Archive for the ‘Traveling Arkansas’ Category

Southern Fried: The book

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016

In September 1965, I turned age 6.

Rather than being one of the youngest people in my class at school, I would be one of the oldest. That’s because I would wait a year to start the first grade. It was my father’s decision. He was a former coach and loved to tell people: “We decided to redshirt him in kindergarten.”

Instead of attending kindergarten a second consecutive year, though, I traveled the state of Arkansas with my father as he sold athletic supplies to high schools and colleges. It was a magical nine months. Looking back, I realize now that he was doing it as much for himself as he was for me.

On Feb. 29, 1964, my 9-year-old brother was killed in an accident at Pine Bluff while my parents were there to take him to a Ouachita Baptist University basketball game. Less than two years after that tragedy, I imagine my father figured it would be good therapy to have his surviving son with him on the road. Dad was 41 at the time, 16 years younger than I am as I write these words.

The memories of that year remain vivid.

I remember waiting in line at a small café at Delight to buy a hamburger, stopping at Caddo Gap to wade in the Caddo River, watching a deer run across the school campus at Magazine and eating a whole trout for the first time at Tommy’s in Conway.

While the weather was still warm that September, I was allowed to jump into motel swimming pools before supper.

I was in heaven.

We sat in high school gymnasiums built by the WPA and watched basketball games together.

We ate pieces of pie in country restaurants.

We listened to KAAY-AM on the car radio.

It was during that 1965-66 school year that I learned to love Arkansas.

As we celebrate another Thanksgiving, I realize how fortunate I was to have had Robert and Carolyn Nelson for parents (they’re both gone now) and to have grown up in Arkansas.

I also realize how fortunate I am to be able to share stories of Arkansas.

I’ve had the privilege of writing millions of words through the years about this state. I left a full-time career in journalism in July 1996 to work in the governor’s office. What I thought would be a short detour into public service turned out to be a 13-year adventure in the state and federal governments. When I returned to the private sector in 2009, I contacted my former employers at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to see if they might be interested in allowing me to write a weekly column. Since I had spent nine years in the governor’s office and four years in a presidential administration, I’m sure they expected me to write about politics most weeks.

I came to the conclusion that there already was so much political writing on the Voices page of the newspaper that I simply would be another voice with nothing to distinguish me from the other columnists. That’s why I decided to make Arkansas — its places, colorful characters, fascinating history, food, music and events — my niche.

I’m also thankful this Thanksgiving that Butler Center Books, a division of the Central Arkansas Library System, decided to publish a collection of my newspaper columns. The book is titled “Southern Fried: Going Whole Hog in a State of Wonder.”

I hope you’ll consider purchasing a copy as a Christmas gift for someone who loves Arkansas as much as I do.

I’ve learned that Arkansas is a difficult place to explain to outsiders. We’re mostly Southern but also a bit Midwestern and a tad Southwestern. The Ozarks are different from the pine woods of the Gulf Coastal Plain, the Delta is different from the Ouachitas.

Invariably, those who take the time to get off the main road and get to know the real Arkansas are enchanted by the place.

Large parts of the Delta of east Arkansas and the pine woods of south Arkansas are emptying out. The population shift from east and south to north and west has been occurring in Arkansas since at least the 1950 census when widespread mechanization of agriculture meant that tens of thousands of tenant farmers and sharecroppers no longer were needed in rural areas. That trend has accelerated in the past decade, though. And there’s no end in sight.

I don’t consider it my job to say whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. People are going to do what’s best for their families. They’ll go where the jobs are.

What cannot be denied is that Arkansas is a far different place now than it was a decade ago and will be an even more different place a decade from now. Part of what I’ve tried to do through the years is capture the essence of the restaurants, swimming holes, hunting grounds, local festivals and sports events that were such an important part of the Arkansas in which I was raised. Many of them are gone or soon will be.

Those who know me realize that I’m fiercely proud to be from Arkansas. When the Arkansas Democrat sent me to Washington, D.C., in 1986, I knew it would be a temporary stay. It was a wonderful opportunity for a young man in his 20s, but I had no desire to spend the rest of my career in the nation’s capital. By the end of the decade, I was home. I brought along a new bride who had been raised in south Texas. She soon fell in love with this place they once called the Wonder State.

Our two sons — to whom I dedicated the book — were born here, raised here and chose to attend college here.

I know this sounds provincial, but here goes: Arkansas is such a unique, quirky place that I believe it takes someone who grew up here and traveled its rural highways as a child to really explain to new residents what makes us tick. We welcome those who move to Arkansas from elsewhere and hope they soon will come to love the place as much as the natives do. Please understand that we don’t brag like Texans or brand ourselves as different from the rest of the world like Mississippians. We know what we’ve got going here. And despite our many problems, it remains a fine place to call home.

Thanks for going on a statewide journey with me on this blog and in my newspaper column. Maybe we can stop to wade in the Caddo River or eat a piece of pie along the way.

I would be most honored if you would consider purchasing this book.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

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Battle of the Ravine: The 90th edition

Monday, November 7th, 2016

We became spoiled in recent years.

During the first five years of the Great American Conference, the GAC football championship resided in Arkadelphia.

It was won three times by the Reddies of Henderson State University.

It was won two times by the Tigers of Ouachita Baptist University.

That means that a conference title was either on the line or already secured for at least one of the Arkadelphia teams each year from 2011 through 2015 going into the Battle of the Ravine.

The past five years have seen record crowds and unprecedented media coverage for the most unusual college football rivalry in America.

This year, the GAC title is headed to Searcy. Harding University is 10-0 and is playing Arkansas Tech on Saturday in an attempt to ensure it hosts its first game in the NCAA Division II playoffs.

Henderson is 8-2 and still has an outside shot at a playoff slot. Most likely, though, the Reddies will head to a Division II bowl game with a victory Saturday.

Ouachita has been decimated by injuries this fall — the Tigers have lost their quarterback, best running back, best receiver, best kick returner and more — and enters the game with a 6-4 record. So this IS the bowl game for Ouachita.

Still, these are two good football teams.

Henderson has the best record among all college football programs in the state since 2010 at 62-16.

Ouachita, meanwhile, has secured its ninth consecutive winning season, the most of any college football program in Arkansas.

You have to understand that having a conference title on the line really isn’t essential to this rivalry. It’s always the biggest game of the year for both teams. Always.

