Archive for the ‘Traveling Arkansas’ Category

David Solomon at 100

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s right: The Mississippi Blues Trail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Along U.S. Highway 67: Part 3

Monday, July 18th, 2016

As we headed southwest on U.S. Highway 67, Paul Austin commented just past Gum Springs that he was able to see parts of the old road to his right. It reminded him of a similar stretch of 67 between Newport and Walnut Ridge in northeast Arkansas where the old road is visible.

Indeed, we passed a former rest area between Gum Springs and Curtis that’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

At the bottom of a wooded embankment is a fieldstone retaining wall and a concrete bench. A plaque reads: “Built by National Youth Administration in cooperation with Arkansas State Highway Department 1936.”

Old Highway 67 was the main automobile route in this part of the state from the time of its paving in 1931 until the current highway as built adjacent to it in 1965.

Here’s how the official nomination form submitted for the National Register recounts the history of the road: “The route of U.S. 67 was a natural corridor through Arkansas due to the state’s geography, and its history goes back many centuries. Current U.S. 67 roughly divides Arkansas into two triangles with the Ozarks to the northwest and the Delta with its associated swampland to the southeast. The ease of travel in this corridor was first taken advantage of by the Native Americans, who picked out a route that avoided the hills and swamps, and crossed the many rivers at their easiest fording locations.

“At the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the Southwest Trail was developed along the route. It predated the Memphis to Little Rock Road of 1826 and was the earliest land route into Arkansas. The route entered Arkansas at Hix’s Ferry, a community northeast of Pocahontas in Randoph County, proceeded through Little Rock and ended at the Red River in Fulton in Arkansas’ southwest corner.

“The development of the Southwest Trail through Arkansas opened up settlement in the areas along its route. Pioneers came into the state from the northeast bringing their cattle, wagon trains and occasionally slaves with them. All along the route, the settlers selected tracts of bottomland and made clearings in the wilderness. The importance of the Southwest Trail was also recognized by Andrew Jackson, who signed an appropriations bill in 1831 that earmarked $15,000 for the improvement of the trail and also designated it a National Road. The importance of this military road also was proven during the war with Mexico in the 1840s.

“As the construction of railroad lines began in earnest in Arkansas after the Civil War, the railroad line also utilized the same approximate corridor that the military road had used in Clark County. Historic railroad maps of the area show that a railroad line was in the planning stages in 1864 and 1872. The railroad line, which would become the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern in 1874, was completed by 1873. The arrival of the railroad further increased settlement in that part of Clark County, and the towns of Curtis and Gum Springs came into existence by 1895.

“When the Arkansas State Highway System was formed in 1923, U.S. 67 was one of the original highways included. It was also one of the first nine Arkansas highways to become part of the U.S. highway system two years later in 1925. The creation of the state highway system was the most important aspect of the Harrelson Road Law of 1923, and it brought all construction and maintenance activities under the jurisdiction of the Highway Commission.

“However, the section of highway between Curtis and Gum Springs did not become a part of U.S. 67 until the paving was finished in 1931. Prior to 1931, it was designated Arkansas 51. The route of U.S. 67 went northwest through the town of Burtsell before turning northeast at Okolona, proceeding on to Arkadelphia. The old route of U.S. 67 through Okolona is now designated Arkansas 51.

“Rerouting U.S. 67 to proceed northeast through Curtis and Gum Springs once the paving of Arkansas 51 was completed made sense since the route was more direct and shorter in distance. By Dec. 31, 1932, the section of Arkansas 51 between Gurdon and Arkadelphia had been designated U.S. 67. In addition, the original route of U.S. 67, which went through Okolona, was designated Arkansas 51 and remains so today.

“Once this section of U.S. 67 was paved, it quickly became the main highway in that part of Clark County. Since U.S. 67 was a heavily traveled road, facilities were needed to provide goods and services to travelers on the highway. In 1936, the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department teamed up with the NYA to construct a small rest area for travelers. … The rest area had a well that provided water for travelers and their cars and a bench to rest on. A stone retaining wall completed the facility.

“The fact that this portion of U.S. 67 was the main route between Little Rock and Texarkana meant that it was also a highly traveled road for both automobile and truck traffic. As a result, this rest area was a popular place for travelers on U.S. 67 beginning in the 1930s. The amount of traffic using U.S. 67 ultimately led to the construction of the current U.S. 67 immediately to the east of the 1931 alignment in 1965. It is likely that once the current highway was built in 1965, the usage of the U.S. 67 rest area declined dramatically.”

After leaving Gurdon, we came upon another National Register property, the bridge over the Little Missouri River as we crossed from Clark County into Nevada County.

The bridge consists of three steel Parker pony truss spans. The Parker truss was developed by C.H. Parker through designs he submitted for patents from 1868-71. The bridge was built in 1931.

Here’s the history that was included in the National Register application: “The area that’s now Clark County became a part of the United States with the acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Hunters and trappers constituted the earliest white arrivals in the region, but because of their transient lifestyle it remained largely undeveloped. Farmers arrived, though, and the rich bottomlands of the Ouachita River became increasingly settled.

“One of the these early settlers was Adam Blakely, a blacksmith who arrived on the banks of the Ouachita in 1808. There he constructed his shop, and the town that sprang up around him soon became known as Blakelytown. A boat landing was constructed near the settlement, and an economic and industrial boom ensued. In the 1840s, the citizens of the growing town changed its name to Arkadelphia, and the county seat was moved there in 1842.

“The settlement that’s now Nevada County came as early as 1812. The settlement of the county was very slow until the Iron Mountain Railway came. … Nevada County was organized in accordance with an act of the Arkansas General Assembly, approved March 20, 1871. In 1877, the county seat was moved from Rosston to Prescott.

“Growth in the area increased as Arkadelphia transitioned from a river economy to a railroad economy. In 1873, the Cairo & Fulton Railroad was completed through Clark County. The emerging lumber industry benefited most from this development, and a number of lumber mills were constructed throughout the county. The relative success in the county’s agricultural and timber economies boosted Arkadelphia’s importance as a center of commerce.

“Arkadelphia’s continuing influence was seen when the state began to build highways. The city was a hub for a number of early roads. The first real efforts to develop tourism began in the 1930s. U.S. Highway 67 was reconstructed through Clark County in 1931. Since the highway crossed the Little Missouri River, a bridge had to be built. During the 1930s, this highway linked Davenport, Iowa, and Dallas, greatly increasing motor travel through Clark and Nevada counties. The bridge was built by the Vincennes Bridge Co. of Vincennes, Ind., and was a part of a large contract for six bridges along U.S. 67. It took 225 days to complete them, and they cost $153,415.22.”

The final stop before getting off Highway 67 was Prescott. It began as a railroad town and has seen its population fall from 4,103 residents in the 1980 census to 3,296 residents in the 2010 census.

Steve Teske describes the growth of Prescott for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “The Cairo & Fulton railroad line crossed the north end of Nevada County in 1873. Robert Burns moved from Little Rock to the town of Moscow in Nevada County, two miles south of the tracks, and he persuaded the railroad surveyors to plant a town on the line near Moscow. In August of that year, four surveyors, including W.H. Prescott, laid out 24 blocks on each side of the rails. Within two weeks, Burns had constructed a frame storehouse in the incipient city. A second store, a restaurant and a hotel followed. The railroad had established a depot in the city by November.

“On Nov. 24 of the same year, Prescott received a post office — Burns was named postmaster — and was said by later writers to resemble an oil boom town in the speed of its growth. Controversy exists surrounding the name of the town. Most historians assumed that it was named for the surveyor, but others note that railroad executives Thomas Allen and Henry Marquand had a friend of the same name for whom the city might have been named.”

The first church, a Cumberland Presbyterian church, was built in 1875. The first newspaper also was published that year. The first mayor was elected in 1876, and a school district was established in 1877. The first bank opened in 1880.

“Prescott continued to grow and thrive as the 20th century approached,” Teske writes. “Ozan Lumber was established in Prescott in 1891 to harvest the lumber of southwest Arkansas. The Reader Railroad was created to link lumber operations to the Cairo & Fulton line. Various crops, including peaches, were raised in the Prescott area. Icehouses in the city helped to preserve the fruit while it awaited shipping. Hines Trucking, an early transportation company, was established in Prescott in 1936. Because of the jobs in agriculture, timber and the railroads, many African-Americans lived in Prescott. Future congressman and governor Thomas McRae donated money to build schools for the city’s African-American community. Those schools continued to be used until desegregation took place in the second half of the 1960s.”

Potlatch Corp. acquired what had been Ozan Lumber and operated a mill until 2008. The closing of the mill was a major blow to the city.

When I was growing up in Arkadelphia, friends would make trips to Prescott to see the body of Old Mike, the traveling salesman who died there in 1911. No one knew his full name or where he was from. The body was embalmed and available for viewing for more than 60 years. No one ever claimed it.

David Sesser picks up the story for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Mike visited Prescott about once a month to sell pens, paper and thread to homes and businesses near the railroad tracks in the center of town. He would arrive on the southbound 3 p.m. train and stay overnight. The next day, he would board the 3 p.m. train and continue his journey. On April 11, 1911, Mike probably attended an outdoor revival in the city park. The next day, his body was found underneath a tree in the park, where he apparently had died of a heart attack or stroke.

“The body was taken to the Cornish Funeral Home, where it was embalmed. A search of Mike’s belongings did not turn up any identification. What was known about Mike was that he was 40 to 45 years old, spoke English with little accent, was probably Italian, had suffered some type of injury to his right arm and left leg (possibly the effects of a stroke) and had had very elaborate dental work done. The body was placed on display at the funeral home in hopes of someone identifying it. No one came forward to identify or claim the body.

“As the years passed, it became more and more unlikely that Mike would ever be identified. The body turned into somewhat of a tourist attraction, and people traveled from surrounding areas to view the remains. In 1975, the Arkansas Attorney General’s Office asked Cornish Funeral Home to bury the body. On May 12, 1975, a quiet ceremony was held at the DeAnn Cemetery, and Old Mike was put to rest.”

It was time to leave Highway 67 and travel south to Emerson.

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Along U.S. Highway 67: Part 2

Wednesday, July 13th, 2016

There was no easy way to get to DeSoto Bluff in Arkadelphia the first time I took Paul Austin to the bluff, which was walking distance from the house in which I was raised.

We parked along U.S. Highway 67, risked tearing our pants as we crossed a fence and then walked through woods filled with ticks and chiggers in order to take in the beautiful view of the Ouachita River.

It’s an easy walk now, thanks in part to grants from the Arkansas Humanities Council (which Paul heads), the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and others.

There’s a paved parking lot and a paved trail to the top.

Most historians, by the way, will tell you that Hernando DeSoto never came near this spot.

