Archive for the ‘Joints’ Category

Into the Ozarks

Wednesday, August 24th, 2016

Leaving the annual Johnson County Peach Festival, we headed up Arkansas Highway 103 toward Oark.

That road, which winds from the Arkansas River Valley into the Ozarks, can be an adventure. It contains some of the state’s most daunting switchback curves. I can’t imagine trying to drive it when it’s starting to snow or sleet in the winter.

Looking at the covered hillsides along this route, it’s hard to visualize a landscape here that once was denuded by timber companies that would cut the trees and move on, not bothering to replant.

“Throughout the Arkansas River Valley, Johnson County has the largest amount of timber,” Jennifer Koenig Johnson writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “However, the timber industry provided only a temporary respite of prosperity, eventually declining in the 1930s and leaving many people to seek better opportunities elsewhere. In some cases, towns disappeared because they functioned based on the prosperity and success of the lumber industry. Starting in the 1930s, the U.S. Forest Service began buying up land that had been cleared and repopulating it in hopes of returning what was lumbered away.”

Johnson County’s population declined from 21,062 residents in the 1920 census to just 12,421 people by 1960.

Thousands of trees were planted during the Great Depression by the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps who were stationed at Camp Ozone, which was established in 1933. About 200 men lived at the camp.

On Dec. 18, 1907, President Teddy Roosevelt had signed a proclamation creating the Arkansas National Forest (now the Ouachita National Forest) on land south of the Arkansas River.

On March 6, 1908, he signed a proclamation creating the Ozark National Forest north of the Arkansas River, including large parts of Johnson County.

“The Ozark National Forest was the only major hardwood timberland under governmental protection at that time, and the forest would assist the furniture industry in northwest Arkansas as a renewable source of valuable hardwood,” Mary Wood writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The first forest headquarters was in Fort Smith. Samuel J. Record was the first forest supervisor, administering both the Arkansas (Ouachita) and Ozark national forests. Late in 1908, the Ozark National Forest received its own supervisor, David Fitton, who moved the headquarters to Harrison. In 1918, the headquarters moved to Russellville.

“Presidential proclamations increasing and decreasing the area of the Ozark National Forest occurred frequently during the early years. Three of the more significant changes were the executive order of President Franklin Roosevelt transferring the Magazine Ranger District from the Ouachita National Forest to the Ozark; the addition of the Henry R. Koen Experimental Forest on June 14, 1950; and the proclamation of President Dwight Eisenhower on Nov. 8, 1960, creating the St. Francis National Forest.”

We continued north on Highway 103 to where the Mulberry River flows. This tributary of the Arkansas River is one of our state’s most beautiful mountain streams.

“It flows generally southwest from its source and empties into the Arkansas River south of the city of Mulberry in Crawford County for a total length of approximately 70 miles,” Guy Lancaster writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Reportedly named for the number of mulberry trees growing in its vicinity, it is today well known among canoeists. The area around the Mulbery River has been the site of human habitation as far back as about 10,000 B.C. In historic times, the Osage Indians claimed much of this part of Arkansas, including the area drained by the Mulberry River, as their hunting grounds.

“The Cherokee settled in the area after leaving northeastern Arkansas and were formally given land in much of northwestern Arkansas in 1817, though they were later pressured to cede these lands in 1828. Permanent white settlement in the Mulberry River Valley began soon thereafter, mostly along the lower reaches of the river, near where it empties into the Arkansas River. The largest of these settlements was the community of Mulberry, which got its start after the completion of the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad in 1876.”

Canoeists and kayakers are drawn to the Mulberry when the water is right like bugs to a lamp. Margaret and Harold Hedges once wrote in a magazine story: “It offers an infinite variety of faster water, slow water, roaring rapids, rock gardens, choppy chutes, twisty channels — all sandwiched between pools of deep milky water that is serene and beautiful.”

Paul Austin, his son Josh and I even crossed the footbridge across the upper Mulberry between Oark and Catalpa. A group of children who had been swimming there were headed back to the highway on the hot summer day. It was an idyllic scene, like something out of a movie.

At that point, we were in the middle of seeing if we could finish the huge burgers at both the Oark General Store and the Catalpa Café & General Store.

Josh and I succeeded. Paul was the wimp in the group, unable to finish the second burger.

Oark is the best known of the two establishments. But the food is just as good — maybe even better — at Catalpa. Highway 103 ends at Oark, but the pavement continues near the banks of Mulberry on what’s now a Johnson County road to Catalpa. You’ll see signs so you’ll know when to turn down a short gravel road to the Catalpa Café.

The breakfast menu there features everything from homemade biscuits to pancakes to a breakfast burrito. Eggs benedict is served on Sundays. Coffee is free with any order.

The burgers for lunch and dinner all contain a half of pound of beef. The Catalpa Burger has barbecue sauce, sautéed onions and pepper jack cheese. Dad’s Burger has fried jalapenos, pepper jack cheese and Sriracha sauce. The Bubblehead comes with bacon, pepper jack cheese and jalapenos. The Juicy Lucy, which I had, is a cheese-stuffed burger with sautéed mushrooms and onions.

