Archive for the ‘Catfish’ Category

Rebuilding the Georgetown One Stop

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

In the comments section of a previous post, a reader reprinted a letter to the editor that appeared Wednesday in The Daily Citizen at Searcy.

I want to give the subject a separate post, though, so fans of the fried catfish at the Georgetown One Stop will see it.

Here’s the letter from Val Valdez of Beebe: “As you know, there has been a devastating flood at the White River. Many homes have been inundated with water. There is also a business there called One Stop, where you can get a delicious plate of catfish. Upon visiting there, the water was table high throughout the building. The proprietor is a stout, hardened woman that goes by the name of Joan. She desperately needs our help. She plans to open the restaurant once more to serve the public.

“Folks, if you enjoy going there and enjoy the fare, consider sending her some help. She is redoing the inside completely. Most, if not all, of the appliances have been destroyed by the high water. She would appreciate whatever you can do.

“I myself do like the fish, along with the closeness of the surroundings. I have seen employees from Searcy banks, companies and vans from churches there, and many more. Look to your heart if you will.”

The letter writer said donations could be sent to:

Georgetown One Stop

209 Main

Georgetown, AR 72143.

It’s Joanna, not Joan.

Joanna Taylor, to be exact.

She came to Georgetown in 1997, weary of living in the city of Little Rock and looking to start over following a divorce.

Her sister, Jeannie, had purchased the gas station and convenience store there, and Joanna went to work for her. Before long, Joanna was serving lunch and breakfast to the farmers who worked in the surrounding White River bottoms.

Word got out about the quality of the catfish Joanna purchased daily from commercial fishermen on the White River. Soon, dinner was added to the mix as people made the trip to Georgetown from Searcy and even as far away as Little Rock.

You once saw the term “White River catfish” on restaurant menus across the state. Now, however, the vast majority of the fish served in restaurants comes from fish farms or even out of the country.

Finding river-caught catfish in a restaurant is no longer an easy thing.

Before this spring’s record flood, the cost at the Georgetown One Stop was $9 for all you can eat. I’m sure Joanna could raise the price a buck or two after she reopens and still be busy.

Here’s how Tim Bousquet described the place in a 2004 Daily Citizen story: “Just before the pavement ends at the Georgetown boat ramp, there on the left sits what looks like an abandoned filling station. There’s no sign, and a sketchy patch of gravel may once have been a parking lot. A concrete slab serves as front stoop, and a rickety wooden door is entrance to an ancient metal shell of a building, the Georgetown One Stop.

“You have arrived. Have a seat and a pleasant woman — that’d be Joanna Taylor — will drop by with some iced tea. No need for a menu — the only choice here is sweetened or unsweetened tea, and it’s just assumed everyone wants catfish.

“While you’re waiting for your meal, you might strike up a conversation with some of the other customers. Like you, they likely come from somewhere else — Little Rock maybe, or Batesville, more than a few from Searcy — and are usually in a mood for a little chatting up.”

Joanna told the reporter she wouldn’t ever expand: “I couldn’t do this if I got any bigger. There’s not enough fresh fish in the river, so I’d have to use frozen fish like the chain restaurants. That would ruin everything.”

Here’s how David Koon put it in a glowing 2009 Arkansas Times review: “Half the joy of going to the One Stop is the decor. This is Real Arkansas at its finest: a low-ceilinged room with the kitchen so close you can literally hear the grease popping. In the dining room, every surface is covered with photographs of smiling visitors, some of them mugging with fish they’ve caught or deer they’ve killed. In the men’s restroom, a water heater squats in the corner, slowly sinking through the floor, and you have to hold the toilet lid up with your knee to keep it from slamming down.

“There is no menu at the Georgetown One Stop. Everybody gets the same thing. You go in, and sit down. Taylor appears from the kitchen, takes your drink order (get the sweet tea) and asks if you’re ready for some fish. After about 10 minutes, she reappears with manna: a big oval plate, covered from edge to edge in beautiful catfish fillets, a handful of fries and a hushpuppy or two. On the side: a bowl full of sliced onion and homemade tartar sauce. Best of all, if you manage to finish what you’ve been served, Taylor will keep bringing fish as long as you’re willing to eat it.