Back in 2013, then-Arkadelphia city manager Jimmy Bolt told Wayne Bryan of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: “It has been a story that has been told around here for a long time. So the name stuck, and I won’t be the one who says it’s impossible.”

We do know that the expedition of George Hunter and William Dunbar made its way by here in 1804 as the explorers headed up the Ouachita River. When Trey Berry (now the president of Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia) lived in his hometown of Arkadelphia and worked as a history professor at Ouachita Baptist University, he became the expert on the Hunter-Dunbar expedition.

“The Hunter-Dunbar expedition was one of only four ventures into the Louisiana Purchase commissioned by Thomas Jefferson,” Berry writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Between 1804 and 1807, President Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark into the northern regions of the Louisiana Purchase; Zebulon Pike into the Rocky Mountains, the southwestern areas and two smaller forays; Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis along the Red River; and William Dunbar and Dr. George Hunter to explore ‘the Washita River’ and ‘the hot springs’ in what’s now Arkansas and Louisiana.

“While the Ouachita River expedition was not as vast as and did not provide the expanse of geographic and environmental information collected by Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, the exploration of Dunbar and Hunter remains significant for several reasons. It provided Americans with the first scientific study of the varied landscapes as well as the animal and plant life of southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana. In fact, the expedition resulted in arguably the most purely scientific collection of data among all of the Louisiana Purchase explorations.

“The explorers described an extremely active and vibrant interaction between the European and the Native American population. Hunter and Dunbar also reported many encounters with European trappers, hunters, planters and settlers as well as fellow river travelers plying the waters of the Red, Black and Ouachita rivers. Their copious notes also portray a region in which these European and Indian inhabitants harvested the abundant natural resources along the rivers and in the lands beyond.”

Dunbar was born to an aristocratic family in Scotland in 1749. He studied astronomy and mathematics in Glasgow and London. He traveled to Philadelphia at age 22 and later settled near Natchez, Miss. Jefferson heavily relied on Dunbar’s advice when issues arose that affected that area.

Hunter was also a Scottish immigrant. He was a chemist and druggist in Philadelphia who already had explored parts of Ohio and Indiana.

Congress appropriated $3,000 for the trip. Dunbar wrote to Jefferson in June 1804 to ask permission to make a trial run up a Red River tributary he called the “Washita.” He was most interested in visiting what were known as “the boiling springs,” now Hot Springs.

Jefferson agreed to the change in plans.

The expedition left St. Catherine’s Landing on the east bank of the Mississippi River on Oct. 16, 1804, and made it to what’s now Monroe by Nov. 6.

“Near the current site of Arkadelphia, they met a man of Dutch descent named Paltz,” Berry writes. “The Dutch hunter knew the area well, and he informed the explorers of a salt spring located nearby, as well as other natural features. Paltz told them that he had ‘resided 40 years on the Ouachita and before that on the Arkansas.’ Hunter, Paltz and a small team investigated a ‘salt pit’ and reported it to be of a substantial nature. The chemist conducted specific gravity experiments on the saline water and discovered it to be a high concentration of what he called ‘marine salt.’

“On Dec. 3, 1804, Dunbar and Hunter confronted the greatest potential obstacle to their journey. Near what is today Malvern or Rockport, an enormous series of rocky rapids, called ‘the Chutes’ by the two men, stretched almost a mile before them. Dunbar described the formations as looking like ‘ancient fortifications and castles.’ Through strenuous efforts of rocking the vessel from side to side and essentially dragging the flatboat between and over rocks, the team finally traversed the maze of boulders. Dunbar compared the roar made by ‘the Chutes’ to the sound of a hurricane he had experienced in New Orleans in 1779.”

By Dec. 7, the expedition had reached the point where Gulpha Creek runs into the Ouachita River.

“Several men immediately began a nine-mile walk to examine the site,” Berry writes of the springs. “They returned the next afternoon with vivid descriptions of their experiences, stating that they had discovered an empty cabin thought to be used by those coming to bathe in and drink from the waters of the springs. The following day, Dunbar and Hunter traveled to the springs and began an almost four-week study of the water properties and geological and biological features.”

Back to the bluff at Arkadelphia: A stone-and-wood barrier is now at the end of the trail.

Ouachita professor Mike Reynolds often brings his students there.

“The area has marvelous views of the Ouachita River, the pine woods of the Gulf Coastal Plain to the east and south and the Ouachita Mountains to the north and west,” he told Bryan. “It’s easily accessible yet you get the feeling of being in the woods.”

When Ouachita decided to build a new entrance to its campus from Highway 67, it needed part of Arkadelphia’s Central Park for the project. The city gave Ouachita that land in exchange for 26 acres along the bluff.

Dedication ceremonies for the trail were held in July 2013. Interpretive panels funded by the Arkansas Humanities Council provide information on the Caddo Indians who once called this area home. There’s also a panel on the Hunter-Dunbar expedition.

After Paul Austin and I walked the trail last month, we got back in the car and continued south on Highway 67. We got off the highway at Gum Springs so I could show Paul where Sun Paper from China plans to make one of the largest private investments in the history of the state — $1.3 billion — to build a paper mill.

The next stop was Gurdon.

Meriwether Lewis Randolph, a grandson of Thomas Jefferson, bought several thousand acres in this area before he died of malaria in 1837.

“The area next experienced a large influx of settlers in 1874 when the Cairo & Fulton Railroad was constructed,” David Sesser writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “On July 12, 1875, a post office was opened but closed that same year. On March 15, 1876, the post office at Tate was renamed Gurdon. A small depot was constructed, and by 1880 the town had been laid out. That year, 33 citizens petitioned the Clark County Quorum Court to incorporate the city of Gurdon, which was approved. Several theories exist for the name of the city, most notably that it’s in honor of Gurdon Cunningham, who surveyed the right of way for the railroad in the area.”

Gurdon became an important railroad and timber town.

“The city expanded as timber companies opened mills in the area,” Sesser writes. “The number of mills operating in the area reached a peak of 10 in the late 19th century. The combination of people passing through town on the railroad and the rough nature of the timber business brought many unsavory characters to Gurdon. When the first minister arrived in Gurdon in 1881, he found a community of 500 people with three saloons and no churches. The situation changed in 1887 when all saloons were banned from the town.”

Paul and I drove into downtown since he had never seen the headquarters of the Concatenated Order of the Hoo-Hoo or the marker next to the depot that commemorates the organization’s founding.

The Hoo-Hoo is the oldest industrial fraternal organization in the country. The organization of lumbermen once had more than 13,000 members. That’s now down to about 2,000.

Six men — Bolling Arthur Johnson of Chicago, George Washington Schwarz of St. Louis, William Starr Mitchell of Little Rock, William Eddy Barns of St. Louis, Ludolph O.D. Adalbert Strauss of Malvern and Southern Lumber Manufacturers Association secretary George Kimball Smith — formed the order on Jan. 21, 1892, in the Hotel Hall at Gurdon.

Its motto would be “Health, Happiness and Long Life.”

The board of directors would be called the Supreme Nine.

The president would be called the Snark of the Universe.

The chaplain would be called the Bojum.

The secretary would be called the Scrivenoter.

The sergeant at arms would be called the Gurdon.

The others board members would be the Senior Hoo-Hoo, Junior Hoo-Hoo, Custocacian, Arcanoper and Jabberwock.

“Some of these names were derived from Lewis Carroll’s ‘Hunting of the Snark,’ which one of the founders had recently read,” Rachel Bridges writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The name Hoo-Hoo also had a unique origin. In Kansas City about a month before the founding of the order, Johnson had used the term hoo-hoo to refer to an unusual tuft of hair on the head of Charles McCarer, who became the first Snark of the Universe and was given membership number one.”

The mascot would be a black cat with its tail curved in the number nine.

Membership originally was limited to 9,999 people.

That number later was changed to 99,999.

Meetings were to be held on the ninth day of the ninth month at nine minutes after the ninth hour.

Annual dues were $9.99.

The initiation fee was 99 cents.

The first chapter outside of the United States began in Canada in 1924. Soon, there were chapters all over the world.

“Though the Hoo-Hoo experienced a slump from 1929-38, when membership dropped to around 700, the order recovered and membership began to rise again,” Bridges writes. “Two U.S. presidents have had membership in Hoo-Hoo. Theodore Roosevelt was given the reserved membership number 999 for his work promoting the importance of forests. Warren G. Harding, membership number 14,945, was ‘concatenated’ in 1905.”

Bridges describes the Hoo-Hoo monument in Gurdon this way: “Several elements make up the present-day monument. The base of the monument is an ashlar-faced barre granite stone measuring 116 inches high, 107 inches wide and 44 inches deep. The second element of the monument — and that which makes it of historic significance — is a bronze plaque sculpted by noted artist George J. Zolnay. This plaque was completed in 1909, at which time it was affixed to a building then occupying the site of the Hotel Hall. When this building was demolished in 1927, the Zolnay plaque was moved to its present location, affixed to the granite base and rededicated. Zolnay sculpted the plaque with Egyptian Revival reliefs and engravings. The pediment is illustrated with the image of a two-headed bird.

“The second horizontal level of the monument contains a relief of the Hotel Hall. The third level contains an inscription recounting the founding of Hoo-Hoo. The names of all Hoo-Hoo presidents are engraved on the opposite side of the base and on two small granite monuments at each side. The monument was added to the National Register of Historic Places on Sept. 2, 1999.”

Like other towns in the southern part of the state, Gurdon has struggled in recent decades. Its population fell from 2,707 in the 1980 census to 2,212 in the 2010 census.

Good news came in October 2014 when Georgia-Pacific announced that it would invest $37 million at its nearby lumber mill to expand the production capacity by 60 percent.

The huge investment being made by Sun Paper in Clark County will help even more.

It was time to leave Gurdon and continue to the southwest toward Prescott.

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Along U.S. Highway 67

Tuesday, July 12th, 2016

Before the construction of Interstate 30, U.S. Highway 67 was the route from Arkansas to Texas, making it one of the most important roads in the state.

On a recent trip to south Arkansas, Paul Austin and I drove on the old highway from just outside Benton to Prescott, eschewing the interstate and experiencing the sights along Highway 67.

“The route of Highway 67 is the approximate border between the low Mississippi Delta and Gulf Coastal Plain to the south and east and the Ouachita and Ozark mountains to the north and west,” Steve Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “This boundary is such a natural path of travel that even spring and summer thunderstorms frequently move along the same route. Undoubtedly, native Americans traveled portions of this route.

“After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, as the U.S. government began improving travel through the territory, a military road was constructed from Missouri through Little Rock and south to Fulton on the Red River. This road became known as the Southwest Trail and was the first land route created in Arkansas. When the Cairo & Fulton Railroad began surveying a route to connect southern Illinois to the Red River across Missouri and Arkansas, the same route was used once again. The railroad became the Iron Mountain Railroad and was then acquired by the Missouri Pacific Railroad. The route is still used by the Union Pacific Railroad in the 21st century, although ties and rails have been repaired and replaced through the years.”

