I’M MAKING MY WAY east along U.S 165, and as I drive, I’m mentally sorting through the comments people have been lobbing at me when I’ve asked them what to expect in Stuttgart. Turns out they’ve all compounded in my head until they just sound like ducks on a pond quacking simultaneously, in the way that they do when the food is plentiful, I hear. Which makes sense, because ducks are just The Thing people have on their minds when it comes to the Grand Prairie town.
For the 83 miles from my house in Conway to Mack’s Prairie Wings—America’s Premier Waterfowl Outfitter—I search the skies for mallards. Instead, at 30 miles to town, I see the rolling orange and white smoke of crops being burned off in preparation for the next planting season. I search the lands on either side of the highway, hoping for some stray waddlers; instead, about 20 miles out, I see the white polka dots of cotton amidst the browning of late-season stalks.
I search the road signs—maybe there’s a “Duck Crossing” where my luck will change? With eight miles left, I strike gold: “Duck Pluckers” and a phone number, should you need that service. Unfortunately, I don’t. I’ve still seen no ducks.
But Stuttgart continues to insist that it has earned its reputation honestly; the Chamber of Commerce sign welcoming me to town proclaims it is the “Rice and Duck Capital of the World.” The first place you come to upon entering town, Mack’s Prairie Wings, supports that proclamation. Its parking lot is filled with boats, duck blinds and men in camo hats. A feather (which, I’m guessing, belonged to a duck) adorns the center of the store’s logo, and a two-story-tall sculpture of a mallard welcomes visitors to the log-cabin-like structure. The customers’ SUVs dwarf my paltry Ford Taurus, and I become painfully aware of my green silky blouse and sparkly ballet flats.
Isn’t there any camo at all in my closet?
I’m glad I’ve arrived a few minutes early. I’ve been to a Bass Pro Shops or two and a Dick’s Sporting Goods, but I don’t remember either one of them being decked out as thoroughly as Mack’s Prairie Wings is at this very moment. Finally, I think, I get to see some ducks. Taxidermied ducks hang from the ceiling on wires and, to my right (and to my surprise), an enormous stuffed alligator, toothy maw open wide, greets me with a smile. Behind a counter labeled “Embroidery/Monogramming,” a big ol’ boy in a red plaid shirt soothes a baby girl in his arms by simultaneously bouncing her and swaying back and forth, while to my left a vast sea of camouflage and camouflage-colored merchandise rolls as far as the eye can see. I mean, camo hunting gear and camo dog crates and camo neoprene ammunition belts—you name it. Right about the time it dawns on me that I could buy some more appropriate outerwear before my host arrives, the outstanding customer service Mack’s is known for kicks in to high gear.
“Can I help you?” calls a male voice from under a straw-roofed hut constructed right in the middle of the camo ocean.
“Maybe,” I respond, heading to the little shack. “Can you tell me what makes Stuttgart Stuttgart?”
The owner of the voice, Austin Price—a Mack’s Prairie Wings employee and lifelong Stuttgart resident—doesn’t hesitate. “The duck hunting. The rice! Although a lot more people are planting corn now. Ducks love corn! What we plant here—whether it be soy[beans], corn or rice—is duck food. If it wasn’t for the agriculture, we wouldn’t have the ducks.”
This is a lesson in social studies—in cultural geography—I’ve never been taught. I had never given a passing thought to the idea of local crops supporting both the people of a place and the wildlife those people hunt and eat. I feel stupid, but Austin beams at me magnanimously and points to one of his nearby coworkers. “You should ask him, too.”
Preston Nichols, wearing what appears to be the local uniform (a ball cap and a polo shirt), agrees. “The hunting. Ducks are the funnest. More action! Here at work, we cook duck almost every day. Once it hits duck season, we hardly ever have time to go eat, so we eat here. Austin’s our resident cook.”
Austin beams with pride, and I ask both him and Preston, “When does duck season start? And how many folks work here that you have to feed?”
“You should ask him,” Austin says, pointing behind me to a man in jeans and an off-white button-down short-sleeve shirt. It’s Eric Chin, chief operations officer of Mack’s Prairie Wings and my guide for the day. He totally sneaked up on me, and he wasn’t even wearing camo.
“We’ve got up to 150 employees, including the call center in the back,” he smiles, extending his hand for a shake. “Fifty percent of our business is done up here, and 50 percent is by mail order. It’s been amazing to watch the growth. In about a month, there’ll be thousands of people in here.”
“Is that when duck season starts?” I wonder.
