On a sleepy afternoon in the back corner of Emerson’s Food Mart — one of only two convenience stores in the town of roughly 350 — tales of local celebs, souped-up gardening tools, and lavender-colored legumes breaks the silence between daily fuel fill-ups and lottery fixes.
Bill Dailey, the longtime media king of the small town’s signature annual event, The Emerson PurpleHull Pea Festival and World Championship Rotary Tiller Race, sips his iced tea and the stories come gushing out. For this is the final year the self-proclaimed “Pea-R Guy” will head the public relations for his hometown spectacle. Since 1992 he has volunteered and promoted far above its weight a festival that includes such highfalutin' events like the Million Tiller Parade and World Cup PurpleHull Pea Shelling Competition.
With a technical media background, the Emerson boy was never prodded into the job. He just began the practice himself. A former member of the Merchant Marines, Dailey worked overseas as a radio officer during the inaugural June 23, 1990, festival. The following year he attended as a spectator. After that, he had seen enough, he wanted in on his hometown affair.
“I just began doing it on my own,” he said.
One of his first tasks nearly 30 years ago included something as simple as figuring the proper name of the event for the media. There was much debate in the beginning whether it should be called simply the PurpleHull Festival or the PurpleHull Pea Festival.
“Glenn Eades, the original founder of the festival said calling it the PurpleHull Pea Festival was like calling someone a hair barber — it’s just redundant,” Dailey said.
But the “Pea” addition stuck and by 1994 the official media outputs all donned the full title that is still used today.
With no real budget, Dailey, then a Benton resident, took it upon himself to voluntarily send as many invitations to as many media outlets in the area. These were the early 1990s, though, where cellular telephones and fax machines were at the cutting edge of communication technology. There was no email. There was no internet to speak of. There was no YouTube. So what did he do to get the news outlet’s attention? Why gaudy snail mail packaging, of course.
“I bought a whole box of bright yellow 6-by-9 envelopes,” he said. “I even put triangular stamps on them that the Post Office was selling back then. Anything I could do to get their attention, I did it.”
The first nonlocal publications to receive Dailey’s invites included the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Shreveport Times, and Associated Press of Arkansas, but none showed. Only on a last-minute whim to Monroe, La., and KNOE News-8 did the Pea-R Guy’s year-one media blitz produce results.
“Channel 8 were the only ones to show,” said Dailey.
A single KNOE reporter and no crew made the 92-mile trek from Northeast Louisiana to Emerson. And just like that — the festival was famous.
With such a bizarre and unique main attraction, the rotary tiller race, the event offered news stations and media outlets the perfect kooky “slice-of-life” segment a producer dreams of. And as if the thought of southerners scrambling behind mechanized, motorized gardening tools with blades weren’t enough of an enticement, the Monroe, La., news camera in 1992 caught what would become the ultimate festival highlight for years to come.
“The race was on hard ground back then — no pre-tilled surface like it is now,” said Dailey. “Rickey Waller of Emerson was in the race, and he was bouncing along so much, that nearly halfway down the track his tiller throws a belt, stops on a dime, and he went flying over the handlebars. Channel 8 catches it. It was gold.”
But since the news station out of northeast Louisiana did not broadcast within the Emerson or Ark-La-Tex area, Dailey took matters into his own hands to get a copy of the sought-after footage.
“I called the news station to find out when it was going to air,” he added. “So I drove down to Ruston with my VCR, checked into a hotel room and waited for the news to come on to record it. The next year, I sent that tape all over. I can’t tell you how many more outlets showed up after that.”
By 1995, all of the major news stations from Shreveport, La., were broadcasting cuts from the festival. ABC-7 of Little Rock — which Dailey would later work for as an engineer and satellite uplink coordinator — even broadcast live from Emerson on many occasions.
Throughout all the years, Dailey was never paid for his PR work. He was not a professional writer or photographer, but possessed a degree from Arkansas Tech University in Radio and TV. He did, though, have media contacts after having forged a path in behind-the-scenes broadcasts for Channel 7 and later for satellite uplink firms.
His career took him all over Arkansas and the region, having provided live network news feeds for ABC during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig catastrophe off the Gulf Coast and tornado coverage after EF-4 and EF-5 twisters destroyed huge swaths of Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Joplin, Mo., during spring 2011.
Dailey’s biggest get of all as the Pea-R Guy came in 2016 when “The Wall Street Journal” featured the Tiller Race as a front-page, below-the-fold story. The paper since 1941 has regularly run pieces as part of its A-hed section highlighting quirky events from around the country. For a portion of the paper where topics have included small-town mule jumping contests and Sumo Wrestling fantasy leagues, Emerson’s festival fits right in.
“I would read these stories and I knew the Tiller Race would be perfect,” he said.
The planning began. Dailey took note of authors and found many of them on Twitter. But, after delaying and delaying, he was still mulling exactly how to make contact, when out of nowhere that question answered itself.
“I opened my email the morning of June 13, 2016, just a few weeks before the Festival, and there’s an email from a Wall Street Journal reporter,” said Dailey. “All I did was think about it. I hadn’t done anything or called anybody. It was just karma I guess.”
A Chicago-based writer the Journal flew to Shreveport, La., where her greatest fear, as Dailey tells it, was not covering an event that entails tillers careening nearly out-of-control down a dirt path, but driving by car to Emerson.
“She was very nice and in her 20s, but she had never been out of the city before,” he said. “She was very nervous about that drive to Emerson.”
On July 1, 2016, The Wall Street Journal featured as its A-hed article, a 1,700-word piece titled “Soil and Gas: Two Arkansas Families Battle for World Supremacy in Rototiller Racing.”
Beckie Strum was the writer. The pictures, which featured swirling clouds of dust-eating racers blasting down the 100-degree day’s dirt track, were tagged to Bill Dailey.
“I guess I can say I was a Wall Street Journal photographer,” the Emerson native joked.
With the help of the newspaper, an embedded highlight video from the 2016 tiller race garnered 2.5 million views.
“We were famous,” Dailey said.
Through the years, celebrity guests have also been recruited by Dailey to marshal the festival’s annual Million Tiller Parade featuring prized tractors. In 1995, a Dutch national who claimed to be Europe’s top female tiller racer attended and competed. Last year, KTBS Channel 3’s Rick Rowe was the Grand Pea Marshal. Dailey all along was the contact.
This year’s star guest will be former LSU All-American linebacker, Devin White. The Springhill, La., area native and fifth overall pick in the 2019 NFL pick will make the 30-mile trip to Emerson to attend the festival and compete as a pea-sheller. But Dailey can’t take credit for that one.
“I had nothing to do with it,” he said.
A former pea shelling champ, Marla Hanson, who is a friend of White’s, invited the Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker. He agreed.
“My gosh, he was the fifth pick in the NFL Draft two months ago,” Dailey added. “He’s an extremely personable young man.”
It’s a fitting way to way to end Dailey’s 28-year stint as the Pea-R Guy.
Now retired from the television business, the Emerson native and part-time farmer now says, “I think it’s time for someone else to take over.
There are prospects in the pipeline to take over the festival’s media duties, specifically one young lady named Hunter Nix who Dailey has imparted some tips. But the fact still remains that the Pea-R Guy, as the name openly suggests, always knew what he was selling. He didn’t try to market the event as some upscale regalia or white-tie ball. He used what he learned from the business and knew, ironically, the hook of the festival named after peas and tilling tools.
“It helps to be familiar with what they’re looking for,” he said. “They want something odd-ball. They want something quirky — the Tiller Race qualifies.”