Archive for the ‘Traveling Arkansas’ Category

Catholic fare

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

While I’ve attempted to visit as many independently owned restaurants across the state as possible through the years — especially those in rural areas — one thing I’ve not done is take in most of the historic annual events that are associated with Catholic parishes.

Though there’s not a large Catholic population in Arkansas, these are among the most storied and anticipated events in our state.

In fact, the annual supper at St. Joseph Church in Center Ridge bills itself as “the original spaghetti supper.”

In 1929 — the year the Great Depression began — Benedictine nuns were looking for a way to raise money for school supplies. They wound up raising $40 by selling pasta suppers for 25 cents per plate. That cost included homemade wine, by the way. The homemade wine is a thing of the past, but there’s still homemade Italian sausage and spaghetti produced for a March supper and a June summer picnic.

“It’s not only the taste of the food,” Theresa Paladino told the Arkansas Catholic in 2013. “It’s the hospitality, the friendliness and the heritage of fourth and fifth generations that makes it the best. We don’t have a set sauce recipe. Everybody just brings their own and dumps it in the pot. I’ve seen years when it rained, and people in line stood there and got rained on. One year the transformers blew, and people ate in the dark. People have sat in their cars to eat. Before we were on city water, the wells almost ran dry because we boiled so much pasta. But the Lord always made sure we had enough.”

Parishioners start making the sausages in January. It’s a family tradition for those in the area, which was settled decades ago by Italian Catholics. The two dinners combine to serve more than 3,000 people each year.

Up in northwest Arkansas, St. Joseph Church at Tontitown serves an estimated 7,000 plates of spaghetti during the Grape Festival each August. The event began in 1898 when Italian immigrant farmers — who had left behind the mosquitoes and malaria of the Sunnyside Plantation near Lake Village — decided to have a picnic. Now, fried chicken and pasta are served from Thursday through Saturday. The pasta and sauce are homemade.

Ryan Pianalto, a fourth-generation member of the church, described it best a couple of years ago when he said: “It’s just the best thing ever. You would trade your birthday for the Grape Festival in a minute. … It’s fantastic to use these old recipes. It’s also amazing to hear my great-aunts and uncles talk about how they made it in these five-gallon pots where they would stir it all day long. These days we use a 100-gallon pot.”

Speaking of Lake Village and its Italian heritage, the Our Lady of the Lake spaghetti supper began in 1909. The recipes for the March event have been handed down since then. More than 300 pounds of pasta are produced on the weekend before Washington’s Birthday is celebrated in February. In late February, about 3,600 meatballs are made. Diners have been known to line up by 7 a.m. the day of the event for takeout orders.

You know a place named Little Italy must have a Catholic church and an annual supper. And that’s just the case for St. Francis of Assisi Church in the Little Italy community near Roland, where almost 1,000 diners buy tickets for homemade pasta, sauce and sausages each October. The sausages are cooked in wine, and the salad dressing comes from a recipe that’s a century old. The event, which began in 1927, is almost like a homecoming with people who grew up in the parish coming from multiple states to eat and visit with friends.

The spaghetti dinner at St. Joseph Church in Pine Bluff, which is held each October, dates back to 1934. The meatball recipe has never changed. Almost 11,000 meatballs are produced each year. The work starts weeks in advance.

A Christmas season tradition in Little Rock is the Mancini Sausage Supper. I had the honor of being the main speaker for the event several years ago. My pay was five pounds of sausages. The supper began at St. Joseph Orphanage in North Little Rock. Members of the Knights of Columbus would give the orphans presents, and the children would sing Christmas carols. Sausages were made from Duroc hogs on the St. Joseph grounds, which were descended from Subiaco Abbey litters. The sausage supper now is held at McDonald Hall, which is adjacent to the Cathedral of St. Andrew in downtown Little Rock. Proceeds go to several charities. Those who buy tickets also are asked to bring unwrapped toys.

The event has become so big that Petit Jean Meats at Morrilton now prepares the sausages, though the original recipe is used. More than 300 pounds of sausages are served each year. Another 200 pounds are sold for people to take home. The supper is named for the late Louie Mancini, a longtime member of the Knights of Columbus.

It’s not all pasta and sausage at Catholic events across the state. There’s also:

— Polish fare at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in the Marche neighborhood of North Little Rock. The annual Polish Karnawal Festival in September attracts more than 1,000 people for gokie (patties of beef and pork), butter potatoes, haluski (braised sweet cabbage, onions and butter) and dumplings. There’s homemade sauerkraut that has been pickled in brine for six weeks and homemade Polish sausages.

— Latino and Vietnamese food at the St. Vincent de Paul Church Festival each September in Rogers. There are 15 food stands offering everything from Vietnamese spring rolls to handmade tamales as this ethnically diverse parish celebrates the start of fall.

— Boston butts, pork loin and barbecued chicken each October for the festival at Blessed Sacrament Church in Jonesboro. Demand for the Boston butts (pork shoulder) is so high that people begin ordering them months in advance. About 800 butts are sold for people to take home.

— Rolls and tamales at Immaculate Conception Church in Fort Smith for the church bazaar on the first weekend in November. The yeast rolls have been made each year since 1970. They’re known as “featherbed rolls.” The tamales, also available at the cultural festival each September at the church, are made from scratch by 60 volunteers.

