Archive for the ‘Favorite Arkansans’ Category

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.

 

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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.

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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.

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Anita Davis and the South Main renaissance

Thursday, May 12th, 2016

The original version of this story ran in the May-June issue of Talk Business & Politics magazine.

Anita Davis never set out to rehabilitate part of downtown Little Rock.

She wasn’t a historic preservation activist or one of those people who write letters to the local newspaper.

She describes herself as shy.

She simply likes walkable neighborhoods and felt it was time to give back to the city she has called home since the late 1980s.

“I started thinking one day about the fact that I had never really been involved in the community or given anything back,” Davis says during breakfast at the Capital Hotel. “I had a bunch of stuff that I needed to store and began looking for a place to put everything. What I found was a building on South Main Street.”

A love affair with the neighborhood ensued.

Davis, a Murfreesboro native, purchased the Bernice Building at 1417 S. Main St. in 2004.

A year later, she bought an empty lot at 1401 S. Main St.

She admits now that she viewed the neighborhood as dangerous and ran back to her car following her first visit there. But she was captivated by the Bernice Building, constructed in 1923, and soon was reading everything she could get her hands on about the concept of “placemaking.”

Davis found herself attending conferences from Boston on the East Coast to Seattle on the West Coast in an effort o learn more about building walkable neighborhoods.

One of Davis’ daughters lived in New York City in the Chelsea neighborhood. She could easily walk to restaurants, grocery stores, boutiques and entertainment venues from her home. Davis wanted to see if she could bring a touch of Chelsea to South Main Street.

She also wanted to bring a touch of Murfreesboro.

Yes, Murfreesboro.

“When I was growing up in Murfreesboro in the 1950s, we had three drugstores downtown, a hardware store, a movie theater and a lot more,” Davis says. “We could walk to all of those places. You didn’t have to get in the car and drive from place to place. Anyone who grew up in a thriving Arkansas town in the 1950s and 1960s knows what I’m talking about. I had seen it work in a town as small as Murfreesboro, and I had seen it work in a city as big as New York.”

Davis’ parents, Clarence and Bennie Sue Anthony, were well-known in their corner of southwest Arkansas. Davis had a maternal grandmother named Bernice (who once had worked at Franke’s, the venerable Little Rock cafeteria), which was another part of the attraction of the Bernice Building on South Main.

The empty lot adjacent to the building once had been the site of a Captain D’s fast-food restaurant, which had burned. The restaurant’s owners decided not to rebuild in a neighborhood that was becoming increasingly downtrodden. There were still crepe myrtles on the lot. Davis began bringing in plants and benches. A sculpture competition was held. In 2011, a wooden structure was built to serve as a shelter.

The Bernice Garden was born.

It’s now the home of everything from Mardi Gras celebrations to beard-growing contests to farmers’ markets to the annual Arkansas Cornbread Festival each fall.

Prior to Captain D’s opening in January 1981, the lot long had been the home of a tiny restaurant known as the Little Rock Inn. Suddenly, there was life again at 1401 S. Main St. after Anita Davis stepped in.

By 2006, Davis was ready to make another purchase. This time it was the Lincoln Building at 1423 S. Main St., which had been built in 1906.

In 2006 on the other side of Main Street, she bought the property that once had housed a popular dairy bar known as the Sweden Crème.

Now, the Bernice Building houses the downtown location of Boulevard Bread Co.

The Lincoln Building houses the Green Corner Store and the soda fountain that has helped make Loblolly Creamery’s products well known across Arkansas.

The old Sweden Crème is now an innovative restaurant known as The Root Café, which has received national attention.

All of these businesses attract people from throughout central Arkansas and even out-of-state visitors to South Main Street on a daily basis.

Between Boulevard Bread and the Green Corner Store is the home of studioMAIN, a nonprofit organization that brings architects and others in the design community together to introduce urban design concepts for Little Rock. Exhibitions sponsored by studioMAIN have included everything from the work of students to professional designers. An architectural film was produced for the Little Rock Film Festival, and pop-up events are held throughout the city to show what neighborhoods can become. Design awards are given and partnerships have been established with organizations such as the Arkansas Arts Center.

Boulevard Bread began serving customers in 2000 at its flagship location at the corner of Kavanaugh Boulevard and Grant Street in the Heights neighborhood of Little Rock. Attracted by the South Main vibe, Boulevard’s owners decided to open a downtown location with an expanded bakery that’s open from Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m.

The nearby Green Corner Store describes itself as “Arkansas’ first eco lifestyle store” since products sold there are made from natural, organic, recycled or reclaimed materials. Many of the products — ranging from bath and beauty items to apparel to packaged food — are made in Arkansas. Owner Shelley Green calls it a chance to “showcase the array of green products that are both beautiful and functional.”

The soda fountain portion of the building, which had housed the C.H. Dawson Drugstore from 1905-67, became the home in 2012 of Loblolly Creamery, founded by Sally Mengel and Rachel Moore. They debuted their ice cream samples at the 2011 Arkansas Cornbread Festival. Loblolly ice cream initially was sold at only the Green Corner Store. Now, Loblolly products, which often are seasonal and use local ingredients as much as possible, can be found in numerous locations, from Little Rock restaurants such as Big Orange and Graffiti’s to retailers such as Whole Foods and Stratton’s Market.

With the success of its ice cream, Loblolly diversified into drinks and syrups. The ice creams have names such as Rock Town Bourbon Pecan, Little Rocky Road and Earl Grey Lemon.

On the other side of Main Street, Jack and Corri Sundell opened The Root in June 2011 after three years of planning. They featured everything from burgers to homemade bratwurst to vegetarian dishes and soon gained a dedicated following.

In December 2014, The Root won an award from the HLN cable television network’s program “Growing America: A Journey to Success.” The honor came with a $25,000 check. Soon afterward, it was announced that The Root had been awarded a $150,000 Mission Main Street grant from JPMorgan Chase Bank. The Root was among just 20 small businesses nationally to get a grant.

Using shipping containers, the Sundells are expanding the restaurant. Three containers are being used for additional dining space, three containers are being used to expand the kitchen and one is being used as a walk-in cooler.

The premise of the HLN program won by The Root was that teams of MBA graduates and students from top business schools across the country would help three small businesses become more efficient. Also featured were a disaster-relief company in Denver and a barbershop in Detroit. The team that came to Little Rock helped the Sundells improve their website and their social media efforts.

While the Green Corner Store, Loblolly Creamery, Boulevard Bread and The Root Café were achieving acclaim in the neighborhood she adopted, Davis had her own expansion plans. She has always enjoyed collecting items, and purses became a specialty. Davis was intrigued as a child by her mother’s and grandmother’s purses, considering them a reflection of the individuals. She was part of a group that put together a traveling exhibit titled “The Purse and the Person: A Century of Women’s Purses” that stopped in cities across the country, including the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock in 2006. Among the cities where the purses were exhibited were Dallas, Seattle and Sacramento.

Davis eventually decided to create the Esse Purse Museum at 1510 S. Main St. in a building that had been constructed in 1946. The museum opened in June 2013.

Davis says she started collecting purses more than three decades ago, but having one of the premier collections in the country was “not intentional. It was kind of my way of honoring women. There just aren’t a lot of things in this country that honor women.”

Davis believes the museum complements her vision for the rest of South Main Street, which she likes to describe as the “feminine side of Little Rock,” not because men aren’t welcome but because she sees it as an area that’s open to new ideas. The purses on display — more than 250 of them — are arranged by decade beginning in 1900. Davis views the collection as not only a look at the history of fashion but also as something that gives insight into the history of women. Photos and accessories accompany the purses.

Davis’ collection grew to more than 3,000 handbags, most of which were stored in her attic before the traveling exhibition, which toured the country for three years. Davis is hopeful that the museum will lead to additional restaurants and shops along South Main Street.

Though she’s a collector, Davis has a more muted personal style. She admits that she carried the same shoulder bag for a decade prior to opening Esse.

In 2014, The Huffington Post included Esse on its list of the “World’s Hottest Museums.”

It wrote: “Set in an emerging neighborhood filled with boutiques and trendy eateries, Esse Purse Museum celebrates the art and history of women’s handbags. And the best part is that it sells purses too.”

Also on the list were the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the 21c Museum Hotel in Bentonville. Among the other museums on the list were the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., and the Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo, Norway.

Anita Davis was in very good company.

“When I first got involved with this neighborhood, I asked myself, ‘What do you want it to be?'” Davis says. “I fell in love with the area, and I’m constantly looking for ways to bring more people here. I also feed off the energy and ideas of people like Corri and Jack Sundell. I like people who make things happen, and they know how to make things happen.”

Davis is quick to give credit to other people and entities who have helped spur development along South Main Street. They include:

— Joe Fox and his Community Bakery at 12th and Main. The bakery began in the Rose City area of North Little Rock in 1947 but moved to its current location when Fox purchased it in 1983. Fox moved to Little Rock from Boston in the 1970s and says he yearned for a place where he could read The New York Times and get a bagel and a good cup of coffee early in the morning. Fox became the Little Rock distributor for The New York Times. At the bakery, he has more than a dozen bakers who work through the night.

— The nationally award-winning literary quarterly Oxford American, which moved its offices to South Main Street several years ago and then teamed up with Matt and Amy Bell for a restaurant and entertainment venue known as South On Main, which is in the building once occupied by the popular Tex-Mex restaurant Juanita’s. South On Main has received acclaim for its food and the quality of its concert series.

