2016 Sultana Heritage Festival starting to take shape
Chamber making plans for April 30May 1 event
By Mark Randall
The list of events for the first annual Sultana Heritage Festival are almost complete and organizers say it is shaping up to be a fun two-day event.
“We’re super excited,” said Tracy Brick, Marion Chamber of Commerce Director of Member Services and Events. “We’re going to float this out there and see how it goes. We hope this will turn in to an annual event.” The event will be held April 30-May 1 on the courthouse square in Marion and will commemorate America’s greatest maritime disaster.
The Sultana was a Mississippi River paddlewheel steamboat that exploded about seven miles north of Memphis in the early morning hours of April 27, 1865.
Over 1,700 people were killed, most of them Union soldiers who were former prisoners of war returning home after the end of the Civil War and had been crowded onto the grossly overloaded boat.
The Sultana disaster has a special connection to Marion. The remains of the boat sank near Mound City and are today buried 30 feet under a soybean field.
Several early residents of Marion whose ancestors still live in Marion today helped rescue the survivors, despite being former Confederates.
The city has held two exhibits of original Sultana artifacts in 2013 and 2014 and has pledged $400,000 to help jump-start construction of a bigger, permanent museum.
The temporary museum, which opened in conjunction of the 150th anniversary of the disaster in 2015, is located on Washington Street by the county courthouse.
It contains artifacts and documents which help tell the story, as well as a wall of names listing all who were aboard and those who died, and a 14 foot model of the boat.
The event is free to the public. Visitors will get to tour the museum, see period craftsmen at work, Civil War memorabilia, vendors, a living history encampment, music, wagon rides on the Marion Lake walking trail, and a traveling exhibit on Andersonville Prison. “We are in talks with them about putting together an exhibit showing where the prisoners came from,” Brick said. “So we hope to have that.”
Brick said he Lee Millar Band, a group of Civil War era musicians will make a return visit to Marion to provide period music entertainment for the event.
“They were here last year and played at the dinner at the Methodist church,” Brick said. “They are really fun to watch.”
General Ulysses S. Grant will also be on hand for the weekend played by re-enactor Curt Fields.
“He will be on the grounds to talk with visitors,” Brick said. “He’s incredible. I’ve looked at his website and Facebook page. He is the splitting image of Grant.”
“Remember the Sultana,” a full-length feature film documentary by Mike Marshall, will also be making its Marion debut Saturday night at the Marion Performing Arts Center.
The documentary had its premiere last year in Memphis to coincide with the 150th anniversary.
“It hasn’t been seen over here yet,” Brick said. “So we thought that would be a great place to screen it.”
Attendees will also get a sneak peek at the plans for a permanent museum.
The Haizlip Firm of Memphis, who has been working with the city to design the museum, will share their vision with the public.
Jerry Potter, author of “The Sultana Tragedy: America’s Greatest Maritime Disaster,” and Gene Salecker author of “Disaster on the Mississippi,” will be on hand to sign copies of their books, along with Al Arnold, author of “Robert E. Lee’s Orderly.”
“His ancestor was Robert E. Lee’s orderly,” Brick said. “He will talk about the war from an African-American perspective. So we are excited to have him.”
Brick said the highlight of Sunday will be an outdoor picnic basket lunch followed by a Civil War period church service led by former Marion United Methodist pastor Brother Tom Letchworth.
“He’s a really big Civil War enthusiast,” Brick said. “So he is going to come back and do that service for us.”
The lunch will be $25 for a picnic basket for two.
Reservations can be made by calling the Marion Chamber of Commerce.
“We will put up information about what the menu will be,” Brick said. “You will get a picnic basket for two and you get to keep the basket.”
The events are free to the public.
Brick said she needs about 25 volunteers. Anyone interested in volunteering can call the Marion Chamber of Commerce.
“We’re going to need volunteers to help set up and then be there throughout the day,” Brick said. “And on Sunday when we do the picnic lunch we will need volunteers to help set up and act as ushers for the church service, and of course to help clean up.”