Archive for the ‘Traveling Arkansas’ Category

Wide-open days in the Spa City

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

It has been fun writing about the colorful characters who loved to hang out in Hot Springs.

One of the most colorful was Rodney Fertel of New Orleans, who became known as the Gorilla Man after running unsuccessfully for mayor of the Crescent City on the promise that he would buy a pair of gorillas for the Audubon Zoo.

Rodney’s wife from 1947-58 was Ruth Fertel, the founder of the Ruth’s Chris chain of steakhouses.

Their son, Randy Fertel, wrote a book about his parents titled “The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak.” It features a photo of Rodney and Ruth walking down Central Avenue in Hot Springs in 1948.

Here’s part of what Randy Fertel wrote in the book (published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2011), which I would highly recommend you read: “If we could return to the moment captured in a 1948 photo, this couple, Mom and Dad, Ruth and Rodney, might catch our eye as they stride down Central Avenue in Hot Springs. In full sunlight, Ruth holds the crook of Rodney’s right arm and gazes at the camera with self-assurance and an easy smile. While women behind her clutch their bags tight, she carries a handbag by its strap. She wears heels with bows.

“That sunny day in Hot Springs, an unseen ornate gold barrette tooled in her initials — RUF — holds her hair swept back from her high brow. The barrette is a gift from her husband, whose family is in the trade — pawnshops.

“His face in shadow and wearing sunglasses, not unaware of the camera himself, her husband gazes at her with fondness and regard. Rodney sports a tie with bold ovals, and in his right hand he carries a folded paper, probably the Daily Racing Form. He wears his shirtsleeves rolled. His left arm swings forward with a watch on his wrist, the first of many gold Rolexes, and a cigarette in the tips of his fingers — he has yet to give them up. One can almost see the ‘insouciant challenge of his loping walk,’ as Terry Teachout, Louis Armstrong’s recent biographer, paints it. Dad shared with Pops the same neighborhood, New Orleans’ South Rampart Street.

“It is three years since the end of the Second World War in which Rodney Fertel (ne Weinberg) did not serve (4-F for reasons that have always been obscure). It’s two years since Ruth Fertel (nee Udstad) graduated from Louisiana State University with honors in physics and chemistry. She is 21, he is 27. In less than a year, their firstborn son, Jerry, will enter the world. In two years, I will arrive.

“They come from a watery world and they’ve found another here. In the hills to their left and right are Hot Springs Mountain and West Mountain where 47 underground springs spew a million gallons of water a day, no matter the weather. Carbon dating shows that 4,000 years ago the water fell as rain upon the Ouachita forest of central Arkansas. Since then it has seeped slowly down through the earth’s crust until, superheated by the earth’s core, it gushes rapidly to the surface, a constant 143 degrees Fahrenheit. Mountain Valley Water, Rodney’s lifelong favorite brand, was founded nearby. Since the dawn of time, spring floods have coursed south, building with alluvial ooze the deep Mississippi Delta where Ruth was born.”

There’s something about Hot Springs that inspires good writing like this.

In the spring of 1962, Robert H. Boyle would write in Sports Illustrated: “Everything considered, there isn’t anything in the world like Hot Springs — or the people in it. This is not to say the town couldn’t be improved. Part of it could use a couple of coats of paint; there are junky signs and assorted clutter disfiguring some of the land around Lake Hamilton; and a local restaurant may mar a good meal by serving the Chianti ice cold. But perhaps it would be better not to tamper with Hot Springs.”

It once was common for photographers to take photos of those walking up and down Central Avenue and then sell the photos. You’ve probably seen those black-and-white shots of people strolling the avenue. In the background of many of the photographs is the neon sign for a restaurant named Hammons.

Randy Fertel writes: “Hammons, no apostrophe. Sea Food, two words. Inside a sign promises ‘One Day Out of the Ocean,’ meaning one day up from the Louisiana bayous where Ruth was born. Rodney prefers Hammons to the Arlington’s grand dining room with its organ and white-gloved black waiters and where, at age 13, I develop a taste for watercress salad and cornbread sticks slathered in butter and honey.

“Rodney has not yet developed his taste for political clowning. His Gorilla Man campaign for New Orleans mayor, with its catchy slogan — ‘Don’t vote for a monkey. Elect Fertel and get a Gorilla’ — lies 20 years in the future.

“Ruth has not yet read the classified ad that will, in 1965, lead her to borrow $22,000 to purchase a little steakhouse with 17 tables near the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. My parents were married just a few years, from 1947 to 1958. They each had a certain glamour.”

They were in the right place in 1948 for people with glamour. As they like to say in Hot Springs, it was Vegas before there was a Vegas.

When the photo was taken, the 20-year reign of Leo Patrick McLaughlin as Hot Springs’ mayor had just come to an end. Sid McMath was leading the GI revolt against the McLaughlin machine. McMath had been elected prosecuting attorney (and would be elected governor in 1948), and a grand jury began an investigation into the McLaughlin administration in March 1947. McLaughlin announced he would not run again. He was indicted on numerous charges but never convicted.

Wendy Richter, the archivist at Ouachita Baptist University, writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “McLaughlin ran for mayor in 1926 on a platform that promised Hot Springs would be an open town. He also pledged to improve city streets. McLaughlin delivered on his campaign promises. He directed work that paved miles of streets and, most notably, he allowed illegal gambling. McLaughlin also orchestrated the Arkansas Legislature’s approval of the reopening of Oaklawn Park in 1934 after a 15-year hiatus.

“During McLaughlin’s two decades as mayor from 1927-47, only one person ran against him. Prior to each election during his administration, city employees would be given a ‘pink slip’ to share with friends and family, naming the candidates favored by the McLaughlin machine. Therefore, candidates appearing on the slip were assured support even though the names of many of the people who voted for them could be found only in cemeteries. McLaughlin’s ability to deliver votes made him a powerhouse in state politics. All he asked was that Hot Springs be left alone to operate as an open town.

“McLaughlin was a showman. He drew attention from tourists and locals alike when he rode daily down Central Avenue in a sulky pulled by his horses, Scotch and Soda, while wearing a riding costume with a red carnation in his lapel. This showmanship surfaced in his political speeches as well; he often shed his coat and rolled up his sleeves as a speech intensified.

“Underworld characters frequented Hot Springs during the McLaughlin administration. Men such as Al Capone, Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Frank Costello visited the spa town with the understanding that they would exhibit only their best behavior. The nation’s gangsters utilized Hot Springs as a sanctuary or retreat; McLaughlin and his associates welcomed them as long as they did not bother the locals and left their criminal activities behind.

“Local businessmen managed the town’s gambling operations under the watchful eyes of McLaughlin and his associates. The owners and managers appeared regularly in municipal court and helped finance city government by paying fines considered to be license fees for their operations. This income spurred the development of Hot Springs, which reached its peak as a health resort during his tenure as mayor. The spa’s bathing industry hit its zenith in the mid-1940s when visitors enjoyed more than a million baths annually.”

Randy Fertel describes the Spa City this way in his book: “In this year, 1948, Hot Springs is a wide-open town, dominated by the Southern Club, a gambling house in operation since 1893. In Las Vegas, Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel is only two years old and the Strip still but a dream. The mineral baths and the gambling tables draw Rodney and Ruth here from their home in New Orleans for long stays. Rodney enjoys independent means inherited from his pawnbroker grandparents; no job pulls him home.

“The horses bring them, too. In 1948, the Fair Grounds in New Orleans celebrates its Diamond Jubilee, 75 years of continuous thoroughbred racing. Hot Springs’ Oaklawn Park is almost as old. This very summer, Louisiana Gov. Earl Long, Huey’s brother and an inveterate gambler, comes to Hot Springs ‘for his arthritis.’ Gov. Long begins his day with the Daily Racing Form and the tout sheets. He helped the mob install slots throughout Louisiana; they let him know when the fix is in. Ruth and Rodney Fertel share Gov. Long’s taste for racehorses. In a few years, Ruth will earn her thoroughbred trainer’s license.”

Randy Fertel writes about Owney Madden, a man he describes as “a gangster from Liverpool by way of Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen. Owney Madden, or ‘Owney the Killer’ as he was called, had turned the Cotton Club in Harlem into a success before going upriver to spend seven years in Sing Sing — which didn’t prevent owning a casino in unregulated Hot Springs. To Mae West, fellow denizen of Hell’s Kitchen whose career he bankrolled and whom he dated, Madden was ‘sweet but oh so vicious.'”

Fertel writes that Hot Springs was “favored by gangsters both Jewish and Italian: Louis Lepke, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Joy Adonis, Frank Costello. Luciano fled the Waldorf-Astoria for Hot Springs in 1936 when Tom Dewey, district attorney of New York City and future governor of New York, indicted him for prostitution. It took 20 Arkansas Rangers to surround and take Luciano. … Still in the honeymoon glow, Rodney this time splurges on a room at the Arlington Hotel, looming beyond the camera’s sight at the head of Central Avenue. Al Capone at one time kept a fourth-floor corner suite overlooking the Southern Club, his favorite, just across the street. He played at a raised poker table in order to command a clear view of the entire room. When Capone strode down Bathhouse Row, his goons surrounded him, two in front, two behind, and one on either side.”

Rodney’s grandparents in New Orleans purchased a vacation home at 359 Whittington Avenue in Hot Springs, and Rodney later would live here. Old-timers at the Hot Springs Country Club still tell stories about the Gorilla Man.

Randy Fertel writes of that house on Whittington: “There, I will first hear a woodpecker and there, 30 years later, Telemachus-like but only half-wanting reconciliation, I will seek my father and find the door ajar, the house empty, filled only with the rainwater that falls through the hole in the roof and the floor beneath it.”

Casino gambling was still going strong in Hot Springs in March 1964 when The New York Times published a story by Wallace Turner headlined “Hot Springs: Gamblers’ Haven.”

Turner wrote: “The gamblers of Hot Springs are locked in a struggle with the federal government to maintain their control of the biggest illegal gambling operation in the United States. The enterprises flourish with the support of the 30,000 residents of Hot Springs. Gambling has been a major feature of life here since Civil War times. The gambling places are wide open. They are on the pattern developed in the legal casinos operated in Nevada. The conduct of gambling is defined by Arkansas statute as a felony, punishable by up to three years in the state penitentiary. But no gambling.

“The state liquor laws also are ignored in Hot Springs. Last month the investigations by federal agents were stepped up, and top officials of the Department of Justice have announced that they intend to push still harder. … Local officials and the gamblers themselves in Hot Springs insist that there is no connection with national underworld syndicates.”

