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Fordyce on the Cotton Belt

Ken Gaddy, the director of the Paul W. Bryant Museum on the campus of the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, will make the pilgrimage to Fordyce on Friday.

He will be in south Arkansas for a very important reason — to attend the Redbug Reunion Rally, a gathering of former Fordyce High School students that’s a key part of the annual Fordyce on the Cotton Belt Festival.

Gaddy also will work with those who are attempting to establish a museum in Fordyce to honor that Southern icon known simply as The Bear.

Last Saturday, the Bryant Museum in Tuscaloosa set a single-day attendance record of 4,367 visitors. On the same day, 92,310 Tide fans filled Bryant-Denny Stadium for a spring game.

More than 92,000 people to watch a scrimmage.

Think about it.

It’s proof that there are no more ardent college football fans than Alabama fans, which is why I’ve long contended that Fordyce is missing out by not having a museum devoted to Bryant, a former Redbug. Not only would the museum attract Arkansans to this historic town, I have no doubt that people would make the trip all the way from Alabama to pay homage to the memory of their beloved coach.

Work has begun to restore the 1884 Bank of Fordyce building, which adjoins what’s known as the Bill Mays Annex. The two buildings will be connected with an archway, and a new area will feature exhibits about Bryant and Fordyce’s rich high school football history.

On Friday afternoon, Col. James Phillips and his wife, Agnes Wynne Phillips, will hold an open house and garden party at the antique-filled Wynne Phillips House. Proceeds from the event will benefit the Dallas County Museum and its expansion plans.

After speaking in El Dorado on Thursday night, I plan to drive through the pine woods (dodging deer the entire way) to Fordyce to spend the night at the Wynne Phillips House, which was built in 1905 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The house was the home of prominent Fordyce attorney and former mayor Thomas Duncan Wynne, his wife Agnes and their seven children. Agnes Wynne Phillips is the youngest of those seven children.

In 1981, during his next-to-last year as the head coach of the Crimson Tide, Bryant suggested the establishment of a museum to honor former Alabama players and assistant coaches. A committee studied the idea and decided that the Tuscaloosa museum should cover the university’s entire football history from the first team in 1892 to the present.

The museum opened to the public in October 1988. Bryant had died in early 1983, just weeks after his final game in the Liberty Bowl at Memphis, a Tide victory over Illinois that I attended on a frigid evening.

Despite the fact that he never lived in Arkansas following high school, Bryant never forgot his Redbug roots. The effort in Fordyce won’t equal what has been done in Tuscaloosa, but it’s time for the town to cash in on the Bryant legacy.

I’ve always considered Fordyce to be a special place, and Gaddy will see that community spirit on display during his visit to south Arkansas for this weekend’s Fordyce on the Cotton Belt Festival.

“Joe Bill Meador, a member of the board of directors of the Fordyce Chamber of Commerce, first had the idea for an annual festival,” Paula Reaves writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture ( “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 inaugural festival was held in 1981.

“The festival received its unusual name for two reasons,” Reaves writes. “‘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.”

There was a strong railroad flavor in those early years of the festival. Area dignitaries were fed on a luxury railroad dining car. Free train rides were offered.

In the late 1870s, Col. Samuel Fordyce had made three trips by horseback from Cairo, Ill., to Texarkana to find the best route for the Texas & St. Louis Railway Co. It later became the St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas Railway, commonly known as the Cotton Belt. The town of Fordyce was incorporated in April 1884 and grew along the busy railroad line.

“Fordyce was a relatively late bloomer in Dallas County as compared to centrally located Princeton, which was incorporated in 1849 and served as the first county seat, and Tulip, which was considered the cultural center of Arkansas in the mid-1800s,” Reaves writes. “Settlers began to make their way into the southeast part of the county by the late 1850s, and small trade centers such as Bucksnort and Chambersville began to develop near present-day Fordyce. Prior to 1850, the land that became Fordyce was partly cleared and settled by W.W. Killabrew.”

Kingsland native Johnny Cash heard about the nascent Fordyce on the Cotton Belt Festival from his cousin, Marie Cash, and agreed to bring his show to town in April 1982. Cash, wife June Carter Cash and son John Carter Cash entertained a packed house in the local gymnasium. Marty Stuart also performed that night.

Cash donated his appearance and the $10,000 it earned for a festival operations fund.

“The first (festival) turned out better than we expected, and then the next year, Johnny Cash put us on the map,” Meador told writer Jim Taylor in 2005. “When the big day arrived, I remember coming across the overpass and meeting the biggest, blackest, shiniest 18-wheeler truck I had ever seen. It was solid black with ‘Johnny Cash’ in handwritten script on the side. I thought to myself, ‘My goodness. Looky here, looky here.'”

Meador drove a horse-drawn wagon in the festival parade with Cash in the back.

“I’ll never forget the adoration I saw in people’s eyes as we went along that parade route,” Meador said. “It was like everyone had a kinship to Johnny and they felt like he was part of the family.”

The threat of rain forced the concert from the Fordyce High School football field into the gym.

“Talk about a packed house,” Meador told Taylor. “We had people everywhere — in the bleachers, on the floor, standing in the doorways and even standing outside to hear the best they could. And Johnny had brought his full show — band, lights, video screen.”

Others who have performed at the Fordyce on the Cotton Belt Festival through the years include Jerry Reed, Boxcar Willie and Jim Ed Brown. A wrestling bear was even brought in one year to commemorate the event that gave Bryant his nickname.

The population of Dallas County has declined from 14,471 in the 1940 census to 8,116 in the 2010 census. The county lost almost 12 percent of its residents from 2000 to 2010.

But Fordyce remains a town of proud people who are determined to capitalize on their past.

Bryant would tell his players this: “Have a goal. And to reach that goal you better have a plan. Have a plan that you believe in so strongly you’ll never compromise.”

The folks in Fordyce now have a plan to fully celebrate the Bryant legacy. I hope to see some of you south Arkansas readers at the Wynne Phillips House on Friday afternoon.

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