Archive for the ‘Traveling Arkansas’ Category

Texarkana: Twice as nice

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

It worked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bryce’s in Texarkana,” he replied.

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

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

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

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

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

Post to Twitter

Searcy County: Chocolate Roll Capital of the World

Friday, January 24th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who knew?

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

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

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

And I like the people.

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

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

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

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

Crossing the Middle Fork of the Little Red River.

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

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

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

Seeing the Buffalo National River at Tyler Bend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Witts Springs consolidated with Marshall in 2004.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Post to Twitter

A new preservation ethos

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

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

You might have heard of Joanne’s older brother.

He was known in his adult years as Johnny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missy and Vanessa are my kinds of Arkansans.

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

Post to Twitter

An ode to small college football

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s who I am.

It’s what I was raised on.

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

You might be pleasantly surprised by the quality of play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone else beat up on each other.

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

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

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

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

Post to Twitter

Downtown Fort Smith — vibrant is the word

Thursday, July 18th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

All of this brings us to downtown Fort Smith.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Buildings must be modernized

– Quality accommodations must then be added inside those buildings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know the old saying: Perception is reality.

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

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

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

Post to Twitter

JFK and the Greers Ferry water garden

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The resort would become the Red Apple Inn.

The housing development would become Eden Isle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then came the fateful November trip to Texas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post to Twitter

The pig sandwich

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

I determined long ago that the quickest way to the heart of an Arkansan is directly through the stomach.

Invariably, when I write about food, I get more comments than about any other subject.

Such was the case recently when I delved into the history of the Kream Kastle at Blytheville. The comments poured in.

Earlier on this blog I had declared Blytheville as the barbecue capital of Arkansas. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: For quality smoked pork per capita, no other Arkansas city comes close.

What’s your favorite Blytheville barbecue joint?

The venerable Dixie Pig?

The Kream Kastle?


Or is it one of the other barbecue places around town such as Yank’s?

The impetus for my newspaper column was a 34-page paper written by Revis Edmonds, an adjunct history professor at Arkansas State University-Newport who’s pursuing a doctorate in heritage studies on ASU’s Jonesboro campus. The title of the paper is “The Kream Kastle and its Place in Blytheville’s Barbecue Mecca.”

I revealed in the column that Paul Austin, the director of the Arkansas Humanities Council, and I had made a barbecue pilgrimage to Blytheville earlier this year and eaten lunch three times that day.

In Blytheville, the distinctive barbecue — finely chopped with a vinegar-based sauce (and the sandwiches automatically come with slaw unless you say otherwise) – is the basis for what’s known as the pig sandwich.

Our first pig sandwich that day was at the Kream Kastle, a drive-in restaurant. We ate in the car.

The second stop was the Dixie Pig, where we ate inside.

The third stop was the drive-through window at Penn’s. Again, we ate in the car.

Three pig sandwiches. All jumbo.

I have to share with you what one of Paul’s boyhood friends, who lived for a time in Dell, wrote.

“It was then that I was first introduced to the Kream Kastle pig sandwich,” he said of his family’s move to Dell. “In the mid-1960s to early 1970s, it was called a white pig because only the light-colored meat went into the sandwich. Then, as now, the only sauce was the seasoned vinegar they still use.

“Those sandwiches were the nearest thing to heaven on earth to me and caused me to embark on my lifelong quest to find a better pulled pork. Everywhere I go, without fail, I search out locals to point me to the best in town.

“I’ve sampled ‘the best’ from every section of this country, from large cities to crossroads, and of every regional variety. I’ve tasted whatever appeared similar in several European countries and in South America. Some of the samples were outstanding, many were pretty darn good, but I swear nothing has ever touched the Kream Kastle.

“There was a lapse of nearly two decades in which distance deprived me of contact with the pinnacle of pulled pork. Then, several years ago after a relative’s funeral at Manila, I traveled to Blytheville just to see if my brain’s record of that tender, smoky burst of flavorful sinew could possibly still exist.

“The waitress came to my car window. I asked for the white pig. I knew better than to try to custom order. You take it as it is prepared. I waited expectantly but tentatively.

“I was astounded as the first chunk of beautiful white pork fell onto my tongue. That succulence that I remembered flooded my taste buds and opened the gates of grateful salivary glands.

“Stop. I can’t go on. I have work to do and am very nearly abandoning it in favor of an absent afternoon en route to the Kream Kastle.