“And what catfish. I have eaten catfish all over the South — hot, cold, good, bad, muddy, bland, delicious and terrible — but this is the best ever: gorgeous, buttery morsels of pure white flesh, surrounded by the lightest imaginable cornmeal batter and just the right seasoning. Fries and hushpuppies, done in the same grease — amazing. But the fish at Georgetown One Stop is what truly will leave even someone who knows what good fish is supposed to taste like at a loss for words. For a foodie, it’s transcendent. For a catfish fanatic, it’s like coming home. After eating all I could, finally putting down my fork in surrender gave me a little pang of regret. There is nothing more that I can say. You must experience it for yourself.

“Yes, Virginia, Real Arkansas does exist. Just when I begin to doubt it — to believe that nobody cares about making great food anymore — I luck across someplace like the Georgetown One Stop. There is love there, my friend. Yes. There is love.”

I take it David liked the fish. And he’s right. It’s sublime.

For those who love rural Arkansas and historic places, the road trip to Georgetown is also fun. I wrote about it on this blog back in April of last year.

You pass through Kensett, the old lumber mill and railroad town that produced Congressman Wilbur Mills and baseball great Bill Dickey. You head southeast on Arkansas Highway 36 with the Little Red River on your left.

West Point, which was incorporated before the Civil War and was once a steamboat stop, has a boat ramp on the Little Red. The West Point Cemetery has been there for decades.

You pass a sign that says “Road Ends In 12 Miles.”

Georgetown is literally the end of the road — where Arkansas 36 runs into the White River.

There’s no bridge there. The Missouri and North Arkansas Railroad built a bridge spanning the river in 1908. The Great Flood of 1927 damaged the bridge, and it was never repaired. The railroad ceased serving Georgetown in 1946.

Some historians believe it to be the second settlement established by European explorers in what’s now Arkansas, surpassed only by Arkansas Post. That would make Georgetown the oldest existing town in the state since Arkansas Post is now a National Park Service site, not an active community.

French explorer Francis Francure received a land grant of 1,361 acres from the Spanish king in 1789 and settled in the area.

The 2010 census showed Georgetown with a population of 124 people, down from 126 in the 2000 census.

It might shrink a bit more after this year’s flood as people choose not to rebuild.

Prior to the flood, the Georgetown One Stop served fish from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m. each Wednesday through Saturday.

Let’s hope Joanna keeps going.

If you want to help her out, you have the address now.

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Olden Murry and the amazing Mike Trimble

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

During my stint as political editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the best sentence I ever read was written by Mike Trimble.

It was so good, in fact, that I don’t remember how it ended.

It was 1993 and Trimble, who had earned the reputation of being one of the state’s great storytellers at the Arkansas Gazette and the Arkansas Times magazine, had been enlisted to help me with the newspaper’s first shot at putting together a package on the Best 10 and Worst 10 state legislators.

In his introduction to the package — which took up almost an entire section — Trimble wrote this about the Arkansas House of Representatives: “In the House, where the shallow end runs the length of the pool, …”

Like I said, I don’t even remember how the sentence ended.

In yesterday’s Southern Fried post about Murry’s, the famous east Arkansas catfish joint that was once at DeValls Bluff but is now on U.S. Highway 70 between Hazen and Carlisle, I noted that writer John Egerton had quoted Trimble in his 1987 book “Southern Food.”

Trimble had described the original Murry’s as a place that “appears at first glance to be a minor train derailment.”

I also noted in the previous post that Max Brantley and I had run into each other on a recent Saturday night at Murry’s. In the post Max wrote on his Arkansas Blog, he included a link to a transcript of a lengthy interview Ernie Dumas conducted with Trimble as part of the Gazette oral history project.

That project is part of the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History at the University of Arkansas (in the way of full disclosure, I have the honor of being on the Pryor Center board).

The Gazette published its final issue in October 1991, and the oral history project began in 2000 with funding from the Patterson family of Little Rock, the Arkansas owners of the newspaper prior to its purchase by the Gannett Corp.

Former Gazette and New York Times reporter Roy Reed was the project director for the Pryor Center.

In the interview with Dumas, Trimble was asked about a Gazette feature story he did on catfish cook Olden Murry.

