Archive for the ‘Traveling Arkansas’ Category

From Brinkley to Forrest City

Friday, August 24th, 2018

FIFTH IN A SERIES

If you want to understand this part of the state, the Central Delta Depot Museum at Brinkley is a good place to start.

The Central Delta Historical Society was organized in the 1990s to celebrate the history of Monroe County along with parts of Prairie, Lee, Phillips, Arkansas, St. Francis and Woodruff counties. Louise Mitchell, who had been a teacher at Brinkley High School, began a letter-writing campaign in 1999 to save the historic depot at Brinkley.

In February 2001, Union Pacific Railroad deeded the station to the city of Brinkley. The city, in turn, signed a long-term lease with the Central Delta Historical Society. Renovation work began in 2001, and work was completed in 2003. The museum opened in May 2003.

The size of the depot gives one an idea of what an important railroad town Brinkley once was.

“Brinkley was ideally situated at the crossing of the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad (the state’s first rail line that was completed in 1871; it later became the Rock Island) and the Texas & St. Louis Railroad (later the Cotton Belt), which was laid through the city in 1882,” Bill Sayger writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “With two other rail lines coming in from the north and south, the city rapidly became the regional shipping center for cotton and timber products and a major point of transfer for rail passengers in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

“The brick train station originally opened on Sept. 16, 1912, and was constructed at a cost of $25,000. Its wing design and size, with freight rooms at each end of the building, made it the most striking of the Rock Island stations between Memphis and Little Rock. Passenger service ceased on the Cotton Belt in 1959 and the Rock Island in 1967. Because of the bankruptcy of the Rock Island, the train station was closed in 1980. Union Pacific took over operations of the Cotton Belt line and that part of the Rock Island between Memphis and Little Rock.”

A Missouri Pacific line connected Brinkley to Helena.

The White & Black River Railroad (later owned by the Rock Island) provided service from Brinkley to Jacksonport.

Headed east on U.S. Highway 70 out of Brinkley, I cross from Monroe County into St. Francis County.

St. Francis County has seen its population fall from a high of 36,841 in the 1950 census to about 25,000 people today. The territorial legislature carved St. Francis County from neighboring Phillips County in October 1827.

“A temporary county seat was set up at the home of William Strong until a permanent one was established at Franklin,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “However, in 1840, the county seat was moved to Madison. In 1855, the seat was moved again to Mount Vernon. But the courthouse burned the following year, and Madison regained its role. By 1860, there were 2,621 slaves in the county, constituting roughly 30 percent of the total population. Cotton and corn were the mainstays of the county’s economy at the time.”

The county seat was moved to Forrest City in 1874 following a vote by St. Francis County residents. People in Madison refused to release county records. A group from Forrest City went to Madison one night and stole the safe containing the records. A few months later, the framed building that served as the courthouse at Forrest City was burned.

The Memphis & Little Rock Railroad built a depot at what’s now Wheatley. The community originally was known as Britton. It was named Wheatley in 1872 in honor of a resident named Wheatley Dennis. Wheatley was in Monroe County at the time, but the county boundary was changed the next year.

The Wheatley Rice Milling Co. was established in 1909 as rice cultivation took off on the west side of Crowley’s Ridge. The rice dryer there became part of the Riceland Foods cooperative in 1945. That continues to be the most notable landmark in a community that had 355 residents in the 2010 census.

The next stop is Palestine, which represents a bright spot in the Delta.

While I was watching one of the state championship high school basketball games at Hot Springs in March, someone in the row behind me asked if I could visit for a few minutes. It was Jon Estes, the superintendent of the Palestine-Wheatley School District. Estes grew up in far south Arkansas at Bradley in Lafayette County. He was the superintendent of the Drew Central School District near Monticello when he accepted the Palestine-Wheatley job a decade ago. Estes didn’t know much about the Delta, but he understands rural Arkansas. He knows that for a small community to succeed, its public schools must improve.

The school districts at Palestine and Wheatley consolidated in the 1980s. The Palestine Red Devils and the Wheatley Pirates had been athletic rivals, but students soon learned to play together as Palestine-Wheatley Patriots.

Like most Delta communities, Palestine has struggled to maintain its population base. Palestine had a population of 681 in the 2010 census, down from a high of 976 in 1980.

Estes knew that I’m always looking for success stories in the Delta. He thought I might be interested in seeing what’s happening at Palestine, a place he likes to call the Holy City. I made good on my promise to pay him a visit.

Palestine was named in 1870 when the first post office opened. Some say the community got its name from a sawmill employee who was killed in an accident. Others say the first postmaster selected the name from the Bible. Palestine was incorporated in 1889 as businesses moved in along the busy railroad line. By 1905, there were five general stores, two grocery stores and a drugstore.

“The school, like others in the Delta, was facing declining enrollment, poor test scores and a declining annual fund balance when I got there,” Estes says. “With the help of what I consider the best teaching staff in the state, and under the direction of the best school board, the district turned all of that around. We now bill our district as the Diamond in the Delta.”

The Palestine-Wheatley School District has grown from about 535 students when Estes arrived to more than 800. All of the schools are now in Palestine, a move Estes says Wheatley residents bought into. To handle the influx of new students, Estes bought metal buildings in Yazoo City, Miss., that had been used to house evacuees following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The district has purchased 60 acres along Highway 70 on the west side of town, and construction will soon begin on a $20 million high school. A new elementary school opened in 2013.

People like to live where there are quality schools. That’s why it didn’t surprise me when Estes said there’s a subdivision being planned near the new high school. He even showed me where the concrete has been poured for a skating rink. When’s the last time you heard of a skating rink being built anywhere?

Estes shows me C.R. Smalls, the abandoned parts house that Cindy and Roger Smallwood transformed into a restaurant that attracts customers from Forrest City the east and Brinkley to the west. There’s a new Dollar General Store nearby. Estes says the parking lot is full at all hours. Triple G Excavating Inc. has expanded at Palestine in recent years.

Just down Highway 70, Burt Swiney is known by the locals as Barbecue Burt. He transformed his food trailer into a small restaurant.

“His food is so good that people would sit outside and eat it on cold days when there was nothing to cut the wind,” Estes says. “So he built a structure to seat those loyal patrons.”

Estes also mentions the growth of Standridge Heat, Air & Electric Inc.

“Max Standridge bought an old metal shop and moved his operations to Palestine,” Estes says. “He’s somewhat of a hero around the school because he air conditioned the weight room for our football players.”

There’s also the once-abandoned gas station that has been reopened as a modern Valero convenience store. I’m used to seeing empty buildings in the Delta. You don’t see much of that at Palestine.

We head downtown for the highlight of the tour. The Hurd family operates a Forrest City construction company. They’ve now bought most of the downtown area.

Josh and Brandy Hurd and Josh’s parents (Randy and Ladonna Hurd) are involved in the operation. They took an empty service station at Palestine and renovated it for their Crazy Donkey Grill, which serves everything from steaks to pizzas to Mexican food. They then reopened an adjoining car wash.

That’s not to mention Boondocks Down South or their adjacent furniture store.

“Boondocks is the kind of place where you can dress yourself for duck hunting, for a college football game or for Easter Sunday services,” Estes says. “They have everything from hunting equipment to fragrance candles. The Hurds also renovated a grocery store that had been closed for almost 20 years. They sell reclaimed furniture out of there. This is top-of-the-line stuff that’s shipped all over the country.”

Across from the furniture store, Littlefield’s Grocery is still going strong in downtown Palestine.

“It’s a country store that has stood the test of time,” Estes says. “You can buy anything from a chain for your bathtub stopper to a choice steak to Arkansas watermelons in the summer. And they still deliver groceries to people’s homes.”

Ladonna Hurd tells me about the hundreds of people who now converge on downtown for holiday parades and other special events.

Brandy Hurd says the Crazy Donkey was named for Domino, a donkey on their ranch who can always be counted on to “add a little extra crazy to our day.”

Their enthusiasm for what’s going on here is contagious. There’s a sense of promise, something missing in too many rural towns.

Palestine got it right. Instead of chasing industries, its leaders focused on improving the public schools and revitalizing downtown. If those things are done correctly, the rest follows.

Just to the east of Palestine, the traveler on Highway 70 crosses the L’Anguille River. Several creeks come together to form the river west of Harrisburg. It then flows to the south to almost Marianna, cuts across Crowley’s Ridge and empties into the St. Francis River.

“In the 18th century, French trappers operated along the river, naming it after the French word for eel,” Lancaster writes. “Friedrich Gerstacker described the river basin as consisting of ‘swamps and thorns, creepers, wild vines, fallen trees, half or entirely rotted, deep and muddy water-courses, bushes so thick that you could hardly stick a knife into them and, to complete the enjoyment, clouds of mosquitoes and gnats, not to mention snakes lying about on the edges of the water-courses.”

The L’Anguille bottoms later proved to be a major obstacle to the completion of the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad.

“As with much of northeastern Arkansas, the L’Anguille River basin was the site of enormous timber harvests in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” Lancaster writes. “After the land was cleared, the area became home to large agricultural enterprises, especially the rice farming that was emerging west of Crowley’s Ridge. … Many of the channels feeding into the river have been straightened for agricultural use, which has increased soil erosion. This runoff, combined with the presence of fecal coliform bacteria, resulted in portions of the river being listed by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality as ‘not supporting aquatic life’ in 1998.”

Numerous initiatives to improve water quality haven taken place since then.

Heading east into Forrest City, I begin to climb that geological oddity known as Crowley’s Ridge.

It begins in southern Missouri and ends at Helena.

“It is made up of a continuous series of rolling hills except for a slight break at Marianna,” Hubert Stroud writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “This break was created by the L’Anguille River as it flowed across the ridge. The ridge received its name from Benjamin Crowley, the first white settler to reach the area near present-day Paragould, sometime around 1820. … Crowley’s Ridge is an unusual geological formation that rises above the Mississippi Alluvial Plain. The ridge contrasts sharply with the surrounding flatlands of the Delta. In terms of formation, the ridge is generally thought to have once been an island between the Mississippi River and the Ohio River. It became a long and narrow hilly ridge after the rivers changed courses millions of years ago.”

Stroud notes that the ridge is capped by a deep layer of wind-deposited soils created millions of years ago when glaciers moved across the continent. He says that “rivers and streams that continued to meander across the plain washed away the loessial material. On Crowley’s Ridge, however, the loess continued to collect, up to 50 feet in depth in some locations. Since loess is very easily eroded, steep slopes and deep valleys characterize much of Crowley’s Ridge. One of the unique features of Crowley’s Ridge is its natural vegetation. Interestingly, many of the trees that make up the forest on Crowley’s Ridge are similar to those found in the west Appalachian Mountains. The ridge is covered with a lush mixed forest, including oak and hickory and uncommon hardwood trees such as American beech, sugar maple and the tuliptree or yellow poplar.

“Crowley’s Ridge also has extensive areas of pasture. Although the soil is relatively fertile, row crops such as soybeans and wheat are limited almost entirely to small floodplains along and near streams that flow out of the region onto the Mississippi Alluvial Plain. This is due to the highly erosive nature of the wind-blown soils of Crowley’s Ridge. The soils need a protective vegetative cover of some type such as pasture grasses or forests to combat severe soil erosion.”

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Biscoe to Brinkley

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

FOURTH IN A SERIES

The community of Biscoe, which had just 363 residents in the 2010 census, is located on what passes for a high spot in east Arkansas. It’s known as Surrounded Hill.

“Surrounded Hill was surveyed by the federal government in 1849,” writes Steven Teske of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. “Edwin Burr was the first settler to claim title to the land, registering his deed in Batesville in 1853. The area remained relatively unpopulated through the Civil War but gained significance with construction of the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad, which was completed through the Surrounded Hill area in 1871. A depot was built on flat land near the hill, and a post office was established in 1872 with the name Fredonia. The name of the post office was changed to Surrounded Hill in 1875, renamed Fredonia in 1881, then renamed Surrounded Hill again later the same year, and finally named Biscoe in 1902. The name Biscoe appears to have been chosen to honor landowner John Biscoe. An African-American Baptist church was established in 1872. Eldridge Atkins acquired land in the area in 1874. Abraham Boyd acquired land a few years later, which he divided into lots and sold to prospective homeowners. Boyd referred to the development community as Fredonia.”

By 1890, according to Teske, there were two general stores, two grocery stores, two saloons, a post office, a hotel, a blacksmith shop, a steam-powered cotton gin and a gristmill. Almost 2,000 refugees headed to Biscoe during the Great Flood of 1927.

“By 1937, Biscoe had a community hall, two schools, five churches (all African-American), eight general stores, a drugstore, a barbershop, two bus stations, two blacksmith shops, two gins, three filling stations, a train depot and a post office,” Teske writes.

Now, the main business is Mack’s IGA, a classic country store that has been around in one form or another since 1926.

The next community toward the east is Brasfield. U.S. 70 crosses the Cache River here, dividing Prairie County from Monroe County. Crossing the Cache means entering a vast bottomland that includes not only the lower Cache but also the Bayou DeView, Robe Bayou, Hickson Lake, Gator Pond, Bowfin Overflow, Straight Lake, Apple Lake and other oxbow lakes and sloughs.

Much of the land is owned by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission as part of Dagmar Wildlife Management Area. It’s among the most important wintering areas for ducks in the country and also has cypress trees that are hundreds of years old, black bears, alligators and bald eagles.

One of my favorite places to eat catfish in Arkansas once was on the banks of the Cache River at Brasfield. W.O. and Patsy Prince ran the Riverfront Restaurant & Fish Market. It was quite the experience. When headed east, you would turn down the gravel road to your right just before crossing the Cache River. You would order your meal in the bait shop on the banks of the river. You would then walk down to the boat that floated on the Cache. They would bring the food down the hill to you when it was ready.

The restaurant eventually closed, and the floating portion was swept away in a flood. The Princes later reopened the restaurant in a building on land in 2011. When they retired, that building was transformed into housing.

The Cache River begins near the Arkansas-Missouri border and runs through east Arkansas before emptying into the White River near Clarendon. It runs almost parallel to the White River in parts of the Arkansas Delta.

“After the Civil War, the lowlands of the Cache River proved a major obstacle for the construction of the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In fact, the federal military government deemed the section between the Cache and the L’Anguille rivers too expensive and difficult to build. The gap in the line wasn’t completed until 1871. … Though the Cache River area was an important source of timber, the area was not as extensively cleared as were other parts of eastern Arkansas due to the river’s reputation for flooding. Major stands of native hardwood survived.

