First published in Neighborhood America
An Oklahoma cowboy cooling his heels in the Gulf of Mexico? An Alabama shrimp boil on the western prairie? It sounds like Jimmy Buffet Meets The Sons of the Pioneers.
That’s what happens this spring when the tiny cowtown of Guymon, Oklahoma (pop. 6000) holds its annual festival. But it won’t be at the local fairgrounds. The town is saddling up and heading east, to the equally small of Foley, Alabama, on the Gulf Coast. Come autumn, Foley moves to Guymon for its celebration.
Lots of small towns hold annual festivals. They usually duplicate each other. But Melyn Johnson, tourism director in Guymon, and her counterpart in Foley, Kathy Danielson, wanted their towns’ events to stand out. Melyn suggested the swap when the two women met at a tourism-related conference. It was an idea she’d been toying with for a long time.
“I was at a conference in Maine and the last night they had a lobster boil and Acadian music, all the things that are unique to Maine. I knew that people in Guymon would love it, but that most of them would never travel 1200 miles to Maine. I thought the people up there might like to see what a real cowboy is like, too.” The Down-Easters turned down the idea. Kathy, however, saw the possibilities right away.
“There are shrimp boils and crab festivals and blessings of the fleet, and they are a dime a dozen along the Coast. If I had the same old thing, no one would come. I wanted my festival to be different. This is a chance for people to see and do things they’d never be able to any other way.”
When Guymon takes its wagon train east, Foley’s folks will experience things they’ve only seen on TV or in the movies. The westerners will introduce the Alabamans to saddle making, hitching and driving a stagecoach, Native American Pow-wows, and knife knapping – the craft of chipping stones to make arrowheads. Buffalo soldiers will camp on the beach, while naturalists play show and tell with animals native to Oklahoma.
Cowboy culture may be the attraction in Foley, but Guymon’s main interest in the Southern exchange is summed up in one word – food.
“That’s what everybody picks up here,” says Melyn. “We’re calling it A Taste of Alabama, because that’s what really excites people, the fresh seafood. We have Mrs. Paul’s™ but that’s about it. This’ll be the first time some people have ever eaten shrimp, fresh shrimp for sure.”
Southerners pride themselves on their cooking, so shrimp is just one entree on the menu. There will be lots of other seafood and more. “We have a large German population, so there will be German sausages. The sweet potato growers want to take sweet potato dishes, and Wilson’s Pecans are right here in Foley. And fried green tomatoes and grits.”
But seafood is just one ingredient in the Southern cultural gumbo. The working Gulf Coast will move to the prairie, complete with net makers and a shrimp boat – giving a new meaning to the image of a “prairie schooner.”
Music also plays big. “A couple of times a day, we’re going to break into a Mardi Gras parade, the walking ones where we throw beads and Moon Pies (chocolate and nut
confections),” says Kathy. “We’re putting together an ecumenical black gospel choir, something the folks in Guymon requested. I can’t wait until the Sunday morning service. The choirs are very passionate when they sing and cut loose. I’m really proud to be taking that with us.”
Fun is the product, but profit is the purpose. While both women instinctively knew the ‘surf and turf’ swap was a winner, not everyone shared their enthusiasm. Winning over officialdom and lining up sponsors to provide seed money for the festivals was the initial challenge, one that’s becoming easier as the time for the first event draws closer.
“Funding is the biggest challenge,” Melyn says. “It’s the first roadblock thrown up by everybody. They all say, ‘it’s never been done before,’ in a way that says you can’t do it.” Financial visionaries encourage the communities, though. They’ve gotten money from several grants and various arts and humanities councils in both states. They’re trolling for major corporate funding, too.
Doubters become supporters when they see the results that are happening even before the events. Foley’s hotels are already taking reservations for the Guymon visit on March 9-11, 2001. Since Kathy’s budget is based on a room tax, that’s good for her. But the impact goes far beyond the rooms.
“Economically, each dollar spent directly at the festival is multiplied eight times in the community,” she explains. “That’s what the outside businesses are going to see, the gas stations, the restaurants, the places where people will go shopping, all of that, as well as the businesses that supply inventory and services to the places dealing directly with the tourists.”
Because of the publicity, motor coach companies already operating in Alabama are changing their itineraries to include Foley in their tours. “If not one other thing happens between now and March, we are so thrilled with what has taken place. Because of the bus bookings and the media coverage and the support, it’s already bringing me business into 2002.”
Foley doesn’t visit Guymon until mid-October, but Melyn expects the same economic boost. People from neighboring Kansas and Texas will travel to her festival, “since they are even farther from the Coast.”
Both women are getting calls from other communities that want to be the next ‘exchange city.’ That’s possible, but not for a while. The two towns plan to repeat their swap in 2002. After that… Kathy says her mayor, “the one who promised the shrimp boat we’re taking to Guymon, told me he envisions going into my office one day and there will be a map with cities designated all over the United States that we have done this with.”