A former Gazette reporter who had left the newspaper to work for the office of Disability Determination for Social Security read the story and filed a complaint against Murry.

“Olden Murry had worked for the Corps of Engineers on a snagboat for a time and had an injury to his arm,” Trimble said. “He was mangled in a winch, I think, and as a result had been getting a disability payment for several years. In getting Mr. Murry’s history, he told me about that. … And I reported this and also reported the long hours he put in at this restaurant.”

Trimble received a call from the former reporter who was now working for the government. He was informed that Murry had been drawing full disability for years.

In an attempt to protect Murry, Trimble told the caller: “To be perfectly honest, I was real drunk when I went out there. I’ve got to admit I was real drunk when I was talking to him, and I don’t know if any of that stuff is right.”

Indeed, Murry’s has long been known as a brown-bag restaurant, in the tradition of a lot of the old restaurants across the river in the Mississippi Delta.

Fortunately for Olden Murry, the deputy U.S. attorney was a fan of the restaurant. So was U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers.

The Social Security bureaucrats were informed that Murry had no money saved. In other words, it would be a waste of time to go after him.

Dumas said in the interview: “He hired all of his kinfolks down there, and I don’t think he ever finished a week with a penny.”

According to Dumas, the Social Security Administration was told, “‘The restaurant is yours. You can have it. It’s yours. Just tell us when you want to take possession.’ And Murry would just leave. And they finally just said the hell with it and dropped the whole thing. And he didn’t get any more benefits.”

Once things were resolved, the deputy U.S. attorney rented a bus and took a group to DeValls Bluff for a feast of fried catfish, fried crappie, turnip greens and black-eyed peas.

It reportedly was quite a night.

Olden Murry is gone, but Becky and Stanley Young carry on his legacy nightly at one of Arkansas’ best restaurants.

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Arkansas’ best fried catfish?

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

We live in a state blessed with restaurants that know how to fry catfish correctly.

When I lived in Washington, D.C., during the 1980s, it was difficult to find good fried catfish in a restaurant. They just didn’t know how to cook it the right way.

But Arkansas offers a bonanza of catfish dining opportunities.

To name a few: I can head to the northeast and visit the Georgetown One Stop at Georgetown (now that the water level of the White River has dropped and the community is no longer an island), partake of the buffet at Dondie’s White River Princess on the banks of the White River in Des Arc or venture to Who Dat’s in Bald Knob.

I can head to the southwest and visit The Fish Net near Arkadelphia or go down to the far southwest corner of our state and out in the woods for the perfectly fried catfish at Spruell’s Cafe at Doddridge.

Heading a bit to the south from Little Rock, I can find my way to Dorey’s at Leola, Leon’s at Pine Bluff and the Catfish Kitchen at Dumas.

In the far northern part of the state, there’s Fred’s Fish House at Mammoth Spring.

Here in Little Rock, my favorite is the Lassis Inn.

Heading west on Interstate 40, I can make the stop at The Fish House in Conway or the Catfish “N” on the banks of the Arkansas River at Dardanelle.

Heading east on Interstate 40 between Little Rock and Memphis, I can order fine fried catfish at Nick’s in Carlisle and Gene’s in Brinkley.

In between those two stops is some of the best fried catfish anywhere. Not just in Arkansas but anywhere. It’s the catfish cooked up by Stanley Young at Murry’s on U.S. Highway 70 between Hazen and Carlisle.

I began patronizing the original Murry’s in DeValls Bluff when I was a child. My grandparents lived at Des Arc, and we would often make a “road trip” from the Prairie County seat in the north to the Prairie County seat in the south in order to eat catfish at Murry’s or barbecue at Craig’s.

When I was in my 20s, there were times when I would load up the car with hungry friends for a trip to DeValls Bluff. We would eat a pork sandwich at Craig’s (medium sauce; I can’t handle the hot there) for an appetizer and then make the short drive over to Murry’s for the catfish.

I miss that rabbit warren of trailers that housed the original location, though I always had the feeling when eating there that a grease fire in the kitchen would quickly incinerate us all.

While the current location doesn’t have the ambiance of the old place, the food is as good as ever. And Becky Young is the best hostess you’ll find anywhere.