— Midtown Billiards, which made Esquire magazine’s 2007 list of Best Bars in America. Midtown holds a private club license so it can stay open until 5 a.m. It’s a favorite haunt of musicians, restaurant workers, newspaper reporters and others who work late.

The South Main Street scene received another boost in February 2015 when Bart Barlogie Jr., Eric Nelson and Jason Neidhardt opened what’s now Raduno Brick Oven & Barroom, which features Neapolitan pizzas from a double-deck, brick-lined gas oven that can reach temperatures of 650 degrees. To keep things in the South Main family, the owners announced from the first that they would use products from Loblolly and Boulevard.

Davis calls her involvement along South Main Street “the best thing that has ever happened to me.” She said it was “an area that needed some love, and I love it. What’s funny is that I had once been warned by my dad to never buy a building with a flat roof. All the buildings I’ve bought down here have flat roofs. What would he think?”

Davis says she has learned through the years to “figure out what you like and go for it.”

So what does the future hold for Davis?

“I don’t really have firm plans right now,” she says. “I’ve found that running a museum is a full-time job.”

Davis would like to see the Southside Main Street organization, a nonprofit entity that promotes economic development on Main Street between Interstate 630 and Roosevelt Road, continue to grow. Southside Main Street is affiliated with Main Street Arkansas and the National Main Street Center.

She also wants the Arkansas Cornbread Festival to grow. This year’s event will be held Oct. 29 with the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance and Our House as beneficiaries. The stated goal of the festival, which began in 2011, is to raise awareness and funds for worthy nonprofit organizations while celebrating Southern culture and heritage through food, crafts and music.

“If you grew up in Arkansas, you grew up eating cornbread,” Davis says. “I see it as a link to our shared history and our grandmothers who would make cornbread. What better way to pull in a diverse audience is there than food? I know I grew up on cornbread. We had it about every day with our vegetables.”

These days, there are plenty of food, shopping and entertainment options along South Main Street in Little Rock, thanks in large part to a lady who remembers what it was like to grow up in Murfreesboro.

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HAM: Celebrating our state’s past

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

I recently attended my first meeting as a member of the Historic Arkansas Museum Commission and was given the honor of sitting in the chair long occupied by Parker Westbrook.

Westbrook, who died last November at age 89, was an icon to those who love our state’s history.

Jamie Brandon, the president of Preserve Arkansas, wrote after his death: “If you ever met Parker Westbrook, you know that he was an Arkansan through and through with roots deep in southwest Arkansas. His home in Nashville and Washington, Ark., was very dear to him. … Westbrook was front and center for the formation of most of the infrastructure of Arkansas’s historic preservation movement.

“Aside from being the founding president of the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas, now called Preserve Arkansas, he was a founding board member — or at least a board member — of virtually every historic preservation body in the state. The list includes the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation (the oldest historic preservation organization in the state), the Department of Arkansas Heritage Advisory Board, the Main Street Arkansas Advisory Board, the Historic Arkansas Museum Commission, the Arkansas State Capitol Association and the Arkansas State Review Board for Historic Preservation.”

Westbrook was born at Nashville in Howard County. When he was living in Virginia and working as an assistant to U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright, he bought and restored an 1807 Quaker cottage. After 26 years of work in the nation’s capital, Westbrook returned to Arkansas in 1975 to work for a fellow south Arkansas native, newly elected Gov. David Pryor of Camden.

In 2007, Westbrook was inducted into the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame. The National Trust for Historic Preservation declared him to be a “national treasure.”

As I sat having lunch at Westbrook’s former spot at the table, I looked up at portraits of two other people who played key roles in preserving our state’s past — Louise Loughborough and Edwin Cromwell.

Loughborough was born in 1881, the daughter of Louisa Watkins Wright and William Fulton Wright. Her father was a Confederate veteran.

“She could trace her family lineage through state leaders such as Arkansas Supreme Court Justice George Claiborne Watkins and William Savin Fulton, Arkansas’s last territorial governor and later a U.S. senator,” Bill Worthen writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “She was educated in Little Rock schools and married J. Fairfax Loughborough on Oct. 21, 1902. He was an attorney with Rose Hemingway Cantrell & Loughborough, which later became the Rose Law Firm.

“The Loughboroughs moved to the new Pulaski Heights suburb, and she engaged herself in civic activities. She was a charter member of the Little Rock Garden Club, a member of the National Society of Colonial Dames of America and served as vice regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union, the organization that restored and maintains the home of George Washington.

“Loughborough’s involvement in historic structures in Little Rock began when the Little Rock Garden Club sought to improve the appearance of the War Memorial Building (Old State House) and its grounds in 1928. The grounds were littered with signs and monuments, and the roof of the Greek Revival building sported figurative statues of Law, Justice and Mercy, which had been installed above the pediment after being salvaged from the Arkansas exhibit at the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876. To take the façade of the edifice back to its original 1830s appearance, Loughborough had the statues removed, without the permission of the War Memorial Commission, which had legal authority over the building.”

Loughborough was appointed to the Little Rock Planning Commission in 1935 at a time when few women served on public boards and commissions. She was disturbed when she heard of plans to condemn a group of old homes at the intersection of Third and Cumberland streets in downtown Little Rock.

Worthen writes: “Although the neighborhood had fallen on hard times, becoming a red-light district and slum, Loughborough feared the loss of several historic structures, including the Hinderliter House, the oldest building in Little Rock and thought to be Arkansas’ last territorial capitol. She mobilized a group of civic leaders to save these buildings. She enlisted the aid of prominent architect Max Mayer and coined the term ‘town of three capitols’ to try to capture the imagination of potential supporters, grouping the ‘territorial capitol’ with the Old State House and the state Capitol.

“In 1938, Loughborough secured a commitment from Floyd Sharp of the federal Works Progress Administration to help with the project, on the condition that the houses be owned by a governmental entity. She persuaded the Arkansas General Assembly to create and support, with general revenues, the Arkansas Territorial Capitol Restoration Commission, which was created by Act 388 of 1939. This satisfied Sharp’s condition, and the WPA provided labor and material for the new historic house museum. A private fundraising campaign brought in the remaining monetary support necessary for the completion of the project.”

Like Loughborough, Sharp was an interesting figure. He was born in 1896 in Tennessee. His family later lived in Idaho and then moved to Arkansas in 1907. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War I, Sharp got a job as a printer for the New Era, the afternoon newspaper at Hot Springs. He later worked at the Arkansas Gazette while studying law. He received his law degree in 1925. He was a statistician for the state Department of Labor and later moved to the federal Emergency Relief Commission.

“W.R. Dyess was the original head of the Arkansas WPA, which began operation in July 1935,” William H. Pruden III writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Serving as Dyess’ executive secretary, Sharp traveled around the state assessing the devastation wrought by the Great Depression. … In 1936, Sharp became Arkansas administrator of the WPA after Dyess died in a plane crash.

“As state administrator, Sharp oversaw the allocation and implementation of millions of dollars of federal funds, adapting the responsibilities and mission of the WPA to the state’s distinctive and predominantly rural and agricultural economy. The agency had to utilize some of that agricultural labor for things like improved roads leading to markets, which in turn helped stimulate the agricultural economy. Under Sharp’s direction, the WPA completed 11,000 miles of country roads. In addition, local schools were improved, and all of the WPA’s efforts contributed to a psychological revival for Arkansas’ citizens. The WPA infused the state with significant capital, spending just under $117 million in the state by the time it ceased operation in 1943.”

Gov. Carl Bailey disliked Sharp. He believed Sharp was using the WPA to undermine him politically. Bailey tried to institute an investigation of the Dyess Colony in Mississippi County in 1939, but Sharp’s legislative allies fended off that effort. Loughborough, however, got along well with Sharp and knew how to get money out of the WPA. What was known as the Arkansas Territorial Restoration opened on July 19, 1941.

“The project was the first Arkansas agency committed to both the restoration of structures and the interpretation of their history,” Worthen writes. “It served as a model and inspiration for historic preservation in the state. Loughborough provided daily direction for the museum house complex through the first 20 years of its existence, yielding her authority to architect Edwin B. Cromwell only as her health began to fail.”

Cromwell graduated from Princeton University in 1931 with a degree in architecture. He moved to Little Rock in 1935 to take a job with the federal Resettlement Administration. After a year with the agency, he left to practice architecture on a full-time basis. He would continue to practice until 1984.

In 1938, Cromwell was invited to join a firm that had been started in 1885 by Benjamin Bartlett and his draftsman son. They had been selected to design the Arkansas School for the Blind.

In 1886, Charles Thompson, a 17-year-old draftsman from Illinois, had seen Bartlett’s advertisement in a lumber journal and contacted Bartlett.

“Bartlett recognized the talent of his new draftsman, and the firm became Bartlett & Thompson within two years,” Charles Witsell Jr. writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Bartlett moved to Mississippi in 1890, where he was retained for the design of a county courthouse. He withdrew from the firm, and 21-year-old Thompson was on his own. The Little Rock City Directory of 1890 ran his advertisement: ‘Charles L. Thompson, Architect and Superintendent.’

