Archive for the ‘Traveling Arkansas’ Category

Going MAD in El Dorado

Friday, March 6th, 2020


Just across Cedar Street from the 1929 Rialto Theater in downtown El Dorado is a small park with displays chronicling the oil boom that transformed this south Arkansas city.

One marker describes the cold afternoon of Jan. 10, 1921, when a physician and oil speculator named Sam Busey struck oil at a well near El Dorado. The plume of oil that sprayed into the sky could clearly be seen throughout the town of 3,800 residents.

By 1925, El Dorado’s population had soared to almost 30,000.

“The town would never be the same,” the marker reads. “Church bells rang, the sawmill whistle sounded and people streamed out of town to see the oil spewing up through the 75-foot wooden derrick.”

Writing for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Kenneth Bridges describes the transformation of El Dorado: “The discovery well touched off a wave of speculators into the area seeking fame and fortune from oil. The state Legislature immediately sent an exploratory train from Little Rock for legislators to inspect the find. Oil production increased exponentially in a matter of months. In March 1921, Arkansas produced 38,000 barrels of oil to sell on the open market, which increased to 908,000 barrels by June.

“By 1922, 900 wells were in operation in the state. … El Dorado became the epicenter of the oil boom. It changed from an isolated agricultural city to the oil capital of Arkansas. Twenty-two trains each day ran in and out of El Dorado to Little Rock and Shreveport.”

Now, 99 years after the oil boom began, downtown El Dorado is hopping again. But this has nothing to do with the oil and gas industry, which has been depressed in these parts for years. Instead, it’s about music, theater, art and even fine food and wine. It’s an effort by the city’s business and civic leaders to reverse a decades-long pattern of population loss. The goal is to turn El Dorado into the arts and entertainment capital of a region that includes south Arkansas, north Louisiana, east Texas and even parts of west Mississippi.

Many consider it to be El Dorado’s last, best chance to break out of the economic doldrums infecting so much of south Arkansas.

El Dorado Festivals & Events Inc. was created several years ago and then charged with giving life to this vision. More than $60 million was raised for the first phase of the project. The Griffin Building, constructed in 1928-29 during the oil boom to house a Ford dealership and a gas station, was transformed into a fine-dining venue and an indoor performance hall that holds more than 2,000 seated patrons.

An adjacent amphitheater was built to hold 8,000 people for outdoor concerts. There’s even a two-acre children’s playground and splash pad.

A planned second phase of the project will transform the Rialto into an 850-seat hall for film festivals, touring productions and performances by the South Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. A new lobby will connect the Rialto to the 1928 McWilliams Building, a former furniture store that will become an art gallery, provide housing for artists and host traveling exhibitions from around the world.

Once all is said and done, more than $100 million will have been spent in downtown El Dorado.

The sounds of construction can be heard downtown as workers rush to complete a boutique hotel known as The Haywood.

Last spring, I went to El Dorado to emcee the groundbreaking event for the hotel. The shovels went into the dirt and the cameras clicked as city leaders, all wearing hardhats for the photo op, participated in the ceremony. The early spring weather couldn’t have been much better that day with temperatures in the 70s. In the old neighborhoods throughout the city, azaleas and dogwoods were beginning to bloom. Hope springs eternal in the spring, and the folks in El Dorado are hoping The Haywood will be another successful piece in the complex puzzle that’s designed to offset the population losses that beset this part of the state.

Despite the presence of companies such as Murphy Oil Corp., Murphy USA and what’s now PotlatchDeltic, El Dorado’s population has decreased from 23,146 in the 1990 census to about 18,000 today. There are plenty of jobs available, mind you. There are also visionary leaders, scholarships for graduates of El Dorado High School and more things to do than ever before thanks to the money being sunk into the Murphy Arts District (known locally as MAD).

“If we can’t make it work here with the inherent advantages we already have, I’m not sure it can work at all in rural areas in this part of the country,” one business executive told me.

Rather than being resigned to consistent population losses, El Dorado’s leaders began fighting back more than a decade ago when they implemented the El Dorado Promise. The scholarship program provides graduating seniors with a grant for tuition and expenses at any two-year or four-year institution of higher education in the country. The initiative was the brainchild of Claiborne Deming, who at the time was the chief executive officer at Murphy Oil. Deming modeled it after the Kalamazoo Promise in Michigan. The Murphy Oil board approved an investment of $50 million to fund the scholarships.

Later that year, local voters passed an economic development tax. In 2011, a $43 million high school opened, and numerous advanced placement courses were added to the high school curriculum.

The El Dorado Conference Center, a $14.4 million facility downtown, was dedicated in 2011.

Even with all of these developments, El Dorado’s population has dropped by another 2,000 residents since 2007.

In August 2017, I spent a day in El Dorado with Deming and Madison Murphy to learn more about MAD. I asked Deming during lunch if the vast amount of money being spent on MAD was, in essence, an admission that the El Dorado Promise hadn’t worked as well as its founders had hoped.

Before Deming could answer, Murphy interjected: “I would hate to think where we would be without it.”

MAD is the next step in a coordinated effort to create a jewel in the pine woods of far south Arkansas. During that 2017 visit, Murphy told me that he was convinced that MAD would be enough to make a high-quality downtown boutique hotel — something along the lines of The Alluvian at Greenwood, Miss. — feasible.

“I regret that the hotel isn’t already open,” he said that day. “But I believe it will happen.”

Less than two years later, the dirt was being turned for a 70-room hotel that will cost more than $14 million.

The concept of “build it and they will come” doesn’t always play out. But I’ve seen it happen with The Alluvian, which was opened in 2003 by Viking Range Corp. in the Delta city where the high-dollar appliances are manufactured. The Alluvian is in the former Hotel Irving in downtown Greenwood. In 2005, Viking added a 7,000-square-foot spa, cooking school and store across the street.

During the four years I spent with the Delta Regional Authority, I attended numerous meetings at Greenwood. I noticed the prosperous couples who were coming there to spend long weekends from as far away as the state capital at Jackson, Little Rock and even New Orleans.

Greenwood offers a nationally known cooking school and spa, but El Dorado will have the concerts at MAD, fine dining, a top golf course (Mystic Creek) and world-class art exhibitions.

Murphy Oil, Murphy USA and PotlatchDeltic must compete for talent against companies with headquarters in Houston and other large metropolitan areas. Deming, a Tulane University graduate who began working as an attorney for Murphy Oil in 1979, is often asked why one of the best scholarship programs of its kind in the country didn’t do more to stop population loss.

“The fact that it didn’t shows just how daunting the situation is in south Arkansas,” he says. “Almost all of the Arkansas counties south of Interstate 40 are facing similar challenges.”

Murphy interjects: “It takes more than one thing to change long-term trends. You have to have a confluence of events.”

Murphy is a former chairman of the Arkansas Highway Commission and headed the Murphy Commission, which from 1996-99 studied ways to make Arkansas state government more efficient and accountable to taxpayers. His interest in public policy was inherited from his father, the late Charles Murphy, who was considered to be among the state’s greatest business and civic leaders of the 20th century. Charles Murphy died in March 2002 at age 82.

“We started this effort with some ideas about how we could turn the economic situation around,” Madison Murphy says. “What you see now is far different from our original concepts. I don’t know what it’s going to look like years from now, but this could be a catalyst for things we haven’t even thought about yet.”

Murphy would like to see more people living downtown. Asked why arts and entertainment was the sector the business leaders decided to focus on, Murphy says bluntly: “Because we’re not going to get the next Toyota plant.”

He goes on the explain: “I see four drivers when it comes to attracting jobs. Those are education, infrastructure, tax rates and quality of life. Quality of life was our weakest link.”

Deming says: “We have a lot of white-collar jobs here because of the companies that are headquartered in El Dorado, and we have high-paying blue-collar jobs. So we have jobs. We also have the El Dorado Promise. And we were still losing population. So what do we do? We address those quality-of-life issues.”

Murphy quotes Daniel Burnham, one of the country’s most famous architects and urban planners in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Speaking about the design for the city of Chicago, Burnham said: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans, aim high.”

“This is not a small plan,” Murphy says of the effort to transform El Dorado into a four-state arts and entertainment hub. “It’s blood stirring.”

Deming believes the attention that MAD will bring to El Dorado could put it on the radar screen for everyone from young families to retired couples.

“The most appealing lifestyle in the country these days is the lifestyle of the small-town South,” he says. “People here are friendly. It’s easy to get around. This lifestyle is contagious. What we must do is be able to grow without losing that small-town feel. This is already a wonderful place to live. We now have the opportunity to make it even better while attracting the attention of people across the region.”

Murphy says those behind MAD aren’t oblivious to the challenges they still face.

“We’re not on an interstate highway,” he says. “We don’t have adequate air service. At least people in this region are willing to drive some distance for events.”

The focus is on what the visionaries behind MAD hope will be future growth. Still, they haven’t forgotten the past. A 110-foot oil derrick was placed adjacent to the Griffin Building, paying homage to the boom that first put El Dorado in the national spotlight. Once more, El Dorado seeks to draw the nation’s attention.

“The team we’ve assembled here makes me proud,” Murphy says. “These folks are living it, breathing it, walking it, talking it, making it happen. We’re going to succeed.”

As we toured MAD just before its formal opening back in 2017, Murphy stopped to take a call on his cell phone. I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that the subject of the phone conversation was wine. After all, the Murphy family owns a California winery named Presqu’ile in the heart of Santa Barbara County’s Santa Maria Valley.

After the call, Murphy told me that the fine-dining restaurant at the Griffin would have one of the best wine lists around. He’s right. And every meal I’ve had there since it opened has been wonderful.

Everything about MAD is first class, from the wine list to the entertainment venues. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this audacious (yes, some would say they’re mad) effort to turn El Dorado into a regional arts and entertainment center is the leadership team that has been put together.

There has been worldwide attention — and rightfully so — on what Alice Walton has done to transform Bentonville into an arts hub. What has happened in the far northern part of the state since Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened on Nov. 11, 2011, has made Arkansans in all 75 counties proud. Meanwhile, down in far southern Arkansas, there’s a team at work whose background might surprise you.

It starts with Terry Stewart, the former CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the shores of Lake Erie in downtown Cleveland. He took over the Cleveland institution in 1999 (it had opened in 1995) and stayed there until 2013.

What on earth is he doing in south Arkansas?

For starters, he’s a south Alabama native. Stewart understands the rural South and was excited by the opportunity to help transform a city and maybe even an entire region of a state by improving the quality of life. I first met Stewart five years ago while sitting with a group in the back yard of well-known El Dorado downtown developer and writer Richard Mason. Stewart’s enthusiasm was contagious from the get-go.

Prior to joining the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Stewart was the president and chief operating officer of the comic book company Marvel Entertainment Group. Marvel became a public company in 1991, and Stewart was named that year by CNBC as the Marketing Executive of the Year.

“My career has taken many twists and turns through the years, and that’s how I like it,” Stewart said when he was hired at El Dorado in August 2014. “Working with El Dorado Festivals & Events will give me an opportunity to harness my passions and hopefully improve the quality of life for this region.”

El Dorado Festivals & Events was formed in 2011 following the completion of a study by Roger Brooks, a nationally known destination development expert. Business leaders in El Dorado asked Brooks to go beyond the old concepts of industrial development and come up with a new way to stem the tide of population decline in El Dorado. It was Brooks who suggested an arts and entertainment district that would draw visitors from across the region.

“Many industry people think I’m mad when I tell them about the El Dorado project,” Stewart said in interview with the El Dorado newspaper. “But it’s going to be the most important work of my carer when one considers the lives that will be changed by the economic redevelopment and cultural infusion we’re working to achieve. … We’re bringing song, dance, good food and theater to a community and region that has long been underserved.”

In a recent article for The Bitter Southerner, Tony Rehagen wrote: “Stewart brought in architect Paul Westlake, who had a hand in designing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and four of the six largest performing arts centers in the United States. The MAD chief marketing officer, Bob Tarren, came from jobs with Circuit City corporate, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Frick Pittsburgh, and he was succeeded in late 2019 by Lisaann Dupont, the former communications and digital marketing guru for the Ryman Auditorium. Even Austin Johnson, executive chef in charge of the Griffin and the food at the other venues, has a Parisian pedigree. If the scale of this project sounds a bit outsized for a town of 18,000 people, it is. But MAD president and COO Pam Griffin says there are already shoots of early progress: Annual sales tax receipts are up 15 to 20 percent from pre-MAD levels, downtown businesses are growing and The Haywood … is set to open downtown this summer.

“But El Dorado doesn’t just want transient tourism dollars. The city wants to rebuild its cultural scene, its nightlife, its infrastructure and the community to make it attractive for companies that might consider relocating here. More importantly, it wants to keep the talented young people who make the Murphy companies run and who could help new companies thrive. And the only thing bigger than the investment of capital and energy into MAD are the stakes riding on its success.”

Murphy told Rehagen: “It has always been a little difficult to recruit here. And if we can’t recruit people, we can’t stay.”

Murphy later told the writer: “We’re going to go down swinging.”

Rehagen wrote: “The idea for MAD wasn’t drawn out of a hat. El Dorado is unique in that it has an appreciation for the arts that rivals most Southern towns’ passion for high school football. The tradition dates back to the oil boom when businessmen who flooded the town needed something to do with their families in the off hours. The grand Rialto was built in 1929 as a draw for fans of vaudeville and increasingly popular moving picture shows. Founded here in 1956, the South Arkansas Symphony is the oldest continually operating orchestra in the state. Walk into the South Arkansas Arts Center, opened in 1964 on the western edge of downtown, on any given Friday and you’ll see exhibits by local visual artists, perhaps a touring exhibition and hear singing or music from the auditorium where children rehearse for recitals, concerts or plays.

“Although plenty of townspeople knew about art and the lords of local industry knew about economic development, no one really seemed to connect the two. Enter Austin Barrow, an El Dorado community theater expat who left right after high school, went to Fayetteville and earned a master’s degree in drama at the University of Arkansas, then ended up building a career in marketing and promotion for theaters and art galleries on the West Coast before moving to Georgia, where he was a drama department chair at a small college. In 2010, Madison Murphy and several other town leaders approached Barrow about coming home to oversee their best guess at what might work — an El Dorado Shakespeare Festival.”

Barrow, who resigned from MAD last year to return to the theater, told Rehagen: “I told them it was an absolutely crazy idea. Who’s going to come watch Shakespeare in El Dorado?”

Rehagen writes: “But Barrow was intrigued by the raw potential in his hometown. … Barrow joined Stewart, Tarren and Pam Griffin, then chair of the chamber of commerce. The group pitched the two-phase project to the city and met with little to no resistance. MAD was on its way to becoming reality.”

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Arkansas’ original boomtown

Wednesday, March 4th, 2020


We pass through Strong on our way from Crossett to El Dorado. It was founded in the early 1900s as a community along the railroad tracks. Many of its residents (the city dropped from a high of 839 in the 1950 census to 558 in the 2010 census) are involved in the timber industry.

“Once the El Dorado & Bastrop Railway was completed, management posted notices calling leaders of surrounding small southern Union County communities to a meeting to discuss area development,” Mike Polston writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “During the poorly attended meeting in Collinston, La., James Solomon Coleman offered a right-of-way to his land at present-day Strong for development. Railroad executives dispatched William Strong, who accepted the property after examination. Strong named the soon-to-be-constructed rail stop Victoria.

“Coleman had a 120-acre plot surveyed and began to sell lots in 1902. Henry Clay, who became the community’s first law enforcement officer, and his family were the first settlers. With Ernest J. Dugal as the first depot agent, Victoria began to grow. On April 10, 1903, the post office at nearby Concord in Union County was relocated to the new community with Stephen McBride as postmaster. By 1903, the Gorman brothers had opened the first mercantile store. The Victoria Bank also opened. The community was incorporated as a second-class city on Sept. 7, 1903.”

Here was the problem: Coleman named the train stop Strong in honor of the railroad employee. Also, postal officials discovered there was already a post office in Arkansas named Victoria. In August 1904, the post office was also referred to as Strong.

“Even into the 1940s, many local citizens continued to refer to it as Victoria,” Polston writes. “The growing city became an important supply source for local lumber operations and a shipping point for area cotton farmers. Soon, a city government was organized with H.A. Nelson as the first mayor. In 1903, Baptists were holding services in a local store. By 1906, the businesses included an ice house and bottle works. Electricity became available in 1914 when Arch Herring built a generating plant. Power was provided daily on a limited basis. A number of local men served in World War I with many of the women assisting the Red Cross in providing clothing for the troops. These women met regularly in a room over a local business to knit clothing and roll bandages. By 1920, the city’s population exceeded 500.”

The Strong Lumber Co. became the leading business in town.

“On May 9, 1927, a tornado hit the city,” Polston writes. “In the afternoon, the storm entered the southwestern tip of the city, passing through the main business district. Before leaving the town, the twister destroyed an area about three blocks wide and more than a mile long. Thirty people were killed, and an estimated 100 or more were injured. The Red Cross operated an aid station to provide assistance. Some of the dead were buried in combined funerals. The city quickly recovered from the deadly storm with much of the business district being replaced by new brick structures. Included in the new construction were a large warehouse, two electric cotton gins and a 16-room schoolhouse with an auditorium.