The roads that eventually would turn into Highway 67 in Arkansas were part of the original state highway system in 1923.

“Federal and state funding became available for highways early in the 1920s as automobile and truck traffic was beginning to take the place of railroad traffic,” Teske writes. “A joint commission of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads and the American Association of State Highway Officials created the first national system of highways, with nine federal highways established in Arkansas, including Highway 67. Sections of the highway were gradually improved as funds became available. Much pavement was laid for the highway in 1928 through 1931. The highway was 18 feet wide at that time. More improvements were made by federal projects such as the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s.”

Teske notes that the construction of a large ordnance plant at Jacksonville in 1941 led to widening of the highway north of Little Rock.

“After the war, the United States entered a period of prosperity and growth that led to cultural changes,” he writes. “Many of the earliest rock ‘n’ roll performers — including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty and Sonny Burgess — performed in high schools, nightclubs and other venues along Highway 67 from Newport north to Pocahontas. In 2009, the Arkansas General Assembly named this part of the highway the Rock ‘n’ Roll Highway, with a portion also in Miller County in southwest Arkansas, as early rock ‘n’ roll performers played at the Arkansas Municipal Auditorium when they traveled through Texarkana on Highway 67.”

The history of the music scene along Highway 67 in northeast Arkansas is filled with colorful characters, but we’ve covered that in other posts on this blog. We’ll stick to southwest Arkansas in this post.

“During the 1950s, American views of highway travel began to change,” Teske writes. “Until this time, highways existed to connect cities and towns to one another. The beginning of the interstate highway system caused drivers to begin traveling directly between large cities, bypassing the smaller cities and towns. Interstate 30, from Little Rock south to Texarkana and then into Texas, was one of the original interstate highways planned for Arkansas. The new interstate highway made travel into Texas easier but took business away from many of the communities that had relied on travelers’ income to support stores, restaurants and gas stations. … Highway 67 continued to be used by Arkansans traveling shorter distances in the southwestern quarter of the state.”

As we left Haskell, we passed what had been the historic Saline County campus of the Arkansas State Hospital, which opened at this location in the 1930s.

The Legislature created the Arkansas Lunatic Asylum in 1873, but Reconstruction delayed the construction of a facility until 1881, when work began on an asylum at Little Rock. The name was changed to the Arkansas State Hospital for Nervous Diseases (my grandmother in Benton, who lived until age 98, always called it “the nervous hospital,” the same term used in the 1996 movie “Sling Blade”) and then was changed to the Arkansas State Hospital in 1933.

Speaking of “Sling Blade,” the filming of the psychiatric hospital portrayed in the movie starring southwest Arkansas native Billy Bob Thornton took place at the Saline County facility.

In 1881, the Legislature levied a one-mill tax on all property for two years to construct and outfit an asylum. It opened on March 1, 1883. By 1915, there were 12 buildings housing patients. A separate hospital farm was established at Baucum outside of North Little Rock in the 1930s. What was known as the Benton Farm Colony opened in 1936 with room for 2,000 people. Farm operations ceased there in 1957.

A federal grant of $291,950 was used in 1964 to upgrade the Saline County facilities. Several of the buildings are now empty.

These days the complex is known as the Arkansas Health Center. It’s a 310-bed nursing facility. In fact, it’s the only state-operated nursing facility.

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture states: “In 1961, the Arkansas Health Center was designated to receive all African-American psychiatric patients from its section of the state. In July 1962, all African-American phychiatric patients from Pulaski County, including those patients receiving treatment from the Arkansas State Hospital, were transferred to AHC. Although black and white patients were housed in separate buildings, AHC was one of the only facilities of its kind in Arkansas to accept such a large black population. In October 1965, AHC became racially integrated.”

We continued west past Glen Rose High School and then passed the Acme Brick Co. plant at Perla.

Fittingly, it was Brickfest weekend at Malvern. The festival started in 1981 and includes everything from a brick-throwing contest to concerts and arts and crafts displays.

There were dozens of brick plants in Arkansas during the early 1900s. Little Rock, Fort Smith, Clarksville, El Dorado, Hope, Jonesboro, Malvern, Pine Bluff, Mansfield, Pocahontas and Wynne were among the cities with brick-making operations. By the 1980s, there were only plants in the Malvern area, Jonesboro, Hope, Fort Smith and Clarksville. By 2009, there were just four plants in the state, and they all were owned by Acme.

Well-known names in the brick industry in Arkansas included:

— The Fort Smith Brick Co., which dated back to the 1840s and was acquired by Acme in 1923 along with a plant at Mansfield.

— The Hope Brick Works, which was part of the O’Neal-Gardner family’s 100-year tradition of brickmaking. The plant moved to Hope from Gurdon in the 1920s. Acme purchased and closed the facility in 2000.

— The Jonesboro Brick Co., which was operated by three generations of the Charles Stuck family before being closed in 1942. It reopened in 1946 as the Hall-Wheeler Brick Co. It was just the Wheeler Brick Co. from 1951-66, when a modern plant was built on the west site of town. Acme bought that plant in 2000.

— The Eureka Brick & Tile Co. of Clarksville, which began production in June 1946 and operated until it was sold to Acme in 1999.

“Malvern is by far the leading city in brick production in Arkansas and at one time claimed to be the Brick Capital of the World,” Randall Wheeler writes. “It has been the home of Acme Brick Co., Arkansas Brick & Tile, Atchison Brick Works, Clark Pressed Brick Co. (sold to Arkansas Brick & Tile in 1916) and Malvern Brick & Tile. Acme first purchased property at Malvern in 1919 and began negotiations to purchase Arkansas Brick & Tile.

“Malvern Brick & Tile was started in 1925 and, at one time, had a line of bricks in colors such as blue, green, pink and yellow. Other companies sprayed the color onto the face of the brick, but Malvern Brick used stains that colored the whole body of the brick. It is not likely that any other company produced bricks with through-the-body colors. Malvern Brick was purchased by Acme in the late 1970s.”

Acme began in Texas in 1891 and opened its first Arkansas plant in Hot Spring County in 1921. Illinois native George Bennett arrived in Dallas in 1876 and purchased 480 acres in Parker County for the first Acme plant. The headquarters was moved to Fort Worth in 1911, four years after Bennett died. By the 1970s, Acme was the largest American brick manufacturer. Land was purchased at Perla in 1919, and the first bricks were being made two years later.

The fully automated Perla East Gate Plant opened in 1967. Meanwhile, the original Malvern plant was replaced with what’s known as the Ouachita Plant in 1980.

It’s not nearly as big, of course, but I consider Keeney’s Grocery in Malvern to be as much of a Hot Spring County landmark as the brick plants. It’s where Paul and I had breakfast, including some of the best sausage I’ve ever eaten.

Charles and Maureen Keeney opened the grocery store 60 years ago at this same location, hidden from most traffic in a residential area.

Charles Keeney is 80 but is young at heart. He even drives a Corvette.

“She can get old if she wants to,” he says of his wife. “I’m not going to.”

A corner of the store has been turned into a small restaurant. Keeney’s serves breakfast and lunch every day but Sunday.

In 2000, with competition from Walmart and other big retailers hurting his business, Charles Keeney thought about retiring. But he decided that with only $45,000 in the bank he needed to keep working.

Here’s how Wayne Bryan told the story in a 2011 feature for the Tri-Lakes edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: “Rather than just carry on business as usual in a small grocery store that seems to fit more in the 1950s than the new millennium, Charles decided to latch onto what’s still the fastest-growing segment of the supermarket industry, cooking for customers (or, as it is called in the grocery business, home meal replacement). Starting in the late 1990s, many supermarket operators discovered that preparing and serving food in their stores was a good way to bring in new customers, gain greater loyalty from existing customers and increase checkout sales and profits. … Today, in-store restaurants aren’t unusual. Charles had the same idea for his small store on Mill Street in Malvern. The couple, along with several employees, prepare and serve breakfast and lunch six days a week at the back of their store.”

Charles Keeney told Bryan: “I just pushed some of the groceries back and put in a kitchen and some tables. I did it because I had to make a living. We stumbled through the menu for a while. But I was raised country so we fix things in the old home-style way.”

Keeney told us that he sells so much sausage at breakfast that he doesn’t have time to make it to sell by the pound in the grocery section of the store.

On Thursdays, he sells dozens of rib-eye steaks. People eat them in the restaurant for lunch while others come in during the afternoon to get steaks to take home for supper.

Charles and Maureen Keeney arrive at the store at 4:30 a.m. and begin serving breakfast at 6 a.m..

Charles was 20 and Maureen was 17 when they bought the store in 1956.

They’re a special couple, deeply loved in the Malvern area.

A crew from KTHV-TV, Channel 11 in Little Rock showed up last year to visit the store.

Charles Keeney told them: “We went broke like the rest of them little ones. Times changed on us. When I turned 65, we started cooking. We had $45,000 to retire on, so we went to town and borrowed $45,000 more and spent it back there on the kitchen.”

Keeney’s is open from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 6 a.m. until 3 p.m. each Saturday. It’s worth the road trip.

We continued toward Arkadelphia, crossing the old viaduct over the railroad tracks at Donaldson, crossing the Ouachita River, passing Ouachita High School, passing through Friendship, crossing DeRoche Creek into Clark County, getting through the Caddo Valley commercial corridor and then crossing the Caddo River.

 

 

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Eating our way west on U.S. 82

Friday, July 8th, 2016

Having departed Burge’s in Lewisville, Paul Austin and I crossed the Red River bridge on U.S. Highway 82 and found ourselves in Miller County — the community of Garland to be exact.

Garland had a population of only 242 residents in the 2010 census, but that population more than doubles on Friday and Saturday nights because this is the Catfish Capital of Southwest Arkansas.

More on that later.

“The first and most famous resident of the area was William Wynn, who arrived at the banks of the Red River and established a farm around 1835,” Steve Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “At that time, confusion about the border between Arkansas and Texas and uncertainty about the size of Miller County resulted in many records placing Wynn’s land in Lafayette County. Wynn bought many acres of land, on which he grew cotton and other crops. By 1850, according to census records, he owned 96 slaves.

“Early in the 1850s, surveyors for the Mississippi, Ouachita & Red River Railroad planned a crossing of the Red River at Wynn’s plantation. Tracks had not yet been completed that far west when Wynn died in 1857, and the Civil War then delayed construction of the railroad. Finally, by 1881, the St Louis Southwestern Railway (often called the Cotton Belt) built the proposed track, including a bridge, across the Red River. A post office was established at the depot next to the bridge in 1883. It is not known why the name Garland was designated.”

The 1800s indeed were confusing times in this area where four states — Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas — now come together.

