Archive for the ‘Traveling Arkansas’ Category

Remembering Glen Campbell

Thursday, August 17th, 2017

We had spent the day at the Hope Watermelon Festival, and it was time to head back to Little Rock.

I was riding with Paul Austin, the head of the Arkansas Humanities Council, and suggested that we not get back on Interstate 30 just yet.

Instead we would make our way through the pine woods and cattle pastures of southwest Arkansas — to Washington, Ozan, Nashville and Murfreesboro — to soak up the rural atmosphere in my old neck of the woods.

Our destination was Delight.

Glen Campbell, one of our most famous Arkansans, had died four days earlier and been buried the next day in a private ceremony near Delight.

A perk of hailing from southwest Arkansas was being able to correct people when they claimed that Campbell came from Delight.

“Well, he’s actually from Billstown,” you would say with a smile. “That’s a suburb of Delight.”

Glen Travis Campbell was born April 22, 1936, at Billstown to Carrie Dell Stone Campbell and John Wesley Campbell. It was the middle of the Great Depression, and he was one of 12 children.

“Many of his relatives were musicians, and young Campbell soon developed an interest in singing and playing,” Terry Buckalew writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “He received his first guitar at age 4, performed in public by age 6 and made occasional appearances on the local radio station. The Campbell family first moved to Houston and then to Albuquerque, N.M, where teenaged Campbell began performing in nightclubs. Campbell dropped out of school in the 10th grade to spend more time on music. In 1956, he joined the Sandia Mountain Boys, a local band led by his uncle, Dick Bills. Campbell stayed with the group until 1958.

“In 1958, Campbell formed his own band, Glen Campbell and the Western Wranglers. In 1960, Campbell disbanded the group and moved to Los Angeles. He hoped to establish himself as a solo performer but found himself instead to be a sought-after studio musician and guitarist.”

Billstown is about six miles from Delight. The schools there consolidated with Delight at the start of the 1948-49 school year. Since then, Billstown has mostly been a collection of homes.

The Ozan Lumber Co. was among the area’s dominant businesses for much of the 20th century. The company owned 132,000 acres by 1956 and was sold to the Potlatch Corp. in the 1960s. As timber companies cleared the woodlands, farmers such as John Wesley Campbell turned to growing cotton in the “Pike County sandy loam” that son Glen later would reference in his song “Arkansas.”

Young Glen hadn’t been a stranger to chopping cotton in the summer and picking it in the fall.

As Paul and I headed east on Arkansas Highway 26 last Saturday afternoon, I spotted the small sign for Billstown and asked Paul to take a right. We wound down a county road on the off chance that we might see Campbell’s grave. For all we knew, it was hidden in a family cemetery well off the road.

We were about to turn around when I spotted a mailbox that had “Campbell” stenciled on it.

“Let’s keep going a bit,” I said to Paul.

Just up the road on our left was a cemetery. A wooden sign read “Campbell’s Cemetery, Billstown, AR.”

Eureka.

We got out of the truck and found the headstone for Carrie and John Wesley Campbell. Behind it was a freshly dug grave. At the head was a large floral arrangement from a Murfreesboro florist with a ribbon that said “Brother.”

At the foot was a vase of roses.

It was quiet on Billstown Road as the August sun baked the soil. We stood there for a minute, silently paying our respects to an Arkansas legend.

Less than 48 hours after that cemetery visit came word that we had lost another Arkansas icon, former Razorback football coach Frank Broyles. Campbell was 81 when he died; Broyles was 92. Both had Alzheimer’s at the end.

I was born in September 1959 and was coming of age in the late 1960s when Glen Campbell became a national star.

Campbell recorded “Gentle on My Mind” in 1967 and earned Grammy Awards in 1968 for Best Country Vocalist and Best Contemporary Vocalist.

In 1968, he recorded “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” which won him three more Grammys. Songs such as “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston” soon followed.

The man from Billstown became a regular on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” and CBS asked him to host a summer replacement show in 1968.

In 1969, CBS created “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” and the program ran through 1971.

The year 1969 also saw the release of the John Wayne movie “True Grit,” based on the novel of the same name by native Arkansan Charles Portis. Campbell had a role in the movie, which premiered at Little Rock’s Cinema 150.

In 1970, Campbell played the title role in “Norwood,” which also was based on a Portis novel.

“Campbell continued to enjoy chart success through the late 1970s,” Buckalew writes. “Among his more than 70 albums are several gospel albums recorded in the 1990s, one of which — ‘A Glen Campbell Christmas’ –earned a Dove Award in 2000.”

Campbell was inducted into the first class of the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame in 1996 and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.

In the late 1960s when Glen Campbell was at the height of his popularity, we were just more than a decade removed from the embarrassment of the 1957 Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis. Arkansas had lost the highest percentage of its population of any state from 1940-60.

There wasn’t a great deal to be proud of, but we had the likes of Glen Campbell and Johnny Cash on the national stage.

Like Frank Broyles, who would die less than a week after him, Glen Campbell made us proud to be from Arkansas.

Godspeed, Glen.

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The Arlington: Relief and anxiety

Tuesday, July 11th, 2017

My initial reaction, like that of a lot of Arkansans, was relief when I heard Monday that the sale of the Arlington Hotel had been finalized.

The Arlington is the most iconic privately owned structure in our state. For decades, those of us who love this Southern grande dame watched with sadness as she became a shell of her former self.

We dreamed of a day when a new owner would step in and restore her.

We dreamed of a day when those in surrounding states once more would flock to the hotel, knowing that it was THE place to stay in Arkansas.

We dreamed of a day when those of us close enough to make day trips to Hot Springs would go to the Arlington just for the food.

We dreamed of a day when statewide associations again would make it the headquarters hotel for their conventions.

We dreamed of a day when its bathhouse would rival any spa in America.

We dreamed of a day when the place to see and be seen in Arkansas would be the lobby of the renovated Arlington Hotel.

We dreamed of a day when the Arlington veranda would be described as Arkansas’ front porch, a civilized place to sit in a comfortable chair under a spinning ceiling fan while having a well-made drink.

So we cheered when we heard that the last remaining hotel in the once formidable Southwest Hotels portfolio had been sold. Perhaps the day we had dreamed of wasn’t far away.

Soon, however, relief turned to anxiety.

We worried that so little is known about the new owner, Al Rajabi of San Antonio. He recently renovated what had been the Clarion (and the Hilton before that) into the Four Points by Sheraton on South University Avenue in Little Rock. But this isn’t a chain hotel catering to folks with relatives in nearby hospitals. This is the Arlington, a hotel that should be mentioned in the same breath as other old Southern resorts such as the Greenbrier in West Virginia and the Homestead in Virginia.

We worried when we were told that Rajabi had owned 30 hotels through the years. That’s because no list of those hotels was provided.

We worried that an announcement that had been in the works for weeks gave no details whatsoever about renovation plans.

We worried that Rajabi would not answer questions from the media, directing people instead to a news release that contained precious few details.

We worried that the company that bought the hotel, Sky Capital Group LP, was only formed in April.

We worried that the news release said Sky Capital was the owner and operator of the Four Points in Little Rock even though the owner of record is Windsor Capital LLP, of which Rajabi is a partner.

For all we know, these questions will be answered in the days to come.

Please forgive us for having doubts, Mr. Rajabi, but we’ve been fooled so many times through the years in Hot Springs.

Southwest allowed the Majestic Hotel to deteriorate as the Arlington has done. Two subsequent owners made promises but did nothing. That old gal finally burned.

Several  developers promised to redevelop the Velda Rose. It still sits empty today.

South down Central Avenue, we were told that the Royale Vista Inn finally would be redeveloped. Scaffolding went up, but nothing was ever completed.

What has been the trademark of Hot Springs in recent decades? More than hot baths and thoroughbred racing, unfortunately, it has been landlords who have allowed their properties to deteriorate, milking every dime out of them and putting little back in.

You will excuse us, Mr. Rajabi, for being skeptical. You see, we’ve seen too many people fail to deliver on their promises in our beloved Spa City.

Your online biography says you graduated from UCLA in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, so maybe you can understand the anxiety on the part of this societal segment known as Arkansans.

Prove us wrong, Mr. Rajabi.

Please prove us wrong.

Renovate the rooms, reducing the number while increasing the size.

After refreshing the beautiful Venetian Dining Room (so much potential there), bring in a big-name chef who will be an attraction in his/her own right.

Mixology is all the rage these days, so hire some hip, young bartenders who will have millennials driving all the way from Little Rock for a drink.

Transform the bathhouse into a spa that people as far away as Dallas will want to visit.

Fill the veranda with furniture in Dorothy Draper pastels and add an outside bar.

Fill your basement with high-end boutiques.

Transform the neighboring Wade Building into a place for high-dollar suites.

Mr. Rajabi, as I stated at the outset, the Arlington isn’t just another hotel, at least for those of us born and raised in this state. I’ll say it again: It’s the most iconic privately owned building in Arkansas.