It’s one of the most intense rivalries in college football, regardless of the division. The neighboring schools have played 89 times. Henderson has won 43 times, Ouachita has won 40 times and there have been six ties.

The Battle of the Ravine might not receive the recognition of an Auburn-Alabama, Texas-Oklahoma or Michigan-Ohio State series. But those who have played in these games, coached in them, covered them as journalists or simply watched from the stands understand.

There are few things in American sports that can be compared to a rivalry between four-year schools — both with quality football programs — whose stadiums are within walking distance of each other. It’s the only college football game in America in which the visiting team doesn’t fly or bus to a game. It walks.

In Arkadelphia, the town in which I was raised, it’s a battle that divides families. It’s Christmas, New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day all rolled into one. The local chamber of commerce once promoted it as the Biggest Little Football Game in America, a moniker originally used by two New England schools, Amherst and Williams. Those two schools began playing in 1884. Ouachita and Henderson began playing in 1895.

The game has had an off-and-on quality through the years.

After that first contest on Thanksgiving Day in 1895 (Ouachita defeated what was then Arkadelphia Methodist College by a score of 8-0), the two schools did not play again until 1907. Henderson won that game.

In 1914, perhaps the best Ouachita team ever defeated both the University of Arkansas and Ole Miss but was forced to settle for a scoreless tie in the Battle of the Ravine.

The game usually was played on Thanksgiving. The series was suspended from 1941-44 due to World War II.

Following the 1951 contest, the presidents of the two schools decided that the pranks and vandalism the week prior to the game had gotten out of hand. So they called an end to the series, and it didn’t resume until 1963. After three more Thanksgiving games, the contests were moved to the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

Another bump in the road came after the 1992 season when Henderson decided to leave the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference for the Gulf South Conference, which is based in Birmingham, Ala. There was no Battle of the Ravine from 1993-95. The AIC disintegrated, Ouachita played a year as an independent and then joined the Lone Star Conference. The Battle of the Ravine resumed in 1996 as a nonconference game and was played as the first game of the season through 2001.

Ouachita and Harding eventually were allowed to join the other former AIC schools in the Gulf South Conference. But the folks in Birmingham never really understood this rivalry. Even though it was a conference game again, it wasn’t played as the final game of the season. For some reason, the GSC had Ouachita finishing against Harding and Henderson finishing against Southern Arkansas as “rivalry games.” Even worse, Ouachita “rotated off” Henderson’s schedule for two years and there was no Battle of the Ravine in 2004 or 2005.

Thank goodness for the GAC, an Arkansas-based conference that includes six schools from Arkansas and six schools from Oklahoma. The game is always played, and it’s always the final Saturday of the regular season, just as it should be.

The pranks leading up to the game are just as much a part of the rivalry as the game itself.

Ouachita students (including my youngest son; he’s a Ouachita sophomore) guard the Tiger statue in the middle of campus to keep it from being painted red.

Henderson turns off its fountain at the entrance to the school to keep it from being filled with purple suds.

The most famous prank occurred in the late 1940s when Ouachita’s homecoming queen, Ann Strickland, was taken by Henderson cheerleaders the week before the game to a house on Lake Hamilton at Hot Springs. She later would become Ann Vining, the wife of legendary Ouachita basketball coach Bill Vining. At the time of the friendly kidnapping, Bill Vining was a Ouachita athlete. He led search parties through the Caddo Hotel in downtown Arkadelphia, looking for his girlfriend. She was released after two days when it was learned that Ouachita officials had reported the incident to police as an actual kidnapping.

Diesel fuel has been used through the years to burn OBU into the Henderson turf and HSU into the Ouachita turf.

One year, male Henderson students who were dressed in drag convinced a Ouachita librarian that they were there to take a Tiger statue in the library away for its annual cleaning.

In the 1970s, the Henderson bonfire was ignited early by Ouachita students. One of the Ouachita students reportedly involved in the prank was a religion major from Hope named Mike Huckabee.

In 1999, the incident that became known as Trashcam occurred. A Henderson graduate assistant took a video camera into Arkadelphia’s Central Park, which overlooks the Ouachita practice field. As he was taping practice, the graduate assistant was spotted by a member of the Ouachita football team. The graduate assistant sped away but left the camera in a nearby trash can. When the camera was found with a Henderson identification tag on it, Ouachita athletic director David Sharp returned the camera to Henderson. It was the proper thing to do. The rivalry might be intense, but these folks have to live with each other 52 weeks a year. They sit in the same pews at church and find themselves next to each other in the waiting room at the dentist’s office.

In 1949, Ike Sharp (the father of David Sharp) performed one of the most talked-about feats in Battle of the Ravine lore. Henderson led 14-0 with seven minutes remaining in the game. Ouachita scored to make it 14-7, and then Ike Sharp successfully executed an onside kick. Ouachita then scored to tie the game. Sharp executed a second onside kick. Otis Turner, known by Ouachita fans as the Magic Toe, kicked a field goal to give Ouachita a 17-14 lead. Sharp then executed a third onside kick, allowing Ouachita to run out the clock.

The most memorable college football game of my childhood occurred in 1975 when both teams were ranked in the top five of the NAIA. Henderson was 9-0, and Ouachita was 8-1. On a bitterly cold day at Haygood Stadium on the Henderson side of the ravine, Ouachita converted a fourth-and-25 with time running out as Bill Vining Jr. completed a pass to Gary Reese that forced a measurement. Ouachita retained possession by the nose of the football and scored moments later to win 21-20. The two teams shared the AIC title. Ouachita advanced to the NAIA playoffs, and Henderson had to settle for a slot in the first (and last) Bicentennial Bowl at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium.

The lights will be on in both stadiums each night this week to discourage pranks.

The signs on both campuses have been covered to keep off the paint.

As for me, I’ll look at the clock and count the hours until Saturday’s 1 p.m. kickoff at Carpenter-Haygood Stadium. The rivalry is an important part of who I am.

In my family, the day Ouachita played Henderson in football was as big as Christmas. We lived in the Ouachita Hills neighborhood, and we could walk to both stadiums from our house.

When they started playing again in 1963, I was 4 years old. You can bet I was there. So it has been 53 years since my first Battle of the Ravine.