“By the 1930s, perhaps due to its proximity to sawmill camps, the city had begun to develop a reputation as a rough place. It was reported to be home to several houses of prostitution. During Prohibition, alcohol was supplied by local moonshiners. After repeal, the city had as many as eight alcohol-serving establishments, including one called the Bloody Bucket. Fights were said to be common, and a few deaths were reported.”

If it had not been for the discovery of oil, nearby El Dorado likely would be a much smaller place with an economy dependent on the timber industry. But the oil boom changed everything. It also produced larger-than-life figures such as Samuel Thompson Busey, T. H. Barton and Charles H. Murphy Jr. Let’s start with Busey.

Busey was born in Illinois in 1867. He was trained as a physician but later became a geologist.

“Busey came from a family of adventurers and community activists,” Kenneth Bridges and John Ragsdale write for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “His father was a farmer until 1845, when he left farming to travel across the United States. His father then took over his own father’s farm in 1856. John Busey would later win election as a Democrat to the Illinois Houses of Representatives in 1862 and would continue his interests in agricultural issues as he became involved in the Greenback Party in the 1870s and the sale of agricultural implements.

“Busey’s namesake and his father’s brother, Samuel Thompson Busey, rose to the rank of brevet brigadier general of Illinois volunteers during the Civil War and later served as a Democratic congressman from 1891-93. Busey’s maternal grandfather, Dr. Jacob F. Snyder, left his medical practice in Indiana for California in 1849 to participate in the gold rush before heading to Urbana, Ill, in 1850 to resume work as a physician.”

Beginning in 1890, Samuel Busey traveled to Bolivia, Peru, Paraguay, Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. For a time, he lived in Mexico City and practiced medicine there. Busey went to Texas in 1901 to look at the Spindletop oil well near Beaumont.

“Afterward, he and a group of investors attempted to drill oil wells near Vera Cruz with mixed results,” Bridges and Ragsdale write. “As the Mexican Revolution erupted in 1910, Busey closed his medical practice and once again resumed traveling. He eventually made his way to Bolivia, involving himself in a number of business activities. He organized the financing of the first successful rubber plantation in Bolivia and in 1915 successfully completed an oil well in that country. He returned to the United States, excited by his success in Bolivian oil. He lived for a time in New Jersey, Oklahoma and Louisiana in the late 1910s, continuing to explore for oil.

“In 1920, a well east of El Dorado was drilled and showed a large natural gas flow. Busey was in Homer, La., about 40 miles away, and rode a horse to El Dorado to confirm the well information the next day. Unable to find a room, Busey bought the Arcade Hotel for $2,500.  By this time, the Mitchell-Bonham Drilling Co. had acquired drilling rights on the 80-acre David R. Armstrong farm southwest of El Dorado. It had drilled a well to a depth of about 1,700 feet, but operations were suspended for financial difficulties. On Nov. 15, 1920, Busey met with local investors and took 51 percent ownership of the company, along with rights to the well, all tools and the 80-acre tract that was being drilled.”

Drilling resumed, but Busey had to sell some shares of the company in order to meet drilling expenses.

“On Jan. 10, 1921, at 4:30 p.m., the Busey No. 1 well, as it was then named, was drilled to a depth of 2,233 feet and struck oil,” Bridges and Ragsdale write. “Oil erupted to the surface, spraying the area with oil for more than a mile around. Busey’s rich discovery well produced an astounding 15 million to 35 million cubic feet of natural gas and between 3,000 and 10,000 barrels of oil and water daily. This led to the oil boom that began petroleum development in Arkansas.

“A frenzy struck El Dorado as thousands of speculators swarmed into the area seeking their fortunes, with Busey credited for it all. He quickly sold the hotel for $5,000 and was besieged by offers for the well. People sent money from all over the country to Busey for him to invest in the new south Arkansas oil industry. He declined the offers for the well and quietly returned all the money sent to him. He began drilling in other areas of Union County.”

Busey and other speculators later believed oil would be found near Monticello. He predicted that Monticello would be “the next El Dorado,” but no oil reserves were found there. Busey operated oil leases in the El Dorado and Smackover areas until 1928 when he sold his Arkansas properties. He later lived in Michigan, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Busey died in 1962 in Maryland.

Barton, whose name lives on with Barton Coliseum in Little Rock, was born at Marlin, Texas, in 1881. He attended Texas A&M for a time, served in the U.S. Army from 1901-04 and eventually found his way to Arkansas, where he worked in the lumber and banking industries in Dallas County. Barton was in the U.S. Army Reserve from 1920-36, when he was discharged with the rank of colonel. He was widely known as Col. Barton for the rest of his life.

“Barton arrived in El Dorado in January 1921, only days after oil was discovered,” Don Lambert and Ragsdale write for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “He quickly organized the El Dorado Natural Gas Co. and expanded it into the Natural Gas & Fuel Corp. in 1924. He served as its president until 1929 when he sold it to Cities Service Co. During this time, he became the principal stockholder in the struggling Lion Oil Refining Co.

“On July 13, 1925, Barton married Madeline Mary Latimer. Their plans to travel were curtailed in 1929 when he agreed to serve as Lion Oil’s president. Within three months, Lion had purchased producing leases in the Smackover oil field, which was literally overflowing with a colossal output of petroleum. The company continued to expand and, in 1935, discovered the third major producing geological zone in the Smackover Field. In 1937, Lion drilled the wildcat discovery well in the Shuler Field, 15 miles west of El Dorado. Barton leased 7,000 acres and initiated development in a field that ranked second only to the Smackover discovery. By 1955, the company employed 3,000 people. Lion products were sold by 2,000 service stations across the South.”

Barton became one of the state’s leading philanthropists. He worked with the Arkansas Livestock Show Association, which named Barton Coliseum for him when it was dedicated in September 1952. He also was a major donor to what’s now the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock along with major institutions in El Dorado such as Warner-Brown Hospital, Barton Library and Memorial Stadium. He died in December 1960 at his home in El Dorado.

Another oil baron who remained in El Dorado until he died was Charles Haywood Murphy Jr. He was born in El Dorado in March 1920. His father had moved there in 1904 to operate a bank. By 1907, the elder Murphy owned 13 banks in Arkansas and the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). The elder Murphy also built a sawmill south of El Dorado at Cargile and then constructed a railroad to supply the mill with timber.

“Land acquisitions in south Arkansas and north Louisiana led to oil exploration ventures, which provided royalties and operating interests,” Ragsdale writes. “Murphy’s father had him manumitted by court order at the age of 16 so that he could legally transact business for himself, and Murphy entered the petroleum industry as an independent operator (not affiliated with some of the major companies already operating in the area) while in his teen years. When his father had a stroke in 1941, Murphy had to take over management of the various businesses.

“Murphy attended the Gulf Coast Military Academy at age 16 and then received extensive tutoring, primarily in French. He was a voracious reader. Murphy graduated from El Dorado High School in 1938 and married Johnnie Azelle Walker on Oct. 12, 1938. They had three sons and one daughter. He spent three years in the Army during World War II and returned to lead the Murphy businesses, having selected M.C. Hoover to run them in his absence. In 1946, Murphy and his siblings — Caroline M. Keller, Bertie M. Deming and Theodosia M. Nolan — pooled their business interests into C.H. Murphy & Co. Murphy was selected as the managing partner. In 1950, C.H. Murphy & Co. was incorporated as Murphy Corp. with Murphy as president, a position he held until 1972. He also served as chairman of the board until 1994.”

Murphy expanded the corporation as it participated in the development of oil-producing properties in the North Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, Venezuela, Canada and elsewhere.

“Early entry in potential operations and vigorous leadership made Murphy Oil a viable corporation,” Ragsdale writes. “Murphy also served as a director of First Commercial Corp., later Regions Bank. He served as chairman of the National Petroleum Council and as a director of the American Petroleum Institute. He also served 17 years on the Arkansas Board of Higher Education, served 10 years as a trustee of Hendrix College and established the Murphy Institute of Political Economy at Tulane University in 1980. He was a director of the Smithsonian Institution and a trustee of the Ochsner medical center in New Orleans. Beyond serving on boards and providing funding, Murphy was active as a lecturer on economics, responsible civic actions, energy and education, never charging a fee. … Murphy also enjoyed yachting and wrote two books on the subject.”

Murphy died in March 2002 at age 82.

When oil was discovered in the Caddo Field north of Shreveport in 1907, Charles Murphy Sr. decided to begin purchasing additional land in the event oil was discovered in south Arkansas.

“When the large Smackover Field in Ouachita and Union counties was discovered in 1922, Murphy Sr. had oil royalty interests in it,” Ragsdale writes. “He and joint operators owned about 100,000 acres in the Union County area. In 1936, Phillips Petroleum discovered a small oil field at Snow Hill in Ouachita County, but the area’s extent was limited. Murphy preferred to spread drilling and producing risks. He did not have an extensive operating company but rather owned interest in different operations.

“In 1937, an abandoned Phillips Petroleum well in western Union County, where some Murphy acreage was located, was re-entered by Lion Oil, which discovered deeper multiple zones between 5,000 and 8,000 feet below the surface in the Shuler Field. This included the Smackover limestone, which led to development of fields in the Smackover limestone throughout south Arkansas. Then, in 1944, Murphy land was included in the development of Louisiana’s Delhi Field, a major oil producer. This was the largest field on extensive acreage for Murphy.”

As noted earlier, Murphy Sr.’s four children pooled their timberland and oil interests in 1946 to form C.H. Murphy & Co. It became the Murphy Corp. in 1950 and Murphy Oil Corp. in 1964.

“From this stable beginning, the company continued operation in the oil and gas business,” Ragsdale writes. “In 1951, the company began production in the large East Poplar Field in Montana and began moving on to other areas. Four years later, the company acquired Marine Oil Co., which operated in the Smackover Field and other fields in south Arkansas and of which Charles Murphy Sr. had been a joint owner.

“In 1956, Murphy Oil became a public company by sale of stock on the American Stock Exchange. This allowed acquisition of Superior Refinery, Spur Oil Co. and Ingram Oil & Refining Co. Subsequently, Murphy acquired Amurex Oil Co., which was to be combined with the Murphy Oil Co. LTD in Canada. In 1957, Murphy and other operators joined in exploration and developed oil production in Venezuela, their first foreign development. The company established production in Iran in 1966, the North Sea in 1969, Libya in 1969 and Spain in 1979. Murphy also acquired an interest in the massive Syncrude Project in Alberta, Canada. Additional production was established in Ecuador in 1987 and the Gulf of Mexico in 1988.”

Murphy was heavily involved with the Ocean Drilling & Exploration Co., which named one of its barges the “Mr. Charlie.” According to Ragsdale, it became “the prototype for other submersible drilling barges and some semi-submersible barges, the latter being barges that can either float or be submerged to the sea floor. This decision replaced the costly driving of piles and then decking for drilling rig usage. This was a great development in increasing the mobility of drilling equipment in shallow water of up to 65 feet deep. It was used offshore in Louisiana.

“Other operations to support oil production were the Butte Pipeline Co. in Montana, established by Murphy Oil and other producers for the transportation of crude, and the River States Oil Co. in Wisconsin, a company purchased by Murphy to transport petroleum products. Refining operations included the Lake Superior Refining Co. in Superior, Wisc.; the Ingram Refinery in Meraux, La.; and the Milford Haven in Wales.”

Deltic Farm & Timber Co. was spun off from Murphy Oil Corp. in 1996 to form Deltic Timber Corp. The company owned thousands of acres of timberlands in Arkansas and Louisiana along with processing plants at Waldo and Ola. In 2018, Deltic merged with the larger Potlatch Corp. of Seattle (which had long had operations in Arkansas) to form the PotlatchDeltic Corp.

Murphy’s retail gas sales increased tremendously after an agreement with Walmart to operate stations in the parking lots of the company’s stores. The retail operations were spun off in 2013 into Murphy USA. Murphy Oil now focuses on exploration and production rather than retail sales.

The chemical industry remains strong in El Dorado, dating back in part to the Ozark Ordnance Works. The federal War Department informed U.S. Rep. Oren Harris of El Dorado in October 1941 that it had approved $23 million for an ammonia plant. Ozark Ordnance Works produced ammonia and ammonium nitrate used in manufacturing explosives and in filling bombs and shells. The plant was built and operated by Lion Oil.

In a 1947 interview, Barton said: “When we were negotiating for this plant, the War Department told us flatly we could not produce ammonia from natural gas. They did not know us Southerners. It took a lot of talk and argument, but we finally won out.”

Lion hired 17 engineers and immediately sent them to Canada for training. Production took place from 1943 until the end of World War II in 1945. The building that housed the gas engines that produced electricity to power the plant was the size of two football fields. There were almost 700 employees during the war.

After the war, Lion continued production for commercial purposes. Monsanto merged with Lion’s chemical division in 1955 and operated the plant under the Monsanto name until July 1983. It was sold to El Dorado Chemical Co. that year.

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From Crossett to El Dorado

Thursday, February 20th, 2020


In 1934, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service established the Crossett Experimental Forest.

“Large-scale lumbering in Ashley County followed the 1899 incorporation of the Crossett Lumber Co.,” Don Bragg and James Guldin write for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “By 1902, a growing CLC consumed incredible quantities of pine and hardwood. Lumbering continued unabated well into the 1920s when it became obvious that the virgin timber was running out. The CLC was facing the choice of either changing its practices and engaging in sustainable forestry or going out of business. Even with the help of Yale University professor Herman Haupt Chapman and the efforts of company foresters, too little was known about the silviculture of loblolly and shortleaf pine forests to manage the lands effectively.

“To address this lack of information, the CLC began working with the Southern Forest Experiment Station of the Forest Service. In July 1930, the experiment station hired Russell R. Reynolds, a recent University of Michigan forestry graduate, to conduct inventories and help landowners develop sustainable forestry plans. Two years later, Reynolds and the experiment station assisted the Ozark-Badger Lumber Co. of Wilmar, and Reynolds became familiar with the CLC. Around this time, Albert E. Wackerman, one of the first CLC foresters, came to work for the experiment station. Both the CLC and the experiment station recognized the opportunity for Reynolds and Wackerman to help manage the CLC’s timberland, including their last 25,000 acres of virgin pine.”

Reynolds moved to Crossett in August 1933 and enlisted the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps to inventory and market timber. He began studies on the use of trucks in logging and the partial harvests of Southern pines.

“As valuable as these initial studies were, an experimental forest was also needed for properly controlled long-term research,” Bragg and Guldin write. “In the fall of 1933, Reynolds and Wackerman searched for a suitable location on the CLC’s cutover land. About seven miles south of Crossett, the boundary of the new Crossett Experimental Forest was laid out in October 1933. This 1,680-acre parcel had been cut before 1920 by loggers from the Hickory Grove Camp of the CLC. The CLC agreed to a long-term arrangement with the experiment station that gave the Forest Service the land in exchange for the standing volume of the timber and a promise to conduct research continually on the site for the next 50 years. A warranty deed finally conveyed the property to the government on Aug. 2, 1934.

“Work on the CEF facilities began in late 1933 with help from civilian relief programs. A civilian work project to build roads on the CEF was granted by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration on Dec. 16, 1933, and construction started immediately. By September 1934, workers were building structures to lodge the CCC inventory crew, and sites for a house, filling station and garage were established. Construction of these buildings began in September 1935 under a new relief program, the Works Progress Administration. Along with other buildings, a log cabin-style home for Reynolds and his family was finished enough to permit occupancy on July 9, 1936. This remained their home for the next 33 years.”

The initial round of construction ended in 1936. Buildings were later added by the CCC in 1939-40. Three of them are on the National Register of Historic Places.

“The primary objective of Reynolds and his staff at the CEF was to develop silvicultural principles and practices to manage the cutover second-growth loblolly-shortleaf pine-hardwood stands typical of the area,” Bragg and Guldin write. “The challenge was whether it was possible to rehabilitate existing stands while simultaneously providing landowners with an acceptable return on their investment. If so, CEF research had considerable practical application not just for the CLC but also for other companies and landowners across the South.”

Arson had become a problem in the area, and fire prevention was an early goal. Reynolds divided the experimental forest into 24 blocks of 40 acres each. Firelines were built between blocks by WPA employees.

Reynolds worked at the experimental forest until 1969.

“Cuts in the Forest Service budget prompted the experiment station to close the CEF on Aug. 9, 1974, after serving Crossett and the nation for 40 years,” Bragg and Guldin write. “Shortly thereafter, it became clear that the CEF would revert back to the original landowner without an active research program. Even though the Forest Service had tried to close the CEF just a few years earlier, the imminent loss of the assets, including the historic buildings and the irreplaceable long-term demonstrations and studies, came to the attention of the Forest Service chief, John McGuire. He decided to re-establish the research unit. The newly rededicated CEF opened with considerable fanfare on Feb. 14, 1979.”

We leave the Forestry Capital of the South and head west on U.S. Highway 82. We soon find ourselves in the Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge covers almost 65,000 acres in parts of Ashley, Union and Bradley counties. It was established in 1975 in a wild, remote part of the state where the Saline River meets the Ouachita River. There are oxbow lakes, bayous such as Caney Bayou and creeks such as Big Brushy Creek in the refuge. The Felsenthal Lock & Dam on the Ouachita River forms what’s known as Lake Jack Lee.

