Friday, May 3, 2019

May means Toad Suck Daze

Piloting steamboats up the Arkansas River in the 1800s could make a man mighty thirsty, and when the river dropped below navigational levels it was just the excuse needed by captains and crew to disembark for alcoholic refreshments.
One such spot was near present-day Conway, Arkansas. While the steamboat personnel waited for the river to rise, local tavern owners made a killing selling them drinks. Residents, however, were not as happy to see the steamboat guys arrive and drink to abandon. They were known to remark, “They suck on the bottle ‘til they swell up like toads.”
That spot on the river became “Toad Suck.”
Naturally, there’s a festival.
This weekend will be the 37th annual Toad Suck Daze (Friday through Sunday, May 3-5, 2019) covering eight city blocks in downtown Conway. The original festival was held at Toad Suck Park near the Toad Suck Ferry Lock and Dam but moved to Conway after the river flooded in 1990.   
The annual fete includes live music performances, arts and crafts, 10K/5K race and the Tour de Toad bike race, “Toad Market,” children’s activities, carnival rides and, yes, the World Championship Toad Races. Proceeds benefit a scholarship program to promote higher education in the county. And admission is free. 
Downtown Conway
“To date,” according to the festival website, “$1.7 million was raised for scholarships, scholarship endowments and, more recently, preschool funding.
Don’t be put off by the name; this is one great festival. Conway’s Toad Suck Daze Festival has won numerous medals, including three gold, from the International Festivals and Events Association Convention.
For more information on the Toad Suck Daze, visit

Cheré Coen is an award-winning travel writer specializing in the Deep South. She is also the author of “Forest Hill, Louisiana: A Bloom Town History,” “Haunted Lafayette, Louisiana” and “Exploring Cajun Country: A Historic Guide to Acadiana” and co-author of “Magic’s in the Bag: Creating Spellbinding Gris Gris Bags and Sachets.” Write her at

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Happy Birthday Coach Robinson

Grambling State University in Grambling, Louisiana, owns a great history — and this year that history honors a milestone.

Grambling was home to legendary coach Eddie Robinson, who scored more than 400 wins and became the first college football coach — and only one of two — to do so. Robinson was born on Feb. 13, 1919, and the school celebrates his birthday centennial this year.

Happy Birthday Coach Robinson.

For a list of his birthday events this year, click here.

Coach Robinson spent his entire career at Grambling State, from 1941 to 1997, and won more than 400 victories during that time. More than 200 players under his command were sent into the National Football League, including four Hall of Famers. Alumnus Doug Williams was the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XXII.

The Eddie Robinson Museum at 126 Jones St. in the city of Grambling honors the man and coach. Exhibits include recreations of Robinson’s office, the football team’s locker and film rooms, a “Hall of Honors” displaying the team’s trophies, awards and accolades, and a room with pro football jerseys from notable Grambling alumni who played under Robinson.

The school’s other claim to fame is the exciting, vibrant Mighty Tiger Marching Band, which faces Southern University’s band every Thanksgiving in the annual Battle of the Bands contest in New Orleans.

Grambling State began in the 1870s as a school for independent African American property owners in Lincoln Parish. Eventually, the school morphed into the first all-black municipality in Louisiana, opening as an agricultural and industrial university in 1905 and then as an accredited institute of higher learning.

If you’re visiting the Grambling campus, be sure to visit the Charles Adams House, home of the founder and first president, and the Eddie Robinson Museum.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

On the trail of the Longleaf Pine

Rugged hills and a "Little Grand Canyon" in Louisiana? You'd be surprised.

In the heart of Louisiana the flat swamps and marshlands of the south turn to hills, rolling through the “Great Piney Woods” surrounding Alexandria. One of the gems of central Louisiana is the Kisatchie National Forest, 600,000 acres of pine forests, lakes and beautiful scenic drives.

Largely because of its unusual terrain, the Kisatchie Ranger District northwest of Alexandria is considered by local residents to be the “crown jewel” of the Kisatchie National Forest. Variations in topography range from level land to steep bluffs.

One such stretch of this region is the Longleaf Trail, located 5.5 miles south of the Derry Exit on Interstate Highway 49, a 17-mile route that follows a high ridge through the rugged Kisatchie Hills area. The Trail has been designated a scenic byway and touted as one of the most scenic drives in Louisiana. The terrain is exceptionally rugged for Louisiana, ranging from 120 to 400 feet in elevation, which allows for dramatic overlooks that go on for miles. Visitors will find mesas, buttes and sandstone outcrops, backdropped by longleaf pines, and the Kisatchie Bayou, a state natural and scenic stream. The Trail also traverses the National Red Dirt Wildlife Management Preserve, which includes the Kisatchie Hills Wilderness for about half its length. It provides numerous opportunities for viewing the wilderness.

