The primary mission on the last Saturday in June was to make it to the Purple Hull Pea Festival and World Championship Rotary Tiller Race in Emerson so Paul Austin and I would have plenty to talk about on our next segment of “Chewing The Fat With Rex And Paul” on 88.3 FM in Little Rock.
Of course, Paul and I couldn’t be satisfied with just that.
Paul had never been to the original Burge’s in Lewisville (an establishment I frequented years ago when I was the sports editor of the Arkadelphia newspaper and would make regular trips south to Louisiana Downs), and neither of us had ever had dinner in Garland (some call it Garland City), the Catfish Capital of Southwest Arkansas.
We headed west on U.S. Highway 82 from Magnolia to Texarkana.
I like this area deep in south Arkansas, having grown up in Arkadelphia while making frequent trips to Magnolia for athletic events at either Magnolia High School or what’s now Southern Arkansas University. Arkadelphia’s Badgers and Magnolia’s Panthers were in the same district. SAU was in the old Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference with Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University. So we would drive to Magnolia often for football and basketball games, always stopping just off the downtown square for a meal at the Chatterbox and a warm greeting from the owner, Mr. Duke.
“Relative isolation and transportation difficulties have long been a problem for Columbia County,” my friend Mike McNeill writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Columbia is the only one of Arkansas’ 75 counties not situated on a river. The county’s creeks and bayous were more of an impediment than an aid to early travelers because they were too narrow and shallow to support water traffic. The swampy conditions of the upper Dorcheat Bayou in Columbia County did not allow for practical use by boats. Rain made travel conditions worse. Only the arrival of railroads made it possible for Columbia County residents to enjoy a dependable year-round transportation option.”
The first railroad to enter the county was the St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas Railroad in the fall of 1882. That railroad led to the creation of the towns of McNeil and Waldo.
“Cut off from the planned railroad, civic leaders in Magnolia resolved to have a spur line built to the city,” McNeill writes. “They pledged $6,000 in cash and property during a single meeting in 1881 and eventually raised more than $20,000 toward this goal. The branch was completed in 1883. Growth of railroads was also responsible for the creation of two Columbia County communities that remain incorporated today, Emerson and Taylor. The Louisiana & North West Railroad was built between Magnolia and points in Louisiana in 1899. The town of Emerson in the southeastern part of the county was created and later incorporated in 1905. There was a post office in Taylor years before the Louisiana & Arkansas Railroad was built through the southwestern portion of the county in the 1880s. The town was incorporated in 1913.”
Cotton and corn were the cash crops in the county. A group of businessmen formed the Magnolia Cotton Mill in 1928, and it was the county’s largest manufacturer for many years. True prosperity, however, came with the discovery of oil and gas fields in the late 1930s.
McNeill notes that the “employment situation had changed so drastically by 1942 that County Judge J.B. McClurkin issued a proclamation saying that all able-bodied men who did not have jobs would be arrested for vagrancy. … Magnolia grew steadily after World War II with the city’s population more than doubling between 1940 and 1960. Housing construction filled in the two miles between downtown Magnolia and the SAU campus to the north. This period also witnessed the construction of Magnolia’s two tallest buildings, the five-story McAlester Building and the five-story Magnolia Inn.”
There was even airline passenger service from 1953-62 from Trans-Texas Airways before production from the oil and gas wells began to decline and population growth slowed.
“While the importance of oil and gas drilling declined, a new natural resources industry arrived in the mid-1960s as chemical companies discovered the high bromine content of brine located thousands of feet beneath the earth’s surface,” McNeill writes. “Bromine is an element used in numerous chemical and manufacturing processes. On Jan. 18, 1966, Dow Chemical Co. broke ground for a bromine plant four miles west of Magnolia. A second plant soon followed (a joint venture of Ethyl Chemical Corp. and Great Lakes Chemical). Both plants were consolidated under the ownership of Albemarle Corp., which owns dozens of brine wells and pipelines that crisscross Columbia and Union counties.”
The timber industry also remains important in the area. We passed Deltic’s sawmill just south of Waldo on U.S. 82 before crossing the Dorcheat Bayou and heading into Lafayette County.
Lafayette is one of the state’s smallest counties from a population standpoint, having fallen from 16,934 residents in the 1930 census to 7,645 residents in the 2010 census. Cotton had once been king here, but pine trees now cover most of the county. Many residents live in either Stamps (1,693) or Lewisville (1,280).
Stamps, the childhood home of Maya Angelou, was a lumber town. Early settlers built a sawmill there soon after the Civil War that later was acquired by the Bodcaw Lumber Co.
