Archive for the ‘Favorite Arkansans’ Category

Cafeteria fare

Thursday, May 11th, 2017

On his way back to Waco, Texas, following an Easter weekend visit to Little Rock, my oldest son stopped at Bryce’s Cafeteria in Texarkana for lunch.

It’s a stop he has been making most of his life.

My wife is from south Texas (Kingsville, Alice, Corpus Christi). On trips to visit her relatives, we usually timed our departures so we could eat at the venerable Texarkana restaurant, which closed its doors at the end of April after 86 years of serving customers.

When I was a boy in Arkadelphia, Hot Springs was usually the first choice if we were going out of town for a special meal.

If shopping and doctors’ visits were involved, Little Rock was the destination.

But to change things up from time to time, my parents would choose Texarkana since both of them loved eating downtown at Bryce’s.

Downtown Texarkana was a busy place in those days. That was before restaurants and retailers moved north to Interstate 30. Shoppers from southwest Arkansas, east Texas, northwest Louisiana and southeast Oklahoma flocked to downtown businesses such as the Belk-Jones and Dillard’s department stores.

Earl Jones Sr., who was born in North Carolina where the Belk chain was founded, moved to Texarkana in October 1947 to open Belk-Jones.

Meanwhile, William T. Dillard, who had been born at Mineral Springs in 1914, opened his first store at Nashville in Howard County in February 1938. He sold the Nashville store in 1948 and moved his family to Texarkana after purchasing a 45 percent interest in Wooten’s Department Store. In 1949, Dillard purchased the remaining 60 percent of Wooten’s.

Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa once described Texarkana in the “Almanac of American Politics” as the heart of “populist country, a place where farmers producing cotton and other crops felt themselves at the mercy of Dallas cotton brokers, Wall Street financiers and railroad magnates who were grabbing all the gains of their hard work. Outside Texarkana, in a landscape littered with small houses and lazily winding rivers, there was little protection from the sun and wind, and precious little ornament; the reservoirs and motels and shopping centers one sees there now are signs of an affluence still only beginning to penetrate what was a zone of subsistence if not poverty.”

Bryce’s fed those who came to Texarkana from the small towns of Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. The cooking was consistent, and it was good.

As my son paid his bill that Monday following his final meal at Bryce’s, he told the cashier of his first visit there. Like a lot of smart, high-strung boys, he was slow in getting potty trained. Austin was obsessed in those days with trains and airplanes, and my mother came up with an idea. She told Austin that if he would get potty trained, the two of them would take a trip on a real train.

It worked, though it was a short journey. They boarded an Amtrak train at Arkadelphia and took it only as far as Texarkana. My father raced down Interstate 30 in his Oldsmobile and picked them up at the Texarkana depot. The three of them then had a big lunch at Bryce’s. My parents later told me that Austin slept soundly on the way back to his grandparents’ home.

“We’ve been hearing a lot of stories along those lines,” the cashier told Austin, who’s now 24.

Bryce Lawrence opened his cafeteria in 1931 during the Great Depression. It remained downtown until February 1989 when it moved near Interstate 30 and Summerhill Road on the Texas side of the state line.

A Chicago Tribune writer once declared that Bryce’s “may have better food for the money than anyplace on earth.”

During his 1992 presidential campaign, Ross Perot, a Texarkana native, was asked to list his favorite restaurant in the world. His choice was Bryce’s, of course.

I would always start meals there with tomato aspic (I suspect I was the youngest person to purchase that old-school dish) and finish with egg custard pie in honor of my mother, who enjoyed both.

Jane and Michael Stern, who became famous for the “Roadfood” series of books, once wrote of Bryce’s: “Going through the line takes you past an array of swoonfully appetizing food — food that has made this place famous since it opened for business in 1931. There are more vegetables than most Yankees see in a year — purple-hulled peas, fried green tomatoes, red beans, turnip greens cooked with chunks of ham and a full array of potatoes, cheesy macaroni casseroles, rice casseroles, buttered cauliflower, sauced broccoli, etc.

“Among the main courses, fried chicken is stupendously crunchy and big slabs of sweet ham are sliced to order. For dessert, we like Karo-coconut pie, hot cobbler with an ethereal crust and banana pudding made with meringue and vanilla wafers. The entire experience is a culinary dream, including a smartly uniformed dining room staff (to help old folks and invalids with their trays, and to bus tables) and servers who address all men as ‘sir’ and ladies as ‘ma’am.'”

One of their readers wrote: “I’m not customarily a fan of cafeterias. Multiples of food behind glass covers bring back not-so-pleasant memories of school cafeterias and unappetizing food. But Bryce’s could make a convert out of me. Here everything looks so good that it is hard to make a choice. We were hungry so it was tempting to order one of everything. As it was, we selected a gracious plenty. The fried chicken is very good and still crisp even though it has been sitting under a heat lamp for a while. The turnip greens, black-eyed peas, squash and coleslaw are well-seasoned and delicious.”

Richard Lawrence, the son of Bryce Lawrence, died in February at age 65.

His obituary read in part: “Richard was born in Texarkana, Arkansas. He went to St. James Day School and Allen Academy. He graduated from Texas High School, where he was an outstanding football player and loved his days playing football for Watty Myers. He went on to play college football at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas. After that, he earned a culinary degree from Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. … Richard was best known for his role in Bryce’s Cafeteria, the family business that was started in 1931 by his father, Bryce Lawrence. He worked there tirelessly for most of his life with his brother, Bryce.

“Richard loved and was loved by all his employees, some of whom worked for Richard and his father for more than 50 years. They all loved to call him Big Daddy. Richard adored his family and extended family, especially the time he spent with them at his cabin at Lake Greeson, teaching all his nieces and nephews how to water ski. Richard’s favorite thing was to cook and entertain, which usually meant telling funny stories about himself. But more than anything else he enjoyed spending time with his family at their summer home in Charlevoix, Mich.”

Shortly before Bryce’s closed, Greg Bischof of the Texarkana Gazette wrote about two veteran employees.

“Leo McCoun and Pearlene Jennings loved working for Bryce’s Cafeteria so much they each worked there for more than a half-century,” he wrote. “Even though the cafeteria will see its last tray full of cuisine slide before the cashiers at the end of April, McCoun’s and Jennings’ memories of working there will likely live on as long as they do. For 86 years, one of Texarkana’s most renowned eateries, founded by local resident Bryce Lawrence in 1931, not only pulled off an entrepreneurial miracle by surviving all 10 years of the Great Depression, it went on to become one of the most popular non-franchised businesses in the region, attracting customers from as far away as Dallas.

“Both McCoun and Jennings were not only eyewitnesses but major contributors to that success — as well as being veteran employees long enough to work at both the cafeteria’s original and current locations. For McCoun, born in 1935 and raised in Lewisville, his employment started Nov. 10, 1958, at Bryce’s original setting at 215 Pine St. with a starting income of $15 a week.”

McCoun told Bischof: “Guys got $15 a week while the girls got $12.50. I loved every one of my jobs here. I enjoyed all 58 years because I just liked being around people. Moving to the north side of town was different and a good move because Interstate 30 pulled business northward, but I think I will always like the look of the old place we had at 215 Pine. It just had a vintage atmosphere about it. At the time we were downtown, there was only one other cafeteria nearby, and that was in Wake Village.

“Bryce’s was a popular place the whole time. We had customers from as far away as Nashville, Ashdown, El Dorado, Magnolia, Camden and, yes, even as far away as Dallas. I got to know customers that were as young as five years old. Now they have grown up and have had children and grandchildren of their own. I got to know so many families and customers from all over. I’ll never forget this. I’m 81 years old, and it’s finally time to retire.”

Bischof wrote: “McCoun, who was 23 years old at the time, began as a pot washer, which he did for three years before becoming a silverware roller for another three years. He eventually became a dining room cleaning attendant as well as an occasional meat slicer in the customer serving line. He still performed both those tasks when the cafeteria made its move from 215 Pine St. to its current location near Interstate 30 in February 1989. Starting in 1996, McCoun became the dining room manager.”

Jennings began working at Bryce’s in May 1965.

“As a 17-year-old Macedonia High School student, she was looking for part-time work as a waitress during the summer of 1965,” Bischof wrote. “Upon graduating the following year, she went full time and made a career of it.”

Jennings told the newspaper: “I started out getting paid $17 a week as take-home pay, which came in a brown envelope. We had an upstairs as well as a downstairs dining room, and we helped customers carry their trays upstairs. I stayed with Bryce’s because I just liked the place, all the friendly customers and the employees. Waitressing was my only job. I loved both locations, but I do miss going up those stairs downtown. I think I got to know hundreds, maybe thousands, of customers through the years.”

Mother’s Day was the busiest day of the year, followed by Easter.

“Both of those holidays drew the crowds,” Jennings said.

Bryce’s is gone, but at least we still have Franke’s at two locations in Little Rock.

But death also has rocked the Franke family of Little Rock. Bill K. Franke died in Little Rock just 12 days after Richard Lawrence died in Texarkana.

Franke’s obituary noted that he “spent the majority of his life serving Arkansas food to Arkansas people at his family business, Franke’s Cafeteria. He was known for his strong presence and was the definition of honor and integrity. … A man of many hobbies, he loved most what nature had to offer. Astronomy, hunting, fishing, cooking and riding motorcycles were among his favorites.”

The death came just more than three months after his daughter, Christen Franke, died suddenly at age 37.

Fortunately, Bill’s widow, Carolyn Cazort Franke, and other family members plan to keep the restaurants going.

Here’s how the Franke’s website describes the history of the company: “In 1919, C.A. Franke opened a doughnut shop on Little Rock’s West Capitol Avenue. After a few short years, it became a thriving business, and in 1922, Franke built a large bakery at 111 W. Third St. Soon a fleet of trucks, nicknamed ‘wife savers,’ could be seen delivering fresh baked goods door to door in neighborhoods throughout the city.

“In 1924, Franke opened the original Franke’s Cafeteria at 115 W. Capitol. The cafeteria was near the major department stores and businesses in downtown Little Rock, and the eatery prospered in this vital commercial area of downtown. A separate dining room was opened around the corner at 511 Louisiana and shared the same kitchen, preparing food for both locations. C.A.’s son, W.J. Franke, worked with his father and eventually became the second generation to run the cafeteria. W.J.’s son, Bill Franke, learned the business from his father and took the reins as the third generation to run the cafeteria in 1983.

“In 1960, the original cafeteria closed its doors but not before inspiring newer locations around the state. Franke’s has had many locations, including Hot Springs, Fort Smith, North Little Rock’s McCain Mall and Little Rock’s University Mall. Today the cafeteria has come full circle with a location on West Capitol in the Regions Bank building and our newest addition, the Market Place location on Rodney Parham.

“Some of Franke’s menu items are legendary, led by the eggplant casserole and egg custard pie. The sliced roast beef, candied sweet potatoes, hand-breaded fried okra and Karo-nut pecan pie continue to be customer favorites. Most recipes have remained unchanged from the originals and are often the subject of recipe duplication debates. The food line at Franke’s, with its array of cold dishes, steaming meats, assorted vegetables and mouthwatering desserts, has kept customers coming through the doors for many decades.

“Franke’s success and longevity are due to consistently serving good food at reasonable prices, a long history of staff who have served the people of Arkansas with a full heart and loyal customers who have become a part of our family. As an Arkansas tradition, Franke’s offers more than just a home-cooked meal. It’s a place for older generations to remember and a home for younger generations to begin making memories.”

I eat lunch often at the downtown Little Rock location and always study the framed black-and-white photo of Capitol Avenue looking west toward the state Capitol. It was taken decades ago. You can see the Franke’s sign on the left and the sign for the Capitol Theater on the right. There’s also a framed gavel that was used by Lee Cazort when he was the Arkansas House speaker in 1917, the Arkansas Senate president in 1921 and the state’s lieutenant governor from 1929-31 and 1933-37.

Cafeterias were once common across the state. My family often would eat in the 1960s at a downtown Arkadelphia cafeteria called Homer’s.

Now locally owned cafeterias are becoming hard to find.

Bryce’s is but a memory. Here’s hoping that Franke’s will flourish for many years to come.

 

Post to Twitter

The farkleberry

Thursday, May 4th, 2017

The farkleberry is a shrub that can be found from the East Coast to Texas. It can grow to a height of almost 25 feet and has black berries that birds feed on.

Curtis Morris writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “The shrub is nearly unknown today.”

So why does it have its own entry in the state encyclopedia?

If you don’t know the answer to that question, you’re likely not old enough to remember Gov. Orval Faubus and editorial cartoonist George Fisher.

Faubus, who served as governor from 1955-67, helped clear brush along a state highway in Franklin County one day for what’s now referred to as a “photo op.” Lou Oberste, a writer and photographer for what later would become the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism, shot photos of the governor, who was dressed in overalls and carrying an ax.

Faubus had grown up in Madison County in the Ozarks and claimed to know the identities of most of the trees and bushes native to Arkansas. Along the highway that day, he pointed out redbuds, dogwoods and other trees he wanted saved.

After hearing about the publicity stunt, Fisher decided to draw cartoons showing Faubus with a farkleberry, whose wood was considered worthless.

Fisher grew up at Beebe and died in 2003 at age 80. He has been described by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial cartoonist John Deering as a man whose work “influenced and helped define Arkansas politics for a generation. He created a series of visual metaphors and themes that were widely associated with the politicians he caricatured and became a part of Arkansas political folklore. Fisher focused primarily on political, social and environmental issues.