“The following year, Thompson joined forces with Canadian-born civil engineer Fred Rickon and began a very productive relationship. In the 1895 promotional piece ‘A New Year’s Greeting,’ Rickon and Thompson listed 45 buildings they had designed, 24 of which were in Little Rock. The two men dissolved their partnership in 1897, however, and Thompson went the next 19 years without a business partner, although there were a number of talented employees, beginning with Thomas Harding Jr., son of the well-known Arkansas architect of the late 19th century, who was hired in 1898 at the age of 14. Like Thompson himself, Harding acquired most of his education through experience, reading and correspondence courses. By 1916, the firm had completed hundreds of buildings, and Thompson invited him to be his partner that year. The firm name became Thompson & Harding.”

Gifted architects such as Theo Sanders and Frank Ginocchio later went to work for the firm. Sanders and Ginocchio created their own firm after World War I but a merger resulted in the Thompson Sanders & Ginocchio firm in 1927. Thompson retired in 1938. When Sanders withdrew from the partnership, Cromwell (Thompson’s son-in-law) was invited to succeed him.

“Ginocchio and Cromwell divided the office duties,” Witsell writes. “Cromwell assumed the responsibility for the inside work — design, drafting and business management — while Ginocchio stayed with construction supervision. The pair designed the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion, which opened in 1950. The Governor’s Mansion was built on the site of the Arkansas School for the Blind, which was razed in 1939. The firm prospered under Cromwell’s leadership. The late 1940s to the 1970s constituted a period of growth. In 1954, engineering services in addition to architecture began to be offered.”

It was Cromwell who had the vision for Maumelle, a planned community on 5,000 acres of land along the Arkansas River owned by Arkansas insurance executive Jess Odum. He also was the man who saved the Capital Hotel in downtown Little Rock and began promoting the idea of riverfront development. After becoming commission chairman, Cromwell began expanding the Arkansas Territorial Restoration.

“With federal Department of Housing and Urban Development funds, matched by the state Legislature, the adjoining half-black was acquired with the old Fraternal Order of Eagles building, which became the museum’s reception center,” Worthen writes. “The expansion to its current size used federal highway enhancement funds and state and private sources. The Hinderliter House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on March 5, 1970. In 1972, the museum began to move toward a professional staff and began re-examining its mission and programs in light of continuing museum and preservation standards. Resarch found only circumstantial evidence for the association of the Hinderliter House with the last Territorial Assembly.”

Worthen, a Little Rock native, graduated from Little Rock Hall High School and Washington University in St. Louis. He taught high school in Pine Bluff for three years and then became director of the Arkansas Territorial Restoration in 1972. In 1981, it became the first history museum in the state to be accredited by the American Association of Museums.

Worthen is still directing the museum after all these years. During the annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism earlier this year, he was inducted into the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame.

Cromwell and Worthen made quite a pair in the 1970s as they professionalized the museum’s operations. In 1976, the antebellum Plum Bayou log house was moved from its original location near Scott. And in 2001, the name of the complex was changed to the Historic Arkansas Museum as the size of the former reception center was doubled.

Loughborough died in 1962, Cromwell died in 2001 and Westbrook died in 2015.

Sitting in Westbrook’s old seat while Loughborough and Cromwell watch over me, it’s an honor to serve on the Historic Arkansas Museum Commission. The history of Arkansas hangs heavily in that room

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John Gould Fletcher: Part 2

Friday, April 22nd, 2016

John Gould Fletcher’s return to Arkansas from England in 1933 was, according to biographer Ben Johnson of Southern Arkansas University, a “return to a place far from centers of literary ambition” in an attempt “stabilize his bipolar condition.”

Soon after his return, the noted poet was working with folklorist Vance Randolph to collect and promote mountain folk songs and stories.

Hanging out in the Ozarks and the Ouachitas was a long way from hanging out with Ezra Pound in London and T.S. Eliot in Paris.

Randolph had been born in 1892 at Pittsburg, Kan., and was, according to Robert Cochran in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, a person who was “born to the respectable center” but also was “attracted to the margins, to the rich ethnic and cultural diversity and radical politics of the region’s mining communities. He dropped out of high school and published his first writing for leftist periodicals.”

Randolph graduated in 1914 from what’s now Pittsburg State University and later completed a master’s degree at Clark University. He was attracted to the Ozarks and settled in Pineville, Mo., in 1920. He married a local woman and began to study the Ozark culture.

Cochran writes that Randolph’s works were “ignored by most academic reviewers and sometimes resented by Ozarkers themselves for their celebration of backward elements in the region’s culture. More recent students have recognized them as pioneering examples of what are now called folklife studies, and in the 1970s especially, scholars began praising Randolph for his prescience in this and other areas. Randolph collected folklore steadily through the 1930s and 1940s, even as he supported himself with everything from writing articles for sporting magazines to various works for juvenile readers.”

Randolph began collecting traditional music in the 1920s. He lived in Arkansas for most of the 1940s and 1950s, calling Eureka Springs and Fayetteville home. His first wife died in 1937, and he married a University of Arkansas English professor, Mary Celestia Parler, in 1962. Randolph continued to publish books until the 1970s. A collection of folk tales titled “Pissing in the Snow” was published in 1976 when Randolph was 84 and proved to be his most popular book. He died in November 1980 and is buried at National Cemetery in Fayetteville.

Randolph and the temperamental Fletcher were a strange pair as they made their way through the Ozarks and Ouachitas. Fletcher was among the first people to bring attention to folk singer Emma Dusenbury, who now has more than 100 songs archived at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Dusenbury was born in Georgia in 1862 and moved with her parents to Arkansas in 1872. They first lived in Crittenden County but later moved west to Baxter County. A serious illness in the 1890s left Dusenbury blind. She and her husband, an Illinois native, settled near Mena in 1907. Her husband worked for the railroad and in packing plants. He died in 1933.

“During the late 1920s and early 1930s, guided by F.M. Goodhue, a teacher at a nearby radical labor school, Commonwealth College, Dusenbury was recorded by some of the best-known folksong collectors in the region and nation,” Cochran writes. “John Lomax, Vance Randolph and Sidney Robertson all visited, as did poet John Gould Fletcher and Little Rock composer and symphony director Laurence Powell. All were greatly impressed. Lomax wrote in his autobiography that she sang continuously for two days and recorded more traditional Anglo-American ballads than any other singer.

“Dusenbury’s one brush with celebrity came in 1936 when she sang in Little Rock as part of the celebration of Arkansas’ statehood centennial. Her photograph appeared in the newspaper along with two feature articles about her (one written by Powell) that are even today the primary sources of information about her. Powell later based the final movement of his ‘Second Symphony’ on three of her traditional songs.”

Dusenbury died in May 1941 and is buried (as “Emmer Duesberry”) in the Polk County community of Rocky.

Fletcher also was part of that 1936 centennial celebration in Arkansas, hired by Arkansas Gazette publisher John Netherland Heiskell to write an epic poem titled “The Story of Arkansas.”

After moving back to Arkansas from England, Fletcher lived for a time in the Pike mansion at Little Rock with his sister, Adolphine Fletcher Terry. They had been raised in the huge home built by Albert Pike.

Three years older than her brother, Adolphine also became a well-known figure. She enrolled at Vassar College when she was just 15 and graduated in 1902.

Peggy Harris writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture that Adolphine and “another Vassar graduate from Arkansas, Blanche Martin, were asked to serve on a national committee to investigate the state’s education needs. They discovered a system of mostly one-room schoolhouses among 5,000 school districts, inadequate supervision and no consistent policies. The two made school consolidation their cause, writing articles for newspapers, making speeches and lobbying. In 1908, Fletcher was leading efforts consolidate school districts, appoint professional county superintendents and provide school transportation in rural Arkansas.

“As a young college graduate, she also co-founded a group to encourage women to become college educated. The group eventually became the Little Rock branch of the American Association of University Women. She also formed the first School Improvement Association in Arkansas, forerunner of the Parent Teacher Association; organized the first juvenile court in Arkansas in 1910; and chaired the Pulaski County Juvenile Court board for about 20 years.”

Adolphine’s lifelong interest in education led her and two friends, Vivion Brewer of Scott and Velma Powell of Little Rock, to form the Women’s Emergency Committee after a ballot measure to close Little Rock high schools as a way to avoid desegregation passed in 1958. The WEC led the successful effort to reopen the schools in 1959. Adolphine’s husband, David D. Terry, served in Congress from 1933 until giving up his seat in the House in 1942 to run for the U.S. Senate. He lost the Senate race to John L. McClellan.

Ben Johnson writes that even though John Gould Fletcher was living in the majestic Pike mansion with David and Adolphine Terry, “the prominence of the poet’s family did not keep many in his hometown from regarding him as remote.”

In January 1936, Fletcher married writer Charlie May Simon.

The prolific Simon wrote almost 30 books and dozens of short stories. Since 1971, the Charlie May Simon Book Award has been presented in Arkansas to honor her work in the area of children’s literature.

Simon was born in Drew County in 1897 as Charlie May Hogue. Her family moved to Memphis when she was three. Her father was a teacher and writer.

“Hogue’s first marriage was to Walter Lowenstein, a wealthy heir of a Memphis mercantile business, but she was widowed while still in her 20s,” Toran Isom writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “She wanted to enhance and expand her perspectives in the world of art so she used the financial settlement from her first marriage and moved to Chicago and later to Paris. In Paris, she met and married Howard Simon, an artist who would become the illustrator of her books. The two married in 1926, and she became Charlie Mae Simon, the professional name she used for the rest of her life.