With this purchase comes certain obligations to the 3 million people of Arkansas.

We wish you well, Mr. Rajabi.

Please don’t disappoint us.

 

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Civil discourse on Petit Jean

Tuesday, June 27th, 2017

I can understand why the late Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller loved it so here.

It’s a Tuesday morning, and I’m the only person at Stout’s Point, the easternmost tip of Petit Jean Mountain. It’s quiet. I listen to the oak leaves rustling in the wind and a couple of crows who insist on making their presence known.

This also once was known as Nelson Point. Daniel Nelson (who’s not an ancestor as far as I can tell) built his home here in the early 1890s and planted apple orchards. Those orchards later failed, and the Nelson land was sold. The name Stout’s Point honors William Cummings Stout, who in 1849 had become the first ordained Episcopal priest in the state. There was a hotel here — the Hotel Petit Jean — at one time. It became part of a YMCA camp in 1920. That camp ceased operations in the 1940s, and the land was purchased by the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas, which now operates Camp Mitchell atop Petit Jean and lets the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism use Stout’s Point as a park.

“Petit Jean claimed 100 family farms by 1900,” Donald Higgins writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “For perhaps 75 years, small farm agriculture and orchards flourished on Petit Jean Mountain. By the late 1920s, however, a crash in cotton prices, droughts, blight and insect infestations, combined with poor soil management practices, took a toll on family farms. Petit Jean’s population decreased, making land available for other uses.

“Petit Jean’s Dr. T.W. Hardison had bigger ideas and in 1921 influenced Congressman Henderson Madison Jacoway to introduce House Resolution 9086 in the U.S. House of Representatives, creating Petit Jean National Park with the mountain’s rugged Seven Hollows area as its foundation. The action failed, but shortly thereafter, in 1923, Hardison led an effort by a group of local businessmen to donate land in Cedar Creek Canyon to become Arkansas’ first state park by Act 276 of the Legislature.

“Depopulation during the Great Depression and World War II struck hard at the mountain community, but as farming diminished, new residents and recreation enthusiasts took up the slack. The Civilian Conservation Corps-constructed park infrastructure drew increasing numbers of visitors, and various commercial enterprises blossomed.”

In 1953, Rockefeller began purchasing what essentially was worn-out scrubland that once had been used to raise cotton. Locals found jobs that paid far better than what they could get elsewhere in Conway County. It was unusual for working-class whites to take orders from a black man in the early 1950s, but Rockefeller foreman Jimmy Hudson quickly earned the respect of those who worked for him.

Land was cleared, grass was planted, fences were erected and an irrigation system was installed. Rockefeller brought the famed Santa Gertrudis breed of cattle to Arkansas. The tropical beef breed had been developed in south Texas. The breed was named for the Spanish land grant in south Texas where Richard King established the King Ranch. When the breed was recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1940, it became the first beef breed to have been developed in the United States.

In his 2004 book “Winthrop Rockefeller, Philanthropist,” former aide John Ward wrote: “Winrock Farms was on the world stage as far as cattle breeding and research were concerned, and this was just what Rockefeller intended. From its inception, Winrock served to provide education, expertise and guidance to the many people who came in contact with it. Rockefeller was especially proud of the quality of the operation, from the scientific to the utterly practical, and the farm’s contributions to development of better beef cattle was widely known and appreciated.

“His annual cattle sale at the farm attracted buyers and interested participants from throughout the world who needed fine Santa Gertrudis breeding stock. … Representatives of the King Ranch were regular buyers at the sale, as was Rockefeller at their sales in Texas. To some degree, Rockefeller buying King Ranch stock at high prices and King Ranch doing the same at the Winrock cattle sale was a bit of public relations, but it was a source of amazement to those who watched prices of $40,000 to $50,000 being paid for outstanding bulls.

“Winrock had intern programs for youth and other opportunities for young and old alike to gain knowledge and experience, and it pleased him to see the acceptance and continuing development of the livestock and science surrounding it he so carefully husbanded at the farm.

“From that operation evolved the Winrock International Livestock Research and Training Center, established in response to Rockefeller’s request in his will that trustees of his estate be venturesome and innovative in creating and supporting institutions that would help people help themselves. A decade later, a larger entity was created from combining with Winrock two other organizations also rooted in the philanthropic tradition of the Rockefeller family. One was the Agricultural Development Council, which grew from an organization founded by Winthrop’s eldest brother, John. It was designed to stimulate and support economic training related to human welfare in rural Asia. The other was the International Agricultural Development Service, created with initial support from the Rockefeller Foundation. Its aim was to provide services to developing countries that wanted to strengthen their agricultural research and development programs. Together they became the Winrock International Institute for Agricultural Development. The Winthrop Rockefeller Trust put more than $85 million into it during its first decade of existence.”

Marion Burton, who has long helped manage the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust, said the late governor viewed Arkansas “as a place where he could make a difference. I think he was frustrated with where he had been living. I think he simply got tired of the routines.”

More than anything, Rockefeller wanted his ranch atop Petit Jean Mountain to be a place where people would come, discuss ideas and have time for contemplation in a relaxing setting away from their offices.

Former journalist and Rockefeller friend Dorthy Stuck said Rockefeller “found a certain amount of peace right here on this mountain. The big task now is to keep his legacy alive.”

That job has fallen to the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, which the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust and the University of Arkansas joined forces to create when Winrock International moved its offices from Petit Jean to Little Rock’s Riverdale neighborhood. More than $20 million was spent to create a world-class conference center atop the mountain. A gallery and interactive theater tell the story of the Rockefeller years in Arkansas. The gallery is titled “Winthrop Rockefeller: A Sphere of Power and Influence Dropped Into a River of Need.”

Those involved in the institute’s creation have shared with me from time to time their frustration in finding a focus. In its early years, WRI tried to be all things to all people and met with limited success. In 2011, the chief operating officer of the Paley Center for Media in New York City, Christy Carpenter, was hired and tasked with increasing WRI’s national profile. Carpenter brought along her husband, actor Robert Walden, a New York native best known for his role as Joe Rossi on the television series “Lou Grant.”

Carpenter’s parents were two Washington-based journalists, Les and Liz Carpenter of the Carpenter News Bureau. Liz Carpenter went to work for Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson and was with LBJ on that November day in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. It was Liz Carpenter who wrote the short statement Johnson released after being sworn in as president aboard Air Force One at Love Field.

Christy Carpenter seemed to have the pedigree needed to advance WRI. But by the spring of 2013, Carpenter — a city girl at heart — had tired of the remoteness of Petit Jean Mountain. Back at square one, the WRI trustees decided this time to go with an Arkansan who might stay around awhile. In December 2013, it was announced that Marta Loyd of Greenwood, the vice chancellor for university advancement at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, had been hired as WRI’s executive director.

Loyd worked at UAFS for 17 years. A dozen of those years were as vice chancellor. She had headed the school’s foundation since 2002 and helped raised the money needed to transform Westark Community College into UAFS.

During a luncheon speech last year, Loyd said: “I put very little serious thought into my future when I was young. I wanted to be a dental hygienist because I could work part time, make a good wage and be a wife and mother. I accomplished all of that by the age of 26.”

In a story about the WRI executive director, Jeff LeMaster wrote: “Her opportunity to step into higher education came when Westark was hiring a part-time continuing education program coordinator. The job requirements were a bachelor’s degree and organizational experience. Citing her organizational experience from church committees and the school PTA, Marta got the job. Not too long after, she was approached about helping to start a dental hygiene school at the college. She took that on for no extra pay but proved herself and made connections with key people in the college’s administration.

“Along the way, the university earned her loyalty by giving her an opportunity to stay home and care for her son after he was involved in an accident that almost claimed one of his eyes. Marta had to take off two weeks to care for him, and the timing couldn’t have been worse. It fell right when she was supposed to finish and submit an application for the new dental hygiene school, and her taking off the two weeks meant a six-month delay in the project. But the college’s president at the time, Joel Stubblefield, didn’t hesitate in telling Marta to take the time off. … She has never forgotten that. In her own words, Marta determined then ‘that if I ever became a leader, I would do all I could to make sure people didn’t have to choose between work and family.’

“After returning to work and successfully starting the dental hygiene school, Marta was hired to work in development. The vice chancellor for university advancement at the time, Dr. Carolyn Moore, brought Marta under her wing, promising her she would teach her everything she knew about development and that someday Marta could take her job. Moore also encouraged Marta to pursue advanced degrees, first her master’s in educational leadership and then her doctorate in educational leadership and policy analysis.”

Loyd has proved to be a good fit at WRI, where she has raised staff morale and found ways to use the mountaintop property to its highest potential. She also has ensured that the Winthrop Rockefeller legacy is never forgotten.

