Things are revving up in Emerson, Ark. For 29 years, this small town in the Arkansas Delta has hosted the PurpleHull Pea Festival and World Championship Rotary Tiller Race, a happening that brings in visitors from all over the Delta region to compete in culinary feats, shell peas, and vie for world’s fastest garden tiller. This year, the event will be June 29 and 30.
Festival spokesman Bill Dailey says the festival was started by Glen Eades, who, “thought the town needed a little shaking up.
“We were so boring, we didn’t even have a cop. Glen approached Mayor Joe Mullins about the possibility of having a festival featuring everyone’s favorite backyard crop,” Dailey says.
At that meeting, the idea to include some sort of competition within the festival came up. Eads suggested rotary tiller races. Not surprisingly, a race featuring garden machinery was almost left in the dirt.
But the inaugural festival in 1990 included the tiller races, as well as a pea-shelling competition, a contest for the best pea and pea-related dishes, and a dinner with plenty of — you guessed it — purple hull peas. Also known as Southern peas or cow peas, purple hulls are cousins to black-eyed peas.
The event has grown over the years to include the Million Tiller Parade, a pageant, a kids’ fishing derby the week before, a fish dinner on Friday night, the Pup-Pea show, a street dance, cake auction, barbecue ribs competition, and fireworks.
The free festival continues to grow, with the town’s population of 350 more than tripling over the course of the weekend. Most events happen on Saturday beginning with a purple hull pea cookoff in the morning. The noon meal features peas, cornbread, and peach cobbler. Garden-fresh vegetable sides — jalapenos, white onion, and stewed tomatoes — are added to the plate lunches served up in the school cafeteria. Some 600 lunches are sold each year.
The annual pea-shelling competition follows as youngsters and adults are given bowls of peas in their elongated purple pods and a seat on the stage. They are timed to see who can shell the most in a limited time.
Once the peas are eaten, it’s time for the Million Tiller Parade that makes its way to the racecourse. Tiller race competitors hail from Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas, as well as some places further afield. Last year, a team from Wisconsin participated.
“He actually helped design tillers for a company there,” Dailey says. “He heard about us and designed a tiller he thought would be competitive in our fastest division. He drove 1,017 miles with a couple of his kids and came to race.”
Kat Robinson is a contributor from Little Rock, Ark.
(Top photo credit: Kat Robinson)