John Ermey, the Hot Springs police chief, told the newspaper: “The day anybody brings me any reliable information that the Mafia or any out-of-state people are involved in Hot Springs is the day I’ll get on the radio and television and in the press and take the battle to the public to attempt to bring about a complete reform. If there ever was any, I don’t know of it. The fellows who run the two big clubs were born and raised here.”

The Times reported: “There are two main gambling combines. The names of members of each group are well known to the officials who have control of law enforcement here. By Nevada standards, the operation is small. One Las Vegas Strip casino will win several times as much in a year as the total winnings of the three major casinos operated here. Estimates of winnings here are difficult to get. But they must be sizable. One place pays up to $10,000 a week for the supper club entertainment that it furnishes in a frank imitation of the Nevada casinos. Last week, Mickey Rooney was a main attraction. Gambling provides about 500 jobs in Hot Springs.”

It was noted in the story that Ermey, a Hot Springs native, lived next to Madden for years. Madden was 72 at the time the story was published.

“Madden for many years provided an argument for observers that gambling activities here had roots in other states,” Turner wrote. “Madden came here on his release from Sing Sing in 1933, married an Arkansas girl, had an interest in all bookmaking carried on here, then control of a race-wire service, visited with his friends when they came through either for the baths or to hide out and owned part of one of the casinos. Now he lives more or less in retirement, visiting almost daily with friends in the Southern Club.”

Turner reported that federal agents had tried 18 months earlier to shut down the Southern Club, but a federal grand jury refused to indict the owners.

“Since then the gambling operators have tried to stay out of interstate commerce,” Turner wrote. “They are at ease with local and state law enforcement. But they are frightened of the federal authorities. Their advertising never mentions gambling, although they buy radio spots to promote their supper club shows. The greater part of their business comes from outside Arkansas. The business people here are convinced that if the gamblers were put out of business, the community would suffer. They believe that Hot Springs’ economic health is dependent on the continuance of gambling. … The bathhouse business has declined because of changes in medical practice. This slack has been taken up by persons who come here to gamble. They also come here to drink for Arkansas has a liquor law that forbids the sale of mixed drinks. No one pays any attention to it in Hot Springs.”

The story pointed out that the city had a tax on gambling and liquor operations even though they were technically illegal.

“Places that serve mixed drinks pay $100 a month license fees to the city,” Turner wrote. “This goes up to $150 next year. Some other current fees include slot machines, $10 a month each; bingo, $100 a month; bookmakers, $200 a month; businesses that specialize in distributing results of races and sports events, $50 a month. The ordinance describes ‘places where craps, blackjack, roulette, chuck-a-luck, poker, rummy or other games of chance’ are played. This year places with more than five tables are taxed $500 a month and smaller places $300.”

The Times described downtown this way: “The venerable Arlington Hotel, an underworld meeting spot for many years, sits at the end of Bathhouse Row. Across the street is the Southern Club. A great building activity goes on here. About 1,000 new motel and hotel rooms are just finished, under construction or planned. Up the street, The Vapors draws the nightly gambling crowd, and first-class rooms are hard to get now that the racing season is open. Many of the 2 million visitors attracted to Hot Springs each year come during the seven weeks of racing. … The leading gambler in Hot Springs is Dane Harris, a tall and husky man of 46 years who exudes confidence and competence.”

Harris told the newspaper: “Public opinion in Hot Springs is for this. This business of gambling in Hot Springs is so old and so ingrained in the public’s mind that it isn’t looked on as a degrading business. … As far as the local people are concerned, someone is going to run the gambling, and it can be us as long as we run it right. If we don’t, we’re going out.”

Turner concluded his story this way: “So the gamblers have the public officials at bay, except those from the federal government. The gamblers calculate that they can beat federal intervention by staying out of interstate commerce.”

That all changed in November 1966 when Arkansas voters made Winthrop Rockefeller the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction. Already one of the country’s richest men, Rockefeller didn’t need payoffs from the gambling interests in Hot Springs. He began shutting down gambling soon after taking office in 1967. It was the end of an era for Hot Springs.

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The hottest spring

Monday, April 3rd, 2017

A friend who was well aware of my love of Hot Springs and the characters who have called it home through the years sent me a copy of an article that ran in the March 19, 1962, issue of Sports Illustrated.

The story was written by Robert H. Boyle, who lived on the banks of the Hudson River in New York and often wrote about fishing.

Sports Illustrated had published its first issue in August 1954 and become known for quality writing. The cover of the 1962 issue containing the Hot Springs story featured the UCLA basketball team, and the cover price was 25 cents.

The headline read: “The hottest spring in Hot Springs: That’s the forecast for this jumping Arkansas town where gambling is wide open, the track is fast and the fishing is fine.”

Spring remains prime time for tourism in the Spa City — Oaklawn Park is holding its annual Racing Festival of the South next week — but in 1962 the gambling machines were spread across the city rather than being confined to Oaklawn as is now the case.

Boyle wrote of men with nicknames such as Bones Martin, The Dreamer and Amarillo Slim.

“Atlantic City Red, the pool hustler, was there, though he kept denying his identity,” Boyle wrote. “‘You’re the 20th guy who’s confused me with him,’ he said, feigning innocence. His confrere, Daddy Warbucks, was expected there any minute. Tiny, the ‘heavyman,’ or bouncer, at The Vapors, was there, and the Round Man was out shooting at the golf course. Tommy Freeman, ex-welterweight champion of the world, was there, and so was a little geezer of 94, Cap’n Joe Piggott, who said he had been Teddy Roosevelt’s bodyguard. Col. Reed Landis, son of the late Judge Landis, the baseball commissioner, was there, and so was Lon Warneke, who won 192 games for the Cardinals and Cubs. Texas millionaires were there, along with some moonshiners from the Possum Kingdom in the hills nearby. Chicago cloak-and-suiters were there, to say nothing of arthritics from St. Joe, Mo.

“These and many more piled into the little city of 36,000 that snuggles in a valley of the Ouachita Mountains. The most unusual spa in the United States, Hot Springs is also, pound for pound, the greatest sporting town anywhere. Last week marked the middle of the town’s traditional spring season, and by all odds this one shapes up as the hottest in history — unless the FBI interferes. The FBI, you see, was also there. The only people who were leaving were the carnival folk who winter in town; they were outward bound for the Seattle World’s Fair and other midways near and far.

“Hot Springs, sometimes celebrated as the Paris of the Bible Belt, attracts characters and crowds galore because it has something for almost everyone. ‘Free Beer Tomorrow’ flashes a neon sign over one saloon. At times it seems as though the town was dreamed up in a collaboration of W.C. Fields and the Mayo brothers. Besides legal betting on the horses at Oaklawn Park, there’s illegal gambling — craps, roulette, chuck-a-luck, bingo, blackjack, slots, you name it — at the lavish casinos. There’s bathing in the radioactive waters from the hot springs at the Quapaw and other bathhouses along the Row on Central Avenue, bow-and-arrow shooting at Crystal Springs, where the National Archery Association holds its annual championship, superb fishing in the nearby countryside, sailing and skin-diving at lakes Hamilton, Catherine and Ouachita, championship cock fighting not too far away, coon hunting in the mountains and good jazz in the Skyline Lounge, where John Puckett plays the piano, and the Black Orchid, where Charles Porter, piano, and Reggie Cravens, bass, hold forth until 5 a.m.”

Puckett played the piano for diners in the Venetian Room of the Arlington Hotel until shortly before his death in January.

The Reggie Cravens Combo played in the Arlington lobby on a regular basis in later years.

“Hot Springs has lured people since time began,” Boyle wrote in 1962. “Warring Indian tribes used to gather there in holy truce to partake of the waters bubbling from the earth. Legend has it that Ponce de Leon was really looking for these springs when he was chasing after the Fountain of Youth. In 1832, the U.S. Congress recognized the therapeutic value of the water by setting aside four square miles with the 47 springs as a federal preserve. As far as anyone knows, the water has always flowed steadily from its unknown underground source at a rate of almost a million gallons a day, with an average temperature of 143 degrees.

“‘An unutterable, unspeakable, awesome miracle,’ intones Nate Schoenfeld, a local lawyer and bath booster, braced at attention, hat over heart.

“A National Park Service plant cools the water to body temperature and pipes it into the bathhouses, where private concessionaires, operating under strict lease from the government, serve it up to customers by the tubful. The water not only has a favorable effect on arthritis, bursitis and rheumatism, but it’s also most relaxing for the visitor un-afflicted with anything save a hangover or the tensions of modern life. The peak of bliss comes when the attendant pulls the plug after your daily 15-minute soaking. As the water surges down the drain, you are plastered to the sides of the tub like a wet leaf on a curbstone.

“The reputation of the spa built the town of Hot Springs. It was one of the first spring training sites for baseball teams. As early as 1886, the Chicago White Stockings repaired there to ‘boil out the alcoholic microbes’ picked up from winter ‘lushing.’ Boxers came down by droves, from John L. Sullivan and Battling Nelson to Harry Greb and Jersey Joe Walcott.

“In the 1930s and ’40s, Hot Springs was notorious as a sanctuary for gangsters on the lam. Pretty Boy Floyd stayed a spell, and so did the Alvin Karpis gang. They had the freedom of the city; indeed, a phone call from the mayor’s office is reputed to have triggered the Kansas City massacre. The mayor was Leo Patrick McLaughlin, an evil rogue who refused to let the kids in town have a playground. He preferred that they continue to loiter in pool halls. Known as Dixie’s Jimmy Walker, Leo always sported a fresh carnation in his lapel, wore his hat brim up in front and down in back and paraded around town in a carriage drawn by two hackney ponies named Scotch and Soda. His only advice to the gangsters was, ‘Check your irons at the state line.’

“McLaughlin met his downfall in 1946 when a group of GIs, led by Sid McMath, an ex-Marine officer who later became governor of the state, and Nate Schoenfeld, a onetime Syracuse halfback and Harvard Law School graduate, rallied an independent party that defeated the crooked machine. The GIs were reformers but not bluenoses. They closed down the gambling, purging it of Leo’s cronies, but after McMath became governor, it opened up again. The people wanted it that way.”

I grew up 35 miles from Hot Springs. It was my “big city” during the 1960s and 1970s when I was a boy, a seemingly exotic place filled with exotic people. There were the auction houses on Central Avenue, the ethnic restaurants and the places intended for adults only. I was a newspaper junkie (I still am) and was amazed that one could buy a copy of that day’s Chicago Tribune in the Arlington lobby. Large numbers of people from the Chicago area still vacationed in Hot Springs back then.

A half century ago, Winthrop Rockefeller, the state’s new governor, began shutting down the illegal gambling operations. Downtown Hot Springs fell into an era of decline that only recently has begun to abate. But in 1962, downtown was hopping.