— No article on food at Catholic events would be complete without mentioning the hot sauce and peanut brittle produced at Subiaco Abbey. There are 600 habanero pepper plants on the grounds. The plants produce 1,500 pounds of peppers, and those are turned into 2,500 five-ounce bottles of sauce. Both red and green peppers are grown. The peanut brittle, meanwhile, is produced in small skillets.

“Somebody once asked me why we didn’t make a mild habanero sauce, and I said: ‘For what?'” Father Richard Walz told the Arkansas Catholic in 2013. “Some of the commercial sauces out there are very, very thin. If you held it up, you could read a newspaper through it. We’re not afraid of someone stealing our recipe because we use way more peppers than most places would think was profitable. And a bag of most peanut brittles is the best advertisement for ours because you see a lot of candy and maybe a peanut here and there. We use more peanuts than any other brittle I’ve ever seen.”

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The Natural State bucket list

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015

Several years ago, we published an Arkansas bucket list, and it proved to be popular.

It’s high time to update that list. So here goes.

Please share the link with your friends and let me know in the comments section what you would add.

There are certain things every Arkansan should do at least once. They include:

— Watching Sonny Payne do his “King Biscuit Time” radio show at the Delta Cultural Center in downtown Helena.

— Drinking some of the water at the Mountain Valley headquarters in downtown Hot Springs.

— Fishing for bream on a south Arkansas oxbow during the day and then frog gigging on the same lake at night.

— Watching the cardboard boat races at Greers Ferry Lake and then having dinner at the Red Apple Inn.

— Buying some wine at Altus and then visiting the monastery at Subiaco.

— Sitting on the east side of Mount Nebo while watching the sun rise over the Arkansas River Valley.

— Watching the Memphis fireworks on the Sunday before Memorial Day from a sandbar on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River.

— Taking a slow walk through Mount Holly Cemetery in Little Rock, especially when the roses are blooming.

— Attending a high school basketball game on a winter Friday night at Valley Springs.

— Attending a high school football game on a fall Friday night at Nashville.

— Eating a turkey leg at the Arkansas State Fair.

— Attending the fall and spring craft fairs at War Eagle.

— Singing “Amazing Grace” during a funeral at a country church.

— Fixing a casserole for a church potluck.

— Helping clean up a rural cemetery.

— Fishing for smallmouth bass on the Kings River.

— Eating a tamale spread at McClard’s in Hot Springs.

— Attending the King Biscuit Blues Festival at Helena.

— Dancing to the band in the lobby of the Arlington Hotel on a Saturday night during the Oaklawn race meet.

— Standing in the state Capitol rotunda and looking up.

— Climbing Pinnacle Mountain.

— Spending the night on a houseboat on Lake Ouachita.

— Attending a county fair parade.

— Driving the Pig Trail when the leaves are turning, stopping along the way at the Turner Bend Store.

— Pigging out on barbecue for breakfast at Jones in Marianna.

— Watching the elk graze in the Boxley Valley.

— Listening to the music on a Saturday night in downtown Mountain View.

— Taking a bath on Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs.

— Standing along the rail at Oaklawn Park on Arkansas Derby day.

— Hanging out with the students on Dickson Street in Fayetteville after a Razorback football victory.

— Reading the Civil War markers at DeValls Bluff and then having barbecue at Craig’s.

— Eating a slice of watermelon (with salt) at the Hope Watermelon Festival.

— Attending the all-tomato luncheon during the Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival at Warren.

— Walking the boardwalk through the swamp between Brinkley and Marvell to see the Louisiana Purchase monument.

— Attending an event in the room behind the kitchen at Doe’s in Little Rock.

— Touring the Cash house at Dyess and then heading over to Wilson to see the English Tudor architecture.

— Walking through the Lakeport Plantation near Lake Village.

— Getting a room for the night at Mather Lodge atop Petit Jean.

— Attending the duck gumbo contest on the Saturday after Thanksgiving in Stuttgart.

— Buying an ice cream cone at the Ernie Dunlap Store in Kirby.

— Having your picture taken while standing on the Arkansas-Texas line at the federal courthouse in downtown Texarkana.

— Attending the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Hot Springs.

— Wearing a kilt to the annual Scottish festival at Lyon College in Batesville.

— Going to Garvan Woodland Gardens on Lake Hamilton when the tulips are blooming.

— Watching the rice harvest near Weiner on a cool fall day.

— Attending the annual Slovak Oyster Supper in February.

— Attending the annual Gillett Coon Supper in January.

— Attending the annual Grady Fish Fry on the third Thursday in August.

— Waiting for a seat at The Pancake Shop on a Sunday morning in Hot Springs.

— Going to a cattle auction at a local sale barn.

— Watching the toad races during Toad Suck Daze at Conway.

— Having a Friday night catfish dinner at The Whippet in Prattsville.

— Sitting alongside the bypass at Sheridan on the Friday before modern gun deer season and counting the trucks headed south on U.S. Highway 167.

— Catching a mess of crappie on one of the lakes in the White River National Wildlife Refuge.

— Seeing how much fried chicken you can eat at the Monte Ne Inn near Rogers.

— Eating an entire hubcap cheeseburger at the original Cotham’s in Scott.

— Walking from your room at the 21c Hotel in downtown Bentonville to view the exhibits at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

— Sitting quietly for 30 minutes or so in the Thorncrown Chapel at Eureka Springs.

— Floating in a canoe down the Buffalo River when the dogwoods are blooming.

— Calling the Hogs at football games in both Little Rock and Fayetteville in the same season.