I always see someone I know at Murry’s.

On a Saturday earlier this month, I went to Memphis to watch the pros golf at the St. Jude Classic. I was accompanied by my 14-year-old son and one of his friends. Hot and hungry, we decided to stop at Murry’s on the way home.

We had just ordered when in walked Little Rock journalist and political provocateur Max Brantley and Judge Ellen Brantley along with an eclectic group of friends.

Max later would write in his Arkansas Blog: “The crowd wasn’t as big as the throng a few miles west at Nick’s in Carlisle, but I don’t know why. Boss Stanley Young has been frying catfish for 41 years, following in a half century of Olden Murry’s footsteps.”

Max included a link to John Egerton’s classic book “Southern Food.” I happen to have a copy of the book, originally published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1987, sitting on my desk.

Here’s what Egerton, with whom I was privileged to have dinner last year at Ashley’s, wrote back then: “Our catfish finale was on a side street in the little town of DeValls Bluff, where we stopped, as Mike Trimble wrote in the Arkansas Gazette, ‘at what appears at first glance to be a minor train derailment.’ Actually, it is Murry’s Cafe, a rambling catacomb of interconnected coaches, trailers and prefabricated rooms. Olden Murry has been frying fish for the faithful there for about 20 years, before which he was a riverboat cook on the Mississippi. On the wall inside the cafe is a photograph of U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers. It is autographed to Olden Murry, ‘the best cook in Arkansas.’ With generous allowances for political overstatement, Bumpers may have been right on target.

“Here is a man with 45 years of cooking experience whose reputation is secure, not only for the catfish he prepares but for the steaks, chicken, quail, frog legs, barbecue, shrimp, oysters and veal. He makes his own meal-based and flour-based batters and breading to dredge his seafoods and meats in, and he keeps the formulas to himself. He buys catfish both from fishermen on the nearby White River and from commercial processors. He completely empties and refills his deep-fat fryers with fresh cooking oil at least twice a week — a sure sign of devotion to quality — and he cooks his fish quickly at high temperatures, the better to seal in flavor and produce a crisp, crunchy crust. ‘I go by looking at the fish and listening to the grease to tell when it’s done,’ Murry said. ‘Every batch is different, so you have to pay attention.’ No automatic timers or fixed temperature controls for him.

“There is no sign of any kind outside Murry’s Cafe, and there are none out on the highway, but it is not at all unusual for 200 or more people to show up there on any given night, many of them having driven 60 miles from Little Rock. Most of the people who work at Murry’s are members of his family, including a majority of his seven children. Murry’s is a home-folks kind of place — the same staff serving consistently fine food to mostly regular customers in plain and unpretentious surroundings. It seems to be an invincible combination.

“The day Ann and I stopped there, it was four o’clock in the afternoon, and Olden Murry was just about to open for business. A fisherman who called himself Catfish John was there with 100 pounds of dressed fresh White River catfish, and soon he and Murry consummated a deal for them. Then the veteran chef heated his fresh oil to just the right temperature, rolled some of Catfish John’s finest fillets in the secret batter and fried them for us. The plates he brought to our table were like advertising pictures — the crisp golden fish, long slivers of french fries, a mound of creamy coleslaw, a ring of fresh onion, a length of dill pickle, a pepperoncini pepper, a wedge of lemon, a smoking-hot corn cake that looked and tasted like a hushpuppy’s rich first cousin. Everthing was artistically arranged, prepared to perfection and delicious. Olden Murry, a Rembrandt of the kitchen, had just completed another masterpiece.”

A Rembrandt of the kitchen.

I like that.

I daresay Stanley Young also is a Rembrandt of the kitchen.

Egerton wrote that Olden Murry cooked far more than catfish.

So does Stanley. My son, Evan, had the frog legs on our most recent trip there and pronounced them the best he has ever had.

Max wrote on his blog how his host declared that Stanley has the best chicken fried steak in the state and some of the best steaks.

I’ve had both the steaks and the chicken fried steak at Murry’s. Yes, they’re good.

As always, we began our meal that Saturday night with an order of Stanley’s onion rings as an appetizer. Max wrote that they come out “crisp and stay crisp, with fat hunks of sweet, moist onion inside the crackly coat.”