The refuge is a prime spot to see migrating waterfowl, eagles and even the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. The waterways are filled with alligators. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service operates a visitors’ center right along U.S. 82.

Five years after Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge was established, the nearby Overflow National Wildlife Refuge was created to protect large tracts of bottomland hardwood in Ashley County. The refuge was designated a Globally Important Bird Area by the American Bird Conservancy. In 1991, about 8,000 acres of farmland were added to the original 6,500 acres and planted in hardwoods. Overflow Creek, a tributary of the Bayou Bartholomew, runs through the wildlife refuge. Land on either side of the creek is covered with bottomland trees — cypress, water tupelo, willow oak and overcup oak.

We cross the Ouachita River as we continue west. This river begins in the Ouachita Mountains near the Arkansas-Oklahoma border not far from Mena and then flows almost 600 miles before joining the Black River in Louisiana. The river flows through 11 of Arkansas’ 75 counties and through five Louisiana parishes.

“The Ouachita is a river of diverse beauty,” Glenn Gore wrote for the Ouachita River Foundation. “It begins as a small mountain stream near Eagleton in Polk County and flows eastward about 120 miles. It winds through lush mountain valleys, steadily building as it flows between huge boulders beneath mountain bluffs. It flows onward on its 600-mile course amid banks of moss-covered oaks and cypress trees in the swampy bottoms of Louisiana.

“The Ouachita is noted for its great fishing, especially bass and bream. Wildlife is prolific along the banks of the river. Deer, turkeys and even an occasional bear can be seen in secluded areas. Alligators and bald eagles have also returned to the area after having been driven out in the early 1900s. The Ouachita is also a major flyway for ducks and geese feeding and resting in the river’s oak-laden backwater flats and cypress swamps, as well as in the rice and soybean fields along its banks.”

Towns like Arkadelphia and Camden owe their existence to the Ouachita River.

“The Ouachita played a great role in the establishment of the towns for it was the river that provided access to these areas for buyers from as far away as New Orleans who were purchasing cotton. … In 1819, the first steamboat came up the Ouachita, making such a strange sound and presenting such a monstrous sight that it was described as a ‘puffing dragon.’ After that frightful debut, steamboats began to play an integral part in the colorful history connected with the Ouachita. From 1819-1910, the Ouachita was the great highway of commerce and transportation for the entire river valley. Steamboats came from as far away as New Orleans, reaching even Camden and Arkadelphia during times of high water. Steamboats began to vanish in the early 1900s with the proliferation of the railroads.”

The famous novelist Charles Portis wrote a piece on the Ouachita River for the September 1991 issue of the Arkansas Times.

In a story titled “The Forgotten River,” Portis wrote: “I grew up in south Arkansas and thought of the Ouachita only in local terms, certainly not as an outlet to the sea. It was a place to swim and fish. I knew you could take a boat down it from the Highway 82 bridge near Crossett to Monroe because I had done it once with a friend, Johnny Titus. It was shady a good bit of the way and we had the river pretty much to ourselves. The keeper at the old Felsenthal lock was annoyed at having to get up from his dinner table to lock through two boys in a small outboard rig.

“But I knew no river lore … and it came as a great surprise to me lately when I learned that there was regular steamboat service on this modest green river, as late as the 1930s, and as far up as Camden. I am not speaking of modern replicas or party barges, rented out for brief excursions, but of genuine working steamboats, with big paddle wheels at the rear, carrying bales of cotton down to New Orleans and bringing bananas and sacks of sugar back upstream, along with paying passengers.

“There were two vessels, the Ouachita and the City of Camden, and they ran on about a two-week cycle — New Orleans-Camden-New Orleans, with stops along the way. The round-trip fare, including a bed and all meals, was $50. Traditional steamboat decorum was imposed, with the men required to wear coats in the dining room. At night, after supper was cleared, the waiters doubled as musicians for a dance.”

We cross the Ouachita on the U.S. 82 bridge and enter Union County, the state’s largest in terms of square miles. Ninety percent of the county is forested. The Arkansas Territorial Legislature formed Union County in November 1829 out of parts of Hempstead and Clark counties.

“The next spring, the county court convened at the former colonial trading post of Encore Fabre (now Camden in Ouachita County) on a bluff overlooking the Ouachita River,” writes noted Arkansas historian Ben Johnson of El Dorado. “In 1837, county officers anticipated that a pending division of the county would slice away the Encore Fabre region and approved the relocation of the county seat farther down the river to another port, Scarborough’s Landing (later renamed Champagnolle). Over the following two decades, three counties and parts of six others were carved from the original Union County.

“Reflecting a changing economy, many residents in 1843 signed a petition requesting that the county seat be moved inland from the river floodplain and closer to major cotton farms. Three commissioners asked Matthew Rainey to surrender 160 acres he had preempted on a ridge that was the county’s highest point, about 12 miles from the river. A surveyor platted the newly christened El Dorado, and officials approved $200 to build a courthouse on the town square.”

With the soil depleted where they lived, settlers from Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi moved into the area during the 1840s to raise cotton. There were 12,288 residents of the county in the 1860 census, and more than half of them were slaves.

“About five percent of the landholders were planters (holding 20 or more slaves), and a third of the county’s slaves labored on these larger farms,” Johnson writes. “Besides raising cotton and corn, Union County was second in the state in the production of peas, beans and sweet potatoes. By 1833, Methodist circuit riders conducted church services in cabins while a Primitive Baptist congregation met in the southeast part of the county. About 1843, immigrants from the Carolinas who clung to their Scottish ancestry organized the first Presbyterian church.”

No battles were fought in Union County during the Civil War.

“White landowners had enjoyed considerable wealth in antebellum Union County,” Johnson writes. “While the war led to widespread devastation, prewar plantation families retained their land and position. Falling cotton prices throughout the late 19th century pushed many farmers into tenancy, but this was less pronounced in Union County than in other old plantation districts. Immigrants in the 1870s spurred a rise in black residents that exceeded the increase in the county’s white population. The newcomers forged new lives in the midst of the faltering cotton economy. Black land ownership at the turn of the century exceeded state averages. In 1870, Rev. Joseph Henry became the first pastor of the El Dorado Baptist Church, which became the largest black congregation in the county.”

The first passenger train arrived in El Dorado from Camden on July 4, 1891.

“The railroads created the local timber industry,” Johnson writes. “In 1892, J.S. Cargile formed a partnership with some El Dorado businessmen to build a sawmill and a town for workers on Loutre Creek. The partners formed the Arkansas Southern rail company to extend the Iron Mountain line from El Dorado to the mill. This transit artery led to the founding of Smackover and Junction City as rail terminals. The Union Saw Mill Co. built a line in 1904 to the new mill site of Huttig, soon the county’s largest sawmill community. This north-south network supplanted the east-west system between the old river landings and the interior region.”

Oil leases were being bought in the county as early as 1914. The first test wells, however, were dry. But then came the 1920 arrival of Dr. Samuel Busey, a medical doctor and shrewd businessman who earlier had invested in oil leases in Bolivia. He arrived in El Dorado and bought not only an interest in an oil well but also a hotel since he was confident of a coming boom.

“On Jan. 10, 1921, his well erupted with a thick column of oil that soiled clothes on wash lines a mile away,” Johnson writes. “The rural market center was unprepared to become a boomtown. Hotels and rooming houses overflowed, and tent-covered cot spaces, restaurants and shops went up along South Washington Street. A newspaper reporter noted that a person walking along what became known as Hamburger Row could ‘purchase almost anything from a pair of shoes to an auto, an interest in a drilling tract or have your fortune told.’

“Smackover became the second oil boomtown when a discovery oil well confirmed in July 1922 what an earlier gas explosion at a well site had indicated: The Smackover field held tremendous reserves of crude. By 1925, nearly 3,500 wells were pumping 69 million barrels of oil, the greatest rate in the world. The influx of wildcatters and oil field workers overwhelmed local authorities.”

Johnson notes that the drillers didn’t worry about the environment. They also ignored basic recovery practices, leading to a drop in production by the early 1930s.

“The oil booms introduced a new industrial elite into a state where the alluvial cotton-growing region had been the traditional source of wealth,” he writes. “For the rest of the 20th century, Union County was at the top of per capita income for the state. The county also was among the first to suffer from industrial pollution. The saltwater that surfaced with oil was released to turn surrounding creeks into undrinkable bogs and forests into a scorched landscape.”

A visitor who arrived in Union County by train in 1937 said: “I wondered what I had come to. It looked like a moonscape.”

El Dorado had about 4,000 residents when the oil boom began. By 1923, there were 59 oil contracting companies, 13 oil distributors and refiners and another 22 oil production companies in the city. Some estimated that the city had 30,000 people by 1925. The population had dropped to 16,241 by the 1930 census.

A rebound occurred in 1937 when Lion Oil financed discovery wells in the Shuler Field. Col T.H. Barton had acquired Lion Oil and become one of the state’s top business leaders. He sold his company to the Monsanto Corp. in 1955. One company that didn’t sell was Murphy Oil Corp., which is still controlled by the Murphy family.

“With the onset of World War II, Union County’s industrial base attracted the attention of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” Johnson writes. “Entering a unique partnership with Lion Oil, the Corps supplied $28 million for construction of the Ozark Ordnance Plant to produce ammonium nitrate. The private company oversaw the operation of the plant and acquired it for a fraction of the construction costs at the end of the war. In 1983, the enterprise became El Dorado Chemical, which continued to make explosives as well as fertilizer.

“World War II encouraged dramatic growth in manufacturing, and state lawmakers authorized local communities to provide financial incentives to attract industry. Union County established one of the first industrial development organizations, enticing Jess Merkle to build a large-scale poultry processing plant that became the largest employer in El Dorado. Beginning in 1965, Great Lakes Corp. processed the underground brine into a variety of brominated products, including flame retardants.”

El Dorado’s population has since dropped from a high of 25,292 in the 1960 census to about 18,000 today. The Union County population hit a peak of 55,800 in the 1930 census and is less than 40,000 these days.

El Dorado once was known as the Queen City of South Arkansas. It later became known as Arkansas’ Original Boomtown and is now known for the Murphy Arts District (MAD for short) as the Murphy family spends more than $100 million to make the city a cultural attraction. The plan is not only to attract visitors but to make it easier for companies like Murphy Oil and Murphy USA to attract talented young employees to live in El Dorado.

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From Lake Village to Crossett

Friday, February 14th, 2020


We head west out of Lake Village on U.S. Highway 82 and cross the Boeuf River, which is little more than a drainage ditch in this part of southeast Arkansas. The river, located between Macon Bayou and Bayou Bartholomew, begins in this part of the state and flows for almost 220 miles before entering the Ouachita River in Catahoula Parish in Louisiana.

We’re still in the Delta as we cross into Ashley County and find ourselves at Montrose, which had a population of 354 people in the 2010 census. This was once cotton country. Now cotton must share space on the area’s massive farming operations with rice, soybeans, corn and winter wheat.

“Although western Ashley County is noted for the timber industry, which is centered in Crossett, the eastern part of the county belongs to the Mississippi River Delta region, which was home to numerous cotton plantations before and after the Civil War,” Steven Teske writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Dugald McMillan was the first landowner who registered a patent for the land where Montrose now stands. His plantation, like others in the region, employed a large number of slaves, many of whom remained after the war, working as tenant farmers for the same landowners. Consequently, African-Americans have outnumbered whites in the area from the time slavery ended until now.”

W.T. Cone, a merchant from Hamburg, began acquiring land in the area early in the 20th century along with Sam Wilson.

“In 1922, with the national decline in cotton prices, Cone sold his land to Wilson and left the area,” Teske writes. “Cotton remained the main crop through the 20th century. Around the beginning of the 20th century, the Iron Mountain Railroad built a line in the Mississippi River Valley that extended into Louisiana. It established depots at regular intervals where train engineers could obtain additional fuel and water. Many of these depots were named for railroad executives and employees. This is probably the case for Montrose, although no record of the namesake has been preserved.

“A post office was established at the Montrose stop in 1898. The Montrose depot became more significant when a team of investors created a short-line railroad — called the Mississippi River, Hamburg & Western Railway — to connect the Crossett area to Luna Landing on the Mississippi River. This line intersected the Iron Mountain line at the Montrose depot. Homes and businesses were quickly built around the depot, and Montrose incorporated as a second-class city in 1904.”

Montrose has been losing population since the 1980 census, when there were 641 residents. All schools in this part of the county are now part of the Hamburg School District.

Ashley County was carved out of parts of Union, Drew and Chicot counties in November 1848. It became the state’s 53rd county and was named for Chester Ashley, the third Arkansan in the U.S. Senate. In addition to Montrose, the communities of Parkdale, Portland and Wilmot also thrived in this part of the county when cotton was king and the bottomland hardwoods were being cut.

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “After the Civil War, the county enjoyed prosperity until the Great Depression. The railroads that had developed in the late 1890s helped support the economy but were later supplanted by the growth in highway transportation. Communities in the eastern part of the county were supported by farming, while Crossett continued its growth as a manufacturing center. Ashley County was within the flood zone of the Great Flood of 1927. The greatest effect of the flood was felt in the low-lying Delta region of the county, while the upland wood-product manufacturing area experienced only minor disruptions of activity.

“Ashley County was home to an important federal experiment in the public health sector during this era. In 1916, a mosquito-eradication project was funded, which reduced the incidence of malaria by almost 80 percent using a system of drainage and poisoning. This system became known as the Crossett Project and was used as an example in other parts of the country. The county’s population began to decline after World War II as agricultural workers were replaced by machines and other workers left for better-paying jobs.”

Leaving Montrose, we soon cross Bayou Bartholomew, the longest bayou in the country. It begins near Pine Bluff and then goes through Jefferson, Lincoln, Desha, Drew, Chicot and Ashley counties before entering Louisiana and flowing through Morehouse Parish. Like the Boeuf River, Bartholomew empties into the Ouachita River. Before the railroads came to this part of Arkansas, Bayou Bartholomew was the main transportation corridor.

“The present bayou bed was formed by the waters of the Arkansas River during a period when it was constantly changing course,” writes Rebecca DeArmond-Huskey, the foremost expert on the bayou’s history. “About 1,800 to 2,200 years ago, the river diverted from the present area of the bayou, and the leisurely bayou began to develop in the old riverbed. The first inhabitants along the bayou were Native Americans, who left artifacts along the banks from its source to its mouth. French explorers crossed the bayou in 1687. Henri Joutel, a member of the ill-fated La Salle expedition, left Texas that year in search once again of the Mississippi River. Among the six men he chose to go with him was ‘Little Bartholomew, the Parisian.’

“His party crossed the Saline River and the bayou and eventually found Arkansas Post, where Bartholomew stayed. It is likely that the bayou was named after this young Parisian. Spanish colonists also took note of the bayou. Don Juan Filhiol, commandant of the District of Ouachita in the 1780s, was impressed with its navigation potential as well as the good agricultural land around it. The colonists used the bayou for transportation as there were no good roads in the area. They used flat-bottom barges, propelled by poling, rowing, cordelling (towing with ropes) or by sails if the wind was favorable.”

By the 1830s, there were steamboats on the bayou hauling out cotton and timber.

“All such commerce halted when the Civil War began but resumed soon after it was over,” DeArmond-Huskey writes. “With the advent of the railroad in 1890, steamboat activity began a slow decline, though it continued in Ashley County until some point between 1906-12. Major ports along the bayou in Morehouse Parish were at Point Pleasant and at Lind Grove near Bonita. In southeast Arkansas, the major ports were at Poplar Bluff (present-day Parkdale in Ashley County), Portland, Thebes, Boydell and Baxter. All steamboating was a treacherous business, but according to Ben Lucien Burman, who boated on both large rivers and bayous, ‘bayou steamboating was steamboating at its worst.’ The bayou was much more narrow and shallow than the river, and pilots had to avoid sharp bends, shoals, snags and overhanging trees.

“Although steamboat trade was put on hold during the Civil War, the bayou remained for the duration of the war a significant transportation route for steamboats carrying troops and supplies. … After the war, cotton was the primary export shipped down the bayou until the railroad prompted the development of an extensive timber industry, backed primarily by Northern capitalists. Although locals had used the bayou for log rafting since the 1830s, shipment by rail was much more expedient. The timber companies devastated the fine timber stands and then moved out. Farmers followed by clearing the cutover timberland for farms, which today remain the dominant enterprise along the bayou.”

Area residents had once used the bayou as their major recreation site. They drank water from it, fished in it, swam in it and were baptized in it. With the clearing of the timber, sediment polluted the stream, and it became jammed with logs.

Curtis Merrell of Monticello organized the Bayou Bartholomew Alliance in 1995 to bring the stream back to life. The group began monitoring water quality, planting trees along the bayou’s banks, picking up trash and removing logs and other obstructions.

Before reaching Hamburg on our trip west, we leave the Delta and enter the Gulf Coastal Plain. They grow pine trees here rather than cotton, soybeans, rice, corn and wheat.