There’s also pulled pork, smoked brisket, turkey and several daily specials. There are always several kinds of homemade pies, and they’ll sell you whole pies if you order them in advance.

The Oark General Store, which is popular with bikers, opened in 1890. Its menu also has a selection of half-pound burgers (such as the Angry Hornet with grilled jalapenos, bell pepper, pepper jack cheese and chipotle mayonnaise).

Here’s how Michael Tilley described the place in a 2013 story for The City Wire: “Reagan and Brian Eisele are not who you would expect to find mixing up a special hushpuppy recipe or applying an egg wash to the top of a homemade pie. The couple, who married in April 2012, bought the historic Oark General Store on May 18, 2012. With little to no restaurant experience, they dug their entrepreneurial hooks into an unforgiving, low-margin business. The store first opened in 1890 to provide supplies for those intrepid souls who chose to scrap out a living in Oark, a town connected to the world then by a few rugged and often impassable logging trails. The building purchased by the Eiseles includes some of the original furnishings from that 1890 building. Today the store is a restaurant but does sell fuel and several food items.”

Tilley went on to tell how the couple met: “Reagan was a staffer for then-U.S. Rep. John Boozman, and Brian was a staffer with U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina. They were part of a tour to learn about the emerging energy industry in Azerbaijan. Although the energy reserves were abundant, the fledgling country had little in the way of modern pipeline and storage infrastructure when it became an independent country. The first major pipeline — the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan — opened in July 2006. Brian and Reagan and other congressional staffers ventured into the important geopolitical crossroads — the country is located between Russia and Iran — during February 2010. The tour period included Valentine’s Day. … The love blossomed, and Brian and Reagan visited each other’s families.

“Brian grew up in Aiken, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina in December 2005. Reagan grew up in Hartman in Johnson County and graduated from Arkansas Tech University in May 2006. During an April 2012 visit, Brian proposed to Reagan, and the wedding was planned for a site near Ponca in the scenic Boxley Valley. While Reagan was in Arkansas planning the wedding, she noticed a blurb about the Oark General Store.”

She had taken Brian there once for pie and coffee. She let him know it was for sale.

Brian told Tilley: “When I worked in Congress, I worked under and alongside some of the most hardworking and intelligent people. But at the end of the day, just because I was a lowly peon in the scheme of things, I never really felt any concrete achievement for myself. It was always for others.”

He wanted a business of his own. And he didn’t want to raise a family in the nation’s capital.

Brian’s parents helped finance the $170,000 purchase a few weeks after the couple was married in 2012.

Well-known Arkansas food writer Kat Robinson described the store this way: “The fantastic burgers from past incarnations are still there, great pies of half a dozen varieties are always in the case and there’s always a conversation going on within the walls, just like with those gentlemen of old who came to warm themselves around the stove with gossip and coffee.”

After eating at Catalpa and Oark, we took Arkansas Highway 215 from Oark until the road intersects with Arkansas Highway 23 (the Pig Trail) at Cass. If there’s a more scenic stretch of road in Arkansas, I don’t know what it is.

Highway 215 runs along the Mulberry for 18 miles between Oark and Cass and is more like a national parkway than a state highway with its scenic overlooks and interpretive panels.

In the November 2014 issue of Arkansas Highways magazine, Marilyn Collins wrote: “The flowing water of the Mulberry River offers an Ozark view not experienced by many. The river twists and turns around rock ledges, beneath scenic overlooks, and reveals the geological history and cultural heritage of Johnson and Franklin counties. … During the spring, water levels are high and challenge the most adventurous. Water calms during the summer months, providing a playground for visitors to swim, float, skip rocks and fish.”

Black bears often are seen in the area.

“People have strong attachments to the Mulberry River Valley landscape,” said Mary Brennan of the U.S. Forest Service. “While many people visit here to participate in recreational opportunities, others return as descendants of the pioneer families who settled here 100 years or more ago. Many people who live and work in this area today are third- and fourth-generation residents. People’s attachments to this landscape are very strong.”

Matt Pfeifler of the U.S. Forest Service is a third-generation Oark resident. He said: “The Mulberry River was an important part of my childhood and my family’s lives. … It’s important that people have opportunities to appreciate and experience this place.”

What’s known as the Mulberry River Interpretive Driving Trail is a partnership between the Forest Service, the Federal Highway Administration, the Arkansas State Highway & Transportation Department, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and the Cass Job Corps Center.

Spots along the route include:

— The Redding Recreation Area and Spy Rock Trailhead: There’s a canoe launch on the river here. The Spy Rock Trail, which can be accessed from the Redding campground, is an eight-mile loop that connects with the Ozark Highlands Trail. Signage at the Redding campground interprets historic settlements along the Mulberry River and the nearby Hill Cemetery.

— Indian Creek canoe launch: Signage at this site interprets the impact of the Civil War on the area.

— High Bank canoe launch — Signage here interprets prehistoric occupation of the region.

— Yale Store site — The store was located at the confluence of the Mulberry River and Little Mulberry Creek. Signage interprets the schools, churches and social life along the Mulberry River.

— Wolf Pen Recreation Area — There are campgrounds and picnic areas. Signage interprets the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Forest Service.