“Fisher was born on April 8, 1923, near Searcy to Charles W. Fisher, a tree nursery owner, and Gladys Fisher. His mother died when he was five, and his father raised Fisher’s two brothers, sister and him. Fisher grew up in Beebe, where he attended school and started the Beebe Grammar School News. Fisher’s father was an avid reader and encouraged his son’s interest in drawing. He suggested an idea for Fisher’s first published carton, a sketch lampooning Gov. Homer Adkins.

“Fisher attended college in Beebe for a year while serving in the Army Reserves. He left college in 1943 after being called to active duty. While stationed in England, he attended drawing classes at the Municipal College of Art at Bournemouth and drew cartoons for his regiment’s newspaper. In Bournemouth, he met art student Rosemary Beryl Snook. While serving as an infantryman in the Battle of the Bulge, Fisher maintained a sketch diary of his fighting experiences. After the war, in 1946, Fisher married Snook and returned to college.

“His first cartooning experience was with the West Memphis News, run by World War II veterans determined to fight the abuses of Arkansas’ machine politicians. At the time of his hiring in 1946, Fisher wrote news stories in addition to drawing cartoons. The paper’s staunch reformist stance led to threats of lawsuits from the local political machine.”

The newspaper at West Memphis was shut down in 1949, and Fisher moved to Little Rock to begin a commercial art service. He approached Robert McCord at the North Little Rock Times and offered to draw political cartoons. McCord accepted his offer. Soon, the Arkansas Gazette and the Pine Bluff Commercial were reprinting some of the cartoons, giving Fisher a statewide audience.

“Fisher and his wife created a syndicated television show, ‘Phydeaux and His Friends,’ featuring puppets they sculpted,” Deering writes. “The puppets appealed to children, and the show’s political satire delighted adults. Local political figures, including Faubus, made guest appearances. Although Fisher initially supported Faubus, he quickly concluded that Faubus was an opportunist. Fisher’s most famous Faubus cartoon showed the governor addressing a Legislature of Faubus look-alikes in a biting commentary on his influence on state government.

“In 1972, the Gazette published Fisher’s cartoons several times a week. By the time he was hired as the paper’s editorial cartoonist in 1976, Fisher’s name was synonymous with the Gazette’s. Many of his cartoon symbols have become icons. He popularized the farkleberry bush in an account of a bizarre meeting of Faubus with state highway workers. As the story goes, Faubus stopped at a site where workers were clearing brush to demonstrate how it should be done. He named all the native plants, including the obscure farkleberry.”

So it was that the farkleberry came to be identified with the Faubus administration.

Faubus later called the walking path behind his Huntsville home the Farkleberry Trail.

When the Arkansas chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists began looking for ways to raise money for college scholarships, it decided to put on a stage show that would lampoon newsmakers. The inaugural show was held in 1967 (Winthrop Rockefeller’s first year as governor) and was known as the Farkleberry Follies. The follies were held every other year during legislative sessions through 1999.

Last month, the Political Animals Club of Little Rock held a program to mark the 50th anniversary of that first show. Veteran Little Rock advertising and public relations executive Ben Combs, who played Faubus, was joined by former Arkansas Senate chief of staff Bill “Scoop” Lancaster, who played Congressman Tommy Robinson. Lancaster brought back his Robinson character for the luncheon.

“We had some great Arkansas political characters to use as script material through the years,” Combs says. “These types of shows often are called gridiron shows, but the lawyers were already using that name. We came up with Farkleberry Follies for that first show, and it stuck.”

The show would sell out from Wednesday night through Saturday night. Combs says the tradition was for local elected officials to be seated up front on Wednesday nights followed by members of the Legislature on Thursday nights, the governor and other statewide constitutional officers on Friday nights and the members of the state’s congressional delegation on Saturday nights.

“We liked to put them up front so the other people attending could see their reactions when we made fun of them,” Combs says.

A driving force behind the Farkleberry Follies was Leroy Donald, who died in 2009 at age 73 after a long career as a writer and editor at the Arkansas Gazette and later the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Months in advance of the Farkleberry Follies, people such as Lancaster and Combs would gather with Donald for long nights of eating, drinking and script writing.

Combs says the goal was to “skewer the inflated egos of the political class with skits and songs.”

In his book “Inside the Arkansas Legislature,” Lancaster gives an example of the writing that made the show memorable: “The Arkansas Senate is like a fine bottle of Montrachet while the House is like a pitcher of Miller Lite — warm Miller Lite.”

The show was held at what originally was the Olde West Dinner Theatre and is now Murry’s Dinner Playhouse in southwest Little Rock. There was a political connection since the theater, which was new in 1967, was owned by Ike Murry, who served two terms as the state’s attorney general from 1949-53 when Sid McMath was governor. Murry ran for governor in 1952 and finished last in a field of five in the Democratic primary. He later became a regular at the weekday luncheons hosted for years by Little Rock financier Witt Stephens. Politics often dominated the discussions at those luncheons, where cornbread was always on the menu.

Bill Lewis, who was a longtime Gazette reporter, was the local chapter president for the Society of Professional Journalists the year the show began. He’s now 87 and still lives in Little Rock.

“We were attempting to get by on dues of $10 a year, and it was becoming increasingly difficult,” Lewis says. “So I invited the board to my little house at 14 Westmont Circle in Meadowcliff one Sunday afternoon. The board consisted of Marcus George, Robert McCord, Margaret Smith Ross, George Fisher and one or two others I can’t recall. I had been in a gridiron show while working for United Press in Baton Rouge so I proposed that we attempt one in the campaign off years to avoid conflict with the lawyers’ show. We talked about the idea, and everyone seemed agreeable. It was Fisher who came up with the name that afternoon. I was a little dubious, but I was overridden by the others. They thought it was great, and they were right.

“I negotiated with Ike Murry to use the Olde West Dinner Theatre. There were only two performances of the first show, but later we bowed to public demand, and it went up to a full week. The $12 ticket price for the first show included a buffet dinner and an open bar. The show made a ton of money. I hired Betty Fowler, who worked every show thereafter. The last production had a ticket price of $50, and it sold out.

“We rehearsed in the old synagogue on Broadway. The editor of the Benton paper volunteered to direct the show provided he had full control of the script. I reluctantly agreed, but then he began inserting four-letter words that I knew would be destructive. I called his hand on it. He threw down his script and stormed out. I’ve never seen him since. This happened two weeks before the opening. In desperation, I called Margaret Carter at UALR. She agreed. By some miracle, she whipped the show into shape. It was a huge hit. It made so much money that it was decided to open a scholarship fund for students studying journalism.”

Ernie Dumas writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Fisher had a significant role in formulating, producing and performing in the show, which took the name of the Faubus icon. Fisher usually began the show by caricaturing a few of the figures who would be lampooned. … Donald brainstormed and produced each show, rewrote the whimsical skits of others (“funnying them up,” as he described it) and directed the performances. The skits were often built around Broadway show tunes and popular songs, the lyrics altered to fit current public controversies.

“A few peformances proved so popular that they became regular features — Donald as the perennial political candidate Jim Johnson, Gazette news editor Bill Rutherford as University of Arkansas football coach and athletic director Frank Broyles, Arkansas Democrat political cartoonist Jon Kennedy as Sen. J. William Fulbright.”

When Little Rock banker B. Finley Vinson was planning the skyscraper that’s now the Regions Bank building, he wanted a fine-dining venue on the top floor. That became Restaurant Jacques & Suzanne’s. Vinson also wanted a less formal restaurant on the first floor that also would serve as a happy hour watering hole for the downtown business crowd. Public relations executive Ron Robinson suggested to Vinson that the place be called The Farkleberry and that the walls be covered with political cartoons and caricatures of well-known Arkansans.

The Farkleberry operated from 1975-88. Years later, Jack Fleischauer, who headed Arkansas operations for Regions Bank, found the cartoons from The Farkleberry in boxes in a storage room. He thought about throwing them away but decided to ask Skip Rutherford, the founder of the Political Animals Club, if he wanted them. Rutherford, now dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, saved the cartoons. Some of them are on display at the Clinton School and the others are stored at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.

In that sense, the fruit of the farkleberry lives on.

 

Post to Twitter

Spring at Couchwood

Thursday, April 20th, 2017

It’s time for lunch, but Elizabeth Dober is in no hurry to eat.

She’s pointing to framed black-and-white photos on the walls of the main lodge at Couchwood, the retreat built by Arkansas Power & Light Co. founder Harvey Couch on the shores of Lake Catherine.

Dober is particularly fascinated by a photo of Herbert Hoover that was taken in September 1927 when Couchwood was new.

The Great Flood of 1927 was ongoing, and Arkansas was one of the states hit the hardest. Hoover had run unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920. President Warren G. Harding later appointed him commerce secretary, and President Calvin Coolidge asked him to lead the federal response to the 1927 flood.

“In 1927, the Mississippi reclaimed three-quarters of its flood plain, devastating Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana,” writes historian John Barry. “The statistics recounting the damage are staggering. At its widest, the river created a vast inland sea more than 75 miles across. One could travel the normally dry 70 miles from Vicksburg to Monroe, La., by boat. Not counting the flooding of parts of cities as large as Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, just along the lower river alone, the homes of more than 920,000 people were damaged. The nation’s population at the time was only 120 million.

“Roughly 1 percent — perhaps more — of the entire population of the country was flooded out of their homes; 330,000 were rescued by boat from rooftops, trees, levee crowns and second stories. Hundreds of thousands of homes and commercial buildings were destroyed. No one knows the death toll — the Red Cross claimed it was only 246 but the Weather Bureau said 500, while a professional disaster expert estimated the dead in Mississippi alone at 1,000.

“But the biggest impact of the flood was less on individual communities that were inundated than on America itself. Far more than any other natural disaster, the 1927 Mississippi River flood altered the course of American history. It did this in four chief ways: It revised environmental management, propelled a dark horse to the presidency, altered the political landscape for African-Americans and expanded the role of government in crises.”

Barry writes that the 1927 flood “made Herbert Hoover president of the United States. An enormously wealthy engineer, Hoover developed and owned mines and oilfields in America, Russia, China, Australia, South America and Africa. But for all his wealth, he had no political base. How could he? Hoover had left the United States after graduating Stanford and did not return until the United States entered World War I. He had not even voted in a presidential election until 1920. Nonetheless he wanted to be president. A logistical genius, he had organized American food production and distribution during World War I and fed much of Europe in the immediate aftermath of the war. John Maynard Keynes said he was ‘the only man who emerged from the ordeal (of the peace conference) with an enhanced reputation.’

“He became known as the Great Humanitarian. Using his own wealth, he sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1920. His campaign was mocked, and he received no support. But President Warren G. Harding named him secretary of commerce, and in 1927, President Calvin Coolidge put him in charge of the response to the flood.

“The flood was the biggest story of the year and it lasted for weeks, through several crests, the rescue of populations and recovery planning. Hoover and his staff worked diligently to exploit the coverage; no newspaper was too small. Hoover personally communicated with weekly papers from Arizona and Texas to Washington state, Nebraska and Indiana. In evaluating his strategy, the present-day political commentator James Carville concluded that ‘Hoover had a better press operation than any politician I know today.’ Routinely, the press hailed Hoover as a hero and a savior; a California paper proclaimed, ‘He is the ablest and most efficient American in public life. … In personal fitness for the presidency there is no other American, even remotely, in Mr. Hoover’s class.’

“Coverage like that prompted Hoover to confide to a friend, ‘I shall be the nominee, probably. It is practically inevitable.'”

Hoover indeed captured the presidency in 1928.

Those who are familiar with Arkansas history won’t be surprised to learn that Harvey Couch was among Hoover’s confidants.

Born in 1877 near the Arkansas-Louisiana border in the Columbia County community of Calhoun, Couch took a job at age 21 as a mail clerk for the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway and quickly moved up the ladder.

Writing for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, Patricia Laster described Couch as the man who “helped bring Arkansas from an agricultural economy in the early 20th century to more of a balance between agriculture and industry. His persuasiveness with investors from New York and his ingenuity, initiative and energy had a positive effect on Arkansas’ national reputation among businessmen. He ultimately owned several railroad lines and a telephone company and was responsible for what became the state’s largest utility, AP&L.”

Laster wrote that Couch’s first job away from the family farm was “to fire the boiler of a local cotton gin’s gas steam engine and bring it up to the required pressure. He earned 50 cents a day. While waiting to hear about his application to the Railway Mail Service, he became a drugstore clerk. His hard work and honesty prompted his boss to assign him the additional task of collecting overdue accounts.

“At age 21, he was hired as a mail clerk on the St. Louis-Texarkana route of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway and was soon transferred to head clerk on the St. Louis Southwestern Railway. At a water stop, Couch noticed a construction crew raising a pole — not for the telegraph line but as part of a long-distance telephone system. After questioning the linemen, he saw a chance to help bring phone service to places like Magnolia. He paid a colleague $50 to exchange routes so he could clerk the Magnolia-north Louisiana route. Enlisting his brother Pete as crew leader to move and set up poles and a postmaster in Louisiana to become a partner, Couch began the North Louisiana Telephone Co. The line expanded, and Couch bought his partner’s share of the business.

“Couch’s expanding telephone system took him to Athens, La., where he met Jessie Johnson. They married on Oct. 4, 1904. The couple had five children. In 1911, Couch sold NLTC, which had 1,500 miles of line and 50 exchanges in four states, to Southwestern Bell for more than $1 million. Too young to retire, he was determined to build another company. In 1914, at the age of 35, he bought from Jack Wilson the only electric transmission line in the state, which ran 22 miles between Malvern and Arkadelphia. The system ran only at night.

