Archive for the ‘Traveling Arkansas’ Category

Dogpatch country: Circa 2014

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014

For Arkansans of a certain age, Dogpatch USA comes to mind when Newton County is mentioned.

Dogpatch, some believed, was the thing that would turn this remote, lightly populated county into the center of tourism for Arkansas.

The online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture describes Newton County as “mountainous, rural and isolated. The land, once respected and protected by native Americans, has come full circle with a large portion being protected by the U.S. Department of the Interior as a wilderness area.”

The Buffalo River and Little Buffalo River flow through the county, which was part of Carroll County when that county was created in 1833 as part of the Arkansas Territory. Arkansas became a state three years later.

In late 1842, the Arkansas Legislature created a new county in the Ozarks and named it after a U.S. marshal, Thomas Willoughby Newton.

“After beginning his career as a mail carrier and serving as U.S. marshal for Arkansas, Newton was elected to serve in Congress after the resignation of Archibald Yell,” C.J. Miller writes for the state encyclopedia. “John Belleh’s house on Shop Creek was designated the county seat until the designation was given to Jasper in 1843. The county had 10 post offices by 1856. The terrain made the area unattractive to land speculators, which was encouraging to people who could not afford land in other parts of the state. A school opened at Mount Judea around 1860. Western Grove Academy opened in 1886. Hunting and small farms sustained the residents, and livestock grazed the rugged land. The difficulty in farming the rough terrain resulted in farms being located along the river.”

There were only 24 slaves in the county in the 1860 census. A strong Union sentiment was present in these hills, and that resulted in a base of ancestral Republicans who thrived in Newton County when there were few Republicans elsewhere in Arkansas. Indeed, when I attended the Newton County Elk Festival last month, I saw dozens of Republican lapel stickers being worn and none for Democratic candidates. Long before the rest of Arkansas began to go red politically, Newton County had plenty of people whose loyalties were with the GOP.

The Civil War split families. Guerrilla warfare was common, and some families lived in caves.

“The county produced two famous leaders, fighting for different causes,” Rose Lacy writes for the encyclopedia. “James Vanderpool was a Union hero who returned home in August 1865. John Cecil, the former sheriff of Newton County, was known for showing off his twin pearl-handled pistols he had worn as a guerrilla leader for the Confederacy. Newton County most supported the Union. However, while searching for Cecil in 1863, Union troops burned Jasper to the ground and moved their sympathizers to Springfield, Mo.”

By 1870, there were only seven black residents of Newton County.

Change came slowly.

“Smaller farms were prevalent, while larger farms existed near the rivers,” Miller writes. “Potatoes, apples and peaches supplemented the main crop, corn. Cotton provided the cash crop for the Buffalo River valley. Lumber camps developed. Whether for added income or personal use, the production of moonshine made use of the surplus corn. A legend was born as Beaver Jim Villines became known for his trapping ability. Visitors went to Marble Falls and Tom Thumb Spring for the water’s healing power.”

Newton County hit its population peak in 1900 with 12,538 residents. There were 8,330 residents in the 2010 census.

Zinc and lead mining occurred in the county early in the 20th century. The community of Ponca was named after the Ponca City Mining Co. of Oklahoma. There wasn’t a paved road in the county until 1951, when Arkansas Highway 7 was paved from Harrison to Jasper.

Dogpatch would change everything, Newton County residents thought.

Businessman Oscar Snow of Harrison came up with the idea for a major amusement park and bought a trout farm at Marble Falls from Albert Raney Sr. to serve as the site of what would become known as Dogpatch USA.

“Snow and nine other investors formed Recreation Enterprises Inc. and approached Bostonian Al Capp with the idea,” Russell Johnson writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Capp, who had rejected such offers in the past, agreed to be a partner in the enterprise. The partners acquired 1,000 acres. … Capp spoke at the groundbreaking on Oct. 3, 1967. The cost of the original construction was $1,332,000. The park originally featured the trout farm, buggy and horseback rides, an apiary, Ozark arts and crafts, gift shops, entertainment by Dogpatch characters and the park’s trademark railroad, the West Po’k Chop Speshul. Management added amusement rides in subsequent years.

“Many of the buildings in the park were authentic 19th-century log structures, purchased by board member James H. Schermerhorn. The logs in each building were numbered, cataloged, disassembled and reassembled at the park. In 1968, the first year of operation, general manager Schermerhorn reported that Dogpatch had 300,000 visitors. Admission was $1.50 for adults, half price for children. Al Capp’s son, Colin C. Capp, worked at the park that year and met and married Vicki Cox, the actress portraying Moonbeam McSwine.”

Real estate investor Jess Odom later bought controlling interest in the park. Odom added rides and campsites. He also hired former Gov. Orval Faubus as his general manager.

Odom’s financial downfall came in the early 1970s when he attempted to build a winter sports complex adjacent to the amusement park. There were warm winters, faulty snowmaking equipment, rising interest rates and a lack of interest in winter sports in the South.

“In order to keep the ski resort open, Odom used Dogpatch assets to secure loans at unfavorable interest rates,” Johnson writes. “Although Dogpatch made a profit in all but two years of operation, it could not overcome the burden of the Marble Falls debt. The city of Harrison rejected Odom’s proposals to refinance the debt with a bond issue, and plans to turn Dogpatch into a religious theme park called God’s Patch never advanced. … Dogpatch had its worst summer during the drought of 1980. Dogpatch declared bankruptcy in November 1980.”

A company headed by Wayne Thompson operated the park from 1981-87 before selling it to Melvyn Bell.

Bell, a Fort Smith native with an engineering degree from the University of Arkansas, was flying high in the 1980s. His company, Environmental Systems Co., generally was known as Ensco. It had a rare federal permit allowing it to destroy PCBs and other hazardous materials at an incinerator in El Dorado. The permit was obtained in 1981 after three years of public hearings. Only six commercial PCB incinerators were operating in the United States in the 1980s.

Bell had bought out his partners in the company in 1972. The company broke even or lost money until obtaining the federal permit. By 1986, there were revenues of $66.5 million at Ensco.

“I have no reason to do anything in the environment that’s wrong,” Bell told The Associated Press in early 1987. “In a state as small as Arkansas, or in a community as small as El Dorado, where 1 percent of that population works with me, it would be foolish to think that you could do anything wrong and not have that become immediately public.”

Bell gained widespread attention when he leased four of the bathhouses at Hot Springs from the National Park Service with plans to convert them into a restaurant, a bed-and-breakfast inn, a museum and a spa.

Other high-profile acquisitions by Bell included the Red Apple Inn near Heber Springs, a lodge on Lake Eufaula in Oklahoma, the Market Street Plaza shopping complex in west Little Rock, children’s radio station KPAL in Little Rock and Little Rock restaurants SOB, Alexander’s and the Heights Fish House.

He bought the Magic Springs amusement park at Hot Springs in addition to Dogpatch.

He even purchased the famed Belvedere Country Club at Hot Springs.

It all began going south for Bell following the stock market crash in October 1987. The value of his Ensco holdings fell from $42.3 million to $21.7 million in a two-month period. He had become highly leveraged with his myriad acquisitions. In a 1998 deposition, Bell said he was $5.6 million in debt.

I took my wife to the Red Apple Inn in 1990, remembering it as the grand resort that Little Rock insurance magnate Herbert Thomas had built. I was shocked to see it had fallen to Motel 6 status under Bell’s ownership. Fortunately, Dick and Patti Upton of Heber Springs later returned the Red Apple Inn to its past glory.

In November 2001, Bell was indicted by a federal grand jury for tax evasion. The trial was delayed repeatedly because of Bell’s health problems. The case was dismissed in May 2006. Bell died at age 68 in July 2006 of cancer.

The final summer season at Dogpatch had been in 1993.

Dogpatch briefly was back in the news in 2011 when Stewart Nance, Pruett Nance and Brent Baber (the Nances’ attorney) were awarded the Dogpatch property in circuit court. The Nances had brought a lawsuit following a 2001 accident in which Pruett Nance struck a steel cable while driving an ATV on the property.

Newton County’s hopes of attracting hundreds of thousands of people to an amusement park each year had ended. But something interesting has happened in a part of our state that some of us still think of as Dogpatch Country.

People ranging from Oklahoma oil and gas executives to Arkansas automobile moguls have built second homes there. Others with money rent cabins. There is, in fact, a bit of an upscale vibe.

Take the Floating Buffalo in Jasper, which can only be described as an upscale boutique. Or the adjacent Arkansas House, where one can purchase buffalo and elk burgers.

People with money to spend can be found in places such as the Nelms Gallery in downtown Jasper and Nick Bottini’s Low Gap Café, which is between Mount Sherman and Ponca.

Last Saturday night, folks crowded onto the large outdoor deck at the Low Cap Café, listening to live music.

“My grandfather and mother were full-blood Sicilian,” Bottini told Arkansas Living magazine. “I learned from them. … I studied five years at culinary school in New York. Then I went back to California, bounced around at various restaurants and resorts and eventually ended up in Arkansas after visiting relatives and falling in love with the state. Horseshoe Canyon Ranch is just up the road, and we are only a few miles from the Buffalo River.”

The restaurant is packed most weekends.

Horseshoe Canyon, the nationally recognized dude ranch operated by Barry and Amy Johnson, is one of those places that attract high-dollar tourists to the county. In addition to the families who spend the week there, the ranch has become a favorite spot for rock climbers from around the world.

Ponca-based Buffalo Outdoor Center also has gained a nationwide reputation. Mike Mills started Buffalo Outdoor Center as a canoe rental operation in 1976. The Buffalo River had been designated a national river just four years earlier. There are now modern log cabins and a lodge, zip lines and more.

There also are various artisanal products that come from Newton County. One example is the honey harvested by Eddie Watkins for his Buffalo River Honey Co. I don’t claim to be a honey connoisseur, but it’s the best I’ve ever tasted.

“We operate only 100 hives,” Watkins says. “Our bees harvest nectar from wildflowers untouched by chemical pesticides. Each year our honey, like fine wine, varies according to the flower blooms and the impact of the seasons. One thing remains constant: The character of our honey is unlike any you have ever tasted. You’ve not tasted pure wild honey until you taste our honey.