The road was busy on the day we made the trip from Oark to Cass since an event known as the Homegrown Music Festival was being held at Byrd’s Adventure Center on the banks of the river. Hundreds of people were camping at Byrd’s, which has an 800-acre area for camping and an extensive trail network for ATVs and motorcycles. There’s a heated shower house, covered picnic areas, stages, a general store and even a 2,500-foot grass airstrip for those wanting to travel to the area in small private planes.

Byrd’s offers canoe, kayak, raft and tube rentals on the Mulberry.

Once we hit Highway 23, we headed south toward Ozark. No trip along the Pig Trail, of course, would be complete without a stop at Turner Bend.

The first Turners moved to the area from Tennessee in about 1830. Elias Turner arrived in 1848, served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War and was a member of the Arkansas Legislature in the 1870s.

In 1900, the first bridge across the Mulberry River at this point was constructed. Eleven years later, William Eli Turner built a store at the south end of the original bridge. The years 1935-36 saw a new bridge built and the original store burn. The Turner family built another store just south of the current location. In 1939, Champ Turner (the son of William Eli Turner) married Flora Coleman and took over operation of the store. The store closed during World War II while Champ served in the Army. In 1946, Champ and Flora reopened the store. They continued to operate it until 1978 when Champ died of cancer.

Enter Brad Wimberly.

Wimberly bought the store from the Turner family in 1981, moved into the back and started renting canoes. He built the current facility in 1986-87 and expanded his operations through the years with campgrounds, cabin rentals and other improvements.

In August 2011, Wimberly threw a big celebration to mark the 100th anniversary of the store and his 30th year of ownership.

Beth Turner, a granddaughter of Champ and Flora, told the state Department of Parks & Tourism in 2011: “Turner Bend for 100 years has kept that valley going. Grandma and Grandpa, they made that area a family. They were always there, and the light was always on.”

Beth Turner produced a documentary on the area titled “Ties That Bind.” She said her grandparents did everything from bandaging cuts to pulling cars out of ditches.

“The Turners raised three sons in half of their building while conducting business out of the other half,” Wimberly said in 2011. “In those days, the store was known as the home of Bubbles the myna bird. Apparently, Bubbles had a large vocabulary, some of it X-rated. Champ was something of a trader and had lots of old guns hanging from the wall inside the store. The public restroom was an outhouse sitting over a creek.”

Jill Rohrbach wrote in 2011: “Turner Bend was more than an outfitter or supply source. It was a social center, like an office water cooler. State politicians, including a young Bill Clinton, stopped by to shake hands and explain their positions to Champ, who would then pass the information on to people in the valley who visited the store. People, mostly from outside the region, began flocking to the Mulberry to canoe in the later 1960s after the guide book ‘The Mighty Mulberry’ was published.”

Wimberly said: “Champ did not have a gauge as such but could tell you how many steps were covered and whether the river was rising or falling.”

No all of the natives welcomed the visitors.

“Wimberly and his friends canoed the Mulberry often,” Rohrbach wrote. “He particularly remembers conversations with Champ during the 1976 and 1977 spring float seasons. ‘When we returned for a float trip in 1978, the store was closed,’ he says. ‘Champ was soon to pass on.’ The Turner family leased the store out for a couple of years before selling it.”

Wimberly said: “As the saying goes, fools rush in. I purchased the store in May 1981. Good thing I was only 26 since there were hardships and problems at every turn. I lived in the back of the old store like the Turners before me. The wiring was faulty, the water well was suspect, the roof was leaky and there was no insulation. It was so hot inside the store that I would step outside and hose myself down and then step in the cooler just to be able to stand it.”

Wimberly built a rock landing on the river in the fall of 1981. He married his wife Vien on the banks of the river.

“University of Arkansas students flew down the trail on Fridays and back up on Sundays,” Wimberly said. “Businessmen traveling to and from Little Rock would stop, going and coming back. Hog fans with their flags flying stopped on their way to games. Canoeing on the Mulberry grew in popularity.”

A new store was built adjacent to the old building in 1986.

“We had to build part of the new building, tear part of the old one down, build some more, tear the rest of the old building down, then complete the construction,” Wimberly told Rohrbach. “The whole process took about a year, and we never closed a day.”

When what’s now Interstate 49 opened in 1999, traffic slowed on Highway 23.

“I had naively thought that a lot of the regulars would continue to travel the Pig Trail since it is so much shorter than the interstate route, but I was wrong,” Wimberly said. “We lost all of the regular traffic. Students now attend the University of Arkansas and don’t even know what the Pig Trail is.”

Turner Bend lives on, though. The Mulberry has continued to increase in popularity as a float stream, and motorcyclists discovered the Pig Trail. There were several dozen motorcycles in the parking lot the day we were there. It remains an Arkansas classic.

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A trip to The Tamale Factory

Monday, March 4th, 2013

It was, in so many ways, a trip back in time.

We exited Interstate 40 at Hazen on that Friday afternoon and headed north on Arkansas Highway 11 to Des Arc.

How many times had I made the trip on this section of highway through the years to visit my grandparents at Des Arc? It would be impossible to count them.

