Ready Set Go! They're Off!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Racing turtles are not the fastest creatures on land. They are some of the most fun to watch in Poinsett County.

The Lepanto Terrapin Derby is a festival that has been held in Lepanto every year since 1930. It occurs on the first Saturday in October on Main Street.

The Terrapin Derby was the creation of the Willie Lamb Post 26 of the American Legion, which designed it as a fundraiser for its various community projects. It was originally called the Annual American Legion Turtle Derby. Turtle racers were charged an entry fee, and the top three finishers shared in a cash prize. The turtles raced down a sixty foot course toward a finish line that was lined with slices of watermelon. Deltas residents, desperate for a diversion of any kind during the Great Depression, gathered their entrants and flocked to Lepanto. The 1937 derby brought more than 4,000 people from Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee to witness the event, which consisted of more than 350 entrants.

In 1934, another tradition was added to the festival when Virginia Portis Cross was crowned the first Terrapin Derby Queen. (Cross returned to the derby in 2007 as the grand marshal of the Terrapin Derby parade and had the honor of crowning the new queen.)

The American Legion continued to host the successful event until 1981, when it was turned over to Lepanto's Museum. The museum group used the profits to supplement its building and maintenance funds. It, in turn, handed the event over to the Lepanto Fire Department in 1999; the fire department utilizes the funds for training and equipment. They still remain the sponsors today.

While music, food, drawings, carnival rides and craft booths have become a mainstay of the Terrapin Derby, the turtle races are still at the heart of the event. Turtles are now supplied by local individuals, and the entrants pay to draw a number that corresponds to a number painted on the back of a turtle. Prizes are still offered to the top three finishers. Today hundreds more tickets are sold than the turtles that are raced.

Also included is a 5k run, a street dance and a beauty pageant. A crowd begins to gather around the "race track" in front of the stage on Main Street around 3 P.M. with the race set to start at 4 P.M. It draws several thousand people to the small town each October for the festivities.

The Terrapin Derby received national attention in 2004 when Southern humorist Julia Reed used the festival in the title of her book 'Queen of the Turtle Derby' and Other Southern Phenomena and referred to the event in the introduction.

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