Pure Hollywood, circa 1959. A cloudless early-September sky. A flat valley ringed by green mountains. In a vast camp in the distance, hundreds of horses graze amid the hazy columns rising from cook fires. From the east comes a creaking and a rumbling, a whooping and hollering. Wooden wagons race across the grassy plain, then circle a lone walnut tree. Iron skillets clank. Drivers and outriders lose cowboy hats at every bounce.
Billows of dust rise to the top of a sandstone bluff separated from the scene by the South Fork of the Little Red River. There, standing at the edge of the cliff like the entire Navajo nation. 5,000 mute figures watch the action unfold below.
Welcome to the backyard of Dan and Peggy Eoff. Welcome to the Ninth Annual National Championship Chuckwagon Races.
The Eoffs devote their entire spread in Clinton, Ark. (no relation), to the races: 315 acres of racecourses; parking lots for spectators; a concession area larger than those of some county fairs; two campgrounds for wagon drivers, their families and horses; and the bluff, which provides a CinemaScope view from the comfort of a spectator's own lawn chair.
In the concession area one may buy lariats, saddles, cowboy hats, fried onion blossoms, plastic tornado shelters (with room for a family of seven), more hats, Western earrings, bolas, hand-scrolled leather belts, bull skulls embossed with the image of John Wayne as he appeared in the 1959 Western Rio Bravo, more hats, turkey jerky, chaps, snow cones, funnel cakes and still more hats.
On race weekend each day's activities begin when Dan picks up a microphone, switches off the canned country and announces. "Gentlemen, please remove cover for prayer and our national anthem." This is a country crowd. During the prayer the only sounds other than Dan's gravelly voice are the distant neighing of horses and the whisper of warm breezes coursing up the bluff and through the pines. A trumpet player—you would swear from his nervous expression that he is Floyd the barber or maybe Goober cleaned up for the occasion—blows a surprisingly haunting rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. Despite a couple of flubbed notes, or perhaps because of them, you feel yourself sucked into the production. The wagons begin to look grand as they roll around for the opening parade. The mustached men and pony-tailed women perched on the wagons look somehow noble, true. Hollywood or not, the spectacle is wondrous to behold.
"It started out as just a party," says Peggy Eoff of the event that this year drew 152 wagon teams and an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 spectators over the Labor Day weekend. "After we got married, in 1986, we were invited to several big get-togethers at other ranches. Our house was a lot smaller then, and it was kind of our turn. So we decided to do something outside for Labor Day. This was it."
Peggy, 37, and Dan, 45, could almost pass for Angie Dickinson and John Wayne in Rio Bravo. She's compact and blonde and favors red-checkered blouses. He's tall, broad and bigger than life beneath a 10-gallon hat. Together they operate the Bar of Ranch and, in Clinton, the Bar of Feed Store.
"Dan's not the type to sit around and eat and drink beer and talk about stuff," Peggy continues. "He wants to get up and do something, maybe then sit around and talk about it. Well, we'd just been to the Cheyenne Frontier Days Festival and seen some wagon races. So Dan called up everyone he knew and said. "Bring your wagons over Labor Day, and we'll have us a big race.' "
The Eoffs expected 100 visitors that first race weekend, but about 500 showed up. Sensing that they might be on to something, the Eoffs began advertising, charging spectators for admission and renting food concessions to what they called the Arkansas Championship Chuckwagon Race.