“It’s ingrained in the culture here,” LeMaster, WRI’s director of communications and marketing, says. “There’s nothing we do that doesn’t recognize the impact he had on this state. We’re always mindful of his legacy.”

Janet Harris, WRI’s director of programs, puts it this way: “You can feel Gov. Rockefeller’s presence here. He chose Arkansas as his home and believed so strongly in the potential of this state. We want people to come here and see the possibilities for what Arkansas can be.”

Rockefeller loved it when national and world leaders would visit his ranch and say, “I had no idea there was anything like this in Arkansas.”

Loyd says she now smiles when she hears WRI visitors express amazement at how nice the facility is.

LeMaster says that one of the best things about Rockefeller is that he built the Republican Party in Arkansas while at the same time forcing the Democratic Party to modernize. Because of that, both Republicans and Democrats claim his legacy.

Loyd, LeMaster and Harris say Petit Jean is a place where people can unwind and think. It’s a place where partisan Republicans and Democrats can get together, debate issues in a thoughtful manner and decide on a path forward for the state.

“It’s quiet here,” Harris says. “It forces people to get to know each other.”

I wrote a post on this blog back in May 2010 that closed this way: “Arkansas needs a place such as the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, a secluded spot where we can gather to examine our past, debate our current problems and design our future. I can’t help but believe WR would be proud of what has become of the ranch he called home for almost two decades.”

There have been bumps in the road in the more than seven years since that was written. But I still believe WR would be proud, especially now that the institute that bears his name has found its focus.

 

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Pine Bluff proud

Friday, June 16th, 2017

I’m proud of the people of Pine Bluff.

On Tuesday, they went to the polls and approved by more than a 2-to-1 margin a sales tax initiative designed to stem the loss of population in southeast Arkansas’ largest city.

Nothing is ever easy in Pine Bluff with its us vs. them, rich vs. poor, black vs. white style of politics.

Loud-mouthed demagogues have too often held sway in that city through the years. Indeed, there was organized opposition to this initiative and people (including at least one member of the Pine Bluff City Council) made outrageous claims.

This time, though, a majority of those who voted said “enough.”

Enough of the race baiting.

Enough of the scare tactics.

Enough of the politics of division.

They realized that this was the last chance to truly turn Pine Bluff around before it was in a death spiral.

During 2016, about 100 Pine Bluff residents participated in a planning process funded by the Simmons First Foundation. The effort is known as Go Forward Pine Bluff. In January, members of the Go Forward Pine Bluff task force unveiled a 27-point plan for revitalization covering everything from education to infrastructure.

How to fund the implementation of those recommendations?

The five-eighths of a cent sales tax approved last week is expected to produce about $4 million annually for the next seven years.

Go Forward Pine Bluff officials have said that they will raise another $20 million in private funds to give the city a pot of almost $48 million to implement the recommendations.

There were plenty of business leaders across the state who were prepared to write Pine Bluff off for good had the initiative failed.

Now, there’s hope.

But it’s going to take a lot more than $48 million to revitalize Pine Bluff, which has been bleeding population in recent years. Additional private capital is needed.

A Yankee just might be what this bastion of the Old South needs.

Meet Tom Reilley.

Reilley is the entrepreneur who brought a wood pellet plant to Pine Bluff.

He lives in New Hampshire and began his career with the investment firm Bear Stearns. He was transferred to London by the company in 2002 to establish a wealth management division. Reilley left the company in 2007 to form a private equity company known as Kalan Capital.

While searching for the ideal place to locate the Highland Pellets facility, Reilley fell in love with the people of Pine Bluff.

He also came to appreciate the potential of the old building downtown that once housed the Hotel Pines.

More on that in a moment. First, a bit more about Highland Pellets.

There’s a growing demand in Europe for wood pellets, which are used as fuel for power plants. The United Kingdom and countries in the European Union are trying to phase out coal-fired plants.

In a statement last year, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said: “I believe that this renewable resource can help play a role in the global shift toward clean and more sustainable energy sources. … As governor of Arkansas, I aim to maintain both the vitality of Arkansas’ forests as well as the wood energy trade between Arkansas and nations within the EU.”

EU member states are assigned national renewable energy targets.

Plans for the $229 million Pine Bluff wood pellet plant were first announced in August 2014. The initial employment is 68 people, and the facility is expected to create hundreds of indirect jobs in south Arkansas as it helps revitalize the timber industry in that part of the state. The facility will use about 1.4 million tons of wood annually, most Southern yellow pine. Pellets will be transported by Union Pacific to the Port of Baton Rouge in railcars and then loaded onto ships in order to make the trip to Europe.

The Arkansas Economic Development Commission estimates the financial impact of the facility will be more than $86 million annually.

The Pine Bluff plant delivered its first pellets in April. It’s expected to be fully operational by the third quarter of this year.

According to the Highland website: “All fiber supplied to these sites will be sustainable with a significant proportion coming from residual waste wood (shavings and sawdust) from local sawmills.”

Highland Pellets is a privately held company with veterans from the wood pellet, finance and energy markets involved.

At the groundbreaking ceremony for the plant last fall, Hutchinson said: “Highland Pellets’ leadership is passionate about this new facility and the impact it will have on Jefferson County’s economy. They are determined to have a lasting effect, not only on their employees but also also on the entire community.”

Arkansas has more than 18.8 million acres of forestland, providing plenty of raw materials for the plant. Reilley also took into consideration competitive utility rates and a good transportation infrastructure.

He didn’t count on becoming obsessed with rebuilding Pine Bluff.

Reilley was instrumental in the formation of a grassroots group known as Pine Bluff Rising that works to complement the efforts of Go Forward Pine Bluff. In January, Pine Bluff Rising purchased the Hotel Pines for $1 from previous owner Elvin Moon.

At the time of the purchase, Reilley said: “Pine Bluff Rising is undertaking a thorough investigation of the structure as well as the challenges and opportunities that may exist.”

He told me in January that he didn’t know if the building could be saved but was willing to spend whatever was necessary to find out.

“The Hotel Pines was conceived and built to attract more business to the section of Main Street that lies to the south of the city’s railroad tracks,” states the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “As such, it provides a glimpse at one effort to alter a city’s main business and shopping area in the early 20th century. This classically designed hotel was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on Aug. 10, 1979.

“Since the area north of the tracks was a thriving commercial district, the city’s Main Street property owners believed that the presence of a modern hotel would lure business south of the tracks. Many of Jefferson County’s leading citizens became stockholders in the new enterprise. Architect George Mann, who designed the state Capitol and the Marion Hotel in Little Rock, was selected to plan the new facility. Paul Heerwagen of Fayetteville was hired to decorate the interior. Heerwagen’s experience included work on hotels such as the Piedmont in Atlanta. Gov. George Washington Hays delivered the principal address at the Nov. 6, 1913, opening.

“When it opened, the Hotel Pines was regarded as one of the finest hotels in Arkansas. Located near Union Station, the hotel offered porter service to carry baggage to and from the station. It also was the location of society balls and dances, banquets and business and civic meetings. … Hotel Pines operated continuously for 57 years. When passenger rail service to Pine Bluff ended in 1968, the hotel lost its primary clientele, closing in the spring of 1970.”

What once had been a symbol of Pine Bluff prosperity came to symbolize Pine Bluff’s decline.

Reilley knows that symbolism is important. He understands that a revived Hotel Pines will send a message statewide that Pine Bluff has reclaimed its status as the regional capital for the southeast quadrant of Arkansas.

Reilley thinks it will take at least $35 million to renovate the building. He plans to utilize a combination of state and federal historic renovation tax credits, New Market tax credits, charitable contributions and private capital to get the job done. He brought in WER Architects/Planners of Little Rock, East Harding Construction of Little Rock and interior designer Kaki Hockersmith to come up with a plan to show potential investors.

Writing in The Pine Bluff Commercial, Knowles Adkisson related what has gone on with the building the past few decades: “The property has changed hands many times over the years, usually with promises from the buyer to restore the hotel to its former glory. None have yet comes to pass, and it has presented a conundrum: Too expensive to rebuild yet too expensive to tear down. The city first inspected the hotel during the 1970s with plans to renovate it, according to Luther Drye, a former building inspector for the city. However, the city was never able to come up with the funds, he said. By the 1980s, it had fallen into disrepair.”

Drye told the newspaper: “It was substandard. The city has codes covering existing buildings. It was dilapidated, windows falling out, hitting the sidewalk below, stuff like that. There was a bad roof in the northwest corner. … The basement stayed full of water. That didn’t help.”

A nonprofit organization called Citizens United to Save the Pines purchased the property but couldn’t come up with the funds to restore it. Moon, a Los Angeles resident who grew up in Pine Bluff, bought the hotel in 2008 but also failed to find funds for renovations.

Pine Bluff Rising announced in early June that it will move forward with renovation efforts. The group released a statement that said: “Some have asked why we are doing this. The answer to us is clear: We wish to help rebuild the economic, social and cultural heart of downtown Pine Bluff through an asset the community can … point to with pride.”