“Yeah. About the week of Thanksgiving. School will be cancelled—90 percent of the community here is hunters and fisherman,” Eric explains. “Mack’s has become a destination. We’ve got a group of loyal customers. To a hunter, we’re like a toy store.”
Looking around, I can’t help but understand where he’s coming from. I’ve never seen so many waders and duck calls and decoys in my whole life, much less under one roof.
So is this “toy store”—Mack’s—what makes Stuttgart Stuttgart? It is for Eric. About six years ago, after having worked for Mack’s for more than half a decade, Eric left, seeking greener pastures working for bigger companies in Little Rock, Dallas, and, eventually, Southern California. But one day his son blindsided him with an innocent question. “He asked me, ‘Who’s the best boss you ever worked for?’ It was Chuck Lock at Mack’s. I didn’t even have to think about it. Then I realized, What am I doing?”
Eric then moved his wife and three kids back to Stuttgart, where he resumed working for the “genuine best people on earth,” this time as their COO. After all, he has some pretty serious duck credibility: Originally from West Monroe, Louisiana, Eric’s dad, David, hunted and fished with Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson, and Eric was good friends with the rest of the family, going out with them on the occasional hunting trip. Eric now plans to stay with Mack’s forever.
“I’m done,” he told owner Marion McCollum, who drives his tractor across town to mow Eric’s 2-acre lawn. “No other boss would do that kind of stuff. I’m here until they fire me.”
Honestly, I can’t imagine that’ll be anytime soon. Since his return last year, Mack’s Prairie Wings has expanded to include a “Bargain Blind,” and the catalog call center—outsourced to Minnesota 12 years ago because the store in Stuttgart was unable to handle the volume of calls at the time—has returned to Arkansas. They hired 35 people to run the center and have plans to hire about 25 more. Eric shows me the sale-area expansion, then takes me back to the front of the store. We pass some beautiful home decor and jewelry and women’s clothing on the way, but I am just fascinated by the camo lingerie and camo kids pajamas and a camo rocker-recliner. “Years ago,” he tells me, “our number one theft item was our camo thongs.” As we pass a camo four-wheeler and a camo fishing boat, I am surprised to see that his car, while a sturdy, backwoods-worthy SUV, is a lovely steel blue.
As we drive through some pretty, vast farmland toward town proper, Eric tells me that Stuttgart has about 9,500 people, mostly farmers. Farming and the big three—Lennox (an air-conditioning manufacturer) and Riceland and Producers Rice Mill (both rice processors)—make up the bulk of the economic system here. I notice a Baptist Health Medical Center, and Eric lights up. “I know every single one of the doctors and that’s very nice. I’ve got everyone’s cell phone number! You can’t do that anywhere else.”
Another thing you can’t do anywhere else? Attend the World’s Championship Duck Calling Contest. The duck-calling stage, an unassuming raised platform topped with the word “STUTTGART” and flanked by two square brick columns, is located right next to the town’s chamber of commerce. Every year during Thanksgiving week, at least 40,000 people from all over the country come to this small Arkansas town, which completely transforms for the Wings Over the Prairie Festival. In addition to witnessing the crowning of the best duck-caller in the nation, tourists can taste the entries in the
World Championship Duck Gumbo Cook-off, run a 5 or 10k in the Great Duck Race, and root for their favorite contestant in the Queen Mallard Pageant.
“The whole street is blocked off Thanksgiving week,” Eric explains. “Duck callers come from all over the U.S. And the Duck Gumbo Cook-off was ranked one of the top 10 biggest parties in the nation, I think. People bequeath their tables in the cookoff tent to their children. This town really is all about the ducks.”
I make a mental note to Google “top 10 biggest parties in the nation.” If the cook-off didn’t make it on to such a list, I’m guessing whoever composed that list didn’t factor in the number of ducks in attendance.
Eric pulls into a parking space outside a square strip mall. It’s a nice little modern building, painted in neutral grays and browns with some lovely rock facing. Our first stop? To see Marlo, the wife of Chuck, Eric’s “best boss ever.” Marlo owns and operates All About You, a salon and day spa. Unfortunately, Marlo has gone home sick for the day. Fortunately, Elizabeth McCrea, a stylist with lovely brown hair pulled back in a low ponytail, is glad to fill in. She shows me the salon and the pedicure and massage rooms, and I begin to really wish I had more time to spend here. But I pull my mind away from the intoxicating scents of candles and massage lotions long enough to ask my usual query.
“What, to you, makes Stuttgart Stuttgart?”