“Sixteen years later, bolstered by hydroelectric dams on the Ouachita River, the company that Couch named Arkansas Power & Light had 3,000 miles of line serving cities and towns in 63 of the state’s 75 counties as well as 3,000 farmers. The company, now called Entergy, serves 2.4 million customers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.”

Couch went on to create Louisiana Power & Light Co. and Mississippi Power & Light Co. He built the country’s first modern gas-fueled power plant near Monroe, La.

On the Ouachita River, he built Remmel and Carpenter dams, forming Lake Hamilton and Lake Catherine (which was named after his only daughter).

His main home and business offices were in Pine Bluff. Laster wrote that the only luxury he allowed himself was Couchwood.

The famous humorist Will Rogers was among those who visited Couchwood. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dropped by in 1936 while he was in Arkansas to help the state celebrate its centennial.

The compound covers 170 acres and remains in the Couch family. Elizabeth Dober is the granddaughter of Harvey Couch. Her father was Harvey Jr., who went by Don. She lives in Little Rock and has helped manage Couchwood for the past couple of decades.

Dober’s mother was from a prominent old south Louisiana sugar-growing family, the Levert family. The Levert Cos., established in 1915, still own a planation mansion near St. Martinville, La., known as the St. John House. The house, constructed of Louisiana cypress and surrounded by giant live oak trees, was built about 1828 by a wealthy planter named Alexandre DeClouet. Jean Batiste Levert and Louis Bush of New Orleans acquired the plantation and the home in July 1885. In February 1887, Bush sold his interest to Levert. The plantation has been owned by the Levert interests since that date.

After graduating from Virginia Military Institute and the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, Don Couch went to work for a bank in New Orleans and met his wife in the Crescent City.

In a 2014 story in the Levert family newsletter, Dober said: “I sometimes do feel I am married to Couchwood. … I arrange for repairmen such as plumbers and electricians, but a caretaker nearby meets with them. … I pay all the bills, fill out tax forms and get the paperwork ready for the CPA. I really enjoy the work at Couchwood because I feel like I am helping to preserve it.”

When Arkansas Business devoted much of a 2013 issue to Entergy’s 100th birthday, Dober told the publication: “Electric lights, bridges and promoting Arkansas were among grandfather’s favorite things.”

Dober refers to her grandfather as Daddy Couch, though she doesn’t remember him. Couch died of heart disease in 1941 — two years before Dober was born — in a house named Little Pine Bluff at Couchwood. Following funeral services in the city of Pine Bluff, a special train took his body to Magnolia to be buried adjacent to his parents. Couch’s private train car — named Magnolia — is now on the Couchwood grounds.

Hoover was meeting with Couch in 1927 because Gov. John Martineau had appointed Couch as the flood relief director for Arkansas. The Great Flood of 1927 was followed by the drought of 1930-31. Couch was appointed state relief chairman for that event and worked in Washington to help Arkansas obtain more than $20 million in federal loans for farmers.

“Hoover appointed Couch to the seven-member board for the president’s newly formed Reconstruction Finance Corp., which operated from 1931-56,” Laster wrote. “The RFC was the president’s way of getting the government involved. The new program’s mission was to strengthen confidence, facilitate exports, protect and aid agriculture, make temporary advances to industries and stimulate employment. Couch was one of seven directors of the RFC, and he moved to Washington, D.C., for three years. He served as supervisor of the public works section, overseeing budgets and encouraging the building of water and sewage systems, bridges and electric lines. He and Jesse Jones were the only Hoover appointees to stay on after Roosevelt was elected.”

“Look at Hoover with that tie on,” Dober says while admiring the 1927 photo. “They say he would go fishing in a coat and tie. Daddy Couch offered to take him fishing when he was here, but it was a Sunday and Hoover said, ‘The Hoovers don’t fish on Sundays.'”

There also are framed photos in the main lodge at Couchwood of well-known figures who have visited the compound in the decades since Couch’s death, including former U.S. Sens. Dale Bumpers and David Pryor.

During the 1930s, Harvey Couch would host what he called the Annual Round-Up, bringing together business and government leaders from across the region. A framed program from the March 1938 event gives these directions: “When you come in the big gate, forget all your troubles. Be sure to sign the register. Couchwood is proud of its guests. Go to bed when you like and arise when you please. At meals, take as many helpings as you desire. If you don’t see what you want, ask for it. Stay as long as you like and return soon. Everything is off the record.”

The main lodge has eight rooms and can sleep more than 20 people. A second house named Calhoun was built soon afterward. Its claim to fame is that visitors can fish off the porch. Little Pine Bluff was the next to be constructed, and Remmelwood (Couch’s only daughter, Catherine, married Pratt Remmel) was built after that.

The other four Couch children were boys — Johnson Olin Couch, Don Couch, Kirke Couch and Bill Couch. Catherine Couch Remmel died in January 2006 at age 87, the last of her generation. A fifth generation of the Couch family now enjoys Couchwood with the largest crowds traditionally turning up for the Fourth of July.

When Harvey Couch was presiding over the compound, rumors would spread about the identities of important figures visiting Couchwood. Time magazine reported one year that two visitors had arrived in a plane that landed on Lake Catherine.

The main lodge was designed by John Parks Almand of Little Rock, who was part of the team that designed Little Rock Central High School. Following the school’s completion in 1927, the American Institute of Architects described it as “the most beautiful high school in America.” Almand also designed the Medical Arts Building in downtown Hot Springs, which was the tallest building in the state for almost 30 years after opening in 1930.

“Almand worked in a variety of architectural styles during his 50-year career, including Arts and Crafts, Art Deco, Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival, Gothic Revival and California Mission,” the Encyclopedia of Arkansas said of the architect. “A stickler for detail, Almand recommended the finest materials to his clients and required a high level of workmanship from builders. On more than one occasion, he told a contractor to tear out and replace work that he deemed inferior.”

At Couchwood, Almand used red cedar logs shipped in by train from Oregon.

Harvey Couch later hired sculptor Dionicio Rodriguez to design planters, outdoor seating and even a drink cooler disguised as a tree stump. Rodriguez, a Mexican native, is probably best known for his work on the Old Mill in North Little Rock. Developer Justin Matthews brought Rodriguez to Arkansas in 1932 to work in Matthews’ Lakewood housing development.

“Couchwood offers the best collection of his work in the domestic sculpture category,” said the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Helpers built concrete footings for his sculptures, and the underpinnings were made with reinforcing bars, rods, mesh screen wire and rubble, held together with a rough coat of concrete. Metal materials were bound together with wire, not welded. Working outdoors, the sculptor himself applied the surface coat of smooth concrete or ‘neat’ cement, a term for pure Portland cement. To imitate nature, varied textures were created using his hands, forks, spoons or handmade tools. Secretive about his methodology, the nomadic Rodriguez made no preliminary sketches or drawings and did not record the ingredients of the chemical washes used to tint his sculptures.”

Dober delights in showing off Couchwood and talking about “Daddy Couch.”

On display are Indian artifacts uncovered when Lake Catherine was constructed in the 1920s, a wall devoted to AP&L history and even the plaque presented on Harvey Couch Day in Pine Bluff in 1923.

Massachusetts may have the Kennedy compound on Cape Cod, but Arkansas has Couchwood on Lake Catherine.

Post to Twitter

The wisdom of Solomon

Friday, April 14th, 2017

Arkansas lost one of its most important civic leaders last month when David Solomon died in Helena at age 100. He was among the last of the Delta Jews.

The first Jews arrived in that booming Mississippi River town in the 1840s. A Torah was borrowed from a congregation at Cincinnati in 1846 to use for the high holidays. In 1867, 65 people formed Congregation Beth El. Now, 150 years later, the era of Jews living and thriving in the lower Mississippi River Delta nears its conclusion.

Solomon’s grandfather had arrived from Germany shortly before the Civil War and had eight children — six boys and two girls. Members of the second and third generations would later own farms, a wholesale dry goods operation, a department store and a shoe store.

David Solomon began the first grade at a Catholic school known as Sacred Heart, which was operated by the Sisters of Nazareth. The nuns quickly advanced him from the first grade to the fourth grade due to his intelligence. Solomon liked to joke that his mother finally pulled him out of the Catholic school when he kept coming home with crucifixes and tiny vials of holy water.

Solomon received his bachelor’s degree from Washington University at St. Louis and his law degree from Harvard. He applied to be a tax lawyer at a large firm in Memphis. When he wasn’t chosen, he came home to Helena to practice law.

His wife, Miriam, was the daughter of Charles Rayman, who operated Helena Wholesale Co. The couple had been married 69 years at the time of Miriam’s death in 2011.

During the first half of the 20th century, the Delta was perhaps the greatest American melting pot outside a major city. There are few towns in Arkansas with as colorful a past as Helena. A historic marker was even placed there by the Mississippi Blues Commission to commemorate this Arkansas city’s place in the history of the blues. The marker reads in part: “Helena was home to a flourishing blues scene that inspired Sonny Boy Williamson and other legendary musicians from Mississippi, including Robert Johnson, Pinetop Perkins, Houston Stackhouse, James “Peck” Curtis and Honeyboy Edwards, to take up residence here in the 1930s and 1940s. They and many others performed at a famous juke joint called the Hole in the Wall. Williamson’s rise to fame began in Helena as the star of KFFA radio’s ‘King Biscuit Time.’ Sonny Boy Williamson was born and laid to rest in Mississippi, and lived in Chicago, East St. Louis, Milwaukee, Detroit and numerous other locales. But Helena was the town he came to regard as home.”

The Arkansas Delta is like many parts of rural America, a place that in some ways never made the transition from the agricultural to the industrial age, much less the technological era. Sharecroppers moved from the cotton fields of the South to the steel mills and automobile factories of the Upper Midwest. They deserted towns such as Helena for the promise of better jobs in cities such as Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit.

With the loss of thousands of sharecroppers across the region came a loss of business for Jewish merchants and professionals. It’s common during the holidays each December to see visitors in rural east Arkansas whose automobiles sport license plates from Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. They’re the children and grandchildren of those who left the Delta when their services were no longer needed due to the mechanization of agriculture.

David Solomon witnessed that Delta history firsthand. When Temple Beth El closed in 2006 with fewer than 20 members remaining, David and Miriam Solomon began hosting Friday night services at their home. In December 2009, the Jewish news service JTA distributed an article about those services in which Ben Harris wrote: “The plight of Helena’s Jews is mirrored in scores of communities across the Bible Belt, where Jews first migrated in the early 19th century, generally as peddlers. Those who stuck around opened small businesses, which for a long time provided an ample livelihood.”

Harris went on to write that Miriam and David Solomon’s “benign resignation” over the impending end of Jewish life in Phillips County derived “at least in part from the success they have had in winding down their affairs and ensuring the continued maintenance of their synagogue and cemetery, which dates back to 1875. Their ritual objects have been donated to other communities, and a trust has been established to ensure the cemetery’s upkeep. And with the synagogue and its glass-domed ceiling turned over to the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the building will not only be preserved, it will be put to good use.”

David Solomon’s death marked more than the loss of a legendary lawyer. We live in an increasingly urbanized state in which the majority of counties are losing population. The small-town lawyers who are leaders in their communities — often serving in the Arkansas Legislature or on prominent state boards (Solomon, for instance, served on the Arkansas Highway Commission) — are becoming harder to find.

I think back to 1985 when I was living in my hometown of Arkadelphia and received a call from H.W. “Bill” McMillan, who had practiced law there for decades and was among the top civic leaders in south Arkansas. He told me that he didn’t expect to live long, handed me a file and asked me to write his obituary in advance. I still consider his request to be one of the premier honors of my writing career. That’s because McMillan was a giant in my community. Four generations of McMillans practiced law in Arkadelphia, beginning with Bill McMillan’s grandfather, Henry, who started practicing before the Civil War and died in 1910 at age 80.

Like Bill McMillan in Arkadelphia, David Solomon was a giant in Helena. He practiced law from his office on Cherry Street until 2015. He was honored by the Arkansas Bar Foundation for 75 years of active practice.

When I speak to civic clubs in towns across Arkansas, I’m often struck by how much smaller the attendance is than it was two decades ago. At some of these clubs, most members are retired, preferring to talk about the past rather than the future.

Where are the Bill McMillans and the David Solomons of the future, the small-town lawyers who will make a difference in their communities and the state?

I hope they’re still out there.

___

All three of David and Miriam Solomon’s sons were highly successful.

David P. Solomon went on to become the executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society in New York.

Rayman Solomon was the dean of the Rutgers Law School in Camden, N.J., for 16 years.

Lafe Solomon was an attorney for the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C., and served as the NLRB’s acting general counsel from June 2010 until November 2013.

At the service honoring David Solomon last month at Beth El, Rayman Solomon and longtime Little Rock attorney John P. Gill spoke.

Here are their remarks:

John P. Gill

It is a privilege and a great honor to stand in this place, which to me is still sacred. To stand under the Star of David in the glass dome above is a thrilling experience. Look up at that star that was so much a part of the lives of Miriam and David Solomon.

I arise to say that the legacy of David Solomon is alive. There is no death to greatness. As the rabbi said, a good name lives forever.

In the “Twelfth Night,” Shakespeare wrote: “Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness.” David achieved greatness by living a life suggested in an old Methodist hymn that says “no one can serve God and despise another.” I’m not sure David paid much attention to Methodist singing, but his life followed that principle.