“Because the Cache moves at a slow speed due to its low amount of fall per mile and the fact that the contour of the flat land surrounding it does not lend itself to levee construction, the Cache River can overflow its banks after only a few inches of rainfall. Work on the river in northeast Arkansas in the 1920s and 1930s straightened the channel of the river, even splitting the river into two separate ditches between Bono and Egypt in Craighead County. That helped speed the flow of the river, but farming along it was still a risky endeavor.

“During the Flood of 1937, the Cache River was one of a number of eastern Arkansas rivers that spilled across agricultural land. Planters, landowners and businessmen long advocated for some form of flood control along the Cache, which had no well-developed system of levees. The Flood Control Act of 1950 authorized the Cache River-Bayou DeView Project, which was a plan to dredge, clear and realign 140 miles of the Cache upstream from Clarendon, 15 miles of the upper tributaries and 77 miles of Bayou DeView. Initial funds for the project, projected to cost $60 million, were not approved until 1969.”

That set off one of the great environmental battles in Arkansas history. U.S. Rep. Bill Alexander of Osceola joined forces with farmers in the area so the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could move the project forward.

“On May 5, 1972, U.S. District Judge J. Smith Henley in Little Rock ruled in favor of the Corps,” Lancaster writes. “The plaintiffs soon appealed the decision. In July 1972, while the project was still under litigation, the Corps, in a controversial move, began the initial clearing and dredging in the Clarendon area. On Dec. 15, 1972, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis remanded the case to Henley, ruling that the Corps had not met the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act in preparing its environmental impact statement.

“In March 1973, the court ordered construction halted until the impact statement was revised. Three years later, the statement was finally approved. But the battle over the project had become a political contest, and funding for it was stalemated in Congress in 1977. Opponents of the project moved to create a national wildlife refuge along the river, partly to block the project but also to protect the river from rampant development then going on. In 1986, the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge was established, stretching south from Grubbs in Jackson County to Clarendon and incorporating a large swatch of Bayou DeView.”

William Faulkner was among those who wrote about the Big Woods of the Delta.

The Big Woods once stretched down both sides of the Mississippi River in parts of Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri. When Hernando DeSoto explored the region in the 1500s, the Big Woods made up the largest expanse of forested wetlands in North America. There were 24 million acres of forests in the Big Woods at that time.

There are now fewer than 5 million forested acres remaining.

Most of the acreage that made up the Big Woods was cleared of trees, drained and converted to row-crop agriculture during the past 100 years. Of the remaining forested land in the Delta, almost 1 million of those acres are in Arkansas.

The Big Woods of Arkansas are an international treasure. In 1989, these remaining bottomland forests in east Arkansas were recognized by the 49 countries of the United Nations’ Ramsar Convention as a “Wetland of International Importance.”

A stretch of 550,000 forested acres in east Arkansas is the largest corridor of bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the region north of the Atchafalaya River in south Louisiana.

For five decades, the ivory-billed woodpecker was thought to be extinct. That’s why people became so excited in the early 2000s when there were reported sightings in the Big Woods of Arkansas.

Frank Gill, a senior ornithologist at the National Audubon Society, called the discovery “huge, just huge. It’s kind of like finding Elvis.”

John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, said in April 2005: “Through the 20th century, it has been every birder’s fantasy to catch a glimpse of this bird, however remote the possibility. This really is the holy grail.”

Eight independent sightings were reported in 2004-05 as ornithologists converged on east Arkansas. The reports all came within two miles of each other. Fitzpatrick headed a team that assessed the sightings and published his findings in the journal Science.

National Geographic stated in 2005: “Among the world’s largest woodpeckers, the ivory-bill is one of six North American bird species suspected or known to have gone extinct since 1880. The last conclusive sighting of the woodpecker was in Louisiana in 1944. The black-and-white bird’s disappearance followed extensive logging in the southeastern United States, which decimated the woodpecker’s habitat of mature virgin forests. Since then this charismatic species has become the Elvis of the bird world, with whisperings over the years that it might still be alive in some secret hideaway. Experts remained highly skeptical. That is, until now.”

On Feb. 11, 2004, amateur naturalist Gene Sparling of Hot Springs reportedly encountered an ivory-billed woodpecker while kayaking on Bayou DeView.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology conducted research in the area during the next 14 months and announced on April 28, 2005, during a news conference in Washington that the bird had been rediscovered. Ongoing research resumed on Nov. 1, 2005, but there was never anything more definitive.

Was it really an ivory-bill or just a large pileated woodpecker?

Was there only one male left and it died?

Who knows?

National Geographic wrote that Fitzpatrick viewed the ivory-bill as “a powerful symbol of the forests of the Deep South.”

“The lure of the wild and the lure of the beauty of birds and the lure of the mysterious-and-possibly-gone is enveloped in the idea of this bird,” he said.

When soybean prices soared in the early 1970s, tens of thousands of acres were drained and cleared in east Arkansas. Fortunately, much of that land is now being replanted in hardwoods

The Nature Conservancy describes the situation this way: “The rivers of the Mississippi River Delta and the Big Woods are vital to the health of their surrounding hardwood forests. Without naturally functioning rivers, the ecosystem changes dramatically. The forests are no longer wetlands.

“Dams, levees and irrigation projects … have virtually eliminated floods along the Mississippi River’s main stream, and tributary flooding has been reduced by 90 percent. Unable to disperse among the forests, water runs faster and stronger in straightened river channels, thus accelerating erosion. As riverbanks erode, forest vegetation loses its foothold and is swallowed by the river.”

Monroe County, which lost the highest percentage of population of any Arkansas county from the 2000 census to the 2010 census, contains a large part of the Big Woods. Those population losses have continued. The people of this county have known plenty of troubles through the decades.

“Two natural disasters devastated large sections of the county,” Louise Mitchell writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “First was a massive tornado on March 8, 1909, that destroyed everything in its path from about five miles southwest of Brinkley to about 10 miles northeast of it. Thirty-five people were killed, and about 200 were injured. Nearly every building in the city was destroyed or damaged. Second was the Flood of 1927 along the White River, which soon covered most settlements in the lower section of the county. On April 20, 1927, the levee system protecting Clarendon failed. Soon, the town stood in 20 feet of water.”

Brinkley, once a significant railroad town, has been bleeding population for decades, falling from 5,275 residents in the 1970 census to about 3,000 people now.

Robert Campbell Brinkley of Memphis was one of the promoters of the Little Rock & Memphis Railroad, which was given a land grant by the state of Arkansas in 1852 to run through the northern part of the county.

The town of Brinkley, which was named for the railroad promoter, was platted in 1869-70 and incorporated in 1872.

“Situated at the highest point between Crowley’s Ridge and the west side of the White River at DeValls Bluff, the community grew from a campsite called Lick Skillet that was used by the railroad’s construction workers,” Jane Dennis writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Legend has it that when the day’s work was completed, the railroad crew cooked dinner over a campfire and retired for the evening only when the last skillet was licked.

“Construction of the rail lines between Memphis and Little Rock brought the city of Brinkley into being, but the accomplishment wasn’t without challenges. In 1862, when the railway advertised the opening of the route, 17 miles between DeValls Bluff and Brinkley had to be negotiated by boat or stage via Clarendon — 16 miles by stage when possible and 35 miles by boat, a trip of five to six hours depending upon weather. But after the completion of the bridge across the White River in 1871, the two portions of the line were connected, making the Little Rock & Memphis Railroad the first completed in Arkansas.”

Memphis investors William Black and John Gunn established a large sawmill south of town in the late 1870s. They later started a company to construct parts for the rail line. They completed a line to the north that became part of the Rock Island Railroad. They built a line to the south that became part of the Arkansas Midland Railroad. The wholesale business John Gunn Grocery Co. also became one of the largest businesses in east Arkansas.

Taking advantage of the railroad traffic moving through the town, the Cotton Belt Hotel was constructed in 1883 and the first electric plant was established in 1896.

“The railroads facilitated the rapid export of lumber and lumber products from area sawmills, stave mills and related industries,” Dennis writes. “Brinkley developed as a pivotal crossroads in east Arkansas, halfway between Memphis and Little Rock with railroads leading in all directions. The town increased in size from 325 people in 1880 to 1,648 in 1900. … By the 1890s, Brinkley’s business district included several mills, factories and shops. Land surrounding Brinkley was used for farming. As the densely wooded land was cleared, cotton cultivation began. Cotton gins and compresses were established. Besides cotton, rice cultivation became a major economic factor in the early 1900s. In the early 1890s, the business district was rebuilt after fire destroyed it.

It was rebuilt again following the 1909 tornado. The mechanization of agriculture after World War II eventually did what floods and tornadoes couldn’t do — cause massive population losses.

 

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Hazen to Biscoe

Friday, May 11th, 2018

THIRD IN A SERIES

I leave Hazen on my trek east on U.S. Highway 70. Within a few minutes, I’m entering DeValls Bluff. This town on the banks of the White River, which had just 619 residents in the 2010 census, has always had a special allure.

I’m in Prairie County now. My mother was raised at Des Arc, one of the two county seats. My grandfather, who died in 1980 at age 96, owned the hardware store and the funeral home in town. He was active in politics, serving for a time as county judge in the 1930s. The time he spent in various countywide offices required frequent trips to DeValls Bluff, the other county seat.

Like so many counties in the eastern half of our state, Prairie County has been losing population for decades. Its population was 17,447 in the 1920 census. By the 2010 census, it was less than half that — 8,715 to be exact

“When Arkansas became a state, the area that is today Prairie County was first a part of Arkansas, Pulaski, Monroe, St. Francis and White counties,” Marilyn Hambrick Sickel writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “On Nov. 25, 1846, Arkansas Gov. Thomas S. Drew signed the legislative act creating Prairie County, so named for its dominant characteristic, the Grand Prairie. At the time, the boundaries extended into nearly all of present-day Lonoke County. Brownsville was designated as Prairie County’s first county seat in 1846. A wood-frame courthouse was erected, which lasted until a fire destroyed it on Sept. 16, 1852. However, the building was rebuilt, and the seat remained in Brownsville until 1868. In 1873, Lonoke County was carved from Prairie County.”

Jacob DeVall and his son Chappel found a place along the lower White River in the 1840s and established a mercantile store there. What would become DeValls Bluff has had fewer than 1,000 residents since the Civil War. It reached its post-war high-water mark with 924 residents in the 1910 census and was down to 619 people in the most recent census.

But Bill Sayger writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “Excluding Helena, no other town in eastern Arkansas held such strategic importance to the Union Army during the Civil War as did DeValls Bluff.”

DeValls Bluff has always punched above its weight, as they say over in the sports department. I like history, and I like food. DeValls Bluff has plenty of both.

“At the beginning of the Civil War, DeValls Bluff was home to a store, a dwelling house and a boat landing,” Sickel writes. “In the fall of 1863, Gen. Frederick Steele moved from Clarendon and occupied DeValls Bluff. From then until the close of the war, DeValls Bluff was a supply base for the Union Army. War materials were brought from Northern states down the Mississippi and then up the White River and stored in warehouses near the river.

“At DeValls Bluff, supplies could be shipped to Little Rock and other points west on the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad. … Large numbers of soldiers were stationed at DeValls Bluff, and many of them fell victim to the ‘Clarendon shakes’ (malaria), which was prevalent in the area. The county seat was in DeValls Bluff from 1868-75. In 1875, the county seat was moved to Des Arc. Then, in 1885, the county was divided into northern and southern districts with courthouses in both Des Arc and DeValls Bluff. This division was due to the frequent flooding along the White River, which divided the county and made it impossible for citizens in the southern half of the county to pay their taxes on time.

“Prairie County began rebuilding. The Memphis & Little Rock Railroad was completed through the Surrounded Hill area in 1871. That same year, a rail line was laid through what’s now Brasfield, which grew up around it. The railroad caused DeValls Bluff to lose its importance as a shipping center, and its population declined dramatically. Industries in the county after the war included fishing, timber, steamboat trade, railroading and farming. Eventually industries setting up shop in the county included button factories (using mussel shells from the White River), a boat oar factory, a cannery, stave mills, hay production, cotton gins, a flour mill, a nursery, an ice factory and dairies.”

DeValls Bluff is filled with historical markers these days, most of which outline the strategic role it played during the Civil War. I’ve read them all.

Sayger notes that when the water was low on the Arkansas River during the conflict, “many boats couldn’t reach the capital city. But they could navigate up the White River to DeValls Bluff. Men and material could be transferred to the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad’s trains to be transported to Little Rock. For that reason, DeValls Bluff’s port area was heavily fortified for the remainder of the war and was home to many soldiers — black and white — and refugees. … The troops stationed at DeValls Bluff patronized stores and saloons that rapidly sprang up, many operated by Northern men such as Daniel P. Upham of New York, who came to town in the closing days of the war to open a saloon in partnership with a man named Whitty.”

Sayger writes that some of the Union officers who had been stationed at DeValls Bluff stayed around during reconstruction.

“William S. McCullough, a lawyer, farmer and local Freedmen’s Bureau agent — lived there until the 1880s when he moved to Brinkley and established the Brinkley Hotel,” Sayger writes. “Joel M. McClintock was an early Prairie County sheriff, lawyer, abstractor and landowner. Logan Roots, for whom Fort Roots at North Little Rock is named, had farming operations there for a time and later became one of the state’s leading bankers. He gave the property for the town’s first Methodist church. … Dr. William W. Hipolite, surgeon for some of the African-American troops stationed there, settled in the town and operated a drug store for many years.”

The Wells boat oar factory opened at DeValls Bluff in the 1880s. Jim O’Hara of Memphis opened a button factory there in 1896.

A courthouse built in 1910 was torn down in 1930. Using salvaged materials, workers with the Works Progress Administration built a new courthouse on the site in 1939. It still stands, though most county business is conducted in Des Arc these days. The public schools at DeValls Bluff were consolidated into the Hazen School District in the fall of 2006.

If I were forced to pick just one barbecue restaurant to visit in the state, it would be Craig’s Bar-B-Q at DeValls Bluff. Lawrence Craig, who had learned to cook on boats plying the Mississippi River, joined forces with other members of his family to open Craig Brothers Cafe in 1947. The restaurant has been going strong ever since. In 1997, Craig’s was one of the featured restaurants at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C.

On its Southern Barbecue Trail website, the Southern Foodways Alliance says of Craig’s: “Three generations have supplied many satisfied customers with a variety of smoked meats, most notably smoked and sliced pork sandwiches slathered with a sauce made with hints of apple and bell pepper. Their signature sauce was developed over the kitchen table of the Craig family home.”

Robert Craig, Lawrence’s son, said when asked about the sauce: “My mom was just in the kitchen one day, putting a little bit of this and putting a lit bit of that together. And my dad said, ‘Well yeah, it tastes all right.’ And so he obviously introduced it to the public, and it has been skyrocketing ever since.”