Elizabeth, who lives about 25 miles away in Clarendon but works and brings her kids to school here in Stuttgart, has no problem with her answer. “The schools. They’re larger, and there’s more opportunities for the kids. More parental involvement, too. We do dance here, play baseball here. We do all our extracurricular activities in Stuttgart. Parents are really involved.”
I thank her for her time, and it isn’t until I leave the salon that I see the signs stuck into the flower beds circling the strip mall. Signs reading “Go Ricebirds!” and “Ricebirds School Spirit!!” are displayed in front of every business—including the next one we go into: Edward Jones Investments. Eric has brought me here not only because this strip mall is one of the most happening spots in Stuttgart, but also because the main man here, Allen Homra (the financial advisor who helps Mack’s and its employees with their investments), is such an outstanding representative and enthusiastic proponent of Stuttgart. Sure enough, when he comes to the lobby, he is proudly wearing a gray polo with “STUTTGART RICEBIRDS” embroidered in white over his heart.
Between his T-shirt and his office decorations, I’m not sure there could be a more Stuttgartian citizen around. On his desktop and credenza? Duck decoys. On his walls? Stuffed, mounted ducks. Making up his choice of art? Terry Redlin prints, paintings featuring—you guessed it—ducks.
I sit down amongst the waterfowl and half-jokingly ask, “So what brought you to Stuttgart?”
“The ducks,” he earnestly replies. “I’d grown up duck hunting. Duck hunting is a blessing that we have here in our backyard. One of the best in the world.”
Allen tells me how, beginning later this month, the town completely changes for about 60 days. “You see Lear jets down at the airfields during duck season. People come from all over just to come to Mack’s. We got a special thing here. I’d love to see more catering to those folks like Mack’s does.”
As effusive as Allen is about the ducks, he admits that while hunting might have lured him here, the birds aren’t what made him stay. “Friends kept me here. Marion McCollum and Chuck and even Eric here. We may be small, but we got some of the best people around.”
Krista Keller, a transplant from Dallas and owner of Center Stage Dance and Cheer (our next stop-in, located just around the corner from Edward Jones), agrees. “I like that Stuttgart gives a family-first feel. Everyone is very welcoming—very friendly. Everyone wants to show off their wonderful town. If you’re from here, you’re very proud.”
As, I’m learning, you should be.
Eric and I stop in to a quaint store on Main Street: the Coker Hampton Drug Company & Gift Shop. As I peruse T-shirts that proclaim “Have a Rice Day!” and “I kissed a farmer and I liked it!” Eric tells me of some of the famous folks that have been seen in the area, thanks to the ducks. George Dunklin Jr., past president of Ducks Unlimited, lives here. Dick Cheney, Patrick Swayze and Jerry Jones have all been shoppers at Mack’s. In fact, “Jerry Jones has a duck club here close,” Eric says.
Besides the famous folks, there are a ton of sights worth seeing in the area, Eric explains. The $15.4 million Grand Prairie Center, an auditorium and convention center located on the Stuttgart campus of Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas, features a performing-arts series and abundant meeting space. The $12.4 million Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center is a state-of-the-art facility that includes offices, research laboratories, seed storage and greenhouses. And with over 10,000 artifacts, the Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie has a 20,000-square-foot main building (with five other outbuildings) where exhibits range from waterfowl to agriculture and all points in between. Highlights of the museum? The lights and sounds of the “Early Morning Duck Hunt on the Grand Prairie,” a one-of-a-kind “Coat of Many Feathers,” an 800-year-old duck effigy pottery piece by Native Americans, 500 award-winning game calls and an antique decoy collection.
And with this information, we’ve come full circle back to the ducks. But Eric has one last stop in mind.
Eric’s house is a white, two-story antebellum home with black shutters and magnolia trees (12 of them!) scattered across the lawn, and I am in antique home heaven. I step across the doormat, cartoon faces of Eric; his wife, Sam; and his kids, Braden, Carlin, and Sabrey, smiling up at me. I admire the flocked wallpaper of the entryway. I ogle the three fireplaces. I smile at the wine cellar, the first to be built in Stuttgart.
Suddenly, Sam bursts onto the scene wearing track shorts and a ball cap, her friendly energy sweeping me up and making me feel at once accepted and welcome. She grew up in Sherwood, but is so glad to have adopted Stuttgart as her hometown she can’t help but gush about it. “Stuttgart is just simplicity,” she says. “It’s Southern values. That’s why we came back. We wanted to raise our kids right. We wanted community. There’s a tradition and a heritage here that’s not present anywhere else.”
And at this moment, I know that it’s not the ducks that are the tradition and heritage here. It’s the people.