Schoenfeld told Boyle: “The best way to govern is to do a hell of a lot of leavin’ alone. The people are the ultimate repository of what the good God has put in them. The gambling is home-owned and operated. There’s no hoodlum element, no oppression, no scum. No one forces himself on anyone else. There is no guy around here with greasy hair and a Mafia smile. The people are capable, clean, decent, friendly. This place reflects the quality, character and charm of all of us. This place has got roots. It’s 24 hours of happiness.”

The three big casinos were the Southern Club, the Belvedere and The Vapors.

Boyle wrote: “All have nightclubs. Jan Garber and his orchestra play regularly for dancing at the Belvedere throughout the season. In addition, there are about half a dozen smaller gambling places. … All the gambling houses in the city pay a local tax, $500 a month for what the law defines simply as ‘a large place’ and $200 a month for ‘a small place.’ When the city fathers passed this law in 1958, they noted, ‘It is not the intention of the City Council to legalize any of the operations, but if same are conducted, taxes shall be paid.’ The tax money goes into the Hot Springs Municipal Auditorium and Civic Improvement Fund, and this year the city clerk expects to collect $80,000. A few years ago the town, led by the local state senator with the wondrous name of Q. Byrum Hurst, tried to get the Legislature to legalize the gambling, but a handful of rural representatives helped beat the bill. By custom and tradition, the governor of Arkansas keeps hands off Hot Springs. The state needs the tourists for its economy.

“A spokesman for the gamblers is Dane Harris, 43, president and general manager of The Vapors, a partner in the Belvedere and an enthusiastic member of the Chamber of Commerce. A boyish-looking six-footer with a crew cut, Harris could pass for a young college professor. ‘Of course this town’s illegal,’ he says, with candor. ‘But it’s been running open for years. People expect it and want it. This is strictly a local operation, has not been anything else and will not be anything else. This is a different type of element. Check the police records for the lack of prostitution and narcotics. Probably our own interest in gambling is more of an interest in it as business than gambling for its own sake. It looked like probably one of the few things that could be big enough to build the town on.’

“The Vapors, which books such acts as Les Paul and Mary Ford, the Andrews Sisters and Jane Russell, has 200 employees, and Harris hesitates to think about what would happen to them and the town, and his partners and himself, if the FBI brought a case against the casinos. ‘We’re fixin’ to build a new auditorium here,’ he says. ‘If there were no funds from the amusement tax, that would not be possible.'”

Boyle described Oaklawn Park this way back in 1962: “Oaklawn itself is a charming little track with a nine-hole golf course in the infield. Golfers played there opening day, but they are usually barred when the races are on for fear a slice will conk a horse. Flanking the old wooden clubhouse are glass-enclosed, steam-heated grandstands. ‘The first in the world,’ says John Cella proudly. Ordinarily Cella is a traditionalist. Instead of using a car to haul the starting gate around, he uses a team of Clydesdales.

“Although Cella has been coming down to Hot Springs for years, he never fails to be delighted by the varieties of life on exhibit in the town. ‘I don’t know of any place like it,’ he says. ‘It has a unique flavor all its own.’ As a case in point, he cites the sermon Father Mac, the assistant pastor at St. John’s, delivered at mass a couple of Sundays ago. From the pulpit, Father Mac said he had been out at the track a few days before and noticed a man who kept staring at him after one race. Finally the man came up to him and said, ‘Father, you cost me $100.’ ‘How could that be?’ asked Father Mac. ‘Well, father,’ the man said, ‘when the horses were parading to the post I saw you blessing the No. 9 horse. I bet him, and he finished last. ‘Son,’ said Father Mac, ‘I wasn’t blessing him — I was giving him the last rites.'”

Boyle also described the country club and the characters who hung out there: “The flavor of the town not only extends to but permeates the Hot Springs Golf and Country Club, where the annual Hot Springs Open is played in May. Only this country club could have a teaching pro like Gib Sellers, a onetime golf hustler known as the Round Man. For years the Round Man hustled with the best, often as a baby-faced kid in partnership with Titanic Thompson, the great con artist. When they traveled through the Midwest together, Thompson liked to set up the suckers for killing by airily pointing toward Sellers, who had only two woods in a dilapidated bag, and say, ‘I’ll just take that kid over there and play you two guys.’

“A Hot Springs native, Sellers practiced hour after hour on the local course, trying to look bad, and he trimmed everyone who came in for a game, even the other hustlers. ‘No hustler ever came in here and went away happy,’ he says with a smile. ‘They all got beat here. There wasn’t a player in the world who could beat me here. I shot that thing anywhere from six to eight under par. My best round was a 62, playing five guys low ball.’

“When not hustling, the Round Man played with the gangsters who used to frequent Hot Springs in battalion strength. ‘They had a truce when they came here,’ he says. ‘They were real gentlemen here.’ The best golfer among them was a gent known as Phil — he used sundry last names — who shot around par. Joe Adonis was in the high 70s, Ralph (Bottles) Capone around 80, Frank Costello between 80 and 82 and Lucky Luciano high man with 95.”

Boyle closed his story by quoting Nate Schoenfeld: “We have bounty. We have many things no one else has. We want to share it with all the world. We invite you.”

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Bouncing back in Cleveland County

Tuesday, March 28th, 2017

The Cleveland County Courthouse in downtown Rison is a graceful structure, designed by Theodore Sanders and incorporating the Modern Renaissance and Classical Revival styles of architecture.

This courthouse deep in the pine woods of south Arkansas was completed in 1911 following a lengthy, contentious battle over where the Cleveland County seat should be located. The county was formed in 1873 by the Reconstruction-era Arkansas Legislature from parts of Bradley, Dallas, Jefferson and Lincoln counties and named Dorsey County in honor of Republican U.S. Sen. Stephen Dorsey.

Dorsey, the son of Irish immigrants, was born on a farm in Vermont and later moved with his family to Oberlin, Ohio. He served in the Union Army, returned to Ohio after the Civil War, founded a tool company and became active in Republican politics.

Dorsey came to Arkansas in 1871 when he was elected president of the Arkansas Central Railway Co. From his base in Helena, he took advantage of legislation that allowed railroad companies to sell government-backed bonds to finance expansion. The Arkansas Legislature chose him as the state’s junior senator in 1872. Dorsey served until 1878 and then moved to New Mexico, where he was plagued by lawsuits concerning his business dealings.

Suzanne Ristow writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Dorsey was quickly accepted into the Arkansas political realm, at the time characterized by its carpetbag politics. The Arkansas Legislature elected Dorsey as its junior senator in the 1872 elections, and Dorsey resigned from the Arkansas Central. … During the last two years of his term, Dorsey chaired the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia. During the Brooks-Baxter War, Dorsey took the side of Joseph Brooks. Elisha Baxter’s success in retaining the office of governor marked an end to Dorsey’s political future in Arkansas, and he did not seek re-election to the Senate in 1878.

“However Dorsey remained active for a time in national politics. In 1876, he was made a member of the Republican National Committee. In 1880, when the Republicans nominated James Garfield for president and Chester Arthur for vice president, Dorsey became the secretary of the Republican National Committee. His reputation was tarnished, though, by a scandal involving the U.S. Postal Service, in which Dorsey and his partners were accused of defrauding the government out of $412,000. Though he was eventually found not guilty, the cost of his defense and the damage to his reputation all but destroyed Dorsey’s political and financial ambitions.

“After his term in the Senate, Dorsey moved to New Mexico, where he raised cattle. He also owned a home in Denver and invested money in mining. Although he named one New Mexico town for himself and another for his son, Clayton, neither community prospered. During his later years, Dorsey was plagued by more lawsuits, some of which were related to the railroad shares he had sold in Arkansas in the 1870s. Dorsey moved to Los Angeles, where he died on March 20, 1916.”

With former Confederates back in control of the Arkansas Legislature, the name of Dorsey County was changed to Cleveland County in 1885 to honor President Grover Cleveland. A fire destroyed the courthouse at Toledo in 1889, and residents of Rison, Kingsland and New Edinburg sought the county seat. Following two contested elections, the Arkansas Supreme Court finally named Rison the county seat in April 1891.

A frame courthouse was constructed in 1892 at a cost of $8,000. It had become dilapidated by the time the 1911 courthouse was built for $65,000. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in April 1977.

Danny Groshong writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “An octagonal dome roof overlooks the town, with a clock tower rising 20 feet above it. The clock has four faces and is surrounded by Tuscan pilasters, which also cover the front façade of the building. The four corners of the central wing are marked with quoins (masonry blocks placed at the junction of two walls), creating an image of permanence and strength. The front portico is supported by Tuscan columns made of limestone. The interior looks much the same in the 21st century as it did when it was built. The floor is made of brightly colored ceramic tiles while the original pressed tin ceilings are in exceptionally good condition.”

Despite this stately anchor in downtown Rison, Britt Talent, publisher of the Cleveland County Herald, noticed something in 2012 after the Fordyce Bank & Trust Co. acquired the Bank of Rison.

Talent says: “The departure of the Bank of Rison was going to leave my newspaper office, a hardware store and a law office as the only businesses on my block of Main Street.”

Talent published an article asking people to attend a meeting on March 1, 2012, to discuss the future of downtown. About 20 people showed up, enough for Talent to call a second meeting two weeks later.

“Our whole idea was to generate traffic to downtown Rison,” he says. “Once we had people coming on a regular basis, we hoped businesses would follow.”

An organization known as Rison Shine Downtown Development was formed, and a Christmas parade was held for the first time in many years.

“Despite it literally raining on the parade, there was a huge turnout,” Talent says. “I recall some people telling me it was the most people they had seen in downtown Rison in several years.”

The group later developed a small park on a vacant lot on Main Street that’s centered around a giant live oak tree. A restaurant was recruited for a vacant building adjacent to the park, a weekly farmers’ market was organized and an annual Halloween event was created. Almost 200 people showed up on the afternoon of July 11, 2013, for the dedication of the park. The crowds downtown for that year’s Halloween event were even larger.

“I don’t think anyone had any idea there would be that many people,” Talent says. “I estimated about 1,000 people showed up. The Dollar General practically sold out of candy that afternoon because no one came prepared for the crowd. I wasn’t expecting any sort of turnaround in the downtown area overnight. We’ve made a dent, but we still have a ways to go. I’m seeing more traffic downtown on a regular basis than I’ve seen in a while. Hopefully more people will see this progress and be willing to take a chance on opening a business.”