“Having gone on like this, it’s only fair that I also opine about the other establishments you recently visited, the Dixie Pig and Penn’s. Both were flourishing during my experiences in and around Blytheville. Both produced, and I hope still do, wonderful pulled pork. So wonderful, in fact, that the creations of either likely surpass the best I’ve tasted elsewhere. But my personal ranking back then was Kream Kastle with Dixie Pig and Penn’s in a dead-heat second.

“Can any other location on earth surpass Blytheville for the tastiest, tenderest, smokiest, most succulent pulled pork? I doubt it, though I’ve not been everywhere. Blytheville residents, as do most locals, take their treasure for granted. It’s all they’ve ever known so the idea of being the world’s best doesn’t cross their consciousness. But they are missing a marketing gold mine and a place in porcine history.

“I hope you will forgive the superlatives, but as you can see, I’m a true believer.”

It seems there are a lot of true believers when it comes to the Blytheville pig sandwich.

In his paper, Edmonds delves into the history of Blytheville and its barbecue traditions. Ernest Halsell opened the Rustic Inn in a log cabin in 1923. He later moved the restaurant to a rock building and later to Sixth Street in the 1950s.

“The forerunner of the iconic Dixie Pig, it symbolized the economic and social pinnacle of Blytheville’s history in the 1960s when the community boasted a growing population, a major Air Force base, a seemingly solid industrial base led by Bush Brothers & Co., a booming retail sector and an agricultural industry that still clothed and fed the world,” Edmonds writes. “Founded in 1879 by Methodist clergyman Henry T. Blythe, Blytheville grew quickly due to an abundance of timberland. The city was incorporated in 1889. The first era of growth came because of the massive harvesting of lumber to rebuild after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The lumber industry and its attendant businesses, such as the railroad, brough a proliferation of sawmills and, to put it mildly, a rowdy crowd.”

At one point, Chicago Mill & Lumber Co. owned 70,000 acres of timberland in northeast Arkansas and operated a huge mill at Blytheville. The Delta hardwood forests weren’t replanted, however. Instead, the land was drained and the production of cotton began to dominate the economy.

An Air Force base was established at Blytheville in 1942 and reactivated in the early 1950s. At its peak during the Cold War, the base employed almost 3,500 military personnel and 700 civilians. When the base closed in 1991, the Blytheville area lost thousands of residents with an estimated loss of $46 million in personal income.

The population of Mississippi County decreased 3.7 percent between 1970 and 1980, decreased another 3.9 percent during the 1980s, decreased a depressing 20.2 percent during the 1990s and then decreased another 14.5 percent during the first decade of this century.

“There’s no denying that the decline, when it came, hit retail concerns like the food service industry hard,” Edmonds writes. “When the Kream Kastle was established in 1952, Blytheville had come off a 1950 census that reflected a 52.4 percent increase in population over the 1940 census. This would remain relatively stable for most of the first two decades of the business’ existence.”

Like other Delta communities, Blytheville had a rich ethnic mix.

Huddy Cohen, who was Jewish, recalled that “middle and upper-class whites belonged to the Blytheville Country Club, where women golfers lunched on chicken salad-stuffed tomatoes and deviled eggs and couples gathered on Saturday nights to enjoy seafood Newburg and broiled steaks. There were black-owned soul food restaurants like the Dew Drop Inn on Ash Street, which paralleled the white Main Street in Blytheville, but we never ate there. Their world was divided from ours by the legacy of Jim Crow.”

Blacks and whites alike learned to enjoy the Blytheville style of barbecue. Despite the population decline, the barbecue joints hang on.

Edmonds describes the people of Blytheville this way: “Far from a place whose people wallow in despair and who lament that Blytheville’s as well as Mississippi County’s best days are in the past, they mostly share the sentiments of Jeff Wallace when he simply stated that ‘Blytheville will come back. It has before.’ Outsiders do not have to understand what makes this community and its hangouts persevere. All it takes is the loyalty and faith of its own people, come what may.”

Long live the Blytheville pig sandwich.

Post to Twitter

Seven to save in Arkansas

Monday, June 3rd, 2013

After we had eaten far too much steak and far too many tamales on a Friday night at The Tamale Factory in Gregory, attorney Winston Collier invited our group to make the short drive north on Arkansas Highway 33 to Augusta.

He wanted to conduct an evening historic tour of the city.

Given my love of Arkansas history and especially my love of the lower White River region, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Fortunately, our companions were also Arkansas history buffs.