Except for those who attended Vanderbilt and Rutgers, many people will say that Harvard is the finest law school in America. It has produced justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. It has produced White House counsel. It has produced great lawyers on Wall Street. And it has produced a brilliant and dedicated lawyer on Cherry Street. David Solomon brought Harvard Law to Cherry Street.

When Helena called for courage, Helena turned to Mr. Solomon. When Helena called for compassion in action, Helena turned to Mr. Solomon. When Helena called for trust, Helena turned to Mr. Solomon.

It is not a play on words to say that it was the wisdom of Solomon that made him so special. And not just in Helena. People beg the governor of Arkansas to sit on the Arkansas Highway Commission, and the governor of Arkansas begged David to serve on the commission. David never asked for that job. When the largest bank in the state almost went under, David was asked to go to Little Rock and help revive it. But David was dedicated to this community and always came back to Cherry Street, where he brought Harvard Law to businesses and the needy alike. With all of his accolades and honors, it was his legal work for clients who were too poor to pay him that impressed me the most. No one knows how many chickens and sacks of okra he took for fees.

Today’s lawyers take an oath before the Arkansas Supreme Court that was written long before David began to practice law on Cherry Street 75 years ago. But the oath sounds as though it was modeled after the life of David Solomon. Part of the oath says: “I will not reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the impoverished, the defenseless or the oppressed. I will endeavor always to advance the cause of justice and to defend and to keep inviolate the rights of all persons whose trust is conferred upon me as an attorney at law.”

Last Sunday at an African-American church in this community, it was announced that Mr. Solomon had died. One by one, they stood and said, “He helped me.”

Until the very last days of his practice — indeed on the day his office closed — there were client files for the impoverished, the defenseless and the oppressed. Those files were, and are today, a silent sentinel to the greatness of David Solomon.

Rayman Solomon

“Is Lawyer Solomon there?”

This was the question asked David, Lafe or me when we answered the phone at home during our childhood. The caller was a client or a client’s relative, and they were in distress and needed help. It didn’t matter whether it was dinnertime or bedtime, my father was always ready to counsel them. In thinking about how to describe my father’s life today, I could come up with no better description than his clients: Lawyer Solomon. I believe it captures his essential being and what he valued most.

My father was a lawyer’s lawyer who loved his profession. His love of the law began at Harvard Law School following his graduation from Washington University at St. Louis. He was a brilliant student who had finished high school at 16. He flourished at Harvard and enjoyed both the educational and social life in Boston. He returned home to practice in Helena in 1939. In an office on Cherry Street, he practiced law for 76 years, which appears to be an Arkansas record. His practice was interrupted only by his service in World War II. As a solo practitioner, he handled every type of case, both civil and criminal.

By any measure, my father had tremendous success as an attorney. One of the state’s top trial lawyers, he was invited to join the American College of Trial Lawyers. He was twice selected to serve as a special justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court when the justices all had to recuse themselves. He served in all offices of the Arkansas Bar Association except for president, and he turned down that honor.

There are many more honors and awards and successes I could mention, but what I would like to emphasize is that he was the embodiment of professionalism. That term has become synonymous with civility among lawyers, which he certainly was throughout his career. However, it means more. Professionalism requires mentoring of young lawyers, which he constantly did. It was his way of paying forward the training he received from the two generations of lawyers in practice when he entered the profession. Professionalism also requires public service and pro bono activities. My father did both of these without hesitation. For years he represented pro bono Helena’s hospital and then the Helena Hospital Foundation, which recognized his service when he retired two years ago by naming the Solomon Auditorium at its headquarters. He also served as a delegate to the 1969-70 Arkansas Constitutional Convention.

My father never sought political office. The only time I can remember overt political activity was when a racist ran for Supreme Court justice and my father led the east Arkansas campaign of his successful opponent. He served for 10 years on the Highway Commission, the last two of which he was the chairman. Anyone who knows Arkansas knows that is a political position, but David Pryor states in his autobiography that my father’s appointment was a political compromise. Gov. Pryor was able to appoint someone no one could object to and avoid a fight between two people who were campaigning for the position. However, he was no stranger to politicians. My mother used to love to tell the story of their invitation to the opening reception of the Holocaust Museum in Washington. At the reception, my mother wasn’t feeling well and after touring the room, my father said, “Let’s go. I don’t know anyone here.” Just as they started to leave, “Ruffles and Flourishes” played, the room divided and my parents were standing where the foreign leaders entered the room. The last person to enter was President Clinton. As he passed them, he said, “Hello, David. Hello, Miriam.” My mother said to my father: “At least if only one person here knows you, it’s the president of the United States.”

Let me turn to my father as a “Solomon.’ He was very proud of his family, and his family was proud of him. Until last Thursday there had been a Solomon living in Helena for almost 170 years, and my father and his sister, Hannah, were the second generation born here. My grandfather, David, was a farmer and merchant who had five brothers and two sisters. They shared in all things and took care of each other. As my Aunt Hannah and their father used to say, my father was “Mrs. Solomon’s only son” and he was, in fact, the only male of his generation. Like his father and uncles, he took care of all of the relatives. He managed the legal and financial affairs of his widowed aunts, his sister and all of his cousins.

In 1942, my father married Miriam Rayman. She had grown up down the street from him. They both attended Washington University, but they did not really date until my father was in the Army and my mother was working as an occupational therapist in Chicago. After his discharge from the service, my father thought about moving to Memphis to practice. But my mother was pregnant with my older brother, David, and all of their parents and the Solomon uncles wanted them back in Helena. So back they came.

My parents had a 69-year partnership in everything except law, but even there my mother was willing to let my father know what she thought he should do. Neither of my parents were conventional grandparents. My mother was the one who was emotionally probing. It was not that my father did not care or did not pay attention. Quite the contrary. He took great pride in all three of our lives and careers, and those of our wives — Nancy, Carol and Cam. And, of course, he loved hearing about the accomplishments of his grandchildren — Catherine, Hannah, Will, Claire and Jess. He welcomed their spouses into the family with open arms. Both of my parents were wonderful storytellers. They instilled in us the importance and the meaning of family through the stories of the Raymans and the Solomons, which they often told.

We are gathered here in this wonderful building with its magnificent dome with a Star of David at its center, which served as Temple Beth El from 1914-2006 when the remaining Helena Jews could no longer afford the upkeep. The Solomon family was one of the original organizers of the congregation in 1867. My father and mother were instrumental in leading the congregation over their adult lifetimes. My father served many years as president of the congregation and warden of the cemetery. As the Jewish community dwindled, my parents’ devotion to that community did not wane. They opened their house for services and organized holiday gatherings. My father was the last remaining lifelong resident of the Helena Jewish community.

My father also was concerned with the well-being of the entire community. He saw the problems of the Delta as the loss of economic opportunity in the area. Whether in his work as a director of First National Bank or in his volunteer service on various commissions and boards, he sought to bring industry and jobs to Helena and the region. One of his favorite stories concerned the time that a tugboat captain, Jim Walden, showed up at his office to inquire about using land on the river that our family owned. Jim asked my father how much the rent would be. My father told him that he should start his business and if it was successful they would talk about rent. In recognition of his assistance for many years, Helena Marine named its new tug the MV David Solomon. To honor my father’s tireless efforts on behalf of Helena, the community gave him an award dinner more than a decade ago. So many people have stopped David, Lafe and me over the past several days to say how much they will miss my father and then describe how he had helped them.

I would like to mention several characteristics of my father. I have noted that he was incredibly smart. But he also had the most disciplined mind I have ever encountered. At the same time that he had a major law practice, he managed a family cotton business, oversaw a family farm and was involved in banking and other civic projects. He had laser-like focus on whatever he had to do and always managed everything flawlessly. Of course, no description of my father would be complete without commenting on his bow ties. He explained that after having to wear long ties in the Army for three years, he vowed never to wear a long tie again. As David and Lafe can attest, among the hundreds of ties in his closet, there isn’t one long tie.

Finally, people have commented on my father’s wit and his not suffering fools. David, Nancy, Carol and I visited with him three weeks ago, and Lafe and Cam had been here a week before that. It was clear that he was slipping away and had good days and bad. The day after we arrived, he told stories and was thoroughly engaged. The next day, he imagined he was in a moving car. When we told him he was safely in his bed, he got agitated and told us to stop the car. I then decided to go with it and told him I was trying but could not do it. He looked up and said, “I’ve raised three idiot sons. They don’t know how to stop a car.” Clearly, he was not that delusional.

Later that day he said something to Carol and Nancy, and Nancy said: “David, you can see things that others can’t.” He replied with a grin, “That has been true all my life.”

David and Nancy, Lafe and Cam, Carol and I and the grandchildren would like to thank a wonderful group of caregivers who have taken care of my father the past two years. Lelia Johnson, Loyce Corbitt, Peggy Henson, Gretchen Ferebee, Jason Odle and Tommy Gause have provided him care, entertainment and love that made his last years so comfortable.

Several years ago, I saw a son introduce his attorney father for an award. The son ended by declaring, “I can only say that if I ever needed a lawyer, I would call my father.” I would echo that but also say that I could not imagine having a more wonderful father

Post to Twitter

Runyonesque track characters

Friday, March 31st, 2017

Steven Crist, who retired last year as editor of the Daily Racing Form, is the son of the late film critic Judith Crist. He studied English at Harvard, joined the staff of the undergraduate humor publication the Harvard Lampoon and fell in love with racing the summer following his junior year.

Several years ago in a story in his alma mater’s alumni magazine, Crist talked about how he went with a friend to a dog track near Boston known as Wonderland. He called it a “charming little place with a festive feeling — the animals, lots of people. … I felt right at home the first night.”

Late that summer, Crist discovered thoroughbred racing at Suffolk Downs and spent every day until the fall either at Wonderland or Suffolk.

I love Crist’s explanation of why he spent his career writing about thoroughbreds and the people who inhabit the tracks where they run: “The stats and numbers stuff is there, plus the animals, the gambling and the weird subculture. The racetrack is … well, like people who ran away and joined the circus.”

I think about that racetrack subculture as the Racing Festival of the South approaches at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs.

As a college student, I learned to appreciate thoroughbred racing as much as Crist, though our backgrounds are vastly different. He was raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and attended Harvard. I was raised along the Ouachita River in Arkadelphia and attended Ouachita Baptist University. But each January through April, I had racing at Oaklawn.

I was the sports editor of Arkadelphia’s Daily Siftings Herald during my college years, and that allowed me access to Oaklawn’s press box and the fascinating characters who inhabited it.

The elevator ride to the press box was narrated by Alex Blattner, who grew up in Chicago, spent a career working for Illinois Bell Telephone Co. and then retired to Hot Springs Village. During the race meet, Blattner worked as an elevator operator and gave memorable descriptions of each floor.

In the press box, I was greeted daily by the “hi ya” of Daily Racing Form correspondent Don Grisham, a Hot Springs native who had watched races through a fence as a child. Grisham, who died in 2014 at age 84, joined the Racing Form in the late 1950s and spent almost 35 years there. He never tired of reminding me that he too had been a Daily Siftings Herald sports editor when he was a student at what’s now Henderson State University.

There were other interesting folks in that press box, some of whom just went by their nicknames. There were the Muldoon brothers, the Beer Man and a couple of silent characters whose names I never knew.

I finished college in December 1981 and went to work in the sports department of the Arkansas Democrat.

Jeff Krupsaw, who has long been the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s deputy sports editor, was covering racing in those days. One of my first assignments was to help Krupsaw put together a special tabloid that would run in advance of the race meet. We spent a glorious week driving to Hot Springs prior to daylight each day, conducting interviews during morning workouts and then having big breakfasts at the track kitchen before returning to Little Rock to write.

Just before the 1982 race meet began, Krupsaw accepted a job with the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Wally Hall, who was early in his tenure as Democrat sports editor, called me in and informed me that I would be the newspaper’s chief Oaklawn writer since I had covered the track on an almost daily basis during my college years.

I couldn’t have been happier.

The newspaper war with the Arkansas Gazette had heated up by 1982, and because there was so much space in the Democrat sports section, I was encouraged to produce feature stories on things that interested me around the track. I was, of course, also writing about the races, but I didn’t have the knowledge and contacts that the Gazette’s Randy Moss had. So I also wrote about people such as Blattner the elevator operator, the track’s veteran shoeshine man, the ladies who worked at the oyster bar and more.

No place harbors more colorful characters than a thoroughbred track.

No place.

I was convinced that I had found a job I would hold onto for many years.

Oaklawn is a particularly special place, a family-owned track in an era of corporate ownership.

“Even before the Civil War, the former pasture where Oaklawn now stands in Hot Springs was home to impromptu races between local farm boys riding their fastest ponies,” Michael Hodge writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Today the track is Arkansas’ only thoroughbred horse racing venue and the lone remaining gambling center in a city once known as much for its casinos as for its famous thermal baths. The popularity of Sportsman’s Park, built on the southeastern edge of Hot Springs in the early 1890s, sparked an interest in developing the sport of thoroughbred horse racing in the area. Following the 1903 repeal of anti-gambling laws, Essex Park was built in 1904.

“Charles Dugan, Dan Stuart and John Condon — owners of the Southern Club — decided to build a racetrack on a site closer to downtown. In 1904, they formed the Oaklawn Jockey Club and began construction shortly afterward. The name Oaklawn came from the rural community in which the track would be built, which in turn took its name from what Peter LaPatourel, an early settler to the area, called his home, around which a large stand of ancient oaks stood.