Arkansas’ territorial legislature established Miller County in 1820.

“At the time, it included most of present-day Miller County and parts of Bowie, Cass, Delta, Fannin, Franklin, Hopkins, Hunt, Lamar, Morris, Red River and Titus counties in Texas,” writes Beverly Rowe of Texarkana College. “Miller County was part of the disputed Horse’s Head area of northeast Texas and southwest Arkansas, too far north for Mexico to control well and too far west for the United States to control well. While it was technically under Mexican jurisdiction, it truly was not under any country’s control.

“The county was named for territorial Gov. James Miller, a native of Temple, N.H. The first county seat was in the John Hall house in the Gilliland settlement. The county’s establishment was problematic because Mexico claimed much of east Texas. Texas declared its independence from Mexico in 1836, and the first Miller County was abolished two years later. Gov. James Conway said the easiest solution would be to abolish the county and remove its records to a ‘more patriotic area’ — that is, in the United States.

“Until 1874, area settlers found themselves included in Lafayette County. The first Miller County had five post offices by 1835 — Jonesborough, McKinneyville, Mill Creek, Spanish Bluffs and Sulphur Fork. The southeastern United States provided the largest number of settlers to the area during this time as disheartened citizens of the old Confederacy moved west after the Civil War.”

The Arkansas Legislature re-established Miller County in 1874 with Texarkana as the county seat.

“From 1874 to 1900, the county’s population boomed, mainly in response to the railroad and the influx of immigrants,” Rowe writes. “By 1900, the population was 17,558, but it remained a predominantly rural county. It had 1,967 farms in 1900.”

In Garland, farm workers and railroad workers began moving in from the rural areas. Garland was incorporated in 1904.

“In the 1920s, the state of Arkansas began to plan highways for motor traffic to link the various parts of the state,” Teske writes. “Arkansas Highway 2 was developed to run parallel to the border of Arkansas and Louisiana, connecting Texarkana with Lake Village. A bridge across the Red River was built in Garland a short distance north of the railroad bridge. Originally a gravel road, Highway 2 was paved by 1932. The next year, it was designated U.S. Highway 82.

“Garland was guided through the Great Depression in part by local businesswoman Charline Person, who had managed a nearby 5,000-acre plantation since her husband’s death in 1911. In 1926, she was featured at the Women’s National Exposition in St. Louis. During the economic collapse, she took charge of soliciting and distributing goods as needed, as well as helping to raise funds to build the Garland Community Church.

“After World War II, improvements to the highway resulted in new stretches of pavement for Highway 82, although the same bridge crossing was used. A portion of the older highway, three-quarters of a mile in length, has been preserved near Garland and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.”

Garland is the home of Doc’s Fish & Steak House.

It’s also the home of West Shore.

Both restaurants pack them in on Friday and Saturday nights.

“It’s hard to imagine that that many people will support two places,” Kim “Doc” Mills told the Arkansas Times back in 2010.

Ramie Ham, Mills’ grandmother, opened Ham’s in 1969. That restaurant was co-owned by West Shore owner Ralph West and his father. Mills bought out the West family in the early 1970s.

Ham’s burned down in 1992.

Mills told the Times: “I had a little ol’ portable building, and I just whittled and hammered and drilled holes and redid stuff in that thing until I finally made a little kitchen out of it. By the time I finished it, Ham’s had burned. I thought, well, maybe I’ll cook up a little fish plate, and it just snowballed from there.”

He used scrap wood to add a dining room. Through the years, Mills kept adding rooms.

Here’s how Gerard Matthews described it in the Times: “All told, the dining area has been expanded eight times, the kitchen three. Where there was once a small cook shack now stands a sprawling maze of ramshackle rooms that seats 150 people comfortably. The walls are adorned with old neon beer signs, a 115-pound stuffed catfish, a two-headed calf and rusted farm tools so old even the most skilled harvester in Miller County wouldn’t know what to do with them.

“West Shore has that same rustic charm, although you can tell it was all built more recently and all at once, not just pieced together over the years. The bar is covered with Razorback memorabilia, and the three dining rooms, which seat about 125 people combined, each have a theme. There’s a deer room, a duck room and a fish room. Both places serve up all-you-can-eat fillets, or whole fish, with the traditional sides.”

West Shore was devastated by a flood last year but reopened earlier this year. People from southwest Arkansas, east Texas, north Louisiana and even southeast Oklahoma pour into Garland for catfish. Both restaurants were full the night we were there.

Leaving Garland, the vast fields of the Red River bottoms almost make you feel as if you’re in the Delta of east Arkansas. In fact, seeing the rolling, tree-covered hills of the Gulf Coastal Plain in the distance as you travel west gives the same impression as traveling through the Delta and seeing Crowley’s Ridge rise from the lowlands.

I never travel through here without thinking of Lynn Lowe, who died in August 2010 at age 74. Lowe, who farmed these Red River bottoms, was a Republican long before it was cool to be a Republican in Arkansas.

Lowe graduated from Garland High School, attended what’s now Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia for two years and them graduated in 1959 with a degree in agricultural engineering from the University of Arkansas. He spent the rest of his life farming near the Red River.

Lowe ran as a Republican for the U.S. House in 1966 after Democratic incumbent Oren Harris of El Dorado resigned to accept a Johnson administration appointment to the federal bench. David Pryor won the Democratic primary and then carried all 20 counties in the district against Lowe, finishing with 65 percent of the vote.

A dozen years later, Lowe was again the loyal party soldier. As state GOP chairman, he was unable to find a candidate to run for governor and decided to run himself. He got 36.6 percent of the vote against Bill Clinton and carried six of the state’s 75 counties — Sebastian, Crawford, Boone, Polk, Van Buren and Miller.

After three terms as state party chairman, Lowe served from 1980-88 as the GOP national committeeman from Arkansas.

We were too full to eat anything else that day, but no account of traveling west from Magnolia to Texarkana on U.S. 82 would be complete without putting in a plug for Texarkana’s two classic restaurants, Bryce’s Cafeteria and the Cattleman’s Steak House.

When asked during one of his presidential campaigns to name his favorite restaurant in the world, Ross Perot (who could afford dine to anywhere) listed Bryce’s. Perot grew up at Texarkana.

Bryce’s has been around since 1931, when it was founded by Bryce Lawrence. Sons Bryce Jr. and Richard later took over the cafeteria, which was downtown for decades before moving to a location on the Texas side of the line adjacent to Interstate 30.

Texarkana College’s Rowe explained the change in the city: “Since 1968, downtown buildings in Texarkana have deteriorated and businesses have closed. The most vibrant businesses are the law offices and bail bondsmen’s shops. Smaller towns such as Doddridge, Fouke, Garland, Genoa and Spring Bank have continued to shrink while Texarkana’s city limits are pushing out on all sides. … Interstate 30 negatively affected passenger railroad traffic. In past decades, as many as nine railway companies served the area, using Texarkana’s Union Depot as the main station. Today, freight trains provide most of the railroad traffic.”

This time of year, Bryce’s may be best known for its peach pie made with peaches from near Nashville in Howard County.

A Chicago Tribune feature story once stated: “Bryce’s Cafeteria may have better food for the money than anyplace on earth.”

Meanwhile, Roy Oliver opened the Cattleman’s in 1964 when State Line Avenue was a two-lane road. His son, Joe Neal Oliver, later took over the restaurant and became famous for going from table to table in his red apron to check on patrons.

I’ve always loved the atmosphere at the Cattleman’s. It’s a bit of a “Mad Men” feel, like stepping onto a 1960s movie set. Its private rooms have hosted more political fundraising events for candidates from Arkansas and Texas than can be counted. The numerous politicians and other movers and shakers who hung out here once were termed by the Texarkana Gazette as “the steakhouse gang.”

Not only that, as I’ve noted on this blog before, it’s the only restaurant in Arkansas where I can get calf fries and rooster fries as an appetizer. If you don’t know what those are, look it up.

 

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Along U.S. Highway 82

Thursday, July 7th, 2016

The primary mission on the last Saturday in June was to make it to the Purple Hull Pea Festival and World Championship Rotary Tiller Race in Emerson so Paul Austin and I would have plenty to talk about on our next segment of “Chewing The Fat With Rex And Paul” on 88.3 FM in Little Rock.

Mission accomplished.

Of course, Paul and I couldn’t be satisfied with just that.

Paul had never been to the original Burge’s in Lewisville (an establishment I frequented years ago when I was the sports editor of the Arkadelphia newspaper and would make regular trips south to Louisiana Downs), and neither of us had ever had dinner in Garland (some call it Garland City), the Catfish Capital of Southwest Arkansas.

We headed west on U.S. Highway 82 from Magnolia to Texarkana.

I like this area deep in south Arkansas, having grown up in Arkadelphia while making frequent trips to Magnolia for athletic events at either Magnolia High School or what’s now Southern Arkansas University. Arkadelphia’s Badgers and Magnolia’s Panthers were in the same district. SAU was in the old Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference with Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University. So we would drive to Magnolia often for football and basketball games, always stopping just off the downtown square for a meal at the Chatterbox and a warm greeting from the owner, Mr. Duke.

“Relative isolation and transportation difficulties have long been a problem for Columbia County,” my friend Mike McNeill writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Columbia is the only one of Arkansas’ 75 counties not situated on a river. The county’s creeks and bayous were more of an impediment than an aid to early travelers because they were too narrow and shallow to support water traffic. The swampy conditions of the upper Dorcheat Bayou in Columbia County did not allow for practical use by boats. Rain made travel conditions worse. Only the arrival of railroads made it possible for Columbia County residents to enjoy a dependable year-round transportation option.”

The first railroad to enter the county was the St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas Railroad in the fall of 1882. That railroad led to the creation of the towns of McNeil and Waldo.

“Cut off from the planned railroad, civic leaders in Magnolia resolved to have a spur line built to the city,” McNeill writes. “They pledged $6,000 in cash and property during a single meeting in 1881 and eventually raised more than $20,000 toward this goal. The branch was completed in 1883. Growth of railroads was also responsible for the creation of two Columbia County communities that remain incorporated today, Emerson and Taylor. The Louisiana & North West Railroad was built between Magnolia and points in Louisiana in 1899. The town of Emerson in the southeastern part of the county was created and later incorporated in 1905. There was a post office in Taylor years before the Louisiana & Arkansas Railroad was built through the southwestern portion of the county in the 1880s. The town was incorporated in 1913.”

Cotton and corn were the cash crops in the county. A group of businessmen formed the Magnolia Cotton Mill in 1928, and it was the county’s largest manufacturer for many years. True prosperity, however, came with the discovery of oil and gas fields in the late 1930s.

