In late 1949, Ralph Coghlan wrote about a duck hunt on the Grand Prairie of Arkansas for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
In a December story for what at the time was one of the nation's largest newspapers, Coghlan wrote: "It is not too lyrical, I hope, to say that the Stuttgart region has become one of the wonders of America. No place else can the wild duck be seen and heard in such profusion. To go into a marsh before daybreak, listen to the chatter of great rafts of ducks on the water, watch them as they soar gracefully in the sky with whistling wings and see the morning sun bring out the brilliant colors of their heads, wings and breasts--that's living."
Another Arkansas duck season begins Saturday, and once more people from across the country will converge on this state to experience an activity that's so much a part of our culture. Many will find their way to the unique part of the state known as the Grand Prairie.
My mother was a daughter of the Grand Prairie. She was born at Des Arc in 1925, two years before the flood that would inundate so much of east Arkansas. Rice was already an important crop by then. The Stuttgart Rice Mill Co. was incorporated in March 1907 and completed in October of that year, just in time for the harvest. It made a profit of $16,000.
In 1921, the farmers' cooperative that's now Riceland Foods Inc. was formed. By 1926, the University of Arkansas had placed its rice research center at Stuttgart. In 1943, the year my mother graduated from high school, Producers Rice Mill was established at Stuttgart.
With rice came ducks--millions of ducks. The World's Championship Duck Calling Contest, now part of Stuttgart's Wings Over the Prairie Festival, began in 1936. By then, duck hunters worldwide had come to consider the Grand Prairie the Mecca of their sport. The festival is yet another victim of the pandemic in 2020, but the hunters will still come.
I was raised in southwest Arkansas, but the Grand Prairie has always been a part of me. My mother read the weekly White River Journal, which sadly no longer exists, until she died at age 90 in November 2015. My grandparents lived into their 90s in a house on Erwin Street at Des Arc. I spent Thanksgiving, Christmas and parts of my summers there as a boy, soaking up Grand Prairie traditions.
Rice and gravy were served at holiday meals rather than potatoes and gravy. Though my grandfather wasn't a hunter, he would trade items from his hardware store for fat mallards to go with the dressing and rice.
Unlike my grandfather, my father was a hunter, and I was fortunate that he would take me on Grand Prairie hunts as a boy. It was on a brutally cold November morning in 1976 near Stuttgart when I saw him kill three ducks with one shot.
For many Arkansans, the day after Thanksgiving means leftovers, watching football games and doing Christmas shopping. For our family, it meant the short trip from Des Arc to Stuttgart to watch the duck-callers compete.
When I think of the Grand Prairie, I think not only of ducks and rice but also of eastern European influences, the Tollville Turkey Fry (if you don't know what part of the turkey they're frying, don't ask), the Slovak Oyster Supper, fishing in the spring on White River oxbows, mosquitoes in the summer, barbecue at Craig's in DeValls Bluff, and catfish at Murry's near Hazen.
I think of places that are gone, places like the Pam Pam Club at Stuttgart. The Pam Pam Drive Inn opened in 1946. In 1966, it became a private supper club and served visiting duck hunters steaks and hash browns with cheese until 2008. The house salad dressing was famous, as was Glynadean Thomas' punch.
I think of world-renowned duck clubs that have called the Grand Prairie home through the years. My grandfather had once been the Prairie County judge and would talk about formal dinners at Edgar Monsanto Queeny's Wingmead club south of DeValls Bluff. Wingmead was established in 1937 by Queeny, the son of the founder of Monsanto Chemical Co. in St. Louis. By the time Queeny retired from Monsanto in 1960, it had become the third-largest chemical company in the country.
Queeny fell in love with the Grand Prairie. He began hunting in the 1930s on Mill Bayou near DeWitt with Elmer "Tippy" LaCotts. It was LaCotts who introduced Queeny to Jess Wilson, reputed to be the state's top duck-caller and hunting guide. Queeny later found land to buy on Lagrue Bayou. He formed an irrigation district and used the power of eminent domain to acquire 11,000 acres of the world's best land for hunting mallards.
In his 2018 book "The Grand Prairie: A History of Duck Hunting's Hallowed Ground," Brent Birch writes: "Duck hunting in Arkansas is nothing short of a phenomenon. There are places where one can hunt mallards in flooded timber. But not like the Big Ditch bottoms. There are places you can shop for waterfowling gear. But not like Mack's Prairie Wings. There are places you can hunt ducks on public land. But not like Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area. I don't know of a place anywhere else where anybody pays $6,000 an acre for property worthless for anything other than hunting ducks.
"There is no question the Chesapeake Bay has storied duck hunting history, as does the Central Valley of California, the southern coast of Louisiana, the plains of the Dakotas and a handful of other regions. But the Grand Prairie of Arkansas holds a special place in the memories of those who have been here and in the dreams of those who haven't."
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.