— Searching for the Gurdon Light late at night.

— Fishing for trout early in the morning on the upper White River.

— Watching the sun rise on a winter morning from a duck blind on the Grand Prairie.

— Spending a night at both the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs and the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs.

— Attending a Battle of the Ravine football game between Ouachita and Henderson in Arkadelphia.

— Digging for diamonds at the Crater of Diamonds State Park near Murfreesboro.

— Visiting Bald Knob when the strawberries are ripe in May and ordering the strawberry shortcake at The Bulldog.

— Sampling the fried chicken at the Mount Nebo Chicken Fry.

— Stomping grapes at Tontitown.

— Picking wild blackberries while wondering how many chigger bites you’ll have at the end of the day.

— Eating some peaches at the Johnson County Peach Festival.

— Kayaking on the Mulberry River.

— Having a steak on a Friday night at Jerry’s in Trumann.

— Hanging out with the regulars at Roy’s in Paragould.

— Attending the Fourth of July community picnics at Corning and Piggott.

— Crossing the U.S. Highway 62 bridge over Norfork Lake on a clear day and admiring how blue the water is.

— Eating a gear salad and the filet mignon at Herman’s in Fayetteville.

— Sitting outside at Basin Spring Park in Eureka Springs on a fall Saturday evening while enjoying the music.

— Visiting Judge Parker’s courtroom at the Fort Smith National Historic Site.

— Driving along the Talimena Scenic Drive near Mena when the leaves are changing.

— Spending the day walking around Historic Washington State Park when the jonquils are blooming.

— Taking a boat out on Grassy Lake in southwest Arkansas at night to look for alligators.

— Walking around the courthouse square in El Dorado and going into as many of the locally owned shops as possible.

— Eating a turkey sandwich at the original Burge’s in Lewisville.

— Buying more than you need the week before duck season at Mack’s Prairie Wings in Stuttgart.

— Wrangling an invitation to one of the Sunday night wild game dinners at Gene’s in Brinkley.

— Grabbing a weekday plate lunch at the Pickens Store in Desha County during the harvest season.

— Eating a plate of buffalo ribs at the Lassis Inn in Little Rock.

— Touring the Lower White River Museum at Des Arc on a Friday afternoon, followed by a catfish dinner at Dondie’s.

— Spending a summer Saturday morning at the farmers’ market on the square in Fayetteville.

— Visiting a sand blow in northeast Arkansas while contemplating the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12.

— Getting a sunburn while attending Riverfest on Memorial Day weekend in Little Rock.

— Buying a stack of books at That Bookstore in Blytheville.

— Riding a horse at the Horseshoe Canyon Ranch near Jasper, followed by supper at the Low Gap Café.

— Finding a swimming hole on the Eleven Point River and then having lunch on the front porch of the country store at Dalton.


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The retirement state

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

It was 1948 and World War II veterans were starting families and buying homes after having attended college on the G.I. Bill.

In the flat cotton country of east Arkansas, a West Memphis businessman named John A. Cooper Sr. had an idea.

Cooper looked to the west — to the Ozark foothills to be exact — and purchased 400 acres near where Otter Creek runs into the Spring River. At first, he used his Otter Creek Ranch as a family retreat. But Cooper had a bigger plan in mind. He began to buy up other land in Sharp and Fulton counties, and in 1953 he formed the Cherokee Village Development Co. with the idea of selling lots to people in Midwestern states such as Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Gov. Orval Faubus attended the dedication of Cherokee Village in June 1955 (it was Faubus’ first year in office) and declared it to be the “coming mecca of the Ozarks.”

Cooper eventually built two golf courses, seven lakes, 350 miles of roads, a water system and three recreation centers.

“Less than 10 years after the town’s founding, Cherokee Village had grown so much that additional land was necessary to satisfy the demand for new homes,” Wayne Dowdy of Memphis writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “However, adjoining land was occupied by the Memphis Boy Scout Council’s summer camp, Kia Kima. In 1964, Cooper approached the Boy Scouts and offered to give them a larger tract of land on the South Fork of the Spring River in exchange for their property. The Memphis youth organization relented after Cooper agreed to construct several new buildings on the Boy Scouts’ new property. The Kia Kima trade and other land purchases expanded Cherokee Village to 13,500 acres by 1980.”

Dowdy writes that the development of Cherokee Village “had a profound impact on Arkansas. The retirement community industry became an integral part of the state’s economy as the older Americans who flocked to Cherokee Village transformed the state into one of the most innovative and popular retirement destinations in the United States.”

In the 1960s, Cooper set his sights on Bella Vista in northwest Arkansas, which had a long history as a resort.

John Spurgeon writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “William S. Baker, a Benton County Presbyterian minister, and his wife Mary decided in 1915 to develop a summer recreation area in Benton County. Damming Sugar Creek created a large lake suitable for swimming. The Bakers’ plans called for adjacent tennis courts, golf links and nearly 400 lots selling at $100 each. A contest was used to select the resort’s name with the winning entry being Bella Vista. Business was not lucrative, however, and by 1917 the resort was offered for sale.

“Samuel and Mary Linebarger and their three sons moved in 1900 to Bentonville for a change in climate following Mary’s diagnosis with tuberculosis. After she died two years later, the family left Arkansas. The Linebarger Brothers Realty Co., founded by Samuel’s three sons, returned to purchase Bella Vista along with adjoining acreage, seeking a new investment. Initial expansion plans called for a pavilion suitable for dancing, a 30-room lodge and a dining hall. A nine-hole golf course was added in 1922, a large swimming pool in 1924 and the 65-room Sunset Hotel in 1929. In 1930, the brothers developed a cave into a nightclub, calling it Wonderland.

