Festival was Cabin editor's brainchild
The year was 1982 and then managing editor of the Log Cabin Democrat, John Ward, sensed Conway needed something to pull it out of a malaise. The Cold War, a recession, high interest rates and other domestic issues weighed heavily on people's minds.
He was talking about it with Dennis Schick, manager of the Arkansas Press Association at the time, who suggested a celebration of some sort to raise people's spirits and provide some public relations for the city.
Ward seized upon the idea of a celebration and almost immediately knew the name Toad Suck would have to be involved since it was unique.
"I knew something was needed to get Conway on a roll," Ward said. "It was a time that people were not enthused about Conway. There was something that was needed to raise spirits and bring people together."
From those humble beginnings 25 years ago, the festival has grown from an attendance of 25,000 that first year to the more than 150,000 expected at the silver anniversary festival this year.
Early on Ward brought his brother Bill Ward on board and the two made a long list of names, including "Toad Suck Days." The name didn't quite seem to fit the bill, so the Ward brothers changed it to "Daze," which John said "represented the euphoria of spring."
John Ward then met with key people in the community including the chamber of commerce, circuit judge, presidents of banks and others to get behind the idea.
"People were really enthusiastic about participating," he said.
To get things rolling for that first festival, Ward enlisted civic-minded people to join the first Toad Council. Individuals that helped propel the festival that year included Randy Crowell, owner of Randy's Athletic Shop; Curtis Dolan, retired employee of Sears Roebuck & Co.; George F. Hartje, circuit judge of the 20th Judicial District; Milt Honea, president of AmTran; Kenne Ketcheside, vice president of Security Savings & Loan Association; Barbara Jean Nabholz, a member of St. Joseph Christian Mothers Society and life member of the Conway Junior Auxiliary; Bill Ward, owner of the Ward Agency advertising and public relations; Jim Williamson, president and chief executive officer of First State Bank & Trust Co.; Dr. Clyde Reese of the University of Central Arkansas Division of Continuing Education; and Sherill Tester, secretary of the Toad Council and an employee of the Log Cabin Democrat.
One of the things that was agreed on by the council was that proceeds would go to fund scholarship endowments at the local colleges. Since that first festival hundreds of thousands of dollars have gone toward scholarships.
As a way to attract attention to the event, Ward persuaded then U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers to serve as parade marshal. On April 30, 1982, Bumpers led the parade through downtown Conway that featured a replica of the Toad Suck Ferry constructed by volunteers from AmTran Corp.
"It just gave it a stamp of prestige that it didn't have before that," he said.
That first year Ward "bravely" predicted there would be between 5,000 to 6,000 in attendance. There were 25,000 on the banks of the river with the swelling crowds of that first year an early indicator of what the festival would become.
Conway Mayor Tab Townsell said he can see parallels between the expansion of the city and the festival.
"Conway's growth as an important commercial center for the whole region is mirrored by the festival's growth over the years," he said. "Now all of a sudden it's a huge draw, not only around the state - you look at the little positions pens on the map at the chamber and people come from all over."
The festival is a way for Conway residents, and those in the surrounding communities, to celebrate local flavor, Townsell said.
"It is a way for us to celebrate with people of the region and to make them extended family," he said.
In 2002, Ward recounted the widely accepted story, among the many circulated, of how the festival, and the area, got its one-of-a-kind name. He said the name dates back to the days of steamboat travel on the Arkansas River when boatmen stopped at a spot in Perry County where Toad Suck Ferry Lock and Dam is and would wait for higher or lower water.
"The folks who lived in the area did not approve of the boatmen or their favorite pastime - keeping raucous company until the wee hour in a friendly tavern on the river bank," he said.
"The watering hole did fine, and this comment about it became legend: 'They suck on the bottle until they swell up like toads or other derivations of the tale.'"
Ward loved the fact that the festival took place on the river, but in l990 the festival was moved to downtown Conway because of rising flood waters on the river. Ward said the only negative he can see over the past 25 years is that it is no longer held on the river.
"It was spring at its finest," he said. "It had to move. It changed the character a little bit, but they still try to preserve some of that."
Townsell said the move to downtown allowed more access for festival goers and also greater resources for electricity and other resources needed by vendors.
"It really jumped forward in terms of attendance," he said. "It was a good shot in the arm for the festival."
As Townsell recounted the past 25 years of Toad Suck Daze, he couldn't help but marvel at how it all got started.
"An idea in John's head has turned into this huge festival that particularly the kids get a good amount of enjoyment out of," he said.
Ketcheside, who was on the original Toad Council, said the festival came along at a tough time to provide people with something sorely needed - fun.
"It just kind of shook up every day life," he said. "It was just fun - all it was supposed to be for."
(Staff Writer Jeremy Glover can be reached by e-mail at jeremy.glover @thecabin.net or by phone at 505-1253.)