Hamburg was laid out in October 1849, soon after Ashley County was formed. The first courthouse and county jail were built in 1850 in an area at the center of the county that once had been known as the Great Wilderness. Hamburg provided troops to the Confederacy during the Civil War. After the war, there were highly publicized lynchings there in 1877, 1884 and 1891.

“Because it’s near the county’s geographic center, Hamburg in some ways is pulled in two economic directions,” David Moyers writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Immediately east and west are prairie regions dedicated to the rice and soybean culture. A dozen miles east of Hamburg is the Delta, where cotton and soybeans dominate the economy. To the north and the south, the timber culture reigns. Many people in Hamburg work at the Georgia-Pacific mills in Crossett or in supporting industries. The city’s economic base is thus divided among agriculture and forestry.

“Agriculture continued as the dominant force of the economy through the early 1900s, though lumber production became increasingly important in later years. After the Great Depression, the city underwent major social and economic shifts. Many small farmers gave up their attempts to subsist on their land and left the region or went to work in sawmills or paper mills. After World War II, continued pressures on small farmers led to increased consolidations of agricultural enterprises with the small family farms replaced by larger, more efficient units.”

As the Delta declined and stores there closed, more residents from the eastern part of the county began coming to Hamburg to shop. The Hamburg School District increased in size as it consolidated with districts at Portland, Parkdale, Wilmot and Fountain Hill. Still, Hamburg’s population fell from 3,394 in the 1980 census to 2,857 in the 2010 census. It’s now estimated at less than 2,700.

“In the 21st century, the downtown square remains surrounded by retail businesses and professional offices, though the courthouse that occupied the center of town for more than a century is now a block away,” Moyers writes. “A gazebo is now in the center of the square.”

We leave Hamburg and head southwest to Crossett, the place once known as the Forestry Capital of the South.

The town was founded in the 1890s by three investors from Davenport, Iowa — Charles Warner Gates, John Wenzel Watzek and Edward Savage Crossett.

“In the last quarter of the 19th century, the demand for wood fiber for a growing country led lumbermen, investors and speculators into the vast forest that stretches from east Texas across the lower Mississippi River Valley to the Florida panhandle,” wrote the late Bill Norman of Crossett. “Demand having outstripped the forest resources of the Great Lakes region, other sources for timber were sought. One result of the interest in the forestland of the South was the founding of Crossett.

“The land in western Ashley County was of the upland forest variety and was largely undeveloped and sparsely settled in this era as the terrain was unsuitable for farming. Towns that were formed, such as Fountain Hill, had populations of less than 500. As an established community with rail service, Hamburg would seem to have been the logical site for a new sawmill. However, company officials eventually decided that the better course would be to establish a new town, and Crossett was born. The site chosen was about 15 miles west of Hamburg. Of the three investors, Crossett and Gates were veteran lumbermen. Watzek was Edward Crossett’s physician. Also considered a founder was Edgar Woodward ‘Cap’ Gates, Charles’ brother. Cap Gates was sent to Arkansas to acquire timberland and to oversee construction of the sawmill and the building of the town.”

The Crossett Lumber Co. was incorporated in 1899. Officials of the company formed close relationships with those at Yale University’s School of Forestry. This resulted in the end of the cut-and-leave practice of clearing forests in Arkansas. The Crossett Co. soon was hiring Yale-trained foresters.

“Yale’s initial research was later augmented by the studies at the 1,680-acre Crossett Experimental Forest, headquartered about seven miles south of town,” Norman wrote. “Established in 1934 and still in operation today, the U.S. Forest Service’s research program at Crossett focuses on the silviculture of naturally regenerated loblolly and shortleaf pine forests. Several of the buildings on the Crossett Experimental Forest are on the National Register of Historic Places.”

The Crossett Lumber Co. owned all the land and homes in town in the early 1900s. Those not wanting to live in company housing settled in communities known as North Crossett, South Crossett and West Crossett.

“The Roaring ’20s, the Great Depression and World War II came and went with little visible effect on the city,” Norman wrote. “Demand for its products grew steadily, and unemployment was low. … The founders insisted on having a first-class school system. Seeing the advantages of the city schools in the 1940s, many rural one-room schools voluntarily consolidated into the city’s school system, and an extensive busing operation developed. The Crossett School District was one of the smallest school districts included when it was accredited in the 1940s by the prestigious North Central Association.

“Crossett became a diversified forest products manufacturing center with the construction of a paper mill in the mid-1930s. A division producing and marketing specialty chemicals and charcoal followed. By 2006, employment in all paper operations was about 1,500 with an annual payroll of $160 million. Following a divisive labor strike in 1940, the workers in Crossett’s manufacturing plants were granted the right to establish trade unions.”

The Crossett Lumber Co. was purchased in 1962 by the Georgia-Pacific Corp. The company began producing plywood from Southern yellow pine at Crossett along with the chemical plant and the pulp and paper production facility.

Crossett has been hit hard in recent years by large layoffs. In September 2011, Georgia-Pacific announced that it was suspending operations at a sawmill and plywood manufacturing facility and laid off 700 people. In June 2019, Georgia-Pacific announced it was closing its bleached board mill and laying off another 530 people.

Despite all of the lost jobs, Georgia-Pacific remains a major employer in this part of south Arkansas. And the history of the Crossett Lumber Co., the Crossett Experimental Forest and their ties to Yale are fascinating.

When the company was founded, the three founders purchased 47,000 acres of land from the Michigan investment firm Hovey & McCracken for $7 per acre.

“At first, the company expanded slowly as new railroad connections were being built, and no commercial timber was sold until 1902, by which time investors had spent $1 million starting the company,” Bernard Reed writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Its first pine mill, built in May 1899, was an enormous operation with two band mills, dry kilns, a planer mill and other equipment to smooth and then distribute the lumber. In 1905, a second pine mill similar to the first was built, and the company was soon producing 84 million board feet annually.

“CLC continued to develop products that allowed company growth and added a paper mill, silo and chemical companies. These endeavors not only helped to eliminate waste but also allowed CLC to invest more in research and development programs to maintain the affordability of its products. These expansions spurred new railroad connections with the Crossett Railway Co., a non-company railroad, connecting Crossett and the settlement of Stephens (now Milo in Ashley County) 10 miles north. The company built houses, a school and a church for the workers and their families. In 1903, all of this was incorporated as the company town of Crossett.”

Electric service soon became available, and the first church opened in 1904. A newspaper began publishing in 1906. Telephone service was added in 1907.

The company remained stable during the Great Depression and provided the government with large amounts of lumber during World War II.

“The standard logging procedure was a cut-and-get-out strategy that resulted in many acres of useless land,” Reed writes. “However, because this cutover land was perfect for growing pine, CLC in 1926 hired a graduate of Yale’s School of Forestry, W.K. Williams. He helped the company begin a program of sustained yield. This involved ceasing the practice of cutting down trees as fast as they were growing. He then left the healthiest trees in an area to repopulate the soil. These techniques kept the forests alive rather than destroying them. Such procedures were progressive at the time in American forestry and had previously only been used in Germany. Soon, a federal forest research station was founded, and CLC was tackling and solving problems in the 1930s that would not be regarded as environmental issues until the 1970s.”

Edward S. Crossett’s son, Edward C. Crossett, died in 1955. Family heirs began to consider the option of selling their stock.

“Many larger Northern lumber companies had expressed an interest in purchasing or merging with CLC, and stockholders were becoming worried about the company’s stability,” Reed writes. “Although millions of dollars were spent in the late 1950s to modernize the company and give the impression of vitality, one of its board members, Peter Watzek, a relative of John Watzek, was instructed to prepare reports on companies with which a merger was possible. He also traveled to New York to meet with several merger prospects. Despite Watzek’s report that CLC was strong enough that a merger was not necessary, stockholders were still not satisfied.

“The announcement of a sale to Union Bag & Paper was made in May 1960, but by the fall of that year the plan had fallen through. For two years, business went on as usual at CLC with a rise in earnings in 1961. But a sale was still pursued.”

The announcement that Georgia-Pacific had purchased the company was made on April 18, 1962.

There have been two major strikes through the years.

“The first one, in 1940, came several years after the company decided to recognize a local union but refused to let it open a union shop,” Reed writes. “Workers commenced a 58-day strike that brought the community’s economy to a near standstill until a compromise was reached with the help of a young pastor named Aubrey C. Halsell.

“The second strike occurred in 1985 during negotiations for a new contract that would force workers to work outside of their traditional job classifications. Workers disapproved of the changes, their pay and the work expectations. When they went on strike, Georgia-Pacific ordered that permanent replacements be sent in. This was the first time that permanent replacements had ever been used in the paper industry. Although it effectively ended the strike, it left many of the union workers bitter. The town was, and in many ways still is, divided because of these issues.”

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The Delta’s ethnic mix

Thursday, January 16th, 2020


It’s fitting that my friend Joe Dan Yee is the mayor of Lake Village.

One of the things that makes the Delta unique is the mix of cultures that occurred as people immigrated to the region back when cotton was king. There were Italians, Irish, Chinese, Jews, Lebanese, Syrians. Their cultures mixed with the rich culture of the African-Americans who had been brought to this land in bondage.

When I penned a piece a few years ago about the ethnic stew that is the Delta, one Helena native wrote: “I was raised in Helena from 1938 until our family moved to Little Rock in 1955. There was no place in Arkansas that I could have been more exposed to various cultures. I remember going to temple services as part of the Methodist Youth Fellowship. I had friends who were either Greek, Jewish, Chinese, Italian, Lebanese or Sicilian. There’s nowhere else on this planet that I would have rather grown up than in the Delta. I still miss the sweet smell of kudzu, the scent of the soil and the balmy summer mornings.”

The Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss, which does a marvelous job documenting the food cultures of the South with its oral histories and much more, transcribed a series of interviews with Chinese-Americans in the Delta a few years ago. Yee, who at the time was still operating his family’s Yee’s Food Land, was one of the people interviewed.

The SFA wrote: “Chinese came to America in the late 19th century in search of the fabled Gam Sahn or Golden Mountain. When they arrived at the alluvial plains of the Mississippi Delta, all they found was backbreaking agricultural work. First introduced to the region as indentured servants by planters during Reconstruction, these early Chinese sojourners (mostly from the Guandong or Canton province) soon became disenchanted with working the fields. They moved off the plantations. Some left to go back home to China, but others stayed and opened small neighborhood grocery stores. Serving as an alternative to plantation commissaries and catering to the predominately African-American clientele, the Chinese-American grocer was a mainstay in many Delta neighborhoods well into the 20th century.

“Life in the grocery business was by no means an easy living. Early mornings and late nights were normal, as were the stresses of competition from large supermarket chains. Added to that were the stresses that they endured as immigrants navigating the complex socio-political structure of a region that historian James C. Cobb has called the most Southern place on earth. … Though the numbers of Chinese grocers diminish year by year, family stories tell an important history of immigration. They also speak to the formation of a unique food culture in the Mississippi and Arkansas Deltas.”

Joe Dan Yee was described at the time as someone who “bucked the trend of many second- and third-generation Delta Chinese by staying home, after his parents retired, to take over the family market.”

“Joe Dan and his siblings can speak Catonese, something his parents insisted they learn growing up,” the SFA wrote. “And twice a day you can find them all eating a hot, multicourse Chinese meal.”

Yee said: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in New York and San Francisco, and everywhere I go they would tell my sister: ‘Bring your brother back in here. We love the Arkansas accent that he has on a Chinese accent.’ So I get a big kick out of that.”

He said Chinese restaurant owners will come to his table to hear him speak, noting that “we never heard a Chinese with a Southern accent.”

The SFA wrote: “After graduating with a degree in marketing at the University of Arkansas, Joe Dan Yee could have gone to Dallas, maybe gotten a job with a big department store there. He had already interviewed for a job and been accepted, but in the end he gave all that up to go back home to Lake Village.”

His father found his way to Dumas in the 1940s and began working in a grocery store for a man named Eugene Lee. His father later moved to Lake Village.

“Back in the early 1960s, there were at least eight to 10 (Chinese) families that were in Lake Village, and there were probably six Chinese stores on Main Street back then,” Yee said.

Many of those stores would open at 4 a.m. and remain open until midnight to serve sharecroppers and tenant farmers who were coming to town to shop.

“Lake Village was so busy you couldn’t even walk down Main Street,” Yee said.

He remembers Chinese families having cases of Chinese food shipped from San Francisco.

“You would split it up between the families and then you would divide the costs between the families,” Yee said. “That’s how they did it.”

He said his family never had strong relationships with Chinese families on the Mississippi side of the river.

“A different culture, you know,” Yee said. “It’s just like they did their thing and we did our thing. … We never got together and partied that much or associated that much with the Chinese people in Mississippi.”

By the way, his favorite Southern meal is fried chicken with mashed potatoes and cornbread. His favorite Chinese meals are pepper steak and Peking Duck.

There also was a strong Jewish influence in the Delta. My friend Raymond Abramson of Holly Grove, who serves on the Arkansas Court of Appeals, refers to himself as the last of the practicing Jewish lawyers in the Arkansas Delta. That list once included men such as Oscar Fendler of Blytheville, Kent Rubens of West Memphis, Eddie Graumann of Helena and David Solomon of Helena.

A number of the Jewish immigrants came to the Delta as traveling peddlers. Many of their descendants went on to become wealthy merchants, cotton ginners and planters. Due to a wave of immigration from Eastern Europe, the Jewish population of Arkansas grew from 1,466 in 1878 to 8,850 by the time of the Great Flood of 1927.

There were 22 Jewish-owned businesses in Helena by 1909. Helena had a Jewish mayor, Aaron Meyers, from 1878-80. In 1867, Temple Beth El was founded at Helena and Congregation Anshe Emeth was founded at Pine Bluff. Later Delta congregations were formed at Jonesboro in 1897, Newport in 1905, Dermott in 1905, Eudora in 1912, Osceola in 1913, Forrest City in 1914, Wynne in 1915, Marianna in 1920, Blytheville in 1924 and McGehee in 1947.

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities: “Congregations in Helena, Blytheville and El Dorado closed, while others struggled to survive. The Jewish population has become concentrated in a few communities like Little Rock, Hot Springs, Fayetteville and Bentonville. In 1937, 13 cities in Arkansas had more than 50 Jews. By 2006, only four did. … The only exception to this downward trend is Bentonville. In the 21st century, as Walmart has encouraged major suppliers to open offices in its corporate hometown, Bentonville has seen its Jewish population skyrocket. In 2004, a group of 30 families founded Bentonville’s first Jewish congregation.”

The Delta Jewish merchants of the late 1800s and early 1900s received their goods from wholesalers in the river cities of Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Memphis.

And then there were the Italians.

In an earlier installment in this series, I wrote about the strong Italian influence in this area of southeast Arkansas. Those interested in the subject of the Delta Italians might be interested in a couple of books written by Paul Canonici, who was born of Italian immigrant parents in Shaw, Miss. The books are titled simply Volumes I and II of “The Delta Italians.”

After being educated in the public schools at Shaw, Canonici headed to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain to study with Benedictine monks at St. Joseph Seminary in Covington, La. He obtained a master’s degree from Notre Dame and a doctorate in sociology from Mississippi State. Canonici was ordained to the priesthood in 1957 and was superintendent of Catholic schools in the state of Mississippi from 1970-83.

Groups of Italian immigrants showed up to work on the Sunnyside Plantation near Lake Village in 1895 and 1897.

Canonici says the books are “based on the premise that Italians who went to the Sunnyside Plantation, and subsequently to other plantations in the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta, had similar characteristics and experiences. … Italians who settled on Delta plantations were mostly from central Italy, with a few from the northern provinces. Most were experienced farmers in a well-structured farming system called mezzadria.”

Under this system, extended families lived under one roof on land that belonged to the man known as the padrone. They shared the harvest with the owner of the land.

“They worked hard and lived simply, but generally there was sufficient food to sustain the family,” Canonici writes. “There was a saying that one might work himself to death but he did not starve to death. Their reason for leaving their native soil was to search for a better life. Many crossed the Atlantic with the intention of returning and would have returned if they had had the means.”

Canonici notes that unlike some cultures, where the men came first for several years, Italians immigrated as family units.

“Once in the Delta, the extended family maintained close ties but no longer lived and worked under the same roof,” he writes. “Most had become indebted to Delta planters before they arrived because they had been forwarded travel and living expenses. They began as tenant farmers, and although disillusioned by the living conditions they encountered, they continued to work hard.

“Italian settlers in the Delta had large families, an advantage for farmers who wanted to save money and improve their lifestyle. They formed their own social and religious communities, retained their Italian language through the first generation in America and remained faithful to their Catholic faith. They married among themselves, and there was minimal divorce.

“Once in the Delta, the Italians struggled to free themselves from debt. Those who were unable to pay off their debts sometimes escaped in the dark of night to avoid foreclosure. Families made numerous moves in search of the better life. Eventually many saved sufficient money to free themselves from tenant living. Some established themselves on their own farms, some found work in cities, a few returned to Italy. Most did eventually find the better life they sought, although not in the exact model of their dreams.”

Canonici recounts a visit to the historic Hyner Cemetery near Lake Village. It was his first visit to the cemetery, which is about six miles north of the bridge that connects Arkansas and Mississippi.