I sometimes compare Pine Bluff to an old boxer who has been knocked down many times but is trying to make a comeback. I find that people across the state are now rooting for Pine Bluff rather than making jokes about Crime Bluff.

Reilley wants a building that will have people coming and going at all hours since it will include doctors’ offices, dentists’ offices, floral shops, beauty shops and the like in addition to hotel rooms. He dreams of restaurants, craft breweries and live music venues up and down the street. He wants to see the day when people from places like Dumas, McGehee and Warren will no longer need to drive all the way to Little Rock for a night out.

Reilley has been especially impressed by the city’s new mayor, Shirley Washington, a former educator.

“Think of her as a no-nonsense principal,” he says. “That’s exactly what Pine Bluff needs.”

He’s an optimist in a town where it had become hard to be optimistic.

Reilley, who bought a home in Pine Bluff, explains his efforts this way: “I’ve never been to a place with such a deep sense of community. People who could have left Pine Bluff long ago refused to do so because they love the place so much. And I fell in love with those people. Last year, even though I was extremely busy lining up financing and hiring a Highland management team, I started asking questions that people had a hard time answering. I wanted to know how a place with such a storied history — a place filled with people who love it — could have gotten into the shape Pine Bluff is in now.”

 

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Driving through the south Arkansas pines

Tuesday, June 13th, 2017

I had spoken at a funeral service in my hometown of Arkadelphia on a Saturday morning in June. Since the rest of my family was in Texas, I decided to spend the afternoon driving through the pine woods of south Arkansas.

The goal: To visit all three of the small state parks that mark Civil War battles that occurred during the Camden Expedition of 1864 — Poison Spring in Ouachita County, Marks’ Mills in Cleveland County and Jenkins’ Ferry in Grant County.

Historian Derek Clements explains the expedition this way for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Part of the Red River Campaign, the Camden Expedition resulted from Union Brig. Gen. Frederick Steele’s orders to strike south from Little Rock and converge with Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks’ column in northwest Louisiana before marching to Texas. Because of poor logistical planning, horrible roads and strong Confederate resistance, Steele abandoned this plan to occupy Camden instead. Losing battles at Poison Spring and Marks’ Mills, Steele became unable to supply his army and retreated toward Little Rock. The Confederates caught Steele while he was crossing the Saline River, engaging in the last battle of the campaign at Jenkins’ Ferry.”

Textile mills in the North were starved for cotton by 1864. The thought was that with Banks coming up the Red River in Louisiana and Steele marching south through Arkansas, the two forces could capture prime cotton-growing land in east Texas.

Those who know me best realize that I love visiting all parts of Arkansas. Days spent in the Delta or the Ozark Mountains usually are pleasurable days. But south Arkansas is where I was raised, and I’m most at home when driving through the pine tunnels of the Gulf Coastal Plain. I took U.S. Highway 67 south out of Arkadelphia to Gurdon, passing the spot at Gum Springs where a Chinese company hopes to build a $1.3 billion pulp mill that will use the pine timber that dominates the southern part of our state.

At Gurdon, I headed south on Arkansas Highway 53, crossing the Little Missouri River as I made my way from Clark County into Nevada County, where I picked up Arkansas Highway 24. That highway will take you through Chidester and Bragg City in Ouachita County on the way to Camden. I turned off before reaching Chidester so I could cross White Oak Lake for the first time in many years. The land flooded by the lake was acquired by the federal government during the Great Depression as part of the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act of 1937. The act was designed to provide land ownership for tenant farmers. The state acquired the property in 1957, and White Oak was constructed in 1961. Six years later, a state park was opened on the shores of the lake.

I reached Poison Spring a few minutes after crossing the lake. It was quiet in these pine woods with only one other car parked there. The small park, which includes a short hiking trail, was established by the Legislature in 1961 at a time when Arkansans were beginning to mark the centennial of the Civil War. The trail leads through the sand hills that mark much of this part of Arkansas, a reminder of a time millions of years ago when the Gulf of Mexico covered the area.

I remember camping here more than four decades ago as a member of Boy Scout Troop 24 of Arkadelphia.

On April 18, 1864, Confederate troops ambushed a Union foraging expedition that had been sent by Steele from Camden to find food.

“On April 17, Steele sent a force of more than 600 men and four cannon under Col. James M. Williams with 198 wagons to seize 5,000 bushels of corn that were reportedly stored west of Camden,” writes Mark Christ of the Department of Arkansas Heritage. “Marching to White Oak Creek some 18 miles from Camden, Williams sent his troops, which included the First Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment, into the surrounding countryside to gather corn at area farms and plantations. Though Confederate cavalry had managed to destroy about half of the corn, the Yankee troops gathered the remainder, as well as other plunder, and regrouped at White Oak Creek. Williams was joined the next morning by a 501-man relief force of infantry, cavalry and two additional artillery pieces.

“Confederate Brig. Gen. John Sappington Marmaduke, meanwhile, positioned about 3,600 Rebel cavalrymen backed by 12 cannon between Williams’ column and Camden, blocking the Camden-Washington Road near Poison Spring. In addition to Arkansas, Missouri and Texas horsemen, his force included Col. Tandy Walker’s Choctaw Brigade from the Indian Territory.”

The fight ended in a Union retreat with Williams having had 301 men killed, wounded or missing. There were fewer than 145 Confederate casualties.

After reading the markers, I got back on Highway 24 and headed into Camden, which was among the state’s leading cities at the time of the Civil War with a population of more than 2,200 people.

“During the 1850s, Camden served as the supply center for several counties and was the mercantile center for a radius of 100 miles,” Daniel Milam writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “During this time, as many as 40,000 bales of cotton were shipped from its wharfs in a single year. As a steamboat river port, Camden had the accommodations and transportation to service the planter-provisioning trade to New Orleans. … After the Civil War, cotton production remained important to Camden. Much of it was accomplished by sharecropping.

“Steamboats continued to navigate the river, but railroads were coming. Trains opened up markets for Ouachita County’s pine and hardwood forests. Though they were challenged by the railroads, the steamboats continued to serve Camden until the 1930s.”

Camden flourished during the first half of the 20th century.

Oil was discovered in Ouachita County in the 1920s, allowing some of the county’s residents to become wealthy.

International Paper Co. constructed a large paper mill at Camden in the late 1920s.

Camark Pottery and Grapette sodas became well-known brands that came out of Camden.

The Camden Army Air Field opened in 1942. The Shumaker Naval Depot was constructed just across the county line in Calhoun County. The depot closed in 1957, but the land was transformed into the Highland Industrial Park, which attracted several defense contractors.

The city’s population soared from 3,238 in 1920 to 15,823 in 1960.

The population has been falling steadily since the early 1980s and was down to 12,183 in the 2010 census. The biggest of the body blows came when IP closed its mill in 2000.

Camden is filled with beautiful old homes such as the McCollum-Chidester House. As I entered town, I noticed that the parking lot of the Camden Country Club (I once watched the Belmont Stakes on a television in the bar there while attending a wedding reception) is packed. It’s the weekend of the four-ball golf tournament, still an important social event in south Arkansas.

I looked at the other side of the highway where the Gay’s Steak House stood. It was a favorite stop of my parents when we would go to Camden to watch Arkadelphia High School play football and basketball games at Camden High School (which no longer exists) and Fairview High School.

I headed downtown and made my way to the White House Cafe for lunch. It’s one of the oldest restaurants in Arkansas, having been established in 1907 by a Greek immigrant named Hristos Hodjopulas. It was next to the depot, serving those aboard the many trains coming in and out of Camden. The founder sold the restaurant to a cousin named James Andritsos. Camden was so busy in those days that Andritsos made it a 24-hour diner. The restaurant is now open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m.

From Camden, I followed U.S. Highway 278 through Locust Bayou, Hampton (stopping to read the Civil War marker on the grounds of the Calhoun County Courthouse), Harrell and Banks on my way to Warren. Unfortunately, it was a bit too early in the summer to find Bradley County tomatoes for sale on the side of the road. Still, I enjoy driving those brick streets on the square around the beautiful Bradley County Courthouse.

I then got on Arkansas Highway 8 and passed through one of my favorite small towns in Lower Arkansas — New Edinburg. Though empty, the buildings that once housed several of the old stores that served those who lived in that part of Cleveland County still stand. It’s like a movie set.

“New Edinburg was initially dubbed Edinburg, with a post office under that name beginning in 1876,” Paula Reaves writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “John Fowler was the first postmaster. By 1891, the town had been renamed New Edinburg, as suggested by John H. Cherry. At that time, there were two churches, a livery, several mercantile stores, grist mills, gins and blacksmiths. The Saline River Railroad, which passed through the town, was chartered in 1897 and was running by 1898. It was a spur of the Cotton Belt.