McNeill notes that the “employment situation had changed so drastically by 1942 that County Judge J.B. McClurkin issued a proclamation saying that all able-bodied men who did not have jobs would be arrested for vagrancy. … Magnolia grew steadily after World War II with the city’s population more than doubling between 1940 and 1960. Housing construction filled in the two miles between downtown Magnolia and the SAU campus to the north. This period also witnessed the construction of Magnolia’s two tallest buildings, the five-story McAlester Building and the five-story Magnolia Inn.”

There was even airline passenger service from 1953-62 from Trans-Texas Airways before production from the oil and gas wells began to decline and population growth slowed.

“While the importance of oil and gas drilling declined, a new natural resources industry arrived in the mid-1960s as chemical companies discovered the high bromine content of brine located thousands of feet beneath the earth’s surface,” McNeill writes. “Bromine is an element used in numerous chemical and manufacturing processes. On Jan. 18, 1966, Dow Chemical Co. broke ground for a bromine plant four miles west of Magnolia. A second plant soon followed (a joint venture of Ethyl Chemical Corp. and Great Lakes Chemical). Both plants were consolidated under the ownership of Albemarle Corp., which owns dozens of brine wells and pipelines that crisscross Columbia and Union counties.”

The timber industry also remains important in the area. We passed Deltic’s sawmill just south of Waldo on U.S. 82 before crossing the Dorcheat Bayou and heading into Lafayette County.

Lafayette is one of the state’s smallest counties from a population standpoint, having fallen from 16,934 residents in the 1930 census to 7,645 residents in the 2010 census. Cotton had once been king here, but pine trees now cover most of the county. Many residents live in either Stamps (1,693) or Lewisville (1,280).

Stamps, the childhood home of Maya Angelou, was a lumber town. Early settlers built a sawmill there soon after the Civil War that later was acquired by the Bodcaw Lumber Co.

“The area did not begin to flourish, though, until the St. Louis Southwestern Railway — commonly known as the Cotton Belt — extended a line across Lafayette County in 1882,” writes Steve Teske for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Hardy James Stamps came to Lafayette County from Georgia in 1880 to operate the lumber mill. When a post office was established at the settlement surrounding the mill in 1888, it was named for Stamps. The first postmistress at that location was Ella Crowell, Stamps’ daughter. The Louisiana & Arkansas Railroad was incorporated in March 1898 by William Buchanan of the Bodcaw Lumber Co. The town was initially home to the principal shops of the railway. Crossing the Cotton Belt, it extended south to Springhill, La. In 1902, the line was built north to Hope.”

The Bodcaw Lumber Co.’s sawmill was among the largest mills for yellow pine in the world. Its mill pond, Lake June, covered almost 80 acres. There was a company store. The Bodcaw Bank opened in 1903, and a newspaper began in 1905.

“The lumber business played out, and Stamps’ businesses began to relocate,” Teske writes.

When the lumber mill closed, Lake June was donated to the city of Stamps. Surface rights were then leased to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, which has long managed the lake.

The Game and Fish Commission announced that a substantial renovation of the lake will begin this month. Lake June will be drained in an effort to restore spillway structures, shoreline and fishing habitat. The spillway has been undermined to the point that the lake doesn’t stay full during dry periods. While the lake is empty, biologists will eliminate the aquatic vegetation that has choked the shallow areas of the lake for years.

“This lake has provided great fishing opportunities for the citizens of Lafayette County for 100 years, and we intend to make it even better for the next 100 years,” says Andy Young, the commission’s fisheries biologist supervisor.

A brief boost for the area came when a successful oil well was drilled near Stamps in 1952. That same year, Arkansas Power & Light Co. (now Entergy Arkansas) spent $6 million to add a 135,000-kilowatt generator to its gas-fired electrical generation facility.

Nearby Lewisville was incorporated in 1850. A courthouse had been built there nine years earlier. Cotton was doing well in the area at the time, so much so that black slaves outnumbered free whites in the county in the 1850 and 1860 census.

A new courthouse was built at Lewisville in 1890. Later courthouses were constructed in 1904 and 1940. Lewisville has some beautiful old brick buildings, several of which are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Lafayette County was carved out of  Hempstead County in 1827 with original borders being the Ouachita River on the east, Louisiana to the south, Hempstead County to the north and Texas on the west.

“The post-slavery era resulted in the dissolution of several huge plantations into small-acreage tracts owned and farmed by families,” Glynn McCalman writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “A few former slaves were included among the new landowners, though their share of the land was relatively small. … Land title abstracts of the era demonstrate the efforts of the large planters to retain their holdings with diminishing success. Families eagerly purchased, often with mortgages, small portions of the former plantations and sustained themselves with diversified production. Though cotton was the main cash crop, they also produced edible grains, hay for livestock, cane for sweetening and vegetable gardens.”

McCalman notes that farmers during most of the 1800s had “tried to rely on the Red River for heavy hauling, but they were hampered by the extensive and persistent logjam called the Great Raft. From time to time during the second half of the century, the raft was declared cleared, especially after the work of snagboat engineer Capt. Henry Shreve. But it continued to be a nemesis until the river was mostly replaced as a means of transportation by the railroad. Although the Cotton Belt rail system reduced the need from some retail stores in the county’s towns, better transportation increased the profitability of farming and timber harvesting. It also dramatically reduced travel time to Shreveport, Texarkana and elsewhere. Cotton was brought from the gins to the rails, and impressive sawmills rose by the tracks at Stamps, Frostville, Canfield, Arkana and other communities.”

Despite the county’s population losses, Burge’s in Lewisville is still going strong.

Alden Burge moved to Lewisville from Shreveport in 1953 to work in the oil business. He smoked turkeys in a backyard smokehouse on the weekends. On Friday nights in the fall when there were home football games, he would sell barbecued chickens, baked beans and slaw.

In 1962, Burge purchased a dairy bar near where Arkansas Highway 29 intersects with U.S. Highway 82. Barbecue, burgers and ice cream were on the menu. Barbecued goat, peppermint ice cream and even fireworks were sold for the Fourth of July.

In the 1970s, a Burge’s location was opened in the Heights neighborhood of Little Rock. It’s no longer owned by the Burge family but remains popular.

Here’s how Arkansas food writer Kat Robinson describes the offerings at Burge’s: “That smoked turkey is something that cannot be compared. The brine, the smoke, everything about the preparation of a Burge’s smoked turkey is meticulous — and the meat comes out so flavorful, it bears a resemblance to ham. Indeed many people I know — and I am one of them, imagine that — take their post-Thanksgiving or post-Christmas turkey carcass and utilize it for the seasoning in New Year’s Day peas. Salty, sweet, it’s addictive. … Turkey may be the overwhelming product Burge’s has given us (the website is smokedturkeys.com after all), but there’s so much more on the menu.

“I think the Lewisville location does the better burger, but that comes more from its dairyette roots. Likewise, I think the better ice cream is served in Lewisville. But the Little Rock location does have pimento cheese in its cooler and almost always has fried pies in the heated case.”

In the next installment, we’ll head west into Miller County.

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Cotton country

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

A photo posted recently on the Facebook page for the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum at Tyronza caught my attention.

Next to the Mitchell-East Building, in which the museum is located, are two rows of cotton that are being cultivated to show visitors.

It’s a sign of the times as cotton, which once fueled the Arkansas economy, continues to become less of a factor. In Tyronza, it’s literally becoming a museum piece.

There was a time when cotton was grown in all 75 counties of the state. Even in the Ouachita Mountains and the Ozark Mountains, farmers attempted to scratch out a living with this cash crop. Aging, rusting gins, covered in vines, remain a common site across rural Arkansas.

In looking at the photo from Tyronza, it dawned on me that one cannot truly understand the history of Arkansas without first understanding the history of cotton cultivation in the American South.

“Several visitors to Arkansas in the early 1800s made note in their journals and writings of cotton being grown,” Van Hawkins writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The crop remained a Southern staple because it needed hot summer days and warm summer night nights to bear abundant fruit. It also needed lots of labor, which in the South meant slaves, who handled every aspect of cotton production from planting in the spring to picking in the fall. After cotton planting and the achievement of a stand (a solid row of plants down each bedded row), the crop had to be blocked (elimination of all but one hardy plant per foot) and chopped to eliminate weeds and grass until a laid-by crop stood about waist high.

“Although farmers throughout the state planted cotton, the dark earth of the Arkansas Delta proved most hospitable, encouraging large crops each year in river counties such as Mississippi County in the north and Chicot County in the south. These counties, as did others in the Delta, had easy access to river transport and thus possessed an important shipping advantage over the state’s other cotton farmers.

“When the Civil War ended, slavery stopped as well, and wage labor, tenant farming or a combination of the two became the most common means of production. Typical regional farm wages in 1866 were $13 per month for men and $9 per month for women. Tenant shares varied but usually ranged from 25 percent to 50 percent. Sometimes there was little profit to share. Cotton prices fell after the Civil War and flat-lined through the late 1890s, killing off many Delta operators. For example, the price of lint, which is cotton fiber after the seed is removed, fell to about 9.4 cents per pound by 1888-89, barely covering the cost of production.”

As the 20th century neared, the size of Delta plantations became larger. Plantation owners employed hundreds and even thousands of tenant farmers.

“A typical Arkansas cotton tenant, black or white, rented 40 acres from a landowner and farmed with his own mules, harrow, planter and family for labor,” Hawkins writes. “Landowners got about one-fourth of the crop with the remainder going to the tenant. At the lower end of the tenant food chain, a sharecropper lacked equipment and capital so he farmed with landlord-supplied equipment and capital. Typically his family received only 50 percent of the crop and had to buy supplies and personal items from plantation commissaries, sometimes at high markups. Sharecroppers, particularly African-Americans who lacked mobility due to race, did little more than survive. They generally had little cash after settling up with landlords and often found themselves deeper in debt to the company store.”

Major cotton-related events in Arkansas history included the Lee County cotton picker strike of 1891, the Elaine massacre of 1919 and the formation of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union in 1934 as tension between landowners and tenant farmers grew.

“Profitable cotton prices, sometimes as high as 30 cents a pound, crashed along with the stock market at the beginning of the Great Depression,” Hawkins writes. “There was a drought of financing as banks closed and five-cent cotton devastated state producers. In 1933, the U.S. government devised a program to pay farmers for plowing up cotton acreage to reduce supply and, theoretically, create higher prices. The program made plow-up payments directly to landowners and directed them to share the money with tenants. However, some owners chose to evict tenants rather than share payments, which set in motion numerous conflicts between planters and tenants.”

The widespread mechanization of agriculture after World War II caused tens of thousands of tenant farmers and sharecroppers to lose their jobs. In Delta counties such as Mississippi and Phillips, the highest population was recorded in either the 1940 or 1950 census.

“One driver and one machine cleaned rows that previously required many hands to pick,” Hawkins writes. “Just as machines replaced hand labor on Arkansas farms, soybeans captured a growing share of state farm acreage. In the early 1960s, cotton generated about 33 percent of Arkansas’ agricultural income. By the 1980s, that percentage decreased to 20.”

