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Great Delta Bear Affair showcases history, hospitality

If ever there was an event in history to build upon for a tourism event, this is it! The third-annual Great Delta Bear Affair is being held this year on Saturday, October 23rd in the small Delta community of Rolling Fork up U.S. 61 north from Vicksburg in Sharkey County. This is deep within the Mississippi Delta surrounded by blooming cotton fields, catfish farms and cypress bayous. What a grand setting to capitalize on the best the Magnolia State has to offer in terms of history and good ol’ down South hospitality.

The historical sketch surrounding this event is amply detailed in the book on the life of the famed black Delta hunting guide, “Holt Collier” by Minor Ferris Buchanan and endless other tomes on the subject. The Great Delta Bear Affair is an annual celebration of the great bear hunt conducted for then President Teddy Roosevelt in 1902 in the Mississippi Delta Swamps. Today, the program also serves to inform people of the current status of the Mississippi Black Bear Restoration Task Force’s work to bring this bear back to its native habitat in Mississippi.

As the story goes the “hunt” turned out so pitiful that a small black bear was finally tracked by the hunting party and literally brought back to camp and tied to a tree on a lasso for Teddy Roosevelt to dispatch. Being an ethical hunter and conservationist of the first order, Roosevelt refused to harvest the small bear, which was released back into the wilds. This incident spawned the now famous Clifford Berryman political cartoon in the Washington Post entitled “Drawing the Line in Mississippi.” The commentary referred to Roosevelt’s unyielding support for black civil rights during an era in America when such freedoms were being withheld from many residing in Southern states.

The primary sidebar to this great Mississippi bear hunt held for President Roosevelt was the eventual creation of an All-American Icon. Having seen the cartoon in the paper, shopkeeper Morris Michtom put on display in his store two stuffed toy bears made by his wife that essentially initiated the all so familiar childhood toy we know today as the “Teddy Bear.” Truly as they say, the rest is history.

Plenty of family-friendly activities

The 2004 Great Delta Bear Affair has been in the planning stages for months and offers the tourist public an array of fun events and activities. The keynote speaker this year will be our own U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran. Gov. Haley Barbour will introduce a number of special guests on stage including Dorothy Moore, Eddie Cotton and the Mississippi Cotton Club.

Scheduled events include a Theodore Roosevelt impersonator, bird walk, horse trail ride, chainsaw woodcarver demonstrations, children’s programs, an archaeological van tour and book signings. The day-long celebration will include many vendor booths for classic Southern foods, arts and crafts as well as interactive family activities. Live music will be performed on stage throughout the day. Inside the city library local talents will have several sessions of storytelling and book readings for the kids. These prove to be well attended and popular. The event will also include a 5K run/fun run.

If this year’s event is anything like the last ones I have attended except for the scattered showers, Rolling Fork’s city square should be lined with all kinds of vendors selling homemade crafts of all sorts. The kids will be able to enjoy a selection of amusement activities such as a moonwalk, rock climbing wall and air slides. For the first time my youngest daughter, then only four, was able to get up close and personal with a pony, so I suspect the pony rides will be back.

At various times during the day a number of informational seminars and workshops will be held on a scheduled basis. Some of these will likely deal with the story of the Roosevelt bear hunt, but also the opportunity is taken to cover a host of topics of contemporary interest to residents in the Delta as well as the state. Expect to see booths set up by several state and federal agencies providing information on regional attractions such as wildlife management areas, fishing opportunities, national forests and national wildlife refuges in the area.

Talking politics, too

With the elections close at hand, folks attending the Bear Affair can certainly expect to see a number of political candidates to be circulating among the crowd. But this is a good thing that people should use to their advantage.
Quite a few important political seats are up for re-election, including the Second Congressional District race for the U. S. House of Representatives. If those candidates come to work the crowds, that is the time to find out where they stand on the issues and to ask pointed questions.

Teddy Roosevelt would have relished that as an outcome to his disappointing bear hunt.

The Mississippi Wildlife Federation is a prime supporter of this event and additional information on the Great Delta Bear Affair can be found on their Web site at www.mswildlife.org. The folks organizing this event can be reached directly by calling (662) 873-6258. The event will run from 8 a.m. and continue until 9 p.m. culminating with a fireworks display. So, what started out as a bear hunt has ended up being an annual economic booster event for an otherwise obscure Mississippi Delta community.

Ironically, this is what economic development and tourism is all about.

John J. Woods of Clinton is an award-winning outdoor freelance journalist. His column appears monthly in the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at johnjwoods@hotmail.com.

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