My mother grew up in nearby Des Arc, and I would spend a lot of time with my grandparents in Des Arc each summer as a child. That began my love affair with the lower White River and its many traditions — the houseboat people, the commercial fishermen, the mussel gatherers, the towboat pilots and cooks.

It’s a magical — almost haunted — part of the South, as anyone who has spent time there can attest. I’m glad the movie “Mud,” which currently is attracting strong reviews, pays homage to that lifestyle.

Augusta is the oldest town in Woodruff County. In fact, it was part of Jackson County before Woodruff County was created. Augusta was an important steamboat stop, and you can still sense the history there. Boats from Memphis and New Orleans would make regular stops, making Augusta a thriving town in the late 1800s and early 1900s. By 1930, Augusta had a population of 2,243 people. That’s more people than the town had in the 2010 census.

“The site has long been called Chickasaw Crossing,” Paula Harmon Barnett wrote in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In 1820, a man known only as Hamilton landed there and took up residence, but about two years later, he sold his holdings to Rolla Gray, who settled there with his family. Other settlers quickly followed.

“In 1847, John R. Elliott of Philadelphia and his partner, William Polite, opened the settlement’s first store at the west end of what’s now Main Street. Elliott soon retired, and Polite built a new store on an adjacent plot. Thomas Hough then moved into the Elliott-Polite building, and the settlement was on its way to becoming a town.

“In 1848, Hough had the town surveyed and laid out, and he named it in honor of his niece, Augusta Cald of Virginia. Incorporation followed on July 9, 1860. At that time, Augusta was in Jackson County. It became part of Woodruff County when the county was formed in the 1860s.

“Most of the families that settled in Augusta came from Eastern states and brought culture with them. Visitors remarked on the beauty of the homes in this wilderness and often stayed to join in the building of the town. By 1861, its population had grown to about 600.

“Hough built present-day Woodruff County’s first church in Augusta in the early 1850s at a cost of $6,000. The Methodists and Presbyterians shared it. Later, he built the Presbyterian church, which now belongs to and has been preserved by the city. The church, visited by Woodrow Wilson as a young boy (his brother-in-law was pastor from 1878-79), is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Hough sold his residence in Augusta to the county to be used as a courthouse. The current courthouse is on the original property.”

During the Civil War, Union troops tore down some of the city’s homes and used the lumber to build shelters. A few of the finer homes were spared so they could be used to house officers. Reconstruction Gov. Powell Clayton declared martial law in Woodruff County in 1868 and sent in the state militia to root out the KKK.

By the 1870s, though, steamboat traffic had increased, cotton was being shipped out and Augusta again was one of the most important places in the Arkansas Delta. The city, thinking the White River was all it needed, was bypassed by the main line of the railroad.

Though Augusta — like most other east Arkansas towns — has struggled to stem population loss the past several decades, one extremely positive thing has happened in recent years. ArCare, a nonprofit corporation that operates primary care clinics, dental clinics and wellness centers in 10 east Arkansas counties — is headquartered at Augusta and has renovated several historic downtown buildings for its growing staff.

Let’s be frank: The downtowns of a lot of communities in the Arkansas Delta are dead and aren’t coming back. There’s life, however, in downtown Augusta.

After showing us the buildings being preserved by ARcare, Winston drove us by the Ferguson house. The massive house was completed in 1861 as the Civil War was about to begin. It was the home of James P. and Maria Alcorn Ferguson and was built from local pine and cypress. The house was in the Ferguson family for more than a century. The couple’s oldest son, W.E. Ferguson, was a prominent politician who served in the Arkansas Legislature and a number of county offices.

The Ferguson home is now vacant and in dire need of repair. I mentioned to Winston that we should try to get it listed on the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas’ 2013 list of endangered places in order to draw attention to its plight.

Winston, with the help of House chief of staff Gabe Holmstrom and Little Rock public relations executives Denver Peacock and Jordan Johnson, worked with Vanessa McKuin of the HPAA to get the house on the list.

The HPAA calls its 2013 list the “Seven to Save.”

“The 2013 list of endangered places highlights distinctive sites throughout Arkansas that represent important aspects of Arkansas’ culture and history,” McKuin said. “Though each circumstance is different, each of these places is important to the community where it is located, and each is worth saving. By calling attention to these sites now, we want to encourage local action.”

Speaking of the lower White River, the Frith-Plunkett house at Des Arc is also on the list.