On the late Friday afternoon in February when Talent gave me a walking tour of downtown, a steady stream of people was heading into the Main Street Café adjacent to the small park built around the live oak tree. Meanwhile, the Rison Pharmacy has opened in a former bank building, the Rison Athletic Club has expanded its operation in the old City Pharmacy building and there was new construction downtown in 2016 for the first time in about 25 years with the completion of a banking facility and a floral shop.

The effort to spur activity in one of Arkansas’ least populous counties — Cleveland County had 8,689 residents in the 2010 census, almost 5,000 fewer people than lived there a century earlier — has spread to Kingsland, New Edinburg and Woodlawn.

Mark Peterson, a community development specialist for the University of Arkansas’ Cooperative Extension Service, spoke to Rison Shine members in February 2015 and urged them to expand their efforts across the country. A month later, Kickstart Cleveland County was born.

On the Friday night of my visit to Rison, people from all parts of the county gathered at the Cleveland County Fairgrounds to celebrate the initiative. During a conference in Little Rock last summer, the Cooperative Extension Service presented Kickstart Cleveland County with an award for having the top community development effort of its type in the state.

“There were several worthy candidates, but Kickstart Cleveland County’s strong record of accomplishments and community involvement throughout the county won the day,” Peterson says.

At a time when many rural counties across south and east Arkansas are losing population, Cleveland County has shown slow but steady growth. When Arkansans from other parts of the state think about Cleveland County at all, it’s likely because of the excellent deer hunting or the traditionally potent football program at Rison High School. But those who live in a county that claims both Johnny Cash and Paul “Bear” Bryant as natives understand that economic development in the 21st century is far different than it was several decades ago when it was all about trying to attract manufacturing facilities.

A recent story in the Cleveland County Herald noted: “Talent said Rison Shine still has a long way to go before realizing its ultimate goal of having a thriving downtown area. He said he and a few others have been kicking around the idea of having live music on the new deck at FBT Community Park on Friday nights during the late spring and summer. He said the group will also be considering ways to strengthen its existing events as well as ways to make downtown Rison more attractive.”

Across town, a group known as Friends of Pioneer Village is working to reinvigorate a Rison attraction.

The Cleveland County Herald reported: “The first priority was to replace the roof in the mercantile building, which had fallen in and was allowing rain to rot the interior walls and floors. This project was completed using donations given by residents and former residents of Rison who had close personal connections to the village.

“The Mt. Olivet Church building at the village was adopted by the Mt. Olivet Methodist Church at Calmer. Jimmie Boyd, a longtime church member, approached the congregation about financing the restoration and has since led the effort to repair the wooden floors inside the church and replace the porches and railings. The mercantile, which formerly served as the county clerk’s office, and the Mt. Olivet Church have been improved enough that about the only project left for them is exterior paint.”

Rison will host the South Arkansas Homesteading Conference this Friday and Saturday. The first conference was held April 5, 2014, at Pioneer Village. There were five sessions, and about 150 people attended.

“What really surprised me about that first conference was that we had visitors from 18 counties in Arkansas,” Talent says. “We had some from as far away as Jonesboro and Batesville.”

Here’s how the Cleveland County Herald describes the county’s homesteading brand: “When community development specialist Dr. Mark Peterson looks for ways to help a community grow and flourish, he says one of the first things he looks for is something unique about that community that separates it from every place else. For Rison and Cleveland County, he identified that asset early on: Its connection to the Arkansas Homesteading Conference.

“Peterson is a professor of community and economic development at the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension Service. He’s the founder of Breakthrough Solutions, an economic/community development program that leverages a community’s assets to create breakthroughs that can move them forward, sometimes in dramatic ways.

“Homesteading, as defined by Wikipedia, ‘is a lifestyle of self-sufficiency. It is characterized by subsistence agriculture, home preservation of foodstuffs, and it may or may not also involve the small-scale production of textiles, clothing and craftwork for household use or sale.’

“Peterson said the homesteading niche seemed like a natural fit for Cleveland County. In fact, he made Cleveland County one of the subjects for a branding workshop that was conducted at his statewide Breakthrough Solutions Conference in June 2015. Martin Thoma of Thoma Thoma in Little Rock led the workshop for Cleveland County. Thoma Thoma is a regional brand strategy and marketing communications firm with expertise in branding communities and destinations. The focus group working on the branding workshop for Cleveland County included dozens of community development professionals, elected officials and others from outside Cleveland County.

“After more than two hours of discussion, the group came up with the following brand idea: ‘America’s Homestead — Real. Simple. Life.’ Many of those who took part in the workshop said they felt like the brand was an accurate reflection of the rural culture and its connection with homesteading. The Kickstart Cleveland County steering committee presented the idea at one of its subsequent meetings, and the group voted to adopt the slogan as its official brand.”

Here’s how Peterson explains what’s happening in Cleveland County: “We realized the tremendous potential that comes with an excellent brand for a community, organization or business. Cleveland County was willing to participate as a pilot community. My sense is that it was a good fit for Cleveland County because it emphasizes strong values that most rural people readily embrace, and it would attract people to Cleveland County who would be good citizens and neighbors. To those who see this brand as too restrictive, a recent study revealed that when people come to visit a community because of the brand, they spend 70 percent of their time and money on other things not related to the brand.”

A key to economic development these days is creating a quality of life good enough that those natives who go elsewhere for college might return to start small businesses and raise their families. There may be fewer than 10,000 people in the county, but its business and civic leaders appear to have figured that out.

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More hall of famers

Friday, March 24th, 2017

In the previous post, I focused on the 12 restaurants in the inaugural class of the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame.

There also were categories for the best food-themed event and the proprietor of the year.

The inductee in the best food-themed event category was the Cave City Watermelon Festival. In Cave City, they like to say that “Hope’s watermelons might be bigger, but ours are sweeter.”

This summer event has been taking place for almost four decades in the Arkansas Ozarks. There are concerts, car shows, parades, watermelon-themed games and, of course, lots of watermelons.

Other finalists in the food-themed event catergory were:

— The Gillett Coon Supper. The first coon supper was held at Stuttgart in 1933 but soon moved to Gillett. It has been put on by the Gillett Farmers’ and Businessmen’s Club since 1947. It’s a must-attend event for politicians. When the Gillett School District still existed, the January supper basically served as the school’s annual football banquet. The coon supper now raises funds for college scholarships for area students.

— The Bean Fest and Great Arkansas Championship Outhouse Races at Mountain View. This event is held each year during the final weekend of October. Teams begin cooking pinto beans and cornbread at dawn, and judging generally begins about 11:30 a.m. By the afternoon, the Great Arkansas Championship Outhouse Races are taking place with the winning team taking home the coveted Golden Toilet Seat.

— The World Championship Duck Gumbo Cookoff at Stuttgart. It’s an important part of the Wings Over The Prairie Festival, which is held each year right after Thanksgiving. The gumbo cookoff is probably the closest thing we have in Arkansas to a south Louisiana Mardi Gras celebration. It’s a true party as teams cook up gumbo for the hundreds of people fortunate enough to have tickets. This has become such a popular event that there’s a long waiting list for those who want booth space.

— The World Cheese Dip Championship at Little Rock. This event came about partially because of a documentary by Nick Rogers titled “In Queso Fever: A Movie About Cheese Dip,” which asserts that cheese dip was invented in Little Rock in 1935 by Mexico Chiquito owner Blackie Donnelly. Participants come from far and wide for the annual fall festival, and the attendance grows each year.

The winner for proprietor of the year was actually a group of proprietors. It’s a well-deserved honor since this group of men changed dining in Arkansas forever.

With the opening of Jacques & Suzanne atop what’s now the Regions Bank building in downtown Little Rock in the 1970s, the Continental Cuisine team of Paul Bash, Ed Moore, Louis Petit and Denis Seyer set the stage for other quality restaurants such as Graffiti’s, 1620, the Purple Cow and Alouette’s. Their former employees opened additional restaurants such as Café St. Moritz and Andre’s. These men were to restaurateurs what Frank Broyles was to assistant football coaches who went on to become head coaches: The base of a tree with many limbs.

The other three finalists in this category were:

— Capi Peck of Little Rock. She grew up in the hospitality business since her grandparents owned the Sam Peck Hotel downtown. The restaurant at the Sam Peck was one of the few places in those days where Arkansans could enjoy fine dining. It was among the reasons that Winthrop Rockefeller called the Sam Peck’s penthouse home for a time in the early 1950s after moving to Arkansas from New York. Peck has long run Trio’s in Little Rock, cooking local ingredients with an international flair.

— Joe St. Columbia of Helena. St. Columbia, the grandson of Sicilian immigrant Pasquale St. Columbia, is known across the South for his tamales. His grandfather obtained tamale recipes from Mexican laborers in the Delta and added an Italian touch. Joe St. Columbia once shipped the tamales across the country. Now, you have to go to Helena on a Friday or a Saturday and buy them from the trailer he operates.

— Scott McGehee of Little Rock. A descendant of famed Arkansas cook Ruby Thomas of the Red Apple Inn on Eden Isle, McGehee was born in Fayetteville and raised in Little Rock. His father, Frank McGehee, was a partner in the famous Little Rock restaurants Juanita’s and the Blue Mesa Grill. Scott McGehee worked as a line chef at the internationally known Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., and later returned to Arkansas to open the Boulevard Bread Co. He’s now a partner in the company that operates ZaZa, Big Orange, Local Lime, Lost 40 Brewing and Heights Taco & Tamale Co.

Congratulations to them all. They’re all hall of famers in my book.

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The weekend drive

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

Spring came early to Arkansas this year, bringing with it the urge to make some weekend drives.

It once was a highly refined art in our state. People would take to the roads on Saturdays and on Sunday afternoons after church, often with no scheduled stops. They would simply make spur-of-the-moment decisions on what turns to take and what sights to see.

They were the great desultory drivers, out to enjoy whatever this state had to offer.

My grandparents in Benton often would make the drive to Lake Norrell, that city’s water-supply lake in the Ouachita Mountain foothills. Sometimes the destination would be the Salem Dairy Bar for ice cream, the Congo Mercantile Store (which had wooden floors and a wood-burning stove in those days), Lake Winona in the Ouachita National Forest or Peeler Bend on the Saline River.

For my grandparents at Des Arc, there was flatter terrain to cover. Weekends might involve a drive to Brinkley or Searcy. My favorite trips were the ones from the Prairie County seat of Des Arc to the other county seat of DeValls Bluff for barbecue at Craig’s or fried catfish at Murry’s.

My parents in Arkadelphia would simply say “let’s drive out around the lake” once the Caddo River was dammed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to form DeGray Lake. We would drive through the campgrounds and look at the license plates to see what states were represented. We would cross the dam. We sometimes would finish with supper at the lodge at DeGray Lake Resort State Park.