“We honor and practice our ancient craft much as beekeepers have through the centuries. Our bees have bred with wild strains. We avoid chemicals and manage pests with essential oils. Tasting is believing. All natural, totally wild honey is a revelation. From the first explosion of the floral scents and tastes to the finishing notes of our honey, it’s an unparalleled experience of complexity and nuance. The key is staying all natural. That’s when the floral gifts of our pristine wilderness areas come through.”

No, tourists aren’t flocking to get on rides at an amusement park in Newton County. That effort couldn’t sustain itself. But wild, wonderful Newton County appears to have found its niche. For those who love mountain scenery, good music, great food and friendly people, there are few better places to spend a weekend or longer.

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A new owner for That Bookstore

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

Here’s how the entry in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture begins for That Bookstore in Blytheville: “With its straightforward name and the legacy of a legendary proprietress, That Bookstore in Blytheville might be Arkansas’ best-known bookstore. In the early 1970s, Mary Gay Shipley, then a schoolteacher, saw a void in her hometown and opened a paperback exchange store affiliated with a Memphis group called The Book Rack. The bookstore has remained at 316 W. Main St. since 1976. Though locals called it ‘that bookstore’ for years, the store did not become officially known as That Bookstore in Blytheville until 1994.”

Back in February of 2012, I thought That Bookstore was a goner.

Shipley had decided, just prior to her 68th birthday, to retire. She was looking for a buyer, and I doubted a buyer could be found for such a business in a struggling Delta town.

In 2009, That Bookstore had been nominated for the Publishers Weekly Bookseller of the Year award. Shipley wrote in her submission to the magazine: “I opened the bookstore in my hometown of Blytheville because I saw a need. With only a tiny library and no place to buy books, a bookstore that would encourage reading and book conversations became my dream. My goal was, and still is, to create a good bookstore, not merely a store good enough for Blytheville, but a good bookstore. … TBIB understands that we sell a product offered free only a block away at the public library and often available at Walmart for about the same price we pay our suppliers. As a result, we are heavily dependent on customer service. But what is good customer service? For TBIB, customer service is about more than pleasantries and waiting on people immediately. It is about more than knowing our products. For us, service centers on knowing our customers.

“Books are very personal, and our business is to get to know our customers and embrace their reading choices and event interests. We serve with a positive mindset, and no matter who the bookseller might be, our customers know they are always speaking to another book lover.”

Shipley told Dan Broun for a 2008 publication that Broun wrote on the creative economy in Arkansas: “We’re still in business because of John Grisham.”

That Bookstore was among a handful of stores to have Grisham, an Arkansas native, for a signing following the publication of his first novel. He rewarded the store by returning time after time through the years for book signings.

Broun wrote: “When most authors announce their book tours, you can usually guess the stops: the big cities, of course, like New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles, and perhaps some college towns with literary bents like Charlottesville, Ann Arbor or Berkeley. So you might be surprised to find your favorite author scheduling a stop in little Blytheville.”

In 2008, an Associated Press travel writer listed That Bookstore among nine destination bookstores in the country, putting it in the company of The Strand in New York.

That same year, Main Street Arkansas named That Bookstore in Blytheville as its Main Street Merchant of the Year.

AY magazine’s list of Arkansas’ 12 most powerful women had Shipley on it.

How on earth, I wondered at the time, would we find someone with the business savvy, determination and marketing ability of Mary Gay Shipley to run a small business in downtown Blytheville?

She said she would part with the 2,400-square-foot building for just $35,000. Shipley also said at the time that she had spoken to Grisham and that he had agreed to “continue to support the store with the new owner.”

In November 2012, Shipley announced that there was a new owner — a 22-year-old nonfiction writer from Mountain Home named Grant Hill.

Hill loves books. He loves writing. But the pressures of running a small business proved daunting for such a young man.

“I had been talking to my folks and doing the math — and checking my blood pressure — and came to the conclusion that I needed to look for a way to, in a sense, minimize any damage to the bookstore and my own health,” Hill told the Courier News at Blytheville in a frank interview in December of last year. “I hadn’t really even told anybody that I wanted to sell the business, and Chris Crawley came in like two days later. Chris and I have had a working relationship since I moved here, and he has done work with the bookstore and me. He said, ‘I’d like to talk to you about us possibly working out a deal to buy the bookstore.’”

Within two weeks of that conversation, Crawley and attorney Yolanda Harrison had purchased That Bookstore in Blytheville.

“I talked with Mary Gay about it, and she really understood that my goal was to see this store succeed, for the community not to lose the store, however that had to happen,” Hill said. “I knew it had to be someone else who would be more prepared, and particularly since it’s a couple, which doubles the amount of work that can get done. I was always committed to seeing the store succeed. I knew with Chris and Yolanda that I had found someone who could do that. That’s why we moved so quickly.”

On Good Friday, as a group of us ate our way through the Arkansas Delta (see the previous two Southern Fried posts), we stopped by the store.

We walked in, and Crawley immediately called out to us, “Come on in and make yourself at home. We have some fresh coffee on.”

It was almost as if Mary Gay Shipley were back in charge.

I introduced myself to Crawley and learned his story.

Here’s part of that story in his own words: “I am a Blythevillian. My birth was at Dr. Fairley’s clinic in Luxora. My parents were Sol and Girtie Crawley. They were sharecroppers, and later my father built houses for people who could afford them. I had eight siblings — five sisters and three brothers. I have one sister left in Milwaukee and one sister in Blytheville. I’m the last brother standing.

“I attended Robinson Elementary School, Lange Elementary School and an assortment of schools as my mother’s Alzheimer’s and dementia became more than anyone should have to bear. At age 11, I went to Wrightsville School for Boys before the foster care system relegated me to Poplar Grove near my school in Marvell, where I graduated with honors. From frequent visits to see my family in Blytheville from the time before I was 16 in early 1976 until October 2012 when I was 52, the Book Rack and later That Bookstore in Blytheville figured strongly in my development and focus.

“Prominent in my memory are Mrs. Harrison, my first-grade teacher; Mrs. Wiggs, my fifth-grade teacher; Mrs. Butler, my seventh-grade teacher; Mrs. Rowland, my junior high school principal; Mrs Nichols, a high school teacher; and Mary Gay Shipley, the owner of the bookstore. There were other teachers and books. Together and collectively, they were the cause of it all.”

Crawley said he “took the first thing smoking” out of Arkansas the day after his high school graduation at Marvell. He moved to Milwaukee. He attended Marquette University and later graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Crawley went on to obtain a master’s degree from Cardinal Stritch University, a small Catholic school at Milwaukee. He did employment policy, staffing and technology work in Milwaukee before moving to Los Angeles to work as a talent manager. After three strokes due to toxic black mold infestation, Crawley moved home to Blytheville.

“I came back to Blytheville to die, but God had other plans for me,” he said.

Books always provided a refuge for Crawley.

“My love affair with books began at an early age,” he said. “Reality was sometimes bleak and seemingly proscribed. I loved books because they gave me options. They piqued my interests. Even when I was avoiding school, I could often be found reading one of my favorite books. Even in my young teens, I thought owning a bookstore would be a little piece of heaven. … I see the bookstore as a mechanism to uplift the town’s spirit.”

Crawley described himself as a “resurrection, restoration and renovation project inspired by God. I want to be a resurrection, restoration and renovation project for That Bookstore in Blytheville and the surrounding communities. I want to improve the look of the store inside and out. I want to increase the inventory, expand product offerings beyond books, bring back the high-quality authors for book signings, conduct new author forums, reintroduce national book tours to Blytheville, present live music, host book and poetry clubs, grow the event calendar, have children’s reading hours, rebuild the website, increase the level of social media interaction and more.”

It’s an ambitious agenda for a man who thought he was coming home to die.

“I want to make the bookstore a place where people will visit and say, ‘That Book in Blytheville is wonderful. It’s more than just a bookstore.’”

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Arkansas Delta food tour: Part Two

Thursday, April 24th, 2014

This post picks up where we left off in Part One with the Good Friday food tour of the Arkansas Delta. You’ll recall that I was joined by Jason Parker, Jordan Johnson, Gabe Holmstrom and Denver Peacock. We left Little Rock at 8 a.m. We were back by 8:30 p.m. In less than 13 hours, we covered more than 400 miles and made 10 food stops. We ate so much barbecue — all of it good — that at times we were afflicted by what we called the “meat sweats.” When we left you at the end of Part One, we had departed Blytheville and were headed for Dyess in the southern part of Mississippi County.

It was quiet at Dyess on Good Friday afternoon.

We pulled up to the Dyess Colony administration building to view the work being done there. A few years ago, Arkansas State University and the National Trust for Historic Preservation partnered with the city of Dyess to begin promoting the heritage of Dyess Colony. The renovation of the 1934 administration building is almost complete, and work continues on the façade of the adjoining theater (the rest of the building is gone), which was built in 1940.

We looked through the front window of the administration building and could see that some interpretive displays are already in place. I can’t wait for the day when buses out of Memphis are filled with tourists wanting to learn more about the place where Johnny Cash grew up. For the first time, they will have somewhere to go at Dyess. Funds for the restoration effort have been received from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council, the annual Johnny Cash Music Festival and other sources.

What was once only a dream is close to becoming a reality in this remote corner of northeast Arkansas.

“The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as president in 1932 led to new programs that worked to pump life into the nation’s economy, especially in places like Arkansas, which was among the states hardest hit,” Nancy Hendricks writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Such agencies as the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration tried to ease the poverty of destitute farmers and sharecroppers. William Reynolds Dyess, a Mississippi County plantation owner, was Arkansas’ first WPA administrator. He suggested an idea to Harry Hopkins, special adviser to Roosevelt, in which tenant farmers could have a chance to own their own land. FERA would purchase 16,000 acres of uncleared bottomland in Mississippi County, which was rich and fertile though also swampy and snake infested, and would open the land, with $3 million in federal aid, as a resettlement colony to homesteading families, who would each have to clear about 30 acres of land for cultivation.”