Here’s how Canonici describes the scene: “Soybean fields border the front and west sides of the cemetery. Fifty yards to the front are the road and the power lines that seem to follow the river. … Across the road, cotton fields are almost ready for picking, a reminder of the early days when these rugged, precious Italians were introduced to the crop that would be their livelihood for posterity. Occasionally a car or truck speeds by, breaking the silence of this holy place that contains the dust and bones of our brave ancestors.

“The sinking sun is surrounded by light clouds, forming a bright, flaming horizon. I am totally imbued by the spirit of Sunnyside as I brush my feet against the sandy loam dust just outside the cemetery gate and gaze on that eternal flame over the horizon. The spirit of the settlers of 1895 cries out to me from every side: ‘Come and see, come and see.’ So I walk past the historic marker, down a cotton row. The cotton stalks brush against my armpits and healthy cotton bolls slap against my legs. I think to myself, “What would they say about this crop?’ Then, as the sun sinks completely over the cotton fields of Sunnyside, I hear those voices again. Now they say, ‘Write on, write on, Paul.'”

So Canonici began writing about those who settled the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta.

“Our original settlers are dead,” he writes. “I do have some taped interviews, begun in the 1970s, of people who were children at the turn of the last century. This task should have been accomplished 30 or 40 years ago when the old-timers were still alive. Nevertheless, there will be no better time than today to start. So I begin my account this evening, standing on the dust of those courageous people who paved for us the way to that better life they sought. How sad that most of them never lived to experience the better life.”

It must be noted that Canonici was on a list of 37 Catholic priests, deacons and other ministers in Mississippi that the Diocese of Jackson identified last year as having been “credibly accused” of sexual abuse of minors.

If you’re interested in the rich cultural mix that is the Arkansas Delta, simply talk to some of those of Chinese, Jewish, Italian and Lebanese descent who have remained. They’re proud of their heritage and most are willing to regale you with family stories.

It’s time to head west. We’ll soon exit the Delta and be in the Gulf Coastal Plain for the rest of this trip across south Arkansas on Highway 82.

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The village on the lake

Thursday, January 9th, 2020


For years, bright young people from across the country have come to the Delta areas of Arkansas and Mississippi to work in public schools as part of the Teach for America program. Attracted to Lake Chicot (the largest oxbow lake in North America) and restaurants near the lake, these students sometimes refer to Lake Village as the Hamptons of the Delta.

As I’ve written more than once, don’t laugh.

Lake Chicot, which runs 22 miles in a curve and covers almost 5,000 acres, was the place where Charles Lindbergh conducted his first night flight in 1923. Long before the huge reservoirs built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers covered much of the state, Lake Chicot was a prime attraction for visitors from across Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. The Lake Chicot Water Festival once hosted the national championship hydroplane races.

People have been known to drive for hours (or even take private planes) to buy tamales at Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales, have dinner at The Cow Pen (now known as Table 82 at The Cow Pen) and shop at the Paul Michael Co.

To quote one Teach for America participant from Wisconsin who talked about her family coming to visit: “They love the sunshine, the weather, the beautiful sunsets, the slow pace and the extremely friendly people. They would definitely say the people of Arkansas are the most hospitable they’ve come across.”

Miss Rhoda’s fame has even spread as far away as Jackson, Miss.

A feature story in that city’s Clarion-Ledger began this way: “The lunch rush is over and it is quiet inside Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales, but the air is steamy and filled with the rich smell of cumin and chili powder. At one of the Formica-topped tables, Rhoda Adams takes a break to reflect on her years making what some believe to be the best example of the Delta’s most curious culinary treats. She said she was not sold on the idea of getting into the hot tamales business at first.”

Adams explained: “My husband’s auntie asked me about us doing it, but I never wanted to do any hot tamales. We started doing about 25 dozen a day. I kind of liked it, but I didn’t like it without a machine.”

Her husband bought her a machine, and Adams went to work. She’s the mother of 15 children, only 11 of whom survived to adulthood. She has told me she has almost 60 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, adding: “Some of them I ain’t never seen.”

The Jackson paper noted that Adams’ “tamale family is many times larger. Lovers of the meat and cornmeal treats travel from far and wide to find their holy grail served on a Styrofoam plate for a buck apiece. How far would someone come for Rhoda’s famous tamales? ‘Man, what are you talking about?’ she said with mock gall. ‘Oklahoma, New York, Florida. Honest to God. And I have people here every day from Little Rock.'”

Her pies and plate lunches are as good as her tamales.

Famous food writer Michael Stern noted: “The name of Rhoda Adams’ cafe is no lie. The tamales are delicious and well deserving of the fame they have earned up and down the Mississippi Delta. She makes them with a combination of beef and chicken; the meats combined with steamed cornmeal are wrapped in husks that when unfolded emanate an irresistibly appetizing aroma and are a joy to eat as a snack or meal any time of the day.

“Beyond tamales, the menu at James and Rhoda Adams’ little eat place by the side of the road is a full roster of great, soulful regional specialties. For fried chicken or pig’s feet, barbecue or a catfish dinner, you won’t do better for miles around. Early one morning, Rhoda made us breakfast of bacon and eggs with biscuits on the side. Even this simple meal tasted especially wonderful. Rhoda is one of those gifted cooks who makes everything she touches something special.”

Of her pies, Stern wrote: “We’ve always considered Arkansas one of America’s top seven pie states (along with Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Virginia, Texas and Maine). Rhoda’s pies are proof. She makes small individual ones. … Her sweet potato pie and pecan pie are world class.”

Near the Mississippi River bridge, The Cow Pen has been a Delta dining tradition since 1967. That’s when Floyd Owens converted an old cattle inspection station into a restaurant. Gene and Juanita Grassi bought The Cow Pen in 1977. After 30 years of running the restaurant, they decided to retire. That’s when the Faulk family, who operated the now defunct LakeShore Cafe just down the highway, stepped up and decided to operate a second restaurant.

Just six months after the Faulks took charge, The Cow Pen burned in November 2007. The Faulks, however, were determined to rebuild. The new Cow Pen opened on Nov. 26, 2008. That restaurant eventually closed. It was sold at auction last year and reopened as Table 82 at The Cow Pen. The menu features steaks, shrimp, salmon and fried chicken. The restaurant is open from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Sunday.

It’s a good place to eat after time spent at the Paul Michael Co., which opened its first location in Lake Village in 1994, offering furniture, rugs and high-end decorative accessories. The business later added locations in Louisiana and Texas.

According to the company website: “Paul Michael is from the third generation of his family to be born and raised in this rural, Delta town. His grandfather was one of the first merchants in the area; he traveled to levee camps with a mule and sold pots, pans, thread and other necessities to the levee workers. His dedication to the community led to the opening of Lake Village’s first department store, Mansour’s, which remained for more than 80 years.

“Paul worked in his grandfather’s department store as a young adult. It became evident that he possessed a natural gift in the art of buying, selling and trading. During the 1970s, Paul fostered this gift, buying antiques and selling them to theme restaurants. During this stage in Paul’s life, he fell in love with First Monday Trade Days in Canton, Texas. Always able to foresee future trends, he shifted his focus toward Indian jewelry and diamonds, ultimately becoming one of the first wholesale distributors of sterling silver jewelry to major department stores across the United States. Paul’s ventures into the jewelry trade led him abroad, where he first saw potential in the home decorative accessories market.”

Another area attraction is Lake Chicot State Park. In the first part of this series, we noted how Lake Chicot filled up with silt after work began on the Mississippi River levee in the 1920s. The problems became worse through the years as bottomland hardwoods were cleared and the land was used for row-crop farming. In 1940, the state’s first study of recreational needs was conducted by the state Parks Commission, the state Planning Board and the National Park Service. It recommended that Lake Chicot “be given prime consideration for an addition to the state park system.”

A dam constructed by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission in 1948 resulted in the upper one-fourth of the lake becoming much clearer than the rest of Lake Chicot. Area residents dedicated land for a state park on the lake’s northwest shore in 1957.

After Arkansas voters passed a constitutional amendment in 1996 that provided millions of dollars a year for state park improvements, massive renovations took place. There’s a visitors’ center along with cabins, campsites, a store, a marina, fishing piers, a swimming pool, picnic areas, pavilions and hiking trails.

Though Lake Village wasn’t incorporated as a town until 1898, the first white settlers began to live in the area in the 1820s.

“Agriculture was the mainstay of Lake Village,” Scott Cashion writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Throughout much of the 19th century, this meant plantation agriculture dominated by King Cotton and slavery. Lake Village was home to several of the largest slaveholders in Arkansas and the South. By 1850, there were 145 white families in Chicot County owning 3,984 slaves. The majority of these slaves lived in and around Lake Village. Elisha Worthington became one of the wealthiest men in the South due in large part to plantations that he owned in and around Lake Village. At the height of his power, Worthington owned more than 12,000 acres as well as some 540 slaves.”

After the Civil War, there were several prominent black leaders who called Lake Village home. James Mason, the son of Elisha Worthington and one of his slaves, was elected Chicot County sheriff in 1872 and later was elected to the Arkansas Senate. Blacks held many of the offices in the county until the end of Reconstruction.

Chicot County had been carved out of Arkansas County by the Arkansas Territorial Legislature in 1823. The first county seat was at a community called Villemont, which was named for one of the commanders at Arkansas Post, Don Carlos de Villemont. He had been given a land grant in 1795 called Island del Chicot. Villemont died in 1823. The town of Villemont had almost 500 residents in the 1840s, but the Mississippi River began eating at its banks, and the settlement slowly fell into the river.

“After this, the county seat was moved to the settlement of Columbia until it was relocated inland to Masona on Bayou Macon,” Cashion writes. “Masona was 15 miles inland, however, and thus too far away from the river traffic. The people of the county decided in 1857 to move the county seat to Lake Village. Columbia suffered the same fate as Villemont. The town thrived for a few years until 1885 when Columbia’s courthouse fell into the river and was swept away.

“When it was first established, the county’s borders encompassed much more land than in modern times, extending to the Saline and Ouachita rivers in the west and to within 10 miles of the Arkansas River in the north. This included the present-day counties of Desha, Drew and Ashley counties as well as present-day Chicot County. In the years leading up to the Civil War, Chicot County was widely considered to be the richest county in the state and one of the richest in the country. This was due in part to the amount of cotton production in the county as well as the sheer number of slaves there during this period.”

Chicot County also was blessed with important ports on the Mississippi River.

Cashion writes: “One of these was Gaines Landing, named for Ben P. Gaines, R.M. Gaines and William H. Gaines, who had settled the area. This was one of the chief ports on the lower Mississippi from 1830-80. Another important landing was on Grand Lake near Eudora. This landing served as a docking point for a number of riverboats in the years leading up to the Civil War. The boats came in with freight and mail and left with cotton, fur and other products that were used throughout the region. The landing on Grand Lake was later known as Carriola Landing. From the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the 20th century, this landing was one of the largest shipping points on the Mississippi River south of Helena.”

The population of the county almost doubled from 11,419 in the 1890 census to 21,987 in the 1910 census. The Memphis, Helena & Louisiana Railroad made its way into the county in 1903. This allowed the virgin hardwood timber to be shipped out. That land was then drained and used to raise cotton. The new cotton farms required thousands of sharecroppers and tenant farmers, leading to the population surge.

“The economic growth was cut short by the Great Flood of 1927, which put nearly 13 percent of the state under water,” Cashion writes. “Since most people in the county were farmers, they were hurt most by the flood. The dams, spillways and natural streams that carried water to the farmland were virtually destroyed. Lake Chicot, normally a clear lake, became a settling basin for muddy water all the way from Pine Bluff.”

Population growth slowed. It reached its high point of 27,452 residents in the 1940 census. The widespread mechanization of agriculture significantly reduced the need for sharecroppers and tenant farmers. Chicot County’s population has dropped in each census since 1940. By the 2010 census, it was down to 11,800, the smallest since 1890.

A small prisoner of war camp for Germans was established at Lake Village in 1944. It was a branch of the main camp at Dermott. Nearby Jerome in Chicot County was the site of one of the two Japanese-American internment camps in the state. The other was at Rohwer in Desha County.

The current Chicot County Courthouse at Lake Village was built in 1956. Desegregation came more than a decade later when Larry Potts became the first black student to graduate from Lakeside High School in 1969.

The Italian influence remains strong in Lake Village. This dates back to the 1890s when the Sunnyside Plantation was the home of the largest colony of Catholic immigrants in Arkansas. A New York businessman named Austin Corbin bought more than 10,000 acres in Chicot County and established the plantation.

“Under the auspices of the Sunnyside Co., Corbin consolidated several plantations and named the property after an area plantation that dated back to the 1830s,” Jamie Metrailer writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “When difficulties arose in finding laborers to work these cotton fields, including a stint with convict labor, Corbin made an arrangement with Prince Ruspoli, the mayor of Rome, for Italian immigrants to farm the property. Ruspoli and Corbin arranged for the immigration of 100 Italian families annually for five consecutive years.

“Corbin provided these Italian immigrants with 12 and 1/2 acres of land per family with housing. The land and houses were ‘payable over 21 years at an annual interest rate of 5 percent of the unpaid balance.’ These terms were appealing to potential immigrants. Italy’s economy was then doing poorly, in part from the government’s rush to industrialize rural sectors of the country. The first party of more than 500 Italian Catholics reached Sunnyside Plantation in December 1895, and a similar number reached Chicot County in January 1897. Though the colony was able to build a school, church and railroad connecting the various portions of the plantation, the Italian immigrants experienced many problems.”

Most of these immigrants knew nothing about farming. And since they came from different parts of Italy, they didn’t work together well. Malaria was rampant.

Corbin died in 1896. By 1898, O.B. Crittenden & Co. had taken over the plantation. Many of the immigrants followed Father Pietro Bandini to northwest Arkansas, where he founded the community of Tontitown.

Bandini had been born in 1852 in the Romagna region of Italy. He studied in Monaco beginning in 1869 and began teaching in September 1874 at a Jesuit seminary at Aix en Provence in France. He was ordained as a priest in September 1877. In 1882, he was sent to the Jesuits’ Rocky Mountain Mission in the Montana Territory.

According to the Tontitown Historical Museum: “He studied English and Indian languages there. A year later, he was stationed at the St. Ignatius Mission in Montana, where he built a church and school and traveled into Indian villages instructing both the Crow and Kootenai in the Catholic faith. He later successfully started a mission for the Cheyenne tribe. Bandini returned to Europe in March 1889, where he was appointed vice rector of St. Thomas Aquinas College in Cuneo, Italy. He remained in this position for one year, after which he returned to the United States and established St. Raphael’s Italian Benevolent Society, the purpose of which was to assist Italian immigrants at the Port of New York.”

Bandini helped thousands of Italian immigrants who were entering the country. After five years, he requested to be assigned to Corbin’s plantation in Arkansas. Bandini arrived at Sunnyside in January 1897. He was greeted by contaminated water, mosquitoes and poor sanitation. Bandini felt that the owners who had replaced Corbin cared nothing about the Italians.

Bandini had traveled through the Ozarks and found the land there to be like much of Italy. He headed to northwest Arkansas in January 1898 and found 800 acres for sale. Forty families from Sunnyside soon arrived, and Tontitown was established.

Bandini returned to Italy for a short time in 1911 and received a medal from the Italian government for his work. He died in Little Rock in January 1917 at St. Vincent Infirmary.

About 35 immigrant families remained at Sunnyside during the 1890s.

According to Metrailer: “One account states that the Italians present on the plantation in 1898 ‘did so well under the new regime that they not only remained themselves but of their own volition sent to Italy for their families and friends.’ However, in 1907, the U.S. government issued a report charging O.B. Crittenden & Co. with breaking debt peonage laws, though nothing came of the report. Almost all Italian workers left the plantation by 1910 after the company changed policies and placed the Italian Catholics in a sharecropping arrangement. After World War II, the Sunnyside Plantation was divided and sold as smaller farms.”

The Italian influence at Lake Village remained strong. A major annual event on the first Sunday of each March is the Our Lady of the Lake spaghetti dinner. This year will mark the 109th such event. All the food is homemade. About 3,600 meatballs are made each year. Recipes have been handed down through the generations.

According to a story in the Arkansas Catholic: “There’s bread baking day in January. Over Presidents Day weekend, 100 volunteers spend two days producing 300 pounds of yolk-yellow pasta that air dries overnight on rows of tables. In late February, the Pierini family leads production of 3,600 meatballs that will stew in caldrons of sauce overseen by the most experienced men in the parish. Homemade desserts arrive by the carload as do diners who will line up as early at 7 a.m. for takeout orders.”

Homemade pasta can be purchased throughout the year, meanwhile, at Regina’s Pasta Shop on the shores of Lake Chicot.

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Crossing into Arkansas

Tuesday, January 7th, 2020


Although the bridge opened a decade ago in 2010, folks in southeast Arkansas still refer to it as the “new Greenville bridge.”

The old bridge, which was demolished, had opened in 1940.

“The bridge was intimidating and fascinating to me,” Dr Clyde Brown of Memphis wrote in 2002. “I always thought of it as a powerful steel horse perched in the Delta sky. When I got my driver’s license, my parents trusted me enough to drive them across the bridge to Lake Village. I must say that this experience was as unnerving as landing an F-16 on an aircraft carrier at night.”