“The resort retained the Bella Vista name and opened from June to Labor Day, renting rooms by the day or the week, selling lots and building cottages. Bella Vista amenities included swimming, golf, tennis, fishing, camping, horse rides, rowing, games and dances with orchestral music. The Linebargers catered to wealthy, urban families who could spend the entire summer on vacation. Under the leadership of Clarence A. Linebarger, the youngest Linebarger brother, summer business progressively improved. The Great Depression, World War II and changing vacation concepts — with automobiles and highways allowing people to venture to new and distant places — resulted in the resort’s decline.

“Elzy Lloyd Keith, who operated the Lake Keith Resort in Cave Springs, purchased Bella Vista in 1952, billing it as ‘Bella Vista the Family Resort, the Beauty Spot of the Ozarks.’ Keith transitioned Bella Vista into a family resort, substituting roller skating for dancing, and added a restaurant, grocery and motel. … Keith closed the Sunset Hotel after one year, giving it to a Baptist minister to start a school. Within five years, the school also closed.”

Cooper moved in, quickly buying up land and dividing it into lots. During the next 35 years, more than 37,000 lots were sold. Almost 13,000 of them have been developed. A study in 1987 showed that 16.5 percent of all Benton County tax revenues and 45 percent of the property tax revenues for the Bentonville School District were coming from Bella Vista. The Bank of Bentonville reported in 1992 that 34 percent of its deposits came from Bella Vista residents.

The population of Bella Vista soared from 2,589 in the 1980 census to 9,093 in the 1990 census to 16,582 in the 2000 census to 26,461 in the 2010 census.

On Nov. 7, 2006, residents voted by a two-to-one margin to incorporate it as Arkansas’ newest city. With the explosive growth of northwest Arkansas, Bella Vista can no longer be considered a retirement community. It’s instead a growing municipality.

In 1970, Cooper set his sights on southwest Arkansas as he began to develop a 20,000-acre tract in Saline and Garland counties into Hot Springs Village.

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture notes: “Cooper had been approached separately by two people with the idea of creating a retirement community, state Sen. Bud Canada and Peter D. Joers, the president of the Dierks Coal & Lumber Co. After touring the property by air, Cooper realized the potential of the land and immediately bought 20,000 acres from Dierks Forests Inc. His plan was to create a peaceful retirement community in a natural setting that would offer all modern-day conveniences without the hassle of living in an urbanized city. Unlike his other two communities, Hot Springs Village was created as a gated community in order to provide security for its residents and as an experiment to see if the gated community would result in more residents than the non-gated communities.”

The population grew from 2,083 in 1980 to 6,361 in 1990 to 8,397 in 2000 to 12,807 in 2010.

There were smaller retirement communities in the Arkansas hills built by developers other than Cooper.

Horseshoe Bend — located in parts of Izard, Sharp and Fulton counties — was developed along the Strawberry River.

“In the late 1950s, Bill and Dick Pratt sold 200 acres of land to a group of developers from Texas,” writes Steven Teske of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. “The brothers — businessmen from Little Rock and Newport respectively — had purchased abandoned land for a retirement community. The Texas developers began selling lots, but they then defaulted on their business loans, and the Pratts regained control of the community. Purchasing additional land, they continued selling lots, as well as creating streets and utilities for the new houses. Where the woods reportedly once hid a whiskey still, an airport was built.

“Creeks that flowed into the Strawberry River were dammed to create several lakes. Cedar Glade Lake failed to fill with water as was intended; engineers discovered that the water was emptying into a previously unknown cave. They spent more than $100,000 plugging holes in the bottom of the lakebed. … A feature called Gobbler’s Knob, frequented by local hunters, was converted into the Turkey Mountain Golf Course. Construction began in 1961, and the first nine holes were open to the public in 1963; the remaining nine holes were finished in 1971.

“The Pratts employed a sales team that at one time had 100 employees. In all, they created 56 subdivisions on 14,000 acres, and by 1974, they had sold 12,000 lots. Many of the houses were prefabricated. More than half of the new residents were from Illinois (which accounted for a quarter of the residents), Missouri, Iowa, Indiana and Wisconsin. The city was incorporated in 1969, creating a city government and a police force, as well as guaranteeing oversight of the city’s utilities. Various new churches were formed, including Lutheran, Episcopal and Roman Catholic. Each was the first of its denomination in Izard County.”

A film and television producer named Albert Gannaway came to town in the late 1960s with the idea of creating a theme park to be known as Ozarkland. A replica frontier homestead at Ozarkland was to be the set for a televised music program known as “Ozarkland Jamboree.” The park and the television program were both financial failures. East Arkansas music promoter and developer Gene Williams bought Ozarkland in the early 1970s with the idea of creating an amusement park to be called Frontierland. That effort also failed.

“In spite of these failures, the development of Horseshoe Bend provided jobs for residents of the area,” Teske writes. “Retired farmers and business professionals opened shops and restaurants, and roughly half the sales staff of the development hailed from Arkansas. Construction jobs also employed workers whose previous income from farming had been considerably less. Not only did Horseshoe Bend bring the first golf course and first public swimming pool into the region, it also introduced the first Kiwanis Club and the first legal drinking establishments.”