The HPAA wrote: “As Des Arc’s oldest residence, the vernacular Greek Revival-style Frith-Plunkett house reflects the prosperity of the most successful economic era in the rural river town’s history. The Frith-Plunkett house presents a unique representation of the architecture that formed the backdrop for Des Arc’s pre-Civil War development. During the Civil War, many buildings in Des Arc were burned and others were moved to nearby DeValls Bluff. Because of the Frith-Plunkett house’s function as a hospital during the war, it remained intact.

“The house is vacant and in disrepair. In 2002, the current owner purchased the building to save it from demolition, but it has since remained vacant. Though the owner has made small steps through the years, the condition of the building has caused the city to again consider a resolution to demolish the Frith-Plunkett house. The owner and other concerned citizens are working to raise awareness about the importance of saving the house.”

The other five properties on this year’s list are:

– The Hantz house and the adjacent Durst house at Fayetteville: The Hantz house was Fay Jones’ first house to design. He completed the project while he was a student. The Durst house was designed by John Williams, the founder of the University of Arkansas architecture program. As the UA campus continues to expand, the future of these houses is uncertain.

– Park Hill Elementary School at North Little Rock: The building was constructed in 1924. People in the neighborhood fear that the facility will be demolished once it’s closed rather than being used for something else.

– The Round Top filling station at Sherwood: Pierce Oil contracted with the Justin Matthews Co. in 1936 to construct a gas station along U.S. Highway 67. W.D. Happy” Williford operated the round station from then until his retirement in 1981. The building, which was later abandoned, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008. Preservationists in Sherwood hope the station can become a police substation or a small museum.

– The St. Joseph orphanage at North Little Rock. Famed Arkansas architect Charles Thompson designed the 56,000-square-foot facility in 1908. The orphanage operated until 1978. The building later housed a day care center and a retreat center. The final two nuns at St. Joseph moved to St. Scholastica at Fort Smith in 2007. The Diocese of Little Rock considered selling the property. A nonprofit group known as St. Josph Center of Arkansas Inc. was formed to save the building and protect the adjoining 63 acres from development.

– The Wynne Opera House: The building was constructed in 1900 with a grocery store on the first floor and an opera house on the second floor. The building later served as a temporary courthouse and as a hardware store. The property is privately owned and in bad shape. The Wynne Downtown Revitalization Committee and the Cross County Historical Society are working to save it.

Post to Twitter

From England to Scott

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013

It was late in the duck season, and Randy Ensminger and I had stopped for gas at England on our way back from Little Siberia, the famous southeast Arkansas hunting club where we had spent the previous evening.

The weather was beautiful, and we weren’t in a hurry.

“Let’s take the back road home,” Randy said.

That meant that rather than staying north on U.S. Highway 165 to Little Rock, we would take Arkansas Highway 161, reconnecting with Highway 165 at Scott.

Heading out of England, Highway 161 takes you due west toward the Arkansas River, passing an oxbow known as Clear Lake along the way. When you reach the levee along the river, you must take a hard right.

Now, you find yourself heading north with the Arkansas River on the other side of the levee to your left.

It’s a scenic piece of Arkansas farm country, but the best is yet to come. Before reaching Scott, you’ll drive through a tunnel of pecan trees more than a century old. As one who likes big trees, I consider this to be one of the most majestic stretches of highway in Arkansas.

The trees signal that you’ve reached the Land’s End Plantation. The plantation has remained since its founding in the Alexander family. The family originally is from Scotland but has been in the United States since the 1700s.

James Alexander was a captain during the American Revolution. Nathaniel Alexander later served as governor of North Carolina. Other Alexanders served in the North Carolina Legislature.

President James K. Polk was an Alexander descendant.

Some of the Alexanders eventually made their way west to Arkansas. The most prominent settler in the area around what’s now known as Scott was Chester Ashley, who acquired a large tract of land and maintained a residence known as the Ashley Mill Plantation.

In December 1844, Ashley was selected to fill the U.S. Senate vacancy created by the death of William S. Fulton. Ashley served in the Senate until his own death in April 1848.

In 1898, what had been the Ashley property was purchased by Arthur Lee Alexander, who had come to Arkansas with three cousins in the 1880s. One of those cousins was Asheville, N.C., native J.R. Alexander, who found work as an overseer of plantations in the Scott area. He saved his money (and borrowed some from Col. Thomas William Steele) to buy 640 acres about seven miles south of Scott.

That was the beginning of the Land’s End Plantation.

In 1901, J.R. Alexander married a Virginia native named Evelyn May Crump. Upon arriving from Virginia to experience what must have seemed like a foreign land to a blueblood, she declared that this “must be the end of the land.”