In a state filled with nice views, the warm late-winter days and the urge to hit the road had me thinking about my favorite Arkansas vistas.

Near the top of my list is St. Mary’s Mountain above Altus, specifically the view from the parking lot of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, commonly known as St. Mary’s Church.

Maybe it’s not just the view that has me ranking this spot high on the list. Perhaps it’s also the things that go with the trip there — visits to the tasting rooms of Arkansas wineries, the trout for lunch at the Wiederkehr Weinkeller restaurant, the chance to step inside the beautiful church.

The mountain that most people now call St. Mary’s was known as Pond Creek Mountain when the church was founded in 1879 to serve immigrants from Switzerland and Germany.

In April 1869, the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad was chartered. A depot and freight yard were constructed at Argenta (now North Little Rock), and track was laid to the Arkansas River so boats could deliver freight cars, engines and rails. Twenty four miles of track were laid in 1870 toward the west. The total mileage had reached 82 miles by the end of 1871. Due to strikes, the collapse of railroad bonds and foreclosure, progress then slowed.

Larry LeMasters writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “On Dec. 10, 1874, the railroad was foreclosed on, and nine days later, a new group of Eastern investors reopened the company, keeping the name Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad. On June 12, 1875, the name of the railroad was changed to the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railway. An influx of skilled German immigrants in Arkansas allowed the LR&FS to push on across the state. These immigrants worked for the railroad and settled on land grants given by LR&FS and in towns along the railway, eventually forming the basis of Arkansas’ wine industry near Altus. The new LR&FS continued to lay track westward across Arkansas, and on Jan, 30, 1879, the LR&FS finally reached Van Buren.

“On Sept. 21, 1882, New York millionaire Jay Gould purchased the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railway, adding it to his 1881 purchase of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway, forming the largest railroad company in Arkansas. Gould also owned the Missouri Pacific, which would become his parent railroad and into which the LR&FS eventually merged. In April 1906, the Little Rock & Fort Railway was sold to the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway (both railways were owned by Jay Gould and Missouri Pacific), effectively ending the LR&FS Railway.”

The aggressive recruitment of immigrants by the railroads took place because government land grants on either side of the track had little value unless buyers could be found. Land agents promoted the fact that a German-speaking priest lived in the Altus area.

Shirley Sticht Schuette writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “Religious and economic factors came together with the growth of the railroads to promote immigration following the Civil War. For a time, state governments, railroad companies and real estate agents recruited immigrants. Arkansas Gov. Powell Clayton talked of recruiting immigrants in his 1868 inaugural message. Intense efforts came only at the end of the 1870s when railroad construction had progressed to the point that land was widely available in the Arkansas River Valley. German-language publications were issued touting the benefits of Arkansas, and agents were sent to German communities in the eastern United States and also to Europe to entice settlers to the state.

“Given grants of government land, the railroads moved west, financing construction and establishing a market for their services through selling land to immigrants. Both the Lutheran and the Catholic churches, the two denominations most closely associated with the German community, cooperated with the railroads in developing German immigrant communities in Arkansas. The Catholic Church was involved in direct recruitment, acting as an agent for the railroad, while the Lutheran Church concentrated on supporting immigrants after they arrived.

“With encouragement from Bishop Edward Fitzgerald of the Diocese of Little Rock, the Catholic Church entered into agreements with the railroads, setting aside land grant areas for immigrants recruited by the church. Two such agreements resulted in strong areas of German settlement in the Arkansas River Valley. The Benedictine Order founded a colony based in Logan County and remained following the initial immigration period. Subiaco Abbey and Academy in Logan County remains a monument to their work.

“The Holy Ghost Fathers brought many settlers into the state, some of whom stayed and made important contributions to the economy and politics in Conway and Faulkner counties. However, the order did not maintain a significant presence in the state. Following a series of disasters, including a tornado in April 1883 that destroyed the Catholic church in Conway and an 1892 tornado that destroyed their monastery, the group abandoned its plans for a permanent monastery and seminary in Arkansas.”

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the religious persecution that occurred during the remainder of the decade helped drive many German Catholics to the United States. The priest who had founded St. Mary’s, Beatus Maria Ziswyler, died in 1887, but the Benedictine monks from Subiaco Abbey on the other side of the river saw to it that the parish continued to operate. The railroad donated 40 acres when the church was established, and the congregation met in a wooden structure until 1902.

The cornerstone for the current building was laid on May 24, 1901, and the Romanesque-style church was dedicated on Sept. 2, 1902. The rocks used to build the church were mined from an adjacent hillside. Exterior walls are two-feet thick, and the 120-foot bell tower has walls that are twice that thick. The stonework was done by masons from St. Louis. Painted cedar forms the pillars of the basilica-style church. There are murals that were painted by German artist Fridolin Fuchs in 1915-16, and an 1897 John George Pleffer pipe organ was added in 1925.

Construction of the current structure was overseen by Father Placidus Oechsle.

According to the church website: “Father Placidus also found time to extravagantly decorate the church along with immigrant painter Fridolin Fuchs. Donations from parish members also enabled the acquisition of the four large bells that grace the bell tower and the purchase of a first-class organ to fill the interior with music. His 28-year pastorate was by far the longest of any priest at St. Mary’s. Although times changed rather dramatically throughout the 20th century, little changed around St. Mary’s until the 1960s. That time of transition just after Vatican II also saw the reluctant demolition of the old nun’s house and rectory and their replacement with much more modern buildings. Those projects were headed by Father Thomas Buergler.

“Father Thomas was followed by Father Lawrence Miller, who exhibited great leadership and foresight in getting a new school built in 1973 along with the parish hall, later to be named Lawrence Hall in his honor, in 1979. As is so often the way with progress, the old school was torn down to make room for the new hall.

“Father John Walbe took over care of St. Mary’s parish in 1980 after the untimely death of Father Lawrence. He led the way in the restoration project for the church organ. After having been bought used for $500 from St. Francis de Sales Oratory of St. Louis in 1925, the organ was really showing its age. Thus it came to pass in 1986 that through the efforts of Father John and the parish, the organ was restored to its full glory by Redman Pipe Organs of Fort Worth for more than $100,000.

“Unfortunately, the church itself was also showing its age, especially from roof leaks and moisture infiltrating through the sandstone. After Father John’s recall to Subiaco, he was replaced by St. Mary’s second-longest tenured pastor, Father Hilary Filiatreau. Father Hilary led the massive fundraising and restoration project that followed in 1999. The work was carried out by Conrad Schmitt Studios of Milwaukee. Its current beautiful state serves as a testament to his efforts. The parish will also remember him leading the effort culminating in the complete replacement of the 100-year-old church roof in the summer of 2010.”

Make the drive to St. Mary’s Mountain one Saturday morning.

Enjoy the view.

Admire the inside of the church.

Make sure to leave a small cash donation.

Have lunch nearby and perhaps bring home some Arkansas wine.

By all means, do your part to revive that old Arkansas tradition known as the weekend drive.

 

 

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March in the Spa City

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

The month of March approaches.

It’s a month that has become prime time for tourism in Hot Springs.

The weather warms, and the crowds grow at Oaklawn Park. The crab apple trees bloom, and the infield opens.

The city hosts 14 state championship high school basketball games (seven girls’ games and seven boys’ games) during a three-day period early each March (March 9-11 this year).

And thanks to the imagination and promotional ability of Steve Arrison, who heads Visit Hot Springs, the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade is now among the top events of its type in the country. With the parade falling on a Friday night this year, record crowds are expected to fill the streets downtown if the weather cooperates.

Adding to the excitement is the opening of The Waters, a boutique hotel across Central Avenue from Bathhouse Row. Renovation work on the historic Thompson Building, which will house the hotel, began in October 2015. More than $8 million later, 62 rooms are ready for guests from across the region.

“I had no idea when we started this how long it takes to build a hotel or to remodel a 100-year-old building,” Robert Zunick, one of the three partners in the project, told the Hot Springs National Park Rotary Club last month. “It took nine months to negotiate the sale. Once we owned the Thompson Building, it took 16 months to close the financing. We’re 15 months on the construction now.”

Zunick, a Hot Springs financial adviser, teamed up with veteran Spa City architects Bob Kempkes and Anthony Taylor to create The Waters. The work of Kempkes and Taylor can be seen around town, especially their beautiful renovation of the Ozark Bathhouse on the other side of Central Avenue.

The three men considered hundreds of potential names for the hotel before deciding on one.

Zunick said: “We really wanted to settle in on the essence of what really ties everything together, the reason all of those people came to Hot Springs in the first place, and all of this kind of boils down to one thing — the waters that we’ve been blessed with here in the national park.”

The Thompson Building was constructed in 1913. It has housed everything from a hotel to gift shops to apartments to doctors’ offices through the decades. A century ago, the term “taking the waters” was common in this country, and the Thompson was built to serve those who came to the Spa City for that reason.

Zunick said construction crews found a hotel receipt from 1949. He told the Rotarians: “They spent two nights at the Thompson Hotel for $16 a night. We’re going to be a little bit higher than that.”

Chris Wolcott, the hotel’s general manager, said the renovation resulted in a facility in which “not a single one of the rooms is like the other. We have different sizes. We have different layouts. … We have exposed brick walls and bench-seat windows.”

The Thompson Building also is the home of the recently opened fine-dining venue known as The Avenue. Casey Copeland, the former chef at So Restaurant-Bar in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Little Rock, is at the helm of the restaurant.

Copeland decribes himself as a person who “eats, sleeps and breathes food. We want to work with the community, local artisans and local farmers and bring Hot Springs something that I don’t think is here, a whole new dining experience.”

Within the next year, a rooftop bar and an outdoor garden will be added to the mix.

In addition to attracting more tourists, business leaders in Hot Springs hope to attract talented new residents who like living in an urban environment. Quality restaurants like The Avenue, brew pubs such as the one across the street in the Superior Bathhouse, art galleries and entertainment venues are the type of amenities that attract residents who enjoy urban loft living.

If Zunick, Kempkes and Taylor are successful with the businesses in the Thompson Building, I have no doubt that outside investors with even deeper pockets will follow with renovations of the Medical Arts Building, the Howe Hotel, the Wade Building, the Velda Rose Hotel, the Vapors Club and other downtown structures that are empty and waiting on saviors.

There’s still so much potential there.

A report on Hot Springs compiled several years ago by an economic consulting firm out of Indianapolis noted: “One of Hot Springs’ greatest assets is its compact downtown district. A national park nestled within the central business district, four distinct urban neighborhoods, a prestigious high school, the convention center, the trailhead for the Hot Springs Greenway Trail and a number of hotels, restaurants and other tourist attractions all call downtown Hot Springs home.