The 2015 cotton acreage was the lowest on record in Arkansas with about 205,000 acres, but things have improved this year. More than 360,000 acres were planted in cotton for 2016.

“People are looking at their bottom line and potential returns on different commodities, and cotton is looking very favorable compared to all the other crops for 2016,” Bill Robertson, the extension cotton agronomist for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, said before planting began this year. “Grain sorghum isn’t nearly as attractive now as it was this time last year. Some folks had a few issues. They incurred expenses they weren’t expecting so a lot of them didn’t hit the home run with grain sorghum that they thought they were going to.”

Grain sorghum acreage had tripled to more than 500,000 acres in Arkansas last year. Despite the record low number of acres planted in cotton in 2015, Arkansas farmers had their fourth-highest recorded average yield at 1,112 pounds per acre.

“As acreage declines, the remaining cotton is on the better ground,” Robertson said. “Certainly some of our cotton-per-acre yield is increased because of the soil, but some of it is because of better genetics of our varieties.”

The United States is the third-largest cotton producer in the world behind India and China. Arkansas usually ranks in the top six states when it comes to acres planted in cotton.

U.S. farmers have benefited greatly as seed companies continue to develop varieties of cotton that produce higher yield and fiber quality.

“Five to 10 years ago, it really wasn’t possible to get a high fiber quality if you were going for maximum yield,” said Fred Bourland, director of the Northeast Research and Extension Center at Keiser in Mississippi County.

The outmigration from the Delta as cotton farming became mechanized set in motion population trends in the state that continue to this day.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette had a front-page story last week noting that 49 Arkansas counties lost population in 2015 and only 26 counties gained population. The state gained population overall — about 1,400 additional residents — with much of that growth fueled by the economic boom in northwest Arkansas.

The urbanization of Arkansas continues. It dawned on me that if you were to walk up to most northwest Arkansas residents holding a cotton plant, they would be unable to identify it.

Between the 2000 and the 2010 census, 39 counties gained population and 36 lost population. As you might guess, the counties that gained population tended to be in the northwest, west, central and north-central parts of the state. The counties that lost population tended to be in east and south Arkansas. There were exceptions. The Jonesboro area, for instance, has grown at a rapid rate since the turn of the century, fueling growth in Craighead and Greene counties.

In general, though, large parts of the Delta of east Arkansas and the pine woods of south Arkansas are emptying out. The population shift from east and south to north and west has been occurring in Arkansas since at least the 1950 census due to the mechanization of agriculture. But that trend has accelerated in the past 15 years.

People are going to do what’s best for their families and go where the jobs are. What cannot be denied is that Arkansas is a far different place now than it was a decade ago and will be an even more different place a decade from now.

Still, it remains important that we understand how cotton agriculture shaped the state.

The aforementioned Southern Tenant Farmers Museum at Tyronza, which opened in October 2006, is one of the best places to gain that understanding. The museum, which was developed by Arkansas State University, is in the Mitchell-East Building, which during the 1930s housed H.L. Mitchell’s dry-cleaning business and Clay East’s service station. Mitchell and East were instrumental in the formation in July 1934 of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union.

“The fact that the STFU was integrated, that women played a critical role in its organization and administration, and that fundamentalist church rituals and regional folkways were basic to the union’s operation foreshadowed the post-war civil rights era,” historian William Cobb writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “A series of natural disasters in the late 1920s and early 1930s, plus the unique circumstances present in Poinsett County, led to the formation of the STFU. The flood of 1927 revealed the desperate plight of the Delta cropper to the outside world, sparking the interest of unionists and the Socialist Party.

“In Poinsett County, there was some sympathy for socialist ideas among area merchants. The stock market collapse of 1929, coupled with the drought of 1930-31, totally destroyed farm income. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration, as part of a New Deal attempt to raise the price of cotton, paid planters to plow up a percentage of the crop their tenants had already planted. Fifty percent of this payment was meant for the tenant or cropper, but planters devised means to keep almost all of the money. With increasing incentives not to grow cotton, many planters evicted their tenants, leaving them homeless. Indeed, the event that set into motion the creation of the STFU was planter Hiram Norcross removing 23 families from his plantation in late spring 1934.

“At the Sunnyside School on the boundary of Norcross land in July 1934, a group of seven black and 11 white men agreed to form a union of tenants and sharecroppers. After some discussion, they decided that the union should be fully integrated, recognizing that they shared similar needs and economic situations. This was a stunning break with the past, though in some areas there would be separate black and white locals as the union expanded.”

Mitchell, who had been a sharecropper in Tennessee, had become a socialist while farming and recruited East to the socialist cause after moving to Arkansas.

“The two of them went to meetings in Memphis together, organized the local in Tyronza and helped organize the Tyronza Unemployment League in the spring of 1934,” Cobb writes. “The Unemployment League was an attempt to force the local agencies of the AAA to provide jobs for desperate tenants or croppers. At the instigation of Norman Thomas, the leader of the Socialist Party in the United States, the two men participated in the formation of the STFU. Many opponents of the STFU considered it to be a communist plot, and attacks from planters, both physical and verbal, were the norm at early meetings. Ward Rodgers, the STFU’s most effective white organizer, was arrested and jailed in Marked Tree in January 1935. As a result, Mitchell called Lucien Koch, the director of Commonwealth College in Polk County, and asked for help in founding locals. Commonwealth had the reputation of being a communist institution. Given Mitchell and East’s hatred of communists, this appeal was a sign of real desperation.”

Mitchell and East moved the union headquarters to Memphis in late 1935 and began to attract financial support from outside the South. Sen. Joe T. Robinson, despite being heavily supported financially by Delta planters, met with union leaders during the Democratic National Convention in June 1936. Robinson helped persuade Gov. Junius Futrell to take a strong stand against violence directed toward sharecroppers. The high-water mark came in 1938 when the union had more than 35,000 members. Infighting soon led to its demise with Mitchell and his followers leaving in the late 1930s.

“Mitchell returned to the shadow STFU in 1941 as executive secretary and served as president from 1944 to 1960,” Cobb writes. “During this time, the union became the National Farm Labor Union and later the National Agricultural Workers Union. The STFU really died when he died in 1989.”

Cotton has lived on as a cash crop in Arkansas but will never have the influence it once had in shaping the Arkansas economy and the state’s history.

 

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The hydroelectric battle

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

The visitors’ center at Bull Shoals-White River State Park is well worth the visit.

On the back deck is a spectacular view of Bull Shoals Dam with the lake on one side and the cold water of the White River on the other side.

If you have any doubt that Arkansas has the best system of state parks in the country, this facility will help put such doubts to rest.

Inside, exhibits tell the story of the White River, both before the construction of Bull Shoals Dam in the late 1940s and early 1950s and in the decades that have followed.

As an Arkansas history buff, the thing I found most interesting was a framed front page of the Baxter Bulletin from 64 years ago (it now publishes six days a week but was a weekly at the time). It was the issue published after President Truman spoke at the dedication of Bull Shoals Dam on July 2, 1952.

Truman, never one to mince words, took a shot at Arkansas Power & Light Co. (now Entergy Arkansas) and the other private power companies that had opposed the use of federal dams to generate electricity.

According to the articles in the newspaper, AP&L engineers had constructed a model in an attempt to show that flood control and hydroelectric generation weren’t compatible goals for the same dam.

Truman didn’t hesitate on the day of the dedication to make fun of that model.

What you must understand is that AP&L had been the most politically powerful business entity in the state for several decades thanks to the skills of Harvey Couch and C. Hamilton Moses.

Couch, who grew up in rural Columbia County, had at the age of 35 in 1914 purchased the only electric transmission line in the state. That line ran 22 miles from Malvern to Arkadelphia.

Couch later built two dams on the Ouachita River near Hot Springs (forming Lake Hamilton and Lake Catherine) to generate electricity for his growing utility company.

By 1930, AP&L had 3,000 miles of lines and served customers in 63 of the state’s 75 counties. Couch also formed Mississippi Power & Light Co. and Louisiana Power & Light Co. He built the first modern natural gas-fired power plant in this part of the country near Monroe, La., and was appointed by President Hoover to the board of the Reconstruction Finance Corp., which was formed in 1931 to address problems caused by the Great Depression.

“The only luxury the longtime resident of Pine Bluff (where AP&L had its headquarters) allowed himself was a rustic log cabin on Lake Catherine,” Patricia Laster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “He called it Couchwood, and there he entertained everyone who had helped him in his rise to fame, as well as international bankers and presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

Couch used his political influence to persuade officials in Washington not to create a taxpayer-subsidized Arkansas River Valley Authority that would cut into AP&L profits. Instead, the Roosevelt administration pushed for the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was created by Congress in May 1933.

Like Couch, Moses grew up in rural south Arkansas. He was born on a farm near Hampton in 1888 and worked in area logging camps when he wasn’t in school. He graduated from what’s now Ouachita Baptist University at Arkadelphia in 1908 and then headed south to New Orleans, where he obtained his master’s degree in Southern history from Tulane University. He earned his law degree in 1911 in Little Rock and then went to work for Gov. George Donaghey. Moses later served as an adviser to Gov. George Hays and Gov. Charles Hillman Brough.

Moses became the general counsel for AP&L and Couch’s other businesses in 1919. Moses moved into the role of AP&L president following Couch’s death in 1941 and proved just as politically influential as Couch had been. Moses was the AP&L president until 1952 and remained as board chairman until 1955.

Sherry Laymon writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas that “private power companies profited greatly during World War II as they operated at full capacity to meet war production demands. However, decreased power loads after the war created financial difficulties for utility companies, which eventually led to an intense struggle between public and private power entities in the 1940s. To increase public demand for electricity, Moses initiated his Arkansas Plan, designed to encourage community leaders to utilize local residents, resources, capital and labor to strengthen their communities and attract business and industry into the state. The University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, state organizations and private corporations supported his efforts and organized to form the Arkansas Economic Council in December 1944.

“Moses, Arkansas’ business cheerleader, visited many Arkansas communities and motivated Arkansans to demonstrate civic pride in their towns by making notable improvements to attract new industry. As a result, local residents enhanced their communities by paving city streets, whitewashing storefronts, landscaping public property and developing recreational programs. They also built houses, churches, hospitals and schools, which attracted more industry to the state. Moses then traveled across the country preaching the gospel of Arkansas to draw corporate attention to the state. Within 10 years, the state reaped bountiful harvests as new industry created 36,000 jobs.”

Arkansas remained a rural, poor state, though. And large parts of rural Arkansas remained without electricity.

