The history of the festival began in early 1986 when a small group of individuals discussed the feasibility of establishing a local event to promote Franklin Parish. The parish at this time was experiencing the emergence of a new industry in the field of aquaculture, specifically, farm raised catfish centered in the Wisner area. Thousands of acres of ponds were constructed, one processing plant existed, and a second processing plant and a feed mill were in the planning stages. This new and growing industry presented itself as an excellent theme around which to build a festival. The festival would publicize the industry, but more than that it could be a great instrument to promote Winnsboro and Franklin Parish. The potential of such an event had been realized.
The catfish festival began in 1986 under the leadership of Rudy McIntyre. Representatives from all major organizations of the parish were brought together as a planning committee. Areas of responsibility were identified and chairpersons appointed. There were no funds available for the first festival to be staged in 1987, but plans were being made.
The first festival included a children's area, a sound stage, sale of catfish plates, food and craft booths, cooking and eating contests, a 5K Run, a photo contest, a civil war reenactment, and other attractions to provide a full day of entertainment and family oriented fun.
David Carraway designed a festival logo and as payment was allowed to produce 300 festival posters and was entitled to revenue from their sales. The logo was placed on 1500 t-shirts for sale at the first festival.
Sources of revenue for the festival were limited to: catfish plates, cokes, t-shirts, and booth rentals. The cost of the first festival came to $10,000. Festival revenue came to $16,000 and the tourist commission contributed $5,000 which gave the festival committee $11,000 to use for the 1988 festival.
Predicted attendance for the first festival was 6,000. The total daily attendance was estimated to have been between 8,000 and 10,000. Based on these figures alone the first event was an overwhelming success and the funds were available for growth.
Festival organizers were now ready for expansion and had funds in hand to work with. There were high expectations for 1988. The first year only the front of Winnsboro Elementary was used. The entire campus was used in 1988. A second sound stage was added along with an area dedicated to children. Miss. Louisiana was invited to perform. Booth rental increased from 75 to 117 spaces. Festival cost jumped to $18,000 a portion of which went to advertising. The 1988 festival proved a success with estimated daily attendance of 15,000 and a profit of $10,000 which added to the $11,000 from the first festival made $21,000 available for 1989.
The Franklin Parish Catfish Festival matured in 1989. The budget grew to $28,000, 190 booth spaces were rented, a third sound stage was added, and the festival grounds doubled in size with the blockading of Highway 15. A variety of music was presented, from country blue grass to brass quintets. New attractions included the Wallenda's High Wire Act, a softball tournament, Ronald McDonald, and a celebrity tricycle race. Estimated attendance hit 20-25,000. The problem encountered which had to be dealt with before 1990 was parking. The festival is no longer a local event and incoming guests must be accommodated. Growth and the problems it creates must be dealt with. The festival reached a size where effects on the economy are recognized, something not expected to happen so soon.
The 1990 festival saw a 30% increase in grounds by incorporating a large portion of downtown Winnsboro. The cost of the festival reached $60,000 and gross proceeds were $80,000. This was accomplished by sale of 5000 t-shirts, 3000 lbs. Of catfish, renting 250 booth spaces, and benefits from corporate sponsors. The estimated crowd was 40,000. A free park and shuttle relieved parking problems. The dream was coming to fruition.
1991 through 1998 continued along the same lines. It was no longer a free event. Admission rose to $2.00 per person made possible by fencing in the festival. This also led to a reduction in crime, accidents , and other security problems encountered over the years. Major attractions of these years included Lumberjack Competitions and the Moving Wall Vietnam Memorial. The Moving Wall led to the largest attendance of all time in 1992. The festival has survived for twelve years overcoming administrative turnovers and logistical problems and never having to deal with a rainout. Increased corporate support has made festival finances manageable.
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