Even though I’m in my 34th season of doing the play-by-play on radio of Ouachita games, I can assure you that there will be butterflies in my stomach when we sign on the broadcast at noon Saturday. I hope that never changes — that sense of anticipation, that realization of just how much this series has been a part of the life of my family (my father played quarterback for Ouachita in the 1947 Battle of the Ravine and my mother had been proclaimed the Ouachitonian beauty).

I lived in Washington, D.C., during the late 1980s, where I covered Congress for the Arkansas Democrat. I missed the 1985, 1986 and 1987 games. I flew back to Arkansas for the 1988 game, which was called off with the score tied at the half because the field was flooding.

I broadcast my first Battle of the Ravine in 1978 and did the games through 1984. I’ve broadcast all of the games since 1990.

One of my goals is to get ESPN to do its “College GameDay” show from Arkadelphia on the day of a Battle of the Ravine.

After all, ESPN took the show to Williamstown, Mass., on Nov. 10, 2007, for the Amherst-Williams game. That’s an NCAA Division III contest.

ESPN has never done the show from the site of a Division II game.

Can you imagine a national audience getting to watch as the visiting team walks to a road game?

At about 11:30 a.m. this Saturday, state troopers will stop traffic on U.S. Highway 67 and the members of the Ouachita football team will walk across, making the trek from their own dressing room to a visiting stadium.

At about 4 p.m. Saturday, the troopers will stop the traffic again, and the Tigers will walk back home.

There’s nothing else in America quite like it.

I’m counting the days, the hours, the minutes.

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Buttons and pearls

Friday, August 26th, 2016

I’ve always found Ed Bethune — Marine, prosecutor, a Republican before it was cool in Arkansas, congressman, lawyer, lobbyist, Baltimore Oriole baseball fan — to be an interesting figure.

He’s also a talented writer as evidenced by his first two books.

His memoir “Jackhammered: A Life of Adventure” came out in 2011. The book revolved around a trip Bethune and his wife, Lana, took in 1990 aboard a 31-foot sloop named Salute. The goal was to sail from Norfolk, Va., to Portugal.

In an incident that received widespread media attention, the couple had to be rescued by U.S. Coast Guard helicopters after withstanding rough seas for 36 hours prior to being spotted.

Here’s an example of Bethune’s writing from that first book: “It was going to be a long night, seven more hours to sunrise. Our little ship tossed about, left to right and up and down. She turned first one way and then another. Every five minutes or so an enormous wave would lift us skyward, and when we reached the top, perched on the crest of the wave, our boat would fall sideways off the crest of the wave and crash, and shudder, against the trough of the wave. The fall of 25 feet felt like a thousand.”

The couple eventually was rescued by a helicopter crew.

“As we flew away, I saw Salute with the life raft attached,” Bethune writes. “She was still rolling violently with her mainsail collapsed over the side, hanging into the water. I felt sad that we were leaving her, but it was the right decision. We lost everything that was on the boat. Lana had tied a waterproof pouch around her waist that held our cash, our credit cards and our driver’s licenses. That, and the clothes on our back, were all we salvaged.

“Salute was now just another speck of white in a sea of large whitecaps; she blended in and soon was lost to sight. It was easy to see why it is so hard for search pilots to find a small sailing vessel in a stormy sea, even when they have exact coordinates fixing the position. Our dream of sailing across the Atlantic was also gone, but we took it in stride; after all, we were safe. We would live to see our children and loved ones again.”

Soon after finishing “Jackhammered,” Bethune began outlining his first novel.

The 2014 novel is titled “Gay Panic in the Ozarks” and begins with the lynching of a young gay man, whose body is left hanging from a tree. A murder investigation goes nowhere. The book’s protagonist is wracked by guilt that he didn’t do more. Thirty-eight years later, he gets a second chance to confront what Bethune refers to as man’s greatest vice, “the refusal to see wrong and do something about it.”

Bethune’s third book, which has just been released, is titled “A Pearl for Kizzy.” It’s the story of a child who lives with her family on a houseboat in east Arkansas. The family — like many of the so-called river rats who once inhabited houseboats on the lower Black, White and Cache rivers — survived through commercial fishing and gathering mussels. Family members would look for freshwater pearls in the mussels and then sell the shells to button factories.

In the book, Kizzy becomes friends at the start of World War II with a boy who’s a refugee from Nazi Germany. The book tackles various prejudices, sexual abuse and even the subject of eugenics.

“I owe so much to Pocahontas,” Bethune says. “I probably would have wound up in prison if not for the people there.”

Bethune’s parents divorced when he was 8. He’s quick to admit that he often found himself in trouble during his formative years in Little Rock. He was sent to his mother’s hometown of Pocahontas and graduated from Pocahontas High School in 1953. Bethune joined the U.S. Marine Corps, served three years and then met his wife Lana when both were students at what was then Little Rock Junior College.

Perhaps owing to the fact that my mother was from Des Arc, I’ve always been intrigued by the houseboat culture of east Arkansas.

“Button finishing plants in Iowa and New York were supplied by tons of button blanks that came from small factories lining the northeastern Arkansas rivers, which teemed with the freshwater mollusks that naturally grew mother-of-pearl-lined shells,” Lenore Shoults writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Supplying the button blank factories with raw material offered farm families extra income because shell harvesting fit around the ebb and flow of agriculture. Some families worked together, the men hauling the mussels from the river with the women and children steaming them open, discarding the animal flesh back into the river for fish food, drying and sorting the shells, and keeping an eye out for pearls.

“Some button blank operations consisted of a single man, while other factories employed as many as 60 workers. Factories, which had to be close to a railroad for shipping outbound cargo, had button-cutting machines with variously sized tubular saws that generated small to large button blanks. Coal or propane, and eventually electricity, powered the machinery. The shells were softened by soaking in water prior to drilling, and this necessitated water towers in some locations. A few factories had grinding capability, pulverizing spent shells into agricultural lime or meal.”

There were button factories along the White River at Batesville, Newport, Grand Glaise in Jackson County, Des Arc, DeValls Bluff and Clarendon.

There were factories along the Black River at Corning, Pocahontas and Black Rock.

“Batesville saw two waves of button blank factories,” Shoults writes. “The first, at the turn of the 20th century, was located in Poke Bayou near the present-day jail. The second, a 1940s location, was situated near the Missouri Pacific depot with two factories, one with 10 to 12 machines and the other a solo operation. Newport was a major hub in the button industry due to its proximity to the river and railroad. A factory was listed in Chastain’s Addition as early as 1902.”

