For the past 63 years, Arkansans and out-of-state visitors have gathered in the small town of Grady during the hottest part of August for a humble fish fry to benefit a local philanthropic organization. Due to declining attendance and revenue, this Arkansas tradition may be endangered. Despite the obstacles that it is facing, there may yet be a light at the end of the tunnel for the Grady Fish Fry.
Starting in the mid-1950s, the Grady Fish Fry was a way for the local Lions Club to raise funds for various charity efforts. It started humbly enough, according to Grady Lions Club member Jane Buchan.
“The story I hear is that they did a lot of the fishing themselves at the White River,” she says. “So they had the first fish fry, and they had, I think about 200 people. So it progressed through the years and of course it got bigger and bigger and bigger. They had to start buying the food.”
In the following decades, the fish fry became a notable event in Arkansas, and it developed a reputation in some quarters for being a spot for politicians and would-be politicians to glad-hand.
According to Rex Nelson, senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Arkansas cultural cheerleader, the Grady Fish Fry is a unique slice of Arkansas culture.
Nelson says he began attending the fish fry around 1990 after returning to Arkansas from Washington, D.C., where he served as the Washington correspondent for the Arkansas Democrat. Since his first visit, he says he’s missed only a “handful” in the last three decades.
To Nelson, the Grady Fish Fry was not merely a small town fundraiser or get-together. He considers it an Arkansas icon, something with a larger significance that harkens back to a different time period.
“It was almost like a scene from a movie: a pecan orchard, prisoners in their white uniforms, waiting tables, the prison band playing, politicians handing out cards and people fanning themselves in the hot with funeral home fans, which later became political candidate fans,” he says. “It had all those elements, like a scene from a movie about the South.”
This atmosphere gave the fish fry a sense of being frozen in time, which Nelson says added to its charm. “It pretty much stayed the same, which is why I liked it. A lot of the same people worked there until the day they died,” he says.”
The reality is that many of those working with the Lions Club are getting older. Buchan says the Lions Club has had difficulty recruiting new members. While the club once boasted a membership of 44, it is now down to 17 members. Of the members it has left, the average age is roughly 75, Buchan says.
But the most pressing issue is the fish fry’s attendance. In recent years, the crowds at the Grady Fish Fry have been growing smaller. Buchan says the attendance had steadily increased, until the past decade, when it began decreasing.
“But then it started decreasing in the last few times we had it. It was down to 900, which really sounds like a pretty good number…but that little bit of extra income that wasn’t there – that’s the bottom line of why we don’t have it. We weren’t making enough money anymore.”
The Lions Club continued with the 2018 fish fry without its sponsor but felt it could not justify this year’s event. When asked if the club had looked for a corporate sponsor, Buchan says the club had considered a sponsor but did not know where to begin the search process.
“I haven’t been [looking]. I wanted to, but I just didn’t know where to look,” she says.
Last week, after Arkansas Money & Politics announced that the Grady Fish Fry was canceled, Buchan received two calls about possible sponsorships. The Lions Club members are expected to discuss the potential sponsorships at the club’s Monday meeting.
Whatever the outcome, Buchan does not expect the Grady Fish Fry to happen in 2019.
“I don’t think that will be able to do anything this year. Certainly not at our regular date, which would be the third Thursday in August. That’s kind of been the motto: always the third Thursday in August,” Buchan says.
Buchan says one of the possible sponsors suggested having the event in the fall, a plan that Nelson supports to keep the fish fry’s consecutive streak alive.
“I hope that – obviously it is too late too to do something on the third Thursday in August, but I hope we can do one of some type before the end of the year to keep that streak going,” Nelson says. “We’ll see. We’ll see where it goes.”
However, the amount of preparation for the fish fry likely precludes a fall 2019 event, Buchan says.