Thus Land’s End.

The plantation would cover almost 5,000 acres in later years.

J.R. Alexander was nationally recognized as an agriculture expert and spoke across the country about cotton and livestock. He served in the Arkansas Legislature for several terms and was urged to run for the U.S. Senate in the 1920s. Alexander decided instead to focus on promoting advanced agricultural practices across Arkansas. He delighted in taking legislators on tours of the state’s agricultural colleges, for instance.

His wife, meanwhile, focused on building and furnishing the Tudor Revival-style house that long has been the plantation’s centerpiece. She died before the home was completed at a cost of $85,000. Little has been changed since the house was built.

The couple had three children. The oldest, Robert Alexander, was educated at Vanderbilt and came home after receiving a degree in chemistry to operate the plantation until his death.

Robert Alexander’s son, James R. “Jim” Alexander, now owns and operates the plantation.

The home, which can clearly be seen from Highway 161, was designed in 1925 by noted Arkansas architect John Parks Almond. The house was completed in 1927.

The architect, who died in 1969, is best known for his design of Little Rock Central High School.

Almond, a Georgia native, graduated second in his class at Columbia. He worked for an American architectural firm in Cuba before coming to Little Rock in 1912 to work for Charles L. Thompson’s firm.

Almond established a private practice in 1915. He designed the Medical Arts Building on Central Avenue in downtown Hot Springs, which was constructed in 1929-30 and for decades was the state’s tallest building. It lost that distinction when Winthrop Rockefeller financed construction of the Tower Building in downtown Little Rock.

In 1934, Almond was among the 21 architects from across the country selected to work with the supervising architect’s office of the U.S. Treasury Department. President Franklin Roosevelt had begun a massive building campaign in Washington, and Almond would be a part of that. He later worked with private developers in Washington.

Almond returned to Little Rock in 1943 and continued to practice until his retirement in 1963.

In the nomination for Land’s End’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program wrote: ”John Parks Almond loved architecture and loved to design. He was guided by an idealistic nature and believed being an architect was a special calling, with obligations not only to the client but also to the future. In his design of the imposing Tudor Revival-style house and ancillary to be built as the residence of plantation owner J.R. Alexander, Almond’s attention to detail is highly visible.

“According to his son, Almond personally selected the stones … from Pinnacle Mountain near Little Rock. It is said that he was even involved in the placement of the stones on the walls. The J.R. Alexander House at Land’s End Plantation is undoubtedly one of Almond’s finest residential designs.”

The nomination noted that Almond’s attention to detail “carried through to the grounds surrounding the house. His drawings and plans for the Alexanders included stone walls, flagstone terraces and brick walkways designed to complement the house. A two-story building to the rear of the house in the same Tudor Revival-style was designed as a garage on the first floor with servants’ quarters on the second story.

“Interiors of the house feature extensive use of rich teak wood in floors and paneling, ornamental plasterwork and an impressive circular staircase. Closets and storage in the bedrooms were designed behind sliding wood panels in walls. A central steam heating system and colorful tiled bathrooms were just part of the amenities of Almond’s design for the Alexander family.”

To the west of the home are 23 outbuildings that were constructed from 1900-49. They include grain bins, a cotton gin, a cotton warehouse, equipment sheds, a wagon shed and barns. During the heyday of sharcropping from 1900-30, almost 150 families lived on the plantation. Only one of the original tenant houses is still standing. None of the 23 outbuildings are still used, but they have been carefully maintained.

Three years ago, it was reported that Jim Alexander had sold 1,750 acres of the plantation (but not the house or outbuildings) for $5.2 million to investors from Tennessee.

There are other plantation-era homes in the Scott area. The best-known of these is Marslgate, which was designed by Charles L. Thompson and completed in 1904 as the centerpiece of the Dortch Plantation.

Like the Land’s End Plantation, the Dortch Plantation was once the home of more than 100 tenant families. When William Dortch died in 1913, his plantation covered 7,000 acres. There are still at least 25 historic farm structures on that land. These structures date from 1888 to 1930.

Like the Alexander family, the Dortch family migrated from North Carolina. Willis Reeves Dortch first setted in Tennessee in 1838. When he died in 1858, his wife and three children moved to Arkansas. William Dortch was 12 at the time.

William Dortch served in the Confederate Army, attended college at Miami of Ohio after the war and returned to Arkansas after marrying Alice Orr. The couple had one son, Frederick Dortch. Alice died in 1874.