Pocahontas had a factory by the early 1920s. A new factory opened in 1941 soon before the start of American involvement in World War II.

“The initial demand for buttons in the first two decades of the 20th century suffered setbacks in the Great Depression as new clothing purchases diminished,” Shoults writes. “During World War II, government restrictions on zippers and other metal garment closures (to save metal for the war effort) reinvigorated the button industry, and demand rose for Arkansas shells. After the war, the factories closed, although some solo operations lingered. Today, little remains of the industry but the occasionally telltale sign spotted on the ground — shells laced with perfectly round holes — and millions of mother-of-pearl buttons saved in button jars across the country, cut from blouses and shirts from a time when nothing was wasted.”

Later, mussels from Arkansas provided the raw material for cultured pearl farming.

“The 1960s until the 1980s were the heyday for shell harvesting for the cultured pearl industry,” Shoults writes. “Most of the shell was shipped to Japan, where Kokichi Mikimoto had perfected a cultured pearl process in the early 1900s. In this process, a bead was inserted into a marine oyster and the creature layered its natural nacre around the orb, thus creating a pearl. As is the case with human organ transplants, pearl oysters could potentially reject an inserted nucleus, and Mississippi River Valley shell proved to be the least likely to be expelled.”

Shoults notes that Arkansans used “the same ingenuity that kept old cars and tractors running on the farm to engineer equipment. Old Model-T car engines were turned into compressors. Garden hoses served as air conduits, and dive helmets were designed from things as disparate as fire extinguishers, hot water tanks or, in one instance, an old torpedo casing. The glass faceplate was useless in the underwater darkness but offered a degree of illumination once the diver returned to the surface. … When the cultured pearl process no longer required a shell nucleus, international demand for Arkansas shell dried up, leaving limited uses for the shell.”

The Black River, which Bethune loves to write about, once had a huge population of mussels. Dr. J.H. Myers found a large pearl two miles north of Black Rock in 1897.

“This led to a pearl rush, and tent camps sprouted along the river,” Jerry Cavaneau writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The shells provided mother of pearl, and Myers, with others, established a button factory at Black Rock three years later. According to Myers, this was the first button factory in the South. Area museums, such as the Randolph County Heritage Museum, have button-making tools and shells from which the buttons were cut.”

The Randolph County Heritage Museum is one of the best local museums in the state. The River Room there is dedicated to the five rivers that flow through Randolph County and their effect on the county. There’s a collection of Black River pearls, a mounted alligator gar caught in the Black River in the early 1950s and walls lined with old photographs of bridges, barges and steamboats.

Of the pearl rush, Shoults writes: “Shanties and tents sprang up along the river, largely the White and Black in the initial rush from 1897 until about 1903 as people destroyed thousands of mussels attempting to find a single perfect pearl. Some stories hold that because everyone was down at the rivers looking for pearls, crops went unharvested and shopkeepers could not find people to work in stores. Buyers traveled by train from New York and San Francisco. Local buyers included John L. Evans, who bought and sold pearls in Batesville. Evans was also known to be skilled in peeling pearls, a process whereby an unattractive outer layer was peeled back to reveal a more lustrous gem within.

“Discoveries could be accidental, as happened when a fisherman in need of bait opened a mussel and happened upon a gem, while others were well-planned expeditions. One account tells of four men who ordered pearling rakes from a blacksmith and set up camp. They had lumber delivered to their camp, built a boat and drilled a freshwater well — and their expedition eventually yielded a gigantic pearl. Families went on summer pearling vacations hoping to find treasure but enjoying the festive atmosphere regardless of whether or not a gem was discovered. The rush had dwindled by 1905, but pearls were still found occasionally.”

Back to Ed Bethune.

Bethune says becoming a novelist was “a case of necessity” since he found himself bored after his memoir came out.

“I needed something else to do,” he says. “The novels have given me a chance to write about my youth, the prejudices I’ve seen, the things I’ve learned. Even after the first novel came out, I discovered that I still wanted to write. When I was a boy in Pocahontas, I was fascinated by the river rats. I often wondered what it might be like to grow up on one of those houseboats out on the Black River.”

That fascination helped lead to this most recent book.

As Bethune wrote his first two books, he wouldn’t let anyone see the manuscripts until they were finished. This time, he allowed Lana to read and offer suggestions each time he finished a chapter.

He explains: “I was writing about a girl going through puberty. Obviously I never had that experience, so I needed Lana to see if the things I wrote rang true. The two things you’ll find in each of my books are a Marine and a mule. The mule appears early in this one.”

Bethune says he’s already at work on an outline for a third novel. At age 80, he shows no signs of slowing down.

 

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Into the Ozarks

Wednesday, August 24th, 2016

Leaving the annual Johnson County Peach Festival, we headed up Arkansas Highway 103 toward Oark.

That road, which winds from the Arkansas River Valley into the Ozarks, can be an adventure. It contains some of the state’s most daunting switchback curves. I can’t imagine trying to drive it when it’s starting to snow or sleet in the winter.

Looking at the covered hillsides along this route, it’s hard to visualize a landscape here that once was denuded by timber companies that would cut the trees and move on, not bothering to replant.

“Throughout the Arkansas River Valley, Johnson County has the largest amount of timber,” Jennifer Koenig Johnson writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “However, the timber industry provided only a temporary respite of prosperity, eventually declining in the 1930s and leaving many people to seek better opportunities elsewhere. In some cases, towns disappeared because they functioned based on the prosperity and success of the lumber industry. Starting in the 1930s, the U.S. Forest Service began buying up land that had been cleared and repopulating it in hopes of returning what was lumbered away.”

Johnson County’s population declined from 21,062 residents in the 1920 census to just 12,421 people by 1960.

Thousands of trees were planted during the Great Depression by the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps who were stationed at Camp Ozone, which was established in 1933. About 200 men lived at the camp.

On Dec. 18, 1907, President Teddy Roosevelt had signed a proclamation creating the Arkansas National Forest (now the Ouachita National Forest) on land south of the Arkansas River.

On March 6, 1908, he signed a proclamation creating the Ozark National Forest north of the Arkansas River, including large parts of Johnson County.

