “Where’s everything?” The very old gentleman answered, “Oh, it’s going on everywhere.” The two ladies smiled, turned and walked away. Those rascals. The gentleman started talking about Belgium and D-Day and the battles he had fought in during WWII. I was wearing my U.S.S. Kitty Hawk Navy cap so I guess he noticed it. I asked his name several times, but he never told me. He told a couple of stories though and after a few minutes, he walked back toward the door in the white building and motioned us inside. It was easy to tell this was the school cafeteria because it looked just like every other school cafeteria in America. And it was full of people sitting at the rows of tables visiting with each other and saying hi to folks who walked by.
We made our way to a table in the corner and found Jane, who was selling t-shirts, raffle tickets for the pea quilt to be given away ($2 per ticket), guesses of how many peas were in a glass bear jar ($1 per guess – the answer was evidently not 205), and jars of Emerson’s Best Gourmet Purple hull jelly. Jane was super nice and filled us in on what was happening and where to go. She told us all the money raised was going to outfit the town park that had been purchased with funds from previous year’s festivals. I liked that.
We moseyed out of the cafeteria and along a covered walkway beside what we later discovered was the gym and as we turned to the left, the whole festival came into view. There were a few kids rides, but it was mostly folks selling watermelons and cantaloupe along with the normal totally unhealthy, but oh so tasty festival fare such as deep-fried chocolate, turkey legs, funnel cakes and Bar-B-Que.
We made our way down several blocks and came to the field of battle – the site of the world’s fastest garden tillers. The field is 200 feet of brown Arkansas dirt. The tillers are no ordinary tillers. Oh they started life as a tiller, but with modified motorcycle engines powering them now, they barely resemble their former purpose. Imagine if you can, a person running behind, barely hanging on is much more like it, as a tiller churns through dirt at up to 24 miles per hour (the world record as of this year), throwing up dust and dirt clods all over the place and sounding like a herd of angry bees. Unique among motor sports, this is the super bowl of the tiller racing season. Of course, as far as is known, the tiller racing circuit consists of this one race, so it’s kind of an easy thing to proclaim.
Entry to all of the events was free, but Tiller Girls walk around in the crowd with sacks and you are encouraged to donate a buck or two to your favorite. The girl who ends up with the most $ wins the coveted title of Queen Tiller! There’s a kid’s race, using those small little Mantis mini-tillers, and a ladies race, which usually doesn’t have many contestants, but when the big boys and their toys come out, well, it’s a bit hard to explain. I found a couple of video’s on YouTube and you really do have to see it to believe it, so here’s the links for you to get an idea of what it’s like. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0_9mfF0Y2Nc and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4U4523Cfs6A&NR=1&feature=fvwp.
The tractor show, kids bicycle races and tractor barrel racing which came afterwards was a little boring in comparison. Not so much for the parents of the entrants I’m sure and I reckon you could look at as a way to calm down and get ready for the “Million Tiller Parade” coming along a bit later.
Before long, it was time for lunch. Rather than buy festival food from the vendors, we decided to go back to the cafeteria and for $6 per plate, have the purple hull pea lunch. That was the best decision we made since deciding to come here. A mess of peas cooked perfectly, served with a couple of slices of vine ripened tomatoes, fresh onions and hot peppers from area gardens, 2 slices of corn bread, and a generous helping of some of the best peach cobbler I’ve had in a long, long time, all home-made by women who really know how to cook. A glass of iced tea to wash it all down and that there was some darn good eatin’!
This year the festival was only about 999,999 tillers short of the mark for the Million Tiller Parade, but there were some interesting motorcycles, 4-wheelers, a few floats and a couple of cars with beauty queens. Most of them were throwing candy to the watchers which added a nice little desert after lunch.
At 2:00 o’clock came the much anticipated World Cup Purple hull Pea Shelling Competition. If you don’t know how, it’s pretty simple really. Slit one end of the pea pod and just slide your thumb down the length to release the peas. Of course, knowing how to toss and catch a baseball in your backyard doesn’t exactly qualify you to play in the major leagues and it’s the same here. This is THE world cup competition and you might as well not even try it unless you can slit and spill peas so fast your fingers can’t be seen. Evidently all that time when Emerson is so boring, folks sit around shelling purple hull peas!
I have to say by this time, the sun was beating down without mercy and it was hotter ‘n heck so we retreated to the gym (not air-conditioned, but they did have a bunch of big fans going) to peruse the arts and crafts. After browsing all of the tables and a jar of salsa and a hot pad holder purchase later, it was time to head to the next event.
Next up was the Purple hull Pea and Cornbread cook off. Along with plain old peas were pea dishes of every sort imaginable – Pea Salad, Pea & Rice Casserole, Pea Chili, Pea Dip, Pea Salsa; if you can possibly put a pea in it, people baked it. And the cornbread was just as varied. I could have spent the rest of the weekend grazing on all of that wonderful food!
Reluctantly, we had to take our goodies back to BFT and head on home. Sad to say we missed out on the Pea Plant judging and I’m sure the Pea Stompin’ Street Dance featuring The Dick’s Hat Band later that night was a hoot. Maybe next year we’ll book a room somewhere close and enjoy the whole weekend. Momma-woman said, “That was fun!” Youngest daughter said she had a good time and was glad she came after all. Me? Well, I’m already looking forward to another purple hull pea lunch plate!