Emerson PurpleHull Pea Festival & World Championship Rotary Tiller Race

Emerson (Columbia County) hosts an annual gathering for fans of purple hull peas and abnormally fast garden tillers. The PurpleHull Pea Festival & World Championship Rotary Tiller Race is held the last Friday and Saturday in June on and near the grounds of Emerson High School. The festival encompasses numerous activities related to purple hull peas, some of which include the World Cup PurpleHull Pea Shelling Competition, the Great PurpleHull Peas & Cornbread Cook Off, the Senior Walk for World Peas, and the presentation of the Emerson PurpleHull Pea Farmer of the Year award.

Both the festival and the tiller race began as the idea of Glen Eades of Brister (Columbia County). In 1990, Eades was the local area correspondent for the Magnolia (Columbia County) Banner News. Eades put forth the idea that Emerson needed a festival, writing that the remote town needed “shaking up.” Recognizing the local popularity of purple hull peas, he approached Emerson mayor Joe Mullins about the possibility of beginning a festival to pay homage to the legume. Mullins agreed and organized a meeting of local citizens. At the first organizational meeting, Eades proposed that there be some sort of competition associated with the process of raising peas and suggested the idea of a garden tiller race. Eventually, his idea was accepted.

At the first festival in 1990, sixteen-year-old Jason Hines of Emerson arrived with a tiller that had been modified for speed, and he easily won the race. After watching the 1992 race in which two modified tillers bounced along hard ground at a high rate of speed while the racers ran behind and struggled to maintain control, some festival committee members felt something needed to be done to reduce the speed of the race. It was decided that the 1993 race would be held in plowed ground. Fans of tiller racing were split over the new rule. Some thought the festival’s rule change had merit, while others supported the position of Hines, the then three-time champ, who argued against the change. This eventually became known as the Great Tiller Racing Controversy of ’93. The race has taken place on plowed ground ever since.

In the spring of 1994, the festival committee formed a governing body for the race, the semi-autonomous World Tiller Racing Federation, which was charged with setting up rules for the competition. One subsequent rule set forth was the standardization of the track’s length at 200 feet.

Since that time, the race has seen many different innovations to both the rules and the tillers themselves. There are currently several different categories of the race, including a women’s division added in 2002. Tillers are now often built from scratch, with no parts that were original to an actual garden tiller.

The current world record is held by Shane Waller of Junction City (Union County), who tilled the 200-foot track in 5.59 seconds in 2009. Erica Butler of Springhill, Louisiana, holds the record in the women’s division with a time of 6.19 seconds, set in 2005.

For additional information:
Attouri, Marti. “Purple Hull Peas, Outstanding in Their Field.” Relish (June 2006): 14.

Howard, Martha. “Gentlemen, Start Your Tillers!” Country Discoveries (May/June 2001): 57.

Lind, Angus. “Raising a Row, Tiller Racers Dig into Controversy.” Times-Picayune. June 30, 1995, p. 1E.

PurpleHull Pea Festival. http://www.purplehull.com (accessed June 25, 2022).

Bill Dailey
Benton, Arkansas


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