Dad, who died two years ago yesterday, would be at the wheel of the big Oldsmobile. Mom would be in the passenger seat up front. My sister and I would be in the back. Having been raised in the pine woods of south Arkansas, I was intrigued by the huge fields and the views that seemed to stretch for miles to the horizon.

Then, as now, the Delta and Grand Prairie were places apart.

We knew what awaited us in Des Arc — great cooking by my grandmother, Bess Rex Caskey, in the old family home on Erwin Street; a visit to the chicken yard to gather eggs each morning with my grandfather, W.J. Caskey; a walk across the street to check his post office box, a stop in the Farmers and Merchants Bank and then a stroll down Main Street, where the Caskey Funeral Home and the Caskey Hardware Store had once been located.

If it were summer, we might go down to Haley’s Fish Market to buy catfish that had been hauled that morning out of the White River, frying them for supper that evening. My grandfather would ask if they had any “fiddlers,” small catfish that he liked to fry whole.

If it were winter, Dad might take me along for a duck hunt.

I was in the company of three of Arkansas’ most noted storytellers on that recent Friday afternoon. Don Tilton, Paul Berry and Mary Berry had graciously invited me to tag along for dinner at The Tamale Family, the restaurant that Mary’s cousin George Eldridge has operated since November in a barn on the family farm at Gregory in Woodruff County.

As we headed up Highway 11 between Hazen and Des Arc, we passed the familiar landmarks — the Wattensaw Bayou, where we would sometimes hunt ducks; the Darrell Saul Farm, where I had attended political fundraising events in my earlier life as a politico; the headquarters for the Wattensaw Wildlife Management Area, which had once been a club called Riverwood where we would go to swim; the cemetery where we buried my grandfather on a hot summer day and my grandmother on a cold winter day; the Presbyterian Church, which is being turned into a library; the offices of the White River Journal, one of this state’s best weekly newspapers, which has been in the Walls family for decades; the building my grandfather built to house his hardware store, a structure that still stands and still is home to a hardware store.

My grandfather sold his businesses to Willis Eddins who, in turn, sold them to Billy Garth. They remain in the Garth family.

Just across the street from that building is the Prairie County Courthouse, where my grandfather served terms as county assessor, county clerk and county judge. Though the man I called Pam-Pa had last held elective office in 1941, I loved it when people would still refer to him as Judge Caskey. It made me feel like he was important.

With Don — who’s known by his friends as Tilco — at the wheel, we crossed the White River bridge, looking to our right at that always magnificent view of the courthouse and downtown Des Arc. The current bridge is far safer than its predecessor, but it doesn’t have the character of what was known by locals as the Swinging Bridge. The massive suspension bridge, which was in operation from 1928-70, indeed would sway when trucks crossed it.

Whenever horses crossed the bridge, owners had to put covers over their heads and lead them. They refused to cross otherwise.

Here are a few of the comments posted about the Swinging Bridge on a website about bridges:

— “I lived east of the river and grew up crossing the bridge every day. We called it rattletrap bridge because of the sounds the boards made as the car went across. … It was terrifying to cross on those few boards on a school bus. When I started driving, I drove to school across the bridge every day. One day it was raining, and I lost control on the way up to the center of the bridge. My car fishtailed and hit the rails on the side three times before coming to rest. I remember the feeling of knowing I wasn’t going to make it. I’m now almost 60 years old, and I still dream about it and wake up shivering.”

— “I had such a love-hate relationship with the wonderful Swinging Bridge. One time, my dad had to back down past the huge curve in the bridge to let another car pass. I was so scared I got in the floorboard. As I grew older, my friends and I would walk the bridge on Sunday afternoons. Boards were always missing, and I never got close to the sides.”

— “I grew up in this area and walked and rode across this bridge countless times. It never occurred to me to be scared. It was just the bridge we had to cross to get to Des Arc. I remember riding in trailers filled with cotton, being pulled by a tractor and feeling the swing of the bridge. I’m not sure I would do that today if I could.”

— “I rode in a school bus for 11 years across the bridge every day. Sometimes we had to wait for someone to back down to one of the wide sections, and then sometimes we had to back up in the school bus ourselves. I don’t remember being afraid, but after I married, my husband was terrified to cross it.”

East of the river, there are large fields and pecan orchards. As we head east on Arkansas Highway 38, we pass the road that my dad and I would turn down to fish on Spring Lake and Horn Lake, both White River oxbows.

On the Prairie County-Woodruff County line, we reach the community of Little Dixie and turn left onto Arkansas Highway 33, passing through Dixie on our way to Gregory (yes, there’s both a Dixie and a Little Dixie).

The Eldridge family home, built in 1910, has been beautifully restored.

Also cleaned up and restored is the Eldridge family cemetery, the final resting place of family patriarch Rolfe Eldridge, who was born in November 1807 and died in April 1859. Mary Eldridge Berry gave me a tour of the cemetery just as the sun was setting. Paul went inside the restaurant (the barn is between the family home and the cemetery) to secure a table from George.

