The Yellville Chamber of Commerce announced Friday that it will no longer sponsor Turkey Trot after 72 years of Miss Drumsticks beauty pageant and years of the National Wild Turkey Calling Contest.
Yellville in the early 1980s probably topped out at around 1,027 people (going from my memory of the population sign), and even today, the population is still below 1.200 (Google shows it at 1,171 as I type this entry--that's down from 1,204 reported by 2010's census.). Imagine my surprise at the town square so full of people that cars couldn't get through. Later, I realized that our annual festival was so famous that WKRP did a parody of it. Even the National Enquirer got ahold of the scandal in 1989 (my second year of college) and I remember seeing Today Show footage of one of the unfortunate turkeys that hit a power line.
My adolescence, high school career, and young adulthood were defined by the festival. It was Turkey Trot of 1983, right before I turned 14, that I had my first grown-up kiss in the cab of a booth operator's truck. Before you get upset, the kiss was shared with the son of the truck owner, who was also working the festival. He was only a year older than me, so it's not a scandal. And he was a gentleman, really. We were pen pals for several years after and he was the first person I ever knew from South Dakota.
Once I made color guard, every year's festival was kicked off by the annual band concert on Friday afternoon where the flag line and majorettes would twirl. And on Saturday morning, we suited up with the rest of the Panther Marching Band and hit the pavement for the annual parade. When those moments of celebrity ended, I made my way to the National Honor Society booth. Some years I'd spend hours flipping burgers and others I took my spot on the dunking booth seat to help raise money for NHS.
Turkey Trot was the breeding ground for urban (as urban as Yellville got) legends; every year there was some story about some tourist who chased a turkey off a bluff and broke his back or a local who broke his leg. Probably the most scandalous events that actually happened were people made out (I started to say "kids" but there was likely a rendevous or two that involved adults) and some of them figured out that those feather-festooned roach clips aren't just for making your hair pretty.
Heck, Marion County wasn't even wet until 2006. And even then, despite fears, the courthouse lawn was not littered by the bodies of passed out drunks, not even on Turkey Trot weekend.
When I went to college, coming home for the annual festival became a bit of a pilgrimage. I'd show up with friends in tow, happy to have a reason to invade my parents' house and introduce them to the new people in my life while also having a chance to escape and do something else. Bringing people to the festival was a way of letting them see where I grew up. And when I took my now wife to Yellville the first time, it was Turkey Trot weekend.
That year, 2005 I'm guessing, my nephew Ben was the Drum Major and I watched with pride as he lead the marching band toward the square on Saturday morning. I stood and talked to my friend Paula's mother Linda before the parade--Paula had been Drum Major, too, back in the late 1980s. Later, Ben and his band at the time (he'd go on to marry the sister of the twins who played in Cuttin' Loose) would take the stage and play for awhile.
Turkey Trot was also a cultural experience--not just for the tourists who came and shared our little corner of Arkansas, but also for the locals. The Purple People were regulars at the festival, selling incense, oils, clothes and tapestries. I wonder if Andrei Codrescu wandered the square during the festival--he bought a cave outside Yellville that supposedly was going to be converted to a writer's colony (that has yet to happen). Listen to him talk about his Ozarks--his wonder makes me feel all of the wonder I saw in the second weekend of October every year.
This year marks 30 years since the Y-S class of 1988 graduated. Reunion plans have started, and of course we were planning on Turkey Trot as our weekend to come home. As Josh Dooley notes in "Some Thoughts for PETA" the festival isn't about animal cruelty. Instead, the festival is a tradition that serves to bring the community together. The Chamber does not endorse the Phantom Pilot. Businesses in the area don't either, however, apparently business owners were getting calls and threats because of a 72 year old festival. If we read the Encyclopedia of Arkansas entry, even in 1948 the first plane to drop turkeys did so of their own choice. The entry is vague on when the Chamber started sponsoring it, but it does note that they stopped sponsoring drops in 1989--29 years ago.
Other reasons for the Chamber pulling the plug are less irritating and more common sense: Apparently the festival costs some $30-40K to put on, and since it is a free festival the strain on the community resources is too much. While on one hand I wonder about mismanagement (vendors are surely charged a fee to set up a booth, for instance), I also know that no matter how much revenue booth spots return that the cost of things like simple security and clean up rack up quickly. And, while some businesses obviously profit (hotels and lodging, local restaurants, etc) the article does note that there's an uptick in shoplifting and other petty crime.
I don't know what the answer is, but I am sad to think that the festival may be over. If there's no new sponsor this year (and with exactly six months before the festival, I'm not sure how likely that is), I am sad about the missed opportunities over the last few years where I didn't attend.
Codrescu said in his 2005 interview with NPR that, "The folk are friendly and inquisitive but independent." I believe that to be true, even now. I fear, though, that the pressure was too great for any solutions to be seen as good enough. Obviously, the Chamber was still feeling pressure from PETA despite not sponsoring drops for the last 29 years. And, I know that the things that draw people to the area--the Buffalo River, the White River, trout fishing, the lakes--will still bring them in. But I also feel like part of my own childhood is ending.
And, at the end of this? Even with the sponsorship pulled, the jerk who calls himself the "Phantom Pilot" is already saying he'll drop turkeys that weekend, festival or no festival.