“In 1904, the Bank of New Edinburg was organized with E.M. Attwood as the founder and president. During the Great Depression, it was the only bank in the county that remained open. By 1936, there were several merchants in New Edinburg as well as cafes and a beauty shop. One building housed both the central telephone office and the Knight Theater, which showed matinees at noon for children on their lunch break from school and also had shows after school and on Saturday night.

“New Edinburg was known for having a tree in the middle of the road, which traffic had to go around. The tree had to be cut down when the road was paved and became a state highway in July 1940.”

Soon after leaving New Edinburg, I came upon Marks’ Mills State Park and stopped to read the markers. The battle here took place on April 25, 1864, as Confederate troops ambushed a Union supply train.

“With supplies dwindling, the acquisition of rations became important to the Union troops,” Clements writes. “The arrival of provisions from Pine Bluff on April 20 convinced Steele that more materials could be obtained there. Three days later, he dispatched Lt. Col. Francis Drake with more than 1,200 infantrymen, several pieces of artillery and cavalry support with 240 wagons to obtain supplies at Pine Bluff. An unknown number of white civilians and 300 black civilians accompanied the Union force to safety. On the morning of April 25, 150 cavalrymen from Pine Bluff met Drake, increasing the Union column to almost 1,800 combatants with 520 troops trailing the column at some distance.

“Learning of Drake’s departure from Camden, Confederate Brig. Gen. James F. Fagan positioned his more than 2,000 cavalrymen near the juncture of the Camden-Pine Bluff Road with the Warren Road, cutting off Drake’s route. Setting an ambush, Fagan order Brig. Gen. Joe Shelby’s division to the east on the Camden-Pine Bluff Road to block possible escape toward Pine Bluff. Brig. Gen. William L. Cabell’s division was to attack from the southwest.”

The overwhelming Confederate numbers won the day.

“Cabell’s command suffered 293 casualties (41 killed, 108 wounded, 144 missing) while Union casualty estimates ranged from 1,133 to 1,600 with most being captured and an estimated 100 killed,” Clements writes. “The Confederates captured about 150 black freemen and are believed to have killed more than 100 others. The defeat of Drake’s command had a significant impact upon Steele’s position at Camden. Coupled with the defeat at Poison Spring, the loss at Marks’ Mills prevented Steele from obtaining much-needed supplies for his army. Already on reduced rations and with reports of Lt. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith’s command marching northward from Louisiana, Steele’s position became untenable. With all possibility of supporting Banks’ campaign on the Red River gone, the Union Army silently slipped over the Ouachita River on the night of April 26, abandoning Camden and beginning a desperate race back to Little Rock.”

I made my way to Kingsland so I could say I had been in the birthplace of Johnny Cash (there’s only one small marker there). Kingsland was created in the 1880s when what would later become the Cotton Belt railroad was completed across the county.

“Seventy-five people, mostly engaged in the timber industry, lived near the railway station when Austin Gresham applied for a post office for the community in December 1882,” Steven Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “His first selected name, Arkatha, was refused by the postal service, as was his second choice, Cohassett. Kingsland was his third choice, and it was approved in June 1883. The second-class city was incorporated in 1884. At the time, it contained three steam-operated sawmills, a planing mill, several stores, two hotels, a druggist, a livery stable and a blacksmith. A Methodist church was begun in 1884, followed by two Baptist churches the following year.”

By 1889, there were nine sawmills in the area. The Cleveland County Bank opened that year, and a brick factory went up the next year. Cash was born near Kingsland in 1932, but his family headed to the new resettlement colony at Dyess in northeast Arkansas when he was 3. I drove from Kingsland to Fordyce and then headed north on U.S. Highway 167 to visit Jenkins’ Ferry in Grant County.

The battle at Jenkins Ferry occurred on April 29-30, 1864, as Steele and his troops made their retreat to Little Rock.

“On April 29, Steele’s column arrived at the Saline River,” Clements writes. “Without delay, engineers began building pontoons across the swollen river, and soldiers began constructing crude battlements. … Marmaduke’s troops arrived and began skirmishing with the rear guard of Brig. Gen. Frederick Salomon’s division, stopping as darkness fell.”

The fight resumed at daylight the next day and lasted until 12:30 p.m. when the Confederate attack was called off.

“After conferring with Steele, Salomon moved his men across the river to safety,” Clements writes. “Union troops destroyed what could not be easily carried, including the pontoon bridge, and continued marching to Little Rock. The Confederates turned to gathering the wounded and reforming their shattered ranks. … The Confederates claimed losses of 86 killed, 356 wounded and one missing, and the Union troops claimed 63 killed, 413 wounded and 45 missing. Most historians think the numbers were greater because some units did not file official returns.”

My south Arkansas excursion wasn’t quite finished. Before returning to Little Rock, I took a slight detour to Prattsville (the Grant County community that produced Arkansas business titans Witt and Jack Stephens) for a fried catfish dinner at that classic restaurant known as The Whippet.

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After the flood

Thursday, May 25th, 2017

Pocahontas was in the news in early May for all the wrong reasons.

Water from drenching rains that occurred in southern Missouri during the final weekend of April flowed south down the Current, Eleven Point, Spring, Little Black and Fourche rivers.

The Little Black joins the Current near Datto in Clay County. The Current then flows into the Black River east of Pocahontas.

The Fourche also flows into the Black.

The Eleven Point joins the Spring, which in turn flows into the Black near Black Rock.

Once all of this water came together, it was too much for aging Black River levees to handle. Thousands of acres were flooded in Randolph and Lawrence counties along with dozens of homes and businesses.

Just a week prior to the worst of the rainstorms, dozens of history buffs — academics and amateur historians alike — gathered in Pocahontas for the 76th annual meeting of the Arkansas Historical Association. The AHA has a grand tradition of moving its annual meetings across the state, thus allowing county historical societies to show off local attractions.

Almost 100 leading Arkansas scholars and other prominent citizens gathered on Feb. 22, 1941, at the Marion Hotel in downtown Little Rock to form the AHA. Unlike scholarly organizations in other fields, the AHA has had strong representation from the start from those board member Maylon T. Rice of Fayetteville likes to call “civilians.” Rice is a civilian board member, by the way.

I’m also an amateur Arkansas history aficionado. I’ve been attending AHA spring meetings for two decades. My wife likes to refer to it as my annual “history nerd weekend.”

Pocahontas just might have the most charming, vibrant downtown of any of the places the organization has met through the years. And it’s one of our most historic Arkansas communities to boot.

“The earliest documented settler was Ransom S. Bettis, who arrived from Greenville, Mo., and built a house overlooking the Black River,” Gary Buxton writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “From 1815-35, the settlement was known as Bettis Bluff. … In 1826, Thomas S. Drew immigrated to what was then Lawrence County (Randolph County was established in 1835), married Bettis’ daughter Cinderella and later became instrumental in the founding of Pocahontas. Drew served as Lawrency County judge from 1832-35 and was the third governor of Arkansas. He died in Lipan, Texas, but was reinterred in the Masonic Cemetery in Pocahontas on May 30, 1923. More than 5,000 people assembled for his second interment.

“Residents at the Columbia settlement, eight miles north of Pocahontas, tried to locate the county seat there, but Drew and Bettis craftily won favor for Bettis Bluff. On the date set to vote for the county seat, the pair provided free barbecue and alcoholic beverages on their property, the present site of Pocahontas. A majority of residents, who could vote at either site, attended and voted for Bettis Bluff, the name of which was later changed to Pocahontas for reasons that still remain unknown, though a number of theories and legends have emerged.”

Two luncheons and the annual awards dinner during the AHA meeting were held at the 1872 Randolph County Courthouse, which was replaced in 1940 by a courthouse constructed by the Works Progress Administration. The 1872 facility, which is in the center of the town square, has since been renovated and now serves as the home of the Randolph County Chamber of Commerce.

The first Randolph County Courthouse was a frame structure that was built for $2,400 by Thomas O. Marr from 1837-39.

Writing for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Cindy Robinett says of the courthouses: “The first courthouse was built on land donated in July 1837 by Drew and his wife, Cinderella Bettis. The land was then transferred to James S. Conway, the governor of Arkansas at the time. The first courthouse was built between 1837 and 1839 but collapsed due to structural weakness. A second courthouse was built on the same plot. The contract for what’s now the old courthouse was given to John A. McKay of Helena. During the construction of the second courthouse, the offices of clerks and courts were moved first to the lower floor of the county jail, then to the store building of J.P. Black & Co. and then to the St. Charles Hotel. … The architecture of the courthouse is of early Victorian style. With intricate details adorning its woodwork, high stories and stilted windows, the courthouse is an imposing structure. … A cupola adorns the roof. The building once had a vault, but it was removed sometime in the 1930s. Although the old courthouse is no longer home to the court system, it’s still an important landmark for the city of Pocahontas.”

After county offices moved out, the building served during World War II as an entertainment center for those stationed at the nearby Walnut Ridge Army Flying School. It was later used as a library.