Be sure to stop at the Longleaf Vista, which offers picnic areas in addition to the gorgeous view and 1.5-mile trail down to a bayou and over to the visitor’s center. Most of the Vista’s buildings were built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Camping — most of it primitive — is also available within the forest. 

To access the Longleaf Trail, exit I-49 at the Derry Exit, then head west on Louisiana Hwy. 119 to Hwy. 59. After traveling through the Kisatchie Forest, the Trail ends at the intersection with Hwy. 117, south of Bellwood. Longleaf Trail is a two-lane paved road suitable for all vehicles. It remains open year-round.

The Kisatchie Hills Wilderness lies next to the byway and is known locally as the "Little Grand Canyon" because of its steep slopes, rock outcrops, and mesas. Hiking and horseback riding trails lead you into this wilderness area. The Longleaf Vista Picnic Area is surrounded on three sides by this 8,700-acre wilderness area. A 1.5-mile nature trail is located here, as is a small visitor center. Restrooms and drinking water are also provided.

Wildlife observers will find white-tailed deer, foxes, opossums, squirrels, raccoons, and coyotes inhabiting the area. An occasional roadrunner can also be seen. Birdwatchers will delight in the numerous songbirds.

Most of the camping areas along the byway are primitive but do have drinking water or restroom facilities. Dogwood Campground is the most developed and has 20 RV and tent sites, drinking water, and flush toilets. Kisatchie Bayou has 17 walk-in sites and only one drive-in unit. Drinking water and vault toilets are provided. There is no water at Coyote, Cane, and Oak Campgrounds.

Information: Kisatchie National Forest, PO Box 5500, Pineville LA 71361 / 318-473-7160.

Weird, Wacky and Wild South is written by travel and food writer Chere Dastugue Coen, who loves getting outdoors in the woods.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Radar love at the Hangar Hotel

We adore Fredericksburg, Texas, with its charming shops and art galleries, outstanding restaurants, wineries, and historic attractions, from its German heritage spotlighted at the Pioneer Museum Complex to the National Museum of the Pacific War

But here’s one reason that makes us take flight — the Hangar Hotel.

The hotel resembles a true plane hangar (above left), mainly because it’s located at the Gillespie County Airport. But it only mimics a World War II-era building, because inside there’s a delightful boutique hotel. You’ll find 1940s music playing when you enter the lobby, decorated with period posters, antique luggage, and nods to Hill Country war heroes. Rooms contain period art pieces as well, including rotary phones, subway tiled bathrooms — and our favorite — comfy armchairs constructed from old leather bomber jackets. And at night, electric candles burn in the window in remembrance of those fighting far away.

The hotel’s only minutes from downtown Fredericksburg, but do visit the charming Airport Diner that resembles a train car and the Officer’s Club with its leather chairs, fireplace, grand piano and bar, the perfect spot for a late-night cocktail or conversing with friends.

Naturally, you can fly in, park your plane and enjoy a weekend away. We didn’t have the luxury of a private plane, but we loved every minute spent at the Hangar Hotel.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Cabbage Patch Kids celebrate 35 years in Georgia

Forty years ago, art student Xavier Roberts began experimenting with clay sculpture, “needle molding” and quilting techniques taught to him by his mother to produce a soft doll that resembled a baby. He called them “The Little People” and sold them at regional craft fairs, where he explained to buyers that he found them in a Cabbage Patch. He passed on instructions when he sold the Little People that those who “adopted” them had to be good parents.

The Little People were later sold in retail shops, each coming with a birth certificate and adoption papers. Then Roberts granted a licensing agreement to Coleco Industries of Hartford, Connecticut, in which Coleco would use the trademark “Cabbage Patch Kids.” In 1983, Coleco’s toy version of the Cabbage Patch Kids was introduced to the public.

To say these adoptive dolls took off would be a grave understatement. The Cabbage Patch Kids became the best-selling baby doll of all time, causing chaos during the holidays as parents stormed retail stores trying to buy the last one. Over the years, more than 140 million “adoptions” of Cabbage Patch Kids have been made worldwide.

If you think the Cabbage Patch Kids craze has lessen over time, here’s something to ponder. About 250,000 visitors come to Cleveland, Georgia, every year where at the BabyLand General Hospital new Cabbage Patch Kids are born. Visitors can visit the hospital for free and enjoy the store and this Saturday, Sept. 8, Original Appalachian Artworks (Roberts original company) and Wicked Cool Toys (the current licensee) are celebrating the birthday of the Cabbage Patch Kids. From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., there will be free activities for children and free cupcakes and ice cream while they last. Prizes will be awarded all day and the grand prize will be a one-of-a-kind soft sculpture Little Person signed by Xavier Roberts, commemorating 40 years of delivering babies.

