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.
Johnny & June on Main Street in Fordyce, AR in 1982.
Redbug Field in Fordyce (Dallas County) is a high school football field with its significance lying in the fact that future University of Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant learned to play the game there in the late 1920s. The regulation-sized football field was listed on the Arkansas Register of Historic Places on August 6, 2014.Football is important to the history of Fordyce, a town where Arkansas’s first high school football program was started in 1904 when New York native Tom Meddick organized a high school team at the Clary Training School. By 1909, Fordyce High School also fielded a team. The original playing field was behind the high school, but in the mid-1920s, it was relocated to accommodate a street-widening project. Fordyce Lumber Company donated the land for the new field. Workers clearing the land and preparing the field were tormented by chiggers, leading Willard Clary, a local resident who covered football games for the Arkansas Gazette, to suggest making the “redbug” the team’s mascot. The name stuck, and Fordyce remains the only U.S. football team with that mascot.Paul Bryant was first introduced to football at Redbug Field as an eighth-grader. As Bryant recounted: “One day I was walking past the field where the high school team was practicing football. I was in the eighth grade and had never even seen a football. The coach naturally noticed a great big boy like me and he asked if I wanted to play. I said, ‘Yessir, I guess I do. How do you play?’ He said, ‘Well, you see that fellow catching the ball down there?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well, whenever he catches it, you go down there and try to kill him.’…The following Friday I played on the team, and I didn’t know an end zone from an end run.” Bryant enrolled in Fordyce High School and, in 1927, began playing. He was a key player on the Fordyce Redbug team but was a poor student who did not graduate with the rest of his class after failing a language class. The team, under Coach Bob Cowan, had a perfect season in 1930, claiming an Arkansas High School State Championship.Bryant served as head coach of the University of Alabama football team, the Crimson Tide, for twenty-five years, winning national titles in 1961, 1964, 1965, 1973, 1978 and 1979—the last one being a perfect season culminating in a victory over the University of Arkansas (UA) Razorbacks at the Sugar Bowl. Bryant was voted Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year ten times and National Coach of the Year three times. He retired in 1982 with a record of 323 wins, eighty-five losses, seventeen ties, and twenty-four consecutive post-season bowl games.Bryant’s were not the only Fordyce teams that excelled on Redbug Field. Coach Jimmy “Red” Parker led the Redbugs for eight years beginning in 1953, amassing a 105–15–4 record that included a thirty-seven-game winning streak from 1957 to 1960 before Parker left to coach college teams at the Citadel and Clemson University.The bleachers and fieldhouse were extensively modernized and improved, and on September 7, 2012, the high school football field was rededicated as “Redbug Field and Coach Paul W. ‘Bear’ Bryant Stadium,” with Paul Bryant Jr. in attendance. It remains the home field for the Fordyce Redbugs.For additional information:Bryant, Paul W., and John Underwood. Bear: The Hard Life and Good Times of Alabama’s Coach Bryant. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1974.Dunavant, Keith. Coach: The Life of Paul “Bear” Bryant. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.Magee, Mary. Red: Beyond Football: The Legacy of Coach Jimmy “Red” Parker. Tulsa, OK: Hawk Publishing, 2007.
"Beneath blue skies and billowy clouds, the Fordyce on the Cotton Belt Festival convened on the Dallas County Court House square for the 40th time since 1980.
Thursday, Friday and Saturday saw the rescheduled event fill the streets of downtown Fordyce with folks attending the return of the family-style festival. With the annual gathering usually occurring in late April when temperatures prove more pleasant, the Summer heat only slightly affected turn out. Following a year of lockdown, the celebration was well attended by locals and out-of-town visitors alike."
by Richard Ledbetter / Special to the Commercial