The courthouse constructed in 1940 is one block to the west. Voters approved construction of the building that year, and Randolph County Judge Joe Decker appointed an advisory board to oversee construction. The architect was Eugene John Stern and the general contractor was the E.V. Bird Construction Co.

Zachary Elledge writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “Randolph County dedicated its new courthouse on Dec. 28, 1940. The courthouse cost about $130,000, which was financed in part by money from a $78,000 bond issue and a $49,250 grant from the WPA. In the northeastern corner of the courthouse grounds stands a war memorial honoring Randolph County veterans, while in the northwest corner sits a memorial to Sgt. James Ray Hand of the Pocahontas Police Department, who was shot in the line of duty.”

An opening reception for this year’s AHA meeting was held across the street at the Randolph County Heritage Museum, one of the best county museums in the state. The museum contains part of a button factory that once was on the banks of the Black River. Visitors can learn how mussel shells were gathered from the river so mother-of-pearl blanks could be drilled from the shells and then turned into buttons. The museum opened in 2006 during the Pocahontas sesquicentennial celebration.

“A collection of pearls found in the Black River is on display,” Robinett writes. “The walls are lined with photographs of steamboats, bridges, barges and other testaments to the river era. The centerpiece of the room is a seven-foot alligator gar caught in the Black River in the early 1950s.”

Sessions at which various papers were presented during the AHA meeting were held at Marilyn’s Clogging Co. on the square along with the nearby Downtown Playhouse, which occupies a building constructed in 1941 to house the Imperial Theatre. The Imperial showed its first movie — “Blues in the Night” — soon before the United States entered World War II in 1941. It was the first public building in Pocahontas to have air conditioning, the first to use glazed brick and the first with neon lights. There sometimes were live performances by well-known northeast Arkansas musicians such as Gary Gazaway and Robert Bowlin. The last movie was shown in the 1970s, and the building was utilized for a time as an indoor archery range.

Marilyn’s has helped spur the revitalization of downtown Pocahontas by bringing regular crowds of children, their parents and other relatives to the square for dance classes and performances.

The Downtown Playhouse brings in additional crowds for stage productions.

In 1994, a nonprofit organization known as Studio for the Arts purchased the building that had housed the Imperial Theatre. The group, which was founded in 1987 by Andee Evers, renovated the structure and opened the Imperial Dinner Theatre in 1995. The live shows there proved so popular that a larger facility was built east of town in 2004 on Arkansas Highway 304. Unfortunately, that area flooded badly in the spring of 2011 and again this month.

During the first week of May, almost four feet of water flooded the building, which cost more than $2 million to build.

Shane Cummings, the Imperial Dinner Theatre marketing director, told KAIT-TV in Jonesboro: “It could be next spring before everything is back to the way it was before. We were depressed for about two hours and then we said, ‘That’s enough of that. We’ve got to go find out what we have to do next.'”

KAIT reported on its website: “Thick brown silt covered the stage, and the water inside the theater was a foot higher than in 2011. Cummings said he has found a few snakes and even a turtle during the time he and others have been trying to get the building back in order. The force of the floodwaters pushed in the doors and front windows of the facility. Had the flood not happened, the Imperial was set for a performance of ‘Annie.’ Cummings says the show will have to go on the road now. … He says venues in Cherokee Village and Jonesboro have reached out to see if performances could be held in their communities.”

Back downtown in the original movie theater, another group formed the Downtown Playhouse in 2014. Less than a year later, a live production of “A Time to Kill” sold out 13 shows. Other shows have sold out the theater since then.

In addition to having two dinner theaters, Pocahontas boasts the state’s oldest barbershop, the Sanitary Barbershop, which has been at the same location on North Marr Street on the town square since 1893.

Meanwhile, there has been a drugstore at the corner of Bettis Street and Broadway on the square since 1852. The Futrell family has operated the pharmacy there since 1962, and it still has a soda fountain. It’s where the locals gather to discuss sports and politics every weekday morning between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m.

Just down Bettis Street, a visit to Futrell’s Hardware is like stepping back into the 1940s.

An important addition to the downtown historic district is the Lesmeister Guesthouse, which opened in 2013 and provides upscale suites and vacation rental apartments. The business is named for Henry Lesmeister, a German immigrant who constructed the building in 1902. Lesmeister first lived in Lexington, Ky., after coming to the United States. He moved to Pocahontas in 1880 and his son became an architect who designed notable buildings in Pocahontas, Jonesboro and Memphis. Local dentist and Pocahontas native Patrick Carroll purchased the building, which had been vacant for several years, in 2011 and began restoration efforts.

Across the street from the guesthouse, an Italian restaurant known as Bella Piazza also brings people downtown at night.

A Randolph County Tourism Association publication describes downtown Pocahontas this way: “Downtown Pocahontas contains a 17-block National Commercial Historic District, one of the best examples of Victorian-era architecture in the state. Buildings dating back to 1860 grace the historic district. Many structures on the square have bronze markers giving the date of construction and history of the buildings. The historic district contains art galleries, flea markets and a variety store featuring Arkansas products and souvenirs. Other features include a dance studio, an online radio station and a day spa. Several structures in the historic district have recently undergone restoration, including the 1920 Frisco Railroad depot, the Lesmeister Guest House and Carroll’s Variety Store.”

Buxton writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “The late 19th century through the mid-1920s marked a golden age for Pocahontas. Seven hotels graced Pocahontas from antebellum days until the mid-1920s. Forty-three steamboats navigated the Black River at the turn of the century, making Pocahontas a strategic port of commerce. The Hoxie, Pocahontas & Northern Railroad came to Pocahontas from the south in 1896. The Hauk Railroading Co. started track construction southward to connect Poplar Bluff, Mo., to Pocahontas in 1902. The Frico constructed a new railroad bridge across the Black River in 1911.

“Early industries included four button factories, a brick company, Hanauer’s cotton gin, Grafton Stave & Heading Co. and Pocahontas Bending Works, which made wooden parts for wagon wheels. … By 1942, an egg dehydrating plant, which made powdered eggs for Army rations, employed about 500 people. In 1944, Brown Shoe Co. became the largest employer in Pocahontas and doubled in size in 1955. It ceased production in November 1995.”

In 2014, Peco Foods Inc. announced that it would build a $165 million poultry processing plant and hatchery in Pocahontas and a $35 million feed mill in Corning. More than 400 chicken houses were contracted by the company in Randolph County. More than 1,000 people eventually could be working at the 272,000-square-foot plant, which was built on 200 acres in the city’s industrial park south of town.

Tim Scott, the executive director of the Randolph County Chamber of Commerce, said last year: “This is probably the biggest economic development project of our lifetimes.”

Recent years also have been marked by a concerted effort to keep downtown viable and make it an attraction for people from throughout northeast Arkansas and southeast Missouri.

Luckily for those who operate businesses there, downtown sits high above the Black River and wasn’t adversely affected by this month’s flood.

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Spring on the Spring

Monday, May 15th, 2017

It’s breakfast time at the Olde Stonehouse Bed & Breakfast Inn on Main Street in Hardy, and innkeeper Vickie Rice is talking about the town she fell in love with after moving to Arkansas from Ohio.

Indeed, Hardy has its charms.

The homemade biscuits are hot, the eggs are cooked perfectly and I listen intently as Rice talks. She serves on the Hardy City Council and the Hardy Advertising & Promotion Commission, and she’s determined to find replacements for several restaurants that have closed in recent years. As the summer tourism season nears in this historic community along the Spring River, Rice hopes to help fill the void with occasional dinners, brunches and even afternoon high teas in a house built during the 1920s at a time when visitors were flocking to the area.

“By 1920, two blocks of Main Street were filled with businesses, including a bank, two cafes, two drugstores, a Ford automobile dealership and a grocery,” Wayne Dowdy writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Town leaders — perhaps most notably drugstore owner William Johnston — tirelessly promoted Hardy as a place where city dwellers could find relaxation. In an interview with a Memphis Press-Scimitar reporter, Johnston boasted that Hardy had the ‘finest fishing in the world.’

“Although most residents welcomed tourists, some townspeople found it difficult to adjust as the average population increased by thousands during the summer months. In 1935, café owner Tennie Meeker exclaimed: ‘You take a big trainload of people and dump them down suddenly in a small town like Hardy, and it nearly works everybody to death.’

“As the 20th century progressed, tourists increasingly relied on automobiles to travel to the Spring River area. Resting near the intersection of national highways 62 and 63, Hardy was easily accessible for those who traveled by car. When large-scale federal highway construction began in the 1950s, the tourism population shifted from long-term visitors to those looking for a weekend getaway.

“The established tourism industry in Hardy was augmented in 1955 with the construction of retirement homes by West Memphis developer John Cooper. The founding of Cherokee Village increased tourism to the Ozark foothills, and within a decade, the Hardy area was recognized as an important retirement center. In 1968, the Arkansaw Traveller Folk Theater was established in Hardy to preserve the culture of the Ozarks.

