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Jasper is the Newton County seat, and its 320 acres include some of the most beautiful scenery of the Buffalo River Valley. For the last 17 years, the tiny town has also been home of the Buffalo River Elk Festival that celebrates the herd of elk that have been successfully reintroduced in the nearby Boxley Valley. They have become such a popular tourist draw and source of local pride that the county is called the Elk Capital of Arkansas.
Jasper’s official population of around 460 people explodes each year as folks from nearby towns come to town for the festival, drawn by the promise of local hospitality and a schedule of activities that will keep everyone in the family entertained all day. The events planned for this year’s two-day festival included the crowning of queens, a Dutch oven cookoff, a homemade pie contest and auction, talent shows, a fishing derby and the crowning event – the Elk Calling Contest Saturday afternoon. Hourly drawings were also held for the 23 coveted elk-hunting permits available to Arkansas hunters this year.A queen works hard for her title.
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and other wildlife groups were present, sharing information about local game species and hunting regulations. Free coloring books, posters, and booklets allowed visitors take info home to read later, and taxidermy displays and a live fish tank provided upclose views of the wildlife that live in the forests nearby.
The pie contest was a popular stop, and the field was tough. Fruit pies, cream pies, pumpkin, pecan… all the favorites were in the house. Diane Averitt took home the overall prize for her coconut cream pie, but they were all winners in the end, since the money raised at the auction benefited the Newton County Single Parent Scholarship program.Deep dish fruit pies by Newton County Fair champion Mykala Campbell.
The Dutch Oven Cookoff at this event was a stop on the way to the national competition held each year in Salt Lake City, Utah. To qualify for the national contest, a local first place award has to be earned. For this particular event, approximately fifteen contestants were required to cook three course meals exclusively using dutch ovens – large iron pots heated only by fire from wood or charcoal. The menu included an “appetizer” of bread, a main dish and a dessert.
Contestants claim that judges in Arkansas are fans of cheesecake, which meant that at least half the entries included a cheesecake recipe for their dessert offering. Costumes were welcome to support the “pioneer” spirit of the event, but weren’t required.Robin and Dennis Clute came up from Texas to cook.
Artists and craftspeople were in attendance, and other vendors sold items that were of interest, even if they weren’t handmade.
The highlight of the afternoon Saturday was the Elk Calling Contest. There were three divisions – Pee Wee, Youth and Adult. Each caller used their individual choice of call styles, including a few who created some call sounds with their own voices. Even for the uninitiated in Elk calls, it was really impressive to watch. In the end, the grand champion of the Adult Division was Jason Parker of Alma. Apparently, elk calling is a genetic trait in the Parker family, as his sons Jayden and Judson took home first and second place in the Pee Wee Division.Judson, Jason and Jayden Parker of Alma, Arkansas.
All in all, the 17th Annual Buffalo River Elk Festival was a perfect reminder of the community spirit that makes small towns across the state worth slowing down for. Traveling the country is well worth the effort, but traveling Arkansas is really hard to beat.
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