“Private power companies had explored the possibility of building a dam at Wildcat Shoals above Cotter as early as 1902 but never began work toward it,” Scott Branyan writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Congress approved the construction of six reservoirs in the White River basin in the Flood Control Act of 1938. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report in 1930 had recommended the Wildcat Shoals site along with seven others as being the most effective of the 13 investigated. However, in a 1940 report, the Corps of Engineers presented the Bull Shoals site as an alternative to Wildcat Shoals, where unsuitable foundation conditions had been found. This report recommended the construction of Table Rock and Bull Shoals as multipurpose reservoirs for flood control, hydropower generation and other beneficial purposes, coming to the conclusion that the reservoir projects were justifiable.”

Pushing early on for construction of dams on the White River was Congressman Claude Albert Fuller, who served in Congress from 1929-39. Fuller, who had practiced law at Eureka Springs before being elected to Congress, helped lead the fight for adoption of the Flood Control Act of 1938, which followed a series of devastating floods in the region in 1937.

Fuller was defeated in the Democratic primary of 1938 by Clyde Ellis. Fuller went back to Eureka Springs to practice law and served as president of the Bank of Eureka Springs from 1930 until his death in 1968. He continued as a private citizen to advocate for the dams.

Meanwhile, Ellis took up the fight in Congress. Ellis, the oldest of nine children, had been raised on a farm near Garfield in Benton County. The farm had no electricity, and rural electrification became his passion.

Ellis helped form the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which was designed to protect the interests of the New Deal rural electrification programs.

Ellis ran for the Senate in 1942 and lost in the Democratic primary. John L. McClellan became the state’s new senator. Ellis was hired in 1943 as the first general manager of the NRECA.

In a 1984 history of the NRECA titled “The Next Greatest Thing,” it was written: “The record of NRECA in those years, stamped with the strong and powerful personality of Ellis and his spellbinding, single-minded leadership, is studded with stunning victories, few defeats.”

Sheila Yount writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “Known as Mr. Rural Electrification, Ellis led the electrification association through funding battles for the Rural Electrification Administration, which provided low-interest loans to the nation’s electric cooperatives, and fiercely fought the power companies, which opposed the rural electrification program. Rural service was far more expensive to create than service in urban areas. When the power companies charged higher rates for rural service, their customers used less electricity, making the service increasingly unprofitable.

“Ellis also helped persuade the federal government to include hydropower plants at Norfork Dam in Baxter County and other dams in Arkansas that were originally designed for flood control only. He fought major battles to give the cooperatives access to the power from those dams. Ellis credited the NRECA’s success to the grassroots support of the electric cooperatives.”

Ellis wrote a book titled “A Giant Step” in 1966.

“The wires which tied the houses of rural people together also seemed to unite their spirits,” he wrote. “Beginning in the early days and growing through the years, there has been some unusual quality about the rural electrification program, which has drawn people of diverse political and social views together in a common purpose. The people who work for our program feel they’re working in a cause or movement or a crusade, which many of them can’t define.”

Yount writes: “Besides the political arena, the association’s role expanded to provide many services for the nation’s electric cooperatives, including retirement and insurance plans; training for directors and employees; legal seminars for cooperative attorneys, safety training; and communications assistance. Ellis also helped bring electricity to people in 30 other countries through the Agency for International Development. This program was a compilation of various federal efforts to provide foreign aid during the Cold War. Created by the Kennedy administration, AID used American dollars to fight poverty and bring about development in Third World nations. Ellis traveled to Colombia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and other countries promoting rural electrification, using his experiences in Arkansas to prove to governments and citizens that such a program was possible anywhere in the world.”

Construction on Norfork Dam on the North Fork River began in the spring of 1941.

“The North Fork River was a strong candidate for a tributary flood control project,” Branyan writes. “The Corps noted it was a primary contributor to flooding in the White River because of its steep banks and big feeder streams, which frequently swelled quickly during periods of runoff. For a number of years, the Corps and private entities had studied the site for potential hydropower use as well. … Securing funding for Depression-era projects at the time of a possible impending war, however, was difficult.

“Congressman Ellis argued that a dam with a power plant was immediately needed for any increased manufacturing requirements during possible wartime production demands. He succeeded in obtaining funding and additional authorization for hydropower in the Flood Control Act of 1941, and the Little Rock District of the Corps of Engineers awarded the construction contract to the Utah Construction Co. and Morrison-Knudsen Co.”

The Norfork powerhouse was operational by 1944. A second generator was in use by February 1950.

The dam was made entirely of concrete — about 1.5 million cubic yards to be exact. The site that was chosen is 4.8 miles upstream from the confluence of the White and North Fork rivers at Norfork.

A Missouri Pacific railroad spur from Norfork to the site of the dam was built to move equipment, concrete and 2,000 tons of reinforcing steel. A total of 27,000 railroad cars moved along the spur during construction.

“During 1940, several hundred small farms were abandoned in Baxter County and left in foreclosure,” Branyan writes. “However, the construction of a dam in the area meant prospects for work during the Depression. As soon as word of the approval of Norfork Dam appeared in the newspapers, locals began contacting Ellis to inquire about jobs. During the four years of the project, the number of workers employed on both the dam and powerhouse was 815.

“Farmland around two communities along the river — Henderson in Baxter County and Bakersfield in Missouri — was inundated. Around Henderson, about 400 landowners had to relocate. Twenty-six cemeteries were moved. Crops continued to be harvested into the late fall of 1942. The lake began to fill by Feb. 1, 1943.”

Construction of Bull Shoals Dam began in 1947. That dam required 2.1 million cubic yards of concrete. At the time of its construction, it was the fifth-largest concrete dam in the country, and its powerhouse was the largest building in the state. Powerhouse construction began in September 1950 and concluded two years later. The final two generating units were installed in 1963.

“The completion of the dam and reservoir immediately began to affect the local economy,” Branyan writes. “Media coverage attracted attention to the region and resulted in the quick growth of the tourist industry. In 1940, there were only 13 businesses in the area that provided overnight accommodations. By 1970, 300 such establishments could be found. Assessed taxable real estate values, per capita income and manufacturing payroll rose dramatically in the following decades. The area also now supports a retirement community.

“The dam put an end to long, multiday fishing floats from Branson, Mo., to Cotter. Jim Owen of the Owen Boat Line had operated a float trip business on the river for many years. Largely through Owen’s promotion, the White River garnered a reputation for excellent smallmouth bass fishing. But the new reservoir soon offered equally excellent lake fishing for a number of warm-water species as well as stocked trout below the dam. Marina, boat businesses and fishing guide services sprang up rapidly to handle the influx of anglers.”

Resorts such as Gaston’s became nationally known due to the quality of the trout fishing created by cold-water releases from the dam.

Back to Clyde Ellis: The man known as Mr. Rural Electrification retired from the NRECA following a heart attack and stroke in 1967. He was named general manager emeritus.

Ellis later worked for the U.S. secretary of agriculture and for McClellan in the U.S. Senate. Ellis died in February 1980 in Washington following another stroke and is buried across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital at Arlington National Cemetery.

Here in Arkansas, he probably should be remembered as the man who handed AP&L a rare political defeat while bringing government-subsidized hydropower to a poor, rural state.

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Greeks in Arkansas

Thursday, May 5th, 2016

On the day that my column about the history of Greeks in Arkansas ran in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I received a text from my old friend Sam Stathakis in Hot Springs.

“From all the Greeks, thanks for the shout out,” he wrote. “Opa!”

The history of Greeks in Arkansas is fascinating, and James and Helen Hronas did yeoman’s work in pulling it together through the years.

“Because so few single women were among the first immigrants, men would return to Greece or to a larger U.S. city where they had relatives so they could be introduced to eligible women,” Helen Hronas writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Partly because of the scarcity of eligible Greek-American females, about half of the marriages took place with local women who were not Greek. With the first generation, much more intermarriage with non-Greeks occurred, though non-Greek spouses often became active members of the Greek Orthodox Church.

“The Balkan Wars that preceded World War I inspired many immigrants to return to Greece to help free it from the Ottoman Turks. Among those who saw action there were Theo Stathakis and Harry Hronas of Little Rock and Andrew Makris of Pine Bluff, all of whom returned safely to the United States. Newspaper clippings from the Arkansas Gazette and the Pine Bluff Daily around 1911 described how dozens of patriotic young men from Pine Bluff, Texarkana and Little Rock departed from Union Station in Little Rock for New York to offer their services to ‘overthrow barbarism’ in their native land.

“The contingent of Greek immigrants in Arkansas grew quickly through the 1920s until laws were passed to limit immigration. By then, the Greek population was quite large in Little Rock, probably more than 200. Afterward, it slowed considerably, but those who stayed in Little Rock remained united by their Orthodox faith, common culture and native language.”

Based on the Hronas’ research, here’s a breakdown on Greek immigration to several Arkansas towns:

Little Rock — Most early Greek families who came to Arkansas settled in Little Rock. The first Greek immigrant known to have arrived in Little Rock was Anastasios Stathakis in 1892. New immigrants often would stay at the home of Pelopida and Eugenia Kumpuris. The Homer Society was formed in Little Rock in 1905 to bring Greeks together, and what’s now Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church began meeting in 1913.

Helen Hronas writes: “Annunciation in Little Rock bought its first building in 1919 from Winfield Methodist Church at 15th and Center streets. The congregation outgrew this facility and in the 1970s bought land to build a new church on Napa Valley Drive. It was completed in 1983. The first Greek Food Festival was organized in 1984. Held on the church grounds, it has become a popular event that benefits the church and local charities. The Greek Folklore Society was organized in 1989 to promote Greek folk dancing and to perform at the festival.”

El Dorado — During the oil boom of the 1920s, William Photioo and his wife, Johanna Theoharis Photioo, moved to Union County to open a pharmacy and soda fountain. A plan by the Ku Klux Klan, which was active in south Arkansas at the time, to burn down their business was thwarted by friends of the couple. These friends spoke up on their behalf, and the KKK changed its plans.

Fort Smith — By the 1940s, there were about 40 Greek families in Fort Smith. Many of them were in the restaurant business. St. George Greek Orthodox Church was established after World War II, but it became inactive in the 1990s.

Hronas writes about Fort Smith: “The cafes were so busy that they had to close for several hours a day to catch up with washing huge stacks of dishes, cleaning the premises and cooking more food. The Nick Avlos family entertained Greek-American servicemen stationed at Fort Chaffee. In Fort Smith, all but about five families were composed of Greek husbands and non-Greek wives. They did not have a full-time priest or church services, but occasionally a priest would arrive from Little Rock for a sacrament, funeral or liturgy.”

Pine Bluff — Andrew Makris came to the United States in 1906 and helped begin the OK Ice Cream & Candy Co. in Pine Bluff in 1912.