“Simon returned to Arkansas with her husband. This was during the time of the Great Depression, and money was scarce. The two resided in a mountainside log cabin that they built in Perry County with help from neighbors. Simon planned the cabin, drawing the outline for the walls with a stick in the dirt. In the 1930s, she returned to writing, in part because they needed the money and because she wanted to tell of the Ozark way of life and the strong people who lived it.

“Simon enjoyed the hard work on the homestead, but her husband did not. She and Howard divorced, and though he returned to Paris, he still served as illustrator for her books. Simon’s first major work for children was ‘Robin on the Mountain.’ It was published in 1934 and is considered by many to be a classic in the field of children’s literature.”

Fletcher became aware of Simon’s work, and Simon was aware of Fletcher’s writing.

“Fletcher and Simon spent their childhoods geographically somewhat close to each other, but they had very different experiences,” Isom writes. “Fletcher knew a more privileged way of life that had allowed him time and space to reflect on subjects such as flowers, lakes and trees. Simon wrote about the humble folk she knew as a child. … Though the two had great respect for each other’s writing, their styles remained distinct, Fletcher in the spare style of the poet; Simon in her painstaking, conscientious prose.”

In 1939, reporters at the Arkansas Gazette learned that Fletcher had won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his “Selected Poems,” which had been published in 1938. Heiskell dispatched two reporters to Fletcher’s home near Pinnacle Mountain to give him the news.

“He was the first Southern poet to receive the prize, although this volume was more heavily weighted toward his early free-verse experiments rather than his more decidedly Southern work,” Johnson writes. “Despite receipt of the prestigious award and induction into the National Institute of Arts and Letters, he did not gain a new readership. ‘The Burning Mountain,’ his last collection in 1946, was not widely recognized for containing vital, well-crafted poems. ‘Arkansas,’ his impressionistic history in 1947, served for many years as the most readable and accessible history of the state but attracted little attention elsewhere.”

In 1941, Fletcher and Simon moved to a wood-and-stone home at 10314 Cantrell Road on the far western edge of Little Rock known as Johnswood.

Isom writes: “The hearth and the books were Johnswood’s most important features. Fletcher and Simon believed that writing was something of an individual pursuit. After breakfasting together, each would retire to his or her respective study, where they created their individual works. Afternoons were spent enjoying and keeping up the grounds. A raccoon appeared regularly, accepting its daily bread from Simon’s hand.”

Johnson describes Fletcher and Simon as a “restless couple” who traveled frequently in the years prior to the Johnswood purchase for extended stays in places such as New York, Santa Fe and the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. They traveled less after building Johnswood. It was during a stay at the MacDowell Colony that Fletcher wrote his autobiography, “Life Is My Song,” which appeared in 1937.

The Poetry Foundation notes that the years that followed the move to Johnswood “were apparently calmer. Fletcher was settled and older, and he had received a certain amount of recognition. But inwardly he still hated the materialistic, mechanized world he saw being built up about him.”

Johnson says that, by the late 1940s, “the knowledge that he was falling into obscurity, coupled with worsening arthritis, ignited more bouts with depression.”

On May 10, 1950, Fletcher walked to a shallow pond near Johnswood, neatly folded his jacket on the bank and drowned himself. He’s buried at Little Rock’s Mount Holly Cemetery.

The Central Arkansas Library System later would name one of its branches after him.

In the late 1980s, the University of Arkansas Press started reprinting some of his works as part of its John Gould Fletcher series.

“Simon continued to reside at Johnswood after initially doubting whether she could, though she did travel the globe,” Isom writes. “Her writing in her later years moved significantly toward the biographical. She focused on the truly great difference-making people of her day, people often associated with bringing peace and a sense of humanity to the world. Simon spent some time in Japan and taught English at the Women’s University in Tokyo. She continued to work hard on her writing craft and was known for her in-depth research. She traveled to Africa and spent time with Albert Schweitzer.”

Simon died in March 1977 and also is buried at Mount Holly.

The Poetry Foundation sums up John Gould Fletcher this way: “Fletcher’s work is most generally recognized for its idiosyncratic innovations, and the connections between his aesthetic choices and those of the prevailing literary trends of the first half of the 20th century. After a clumsy but promising beginning, Fletcher’s experiments gave rise to highly unusual and interesting results — poetic symphonies and paintings, and an emphasis on undidactic directness in the evocation of emotion.

“While he was always prey to criticisms about his coldness and verbosity, he was seen as part of a new wave in poetics, bringing in a fresh vigor and musicality. His later poems, which deal more openly with questions of salvation and social directions, are regarded by most as documents attesting to a particular trend, a reaction against full-scale industrialization. He enjoyed a rare connectedness with the brightest lights in poetry and brought that cosmopolitan sensibility back to Arkansas.”

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The troubled life of John Gould Fletcher

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016

It’s a safe bet that few of the people who enter the John Gould Fletcher Library at 823 N. Buchanan St. in Little Rock know anything about the man for whom the facility is named.

Fletcher was the first Arkansan to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1939 when the poor Southern state was still struggling to escape the Great Depression.

When those of us at the Arkansas Humanities Council (on which I’ve served for the past five years) were developing a lecture series to mark the 100th year of the Pulitzer Prizes being awarded, it seemed natural to make the first talk in the series about Fletcher.

So it was that the eminent Arkansas historian Ben Johnson of Southern Arkansas University took the stage at the Ron Robinson Theater in downtown Little Rock last Thursday night to talk about Fletcher’s life. Johnson is the author of a biography of Fletcher — “Fierce Solitude: A Life of John Gould Fletcher” — which was released in 1994 by the University of Arkansas Press.

Johnson’s talk was interesting, but it was not necessarily uplifting. Fletcher fought depression for much of his life. He committed suicide in May 1950 when he drowned himself in a shallow pond near his Little Rock home.

Here’s how the Poetry Foundation describes this native Arkansan: “John Gould Fletcher is considered by many literary scholars to be among the most innovative 20th century poets. He is closely associated with poet Amy Lowell and the Imagist movement she championed. In addition to being an adherent of Imagism, which was dedicated to replacing traditional poetics with a more concise use of language, new rhythms and a concrete rather than discursive or symbolic treatment of subject, Fletcher also wrote poetry that drew from such varied sources as French Symbolism, Oriental art and philosophy, and music.

“Later in his career, Fletcher concentrated less on technical innovation and began to develop themes he had previously only touched upon in his work, including humanity’s relation to nature and the individual’s search for God and salvation. During this period, he also became associated with the Fugitives, a group of American poets dedicated to reviving an agrarian way of life and traditional Southern values.”

Fletcher was born in Little Rock on Jan. 3, 1886. His father was a Confederate veteran (also named John Gould Fletcher) who made a fortune after the Civil War as a cotton broker and then purchased much of what’s now downtown Little Rock.

His mother was named Adolphine Krause Fletcher.

Johnson writes in a biographical sketch of Fletcher for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Fletcher’s mother had abandoned the prospect of a musical career to tend to her ailing mother and likely centered her artistic ambitions on her only son. Fletcher was reared and educated by tutors in the company of his two sisters, Adolphine and Mary. As a child, he was rarely permitted to leave the grounds of the antebellum mansion — built by Albert Pike and purchased by the Fletchers in 1889 — that was his home. Fletcher developed a dense imaginative life, nurtured by his reading of Poe, Coleridge and Goethe.”

Pike, who built the massive home that’s now owned by the Arkansas Arts Center, is one of the most fascinating figures in Arkansas history. He was born in Boston in December 1809, began to write poetry as a young man and wound up in Arkansas teaching school in the Fort Smith area in the early 1830s. He often would write letters to the editor of newspapers signed Casca after one of the Roman politicians who had assassinated Julius Caesar.

Charles Bertrain, who owned a Whig Party newspaper known as the Arkansas Advocate, was impressed by Pike’s writing ability and hired him as the newspaper’s editor. Pike moved to Little Rock to edit the newspaper and also began working for the Arkansas Legislature as a clerk. Pike married a wealthy Little Rock resident, Mary Ann Hamilton, and the money she brought to the marriage allowed Pike to buy the newspaper in 1835. He later became a lawyer.

Historian Carl Moneyhon of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock summed up Pike this way for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “He was a lawyer who played a major role in the development of the early courts of Arkansas and played an active role in the state’s politics prior to the Civil War. He also was a central figure in the development of Masonry in the state and later became a national leader of that organization. During the Civil War, he commanded the Confederacy’s Indian Territory, raising troops there and exercising field command in one battle. He also was a talented poet and writer.”

Like the man who built what’s now known as the Pike-Fletcher-Terry Mansion, young John Gould Fletcher was attracted to poetry. Fletcher’s father was 55 at the time of his birth and a remote figure. Fletcher’s mother was 24 years younger than her husband. Her interests were music, literature and the arts.

The Poetry Foundation says of John Gould Fletcher’s early years: “Fletcher often spoke of the gloom and desolation of (the large house built by Pike). Even at an early age, his life was characterized by a solitude from which he would never completely emerge. Having little social life, Fletcher became a voracious reader. His preferences ran toward the decadent and pessimistic, especially as he grew older. The writings of Edgar Allan Poe were his constant companions in adolescence, and while attending Harvard he developed a lifelong love of French literature, devouring the works of Theophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire, as well as Dante Rossetti, William Morris, Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde. It was at this time that Fletcher began writing poetry of his own, though he seldom showed it to anyone, being an entirely private person.

