The Louisiana Pecan Festival
Posted November 2011
There is something special about a hometown festival. Just as a cold snap in the air and the autumn leaves changing color heralds the fall season, the first full weekend in November ushers in the Louisiana Pecan Festival celebration. The three-day event will be November 4th through 6th in downtown Colfax. Even though the festival is expected to draw about 60,000 visitors throughout the weekend, Scott Wallace, president of the Louisiana Pecan Festival board, says the festival maintains a “down-home” feel. “The Pecan Festival is very family-oriented, with something for everyone. There will be crafts and vendors, cooking contests, a Queen’s Ball, a parade, a performance by Anna Margaret, helicopter rides and there is a real diversity in the food vendors. We will have everything from funnel cakes to sushi,” Wallace notes, sporting a big grin.
Fairly new to Grant Parish, Wallace says it did not take him long to figure out how this particular hometown festival connects generations of people through their memories of the Louisiana Pecan Festival. “The older generations talk about their memories from the early days of the festival, and the kids today are making new memories they will one day be able to share,” says Wallace.
The Louisiana Pecan Festival has a rich history with traditions from the first festival still in existence today. New events are added every year to blend in with the old traditions. A highlight bound to attract the younger crowd this year features Anna Margaret as the grand marshal for the Saturday morning parade, which will roll November 5th, starting at 10:00am. Anna Margaret, a 15-year-old pop singer and actress originally from Lecompte, first shot to fame after recording songs for the Disney Channel original movie, “Starstruck.” She will perform directly after the parade.
The festival will kick off Friday, November 4th, with the traditional “Blessing of the Pecan Crops” at 8:00am on the Main Stage on Front Street in downtown Colfax. Vendor booths, which feature everything from hand-made jewelry and jellies to hand-painted T-shirts, will open at 8:30am on Friday. The cooking contest, in which each entry must contain pecans in some form or shape, will be featured on the Main Stage, also at 8:30am.
“Everyone always wants to win the coveted first prize for the best pecan pie,” Jennifer Carter of Colfax, chirps. Carter, who says she always buys a pecan pie at the Country Store, recalls her mother entering a pie contest in the late 70s using her grandmother’s favorite recipe. “She did win a ribbon, but not first place,” Carter recalls. The cooking contest has been carried through to every year of the festival. The continuity of the contest has yielded some friendly family competition for years, she adds.
From 9:00am until 12:00noon on Friday, Children’s Day begins in the Colfax City Park. All of the events and activities designed for the children were donated by area businesses, and most are free. A children’s art contest was held earlier this month, and the artwork will be displayed in the Country Store. At 2:00pm, there will be a Kids Pie Eating Contest. At 12:00noon Friday, the carnival rides open as well as the antique tractor show. The Louisiana Pecanettes, the festival’s ambassadors, will perform several dance routines throughout the festival and during Saturday’s parade. The Pecanettes are a group of girls from local high schools who travel and perform dance routines at fairs and festivals throughout the state promoting the Pecan Festival. The Queen’s Ball will round out Friday’s festivities from 8:00pm until 12:00midnight at the Grant Civic Center. The band, Static, will provide the entertainment and music at the ball. This year’s queen, Jenna Ray, will reign over the festival and be presented at the ball. The Queen’s Pageant, held in mid-October, officially kicks off the festival and is one of the most-attended events.
Vendor booths will open at 8:00am Saturday, as well as the antique tractor show. The Grand Parade will begin at 10:00am. Vonice and Larry Wainwright have been named honorees of the parade. At 12:00noon, the winners of the parade floats and bands will be recognized and the queen and her court will be presented on the Main Stage. The Pecanettes perform at 1:15pm, and again at 4:30pm. The group, Rachet, will play at 2:00pm, and there will be a street dance starting at 5:30pm. The Joel Martin Project will perform at the dance. A big fireworks display will begin at 8:30pm.
On Sunday, November 6th, the festival begins with a church service at 11:00am. The vendor booths do not open until 12:30pm, and the Wehunt Band will play at 2:00pm on the Main Stage. The festival winds down at 5:00pm on Sunday.
Each January, volunteers get together to start planning for the next November’s Pecan Festival, according to Rona Barnes, a Pecan Festival board member. “We work with a lot of different companies to put together this celebration of community. It cost to put it together, but it’s an excuse to have one of the largest family reunions – to sit on the logs that line the streets and visit with your neighbors,” Barnes says.
Originally, the idea for the Louisiana Pecan Festival grew out of Grant Parish’s Centennial celebration 1969. Grant Parish had been created by a legislative act in 1869, carved out of portions of Winn and Rapides Parishes. “The Louisiana Pecan Festival was started by some very devoted volunteers. They boarded a bus, dressed in period, pioneer costumes, and drove around the state. They were depicting the type of people, frontiersmen, who helped to establish Colfax. Stopping in small towns, big cities, they departed the bus long enough to hand out flyers, promoting their town and its fall harvest festival. This drew a lot of attention and interest from passersby. It was actually, I believe, started to help the economy in the area and brought an interest into the town,” notes Barnes.