DeValls Bluff also was the home of Mary Thomas’ Pie Shop. Thomas, who’s no longer alive, sold pies across the highway from Craig’s for more than 30 years. In the 1990s, Lena Rice began selling her own pies at DeValls Bluff. She died in 2005, but Ms. Lena’s Pies is still in  business, providing yet another reason for a trip to DeValls Bluff.

River towns can be tough places, and DeValls Bluff is no different. Bars have long been a fixture in the city’s small downtown. These days it’s a place called Grasshopper’s with bright green paint on the building and this motto on its sign: “Come grumpy, leave happy.”

DeValls Bluff has attracted duck hunters and fishermen since the 1800s. In the days before the Corps of Engineers built large impoundments across the state, the White River at DeValls Bluff attracted wealthy families from as far away as Little Rock and Memphis on weekends. They had fancy houseboats on the river and built expensive cabins along its banks. They hunted ducks in the winter while fishing on the White River and its oxbow lakes the rest of the year. A sporting goods store called The Bottoms operates in DeValls Bluff’s small downtown to serve those who still visit the area. There are still plenty of nearby hunting camps.

One of the old buildings in downtown DeValls Bluff once housed the Castleberry Hotel. The two-story structure, which was constructed in 1925, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

U.S. 70, of course, once was the main road between Little Rock and Memphis. Thousands of vehicles passed in front of the hotel each day. It was written in the nomination form for the building to be on the National Register: “As a road system developed across Arkansas in the beginning of the 20th century, DeValls Bluff ended up on the road designated Highway A-1, which connected Little Rock with Memphis to the east and Fort Smith to the west. The importance of the highway was also noted when the U.S. highway system was created in 1925, and it received the designation U.S. 70. … It was important to provide goods and services to travelers on U.S. 70 as it passed through DeValls Bluff, especially since the highway followed Main Street. In 1925, the Castleberry Hotel was constructed to provide services to travelers. It replaced another hotel and movie theater that were on the site. The building had the public spaces (lobby and restaurant) on the first floor and 24 rooms on the top floor. The hotel, which was built in the Craftsman style, also exhibited the latest in architectural style.

“After the Castleberry Hotel opened, it apparently became the place to stay in DeValls Bluff. Although two other hotels appear on the April 1924 Sanborn map, a hotel for African-Americans on Williams Street east of Main Street and the Central Hotel on Brinkley Street east of Main Street, both had gone out of business by 1950. The Castleberry Hotel’s location on Main Street, conveniently across the street from an auto repair shop and filling station and next door to another restaurant, meant that it was highly visible to travelers passing through.

“By 1950, the hotel had changed names and was called the Rogers Hotel. Although it is not known when the hotel closed, the construction of Interstate 40 in the area in the 1960s took much of the through traffic and its associated businesses off U.S. 70, likely causing the hotel to close. Prior to the arrival of the interstate highway system, locally run hotels such as the Castleberry were the lifeblood of many communities on U.S. and state highways. The Castleberry Hotel is a living reminder of the facilities that served travelers in the early and mid-20th century.”

I cross the White River on a modern bridge, thinking back to the old drawbridge that used to be the crossing on U.S. 70. It always would scare my wife to cross that narrow span, which was built in 1924. It was a toll bridge originally and was the brainchild of a Stuttgart entrepreneur named Harry Bovay.

I found a 1988 document from the Arkansas Historic Bridge Recording Project that provided background on U.S. 70 and its old bridge.

“The first mail route established between Little Rock and Memphis commenced operation in 1824 over practically the exact route of the present U.S. Highway 70,” the document states. “This route was used in moving the Cherokee Indians from their lands east of the Mississippi to those in the west. U.S. Highway 70, part of which formed the historic link between Memphis and Little Rock, was developed in the early decades of the 20th century as one of the most important routes in Arkansas. Its informal title, the Broadway of America, recognized its national importance. Highway 70 between Little Rock and Memphis formed a part of the route from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and its historic development characterized it as one of the most interesting overland routes in the state.

“The earliest development of the route between Little Rock and Memphis took place in 1821 when, by an act of Congress passed that year, ‘a road from Memphis to Fort Smith via Little Rock was authorized.’ Its development was further stimulated by its establishment as a mail route in 1824. It was the railroad, however, that first contributed to the real improvement of the route. This improvement was stimulated further by the increasing importance of Little Rock. The Memphis & Little Rock Railroad Co., incorporated on Jan. 10, 1853, and later absorbed into the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad Co., was the first to develop the overland route between the cities. The last spike on the completed route was not driven until April 11, 1871. Its development faced the same two problems that characterized the development of Highway 70 — the river crossings at Madison over the St. Francis River and at DeValls Bluff over the White River.”

The rail route was completed in 1871 when the railroad bridge at DeValls Bluff opened. It was the only bridge crossing the river there until the toll bridge was completed at the end of 1924.

“The extent of the river, extending some 600 feet, meant that a ferry crossing was the most simple means of passage,” the 1988 document states. “The disadvantage was that the route was impassable during the winter and spring floods. While it was clear that a bridge allowing permanent crossing of the river was required, the capital investment needed was a major difficulty. It remained to the visionary Harry E. Bovay to organize the finance and to construct the bridge. The story of the White River bridge at DeValls Bluff began with the single-minded vision of Bovay.”

A 1925 article in the Grand Prairie Herald noted: “A peculiar feature about this structure is that it was built by a man who, without funds, devised, schemed and manipulated what at first seemed a vision, but who by concerted effort and the willpower to succeed, turned the vision into a reality.”

The bridge was constructed by the Missouri Valley Bridge & Iron Co. of Leavenworth, Kan., the same company that had built the Broadway Bridge at Little Rock. The bridge opened on Jan. 1, 1925. The final cost of construction was $302,111. The Grand Prairie Herald reported: “The draw is operated by gasoline motor but if necessary it can be operated by hand. A total rise of 50 feet gives a clearance of 55 feet above extreme high water. Only two to three minutes time is required to raise the draw.”

The bridge was purchased by the state on Nov. 1, 1930, for a sum of $1 and bond debt of $430,000.

I next pass through Biscoe, which had just 363 residents in the most recent census. During the four years I worked for the Delta Regional Authority and drove weekly to the DRA headquarters in Clarksdale, Miss., my favorite fruit and vegetable stand each summer was here. I would take the Biscoe exit off Interstate 30 and stop at the stand at the intersection of U.S. 70 and Arkansas Highway 33.

In the early days of this blog back in July 2009, I wrote: “Many of the tomatoes are picked within walking distance of the stand. After just a couple of days of ripening in my kitchen window at home, they ended up being the best tomatoes I’ve had this summer. Sorry, Paul Greenberg, but they were even better than the Bradley County pinks I had bought. … The cantaloupes are also some of the best I’ve had. Just be warned that during this hot period, your car will smell like a cantaloupe for several more days. So be sure you like the smell.”

Morning commutes in those DRA days always meant a stop for a sausage biscuit and coffee at Martin’s IGA (now Mack’s), a classic country store that has been around since 1926. It’s about the only business at Biscoe these days.

 

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Lonoke to Hazen

Thursday, May 10th, 2018

SECOND IN A SERIES

I spend far longer than I had planned at the Lonoke County Museum in Lonoke on my trip from Little Rock to Memphis on U.S. Highway 70.

The museum is downtown in a building has housed everything from a doctor’s office to an automobile dealership through the years.

One of the more interesting exhibits concerns Eberts Training Field, which was established near Lonoke in 1917. It was among the biggest training centers in the country for World War I pilots. It was named for an early Arkansas aviator and West Point graduate named Melchior McEwan Eberts.

“Lonoke County outbid Pulaski County to get the aviation school to locate in Lonoke, which offered 960 rent-free acres and a new railroad spur connecting the field with the Rock Island Railroad tracks,” Johnnie Carolyn Bransford writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The U.S. government accepted the Lonoke offer on Nov. 19, 1917, and construction started Dec. 19. The first cadets and solders arrived in the spring of 1918.

“The Lonoke Cemetery was across the road from the airfield. The instructors used the cemetery as a grim reminder of where the cadets who made mistakes would end up. The training planes — the Curtis JN-4D or ‘Flying Jenny’ — were known as ‘flying coffins.’ Before the barracks were built, the enlisted men were housed in the Lonoke school gymnasium. Many of the officers were housed in the Frank Barton home, which still stands at 220 Park St. in Lonoke.

“From early March 1918 until March 1919, thousands of airplanes were used for training at Eberts Field. The Arkansas Gazette reported that it was not uncommon to see several hundred planes flying in formation over the field. Planes from training schools in adjoining states sometimes joined them. … The Eberts Field aviation school never had the opportunity to train pilots fully. World War I ended on Nov. 11, 1918, shortly before the first class graduated.”

A century later, there are few signs of the field.

Lonoke has produced its share of residents who have made a mark on Arkansas history.

Charles William Cunning writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “Lonoke has provided the state with two governors, James P. Eagle and Joe T. Robinson. Robinson also served as a congressman and U.S. senator and was the Democratic candidate for vice president in 1928, the state’s first candidate on a major-party ticket. Lonoke also produced William Claude Bradford, who served as assistant adjutant general of the Arkansas National Guard in World War I; William Heber McLaughlin, who served in France during World War I and became a member of the Arkansas General Assembly; and Maurice ‘Footsie’ Britt, who was decorated with the Medal of Honor in World War II and served as Arkansas’ lieutenant governor from 1967-71.

“Other natives of Lonoke include Eddie Hamm, who set an Olympic record in the broad jump in the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam; Jim Lee Howell, who served as head coach of the New York Giants from 1954-60, winning the NFL championship in 1956; and Elsijane Trimble Roy, who was named the state’s first female judge in 1966 and Arkansas’ first female federal judge in 1977.”

I’m in the heart of the Grand Prairie now as I head east toward Carlisle.

“The tall natural grasses of the state’s Grand Prairie and good soil and water drew farmers from other states to settle this area, including the founders of Carlisle, Samuel McCormick and his wife, L.J. McCormick,” Shirley McGraw writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “There are two stories pertaining to the naming of Carlisle. The first holds that Samuel McCormick had lived in Carlisle, Pa., and named the town after his former home. The second says McCormick named the town after a close friend who was a senator from another state. The McCormicks entered a bill of assurance and plat on Aug. 1, 1872, at the recorder’s office in Prairie County. Carlisle became an incorporated town on Aug. 28, 1878. In 1882, about 100 square miles of land, including the town of Carlisle, was annexed to Lonoke County from Prairie County.”

The Memphis & Little Rock Railroad was completed from DeValls Bluff to Little Rock in 1858. The tracks were destroyed during the Civil War but rebuilt following the conflict.

“The Memphis & Little Rock Railroad, later becoming the Rock Island, ran along Main Street, where the passenger and freight depots were located,” McGraw writes. “The railroad ensured a faster means to move products to markets. In 1879, the natural prairie grasses were shipped by rail to other states for feed. Carlisle Creamery and the Southern Creamery Co. condensed milk factory employed Carlisle residents in the early 1900s. They also shipped milk by rail and sold the byproducts to farmers for feed. … The railroad brought important people to town. President Teddy Roosevelt spoke to a large crowd from the train caboose in 1905 after his trip to Little Rock. On March 15, 1912, the town’s merchants organized a fundraiser to entertain former President William Howard Taft. Upon arrival, Taft made a short speech from the train. He took a tour by automobile to view the rice fields and creameries.”

In January 1909, a charter was issued for the Carlisle Rice Mill. The mill was purchased by the Arkansas State Rice Milling Co. in 1917 and became Riviana Foods in 1965, making among other things the crisped rice for the Nestle Crunch candy bar. Kraft operated a food plant in Carlisle from 1928-49.

W.H. Fuller, who had first seen rice being grown in south Louisiana, decided to experiment with the crop near Carlisle. His first crop failed when he had problems with his wells. In 1904, he produced a rice crop that yielded 5,225 bushels from 70 acres. Rice growing soon dominated the Grand Prairie economy, replacing cotton as king. Arkansas now produces half of the nation’s rice.

Just before reaching Hazen, I pass my favorite spot for fried catfish in the state, Murry’s Restaurant.

Murry’s was in DeValls Bluff for many years and was a favorite road trip when I would visit my grandparents in Des Arc. Mike Trimble — a gifted storyteller who once wrote for the Arkansas Gazette, the Arkansas Times and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette — described the original Murry’s as a place that “appears at first glance to be a minor train derailment.”

Trailers were strung together as dining rooms. It was a brown-bag establishment in the tradition of a lot of the old restaurants in Delta areas of Arkansas and Mississippi. People in Little Rock would rent buses to take them to DeValls Bluff for feasts of fried catfish (Olden Murry might throw in fried crappie for special friends), turnip greens and black-eyed peas.

Murry opened the restaurant in the 1960s after an injury forced him to end his career on a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers snagboat. In his 1987 book “Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History,” John Egerton described the restaurant as “a rambling catacomb of interconnected coaches, trailers and prefabricated rooms.”

He called Murry the “Rembrandt of the kitchen.”

I happen to think that his son-in law, Stanley Young, is turning out even better food at the current location. And there’s no better hostess than Stanley’s wife Becky.

When I was much younger, I would load up my car with friends for a road trip to DeValls Bluff. We would eat a barbecue sandwich at Craig’s (medium sauce; I can’t handle the hot sauce there) for an appetizer and then make the short drive over to Murry’s for catfish. I miss that rabbit warren of trailers, though I always feared that a grease fire in the kitchen would incinerate us all.

After a visit to Murry’s current location several years ago, Max Brantley wrote on the Arkansas Blog: “The crowd wasn’t as big as the throng a few miles west at Nick’s in Carlisle, but I don’t know why. Boss Stanley Young has been frying catfish for 41 years, following in a half century of Olden Murry’s footsteps.”

Though Murry’s is known for fish, Brantley wrote on the blog that Stanley has the best chicken fried steak in the state and some of the best steaks. I’ve had both. And they live up to their billing. I always start with the onion rings. Brantley wrote that they come out “crisp and stay crisp, with fat hunks of sweet, moist onion inside the crackly coat.”

Egerton’s book, which was published by Alfred A Knopf in 1987, is considered a classic. He wrote at the time: “Olden Murry has been frying fish for the faithful for about 20 years, before which he was a riverboat cook on the Mississippi. On the wall inside the place is a photograph of U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers. It is autographed to Olden Murry, ‘the best cook in Arkansas.’ With generous allowances for political overstatement, Bumpers may have been right on target.