The Pratts decided to sell their holdings in 1974 to a group known as Gulf South Advisors. It turned out to be a corporation involved in questionable activities. Millions of dollars intended for the further development of Horseshoe Bend were lost. A lengthy bankruptcy case put a halt to growth. Former salesmen for the Pratts became independent real estate agents, and a municipal improvement district took over the golf course and lakes.

Meanwhile, just north of Eureka Springs along Table Rock Lake, Robert McCulloch (a Missouri entrepreneur known for McCulloch chainsaws and for purchasing the London Bridge and reassembling it in Arizona) began work on a 4,500-acre retirement community known as Holiday Island in 1970.

“The developers donated one acre of land to Grace Lutheran Church, which was formed in 1972 by 26 Lutherans,” Teske writes. “A Presbyterian church was formed in Holiday Island in the 1990s. There are also two Baptist churches and a community church. In addition to building homes, the developers created two golf courses, a marina, a shopping center and a recreation center. … The area also has two assisted living facilities, a campground and motels and rental properties.”

In Van Buren and Cleburne counties, three Fort Smith businessmen — Randolph Warner, Neal Simonson and George Jacobus — decided in the early 1960s to buy land on the north shore of what would become Greers Ferry Lake for a retirement community.

“They hired a retired cotton broker named C.M. Owen to find a suitable location,” James White writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In his Jeep, Owen followed the logging roads to a high point overlooking the green valley that was being filled to form the lake. A new corporation — Fairfield Communities Land Co. — formed by Jacobus, Simonson and Warner (later to become Fairfield Communities Inc.) began the purchase of land from the Nebraska Tie & Lumber Co., which owned the timberlands on the north shore of the lake. By 1965, the first 3,500 acres had been purchased by Jacobus and his partners. Lots were sold, and the price included a small annual amenities fee for the recreation facilities.

“All early activities centered near the marina, which was built in 1966. In 1967, more than 300 mobile homes were brought in to house the prospective lot buyers. The Wild Boar restaurant was built in 1967 on Highway 330. The second floor of this restaurant became the offices of FCI. The Civic Center building was built in 1972 and was where many of the social and community meetings were held. … Before and after the Wild Board restaurant burned in early 1980, the FCI offices and other businesses began moving to the present Indian Hills Country Club and the mall area.”

In addition to selling lots, the company began pushing timeshares in vacation homes in 1979. By 2006, about 7,800 lots had been sold (only 1,200 of them have houses on them). The number of residents was about 2,400, but there were an estimated 20,000 annual timeshare visitors. FCI later filed for bankruptcy, and the property owners association known as the Community Club assumed control. The city of Fairfield Bay was incorporated in 1993.

The development of these retirement communities established Arkansas as one of the most important retirement destinations in the country. Cooper, who was born at Earle in 1906 and received a law degree from the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., had a keen understanding of people who had been raised poor during the Great Depression before climbing into the middle class. He guessed correctly that some of them would want to retire in places where the cost of living was low and the winters weren’t as harsh.

The 1960s and 1970s were the boom period. Arkansas retirement developments advertised free vacations in markets across the Midwest. Couples would come to the state and spend a few days enjoying the amenities in exchange for participating in a “tour” with a real estate agent that was actually an intense sales pitch like something out of the David Mamet play “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Male high school teachers and coaches often would spend their summers as salesmen. The good ones could earn more money in three months of selling lots than they had earned in nine months of teaching.

The problem for the rural Arkansas retirement communities (Bella Vista is an exception since it’s now part of an urban area) is that the Baby Boomers are different from their parents. Fewer of them want to live by a golf course in a rural area during their retirement years. They tend to prefer urban areas with amenities such as fine dining, live theater, symphony orchestras and sports events.

College towns also have proved to be popular retirement spots due to the number of events they offer.

In our next installment, we’ll take a look at how these Arkansas retirement communities are now trying to reinvent themselves.

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The Spa City bucket list

Monday, April 6th, 2015

My friend David Bazzel of KABZ-FM, 103.7 The Buzz, in Little Rock will spend three nights in Hot Springs this week as the Racing Festival of the South takes place at Oaklawn Park.

David asked me to come up with the ultimate Spa City bucket list of things he should do.

A day at Oaklawn, complete with corned beef and oysters on the half shell, is already a given. There’s not going to be time to do everything on this list, but here’s my best shot:

1. Get a bath and massage at the Buckstaff for a classic bathhouse experience, and then have a bath and massage a day later at the beautifully renovated Quapaw.

2. Hang out in the Arlington Hotel lobby on Friday or Saturday night, listen to the live music and watch the couples dance.

3. Have lunch at the Superior Bathhouse in a window seat, which allows you to watch the people walking along Bathhouse Row.

4. Pay a visit downtown to the Gangster Museum, the wax museum in the old Southern Club and Maxwell Blade’s new museum of oddities. The mix of low-brow and high-brow attractions has always been part of the charm of Hot Springs. I still miss the auction houses.

5. Have breakfast one morning at The Pancake Shop and breakfast the next morning at the Colonial. Both are downtown. Make sure to buy the Daily Racing Form in the basement of the Arlington before breakfast so you can mark your selections while waiting on the food.

6. Take a slow walk after breakfast along the Grand Promenade.

7. Play tourist to the hilt and ride one of the amphibious Ducks.

8. Visit the Arkansas Alligator Farm, one of the state’s oldest tourist attractions.

9. Make multiple stops along the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail, read the markers and listen to the narration on your smart phone.