“The Ozark National Forest was the only major hardwood timberland under governmental protection at that time, and the forest would assist the furniture industry in northwest Arkansas as a renewable source of valuable hardwood,” Mary Wood writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The first forest headquarters was in Fort Smith. Samuel J. Record was the first forest supervisor, administering both the Arkansas (Ouachita) and Ozark national forests. Late in 1908, the Ozark National Forest received its own supervisor, David Fitton, who moved the headquarters to Harrison. In 1918, the headquarters moved to Russellville.

“Presidential proclamations increasing and decreasing the area of the Ozark National Forest occurred frequently during the early years. Three of the more significant changes were the executive order of President Franklin Roosevelt transferring the Magazine Ranger District from the Ouachita National Forest to the Ozark; the addition of the Henry R. Koen Experimental Forest on June 14, 1950; and the proclamation of President Dwight Eisenhower on Nov. 8, 1960, creating the St. Francis National Forest.”

We continued north on Highway 103 to where the Mulberry River flows. This tributary of the Arkansas River is one of our state’s most beautiful mountain streams.

“It flows generally southwest from its source and empties into the Arkansas River south of the city of Mulberry in Crawford County for a total length of approximately 70 miles,” Guy Lancaster writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Reportedly named for the number of mulberry trees growing in its vicinity, it is today well known among canoeists. The area around the Mulbery River has been the site of human habitation as far back as about 10,000 B.C. In historic times, the Osage Indians claimed much of this part of Arkansas, including the area drained by the Mulberry River, as their hunting grounds.

“The Cherokee settled in the area after leaving northeastern Arkansas and were formally given land in much of northwestern Arkansas in 1817, though they were later pressured to cede these lands in 1828. Permanent white settlement in the Mulberry River Valley began soon thereafter, mostly along the lower reaches of the river, near where it empties into the Arkansas River. The largest of these settlements was the community of Mulberry, which got its start after the completion of the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad in 1876.”

Canoeists and kayakers are drawn to the Mulberry when the water is right like bugs to a lamp. Margaret and Harold Hedges once wrote in a magazine story: “It offers an infinite variety of faster water, slow water, roaring rapids, rock gardens, choppy chutes, twisty channels — all sandwiched between pools of deep milky water that is serene and beautiful.”

Paul Austin, his son Josh and I even crossed the footbridge across the upper Mulberry between Oark and Catalpa. A group of children who had been swimming there were headed back to the highway on the hot summer day. It was an idyllic scene, like something out of a movie.

At that point, we were in the middle of seeing if we could finish the huge burgers at both the Oark General Store and the Catalpa Café & General Store.

Josh and I succeeded. Paul was the wimp in the group, unable to finish the second burger.

Oark is the best known of the two establishments. But the food is just as good — maybe even better — at Catalpa. Highway 103 ends at Oark, but the pavement continues near the banks of Mulberry on what’s now a Johnson County road to Catalpa. You’ll see signs so you’ll know when to turn down a short gravel road to the Catalpa Café.

The breakfast menu there features everything from homemade biscuits to pancakes to a breakfast burrito. Eggs benedict is served on Sundays. Coffee is free with any order.

The burgers for lunch and dinner all contain a half of pound of beef. The Catalpa Burger has barbecue sauce, sautéed onions and pepper jack cheese. Dad’s Burger has fried jalapenos, pepper jack cheese and Sriracha sauce. The Bubblehead comes with bacon, pepper jack cheese and jalapenos. The Juicy Lucy, which I had, is a cheese-stuffed burger with sautéed mushrooms and onions.

There’s also pulled pork, smoked brisket, turkey and several daily specials. There are always several kinds of homemade pies, and they’ll sell you whole pies if you order them in advance.

The Oark General Store, which is popular with bikers, opened in 1890. Its menu also has a selection of half-pound burgers (such as the Angry Hornet with grilled jalapenos, bell pepper, pepper jack cheese and chipotle mayonnaise).

Here’s how Michael Tilley described the place in a 2013 story for The City Wire: “Reagan and Brian Eisele are not who you would expect to find mixing up a special hushpuppy recipe or applying an egg wash to the top of a homemade pie. The couple, who married in April 2012, bought the historic Oark General Store on May 18, 2012. With little to no restaurant experience, they dug their entrepreneurial hooks into an unforgiving, low-margin business. The store first opened in 1890 to provide supplies for those intrepid souls who chose to scrap out a living in Oark, a town connected to the world then by a few rugged and often impassable logging trails. The building purchased by the Eiseles includes some of the original furnishings from that 1890 building. Today the store is a restaurant but does sell fuel and several food items.”

Tilley went on to tell how the couple met: “Reagan was a staffer for then-U.S. Rep. John Boozman, and Brian was a staffer with U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina. They were part of a tour to learn about the emerging energy industry in Azerbaijan. Although the energy reserves were abundant, the fledgling country had little in the way of modern pipeline and storage infrastructure when it became an independent country. The first major pipeline — the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan — opened in July 2006. Brian and Reagan and other congressional staffers ventured into the important geopolitical crossroads — the country is located between Russia and Iran — during February 2010. The tour period included Valentine’s Day. … The love blossomed, and Brian and Reagan visited each other’s families.

“Brian grew up in Aiken, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina in December 2005. Reagan grew up in Hartman in Johnson County and graduated from Arkansas Tech University in May 2006. During an April 2012 visit, Brian proposed to Reagan, and the wedding was planned for a site near Ponca in the scenic Boxley Valley. While Reagan was in Arkansas planning the wedding, she noticed a blurb about the Oark General Store.”

She had taken Brian there once for pie and coffee. She let him know it was for sale.

Brian told Tilley: “When I worked in Congress, I worked under and alongside some of the most hardworking and intelligent people. But at the end of the day, just because I was a lowly peon in the scheme of things, I never really felt any concrete achievement for myself. It was always for others.”

He wanted a business of his own. And he didn’t want to raise a family in the nation’s capital.

Brian’s parents helped finance the $170,000 purchase a few weeks after the couple was married in 2012.

Well-known Arkansas food writer Kat Robinson described the store this way: “The fantastic burgers from past incarnations are still there, great pies of half a dozen varieties are always in the case and there’s always a conversation going on within the walls, just like with those gentlemen of old who came to warm themselves around the stove with gossip and coffee.”

After eating at Catalpa and Oark, we took Arkansas Highway 215 from Oark until the road intersects with Arkansas Highway 23 (the Pig Trail) at Cass. If there’s a more scenic stretch of road in Arkansas, I don’t know what it is.