“Here is a man with 45 years of cooking experience whose reputation is secure, not only for the catfish he prepares but for the steaks, chicken, quail, frog legs, barbecue, shrimp, oysters and veal. He makes his own meal-based and flour-based batters and breading to dredge his seafoods and meats in, and he keeps the formulas to himself. He buys catfish both from fishermen on the nearby White River and from commercial processors. He completely empties and refills his deep-fat fryers with fresh cooking oil at least twice a week — a sure sign of devotion to quality — and he cooks his fish quickly at high temperatures, the better to seal in flavor and produce a crisp, crunchy crust. ‘I go by looking at the fish and listening to the grease to tell when it’s done,’ Murry said. ‘Every batch is different, so you have to pay attention.’ No automatic timers or fixed temperature controls for him.

“There is no sign of any kind outside Murry’s Cafe, and there are none out on the highway, but it is not at all unusual for 200 or more people to show up there on any given night, many of them having driven 70 miles from Little Rock. Most of the people who work at Murry’s are members of his family, including a majority of his seven children. Murry’s is a home-folks kind of place — the same staff serving consistently fine food to mostly regular customers in plain and unpretentious surroundings. It seems to be an invincible combination.

“The day Ann and I stopped there, it was four o’clock in the afternoon, and Olden Murry was just about to open for business. A fisherman who called himself Catfish John was there with 100 pounds of dressed fresh White River catfish, and soon he and Murry consummated a deal for them. Then the veteran chef heated his fresh oil to just the right temperature, rolled some of Catfish John’s finest fillets in the secret batter and fried them for us. The plates he brought to our table were like advertising pictures — the crisp golden fish, long slivers of french fries, a mound of creamy coleslaw, a ring of fresh onion, a length of dill pickle, a pepperoncini pepper, a wedge of lemon, a smoking-hot corn cake that looked and tasted like a hushpuppy’s rich first cousin. Everything was artistically arranged, prepared to perfection and delicious. Olden Murry, a Rembrandt of the kitchen, had just completed another masterpiece.”

In a more recent story for Arkansas Life magazine, Wyndham Wyeth wrote: “A man pokes his head in the back door of the kitchen wearing a hunter-orange trucker hat and camouflage coveralls, because of course. I don’t quite catch his exchange with Stanley, but he says something to the effect of ‘you wanna see what I’ve got out here?’ and something else about a deer stand, and I get the impression he’s showing off a buck he’s just bagged. … As a former server and bartender, I’m trying to recall a scenario even remotely like the one I’m witnessing now. As a writer, I’m doing a happy dance in my mind and trying my best to commit this whole scene to memory before the images fade, because you really can’t make this stuff up.”

This is life in rural Arkansas at its best.

Stanley tells the writer, “I’m not licensed to sell wild game in the restaurant, but I like to keep some on hand for my regulars and friends when they come in.”

That’s why I’m glad Stanley is my friend. I’ve had duck, crappie and even frog legs that Stanley gigged (not the ones on the regular menu).

Hazen is the next town up as I continue toward the east on U.S. 70.

Hazen, which had a population of 1,468 people in the 2010 census, is named for Dr. William Cogswell Hazen. He moved to the area from Covington, Tenn., in 1854 and brought his family and 21 slaves with him.

“Hazen persuaded a family friend, the Rev. John W. Hudson, to come with them,” Chris Weems writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Hudson settled three miles west of the Hazens with his two small children. The Hazens likely settled on the border of the Grand Prairie because of the small hills, eight to 12 feet in elevation, that prevent the flooding that’s evident farther south. The Hazens built cabins for the family and the slaves, clearing land and planting crops. The cotton was harvested and sent by boat from DeValls Bluff to Memphis where it was sold. … Hazen died in 1872, a year after a cotton gin was brought to the Hazen area and 11 months before the first post office bore his name. The town was surveyed in 1873, and Hazen’s widow deeded the first tract of land for the city of Hazen, which was incorporated in 1884.”

By the 1880s, prairie hay was being bailed and shipped to Little Rock and Memphis. Eventually, those fields of prairie hay were replaced by rice.

Hazen doubled in size from 819 residents in the 1940 census to 1,605 residents in the 1970 census. The highway to Des Arc was paved in 1946, and indoor plumbing had reached all the homes in town by 1955.

“In the 1950s, Hazen had Young’s Department Store, a John Deere agency, Chevrolet and Ford dealerships, two dress shops, two or three grocery stores, a newspaper publishing company, two hardware stores, two or three farm-related stores, two lumber companies, two or three crop duster airports, a rice dryer, two drug stores, two appliance stores, the Rieke CPA office and many other small, privately owned businesses,” Weems writes. “The building of Interstate 40 in the 1960s and the widening of U.S. Highway 70 allowed easier access to larger cities, causing many of the businesses to move or close.”

There are still some classic buildings downtown. There’s the structure that housed the hardware store that John Kocourek founded in 1892. And there’s the old Rock Island depot. Weems writes that a mayor named Kathryn Orlicek was “instrumental in restoring the depot and, with the help of some of the women’s clubs in town, raised money for the project. Of the Rock Island Railroad depots originally in Arkansas, the Hazen depot is the only stucco-and-brick building with a slate roof.”

We roll through Hazen and continue east toward the historic river town of DeValls Bluff.

 

 

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North Little Rock to Lonoke

Thursday, May 3rd, 2018

FIRST IN A SERIES

All you have to do is mention the drive from Little Rock to Memphis on Interstate 40, and the tales of woe start coming.

One person will tell you of the time he was in his car on the interstate without moving for hours following a wreck on the busy stretch.

The next person might talk about an important appointment she missed in Memphis due to a backup in a construction zone.

There are the stories of being hemmed in by big trucks on three sides and a concrete wall on the fourth side.

There are the rumors that West Memphis will name the orange construction barrel as its official symbol.

There are the sections of interstate that seem to have been under constant construction since I was a child.

More Arkansans are choosing to take the old road — U.S. Highway 70 to be exact. If you have time to spare, it’s relaxing and gives a traveler a sense of real life in east Arkansas. The added benefit is that the highway passes two of the oldest and best barbecue joints in the state. It’s not a problem to fill a full day with activities along the route.

I set out from the foot of the new Broadway Bridge in North Little Rock and head east past Verizon Arena. After crossing under Interstate 30, there are the usual convenience stores and chain restaurants found at interstate exits. Within a few blocks, however, I’m in a part of North Little Rock the tourists don’t visit. This is the land of tire shops, discount furniture stores, pawn shops and cheap motels.

I pass the building that once housed Roy Fisher’s Steak House, a place known for its bountiful breakfasts and hearty plate lunches. With Fisher’s long gone — the building now houses an appliance store — the men in suits and ties who work in the downtown Little Rock towers no longer have a reason to come to this stretch of East Broadway Avenue.

I was part of a breakfast group that would gather on a regular basis at Fisher’s. Waitress Mary Daniell, who died in February 2011 at age 71, would trade good-natured insults with a group that included Skip Rutherford of the Clinton School of Public Service, state Sen. Bill Gwatney, Little Rock businessman Gene Fortson and longtime North Little Rock businessman Walter “Bubba” Lloyd Jr. We would tease Gwatney because of his family money, especially when he would order a staple of the Fisher’s menu known as “the working man’s breakfast.”

“That’s as close as you’ll ever come to being a working man,” Daniell would tell the automobile dealer.

Gwatney was the chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party in the summer of 2008 when he was murdered at state party headquarters by a lone gunman, who was killed later in the day during a shootout with the police. No reason for the murder was ever discovered.

I miss Bill. I think of him as I drive by the old Fisher’s location.

I also miss the restaurant. In the spring of 2010, the lights were on at night again for one special moment. Fisher’s was used as the location for the movie “The Last Ride,” which portrayed the final days of Hank Williams Sr. The film was set in late 1952, leading up to Williams’ death on Jan. 1, 1953.

“It’s not hard to see why Fisher’s was chosen to represent that time period,” Jeff LeMaster wrote at the time for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “The restaurant opened its first location in 1947 on the south side of Broadway. It moved across the street in 1958 to the building that still stands today. Sitting in a booth at the now-closed diner is like stepping back in time . … Director Harry Thomason grew up in southwest Arkansas around the time Fisher’s opened, and he remembers well traveling to Little Rock with his parents and making a point to stop in at Fisher’s.”

Thomason told the newspaper: “Folks loved Fisher’s Steak House. When we were looking for a diner, I said, ‘Guys, is Fisher’s still around?’ It looks just like I think I remember it.”

Roy Fisher Sr. opened the restaurant. It was later run by his son, Roy Fisher Jr., and Roy Jr.’s wife Chee Chee, who was famous for her pies. This was the main highway to Memphis in the early years. Elvis Presley would stop at Fisher’s on the way from Memphis to Shreveport to perform on the Louisiana Hayride. The Fishers sold the restaurant in 2005, and it closed for good in 2008.

Fisher’s, known for its homemade salad dressing, had the best fried chicken livers I’ve ever eaten. If you didn’t get there by 11 a.m. for lunch, you were going to wait for a seat. It was usually full from 11 a.m. until almost 2 p.m.

Heading east, I enter Rose City, a neighborhood that has produced the likes of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and former Congressman Tommy Robinson through the years. I also drive past the reason I still come to this area of North Little Rock, the White Pig Inn. The venerable establishment has been serving barbecue since 1920, though the original building has been gone for decades. The sign is such a classic that a photo of it is featured atop this blog.

Just past the White Pig are remnants of a building that once housed a strip joint. There are scrap metal and auto salvage yards. It’s like having gone back in time to, say, the 1960s.

I’m brought back into the modern world by the sight of the multimillion-dollar headquarters of Ben E. Keith’s Mid-South Division. The food services company moved into the 420,000-square-foot facility last year. The Mid-South Division once was the Dillaha Fruit Co., founded by Theo Dillaha Sr. in 1929 and headquartered in downtown Little Rock for almost 45 years. Ben E. Keith purchased the company in 1973 and began construction of a facility near the Port of Little Rock the following year. The Mid-South Division now serves all of Arkansas and parts of Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Tennessee.

I cross under Interstate 440 and go back in time again. I’m transported this time from an urban area to an almost stereotypical version of the agriculturally dominated Old South. On the right is Hills Lake, an oxbow filled with large cypress trees. There are historic homes and huge pecan trees along the route. The perceptive traveler realizes that the Mississippi Alluvial Plain — commonly known as the Delta — extends to the North Little Rock city limits.

Soybean fields give way to ponds as I near the headquarters of the world’s largest minnow farm. I.F. Anderson dug and stocked his first farm ponds in 1949. The farm is now capable of producing more than a billion minnows per year.

The Anderson complex has an 11,000-square-foot hatchery, almost 200 miles of levees and about 6,000 acres of ponds. Anderson received a loan in the late 1940s to buy a bulldozer that he used to build ponds. When he noticed wild minnows appearing in those ponds, he began to explore the idea of raising minnows to supply fishermen with bait. The business took off from there.

Just before entering Lonoke, I pass the turn to the Joe Hogan State Fish Hatchery, among the oldest and largest state-operated hatcheries in the country. In 1928, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission instructed its secretary, Guy Amsler, to find land for a hatchery. Amsler settled on two adjacent rice farms, and the state purchased 266 acres.

The first superintendent was Dell Brown, who had supervised the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries’ Mammoth Spring National Hatchery. The federal hatchery in far north Arkansas had been established in 1903. Joe Hogan, who had worked with Brown at Mammoth Spring, came with his boss to Lonoke. Hogan took over as superintendent soon after the hatchery was completed.

According to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s history of the facility: “Pond construction for the hatchery took place in the fall of 1928. Due to the lack of mechanized machinery, the early ponds were dug by mules pulling dirt slips and by laborers using shovels to load dirt onto wagons by hand. The soil had enough clay material to make pond levees that could hold water. Another crucial factor was that the water table was about 60 feet, and the alluvial water in the subterranean sand formation provided plenty of water for filling the ponds. During the initial phase of construction, 32 ponds covering 40 acres were built. They ranged in size from three-fourths of an acre to two and a half acres.

“In the spring of 1929, only a few of the ponds were complete to the point that they were usable. Wild stocks of largemouth bass and bluegill bream were captured from the White River and stocked in the available ponds. The first crop of fish was produced that same year. The commission continued to build rearing ponds after World War II and into the 1950s until the hatchery encompassed 56 ponds covering 214 acres of water. Because of its location near the town of Lonoke, the hatchery was first known as the Lonoke Fish Hatchery. In 1956, it was renamed the Joe Hogan State Fish Hatchery.

“The standard fish reared at the hatchery are warm-water species that include largemouth bass, bluegill bream, redear bream, crappie, channel catfish, blue catfish and white amur. Through the years, the hatchery has experimented with raising species such as smallmouth bass, walleye, saugeye, striped bass, striped bass hybrids, hybrid bream, Israeli carp, buffalo and paddlefish. The hatchery produces about three to four million fish annually for Arkansas’ public lakes and streams. In addition to stocking public waters, the hatchery provides some species of fry and fingerling fish for the other warm-water state fish hatcheries and for other state conservation agencies. The hatchery also provides more than 250,000 eight-inch catfish to the Pot Shoals Net Pens on Bull Shoals Lake and the Jim Collins Net Pens on Lake Ouachita, which are also owned and operated by the AGFC. These facilities grow the catfish to a larger size to stock area lakes.

“The hatchery has made great strides in the advancement of fish culture work. In the beginning, the hatchery simply collected adult fish from the wild and placed them in hatchery ponds for spawning. The fish were hauled to lakes and streams in 10-gallon milk cans and in wooden barrels in the back of a Model A truck. In the 1940s, larger tanks made of cypress lumber were built and used to transport fish. The hatchery now uses modern transport trucks with custom-made fish hauling tanks that are insulated to maintain a constant temperature. Liquid oxygen is used to provide optimum conditions for the fish.

“In the early days of the AGFC, the hatchery indiscriminately stocked fish wherever it thought they might be needed without much scientific research or evaluation of the fish populations of that particular lake or stream. In the 1950s, the commission for the first time hired five fisheries biologists and stationed them in various regions around the state in order to manage the fish populations on the lakes in their respective regions.”

Hogan managed the facility until 1960. Lee Brady took over in 1961 and served until 1972, when he was replaced by Berry Beavers.

I pass through Lonoke, which had a population of 4,245 people in the 2010 census. I spend about an hour at the Lonoke County Museum, which is along the highway downtown. Lonoke is the only county seat in the state that shares its name with the county.

“In 1858, the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad was building its tracks through Brownsville, then the county seat of Prairie County, located three miles north of the future town of Lonoke,” Charles William Cunning writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Five years later, during the Civil War, the tracks were destroyed during a skirmish at Brownsville. After the war, the company decided to take a more direct route and bypass Brownsville, resulting in its eventual demise and the birth of the town of Lonoke.”

