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In Arkansas, one of the most acknowledged, anticipated, and attended wild game dinners is the annual Gillett Coon Supper held on the second weekend of January, with proceeds providing scholarships to Gillett (Arkansas County) area graduating high school seniors. The Gillett Coon Supper has also become a veritable rite of passage for people seeking election to political office.
Hunters in Gillett, named in honor of railroad president Francis M. Gillett, at first gathered to share successful hunts, in this case raccoon, with friends and neighbors in a social gathering, which then escalated to an organized fundraising event for the Gillett High School Wolves football program. Recognizing the need for the community to have an avenue to deal with community ills and issues, this rural, agricultural community organized the Gillett Farmer’s and Businessmen’s Club (GFBC) in 1947, a non-profit group. The club’s premier event became the sponsoring of the raccoon supper. Since 1947, the club has sponsored the annual raccoon supper, which soon grew in size and began attracting people from across the state: nearly 1,200 people each year descend upon the high school gym for an evening meal and socializing—this in a town that had a population of 819 in 2000. Patrons from across the state and even outside the state attend the sold-out fundraiser. The presence of politicians appears to be the main attraction, with the Gillett Coon Supper growing into one of the biggest unofficial political events of the state. Candidates are not allowed to make speeches, but incumbents are. Marion Berry of Gillett, representing Arkansas’s First Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, partook in the annual supper long before he ever entered the political arena.
The Advanced Placement English class at Gillett High School documented the January 1986 Gillett Coon Supper in a book, Welcome to Gillett: Home of Friendly People and the Coon Supper, complete with photos, an oral history by James Carrol Place (emcee for more than forty years), and newspaper stories. At that, the forty-third Gillett Coon Supper, more than 2,000 pounds of barbequed raccoon were consumed. The women of the community provided ten bushels of sweet potatoes, 100 pounds of barbeque rice, fourteen hams (for those who do not eat raccoon), 2,000 rolls, and assorted cakes. Gillett high school boys provided the set up and take down.
By 2003, with Gillett High School enrollment at 121, the school reorganized and consolidated with the DeWitt School Board. In 2005, Gillett High School was the smallest public high school in the state. On June 30, 2009, Gillett High School closed its doors for good. The previous month, the school board voted to close the high school along with Gillett Middle School and Humphrey Elementary School, with students being transferred to DeWitt (Arkansas County) in the fall of 2009. The question of continuing the supper was held in the balance as the high school gym was the only town facility large enough to accommodate the supper. The DeWitt School District approved allowing the GFBC to continue to use the gym for the annual event. Money raised still goes toward scholarships for students who live in the original Gillett School District.
For additional information:
“An Evening of Coon, ‘Taters’ and Tall Tales.” Arkansas Democrat Magazine. February 19, 1967, p. 6–7.
Steed, Stephen. “Critter Annual Star, but Beef, Pig at Meal.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 13, 2018, pp. 1A, 8A.
Upshaw, Amy. “Organizers Get Gym OK; Coon Supper to Continue,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. June 3, 2009, pp. 1A, 8A.
Bella Vista, Arkansas
Last Updated 6/7/2018
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