“Oaklawn Park opened on Feb. 15, 1905, and prevailed as the lone remaining horse racing venue by 1907. The original venue reportedly cost $500,000 and could seat 1,500 spectators. It included innovations such as a glass-enclosed grandstand and steam heat, one of the first racetracks in the country with either.”

The Southern Club that was owned by Dugan, Stuart and Condon had its own intriguing history. It was established in 1893 and by the 1930s was known as the place where the visiting gangsters would gamble in the evening. The building, which now houses Josephine Tussaud’s Wax Museum, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

“At the end of the 19th century, Hot Springs experienced tremendous growth as a health resort and spa,” Eric Segovis writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “One of the buildings constructed during this period was the private club of Charles Dugan and Dan Stuart, the Southern Club. As early as 1910, the Southern Club ranked among the Spa City’s most popular gambling houses, along with the Indiana and the Arkansas clubs. The Southern Club catered to a diverse clientele of locals and tourists during Host Springs’ heyday as a health resort and gambling center. Among other notable customers, gangster boss Al Capone frequented the Southern Club during the 1920s and 1930s. He became a frequent poker player at the club and always sat at an elevated table, where he commanded a clear view of the entire room. Even his preferred suite at the Arlington Hotel, No. 442, overlooked the club.

“The building’s ownership changed many times. A new owner usually meant changes for the Southern Club’s appearance. In 1927, William Stokley Jackson purchased the building from the widow of the original owner. He expanded it and encased the front of the building in dark Pittsburgh glass that remains visible. Apart from being decorative, this glass served to help Jacobs conceal the gambling that went on within the club. Jacobs was known as the czar of Hot Springs gambling for many years due to his interest in six clubs in Hot Springs — the Kentucky, Ohio, Ozark, White Front, Southern and Belvedere clubs. In the 1940s, the first floor was extensively renovated as Jacobs added a marble staircase. In the 1950s, the city’s first escalator was installed and has been in continuous operation since that time.”

While business at the Southern Club grew, things weren’t going so well further south down Central Avenue. Oaklawn Park ceased racing following the 1907 meet.

Hodge writes: “Anti-gambling sentiments, driven by former Essex Park owner and former state legislator William McGuigan, rose in the form of a bill titled ‘an act to prevent betting in any manner in this state on any horse race.’ The bill was approved on Feb. 27, 1907, and necessitated the closing of Oaklawn at the end of the 1907 season and for a decade after that. The infield of the track continued to be used for other purposes and was the site of the Arkansas State Fair from 1906-14, including a 1910 fair that was attended by former President Theodore Roosevelt.

“By 1914, Oaklawn was owned by Louis A. Cella and his brother Charles, both of St. Louis. The track has remained in the Cella family since then. In 1915, a bill to legalize horse racing and pari-mutuel betting … had passed both houses of the Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. George Washington Hays. The veto was challenged in the courts by local citizens but was eventually affirmed by the Arkansas Supreme Court.

“The aftermath of fires in 1913 caused a downturn in tourism in Hot Springs, fueled by rumors that the city could not accommodate guests as a result of the damage. The persistence of these rumors inspired city leaders to find a way to draw tourists back to the city. In 1916, the Hot Springs Men’s Business League reopened Oaklawn Park by setting a short racing schedule beginning on March 11 under the guise of a nonprofit civic enterprise. Pari-mutuel betting was not allowed, but this did not preclude any unofficial wagering. This 30-day season was a success and led to the reopening of both Oaklawn Park and Essex Park the following year with plans for the two tracks to split a full season. Unfortunately, the newly refurbished Essex Park burned the day after its grand reopening in 1917, thus moving the entire season to Oaklawn and marking the permanent end of racing at Essex.

“Pending litigation and the Men’s Business League sponsorship, along with the banning of pari-mutuel betting, had allowed Oaklawn Park to have races until 1919 when Circuit Judge Scott Wood put forth the opinion that continuing to hold the races was illegal, and the track was again closed. In 1929, another bill made it through both the Arkansas House and Senate, only to be vetoed, this time by Gov. Harvey Parnell.

“Attempts to pass legislation to permit pari-mutuel betting on horse races in 1931 and 1933 failed, but in 1934 a group of prominent Hot Springs citizens and businessmen, including Mayor Leo P. McLaughlin, formed the Business Men’s Racing Association and announced that races would be held in March of that year. The move was inspired by growing interest in the sport of thoroughbred racing and the need to draw more visitors to the city. On March 1, 1934, Oaklawn reopened to a crowd of 8,000 spectators without the consent of the Legislature. Future legal ambiguity was avoided in 1935 with the passage of a bill to permit horse racing with pari-mutuel wagering. This time the bill was signed into law by Gov. Junius Futrell.”

The first Arkansas Derby was held in 1936 with a purse of $5,000.

In 1961, what had been a 30-day season was increased to 43 days.

By the early 1980s, the track was hosting races more than 60 days a year.

A couple of days after I had covered the 1982 Arkansas Derby for the Arkansas Democrat, Wally Hall called me into his office to inform me that the Democrat had lured Randy Moss away from the Gazette. It was the first high-profile Gazette defection of the newspaper war.

Moss and I were born the same year. He grew up in Hot Springs, and I grew up about 35 miles down Arkansas Highway 7, though we didn’t get to know each other until I began covering Oaklawn in college. Moss’ father, Jim, was a pharmacist for 18 years at the downtown Walgreens in Hot Springs before spending 32 years with the Arkansas Department of Health as an investigator. Famed thoroughbred trainer Bob Holthus was a neighbor of the Moss family, and Grisham was a family friend. Holthus would sneak Moss into the track, and by age 13, Moss was helping Grisham make picks for the Gazette.

“That sort of morphed into where I was actually doing the picking for the morning line under Don’s name when I was in the 11th and 12th grade and then in college at the University of Arkansas,” Moss explained in an interview for the Pryor Center’s Arkansas Democrat oral history project. “I kept doing the morning line for the Gazette with Don during that time in college. We had sort of an elaborate system devised. Don’s secretary would call me in the morning for the picks, and they would mail me copies of the Racing Form. I did that for two years in Fayetteville.”

After a semester of pharmacy school in Little Rock, Moss decided he would be bored with the work. He had gotten to know Gazette sports editor Orville Henry, and Henry offered him a job in 1979. Moss dropped out of pharmacy school, much to the chagrin of his father, to write sports for the Gazette. He moved to the Democrat three years later, went to the Dallas Morning News in 1989 and is now a lead analyst for NBC Sports coverage of the Triple Crown, the Breeders’ Cup and other top races.

Damon Runyon, who died in 1946 at age 66, was a well-known newspaperman and writer of short stories. He often wrote about racetrack figures with nicknames like Harry the Horse and Hot Horse Herbie. The term “Runyonesque character” has, in fact, become a part of the American lexicon.

I’ve been fortunate to know some Runyonesque characters at Oaklawn through the years.

May their tribe increase.

Post to Twitter

Lacewell: A bug all his life

Friday, October 7th, 2016

Larry Lacewell is proud to say that he has always been a bug.

He was a Chigger and a Redbug while growing up at Fordyce.

And then he played college football at Arkansas A&M (now the University of Arkansas at Monticello), where he was a Boll Weevil.

You’ve probably heard him on those radio ads for Delta Pest Control.

The news last month was sudden and shocking: At age 79, Lacewell had suffered a severe stroke at his home in Jonesboro and was battling for his life in the intensive care unit of St. Bernards Medical Center at Jonesboro.

Lacewell, however, has always been a fighter. He survived and is now undergoing rehabilitation in Chicago.

Lacewell was born Feb. 12, 1937, in Fordyce. It was during the Great Depression, and times were tough in the pine woods of south Arkansas. Lacewell’s father had grown up with Paul “Bear” Bryant, and the two men remained friends. It was the Bryant connection that allowed Lacewell to get a job as a graduate assistant at the University of Alabama for the 1959 season.

Lacwell returned home to Arkansas in 1960 for his first full-time job, coaching the freshmen football players at what’s now Arkansas State University. He went back to Monticello to coach the defense at his alma mater in 1962 and then began climbing up the coaching ladder as a defensive assistant — Kilgore Junior College in Texas (which won a national junior college championship in 1964 when he was there), Oklahoma, Wichita State, Iowa State.

In a 1995 story for D Magazine in Dallas, Skip Bayless chronicled how the paths of Lacewell, Barry Switzer (a Crossett native), Jerry Jones (a North Little Rock native) and Jimmy Johnson (a University of Arkansas graduate) crossed through the decades: “Switzer and Lacewell competed against each other in sports. Switzer, says Lacewell, went on to play football in ‘the big city,’ in Fayetteville at the University of Arkansas. But Switzer couldn’t stay away from his roots, sometimes hitchhiking to Monticello to hang around with Lacewell. … The paths crossed, the ties bound.

“At Arkansas, Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson were coached by Switzer. Later, while Jones went off to make his first million, Johnson began his coaching career as a high school assistant in Picayune, Miss. Meanwhile, Lacwell had become defensive coordinator at Wichita State and needed an assistant. Switzer recommended Johnson, who worked under Lacewell at Wichita State, then followed him to Iowa State (where Johnson was best man in Lacewell’s wedding) and on to Oklahoma, where Lacewell was defensive coordinator to Switzer’s offensive coordinator. When head coach Chuck Fairbanks left for New England and the NFL, he recommended Switzer over Johnson as his successor.

“Johnson’s first head coaching job was at Oklahoma State, where he didn’t have the talent to beat Switzer’s OU in five tries. But after Johnson took the University of Miami job in 1984, he was 3-0 against Switzer. Meanwhile, Switzer and Lacwell had a falling out, and Lacewell eventually became head coach at Arkansas State, then defensive coordinator at Tennessee. Jones, running up the score and the millions in oil and gas, kept in touch with Johnson and Switzer, who after he was fired in 1989 became something of an entrepreneur himself, investing in some 80 companies.”

As the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma, Lacewell reportedly was the highest-paid assistant coach in the country. He even had his own television show. After the falling out with Switzer, Lacwell served as a volunteer adviser to the Arkansas State program in 1978 before being named the school’s head coach in 1979. His first five teams at ASU went 4-7, 2-9, 6-5, 5-6 and 5-5-1. Then the Indians went on a run that saw them go 8-4-1 in 1984 (advancing to the second round of the 1-AA playoffs), 9-4 in 1985 (advancing to the second round of the 1-AA playoffs again), 12-2-1 in 1986 (advancing to the 1-AA title game) and 8-4-1 in 1987 (advancing to the second round of the 1-AA playoffs).

One of my favorite Lacewell stories concerns his scheduling a game against what turned out to be Bryant’s final team at Alabama in 1982. Lacwell was trying to build the ASU program and needed the guaranteed payout Alabama could offer.

Bryant, Lacewell and the late Logan Young of Memphis (a businessman and bon vivant who was close to both programs) were in Las Vegas for some rest and relaxation, and Bryant happened to mention over drinks late one night that he had an open date he needed to fill.

“Why don’t you play Larry’s team?” Young asked.

“Yeah, coach, that would be great for us,” Lacewell chimed in.

After much urging, a tired Bryant agreed to the game. Young made the two men shake on it.

The next morning, as they went to the airport, Bryant delivered the bad news.

“Larry, I was not thinking straight last night and agreed to something I shouldn’t have agreed to,” Bryant said. “I’ve known you since the day you were born, and I’ve always been a man of my word. But I just can’t do it.”

“Come on coach, we need this game,” Lacewell responded.

Bryant said: “Larry, I can’t play Monticello. My folks would string me up.”

Lacewell exclaimed: “Coach, I’m not at Monticello! That’s where I played! I’m at Arkansas State!”

The game was played at Legion Field in Birmingham in October 1982.

While his team warmed up, Bryant would lean against a goalpost as dozens of photographers took his photo.

Lacewell went out to stand by Bryant that day but didn’t say anything.

Finally, the towering Bryant looked down at the much shorter Lacewell.

“You’re scared, aren’t you? “Bryant asked.

“Yes sir, coach, I am,” Lacewell answered.

Bryant smiled and said, “Hell, you ought to be.”

Alabama won, 34-7. Bryant could have made it much worse, but you don’t pick on old family friends.

In 1986, I had left my job as the assistant sports editor of the Arkansas Democrat to become the newspaper’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.

ASU defeated Sam Houston State, 48-7, in the first game of the 1-AA playoffs on a Saturday.

My phone on Capitol Hill in Washington rang the following Monday. It was Wally Hall, the newspaper’s sports editor.

“Do you want to write sports one more time?” he asked. “Arkansas State is going to Delaware for the second round, and it would be cheaper for you to drive over there from Washington than to have me fly someone up for the game.”

I jumped at the opportunity.

As I checked into my hotel in Delaware the following Friday evening, I ran into Larry Lacewell and Logan Young, who invited me to dinner with them. Arkansas State won the next afternoon, 55-14, and later lost by a score of 48-21 to Georgia Southern in the national championship game at Tacoma, Wash.

Lacewell’s final two teams at Arkansas State went 5-6 in 1988-89, and Lacewell took a job as the defensive coordinator at the University of Tennessee for the 1990 and 1991 seasons. In 1992, his old friends Johnson and Jones hired him as the scouting director for the Dallas Cowboys. He remained in Dallas until 2004.

At a 1984 coaches’ convention in Dallas, Lacewell had urged Johnson to leave Oklahoma State for Miami.

“Jimmy asked me what I thought he should do,” Lacewell said in an interview years later. “I said, ‘Jimmy, have you ever beaten Oklahoma or Nebraska?’ I knew the answer. Then I said, ‘Sooner or later, your alumni are going to figure out that you ain’t beat them. Have you won a national championship? You can win one at Miami.'”