10. Hot Springs is among the top barbecue cities in the South. Visit one or more of the following: McClard’s, Stubby’s, Smokin’ In Style, Mickey’s.

11. Hot Springs also is one of the best pizza cities in the South. Visit one or more of the following: Deluca’s, Rod’s, Rocky’s.

12. Drop by the Ohio Club and Maxine’s, two historic watering holes downtown. Catch some live music at those venues.

13. Take a hike along the creek at Gulpha Gorge.

14. Visit as many of the art galleries as possible along Central Avenue. Also drop by All Things Arkansas for Arkansas-made products.

15. Take a trip out to the Mid-America Science Museum, which recently reopened following a multimillion-dollar upgrade.

16. View the wonderful collection of old photos in the lobby of the Hot Springs Convention Center.

17. While walking along Bathhouse Row, see the historic displays in the Fordyce, the art in the Ozark and the items for sale in the Lamar.

18. Go to Garvan Woodland Gardens while the tulips are still blooming.

19. Hot Springs still has some old dairy bars. Pay a visit to King Cone, Bailey’s and the Fros-T-Treat.

20. Go to the top of the Hot Springs Mountain Tower.

That’s a start.

What else should be on the list?

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The Sunken Lands

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

One of the great feats in Arkansas history was the decades-long effort to drain the swamps in the northeast part of the state so row-crop agriculture (cotton in those days; mostly soybeans and rice now) could flourish.

I began thinking about that effort earlier this month when I noticed on the newspaper obituary page that Wayne Hinds of Trumann had died. Hinds was the longtime general manager and executive secretary of what’s known as Drainage District No. 7. He also was a member of the Lower Mississippi Valley Flood Control Association. Hinds probably knew more than anyone about the Marked Tree Siphons, which were considered to be among the nation’s outstanding engineering feats when they were dedicated in 1939. Hinds worked for the drainage district for almost 48 years.

The drainage district was established by the Arkansas Legislature in 1917 to help reclaim the Sunken Lands, the area created by the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12. The drainage district oversees 310 miles of ditches and 62 miles of levees that initially were constructed from 1917-26. At the point where a major levee crosses the St. Francis River just north of Marked Tree, the Memphis District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a sluiceway, lock and floodway to allow river traffic to continue. Work on that project was completed in 1926.

The levee was destroyed by the Great Flood of 1927. It was repaired, but a 1933 flood caused the sluiceway to break and a portion of the levee to collapse. Temporary repairs were made, but a 1938 flood created a 90-foot gap in the levee and destroyed the sluiceway. Engineers determined that the fine sands in the area became quicksand when saturated.

To get around that problem, the Corps of Engineers designed what became known as the Marked Tree Siphons. The district engineer at Memphis had seen a siphon in New Orleans that give him the idea. The three Marked Tree Siphons are each nine feet across and more than 200 feet long. The siphons lift the water of the river over the levee instead of under or through it. The cost of constructing the siphons was $215,0000. At the dedication ceremony in June 1939, people from all over northeast Arkansas showed up in their finest clothes. It was a big day.

The district engineer for the Corps called the siphons “unique in the annals of engineering.” The story about this marvel of modern engineering ran in newspapers across the country. In 1988, the Marked Tree Siphons and the old lock on the St. Francis River, which is no longer used, were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In the 1990s, the siphons were improved so that they will continue to function through the 21st century. Hinds told the Poinsett County Democrat Tribune last year: “The whole system is in the best shape it has ever been, even better than when it was first built.”

Northeast Arkansas was slow to be settled because it was covered with swamps and almost impenetrable bottomland hardwood forests. Donna Brewer Jackson wrote in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Without drainage, the land was useless for farming. Early residents realized that once the land was cleared of the timber and drained, the rich alluvial soil would be productive for a variety of crops, especially cotton. Initially, early settlers had attempted to build makeshift barriers to halt the powerful floodwaters, but these attempts were ultimately useless. Although the line of levees along the Mississippi River expanded during the 19th century, the water always found a weak spot and inundated the region.

“In 1879, Congress created the Mississippi River Commission to establish a unified flood-control plan. In cooperation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the commission’s goal was to build higher levees based on previous flood heights and improve their quality. Between 1905 and 1915, the Arkansas General Assembly passed laws to create a program of flood control. … Organization of drainage districts required landowners to petition the county courts to place a lien on the lands through a court order. The court order ensured that improvement taxes would be paid. Money collected from the taxes paid the principle; it and interest on bonds issued by the drainage districts, along with proceeds from the bond sales, were used to build the levees and drainage canals. The drainage districts also had the power to hire deputies to patrol levees to keep sabotage and vandalism at a minimum. Often, the drainage districts received matching funds from the federal government.”

Jackson pointed out that there was frequent opposition to the work of the levee and drainage districts in the eastern part of the state.

“Some people believed that building levees interfered with the natural development of the land,” she wrote. “Hunters, in particular, resented being told to vacate land they had hunted and fished for years and feared that drainage canals would destroy the habitat for animals and fish. Those who lived or ran livestock on the islands in the Mississippi River feared that levees would raise the level of the river and flood them out. There were attempts in some areas to cut the levees and sabotage the plans of the drainage districts. However, the majority of the people of the state benefited from the levee-building efforts. … After the lands were drained, that swampland was turned into tillable soil, and instances of malaria dropped dramatically.”

