About the Grand Prairie
Below you will find the Forward of The Grand Prairie: A History of Duck Hunting's Hallowed Ground written by acclaimed Arkansas journalist and historian, Rex Nelson.
My mother was a daughter of the Grand Prairie. She was born in Des Arc in 1925, two years before the Great Flood of 1927 that would inundate so much of east Arkansas. Rice was already becoming an important crop on the Grand Prairie by then. Bill Hope had planted a plot as an experiment near Stuttgart in 1902. The results were good enough that other farmers followed his lead. 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 year after my mother’s birth, the University of Arkansas had located its Rice Research and Extension Center 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, since duck hunters across the country already had come to consider the Grand Prairie the mecca of their sport.
In 1943, the year my mother graduated from high school, Producers Rice Mill was established at Stuttgart.
I was raised in southwest Arkansas, but the Grand Prairie has always been a part of me because of my mother. She read the weekly White River Journal until she died at age ninety in November 2015. My grandparents had both lived into their nineties in their big house on Erwin Street in Des Arc. I spent Thanksgiving, Christmas, and large parts of my summers there as a boy, soaking up the traditions of the region. Rice and gravy were always served at holiday meals rather than potatoes and gravy. And though my grandfather wasn’t a hunter, he would trade items from his hardware store for fat mallards to go with the dressing and the rice.
Unlike my grandfather, my father was a duck 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, in fact, when he killed three ducks with one shot. I have a witness to that feat, Trey Berry, now the president of Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia. And we all know that a college president would never lie.
For many Arkansans, the day after Thanksgiving means leftovers and shopping. For our family, it meant a short trip from Des Arc to Stuttgart to watch the duck callers compete.
The Grand Prairie has a unique culture. I think not only of the ducks and the rice but of the eastern European influences, the Tollville Turkey Fry, the Slovak Oyster Supper (one of my favorite annual events in Arkansas), the good fishing in the spring, the mosquitoes in the summer. I think of barbecue eaten at Craig’s in DeValls Bluff, catfish consumed at Murry’s near Hazen, and the fine meals at the Pam Pam Club in Stuttgart, which unfortunately no longer exists. (The Pam Pam Drive Inn opened in 1946. In 1966, it became a private supper club and served visiting duck hunters from around the world steaks and hash browns with cheese until 2008. I also have fond memories of the Pam Pam salad dressing. And don't even ask about Glynadean Thomas’s “famous punch.”)
I also think of the 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 treat us to stories of formal dinners eaten 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 and the fifth-largest chemical company in the world. Queeny’s passion away from work was duck hunting. He began hunting in the 1930s on Mill Bayou near DeWitt with a man named Elmer “Tippy” LaCotts. It was LaCotts who introduced Queeny to Jess Wilson, reputed to be the state’s best 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.
Plans for the home at Wingmead were drawn in 1937 by a prominent St. Louis architect. The home was built in 1939. Queeny and his wife would come to the Grand Prairie each October and often stay until March. Guests—including the likes of Walt Disney and Nash Buckingham—would arrive on Friday in time for a black-tie dinner. They would hunt ducks on Saturday and Sunday mornings, hunt quail on Saturday afternoon, and depart on Sunday afternoon. What I wouldn’t give to be able to go back in time and experience one of those Grand Prairie weekends.
Brent Birch shares my love of and fascination with the Grand Prairie. In this book, he allows us to join him in exploring the region—not only its duck hunting holes but also its rich culture, fascinating geography, and wonderful people. There’s no other place in America quite like the Grand Prairie, and that uniqueness shines through in this book.