Looking for an evening road trip now that summer has arrived?

You would be wise to head over to Murry’s one night. Stay off the interstate. Take U.S. 70 the entire way — much slower and much more relaxing — so you can enjoy the cypress trees in Hills Lake, the giant pecan trees on the Pulaski-Lonoke county line, the Anderson minnow ponds, the fields of rice and soybeans and the downtowns of Lonoke and Carlisle.

Maybe I’ll see you there.

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A Civil War excursion to south Arkansas

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

It’s getting warmer outside and the wild plum trees are blooming. In other words, it’s time for a road trip through the pine woods of south Arkansas.

I happen to love both Civil War history and driving through rural Arkansas.

If you’re like me, this will make for a fun day: Drive to the site of three battles in the Red River Campaign — Poison Spring near Camden, Marks’ Mills near Fordyce and Jenkins’ Ferry near Sheridan.

You’ll need to make this excursion on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday since the eating is an important part of the overall experience.

The three battlefields are maintained by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism. All three of these small parks are quiet spots with few visitors. That means they’re nice places to reflect on the past as we begin the Civil War sesquicentennial commemoration. There are interpretive panels at each battlefield.

Start your day by driving to Camden. Poison Spring is about 10 miles west of the city on Arkansas Highway 76.

Here’s how the state parks website at www.arkansasstateparks.com explains what happened here: “In the spring of 1864, three Civil War battles took place in south-central Arkansas that were part of the Union Army’s Red River Campaign. … The first battle occurred near Camden at Poison Spring on April 18 when Confederate troops captured a supply train and scattered Union forces.

“Arkansas was split in half with Union troops occupying Little Rock, Fort Smith and every town north of the Arkansas River. Confederates were encamped from Monticello to Camden, Washington and beyond. Plans for an elaborate Union offensive were hatched during the winter in Washington, D.C., in order to capture the last Rebel stronghold of the west — Texas. Standing in their way was Shreveport, believed to be the front door to Texas. Thus began what would become known as the Red River Campaign.”

Almost 12,000 men, 800 wagons, 30 pieces of artillery and about 12,000 horses left Little Rock and headed to Camden. Under the command of Gen. Frederick Steele, the Union forces moved slowly due to heavy spring rains and mud. Supplies became dangerously low.

The Union troops arrived in Camden on April 15. There was no fighting since Confederate troops had withdrawn from the city on the banks of the Ouachita River.

On April 17, Steele received bad news. The Union troops that were supposed to bring him supplies from Louisiana had retreated. Meanwhile, Confederate forces had moved or destroyed a nearby stockpile of corn Steele had heard about.

Steele sent a force of 500 black infantrymen, 195 cavalry troops and an artillery detachment to obtain supplies. A scout for Confederate Gen. John Marmaduke noticed the wagon train. Marmaduke suggested to Confederate Gen. Sterling Price that an ambush was in order.

This is how the state parks website describes the action: “During the night, the Union wagon train was reinforced by 400 soldiers Steele sent from Camden, as approximately 1,500 Confederates prepared to attack the Union troops from both sides of the blocked road. The attack on April 18 began near a place the locals called Poison Spring. When the battle ended, the Union force of more than 1,100 had been reduced to 800. Another 80 Union troops were killed as they clawed their way back to Camden through the bottomlands. Fewer than 20 Confederates were killed in the victory that kept much-needed supplies from enemy hands.”

After you’ve finished your visit to Poison Spring, drive east to Fordyce. Arrive in time for lunch at Klappenbach Bakery (closed on Sundays and Mondays). Norman and Lee Klappenbach moved their now-famous bakery to Fordyce from Walla Walla, Wash., in 1975. They expanded the operation in 1988 to open a sandwich shop.

There are sandwiches, salads and a variety of soups and quiches on the lunch menu. I usually go for the turkey club sandwich with a cup of soup. Save room for homemade pie. After lunch, load up on breads and pastries from the bakery to take home with you.

Next, head to Marks’ Mills. The site is southeast of Fordyce at the junction of Arkansas Highways 8 and 97.

John Marks had established a sawmill and a gristmill at this location in 1834. The battle on the old Camden-Pine Bluff road took place on April 25, 1864.