Want to experience the World of Cabbage Patch Kids and BabyLand General? Check out this video.

Weird, Wacky and WIld South is written by travel and food writer Chere Dastugue Coen.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Forget Netflix, Lake of the Ozarks a beautiful place

If you’re like me, you just finished or in the process of bingeing the second season of “Ozark,” a Netflix series that concerns an American family forced to work for a Mexican cartel. The Byrds move from Chicago to the shores of Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri and experience a wide variety of culture shocks, with every stereotype imaginable, not to mention danger every step of the way.

The show is actually shot in Georgia, so don’t write off this idealic lake just because you think the Snells or Bad Dad Cade are going to get you. Here’s one reason why. Recently, Conde Nast Traveler named the Lake of the Ozarks’ Ha Ha Tonka State Park as the most beautiful spot in Missouri in its article of the most scenic places of each state. They weren’t alone. A few years ago, the park was also voted the fourth best state park in America by readers of USA Today.

The park's name, Ha Ha Tonka, derives from the local Osage Native American phrase thought to mean "laughing waters," in reference to the park’s large natural spring that pumps out more than 48 million gallons of water per day. In addition to the spring that’s the 12th largest in the state, there are 14 hiking trails and a natural bridge. Because it rests on the Niangua arm of the lake, the park offers plenty of opportunities to fish, swim and boat.  

The park's main attraction, however, is the fascinating ruins of the 20th century "castle" perched high on a bluff overlooking Ha Ha Tonka Spring and the Lake of the Ozarks. The structure was constructed as a country escape for Robert M. Snyder, a wealthy Kansas City businessman who died in one of Missouri's first automobile accidents (or was it the cartel, hmmm). Snyder never lived to see his dream realized but the home was completed by his sons and later operated as a hotel before being gutted by a fire in 1942. In addition to the outer walls of the estate, a stone water tower also remains.

Ha Ha Tonka is open year-round from 7 a.m. until dark and admission is free.

But back to the cartel, rednecks and hillbillies who make up “Ozark” and that bleak image of the lake on the show. The Lake of the Ozarks offers attractions and events as well as more than 200 restaurants and nightspots and more than 50 marinas. The lake sits in the center of the state with 1,150 miles of shoreline — and yes, that is more than the state of California.

But then again, Ha Ha Tonka State Park also contains a steep sinkhole named "The Colosseum," a 150-foot deep sink basin with two bluff shelters that were used as hide-outs by bandits in the 1830s. Hmmm again.

To learn more about Ha Ha Tonka State Park, visit

Weird, Wacky and Wild South is written by food and travel writer Chere Dastugue Coen, who loves binge-watching a great Netflix series. They better bring "Ozark" back for season three!

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The truth is out there…in Alabama

Note: This post originally was published in 2017. It has been updated to include this year's festival.

On Feb. 11-12, 1989, more than 50 people, including the chief of police, reported seeing odd objects flying over the small community of Fyffe in northeastern Alabama. The rash of UFO sightings, and the thousands of people who arrived looking for UFOs, resulted in the town being named the UFO Capital of the World. Not to be outdone, the state later proclaimed it the UFO Capital of Alabama.

On Saturday, Aug. 25, 2018, the annual Fyffe UFO Day Festival will kick into gear. Visitors may not spot little green men flying around in saucers — or maybe they will! —but there will definitely be hot air balloons, arts and crafts, children’s games, 5K run, antique car and tractor show and food vendors.  

Photos courtesy
DeKalb Tourism
Headlining this year's event is Bucky Covington, whose self-titled debut album opened at No. 1 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart. His hits include "Different World," "I'll Walk," "Good to Be Us" and last summer's "Buzzin'" and "Drinking Side of Country" with Shooter Jennins. Also scheduled to perform is singer-songwriter Brandon Elder, Leah Seawright, Still Kickin', Willie Underwood and Family and Country Case.

Gates open at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Fyffe Town Park on Graves Street, but the hot air balloons take flight around 6 a.m. Tethered rides are offered for the public around 6 p.m. and hot air balloon rides across the Sand Mountain will be available, weather permitting. For information, visit

Registration for the 5K begins at 7 a.m. with the race beginning at 8 a.m. For more information, click here.

Parking and admission are free and visitors are encouraged to bring lawn chairs and picnic blankets. For more information on UFO Day Festival, call DeKalb Tourism at (888) 805-4740 or visit

Want to know more about that rash of UFO sightings in 1989 and a few Alabama UFO reports preceding Fyffe’s encounters? Click here.

Here’s something fun (or maybe weird), a commercial aimed at keeping teenagers from driving and drinking using Fyffe and its UFO reputation as a backdrop.

Cheré Coen is a food and travel writer who loves weird and unusual things.