Anyone who knows George, the owner of the Little Rock outpost of Doe’s Eat Place, understands that he has the golden touch when it comes to restaurants. It was George who first talked Charles and “Little Doe” Signa in Greenville, Miss., into letting him use the Doe’s name and menu in a location other than the original on Nelson Street in Greenville.

Doe’s Eat Place locations now can been found throughout the region, but George was the first to take the concept out of Greenville. Due to a politician named Bill Clinton, the Little Rock location soon became more famous than the Greenville original. That’s because presidential campaign staffers such as James Carville and George Stephanopoulos would hang out there on a nightly basis.

The national political media followed and began writing about the place. The back room at Doe’s was where P.J. O’Rourke, Hunter S. Thompson and William Greider conducted the interview of Clinton for a September 1992 edition of Rolling Stone.

Was it O’Rourke or Thompson who tried to eat a tamale with the shuck still on?

In November 1992, People published a story on George and his chief cook, Lucille Robinson. The following January, George escorted Robinson to one of the inaugural balls in Washington. An Annie Leibovitz portrait of the pair is among the photos that hang on the walls of the Little Rock restaurant.

If you like the food at Doe’s, you’ll like the food at The Tamale Factory. The menus are similar.

One thing about Delta residents is that they don’t mind driving a long distance for a good meal on a Friday or Saturday. Since it opened in November, The Tamale Factory has been pulling them in from as far away as Little Rock, Memphis and Jonesboro. Reservations are recommended.

On the other side of the barn that houses the restaurant, George keeps his quarter horses in a well-appointed stable. He introduced us to the horses and his three cats (cats are a tradition in horse barns). He also opened a pen that was filled with goats.

There’s also a show ring where George occasionally rolls the dirt, puts down a wooden dance floor and brings in a band from Memphis. Oh how I would love to be back in Gregory on one of those nights.

Roots run deep in this part of Arkansas. Like other east Arkansas counties, Prairie and Woodruff counties have bled population for decades.

Prairie County has only half the population it had in 1920, falling from 17,447 that year to 8,715 in the 2010 census.

Woodruff County has just a third of the population it had in 1920, dropping from 21,527 that year to 7,260 in 2010. Those who remain, though, are a proud people with a strong sense of history and place. They are also people who know how to have a good time, as we saw on this night at The Tamale Factory.

Prairie County has two county seats — Des Arc and DeValls Bluff — and a rich history.

“European exploration of the area began as early as the late 17th century,” Marilyn Hambrick Sickel writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “While the area became occupied by both the Spanish and French, the county remained vital to trade expeditions. … French traders traveled up and down the White River in the early 1700s. Bear oil and skins, abundant in this area at the time, were sought-after commodities in the New Orleans markets. The rivers were the highways of this early era. Early maps identify the White River as Eau Blanche and Riv Blanche. Des Arc was the earliest settlement. Creoles named Watts and East are credited as being Des Arc’s first residents, arriving around 1810.”

Sickel writes that Des Arc was “a flourishing river town prior to the Civil War. Timber for homes was plentiful. Fish and game were abundant, and the population grew rapidly. Selling wood to power the steamboats and rafting timber along the river were viable occupations. The Butterfield Overland Mail route in the late 1850s was key in the development of Des Arc. The city, depending on how wet the roads were or how low the river was, had the fortune of being on the direct route from Memphis to Fort Smith.”

Because it was so swampy, Woodruff County wasn’t settled as early as Prairie County.

Woodruff County was established during the Civil War in November 1862. When Arkansas was no longer part of the Confederacy, it was approved again as a county in 1865. It was named after William Woodruff, the founder of the Arkansas Gazette at Arkansas Post in 1819 (the newspaper moved to Little Rock along with the territorial capital in 1821).

“In the years after the Civil War, Woodruff County prospered with wood and agriculture industries,” Paula Harmon Barnett writes in the online encyclopedia. “Sawmills and woodworking factories thrived, making use of the many acres of timber in the county. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, railroads began to move into the county, and towns sprang up around them, increasing the county’s population each year and greatly improving the economy. Cotton, corn, oats and hay thrved in the fertile, well-watered soil, and the two rivers in the county by which to ship products (the White and Cache) added to the area’s prosperity.”

The county’s population grew each decade from the 1870 census to the 1930 census. It has fallen each decade since then.

There’s a haunting beauty to the Delta and the Grand Prairie in late winter and early spring. History hangs heavily here. Come early to Gregory, taking time to walk through the Eldridge family cemetery and maybe even going to the historic area of Augusta Memorial Park, where there also are Eldridges buried.

Yes, come early and stay late, letting your tamales and steak digest while convincing George to tell stories about the politicians, musicians and other colorful characters he has known.

Spring is beginning in Arkansas, and with it the desire for Friday and Saturday road trips. The drive to Gregory is a trip back in time with good food awaiting at your final destination.

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Arkansas food notes

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

There’s a lot going on with the Arkansas food scene right now.

Here are some notes on developments that might be of interest:

— I’m anxious to try The Tamale Factory in Woodruff County, a creation of George Eldridge, the man who put the Little Rock location of Doe’s Eat Place on the map.

The Tamale Factory is in George’s old horse barn at Gregory, which is 10 miles south of Augusta on Arkansas Highway 33. It’s only open on Friday and Saturday nights, from 5 p.m. until 10 p.m.

