Joe Bill Meador is the director and founder of the Fordyce on the Cotton Belt Festival, an annual festival that celebrates the culture and railroad history of Fordyce.
The festival, which lands April 18-23 this year, has been a part of the town for 36 years.
“This festival has defined my life as much as anything,” said Meador, who is from Fordyce. “For half of my life, I’m 71, it has been going on.”
Railroads were crucial to the foundation of the town. The Cotton Belt line was constructed through the southeast part of the county, leading to the development of Fordyce in 1880s. The town was named for Samuel W. Fordyce who surveyed the railroad line. Fordyce later became President of the railroad and played a big part in developing the West. He became an advisor to Presidents of the U.S.
The first Fordyce on the Cotton Belt Festival was held in 1981. The first year turned out better than they had anticipated. The following year got even better.
“Marie Cash was my former teacher and she had a cousin by the name of Johnny Cash,” said Meador. “So I asked her if she could get him to come to Fordyce.”
The exchange prompted a memorable call one day at his office. “This fellow with this very pleasing voice said, ‘I’m Lou Robin from Beverly Hills, California, and I’m Johnny Cash’s agent and he would like to come to Fordyce, Arkansas.'”
“I remember that call like it was yesterday,” said Meador.
Cash came to town and brought his whole band and show with him, performing songs like Jackson. Cash donated the proceeds from the concert to the festival.
Cash, his wife June Carter, and their son participated in the festival parade that year, with Meador driving them down the parade route in a horse drawn wagon. A photo of this moment currently hangs in Meador’s home.
The festival has continued to grow over the years.
“We don’t do [this festival] to make money,” said Meador. “We do it to promote Fordyce. The primary purpose is simply to have a good time. We have a hard working festival committee and other volunteers that make it all work.”
The showcase day of the festival is Saturday, April 23. For visitors, Meador suggests coming for the parade, which is at 11 a.m., and then heading to the Courthouse Square where there will be entertainment from noon until 9 p.m. that night. “And it doesn’t cost a penny,” he added. “We have folks that come and bring their lawn chairs and they sit underneath the shade trees and stay all day.” Meador mentioned the festival also has a carnival, a steak championship cook-off, and various events throughout the day. Each year during the festival there is also a Redbug Reunion Rally, which is for former students and graduates of Fordyce High School. “The Redbug Reunion Rally has made our festival something special,” said Meador. “We have former students come back from all over the country and even from overseas. We start getting calls in January reserving tables for their class. We will have 400 plus in attendance.”
Sports have had an important role in Fordyce.
The first high school football team in the state was organized in the city in 1904, a team known as the Fordyce Redbugs. Meador played on the school’s football team during his tenure at the school, an achievement he cherishes to this day.
Fordyce and Dallas County have the largest number of inductees in the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame of any city or county in the state. Athletes from the town include Paul “Bear” Bryant. Raised in Fordyce, Bryant (1913-1983) is a legend in the realm of football and many consider him one of the greatest coaches in the history of the sport. The story of the town can be found at the Dallas County Museum ,which is home to a new sports annex that highlights the athletic heroes of Fordyce.
Showcased in the annex is a photo of Meador with Bryant, the coach for the University of Alabama at the time, and Larry Lacewell, who was the coach at Arkansas State University. In 1982, the two teams played in a game that was eventually dubbed the “Redbug” bowl, played in front of over 67,000 fans at Birmingham’s Legion Field. The game was named so since Lacewell’s father and Bryant had been teammates on the same undefeated Fordyce high school team in the 1930s.
Before the start of the bowl game, a delegation from Fordyce (that included Meador, who was County Judge and President of the Fordyce Chamber of Commerce at the time and Jim Jordan, whose dad played on the same football team with Bryant and Lacewell’s father) presented both coaches with a gold redbug. “That was a big time in my life,” Meador said.
Today, Meador lives with his wife Sandy at their home at Meadowlark Farm. The farm got its name from the abundance of meadowlark birds that used to fly around the area. The property is about 28-acres and has a large pond. The land had originally belonged to his grandfather, H.B. Benton, who opened and owned many businesses and properties in the area. If you drive down the Main Street of Fordyce today, you can still see buildings with the name Benton marked across them.
The land had been given to Meador’s parents by Benton. They built a house on the property in 1952 when Meador was 8 and he built a home on the same piece of property in 1972.
At the farm there are sights like two horses (Duke and Boss Man), a dog named Max, a cat named Dympna,visiting geese, a 1957 International pickup truck, a carriage and buggy, and the wagon that Johnny Cash rode in.
Meador is in the midst of writing a book about his life in Fordyce, growing up in ‘a small little hamlet in South Arkansas.’ In the book, he writes, “perhaps everyone feels this way, but looking back, I feel like I grew up in the very best of times and in a perfect place.”
For more details about the Fordyce Cotton Belt Festival and the complete festival lineup, visit fordyceonthecottonbelt.com.