“Fletcher did not prosper at Harvard. His did not fit into Massachusetts society well, neglected the syllabi to pursue his own reading and skipped classes regularly so as to have more time for the University Library, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the symphony. Determined to pursue a literary career, his lack of application in his studies was the cause of considerable friction between Fletcher and his father, who wanted him to become a banker or lawyer.

“When his father died in 1906, Fletcher inherited the family fortune and a sizable annuity. Apparently unable to see the point of further education, and against the wishes of his mother, who like his father felt he should leave literature on the side and take on a profession, Fletcher dropped out of Harvard just before the final exams in 1907. The following year he departed the country for Italy. When his mother died in 1910, he did not return home.”

Fletcher had spent a year at Phillips Andover Academy in Andover, Mass., before enrolling at Harvard. A 1905 train journey to the American West helped inspire his poetry. Johnson notes that “the regular checks from a trust fund did not relieve his anxieties about his livelihood. His anxieties and sudden rages grew from his bipolar disorder, an illness marked by cyclical episodes that first erupted during his college years.”

Fletcher spent time in Venice and Rome after heading to Europe. The Poetry Foundation says he “soaked up the atmosphere, flirted with the idea of converting to Roman Catholicism, wrote more poetry and read voraciously. In 1909, he relocated to London, where he began to meet other poets and artists. His interest in painting was especially strong, and he never missed an important exhibition. This abiding fascination with both the arts and music would deeply influence his later poetry, although at the time his work was fairly conventional. He doggedly assailed publishers with his poems, but to no success. Finally, he approached four different publishers and arranged to finance five volumes of his poetry himself. All five appeared in May 1913.

“Critical reception to Fletcher’s work was lukewarm.  … Fletcher himself was the severest critic of these books — within roughly one year of their publication, he had the unsold copies pulped and referred to them as mere juvenilia for the rest of his life.”

Fletcher later met poet Ezra Pound, who convinced Fletcher to help underwrite the magazine the Egoist. Pound, in turn, introduced Fletcher to Amy Lowell.

“Pound promoted Fletcher’s free-verse experiments to Harriet Monroe, founder of Poetry magazine, and invited Fletcher to join a group of poets that Pound had dubbed Des Imagistes,” Johnson writes. “However, Fletcher resisted Pound’s attempts to revise his poems. Only when Amy Lowell, who was less dogmatic on poetic principles, supplanted Pound as the leader of the group did Fletcher agree to include his work in Imagist anthologies. In 1914, Fletcher sailed to America. He wrote incessantly during his tour.”

Fletcher later returned to England and married Florence Emily “Daisy” Arbuthnot, who recently had been divorced, in July 1916. Fletcher had become involved with the older (and still married) Arbuthnot when he was 27. They began living together in 1914. A visit to Little Rock during the winter of 1914-15 was, according to the Poetry Foundation, “the occasion for rueful and gloomy reminiscences about his childhood.”

The Poetry Foundation says that starting in 1916, Fletcher’s life “ran aground. His new marriage with Arbuthnot was rapidly showing itself to be a mistake, his poems were no longer being accepted, his literary contacts were drying up. He had moved to Sydenham in England to be with his wife, and for several years he more or less languished there. During this time, the exuberance of his early poetry dimmed, and his work become more stolid, majestic and plain — and his initial prolixity dwindled, until he was producing almost nothing new. His work in the early 1920s is characterized by a concern with the history and future of America, which he felt was headed to its own destruction in a nihilistic industrial downward spiral.”

During a tour of the American South in 1927, Fletcher fell in with the Fugitives, the group of poets at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., that included John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren.

Johnson writes that these young Southerners had become “increasingly unhappy with the direction of the industrial society. They organized the Agrarian movement to uphold the traditional hierarchy of the Old South as a better model for the good society. Fletcher eagerly enlisted in their causes, but his overwrought, anti-democratic essay on education in the Agrarian symposium ‘I’ll Take My Stand’ in 1930 signaled the onset of a depressive crisis.”

Fletcher attempted suicide in late 1932 and spent several months at the Royal Bethlehem Hospital in London, commonly known as Bedlam.

His divorce from Arbuthnot wasn’t finalized until 1936, but he had moved back to Arkansas in 1933.

“His marriage was clearly at an end, and he had no further desire to live in Europe,” the Poetry Society notes in its biographical sketch. “In 1933, he moved back to Little Rock, where he was received as the poet laureate and premier intellectual in the state. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Arkansas, founded the Arkansas Folk Lore Society in 1935 and produced ‘The Story of Arkansas’ for the state’s centennial in 1936.”

John Netherland Heiskell, the famous publisher of the Arkansas Gazette, had commissioned Fletcher to write the eic poem “The Story of Arkansas.”

Johnson writes: “A revised version of ‘The Story of Arkansas’ later appeared in his collection ‘South Star.’ Although the Arkansas poem suggested his recent allegiance to his native region, the publication of his memoir, ‘Life is My Song,’ the following year concentrated on his early Imagist career.”

In the next blog post, we’ll focus on the final 14 years of his life.

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The Village Academy Beavers

Wednesday, April 6th, 2016

The Village Academy Beavers live on.

Recently, Guy Lancaster, who heads the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, asked me to write an entry on the Beavers.

I was delighted to accept his offer. I happen to think it’s one of the classic pranks in modern Arkansas history.

Village Academy was a fictitious private school in south Arkansas that was created by two members of the staff at Jessieville High School in 1985. Fake scores for the Beaver football teams were printed for parts of four seasons in the Arkansas Gazette and the Arkansas Democrat before anyone at the Little Rock newspapers caught on.

The subject was revived when Jon Mark Beilue wrote a lengthy feature for the 2015 edition of Hooten’s Arkansas Football headlined “Fauxball: How a band director and basketball coach orchestrated a hoax too funny to forget.”

Now, the Little Rock-based company Rock City Outfitters is selling Village Academy shirts.

Bob Sivils, the band director at Jessieville High School in 1985, and Garry Crowder, the school’s girls’ basketball coach at the time, decided to create the Village Academy team after becoming frustrated with the limited knowledge of those at the Little Rock newspapers who would answer their calls on Friday nights when they reported actual Jessieville scores.

I was the assistant sports editor at the Democrat in the fall of 1985 (the newspaper would send me to Washington, D.C., the following year as I made the sports-to-politics shift) and was in charge of Friday nights in the sports department. It was a madhouse. The newspaper war had heated up, and we fought the Gazette to get the most scores and summaries of games. If someone was willing to take calls, we used them. They didn’t need to know much about high school football.

Here’s how Beilue summed it up in his story: “Most newspapers the size of the Democrat and Gazette send their sportswriters to staff key games on Friday nights. The majority of games, however, are called in by school personnel to sports departments staffed by news reporters or volunteers eager to get a little overtime pay.

“Most couldn’t name four other high schools at gunpoint, much less know the names of mascots or anything about the teams. They simply have a questionnaire to fill out basic information when a correspondent calls such as Sivils or Crowder. From that information comes the four-to-five-paragraph story that fills up several sports pages on football Saturday mornings.”

Sivils, who’s now retired in Sallisaw, Okla., told Beilue: “People taking the calls would always have trouble keeping what school straight. They would say, ‘This is Jacksonville?’ No, it’s Jessieville. ‘Are you the Eagles?’ No, we played the Eagles. We’re the Lions.”

Crowder said: “I guess I got so frustrated with their ineptness that I commented that I don’t even know if they know our school exists, that we could probably call in a fake game.”

So it was that Sivils called in the first Village Academy score on the first Friday of September 1985. The Beavers had battled Rayville, La., to a 6-6 tie.

Crowder had coached in south Arkansas and was familiar with the community of Village, which is east of Magnolia in Columbia County. The two men decided that the prank would succeed if the fictitious school didn’t play Arkansas teams and didn’t win too much.

The Jessieville High School principal’s name was Norman Jespersen, and Sivils and Crowder derived the name of their make-believe star Jess Norman from the principal’s name.

Beilue wrote: “Neither Crowder nor Sivils was sure the game report would make it into either paper. But first thing Saturday, they tore through the sports pages looking for one in particular among three full inside pages of high school football coverage. And, in all its glory, there it was on page 7C of the Gazette. Crowder and Sivils began punching each other in the arms like a couple of giddy 14-year-olds. It worked. The little game story got in there.

“They had a living, breathing Beaver, sorta, on their hands. They also had a secret, but the Beaver quickly got out of the bag. It was too good for Sivils and Crowder to keep to themselves.”

During the next four seasons, Beaver scores and game summaries often were published. Sivils and Crowder only called the two Little Rock newspapers, but The Associated Press picked up the scores, and they soon were running in newspapers across the state.

A football coach who was in on the joke sent recommendation forms for Norman to colleges, and recruiting letters addressed to Jess Norman began arriving at Crowder’s home address. Norman apparently was an outstanding student since Yale and Dartmouth were among the schools that sent letters.

Sivils and Crowder shared their secret with coaches and band directors across the state. Fellow faculty members at Jessieville High School created an alma mater and fight song for Village Academy. A photographer named Bob Hurt, who took team photos at high schools throughout Arkansas, shot photos of Sivils holding a football.