You order just like you would at Doe’s — bring a big group, come hungry, get tamales and shrimp for appetizers and then have steaks for the main course.

Though there are now Doe’s restaurants in several locations, George was the first to come up with the idea of using the name and concept of the original restaurant on Nelson Street in Greenville, Miss. The Little Rock outpost of Doe’s became even more famous than the original when staffers for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign began hanging out there.

Once the weather warms a bit in March, a Friday or Saturday night road trip to Gregory sounds in order.

— An even shorter Friday night road trip (and one I plan to make) is to Big K’s Fish Barn, which I understand is in a farm equipment shed (my kind of place).

Traveling east on U.S. Highway 70 out of  Carlisle, you should turn north just past Murry’s restaurant onto Anderson Road. After crossing over Interstate 40, Big K’s is the first farm shop on the right.

I’ve heard the catfish is something special there.

— Two of the best meals I had in 2012 — one in the spring and one in the fall — were at the Bohemia on Park Avenue in Hot Springs.

Founded more than half a century ago by Mr. and Mrs. O.E. Duchac, the Bohemia was operated for years by Adolf Thum. I loved his German and Hungarian food, and I enjoyed hearing his heavy accent when he would come over to check on us.

I was saddened when Thum closed his restaurant in 2007. We’ve already lost too many of the Hot Springs classics I grew up enjoying — Coy’s, Mrs. Miller’s and Mollie’s to name three.

In late 2009, the Bohemia was given new life by Fermin Martinez, who was born in Mexico City and raised in Brooklyn. He later worked in France and Italy.

You would never guess from the outside that this is a fine dining establishment. It looks more like a beer joint as you drive down Park Avenue. Don’t let that fool you. Inside is one of the best restaurants in Arkansas.

— My top Arkansas dining “find” of 2012 was in the former Crain Motor Co. building in downtown Siloam Springs. The building, which had housed a restaurant called Emelia’s, underwent extensive renovations after Shelley and Todd Simmons of Siloam Springs joined forces with Chef Miles James.

An open kitchen was installed, the dropped ceiling was removed to expose the beams and historic photos of Siloam Springs were added.

James, known for what he calls Ozark plateau cuisine, created a menu featuring locally sourced foods. The restaurant is named 28 Springs. It opened in May, and I ate there in the fall.

James still operates James at the Mill in Johnson, long recognized as one of the region’s best restaurants.

James, a Fayetteville native, earned a degree from the New England Culinary Institute and then worked at these restaurants: American Seasons in Nantucket; Park Avenue and the Tribeca Grill in New York City; The Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe; Guy Savoy in Paris (not the one in Logan County); and The River Cafe in London (not the one in Pope County).

He was on the list of the “rising star chefs of the 21st century” that was released by the James Beard Foundation. His cookbook “Cuisine of the Creative” received a James Beard nomination back in 1999 for Best Cookbook of the Year.

Southern Living once described James at the Mill as “an architectural and culinary marvel … the peak of fine Ozark dining.”

For those who like James at the Mill, it’s well worth the drive over to Siloam Springs the next time you’re in northwest Arkansas so you can give 28 Springs a try.

— The hiring of Joel Antunes as the executive chef at Ashley’s and the Capital Bar & Grill in Little Rock’s Capital Hotel was a positive sign. It showed that the Stephens family remains committed to world-class dining in the state’s largest city.

Antunes was awarded the James Beard Best Chef of the Southeast Award in 2005 for his work at the restaurant named for him (Joel) in Atlanta.

Citing his disdain for the celebrity chef syndrome, Antunes once told an interviewer: “I don’t wear a tie and walk around talking. I am a cook. Discipline. I learned that in France. I am in the kitchen every day cooking.”

Joel — the restaurant — opened in 2001 and was named one of Esquire’s best new restaurants in the country.

As a youngster, Antunes went to live with his grandparents in the south of France while his father was serving in the military. He learned to cook from his grandmother and discovered it was something he enjoyed.

Antunes began an apprenticeship at the age of 14 at Belle Meuniere in the city of Royat in France, a Michelin two-star restaurant. He went on to work in Michelin-starred restaurants such as Leyoden in Paris, Duquesnoy in Paris and Hotel Negreso in Nice.

Antunes trained under famous chefs such as Paul Bocuse in Lyons and Michel Troisgos in Roanne.

He headed to Bangkok in 1987 at the age of 26 to work at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. In 1991, he became a partner and the executive chef at Les Saveurs on Curzon Street in London. That restaurant earned a Michelin star in 1994, but Antunes’ investors pulled the plug three years later.

The Ritz-Carlton Buckhead in Atlanta was looking for a chef after Guenter Seeger left to open his own restaurant. The likes of Daniel Boulud and Alain Ducasse recommended Antunes for the job. He spent several years at the Ritz-Carlton before opening Joel.

A short stay at the venerable Oak Room in the Plaza Hotel in New York was followed by a return to London and stints at the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge Hotel and the Embassy Mayfair Hotel.