In 1951, a jet from the nearby Greenville Air Force Base struck the bridge and exploded. The pilot was killed, and there was a large fire. The crash caused $175,000 in damage, a huge amount at the time, but the bridge was reopened to traffic by the next day.

Greenville, known as the Queen City of the Delta, was a booming place in the 1930s. Cotton was king, and Greenville is where the area planters went to do business and have fun. Mayor Milton C. Smith knew, however, that there needed to be a bridge to Arkansas rather than just a ferry if the good times were to continue. He joined forces with John Fox, the secretary of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce. The two men spent weeks at a time in Washington during the 1930s, lobbying for federal funding. Smith’s barrel hoop business went bankrupt due to his continued absences.

Eventually, Congressman Wade Kitchens of Arkansas introduced a bill to get things moving on the bridge. Sen. Joe T. Robinson of Arkansas had earlier joined forces with Sen. Pat Harrison of Mississippi to promote the bridge. Arkansas Gov. Carl Bailey was another key ally.

Fox met with civic leaders from Birmingham in the east to Lubbock in the west, explaining what the bridge could mean for the South. He urged people across the region to send telegrams to members of Congress. The bill authorizing bridge construction was approved in August 1937 and signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

A consultant from Kansas City determined that Warfield Landing, the site used by the Greenville ferry, wouldn’t be a suitable site for a bridge. The recommendation was to build the bridge below Lake Chicot on the Arkansas side in a straight stretch of the river with stable banks. The new location meant long and expensive approaches would have to be built. The estimated cost was $4.25 million.

In September 1938, the Greenville mayor and his city attorney, S.B. Thomas, went to Washington seek money from the federal Works Progress Administration. They successfully made the case that construction of a bridge would create jobs for hundreds of men who otherwise would be unemployed. On Sept. 21, 1938, Smith and Thomas sent a telegram to Greenville stating that the trip had been a success and that “we can now look forward to the actual materialization of our fondest dream, the construction of the mammoth bridge.”

The Delta Democrat Times at Greenville reported: “And so it was that exactly at 11:30 a.m. on that day, Greenville received the joyful news with the blasting of every steam whistle in the city, a prearranged signal.”

The bridge was opened for traffic on Oct. 2, 1940, and named for former Congressman Benjamin Humphreys of Greenville, a co-author of the Ransdell-Humphreys Flood Control Act of 1917, which established a national flood-control program along the Mississippi River. His granddaughter, Mildred “Maury” McGee, had cut the ribbon during the earlier dedication ceremony in September.

Humphreys, who first was elected to Congress in 1902, was determined to make the folks in Washington aware of the flood problems along the lower Mississippi River. A paper he wrote in 1914 advanced the notion that the river was, in essence, the drainage canal for the nation and thus a federal responsibility. That paper helped sway public opinion. Members of the new House Flood Control Committee toured the region in 1916 so they could see the problems for themselves. The act passed the following year, giving the federal government the responsibility of flood control along the Mississippi Rover.

The Delta Democrat Times would later write of the bridge: “It seems appropriate that the massive structure of steel and concrete which links two sides on the great river he loved should be dedicated to his memory. His life work had been the conquest of that river beside which he now sleeps.”

At the time the bridge opened, it was the longest span for a highway bridge anywhere on the Mississippi River. Dubuque, Iowa, would break that record three years later.

The new bridge that opened in 2010 cost $110 million. The four-lane, cable-stayed structure has become an architectural landmark for the area during the past decade. The approach on the Arkansas side — over the Mississippi River levee and floodplain — cost almost $66 million. The approach on the Mississippi side — over the east side levee and floodplain — cost about $86 million.

It’s fitting that this trip across south Arkansas on U.S. Highway 82 begins in Greenville, which almost seems like a part of Arkansas since it has been a town to which southeast Arkansas residents have flocked for decades. For those of who love history, Greenville is a delight despite the loss of population and economic vitality in recent years.

There’s the Hebrew Union Temple at 504 Main St., which was erected in 1906 and boasts some of the most beautiful stained-glass windows anywhere. The temple houses the Goldstein Nelken Solomon Century of History Museum for those interested in the history of the Delta Jews. The city’s first elected mayor, Leopold Wilzinski, was Jewish.

There’s also the Greenville Writers’ Exhibit in the William Alexander Percy Memorial Library at 341 Main St. More than 100 published writers called Greenville home at one time or another during the 20th century. The exhibit celebrates the work of William Alexander Percy, Walker Percy, Hodding Carter, Shelby Foote and other well-known writers.

There’s the First National Bank Building, built in 1903, with marble and stained-glass windows imported from Italy.

There’s St. Joseph Catholic Church at 412 Main St., which was erected in 1907. It was designed and financed by a Dutch nobleman who served as the parish priest for 33 years. William Alexander Percy wrote about him in his memoir “Lanterns on the Levee.” The stained-glass windows in the church were obtained from the Munich studio of Emil Frei.

There’s the building at the corner of Main and Walnut streets where Hodding Carter penned editorials for the Delta Democrat Times that advocated racial tolerance and won him a Pulitzer Price. There’s a historic marker out front.

And, of course, there’s the original Doe’s Eat Place.

Well-known food writer Michael Stern once said of this restaurant: “There is a special magic about the original Doe’s in Greenville. Located on the wrong side of town in the back rooms of a dilapidated grocery store, it does not look like a restaurant, much less a great restaurant. Many of the dining tables are in fact located in the kitchen, spread helter-skelter among stoves and counters where the staff dresses salads and fries potatoes in big iron skillets. Plates, flatware and tablecloths are all mismatched. It is noisy and inelegant, and service — while perfectly polite — is rough and tumble.

“Doe’s fans, ourselves included, love it just the way it is. The ambience, which is at least a few degrees this side of casual, is part of what makes it such a kick. Mississippians have eaten here since the 1940s; for the regular patrons the eccentricity makes the experience as comfortable as an old shoe. Newcomers may be shocked by the ramshackle surroundings, but Doe’s is easy to like once the food starts coming.”

Dominick “Big Doe” Signa and his wife Mamie started the place in 1941. Doe’s father had moved to Greenville in 1903 and opened a grocery store in the building that now houses the restaurant. The family lived in a house behind the store. The grocery did well until the Great Flood of 1927 devastated the area economy. Big Doe went into bootlegging to make ends meet. In about 1940, his wife received a good recipe for tamales and began selling them at the store.

Here’s how the restaurant’s website tells the rest of the story: “At first, Big Doe ran a honky-tonk in the front part of the store. It was strictly for blacks. He had things like buffalo fish and chili. Ironically, the carriage trade arrived by the back door, like segregation in reverse. One of the local doctors began coming for a meal between calls. Big Doe would cook him up a steak and feed him in the back. Pretty soon the doctor brought another doctor, then a lawyer and before he knew it, Doe had a regular restaurant in the back. After calling in family and in-laws to help with his thriving restaurant, he eventually closed the honky-tonk and focused on the eat place.”

Big Doe retired in 1974. His sons, Charles and Little Doe, took over. Big Doe died in 1987, but the family tradition lives on along Nelson Street.

As you head west into Arkansas, your first stop should be the Lakeport Plantation. The house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Eight years later, it was designated by the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation as part of the Save America’s Treasures program. Using grants from Save America’s Treasures, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council, the home was restored by Arkansas State University and opened to the public.

Turn off U.S. 82 onto Arkansas Highway 142 and go two miles. You’ll later see the house on your left.

Lakeport once was used as the name of a steamboat landing on the Mississippi River from which thousands of bales of cotton were shipped each year down the river to New Orleans. The house, which was given to ASU by the Sam Epstein Angel family, is the only remaining plantation home in Arkansas that’s on the Mississippi River. The surrounding plantation has remained in continuous cotton production since the 1830s when slaves cleared out the bottomland hardwood forests.

Joel Johnson came from Kentucky and established the plantation in the early 1830s. The house was built in 1859 for Joel’s son, Lycurgus, and his wife, Lydia Taylor Johnson. Their descendants remained there until it was sold to Sam Epstein in 1927.

Arkansas historian Tom DeBlack writes: “Lycurgus Johnson died on Aug. 1, 1876. The plantation remained in the family until 1927 when Lycurgus Johnson’s son Victor sold Lakeport to Sam Epstein for $30,000. Born in Russia in 1875, Epstein was one of a sizable number of poor East European Jews who migrated to the United States and sought their fortune in the Delta. Epstein started out peddling clothes and eventually opened a small store and made some good investments, overcoming poverty and religious bigotry to acquire a fortune and become one of Chicot County’s most respected citizens.

“Upon Epstein’s death in 1944, his son-in-law, Ben Angel, served as trustee of the estate, managed the family’s operations and carried on his father-in-law’s tradition of civic service. Ben Angel’s son, Sam Epstein Angel, currently runs the Epstein Land Co., encompassing some 13,000 acres of land and a large cotton-ginning operation, and serves as the senior civilian member of the Mississippi River Commission.”

DeBlack describes Joel Johnson as “the scion of a large and prestigious Kentucky family. Johnson sold his house and gristmill in Scott County, Ky., and set off for Chicot County. He purchased a tract of land southeast of Old River Lake (present day Lake Chicot) just above a large curve in the river called American Bend. … For the next 15 years, Johnson expanded his holdings in land and slaves and brought more land under cultivation. The soil produced abundantly, and slave-based plantation agriculture became firmly entrenched in Chicot County. By the time of his death in June 1846, Joel Johnson owned more than 3,700 acres of rich Delta land, as well as 95 slaves.”

Lycurgus Johnson was 28 when his father died. He had been born in 1818 in Kentucky and joined his father in Arkansas in the 1830s. He and Lydia Taylor had 12 children, four of whom died before reaching age three. By 1860, Lycurgus Johnson owned about 4,400 acres and 155 slaves.

DeBlack describes the house, which was built in the Greek Revival style, as “an imposing two-story, L-shaped structure containing 17 rooms and about 8,000 square feet. Constructed largely of cypress from the surrounding region and situated amidst cotton fields, the mansion faced east toward the river. The house was a showplace of the state’s cotton aristocracy. The exterior of the house was painted the color of straw, and blue-green shutters adorned the windows. The front of the structure, along with the base of the L, was graced by a two-story portico with a triangular pediment gable and centered rose windows. Tapered white columns supported both levels of the portico. An ornate, wrought-iron and lacework grill, in an oak leaf and acorn design, surrounded a first-floor porch on the northeastern corner of the house.

“The house was built on a slight elevation in the terrain, and the first floor was set four feet above the grade as protection against flooding. The entry had 11-foot-high wood-paneled doors flanked by glass sidelights and a large central entry hall measuring more than 26 feet long and almost 16 feet wide. A chandelier hung from an elaborate ceiling rosette on the 14-foot ceiling, and a decorative painted cloth covered the floor. The hallway was large enough to accommodate parties and dancing.”

Union soldiers descended on Lakeport during the Civil War and took all of the horses, mules and cattle.

“Wealthy planters like Lycurgus Johnson were severely affected by the war,” DeBlack writes. “Johnson’s loss in slaves alone was well over $100,000, to say nothing of his losses in crops and livestock. But while many of his neighbors sank into economic ruin and despair, Johnson survived and even prospered. He was able to negotiate successfully for the services of many of the freedmen who had been his slaves before the war, and he quickly developed a reputation as a fair and honest employer.

“The local Freedmen’s Bureau agent, a man not generally favorably disposed toward the planters, wrote that Johnson was a ‘model man of Chicot County.’ The 600 bales of cotton that Lakeport produced in 1870 made Johnson the largest cotton producer in Chicot County, though it was considerably less than the 1,300 bales the plantation produced in 1860.”

Continuing toward Lake Village on U.S. 82, we drive along the western shore of Lake Chicot, the largest oxbow lake in North America. The lake runs for almost 22 miles and covers 5,000 acres. Charles Lindbergh conducted his first night flight over the lake in 1923.

“Geologists estimate that Lake Chicot likely separated from the Mississippi River several centuries ago when the river cut a shorter pathway to the east,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The expedition of Hernando de Soto likely touched upon the site of the lake. After his death and burial near Lake Village, his body was exhumed and thrown into the Mississippi River. Many historians today believe that part of the river became Lake Chicot. The lake was given its name by later French explorers, being derived from a French word meaning ‘stump,’ in reference to the many cypress knees that dot the lakeshore.

“White settlement of the area began in the late 1820s. Before the Civil War, slave-driven agriculture flourished in the vicinity of Lake Chicot, originally called by American settlers Old River Lake. Most of the slaves worked on plantations situated in the vicinity of Lake Chicot, where they worked primarily on cotton. Sunnyside Plantation, to give one example, was founded in the 1830s on the inside of the C-shaped curve of the lake.”

In the 1860 census, there was a population of 9,234 people in Chicot County. Of those residents, 7,512 were slaves.

“Until the 1920s, water from Lake Chicot was considered pure enough that the city of Lake Village used it untreated,” Lancaster writes. “However, that changed later in the decade as local work on the Mississippi River levee began. To prevent flooding behind the levee, Cypress Creek Gap, through which flowed drainage north of Lake Chicot to the Mississippi, was closed. A new system of ditches and canals diverted drainage waters southward. In 1926-27, the local drainage district extended Connerly Bayou on the lake’s northern end to connect Lake Chicot with nearby Macon Lake, with drainage extended through Ditch Bayou on the lake’s southern end.”

The Great Flood of 1927 caused the dam on Connerly Bayou to break. Silt poured into Lake Chicot, and water levels dropped.

“Pressured by the state attorney general, the local drainage district built a dam on Ditch Bayou in 1932 in an attempt to restore the lake to its normal level, but the dam washed out the following year,” Lancaster writes. “Beginning in the 1940s, increased clearing and cultivation of the surrounding watershed, combined with the growing use of pesticides on farmland, left the lower three-quarters of the lake (south of where Connerly Bayou entered it) a polluted and sediment-laden waste, its muddy brown water in dramatic contrast with the bright blue of the upper part of the lake, which was isolated by an earthen dam constructed by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission in 1948 to protect that portion of the lake.”

A concrete dam was built across Ditch Bayou in 1956, but mud and silt continued to enter the lake. What had once been one of the South’s great spots for bass fishing almost saw the end of recreational fishing with the exception of the northern part of the lake.

The Game & Fish Commission joined forces with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Chicot County Rural Development Authority beginning in 1968 on what was known as the Lake Chicot Project. A dam was built on Connerly Bayou with gates that could open or close depending on the quality of the water. Dirty water was diverted to a pumping plant that sent it to the Mississippi River via Rowdy Bend.

“Obtaining the necessary funding for the project took some time, and the pumping plant was installed in 1985,” Lancaster writes. “That year, the Corps of Engineers drew down the lake to compact the sediment on the bottom and seeded the lake with plants that would provide a food base for fish populations. Game fish were restocked. Within a few years, the lake had largely recovered.”

I believe it to be one of the most important government projects ever done in the Arkansas Delta. Arkansas’ largest natural lake had been restored. Lake Chicot was beautiful again.

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From Montrose to Wilmot

Friday, August 16th, 2019


Montrose is the place where two U.S. highways — 165 and 82 — meet.

The town’s population was 354 people in the 2010 census, down from a high of 641 in the 1980 census. Like most small towns in this part of southeast Arkansas, Montrose struggles to remain relevant.

Timber companies cleared the virgin hardwood trees during the period of Arkansas history known as the Big Cut (which lasted from about 1880 to 1930), and men such as W.T. Cone and Sam Wilson bought up the land to raise cotton.

“Cone had been a merchant in Hamburg before acquiring farmland in the Montrose area,” Steve Teske writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “In 1922, with the national decline in cotton prices, Cone sold his land to Wilson and left the area. Cotton remained the main crop throughout the 20th century. Around the beginning of the century, the Iron Mountain Railroad built a line that extended into Louisiana. It established depots at regular intervals where train engineers could obtain additional fuel and water. Many of these depots were named for railroad executives and employees. This is probably the case for Montrose, although no record of the namesake has been preserved.

“A post office was established at the Montrose stop in 1898. The Montrose depot became more significant when a team of investors created a short-line railroad called the Mississippi River, Hamburg & Western Railway. It connected the Crossett area to Luna Landing on the Mississippi River. This line intersected the Iron Mountain line at the Montrose depot. Both lines became part of Missouri Pacific later in the century. Homes and businesses were quickly built around the depot, and Montrose incorporated as a second-class city in 1904.”

The area was ravaged by the Great Flood of 1927 and the Great Depression.

“By the middle of the century, the combination of mechanized agriculture and social changes brought about a decline in population as many farm workers sought better-paying jobs in the larger cities of Arkansas as well as in Northern states,” Teske writes. “Due to school consolidation, all the schools in the area are now part of the Hamburg School District, which doesn’t have any school buildings in Montrose. In 1986, Bill Jones opened a business in Montrose based around the barbecue sauce recipe of his grandfather, Jasper Jones of Mississippi. Sassy Jones Sauce & Spice Co. makes and distributes various foods, including sauces, jams, jellies and syrups.”