The aforementioned Thomas William Steele, who also had come from North Carolina, was the largest landowner at the time in Pulaski County. Steele’s daughter, Nettie, married William Dortch in January 1885. As a wedding present, Steele gave the couple an 1,800-acre plantation. By 1895, the couple had five sons.

Marlsgate was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and was purchased by David P. Garner Jr. in 1985. Garner, who once taught art and history at McClellan High School and later owned a flower shop, renovated the property so it could be rented out for weddings and other private functions.

The home overlooks Bearskin Lake.

The Marlsgate website describes it this way: “Marlsgate’s fine detail begins with brick Doric columns more than 40 feet in height and continues inside with original beveled glass windows, sliding oak doors, handcrafted woodwork, Carrara marble fireplaces and sculpted metal ceilings throughout the mansion.

“White oak floors were installed over an inch-thick layer of horsehair insulation. The mansion was constructed with 32 rooms and contains 11,000 square feet of living space. The first floor has a magnificent central hall and staircase, drawing room, dining room, music room, master bedroom, plantation office and a separate kitchen and service wing attached to the mansion in the prevailing custom of the day. Second and third floors contain additional bedrooms, sitting rooms and private studies.”

Spring has arrived, and a trip to Scott is a great way to spend a Saturday.

Here are my suggestions:

1. Spend part of your morning just driving around to take in the farms and the plantation homes. The history hangs heavily here.

2. Visit Toltec Mounds State Park, a National Historic Landmark that is one of the largest archeological sites in the lower Mississippi River Valley. Native Americans occupied the site and built some of the largest mounds in the region between the years 650 and 1050 AD. Archaeologists use the name Plum Bayou Culture to refer to their way of life. The site was on the bank of an oxbow lake and served as a religious center for the people who lived in the area. Eighteen mounds were arranged around two rectangular open spaces that were used for ceremonies.

3. Make the short drive from Toltec over to the Plantation Agriculture Museum in Scott for your next stop. It is here you’ll learn about the area’s cotton-growing culture of the 1800s and 1900s. Part of the museum is in a brick building that was constructed by Conoway Scott Jr. in 1912 to house a general store. A post office wing was added in 1929.

Robert Dortch bought the building in the 1960s and established a museum. The museum closed in 1978, six years after Dortch’s death. In 1989, it was reopened as a state park. Next door to the main museum, the Dortch Gin features a 1920s Munger cotton gin and cotton press. Dortch’s seed warehouse is also on the grounds.

4. After a full morning, stop for a late lunch at Cotham’s, which is located in a wooden building that was constructed in 1917 as a mercantile store. In 1984, the store began serving lunch to area farmers. Regulars such as Bill Clinton and David Pryor soon made it a must-stop location for the “Little Rock crowd.”

5. Following lunch, head over to the Scott Plantation Settlement, which has 25 exhibits and is on the old Illallee Plantation. The site was donated by Virginia Alexander, the daughter of Arthur and Otelia George Alexander, who had purchased the land in 1898. Chester Ashley had earlier owned the land.

A group known as Scott Connections Inc. was formed in 1995 and operates the Scott Plantation Settlement.

If it’s not too late in the day and you’re not too tired, you can still slide on down to Keo to shop for antiques.

Post to Twitter

A trip to The Tamale Factory

Monday, March 4th, 2013

It was, in so many ways, a trip back in time.

We exited Interstate 40 at Hazen on that Friday afternoon and headed north on Arkansas Highway 11 to Des Arc.

How many times had I made the trip on this section of highway through the years to visit my grandparents at Des Arc? It would be impossible to count them.

Dad, who died two years ago yesterday, would be at the wheel of the big Oldsmobile. Mom would be in the passenger seat up front. My sister and I would be in the back. Having been raised in the pine woods of south Arkansas, I was intrigued by the huge fields and the views that seemed to stretch for miles to the horizon.

Then, as now, the Delta and Grand Prairie were places apart.

We knew what awaited us in Des Arc — great cooking by my grandmother, Bess Rex Caskey, in the old family home on Erwin Street; a visit to the chicken yard to gather eggs each morning with my grandfather, W.J. Caskey; a walk across the street to check his post office box, a stop in the Farmers and Merchants Bank and then a stroll down Main Street, where the Caskey Funeral Home and the Caskey Hardware Store had once been located.

If it were summer, we might go down to Haley’s Fish Market to buy catfish that had been hauled that morning out of the White River, frying them for supper that evening. My grandfather would ask if they had any “fiddlers,” small catfish that he liked to fry whole.

