Having departed Burge’s in Lewisville, Paul Austin and I crossed the Red River bridge on U.S. Highway 82 and found ourselves in Miller County — the community of Garland to be exact.
Garland had a population of only 242 residents in the 2010 census, but that population more than doubles on Friday and Saturday nights because this is the Catfish Capital of Southwest Arkansas.
More on that later.
“The first and most famous resident of the area was William Wynn, who arrived at the banks of the Red River and established a farm around 1835,” Steve Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “At that time, confusion about the border between Arkansas and Texas and uncertainty about the size of Miller County resulted in many records placing Wynn’s land in Lafayette County. Wynn bought many acres of land, on which he grew cotton and other crops. By 1850, according to census records, he owned 96 slaves.
“Early in the 1850s, surveyors for the Mississippi, Ouachita & Red River Railroad planned a crossing of the Red River at Wynn’s plantation. Tracks had not yet been completed that far west when Wynn died in 1857, and the Civil War then delayed construction of the railroad. Finally, by 1881, the St Louis Southwestern Railway (often called the Cotton Belt) built the proposed track, including a bridge, across the Red River. A post office was established at the depot next to the bridge in 1883. It is not known why the name Garland was designated.”
The 1800s indeed were confusing times in this area where four states — Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas — now come together.
Arkansas’ territorial legislature established Miller County in 1820.
“At the time, it included most of present-day Miller County and parts of Bowie, Cass, Delta, Fannin, Franklin, Hopkins, Hunt, Lamar, Morris, Red River and Titus counties in Texas,” writes Beverly Rowe of Texarkana College. “Miller County was part of the disputed Horse’s Head area of northeast Texas and southwest Arkansas, too far north for Mexico to control well and too far west for the United States to control well. While it was technically under Mexican jurisdiction, it truly was not under any country’s control.
“The county was named for territorial Gov. James Miller, a native of Temple, N.H. The first county seat was in the John Hall house in the Gilliland settlement. The county’s establishment was problematic because Mexico claimed much of east Texas. Texas declared its independence from Mexico in 1836, and the first Miller County was abolished two years later. Gov. James Conway said the easiest solution would be to abolish the county and remove its records to a ‘more patriotic area’ — that is, in the United States.
“Until 1874, area settlers found themselves included in Lafayette County. The first Miller County had five post offices by 1835 — Jonesborough, McKinneyville, Mill Creek, Spanish Bluffs and Sulphur Fork. The southeastern United States provided the largest number of settlers to the area during this time as disheartened citizens of the old Confederacy moved west after the Civil War.”
The Arkansas Legislature re-established Miller County in 1874 with Texarkana as the county seat.
“From 1874 to 1900, the county’s population boomed, mainly in response to the railroad and the influx of immigrants,” Rowe writes. “By 1900, the population was 17,558, but it remained a predominantly rural county. It had 1,967 farms in 1900.”
In Garland, farm workers and railroad workers began moving in from the rural areas. Garland was incorporated in 1904.
“In the 1920s, the state of Arkansas began to plan highways for motor traffic to link the various parts of the state,” Teske writes. “Arkansas Highway 2 was developed to run parallel to the border of Arkansas and Louisiana, connecting Texarkana with Lake Village. A bridge across the Red River was built in Garland a short distance north of the railroad bridge. Originally a gravel road, Highway 2 was paved by 1932. The next year, it was designated U.S. Highway 82.
“Garland was guided through the Great Depression in part by local businesswoman Charline Person, who had managed a nearby 5,000-acre plantation since her husband’s death in 1911. In 1926, she was featured at the Women’s National Exposition in St. Louis. During the economic collapse, she took charge of soliciting and distributing goods as needed, as well as helping to raise funds to build the Garland Community Church.
“After World War II, improvements to the highway resulted in new stretches of pavement for Highway 82, although the same bridge crossing was used. A portion of the older highway, three-quarters of a mile in length, has been preserved near Garland and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.”
Garland is the home of Doc’s Fish & Steak House.
It’s also the home of West Shore.
Both restaurants pack them in on Friday and Saturday nights.
“It’s hard to imagine that that many people will support two places,” Kim “Doc” Mills told the Arkansas Times back in 2010.
Ramie Ham, Mills’ grandmother, opened Ham’s in 1969. That restaurant was co-owned by West Shore owner Ralph West and his father. Mills bought out the West family in the early 1970s.
Ham’s burned down in 1992.
Mills told the Times: “I had a little ol’ portable building, and I just whittled and hammered and drilled holes and redid stuff in that thing until I finally made a little kitchen out of it. By the time I finished it, Ham’s had burned. I thought, well, maybe I’ll cook up a little fish plate, and it just snowballed from there.”