The next town headed south is Portland, which was once a steamboat port on the Bayou Bartholomew.

“The earliest known settlers were John P. Fisher and William Brady, who were there in the 1830s,” writes Rebecca DeArmond-Huskey, the author of two books about life along the Bayou Bartholomew. “Fisher arrived in 1833, established a plantation and constructed a two-story house on the west side of the bayou. A short distance down the bayou from Fisher’s house, a small settlement emerged on the opposite side. Steamboat captains called this stopping place ‘the port.’ Upon establishment of a post office in 1857, it was named Portland.

“The bayou village consisted largely of mercantile stores that received their goods from steamboats and served the plantations and smaller farms. Brothers John Cicero Bain, James Oliver Bain and their half-brother Dolphus Leroy Bain installed a steam gin and traded in cotton and cottonseed. A Mr. Culpepper operated a sawmill. He cut the lumber for Fisher’s house. A one-room school and a church stood on a bluff facing the bayou.”

The railroad reached the area in 1890, and many merchants moved almost two miles so they would be by the railroad rather than the bayou.

“Three stores opened the next year and two more in 1892,” DeArmond-Huskey writes. “The town incorporated in October 1893. Instrumental in incorporation were Robert Aaron Pugh, Joseph Cicero Bain and Edward J. Camak. Agriculture continued to be the basis of the economy, but the railroad soon attracted the timber industry. William Harrell Wells was in the barrel stave business in 1896, and the Stell & Boothby Stave Mill was open by early 1897. The first Northern-based concerns were American Forest Lumber and Wheeler Cypress Lumber Co.”

By the early 1900s, there were four large hardwood mills operating in or near Portland.

“When most of the timber was cut by the end of World War I, the mills began to close,” DeArmond-Huskey writes. “Despite the loss of the timber industry, agriculture thrived, and the town continued to grow until the Great Depression. Many small businesses closed, and small farmers began to sell their land in the 1930s. This continued through World War II. With the loss of tenant labor during the war and the emergence of farm mechanization, the surviving large mercantile businesses gradually closed.”

Some of the largest, most prosperous farms in the state traditionally have been in this area of Arkansas. Planters built homes in Portland that reflected their wealth. Noted architect Charles Thompson of Little Rock was hired to design the Joel Wilson Pugh house and the Jess Dean house. The Pugh house, the Dean house and the Henry Naff house all were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

I continue south to Parkdale. Folks my age might best remember Parkdale as the little school that won the state’s Overall Basketball Tournament. It was our state’s version of the movie “Hoosiers.”

I was there that night in March 1979 on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas when the Class B school (which was consolidated with Hamburg in 1994) won it all.

I was a young sportswriter looking to see history made as the Parkdale Dragons beat Marmaduke. The Dragons had earlier defeated Osceola and Pine Bluff in the tournament. Ronald Claiborne scored 32 points for Parkdale in the championship game.

Parkdale originally was known as Poplar Bluff.

“Once a busy, prosperous and even violent city, Parkdale has become a relatively quiet community in the 21st century,” Teske writes. “John Tillman Hughes built a store at the present location of Parkdale in 1857. Some farmers were already working the land near the bayou, including William Morris, John Harris and William Butler. Morris’ son, John William Morris, worked as a clerk in Hughes’ store and later opened his own store.”

The Bayou Bartholomew steamboat landing derived its original name from a grove of poplar trees along the bayou. Union troops raided Poplar Bluff in January 1865, burning a gristmill, a distillery and a large amount of corn and cotton.

“Following the war, the settlement was rebuilt with stores, saloons, mills, a post office and the Baptist church,” Teske writes. “A public school was established in 1884. Poplar Bluff incorporated as a town in 1889. The railroad through Poplar Bluff was completed in the early 1890s. Because the railroad also served the larger city of Poplar Bluff, Mo., railroad officials named the depot Parkdale. The name of the post office and of the city followed. Sawmills were built to process timber, and the city grew rapidly.”

The Bank of Parkdale was established in 1905. A new schoolhouse and bridge across the bayou opened in 1908. There was a telephone exchange by 1912.

“In the early part of the 20th century, Parkdale became notorious for violent crimes, including murders,” Teske writes. “Historian Y.W. Ethridge described Parkdale as a ‘boisterous community’ due to the railroad, sawmills and saloons. One citizen later said: ‘Parkdale was terrible. There were a bunch of outlaws. It was a shoot-up town. … There was a rough and rowdy white element here. It was wild.’

“One of the most unusual crimes in Parkdale was the lynching of Ernest Williams, an African-American man, in June 1908. A group of African-American women had organized a league to enforce better moral conduct, and Williams had evidently not complied with their standards. Consequently, they seized him one evening, dragged him to a telegraph pole on the outskirts of Parkdale and hanged him. His body wasn’t discovered by local authorities until the next morning, and no one was ever charged with the crime.”

Parkdale’s population peaked at 471 people in 1980. A 1910 Baptist church, a 1926 Methodist church and the homes of two doctors (the M.C. Hawkins home built in 1912 and the Robert George Williams home built in 1903) are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Wilmot is the last community headed south before crossing into Louisiana. It’s along Lake Enterprise, an oxbow of the Bayou Bartholomew.

The community once was known as Enterprise, but the post office was called Bartholomew when it was established in 1880. The name Wilmot eventually was used in honor of a surveyor for the railroad, which arrived in 1890.

“J.W. Harris anticipated the coming of the railroad and bought large portions of land, reselling the parcels after the surveyor had planned the city surrounding the depot that bore his name,” Teske writes. “Edward O. McDermott, a physician and the son of inventor Charles McDermott, was hired by the railroad as a tie contractor. He made his home in Wilmot  and opened a store in the growing city.”

A theater opened in 1911, the same year a two-story school building was finished. A newspaper was established the following year. Edward McDermott even built a hotel on the banks of Lake Enterprise. A golf course was constructed in the 1920s.

“The businesses of Wilmot were largely agricultural,” Teske writes. “Several plantations shipped out cotton, corn and other produce. Cypress trees were harvested from the lake and made into shingles. The city also had a stave mill and a furniture store. A cottonseed oil mill was built in 1902.

“Following the Great Depression and World War II, the population of the area dropped as agriculture became more mechanized and as industry attracted workers to cities in Arkansas and in Northern states. Historians estimate that half the black residents of eastern Ashley County emigrated in the middle of the 20th century. Remaining farmers, with financial support from the federal government, diversified their crops, adding rice, soybeans and cattle.”

Wilmot now has almost four times as many black residents as white residents.

This is the Delta part of Ashley County, far different from the pine woods of the Gulf Coastal Plain that surround Crossett and Hamburg.

Ashley County was formed in November 1848 out of parts of Chicot, Drew and Union counties. It became the sixth-largest county in terms of area. It was named for Chester Ashley, the third Arkansan elected to the U.S. Senate.

“When U.S. surveyor Nicholas Rightor entered the Arkansas Territory in 1826, he found settlers who had come to a land that they found to be abundantly fertile and in which game and fish were plentiful,” Deirdre Kelly and Bill Norman write for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The area abounded with timber, especially hardwood. As the hardwood was cleared for cultivation, pine took over. … By 1855, many farms were producing cotton, corn, wheat, potatoes and livestock. … Both rafting and timber were profitable, though rafting stopped when the railroads arrived.”

The population of Ashley County soared from 2,058 residents in the 1850 census to 8,590 residents in the 1860 census.

Like most south Arkansas counties, Ashley County is losing population these days. The population fell from 26,538 in the 1980 census to 21,853 in the 2010 census.

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The most Southern place in Arkansas

Thursday, August 8th, 2019


In 1992, historian James C. Cobb from the University of Georgia came out with a book titled “The Most Southern Place on Earth.”

The book is about the Mississippi Delta, a region like none other.

Plumerville native Rupert Vance, who became a noted sociologist at the University of North Carolina, described the region in 1935 as “cotton obsessed, Negro obsessed. Nowhere but in the Mississippi Delta are antebellum conditions so nearly preserved.”

I’m driving south on this summer day on the stretch of road that I consider the most Southern place in Arkansas — not only geographically but also historically and culturally. I’m on U.S. Highway 165, traveling from Dermott in Chicot County to the Louisiana state line just below Wilmot in Ashley County.

Cotton and other row crops remain king in this part of the state.

Along the route are things that have come to represent the Delta in the minds of Arkansans — the well-kept homes of farm owners, the rundown homes of laborers, the flat landscape, a man selling produce alongside the highway, empty buildings in decaying downtowns whose businesses once catered to sharecroppers who no longer live here, Spanish moss dripping from the cypress trees in Lake Enterprise.

About 20 miles to the east is the Mississippi River.

Just to the west of the highway is the Bayou Bartholomew, the longest bayou in the country. The bayou begins in Jefferson County near Pine Bluff and then heads south through Lincoln, Desha, Drew, Chicot and Ashley counties before entering Louisiana and emptying into the Ouachita River.

“Bayou Bartholomew was, until the construction of railroad lines in the area in 1890, the most important stream for transportation in the interior Delta,” writes Rebecca DeArmond-Huskey, who in 2001 was the author of a book titled “Bartholomew’s Song: A Bayou History.”

She writes: “While the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers served their adjoining areas, it was the bayou that provided a transportation route into an otherwise landlocked area. This route allowed the development of one of the richest timber and agricultural tracts in the Delta. The present bayou bed was formed by the waters of the Arkansas River during a period when it was constantly changing courses. About 1,800 to 2,200 years ago, the river diverted from the present area of the bayou, and the leisurely bayou began to develop in the old river bed.”

It’s likely that the bayou was named after a man known as “Little Bartholomew, the Parisian.” He was part of Henri Joutel’s 1687 band of French explorers who crossed the bayou before finally reaching Arkansas Post.

“Spanish colonists also took note of the bayou,” DeArmond-Huskey writes. “Don Juan Filhiol, commandant of the District of Ouachita in the 1780s, was impressed with its navigation potential as well as the agricultural land around it. The colonists used the bayou for transportation as there were no good roads in the area. They used flat-bottom barges, propelled by poling, rowing, cordelling (towing with ropes) or by sails if the wind was favorable.

“The advent of the steamboat made the bayou a major thoroughfare for exporting cotton, timber and other goods as well as for importing supplies. These boats were on the bayou in Morehouse Parish in Louisiana before 1833. All such commerce halted when the Civil War began but resumed soon after it was over. With the advent of the railroad, steamboat activity began a slow decline, though it continued in Ashley County until some point between 1906 and 1912. … All steamboating was a treacherous business, but according to Ben Lucian Burman, who boated on both large rivers and bayous, ‘bayou steamboating was steamboating at its worst.’ The bayou was more narrow and shallow than the river, and pilots had to avoid sharp bends, shoals, snags and overhanging trees.”

There were ports along the bayou at Point Pleasant and Lind Grove in Morehouse Parish.

In Arkansas, there were ports at Poplar Bluff (now Parkdale), Portland, Thebes, Boydell and Baxter.

“Although steamboat trade was put on hold during the Civil War, the bayou remained, for the duration of the war, a significant transportation route for steamboats carrying troops and supplies,” DeArmond-Huskey writes. “In 1865, Union cavalrymen under the leadership of Col. Embury D. Osband carried out a raid to impede this supply route. They reached the bayou in Chicot County and continued down it to Portland and Parkdale, where they captured the Confederate steamer Jim Barkman, which was loaded with corn. After using the Barkman at Point Pleasant in Morehouse Parish to transport their own troops across the bayou, they burned the boat.

“After the war, cotton was the primary export shipped through the bayou until the railroad prompted the development of an extensive timber industry, backed primarily by Northern capitalists. Although locals had used the bayou for log rafting since the 1830s, shipment by rail was much more expedient. The timber companies devastated the timber stands and then moved out. Farmers followed by clearing the cutover timberlands for farms, which today remain the dominant enterprise along the bayou.”

DeArmand-Huskey notes that the bayou played a major role in the lives of those who lived along it.

She writes: “They swam and fished in it, held barbecues and picnics by it, and were baptized in it.”

In 1995, Curtis Merrell of Monticello organized the Bayou Bartholomew Alliance to restore the natural beauty of the stream following decades of neglect. He secured the help of state agencies, federal agencies and nonprofit groups such as the Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited.

Dermott thrived in the early 1900s as a railroad and timber town, growing from 467 residents in 1900 to 1,602 in 1910. It reached its highest population of 4,731 residents in the 1980 census but had fallen to 2,316 by 2010.

“The first settlers chose the rich and heavily timbered land along the bayou,” DeArmand-Huskey writes. “John Smith and his wife, Sarah Bowden, arrived in 1811 and opened the first settlement in the vicinity. The town was named after Dr. Charles McDermott, who first visited in 1834. He bought land and established a plantation. He moved there in 1844, and the settlement began to progress.”

In the early 1870s, the Mississippi, Ouachita & Red River railroad line was constructed from Gaines Landing in Chicot County to the Mississippi River. It would later become part of the Iron Mountain line. In 1887, the north-south line of the Houston, Central Arkansas & Northern Railroad intersected with the Iron Mountain at Dermott. A depot, general merchandise store, cotton gin and saloon sprang up. As the town became busier, drugstores and grocery stores were added to the mix.

Dermott was known for its wide, tree-lined streets. J. Tom Crenshaw, the first mayor, and city recorder C.H. VanPatten had oak trees planted along major streets in the 1890s.

“The French Oak Stave Co. opened in 1891, employing more than 150 people,” DeArmand-Huskey writes. “William Henry Lephiew Jr. established shingle mills in the early 1900s. The Leavitt Land & Lumber Co. installed a mill in 1908 and cut more than 28,000 acres of timber west of the city limits. Around 1907, the Schneider Stave Co. built a slack barrel stave mill that could produce 45,000 staves a day.

“The Bimel-Ashcroft Manufacturing Co. was in existence by about 1910. It produced oak and hickory products such as single trees for plows, tool handles, yokes and spokes. In 1912, W.B. Bynum established Bynum Cooperage, which made whiskey barrel staves. The Burleigh family of Scotland owned a handle mill, managed locally by Sherer Burleigh. Two other mills, Mark’s Veneer and Frecration, produced hardwood flooring.”

In addition to having a growing timber industry, Dermott was doing well as a railroad town. Several hotels were constructed. The town even had a bottling plant and an ice cream factory. The Exchange Bank, the Dermott Bank & Trust Co. and the Bank of Dermott opened between 1916-22.

“Jewish and Chinese families contributed to the town’s economy,” DeArmand-Huskey writes. “Many Jewish families owned clothing stores. Having come to the town as peddlers, several Chinese families established grocery stores. Descendants of these families still live in Dermott. African-American families worked primarily in the agriculture and timber industries, but the town had several black doctors as early as 1887.

“The town was booming at the outbreak of the Great Depression. Most business concerns were locally owned, and the timber industry was still strong with five mills in operation. During the decade, many smaller businesses closed, but the town survived and struggled onward just as it did after the Civil War. During World War II, Dermott remained a thriving town. The stave mills and three gins continued to operate. Camp Dermott housed German POWs. After the war, several new businesses opened.”

In 1940, the Benedictine Sisters opened St. Mary’s Hospital. It operated until 1971.

Traveling south on U.S. 165, I pass into a corner of Drew County and enter the community of Jerome, which had just 39 residents in the 2010 census. A sawmill town called Blissville was established at the spot where the railroad tracks met the bayou. The town was incorporated in 1908.

Like nearby Dermott, Jerome benefited from the railroad and the timber companies that had come to southeast Arkansas to clear the virgin hardwood forests.

“In 1835, Moses Upshard Payne of New Orleans purchased several tracts of land near the bayou as an investment,” Steve Teske writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Some cotton was grown on the clearer patches of land, but much of the land was swampland. … The land was frequently rented or sold during the remaining years of the 19th century with little development taking place. In 1886, J.M. Waddell of New Orleans, along with at least two partners, acquired an interest in the land. The group of investors conveyed a right of way for a railroad line to E.P. Reynolds & Co. in 1890. The company was building a rail line for the Houston, Central Arkansas & Northern Railroad. The line through Jerome would eventually become part of the Missouri Pacific system, which later folded into the Union Pacific Railroad.

“In 1900, interest in the land was acquired by the Chicot Lumber Co. of Chicago, which sold the same interest in 1905 to Aaron Bliss, who began the Bliss-Cook Oak Co. at that time. … At the time the town was incorporated in 1908, it consisted of 25 men living on 260 acres. Herman Moehler, the secretary of the company, owned the sawmill in the town and began to refer to the company as the Jerome Hardwood Lumber Co. in honor of his son, Jerome Moehler. In 1919, Moehler officially incorporated the company under the name he had chosen, and the next year the town also reincorporated as Jerome, though its incorporation would later lapse.”

In the 1920s, Jerome had a pharmacy, three doctors, several hotels and a school. Things began to go downhill as timber cutting wound down in the area. A major sawmill burned in 1927 and wasn’t replaced. The hardwood lumber company sold its land and buildings to Sam Wilson of Montrose in 1937. Two years later, Wilson sold the property to the federal government for $100,000.

