Brock Hyland

Old-time traditions are alive and well in Gillett (Arkansas County), where on Saturday, Jan. 13 the Gillett Farmers and Businessmen’s Club held the 80th annual Coon Supper.

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If you’ve never had the pleasure of attending the Gillett Coon Supper, the best way to describe it is like stepping into a fever dream of all things Arkansas. It was a cold and blustery night when we got in line to get inside the gymnasium, where our group of four patiently waited to gain entry. Once inside it was controlled chaos — the good kind.

Brock Hyland

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Inside, there were four very long tables that spanned the entire length of the gymnasium, plus a head table of sorts that seemed to be reserved for the organizers. Workers of the event were males of all ages and you could tell they were working by their garb: all handsomely dressed in white button-down shirts adorned with black, old-style string ties and long white butcher jackets. These workers ran the food from the pit area to the dining area, refilled coffee cups, and greeted guests with smiles. Jason Lee Hale and the Personal Space Invaders, a cover band from North Little Rock, were in fine form — playing a smooth and sweet version of  “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash, which I thought to be a great song choice for obvious reasons.

The real fun started when we finally found our assigned seats in the crowded gym. Part of the fun at the Coon Supper is that seating is assigned, meaning you never know who might be at your table. And with the Coon Supper being the political event of the year, you’re bound to be near someone interesting, well-known, or campaigning. Our seats checked all the boxes. Sitting directly across from me was Judge Carlton D. Jones of the Eighth South Circuit and his lovely wife and son. They were traveling across the state from their home in Texarkana and had driven into Gillett from Little Rock that evening. Seated next to Judge Jones was State Rep. Mark D. McElroy (R-Tillar), who was about as warm, genuine and funny as anyone I have ever had the pleasure of dining with. The hilarious exchanges between McElroy and Jones provided our end of the table with entertainment all evening long. Once the meat was brought out to the tables, McElroy facetiously scrunched his nose up while peering into the foil tray full of tiny raccoon bones, held his hands up and jokingly proclaimed “Well, actually Judge Jones had coon for breakfast … And so did I!”

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Brock Hyland
The star of the show: raccoon in thin barbecue sauce.

Let’s talk about the meal, which was fantastic. Surprisingly to me, raccoon isn’t the only meat served at the Coon Supper; brisket and pork ribs are also available to those who don’t quite feel adventurous enough to partake in the local fare. Silly, really, because the raccoon meat was the highlight of the meal. The meat is tender, exhibits a subtle flavor and texture that somewhat resembles a richer pork, and was served in a simple thin barbecue sauce. The ribs were serviceable with some being more tender than others. The brisket was phenomenally tender and had a proper brisket flavor. The meat is served with a side of “barbecue rice” and sweet potatoes, both of which I was told were provided by local farmers.

Brock Hyland
Brisket, pork ribs, raccoon, barbecue rice and sweet potatoes.

The first Coon Supper was held in 1933 but didn’t resemble the large-scale event it is today. Once World War II hit, the event was suspended and didn’t begin again until 1947 when the Gillett Farmers and Businessmen’s Club was established. The organization continues to host the event on the second Saturday of January to this day.

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Known as possibly the most important political event in the state, the Coon Supper is held every year in the Gillett High School gymnasium and officially marks the beginning of the Arkansas political campaign season. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, the Coon Supper “has also become a veritable rite of passage for people seeking election to political office.” Indeed, looking around the gymnasium there were lots of familiar faces milling about, including Sen. Tom Cotton and Lt. Gov. Leslie Rutledge, who both addressed the crowd later in the evening.

Brock Hyland
Leslie Rutledge speaking with a raccoon-hatted patron.

But it’s not all politics at the Coon Supper. All proceeds from ticket sales (which, by the way, are still sold over the phone) provide scholarships to local graduating seniors. Gillett High School consolidated with DeWitt High School in 2003, and by 2009 Gillett High School officially closed its doors permanently. With the consolidation and closure of Gillett High School, many were left wondering if the tradition of the Coon Supper would continue. Luckily, the DeWitt School District voted to continue to allow the Gillett Farmers and Businessmen’s Club to hold the fundraiser, with money raised going toward scholarships for students who reside in the original Gillett School District.

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Brock Hyland
Tom Cotton

We were near the end of our meal when the speeches began. The first on stage for this year’s program was the president of the Gillett Farmers and Businessmen’s Club, who served as the emcee for the night. He introduced a local pastor who delivered the invocation, then a candidate for Miss Teen Arkansas gave a nice welcome speech. Next up to the stage was Sen. Tom Cotton, who gave a very restrained and harmless speech highlighting the greatness of this time-honored tradition we had all gathered for, ending with a hearty congratulations to all the graduating seniors. Batting cleanup was Lt. Gov. Leslie Rutledge, who seemed to be doing her worst Donald Trump impersonation. Perhaps inspired by the setting, I noticed her accent sounded especially contrived. Laying it on particularly thick for the Delta locals, perhaps? Her speech was by far the longest and resembled a game of conservative buzzword bingo, complete with mockery of the “woke mob” and grievances about the defund the police movement. She was particularly proud to announce — twice — that her husband is a row crop farmer. I feared she might end the speech with her famous rendition of Kenny Chesney’s  “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.”  I’ve never been happier to see a band take the stage again.

Despite Rutledge’s off-putting and divisive speech, I’m happy to report that the 80th annual Gillett Coon Supper was a fantastic way to spend a Saturday evening and should be on every Arkansawyer’s bucket list. For me, I know I’ll be back next year — hungry and excited for some wild game.

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