The Sunken Lands consist of the parts of Poinsett, Mississippi and Craighead counties that sank during the New Madrid earthquakes, which began in December 1811 and caused large tracts of land to sink as much as 50 feet. The earthquakes continued through March 1812.

“Those surveying the damage in canoes recorded their shock at seeing forests of tall trees submerged in the murky water with only the tallest branches visible,” wrote Nancy Hendricks of Arkansas State University. “Lakes replaced hills, and huge fissures filled with stagnant pools. For miles, the quakes caused land to sink beneath the level of the surrounding countryside. The once-bountiful northeast Arkansas — filled with verdant forests, abundant game and fertile ground — became a swamp. The remoteness of the region, scarcity of settlers and lack of communication made accurate damage reports impossible for years. Survivors of the quakes took stock of what remained and often abandoned what was left of their homes. Meanwhile, the U.S. government was enticing soldiers into service during the War of 1812 with promises of land grants in the areas west of the Mississippi, including northeastern Arkansas. … Many arrived after surviving the journey and found that their land grant was under water, habitable only by the snakes and mosquitoes that were rampant.”

Most of those settlers moved on to Crowley’s Ridge.

Later innovations such as the Marked Tree Siphons allowed towns in the Sunken Lands such as Marked Tree, Trumann, Tyronza, Lepanto, Turrell and Lake City to grow.

Magdalena Teske explained the name of Marked Tree in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “The town was named for an oak tree marked with a foot-high M that used to be on the bank of the Little River. There are two possible explanations as to who marked it. One is that it was marked in the 1830s by a member of John Murrell’s band of outlaws from the area of Jackson, Tenn. They stole horses and sometimes even slaves from Kentucky and Tennessee and brought them through Arkansas to Oklahoma and Texas. A less likely theory is that Indians marked the tree. Osages, who lived farther north in Missouri, hunted the Marked Tree area for many generations. Delaware and Shawnee also had communities in northeast Arkansas briefly during territorial times. Although the marked tree for which the town was named fell into the river during a flood in 1890, a tree was found in the river in 1971 that is believed to be the same tree.”

It was Ernest Ritter who headed the movement in 1887 to incorporate Marked Tree as a town. Ritter had come to town in 1886 to work at his uncle’s lumber mill. He was an entrepreneur who by 1906 had started a telephone company, a power company and a water and sewer company. He also owned many of the buildings in Marked Tree and even built a commercial ice plant so fish caught from the St. Francis River by commercial fishermen could be iced and shipped downstream. I just happened to be at a meeting atop Petit Jean Mountain last week with Ritter Arnold, who now runs the agricultural side of E. Ritter & Co. He’s the great-great-grandson of Ernest Ritter. His mother, Mary Ann Ritter Arnold, became the mayor of Marked Tree.

In 1947, E. Ritter & Co. acquired a substantial portion of what had been the operations of Chapman & Dewey, which had begun as a lumber company and had gone on to own car dealerships, a bulk fuel operation, a farm equipment company and thousands of acres of farmland. Chapman & Dewey had bought its first sawmill in the area in 1890 from an Iowa investor. By 1893, the company had purchased more than 100,000 acres in Arkansas, with at least 30,000 of those in Poinsett County.

“At the turn of the century, they were the chief employers in Marked Tree,” Teske wrote. “Although a privately owned electricity plant had been built in 1898, the Chapman & Dewey Lumber Co. installed the first electric plant for the general public in Marked Tree. … The company was hurt by a major fire in 1902. The fire began during the midnight meal break of the night workers, the day after a strike had been settled. The company had agreed to the workers’ terms, but only for white workers. Some people believed that the fire was deliberately set by angry black workers, but there is no evidence to support that theory. The company had employed about 300 men, but due to the losses, it had to fire about half of them.”

Ernest Ritter and W.B. Miller were instrumental in getting drainage districts established in the county. These days, E. Ritter & Co. has an agricultural division and a communications division, which evolved out of its telephone company. It became an Internet service provider in the 1990s and moved into the cable television business in 2005. There are several hundred employees, and the company has revenues of more than $200 million a year.

Mary Ann Ritter Arnold was inducted into the Arkansas Agriculture Hall of Fame in 1998. She received her college degree from the University of Missouri in home economics and went on to serve on the boards of the Agriculture Council of Arkansas, the Arkansas Rice Council, the U.S. Rice Council and the National Cotton Council. She also served as state chairman of the Farm Services Agency Committee, on the board of the Arkansas State University Foundation and on the board of the St. Francis Levee District. In addition to having been president and chairman of E. Ritter & Co., she was a director for the Marked Tree Bank. Her husband, Dr. Sidney William Arnold, died in 2004 at age 78.

“The business has always been run as a business,” Ritter Arnold once said. “We’ve always been flexible. If it looked like a business needed to be exited, we would do that. One ingredient to a successful business today is to realize that you can’t do it all yourself. If you’re going to be a success, you’ve got to have a lot of other very good people working with you.”

In the Sunken Lands, the company founded well over a century ago by Ernest Ritter plugs on. And the Marked Tree Siphons still lift the water of the St. Francis River over the levee.

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An oasis at Clarendon

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

It was a prime spot for a settlement.

It’s where the Cache River empties into the White River.

The hunting was good — bear, deer, wild turkey and more.

The trapping was good — mink, muskrat, beaver and more.

The fishing was good as the streams were filled with catfish, buffalo, bass, bream and crappie.