Green T-shirts and bumper stickers that said “Village Academy Beavers” were distributed.

Hurt, whose portrait studio is in Rogers, even ran an ad in last fall’s Hooten’s Arkansas Football that said “Village Academy’s Biggest Supporter.”

“Not only did the Beavers play football, they also started a track program,” said Crowder, now the head women’s basketball coach at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia. “They played girls’ basketball with Jess’ sister Jessica leading the way. When inclement weather forced the closing of schools across the state, Village Academy would appear on the Little Rock television stations as being closed.”

Crowder usually was on the public address system when Jessieville hosted track meets and routinely would call for Jess Norman to report for the pole vault or for Village Academy athletes to report to their bus.

Sivils, meanwhile, also made Jess Norman a music sensation. He was listed as having attended band events at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia and Arkansas Tech University in Russellville. After Sivils moved to Sallisaw, concert programs for the band there would list Norman as having written at least one piece.

During the 1988 Hot Springs Christmas parade, the daughter of a Jessieville teacher rode in a convertible with a poster attached to the car that read “Little Miss Village Academy.”

It all came crashing down in October 1988 when Arkansas Democrat reporter Robert Yates followed up on an anonymous letter stating that Village Academy was fictitious.

Yates ended his column this way: “But, guys, I have to give you credit. You got us.”

Yates, who stayed at the newspaper until 2014, told Beilue: “It was a well-crafted, clever stunt. The goal back then was to get in as many game stories as possible, try to have more than the Gazette. You were never going to take the time on deadline to think if this is legitimate or not.”

Rod’s Pizza Cellar in Hot Springs was the site of a “farewell banquet” for Village Academy. Lamar Cole, who headed the Arkansas Activities Association at the time, even showed up. Most of those in attendance at the party were wearing green-and-white Village Academy T-shirts.

The note to Yates, as it turned out, had been sent by George Foshee, the elementary principal at Jessieville. He had been against the stunt from the first.

But now Village Academy lives on thanks to the article in Hooten’s Arkansas Football and a column written last fall by Mike Lee for the San Angelo, Texas, newspaper.

Lee wrote: “Even after the hoax was exposed, Jess Norman lived on. A coaching friend of Sivils’ from Fountain Lake called in a junior high football game report to the Hot Springs newspaper. ‘They wanted to know who scored all the touchdowns for Dardanelle, the team they were playing. The guy didn’t know, so he just said Jess Norman. The headline the next day read Norman Scores 4 TDs For Dardanelle,’ Sivils said.

“During a band camp one summer at the University of Arkansas, Sivils was assigning lockers to high school campers. He came across the locker of his daughter, Mandy, and her fiancé, Jeremy Ford, both UA band members who shared a locker during the fall and spring semesters. Before leaving the camp, Sivils penned a note to Mandy and signed it, ‘I love you. Jess Norman.’

“‘Her fiancé was the first to use the locker after the camp. He read the letter and demanded to know who this Jess Norman was and how he got the combination to their locker,’ Sivils said.”

There are the shirts being sold by Rock City Outfitters and soon an encyclopedia entry.

“Just when you think it’s beginning to die away, something pops up again,” Crowder told me. “When the Arkansas Activities Association was selling bricks for a fundraiser, someone bought one that’s engraved in memory of Jess Norman and Village Academy. For the past 15 years, you could check the portion of the University of Arkansas football program where Razorback Foundation contributors were listed and find a donation from the Village Academy Booster Club.”

Sivils makes that annual contribution in the name of the booster club.

Long live the Beavers.

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The breakfast club

Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

It’s shortly past 7 a.m. on a Wednesday, and Don Allen is sitting at his usual spot.

They call it the Round Table, and it’s in the corner of the state Capitol’s basement cafeteria in Little Rock.

Allen, 85, is the patriarch of the Round Table, a legendary breakfast spot where politics, sports and personalities have been cussed and discussed for decades.

Allen became a regular at the table in 1972 when he joined the staff of then-Gov. Dale Bumpers. He can be found in the same seat most weekday mornings, having arrived by 5:20 a.m.

“They let me in the back door,” he says.

When Allen began coming to the Capitol basement for breakfast, legislators such as Rep. John Miller of Melbourne and Rep. Lloyd Reid George of Danville ruled the roost at the Round Table.

On the large lazy Susan in the middle of the table, brass nameplates for Miller and George state that their seats are “reserved in perpetuity.” The nameplates were purchased by Little Rock attorney George Jernigan, a former chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party and a former chairman of the Little Rock-based Political Animals Club.

“When someone dies, we move the nameplates from the actual table to the lazy Susan,” Allen says.

George, a noted raconteur, was born in 1926 in his grandparents’ house at Centerville in Yell County and grew up at Ola. He graduated from Hendrix College and then became a coach and teacher at Fourche Valley, Ola, Morrilton and Gillett. George later borrowed enough money from his father and grandmother to open a butane gas company at Danville, where he was elected mayor.

George first was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives in 1962 and served a total of 28 years. He would celebrate the final day of legislative sessions by wearing overalls, a sign that it was time to go back to the farm in Yell County. George died in February 2012 at age 85.

Miller, who lived in Izard County for 84 of his 85 years, was a 1949 Arkansas State University graduate who worked in his family’s retail business before spending four years as the Izard County clerk. He later opened an insurance agency, a title abstract business and a real estate brokerage.

Miller was elected to the Arkansas House in 1958, the start of a 40-year legislative career. He soon became recognized as the expert on the state budget. Miller died in June 2014.

There’s one other nameplate on the lazy Susan. It belongs to former Rep. William K. “Mac” McGehee of Fort Smith, who was elected to the Legislature in 1996 and was found dead of natural causes in his apartment in the Capitol Hill Building adjacent to the state Capitol just before the 1999 legislative session. McGehee was given his “reserved in perpetuity” spot because he had the current lazy Susan made by the Riverside Furniture Co. in Fort Smith and then flew it to Little Rock in his private plane.

“It’s a lot bigger than the old lazy Susan,” Allen says matter of factly. “George Jernigan gave us the old one, but it was hard to reach.”

The lazy Susan has not only bottles of barbecue sauce, hot sauce and pepper sauce but also jars of homemade jams, jellies and preserves that legislators bring and leave there. Jars of honey and sorghum molasses also are dropped off from time to time.

The table was constructed by the staff of Arkansas Secretary of State Bill McCuen, who later was imprisoned for corruption in office. McCuen died of cancer at age 57 in 2000. Before his election as secretary of state in 1984, he had served as a public school teacher and principal at Hot Springs, as the Garland County judge and as state land commissioner.

McCuen put his signature on most everything at the Capitol during his decade as secretary of state and had a soft spot for those who sat at the Round Table. The new table — the smaller version used in earlier years now sits on the other side of the cafeteria — was made out of leftover plywood from a Christmas display.

Capitol observers thought the Round Table’s days were numbered in November 2014 when Arkansas voters approved an ethics amendment that would no longer allow lobbyists to buy breakfast for legislators. For years, top lobbyists would put money in the pot to fund the breakfast activities. Legislators who were invited to sit at the table simply went through the line, got what they wanted and had their purchases recorded in the spiral-bound notebook that rested next to the cash register.

Ron Harrod is a longtime lobbyist who became a regular at the Round Table after being appointed in early 1983 to the powerful Arkansas Highway Commission to replace James Branyan of Camden. Harrod, a Dumas native, was an insurance agent in Prescott at the time.

“When the ethics amendment passed, we decided to shut down the table,” Harrod says. “But you know what? Not a single legislator complained about having to buy breakfast. We found out that it was about the fellowship rather than the food.”

He then adds (with a smile for the benefit of the legislators at the table): “We’re not allowed to buy them breakfast, although one of them could buy me breakfast. To this day, not a single legislator has offered to buy my breakfast.”

There are still two brass nameplates on the table for living legends.

One belongs to Allen, who became the executive vice president of the influential Arkansas Poultry Federation in 1976 and held the job until 2000, when he retired and was replaced by former state Sen. Morril Harriman. When Mike Beebe became governor in January 2007, Harriman resigned from the Poultry Federation to become Beebe’s chief of staff, a job he held for Beebe’s entire eight years as governor.

The other nameplate belongs to Tim Massanelli, a native of the community of Goat Shed in Lincoln County. Massanelli worked on his family farm, ran a liquor store and managed a coin-operated machine business during the early years of his career. In 1973, at the suggestion of state Rep. G.W. “Buddy” Turner, he became the parliamentarian for the Arkansas House of Representatives and served for 38 years until retiring in 2011.

Massanelli worked with 19 speakers, seven governors and more than 1,000 House members. He was replaced by Buddy Johnson, who began working for the House in 1985 after having served as a reporter for United Press International. Johnson joins the breakfast group on this Wednesday morning, trading barbs easily with Allen and Harrod.

Massanelli’s nameplate has a spelling mistake. It says that his chair is “reserved in perpeturity.” The regulars decided to leave the plate just like it is so they could give Massanelli a hard time.

Allen tells stories of past legislators such as the late state Rep. Bobby Newman of Smackover, who Allen says would order three soft eggs each morning and then sop up all the yolk with his toast. Then there was the legislator who irked the late Zelma Maxenberger, who managed the cafeteria for a quarter of a century. The legislator, who shall remain nameless, would loudly ring a bell for service prior to the official opening time of 6 a.m. Told by the management that no coffee would be served to those at the Round Table until 7 a.m. if he didn’t stop ringing the bell, the offending legislator was banned from the table.