Highway 215 runs along the Mulberry for 18 miles between Oark and Cass and is more like a national parkway than a state highway with its scenic overlooks and interpretive panels.

In the November 2014 issue of Arkansas Highways magazine, Marilyn Collins wrote: “The flowing water of the Mulberry River offers an Ozark view not experienced by many. The river twists and turns around rock ledges, beneath scenic overlooks, and reveals the geological history and cultural heritage of Johnson and Franklin counties. … During the spring, water levels are high and challenge the most adventurous. Water calms during the summer months, providing a playground for visitors to swim, float, skip rocks and fish.”

Black bears often are seen in the area.

“People have strong attachments to the Mulberry River Valley landscape,” said Mary Brennan of the U.S. Forest Service. “While many people visit here to participate in recreational opportunities, others return as descendants of the pioneer families who settled here 100 years or more ago. Many people who live and work in this area today are third- and fourth-generation residents. People’s attachments to this landscape are very strong.”

Matt Pfeifler of the U.S. Forest Service is a third-generation Oark resident. He said: “The Mulberry River was an important part of my childhood and my family’s lives. … It’s important that people have opportunities to appreciate and experience this place.”

What’s known as the Mulberry River Interpretive Driving Trail is a partnership between the Forest Service, the Federal Highway Administration, the Arkansas State Highway & Transportation Department, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and the Cass Job Corps Center.

Spots along the route include:

— The Redding Recreation Area and Spy Rock Trailhead: There’s a canoe launch on the river here. The Spy Rock Trail, which can be accessed from the Redding campground, is an eight-mile loop that connects with the Ozark Highlands Trail. Signage at the Redding campground interprets historic settlements along the Mulberry River and the nearby Hill Cemetery.

— Indian Creek canoe launch: Signage at this site interprets the impact of the Civil War on the area.

— High Bank canoe launch — Signage here interprets prehistoric occupation of the region.

— Yale Store site — The store was located at the confluence of the Mulberry River and Little Mulberry Creek. Signage interprets the schools, churches and social life along the Mulberry River.

— Wolf Pen Recreation Area — There are campgrounds and picnic areas. Signage interprets the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Forest Service.

The road was busy on the day we made the trip from Oark to Cass since an event known as the Homegrown Music Festival was being held at Byrd’s Adventure Center on the banks of the river. Hundreds of people were camping at Byrd’s, which has an 800-acre area for camping and an extensive trail network for ATVs and motorcycles. There’s a heated shower house, covered picnic areas, stages, a general store and even a 2,500-foot grass airstrip for those wanting to travel to the area in small private planes.

Byrd’s offers canoe, kayak, raft and tube rentals on the Mulberry.

Once we hit Highway 23, we headed south toward Ozark. No trip along the Pig Trail, of course, would be complete without a stop at Turner Bend.

The first Turners moved to the area from Tennessee in about 1830. Elias Turner arrived in 1848, served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War and was a member of the Arkansas Legislature in the 1870s.

In 1900, the first bridge across the Mulberry River at this point was constructed. Eleven years later, William Eli Turner built a store at the south end of the original bridge. The years 1935-36 saw a new bridge built and the original store burn. The Turner family built another store just south of the current location. In 1939, Champ Turner (the son of William Eli Turner) married Flora Coleman and took over operation of the store. The store closed during World War II while Champ served in the Army. In 1946, Champ and Flora reopened the store. They continued to operate it until 1978 when Champ died of cancer.

Enter Brad Wimberly.

Wimberly bought the store from the Turner family in 1981, moved into the back and started renting canoes. He built the current facility in 1986-87 and expanded his operations through the years with campgrounds, cabin rentals and other improvements.

In August 2011, Wimberly threw a big celebration to mark the 100th anniversary of the store and his 30th year of ownership.

Beth Turner, a granddaughter of Champ and Flora, told the state Department of Parks & Tourism in 2011: “Turner Bend for 100 years has kept that valley going. Grandma and Grandpa, they made that area a family. They were always there, and the light was always on.”

Beth Turner produced a documentary on the area titled “Ties That Bind.” She said her grandparents did everything from bandaging cuts to pulling cars out of ditches.

“The Turners raised three sons in half of their building while conducting business out of the other half,” Wimberly said in 2011. “In those days, the store was known as the home of Bubbles the myna bird. Apparently, Bubbles had a large vocabulary, some of it X-rated. Champ was something of a trader and had lots of old guns hanging from the wall inside the store. The public restroom was an outhouse sitting over a creek.”

Jill Rohrbach wrote in 2011: “Turner Bend was more than an outfitter or supply source. It was a social center, like an office water cooler. State politicians, including a young Bill Clinton, stopped by to shake hands and explain their positions to Champ, who would then pass the information on to people in the valley who visited the store. People, mostly from outside the region, began flocking to the Mulberry to canoe in the later 1960s after the guide book ‘The Mighty Mulberry’ was published.”

Wimberly said: “Champ did not have a gauge as such but could tell you how many steps were covered and whether the river was rising or falling.”

No all of the natives welcomed the visitors.

“Wimberly and his friends canoed the Mulberry often,” Rohrbach wrote. “He particularly remembers conversations with Champ during the 1976 and 1977 spring float seasons. ‘When we returned for a float trip in 1978, the store was closed,’ he says. ‘Champ was soon to pass on.’ The Turner family leased the store out for a couple of years before selling it.”

Wimberly said: “As the saying goes, fools rush in. I purchased the store in May 1981. Good thing I was only 26 since there were hardships and problems at every turn. I lived in the back of the old store like the Turners before me. The wiring was faulty, the water well was suspect, the roof was leaky and there was no insulation. It was so hot inside the store that I would step outside and hose myself down and then step in the cooler just to be able to stand it.”

Wimberly built a rock landing on the river in the fall of 1981. He married his wife Vien on the banks of the river.

“University of Arkansas students flew down the trail on Fridays and back up on Sundays,” Wimberly said. “Businessmen traveling to and from Little Rock would stop, going and coming back. Hog fans with their flags flying stopped on their way to games. Canoeing on the Mulberry grew in popularity.”

A new store was built adjacent to the old building in 1986.

“We had to build part of the new building, tear part of the old one down, build some more, tear the rest of the old building down, then complete the construction,” Wimberly told Rohrbach. “The whole process took about a year, and we never closed a day.”