Lacewell became a bit of a fixture in Dallas. In an address to the Little Rock Touchdown Club after retiring from the Cowboys, he said: “I left the Cowboys due to illness and fatigue. Bill Parcells was sick and tired of me.”

Lacewell, though, remained a trusted adviser to Jones. Many say it was Lacewell who helped talk Jones into hiring Switzer in 1994 when Jones and Johnson fell out despite two consecutive Super Bowl wins for the Cowboys.

Lacewell told Bayless: “I honestly believe if I’d said it just wouldn’t work, he wouldn’t be here. But Jerry basically asked me, ‘Will he screw it up?’ and I said, ‘No, he will not screw it up.'”

Bayless wrote: “Originally, says Lacewell, Johnson wanted him to serve as a buffer between Johnson and Jones. Yet Johnson wanted Lacewell to be a loyal buffer. And Johnson, it appeared, thought Lacewell was siding more and more with Jones, who spent more and more time conferring and socializing with Lacewell.

“Says Jones: ‘Larry influenced my decision (to part with) Jimmy without saying a word. All I had to do was observe the way Jimmy began to treat Larry after Jimmy had been the best man in his wedding.’ The flip condescension and the arrogant insensitivity grated on Jones. The Johnson-Lacewell relationship grew so strained that Lacewell refused to spend much time around training-camp practices before the 1993 season. … Yet when Jones fired Johnson, Lacewell went from Johnson’s frying pan back into an old line of fire. Talk about mixed emotions.

“It had been a long time since it happened, about 16 years, and maturity and a deeper spiritual awareness have given Lacewell a better perspective on why it happened. But it did happen, and suddenly Lacewell was faced with having to work closely with the childhood friend (Switzer) who had an affair with his wife.”

Bayless went on to write: “The afternoon Switzer’s hiring was announced, Lacewell told me, ‘The good Lord put us on the earth to forgive and forget.’ Lacewell has forgiven the affair but can’t completely forget. He and Switzer have worked productively, mostly because of their professional respect for each other. Switzer, who leans heavily on Lacewell’s advice, says, ‘Larry Lacewell knows as much about this game as anyone I’ve ever been around.’

“Around the office, he and Lacewell can still laugh and tell stories, like the time in an Oklahoma City airport bar that Switzer decked a guy for making fun of Lacewell’s shoes. But Lacewell draws the line at running with Switzer after hours as they once did. ‘I have different priorities now,’ Lacewell says. ‘My family is more important to me.'”

Lacewell was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1996. He’s a member of the Hall of Honor and the Ring of Honor at Arkansas State. He’s also in the UAM Sports Hall of Fame.

After returning to Arkansas, Lacewell and his wife divided their time between homes at Jonesboro and Hot Springs. He was a fixture at Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame events and often commented on my Facebook page.

Asked about Jerry Jones, Lacewell told The Oklahoman several years ago: “Jerry is probably the most remarkable person I’ve ever been around. He’s the eternal optimist. I’ve never seen anyone like him in my entire life. The world can be falling apart, and he would think the sun is shining. He’s great. He’s a brilliant person. People keep saying the Cowboys need to hire a football man. Jerry has been in the business more than 20 years. Good Lord, I have to believe he’s just as much a football man as Tex Schramm and Gil Brandt after 20 years. Jerry doesn’t get enough credit because he goes on the sidelines and talks as much as he does.”

Of Jimmy Johnson, Lacewell said: “Jimmy was an extremely smart, calculated person who knew what he wanted and how to get there. Jimmy frankly was lucky the year he had 500 draft choices following the trade with the Vikings. That’s hard to screw up when you have that many picks. But Jimmy had an eye for talent. No doubt, when he left it hurt us. I was still learning what I was doing. Gradually, we all improved as a scouting department.”

Lacewell remembers the 1966 season at Oklahoma fondly.

“I coached the freshman team,” he told the Oklahoma City newspaper. “We played real games. I was the head coach. I was such a good coach I had Steve Owens on that freshman team, and Kansas State beat us. They hadn’t beaten anybody. I thought I was a big shot coach and was tired of coaching only the freshmen. I stupidly left for Wichita State. Fortunately they hired me back a few years later.”

He called the chance to return to Oklahoma in 1969 the greatest thing to ever happen to him.

“Other than 1970, when they wanted to fire all of us, from 1971 on it was an incredible run,” Lacewell told The Oklahoman. “I came from a small town in Arkansas. To suddenly be a big shot and have the only television assistant coach’s show in the country, drive a Cadillac and coach a great defense was a thrill. I was such a good coach I made the Selmons great, Rod Shoate great, Randy Hughes great. It was amazing how great I was. Seriously, we had such terrific players that I feel blessed to have coached them.

“I’ll always be thankful to Barry because he saved all of our jobs in 1970 when we went to the Wishbone. Barry studied the Wishbone so hard and knew it so well that helped us get to where we needed to be. Barry never gets enough credit for being the one who helped get the program rolling again. Everyone knows Barry and I had our problems, but it wasn’t quite what people thought. But it wasn’t good. At the same time, I don’t believe you walk away from a relationship where you could use the word ‘love’ to describe how much we respected one another. We had known each other since I was in the eighth grade. We came from similar backgrounds. We had great admiration for each other. It was pretty easy to repair our friendship. It has flourished over the years.”

Best wishes to Larry Lacewell, a colorful Arkansan if there ever were one, as he recovers from his stroke.

Post to Twitter

Patrick

Friday, September 2nd, 2016

We didn’t know quite what to expect from the new man who entered our football radio booth at Ouachita Baptist University eight years ago.

His name was Patrick Fleming, though he went by Patrick Thomas on the air.

The Ouachita Football Network had entered into a new arrangement with Noalmark Broadcasting of El Dorado, and I had asked my contact there, Sandy Sanford, to assign me a stadium engineer who could take our broadcasts to the next level.

I didn’t know Patrick, but Sandy assured me he was the man for the job. He was an interesting mix — a Marine veteran, a radio man, a Presbyterian minister.

Ouachita was opening the 2008 season against Fort Lewis College from Colorado, which had agreed to make the long trip to Arkadelphia if the kickoff were early enough for the team to fly back home that day. So it was a noon start, meaning I arrived at the stadium in Arkadelphia at 9:30 a.m. I had spent that entire week at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. There wasn’t much time to prepare for the broadcast, and I was uneasy with a new engineer. Ouachita easily defeated Fort Lewis, 58-7, and I determined that Patrick was a pro.

Ouachita moved the kickoff of the next game up to noon in an attempt to beat the remnants of Hurricane Ike, which was entering Arkansas from Texas that day. The Tigers defeated West Georgia, 41-17, and Patrick again was at the top of his game.

The first road game of the season was a long one — Valdosta, Ga. Ouachita athletic director David Sharp and I flew to the game. Patrick made the drive with the broadcast equipment and met us at the stadium.

The Tigers would finish the season 7-3 with a thrilling victory over Henderson in the Battle of the Ravine on a Thursday night. It would be the start of what’s now a streak of eight consecutive winning seasons for Ouachita, and Patrick was along for the ride.

Jeff Root and I have worked together on the Ouachita broadcasts for decades. Not only that, we grew up together. Richard Atkinson also joined us in 2008, but he’s an Arkadelphia native and a Ouachita graduate; a known commodity in other words.

Patrick had no connection to Ouachita until Sandy assigned him to us. But he came to love the school and its football program as much as we do. I would look down to my right, where Patrick always sat, during the final minutes of close games and see him nervously chewing on his knuckles.

Patrick was a perfectionist. I knew we would get on the air despite the gremlins that show up from time to time when you’re doing live radio. And I knew we would sound good. I could count on Patrick.

He was with me in Omaha, Neb. We stuck our toes in the Atlantic Ocean at Jacksonville Beach, Fla. We covered a lot miles together. In fact, he never missed a game until last year when he informed me that he would skip our three games in Oklahoma so he could see his daughter play in the band at Bethel University in Jackson, Tenn. How could I argue with that? But I was a nervous wreck without him in the booth.

This year, Patrick vowed that he would be at all 11 games. We had exchanged emails throughout the summer, talking about the team. Then, on a Sunday night last month, there came a phone call that devastated me. It was Sandy Sanford, Patrick’s former boss. He was calling to tell me that Patrick had been killed in a one-vehicle accident on Interstate 40.

Patrick had taken his daughter back to Bethel for her final year of school. The last thing he posted on his Facebook page was a photo of the Welcome To Arkansas sign on the Memphis bridge.

I’m glad Patrick got to experience the first 10-0 regular season in school history two years ago. More than anything, though, I’m glad he became my friend. When you spend every weekend of the fall with the same group of people, you become almost like a family. And Patrick had indeed become a beloved, trusted member of my Saturday family along with Jeff Root, Richard Atkinson, David Sharp and Casey Motl.

We’ll carry on, but there’s a big void in our broadcast booth this season. Prior to the first game Thursday night, we dedicated the 2016 season to the memory of our colleague, our friend, Patrick Fleming.

He’s no longer with us on the broadcasts. But because he’s a believer, he has received his reward of eternal life.

To borrow a line I use from time to time on the football broadcasts, Patrick has gone to the Promised Land.

Post to Twitter

Buttons and pearls

Friday, August 26th, 2016

I’ve always found Ed Bethune — Marine, prosecutor, a Republican before it was cool in Arkansas, congressman, lawyer, lobbyist, Baltimore Oriole baseball fan — to be an interesting figure.

He’s also a talented writer as evidenced by his first two books.

His memoir “Jackhammered: A Life of Adventure” came out in 2011. The book revolved around a trip Bethune and his wife, Lana, took in 1990 aboard a 31-foot sloop named Salute. The goal was to sail from Norfolk, Va., to Portugal.

In an incident that received widespread media attention, the couple had to be rescued by U.S. Coast Guard helicopters after withstanding rough seas for 36 hours prior to being spotted.

Here’s an example of Bethune’s writing from that first book: “It was going to be a long night, seven more hours to sunrise. Our little ship tossed about, left to right and up and down. She turned first one way and then another. Every five minutes or so an enormous wave would lift us skyward, and when we reached the top, perched on the crest of the wave, our boat would fall sideways off the crest of the wave and crash, and shudder, against the trough of the wave. The fall of 25 feet felt like a thousand.”

The couple eventually was rescued by a helicopter crew.

“As we flew away, I saw Salute with the life raft attached,” Bethune writes. “She was still rolling violently with her mainsail collapsed over the side, hanging into the water. I felt sad that we were leaving her, but it was the right decision. We lost everything that was on the boat. Lana had tied a waterproof pouch around her waist that held our cash, our credit cards and our driver’s licenses. That, and the clothes on our back, were all we salvaged.

“Salute was now just another speck of white in a sea of large whitecaps; she blended in and soon was lost to sight. It was easy to see why it is so hard for search pilots to find a small sailing vessel in a stormy sea, even when they have exact coordinates fixing the position. Our dream of sailing across the Atlantic was also gone, but we took it in stride; after all, we were safe. We would live to see our children and loved ones again.”

Soon after finishing “Jackhammered,” Bethune began outlining his first novel.

The 2014 novel is titled “Gay Panic in the Ozarks” and begins with the lynching of a young gay man, whose body is left hanging from a tree. A murder investigation goes nowhere. The book’s protagonist is wracked by guilt that he didn’t do more. Thirty-eight years later, he gets a second chance to confront what Bethune refers to as man’s greatest vice, “the refusal to see wrong and do something about it.”

Bethune’s third book, which has just been released, is titled “A Pearl for Kizzy.” It’s the story of a child who lives with her family on a houseboat in east Arkansas. The family — like many of the so-called river rats who once inhabited houseboats on the lower Black, White and Cache rivers — survived through commercial fishing and gathering mussels. Family members would look for freshwater pearls in the mussels and then sell the shells to button factories.

In the book, Kizzy becomes friends at the start of World War II with a boy who’s a refugee from Nazi Germany. The book tackles various prejudices, sexual abuse and even the subject of eugenics.

“I owe so much to Pocahontas,” Bethune says. “I probably would have wound up in prison if not for the people there.”

Bethune’s parents divorced when he was 8. He’s quick to admit that he often found himself in trouble during his formative years in Little Rock. He was sent to his mother’s hometown of Pocahontas and graduated from Pocahontas High School in 1953. Bethune joined the U.S. Marine Corps, served three years and then met his wife Lana when both were students at what was then Little Rock Junior College.

Perhaps owing to the fact that my mother was from Des Arc, I’ve always been intrigued by the houseboat culture of east Arkansas.

“Button finishing plants in Iowa and New York were supplied by tons of button blanks that came from small factories lining the northeastern Arkansas rivers, which teemed with the freshwater mollusks that naturally grew mother-of-pearl-lined shells,” Lenore Shoults writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Supplying the button blank factories with raw material offered farm families extra income because shell harvesting fit around the ebb and flow of agriculture. Some families worked together, the men hauling the mussels from the river with the women and children steaming them open, discarding the animal flesh back into the river for fish food, drying and sorting the shells, and keeping an eye out for pearls.

“Some button blank operations consisted of a single man, while other factories employed as many as 60 workers. Factories, which had to be close to a railroad for shipping outbound cargo, had button-cutting machines with variously sized tubular saws that generated small to large button blanks. Coal or propane, and eventually electricity, powered the machinery. The shells were softened by soaking in water prior to drilling, and this necessitated water towers in some locations. A few factories had grinding capability, pulverizing spent shells into agricultural lime or meal.”

