Marion A&P will fund Sultana Festival in 2019
City agrees to spend $ 10,000 of 4th annual gathering
Marion will again host a lecture series about the Sultana steamboat disaster in 2019 but may move it to the historic county courthouse.
The city’s Advertising and Promotions Commission agreed to give the Chamber of Commerce $10,000 to spend on what will be the fourth year the city has put on the event.
Chamber President Tracy Brick said that while the number of people attending the festival has been modest, the lectures have proven to be very popular with attendees and has generated greater awareness of and positive attention for Marion.
“We still only had about 100 people attend,” Brick said. “But the people who attend it really, really enjoy it. This was our third year and I think we finally hit on the right formula.”
The annual Sultana Festival features lectures on various topics about the ill-fated boat and has been used to help raise awareness of the disaster and promote the city’s Sultana museum.
The Sultana was a Mississippi River paddle wheel steamboat that exploded on April 27, 1865 with 2,000 passengers onboard, mostly Union soldiers who were returning home following the end of the Civil War.
About 1,200 people died making it the greatest maritime disaster in U.S. history. The event was relegated to the back pages in newspapers in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and mostly forgotten.
Several Marion residents helped rescue survivors and the remains of the boat are buried under a soybean field just outside the city. Marion operates a small museum on Washington Street which commemorates the disaster and is working on plans to raise money to build a bigger permanent museum.
Brick asked the commission if they wanted to again fund a festival in 2019 or skip a year.
She said they may have to find another location to host the event because the third weekend in April, which they usually schedule the event for, falls on Easter. The Sultana Festival has been using Trinity in the Fields Anglican Church for the event.
“ I don’t imagine the church will want us set up in their sanctuary on the Saturday before Easter,” Brick said. “So if we decide we want to continue with it, do we want to find another location? Or do we want to do it every other year?”
Brick said the Sultana Festival has resulted in a lot of attention for the museum, but added that they spent $13,000 last year and only had about 100 people attend.
“My opinion is, the people who came really, really liked it,” Brick said. “And one thing I can say with the Sultana is that you are getting the city’s name out there. So it’s money well spent. On the other hand, we’re spending about $130 a head for people to come.” City Councilman David Bigger, who chairs the A& P Commission, said he would like to see the festival continue, but asked Brick if they could put it on for less.
“I think it’s a good thing,” Bigger said. “Do you have to spend that much money?”
Brick said the bulk of the money is spent on advertising in Civil War magazines. She said expenses should be lower in 2019 because they won’t need to rent a movie screen and sound system to show the documentary
“No, we don’t have to spend that much money,” Brick said. “About 80 percent was spent on advertising. We had some expenses because I hired the AV company that did Hogs on the Square to show the movie so that we would have a good screen and sound. We won’t have that expense again.”
A& P member Loretta Tacker, who owns The Shake Shack, said she would like to see the event be held every year since Marion is pinning its hopes that a new museum will be a bigger tourist draw.
“I think if we are going with Sultana, skipping a year is a bad idea,” Tacker said. “It’s important to us.” A& P has already committed $400,000 to build the Sultana museum from the proceeds of the city’s one cent tax on prepared foods. Mayor Frank Fogleman agreed.
“From small embers grow big fires,” Fogleman said.
“To go to an every other year format would really put a damper on the gains we are making.”
The Sultana Festival drew not only residents from Marion, but also from Memphis and other parts of Tennessee and Mississippi, and as far away as Alaska, California, Indiana, Oklahoma, Georgia, and Connecticut.
“I would say 40 percent were not local,” Brick said. Brick said museum volunteer Rosalind O’Neal suggested having the 2019 lectures be centered around the common theme of who was to blame for the disaster.
“Her idea was to identify one subject and build the speakers around that,” Brick said. “That way we could have Hartford Steam Boiler come in and do a presentation and possibly even the Coast Guard, which somebody told me was formed because of this.”
Fogleman brought up the possibility of using the county courthouse to host the event.
“Maybe they will be gracious enough to let us use the historic courtroom upstairs,” Fogleman said.
“And the courthouse is still in the shadow of the museum. It is convenient so that if somebody wants to skip a lecture they can spend 30 to 40 minutes in the museum.
“I agree, the courthouse would be nice,” Bigger agreed.
Brick said $10,000 will be enough to put the festival on.
By Mark Randall