Almost 1,300 men, whose names were taken from relief rolls across Arkansas, began construction of the colony in May 1934.

“In the autumn of 1934, the first of about 500 families arrived and began clearing the land,” Hendricks writes. “They cut down trees and blasted stumps to farm cotton, corn and soybeans, along with maintaining a pasture for livestock. In time, along with the administration building, the town center included a community bank, beauty salon/barbershop, blacksmith shop, café, cannery, cotton gin, feed mill, furniture factory, harness shop, hospital, ice house, library, theater, newspaper, post office, printing shop, service station/garage, sorghum mill and school.”

In June 1936, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Dyess. She gave a speech and ate supper at the café.

Ray Cash, Carrie Rivers Cash and their children were among the five families selected to move to Dyess in 1936 from Cleveland County in the pine woods of south Arkansas. Their son, listed as J.R. in his high school yearbook, graduated from Dyess High School in 1950. He was the class vice president.

Members of the Cash family have helped with restoration of the family home, which is several miles from the administration building. Furnishings have been gathered based on descriptions given by family members. The home, which was in danger of falling in just more than a year ago, has been completely renovated, down to the wooden walls and linoleum floors.

After our visit to Dyess, we moved on to Poinsett County, which includes the incorporated towns of Harrisburg, Marked Tree, Trumann, Lepanto, Tyronza, Weiner, Fisher and Waldenburg.

Like many Delta counties, the high-water mark as far as population for Poinsett County came in the 1950 census prior to the widespread mechanization of agriculture. There were 39,311 people in the county that year. By the 2010 census, the county’s population had fallen to 24,583.

Harrisburg has been the county seat since 1856. The town was named after Benjamin Harris, who gave the land where the courthouse was built and was the son of the first county judge.

During the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, a large part of what’s now eastern Poinsett County sunk, resulting in what locals simply refer to as “the sunken lands.”

Poinsett County was harder hit by the Great Flood of 1927 than any other Arkansas county. More than 200,000 acres were covered by water at one point. Thousands of sharecroppers were forced to flea from the lowlands to Crowley’s Ridge.

During World War II, there were German prisoner of war camps at Harrisburg and Marked Tree.

At Harrisburg, we circled the square and looked over the courthouse and the newspaper office that houses the Modern News. Both buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. The courthouse, designed in the classical revival style by Pine Bluff architect Mitchell Selligman, was built in 1917.

The next stop was tiny Waldenburg, which has one of the best food intersections in Arkansas where Arkansas Highway 14 and U.S. Highway 49 meet.

There’s the D-Shack, a dairy bar with great hamburgers.

There’s Crossroads Country Café, where I had a nice lunch back in the fall.

And there’s the original Josie’s, where I’ve enjoyed fine steaks on Saturday nights through the years following afternoon college football games in Jonesboro. There has been a better-known, bigger Josie’s on the banks of the White River in Batesville since 2004, serving lunch Tuesday through Friday and dinner on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. But the original Josie’s (dinner only on weekends) is in Waldenburg and has long been a favorite in the late fall and winter for those who flock to the duck camps in the area.

I remember stopping at Josie’s with my youngest son following an Arkansas State football game several years ago. It was during duck season. He looked around the big room and whispered to me, “We’re the only ones in here not wearing camouflage.”

The fourth dining spot at the intersection is the trailer from which the town’s mayor, William “Woody” Wood, sells barbecue. That’s where we stopped on Good Friday afternoon.

Woody and his wife Cecelia began selling barbecue in 1985 in the months when things were slow for Woody’s crop-dusting service. There was such a demand, not only for the smoked meats but also for Woody’s sauces and rubs, that the couple began selling barbecue on a full-time basis in 1992. Woody’s sauces and rubs are now available across the state. He also caters.

The stand in Waldenburg — there are a couple of picnic tables to eat on — is open on most Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

From Waldenburg, we drove south on U.S. 49 to Woodruff County, which is among the state’s smallest counties from a population standpoint (Calhoun County in south Arkansas is the least populated county, in case you’re wondering). The population in Woodruff County fell from 22,682 in the 1930 census to just 7,260 in the 2010 census. Famous natives of Woodruff County include Sister Rosetta Tharpe of Cotton Plant, bluesman Peatie Wheatstraw (his real name was William Bunch) of Cotton Plant, football star Billy Ray Smith of Augusta, high school coach Curtis King of Augusta and high school coach Joe Hart of McCrory.

Denver Peacock hails from McCrory, so we had to drive through downtown before heading a bit south to Gregory to visit with George Eldridge at his Tamale Factory, which is a restaurant in the barn between the Eldridge family home and the Eldridge family cemetery.

George is best known these days as the owner of Doe’s Eat Place in downtown Little Rock, but The Tamale Factory on his family land (where the tamales for Doe’s are made and where dinner is served on Friday and Saturday nights) is a labor of love for him.

In a highly positive review of Doe’s last week, the Arkansas Times summed up George’s career this way: “Veteran restaurateur George Eldridge (chronologically: Band Box, Sports Page, Buster’s, Doe’s, Blues City Café in Memphis, The Tamale Factory in Gregory) loved the original Doe’s in Greenville, Miss., and worked a deal to open the world’s second Doe’s on West Markham a little west of the Little Rock Police Department headquarters. Eldridge, like many high-profile Arkansans, was buddies with the governor who would become president, and during the 1992 campaign the famed Rolling Stone interview with Bill Clinton was conducted at Doe’s. Bill has been back, and the stories and pictures live on (check the Annie Leibovitz shot of Eldridge with chef Lucille Robinson before the inaugural ball).”

We had tamales at Gregory, of course. We had fried shrimp and boiled shrimp. We hadn’t saved room for George’s steaks.

We did, however, save room for one last stop, the Bulldog in Bald Knob in neighboring White County, where Denver’s parents had met decades ago.

Bald Knob was named for the outcropping of stone that was a landmark in the region. Development in the area took off with the completion of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad in 1872. The bald knob was quarried for railroad bed ballast. The quarry also furnished ballast for Jay Gould’s Bald Knob & Memphis Railroad. In the 1920s, it furnished the stone used to build some of the buildings on the Rhodes College campus in Memphis (which ranks among the most beautiful college campuses in America).

William Leach of the White County Historical Society explains the importance of the strawberry to Bald Knob: “The sandy, upland soil was ideal for the fruit, which was introduced in neighboring Judsonia in the 1870s. The first strawberry association in Bald Knob was organized in 1910. In 1921, Benjamin Franklin Brown, June ‘Jim” Collison and Ernest R. Wynn organized The Strawberry Co. They built the longest strawberry shed in the world, a three-quarter-mile structure parallel to the tracks of the Missouri Pacific Railroad (now Union Pacific).

“In the peak year of 1951, Bald Knob growers sold $3.5 million worth of strawberries. Bald Knob became the Strawberry Capital of the World, which described the city until the 1960s when berries ceased to be a major crop because of changing market and labor conditions.”

Though raising strawberries is no longer a top industry in the area, the tradition of strawberry shortcakes at the Bulldog continues each spring. People drive from miles around when the word gets out: “The shortcakes are here.”

There was a traffic jam in front of the restaurant last Friday night.

It was time to get back to Little Rock.

Ten food stops down. And dreams of doing it all over again next spring.

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The great Arkansas Delta food tour

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

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.

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Texarkana: Twice as nice

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

I wrote a newspaper column recently about one of the state’s famous former high school football coaches — Robert E. “Swede” Lee of Arkansas High at Texarkana — and it got me to thinking about that city on the Arkansas-Texas border. You know, the place where the big water tank along Interstate 30 proclaims that it’s ”twice as nice.”

Writing that column made me hungry for lunch at Bryce’s Cafeteria.

And it made me hungry for supper at the Cattleman’s Steak House on State Line Avenue.

I grew up at Arkadelphia, about halfway between Little Rock and Texarkana. Our trips for shopping, dinner and sports events generally were to Little Rock or Hot Springs. But just for a change of pace, my parents occasionally would take us to Texarkana, where we would eat at the former Bryce’s location downtown.

Years later, Texarkana played a role in our oldest son getting potty trained. Smart, high-strung boys can be slow to get potty trained. Our son loved trains, and my mother came up with a plan.

She told her grandson that if he would “take care of business” on his end, she would take him for a ride on a real train.

It worked.

We dropped our son off in Arkadelphia, and my mother later reported that he had a difficult time going to sleep the night prior to the train trip. You can hear the Union Pacific trains crossing the Ouachita River at night from our family home. Each time Austin would hear a train, he would pop up and ask his grandmother: “Is that ours? Did we miss it.”

My mother and Austin boarded the Amtrak train the next day at Arkadelphia and took it only as far as Texarkana. My father raced down Interstate 30 in his Oldsmobile so he would be at the station to meet them. He picked them up, and the three of them went to Bryce’s to eat. Austin fell asleep within minutes of leaving the Bryce’s parking lot and slept all the way back to Arkadelphia.

Downtown Texarkana was a booming place when I was a child. Those were the days before restaurants and retailers moved out to Interstate 30. Shoppers from southwest Arkansas, east Texas, northwest Louisiana and southeast Oklahoma flocked to Texarkana and places such as the Belk-Jones and Dillard’s department stores.

The first Belk store was opened in 1888 by William Henry Belk in Monroe, N.C. By 1908, the company had moved its headquarters to Charlotte and built its flagship store downtown. In 1921, the Belk family began forming partnerships in various markets. This resulted in hyphenated store names and more than 300 legal entities. Earl Jones Sr., who had been born in North Carolina in 1916, moved to Texarkana in October 1947 to open the Belk-Jones store. He later developed motels such as the Kings Row Inn and The Town House. His son, Earl Jones Jr., is a former state representative who went on to become one of the best-known lobbyists at the state Capitol.

Meanwhile, William T. Dillard (who had been born in 1914 at Mineral Springs) had opened his first store at Nashville in February 1938 under the name T.J. Dillard’s, the same name as his father’s store at Mineral Springs. He sold the Nashville store in 1948 and moved his family to Texarkana after purchasing a 45 percent interest in Wooten’s Department Store. In 1949, less than two years after Earl Jones Sr. had opened Belk-Jones, Dillard purchased the remaining 60 percent of Wooten’s. He expanded to Magnolia in 1955, Tyler in 1957 and Tulsa in 1960.