“When the railroad depot closed in the 1970s, some Main Street businesses relocated. This relocation accelerated when the Spring River flooded in December 1982. In their place, shops specializing in antiques and crafts were opened, which along with the draw of the Ozarks’ natural beauty helped Hardy remain a popular tourist destination.”

Hardy, which was established in 1883, is a product of the Kansas City, Springfield & Memphis Railroad.

The Arkansas Legislature’s offer to pay companies $10,000 for every mile of track laid in the state led to a boom in railroad construction during the decades after the Civil War. The town was named for James Hardy, a railroad contractor from Batesville.

Hardy is in northern Sharp County, and the county seat was in the southern part of the county at Evening Shade. It was a long trip on poorly constructed mountain roads. In 1894, Hardy was named as a second county seat, serving the northern part of Sharp County (Ash Flat was made the sole county seat in 1963). By the 1900 census, there were 347 people living in the town.

A lucky break for Hardy came in 1908 when a train’s mechanical failure resulted in a wealthy Memphis physician named George Gillespie Buford being stranded in Hardy. He walked around the area with his wife while waiting for the train to be repaired, and the couple decided it would be a nice place for a summer cottage.

In 1909, Buford purchased 50 acres on Wahpeton Hill. He later purchased additional land and constructed 10 cottages in 1912 to house summer visitors.

In 1932, L.L. Ward of Blytheville opened a nearby resort known as Rio Vista.

The YWCA built Camp Miramichee in 1916, the Boy Scouts built Camp Kia Kima the same year and the Girl Scouts built Camp Kiwani in 1920.

Hardy was filled each summer with visitors from as far away as St. Louis, Memphis and Little Rock.

“In addition to the railroad, bus service also connected Hardy to the rest of the world,” Dowdy writes. “By 1930, the town held 508 permanent residents, but its visitor population swelled to 1,000 per day between July and September.”

There are still shops in the old brick and stone buildings on Main Street in downtown Hardy, and Saturdays downtown can resemble a large flea market. But the biggest draw remains the Spring River, which in late spring and summer attracts hordes of weekenders in their 20s and 30s to float the river and party along its banks.

Charles Crawford describes the river this way in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Flowing through northeastern Arkansas for about 75 miles in a southeastern direction, the Spring River empties into the Black River near Black Rock. Mammoth Spring, adjacent to the Arkansas-Missouri state line, serves as the headwater for the Spring River. It expels more than 9 million gallons of water each hour through a vent 80 feet below the surface of Spring Lake, a low-turbidity body of water created by a dam downstream from the spring in what’s now Mammoth Spring State Park. Although the water from the spring flows into the lake with great force, the vent’s depth prevents viewers on the surface from seeing the characteristic bubbling that springs typically produce. The consistent discharge at the lake’s bottom keeps the river above a minimum depth year-round.

“The Spring River is joined several miles downstream by the South Fork, which flows eastward from its origin. As it is not fed by Mammoth Spring, the South Fork of the Spring River carries a less consistent volume of water and sometimes isn’t suitable for canoeing during later summer and early fall. However, its extensive gravel bars provide good sites for camping and picnicking.

“The constant supply of cold, clear water provided by this river and its tributary creeks, along with the rich alluvial soil built by the regular flooding from heavy rainfall, attracted people to the area from the first human discovery. … Major development in the area began when the Kansas City, Springfield & Memphis Railroad was built through the valley from 1881-83.”

Mammoth Spring is the largest spring in Arkansas, the second largest in the Ozarks and the seventh largest in the country as it pumps out an average of 9.78 million gallons of water per hour at a constant temperature of 58 degrees.

“U.S. Highway 63 now provides rapid travel through a large part of the scenic landscape along the river,” Crawford writes. “Hardy has particularly benefited from this access, becoming one of the most popular areas in north Arkansas. The upper portion of the Spring River is especially popular for swimming and canoe trips. Fishing also draws many visitors to the river. In addition to fish native to the area, the cool water temperature allows the stocking of trout throughout the year. Fly-fishing for rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout has become a popular sport. Increased recreational use beginning in the 1970s resulted in elevated levels of water pollution, but effective environmental protection has managed to maintain water quality along the river.

“Two fish hatcheries are located on the Spring River. The first, Mammoth Spring National Fish Hatchery, is operated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and is adjacent to Mammoth Spring State Park. The second, the Jim Hinkle Spring River State Fish Hatchery, is operated by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and is located two miles downstream from Mammoth Spring.

“Two small dams are located on the Spring River, both near the origin of the stream at Mammoth Spring. They are too near the headwaters of the river to provide flood control, thus leaving much of the river in a fairly natural state. The upper part contains numerous rocky rapids, several waterfalls and pools containing drifts and underwater snags. Floods occur frequently.”

Like Hardy, the city of Mammoth Spring came about in 1883 due to the railroad.

A Memphis native named Napoleon Hill opened the first school at Mammoth Spring in 1888 and promoted the town as a summer retreat for Memphians.

In 1887, the Mammoth Spring Improvement Co. constructed a dam at the spring to power a gristmill, cotton mill and cotton gin. The 198-foot limestone dam created Spring Lake. The property was purchased by the Arkansas-Missouri Power Co. in 1925. The company constructed a hydroelectric facility that operated until 1972, when it was donated to the state.

“Only the dams on the Spring River remain as testimonies to industrialization as the enterprises failed to find long-term success,” Sarah Simers writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “From the 1880s to the 1920s, Mammoth Spring had a textile mill, a shoe manufacturing plant and a soda bottling factory. Calumet Cotton Factory was the major employer in 1889 and was described as a two-story brick textile mill with 120 looms, 5,000 spindles and 150 employees. According to historian Brook Blevins, this factory was ‘a rare representative of this Southern industry in the Ozarks.’ The Chanticleer Packing Co., a poultry processing plant, opened during the Great Depression and provided jobs for Mammoth Spring and Fulton County residents until 1956.

“The tourist industry also began in the 1880s. In 1889, the first large hotel, the Nettleton, was built, and the Culp Hotel and Charlton Hotel soon followed. Like Eureka Springs and Hot Springs, Mammoth Spring profited from the health crazes of the late 19th century, which recommended bathing in hot natural springs as a cure for a host of physical ailments. … Memphis residents often vacationed in the town during the summer months. Finding the climate of the Ozark town to be much cooler than the Delta, they built large homes on the bluffs overlooking the river.”

Railroad passenger service on the Frisco line ended in 1968, but Mammoth Spring was easily accessible by automobile since it’s on U.S. 63. The former Frisco depot, which was built in 1886, was converted to a state park visitors’ center in 1971.

The Arkansas Legislature had approved the establishment of Mammoth Spring State Park in 1957, but land purchases didn’t begin until the late 1960s. Most land purchases had been completed by 1975.

According to an Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism publication: “In the late 1990s, the depot received a complete restoration with murals, memorabilia, authentic furnishings and life-size figures that portray train crews, station workers and passengers from the early 1900s. Audiovisual programs and exhibits tell the story of Mammoth Spring and the effect of the railroad on the area. A vintage Frisco caboose is parked nearby. On March 16, 1987, the park opened the 10th Arkansas Welcome Center just off U.S. Highway 63 and within sight of Missouri. In addition to providing travel and tourism information, the center also houses a gift shop, exhibits and offices. Park facilities include a modular playground, pedal boat rentals on the lake, a pavilion, picnic sites, a baseball field, a walking trail and an overlook at the springhead. … The walking trail circles the lake and crosses the old mill dam that provided power for the flour mill and the hydroelectric plant. Visitors may also tour the old power plant.”

The Arkansas Welcome Center is on the site that long housed the Mammoth Spring cattle sales barn.

Like Hardy, Mammoth Spring has a downtown district filled with old buildings. On the Friday night I visited, Wood’s Riverbend Restaurant and Fred’s Fish House were crowded with diners.

I had been advised by a friend to try out the German food at a tiny place downtown called La Pastorella. It was good advice.

German food in Mammoth Spring. Who knew?

Rural Arkansas serves up surprises around every turn.

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The farkleberry

Thursday, May 4th, 2017

The farkleberry is a shrub that can be found from the East Coast to Texas. It can grow to a height of almost 25 feet and has black berries that birds feed on.

Curtis Morris writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “The shrub is nearly unknown today.”

So why does it have its own entry in the state encyclopedia?

If you don’t know the answer to that question, you’re likely not old enough to remember Gov. Orval Faubus and editorial cartoonist George Fisher.

Faubus, who served as governor from 1955-67, helped clear brush along a state highway in Franklin County one day for what’s now referred to as a “photo op.” Lou Oberste, a writer and photographer for what later would become the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism, shot photos of the governor, who was dressed in overalls and carrying an ax.

