<
>

Stuttgart turns green during festival

11/24/2008

STUTTGART, Ark. — In the U.S. retail industry, it's referred to as "Black Friday" — the day after Thanksgiving when retailers' bottom lines for the year go from red to black as a result of Christmas holiday shopping.

For the past 72 years, the two days after Thanksgiving have meant much more than that in Stuttgart, Ark. It's when the "Wings Over the Prairie Festival" makes this town the mecca for duck hunters.

"This is Christmas," Jim Ronquest said. "These two days in Stuttgart are unique. It's a cool place to be. If you like duck hunting, this has always been the place to be."

Ronquest might have had a bigger time a year ago, when he won the World's Championship Duck Calling contest. Ronquest wasn't able to successfully defend his title this year, but he still had a large time. A 42-year-old resident of Holly Grove, Ark., he has always loved duck hunting. And he's been able to turn that passion into a way of life, like so many people in town that bills itself as the "Duck Hunting Capital of the World."

Ronquest is the public relations director for RNT Ducks Calls and the producer of the RNT-V outdoors television show. It was about 12 years ago when Ronquest began to realize that his love of duck hunting might also put food on the table for his family.

"All of us have been surprised by the market," Ronquest said. "Making custom duck calls is very much a niche industry. But we've been able to feed several families out of that little shop."

RNT has a rich Stuttgart tradition that began with D.M. "Chick" Major, the winner of the 1945 World Duck Calling Championship, who was best known for making Dixie Mallard duck calls. It was under Major's guidance that Harry "Butch" Richenback turned into a world champion caller (1972 champion) and world famous maker of Rich-N-Tone duck calls. Richenback's best-known disciple is John Stephens, a three-time world champion and the president of RNT.

"It's gone from a 30-by-40 (foot) shop into a 12,000-square-foot factory," said Ronquest of RNT.

RNT is located on Highway 63 on the north side of Stuttgart, next to Mack's Prairie Wings, which bills itself as the "America's Premier Waterfowl Outfitter." Mack's is another Stuttgart tradition that has grown with this small town's reputation as the place to be for duck hunters. In 2000, Mack's moved from its 6,000-square foot downtown store into a new waterfowler's superstore that has 105,000 square feet, including 32,000 square feet of retail space.

If not for the fact that almost everyone is wearing camouflage clothing, Mack's would look like every other high-traffic retailer in America on the first two days after Thanksgiving — shoppers are shoulder-to-shoulder throughout the store.

"Without a doubt, this is our biggest weekend of the year," said Chuck Lock, the executive vice president of Mack's. "Stuttgart is a destination."

Lock had no idea that "fashion" would turn into such an important part of the duck hunting world, but it definitely has.

"Ten years ago, a dog vest was unheard of," said Lock of the neoprene vests that are now standard attire for waterfowling retrievers. "It's a fashion statement for a dog now."

Lock recalled a customer recently who was shopping for a dog vest. Lock had it available in the correct size of four different camouflage patterns, but not the camo that matched the rest of the hunter's gear, so he missed a sale. Lock shook his head in disbelief in recalling the incident.

"It's all part of fashion," said Lock, who definitely wasn't complaining about the wide variety of waterfowling needs that Mack's is now able to fill for almost every request.

Bill Free, appropriately dressed in camouflage, is serving his fourth year as Stuttgart's "Wings Over the Prairie Festival" chairman. Main Street serves as the main stage for the World's Championship Duck Calling Contest. The previous three years have given Free the ability to move confidently among the 15,000 to 25,000 visitors who come to this town of 9,725.

There's no good way to more accurately estimate that number of visitors, since no admission is charged into the Main Street area where six city blocks are closed to traffic for the calling contest and the vendor tents filled with small retailers selling everything from duck calls to chicken-on-a-stick.

"We feel good about those numbers remaining consistent," said Free, who noted that the "Wings Over the Prairie Festival" is the longest running festival in the South. "It works out well. The town is pretty much pretty much bursting at the seams."

Residents of almost every state in the U.S. are here this weekend. Forty states have representatives here in the 70-person field for the World's Championship Calling Contest.
Some states don't sponsor a champion duck caller, but all four corners of the country are represented, according to Free, from Delaware to California and Canada to Texas.

It's estimated that duck hunting generates from $750,000 to $1 million per day of the (this year) 60-day season for the Stuttgart area. Those economic numbers include food, lodging and travel costs for the thousands of visitors who come here to hunt.

"It bumps up during festival weekend," Free said. "It's a big weekend."

In honor of the "greenhead" mallard drake, let's call it "Green Friday" and Saturday for everyone in this small town on Arkansas' Grand Prairie.