The troops gathered at 8 a.m. on Good Friday in the parking lot of the Clinton Presidential Center along the banks of the Arkansas River in Little Rock.
The goal: To sample as much Delta barbecue as possible in one day with some catfish and tamales thrown in for good measure.
I was joined by Denver Peacock, Gabe Holmstrom, Jordan Johnson and Jason Parker for an excursion that would take us more than 400 miles and allow us to eat at 10 places before dusk. Yes, we did it all in one day.
We began with the fried catfish at the Wilson Café in the unique Arkansas community of Wilson in southern Mississippi County.
We warmed up for the barbecue part of the agenda at the Hog Pen along the Great River Road — U.S. Highway 61 — a couple of miles south of Osceola.
We then headed to Blytheville, the barbecue capital of Arkansas, to sample pig sandwiches (that’s what they call them in Blytheville) from five places — the Dixie Pig, the Kream Kastle, Penn’s, the trailer in the parking lot of the Hays store (that’s how everyone in Blytheville refers to it — I don’t think it has a formal name) and the Razorback carryout trailer.
The next barbecue sandwich was from Woody’s at the intersection of Arkansas Highway 14 and U.S. Highway 49 at Waldenburg, another east Arkansas dining hot spot.
We made our way from there to The Tamale Factory at Gregory in Woodruff County to visit with George Eldridge (best known as the owner of Doe’s in downtown Little Rock) while sampling tamales, fried shrimp and boiled shrimp. We had no room left for George’s steaks at that point.
Our final stop was at the legendary Bulldog in Bald Knob for strawberry shortcake, which is only served in the spring. Cars were lined up onto the highway that Friday night as people from all over White County waited to purchase shortcake.
In between all of the eating, we managed to:
— Walk around the former company town of Wilson
— Read the historic markers and drop by the museum on the courthouse square at Osceola
— Head out to the banks of the Mississippi River at Armorel
— Visit Dyess to check on the restoration work being done there by Arkansas State University
— Check out the beautiful Poinsett County Courthouse at Harrisburg
Back in January, the town of Wilson was featured in The New York Times due to the efforts of Gaylon Lawrence Jr. to restore it to its past glory.
“The little farm towns here in Delta cotton country spin by, each rusting grain silo and boarded-up discount store fading into the next,” Kim Severson wrote. “Then, seemingly out of nowhere, comes Wilson, a collection of Tudor-style buildings with Carrara marble on the bank counter, a French provincial house with Impressionist paintings hanging on the walls and air-conditioned doghouses in the yards. Wilson was once the most important company town in the South. It sits amid 62 square miles of rich farmland, most of which was once controlled by Lee Wilson, a man almost everyone called Boss Lee. He built his fortune off the backs of sharecroppers and brought Southern agriculture into the modern age.
“For 125 years, the Wilson family owned this town. It ran the store, the bank, the schools and the cotton gin. For a time, the Wilsons even minted their own currency to pay the thousands of workers who lived on their land. Bags of coins still sit in the company vault. After the town incorporated in the 1950s, a Wilson was always mayor. But now the town — home to 905 people — is under new management, which plans to transform the civic anachronism into a beacon of art, culture and education in one of the poorest regions of the state.”
Lawrence, a native of nearby Sikeston in the Missouri Bootheel, owns more than 165,000 acres of land in Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois.
He owns citrus groves in Florida.
He owns five banks.
He has the largest privately owned air conditioning distributor in the world.
In other words, Gaylon Lawrence Jr. has the wherewithal to make Wilson as good as he wants it to be.
Lawrence, who was described by Severson as a “can-do kind of man who prefers to check his fields and watch the sunset than speak with reporters,” bought the land from the Wilson family for an estimated $110 million in 2010.
Of the town of Wilson, he told the Times: “At first you are thinking, ‘How can I get this off my back?’ But then you look around and think how can you be a catalyst? I can’t really say I am the boss. I say I am here to help. This town has so much character we don’t have to make it up.”
The buildings on the Wilson square have been repainted, and the majestic hardwood groves (which include some of the largest cottonwood trees in Arkansas) have been cleaned up. A private school is planned along with a new building to house the Hampson collection of pre-Columbian pottery and other artifacts. Wilson will host British car shows and art shows in an attempt to attract visitors from Memphis, the Bootheel and northeast Arkansas.
In addition to sampling the excellent catfish at the Wilson Café, we visited with chef Joe Cartwright, whose food is attracting people from miles around. The recently reopened restaurant on the square serves lunch from Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. and serves dinner on Friday and Saturday nights. Friday nights feature fried catfish, shrimp, frog legs and oysters. Saturday is prime rib night.
Cartwright grew up at West Memphis and attended college at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, where he worked at Lazzari Italian Oven.
“I was in college for music education, and I started washing dishes at Lazzari,” Cartwright told an interviewer several years ago. “And then one night we were a man down on the line or something. This chef put me up on the line and one thing led to another, and I never really looked back. It got ahold of me, and it’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”
Cartwright later moved to Memphis, where he became the chef at Spindini on South Main Street and The Elegant Farmer.
The restaurant in Wilson reopened on Dec. 20.
Locals refer to the Wilson Café as The Tavern (and indeed Cartwright informed us that he has just received a wine and beer permit).
Cartwright even packs box lunches for farmers and construction crews (he’s hoping the construction of a steel mill just up the road at Osceola will help that part of the business), and he plans to offer fresh vegetables from the Wilson community garden during the summer. This is a quality of food you do not expect in a town this small.