He used scrap wood to add a dining room. Through the years, Mills kept adding rooms.
Here’s how Gerard Matthews described it in the Times: “All told, the dining area has been expanded eight times, the kitchen three. Where there was once a small cook shack now stands a sprawling maze of ramshackle rooms that seats 150 people comfortably. The walls are adorned with old neon beer signs, a 115-pound stuffed catfish, a two-headed calf and rusted farm tools so old even the most skilled harvester in Miller County wouldn’t know what to do with them.
“West Shore has that same rustic charm, although you can tell it was all built more recently and all at once, not just pieced together over the years. The bar is covered with Razorback memorabilia, and the three dining rooms, which seat about 125 people combined, each have a theme. There’s a deer room, a duck room and a fish room. Both places serve up all-you-can-eat fillets, or whole fish, with the traditional sides.”
West Shore was devastated by a flood last year but reopened earlier this year. People from southwest Arkansas, east Texas, north Louisiana and even southeast Oklahoma pour into Garland for catfish. Both restaurants were full the night we were there.
Leaving Garland, the vast fields of the Red River bottoms almost make you feel as if you’re in the Delta of east Arkansas. In fact, seeing the rolling, tree-covered hills of the Gulf Coastal Plain in the distance as you travel west gives the same impression as traveling through the Delta and seeing Crowley’s Ridge rise from the lowlands.
I never travel through here without thinking of Lynn Lowe, who died in August 2010 at age 74. Lowe, who farmed these Red River bottoms, was a Republican long before it was cool to be a Republican in Arkansas.
Lowe graduated from Garland High School, attended what’s now Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia for two years and them graduated in 1959 with a degree in agricultural engineering from the University of Arkansas. He spent the rest of his life farming near the Red River.
Lowe ran as a Republican for the U.S. House in 1966 after Democratic incumbent Oren Harris of El Dorado resigned to accept a Johnson administration appointment to the federal bench. David Pryor won the Democratic primary and then carried all 20 counties in the district against Lowe, finishing with 65 percent of the vote.
A dozen years later, Lowe was again the loyal party soldier. As state GOP chairman, he was unable to find a candidate to run for governor and decided to run himself. He got 36.6 percent of the vote against Bill Clinton and carried six of the state’s 75 counties — Sebastian, Crawford, Boone, Polk, Van Buren and Miller.
After three terms as state party chairman, Lowe served from 1980-88 as the GOP national committeeman from Arkansas.
We were too full to eat anything else that day, but no account of traveling west from Magnolia to Texarkana on U.S. 82 would be complete without putting in a plug for Texarkana’s two classic restaurants, Bryce’s Cafeteria and the Cattleman’s Steak House.
When asked during one of his presidential campaigns to name his favorite restaurant in the world, Ross Perot (who could afford dine to anywhere) listed Bryce’s. Perot grew up at Texarkana.
Bryce’s has been around since 1931, when it was founded by Bryce Lawrence. Sons Bryce Jr. and Richard later took over the cafeteria, which was downtown for decades before moving to a location on the Texas side of the line adjacent to Interstate 30.
Texarkana College’s Rowe explained the change in the city: “Since 1968, downtown buildings in Texarkana have deteriorated and businesses have closed. The most vibrant businesses are the law offices and bail bondsmen’s shops. Smaller towns such as Doddridge, Fouke, Garland, Genoa and Spring Bank have continued to shrink while Texarkana’s city limits are pushing out on all sides. … Interstate 30 negatively affected passenger railroad traffic. In past decades, as many as nine railway companies served the area, using Texarkana’s Union Depot as the main station. Today, freight trains provide most of the railroad traffic.”
This time of year, Bryce’s may be best known for its peach pie made with peaches from near Nashville in Howard County.
A Chicago Tribune feature story once stated: “Bryce’s Cafeteria may have better food for the money than anyplace on earth.”
Meanwhile, Roy Oliver opened the Cattleman’s in 1964 when State Line Avenue was a two-lane road. His son, Joe Neal Oliver, later took over the restaurant and became famous for going from table to table in his red apron to check on patrons.
I’ve always loved the atmosphere at the Cattleman’s. It’s a bit of a “Mad Men” feel, like stepping onto a 1960s movie set. Its private rooms have hosted more political fundraising events for candidates from Arkansas and Texas than can be counted. The numerous politicians and other movers and shakers who hung out here once were termed by the Texarkana Gazette as “the steakhouse gang.”
Not only that, as I’ve noted on this blog before, it’s the only restaurant in Arkansas where I can get calf fries and rooster fries as an appetizer. If you don’t know what those are, look it up.