Dillard’s move into Little Rock retailing followed with the purchase of Pfeifer’s in 1963 and Blass in 1964. The Dillard family, which had moved from Texarkana to Tulsa in 1960, moved to Little Rock to stay in 1964.

The late 1940s and the 1950s were times of steady growth for Texarkana.

“In the early 20th century, the population of the Texas side outpaced the Arkansas side, though both parts of the city grew and prospered until the Great Depression of the 1930s,” Nancy Hendricks writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The city’s economy rebounded with the coming of World War II in the 1940s, primarily because of the creation of the Red River Army Depot and the Lone Star Ammunition Plant. Along with being an important junction of railroad lines, Texarkana built a strong economy based on timber and minerals along with rockwool (a substance used for insulation and filtering), sand and gravel and crops such as corn, cotton, pecans, rice and soybeans. … By 1952, the population was 40,490 with the Arkansas side reporting almost 16,000. By 1960, the Arkansas side had reached almost 20,000 and the total population of the city was just over 50,000.”

The city has continued to experience consistent, if not spectacular, growth. The Arkansas side had a population of 29,919 in the 2010 census. The Texas side population was 37,103 in the 2010 census.

“The State Line Post Office and Federal Building at 500 State Line Ave. is the only U.S. post office situated in two states, and Texarkana boasts that it is the most photographed courthouse in the country after the Supreme Court in Washington,” Hendricks writes. “The building, constructed in 1932-33, features walls of Arkansas limestone and a base of Texas pink granite. It houses separate ZIP codes. A photographer’s island allows people to take pictures of subjects straddling the two states.”

The area received widespread publicity during the 1992 presidential campaign because Ross Perot was a Texarkana native and Bill Clinton was a native of nearby Hope.

The year after that election, Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa described the Texarkana area this way in the “Almanac of American Politics”: “Texarkana doesn’t look like the political center of anywhere. It is an old city, with a population of 50,000 and a rural and small town hinterland somewhat larger. Its neat grid streets are noteworthy chiefly because the city, as its name suggests, crosses the Texas-Arkansas state line; the downtown post office straddles the boundary, with the west wing serving Texarkana, Texas, and the east wing serving Texarkana, Ark. Yet this small city and its surroundings produced not one but two presidential candidates in 1992. … Did the particular atmosphere of the Texarkana area have an effect on these men’s politics? One can guess that it did. For both, by their own accounts, were taught to believe that they had obligations to those less fortunate, even while they were obliged themselves to work hard and achieve in school to get ahead.

“Texarkana was populist country then, a place where farmers producing cotton and crops felt themselves at the mercy of Dallas cotton brokers, Wall Street financiers and railroad magnates who were grabbing all the gains of their hard work. Outside Texarkana, in a landscape littered with small houses and lazily winding rivers, there was little protection from the sun and wind, and precious little ornament; the reservoirs and motels and shopping centers one sees there now are signs of an affluence still only beginning to penetrate what was a zone of subsistence if not poverty. … The culture here was always traditional: This is an area of heavy churchgoing and proud patriotism. Traces of that can be seen in Perot’s military bearing and Clinton’s religious cadences.”

During his presidential campaign, the billionaire Perot was asked his favorite restaurant in the world.

“Bryce’s in Texarkana,” he replied.

Bryce’s was founded in 1931 by Bryce Lawrence and has been family owned and operated since then. The Chicago Tribune once declared that Bryce’s “has better food for the money than any place on earth.”

Another Texarkana dining tradition is the Cattleman’s Steak House on the Arkansas side of State Line Avenue, which was opened by Roy Oliver in August 1964 when State Line was still a two-lane road and wooded land surrounded the restaurant. The Cattleman’s is still owned by the Oliver family and has an old-school menu that even includes calf fries and turkey fries among the appetizers (if you have to ask, don’t order them. I’m reminded of what it says next to “mountain oysters” on the menu of the Big Texan at Amarillo: “If you think this is seafood, you would prefer the shrimp.”)

That appetizer menu also has shrimp cocktails, escargot, crab claws, oysters on the half shell and something called dragon fries, which are jalapeno peppers stuffed with crabmeat. In addition to the steaks, there are fried chicken livers and fried quail. Like I said, old school.

If I could spend a day in Texarkana with lunch at Bryce’s and dinner at the Cattleman’s, I would indeed be a happy man.

As I said at the outset, it’s twice as nice.

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Searcy County: Chocolate Roll Capital of the World

Friday, January 24th, 2014

I like to think that I know a lot about Arkansas.

But I’ll admit that I had no idea until recently that Searcy County is the Chocolate Roll Capital of the World.

I ran across a photo on a website of a sign in the county that makes that claim.

Then, I picked up a guide to the county published by the Greater Searcy County Chamber of Commerce and — wouldn’t you know it — there was a full page devoted to the subject.

Here’s what the guide has to say: “For generations, people in Searcy County have been baking and enjoying a dessert that few folks outside these parts have ever heard of. Namely chocolate rolls. Searcy County’s glory days with strawberries have faded into the pages of history and the stories of its older citizens, but the chocolate roll remains. Can anyone doubt that Searcy County in the Home of the Chocolate Roll and also the Chocolate Roll Capital of the World?”

The chamber even announced a Chocolate Roll Capital of the World initiative.

Who knew?

“Searcy County is the home of the Chocolate Roll Festival, with the centerpiece being the World Champion Chocolate Roll Contest,” the guide says. “This is a unique competition of local bakers to see who is the World Champion Chocolate Roll Maker. This contest is held in the early spring every year. The contest was the brainchild of the Marshall High School Art Club and teacher Brenda Smyth. Individuals get to pay a small fee to sample and judge the chocolate rolls and get to vote on the world champion. The batch of rolls with the most votes wins.

“Chocolate rolls are also available at several locations throughout the county and are always the biggest hit at local events. As you travel through Searcy County, you have to stop and locate one of the Ozarks’ classic desserts, the chocolate roll. Watch for the chocolate roll signs.”

I’ve always admired the natural beauty of this sparsely populated county.

And I like the people.

My wife and I met when we were living in Washington, D.C. We moved to my home state of Arkansas just after our wedding in October 1989. Melissa is a native of far south Texas, and I was anxious to show her various parts of the state after we moved here. One of the first events I took her to outside of Little Rock was the Searcy County Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Day banquet. Told that it was a dinner banquet, Melissa put on her best dress. She was surprised when we walked into the restaurant at Marshall and she saw that some of the men were wearing overalls.

They were at least their “dress overalls,” I explained to Melissa.

Searcy County’s population peaked at 14,825 in the 1910 census. A century later, it was down to 8,195.

I’ve never failed to enjoy the drive north on U.S. Highway 65 from the southeast part of the county to the northwest corner.

Crossing the Middle Fork of the Little Red River.

Driving through Leslie with a stop at Serenity Farm for bread and a one-block detour off the highway to drive through that scenic old downtown of stone structures.

Visiting Marshall, its square around the courthouse, one of the few remaining drive-in theaters in the state and perhaps even a stop for dessert at the Daisy Queen on the highway.

Admiring the scenery along Bear Creek. Among my favorite views in Arkansas is the view when you round a curve on U.S. 65 headed north and there’s a pasture and old barn on your left with rock cliffs to the right.

Seeing the Buffalo National River at Tyler Bend.

Perhaps making a side trip to Gilbert, the coldest spot in Arkansas (it was a negative two degrees on Friday morning) and the place where my old college buddy Rodney Slinkard now turns out wonderful art.

The Gilbert General Store, built in 1901, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places under the name Mays Store. Gilbert was founded in the early 1900s when a rail construction camp for the Missouri & North Arkansas Railroad was built and named in honor of Charles Gilbert, the secretary-treasurer of Allegheny Supply Co, which was building the railroad.

“Gilbert was a hub for commerce,” the chamber guide says. “Cotton, logs, ore and grain came by rail. Gilbert was eventually the home to a repair shop for the railroad, which ceased operation in 1946. While the tracks were removed and sold as scrap, there are still signs of the railroad where the old concrete supports crossed the Buffalo River. The former rail bed is now a hiking route along the river.

“Today Gilbert contains a few homes, guesthouses and cabins for rent. The Gilbert General Store is still in operation, providing supplies and hunting and fishing licenses. The Riverside Kitchen and Gilbert Café serve diners in the area. Remnants of old homesteads provide a hint of its past.”

Gilbert at one time had four stores, two hotels, three doctors and several sawmills. The 2010 census listed 28 residents.

Writing years ago for National Geographic, Craig Ogilvie said of the Gilbert General Store: “The original mercantile flavor remains unchanged despite the passing years. Everything from buttons and axe handles to crackers and cheese are stocked in the homemade shelves and long glass display cases. … Until 1979, the store had been a part of the Mays-Baker families. Until the 1980s, a corner of the store served as the post office.”

As far as Gilbert being the coldest spot in the state, the temperature is said to have dropped to a minus 24 degrees there one morning during the winter of 1939-40. Then there was the day in April 1969 when it was below freezing in the morning and 90 degrees by that afternoon.

Back on the main highway, a stop for smoked bacon and ham at Coursey’s and a cinnamon roll at Ferguson’s is required.

Michael Stern, the famed “Roadfood” writer, had this to say about Coursey’s back in late 2008: “Coursey’s is a 55-year-old ham house in the Ozarks of north Arkansas. Mrs. Paula Hale, whose father started the business, told us that it began as a dirt-floored cabin (which is still standing outside the new, modern display room).

“‘My father hung each ham from a nail in the wall and wrapped it in a dry-goods box,’ she recalled.

“Coursey’s meats are now smoked in stainless steel facilities and the wooden cabin out front is only a reminder of days gone by. Now run by a third generation of the same family, the roadside shop maintains its country charm. We spent an educational half-hour consulting with Mrs. Hale and her kids about how to best get a ham and a couple of pounds of bacon shipped to us during a summer heat wave (we finally decided to wait until cooler weather), and we discussed the fine points of making tasty red-eye gravy.