“Sometimes we have 14 or 15 people sitting over here at one time,” Allen says. “I have to tell you that the idea of lobbyists buying off politicians with a meal is pure BS. This has simply been a way for us to get to know each other through the years.”

Harrod says: “Most of these legislators have someplace where they go for coffee back in their towns. This is just the Little Rock version of what they have back at home.”

Many of the traditional spots where Arkansans gathered for breakfast and political talk in the 20th century are gone. One notable example was the Sno-White Grill at Pine Bluff, which closed last year and was replaced by an Italian restaurant. Sno-White was founded in 1936, one year before Walt Disney produced his first full-length animated classic, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

The Pine Bluff institution closed when Bobby Garner decided to retire at age 79. Garner would arrive at 5:30 a.m. six mornings a week with the restaurant opening at 6 a.m. Among the coffee-drinking regulars, there were 6 a.m., 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 9 a.m. and even 10 a.m. shifts.

While the state Capitol has the Round Table, Sno-White had the famed Back Booth. It was a large booth with political posters covering the walls behind it — “I’m for Arkansas and Faubus,” “John McClellan for Senate,” “Dale Bumpers for Senate” and even “Monroe A. Scharwazlose, Democratic Candidate for Governor, The Law and Order Candidate.”

Schwarzlose, who raised turkeys in nearby Kingsland, ran for governor in the Democratic primaries of 1978, 1980, 1982 and 1984.

Kelley-Wyatt’s in Batesville had its Round Table, where Independence County politicians gathered for years. The restaurant closed for a time but reopened last fall.

Jerry’s in Fayetteville, long a breakfast gathering spot near the Washington County Courthouse, is gone. But a well-known restaurant up the road in Springdale lives on. In 1944, Toy and Bertha Neal began serving meals in Springdale. Neal’s Café still opens at 6 a.m. seven days a week and is a political gathering place for the northwest corner of the state. It fact, its political cachet increased when owner Micah Neal was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives in 2012. Toy and Bertha Neal were Micah Neal’s great-grandparents. Micah’s father, Don Neal, later ran the restaurant in the landmark pink building.

In Conway, Bob’s Grill on Oak Street downtown has the motto: “If it happens in Conway, it’s talked about at Bob’s Grill.”

Away from the state Capitol in Little Rock, the breakfast spot for politicians was once the Coachman’s Inn, a hotel owned by famed financiers Jack and Witt Stephens. It stood where the downtown post office is now located. In 1983, Skip Rutherford left the staff of U.S. Sen. David Pryor and moved to the private sector to work for Mack McLarty, the chief executive officer of Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co. Rutherford missed politics and wanted an excuse for those with a strong interest in the political game to gather and talk about what was going on in Arkansas. He asked some friends to join him one morning at the Coachman’s for breakfast. Judge William J. Smith was invited to talk about former Gov. Orval Faubus and the 1957 Little Rock school desegregation crisis. Afterward, those in attendance agreed to meet again and bring friends to what they decided to call the Political Animals Club.

At first, the Political Animals Club’s membership was limited to people who were not running for or holding elective office. When Rutherford announced in 1987 that he was going to run for the Little Rock School Board, he stepped down as club chairman. The Political Animals Club had moved its meetings from the Coachman’s Inn to the Little Rock Hilton (now the Clarion) on University Avenue by that time. Jernigan took over as the second chairman in 1987 and was succeeded by his law partner, Russ Meeks.

The fourth Political Animals chairman was Bob Lyford, who was the general counsel for the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. During Lyford’s tenure, the club often held its 7 a.m. breakfast meetings in the ornate conference room at the AECC headquarters in southwest Little Rock. In January 2007, Lyford handed over the chairmanship to Steve Ronnel, a Little Rock businessman who had worked in the White House during the Clinton administration. Ronnel switched the meeting times from breakfast to lunch as people’s habits changed and fewer people wanted to show up at 7 a.m.

The Coachman’s has long since been replaced by downtown’s Capital Hotel (also owned by the Stephens family) as the breakfast gathering spot of choice for lobbyists who are looking for something a bit fancier than the basement of the state Capitol. Most mornings now find several tables at the Capital Hotel filled with lobbyists and legislators (who presumably are paying for their own meals).

Though breakfast meetings of the Political Animals Club are now a rarity, there are smaller breakfast groups that meet on a regular basis to talk politics. Rutherford is a member of two such groups. One group began meeting in 1991 at a now-defunct downtown Little Rock restaurant known as Hungry’s. The group later met in North Little Rock at Roy Fisher’s Steak House, also now defunct.

For years, Fisher’s waitress Mary Daniell, who died in February 2011 at age 71, would trade good-natured insults with a group whose regulars included Rutherford, then-state Sen. Bill Gwatney, former Little Rock bank executive Gene Fortson and longtime North Little Rock political gadfly Walter “Bubba” Lloyd Jr.

Members of the group and even the waitress would tease Gwatney because of his family money, especially when he would order a staple of the Fisher’s breakfast menu known as “the working man’s breakfast.”

“That’s as close as you’ll ever come to being a working man,” Daniell would tell the automobile dealer.

Gwatney was the chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party in the summer of 2008 when he was murdered at state party headquarters by a lone gunman, who was killed later in the day during a shootout with the police. No reason for the murder was ever discovered.

Soon afterward, Rutherford said of the breakfast group: “We had no regular schedule. It was just when somebody sent a notice out. It was always a long breakfast, talking about politics, sports, current issues. Those conversations were great because Gwatney would unload on any issue. Politics was a common ground. When I was state party chairman, I used to say in speeches that my best achievement was making sure Bill Gwatney ran as a Democrat and won as a Democrat.”

After taking a break following Gwatney’s death, the group began meeting again. The members now gather at the Red Door at the foot of Cantrell Hill in Little Rock.

Rutherford also is a member of a Saturday group organized by Little Rock businessmen Bill Booker and Graham Catlett.

“Bill and I began having brunch on Saturdays at Buster’s in the early 1980s,” Catlett says. “We later began meeting at Copper Grill at 8 a.m. each Saturday, and the group grew. Our meeting places move seasonally.”

One of the regulars is Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola.

“By 9 a.m., all the world’s problems are solved,” Catlett says.

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Mr. Downtown Little Rock

Monday, March 14th, 2016

The original version of this story ran in Talk Business & Politics magazine.

Jimmy Moses grew up steeped in the history of Little Rock, especially its downtown.

His great-grandfather, Herman Kahn, moved to Little Rock from Frankfurt, Germany, in 1870. Kahn and his sons, Sidney L. Kahn Sr. and Alfred G. Kahn, were involved in banking and real estate development.

Sidney Kahn developed the Prospect Terrace neighborhood in Little Rock.

Herman Kahn’s best-known development was the Marion Hotel, which was among the most famous businesses in Arkansas for much of the 20th century.

Construction on the Marion began in 1905. It was the tallest structure in the state from when it opened in 1907 until 1911. The hotel closed in early 1980 and was demolished to make way for the Excelsior Hotel (which later became the Peabody and then the Marriott) and the Statehouse Convention Center.

The 500-room Marion had green carpets, bellboys in green uniforms and a marble fish pond in the lobby. The hotel was named after Herman Kahn’s wife, Marion Cohn Kahn.

The Marion billed itself as the “Meeting Place of Arkansas,” and the state’s top organizations held their conventions there. Its bar was named the Gar Hole and featured a mounted alligator gar. Visitors to the Marion through the years included Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Douglas MacArthur, Helen Keller and Will Rogers.

Within walking distance of the Marion, Moses’ family operated the music and electronics store Moses Melody Shop on Main Street. The business was established shortly after World War I by Moses’ grandfather, Grover Cleveland “Cleve” Moses, and operated for almost six decades until falling victim to downtown’s decline in the late 1960s.

During the 1960s, the store had what was known as the Color TV Lounge where customers could watch color television. There were soundproof glass booths for listening to records, and there were live Saturday radio broadcasts by radio station KALO that featured local bands. Jimmy Moses worked in the store as a boy.

Moses describes downtown Little Rock as “being in my DNA.”

He remembers the days when customers would come into Moses Melody Shop in droves. Down the street, the Marion Hotel lobby was filled at all hours. Downtown Little Rock was the place to be.

By the time Moses left for college at Washington and Lee University in the mountains of southwest Virginia, the capital city’s core had begun its long, slow decline.

Moses sits by a window in the Little Rock Club on the 30th floor of the Regions Center in downtown Little Rock and looks out on the city that has been central to his career. He’s now in his 60s and thinking about his legacy. He says he wants to be remembered as someone who helped transform Arkansas’ largest city back into a place where people “want to live” rather than fleeing to the suburbs in Saline, Faulkner and Lonoke counties.

“Little Rock is at a crossroads,” Moses says as he gazes down on the capital city. “We’ve done a lot of good things to set the stage for growth, but I’m not sure that our leadership has fully embraced the concept that we can be great.”

Those who compare the relatively slow growth of Little Rock to Austin or Nashville can become depressed when thinking about the city. But those are state capitals of far larger states that also are the homes of world-class universities and bustling music scenes. They have amenities that Little Rock will never have.