Hronas writes: “When Makris returned to Greece to fight in the Balkan Wars, he married and then returned to Arkansas with his bride and sponsored relatives, George and Peter Zack and Gus Pappas, who became partners at OK. Pappas first sold ice cream as a street vendor and later became proficient in candy making, which became a part of OK. In 1930, the OK founders had a grand opening of their new, modern plant on Main Street, which employed 35 people making ice cream. An upstairs room was devoted to candy making. George Zack headed the milk and Angel Food ice cream department. As the company prospered, they invested in a liquor distributorship. Andrew Makris’ sons, Pete and George, were each named Outstanding Young Men of the Year by the Junior Chamber of Commerce, and each served as president of the Junior Chamber.”

Because Pine Bluff did not have a Greek Orthodox church, most Greek families there attended the Episcopal church and then traveled to Little Rock for holidays at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church.

Hot Springs — Greeks have a long history in the Spa City, having become doctors and leading business owners. In 1954, a movement headed by the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association began with the goal of establishing a Greek Orthodox church in Hot Springs. In 1959, the first building ever constructed in Arkansas specificially for an Orthodox congregation was completed, and the parish of Zoodochos Peghee (commonly known as St. Mary’s) opened with a dedication ceremony on Jan. 30, 1960.

Hronas writes: “The Greeks and their families who settled in Hot Springs in the early 1900s were entrepreneurs and worked long hours to support their families. One enduring company was the Pappas Brothers Confectionary. Peter Pappas arrived in Hot Springs in about 1903 and his brothers — John, Angelo and William — later joined him in business. During the Depression, Pappas Brothers, the Deluxe Café (owned by George Gabriel) and other Greek eateries served countless needy people, including students at nearby schools who had no lunch money.”

Texarkana — About 10 Greek families settled in Texarkana. Most of them were in the restaurant business. A priest would come once a month from Shreveport, La., to celebrate the liturgy. People from the Greek Orthodox church in Shreveport also would come during the summer to teach the Greek language to children.

The Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese established a mission in Little Rock known as Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in the 1990s. Another mission was established in Fayetteville. Out of the Fayetteville mission grew St. Nicholas Orthodox Christian Church in Springdale. Noted architect Marlon Blackwell designed a facility for St. Nicholas in 2010.

“During the Great Depression in the 1930s, several families had great financial troubles, losing property and investments,” Helen Hronas writes. “Others lost most of their bank savings. Some families were evicted from their homes and lived in their businesses or elsewhere. Few, if any, Greek families went hungry since their principal occupations were most ofen associated with food. Some local banks and investors worked with small business owners and allowed them leeway in paying their rent so that they did not lose their businesses entirely.”

Many of the male children of the first Greek immigrants to Arkansas served in World War II. Hronas notes that for years after the war, Arkansas Greeks “shipped supplies to Greece and helped financially with the recovery there.”

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The Greek connection

Wednesday, May 4th, 2016

It’s May, the month for what’s now known as the International Greek Food Festival at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Little Rock.

The festival long has been among my favorite annual events in Arkansas.

Almost 30,000 people turn out each May for the three-day event (May 20-22 this year), which began in 1984 to raise money for the church.

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church was founded in 1913 to serve a growing Greek population in the state. The congregation purchased its first building (at 15th and Center streets) a few years later from Winfield Methodist Church and stayed at that location until moving to the current location at 1100 Napa Valley Drive in west Little Rock in 1983.

“Thanks in part to the money we raised from the food festival, we had the mortgage paid off on the new building by 1989,” said Little Rock construction executive Gus Vratsinas, one of the event’s founders. “At that point, we began giving to various charities. Those charities, in turn, started supplying us with volunteers for the festival.

“We’ve got this thing pretty well figured out after 32 years, but you’re always tweaking things. When we designed the current church, we put in a big kitchen that could handle our baking needs. The ladies who make the pastries now start work in December. Last year, we made 24,000 pieces of baklava and sold out. This year, we’ll have 30,000.”

In addition to food, there’s music, dance and other activities. It’s a way to celebrate the rich Greek heritage in Arkansas.

Vratsinas’ father came to the United States in 1912 at age 12 but later went back to Greece. He eventually returned to the United States and wound up in Little Rock, where an uncle operated a downtown café. Vratsinas’ mother came to this country from Greece in 1939. Gus Vratsinas is quick to list the Little Rock restaurants once owned by those who came from Greece — the Post Office Café, the Maxell House Café, Miller’s Café, the Palace and others.

Helen Hronas has a well-documented history of Greeks in Arkansas on the website of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.

“Though small in number compared to other immigrant groups, Greeks and Greek-Americans in Arkansas have had a notable impact upon the state,” she wrote. “From their beginnings as laborers, Greeks in Arkansas quickly became entrepreneurs and business owners, and many of the children and grandchildren of these original immigrants went on to business, academic and medical careers. Many Greeks who come to Arkansas today are in the medical or research fields. Emblematic of the acceptance of Greeks by the state has been the popularity of the Greek Food Festival, one of the most well-attended culinary fetes in the state.

“Immigrants from Greece began arriving in Arkansas in the late 19th century. Most were single young males who left their homeland for the United States full of hope for a more prosperous life. Greece was very poor at the time, and some parts of northern Greece had not yet won their freedom from the Turkish Ottoman yoke. It was a dangerous and difficult three-week voyage, and many left with little more than the clothes on their backs and a few coins. The first priority of those who were married was to earn enough money to send for their wives and children. Most immigrants became permanent residents, but others saved their money and returned to Greece.

“Most families settled in Little Rock. The earliest immigrants to Little Rock came mostly from villages and small towns of the Peloponnesus (southern Greece), particularly from Olympia and Sparta, and usually headed to places where they knew someone who could help them get established. The first to reach Little Rock was Anastasios Stathakis, who arrived in 1892 from Sparta. In 1902, Pete Peters was the first child born of Greek immigrants in Little Rock. Pelopida and Eugenia Kumpuris frequently housed new immigrants at their Little Rock home.”

The Stathakis family name is still well known in Hot Springs.

And the Kumpuris family name is still well known in Little Rock.

“The newly arrived usually worked for a time for those who came earlier while picking up enough English to get by,” Hronas wrote. “Few had an opportunity for formal schooling, although some were well educated in Greece before immigrating. Many did hard labor such as building railroad tracks, and as was common with immigrants who spoke little or no English, sometimes the employer refused to pay once the job was done. Such discrimination and abuse provided the Greeks an incentive to go into business for themselves as well as educate their children. The Greeks were soon running fruit and vegetable markets, hot dog stands, candy shops, grocery stores, cleaners and shoeshine parlors. Most gravitated toward food service.”

In 1905, a group of Greek immigrants in Arkansas created the Homer Society, which served both religious and cultural purposes.

Hronas wrote: “At first, visiting priests from Memphis were invited to celebrate the divine liturgy and perform sacraments. In 1913, members arranged for a permanent priest, Father Kallinikos Kanellas, and services were held in an upstairs meeting hall over a high-end grocery store near Ninth and Main streets for the next eight years. A small chapel was arranged for liturgies and sacraments, and another area was used for social gatherings. Research by Rev. Father George Scoulas in the 1960s indicated that Kanellas probably was the first Orthodox priest of Greek ancestry to come to the United States. He died in 1921 and is buried in the historic Oakland Cemetery in Little Rock, where most of the early Greek immigrants were interred. Early church leaders included P.G. Johnson, Pelopida (Peter) Kumpuris, Joe Stathakis, Anastasios Stathakis, Peter Stathakis, George Lianos, Basil Peters, Sam Stathakis, George Stathakis and Harry Hronas.”

A 1952 story in the Arkansas Democrat stated that the first Orthodox church in Arkansas was a Russian Orthodox church at Slovak in the southern part of Prairie County. Two Russian priests founded the church in 1894.

“Annunciation in Little Rock is the oldest continuous Orthodox church in Arkansas,” Hronas wrote. “The parish of the Annunciation, under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan of Detroit, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America and the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople, received a state charter on June 8, 1920. A church building at 1500 Center Street was purchased from the Winfield Methodist congregation in 1919. The parish outgrew this building.”

Now, only about 30 percent of the Annunciation congregation is of Greek ancestry. Other members are descended from immigrants from Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Russia, Romania and elsewhere.

The chairman of this year’s food festival is Jason Chacko, a financial adviser for Morgan Stanley whose name central Arkansas residents will recognize from his morning financial reports on the radio.

Chacko’s family came to this country from India. The family history has been traced back to the first century when the apostle Thomas converted the Pakalomatom family to Christianity.

“I’m standing on the shoulders of the giants who built this festival,” Chacko said during a recent breakfast. “I was five months old when the first festival was held. It has changed a lot since then. Our goal is to be among the best family events of the spring in Arkansas.”

With 22 nationalities represented at Annunciation, the name word “international” was added to the International Greek Food Festival.

“It has truly become an international event,” Chacko said. “You can eat Mediterranean food while watching Russian dancing.”

Vratsinas was the president of the parish council at Annunciation when the new facility was built in 1983.

“It was a no-brainer,” he said of the decision to create the food festival. “This kind of thing had been going on in other cities for decades. Our church had been selling gyros since they started Riverfest so we decided to create our own festival. We bounced around with the dates on which to hold the event and finally settled on the weekend before Memorial Day weekend. It keeps getting bigger. Last year was our largest event yet with about 30,000 turning out over three days. That’s obviously more than a 200-family church can handle, so now we rely a great deal on volunteers.”

Chacko said the organizers like to “show off the church.”

“We have icons painted by priests out of Greece,” he said. “People can walk through on their own, and we also offer formal tours during the festival.”

The hours for this year’s festival are from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. on Friday, May 20; 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. on Saturday, May 21; and 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. on Sunday, May 22.

Food can be eaten at the festival or picked up at a drive-through location. The foods offered range from gyros to calamari to Armenian pizza.

There’s also a market at which visitors can buy items such as Greek olive oil, hummus, stuffed grape leaves, salad dressing and cheeses. The market also will offer Russian collectibles such as nesting dolls and eggs along with ceramics, scarves, stained-glass lamps, jewelry, Middle Eastern coins, European artwork, wooden toys, rolling pens and other gift items.

Do you know what pastitsio is (long macaroni layered with seasoned ground beef and then topped with a thick cheese sauce)?

Do you know what tiropeta is (cheese puffs)?

Do you know what spanakopita is (spinach cheese puffs)?

You can learn all of that at the festival.

The festival again will team up with Chef Shuttle, which will allow people to have meals delivered to their homes and offices. The menu will be posted at chefshuttle.com the weekend of the festival.

Volunteers for the festival, such as ROTC students from Catholic High School for Boys (who clean the grounds), will earn about 4,000 hours of volunteer credits.

Among the charities that will benefit from this year’s event are Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arkansas, Community Connection, Easter Seals of Arkansas, the Harmony Health Clinic of Little Rock, Literary Action of Central Arkansas, Youth Home and the Wolfe Street Foundation.

“It’s truly a community event,” Vratsinas said.

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