Faubus had grown up in Madison County in the Ozarks and claimed to know the identities of most of the trees and bushes native to Arkansas. Along the highway that day, he pointed out redbuds, dogwoods and other trees he wanted saved.

After hearing about the publicity stunt, Fisher decided to draw cartoons showing Faubus with a farkleberry, whose wood was considered worthless.

Fisher grew up at Beebe and died in 2003 at age 80. He has been described by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial cartoonist John Deering as a man whose work “influenced and helped define Arkansas politics for a generation. He created a series of visual metaphors and themes that were widely associated with the politicians he caricatured and became a part of Arkansas political folklore. Fisher focused primarily on political, social and environmental issues.

“Fisher was born on April 8, 1923, near Searcy to Charles W. Fisher, a tree nursery owner, and Gladys Fisher. His mother died when he was five, and his father raised Fisher’s two brothers, sister and him. Fisher grew up in Beebe, where he attended school and started the Beebe Grammar School News. Fisher’s father was an avid reader and encouraged his son’s interest in drawing. He suggested an idea for Fisher’s first published carton, a sketch lampooning Gov. Homer Adkins.

“Fisher attended college in Beebe for a year while serving in the Army Reserves. He left college in 1943 after being called to active duty. While stationed in England, he attended drawing classes at the Municipal College of Art at Bournemouth and drew cartoons for his regiment’s newspaper. In Bournemouth, he met art student Rosemary Beryl Snook. While serving as an infantryman in the Battle of the Bulge, Fisher maintained a sketch diary of his fighting experiences. After the war, in 1946, Fisher married Snook and returned to college.

“His first cartooning experience was with the West Memphis News, run by World War II veterans determined to fight the abuses of Arkansas’ machine politicians. At the time of his hiring in 1946, Fisher wrote news stories in addition to drawing cartoons. The paper’s staunch reformist stance led to threats of lawsuits from the local political machine.”

The newspaper at West Memphis was shut down in 1949, and Fisher moved to Little Rock to begin a commercial art service. He approached Robert McCord at the North Little Rock Times and offered to draw political cartoons. McCord accepted his offer. Soon, the Arkansas Gazette and the Pine Bluff Commercial were reprinting some of the cartoons, giving Fisher a statewide audience.

“Fisher and his wife created a syndicated television show, ‘Phydeaux and His Friends,’ featuring puppets they sculpted,” Deering writes. “The puppets appealed to children, and the show’s political satire delighted adults. Local political figures, including Faubus, made guest appearances. Although Fisher initially supported Faubus, he quickly concluded that Faubus was an opportunist. Fisher’s most famous Faubus cartoon showed the governor addressing a Legislature of Faubus look-alikes in a biting commentary on his influence on state government.

“In 1972, the Gazette published Fisher’s cartoons several times a week. By the time he was hired as the paper’s editorial cartoonist in 1976, Fisher’s name was synonymous with the Gazette’s. Many of his cartoon symbols have become icons. He popularized the farkleberry bush in an account of a bizarre meeting of Faubus with state highway workers. As the story goes, Faubus stopped at a site where workers were clearing brush to demonstrate how it should be done. He named all the native plants, including the obscure farkleberry.”

So it was that the farkleberry came to be identified with the Faubus administration.

Faubus later called the walking path behind his Huntsville home the Farkleberry Trail.

When the Arkansas chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists began looking for ways to raise money for college scholarships, it decided to put on a stage show that would lampoon newsmakers. The inaugural show was held in 1967 (Winthrop Rockefeller’s first year as governor) and was known as the Farkleberry Follies. The follies were held every other year during legislative sessions through 1999.

Last month, the Political Animals Club of Little Rock held a program to mark the 50th anniversary of that first show. Veteran Little Rock advertising and public relations executive Ben Combs, who played Faubus, was joined by former Arkansas Senate chief of staff Bill “Scoop” Lancaster, who played Congressman Tommy Robinson. Lancaster brought back his Robinson character for the luncheon.

“We had some great Arkansas political characters to use as script material through the years,” Combs says. “These types of shows often are called gridiron shows, but the lawyers were already using that name. We came up with Farkleberry Follies for that first show, and it stuck.”

The show would sell out from Wednesday night through Saturday night. Combs says the tradition was for local elected officials to be seated up front on Wednesday nights followed by members of the Legislature on Thursday nights, the governor and other statewide constitutional officers on Friday nights and the members of the state’s congressional delegation on Saturday nights.

“We liked to put them up front so the other people attending could see their reactions when we made fun of them,” Combs says.

A driving force behind the Farkleberry Follies was Leroy Donald, who died in 2009 at age 73 after a long career as a writer and editor at the Arkansas Gazette and later the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Months in advance of the Farkleberry Follies, people such as Lancaster and Combs would gather with Donald for long nights of eating, drinking and script writing.

Combs says the goal was to “skewer the inflated egos of the political class with skits and songs.”

In his book “Inside the Arkansas Legislature,” Lancaster gives an example of the writing that made the show memorable: “The Arkansas Senate is like a fine bottle of Montrachet while the House is like a pitcher of Miller Lite — warm Miller Lite.”

The show was held at what originally was the Olde West Dinner Theatre and is now Murry’s Dinner Playhouse in southwest Little Rock. There was a political connection since the theater, which was new in 1967, was owned by Ike Murry, who served two terms as the state’s attorney general from 1949-53 when Sid McMath was governor. Murry ran for governor in 1952 and finished last in a field of five in the Democratic primary. He later became a regular at the weekday luncheons hosted for years by Little Rock financier Witt Stephens. Politics often dominated the discussions at those luncheons, where cornbread was always on the menu.

Bill Lewis, who was a longtime Gazette reporter, was the local chapter president for the Society of Professional Journalists the year the show began. He’s now 87 and still lives in Little Rock.

“We were attempting to get by on dues of $10 a year, and it was becoming increasingly difficult,” Lewis says. “So I invited the board to my little house at 14 Westmont Circle in Meadowcliff one Sunday afternoon. The board consisted of Marcus George, Robert McCord, Margaret Smith Ross, George Fisher and one or two others I can’t recall. I had been in a gridiron show while working for United Press in Baton Rouge so I proposed that we attempt one in the campaign off years to avoid conflict with the lawyers’ show. We talked about the idea, and everyone seemed agreeable. It was Fisher who came up with the name that afternoon. I was a little dubious, but I was overridden by the others. They thought it was great, and they were right.

“I negotiated with Ike Murry to use the Olde West Dinner Theatre. There were only two performances of the first show, but later we bowed to public demand, and it went up to a full week. The $12 ticket price for the first show included a buffet dinner and an open bar. The show made a ton of money. I hired Betty Fowler, who worked every show thereafter. The last production had a ticket price of $50, and it sold out.

“We rehearsed in the old synagogue on Broadway. The editor of the Benton paper volunteered to direct the show provided he had full control of the script. I reluctantly agreed, but then he began inserting four-letter words that I knew would be destructive. I called his hand on it. He threw down his script and stormed out. I’ve never seen him since. This happened two weeks before the opening. In desperation, I called Margaret Carter at UALR. She agreed. By some miracle, she whipped the show into shape. It was a huge hit. It made so much money that it was decided to open a scholarship fund for students studying journalism.”

Ernie Dumas writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Fisher had a significant role in formulating, producing and performing in the show, which took the name of the Faubus icon. Fisher usually began the show by caricaturing a few of the figures who would be lampooned. … Donald brainstormed and produced each show, rewrote the whimsical skits of others (“funnying them up,” as he described it) and directed the performances. The skits were often built around Broadway show tunes and popular songs, the lyrics altered to fit current public controversies.

“A few peformances proved so popular that they became regular features — Donald as the perennial political candidate Jim Johnson, Gazette news editor Bill Rutherford as University of Arkansas football coach and athletic director Frank Broyles, Arkansas Democrat political cartoonist Jon Kennedy as Sen. J. William Fulbright.”

When Little Rock banker B. Finley Vinson was planning the skyscraper that’s now the Regions Bank building, he wanted a fine-dining venue on the top floor. That became Restaurant Jacques & Suzanne’s. Vinson also wanted a less formal restaurant on the first floor that also would serve as a happy hour watering hole for the downtown business crowd. Public relations executive Ron Robinson suggested to Vinson that the place be called The Farkleberry and that the walls be covered with political cartoons and caricatures of well-known Arkansans.

The Farkleberry operated from 1975-88. Years later, Jack Fleischauer, who headed Arkansas operations for Regions Bank, found the cartoons from The Farkleberry in boxes in a storage room. He thought about throwing them away but decided to ask Skip Rutherford, the founder of the Political Animals Club, if he wanted them. Rutherford, now dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, saved the cartoons. Some of them are on display at the Clinton School and the others are stored at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.

In that sense, the fruit of the farkleberry lives on.

 

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Wide-open days in the Spa City

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The hottest spring

Monday, April 3rd, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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