We headed north on U.S. 61 after leaving Wilson. The plan was to begin the barbecue portion of the tour at Blytheville. That’s when we saw the Hog Pen on the right side of the road (the river side, in other words) south of Osceola. We decided to sample its barbecue, which was quite tasty. The piles of hickory out back let us know that this place takes its barbecue seriously. We ate outside on a picnic table. Inside, the walls feature memorabilia from Cortez Kennedy, who played his high school football in Wilson at Rivercrest High School and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame two years ago. Kennedy, who now lives in Florida, eats at the restaurant on visits home.
Kennedy played college football for the University of Miami and spent his entire pro career with the Seattle Seahawks. He participated in the Pro Bowl eight times, earning a spot in the game in just his second NFL season. He was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1990s. Kennedy was an iron man, completing seven seasons without missing a game and playing in at least 15 games 10 times during his career. He was just the 14th defensive tackle to make it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In the cotton country around Rivercrest High, which has a rich sports tradition, playing football was the thing to do.
“Where I grew up, there was nothing else to do,” Kennedy once said. “We used to throw rocks at each other for fun.”
The next stop was in downtown Osceola for a view of my favorite Arkansas courthouse. Until 1901, Osceola was the only county seat. Blytheville and Osceola then were named as dual county seats. The southern division courthouse at Osceola was built in 1912 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. It was designed in the classical revival style by John Gainsford and is known for its copper dome, its baked stone tiles and the fact that the first floor has no windows (in case the Mississippi River flooded).
Downtown Osceola was booming at the time of the courthouse’s construction. There were electric and water utilities, two ice plants, two bottling works, a wagon factory and even an opera house. Six passenger trains a day stopped at the St. Louis & San Francisco Railroad depot. The Osceola Times building, constructed in 1901, is still home to a newspaper that first was published in 1870. It’s the oldest weekly newspaper in eastern Arkansas.
We also read all of the downtown historical markers, which tell of famous musicians who once lived in the area and performed in the clubs along U.S. 61 (known as the Cotton Highway). We even went into the Mississippi County Historical Center and Museum. That facility is located in what was the Patterson Dry Goods Store. Fred Patterson purchased the lot that the building sits on for $250 in 1901 and built his store, which opened a year later. He purchased an adjoining lot in 1904 to construct another building for expanded operations. Patterson Dry Goods operated until 1987.
“The store was famous for cotton pick sacks, shoes and hats for men, women and children as well as work clothes,” the museum’s website states. “Through the years, Mr. Patterson’s store was the only place to purchase certain items. Customers came from not only the Osceola area but all of Mississippi County, surrounding counties and the Missouri Bootheel. The trademark of the store was shoes sitting outside at the entrance to announce the store was open. Fred Patterson may have had five or six styles outside at once, but they were never stolen. They were all for the same foot.
“Henry Patterson (Fred’s son) would have only a single shoe sitting out to indicate he was open for business. It is a practice continued today by the museum. The store became the loafing place for Henry’s retired contemporaries with time on their hands. The chairs around the potbellied stove held both men and women who managed to solve the problems of the world.”
The first stop in Blytheville was the Dixie Pig, the only Blytheville restaurant where we actually ate inside.
We picked up sandwiches from the other four establishments and took them out by the river behind the Nucor-Yamato plant at Armorel. We laid them out on the hood of the vehicle, sampled them and watched the barges move down the Mighty Mississippi while enjoying the nice spring weather.
Armorel was founded in 1899 by R.E.L. Wilson (Boss Lee). The name of the town represents Arkansas, Missouri and the first three initials of Wilson’s name.
The town is the home of the Armorel Planting Co., whose chairman is 82-year-old John Ed Regenold, the current chairman of the powerful Arkansas Highway Commission. Regenold had served on the Arkansas Economic Development Commission before being appointed to the Highway Commission in January 2005 by Gov. Mike Huckabee. Regenold also served for a number of years on the St. Francis Levee Board, which is in seven northeast Arkansas counties. Those familiar with the Delta understand just how powerful levee boards are.
Back in Blytheville, we drove around the downtown business district and the city’s older residential neighborhoods, which were filled with blooming azaleas and dogwood trees. Like many Delta towns, Blytheville has bled population in recent decades. It has gone from 24,752 residents in the 1970 census to 15,620 residents in the 2010 census. At its peak, Eaker Air Force Base employed 3,500 military and 700 civilian personnel. The base closed in 1992. Some of that economic blow was softened by the 1988 opening of Nucor-Yamato Steel (which expanded in 1992) and the 1992 opening of Nucor Steel Arkansas (known locally as Nucor Hickman).
Another bright spot was the 1976 opening by Mary Gay Shipley of the Book Rack. The store’s name was changed in 1994 to That Bookstore in Blytheville. Located in a 1920s building on Main Street, it gained a reputation of being one of the top independently owned bookstores in the country, attracting the likes of John Grisham, Pat Conroy and Bill Clinton to sign books. Shipley retired and sold the store to a young man named Grant Hill, who soon tired of running the business. Enter Blytheville native Chris Crawley.
Crawley had moved from Blytheville after high school, living in Wisconsin and California. He moved back to the city in 2012.
“Mary Gay has been like my big sister for about 30 years,” Crawley told the Courier News at Blytheville. “I kind of got the bug years ago watching Mary Gay. … This was like my playground. I would read whole books while in the store.”
In visiting with Shipley after his return to Blytheville, Crawley found out that she was “still so passionate about the store, and that passion was infectious. Once I came in the space, it was just so welcoming. We believed that the legacy was something that was valuable.”
He and partner Yolanda Harrison purchased the store from Hill late last year.
Leaving Blytheville behind schedule, we made our way to Dyess.
Dyess, Poinsett County, Woodruff County and the strawberries of Bald Knob will have to wait for Part Two.