Celebrating rice, American style

 Alaric Francis Santiaguel   |  
The sights and sounds of the International Rice Festival have attracted more than 7 million visitors since it began 75 years ago. (Photo: International Rice Festival)

The sights and sounds of the International Rice Festival have attracted more than 7 million visitors since it began 75 years ago. (Photo: International Rice Festival)

One would imagine that an event called the International Rice Festival would be held somewhere in Asia. But, for the past 75 years, Crowley, the largest city in Acadia Parish in the heart of southwestern Louisiana, has been celebrating rice with as much fanfare as the 4th of July. The people of Crowley have been hosting the International Rice Festival every October and this event draws more than 150,000 visitors from around the world.

A festival is born

Rice fest posterAccounts vary on how and when the rice fair started. One version says that the first Rice Festival was held in 1927, a brainchild of Commissioner of Agriculture Harry Wilson. In another version, the festival is credited to former Louisiana Governor Richard Leche, who, in 1937, after watching a young lady in a rice costume pose for photographers to publicize Louisiana’s crops (rice was considered one of the most important), reportedly jumped up and said, “Let’s have a Rice Festival!”

Either way, the citizens of Crowley welcomed the Rice Festival with overwhelming enthusiasm, making it a success from the get-go. The 1937 celebration kicked off with a concert by the 204-piece Louisiana State University Band. Lampposts were decorated with stalks of rice. Nearly 35,000 people participated. The events included the coronation of the first national Rice Festival Queen, best rice costume and window display contests, and a grand parade.

Out of Africa

How did rice find its way to Louisiana in the first place? And, why does it play such a big part in Crowley’s culture? The answers go back to the 1700s. According to American professor and author Gwendolyn Hall, rice arrived via slave-trading ships from Africa that landed in what was then known as French Louisiana (see Carolina Gold and Carolina White rice: a genetic odyssey on pages 20-22 of Rice Today Vol. 9, No. 4).

Dr. Hall said that, after the French settlers were wiped out by the Native American Natchez tribe, French Louisiana survived because of the ricegrowing technology of African labor. “The introduction from Africa of rice seeds (Oryza glaberrima) and of slaves who knew how to cultivate rice assured the only reliable food crop that could  be grown in the swamplands in and around New Orleans,” she explained. By 1720, rice was being grown abundantly along the Mississippi River and, within just a few years, it became an export commodity.

Today, Louisiana is the third-largest rice producer in the United States, with primary rice production and milling centered in the southwestern part of the state, according to the USA Rice Federation.

From swampland to Small Town USA

The 2010 Chef de Riz Michelle Puissegur in the Grand Parade. The title is awarded each year to the best cook in the rice and Creole cookery contest.

The 2010 Chef de Riz Michelle Puissegur in the Grand Parade. The title is awarded each year to the best cook in the rice and Creole cookery contest.

The city of Crowley was originally a Cajun Prairie, a wide treeless coastal expanse heavily populated with tall grasses growing on deep, well-drained, and fertile top soil.

The official Web site of Crowley described the place as “ghostly prairie lands of virgin soil that displayed only a desolate and parched canvas of barren lands.” Founded by two brothers, C.C. and W.W. Duson, in 1886, it took more than 100 men, armed with machetes and cane knives, working feverishly under the hot summer sun to clear the overgrown brush from the undeveloped land, then known as Crowley Switch.

Crowley became famous for its “providence” rice, the name given to the harvest that came from rice seeds casually thrown by farmers into the wetlands near bayous or ponds that featured heavy clay soil.

Heart and “Sol” of rice in Crowley

Then came Salmon Lusk “Sol” Wright. Mr. Wright was a rice farmer and scientist who developed Blue Rose, a “purebred American rice” variety, which is credited with the revolution of the rice industry in Crowley. This high-yielding variety produced chalk-free, medium-sized grains of uniform shape, color, and texture.

Sol’s passion for rice, along with improvements in irrigation, harvesting, and the construction and establishment of rice mills throughout the emerging city, spurred a tremendous growth in Crowley’s rice industry between 1890 and 1905. Since then, rice became intertwined with the city of Crowley, the selfproclaimed Rice Capital of the World.

“Rice has always been a way of life in Crowley,” said Charlotte Jeffers, the city’s tourism coordinator. “To start with, our ideal climate, perfect land composition, and plentiful access to water for irrigation made for perfect ricegrowing conditions.

“The combination of the prolific rice strains developed by Mr. Wright, several large milling facilities, and its central location make the perfect recipe for the city whose slogan is ‘Where life is rice and easy,’” she added.

In a fitting tribute, Sol Wright and his daughter, Edith, were chosen as the King and Queen of the Rice Festival in 1927.

A major international celebration

Andre’ Lyons, the 74th International Rice Festival Queen.

Andre’ Lyons, the 74th International Rice Festival Queen.

The annual Rice Festival celebration was interrupted by the Second World War from 1942 to 1945, but it came roaring back bigger and better. From being a mere promotional gimmick, the Rice Festival grew to become a major social event. In 1946, Crowley’s Rice Festival went global when young ladies from other countries were invited to compete in the now International Rice Festival Queen Pageant. Consuls of 17 countries also attended the celebration.

It further expanded to include the naming of the farmer of the year, the Rice Bowl football game, concerts, rice cooking and eating contests, a livestock show, and other featured entertainment and activities that run from early morning until midnight.

By the 1970s, the International Rice Festival was on its way to becoming a larger-than-life attraction, with approximately 125,000 people attending in 1972. It became a self-sustaining organization in 1981 and is now regarded as Louisiana’s oldest harvest festival.

The Crowley-Post Signal, the city’s newspaper, estimated that more than 100,000 people came to the 74th International Rice Festival, bringing the total number of people that have attended the event since it began to over 7 million.

It takes a city

Hundreds of thousands of visitors line up on Crowley's main avenue to watch the Grand Parade.

Hundreds of thousands of visitors line up on Crowley’s main avenue to watch the Grand Parade.

The International Rice Festival is Crowley’s claim to fame. The city literally shuts down for a weekend to make way for the revelry—a massive undertaking that takes hundreds of people to make possible.

The Rice Festival Association has a general chairman and co-chairman as part of its executive branch, according to Glynn Mayard, chairman for this year’s event. “Being the general chairman of the largest and oldest agricultural festival in the state of Louisiana is an awesome honor and privilege,” Mr. Mayard said. “I rely on some key people to see that all our activities run smoothly.”

To put together a festival, Mr. Mayard works closely with Jay Suire, the event’s current co-chairman; Roxie Viator, the festival’s coordinator; and members of the executive committee who help in making major decisions on the direction of the festival. Above all, Mr. Mayard praises the citizens of Crowley who volunteer their time and effort for the celebration.

“I am humbled to head a group of over 200 unpaid volunteers,” he said. “Those volunteers have made the festival such a success year after year.”

For Mr. Mayard, those people that show up year after year to work in their various committees are the unsung heroes that make the festival what it is today. “For some 75 years, they have been the heart and soul of our festival,” he said.

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