“The government received 3,508 acres of land, all the houses in Jerome, a cotton gin, a general store, 65 mules and three tractors,” Teske writes. “Under the guidance of the Farm Security Administration and the National Youth Administration, Jerome became a resettlement colony, populated by 36 families who were moved from the Sunnyside Plantation near Lake Village. A different group of Americans was resettled into the Jerome area after the United States entered World War II. Japanese-American citizens were removed from their homes in the western states of California, Oregon and Washington and resettled inland based on fears that these Americans might cooperate with the government of Japan during the course of the war.”

These days, Jerome is best known statewide for having been the site of one of the two Japanese-American relocation camps in the state. The other camp was at nearby Rohwer in Desha County. The Jerome Relocation Center operated from Oct. 6, 1942, until June 30, 1944. The peak population of the camp was 8,497.

The camp at Jerome was the last of the 10 relocation camps across the country to open and the first to close. The A.J. Rife Construction Co. of Dallas built it for about $4.7 million. It covered more than 10,000 acres between Big Bayou and Crooked Bayou. Once the Japanese-Americans were sent to other camps in June 1944, the structures were used until the end of the war for German POWs.

“After the war, the government began selling the land it had acquired,” Teske writes. “The town of Jerome was purchased by John Baxter, who then sold the land to Charles Clifford Gibson Sr. Gibson and his son used the town as a headquarters for their extensive farming operations, running both the general store and the cotton gin. The Jerome School District was consolidated with that of Dermott in 1950, and the main school building was moved to Dermott, where it was used exclusively for black students until the end of segregation. In 1954, the Alice-Sidney Dryer & Seed Co. built a large drying plant along the railroad tracks in Jerome. The dryer has a storage capacity of 267,000 bushels of grain.”

Russell Bearden described the relocation camp this way for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “The compound eventually became nearly 500 acres of tar-papered, A-framed buildings arranged into specifically numbered blocks. Each block was designed to accommodate about 300 people in 14 residential barracks with each barrack (20 feet by 120 feet) divided into four to six apartments. This was the traditional military style for barracks, though the internees rebuilt or remodeled the insides. Each block also included a recreational building, a mess hall, a laundry building and a building for a communal latrine.

“All the residential buildings were without plumbing or running water and were heated during the winter months by wood stoves. The camp also had an administrative section that was segregated from the rest of the camp to handle camp operations, a military police section, a hospital section, a warehouse and factory section, a segregated residential section for barracks for white War Relocation Authority personnel, barracks for schools and auxiliary buildings for such things as canteens, motion pictures, gymnasiums, auditoriums, motor pools and fire stations. The camp itself was partially surrounded by barbed wire or heavily wooded areas with guard towers situated at strategic areas and guarded by a small contingent of soldiers.”

The route south out of Jerome on U.S. 165 takes me into Ashley County. I drive through Boydell and into Montrose, which is where the highway I’m on meets U.S. 82.

When most Arkansans think of Ashley County, they picture the vast pine forests and timber industries near Crossett and Hamburg. But as Teske notes: “This eastern part of the county belongs to the Mississippi Delta region, which was home to numerous cotton plantations before and after the Civil War. Dugald McMillan was the first landowner who registered a patent for the land where Montrose now stands. His plantation, like others in the region, employed a large number of slaves, many of whom remained after the war working as tenant farmers for the same landowners. Consequently, African-American citizens have outnumbered white citizens in the area from the time slavery ended up to the present time.”

We’ll continue south in the next part of the trip. We’ll remain in Ashley County until we reach the Louisiana line and pass through four small communities. In the 2010 census, Montrose had 354 residents while Portland had 430, Parkdale had 277 and Wilmot had 550.

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The trip ends in the Bootheel

Monday, July 29th, 2019


We’ve reached Greene County, the final county in our trip across north Arkansas on U.S. Highway 412.

Greene County was once an isolated place filled with swamps, but it has boomed in recent years alongside Craighead County to the south. Greene County’s population almost doubled from 24,765 in the 1970 census to 42,090 in the 2010 census.

Mark Hamblen writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “For many years, Greene County’s main attraction, Crowley’s Ridge, was isolated because of swamplands on three sides — the St. Francis bottoms to the north and east, and the Cache River and Black River lowlands on the west. But drainage of the swampland led to growth in the area.”

Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac, the French governor of Louisiana, likely was the first European to visit the area.

“In 1715, the French crown ordered him to explore the headwaters of the St. Francis River,” Hamblen writes. “Indians with whom he came into contact reported that the area contained silver, though he found only lead near Fredericktown, Mo. Suffering great discomfort while ascending the river, he wrote in his diary: ‘This colony is a monster. … I have never seen anything so worthless.’ However he felt about the area, he did move European civilization closer to what is now Greene County.”

The first European to actually live in the area appears to have been Pierre Le Mieux, who settled in the 1790s at Peach Orchard. He died in 1817.

Peach Orchard is in what’s now Clay County

“Le Mieux owned a small estate on the south shore of the Black River,” Steve Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “In 1816, he deeded that land to Lewis DeMunn. The deed shows that Le Mieux called the estate Petit Baril but that his English-speaking neighbors were already calling it Peach Orchard. Le Mieux (also known by his Americanized name Peter LeMew) relocated to Clover Bend, where he also owned land and where his wife’s family lived. Historians speculate that the English name of his estate was due to a peach orchard planted by Le Mieux, but no evidence of that orchard remains.”

Benjamin Crowley, for whom Crowley’s Ridge is named, moved his family to northeast Arkansas from Kentucky in 1815. He settled along the Spring River.

“In December 1821, Crowley crossed the Black and Cache rivers to explore the ridge area,” Hamblen writes. “Armed with a War of 1812 land grant, the man known as Old Ben selected a vacated Delaware Indian site that had developed around a large spring on a ridge. No one knows when the ridge became known as Crowley.

“Some pioneers had settled on the lower ridge area near Helena several years before Crowley’s home became the community meeting place where county officers discussed and solved civic matters. When the volume of legal and court activities required a seat of law, Isaac Brookfield and Lawrence Thompson wrote a petition seeking permission to organize a county. The Arkansas Territorial Legislature approved the petition in November 1833. … The county seat remained in Crowley’s home until it was moved.”

Some records say the county seat was moved to a community called Paris, but no records of such a town exist. In 1840, Gainesville became the county seat.

“Two documents were found in 1996 indicating that Gainesville was laid out with 86 lots,” Hamblen writes. “A state auditor’s report dated May 18, 1842, noted that ‘nearly all lots were sold and deeded to the purchasers.’ The lowlands of the St. Francis, Cache and Black rivers slowed settlement in Greene County. In 1849, Congress passed an act intended to reclaim the swamplands. It transferred all the Arkansas swamplands to the state and provided funds for locating, evaluating and draining them.”

Craighead County was created in 1859 from parts of Greene, Mississippi and Poinsett counties. Development of the area slowed due to the Civil War and Reconstruction.

“In November 1872, Cairo-Fulton Railroad construction crossed the Missouri border into Randolph County,” Hamblen writes. “Greene County officials watched helplessly as an economic boom followed to the west of them. By 1874, the line had become part of the Iron Mountain system. It operated across the full length of Arkansas. During the 1873 legislative session, state Rep. B.H. Crowley introduced a bill to create Clayton County from the northern part of Greene County. Because they did not like Gov. Powell Clayton, the citizens of the new county voted in 1875 to change the county name to Clay. Greene County then gained a small part of Randolph County, but it gave up a small northeast area to Clay County a decade later.”

Enter Jay Gould, James Paramore and the birth of Paragould, now the Greene County seat.

“Gould gained control of the Iron Mountain Railroad in 1880,” Hamblen writes. “He learned that Paramore’s St. Louis-Texas Railroad was licensed to build a cheaper narrow-gauge line through Arkansas to Texas. Gould decided to construct a regular-gauge line to closely parallel Paramore’s route. It would branch off the main Iron Mountain line at Knobel in Clay County and run through Greene County toward Helena. The railroads crossed six miles south of Gainesville. After the crossing gained a post office, the postmaster named the town Paragould, deriving the name from Paramore and Gould. The new town grew rapidly and became the county seat in 1884, beginning the sharp and sudden decline of Gainesville.”

We pass through the community of Light on our trip east and begin climbing Crowley’s Ridge before entering Paragould.

Crowley’s Ridge runs from southern Missouri to Helena. The only break is a small one at Marianna where the L’Anguille River runs through it. The ridge ranges in width from one to 12 miles.

“The ridge contrasts sharply with the surrounding flat land of the Delta,” Hubert Stroud writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “In terms of formation, the ridge is generally thought to have once been an island between the Mississippi River and the Ohio River. It became a long and narrow hilly ridge after the rivers changed course millions of years ago. Prior to the change in course, the Mississippi River flowed along the west side of what’s now Crowley’s Ridge with the Ohio River meandering along the east side. The work of these major rivers and their subsequent shifting in course resulted in the formation of an erosional remnant that’s now Crowley’s Ridge.

“Crowley’s Ridge, completely surrounded by the Mississippi Alluvial Plain, is clearly visible because it rises some 250 feet above a relatively flat landscape. The ridge is capped by a deep layer of wind-deposited soils, a fine-grained soil created millions of years ago as glaciers moved across the continent. Extensive areas, including the Mississippi Alluvial Plain and Crowley’s Ridge, were covered by windblown soil. Rivers and streams that continued to meander across the plain washed away the loessial material. On Crowley’s Ridge, however, the loess continued to collect, up to 50 feet in depth in some locations. Since loess is easily eroded, steep slopes and deep valleys characterize much of Crowley’s Ridge.”

Many of the trees on the ridge are like those found in the Appalachian Mountains far to the east. It’s like no place else in Arkansas.

“The ridge is covered with a lush mixed forest of oak, hickory and uncommon hardwood trees such as American beech, sugar maple and yellow poplar,” Stroud writes. “Crowley’s Ridge also has extensive areas of pasture. Although the soil is relatively fertile, row crops such as soybeans and wheat are limited almost entirely to small floodplains along and near streams that flow out of the area. This is due to the highly erosive nature of the wind-blown soil of Crowley’s Ridge. The soil needs a protective vegetative cover of some type such as pasture grasses or forests to combat severe soil erosion.”

Paragould sits atop the ridge.

“Postmaster Marcus Meriwether named the town Paragould without any official approval,” Hamblen writes. “Paragould became a thriving community. Investors knew that the forests covering east Arkansas contained one of the few remaining quality hardwood sources in the nation. The availability of rail transportation brought about a surge of large investments. Men abandoned their farms and flocked to work in the timber mills and factories that had been hurriedly constructed around the area. Merchants and professionals followed.”

Hamblen notes that the “drained and newly cleared bottomland on both sides of Crowley’s Ridge led to the development of large farm operations before the turn of the century. Timber-related businesses continued to spur industrial growth through the 1920s, but as the timber business declined, production of cotton, corn and soybeans increased. Significant rice production didn’t come to the county until after World War II.”

A large railroad machine shop came to Greene County in 1911 and serviced locomotives into the 1950s, employing up to 300 people at times.

Paragould became the county seat after a countywide vote in 1884. Construction was completed on a courthouse there in 1888.

“Having noted that fire swept rapidly through the wooden buildings in downtown Gainesville in 1890, the Paragould City Council passed an ordinance requiring that all new buildings in the main part of town be constructed of brick,” Hamblen writes. “An electric light plant went into operation in 1891, telephone service appeared in 1896 and a municipally owned water works opened in 1898. By 1896, Paragould had six miles of gravel streets. It was 1912 before the downtown streets were paved.

“By 1890, there were 14 lumber mills in Paragould. Products included both slack and tight barrel staves, boxes, wood veneer, spokes, dowel pins, caskets, baskets, handles, shingles and railroad ties. The Wrape Stave & Heading Mill was shipping five million barrels a year, more than any factory in the state. In 1894, that firm shipped more whiskey barrels than any other plant in the world. … Paragould became the principal trading center of northeast Arkansas. The city’s infrastructure had been developed to the extent that it could support the demands of new industry and increased population. By 1910, the town had three department stores, an opera house, a hospital and six banks.”

Paragould became known as a sundown town — a place where blacks weren’t welcome after sundown.

“Attempts at violently expelling the local black population took place in 1888, 1892, 1899 and 1908,” Hamblen writes. “Black railroad crewmen were told they could stay in town as long as they were working, but their activities were limited to where they were boarding overnight. Black children were not provided any form of public education until 1948.”

One of the more interesting events in the city’s history occurred when a meteorite came crashing down in 1930.

“At 4:08 a.m. on Feb. 17, 1930, Paragould residents were awakened by a prolonged loud noise and a sky filled with a fiery glow made by a meteorite with a long reddish tail that streamed through the sky before striking the earth four miles southwest of Paragould near the small community of Finch,” Hamblen writes. “Two major fragments were found and displayed in Paragould for several weeks. The first one that was discovered was small but weighed about 75 pounds, unusually heavy for its size. The second fragment was found 30 days later. Buried nine feet into hard clay more than two miles from where the first rock was found, the big rock measured 24 inches in height, 28 inches in length and 24 inches in breadth. It weighted 820 pounds, and five men and a team of horses spent three hours dislodging it.”

It was given to the University of Arkansas.

Six years later, Paragould was back in the news thanks to a mastodon skeleton.

Hamblen writes: “While Frank Reynolds and his brother-in-law Lowell Rodgers were fishing in Hurricane Creek just north of Paragould, Reynolds hit something that gave off a metallic sound. Curious, the two men pulled out of the deep sand in the creek bed an enormous thigh bone, 3 1/2 feet in length. They worked almost continuously during the next 20 days removing all bones from the creek. The two men toured the state in a borrowed truck for three weeks, charging 10 cents a look. When the two got to Fayetteville, they were told by members of the University of Arkansas science faculty that they had found the skeleton of a 10,000-year-old mastodon. Reynolds was offered $5,000 for the bones by a man from Kentucky, but he chose to give them to the museum at Arkansas State University.”

Through the years, Paragould became one of the state’s manufacturing centers. City leaders were able to attract the Ely Walker shirt factory in 1937, the Ed White shoe factory in 1947, Wonder State Manufacturing in 1950, Foremost Foods’ dairy division in 1952 and Emerson Electric Co. in 1955.

We spend the final night of this trip at a bed-and-breakfast inn on Court Street known as the White House Inn. It’s in the 1892 Hays-Porter House.

The house was built by Alfred Hays, a Kentucky native who operated a hotel in Paragould and served a term as mayor. Hays died in 1932, but his descendants occupied the house until the 1960s. Marilyn and Bob White later renovated the home.

Dinner downtown that evening is at Chow at 118, a fine-dining establishment that resembles something one would expect in a far larger city.

Paragould has seen its population increase from 18,540 in 1990 to an estimated current population of 28,500. Better dining and overnight options have followed the growth.

We end the trip the next morning with the short drive to the state line. We cross the St. Francis River into the Missouri Bootheel, go as far as Cardwell (a depressed Delta town) and turn around.

The Bootheel is unlike the rest of Missouri but much like northeast Arkansas. Cotton became king here in the early 1900s. Most black families left the region (due to the mechanization of agriculture) for jobs in the upper Midwest. Bootheel counties are now predominantly white.

It was a pioneer planter named John Hardeman Walker in what’s now Pemiscot County who argued when Missouri was admitted to the Union that this area had more in common with the Mississippi River towns of St. Louis, Sainte Genevieve and Cape Girardeau in Missouri than with the Arkansas Territory. The area once was known at Lapland because it’s where Missouri laps over into Arkansas.

We cross back over the St. Francis River into Arkansas.

The river starts in the northeast corner of Iron County in Missouri and is a mountain stream for its first 25 miles. It reaches the Delta north of Poplar Bluff. It turns south and covers 207 miles before emptying into the Mississippi River just north of Helena in the St. Francis National Forest.

The part of the river between Lake City in Craighead County and Marked Tree in Poinsett County is known as the Sunken Lands. The land dropped several feet in this area during the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, forming a swamp. More than 27,000 acres of this region are now part of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission’s St. Francis Sunken Lands Wildlife Management Area.

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “The St. Francis River was not navigable in its natural state, having numerous snags and rafts. In 1836-37, W. Bowling Buion surveyed the river under the auspices of the federal government with an eye toward improving navigation, but nothing came of it. Only after the Civil War did Congress begin funding the clearing of the river. Numerous clearing and dredging operations made the St. Francis navigable from its mouth up to Wappapello, Mo. Because the swampy Sunken Lands impeded progress on railroad construction until the land began to be drained in the late 1890s and early 1900s, steamboats continued to operate on the river until into the early 20th century.

“The St. Francis Levee District was created in 1893 and began constructing levees and drainage canals to control flooding. These measures were strengthened and increased after the catastrophic Great Flood of 1927 and the passage of the Flood Control Act of 1928. The levees and canals have greatly affected the natural course of the river and have included a number of diversion ditches that run somewhat parallel to the river along its course from southeastern Craighead County down through Lee County, thus providing an outlet for excess water in time of flood.”

The world’s largest siphons were placed on the St. Francis at Marked Tree in 1939 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help control flooding.

In 1977, the Corps built the W.G. Huxtable pumping plant southeast of Marianna to prevent the Mississippi River from backing up into the St. Francis. It’s one of the largest pumping plants of its kind in the world.

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