— Near the top of the list of the tastiest things I ate in 2012 were the sausages at the 83rd annual Louie Mancini Sausage Supper, a Knights of Columbus event in Little Rock that drew hundreds of people to the Cathedral of St. Andrew on Dec. 4.

I was honored to be the featured speaker at an event with such a long history. From 1929-78, Council 812 of the Knights of Columbus held the annual supper to raise funds for the Saint Joseph Orphanage in North Little Rock. In the orphanage cafeteria, the orphans would sing Christmas carols while the diners enjoyed the sausage supper.

Saint Joseph’s closed in 1978, but the supper continued, raising money for needy children and their families. It was named for Louie Mancini in 2005 in honor of his decades of support. He helped his father prepare food each year for the supper, followed his father into the Knights of Columbus and continued to devote countless hours each December to the event.

Finally, a few of my dining wishes for 2013:

— That the weather is unseasonably warm on Jan. 25 when I’m standing in the long line waiting to get into the annual Slovak Oyster Supper.

— That the weather is unseasonably cool on Aug. 15 when I’m in the Ned Hardin pecan grove for the annual Grady Fish Fry.

— That the Little Rock restaurant Matt Bell is opening in conjunction with the Oxford American in the old Juanita’s location — South on Main — is as good as I think it’s going to be.

— That the former Capital Hotel chef Lee Richardson opens his own place in Little Rock.

— That someone will use the name The Gar Hole, which was the name of the bar at the Marion Hotel, for a good restaurant in downtown Little Rock.

— That the new restaurant Cache in the River Market District — named after the Cache River in east Arkansas — is a rousing success.

— That chef Matt McClure’s new restaurant in the 21c Hotel at Bentonville, known as The Hive, draws national attention.

— That the new owners of what was The Peabody Hotel in downtown Little Rock will bring in a well-known chef along the lines of Antunes. Since we’re losing the iconic Peabody brand and having it replaced by the boring Marriott brand, they at least owe us that much.

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George’s Majestic Lounge

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

Roby Brock has just come out with another edition of his excellent magazine, Talk Business Quarterly, which covers business and politics in Arkansas.

For four consecutive issues, I’ve written the “Arkansas Institutions” feature for the magazine.

For the first installment of “Arkansas Institutions,” we featured the Sno-White Grill in Pine Bluff, which has been serving up great food since the 1930s.

For the second installment, we focused on the “King Biscuit Time” radio show in Helena-West Helena.

For the third installment, the subject was Oaklawn Park at Hot Springs.

For this issue, I paid a visit to George’s Majestic Lounge on Fayetteville’s famed Dickson Street. I know. It was a tough assignment. But somebody had to do it.

On the day I visited in March, owner Brian Crowne was sitting at the bar with two employees when I walked in, planning for what he hoped would be a big night. Most of the other bars and restaurants along Dickson Street would end up having a slow night on this particular Friday. It was, after all, the start of spring break at the University of Arkansas. Students were flooding out of town.

George’s, however, is much more than a college bar. Sure, it was selected as one of the top 100 college bars in the country by Playboy back in 1997. But there’s a tradition at George’s called Friday Happy Hour that attracts a much older demographic. It starts at 6 p.m. and runs until 8 p.m. each Friday. The bands tend to play classic rock or rhythm and blues. And even though the college students were fleeing Fayetteville, Crowne was expecting a crowd of at least 400 people to show up for Friday Happy Hour to hear a 10-piece band called Fullhouse. He said most of those in attendance would be between the ages of 40 and 70. In other words, my age group.

So much for being just a college bar.

George’s will turn 83 years old this fall. Crowne, who purchased the Dickson Street institution along with a business partner in January 2004, had first fallen in love with the place when he was a young musician playing in Fayetteville in 1989. The Fort Smith native played the saxophone, and his band was booked for Friday Happy Hour.

“There were almost 300 people here, and it was an eclectic group,” he told me. “There were professors. There were students. There were hippies. There were business executives. The diversity is what struck me. I liked that. You could see everybody from an aging hippie to a business leader like Don Tyson. I had no clue if I could ever afford it, but I knew then and there that I would like to own this place one day.”

George’s had opened along the railroad tracks crossing Dickson Street in 1927. George Pappas and a cousin named Theodore Kantas owned the place. Pappas’ brother was the chef. Around Fayetteville, they simply were known as “the Greeks.”

Pappas had spent the previous 25 years running a restaurant in Fort Smith known as the Manhattan Cafe. After 20 years in business on Dickson Street, Pappas sold the business to Joe and Mary Hinton. The Hintons didn’t change the name.

Mary Hinton would become a Fayetteville legend in her own right, owning the business until it was sold to Bill and Betty Harrison in 1987.

The Harrisons had their first date at George’s in the 1950s when they were in college. It was a special place to them, and they would hold onto it until selling the business to Crowne and business partner Suzie Stephens.

“I consider myself the curator of George’s more than the owner,” Crowne told me. “If I do my job, it will be here long after I’m gone.”

George’s has a number of claims to fame.

It was the first bar in Northwest Arkansas to integrate in the late 1950s.

It was the first bar in Fayetteville to have a color television.

It was the first place in Northwest Arkansas to offer pizza delivery.