“Like most downtowns, Hot Springs has a variety of architectural styles representing different periods in the city’s history. Unlike many downtowns, though, the architecture in Hot Springs is especially interesting due to the unusual collection of bathhouses on Bathhouse Row, an art deco high-rise structure that was once the tallest building in the state and several large structures such as the Arkansas Career Training Institute (the former Army-Navy Hospital) and the Arlington Hotel, which dominate the view from several vantage points along the downtown streets.”

I’m reminded of a statement that Courtney Crouch of Hot Springs made during a National Park Rotary Club meeting at the Arlington Hotel a couple of years ago. Crouch is a devoted historic preservationist whose Selected Funeral & Life Insurance Co. makes its home in the city’s ornate old post office building on Convention Boulevard.

“I encourage you to go out when you leave here and look at the buildings,” he told those gathered at the Arlington that day. “The Thompson Building is one of the finest architectural treasures there is. The same thing can be said about the Medical Arts Building. And what a structure the old Army-Navy Hospital is.

“We’re on a new path. We’re seeing a lot of things develop. We’re headed in a new direction. I hope we can see this become the great American spa it was back around the turn of the century.”

Crouch has made numerous trips through the years to Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, a resort that attracts the rich and famous from New York City each August in search of cooler temperatures and thoroughbred racing.

He told me: “You know, Hot Springs has more to work with from an architectural standpoint than Saratoga Springs has.”

There was a time when Hot Springs called itself “the Saratoga of the South.”

With more upscale hotels, restaurants, spas and retailers, why can’t downtown Hot Springs attract people with money to spend from the booming Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex (it’s less than a five-hour drive away) just as Saratoga Springs attracts people from New York City?

With the development of the Thompson Building in downtown Hot Springs, the first domino has fallen.

It will be interesting to see if others follow.

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Land of ducks

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017

In a previous post, I wrote about how Ernest Hemingway decided to head south from Piggott, where he was visiting his in-laws, in order to hunt ducks along the lower White River in southeast Arkansas in late 1932.

Hemingway was accompanied by Max Perkins, the legendary book editor known for discovering and nurturing authors such as Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe.

I had the pleasure of quail hunting in Clay County earlier this year with Perkins’ granddaughter, and she gave me a copy of a letter her grandfather wrote on Christmas Day in 1932.

Perkins wrote: “I’ve just got back, two days ago, from the sunny South. In six days on the White River in Arkansas, we saw the sun once for a couple of minutes and all the time we froze. Hemingway wrote that he ‘needed’ to see me, and it had to be done while duck shooting, in the snow, on the shore of a river with cakes of ice in it. And you have to kneel down a lot of the time or sit. We got quite a lot of ducks, but not nearly so many as Hem thought we should; but I had a fine time.”

I quoted from this letter in the previous post. My favorite part by far was Perkins’ description of the men who lived along the lower White and Arkansas rivers, making their living hunting, fishing, gathering mussel shells and trapping: “We were five hours by train from Memphis, but we went half of that by motor and almost ran down several hogs that ambled across our road. The whole country and the people were just as in the days of Mark Twain. We went into several houseboats to get some corn whiskey and saw men who lived always on the river. They were dressed just like the men told about in Huckleberry Finn, their trousers stuffed into their boots, and they talked just like them.”

A few such men can still be found living on houseboats on the rivers of east Arkansas — the Arkansas, White, Cache and Black — but much of what you will now find during duck season are well-heeled people from across the country who come to this mecca of mallards.

East Arkansas long has attracted the rich and famous during duck season. Vice presidents, former presidents, ambassadors, movie stars, well-known musicians, professional athletes and titans of industry descend on our state in search of ducks.

They say that if you were to stake out the Stuttgart airport during the 60-day duck season, you would be shocked by the number of faces you recognize.

Given that rich tradition, I shouldn’t have been surprised last month when I found myself at a duck club near DeWitt as dinner was being prepared by Dickie Brennan from the Brennan family of New Orleans, one of the best-known restaurant families in the world. Brennan is an avid duck hunter and was spending several days at a duck club known as Little Siberia before heading east for another hunt in Mississippi.

Brennan drove to the Arkansas Delta from the Crescent City and brought food with him — lots of food.

We started with cobia (also known as lemon fish) from the Gulf of Mexico, which was sliced paper thin as sashimi. That was followed by grilled wild boar sausages, turtle soup, fried oysters, a crab dip on French bread, a salad and prime rib. I didn’t bother to ask if there was dessert.

Brennan was born in 1960 in New Orleans and lived a block away from the historic Garden District restaurant Commander’s Palace, where his father Dick Sr., his uncle John and his aunts Adelaide, Ella and Dottie ran the show. He began working in the kitchen there as a teenager under the tutelage of chef Paul Prudhomme.

After helping his family open Mr. B’s in the French Quarter in 1979, Brennan worked under chefs in Mexico City, New York and France. He became the general manager of the family’s Brennan’s of Houston in 1986 before moving back to New Orleans in 1990 to open the Palace Café in the old Werlein’s Music Store on Canal Street.

Dickie Brennan has since opened three additional restaurants in the French Quarter — Dickie Brennan’s Steak House, Bourbon House and Tableau.

It was a magical night at Little Siberia that combined many of my favorite things — the Delta, ducks, hunting clubs with a long history, good food, fascinating people and intelligent conversation. There also was a touch of melancholy since the men who built the current Little Siberia lodge in 1983 are selling the club this month to George Dunklin Jr. of Stuttgart, the immediate past president of Ducks Unlimited who founded the Five Oaks Duck Lodge near Stuttgart. Dunklin, who served for seven years on the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, was in the inaugural class of the Arkansas Waterfowler Hall of Fame, which was inducted in December.

The Little Siberia lodge sits on the banks of a reservoir that covers almost 700 acres and is adjacent to Bayou Meto. The reservoir was constructed in part by German prisoners of war in 1943-44.

It was warm for late January, the kind of day when club members often pull large crappie from the reservoir. The door was left open so there could be a roaring fire in the lodge’s fireplace. Veteran club members told stories of the other duck clubs in this area of the state and the colorful characters who inhabit them each season.

On the bookshelf in the lodge was a copy of Ohio native Keith Russell’s book “The Duck Huntingest Gentleman.” First published in 1977, the collection of waterfowling stories contains a piece about a Thanksgiving trip Russell made to Arkansas one year. The hunting was slow from a pit blind in a flooded field his first morning in Arkansas. It was even slower the second morning in the pin oak flats.

When the late Dr. Rex Hancock of Stuttgart heard Russell complain in the back of Buerkle Drug Store on Main Street in Stuttgart, he promised to take the visitor “where the ducks are.”

That place was the reservoir at Little Siberia. Hancock, a dentist who died in 1986, was among the South’s foremost conservationists. He was best known for his lengthy battle to keep the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from turning the Cache River into a drainage ditch. Shortly after Hancock’s death, the federal government earmarked more than $33 million from the federal duck stamp program for the establishment of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge.

The lodge at Little Siberia faces west, which allowed us to watch a glorious winter sunset as Dickie Brennan prepared dinner.

“We got up in pitch dark every morning, Hem’s idea of daybreak,” Max Perkins wrote back in 1932. “I had an argument with him about it, but he said the sun had nothing to do with it; that was the only way to shoot ducks. So I gave in, with mental reservations. We really had a grand time.”

Another Arkansas duck season has ended, but the memories will linger for the thousands of people who found their way to the fields and flooded timber of east Arkansas.

From Ernest Hemingway to Jimmy Carter to Dick Cheney to Dickie Brennan, famous Americans have been lured to Arkansas for decades by its duck hunting culture.

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Hunting with Hemingway: Part 2

Friday, February 3rd, 2017

We made our way to downtown Piggott on that wet, cold Saturday in January for breakfast at the Inn at Piggott.

In addition to enjoying the company of those in the hunting party with whom I would shoot quail later in the day, I visited with Link Fuller, a hometown football star who graduated from Piggott High School in 1969 and went on to become a well-known high school coach in Texas and a scout for the Dallas Cowboys. Fuller was in town to speak at that evening’s Piggott Mohawk football banquet.

Following the Saturday quail hunt, most members of the party planned to go to southeast Arkansas to hunt ducks for two mornings near Yancopin in Desha County, near where the White River and the Arkansas River empty into the Mississippi River.

The group — including the grandson of Ernest Hemingway and the granddaughter of famed book editor Max Perkins — was determined to re-create a trip Perkins and Hemingway took to that area in late 1932.

Perkins wrote in a letter dated Dec. 25, 1932: “I’ve just got back, two days ago, from the sunny South. In six days on the White River in Arkansas, we saw the sun once for a couple of minutes and all the time we froze. Hemingway wrote that he ‘needed’ to see me, and it had to be done while duck shooting, in the snow, on the shore of a river with cakes of ice in it. And you have to kneel down a lot of the time or sit. We got quite a lot of ducks, but not nearly so many as Hem thought we should; but I had a fine time.

“We were five hours by train from Memphis, but we went half of that by motor and almost ran down several hogs that ambled across our road. The whole country and the people were just as in the days of Mark Twain. We went into several houseboats to get some corn whiskey and saw men who lived always on the river. They were dressed just like the men told about in Huckleberry Finn, their trousers stuffed into their boots, and they talked just like them.

“We walked one day for several miles through the forest to a desolate narrow lake. I never was in a perfectly natural forest before. I never understood how people rode through them, but you could, rapidly, because of wide spaces between the trees. It was a ghostly walk. The trees were all whitened with ice and snow. Everything was white, and there was a white mist. We heard a dozen old trees fall under the weight of ice. But the lake was frozen over so we got no ducks there, and a big branch almost fell on Hem on the way back.

“We got up in pitch dark every morning, Hem’s idea of daybreak. I had an argument with him about it, but he said the sun had nothing to do with it; that was the only way to shoot ducks. So I gave in, with mental reservations. We really had a grand time. After dinner in the evening, we’d have two or three highballs and talk. He’s wonderful company.”

I would later hear that the duck hunting was good for our modern Arkansas visitors, but I get to duck hunt on a regular basis.

It had been years, on the other hand, since I had been behind bird dogs pointing quail on Arkansas soil.

There were few things my father loved more than what he referred to simply as “bird hunting.” And there were few things I enjoyed more as a boy than hunting with him.

I knew I was becoming a man when he would allow me to take our truck and our bird dogs out alone. When I was in high school, winter afternoons meant going out after school for an hour or so of hunting before dark — just our Brittany spaniel, our English setter and me. I never much enjoyed hunting pen-raised birds. Once wild quail became rare in Arkansas, I stopped hunting. I miss the sport.