“Mrs. Hale clued us in to the joy of a good ham hock, which should never be thrown away once the ham has been eaten. It makes the perfect pot companion for long-cooked greens or beans. And she reminded us that when we fried Coursey’s delicious bacon — made from corn-fed hogs and slow-cured over burning green hickory logs — we should save the drippings to season our hominy or cabbage.

“Coursey’s is primarily a mail-order and takeout business, with scarlet hams hanging on a rack in cloth bags, flavoring the air with their hickory perfume; an assortment of jerkies in jars; and shelves of interesting local jellies, sorghum and honey for sale. Coursey’s has a small counter in the back where you can have a sandwich made of ham, turkey or peppered beef. There is nothing fancy here. Just meat (cheese optional) on supermarket bread. But oh what good meat. It is lean, sweet and tender with an alluring wood-smoke bouquet but none of the pungency of salt-cured country ham.”

The next town headed north is St. Joe, where the 1902 depot (a stop on the Missouri & North Arkansas, which ran from Joplin to Helena) was restored in 2009 to serve as a museum and information center.

There once was lead and zinc mining in the St. Joe-Pindall area. Pindall was a railroad stop first known as Kilburn Switch.

“In the early 1920s, a colony of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) from Illinois and other states settled in the Gilbert area,” James Johnston writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The failure of the M&NA after World War II and the decline of the economy forced their Bible college to move to Joplin and the area to lose population. The 1972 designation of the Buffalo as a national river left Gilbert as the only private property on the river, and it has prospered. The communities of Snowball and Witts Springs were once commercial centers, but improved transportation in the 1950s sent business to Marshall, and Snowball’s school and post office closed in the 1960s.”

Witts Springs consolidated with Marshall in 2004.

The Legislature first established Searcy County in November 1835, carving it from western Izard County. The original Searcy County also included parts of what are now Marion, Boone, Baxter and Stone counties.

The first Searcy County’s name was changed to Marion County in late 1836 in honor of Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion. A new Searcy County was created by the Legislature in 1838 from the southern part of Marion County. Lebanon on Bear Creek was the county seat until it was moved to Burrowsville (now Marshall), named for slave-owning secessionist politician Napoleon Bonaparte Burrow.

At the state’s secession convention in Little Rock in May 1861, Searcy County’s representative was one of just five to vote against secession. In the 20th century, at times when there were not many Republicans elsewhere in Arkansas, there always was a contingent of ancestral Republicans in Searcy County. These were people whose family roots in the party went back to the Civil War.

At the outset of the Civil War, a group known as the Peace Society was formed in the Ozarks to oppose the Confederacy.

“More Peace Society members are identified in Searcy County than any other county,” Johnston writes. “The organization was betrayed on Nov. 17, 1861, in Van Buren County by John Holmes, and the discovery of the society spread rapidly. Investigations of the Peace Society, first in Fulton County and then in Izard County, led to its discovery in 1861 on the Izard-Searcy County line.”

Eighty-seven men were marched in chains to Little Rock, forced to join the Confederate Army and shipped to Bowling Green, Ky. Some of those men later would escape and return to Searcy County. There were six Union companies made up of men from Searcy County.

“After the war, Union veterans took control of the county, and they and their descendants have held Searcy County for the Republican Party ever since,” Johnston writes. “By 1870, the county was attracting families from the defeated Southern states. In addition to new homesteads, the lead and zinc mining boom beginning in the mid-1890s brought money and people to St. Joe and northern Searcy County.”

The Great Depression hit Searcy County hard. After World War II, Marshall attracted a shirt factory and there was a push to make the county a center for growing strawberries. The inability to find pickers killed the strawberry industry by the 1960s. Civic leaders in the county felt dams on the Buffalo River and its tributaries would help the economy. The nationally publicized battle to keep the Buffalo a free-flowing stream went on for years. That epic environmental battle has been written about on this blog before.

In addition to chocolate rolls, a Searcy County claim to fame is that it leads the state in walnut production. It ranks 11th among the 75 counties in milk and dairy production, 12th in acres of land used to grow berries, 13th in turkey production, 14th in goat production, 22nd in hogs, 25th in cattle and 29th in horses.

There are hundreds of black bears in the county and some of the elk wander down from Newton County.

Chocolate rolls or no chocolate rolls, it remains a wonderful place for those of us who love rural Arkansas.

 

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A new preservation ethos

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

Raised in a small home near Dyess in the cotton fields of Mississippi County, Joanne Cash Yates made it clear Friday night at the Clinton Center that she’s proud to be from Arkansas.

You might have heard of Joanne’s older brother.

He was known in his adult years as Johnny.

I was at the Clinton Center to serve as the master of ceremonies for the annual awards banquet of the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas. As I pointed out in my opening remarks last Friday night, this was my kind of crowd: People who love Arkansas, its history, its culture, its places and its people.

The preservation movement in the state has taken off in recent years. When the HPAA was formed in 1981, most Arkansans believed in tearing down old buildings rather than renovating them. It was economic development via a wrecking ball.

One old example: The beautiful Carnegie Library in Little Rock, which was replaced by a downtown architectural monstrosity that thankfully no longer serves as the main branch of the Central Arkansas Library System.

A more recent example: Replacing Ray Winder Field with a parking lot. That tells me we still have a long way to go. But nights like last Friday make me an optimist. There are so many exciting projects that are ongoing across Arkansas. The Johnny Cash boyhood home restoration at Dyess stands at the forefront of the current projects right now. It was the winner of the award for Excellence in Preservation through restoration. Ruth Hawkins and her staff at the Arkansas State University’s Heritage Sites Program have worked wonders across the Arkansas Delta, from the Lakeport Plantation at Lake Village in the southeast corner of the state to the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum at Piggott in the northeast corner of the state. In between there are the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum at Tyronza and the Rohwer Japanese American Relocation Center.

ASU has joined forces with the city of Dyess and the Rural Heritage Development Initiative of the National Trust for Historic Preservation to make this project a reality. Ray and Carrie Cash moved their family from the piney woods near Kingsland in south Arkansas to Dyess in 1935. It was during the Great Depression and the Cash family was among those chosen to live in this federal resettlement project for poor white farmers. Late each night, young J.R. (only later to be known as Johnny) would listen to country and gospel music on the radio.

He graduated from Dyess High School in 1950, and the family continued to live in the house until 1954. By 2006, the HPAA had placed the home on its list of the state’s most endangered places. ASU purchased the house in 2011.

During the restoration process, the Cash home was lifted off its original site. Soil underneath was removed and replaced with fill dirt. Only then could exterior and interior restoration work begin. Extensive research was done on similar New Deal homes. With the foundation stabilized, the original floor plan was restored and railings and porches were rebuilt.

This is, of course, far from the only project of this type taking place across Arkansas. Here are the other award recipients:

– The Delta Cultural Center at Helena was presented the award for Excellence in Heritage Preservation for the work it has done through the decades. It has been a key player in the effort to preserve and interpret the Delta’s history and heritage. The restored 1912 Missouri-Pacific Railroad depot opened to the public in 1990 with a number of museum exhibits. Since then, the Delta Cultural Center has expanded down Cherry Street while also restoring the city’s former synagogue into the Beth El Heritage Hall and restoring the 1859 Moore-Hornor House as part of the Helena’s effort to capitalize on its rich Civil War history.

– The Boone-Murphy House at Pine Bluff received an honorable mention for Excellence in Preservation through Rehabilitation. The house was built in 1860 by Thomas Boone. During the Union occupation of Pine Bluff from 1863-65, it served as the federal headquarters. The house was moved in the 1890s so a larger structure could be built on the site. Boone-Murphy served as servants’ quarters and later as a storeroom. The house was moved twice more during the 20th century. It’s amazing that it even survived. The house had been vacant for years when Pine Bluff city staff member Robert Tucker began pushing for its restoration. The restoration effort began in 2008. Rotten floor joists were removed, the metal shingle roof was repaired and hardwood floors, windows and doors were restored. The house is now the home of the Pine Bluff Historic District Commission. Last year, a Civil War marker was erected at the site to commemorate the role the house played during the federal occupation of Pine Bluff.

– An award for Excellence in Preservation through Rehabilitation went to the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum. The structure, built in the middle of the previous century as a bank, had been gutted and been empty for several years. It was situated among nondescript retail buildings from the 1960s. The architectural firm Polk Stanley & Wilcox then stepped in and worked wonders. The monumental stairway was saved and usable spaces were created for art exhibits. A lantern atop the building that changes colors is now a beacon in Fort Smith, drawing people to the galleries inside.

– An award for Excellence in Preservation through Rehabilitation for a large project went to the Mann on Main in downtown Little Rock. The 1913 Blass Department Store building was designed by George Mann, the architect for the state Capitol. In 1999, Batesville developer Doyle Rogers Sr. purchased the building and an adjoining annex. In 2012, the Doyle Rogers Co. partnered with Moses Tucker Real Estate in a mixed-use project that has resulted in office space, 20 residential units and the resurrection of one of my favorite restaurant’s, Bruno’s Little Italy. The Mann on Main is a cornerstone of the ongoing rebirth of Main Street in the state’s largest city.

– An award for Excellence in Preservation through Rehabilitation for a small project went to the Lesmeister Guest House in downtown Pocahontas. Henry Lesmeister built this commercial structure near the downtown square in 1902, and it served as the home of various businesses. Many people in northeast Arkansas remember it as the Bennett & Rice Grocery. Following a year of rehabilitation, the building now provides overnight accommodations for visitors to Randolph County. A 1910 photo was used to make decisions about the rehabilitation. Contemporary walls and ceiling layers were demolished to expose the building’s earliest features. A large cistern was discovered in the basement and is now glass-covered and visible from one of the bedrooms.

