It's hard to think of something more iconic to East Texas than fire ant mounds after a big rain at the right time of year. It's equally hard to think of many events more intrinsically linked to Marshall's identity than the festival named after those little pesky East Texans – the fire ants.
It was 35 years ago that the idea for an all encompassing event dotted with all things fire ant started germinating in Marshall. Former News Messenger Publisher George Smith saw a need to spur some economic activity in town and thought a strange and attention grabbing gimmick might just do the trick. He was right.
What began as a somewhat desperate reach for a way to drum up some funds for the city, quickly marched its way into residents hearts. Marshallites embraced the wacky, over-the-top games and events, from gurning to raw pizza dough flinging (a doomed venture with hilarious if not anticipated results). Not only did residents come out to play games, they came to experience the largest fire ant every seen in town: Freddy. Freddy, and later Elvira and their family, worked his six-legged self onto almost everything in town that stood still: T-shirts, posters, hand-turned pottery from Marshall Pottery. The iconic bug became a friend residents looked forward to seeing every year.
Beyond the obvious commercial success of the initial festivals – the first of which drew in 30,000 people – it's hard to put enough value on the less tangible effect the event. Simply put, FireAnt Festival brings the town together, and that is very, very good. Downtown Marshall is always hopping during the festival. Children who don't know each other will all play and laugh and dance together. Adults will talk and eat with friend and strangers alike. Residents will spend the whole day in the center of their town with their neighbors. What more could you ask for from a one-day event?
We are glad the Greater Marshall Chamber of Commerce took Smith's idea and ran with it and has continued to host it over the decades. While the event has ebbed and flowed, added new events and retired old ones, it has remained a Marshall icon and at its most basic level, a fabulous time in town. We hope the next 35 festivals will be just full of fun and, perhaps the only time we will ever say, fire ants.