In 1969, Governor Jimmie Davis was the special guest, and a local girl, Nancy Dean of Colfax, was crowned Centennial Queen. Several thousand local residents and visitors took part in the event, and with its success, organizers began to plan even more activities and festivities for the next year, and the Louisiana Pecan Festival was born.
The decision to celebrate the pecan in a festival was an easy one since many of the area farmers grow the crop, and pecans were native to the area. Pecans were staples of the diets of the local Native Americans, and when the settlers began arriving in the Colfax area from the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, large plantations grew pecans along with their other crops. Wild pecans were grafted and new varieties cultivated, and soon the crop flourished in the rich river land soils. Nearly every yard had one or two trees that produced enough pecans to provide the landowners with a small money crop.
During the early years of the festival, “Frontier Days” was the dominant theme, as a tribute to the pioneers that settled the area. Remnants of those early years still stand today. The Country Store is a permanent fixture on Front Street in Colfax and only opens during the festival. “The Old Train Depot, is our Country Store, and in the beginning you could purchase pecans, quilts, coonskin caps, jams, jellies, pies, cakes, and candy to name a few things. Now, you can also find pecan syrup, pecan meal, pecan oil, cheese, T-shirts, posters, and the list goes on. Most are volunteer home-made items,” Barnes adds.
Visitors can enjoy cheese and crackers and sip homemade hot apple cider in the Country Store also. The Sausage Stand, next door to the Country Store, is a popular spot during the festival. The mouth-watering aromas from the Sausage Stand draw considerable crowds. The syrup mill, a demonstration type of operation, was a great attraction for decades. A lot of people, young and old, would purchase a cane of sugar cane just to chew on. A mule would walk around the grind, and someone would feed the sugar cane into the mill. The result was the syrup, which could be purchased on the spot or in the Country Store. Today, the syrup mill still stands, but is not operational. A large amount of rich lighter pine was needed to keep the syrup fire hot enough and in the last four years has become too hard to come by.
Throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s, special guests were invited to the “Frontier Days” -themed festival. Fess Parker, who portrayed Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett on television, James Drury, television’s “The Virginian”, Buck Taylor, Dale Robertson and Ken Curtis of “Gunsmoke” fame, were among the celebrity guests. Even Sorrell Booke, “Boss Hogg” from The Dukes of Hazzard, came as a special guest. “Boss Hogg was all decked out in his white suit and 10-gallon Texas hat. He was very funny and very friendly,” recalls Catherine Johnson, of Colfax.
Until the late 1990’s the festival was a two-day event. But as the festival flourished and had more vendors, it was extended to include Sunday. For the families and folks who have attended the festival through the years, the celebration has brought a plethora of memories. “The Grand Ball is a great time to dress up in your finery and dance the night away with family and friends. The parade is wonderful. It was then and is now. There are pictures in the festival office of some of the first floats and entries: 1969, boats, one with a skier, Coon dogs, with a real raccoon up a tree, horse and buggies, and of course there were dignitaries, mayors, politicians, governors, and the likes, and marching bands. All of them following the same parade route as in the first parade,” Barnes says, adding that the parade in now quite longer than it used to be.
In the first years of the festival, there was a local area set aside for actual, period, military enactments. Usually a battle during the Civil War was enacted. There were turkey shoots and donkey basketball games which caused uproarious laughter in the stands. Different events have come and gone, and new ones have been added. The costume contest was always a way to show off the craft of sewing. Bonnets, prairie dresses with high necklines, long sleeves and long hemlines, coon skin caps with fringed trousers and shirts, accessorized with a muzzleloader, and Scarlet O’Hara dresses, with full hoop skirts, hair ringlets and all were worn by the various contestants. “I will never forget my little three-year-old daughter, Bonnie, winning her category in the costume contest. I had made her a bonnet and prairie dress. She got to ride on a float with Fess Parker during the parade,” recalls Ruth Blakeley, formerly of Dry Prong, and who won several ribbons from the cooking contest many years ago.
The Louisiana Pecan Festival continues to thrive through the years with the changes to the venue, and yet remains a constant in the lives of the many festival-goers. “This festival is something my family and I and all our kids have been going to since the beginning. When we come to the Louisiana Pecan Festival, it is like we are coming home,” Johnson notes, adding that most of her family has moved out of the area but gathers at the festival each year.
“The festival gives us that connectivity that goes missing in our family the rest of the year. It is filled with so many memories for us,” she adds, “And to me, it does not get any better than that. So, we are ready to ‘let the good times roll’ this weekend.”