– The award for Outstanding Achievement in Preservation Advocacy went to the Newport Economic Development Commission and the Clinton School of Public Service for work on the White River Bridge project at Newport. Constructed in 1930, what’s known locally as the Blue Bridge will be replaced. Jon Chadwell of the Newport Economic Development Commission worked with Clinton School students Foster Holcomb, Abby Olivier and James Stephens to come up with a plan to reuse the old bridge. The students surveyed area leaders and conducted interviews with preservation experts. They then recommended adaptive reuse scenarios. A final decision has not yet been made on the future of the Blue Bridge.

– The award for Outstanding Achievement in Preservation Education went to Nancy Lowe, who was the principal design consultant for Main Street Arkansas from the program’s inception in 1984 until last August. Her experience with Main Street programs across the country made her an asset to the Arkansas program as it got off the ground. She has conducted hundreds of meetings across the state through the years to train directors, board members and volunteers for local Main Street restoration efforts.

– An honorable mention for Outstanding New Construction in a Historic Setting went to the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock for the blacksmith shop at the Plum Bayou Homestead. The blacksmith shop was designed and built to reflect the 1840s and 1850s when the services of a blacksmith would have been in high demand. Designed by Ruby Architects, the blacksmith shop includes a fully functioning forge with authentic leather bellows and a rocker arm for stoking the fire. No nails were used in the timber frame.

– The award for Outstanding New Construction in a Historic Setting went to Ozark Hall on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Constructed in the 1940s in the collegiate gothic style, Ozark Hall is in the historic core of the university just south of Old Main. The building was envisioned in the 1925 university master plan as a U-shaped facility but only one side was ever completed because the school ran out of money. This project included complete exterior and interior renovation along with a multistory addition. That addition completed the U-shaped configuration imagined in the 1925 master plan. Limestone was selected from the original quarry. Renovated spaces include classrooms, laboratories, offices and an auditorium. A new courtyard ties together the historic and new parts of the building. WD&D Architects and VCC Construction worked on the building.

– The award for Outstanding Service in Neighborhood Preservation went to Anita Davis for her work along South Main Street in Little Rock. When she saw an empty lot at 1401 S. Main St. several years ago, she envisioned a gathering spot for local artists, visitors and those who lived in the neighborhood. The lot had been part of the 1873 Garland-Mitchell House. In the 1940s, the lot was split, and a drive-in restaurant was built facing Main Street. A small motel and later a fast-food restaurant occupied the corner. A fire in 2005 left only a concrete pad and a few crepe myrtles. Davis bought the lot in 2006 and founded the Bernice Garden, which now hosts a farmers’ market, an annual cornbread festival and additional efforts to foster community involvement. Other Davis properties in the area serve as a home for the Green Corner Store, the Root Café, Boulevard Bread Co. and the Esse Purse Museum.

– The award for Outstanding Work by a Craftsperson went to Danny Ball Sr. for his work on the New Hope School near Wynne. New Hope was built in 1903 as a one-room school. A second room was added a few years later, and the building remained in use as a school until 1951. In 2001, the Cross County Historical Society began efforts to preserve the building. Ball was chosen to complete the window restoration and replacement. He began by researching the original details and then determined that almost all of the window components would have to be replicated. The originals had either been lost or severely damaged. He wanted the lumber to be locally milled and finally found a source of Arkansas cypress at Powhatan. The lumber was hand-planed to the original size and dimension. Ball spent dozens of hours ensuring that every original detail was replicated.

– The award for Excellence in Personal Projects went to the Connelly-Harrington House at Siloam Springs and its owners, Ron and Christina Drake. The house was constructed in 1913 for a local banker. It later was used as a hospital and then was divided into apartments. In January 2012, a fire destroyed the third floor and caused smoke and water damage on the other flowers. The Drakes decided to rehabilitate the structure. The third floor was reconfigured as a two-bedroom apartment with views of downtown Siloam Springs. The building also is home to the Windgate Foundation and has been a catalyst for additional developments in downtown Siloam Springs.

– An honorable mention for Excellence in Preservation through Restoration went to the Tushek Building in Lake Village. The building was constructed in 1906 and occupies a prominent corner of downtown Lake Village. It sat vacant for years before the mayor of Lake Village, JoAnne Bush, led an effort to restore the building and consolidate city offices into one facility. The structure was donated to the city and funding was provided by the state, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Delta Regional Authority and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The rehabilitation effort has spurred even more investment in downtown Lake Village.

– The Ned Shank Award for Outstanding Preservation Publication went to authors Cheryl Batts, Janis Kearney and Patricia McGraw for “John Lee Webb, the Man and His Legacy.” Born in Alabama in 1877 as the oldest of 10 children, John Lee Webb was educated at the Tuskegee Institute. He later worked as a general contractor in Mississippi and Arkansas. In 1913, he joined a fraternal organization known as the Supreme Lodge of the Woodmen of the Union. He was living in Hot Springs by 1930. He became head of the fraternal organization and the president of a large insurance company. He also led the effort to build what would become the National Baptist Hotel in downtown Hot Springs. The book outlines how Webb made Hot Springs a center of black tourism during a time of segregation.

– The Parker Westbrook Award for Lifetime Achievement went to Missy McSwain of Lonoke, who was hired in 1987 as the HPAA executive director. She later purchased her grandmother’s house, the 1885 Trimble-McCrary House at Lonoke. She left the HPAA staff in 1993 but went on to lead the Main Street program at Lonoke while being involved in other preservation efforts. She would later manage federal programs for the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program (an agency of the Department of Arkansas Heritage) for 10 years. In 2007, she was appointed to serve as the director of that agency.

“Through Missy’s work with the AHPP, she has been a part of some of the state’s most recognizable preservation projects such as the Jacob Wolf House in Baxter County, the Lakeport Plantation in Chicot County and the Drennen-Scott House in Crawford County,” says HPAA executive director Vanessa McKuin. “As deputy state historic preservation officer, Missy serves not only as the voice for the agency in Arkansas but also as Arkansas’ voice in the national preservation forum. Elected by her peers, Missy now serves on the board for the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers.

“Missy is a tireless advocate in her outreach to local, state and federal officials, always beating the drum of how preservation ties into quality of place and how building places where people want to live is the key to 21st century economic development.”

Missy and Vanessa are my kinds of Arkansans.

Like I said at the outset, this was my kind of crowd.

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An ode to small college football

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

I will sit down in front of my television on Thursday night and watch Southern Arkansas University play Harding University in football at Magnolia.

The game is being telecast nationally by the CBS Sports Network.

What a wonderful boost this is for small college football in Arkansas.

For a 31st season, I’m doing football play-by-play on radio for Ouachita Baptist University. I haven’t missed a game, home or away, since 1998. The reason I missed a couple of games that year was because I was the campaign manager for then-Gov. Mike Huckabee and just didn’t feel as if I could be out of state during the stretch run of that campaign.

Ouachita’s late start this year — the opener wasn’t until Sept. 14 — allowed me to see all of the state’s NCAA Division I teams and its lone NCAA Division III team in person during the first 10 days of the season.

On Aug. 29, I watched the University of Central Arkansas beat Incarnate Word in Conway.

Two days later, I drove to Jonesboro to see Arkansas State University defeat the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

On Sept. 7, I watched Hendrix College beat Westminster College during the afternoon at Conway and saw the University of Arkansas down Samford University at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock that evening.

It was all great fun. I love college football, you see.

But I’m glad that my Saturdays for the next few weeks will be devoted to the Division II teams that play in the Great American Conference.

It’s who I am.

It’s what I was raised on.

If you’re tired of traffic, inflated ticket prices and high concession costs — or if your favorite Division I team is simply playing out of state — you ought to try catching a game in Arkadelphia, Magnolia, Monticello, Searcy or Russellville.

You might be pleasantly surprised by the quality of play.

Growing up in Arkadelphia, within walking distance of the Ouachita and Henderson stadiums, the old Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference was what I knew when it came to college sports. I look back fondly all these years later on the games I attended as a child.

I still remember the afternoons at A.U. Williams Field when Ouachita upset previously undefeated Arkansas Tech teams in 1968 and 1970.

I remember most of the Battles of the Ravine between Ouachita and Henderson that I’ve attended through the decades.

I especially remember the road trips with my father to see Ouachita play its AIC foes.

I remember the places where we would eat (before the game if it were an evening kickoff and after the game if it were an afternoon kickoff). What’s college football without food?

Trips to Magnolia to play the Muleriders of Southern State (later Southern Arkansas University) always meant a meal at the Chatterbox downtown. The owner, Mr. Duke, knew my dad and would greet him by name. You could buy copies of the Magnolia Banner-News, the Shreveport Times, the Arkansas Gazette and the Texarkana Gazette right by the register. I loved football, food and newspapers. How much better could it get than this?

Trips to Monticello to play the Boll Weevils of Arkansas A&M (later the University of Arkansas at Monticello) meant a foot-long hot dog at Ray’s or a stop at a catfish restaurant whose name I forgot long ago.

Trips to Conway to play the Bears of ASTC (later SCA and later still UCA) meant a meal at Tommy’s. The owners — Tommy Paladino and Johnny DeSalvo — were quail hunting buddies of my dad. Dad wouldn’t think of eating anywhere else in Conway. It was at Tommy’s where I had my first whole trout and had to be told by my father not to eat the head.

Trips to Searcy to play the Bisons of Harding (it seemed as if those games were always in the afternoon) meant a stop at Anderson’s in Beebe for the Saturday night seafood buffet prior to the drive home to Arkadelphia.

Trips to Russellville to play the Wonder Boys of Arkansas Tech meant fried chicken at the Old South, though we did stray across the street for a few years when there was an AQ Chicken House at Russellville. If Ouachita and Tech were playing an afternoon game in late October or early November, my mom would insist we take Arkansas Highway 7 north from Arkadelphia to Russellville in order to “look at the leaves.” Those trips usually included a stop for breakfast at Sam Ann’s in the heart of the Ouachita National Forest near Hollis.

There were seven football-playing schools in the AIC in those days (I came of age after Hendrix and Ozarks dropped the sport). Six of them — all except for UCA, whose enrollment is now at the point that the Bears are where they belong in the Southland Conference of Division I — are together again in the GAC. Throw in five Oklahoma schools with similar athletic budgets and it’s a good fit; as close to the old AIC as we’re likely to get.