The city was named by two men who were doing work for the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad.

“They suggested naming the town for a massive lone red oak tree that stood isolated on the prairie,” Cunning writes. “Isaac C. Hicks and Hamilton Reynolds surveyed the site and completed the town lot plan in 1869. The first business in Lonoke was the general store W.K. Hocker & Co., which moved from Hick’s Station to the new town site in 1868 before it was laid out. In 1869, T.C. Beard and William Goodrum opened a general store.

“Lonoke was incorporated as a town on Jan. 22, 1872, and elected its first officials, headed by Mayor Isaac C. Hicks. On April 16, 1873, Lonoke County was created from portions of Prairie and Pulaski counties with Lonoke as the county seat. Within three years the population had grown to almost 500 people as most of the citizens of Brownsville moved south with the railroad. By 1910, the population had grown to 1,547.

“The first courthouse was the building formerly used as the Prairie County Courthouse in Brownsville that was dismantled, moved to Lonoke and reassembled. In 1928, the town built a three-story brick courthouse with the county jail on the top floor. This building still serves as the courthouse, though the jail has moved to another site.”

This is the western edge of the Grand Prairie and was once mostly used to raise cattle along with hay, corn and cotton.

Then came rice.

“In the spring of 1897, W.H. Fuller planted the first rice crop in Lonoke County,” Cunning writes. “The flat land with its abundance of water was ideal for this new crop. Soon, rice rivaled cotton as the area’s most profitable harvest. Around 1940, soybeans joined the agricultural mix.”

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Food Hall of Fame: Take two

Tuesday, March 20th, 2018

Another Arkansas Food Hall of Fame induction ceremony is in the books.

Our state has a diverse food culture that always has been a bit in the shadow of surrounding states. Thankfully, the Department of Arkansas Heritage last year chose to start the Hall of Fame to recognize restaurants, proprietors and even food-themed events.

I’m honored to be on the selection committee and to have been the master of ceremonies for the annual event the past two years. There were 450 nominations submitted this year to our website in all categories. That’s 150 more than last year, a good sign that this effort is growing.

We will induct three restaurants each year into the Hall of Fame.

The choices in our inaugural year were Jones Bar-B-Que Diner of Marianna, the Lassis Inn of Little Rock and Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales of Lake Village. I don’t think anyone on the selection committee realized it at the time, but all three of those restaurants are owned by African-Americans. I thought that was justified since blacks have contributed so much to the Arkansas food culture through the years.

The three restaurants chosen this year were Franke’s Cafeteria of Little Rock, the Venesian Inn of Tontitown and McClard’s Bar-B-Q of Hot Springs.

In 1919, C.A. Franke opened a doughnut shop on Capitol Avenue in Little Rock. He built a large bakery on Third Street in 1922 and deployed a fleet of trucks nicknamed “wife-savers” that made home deliveries across the capital city. In 1924, he opened Franke’s Cafeteria near major downtown department stores. Franke’s later expanded to multiple locations across the state. There are two remaining locations, both in Little Rock. One is downtown in the Regions Bank Building and the other is on Rodney Parham Road.

The Venesian Inn is in a community that was settled by Italian immigrants who were escaping the mosquitoes and malaria of the Sunnyside Plantation in southeast Arkansas. Germano Gasparotto opened a restaurant in 1947 and later sold it to fellow Italian-Americans John and Mary Granata. The restaurant and its recipes stayed in the family through the years. The signature dish is fried chicken and spaghetti. I consider that a perfect combination of Arkansas and Italy. Visits to the Venesian Inn have been a tradition for decades of fans attending University of Arkansas football and basketball games in nearby Fayetteville. The restaurant still uses the original wooden tables installed by Gasparotto.

McClard’s history of fine barbecue dates back to 1928 when Alex and Alice McClard were running a motor court and gas station in Hot Springs. A man who had spent the night at the motor court was unable to pay his bill but offered to pay with what he claimed was the recipe for the world’s greatest barbecue sauce. The McClards had no choice but to take him up on his offer. They secured the recipe and began serving it on the goat they were selling to travelers. The goat is long gone, but the sauce is still there for beef and pork. So are fourth-generation family members.

There were nine other finalists this year. I predict that all of them will be inducted at some point. They were:

Bruno’s Little Italy of Little Rock: Italian immigrant brothers Nicola, Gennaro, Vincenzo and Giovanni Bruno all immigrated to this country from Naples through New York’s Ellis Island. They brought with them Italian recipes and cooking skills. Giovanni’s son Vince — who was known as Jimmy — was stationed at Camp Robinson during World War II and returned soon after the war ended to open his first restaurant in the Levy neighborhood of North Little Rock. He was known for spinning pizza dough in view of his customers while singing loudly. His sons Jay, Vince and Gio grew up watching their father work. There have been numerous locations through the decades, but the original recipes still are used at the current location on Main Street in downtown Little Rock.

DeVito’s of Eureka Springs: Since opening the restaurant in 1988, James DeVito has been attracting area residents and tourists with Italian cuisine, fresh trout and locally sourced ingredients. Those who go to Eureka Springs year after year tend to put DeVito’s on their list of must-visit restaurants. I know that’s the case in our family.

Dixie Pig of Blytheville: Since 1923, the Halsell family has been serving up pork barbecue with its famous “pig sandwiches” as they’re called in Blytheville. I’ve previously declared Blytheville as the barbecue capital of Arkansas, and the Dixie Pig is one of the reasons why. Ernest Halsell opened the Rustic Inn in 1923, and the Dixie Pig is a direct descendant of that restaurant. It draws barbecue enthusiasts from Arkansas, Tennessee and the Missouri Bootheel.

Doe’s Eat Place of Little Rock: George Eldridge was a pilot who frequently would fly business clients to Greenville, Miss., to eat at the original Doe’s Eat Place on Nelson Street. In 1988, he convinced the Signa family of Greenville to let him open a downtown Little Rock restaurant using the same name and concept. When Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign staff and the national media began hanging out in Eldridge’s restaurant during the 1992 campaign, the Little Rock location became more famous than the original. The private room behind the kitchen at Doe’s is the place to be for political fundraisers and meetings in the capital city.

Feltner’s Whatta-Burger of Russellville: Please don’t confuse this with that chain that’s based in Corpus Christi, Texas. Bob Feltner opened the doors of this restaurant on Thanksgiving Day in 1967. He earlier had operated other restaurants in the city, including one called the Wonder Burger. But the Whatta-Burger had staying power. Generations of Arkansas Tech University students, along with Razorback fans driving to and from Fayetteville, have kept the lines long at this classic.

Kream Kastle of Blytheville: In 1952, Steven Johns kept the menu simple. He sold hot dogs, hot dogs with chili and hot dogs with chili and onions. By 1955, however, he had added a barbecue pit and was soon serving his own “pig sandwiches.” In fact, it’s those sandwiches that put the restaurant on the map. The debate over which sandwich is better — the one at the Dixie Pig or the one at the Kream Kastle — has gone on for years. Steven’s daughter Suzanne and husband Jeff Wallace now operate the drive-in.

Neal’s Cafe of Springdale: Housed in a landmark pink building, Neal’s has become more than just a restaurant through the years. It’s a center of the community; a place that draws people together and engages them in conversation. The restaurant was opened by Toy and Bertha Neal in 1944, and the Neal family has owned the business through four generations. Local business owners meet for breakfast and discuss community issues there. At lunch and dinner, people drive from throughout northwest Arkansas for entrees such a chicken fried steak with gravy and chicken and dumplings.

Ed Walkers Drive In of Fort Smith: Anyone who grew up in Fort Smith can tell you about Ed Walker’s. It opened in 1946 and was soon thriving thanks to the car-crazy culture of the 1950s. Even the sign out front that advertises “French dipped sandwiches” is a classic. Visitors also can’t go wrong with burgers and pie in a place that harkens back to Fort Smith’s roots as a tough, blue-collar town where the food was simple and served in large portions.

White House Cafe of Camden: This is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the state. A Greek immigrant named Hristos Hodjopulas opened the White House near the railroad depot in 1907. Camden was booming in those days, and the restaurant was soon operating 24 hours a day. It just serves lunch and dinner these days. There’s everything on the menu from Southern classics to Tex-Mex food. Original furnishings remain. It’s like stepping back in time.

A new category this year was the Gone But Not Forgotten category.

The winner was Cotham’s Mercantile of Scott. Cotham’s long run ended when a fire broke out early on a Tuesday morning in May of last year. It destroyed the century-old building that hung out over Horseshoe Lake. The structure had once housed a general store that served farmers in a thriving area of cotton plantations and pecan orchards.

In 1984, the store began serving lunch and became a favorite of then-U.S. Sen. David Pryor. It was Pryor who first told me about Cotham’s in the late 1980s when I was covering Washington for the Arkansas Democrat. I made the trip to Scott for the famous hubcap burger on my next visit to Arkansas. I instantly was hooked by the place that used the motto “where the elite meet to eat.”

In 1999, Cotham’s in the City opened at the corner of Third and Victory streets near the state Capitol. The building once had housed the capital city’s first fern bar (yes, they were all the rage in the 1970s), a TGI Friday’s. During the years I spent working in the governor’s office, I made frequent walks down the hill for lunch at the Little Rock location. The menu was the same, but there’s nothing quite like sitting near farmers on the banks of an oxbow lake at Scott. There are no plans to rebuild the Scott location.

The other three finalists in the Gone But Not Forgotten category were Coy’s of Hot Springs, Jacques & Suzanne of Little Rock and Klappenbach Bakery of Fordyce.

As soon as I looked down from the podium and saw the tears in Coy Theobalt’s eyes, I knew this new category meant a great deal. Coy’s burned down in January 2009 on the eve of the thoroughbred race meet at Oaklawn Park. Theobalt grew up watching his parents operate the restaurant, which opened in 1945.

“It was seven days a week for them with no vacations,” he said. “It convinced me that I didn’t want to do it. It means a lot to our family to see that so many people have fond memories of the restaurant.”

Family members came from multiple states to see Coy’s honored. Growing up in Arkadelphia, Hot Springs was the place my family went to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and the like. My late father’s three favorite Hot Springs restaurants — Coy’s, Mrs. Miller’s and Mollie’s — are all gone.

I sometimes was allowed to tag along with my parents for anniversary dinners. When I think of Coy’s, I remember valet parking, Mountain Valley Water in big green bottles, booths with the names of certain families attached to them (I aspired to have a booth named after me one day, a goal I never achieved) and warm crackers dipped in house dressing. If it were during the Oaklawn race meet, you could expect a long wait before being seated in the restaurant at 300 Coy St., just off Grand Avenue.

With the opening of Jacques & Suzanne in 1975 atop what’s now the Regions Bank Building in downtown Little Rock, the Continental Cuisine team of Paul Bash, Ed Moore, Louis Petit and Denis Seyer set the stage for other quality restaurants such as Graffiti’s, Restaurant 1620, the Purple Cow and Alouette’s. Their former employees opened additional establishments such as Andre’s and Cafe St. Moritz.

It’s fair to say that Jacques & Suzanne took dining out in Arkansas to a new level. Arkansans accustomed to pork barbecue and fried catfish learned about escargot, caviar and souffles. The dishes were prepared by classically trained chefs, and the kitchen served as a sort of graduate school for those working there. It wasn’t an accident that Bash, Moore, Petit and Seyer won the Proprietor of the Year award during the first Arkansas Food Hall of Fame induction ceremony last year. Jacques & Suzanne closed in 1986, but its influence remains strong more than three decades later.

Often when a place that I consider an Arkansas classic closes, it’s because the owners are tired. As Theobalt noted, it’s a tough business. Klappenbach Bakery is an example of that. The bakery and restaurant, which for 36 years graced the downtown of the Dallas County seat, closed in September 2011. After iconic college football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, it was one of the best-known things to come out of Fordyce.

There are certain places that come to define a town. Klappenbach was one of those places. Norman Klappenbach was 80 and his wife Lee was 77 at the time of the closure. Son Paul, who was 47 at the time, grew up in the business and spent the seven years prior to the closure working full time there. He came in at 3 a.m. and said the 65-hour workweeks had depleted his energy. He had been unable to find an assistant baker.

When the hard-working owners of such establishments die or retire, there’s often no one to take their place. The children have no interest in long hours and limited revenues. Buyers can be hard to find, especially in rural areas that are losing population. Once they’re gone, they’re gone for good.

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The end of the road

Thursday, February 22nd, 2018

TWELTH IN A SERIES

We exit Newton County just north of Marble Falls on Arkansas Highway 7 and enter Boone County. It will be the final county on our Highway 7 trek.

Unlike some of the rural counties around it, Boone County has seen its population more than double since the 1960 census. There were 16,116 residents in 1960 and 36,903 in the 2010 census.

Following the Civil War, those who lived in the area asked the Arkansas Legislature to split up sprawling Carroll County. Boone County was created in April 1869 from pieces of Marion and Carroll counties. It was determined that the Missouri border would mark the county’s northern boundary.

“Although no documentation supports it, the most widely quoted belief is that the county was named for frontiersman Daniel Boone,” C.J. Miller writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “But some say the name is a misspelling of ‘boon’ because it was thought that the creation of a county would be a boon to residents. Lines drawn between residents during the Civil War often resurfaced in the new county. When the county seat was selected, it was not in the established town of Bellefonte but in the new town of Harrison, where Confederate beliefs were not as strong.

“Towns developed. Lead Hill grew up near the site of what had been Dubuque. Smelters were built to process lead from the area. With the popularity of the healing waters in Eureka Springs in Carroll County, Boone County’s Elixir Springs was promoted. The post-Reconstruction era began with the resurgence of conflict between the former Confederates and the Republicans who controlled Boone County. The ex-Confederates attempted to move the county seat from Republican-controlled Harrison to Bellefonte. After a countywide vote, it remained at Harrison.

“Lead and zinc mines began to appear. Fruit crops of peaches, pears, plums and the popular Boone County apples were grown. Cotton was a big cash crop until declining prices cut production in half.”

The coming of the Missouri & North Arkansas Railroad and the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad in the early 1900s helped open up the county to new arrivals. Lumber mills and dairy farms opened.

Meanwhile, the small black population disappeared.

Miller writes: “The African-American population, which had shown limited growth in each census since 1870, decreased from 142 in 1900 to seven in 1910. The sudden change was attributed to race riots that occurred in Harrison, which were thought to have been caused by the arrival of workers constructing the new rail line. Also, the quick conviction of a young black man for the assault of an elderly white woman brought a rapid decline in the black population of the county. Soon establishments providing higher wages for black workers closed. By the time the convicted man was hanged, most black citizens had fled the county. No black residents were listed on the 1940 census.”