When what’s now Interstate 49 opened in 1999, traffic slowed on Highway 23.

“I had naively thought that a lot of the regulars would continue to travel the Pig Trail since it is so much shorter than the interstate route, but I was wrong,” Wimberly said. “We lost all of the regular traffic. Students now attend the University of Arkansas and don’t even know what the Pig Trail is.”

Turner Bend lives on, though. The Mulberry has continued to increase in popularity as a float stream, and motorcyclists discovered the Pig Trail. There were several dozen motorcycles in the parking lot the day we were there. It remains an Arkansas classic.

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A Delta cultural stew

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016

It was mentioned in the previous post that the Mississippi Blues Trail has placed several markers outside of Mississippi in places where blues music was important.

Few places were more important to the evolution of the blues than Helena.

A Mississippi Blues Trail marker on Cherry Street, once the top commercial street in the Arkansas Delta, outlines some of that history.

It reads: “Helena has played a vital role in blues history for artists from both sides of the Mississippi River. Once known as a wide-open spot for music, gambling and nightlife, Helena was also the birthplace of ‘King Biscuit Time,’ the groundbreaking KFFA radio show that began broadcasting blues to the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta in 1941. The program had logged more than 15,000 broadcasts by 2009 and inspired Helena to launch its renowned King Biscuit Blues Festival in 1986.

“The town emerged as a major center of culture and commerce in the Delta during the steamboat era and maintained its freewheeling river port atmosphere well into the mid-20th century. Cafes, nightspots and good-time houses flourished, and musicians flocked here to entertain local field hands, sawmill workers and roustabouts who came off the boats ready for action. Many bluesmen ferried across the river from Mississippi or later motored across the Helena bridge. Others came from elsewhere in Arkansas, up from Louisiana or down from Memphis.

“Helena was at one time home to Mississippi-born blues legends Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson No 2 (Rice Miller), James Cotton, Honeyboy Edwards and Pinetop Perkins, as well as to Arkansas natives Roosevelt Sykes, Robert Nighthawk, Robert Lockwood Jr., Frank Frost, Jimmy McCracklin and George ‘Harmonica’ Smith, all of whom became influential figures in the blues. Williamson, Nighthawk and Lockwood were among the first bluesmen to play their instruments through amplifiers, paving the transitional path of blues from acoustic to electric music, a development often attributed to Muddy Waters in Chicago in the late 1940s.

“Soon after KFFA went on the air in 1941, Williamson’s broadcasts on ‘King Biscuit Time’ brought blues to an audience that had seldom if ever heard such music on the radio. Up-and-coming bluesmen B.B. King, Albert King, Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters all tuned in to the lunchtime broadcasts from the KFFA studios, or on occasion WROX in Clarksdale, advertising King Biscuit Flour and promoting their upcoming shows at local juke joints and house parties. The sponsor, Interstate Grocer Co., even introduced a Sonny Boy brand of cornmeal.

“During Williamson’s extended stays away from Helena, drummer James ‘Peck’ Curtis kept the program going with an assortment of band members. The show eventually switched to records instead of live music and continued with deejay Sonny Payne at the helm. Off the air only from 1980 until 1986, it still ranks as one of the longest-running programs in radio history. The Delta Cultural Center began hosting the broadcast in the 1990s.”

A separate Mississippi Blues Trail marker a block away on Biscuit Row in downtown Helena is devoted to Williamson.

It reads in part: “Williamson had played in Helena even before he began performing on ‘King Biscuit Time’ in 1941. He was joined by a succession of ‘King Biscuit Entertainers’ — James ‘Peck’ Curtis was a constant presence on the show, and others included Pinetop Perkins, Willie Love, Joe Willie Wilkins, Houston Stackhouse, Elmore James and W.C. Clay — all originally from Mississippi — as well as Robert Lockwood Jr. from Arkansas and Robert ‘Dudlow’ Taylor from Louisiana. The band performed in surrounding towns to advertise King Biscuit Flour and Sonny Boy Cornmeal, and they also played locally at theaters and nightspots.

“Venues in Helena included the Owl Café, Busy Bee, Kitty Cat Café, Mississippi Café, Dreamland Café and Silver Moon. But the best-remembered juke joint was the Hole in the Wall, operated by another native Mississippian, James Oscar Crawford. Williamson and various band members, along with Willie Johnson, Doctor Ross, Hacksaw Harney and Honeyboy Edwards, were among those recalled at the Hole in the Wall. Rumors even circulated that Robert Johnson — another associate of Sonny Boy’s — was murdered while playing here. But his death actually occurred in Greenwood, Miss., in 1938.

“During his extensive travels, Williams periodically revisited Helena and returned for the final time in 1965, telling Stackhouse, ‘I done come home to die now.’

“On May 25, Williamson failed to show for the KFFA broadcast and was found dead in the boardinghouse where he roomed at 427 1/2 Elm St. His sisters buried him in Tutwiler, Miss., where fans often leave harmonicas and whiskey bottles on his grave.”

Blues music is just one part of the rich cultural mix that makes the Delta so fascinating.

The combination of those who immigrated to the region when cotton was king — Italians, Irish, Chinese, Jews, Lebanese, Syrians, etc. — is central to making the Delta a unique region.

In the previous post, I wrote about attending the 100th birthday party for David Solomon of Helena.

“David and I are the last of the Jewish lawyers in the Arkansas Delta,” says my friend Raymond Abramson of Holly Grove. “The list at one time included Oscar Fendler of Blytheville and Kent Rubens of West Memphis, both deceased, along with Eddie Graumann, who was municipal judge for many years in Helena and who’s now retired in Memphis.”

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, a project of the Goldring-Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, the first Jew to settle in Arkansas was Abraham Block, who opened a store at Washington in southwest Arkansas in 1823.

“Block settled in Washington when there were no Jewish congregations or institutions in the Arkansas Territory,” the encyclopedia reports. “He was a charter member of the first Jewish synagogue in the region, Congregation Gates of Mercy in New Orleans, joining in 1828. Yet the lack of any organized Jewish life in Arkansas at the time took its toll on his family, and few of his children remained within the faith. Block’s life in Arkansas highlights the challenges that Jews have often faced in a state largely isolated from the centers of American Jewish life.