If it were winter, Dad might take me along for a duck hunt.

I was in the company of three of Arkansas’ most noted storytellers on that recent Friday afternoon. Don Tilton, Paul Berry and Mary Berry had graciously invited me to tag along for dinner at The Tamale Family, the restaurant that Mary’s cousin George Eldridge has operated since November in a barn on the family farm at Gregory in Woodruff County.

As we headed up Highway 11 between Hazen and Des Arc, we passed the familiar landmarks — the Wattensaw Bayou, where we would sometimes hunt ducks; the Darrell Saul Farm, where I had attended political fundraising events in my earlier life as a politico; the headquarters for the Wattensaw Wildlife Management Area, which had once been a club called Riverwood where we would go to swim; the cemetery where we buried my grandfather on a hot summer day and my grandmother on a cold winter day; the Presbyterian Church, which is being turned into a library; the offices of the White River Journal, one of this state’s best weekly newspapers, which has been in the Walls family for decades; the building my grandfather built to house his hardware store, a structure that still stands and still is home to a hardware store.

My grandfather sold his businesses to Willis Eddins who, in turn, sold them to Billy Garth. They remain in the Garth family.

Just across the street from that building is the Prairie County Courthouse, where my grandfather served terms as county assessor, county clerk and county judge. Though the man I called Pam-Pa had last held elective office in 1941, I loved it when people would still refer to him as Judge Caskey. It made me feel like he was important.

With Don — who’s known by his friends as Tilco — at the wheel, we crossed the White River bridge, looking to our right at that always magnificent view of the courthouse and downtown Des Arc. The current bridge is far safer than its predecessor, but it doesn’t have the character of what was known by locals as the Swinging Bridge. The massive suspension bridge, which was in operation from 1928-70, indeed would sway when trucks crossed it.

Whenever horses crossed the bridge, owners had to put covers over their heads and lead them. They refused to cross otherwise.

Here are a few of the comments posted about the Swinging Bridge on a website about bridges:

– “I lived east of the river and grew up crossing the bridge every day. We called it rattletrap bridge because of the sounds the boards made as the car went across. … It was terrifying to cross on those few boards on a school bus. When I started driving, I drove to school across the bridge every day. One day it was raining, and I lost control on the way up to the center of the bridge. My car fishtailed and hit the rails on the side three times before coming to rest. I remember the feeling of knowing I wasn’t going to make it. I’m now almost 60 years old, and I still dream about it and wake up shivering.”

– “I had such a love-hate relationship with the wonderful Swinging Bridge. One time, my dad had to back down past the huge curve in the bridge to let another car pass. I was so scared I got in the floorboard. As I grew older, my friends and I would walk the bridge on Sunday afternoons. Boards were always missing, and I never got close to the sides.”

– “I grew up in this area and walked and rode across this bridge countless times. It never occurred to me to be scared. It was just the bridge we had to cross to get to Des Arc. I remember riding in trailers filled with cotton, being pulled by a tractor and feeling the swing of the bridge. I’m not sure I would do that today if I could.”

– “I rode in a school bus for 11 years across the bridge every day. Sometimes we had to wait for someone to back down to one of the wide sections, and then sometimes we had to back up in the school bus ourselves. I don’t remember being afraid, but after I married, my husband was terrified to cross it.”

East of the river, there are large fields and pecan orchards. As we head east on Arkansas Highway 38, we pass the road that my dad and I would turn down to fish on Spring Lake and Horn Lake, both White River oxbows.

On the Prairie County-Woodruff County line, we reach the community of Little Dixie and turn left onto Arkansas Highway 33, passing through Dixie on our way to Gregory (yes, there’s both a Dixie and a Little Dixie).

The Eldridge family home, built in 1910, has been beautifully restored.

Also cleaned up and restored is the Eldridge family cemetery, the final resting place of family patriarch Rolfe Eldridge, who was born in November 1807 and died in April 1859. Mary Eldridge Berry gave me a tour of the cemetery just as the sun was setting. Paul went inside the restaurant (the barn is between the family home and the cemetery) to secure a table from George.

Anyone who knows George, the owner of the Little Rock outpost of Doe’s Eat Place, understands that he has the golden touch when it comes to restaurants. It was George who first talked Charles and “Little Doe” Signa in Greenville, Miss., into letting him use the Doe’s name and menu in a location other than the original on Nelson Street in Greenville.