A group of 150 wagons loaded with supplies had made it to Camden from Pine Bluff on April 20. Steele then sent those wagons, along with 60 more, back north toward Pine Bluff for additional supplies. He included an escort force of 1,200 men and six artillery pieces.

The state parks website picks it up from here: “As the Union wagon train slowly made its way to Pine Bluff through virtually impassable mud on April 25, Confederate Gen. Kirby Smith assembled an attack force of several thousand men, who intercepted the train at Marks’ Mills. The overwhelmed Northerners were once again surrounded on all sides but managed to fight back for several hours. This time, there was no escape. Nearly all Union survivors were captured.

“After this devastating blow, Gen. Steele abandoned all intentions of marching to Shreveport on his way to capture Texas. He began to plan his retreat from Camden back to Little Rock. The only escape route he knew was the Military Road that ran north through Princeton and Jenkins’ Ferry, the final section of the Red River Campaign.”

Once you’ve finished visiting Marks’ Mills, you should head north. The next stop is at Jenkins’ Ferry, which is 13 miles south of Sheridan on Arkansas Highway 46.

Derek Allen Clements describes what happened here for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture (www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net): “Steele slipped out of Camden the night of April 26, marching toward Little Rock. Arriving at Jenkins’ Ferry in the Saline River bottoms on April 29, Steele began building a pontoon bridge. Confederate cavalry engaged the rear guard, halting as darkness fell and re-engaging at dawn. The Confederate divisions from Louisiana began arriving April 30 to join Price’s command. The federal rear guard took a strong position, anchoring its flanks between a flooded creek and swampy woodland. The Confederates assaulted the federal line piecemeal, failing to break it. By 12:30 p.m., Smith ended the assault, and Steele slipped across the river. He arrived May 2 in Little Rock, and his part of the campaign, also known as the Camden Expedition, was over.”

After leaving Jenkins’ Ferry, you must end your day by partaking of the all-you-can-eat catfish buffet at Dorey’s near Leola on Grant County Road 5. You can obtain directions by going to the website at www.doreycatering.com.

Dorey’s raises its own fish, so it doesn’t come any fresher. The buffet operates from 4 p.m. until 8 p.m. each Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

In one long day, you will have:

— Made a peaceful drive on numerous highways in the Gulf Coastal Plain region of Arkansas.

— Visited the sites of three Civil War battles.

— Had a great lunch.

— Loaded up on bakery items to take home.

— Filled up at supper on some of the best catfish in Arkansas.

It’s a fine way to spend a spring day.

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The trip to Georgetown

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

I finally made it.

Yes, I made it to the Georgetown One Stop, that end-of-the-road citadel of fried catfish in the southeast corner of White County.

People would constantly ask me if I had partaken of the catfish at the One Stop. Until last Thursday, the answer was, “No.”

They wondered why. I had no real explanation. Now, I’ve remedied that.

Just as she has been doing for every customer for more than a decade, Joanna Taylor made sure I was full. The catfish was great. But the trip was even better.

Once I left U.S. Highway 67-167, it was like a step back into Arkansas’ past.

On that lazy journey down Arkansas Highway 36, you feel enveloped by the past. It happens as soon as you reach downtown Kensett. This was, after all, the home of the A.P. Mills General Store and the great Wilbur Mills. It was where Mr. Mills was born, and it was where he came home to die.

Wilbur Daigh Mills was born in Kensett on May 24, 1909, to Mississippi native Ardra Pickens Mills and Nebraska native Abbie Daigh Mills. The man who would go on to become known simply as Mr. Chairman on Capitol Hill was a champion debater at Hendrix College in Conway. He majored in history and graduated in 1930 as the salutatorian. His brains, combined with the fact that his family was wealthy by Depression-era Arkansas standards (in addition to owning the mercantile store, his father was the chairman of the Bank of Kensett), allowed Wilbur Mills to attend law school at Harvard.

In 1934, he was elected White County judge. At the time, he was the youngest county judge in the state. That same year, he married Melbourne native Gertrude Clarine “Polly” Billingsley. In 1936, he  was elected to a second two-year term as county judge. That same year, my grandfather, W.J. Caskey of Des Arc, was elected to the first of two terms as the county judge in neighboring Prairie County.