“The area did not begin to flourish, though, until the St. Louis Southwestern Railway — commonly known as the Cotton Belt — extended a line across Lafayette County in 1882,” writes Steve Teske for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Hardy James Stamps came to Lafayette County from Georgia in 1880 to operate the lumber mill. When a post office was established at the settlement surrounding the mill in 1888, it was named for Stamps. The first postmistress at that location was Ella Crowell, Stamps’ daughter. The Louisiana & Arkansas Railroad was incorporated in March 1898 by William Buchanan of the Bodcaw Lumber Co. The town was initially home to the principal shops of the railway. Crossing the Cotton Belt, it extended south to Springhill, La. In 1902, the line was built north to Hope.”
The Bodcaw Lumber Co.’s sawmill was among the largest mills for yellow pine in the world. Its mill pond, Lake June, covered almost 80 acres. There was a company store. The Bodcaw Bank opened in 1903, and a newspaper began in 1905.
“The lumber business played out, and Stamps’ businesses began to relocate,” Teske writes.
When the lumber mill closed, Lake June was donated to the city of Stamps. Surface rights were then leased to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, which has long managed the lake.
The Game and Fish Commission announced that a substantial renovation of the lake will begin this month. Lake June will be drained in an effort to restore spillway structures, shoreline and fishing habitat. The spillway has been undermined to the point that the lake doesn’t stay full during dry periods. While the lake is empty, biologists will eliminate the aquatic vegetation that has choked the shallow areas of the lake for years.
“This lake has provided great fishing opportunities for the citizens of Lafayette County for 100 years, and we intend to make it even better for the next 100 years,” says Andy Young, the commission’s fisheries biologist supervisor.
A brief boost for the area came when a successful oil well was drilled near Stamps in 1952. That same year, Arkansas Power & Light Co. (now Entergy Arkansas) spent $6 million to add a 135,000-kilowatt generator to its gas-fired electrical generation facility.
Nearby Lewisville was incorporated in 1850. A courthouse had been built there nine years earlier. Cotton was doing well in the area at the time, so much so that black slaves outnumbered free whites in the county in the 1850 and 1860 census.
A new courthouse was built at Lewisville in 1890. Later courthouses were constructed in 1904 and 1940. Lewisville has some beautiful old brick buildings, several of which are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Lafayette County was carved out of Hempstead County in 1827 with original borders being the Ouachita River on the east, Louisiana to the south, Hempstead County to the north and Texas on the west.
“The post-slavery era resulted in the dissolution of several huge plantations into small-acreage tracts owned and farmed by families,” Glynn McCalman writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “A few former slaves were included among the new landowners, though their share of the land was relatively small. … Land title abstracts of the era demonstrate the efforts of the large planters to retain their holdings with diminishing success. Families eagerly purchased, often with mortgages, small portions of the former plantations and sustained themselves with diversified production. Though cotton was the main cash crop, they also produced edible grains, hay for livestock, cane for sweetening and vegetable gardens.”
McCalman notes that farmers during most of the 1800s had “tried to rely on the Red River for heavy hauling, but they were hampered by the extensive and persistent logjam called the Great Raft. From time to time during the second half of the century, the raft was declared cleared, especially after the work of snagboat engineer Capt. Henry Shreve. But it continued to be a nemesis until the river was mostly replaced as a means of transportation by the railroad. Although the Cotton Belt rail system reduced the need from some retail stores in the county’s towns, better transportation increased the profitability of farming and timber harvesting. It also dramatically reduced travel time to Shreveport, Texarkana and elsewhere. Cotton was brought from the gins to the rails, and impressive sawmills rose by the tracks at Stamps, Frostville, Canfield, Arkana and other communities.”
Despite the county’s population losses, Burge’s in Lewisville is still going strong.
Alden Burge moved to Lewisville from Shreveport in 1953 to work in the oil business. He smoked turkeys in a backyard smokehouse on the weekends. On Friday nights in the fall when there were home football games, he would sell barbecued chickens, baked beans and slaw.
In 1962, Burge purchased a dairy bar near where Arkansas Highway 29 intersects with U.S. Highway 82. Barbecue, burgers and ice cream were on the menu. Barbecued goat, peppermint ice cream and even fireworks were sold for the Fourth of July.
In the 1970s, a Burge’s location was opened in the Heights neighborhood of Little Rock. It’s no longer owned by the Burge family but remains popular.
Here’s how Arkansas food writer Kat Robinson describes the offerings at Burge’s: “That smoked turkey is something that cannot be compared. The brine, the smoke, everything about the preparation of a Burge’s smoked turkey is meticulous — and the meat comes out so flavorful, it bears a resemblance to ham. Indeed many people I know — and I am one of them, imagine that — take their post-Thanksgiving or post-Christmas turkey carcass and utilize it for the seasoning in New Year’s Day peas. Salty, sweet, it’s addictive. … Turkey may be the overwhelming product Burge’s has given us (the website is smokedturkeys.com after all), but there’s so much more on the menu.
“I think the Lewisville location does the better burger, but that comes more from its dairyette roots. Likewise, I think the better ice cream is served in Lewisville. But the Little Rock location does have pimento cheese in its cooler and almost always has fried pies in the heated case.”
In the next installment, we’ll head west into Miller County.