Legend has it that the first band to play at George’s was a group known as Ray Thornton and the Seldom Fed Seven in 1955.

Yes, that Ray Thornton.

Thornton, a former congressman and justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court, said that rather than being an actual band, the group was intended to drum up support for his campaign for student body president at the university.

Live music began being heard at George’s on a regular basis, though, in the early 1970s. Musicians ranging from Robert Cray to Leon Russell to Delbert McClinton have played there through the years. Crowne books most of the bands himself and offers live music as often as six nights a week. It’s a mix of local and traveling acts with cover charges ranging from $5 to $30.

A more recent attraction is the Italian food that’s served for lunch each Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Crowne’s father-in-law and mother-in-law, Bob and Sarah Yazzetti, moved from New York to Arkansas in the late 1980s. In September 2007, they teamed up with their son, Jessie, to begin serving wonderful Italian lunches of spaghetti, ravioli, homemade meatballs, Italian sausage and more at George’s.

I ate until I could barely walk. I can tell you how good it is.

Shots of George’s sometimes are seen on national television when football and basketball games are being telecast from Fayetteville. History just seems to seep from the walls. Crowne says former UA students tell him great stories, such as the one when Mary Hinton would shine a flashlight up in the trees around the beer garden and tell certain Razorback football players to come down.

George’s was one of the five nominees for the Nightclub of the Year award this year from the Academy of Country Music. Now that’s quite a feat — to be considered one of the best country nightclubs in America and one of the best college bars in America at the same time. It’s that sometimes schizophrenic nature that makes George’s so special.

Several years ago, there was a survey that asked University of Arkansas alumni to vote on their top 20 Fayetteville memories. You won’t be surprised to learn that trips to George’s Majestic Lounge made the list.

A few questions that I hope you will answer below:

1. If you went to school at the University of Arkansas, what’s your favorite George’s memory?

2. What are your favorite live music venues in the state?

3. Speaking of Italian food, what are your favorite Italian restaurants in Arkansas and why?

4. What Arkansas institutions would you like to see us profile in future issues?

Pick up a copy of TBQ. There’s some insightful political writing by Roby and John Brummett, TBQ political poll results and a profile by Werner Trieschmann of one of our state’s treasures, the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.

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Thank you

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

A simple “thank you” is in order for the many people who turned out at Little Rock’s White Water Tavern on Tuesday afternoon for the launch party of this blog. If you didn’t know about it, that’s my fault.

If you didn’t know how to find the location, that’s your fault. You could have asked any of the folks standing under the railroad overpass on Seventh Street.

I am grateful to the good folks at The Communications Group for throwing a party (and giving me a job). At first, they were thinking the Little Rock Club. For this blog, it was just not the right fit. Don’t get me wrong. I love putting on one of my Arkansas Derby ties and having lunch at the Little Rock Club while trying not to get salad dressing on a white shirt. Gene Baxter always makes you feel welcome.

For this event, though, I did not want people to say: “Well, I guess I ought to drop by there for 10 minutes on the way home. I should be seen. It will be a networking opportunity.”

To heck with that.

I wanted people to say: “This sounds fun.”

And White Water was perfect for that. To the White Water regulars, I am sorry for the handwritten sign that read: “Last call at 3:30 p.m. due to a private party.”

White Water was featured in Esquire a few years ago, Paul Reyes described by saying that “stuffed mounts — a gopher, a red fox, a weasel and a boar, of course — welcome you to this cabin clubhouse.”

And he gave Sweet Connie a mention.

Paul went on to write: “The local bands that perform here have given up on the delusion of stardom and the hassles of touring, are wont to experimentation and untethered jamming on the makeshift catty-corner of a stage. White Water generates some noise and some riffraff in the neighborhood, but it’s a small price for what it’s done to nurture Little Rock’s grossly underrecognized music scene.”


I’ll admit there are days when I want to visit a chain. I’m ready for the salad at Olive Garden. More often than not, though, I try to spend my money (and the company’s money in the case of yesterday’s event) at independent, unique establishments — the kind of places that give Arkansas its sense of place.

Whether it’s White Water on a Friday night or Ashley’s at the Capital Hotel for Sunday brunch, the independents should come first. White Water is one of those places that does much to nurture not only our local music scene but the whole idea of Little Rock being a pretty neat Southern city.

After having had an office in the Mississippi Delta the past four years, I also want to offer this bit of sacrilege: The music heritage of the Arkansas Delta is greater than that of the Mississippi Delta because it is more diverse. Mississippi has done a better job of capitalizing on its heritage with blues tourism, but Arkansas also has great blues musicians. And we have more — a Johnny Cash from Dyess, a Charlie Rich from Colt, a Louis Jordan from Brinkley, an Al Green from Forrest City and on and on. They cover many genres outside the blues.

Thanks for your comment on the first post, Stephen Koch. And thanks for all you do to advance Arkansas’ music heritage. I want to explore this more with you.

To the boss, I am sorry I didn’t make more of a sales pitch in my speech last night. But there was barbecue to be eaten and old friends to visit. In other words, a perfect way to spend a hot Tuesday afternoon in July in a state I love.

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