There were button factories along the White River at Batesville, Newport, Grand Glaise in Jackson County, Des Arc, DeValls Bluff and Clarendon.

There were factories along the Black River at Corning, Pocahontas and Black Rock.

“Batesville saw two waves of button blank factories,” Shoults writes. “The first, at the turn of the 20th century, was located in Poke Bayou near the present-day jail. The second, a 1940s location, was situated near the Missouri Pacific depot with two factories, one with 10 to 12 machines and the other a solo operation. Newport was a major hub in the button industry due to its proximity to the river and railroad. A factory was listed in Chastain’s Addition as early as 1902.”

Pocahontas had a factory by the early 1920s. A new factory opened in 1941 soon before the start of American involvement in World War II.

“The initial demand for buttons in the first two decades of the 20th century suffered setbacks in the Great Depression as new clothing purchases diminished,” Shoults writes. “During World War II, government restrictions on zippers and other metal garment closures (to save metal for the war effort) reinvigorated the button industry, and demand rose for Arkansas shells. After the war, the factories closed, although some solo operations lingered. Today, little remains of the industry but the occasionally telltale sign spotted on the ground — shells laced with perfectly round holes — and millions of mother-of-pearl buttons saved in button jars across the country, cut from blouses and shirts from a time when nothing was wasted.”

Later, mussels from Arkansas provided the raw material for cultured pearl farming.

“The 1960s until the 1980s were the heyday for shell harvesting for the cultured pearl industry,” Shoults writes. “Most of the shell was shipped to Japan, where Kokichi Mikimoto had perfected a cultured pearl process in the early 1900s. In this process, a bead was inserted into a marine oyster and the creature layered its natural nacre around the orb, thus creating a pearl. As is the case with human organ transplants, pearl oysters could potentially reject an inserted nucleus, and Mississippi River Valley shell proved to be the least likely to be expelled.”

Shoults notes that Arkansans used “the same ingenuity that kept old cars and tractors running on the farm to engineer equipment. Old Model-T car engines were turned into compressors. Garden hoses served as air conduits, and dive helmets were designed from things as disparate as fire extinguishers, hot water tanks or, in one instance, an old torpedo casing. The glass faceplate was useless in the underwater darkness but offered a degree of illumination once the diver returned to the surface. … When the cultured pearl process no longer required a shell nucleus, international demand for Arkansas shell dried up, leaving limited uses for the shell.”

The Black River, which Bethune loves to write about, once had a huge population of mussels. Dr. J.H. Myers found a large pearl two miles north of Black Rock in 1897.

“This led to a pearl rush, and tent camps sprouted along the river,” Jerry Cavaneau writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The shells provided mother of pearl, and Myers, with others, established a button factory at Black Rock three years later. According to Myers, this was the first button factory in the South. Area museums, such as the Randolph County Heritage Museum, have button-making tools and shells from which the buttons were cut.”

The Randolph County Heritage Museum is one of the best local museums in the state. The River Room there is dedicated to the five rivers that flow through Randolph County and their effect on the county. There’s a collection of Black River pearls, a mounted alligator gar caught in the Black River in the early 1950s and walls lined with old photographs of bridges, barges and steamboats.

Of the pearl rush, Shoults writes: “Shanties and tents sprang up along the river, largely the White and Black in the initial rush from 1897 until about 1903 as people destroyed thousands of mussels attempting to find a single perfect pearl. Some stories hold that because everyone was down at the rivers looking for pearls, crops went unharvested and shopkeepers could not find people to work in stores. Buyers traveled by train from New York and San Francisco. Local buyers included John L. Evans, who bought and sold pearls in Batesville. Evans was also known to be skilled in peeling pearls, a process whereby an unattractive outer layer was peeled back to reveal a more lustrous gem within.

“Discoveries could be accidental, as happened when a fisherman in need of bait opened a mussel and happened upon a gem, while others were well-planned expeditions. One account tells of four men who ordered pearling rakes from a blacksmith and set up camp. They had lumber delivered to their camp, built a boat and drilled a freshwater well — and their expedition eventually yielded a gigantic pearl. Families went on summer pearling vacations hoping to find treasure but enjoying the festive atmosphere regardless of whether or not a gem was discovered. The rush had dwindled by 1905, but pearls were still found occasionally.”

Back to Ed Bethune.

Bethune says becoming a novelist was “a case of necessity” since he found himself bored after his memoir came out.

“I needed something else to do,” he says. “The novels have given me a chance to write about my youth, the prejudices I’ve seen, the things I’ve learned. Even after the first novel came out, I discovered that I still wanted to write. When I was a boy in Pocahontas, I was fascinated by the river rats. I often wondered what it might be like to grow up on one of those houseboats out on the Black River.”

That fascination helped lead to this most recent book.

As Bethune wrote his first two books, he wouldn’t let anyone see the manuscripts until they were finished. This time, he allowed Lana to read and offer suggestions each time he finished a chapter.

He explains: “I was writing about a girl going through puberty. Obviously I never had that experience, so I needed Lana to see if the things I wrote rang true. The two things you’ll find in each of my books are a Marine and a mule. The mule appears early in this one.”

Bethune says he’s already at work on an outline for a third novel. At age 80, he shows no signs of slowing down.

 

Post to Twitter

A Delta cultural stew

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016

It was mentioned in the previous post that the Mississippi Blues Trail has placed several markers outside of Mississippi in places where blues music was important.

Few places were more important to the evolution of the blues than Helena.

A Mississippi Blues Trail marker on Cherry Street, once the top commercial street in the Arkansas Delta, outlines some of that history.

It reads: “Helena has played a vital role in blues history for artists from both sides of the Mississippi River. Once known as a wide-open spot for music, gambling and nightlife, Helena was also the birthplace of ‘King Biscuit Time,’ the groundbreaking KFFA radio show that began broadcasting blues to the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta in 1941. The program had logged more than 15,000 broadcasts by 2009 and inspired Helena to launch its renowned King Biscuit Blues Festival in 1986.

“The town emerged as a major center of culture and commerce in the Delta during the steamboat era and maintained its freewheeling river port atmosphere well into the mid-20th century. Cafes, nightspots and good-time houses flourished, and musicians flocked here to entertain local field hands, sawmill workers and roustabouts who came off the boats ready for action. Many bluesmen ferried across the river from Mississippi or later motored across the Helena bridge. Others came from elsewhere in Arkansas, up from Louisiana or down from Memphis.

“Helena was at one time home to Mississippi-born blues legends Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson No 2 (Rice Miller), James Cotton, Honeyboy Edwards and Pinetop Perkins, as well as to Arkansas natives Roosevelt Sykes, Robert Nighthawk, Robert Lockwood Jr., Frank Frost, Jimmy McCracklin and George ‘Harmonica’ Smith, all of whom became influential figures in the blues. Williamson, Nighthawk and Lockwood were among the first bluesmen to play their instruments through amplifiers, paving the transitional path of blues from acoustic to electric music, a development often attributed to Muddy Waters in Chicago in the late 1940s.

“Soon after KFFA went on the air in 1941, Williamson’s broadcasts on ‘King Biscuit Time’ brought blues to an audience that had seldom if ever heard such music on the radio. Up-and-coming bluesmen B.B. King, Albert King, Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters all tuned in to the lunchtime broadcasts from the KFFA studios, or on occasion WROX in Clarksdale, advertising King Biscuit Flour and promoting their upcoming shows at local juke joints and house parties. The sponsor, Interstate Grocer Co., even introduced a Sonny Boy brand of cornmeal.

“During Williamson’s extended stays away from Helena, drummer James ‘Peck’ Curtis kept the program going with an assortment of band members. The show eventually switched to records instead of live music and continued with deejay Sonny Payne at the helm. Off the air only from 1980 until 1986, it still ranks as one of the longest-running programs in radio history. The Delta Cultural Center began hosting the broadcast in the 1990s.”

A separate Mississippi Blues Trail marker a block away on Biscuit Row in downtown Helena is devoted to Williamson.

It reads in part: “Williamson had played in Helena even before he began performing on ‘King Biscuit Time’ in 1941. He was joined by a succession of ‘King Biscuit Entertainers’ — James ‘Peck’ Curtis was a constant presence on the show, and others included Pinetop Perkins, Willie Love, Joe Willie Wilkins, Houston Stackhouse, Elmore James and W.C. Clay — all originally from Mississippi — as well as Robert Lockwood Jr. from Arkansas and Robert ‘Dudlow’ Taylor from Louisiana. The band performed in surrounding towns to advertise King Biscuit Flour and Sonny Boy Cornmeal, and they also played locally at theaters and nightspots.

“Venues in Helena included the Owl Café, Busy Bee, Kitty Cat Café, Mississippi Café, Dreamland Café and Silver Moon. But the best-remembered juke joint was the Hole in the Wall, operated by another native Mississippian, James Oscar Crawford. Williamson and various band members, along with Willie Johnson, Doctor Ross, Hacksaw Harney and Honeyboy Edwards, were among those recalled at the Hole in the Wall. Rumors even circulated that Robert Johnson — another associate of Sonny Boy’s — was murdered while playing here. But his death actually occurred in Greenwood, Miss., in 1938.

“During his extensive travels, Williams periodically revisited Helena and returned for the final time in 1965, telling Stackhouse, ‘I done come home to die now.’

“On May 25, Williamson failed to show for the KFFA broadcast and was found dead in the boardinghouse where he roomed at 427 1/2 Elm St. His sisters buried him in Tutwiler, Miss., where fans often leave harmonicas and whiskey bottles on his grave.”

Blues music is just one part of the rich cultural mix that makes the Delta so fascinating.

The combination of those who immigrated to the region when cotton was king — Italians, Irish, Chinese, Jews, Lebanese, Syrians, etc. — is central to making the Delta a unique region.

In the previous post, I wrote about attending the 100th birthday party for David Solomon of Helena.

“David and I are the last of the Jewish lawyers in the Arkansas Delta,” says my friend Raymond Abramson of Holly Grove. “The list at one time included Oscar Fendler of Blytheville and Kent Rubens of West Memphis, both deceased, along with Eddie Graumann, who was municipal judge for many years in Helena and who’s now retired in Memphis.”

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, a project of the Goldring-Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, the first Jew to settle in Arkansas was Abraham Block, who opened a store at Washington in southwest Arkansas in 1823.

“Block settled in Washington when there were no Jewish congregations or institutions in the Arkansas Territory,” the encyclopedia reports. “He was a charter member of the first Jewish synagogue in the region, Congregation Gates of Mercy in New Orleans, joining in 1828. Yet the lack of any organized Jewish life in Arkansas at the time took its toll on his family, and few of his children remained within the faith. Block’s life in Arkansas highlights the challenges that Jews have often faced in a state largely isolated from the centers of American Jewish life.

“The difficulties became a little easier as growing numbers of Jews from central Europe began to arrive in Arkansas in the years before the Civil War. These immigrants were part of the German wave of Jewish immigration, which settled primarily in the large cities of the Northeast and Midwest. But a significant minority of Jews from the German states and from Alsace-Lorraine settled in the rural South, including Arkansas.”

By the start of the Civil War, there were Jewish communities in Little Rock, Pine Bluff, Fort Smith, Van Buren, DeValls Bluff, Batesville and Jonesboro. Of the almost 300 Jews in Arkansas at the time of the war, at least 53 fought for the Confederacy.

Additional Jewish merchants were attracted to Arkansas in the years after the Civil War. They received their goods from Jewish wholesalers in the river cities of Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis and Memphis. According to the encyclopedia, 14 Arkansas communities were founded by Jews or named after early Jewish residents. These include Altheimer, Felsenthal and Levy.

The state’s first Jewish congregation, B’nai Israel in Little Rock, was chartered in 1866. A year later, Temple Beth El was founded in Helena and Congregation Anshe Emeth was founded in Pine Bluff. Later congregations were formed in Camden in 1869, Hot Springs in 1878, Texarkana in 1884, Jonesboro in 1897, Newport in 1905, Dermott in 1905, Eudora in 1912, Osceola in 1913, Forrest City in 1914, Wynne in 1915, Marianna in 1920, Blytheville in 1924, El Dorado in 1926, McGehee in 1947, Fayetteville in 1981 and Bentonville in 2004.

In Helena, the 1870 census showed that a majority of the city’s Jews had been born in Prussia and other parts of what would become Germany. By the start of the 20th century, Jews dominated the retail trade there. There were 22 Jewish-owned businesses by 1909. Helena had a Jewish mayor, Aaron Meyers, from 1878-80.

A number of the Jewish immigrants had come to Arkansas as traveling peddlers. Many of their descendants went on to become wealthy merchants and planters. Due to a wave of immigration from Eastern Europe, the Jewish population of Arkansas grew from 1,466 in 1878 to 8,850 by the time of the Great Flood of 1927.

Jacob Trieber, whose family settled in Helena in 1868, became the first Jewish federal judge when President William McKinley appointed him to the bench in 1900. Trieber, who had been born in Prussia in 1853, served as a federal judge until 1927.

Last year, Congress passed legislation to rename the federal building at Helena in Trieber’s honor. A dedication ceremony was held earlier this year.

“We owe this honor to Judge Trieber, who was a well-respected leader in Phillips County,” said Sen. John Boozman. “This is a great tribute that symbolizes the important work he did for the community and in pursuit of justice as the nation’s first Jewish federal judge.”

