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The Johnson County Peach Festival arose from the area’s successful peach industry, which got its start in the 1890s. In 1893, James R. Tolbert and Johnson J. Taylor decided to purchase and grow Elberta peaches in Johnson County. Their success spread throughout the region into other states. In 1897, the Missouri Pacific Railroad Company became interested in this rising industry and, after negotiations, created a partnership including the peach farmers, the county, and the railroad. Despite financial and environmental setbacks over the years, the industry thrived and became an integral part of the county.
Plans for a peach festival were discussed as early as 1937, but no festival was held until the summer of 1938. The first festival was held at Ludwig, about four miles from Clarksville (Johnson County) on Highway 21 on June 26, 1938. It was sponsored by the Johnson County Fruit Growers Association and was attended by several thousand visitors, including Governor Carl Bailey. Bailey crowned Miss Inez Mane Bohannon as the first festival queen—“Miss Elberta”—and autographed peaches. He was also given a basket of the locally grown peaches. Clarksville resident Frank E. McAnear related a vivid account of how the peach industry arrived in Johnson County and how peaches became an important part of the county. Other events included orchard tours, a potluck-style picnic, and musical events.
Since the first year, the peach festival has been held in Clarksville, the county seat of Johnson County, during a selected weekend in June or July—Thursday through Sunday. Events include musical performances, vendors, street dances, a greased-pig chase, and contests (e.g., frog jumping, peach eating, and terrapin derby). The beauty pageants include “Queen Elberta,” “Miss Arkansas Valley,” “Miss Arkansas Valley Outstanding Teen,” “Princess Elberta,” “Little Mister,” “Teen Peach,” “Tiny Peach,” and “Teeny Peach.” Events also include a parade, a cardboard boat regatta, a four-mile race, and a fishing derby. Festivities conclude with horseshoe and bass tournaments. According to the Johnson County Peach Festival Association, approximately 10,000 people attended in 2011.
For additional information:“County Observing 72nd Year of Peach Industry.” Herald-Democrat, July 1, 1965.
“County’s First Peach Festival Huge Success.” Herald-Democrat, June 27, 1938.
“First Peach Trees Planted in Johnson County in ’90s.” Herald-Democrat, September 28, 1933.
“Indians May Have Grown First Peaches in Johnson County.” Herald-Democrat, July 4, 1963.
Johnson County Peach Festival. https://sites.google.com/site/johnsoncountypeachfestival/ (accessed April 3, 2012).
Leeds, Darby Bliss. “The History of the Peach Festival.” Johnson County Historical Society Journal 1 (1987): 13, 37.
“Peach Festival Traditions Grew With Pageant.” Herald-Democrat, July 4, 1963.
“Peach Industry to Observe 83rd Anniversary.” The Graphic, April 1, 1976.
Turner, Marguerite. “Clarksville Makes Ready for its Mammoth Peach Festival.” Ozarks Mountaineer 10 (1962): 13.
Weatherton, Anna Joe. “The First Peach Festival.” The Graphic, August 12, 1976.
Jennifer Koenig JohnsonJohnson County Peach Festival
Last Updated 9/6/2012
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