An aside: In 1986, John Robert Starr directed me to leave my job as assistant sports editor of the Arkansas Democrat and head to Washington as the newspaper’s D.C. correspondent. I was scared to death. The competition between the Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette had heated up considerably, and the Washington beat was a key one in the newspaper war. I suddenly went from having covered the Super Bowl (the Bears beat the Patriots in New Orleans that year) to covering Congress. To make things worse, the Gazette had a veteran correspondent named Carol Matlack. She had developed lots of reliable sources on Capitol Hill. And the big news in Congress that year was the debate over a sweeping tax reform act.

An obvious story angle would be to go down to K Street to visit with Mr. Mills, who by then was working for the prestigious Shea & Gould law firm after 17 years of having chaired the House Ways and Means Committee. After all, he had written most of the current tax code. There’s the story (likely apocryphal) of what the chairman told a group of prominent Democrats who were urging him to run for president against Richard Nixon in 1972: “Boys, why on earth would I want to be president and have to give up all of this power?”

After all, tax code changes had to start in the House. And Mr. Mills ruled the Ways and Means Committee, which for many years had no subcommittees, with the proverbial iron fist.

At any rate, Mr. Mills was cordial but not overly friendly when I went into his office to interview him. Then, I said this: “Mr. Chairman, I think you knew my grandfather.”

“Who was your grandfather?” he asked.

“W.J. Caskey of Des Arc,” I replied.

“Good Lord, son,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for the votes Will Caskey delivered me in Prairie County, I might not have been in Congress all those years.”

I didn’t have the nerve to ask just how those votes were “delivered.”

At any rate, Mr. Mills treated me like a long-lost grandson from that point on. I could always call him with questions about the tax bill. He didn’t want to be quoted on the record. But when I attributed those quotes to “a source familiar with the tax bill negotiations,” I meant it in a big way. It was, quite simply, the best source any reporter in the country could have on this issue.

I later would learn that Mr. Mills lived in the Crystal Towers at Crystal City, just across the river in Virginia, the same high-rise complex that was home to my girlfriend (and now wife of more than 20 years). Small world.

So passing through Kensett, an old lumber mill and railroad town that not only produced Mr. Mills but also baseball great Bill Dickey, I was thinking a lot about the past.

Heading southeast on Arkansas 36, I soon was driving on a shaded country highway with the Little Red River on my left. The community of West Point, which was incorporated before the Civil War and was once a steamboat stop, had one truck parked at the boat ramp on the Little Red. The old, stately West Point Cemetery provided a great place to park for a few minutes, return phone calls and answer e-mails on my BlackBerry. I was using modern technology, but I felt I had stepped back in time under the massive cedars.

I passed a sign that said, “Road Ends In 12 Miles.”

I literally was headed to the end of the road — remote Georgetown on the White River.

Many historians believe it was the second settlement established in the state by European explorers, surpassed only by Arkansas Post. That would make it the oldest existing town in the state since Arkansas Post is now a National Park Service site, not an active community. French explorer Francis Francure received a land grant of 1,361 acres from the Spanish king in 1789 and settled in the area.

“Although listed as a farmer, historical evidence suggests that he was more likely a trapper,” Adam Miller writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Other information regarding Francure is scant, though it seems he had little to do with his neighbors and lived a hermit’s existence for close to 50 years. Some early Georgetown settlers relied on rumors of Francure as an outlaw or a polygamist to supplement gaps missing in their established knowledge about the man.”

Georgetown got its current name in 1909 in honor of three men from Clarendon with the last name of George. They had purchased, sold and developed land there. The stop along the river previously had been known as Francure Township or Negro Hill (or Nigger Hill by some, to be honest). That’s because the first slaves in the area had been offloaded from boats there. Runaway slaves from Louisiana later established a community on a hill near the river.

The Missouri & North Arkansas Railroad built a bridge spanning the White River in 1908. The great flood of 1927 damaged the Georgetown bridge, and it was never properly repaired. The railroad ceased operations to Georgetown in 1946.

Local historian Polly Cleaver told Miller: “Georgetown used to have four stores, a hotel, a movie house, three fish docks, a handle mill that made ax and hammer handles, a mattress factory, a school, a drugstore, a barber shop, a doctor’s office, a dentist’s office and two churches.”

