No one is exactly sure how many volunteers are involved each year, because folks show up unannounced and pitch in, but the most popular number is 200-plus. There are 50 chairmen and cochairmen, who attend regular meetings in preparation for the weeklong event. This is a duck culture, plain and simple, and hometown pride plays a prominent role in sustaining enthusiasm for this one-of-a-kind festival.
So does duck hunting, which is what put Stuttgart on the map in the first place. More mallards are shot in Arkansas County than any other county in the nation. In addition to the availability of thousands of acres of public hunting nearby, 61 commercial duck hunting clubs are listed in the chamber's annual Sportsman's Guide. Birds are such big business that Stuttgart labels itself the Rice and Duck Capital of the World.
"The message is that if you want to get great duck hunting, you have to go to Stuttgart once in your life. We are sort of the mecca of the duck hunting world," Bell says.
This is indeed duckdom at another level. Two-time world duck calling champion Pat Peacock (1955-56) once exchanged a duck call and waders for a crown and high heels when she was voted the first-ever Queen Mallard. The beauty contest lives on today, with 31 young women participating in last year's competition. Scholarship money is at the top of a lengthy list of prizes.
"It's not on the beauty pageant circuit or leading up to anything else, like Miss Arkansas," Bell says. "But Grand Prairie women who compete in it, it's a big thing for their fathers, really. They grew up here and are duck hunters, and to be able to tell their buddies that 'My daughter's Queen Mallard,' that's pretty big braggin' rights for a lot of people."
Shake hands with Clarence Barendse and prepare to wince. Though he is on the far side of 70, his is the crushing grip of a commercial salmon fisherman, which is understandable coming from a guy who worked for some 40 years as a Columbia River gillnetter. The squeamish need not apply to that old-school fraternity.
The city's roots run deep, too-all the way to 1805 when explorers William Clark and Meriwether Lewis took the Corps of Discovery to the mouth of the Columbia River. They spent the winter just south of present-day Astoria and constructed Fort Clatsop. The town is recognized as the first European settlement on the Pacific Coast.
The river provided residents a way of life. And each fall, many fishermen would retreat to a maze of islands that were home to countless duck shacks and wait for the ducks, geese, and swans that poured into the Lower Columbia from the north. They still come-both the birds and the hunters.
"They have had duck shacks on the river since the turn of the century," says Barendse, a former waterfowler, accomplished clay target shooter, and decoy buff. "There used to be a place out there they called Brownsport, and that was full of duck shacks. All those guys were fishermen, but they also were duck hunters."
Duck camps are not unique to the mighty Columbia, but these particular cabins on rafts and their history might be. The structures were first built on floating logs and moored to pilings, allowing the shacks to rise and fall with the tide. Many are still in use. All of the shacks came equipped with boats.