It had been almost two decades since Keith and I were in Stuttgart, Arkansas. We traveled to the area for the Minneapolis Moline Winter show back in 1999 and met the charming Don Oliver who was an agricultural pioneer. Renee Robinson, Director of the Grand Prairie Center arranged a visit to Stuttgart for us and to our delight, we traveled there this past July in pursuit of the follow-up story of the Stuttgart tractor. I will tell that story in an upcoming blog, but I do want to share a bit about the amazing Grand Prairie Museum.
The Museum of the Grand Prairie is filled with history of the town of Stuttgart as well as its agricultural past, rice growing and duck hunting. Gena Seidenschwerz, archivist for the museum pointed out some of the fun history of the area.
Arkansas and the Stuttgart area are known as the largest producers of rice in the US and Gena provided information on how rice ended up in the Grand Prairie. It all started with a man by the name of W.H. Fuller who traveled to Louisiana and learned about growing rice from the French Cajun farmers. He thought the land was conducive to rice and that it would grow in Stuttgart. After a lot a trial and error, he succeeded.
The rice fields are so pretty and the history of this crop is so different than the corn and soybeans where we live.
We learned about what Gena referred to as “the fastest track in Arkansas”. The track was the site of what began as the Stuttgart Fair. “It was started as a little Madras Gras,” Gena said, “People came from all over.”
The track was called the Stuttgart Driving Park and as years went by, the fair changed to the Rice Carnival. My favorite memorabilia Gena had from those days was a picture of young girl, the Rice Festival Queen in 1910. The young woman was decked out in a frock made of rice with the motto, “Grow Rice for Wealth, Eat Rice for Health” as the caption.
“Now this festival is the Wings Over the Prairie Festival,” Gena added. The Wings Over the Prairie Festival is held in November and this year will be the 82nd annual World’s Championship Duck Calling contest!
Before rice became an established crop, the area grew and baled hay using the tall prairie grass. There is an array of hay equipment including a very old wooden baler on display. In the museum is a mural of a picture taken of the early 1900’s with hay piled high in what was then downtown Stuttgart. I learned that during peak season, around 4,000 hay bales were shipped daily to northern points.
Being married to a German Lutheran, I was interested in the fact that the area was settled by a German Lutheran minister named Rev. Adam Buerkle. Rev. Buerkle journeyed to the Grand Prairie in 1878 looking for a place to start a colony. He purchased Gum Pond Plantation with over 7,750 acres. “He sold the property for what he paid for it,” Gena said. “He was not a good business man, but a good missionary. He had 15 kids with three sets of twins. He brewed beer and they had a band.”
Keith and I had the chance to go downtown and meet the Buerkle brothers at the Buerkle pharmacy. They are the great-grandsons of Rev. Buerkle. It was cool to see some of the early descendants still remain in the area, and in business!
The museum covers history of the US Army Air Forces pilot training base in late 1942. In October the flight school changed to a glider training program and there was a lot of information about crashes and the history of this unusual moment in history. Stuttgart also had a Prison of War Camp during WWII. Gena said the prison held both Italians and Germans. “They were able to communicate with the Germans, but not the Italians,” she said adding “the German’s were great help on the farm they seemed to be more mechanical than the Italian prisoners.”
“The FBI was real active here during WWII,” Gena added, “because this was a German community.”
But for antique tractor collectors what will thrill is the large amount of agricultural equipment, tractors, plows, steam engines and archival information about agricultural companies. Keith and I were delighted by the finds that we unearthed and plan to research as time allows. For more information about the museum, log onto http://www.museumofthegrandprairie.org/.