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Dermott Crawfish Festival

The Dermott Crawfish Festival is one of the longest continuously running festivals in Arkansas. Every third weekend of May, Dermott (Chicot County) transforms its downtown streets into an entertainment district offering carnival amusements, arts and crafts, specialty foods, pancake breakfasts, live music, a disc jockey, beauty pageants, basketball contests, fire truck rides, magic shows, bingo, karate demonstrations, a “Show Your Rims” competition, and a dog show, as well as educational exhibits and visiting local and state politicians.

The festival originated with the expansion of this Delta community’s farm-based economy into aquaculture. In the early 1980s, local agriculturists Ronnie Thomas, John Green, Jimmy Duncan, and Jerry Duncan began crawfish farming. Thomas, a fishery biologist, researched superior farming and food-preparation techniques. The business evolved to include a tourist-oriented retail operation, the Crawdad Hole. In 1983, Secretary of State Paul Riviere officially named Dermott the “Crawfish Capital of Arkansas.” The Dermott Area Chamber of Commerce sponsored state Representative Ben Bynum’s attendance of an Arkansas State Parks and Tourism workshop so he could learn how to operate a festival. On Saturday, May 16, 1984, the first annual Dermott Crawfish Festival served 2,000 pounds of crawfish, spicy potatoes, and corn to 500 people, most local residents. The 1984 festival also featured street dancing with music provided by the Cummins Prison Farm Band and a Louisiana Cajun band. A sign reading “Welcome to Dermott Crawfish Capital of Arkansas” was erected at the Dermott city limits.

Since the Dermott Crawfish Festival’s inception, fifty to sixty volunteers operate the event using proceeds from the Chamber of Commerce, Arkansas Parks and Tourism Delta Byways matching grants, and local sponsors such as banks and utilities. Annual attendance averages 8,000–10,000 people, three times the city population. In 1989, the sixth annual festival created a controversial bidding war for crawfish suppliers, pitting the local farmers against Louisiana competitors. A milestone was reached in 1993 when the festival attracted 20,000 people. On the twenty-fifth anniversary in 2008, the festival served 4,000 pounds of crawfish to a crowd of at least 8,000 and featured more than 100 vendors. There are two bandstands and more than thirty separate events. Festival visitors have included significant political figures such as David Pryor, Jay Dickey, and Mike Ross. In 1990, Governor Bill Clinton and Tom McRae, both seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, attended.

The Dermott Crawfish Festival has received numerous awards and honors. From the Arkansas Festival Association, the festival received the 1988 “Operating on a Shoestring” award for volunteerism, as well as the 1991 and 1993 Festival of the Year. In 1988, the Governor’s Conference of Tourism recognized the festival with its “Bootstrap” award. Festival funds keep Dermott viable during challenging shifts in the community’s age demographics, population, and economic structure; these funds have, through the years, supported local medical initiatives, an endowment for the Chamber of Commerce, and the purchase of property for a youth camp.

For additional information:
“Crawfish Gather in Dermott.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. May 23, 1993, p. 1B.

Dermott Crawfish Festival. http://www.dermottcrawfishfestival.com/ (accessed January 7, 2009).

“Dermott Festival Still May Feature Local Crawfish.” Arkansas Gazette. April 29, 1989, p. 12B.

Rita Henry
Dermott Area Chamber of Commerce

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

Last Updated 11/11/2015

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