The demise of the AIC came in the 1990s when many of the NAIA schools across the country that played football began moving to NCAA Division II. The athletic directors of the AIC schools couldn’t agree on whether all the schools should move or not. UCA and Henderson forced the issue when they jumped to the Gulf South Conference of NCAA Division II for the 1993-94 school year. That left the AIC with just five institutions that played football — UAM, Southern Arkansas, Arkansas Tech, Harding and Ouachita. They played what some called an “AIC Lite” football schedule in 1993 and 1994.

UAM, Southern Arkansas and Arkansas Tech were admitted to the Gulf South Conference beginning with the 1995-96 school year. The Gulf South wouldn’t admit Ouachita and Harding, the only two private colleges playing football in Arkansas at the time.

Ouachita and Harding wound up in the Lone Star Conference, which already had members in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. Harding and Ouachita finally were admitted to the Gulf South Conference beginning with the 2000-01 school year. UCA left the Gulf South for Division I in 2006.

The GAC was born in the fall of 2011, and the first two football champions have been from Arkadelphia — Ouachita in 2011 and Henderson last year.

The fall of 2012 was a banner one for Division II football programs in the state. Consider these facts:

– Henderson finished the regular season 10-0, the first undefeated, untied regular season in school history. Sophomore quarterback Kevin Rodgers was one of eight finalists for the 2012 Harlon Hill Trophy, which is the Division II version of the Heisman Trophy. During the 2012 season, Rodgers earned GAC Player of the Week honors six times. He threw for more than 300 yards in seven games. He’s on pace to do even better this year.

– Harding finished the regular season 9-1, losing only to Henderson.

– Southern Arkansas finished the regular season 8-2, losing only to Henderson and Harding.

– With its 6-4 record, Ouachita posted its fifth consecutive winning season. Ouachita has the only college football program in the state — at any level — with five consecutive winning seasons.

– Of the four Division II teams with winning records in the state, there was only one loss to a team from outside Arkansas during the regular season.

It’s no wonder that the top four teams in the GAC preseason poll — Henderson, Southern Arkansas, Harding and Ouachita — were all from Arkansas.

Only two of the 11 GAC teams remained undefeated through September of this year — Ouachita and Henderson.

The two new GAC members — Southern Nazarene and Northwestern Oklahoma — finished the month 0-4.

Everyone else beat up on each other.

On Friday afternoon, I’ll embark on my third road trip to Oklahoma in four weeks. My plan is to eat supper at the famous Van’s Pig Stand in Shawnee and spend the night in Oklahoma City before heading west to Weatherford for an afternoon game on Saturday.

On the first two Saturday mornings of the season, I hit the road early for night games in Oklahoma. The first trip was to Bethany to play Southern Nazarene. Lunch was at Ed’s Truck Stop in Sallisaw, where I had the chicken fried steak.

The following Saturday, I hit the road early again to broadcast Ouachita’s game against East Central Oklahoma in Ada. Ouachita had won the previous week. So why change the routine? Once more, we stopped at Ed’s in Sallisaw. Once more, I had the chicken fried steak. We’re establishing some new traditions in this conference.

Whether you’re talking about small college football or chicken fried steak, it’s hard to get too much of a good thing.

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Downtown Fort Smith — vibrant is the word

Thursday, July 18th, 2013

I devoted my Wednesday newspaper column to downtown Fort Smith this week and heard from everyone from the mayor on down it seemed.

They were pleased to see something other than a business section story about a manufacturing plant either laying off some of its workers or closing completely.

Fort Smith long has been our state’s manufacturing center. With the decline in American manufacturing in recent years, there has been a steady stream of such stories coming out of Sebastian County.

Living in central Arkansas, I can see how people who don’t travel much can stereotype other parts of our state. The average Little Rock resident probably would tell you that Benton and Washington counties are booming while Sebastian County is losing population.

The fact is that Sebastian County had an almost 6 percent population increase from the 2000 census to the 2010 census. That doesn’t come close to the growth in the northwest corner of the state, but you can see that the Fort Smith area isn’t losing population.

All of this brings us to downtown Fort Smith.

Following a lunch meeting in Siloam Springs last Friday, I decided to weave my way down U.S. 59 through the Ozark National Forest to Van Buren. I needed a change of pace from the usual route down Interstate 540.

Because of construction on Interstate 540 into Fort Smith, I took Interstate 40 west out of Van Buren to the Dora exit on the Oklahoma state line. I like that entrance into downtown Fort Smith. You drive through the corn and winter wheat fields along the Arkansas River for a few miles after leaving the interstate and then cross the Garrison Avenue Bridge into Fort Smith.

What immediately struck me was how busy things were along Garrison Avenue late on a Friday afternoon.

Go into the downtowns of most Arkansas cities on a slow Friday afternoon in the middle of the summer and you will see few people on the streets.

That wasn’t the case along Garrison Avenue. The parking spots were full, and there was bumper-to-bumper traffic.

That’s when the thought struck me: The folks trying to revitalize Main Street in Little Rock could learn a lesson or two from business and civic leaders in our state’s second-largest city.

It was just after 11 p.m. on a Sunday — April 21, 1996, to be exact — when a strong F2 tornado took dead aim at downtown Fort Smith. That tornado caused $300 million of damage.

A lot of downtowns across Arkansas would not have recovered from such a blow. But the leadership of Fort Smith — pushed by a visionary developer named Richard Griffin — decided not only to rebuild the buildings that had been destroyed but also to renovate historic properties that long had been neglected.

The city’s Central Business Improvement District became much more aggressive in marketing downtown, updating design guidelines and trying to attract downtown residents with projects such as the West End Lofts.

Traditional retailers such as Newton’s Jewelers — which has been around since 1914 — were encouraged to stay downtown while new restaurants and entertainment venues such as the Varsity Sports Grill & Adelaide Ballroom, Rolando’s Nuevo Latino Restaurante, R. Landry’s New Orleans Cafe, Doe’s Eat Place, 21 West End and Neumeier’s Rib Room ensured there was life along Garrison Avenue and adjoining streets at night and on weekends.

Down by the Garrison Avenue Bridge, the Park at West End was opened, featuring a 1950s Ferris wheel and an Italian carousel.

Riverfront Amphitheater was built to accommodate more than 1,100 people for outdoor concerts and other events.

Ross Pendergraft Park opened adjacent to the Fort Smith National Historic Site in 2001, offering visitors restrooms, parking, benches and a pavilion. A statue of famed U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves was recently erected in the park.

Further east at North 10th Street and Garrison Avenue, Cisterna Park — named after Cisterna, Italy, which is Fort Smith’s sister city — opened with a fountain, nature area and picnic tables.

Visitors to the Fort Smith National Historic Site now can spend an entire day downtown if they choose to do so. There’s the excellent Fort Smith Museum of History in the 1907 Atkinson-Williams Warehouse Building adjacent to the National Park Service site. There’s the Fort Smith Trolley Museum. There are plenty of restaurants and shops within walking distance.

Sixteen new businesses opened downtown last year, including two antique stores in the 700 block of Garrison Avenue.

Fort Smith received an unexpected boost when True West magazine rated the city No. 1 on its list of “Top True Western Towns” for 2013.

Already, more of what’s known in the business as “cultural heritage tourists” had been attracted to Fort Smith by the remake of the movie “True Grit.”

And how many cities have a former bordello as a visitors’ center? To further enhance the visitor experience, a series of historical plaques was placed in downtown Fort Smith last year.

The next major step forward for downtown Fort Smith will be completion of the $50 million U.S. Marshals Museum. If the current fundraising effort succeeds, that museum will open along the banks of the Arkansas River in the fall of 2016.

Groundbreaking for the 52,260-square-foot museum will be Sept. 24, 2014, to coincide with the release by the U.S. Mint of a commemorative coin marking the 225th anniversary of the Marshals Service. There’s still about $27.5 million left to be raised.

While the nationwide fundraising effort for the Marshals Museum continues, Griffin Properties is moving forward with projects elsewhere downtown. Last year, the company completed an upscale market and cafe at the northwest corner of Garrison Avenue and North Fifth Street on an open lot where the KWHN radio studios once stood. The store, designed to provide groceries and other services to downtown residents, is in front of St. Charles Place, an office building developed by Griffin Properties.

Richard Griffin has said there are three keys to getting more people to live downtown:

– Buildings must be modernized

– Quality accommodations must then be added inside those buildings

– Things like grocery and fuel must be available in the neighborhood

In April, Griffin Properties announced that it will spend at least $3 million to renovate six buildings in the 400 block of Garrison Avenue. There will be retail space and 12 apartments once the project, known as Garrison Pointe West, is completed.

In May, it was announced that Fort Smith-based Propak Logistics will renovate the 1911 Friedman-Mincer Building — known by locals as the old OTASCO building — for its headquarters. The company will spend about $2 million to convert the three-story, 24,000-square-foot bulding into offices for 40 employees.

The company’s owner, Steve Clark, told Michael Tilley of The City Wire: “With each building we see removed in that area, it removes some of the heart of our history. So I see this as a preservation of a truly iconic building on a historic corner.”

Clark said he will use a Fayetteville-based architect with Fort Smith ties to “create a buzz in northwest Arkansas about what’s going on in Fort Smith.”

Clark took a trip with architects to Cincinnati to visit that city’s national historic districts.

Fort Smith native Ben Boulden, an expert on the city’s history, told Tilley: “It’s a real special building on the avenue. It has that triangular, mini-Flatiron appearance. … This is good news because we don’t need to lose any more historic architectural assets on the avenue.”

There also are preliminary plans to light and repaint the Garrison Avenue Bridge. Add to that efforts to relocate a railroad maintenance facility behind the vistors’ center, build a pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks there, install a splash pad for children and add green space.

You know the old saying: Perception is reality.

But if you perceive Fort Smith as nothing but a declining industrial town, take a walk down Garrison Avenue. Your perception will change.

Once the Marshals Museum is completed, that perception will change for thousands of other people in the region.

The Marshals Museum should mean to downtown Fort Smith what the Clinton Presidential Center has meant to downtown Little Rock and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has meant to downtown Bentonville.