Doe’s Eat Place locations now can been found throughout the region, but George was the first to take the concept out of Greenville. Due to a politician named Bill Clinton, the Little Rock location soon became more famous than the Greenville original. That’s because presidential campaign staffers such as James Carville and George Stephanopoulos would hang out there on a nightly basis.

The national political media followed and began writing about the place. The back room at Doe’s was where P.J. O’Rourke, Hunter S. Thompson and William Greider conducted the interview of Clinton for a September 1992 edition of Rolling Stone.

Was it O’Rourke or Thompson who tried to eat a tamale with the shuck still on?

In November 1992, People published a story on George and his chief cook, Lucille Robinson. The following January, George escorted Robinson to one of the inaugural balls in Washington. An Annie Leibovitz portrait of the pair is among the photos that hang on the walls of the Little Rock restaurant.

If you like the food at Doe’s, you’ll like the food at The Tamale Factory. The menus are similar.

One thing about Delta residents is that they don’t mind driving a long distance for a good meal on a Friday or Saturday. Since it opened in November, The Tamale Factory has been pulling them in from as far away as Little Rock, Memphis and Jonesboro. Reservations are recommended.

On the other side of the barn that houses the restaurant, George keeps his quarter horses in a well-appointed stable. He introduced us to the horses and his three cats (cats are a tradition in horse barns). He also opened a pen that was filled with goats.

There’s also a show ring where George occasionally rolls the dirt, puts down a wooden dance floor and brings in a band from Memphis. Oh how I would love to be back in Gregory on one of those nights.

Roots run deep in this part of Arkansas. Like other east Arkansas counties, Prairie and Woodruff counties have bled population for decades.

Prairie County has only half the population it had in 1920, falling from 17,447 that year to 8,715 in the 2010 census.

Woodruff County has just a third of the population it had in 1920, dropping from 21,527 that year to 7,260 in 2010. Those who remain, though, are a proud people with a strong sense of history and place. They are also people who know how to have a good time, as we saw on this night at The Tamale Factory.

Prairie County has two county seats — Des Arc and DeValls Bluff — and a rich history.

“European exploration of the area began as early as the late 17th century,” Marilyn Hambrick Sickel writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “While the area became occupied by both the Spanish and French, the county remained vital to trade expeditions. … French traders traveled up and down the White River in the early 1700s. Bear oil and skins, abundant in this area at the time, were sought-after commodities in the New Orleans markets. The rivers were the highways of this early era. Early maps identify the White River as Eau Blanche and Riv Blanche. Des Arc was the earliest settlement. Creoles named Watts and East are credited as being Des Arc’s first residents, arriving around 1810.”

Sickel writes that Des Arc was “a flourishing river town prior to the Civil War. Timber for homes was plentiful. Fish and game were abundant, and the population grew rapidly. Selling wood to power the steamboats and rafting timber along the river were viable occupations. The Butterfield Overland Mail route in the late 1850s was key in the development of Des Arc. The city, depending on how wet the roads were or how low the river was, had the fortune of being on the direct route from Memphis to Fort Smith.”

Because it was so swampy, Woodruff County wasn’t settled as early as Prairie County.

Woodruff County was established during the Civil War in November 1862. When Arkansas was no longer part of the Confederacy, it was approved again as a county in 1865. It was named after William Woodruff, the founder of the Arkansas Gazette at Arkansas Post in 1819 (the newspaper moved to Little Rock along with the territorial capital in 1821).

“In the years after the Civil War, Woodruff County prospered with wood and agriculture industries,” Paula Harmon Barnett writes in the online encyclopedia. “Sawmills and woodworking factories thrived, making use of the many acres of timber in the county. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, railroads began to move into the county, and towns sprang up around them, increasing the county’s population each year and greatly improving the economy. Cotton, corn, oats and hay thrved in the fertile, well-watered soil, and the two rivers in the county by which to ship products (the White and Cache) added to the area’s prosperity.”

The county’s population grew each decade from the 1870 census to the 1930 census. It has fallen each decade since then.

There’s a haunting beauty to the Delta and the Grand Prairie in late winter and early spring. History hangs heavily here. Come early to Gregory, taking time to walk through the Eldridge family cemetery and maybe even going to the historic area of Augusta Memorial Park, where there also are Eldridges buried.

Yes, come early and stay late, letting your tamales and steak digest while convincing George to tell stories about the politicians, musicians and other colorful characters he has known.

Spring is beginning in Arkansas, and with it the desire for Friday and Saturday road trips. The drive to Gregory is a trip back in time with good food awaiting at your final destination.

Post to Twitter