Alas, we would hunt pen-raised birds in Clay County.

Stephen Crancer of Rector has transformed his family farm on Crowley’s Ridge near Rector into a beautiful facility for guided quail and pheasant hunts. Crancer hosts everything from corporate retreats to church outings at what’s known as Liberty Hill Outfitters. After breakfast, our group took the back route in the rain along winding gravel roads as we made our way south down the Ridge from Piggott to Liberty Hill. Several wrong turns later, we arrived, only to find that the rain had gotten harder.

After we had waited for about 30 minutes, the rain stopped.

John Hemingway, who lives in Montreal and is the grandson of Ernest, warmed up by shooting clay pigeons over a pond.

Our group, led by Crancer, walked from the pond to the fields where the quail were. It was a joy to watch Crancer’s two dogs — one of them is 13 years old — work. These were not wild birds, but it was still enough to bring back memories of those hunts with my father. And I was hunting with a Hemingway in Clay County, a story I no doubt will still be telling years from now.

Following the morning hunt, it was time for lunch, a meal catered at Liberty Hill by Chow At One Eighteen, which is located in downtown Paragould. The menu consisted of grilled quail with mushrooms, black truffle oil risotto, green beans, biscuits and a French apple tart for dessert. In other words, it wasn’t the average Saturday lunch.

As we ate, I thought about the Hemingway visits to Clay County. The Pfeiffer family back in Piggott didn’t realize it, but the marriage between Ernest and Pauline essentially was over by 1939. Ernest was spending most of his time at his home named Finca Vigia in Cuba, and Pauline remained in Key West.

On Dec. 12, 1939, Ernest wrote to Mary Pfeiffer in Piggott: “I counted very much on coming to see you last fall with the children. I wanted to see you very much, and I wanted to ask your advice about some things. … If we could have talked I believe you would have found that I have changed much less than Pauline and Virginia. … I do not mean that I have ever been in the right in everything, but the true version would be very different from anything you have heard.”

Ernest and Pauline’s divorce was final in November 1940, and Ernest soon married Martha Gellhorn, the third of his four wives. He would not return to Piggott. He committed suicide in Idaho with his favorite shotgun on July 2, 1961.

In an August 1934 letter to Mary Pfeiffer, Ernest had written: “Everything is going well with us. As usual when I am writing a novel I am making nothing and am probably regarded by the family intelligence service as a loafer. On the other hand when I am all through with a novel I make plenty of money and then, while I am loafing, am regarded with respect as a money maker.”

The “loafing” time occasionally included hunting quail in the far northeast corner of Arkansas.

On one glorious January weekend, we did our best to relive those days.

 

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Hunting with Hemingway: Part 1

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

The invitation proved irresistible: Hunt quail with the grandson of Ernest Hemingway in Clay County on land near where the famous author once hunted.

Yes, that Ernest Hemingway — the man who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1953 for the novel “The Old Man and the Sea” and was named Nobel Laureate in Literature in 1954.

The invitation came from former state Sen. Kevin Smith of Helena, a longtime friend and a Hemingway aficionado of the first order.

Smith said a group from Savannah, Ga., would fly in on a Friday afternoon in January after having purchased the trip during a charitable auction at Key West, Fla. Part of the attraction would be the chance to spend time with John Hemingway, whose father was Dr. Gregory Hemingway and whose grandfather was Ernest Hemingway.

John Hemingway would come to Piggott from Montreal, where he now lives, with his wife Kristina and son Michael.

Also traveling to Piggott for the weekend would be Jenny Phillips, the granddaughter of Max Perkins, the book editor known for discovering and nurturing famous authors such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe.

Phillips, who lives in the Boston area, is a cultural anthropologist, writer and psychiatric nurse. In 2008, she produced and directed the documentary film “The Dhamma Brothers,” which tells the story of a group of prisoners inside a maximum-security prison in Alabama who participated in a meditation program based on the teachings of the Buddha.

While working on the film, Phillips collected more than 200 letters from Alabama inmates documenting their lives in prison. The collected letters later were published in a book titled “Letters from the Dhamma Brothers.”

Phillips would be accompanied to Clay County by her husband, the well-known journalist Frank Phillips, who’s the state capitol bureau chief for The Boston Globe.

In 2002, Jenny and Frank Phillips began a project to restore the Cuban home of Ernest Hemingway and save the Hemingway papers that remained in Cuba following Hemingway’s death in 1961. An agreement was signed by Fidel Castro at Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s Cuban home. The collection included more than 9,000 books, 3,000 photographs and 2,000 letters and documents.

John Hemingway is the author of the memoir “Strange Tribe,” which examines the complex relationship between his father and grandfather. He studied history and Italian at UCLA and later lived for a number of years in Italy. After leaving Italy, he spent a year in Spain before moving to Montreal.

In an interview several years ago with The Hemingway Project, John Hemingway said of his grandfather (who died when John was a baby): “I admire him tremendously. I think that he was a great writer and a very interesting man, much more complicated than the general public usually gives him credit for being. Understanding him and what motivated him has helped me, in turn, to understand my father.

“I think that he was a compassionate person. He had his problems and his issues, but for the most part he was a generous and vulnerable man. He was a poet in the true sense of the word.”

We gathered on a cold, foggy Friday night at the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center on West Cherry Street in Piggott, which has been operated since 1999 by Arkansas State University. The property consists of a house and barn built in 1910.

Paul Pfeiffer, a wealthy St. Louis businessman, bought the house and barn in 1913 and moved his family to Piggott, where he began buying what eventually would be more than 60,000 acres of farmland. Paul Pfeiffer lived in the house until his death in 1944. His wife, Mary, lived there until her death in 1950. The Tom Janes family purchased the property in 1950 and owned it until it became ASU’s property in 1997.

Ernest Hemingway married Pauline Pfeiffer, the daughter of Paul and Mary Pfeiffer, in France in May 1927 after divorcing his first wife. Pauline was a writer who was in Paris on an assignment for Vogue magazine when she met Hemingway.

Hemingway visited Piggott for the first time in the spring of 1928 so Pauline could be with her family during her first pregnancy. He spent his time working on a new novel, “A Farewell to Arms.” On later trips to Piggott, he sometimes would hunt quail on his father-in-law’s extensive holdings.

In 1932, Hemingway came to Piggott with his wife and three children (a 9-year-old son from his first marriage and two sons with Pauline) for a visit during the winter holidays. He wrote a short story, “A Day’s Wait,” about that visit.

“It was a bright, cold day, the ground covered with a sleet that had frozen so that it seemed as if all the bare trees, the bushes, the cut brush, and all the grass and the bare ground had been varnished with ice,” Hemingway wrote. “I took the young Irish setter for a little walk up the road and along a frozen creek, but it was difficult to stand or walk on the glassy surface and the red dog slipped and slithered and I fell twice, hard, once dropping my gun and having it slide away over the ice.

“We flushed a covey of quail under a high clay bank with overhanging brush and I killed two as they went out of sight over the top of the bank. Some of the covey lit in trees, but most of them scattered into brush piles and it was necessary to jump on the ice-coated mounds of brush several times before they would flush. Coming out while you were poised unsteadily on the icy, springy brush, they made difficult shooting and I killed two, missed five, and started back pleased to have found a covey close to the house and happy there were so many left to find on another day.”

Karl Pfeiffer, Pauline’s younger brother, enjoyed hunting with Hemingway.

“Ernest was unpredictable,” Karl Pfeiffer would later say. “There were times when he’d be at ease and other times when his pomposity would show. He liked to freeze the quail he hunted and give them as Christmas gifts to his friends back east. So one day — it was near the end of his visit — he remarked about not getting to hunt much this trip and how he wanted to shoot quail before he left.

“We all went, and the rest of us had a field day, but Ernest wasn’t doing so well. When they got ready to leave the next morning, I started to get some of the birds I’d shot and give them to him to give away, but he wouldn’t have any part of it. He just snorted, ‘I’m not going to give away brids that I didn’t kill.'”

Hemingway’s sister-in-law, Virginia Pfeiffer, remodeled the barn loft to create a place for Hemingway to write. A fire in the barn later destroyed many of his possessions.

On that January night in Piggott, we all got to know each other better while eating barbecue following a tour of the home Paul and Mary Pfeiffer once occupied and the barn where Ernest Hemingway once wrote.

Most of the hunting party spent the night on the downtown square at The Inn at Piggott, which is in a building constructed in 1925 to house the Bank of Piggott. The bank went under during the Great Depression. In 1930, Paul Pfeiffer chartered Piggott State Bank and also used the building to house offices for the Pfeiffer Land Co.

In 1957, part of the Elia Kazan movie “A Face in the Crowd” was shot at Piggott. The movie starred Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Lee Remick and Walter Matthau and was based on the Bud Schulberg short story “Your Arkansas Traveler.”

Griffith played a drunken drifter who was discovered by the producer of a radio program in northeast Arkansas. In the movie, the character played by Griffith rose to fame and a career on national television. The first scene was filmed from the front doorstep of the building that now houses the Inn at Piggott.

The owners of the inn, Joe and Tracy Cole, are Piggott natives who gave up careers in law and international marketing after 24 years in Memphis and returned to their hometown. One of their projects was to renovate the former bank into a nine-room bed-and-breakfast inn.

I was joined by Paul Austin, the head of the Arkansas Humanities Council, in staying on the edge of town at the Rose Dale Farm Bed and Breakfast, a home built on the Norred Farm in 1917. This house sometimes was visited by Hemingway when he would hunt quail in the adjoining fields.

The home is filled with Hemingway books, and a note from the owner states: “My grandfather and his brother-in-law would take Ernest Hemingway hunting when he came to town. After the hunt, they would have bourbons at the secretary, leaving rings from the glasses. The lady of the house would get so mad she would make Ernest come in the back door of the house and then she would leave when he was in the room. You can still see the rings on the writing surface.”

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Cycling in the Delta

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017

The recent efforts of the Walton family and Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s administration to make Arkansas the Cycling Hub of the South have centered on areas in the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains.

When it comes to cycling in Arkansas, though, the Delta provides some of the greatest potential.

In the previous Southern Fried blog post, we noted the opening of the $18 million Big River Crossing over the Mississippi River at Memphis and the decision of the St. Francis Levee District board to allow development of a bike trail atop the Mississippi River levee from the bridge’s western terminus in West Memphis all the way to Marianna.

There also are ongoing efforts to pave a route through the St. Francis National Forest from where the levee route ends at Marianna all the way to Helena.