The town’s population, however, began to fall after World War II. The Georgetown schools were consolidated with West Point in 1953.

The 2000 census showed only 126 residents of Georgetown.

In a 1999 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette feature story, Heber Taylor wrote: “The mussel shell industry was important. The shells were found at the bottom of the White River. Sand-colored ones were said to be the prettiest and most valuable. … The shells were used to make buttons. The late Pearl Johnson, who was born in 1901, told a reporter in 1985 that her father, Tom Akers, dug shells in the river with a hand rig. She said he found a pearl worth $40 in a shell. He sold the pearl and bought 80 acres of land with the $40. Johnson said she was named after that pearl. In the same interview, she mentioned the long rollings her family had when the timber was being cleared off the land. Men worked in pairs and used poles about eight feet long to put under and carry the logs.”

Now, the Georgetown One Stop is the town’s main attraction — along with the boat ramp on the White River, which had almost a dozen trucks parked there on this particular Thursday.

Joanna Taylor came to Georgetown in 1997, fleeing Little Rock and a divorce. Her sister, Jeannie, had bought the gas station and convenience store, and Joanna went to work for her. She began serving lunch and later breakfast to local farmers. Dinner was added when word got out about the quality of the catfish she purchased from commercial fishermen on the White River.

There was a time when restaurants all over Arkansas advertised “White River catfish.” Now, most catfish served in restaurants comes from commercial farming operations. In that sense, among others, the Georgetown One Stop is a rarity.

Tim Bousquet put it this way in a 2004 feature in The Daily Citizen at Searcy: “Just before the pavement ends at the Georgetown boat ramp, there on the left sits what looks like an abandoned filling station. There’s no sign, and a sketchy patch of gravel may once have been a parking lot. A concrete slab serves as front stoop, and a rickety wooden door is entrance to an ancient metal shell of a building, the Georgetown One Stop. You have arrived. Have a seat and a pleasant woman — that’d be Joanna Taylor — will drop by with some iced tea. No need for a menu — the only choice here is sweetened or unsweetened tea, and it’s just assumed everyone wants catfish.”

Nothing has changed since that story was written except the price. It’s all you can eat for $9.

It’s worth the price. It’s worth the drive — a good meal and a trip deep into Arkansas’ past on historic Highway 36.

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Catfish on the Arkansas River

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

I had to take the youngest son to Russellville on Saturday to play in an AAU basketball tournament. Since it was such a beautiful day with surprisingly low humidity for July, I suggested we go to Catfish “N” on the banks of the Arkansas River at Dardanelle.

I normally am not a fan of buffets — I prefer my food cooked to order when in a restaurant — but the catfish was good in Dardanelle. A lot of people were sitting on the patio, and the view of the Arkansas River was great. Catfish “N” does something right since it has been around since 1971.

When ordering catfish from the menu, my favorite place is probably Murry’s, which is just west of Hazen on U.S. 70. It doesn’t have the same funky atmosphere of the original Murry’s in DeValls Bluff, which was a rabbit warren of connected trailers that attracted weekend road trippers from Little Rock for years. More than once, I consumed a barbecue sandwich at Craig’s as an “appetizer” and then went down the street to Murry’s (it wasn’t easy to find) for a main course of catfish.

Stan cooks the fish right at what a lot of people call the “new” Murry’s, though it has been at the current location for years. It’s worth a pleasant drive over on U.S. 70. Stay off Interstate 40. The old highway is far more relaxing.

I also have to plug the catfish at Gene’s in Brinkley. I know “barbecue” is in the name of the restaurant, but I usually find myself ordering catfish. That’s because Gene sells the small whole catfish known as fiddlers.

Most people now prefer catfish fillets. But I prefer catfish steaks over fillets and like whole catfish best of all.

When in the mood for buffalo ribs (for you Yankees, that is a fish, not a big animal that once roamed the plains) , it’s the Lassis Inn in Little Rock.

Questions for you:

Which Arkansas restaurant serves the best catfish?

Do you prefer fillets, catfish steaks or whole catfish? And why?

And where else other than Lassis Inn is a good place to buy buffalo?

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