The race issue has continued to plague Boone County as Thom Robb, the head of one wing of the Ku Klux Klan, calls it home.

Harrison grew from 6,580 residents in the 1960 census to 12,943 in the 2010 census. J.E. Dunlap, the publisher of the Harrison Daily Times, declared the city the “hub of the Ozarks” and relentlessly promoted it across the state.

“Harrison today is far different from how it was in the past,” Miller writes. “A levee along Crooked Creek protects downtown from flooding. The old high school houses the Boone County Historical & Railroad Society, which displays three floors of city and county history. The Brandon Burlsworth Youth Center serves children and adults. The Ozark Arts Council purchased the 1929 Lyric Theatre in 1999. Plays, classic movies, art shows and concerts are presented in the historic building. In 2011, the first liquor store to operate in Harrison since 1941 opened its doors following an election that turned the county wet.”

We take a few minutes to get out of the car and walk around the Harrison town square. We read the monuments on the grounds of the Boone County Courthouse, which was built in 1909.

The trip is nearing its end as we leave Harrison and drive north through Bergman, South Lead Hill, Lead Hill and finally Diamond City. These are all places whose fortunes changed with the construction of Bull Shoals Lake.

Bull Shoals Dam is to the east of us, at the point where the White River divides Marion and Baxter counties. But the lake has played a key role in helping Boone County grow.

“Private power companies had explored the possibility of building a dam at Wildcat Shoals above Cotter as early as 1902 but never began any work toward it,” Scott Branyan writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Congress approved the construction of six reservoirs in the White River basin in the Flood Control Act of 1938. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report in 1930 had recommended the Wildcat Shoals site along with seven others as being the most effective of 13 investigated. However, in a 1940 report, the Corps presented the Bull Shoals site as an alternative to Wildcat Shoals, where unsuitable foundation conditions had been found. This report recommended the construction of Table Rock and Bull Shoals as multipurpose reservoirs for flood control, hydropower generation and ‘other beneficial purposes,’ concluding the reservoir projects to be economically justifiable.”

The Corps of Engineers completed the construction of Norfork Dam on the North Fork River, a tributary of the White, in 1945. Many of the same workers were involved in the construction of Bull Shoals, which began in 1947.

“The dam contains 2.1 million cubic yards of concrete,” Branyan writes. “At the time of its construction, Bull Shoals Dam was the fifth largest in the country, and its powerhouse was the largest building in Arkansas. Along with its 17 spillway gates, which are 40 feet by 29 feet, there are also 16 outlet conduits that can each discharge 3,375 cubic feet per second. The flow of one of these conduits is roughly equivalent to one of the powerhouses’s eight generators running at full capacity.”

Construction of the powerhouse began in September 1950. Generation started two years later. The final two generating units were installed in 1963.

Widespread media coverage accompanied President Harry Truman’s visit to Arkansas to dedicate Bull Shoals on July 2, 1952.

“The completion of the dam and reservoir immediately began to affect the local economy,” Branyan writes. “The media coverage attracted attention to the region and resulted in the quick growth of the tourism industry. In 1940, there were only 13 businesses that provided overnight accommodations. By 1970, 300 such establishments could be found. Assessed taxable real estate values, per capita income and manufacturing payroll rose dramatically in the following decades. The area also now supports a retirement community.

“The dam put an end to long, multiday fishing floats from Branson, Mo., to Cotter. Jim Owen of the Owen Boat Line had operated a float trip business on the river for many years. Largely through Owen’s promotion, the White River garnered a reputation for excellent smallmouth bass fishing. But the new reservoir soon offered equally excellent lake fishing for a number of species as well as stocked trout below the dam. Marinas, boat businesses and fishing guide services sprang up rapidly to handle the influx of anglers.”

Before we reach the shores of the lake on Highway 7, we must pass through Lead Hill. Though it only had a population of 271 people in the 2010 census, it has a colorful history. It began as a mining town on the White River and had to be relocated to its current location when it was flooded by the lake.

“Several small smelters were established in the late 1860s, although the immediate surroundings of Lead Hill had only small deposits of lead and zinc that offered a modest return,” Steven Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “A store was established in 1868, and a water-powered mill and cotton gin were erected the same year. A second store was opened in 1869, the same year in which Boone County was established. A Masonic lodge was built in 1870 with school classes held on the first floor. Citizens filed papers to incorporate the town in 1873.”

In 1857, the Arkansas Legislature had authorized a geological survey of the state.

“Newly appointed state geologist David Dale Owen conducted a reconnaissance of north Arkansas in 1857-58, which located numerous indications of lead and zinc,” Robert Myers writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Owen found that the Independence Mining Co. of St. Louis was mining smithsonite for zinc ore at what’s now Calamine in Sharp County, making Calamine one of America’s early zinc mines. The company suspended operations during the Civil War.

“At the outbreak of the war, Confederate troops seized the rich Granby lead mines of southwest Missouri, then touted as able to provide all the lead needed for the Confederate cause. In 1861, 75,000 pounds of pig lead a month were being hauled overland to Van Buren to be shipped to the Memphis ordnance works. The loss of Missouri to the Union following the Battle of Pea Ridge in Arkansas effectively meant losing this important source. The Confederate Nitre and Mining Bureau mined lead and saltpeter (an ingredient in gunpowder) in Newton, Marion, Pulaski and Sevier counties. However, these operations proved too close to enemy lines and were soon abandoned for more secure sources in Texas.

“Under Reconstruction, the development of Arkansas’ lead and zinc resources rebounded but later faltered. The American Zinc Co. renewed mining at Calamine in 1871 but soon closed. In 1882, the Carthage & Arkansas Mining Co. erected a smelter and platted the town of Boxley in Newton County. The company shipped lead from Eureka Springs, the nearest railroad point, to St. Louis. But the 95-mile wagon haul made mining cost prohibitive. The Morning Star Mine in Marion County, discovered on Rush Creek in 1880, provided a bonanza of remarkably pure zinc. … The Morning Star Mine produced a huge zinc carbonate boulder weighing 12,750 pounds that was appropriately named Jumbo. When exhibited at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Jumbo won the highest awards.”

Demand for both lead and zinc rose during World War I. Arkansas, however, didn’t benefit as much as some other states.

“Arkansas’ lead and zinc deposits were simply too limited and irregular to warrant significant industrial and infrastructure investments,” Myers writes. “Once the railroads finally extended through north Arkansas, companies experienced a series of bankruptcies and bailouts. Although lead mining ceased statewide by 1959, geologists now believe significant potential exists in north Arkansas for the discovery of deep (more than 1,500 feet) deposits of lead and zinc as the southern extension of the New Viburnum lead district in southern Missouri. The cultural legacy of lead and zinc mining includes place names such as the towns of Calamine in Sharp County, Galena in Howard County, Lead Hill in Boone County and Zinc in Boone County.”

The Kellogg Mine north of Little Rock had the state’s deepest mine shaft at 1,125 feet in 1940 when mining ended there.

Back to Lead Hill: Crippled by the Great Depression, the Bank of Lead Hill closed in 1931. Several stores, a flour mill, a cotton gin and a canning factory survived. Then came Bull Shoals.

“Some buildings were moved to higher ground, but many historic structures were abandoned and destroyed,” Teske writes. “The move occupied three years from 1949-51. The location of the new town was a hill northwest of the old town site, which was locally known as Ku Klux Hill because the Ku Klux Klan had burned a cross on that hill around 1930. Not all the relocated families and businesses chose to live at the new location of Lead Hill. South Lead Hill and Diamond City were also created at this time.”

Teske adds: “A few families chose a location a bit south of the relocated Lead Hill, and they named their town South Lead Hill. A dedication ceremony was held on March 9, 1950 to promote South Lead Hill. Free lots were offered to churches. Stores, theaters and residential areas were planned. The Baptist congregation of Lead Hill divided into two churches, one of which was built in South Lead Hill. A Pentecostal congregation built a church building between Lead Hill and South Lead Hill. The town of South Lead Hill was incorporated in 1970. The town has never had a post office. At the time of the 2010 census, the population of South Lead Hill was 102, all of whom were white.”

The last city as we head north on Highway 7 is Diamond City, which had a population of 782 in the 2010 census.

As Bull Shoals Lake began to fill, a community named Sugarloaf was formed on the site of a former settlement that had been known as Dubuque.

“Developer Henry Dietz converted the town of Sugarloaf into a second-class city in the 1960s,” Teske writes. “He succeeded in incorporating Diamond City on June 7, 1960, although Diamond City and Sugarloaf weren’t officially consolidated until May 5, 1966. Surrounded by Bull Shoals Lake on three sides (with Lead Hill to the south), Diamond City is best known from its many fishing spots. Several lakeside resorts draw tourists to the city, and the population is said to swell significantly during the fishing season.”

We stop the vehicle at the park where Highway 7 ends, walk to the shore of Bull Shoals and throw a few rocks in. We look north across the water toward Missouri and contemplate all we’ve seen on the trip up Highway 7.

Highway 7 has taken us through four of the state’s six distinct geographic areas — the Gulf Coastal Plain, the Ouachita Mountains, the Arkansas River Valley and the Ozark Mountains; everything but Crowley’s Ridge and the Delta.

From Hartwell Smith Jr. at Smith’s Liquor Store in the pine woods of Ouachita County in south Arkansas to Connie Hawks at the Hollis Country Store in the Ouachita Mountains of Perry County, we’ve visited with the type of rural Arkansans who give this state its soul. This trip has reminded us what a varied, fascinating place Arkansas is.

Reluctantly, we point our vehicle south and begin the trip home to Little Rock.

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The wilds of Newton County

Tuesday, February 20th, 2018

ELEVENTH IN A SERIES

The business leaders of tiny Newton County thought Dogpatch USA would change everything.

Albert Raney Sr. listed his trout farm for sale in 1966. A real estate investor in Harrison named Oscar Snow found nine additional investors and went to Al Capp with the idea of a theme park based on Capp’s “Li’l Abner” comic strip. The town of Marble Falls just north of Jasper even changed its name to Dogpatch.

“Capp, who had rejected such offers in the past, agreed to be a partner in the enterprise, ” Russell Johnson writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The partners acquired 1,000 acres. … Capp spoke at the groundbreaking on Oct. 3, 1967. The cost of construction was $1,332,000. The park originally featured the trout farm, buggy and horseback rides, an apiary, Ozark arts and crafts, gift shops, entertainment by Dogpatch characters and the park’s trademark railroad. Management added amusement rides in subsequent years.

“Many of the buildings in the park were authentic 19th-century log structures purchased by board member James Schemerhorn. The logs in each building were numbered, catalogued, disassembled and reassembled at the park. In 1968, the first year of operation, general manager Schemerhorn reported that Dogpatch had 300,000 visitors. Admission was $1.50 for adults, half price for children.”

Arkansas businessman Jess Odom purchased a controlling interest in the company in 1968 and hired former Gov. Orval Faubus as the general manager.

“By 1972, Odom had bought out most of the remaining partners and built a winter sports complex called Marble Falls on the hill overlooking Dogpatch in hopes of operating the park year round,” Johnson writes. “A series of unusually warm winters, delays in delivery of snowmaking equipment, rising interest rates, the Arab oil embargo and the end of the ‘Li’l Abner’ comic strip due to Capp’s retirement in 1977 combined to drive expenses up and revenues down. In order to keep the ski resort open, Odom used Dogpatch assets to secure loans at unfavorable interest rates. Although Dogpatch made a profit in all but two years of operation, it could not overcome the burden of the Marble Falls debt.”

Dogpatch declared bankruptcy in November 1980. Wayne Thompson’s Ozark Entertainment Inc. purchased the theme park but not Marble Falls and operated Dogpatch from 1981-87 before selling it to Melvin Bell. The high-flying Bell, who died in 2006 at age 68, was buying up properties across the state at the time — everything from Magic Springs at Hot Springs to the Red Apple Inn at Heber Springs. In November 2001, Bell was indicted by a federal grand jury for tax evasion. The trial was delayed repeatedly because of Bell’s health problems. The case was dismissed two months before Bell died.

Business at Dogpatch continued to decline as more and more people elected to go to nearby Branson, Mo. The park’s final season was 1993.

It has since become a ghost town covered with weeds, bushes and trees. In December, an owner of the property, Charles “Bud” Pelsor, said it had been leased to a new group headed by David Hare, who announced in a video posted on social media outlets that he would create the Heritage USA Ozarks Resort.

Pelsor told The Associated Press: “They don’t want to destroy the image of Dogpatch and piss people off. It will be a theme park. It will not be a thrill park. And it will be family friendly.”

Pelsor and a business partner had hoped to turn the site into what they termed an “ecotourism village” with artists, restaurants and a creek stocked with trout.

The new Heritage USA isn’t connected with the theme park of the same name that televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker once operated at Fort Mill, S.C., just south of Charlotte, N.C.

In the video, Hare said: “We’re your conservative entertainment company. Really, we’re your American entertainment company.”

With the park having been closed for so long, locals understandably are wary. But the Heritage USA Facebook page is filled with photos of improvements that have taken place lately.

Dogpatch faded from the scene, but the designation of the Buffalo National River and the reintroduction of elk to the county did more than the continued existence of the theme park could have ever done. Neither the national river designation nor the reintroduction of elk came without lots of criticism in a county where private property rights are considered sacred.

The Civilian Conservation Corps constructed what became known as Buffalo River State Park along the river in 1938, and Lost Valley State Park was added in 1966. The National Park Service later would take over those areas.

“The river’s hydroelectric potential was also appreciated,” Suzie Rogers of the National Park Service writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “With the passage of the Flood Control Act of 1938, the Army Corps of Engineers included the Buffalo River in its planning for a system of dams on the White River. Two potential dam sites eventually were selected on the Buffalo, one on the lower portion of the river near its mouth and one at its middle just upstream from the town of Gilbert in Searcy County.

“The continual threat of a dam on the Buffalo caught the attention of Arkansas conservation groups and those who had begun using the river for recreation or simply appreciated the free-flowing river as a spectacular natural resource for the state. In the early 1960s, advocates for the dams and advocates for a free-flowing stream formed opposing organizations. The pro-dam Buffalo River Improvement Association, established by James Tudor of Marshall, and the anti-dam Ozark Society, which included environmentalist Neil Compton, emerged as the leading players in the drama.