Several years ago, the state entered into an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to develop Mississippi River State Park in the St. Francis National Forest. A visitors’ center staffed by U.S. Forest Service and state Department of Parks & Tourism staff was constructed with interactive exhibits on the Mississippi River, Crowley’s Ridge and the Delta. A campground, day-use area and nature trail were developed at nearby Bear Creek Lake. Future improvements will be made where the St. Francis River empties into the Mississippi River and along Storm Creek Lake. The St. Francis is the only national forest that touches the Mississippi River.

There’s also the ongoing development of Delta Heritage Trail State Park, which is being built in phases along 73 miles of right of way donated by Union Pacific to the state in 1992. This once was the route of Missouri Pacific’s Delta Eagle and passes through the most scenic areas of the Big Woods. This part of the state has the largest remaining segments of the Big Woods, the vast bottomland hardwood forest that once extended down both sides of the Mississippi River from Cairo, Ill., to New Orleans.

The Delta Heritage Trail starts one mile south of Lexa in Phillips County and extends to Cypress Bend in Desha County. The first hiking and biking segment opened in 2002 from Helena Junction near Lexa to Barton. Just more than 20 miles of the trail have been developed.

Hutchinson and Kane Webb, the director of the state Department of Parks & Tourism, have ridden bikes on the trail and made its completion a priority. The southern terminus of the railroad right of way will connect with the Mississippi River levee, and the trail then will extend another 11 miles to historic Arkansas City.

Cyclists eventually should be able to cross the Mississippi River at Memphis and go all the way to Arkansas City.

“Arkansas will be able to boast an extraordinary route that will allow the avid bicyclist to traverse nearly the entire length of Arkansas on dedicated bicycle paths,” says Doug Friedlander of Helena, who’s leading a regional tourism initiative for the Arkansas Delta. “It would be an astonishing jewel of an attraction truly worthy of the Natural State.”

Friedlander, who’s also spearheading efforts to save the old U.S. Highway 79 bridge over the White River at Clarendon for use by cyclists and hikers, envisions a “cascade of economic development for the struggling communities of rural eastern Arkansas in the form of restaurants, convenience stores, bicycle repair services and places for overnight accommodation.”

There’s some irony, of course, in the fact that the Delta — West Memphis in particular — might become a hub of fit people in cycling gear. That’s because of the Delta’s long tradition of attracting people to gamble, drink and listen to live music.

Musician Rufus Thomas once described West Memphis as the Las Vegas of the South.

A March 1941 article in The Commercial Appeal at Memphis noted that “a Negro vice boom town has sprung up on Eighth Street of West Memphis to prey on hundreds of Memphis Negroes lured there by a bait of dice, whiskey and women. … Gambling and liquor dance drunkenly together to tunes from wailing juke boxes, the clatter of dice and the enticing bark of vice salesmen. All this runs wide open in easy view of Crittenden County and West Memphis law enforcement officers.”

The reason that so many Memphis residents — both black and white — were crossing the bridge to Arkansas was that E.H. Crump hated noise at night. The man known as Boss Crump dominated Memphis politics from his first stint as mayor (1910-15) almost until his death in 1954 at age 80.

Crump, who preferred to work behind the scenes, in essence anointed Memphis mayors for decades. He also served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1931-35. Crump made sure that Memphis had the strongest noise ordinances in the country and imposed curfews from time to time.

In West Memphis, however, the action could go until daylight.

“In the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, Eighth Street was often called Beale Street West, reflecting a music and nightlife scene to equal that in Memphis,” Charlotte Wicks writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Some places in West Memphis have been associated with famous entertainers. The Square Deal Café, referred to as Miss Annie’s Place on South 16th Street, is where B.B. King began his public entertaining. The Coffee Cup, located at 204 E. Broadway in the 1950s, is where Elvis Presley ate his first breakfast after being inducted into the U.S. Army on March 24, 1958.

“Other popular nightspots along Broadway were the Willowdale Inn, the Cotton Club and the supper club known as the Plantation Inn. Legal greyhound racing began in the county in 1935. In the years that followed, the track closed several times — once for floods, another time due to the nation’s involvement in World War II and another time due to fire.”

The lot that had housed the Plantation Inn became a parking lot for Pancho’s, a well-known Tex-Mex restaurant. An actual plantation house was once at the site. It later became a gambling hall. Morris Berger opened the Plantation Inn in 1942.

In a 2007 Commercial Appeal story, Bob Mehr wrote: “Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, West Memphis provided a lax legal environment that spawned a variety of musical venues like the Cotton Club and Danny’s. While those clubs catered mostly to country music, the Plantation Inn opened its stages to a host of great black acts. They ranged from the Newborn family — father Phineas and sons Calvin and Phineas Jr. — to band leaders like Ben Branch, Gene “Bowlegs” Miller and Willie Mitchell. Although it survived an early 1960s crackdown on local clubs, the Plantation Inn closed its doors in 1964. … Long before his trumpet would anchor the Memphis Horns and punctuate inimitable hits for the Stax label, the West Memphis-raised Wayne Jackson got his education in R&B at the Plantation Inn.”

Jackson told Mehr: “When I was a kid, I always heard about the Plantation Inn. It was one of those places the adults went. They had linen tablecloths, good steaks and good music. Then as time went by and we became teenagers, we would go and sit around and listen to the bands and the singing. They would serve us a beer and look the other way. We thought we were bigtime.”

Author Robert Gordon noted in his 1995 book “It Came From Memphis” that West Memphis clubs allowed underage white kids to hear black musicians for the first time.

“Kids could get into clubs more easily across the river, and the exposure to bands like Willie Mitchell of Phineas Newborn’s group or the many others who came and went was crucial,” Gordon wrote. “It provided those kids with a kind of primer for R&B, for the rhythms and the repertoires and the unusual horn arrangements.”

The first greyhound track at West Memphis was the Riverside Kennel Club near the Mississippi River bridge.

In 1956, Southland Park opened. It was the only facility in the area to offer pari-mutual wagering, and people came from east Arkansas, west Tennessee, north Mississippi, the Missouri Bootheel and even western Kentucky to visit the track.

Arkansas historian Nancy Hendricks writes: “At its mid-century high point, Southland was said to be the top dog track in the country. Through the 1960s, ’70s and into the ’80s, a typical Saturday night at Southland might see the parking lots full with 20,000 people in attendance. Annual wagers on the greyhound races at the time generally exceeded $200 million, and more than 600 people were employed at Southland. All that changed in 1992.”

It changed because casino gambling came to nearby Tunica County in Mississippi. The competition almost sank Southland.

In 2005, the Arkansas Legislature passed legislation to permit video gaming at Southland and at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs if approved by local voters. Almost 60 percent of voters in West Memphis supported the initiative, and a $40 million expansion began in late 2006. Business soared in 2011 when the Mississippi River flood closed the Tunica casinos for a time. Another expansion costing more than $37 million occurred in 2014 as West Memphis returned to its roots as the Vegas of the South.

With the Big River Crossing, West Memphis now will be known for more than gambling and truck stops.

Bob Robinson recently wrote an extensive piece for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about a bike trip from Memphis to Marianna.

“The origin of the trail can be traced back to 2009 in Memphis when Charles McVean began manufacturing hybrid bicycles,” he wrote. “McVean is chairman and chief executive officer of McVean Trading & Investment LLC and owner of Aerobic Cruisers Hybrid Cycles LLC. Realizing that the Memphis area offered very little infrastructure to ride the bikes he was building, he came up with the idea of converting the Harahan Bridge, a 100-year-old railroad bridge over the Mississippi River, into a bicycle/pedestrian crossing.

“The bridge conversion developed scope-creep when McVean began to consider where people would ride once they crossed the river and reached the Arkansas shore. Not wanting it to be known as the bridge to nowhere, he gave this issue much consideration before arriving at the obvious solution. Create the Big River Trail, a bicycle or walking path on top of the Mississippi River levee, which stands just a short distance from the west access for the bridge (off Interstate 55) and extends all the way to Marianna.

“Obtaining permission to allow bicyles and pedestrians on top of the levee was no easy task. Sections of the levee in the St. Francis Levee District had not been open to public use since 1893. After five years of working with various associations in charge of the levee, he still lacked approval for a trail. Then McVean hired Terry Eastin of Fayetteville and formed the Big River Strategic Initiative to execute his vision.

“Eastin, Arkansas Delta Byways’ Delta Tourism Person of the Year for 2015, has been chief fundraiser and coordinator of the National Geographic Geotourism Initiative, executive director of the Mississippi River Trail Inc. and a core team member for the Walton Family Foundation-backed advocacy group Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative.”

Robinson described the Harahan Bridge this way: “This century-old bridge was constructed with two rail lines in the center and roadways cantilevered off each side to accommodate vehicles, which at that time consisted mainly of horse-drawn wagons. The roadway was used until 1949. Big River Crossing gives pedestrians use of the former vehicle lane on the north side of the still-active railway for the great upriver views it offers. … Even weeks after the grand opening, when our group bicycled across, the bridge was still drawing a crowd. It appeared to be the most popular attraction along the riverfront.”

Members of the St. Francis Levee District board had long been reluctant to open the levee to the public.

“McVean had worked five years, to no avail, to open the levee,” Robinson wrote. “Just six weeks after Eastin’s hiring, after meeting with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and receiving their endorsement, the Big River Strategic Initiative signed and presented to the St. Francis Levee District board a memorandum of understanding detailing the responsibilities of all the parties involved in the trail. The board then unanimously approved and signed it, thus opening the levee top to bicycles and pedestrians.

“McVean calls her Bulldog. But Eastin says that once she explained the economic development opportunities a Big River Trail would offer and how it could foster new enterprises compatible with the Delta’s agriculture industry, opening the levee was an easy sell. … I had picturesque views of either the Mississippi or the densely wooded ecosystem of its floodplains, whereas a motorist gets a fine view of a grass-covered hillside.”

Robinson concluded the article this way: “Big River Strategic Initiative partners are already at work to extend the route to Arkansas’ southern border. Twenty miles south of Marianna, in the town of Lexa, is the trailhead for the Delta Heritage Trail. When completed, this former Union Pacific Railroad rail bed will contribute another 84 miles to the vision. En route to Arkansas City, the Delta Heritage Trail will cross long trestles through wetlands as well as the expansive White River.

“This historic rail-to-trail conversion is being developed in phases by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism, with work progressing inward from each end. At the northernmost extremity, they have completed 21 miles of compacted crushed rock trail offering a smooth ride through Delta farm regions. From the southernmost point in Arkansas City, 14 miles of paved surface paths head north.

“Eastin’s enthusiasm for these projects is monumental. The Mississippi River does not stop at Arkansas’ southern border, and neither does she. Already she is working on plans to open the levee all the way to New Orleans.”

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