“The difficulties became a little easier as growing numbers of Jews from central Europe began to arrive in Arkansas in the years before the Civil War. These immigrants were part of the German wave of Jewish immigration, which settled primarily in the large cities of the Northeast and Midwest. But a significant minority of Jews from the German states and from Alsace-Lorraine settled in the rural South, including Arkansas.”

By the start of the Civil War, there were Jewish communities in Little Rock, Pine Bluff, Fort Smith, Van Buren, DeValls Bluff, Batesville and Jonesboro. Of the almost 300 Jews in Arkansas at the time of the war, at least 53 fought for the Confederacy.

Additional Jewish merchants were attracted to Arkansas in the years after the Civil War. They received their goods from Jewish wholesalers in the river cities of Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis and Memphis. According to the encyclopedia, 14 Arkansas communities were founded by Jews or named after early Jewish residents. These include Altheimer, Felsenthal and Levy.

The state’s first Jewish congregation, B’nai Israel in Little Rock, was chartered in 1866. A year later, Temple Beth El was founded in Helena and Congregation Anshe Emeth was founded in Pine Bluff. Later congregations were formed in Camden in 1869, Hot Springs in 1878, Texarkana in 1884, Jonesboro in 1897, Newport in 1905, Dermott in 1905, Eudora in 1912, Osceola in 1913, Forrest City in 1914, Wynne in 1915, Marianna in 1920, Blytheville in 1924, El Dorado in 1926, McGehee in 1947, Fayetteville in 1981 and Bentonville in 2004.

In Helena, the 1870 census showed that a majority of the city’s Jews had been born in Prussia and other parts of what would become Germany. By the start of the 20th century, Jews dominated the retail trade there. There were 22 Jewish-owned businesses by 1909. Helena had a Jewish mayor, Aaron Meyers, from 1878-80.

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

Jacob Trieber, whose family settled in Helena in 1868, became the first Jewish federal judge when President William McKinley appointed him to the bench in 1900. Trieber, who had been born in Prussia in 1853, served as a federal judge until 1927.

Last year, Congress passed legislation to rename the federal building at Helena in Trieber’s honor. A dedication ceremony was held earlier this year.

“We owe this honor to Judge Trieber, who was a well-respected leader in Phillips County,” said Sen. John Boozman. “This is a great tribute that symbolizes the important work he did for the community and in pursuit of justice as the nation’s first Jewish federal judge.”

Congressman Rick Crawford said: “Driven by his unmatched dedication to justice and equality for all people, Judge Trieber took it upon himself to fight against all types of injustices, including institutionalized racism, which he opposed for six decades before finally being vindicated by the Supreme Court and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Trieber was born in Prussia in 1853 and moved with his family to St. Louis in 1866. Two years later, the family moved to Helena to open a store.

Carolyn Gray LeMaster writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “In 1873, Trieber began studying law in the evenings under former Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Marshall L. Stephenson He was admitted to the state bar in 1876 and formed a partnership with Stephenson’s brother, L.C. Stephenson, and later with Marshall Stephenson. As his adopted home, Arkansas became dear to him, although the blatant racism he saw had a lifelong effect on his life and work. He sought to communicate — through his own life and deeds and his commitment to equal justice — that racism was detrimental to the people of Arkansas and that only until the state’s race relations problem was solved could the state’s potential be achieved. He attacked Arkansas’ election laws, saying they disenfranchised black voters. … He spoke out for women’s suffrage.

“Trieber’s interest in civil rights stemmed from what he had seen in Europe as a youth. He later recalled his childhood days in Prussia, remembering how the discrimination against Jews consumed the country. He said he ‘feared any country’s future that would allow such discrimination against its citizens,’ and he hoped Arkansas could steer a different course.

“He became a member of the Republican Party in 1874, believing its policies of that day — a strong union, primacy of the U.S. Constitution, pro-business policies, greater opportunities for African-Americans and a high protective tariff — were best for the nation. He was elected to Helena’s city council in 1882, named superintendent of the state census in 1890 and elected Phillips County treasurer in 1892. In 1897, he was appointed U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas and moved to Little Rock. In 1900, President William McKinley appointed him federal judge for the Eastern District of Arkansas.

“Trieber’s civic legacy in Arkansas was far-reaching. He was at the forefront of varying campaigns, such as saving the Old State House from destruction, establishing the Arkansas State Tuberculosis Sanatorium in 1909 and, during World War I, serving on the Arkansas State Council of Defense and representing the state on the American Red Cross national board.”

Just as the population base of Arkansas has shifted from east to west since Trieber’s time, a lot of the artifacts from Temple Beth El at Helena went northwest when the temple was closed in 2006. The artifacts are now used by the Etz Chaim congregation in Bentonville.

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

“Bentonville is the exception to the regional trend of small-town Jewish communities declining. Most of the founding members of Etz Chaim are not Arkansas natives. Unlike the peddlers and merchants who initially settled in Arkansas in the 19th century, these 21st-century migrants are executives at large corporations. They represent the generation of Jewish professionals who have largely replaced the Jewish merchant class in the South’s metropolitan areas.”

One of the few things to remain constant in the Delta as the population has steadily declined since the 1950s is the “King Biscuit Time” radio show, which first aired on a November day in 1941 just before the United States entered World War II. Sonny Payne became a part of the show in 1951 and is still at it.

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David Solomon at 100

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s right: The Mississippi Blues Trail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Along U.S. Highway 67: Part 3

Monday, July 18th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Along U.S. Highway 67: Part 2

Wednesday, July 13th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jefferson agreed to the change in plans.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ouachita professor Mike Reynolds often brings his students there.

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

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

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

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

The next stop was Gurdon.

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

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

Gurdon became an important railroad and timber town.

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

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

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

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

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

The board of directors would be called the Supreme Nine.

The president would be called the Snark of the Universe.

The chaplain would be called the Bojum.

The secretary would be called the Scrivenoter.

The sergeant at arms would be called the Gurdon.

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

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

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

Membership originally was limited to 9,999 people.

That number later was changed to 99,999.

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

Annual dues were $9.99.

The initiation fee was 99 cents.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Along U.S. Highway 67

Tuesday, July 12th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Eating our way west on U.S. 82

Friday, July 8th, 2016

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

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

More on that later.

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

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

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

Arkansas’ territorial legislature established Miller County in 1820.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s also the home of West Shore.

Both restaurants pack them in on Friday and Saturday nights.

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

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

Ham’s burned down in 1992.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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