“The dam proponents worked with the Corps of Engineers and 3rd District Congressman James Trimble. The free-flowing stream advocates made overtures to the Department of the Interior. In 1961, a National Park Service planning team undertook a site survey of the Buffalo River area. The team was favorably impressed and recommended the establishment of a park on the Buffalo River to be called a ‘national river.’ A decade of political maneuverings, speeches and media attention — including a canoe trip on the Buffalo by Supreme Court Justice William O Douglas — came to a head in December 1965 when Gov. Orval Faubus wrote the Corps of Engineers that he could not support the idea of a dam on the Buffalo River. The Corps withdrew its proposal for a dam.”

Proponents of obtaining a National Park Service designation received an unexpected gift in the fall of 1966 when John Paul Hammerschmidt, a Republican business owner from Harrison, defeated Trimble. Hammerschmidt joined forces with the state’s two Democratic senators, J. William Fulbright and John L. McClellan, to introduce legislation in 1967. Final legislation was introduced in 1971, and hearings took place that fall. Congress approved the bill in February 1972, and the Buffalo National River became a reality.

“Park acreage, boundaries and special considerations were written into the legislation,” Rogers writes. “Total acreage could not exceed 95,730 acres. Hunting and fishing were allowed as a traditional use. Many permanent residents had an option of use and occupancy up to 25 years. Landowners in the three private-use zones of Boxley Valley, Richland Valley and the Boy Scout camp at Camp Orr could choose to sell easements to the government instead of selling the land outright.

“The first park management staff — the park superintendent, a chief ranger and a secretary — arrived in 1972 and took up temporary office quarters in Harrison. Eventually the park was divided into three management districts with staff in each district. Besides setting up park facilities and developing programs, the staff also had to face the emotional turmoil in the community regarding the disruption of life for the Buffalo River residents, whether they were willing or unwilling sellers.”

Land use battles continue along the river to this day. In April of last year, an organization known as American National Rivers ranked the Buffalo among the country’s 10 most endangered rivers due to the threat of pollution from hog farms in the Buffalo River watershed.

People ranging from Oklahoma oil and gas executives to Arkansas automobile moguls now build second homes in Newton County. Others rent cabins.

Horseshoe Canyon, a nationally recognized dude ranch operated by Barry and Amy Johnson, has become a favorite spot for rock climbers from around the world.

Ponca-based Buffalo Outdoor Center also has gained a reputation. Mike Mills started BOC as a canoe rental operation in 1976, just four years after the national river designation. That business now also has a large store, modern log cabins, a lodge, zip lines and more.

There’s fine dining in the form of Nick Bottini’s Low Gap Cafe, which is between Mount Sherman and Ponca. The restaurant is packed on weekends in the spring, summer and fall.

“My grandfather and mother were full-blood Sicilian,” Bottini told Arkansas Living magazine. “I learned from them. … I studied five years at culinary school in New York. Then I went back to California, bounced around at various restaurants and resorts and eventually ended up in Arkansas after visiting relatives and falling in love with the state.”

There also are the various artisanal products that come from Newton County. One example is the honey harvested by Eddie Watkins for his Buffalo River Honey Co. I don’t claim to be a honey connoisseur, but it’s the best I’ve tasted.

As far as the elk, the U.S. Forest Service brought Rocky Mountain elk to Franklin County’s Black Mountain Refuge in 1933. Three bulls and eight cows were transported from the Wichita National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. These elk were themselves transplants, having come to Oklahoma from Wyoming. The Arkansas herd increased to almost 200 elk by 1950s and then disappeared. Poaching, no doubt, played a role in the herd’s demise.

Elk were native to Arkansas, though the eastern subspecies that roamed the region already was dwindling by the time Arkansas became a state in 1836. There were reminders that Arkansas once had been a state where elk roamed freely. The Elkhorn Tavern was a landmark during the Civil War battle at Pea Ridge. One of the oldest banks in the state was Elk Horn Bank & Trust Co. in my hometown of Arkadelphia.

In the late 1700s, elk could be found as far south and east as northern Alabama.

Too much hunting and the loss of habitat meant the end of the Arkansas elk herd by the 1840s. The eastern elk is now extinct.

During his first year in the governor’s office in 1979, Bill Clinton named Hilary Jones of Newton County to the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission. Jones, an avid elk hunter who made regular trips to Colorado, thought elk could survive along the Buffalo River. In 1971, the state of Arkansas entered into an agreement with the state of Colorado to trade elk for Arkansas fish. Jones recruited friends to take trailers to Colorado and bring the Rocky Mountain elk back.

In the years that followed, seven elk from Nebraska’s Sand Hills also were brought to Arkansas. The first elk calf was born in the state in 1982. In the winter of 1985, local volunteers raced winter storms to bring back seven loads containing 74 additional elk. They were transported in cattle trailers lined with sheets of plywood.

The elk brought to Arkansas in the early 1980s were released in the Pruitt area near Highway 7. Much of the herd migrated through the years to the Boxley Valley near Ponca.

In 2002, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission established the Ponca Elk Education Center just across the road from the Buffalo Outdoor Center headquarters. Housed in a log building, the center has displays of elk and other wildlife, photographs, a meeting room and a gift shop. There are also picnic tables and restrooms. On Highway 7 in Jasper, just north of the bridge over the Little Buffalo River, the Hilary Jones Wildlife Museum and Elk Information Center also offers a place for visitors to stop.

Arkansas elk now range over about 225,000 acres. In addition to Newton and Searcy counties, elk have been reported through the years in Washington, Carroll, Boone, Marion, Stone, Conway, Pope and even Faulkner counties. Efforts to improve elk habitat have included prescribed burns and the establishment of native grass openings. Unlike the 1950s, the Arkansas elk herd appears here to stay.

Only six Arkansas counties have fewer residents than Newton County. Three are in the pine woods of south Arkansas — Calhoun, Lafayette and Dallas counties. Two are in the Delta — Woodruff and Monroe counties. One is next door in the Ozarks — Searcy County.

The Newton County seat of Jasper had only 466 residents in the 2010 census. Jasper has been the county seat since 1843. Sawmills there employed hundreds of men in the late 1800s and early 1900s as oak was harvested in the surrounding mountains to be used in stave mills and cedar was harvested for pencil mills.

The current courthouse on the Jasper square was completed in 1942 as a Works Progress Administration project. Highway 7 from Harrison to Jasper was finally paved in the 1950s.

The locals still gather for breakfast and lunch at the Ozark Cafe on the square, which has been around since 1909. It’s part of the Jasper Commercial Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The restaurant has expanded through the years to include parts of three buildings.

“This is the kind of place where regulars have their own tables and waitresses know what some patrons are going to order before the customer even sits down,” Julianna Goodwin wrote last year for The News-Leader at Springfield Mo. “The menus are printed on newsprint, and the restaurant is decked out in vintage signs and black-and-white photos. There are photos from all over Newton County representing different founding families and different moments in the town’s history.”

The restaurant has had 14 sets of owners during its 109 years. There’s often live music on Saturday nights. The Ozark Cafe is open from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m. seven days a week.

 

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Russellville to Jasper

Wednesday, February 14th, 2018

TENTH IN A SERIES

After breakfast at the Old South in Russellville, we head north on Arkansas Highway 7 to Dover.

If Arkansans think of Dover at all, it’s often to remember that awful week in December 1987 when Ronald Gene Simmons killed 14 members of his family before driving to Russellville and killing two more people.

I was the Washington correspondent for the Arkansas Democrat at the time but was back in Arkansas for the holidays, working out of the downtown newsroom. I have vivid memories of the phone ringing each time a new body was found. We kept a body count in the newsroom as we planned the next day’s edition. It was a dark day in Arkansas.

A later memory of Dover is much more benign. Our youngest son’s high school basketball team was in the same district as Dover. When we would play games there, a big ol’ country boy would scream out “Dover!” and the home crowd would answer “Pirates!”

Dover once was the county seat of Pope County. It became the county seat in 1841, and the county seat remained there until moving to Russellville in 1887.

We’re entering the Ozark Mountains now, and the sometimes rough history of this area isn’t always pretty.

“Following a series of murders of county officials after the Civil War, two federal companies were stationed in the area to reinstate order,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Arkansas Encyclopedia of History & Culture. “The troops left two years later. In 1872, however, violence once again flared up, and John H. Williams formed a militia to clamp down on the unrest. Ongoing murders and shootouts led to the entire county being placed under martial law. This period of Reconstruction-era violence, known today as the Pope County Militia War, did not end until early 1873.

“In the 1870s, Dover was home to 31 African-Americans. The following census showed only 11. Eventually the city became a sundown town — a place where African-Americans were prevented from residing, usually by threats of violence. According to one local history, a large part of Pope County went sundown after ‘a Negro tried to rape a white woman,’ following which ‘all Negroes were given an ultimatum to move south of the railroad or suffer the consequences.’ Some sources later reported a sign outside of Dover warning black people to stay away.”

We head north out of Dover and soon pass what remains of the Booger Hollow tourist trap, which has been closed for years. We stop at the U.S. Forest Service’s Rotary Ann overlook and rest area. It’s named for the Rotary Club women’s auxiliary in Russellville, whose members established the first roadside rest stop in the state at this location in the 1930s.

It’s cloudy and windy with temperatures in the 30s. It feels as if there could be snow flurries at any minute even though it’s still November.

Noted Arkansas food and travel expert Kat Robinson writes: “The term Rotary Ann comes from two women. One was Ann Brunier, who traveled with her husband from San Francisco to Houston for a Rotary Club convention in 1914. She was the only woman on the train headed to the conference, and by the time the couple disembarked, everyone was calling her Rotary Ann. Ann Gundaker of Philadelphia was also at the event with her husband, and by the time it was over, she too was known as Rotary Ann. The name stuck, and the ladies’ auxiliary membership for the Rotary Club went by the Rotary Anns up until the 1980s.

“The auxiliary members in Russellville saw a desperate need for a place to stop along the route, not only because of the need for sanitary bathroom facilities but also to give drivers a place to take in some of the amazing views of the Arkansas Ozarks. They encouraged development with the Rotary Club, and in the 1930s a scenic overlook with places to park was created along Highway 7. It was the first rest stop in the state, and it should be around a good, long time. In 2004, the stop was reopened after a year-long renovation and upgrade. Today it includes an unmanned restroom for men and women, interpretive panels, rail-guarded overlooks and picnic tables along with lanes allowing for small-vehicle and bus parking.

“Highway 7 received its Scenic Byway status in 1994 at one of the last high points of tourism in the area. That happened to be the last year Dogpatch USA was open, and new developments around the state were already drawing away travelers. Upgrades to U.S. Highway 65 to the east and plans to create an interstate through northwest Arkansas to the west were already under way. Traffic dwindled. Businesses faded. Yet Rotary Ann has been there through the decades.”

Kat is right. This part of Highway 7 is long past its peak as a draw for tourists. Booger Hollow isn’t the only former attraction that’s closed. You can spot old buildings all up and down this route that once catered to tourists.

We press on following a short stop, winding our way through the mountains and looking for snowflakes as we pass through the small communities of Pelsor, Lurton and Cowell. We’re in Newton County now. Though we’re still full from breakfast in Russellville, we determine that a stop for pie and coffee at the Cliff House Inn, which is six miles south of Jasper, is de rigueur for anyone traveling this stretch of Highway 7.

The restaurant and inn are open from March 15 until November 19.

Here’s how the Cliff House website describes the history of what has become a Highway 7 landmark: “In early 1960, Kenneth and Fern Carter were driving along Highway 7 on a Sunday afternoon. Kenneth stopped the truck, got out and walked through the tree line of the land that overlooked the valley that’s now known as Arkansas’ Grand Canyon. When Kenneth came back, he mumbled something as he was getting back in the truck.

“Fern asked him what he said. He repeated, ‘I’m going to build a motel right here on this spot.’

“Kenneth bought the land and in February 1964 started the process of building the Cliff House Inn. To prepare the land for building, Kenneth had to use dynamite to blast away part of the mountain to build the motel rooms. When he blasted, a section of Highway 7 had to be closed to traffic. His mother, known as Granny, stopped traffic by waving a red flag and yelling ‘fire in the hole!’ You can still see some of the holes down by the motel rooms that were drilled for dynamite but not used.

“The Cliff House Inn opened May 27, 1967, as a gift shop and five-unit motel. Ken and Fern’s son Jim and his wife Joyce managed the Cliff House for a short time. Kenneth sold the Cliff House to the McNutts about a year later. The McNutts owned it for a year and then sold it to Bob and Francis McDaniel. The McDaniels added a house, kitchen and small dining room to the building in the mid-1970s. Mrs. McDaniel wanted a signature pie to offer her dinners. She introduced the company’s comin’ pie, which is still served at the Cliff House today.

“The McDaniels sold the Cliff House to Jim Berry from New York. Jim expanded the size of the dining room. … Jim sold the Cliff House to Neal and Karen Heath from Monroe, La. During their ownership, a tornado hit the building in 2001. The dining room was destroyed. The Heaths rebuilt the dining room with the improvements you see today. In 2006, the Heaths sold the Cliff House to Mike and Becky McLaurin from Shreveport. The McLaurins added the lower redwood deck that motel guests now enjoy and remodeled the motel rooms. They also added seafood and steaks to the menu.”

Newton County is one of the least-populated counties in Arkansas with only 8,330 residents in the 2010 census. The county’s population peaked in the 1900 census with 12,538 residents. By 1960, it was down to just 5,963. It has rebounded some as tourism has increased due to the Buffalo River receiving the first national river designation from the National Park Service and the introduction of elk to the county by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission.

Writing for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, C.J. Miller describes Newton County as “mountainous, rural and isolated. The land, once respected and protected by Native Americans, has come full circle with a large portion being protected by the U.S. Department of the Interior. … The area, rich with game and timber, is watered by the Big and Little Buffalo rivers. Until 1808, the Osage claimed the region, and between 1818 and 1828 the land was part of a reservation granted to the Western Cherokee. The county was part of Carroll County when that county was created in 1833, and white settlers quickly moved in. A block of marble taken from a hillside near present-day Marble Falls was used to help build the Washington Monument. Although Jasper appeared on maps in 1840, it wasn’t incorporated until 1896.

“The Legislature created Newton County on Dec. 14, 1842, naming it after U.S. Marshal Thomas Willoughby Newton. After beginning his career as a mail carrier and serving as U.S. marshal for Arkansas, Newton was elected to serve in Congress after the resignation of Archibald Yell. John Belleh’s house on Shop Creek was designated the county seat until the designation was given to Jasper in 1843. The county had 10 post offices by 1856.

“The terrain made the area unattractive to land speculators, which was encouraging to people who couldn’t afford land in other parts of the state. … The difficulty in farming the rough terrain resulted in farms being located along the rivers. In 1850, there were 51 slaves in the county. By 1860, that number had decreased to 24.”

