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The Lepanto Terrapin Derby is a festival that has been held in Lepanto (Poinsett County) every year since 1930. It occurs on the first Saturday in October on Main Street.
The Terrapin Derby was the creation of the Willie Lamb Post 26 of the American Legion, which designed it as a fundraiser for its various community projects. It was originally called the Annual American Legion Turtle Derby. Turtle racers were charged an entry fee, and the top three finishers shared in a cash prize. The turtles raced down a sixty-foot course toward a finish line that was lined with slices of watermelon. Delta residents, desperate for a diversion of any kind during the Great Depression, gathered their entrants and flocked to Lepanto. The 1937 derby brought more than 4,000 people from Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee to witness the event, which consisted of more than 350 entrants.
The American Legion continued to host the successful event until 1981, when it turned the reins over to Museum Lepanto USA. The museum group used the profits to supplement its building and maintenance funds. It, in turn, handed the event over to the Lepanto Fire Department in 1999; the fire department utilizes the funds for training and equipment.
Today, the turtle race is still a major part of the Terrapin Derby, except now the turtles are supplied by a local individual, and the entrants pay to draw a number that corresponds to a number painted on the back of a turtle. Prizes are still offered to the top three finishers. The festival also includes a 5K run, music, food, crafts, a street dance, and a beauty pageant. It draws several thousand people to the town each October for the festivities.
The Terrapin Derby received national attention in 2004 when Southern humorist Julia Reed used the festival in the title of her book Queen of the Turtle Derby and Other Southern Phenomena and referred to the event in the introduction. Speaking on the Southerner’s ability to stay happy and find joy despite the odds, Reed writes, “The title of this book is itself evidence of that ability. Every year since 1930, a turtle race known officially as the Lepanto Terrapin Derby has been run on a sixty-foot race course in downtown Lepanto, Arkansas, a farming town of about two thousand people forty miles northwest of Memphis, Tennessee. The derby only lasts about fifteen to twenty minutes, but the festival surrounding it goes on all day.”
For additional information:“Thousands Watch Terrapin Derby.” Marked Tree Tribune, October 21, 1937, p. 1.
Cindy GrishamJonesboro, Arkansas
Last Updated 3/14/2016
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