Little Rock looks far better, though, when compared to Southern cities such as Birmingham, Ala., and Jackson, Miss.

In 1950, Birmingham had a population of 326,037, more than triple the size of Little Rock at the time. Birmingham was the same size as Atlanta (331,314) in 1950. By 2010, Birmingham’s population had fallen to 212,237. While Birmingham was losing population, Little Rock was growing from 102,213 residents in 1950 to 193,524 residents in 2010. With a population that’s expected to surpass 200,000 during the next year, Little Rock is now the same size as Birmingham rather than a third its size.

Jackson, meanwhile, had a population of 202,895 in 1980, far larger than Little Rock’s population of 159,151 at the time. The current population of Jackson is about 170,000. The cities appear to be headed in opposite directions. In Mississippi, for example, Bass Pro Shops and an outlet mall chose to locate in the suburb of Pearl. In Arkansas, Bass Pro and an outlet mall chose Little Rock rather than a city in the suburbs.

Moses points out that public projects continue to complement private investments in downtown Little Rock. In addition to construction of a new Broadway Bridge, work is proceeding on the $68 million renovation of the Robinson Center. The city has committed $20 million to the Little Rock Technology Park downtown, and voters recently approved a bond issue of $35 million for upgrades to the Arkansas Arts Center, the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History and MacArthur Park. The bonds will be paid back over 30 years with collections from an increased hotel tax.

During the past year, other parts of town have seen the opening of a $23 million transmission operations center for Entergy Corp., a new Southern region operations center for the regional energy transmission organization Midcontinent Independent Systems Operator, a $52 million facility in southwest Little Rock for Federal Express and a major expansion of Dassault Falcon Jet adjacent to the city’s airport.

Dr. Dean Kumpuris, a longtime member of the Little Rock Board of Directors, says: “We’re headed in the right direction. The strongest thing we have going for us is a group of people willing to roll up their sleeves, identify the problems and then attack those problems.”

Kumpuris describes the decision to place the technology park downtown as “an absolute winner for everybody.”

Jimmy Moses and business partner Rett Tucker remain atop the list of those “willing to roll up their sleeves, identify the problems and then attack those problems.”

After obtaining his bachelor’s degree from Washington and Lee, Moses earned a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Florida. He was working for the planning firm Hodges Vines Fox & Associates in 1981 when Little Rock turned to the firm for suggestions on what to do with a downtown that had been gutted by so-called urban renewal. Most residents and many businesses had moved out.

In Moses’ words, downtown “barely had a heartbeat.”

It would be years before his vision began to be achieved, but Moses was an early proponent of attracting full-time residents back downtown.

In July 1982, Moses joined forces with Rick Redden and John Allison to launch Allison Moses Redden Architecture, Interiors and Planning. Allison Moses Redden later became AMR Architects Inc. when Moses and Allison began new firms. Moses teamed up with fellow Little Rock native and Washington and Lee graduate Tucker to form what’s now Moses Tucker Real Estate.

Moses Tucker’s efforts to bring residents downtown included development of the Arkansas Capital Commerce Center in 2002, the First Security Center in 2004, 300 Third Street in 2007 and the River Market Tower in 2009. The company has worked with hotel developer John McKibbon to bring four new hotels to the River Market District.

Moses Tucker later expanded its efforts to Main Street to transform the 1912 Blass Building into the Mann on Main. The popular Italian restaurant Bruno’s Little Italy was reborn in the complex.

Farther south on Main Street, Moses Tucker has joined forces with Cromwell Architects Engineers to bring life back to the building that housed the Arkansas Democrat from 1916 until the early 1930s. The building, designed by noted Arkansas architect Charles Thompson, later housed a furniture store and the Lido Cafeteria. The top floors have been vacant for more than 25 years.

In the River Market District, the company partnered with the Central Arkansas Library System to develop the Arcade Building, which is home to the upscale restaurant Cache, the Ron Robinson Theater and other offices and businesses.

On East Capitol, Moses Tucker tore down the former Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co. headquarters and replaced it with the MacArthur Commons apartment complex. In November, the 59-unit, three-story building was sold for $10.5 million to MacArthur Commons LLC, led by David R. Thompson. The project, which was completed in September, was already 97 percent occupied at the time of the sale.

During the summer, Moses Tucker broke ground on the 36-unit Legion Village apartment complex on nearby Rock Street with additional plans to renovate the former M.M. Eberts American Legion Post building and an adjoining structure.

In October, Moses Tucker announced that it had teamed up with the Cromwell firm to develop a 3.5-acre area east of Interstate 30, near the Heifer International headquarters. Cromwell plans to transform a 50,000-square-foot warehouse into a mixed-use development and add 20,000 square feet to the building. About a third of the facility will house Cromwell’s Little Rock offices. Moses Tucker will handle the management and leasing of the complex. For now, the area, which already includes Lost Forty Brewing and Rock Town Distillery, is being billed as East Village.

“Forty years ago, when we built our building at Markham and Spring streets, the area was in need of a major redevelopment effort,” says Dan Fowler, Cromwell’s director of finance and business development. “Our building, along with investments in the Camelot Hotel, Excelsior, Stephens Building and Capital Hotel, created a vibrant district within the core of our city. We hope to do the same east of I-30.”

Cromwell CEO Charley Penix says that the addition of restaurants and apartments to the area could lead to “the new River Market.”

Moses also envisions an area that mixes retail, restaurants and residents, leading to activity 24 hours a day.

“In northwest Arkansas, you have had the Walton family and the Tyson family provide direction and vision,” Moses says. “We don’t have one dominant family here. But we do have a chance to be a great city. What we have to realize is that we’re not finished. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”

Moses also has turned his attention to the neighborhood where he’s having lunch on this day, which is now being called the Financial Quarter.

Almost 5,000 people work in the high-rise Simmons Tower, Regions Center, Union Plaza, Bank of America Plaza and Stephens Building. A large number of those workers drive into downtown Little Rock five mornings a week, walk from parking garages into their buildings and don’t come out again until walking back to their cars at the end of the day for the drive to places such as Bryant, Conway and Lonoke.

Moses Tucker took a first step with almost $1 million in improvements to the first and second floors of the Regions Center, which it manages.

A volunteer design cooperative known as studioMAIN has worked for more than a year on a plan to revitalize the Financial Quarter, which is bordered by Sixth Street on the south, the Arkansas River on the north, Main Street on the east and Broadway on the west.

Both Jimmy Moses and Rett Tucker describe the neighborhood as “tired” and in need of renovation.

Once lively bank lobbies are now empty as more people do their banking online.

The first phase of a three-part plan for the Financial Quarter will include a so-called pop-up event designed to show what the neighborhood could be, better branding and the addition of street furniture, painted crosswalks, hanging banners and landscaping.

The second phase will involve the redesign of existing plazas and bank lobbies in an effort to draw people out of their offices for dining and shopping opportunities.

The third phase will include plans for building out the Financial Quarter, including the replacement of surface parking lots with high-rise housing projects and adjoining parking decks.

During a meeting of stakeholders last year, Moses recalled how desolate the River Market District once was and told those in attendance that the River Market area started with far fewer assets than the Financial Quarter.

Asked to list three top objectives for Little Rock during the next decade, Moses says:

— “Transforming the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. It needs to be to this city what Vanderbilt University is to Nashville. There’s no reason that UALR can’t be nationally recognized. To be a great city, Little Rock needs a great institution of higher education. Hiring the right person to succeed Joel Anderson as chancellor is critical to the future of this city. We must have someone who understands the role of an urban university and can build on what Joel has done.”

— “Continuing redevelopment of the city’s core. We’re creating a sense of place down here, and it’s important that we don’t lose momentum. Seeing what’s going on downtown has given people a sense of pride in the city. It’s time to accelerate that process.”

— “Building the brand of Little Rock. We need people across the country to recognize Little Rock as a city that’s on the right path. For instance, I like the fact that UALR is now simply branding its athletic teams as Little Rock. UALR has no meaning to people outside of Arkansas. Little Rock, however, means something.”

Moses is convinced that UALR needs a significant presence downtown. He thinks the university should find a way to partner with the Little Rock Technology Park, which is trying to develop a research-technology corridor along Main Street.

“If I were the new chancellor, the first directive I would issue would be that UALR must have a satellite campus downtown and that it must be aligned with the tech park,” Moses says. “Even if the project takes 20 years to complete, it’s important that we do it. We already have the law school, the Clinton School of Public Service and the Arkansas Studies Institute downtown. If we could somehow add more UALR departments to the mix, we could have a real intellectual powerhouse that would attract more young, talented people to live downtown. There are certain things that we simply have to do if we’re going to be great as a city, and this is one of them.”

Moses realizes that a new generation is taking on leadership roles in Little Rock. His son Chris was named the president of Moses Tucker in 2013. Chris Moses graduated from Little Rock Central High School and then received a bachelor’s degree in real estate finance from Arizona State University in 2001. After working for Moses Tucker in Little Rock and for firms in Orange County, Calif., and Atlanta, Chris Moses received his master’s degree in real estate development from Clemson University in 2011. He returned to Moses Tucker after earning the advanced degree.

Despite having his son as president of the company, Jimmy Moses has no plans to slow down.

He told an interviewer in 2014: “I’d like to keep doing this for another 25 years.”

Two years after making that comment, he’s busier than ever.

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