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JFK and the Greers Ferry water garden

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

Raised by his grandparents, Jerry Holmes grew up in rural Cleburne County, just north of Quitman.

It’s a scenic part of our state, and quite a draw for visitors from Memphis and Little Rock since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a dam on the Little Red River and created Greers Ferry Lake.

Discussions in Washington about building a series of dams along the White River and Little Red River for flood-control purposes began after the Great Flood of 1927. A year after another huge flood in 1937, Congress passed the Flood Control Act and began to move forward with plans for dams along tributaries of the Mississippi River.

American involvement in World War II delayed work on those dams.

In 1960 — following nine years of extensive planning — the first concrete was poured for Greers Ferry Dam on the Little Red River near Heber Springs. The dam contains 856,000 cubic yards of concrete and weighs 3.4668 billion pounds.

Two men lost their lives working on the project. Ed Phillips died on April 4, 1960, and Bill Killian was killed on March 10, 1961.

On Oct. 3, 1963, President John F. Kennedy came to Cleburne County for the dedication of Greers Ferry Dam.

Holmes was a young boy then and was probably not thinking much about the impact the project would have on the area where he lived.

Consider these facts: Cleburne County saw its population increase from 9,059 in 1960 to 10,349 in 1970; 16,909 in 1980; 19,411 in 1990; 24,046 in 2000 and 25,970 in 2010.

Heber Springs, the county seat, saw its population increase from 2,265 in 1960 to 7,165 in 2010.

Holmes, who owns a cattle ranch and a cattle auction operation, has started six businesses through the years. He realizes the importance of tourism to the Cleburne County economy. He was the county sheriff from 1985-91 and is in his first term as county judge.

Several months ago, Holmes put together a working group to discuss how to increase tourism in the region. Though Greers Ferry remains popular, Holmes says the summer weekend crowds aren’t as big as they once were. Greers Ferry, it seems, has lost a bit of its cachet among the Memphis crowd.

It was during one of the working group sessions that Billy Lindsey mentioned to Holmes that there had once been a plan for an ornate water garden on federal land just below Greers Ferry Dam.

In fact, Lindsey had color drawings from the 1960s of the proposed water garden. They had been under the front seat of his truck for years. He gave them to Holmes.

Lindsey, as you might know, is a legend in the world of Arkansas tourism. In the spring of 1965, Lindsey moved with his parents from Orange, Texas, to Heber Springs. His parents knew there were plans to stock trout in the cold water below Greers Ferry Dam, and they decided to build a trout fishing resort. Their initial land purchase was just more than eight acres. The resort now encompasses 62 acres.

“My dad had a vision,” Billy Lindsey told the Three Rivers edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2010. “He could stand on that hill and see what’s here today. Mom was questioning his sanity. We had a trout dock and a couple of cabins. We went two years with a trout-fishing business with no trout.

“Dad and Jim Collins, a trout biologist for the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, went to the Spring River to harvest moss. They brought it home in a flatbed truck and sprigged it up and down the river like sprig grass in a yard.”

The needed aquatic vegetation took hold, and the river was fully stocked with trout in 1967. A state record rainbow trout was caught the next year, and business began to take off.

That bit of history takes us to the man whose idea it was to build a water garden, the late Herbert L. Thomas Sr. I’ve written about Thomas on this blog before. He was among the top Arkansas business leaders of the 20th century.

Born in rural Ashley County in 1899, Thomas had started an insurance company by the age of 24. Within a year, there were more than 10,000 policyholders, many of whom lived in rural Arkansas.

Thomas later incorporated the First Pyramid Life Insurance Co. of America and set up shop in 1937 in the Southern Trust Building in downtown Little Rock. He renamed it the Pyramid Life Building. The building is now known as Pyramid Place.

Thomas and his wife Ruby loved to travel to Europe and had become entranced by the Villa d’Este at Tivoli, Italy. The elaborate water gardens there had been built by monks in the 1500s. In addition to loving Europe, Herbert and Ruby Thomas loved the Ozark foothills near Heber Springs.

With plans for Greers Ferry moving forward, Thomas decided to build a resort and a housing development unlike anything Arkansas had seen before.

The resort would become the Red Apple Inn.

The housing development would become Eden Isle.

In 1961, two years before the dam was dedicated, Thomas purchased 500 acres. No one was supposed to know exactly what the water level of the lake would be. That would prevent profiteering by those buying up lakefront property. Thomas, a close friend of Sen. J. William Fulbright (he was also friendly with Sen. John L. McClellan and Congressman Wilbur D. Mills), had inside connections. He was able to find out what the level would be long before the water started to rise.

With that piece of information in hand, Thomas bought an area known as Estes Hill. He knew that islands in Corps of Engineers’ lakes cannot be privately owned. So, before the lake filled, he built a causeway that would be above the water level. What would become Eden Isle no longer could be called an island.

Once the lake filled, 400 of Thomas’ 500 acres were above water. The lodge and restaurant opened for business in 1963, burned in 1964 following a kitchen fire and reopened in 1965.

While developing Eden Isle, Thomas began trying to convince the federal government to build the water garden just below Greers Ferry dam. He figured such an attraction would draw tens of thousands of additional visitors to Cleburne County each year.

Thomas arranged for a group of architecture students at the University of Arkansas to come up with plans. When the drawings were complete, Thomas sent them to Fulbright and urged the senator to make the project happen.

Jerol Garrison picked up the story from there in a 1964 article in the Arkansas Gazette: “Last fall, when President Kennedy accepted an invitation to speak at the dedication of Greers Ferry Dam on Oct. 3, Fulbright decided it would be a good time to broach the subject of the water garden to him.

“The two men sat together in the president’s airplane on the trip to Arkansas, and Fulbright showed Mr. Kennedy the drawings the UA students had made. The president expressed an interest and suggested that Fulbright talk to the Army Engineers about it.

“Fulbright replied that he had and that the Engineers had turned him down on the ground that a water garden was outside the scope of their authority.

“At that point a general in the Army Engineers who was participating in the conversation told Fulbright, ‘You are now talking to the man (the president) that could reopen it.’

“Mr. Kennedy then told the general to have the Army Engineers prepare a preliminary plan and cost estimate.

“After speaking at the dedication of the dam, Mr. Kennedy and his party left in a fleet of five helicopters for Little Rock. As his helicopter took off, the president arranged for it to separate from the others and fly over the site of the proposed water garden so he could get a better look at it.”

In a letter sent 11 days after the Greers Ferry dedication to Kenneth O’Donnell, a key White House aide, Fulbright wrote: “I am sure I need not tell you that matters of aesthetics, especially a new idea in this field, rather startle the Engineers, and they will probably have to be reminded from time to time in order to get this project under way. The more I think of it, the more exciting I believe this project is, as it could have application in many places in the country if we could prove its value by a pilot project.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the trip to Arkansas. I have heard many favorable reports from many constituents, and I feel the president should consider the energy and time spent as thoroughly justified by the results.”

Then came the fateful November trip to Texas.

Despite Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas the following month, neither Thomas nor Fulbright gave up.

In a Dec. 26, 1963, letter to McClellan, Thomas wrote: “I have recently seen the Engineers’ rendering of this proposed project. It was excellent, and I found their attitude entirely changed. They are now strongly for it. It is now back in the Engineers’ Washington office, and I am confident Bill Fulbright will be working with President Johnson on it, as Bill agrees with me that it is not only a cultural spectacular but an economic one.

“It would bring to Heber Springs many people other than just fishermen and sightseers. It would raise the economic level of the visitors to the community. Both Bill and I have visited the Gardens of Tivoli out of Rome, which are on the same order, and we personally know that they draw visitors from all over the world. Personally, I would consider this more valuable to the town and to Eden Isle, as well as to the property all around Heber Springs, than any other one accomplishment that has been mentioned since the construction of the dam.

“If you would get with Bill, and then bring Wilbur Mills in on it, I haven’t the least doubt but that you could get it done. Ed Stone’s firm in New York has offered to work on it with us without compensation. He likewise has seen the Gardens of Tivoli and knows their value, and said if he could see this accomplished in his own state of Arkansas he would consider that ample compensation for whatever he was called upon to do. This and good roads around the lake are all we need to make it one of the most talked-about places in America. I hope by now you have absorbed some of my enthusiasm for it.”

The Ed Stone mentioned is, of course, Edward Durell Stone, one of the most famous architects of the 20th century. Stone was born in Fayetteville in 1902 and attended the University of Arkansas from 1920-23 before moving to Boston, where his brother was an architect.

Stone was later a visiting professor at the UA’s architecture school. He helped the school obtain accreditation and employed a number of UA students in his New York office.

After Stone agreed to work on the water garden project, Fulbright wrote to him: “I am delighted about your reaction as this is a pet project of mine. I have been kicking it around for nearly a year with Herbert and others.”

In 1965, the project was assigned by the Johnson administration to the National Park Service. True to the promise he had made to Fulbright and Thomas, Stone submitted plans for the Greers Ferry water garden to the Park Service on June 13, 1966.

In 1972, the Park Service declared that the project was outside its jurisdiction. That likely would have been the end of the story had Billy Lindsey not said something to Jerry Holmes four decades later.

The new Cleburne County judge took on the project as a personal mission, contacting the governor and members of the Arkansas congressional delegation.

Chris Caldwell, a talented and enthusiastic aide to Sen. John Boozman, went to work on Holmes’ behalf and somehow found the Stone plans. For decades, they had been gathering dust at a Park Service storage facility in Colorado.

Those plans now sit on Holmes’ desk in downtown Heber Springs. They’re titled “Greers Ferry National Garden Park.”

Holmes is convinced that had Kennedy lived, the project would have been completed and been a “Crystal Bridges-type attraction” for Arkansas long before Crystal Bridges.

He says, “You could find the money in the Interior Department budget to do this if we could get the right people pushing for it in Washington.”

Holmes wants to name the water garden the President John F. Kennedy Memorial Water Garden.

In a letter to the late president’s daughter, Caroline, the county judge wrote: “I am determined, 50 years later, to see this project through and let the people of Arkansas and the United States have a moment to relive a part of a president’s dream.”

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