With so few slave owners, there were strong Union sympathies in the county.

“Farming changed little after Reconstruction,” Miller writes. “Smaller farms were prevalent while larger farms existed near the rivers. Potatoes, apples and peaches supplemented the main crop, corn. Cotton provided the cash crop for the Buffalo River valley. Lumber camps developed. Whether for added income or personal use, the production of moonshine made use of the surplus corn. A legend was born as Beaver Jim Villines became known for his trapping ability. Visitors went to Marble Falls and Tom Thumb Spring for the water’s healing power.”

The population decline began soon after the turn of the century, and isolated Newton County seemed to be a place stuck in the past. Population began to tick back up in the 1970s as the back-to-the-land movement brought new residents (locals simply referred to them as hippies) and Dogpatch USA, which had opened in 1968, increased in popularity. The Buffalo National River designation in 1972 brought thousands of new visitors. Elk were introduced in the early 1980s.

This is the heart of the Arkansas Ozarks.

“At up to 2,600 feet, the Boston Plateau, usually referred to as the Boston Mountains because of its ruggedness, is the highest of the Ozark Mountains,” Tom Foti writes for the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission. “It extends as a belt across the southernmost Ozarks, generally parallel to and to the north of Interstate 40. Typical rock types are sandstone and shale. Although the elevation of the mountains is similar, the highest are in and near Newton County. The elevation there causes higher precipitation and lower temperatures than elsewhere in the Ozarks. Streams are generally small, and the headwaters of many of the well-known streams of the Ozarks occur in the Boston Mountains, including the White, Buffalo, Kings, Mulberry, Big Piney and Little Red.

“In most areas of the Boston Mountains, oak and hickory forest predominate while warm, south-facing slopes on sandstone have extensive areas dominated by shortleaf pines. The cool, moist conditions of protected ravines, particularly in the highest mountains, support forests with beech or sugar maple that are of limited extent elsewhere in the Ozarks. The ruggedness of the Boston Plateau has limited people’s ability to develop the region for agriculture, transportation, urbanization or other uses. Croplands and pastures are concentrated in wider valleys or on level mountaintops. Towns are few and generally small. … Roads typically are narrow, winding and steep. The Butterfield Overland Mail route once crossed the region, but this segment was notoriously difficult.”

Foti describes the area as the one that best typifies “the view of the Ozarks as rugged and beautiful but with little potential for economic development. Poor transportation and a limited economy fostered the isolated, self-sufficient mountaineer lifestyle often associated with the Ozarks. Much of the Boston Mountain region is forested today with a large part of the area in the Ozark National Forest. Highways such as Arkansas Highway 23 in Franklin and Madison counties and Arkansas Highway 7 in Pope and Newton counties still follow their traditional winding routes. They are, however, renowned for their scenic vistas.”

President Teddy Roosevelt signed a proclamation creating the Arkansas National Forest on Dec 18, 1907. On March 6, 1908, he signed a proclamation creating the Ozark National Forest from land north of the Arkansas River. The land south of the river became the Ouachita National Forest. The first Ozark National Forest headquarters was at Fort Smith. The headquarters later moved to Harrison, and then it moved to Russellville in 1918. The forest supervisor in Russellville now also must administer the St. Francis National Forest on Crowley’s Ridge in east Arkansas.

It might be small from a population standpoint, but Newton County is a special place. In fact, we’ll get off Highway 7 for a time on this day in order to view the elk in the Boxley Valley.

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Ola to Russellville

Friday, February 9th, 2018

NINTH IN A SERIES

We cross the Petit Jean River just north of Ola as we make our way north on Arkansas Highway 7.

Several creeks come together in Scott County to form this river, which eventually empties into the Arkansas River about 115 miles east of where it starts.

“The Petit Jean River has never developed into a major transportation corridor, though the steamship Danville did progress up it in 1840, lending its name to the city of Danville, which was laid out the following year,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Danville remains the largest community established along the river. In 1879, a 100-foot bridge over the Petit Jean River was constructed at Danville. During the 1890s, the Choctaw Railroad constructed a line linking Little Rock with the town of Howe in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). This line crossed the Petit Jean River at Danville. The development of the railroad led to the growth of the timber industry along the river.”

We’re downstream from Danville on this day.

Upstream from Danville, work began in 1940 on a dam constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“Work halted in 1942 as World War II drew government resources away from civilian projects,” Lancaster writes. “Work picked up again after the war, and the dam was completed in June 1947. The resulting reservoir is known as Blue Mountain Lake and is a popular local attraction.”

We’ve left the Ouachita Mountains now and entered the Arkansas River Valley, one of the six natural divisions in the state.

“The broad bottomlands along the Arkansas River, sometimes more than 10 miles wide, add to its distinctiveness,” Thomas Foti once wrote for the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission. “The streams that flow through these Arkansas Valley plains reflect their character. They flow gently, are bordered by bottomlands and are often muddy. The Petit Jean River is the largest river to flow entirely within the valley from its head to its mouth at the base of Petit Jean Mountain. People found the Arkansas Valley to be a practical travel route and a hospitable environment to live in from the time it was populated by Native Americans, who had large villages in some areas such as Carden Bottom along the lower Petit Jean River in Yell County. … Thomas Nuttall traveled by boat up and then back down the Arkansas River in 1819, soon after the creation of Arkansas Territory, and kept a journal that described the region at that time. He provided vivid descriptions of the prairies and wooded ridges in the vicinity of Fort Smith.”

The Arkansas River Valley is filled these days with cattle pastures and chicken houses.

We’re now in Yell County, a distinctive place that the natives like to refer to as the Free State of Yell. The county was formed in December 1840 from parts of Scott and Pope counties. It was named for Gov. Archibald Yell.

“Immigrants from Tennessee and North Carolina were prominent in its early development,” Mildred Diane Gleason writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “By 1860, the population reached 6,333, of which 3.9 percent were slaves. Slavery was concentrated near Dardanelle in the bottomlands adjacent to the Arkansas River. Only three slave owners were certified as planters in 1860. Most slave owners were small farmers. The first cotton gin opened in 1838 in Riley Township near Belleville.”

And what about that Free State of Yell?

Gleason explains: “Politics has always been serious business and a form of Yell County entertainment. The county’s political mystique was enriched in 1915 during a circuit judgeship special election. The Yell County candidate, A.B. Priddy, carried the county and barely lost in the other two counties involved, and yet he won the election by 2,500 votes. It was reported that names taken from tombstones and bird dogs were recorded as voters in Yell County. Thus was born the phrase the Free State of Yell, signifying a tendency of the county to act as an independent nation.”

The sun is beginning to set as we enter Dardanelle, so we get off Highway 7 to make our way to the top of Mount Nebo. The state park store is about to close as we get the keys to our cabin, and it’s starting to rain. We don’t want to go back down the mountain so we buy canned chili and crackers. Along with the parched peanuts purchased earlier in the day at Hollis, that will be our supper on a cold, rainy Tuesday night as we start a fire in the fireplace.

The rain has stopped by the time we awake early the next morning. Paul Austin, who packed his own coffee beans and grinder, makes coffee.

After a short drive around the top of the mountain, we head down, reconnect with Highway 7 and make our way into Dardanelle.

This historic river port is one of Arkansas’ oldest towns. It was platted in 1847 and incorporated in 1855.

“The origin of the town’s name is open to conjecture,” Gleason writes. “Perhaps the 300-foot-high rock face at the river’s edge reminded early explorers of the Dardanelles in Turkey or perhaps the early French coureur de bois and holder of a 600-acre Spanish land grant in the area, Jean Baptiste Dardenne, is the source of the town’s name. … Dardanelle became an important river town and emerging trade center during the antebellum era, receiving weekly steamboat visits from New Orleans, Memphis and Little Rock. Dardanelle’s boomtown reputation was aided by its trade in rum, gin and cotton. By 1860, the town had three taverns, several mercantile businesses and cotton gins, three churches (Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian), a weekly newspaper, a doctor, a school, several attorneys and a Masonic lodge.”

By 1860, Dardanelle was connected by telegraph to Little Rock and Fort Smith. Union troops had taken over Dardanelle by the fall of 1862 and skirmishes in the years that followed left part of the community destroyed. As Reconstruction began to wind down, Dardanelle grew again. The courthouse for the northern district of Yell County was built in 1878. The first ice plant in Arkansas opened in 1888.

“From 1873 through the late 1880s, Dardanelle experienced new immigration as numerous Slovak, Moravian, Bohemian and Czech families arrived,” Gleason writes. “Mainly farmers and coal miners, these new immigrants expanded ethnic diversity into the town’s primarily Scotch-Irish and English residents, introducing new languages and religions. In October 1890, Dardanelle’s pontoon bridge, the longest in the world at the time, opened. The floating bridge was financed by tolls of five cents per foot passenger round trip and 25 cents per loaded wagon round trip.”

Diversity these days is supplied by Hispanic families. The city’s Hispanic population had soared to 36.1 percent by the 2010 census as these workers showed up for jobs in the poultry industry.

“By the 1960s, a fundamental agricultural transition was under way involving a decline in row-crop production (especially cotton) and a shift to livestock production,” Gleason writes. “The poultry industry soon became the primary agricultural activity and employment source.”

Dardanelle Lock & Dam is a key part of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System. At the time it opened, the system was the largest civil works project ever undertaken by the Corps of Engineers. The project provides a minimum nine-foot-deep channel from the mouth of the river to Catoosa, Okla., which is near Tulsa. President Richard M. Nixon was the keynote speaker when dedication ceremonies took place at Catoosa on June 5, 1971.

Construction began in the Dardanelle area in 1958. Navigation was opened to Little Rock in October 1968 and a postage stamp was issued with the words “Arkansas River Navigation” to mark the occasion. The first commercial barges docked at the Port of Little Rock on Jan. 4, 1969. The system — covering 443 miles and consisting of 17 locks and dams — was ready for full use on Dec. 30, 1970.

We cross the Arkansas River into Pope County and Russellville. Nearby is the state’s only nuclear power plant, Arkansas Nuclear One.

The last census in which Dardanelle was larger than Russellville was the 1890 census when Dardanelle had a population of 1,456 and Russellville had 1,321 residents. From the 1970 census to the 2010 census, Dardanelle grew from 3,297 to 4,745. Russellville, meanwhile, soared from 11,750 to 27,920.

Russellville’s growth was spurred soon after the Civil War by the construction of the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad.

“After the line came through Russellville in 1873, the town grew rapidly,” David Vance writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Russellville’s first newspaper, the Herald, was founded in 1870. By 1876, the town boasted a population of about 800 people who were serviced by 15 stores, two cotton gins and six doctors. The town’s growth prompted a debate on moving the county seat, which had been located in Dover since 1841, to one of the growing business centers adjacent to the new tracks. On March 19, 1887, an election was held in which Russellville beat out all competing towns, though Atkins finished a close second on the ballot.”

Growth later was spurred by the construction of Interstate 40 in the late 1950s. Arkansas Nuclear One began operations in 1974. The biggest driver of economic activity, however, has been the explosive growth of the student population at Arkansas Tech University in the past decade.

In 1909, the Arkansas Legislature passed an act to establish agricultural schools in four districts across the state. Legislators had been lobbied for years by the Farmers Educational and Cooperative Union to create such schools in an attempt to reverse what the leaders of the organization viewed as the decline of rural life in Arkansas. Competition was particularly stiff for the Second District Agricultural School. Russellville was chosen following a spirited competition with Fort Smith, Morrilton and Ozark.

Cities interested in landing the school were required to pledge at least $40,000 and 200 acres. Russellville threw in free water and electricity for three years. The district school, which initially served high school-age students, opened in the fall of 1910 with 186 students. It grew to 350 students by the fall of 1913.

In February 1925, the Legislature changed the name of the Second District Agricultural School to Arkansas Polytechnic College. The other three district agricultural schools went on to become Arkansas State University at Jonesboro, Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia and the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

Life wasn’t always easy at Arkansas Tech. The Great Depression led to budget shortfalls and legislative discussions about closing the four district schools. More problems came at the onset of World War II when most males joined the armed services. Tech’s enrollment dropped to 133 students in the fall of 1943. Empty dorm space was utilized by members of the Women’s Army Corps and naval air personnel who trained on the campus.

In recent years, Tech has been among the fastest-growing colleges in the region with almost 12,000 students now enrolled on campuses in Russellville and Ozark.

Breakfast on this Wednesday is at that Arkansas classic known as the Old South, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1999. The Art Moderne modular diner was built in six days in 1947 out of manufactured parts produced by the National Glass & Manufacturing Co. of Fort Smith. A similar Old South restaurant earlier had opened at Fort Smith but is long gone. The Russellville restaurant serves one of my favorite breakfasts in the state. I like to get things I can’t often find on menus elsewhere, and so corned beef hash is the choice on this chilly day.

William E. Stell, the owner of the Fort Smith manufacturing company, built the restaurant for Russellville businessman Woody Mays. At one time, the restaurant was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The National Register nomination states: “When it was constructed, the Old South was located in an undeveloped stretch of Highway 64, at that time the main travel route from Tennessee to Oklahoma.”

The restaurant’s website says that the Old South still “looks virtually the same on the exterior and interior as it did when constructed in 1947. Its streamlined design, round windows, soft metal skin, neon lights, aluminum fixtures and padded booths typify its Art Moderne design. Even the menu offers many of the same items that were originally served, including the famous cream soups and salad dressing developed by R.C. Strub for the prototype Old South in Fort Smith.”

The Fort Smith restaurant was at 711 Towson Ave.

Noted Arkansas food writer Kat Robinson says that Stell, who was born in Oklahoma, formed his company at Fort Smith in 1929.

“The company created fixtures, furniture and metalwork for restaurants and department stores,” she writes. “It wasn’t a far jump for Stell to develop a modular diner system to take advantage of the new automobile culture developing. Unlike the Streamliner design (which was a contained prefab unit), Stell’s idea was for a modular build-on-site system that could be adapted to the location. He employed the help of architect Glenn Pendergrass (who designed the El Chico restaurants around Dallas) to design the concept he envisioned.

“The first, that Fort Smith store, was an experiment. Stell brought in a guy from New York City to form a menu — that man was none other than Schwab’s R.C. Strub. The style of a Kansas City-style steakhouse menu was adopted for use in what would be a series of roadside diners. The idea was to create a restaurant quickly. And it did catch on.  No one knows for certain how many Old South restaurants were built, but the last other restaurant (in Camden, S.C.) apparently closed in 2005. The original location in Fort Smith was demolished in the 1970s.”

We take our time at breakfast before heading north through Dover and into the Ozark Mountains.

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