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Fordyce on the Cotton Belt Festival

The small town of Fordyce (Dallas County) celebrates the railroad and its historical significance with the annual Fordyce on the Cotton Belt Festival, which is held each year on the fourth Saturday in April. Along with fun for the community, the festival has a major financial impact on Fordyce and the surrounding area.

Joe Bill Meador, a member of the board of directors of the Fordyce Chamber of Commerce, first had the idea for an annual festival. As Meador traveled across the Southern states, he saw how a festival could infuse life into a small town. In 1980, he began discussing the idea with the other members of the chamber. A committee was formed to plan a festival for Fordyce. Three goals for the festival began to evolve: to promote Fordyce in the state and beyond, to teach local students the history of Fordyce, and to bring the local community together for a good time. The first festival took place in 1981.

The festival received its unusual name for two reasons. “Fordyce on the Cotton Belt between Pine Bluff and Texarkana” is an old gambling term. Meador traveled with his father, and when they told people they lived in Fordyce, many times they got the response: “Fordyce on the Cotton Belt.” The expression also highlighted the history of the railroad in Fordyce, so the committee chose “Fordyce on the Cotton Belt” to be the name of the festival.

In the first years of the Fordyce on the Cotton Belt Festival, the Southern Pacific Railroad brought its luxury dining car and fed the local dignitaries. Free train rides were also offered to the public by the Fordyce and Princeton Railroad, owned by the Georgia Pacific Corporation. Entertainers through the years have included Jim Ed Brown, Jerry Reed, Boxcar Willie, and Jerry Clower. One year, a “wrestling bear” was brought in to re-create the event that gave native son Paul “Bear” Bryant his nickname. However, the event that brought fame to the festival was a 1982 performance by Johnny Cash, who had heard about the festival from his first cousin, Marie Cash. Cash brought his full Las Vegas show, and on April 24, 1982, Cash, along with his wife, June Carter Cash, and their son, John Carter Cash, entertained a packed house in the old high school gym. The proceeds from that concert were turned over to the community, according to Cash’s request, and continue to provide seed money for the festival.

One of the biggest highlights of the festival each year is the “Redbug Reunion Rally.” Friday night of festival week is set aside as a time for former students and graduates of Fordyce High School to get together and reminisce. This popular event is a major part of the success of the festival.

A new T-shirt is designed for the festival every year. The design is a closely guarded secret until the day it goes on sale. The money from T-shirt sales pays the expenses for the festival. Each spring, the festival brings about $250,000 to the community. For most Fordyce civic organizations, the festival is the largest fundraiser of the year. Because of the seed money provided by Johnny Cash’s concert, the organizations are able to keep 100 percent of the money raised during the festival.

For additional information:
Fordyce News-Advocate. Special Souvenir Section. April 21, 1982.

Fordyce on the Cotton Belt Festival. http://www.fordyceonthecottonbelt.com/ (accessed March 16, 2011).

Paula Reaves
University of Arkansas at Monticello

Related Butler Center Lesson Plans:
Arkansas Festivals of the Land (Grades 7-8)

Last Updated 3/16/2011

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