Congressman Rick Crawford said: “Driven by his unmatched dedication to justice and equality for all people, Judge Trieber took it upon himself to fight against all types of injustices, including institutionalized racism, which he opposed for six decades before finally being vindicated by the Supreme Court and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Trieber was born in Prussia in 1853 and moved with his family to St. Louis in 1866. Two years later, the family moved to Helena to open a store.

Carolyn Gray LeMaster writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “In 1873, Trieber began studying law in the evenings under former Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Marshall L. Stephenson He was admitted to the state bar in 1876 and formed a partnership with Stephenson’s brother, L.C. Stephenson, and later with Marshall Stephenson. As his adopted home, Arkansas became dear to him, although the blatant racism he saw had a lifelong effect on his life and work. He sought to communicate — through his own life and deeds and his commitment to equal justice — that racism was detrimental to the people of Arkansas and that only until the state’s race relations problem was solved could the state’s potential be achieved. He attacked Arkansas’ election laws, saying they disenfranchised black voters. … He spoke out for women’s suffrage.

“Trieber’s interest in civil rights stemmed from what he had seen in Europe as a youth. He later recalled his childhood days in Prussia, remembering how the discrimination against Jews consumed the country. He said he ‘feared any country’s future that would allow such discrimination against its citizens,’ and he hoped Arkansas could steer a different course.

“He became a member of the Republican Party in 1874, believing its policies of that day — a strong union, primacy of the U.S. Constitution, pro-business policies, greater opportunities for African-Americans and a high protective tariff — were best for the nation. He was elected to Helena’s city council in 1882, named superintendent of the state census in 1890 and elected Phillips County treasurer in 1892. In 1897, he was appointed U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas and moved to Little Rock. In 1900, President William McKinley appointed him federal judge for the Eastern District of Arkansas.

“Trieber’s civic legacy in Arkansas was far-reaching. He was at the forefront of varying campaigns, such as saving the Old State House from destruction, establishing the Arkansas State Tuberculosis Sanatorium in 1909 and, during World War I, serving on the Arkansas State Council of Defense and representing the state on the American Red Cross national board.”

Just as the population base of Arkansas has shifted from east to west since Trieber’s time, a lot of the artifacts from Temple Beth El at Helena went northwest when the temple was closed in 2006. The artifacts are now used by the Etz Chaim congregation in Bentonville.

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities: “Congregations in Helena, Blytheville and El Dorado closed, while others struggled to survive. The Jewish population has become concentrated in a few communities like Little Rock, Hot Springs, Fayetteville and Bentonville. In 1937, 13 cities in Arkansas had more than 50 Jews. In 2006, only four did. … The only exception to this downward trend is Bentonville. In the 21st century, as Wal-Mart has encouraged major suppliers to open offices in its corporate hometown, Bentonville has seen its Jewish population skyrocket. In 2004, a group of 30 families founded Bentonville’s first Jewish congregation, Etz Chaim, which has quickly become the fastest-growing congregation in the state.

“Bentonville is the exception to the regional trend of small-town Jewish communities declining. Most of the founding members of Etz Chaim are not Arkansas natives. Unlike the peddlers and merchants who initially settled in Arkansas in the 19th century, these 21st-century migrants are executives at large corporations. They represent the generation of Jewish professionals who have largely replaced the Jewish merchant class in the South’s metropolitan areas.”

One of the few things to remain constant in the Delta as the population has steadily declined since the 1950s is the “King Biscuit Time” radio show, which first aired on a November day in 1941 just before the United States entered World War II. Sonny Payne became a part of the show in 1951 and is still at it.

Post to Twitter

David Solomon at 100

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016

The banner wishing David Solomon a happy 100th birthday stretched across the street that hot July Saturday near the banks of the Mississippi River in Helena.

Solomon long has been one of Arkansas’ most respected attorneys. He’s a Helena native and a stalwart of the Jewish community, which once thrived on both sides of the lower Mississppi River from St. Louis to New Orleans.

They came from across the Delta that Saturday. By late that afternoon, hundreds of people had made their way to the block of old buildings in downtown Helena known as Biscuit Row. Sam Elardo, who began restoring properties in the area in 1974, bought five buildings on what’s now Biscuit Row several years ago and began renovations. In a stuffy, crowded room, Solomon sat for more than two hours, greeting a steady stream of visitors.

Before we get to David Solomon, a bit more about Biscuit Row as downtown Helena tries to bounce back.

“The project started with the five historic buildings that I purchased from Morris Gist,” Elardo said in a 2013 interview with Melissa Martinez. “Back then, there were a number of things there ranging from juke joints and restaurants to liquor stores and gambling joints. … I used to be a merchant in the area so I understand the ins and outs of small businesses.”

In front of the buildings is a marker from the Mississippi Blues Trail celebrating the accomplishments of Sonny Boy Williamson.

That’s right: The Mississippi Blues Trail.

The trail was established in 2006 by the Mississippi Blues Commission. Interpretive markers were placed across the state. Later, those behind the trail’s establishment decided to reach out to surrounding states in places where the blues had been important — places such as Memphis and Helena.

The marker reads: “Helena was home to a flourishing blues scene that inspired Sonny Boy Williamson and other legendary musicians from Mississippi, including Robert Johnson, Pinetop Perkins, Houston Stackhouse, James “Peck” Curtis and Honeyboy Edwards, to take up residence here in the 1930s and 1940s. They and many others performed at a famous juke joint at this site called the Hole in the Wall. Williamson’s rise to fame began in Helena as the star of KFFA radio’s ‘King Biscuit Time.’

“Sonny Boy Williamson was born and laid to rest in Mississippi, and lived in Chicago, East St. Louis, Milwaukee, Detroit and numerous other locales. But Helena was the town he came to regard as home. He established himself as one of the premier blues performers in the Delta (on both the Arkansas and Mississippi sides) through his live appearances in cafes and clubs and his broadcasts on KFFA and other stations. His recordings, including the chart hits ‘Don’t Start Me Talkin’, ‘Keep It To Yourself’ and “Help Me’, brought him national recognition.

“In the 1960s, he played a key role in popularizing the blues in Europe and inspiring a host of British blues-rock musicians. In Europe, Williamson confounded eager fans and reporters who besieged him with questions about his life. As he told fellow bluesman Willie Dixon, ‘It ain’t none of their business. They don’t even know me.’

“Genealogical research and family sources point to a likely birthdate of Dec. 5, 1912, under the name Alex Miller. But he also called himself Rice Miller, Willie Miller, Little Boy Blue, Reverend Blue and Willie Williams, among other monikers, and he gave birthdates as early as 1893. When he eventually took his stage name from another popular bluesman, John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson, in the blues lexicon he became Sonny Boy No. 2.”

There are few, if any, towns in Arkansas with as colorful a past as Helena.

As we left the Solomon reception, I thought back to a far quieter day in July 2010. I spent the better part of a Friday at the home of Solomon and his wife, Miriam, who died the next year. It was a civilized affair with David mixing drinks before lunch and Miriam making sure everyone was comfortable. Lobster shipped in from Maine was served for lunch. Their Helena home was filled with books and art, symbols of a cultured life lived well.

The Solomons had been married 68 years at the time. They were born in Helena. Miriam was three years younger.

Jewish culture once thrived on either side of the river from St. Louis to New Orleans.

At the time of my visit, David Solomon would still put on a suit and tie each morning and head to his office on Cherry Street, which once had been among the busiest commercial streets in Arkansas. In recent decades, Cherry Street has seen its buildings empty out and begin to crumble. With Temple Beth El closed by the time of my 2010 visit, the area’s remaining Jews had begun gathering in the Solomon home for Friday night services.

Beth El was built in 1916. The building has its original organ, purchased for $4,000 by the congregation’s Ladies Benevolent Association. It was a regional congregation, serving Jews not only from Helena but also from smaller farm-oriented communities such as Marvell and Marianna. In 2006, with fewer than 20 members remaining, the synagogue closed and the temple was donated to the state’s Delta Cultural Center to be used as an assembly hall. The loss of thousands of sharecroppers due to the widespread mechanization of agriculture following World War II had led to the loss of the once ubiquitous Jewish merchants up and down the river.

“There are only about six or seven of us,” David Solomon said on that Friday in 2010 when I asked him about the Friday night services. “One lady drives over from Marvell. Another comes from Holly Grove. There was just no way to maintain the temple. There were too few of us left. And we certainly weren’t going to give it to another religion.”

He smiled at me as he said that. His wit is as much a part of his persona as his bow tie.

The Delta is like many parts of rural America, a place that in some ways never made the transition from the agricultural age to the industrial age, much less the technological era.

Those sharecroppers moved from the cotton fields of the South to the steel mills and automobile factories of the Upper Midwest. They deserted places like Helena on the Arkansas side of the river and Greenville on the Mississippi side in droves for the promise of better jobs in cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Gary.

It’s still common during the holidays each December to see visitors in rural east Arkansas whose automobiles sport license plates from Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. There are counties in Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana that had half or less the population in the 2010 census that they had in 1950.

The first Jews arrived in Helena in the 1840s. A Torah was borrowed from a congregation in Cincinnati in 1846 to use for the high holidays.

In 1867, 65 Jews formed Congregation Beth El. Now, almost 150 years later, the era of Jews living and thriving in the lower Mississippi River Delta is nearing its conclusion.

David Solomon, who received his bachelor’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis and his law degree from Harvard, expresses no longing for the past and no sadness at the decline of the Delta’s Jewish population. In his own stoic manner, he simply views it as things having come full circle. The Delta Jews, after all, met in private homes in the 1800s. By the 21st century, they were meeting in private homes once again.

“I relate everything back to economics,” Solomon once told me. “It’s not just the Jewish population that’s being affected in the Delta. All of the mainline Protestant religions are feeling the effect. It’s simple. People are going to go where the jobs are.”

The three Solomon sons, all highly successful, are a case in point. None of them stayed in Helena.

David P. Solomon went on to become the executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society in New York.

Rayman Solomon was the dean of the Rutgers Law School in Camden, N.J., for 16 years and now serves as dean emeritus.

Lafe Solomon is an attorney for the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C., and served as the NLRB’s acting general counsel from June 2010 until November 2013.

For the elder David Solomon, the equation was simple. Jews came to the Delta in the 1800s when cotton was king because there were jobs. They left in the late 1900s because those jobs had disappeared.

The Delta long was known for its diversity. Blacks came in bondage as slaves and stayed on as sharecroppers. The Irish, Italians, Chinese, Syrians, Greeks and Lebanese were other groups who came up the river from New Orleans or down the river from St. Louis, settling in communities along the way.

The Delta was perhaps the greatest American melting pot outside a major city.

In an effort to preserve the state’s Jewish heritage, David P. Solomon (the son) established the Tapestry Endowment for Arkansas Jewish History. The endowment helped create a home at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock for Carolyn Gray LeMaster’s extensive body of research on the history of Arkansas Jews. The fund’s name is taken from the title of LeMaster’s book, “A Corner of the Tapestry: A History of the Jewish Experience in Arkansas, 1820s-1900s.”

The Jewish Genealogy Library Collection calls the book “one of the most comprehensive studies ever done on a state’s Jewish community. … Data for the book have been collected in part from the American Jewish Archives, American Jewish Historical Society, the stones in Arkansas’ Jewish cemeteries, more than 1,500 articles and obituaries from journals and newspapers, personal letters from hundreds of present and former Jewish Arkansans, congressional histories, census and court records and some 400 oral interviews in more than 100 cities and towns in Arkansas.”

David Solomon’s grandfather arrived from Germany shortly before the Civil War and had eight children — six boys and two girls. That second generation later would own a department store, shoe store, wholesale dry goods operation and cotton farms.

Miriam Solomon’s father, Charles Rayman, operated Helena Wholesale Co.

David Solomon started the first grade at a Catholic School known as Sacred Heart, which was operated by the Sisters of Nazareth. The nuns quickly moved him from the first grade to the fourth grade due to his native intelligence. He likes to joke that his mother finally pulled him out of the Catholic school when he kept coming home with crucifixes and tiny vials of holy water.

After his graduation from Harvard Law School, he applied to be a tax lawyer at a large firm in Memphis. He wasn’t chosen and came home to Helena to practice law.

He married Miriam in September 1942, traveling back to Helena from Camp Carson in Colorado Springs where he was stationed in the U.S. Army. Miriam had been working as an occupational therapist at a Chicago hospital. The wedding was in Miriam’s family home.

In December 2009, the Jewish news service JTA distributed an article about a Friday night service at the Solomon home. Ben Harris wrote: “The plight of Helena’s Jews is mirrored in scores of communities across the Bible Belt, where Jews first migrated in the early 19th century, generally as peddlers. Those who stuck around opened small businesses, which for a long time provided an ample livelihood.”

Harris went on to write that Miriam and David Solomon’s “benign resignation” over the impending end of Jewish life in Phillips County derived “at least in part from the success they have had in winding down their affairs and ensuring the continued maintenance of their synagogue and cemetery, which dates to 1875. Their ritual objects have been donated to other communities, and a trust has been established to ensure the cemetery’s upkeep. And with the synagogue and its glass-domed ceiling turned over to the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the building will not only be preserved, it will be put to good use.”

At that lunch in 2010, Miriam Solomon told me: “I had made up my mind that we were not going to have the temple standing there with weeds growing out of the gutter. That wasn’t going to happen on my watch. In my mind, I gave it three years. If we hadn’t found a use for it by then, we were going to have it torn down.”

I’m glad I was there for David Solomon’s 100th birthday party. He’s one of the last of the Delta Jews.

Post to Twitter