French hunters and trappers built cabins there in the late 1700s. When the Military Road was constructed between Little Rock and Memphis in the 1820s, the ferry crossing over the White River was at the place they called Clarendon. When Monroe County was carved out of parts of Phillips and Arkansas counties in 1829, Clarendon was chosen as the county seat.

“By the last half of the 1850s, Monroe County, along with the rest of the Arkansas Delta region, experienced unparalleled economic growth with slave-based, plantation-style farming,” W.R. Mayo writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Cotton was the focus of the transformation of subsistence farming to large-scale operations. The White River served as an important byway for the Union forces during the Civil War and was heavy with gunboat traffic with Clarendon serving as a skirmish point. Supplies for Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele’s federal army were brought to DeValls Bluff, north of Clarendon, by way of the White River and were shipped from there to Little Rock by rail. Various skirmishes and battles took place in and around Clarendon. … After the war, the town resumed its role as an important industrial port for cotton and other commodities. The Monroe County Sun, the town’s current newspaper, was established in 1877.”

Business further boomed in Clarendon when the Cotton Belt line built a railroad bridge over the White River in 1883. Automobiles continued to use the ferry until the U.S. 79 bridge was constructed in 1931.

“Industries and cultural development began with a stave and barrel factory in 1889, an oar factory in 1892 and an opera house in 1893,” Mayo writes. “Clarendon continued to develop new industries after the turn of the century, including lumber mills and a factory producing buttons made from mussel shells found in the river. Freshwater pearls were sold at the Clarendon Pearl Market. The Moss Brothers Bat Co., which produced baseball bats, was also established. The Monroe County Courthouse was designed by noted Arkansas architect Charles L. Thompson and constructed in 1911. It remains the town’s most significant landmark.”

Problems and hard times loomed, however.

There was the Great Flood of 1927, which devastated the town.

There was the drought of 1930-31.

There was another big flood in 1937.

Then, the rapid mechanization of agriculture after the end of World War II caused tens of thousands of former sharecroppers and tenant farmers to leave the Delta, never to return.

“During the mid-1950s, the town had a box factory and a thriving fish market, along with a bustling downtown with shops, including apparel and dry goods stores and a movie theater,” Mayo writes. “In addition, the town had a thriving public school system. However, along with much of the Arkansas Delta, the town has experienced an economic downturn from that heyday. As of 2010, with the exception of the local public library, a bank and two law offices, the remainder of the old downtown shop buildings are shuttered and closed, including the movie theater, and the town is without an industry presence.”

To get a sense of what has occurred in this part of the state, consider these census figures for Monroe County:

1940 — 21,133

1950 — 19,540

1960 — 17,327

1970 — 15,657

1980 — 14,052

1990 — 11,333

2000 — 10,254

2010 — 8,149

My mother was raised further north along the White River at Des Arc in Prairie County. My grandfather was a Prairie County judge and owned the hardware store and the funeral home at Des Arc. I’ve long been fascinated by the culture of the lower White River region. It’s a part of who I am.

So I was intrigued when I received an email last summer from a John Brown University student named Jeremiah Moore.

He wrote: “Along with my brother, I run a small family park and museum in Clarendon. I’ve read your blog for the past two years and have found your writing on Arkansas’s affairs of past and present to be incredibly enjoyable and insightful. Your forthright love for our state and its history bring a certain kindred feeling that leads me to invite you down to Monroe County for a tour and a catfish lunch on me. I would love the opportunity to meet you and show you our small yet charming park and museum. It’s called the John B. and Margaret Moore Jacobs Park and Museum. … The house is the second oldest in the city, dating back to 1870. I believe you might appreciate this as well as the multiple antebellum fixtures and artifacts from the late 19th century.”

Never having been a man who could resist an invitation to a catfish lunch, Paul Austin of the Arkansas Humanities Council agreed to join me for the trip to Clarendon.

After circling the Monroe County Courthouse, we found the Moore-Jacobs House on a residential section of Main Street in the town of about 1,600 residents.

Here’s how the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program describes the house and its history: “The Moore-Jacobs House represents the strong influence of the Greek Revival style of architecture in the state. The house was built in 1870 by John Wesley Moore, who had come to Clarendon from Sussex County in Virginia. The architectural influences of his Virginia upbringing are evident in the home he constructed for himself. The house was built on a lot that ran down to the river’s edge and gave a spectacular view of the heavy traffic on the White River until the construction of a levee following the 1927 flood.

“Following his death, the house went to his son, John Burton Moore, who had established himself as an attorney as well as the owner of extensive land holdings in Monroe County. He married Bessie Branch of Holly Grove in the early 1900s. Bessie was the daughter of William F. Branch, who established the Bank of Holly Grove, and Ella Walls Branch, whose family held large amounts of acreage in the county.

“Margaret Moore Jacobs, John Burton Moore’s eldest daughter, moved into the house in 1927 following her marriage to John B. ‘Jake’ Jacobs. Her parents by this time occupied a larger home next door. When it burned in 1931, the Moores decided they needed the lot upon which the small Greek Revival house stood. To save the house from destruction, Jacobs had it moved by mules over log rollers to a lot directly across the street. This new location had been the site of an early schoolhouse in Clarendon. Margaret Moore Jacobs was a freelance writer whose articles appeared in many of the top women’s periodicals of the period. As such, she was acutely aware of the preservation and restoration movement that was becoming popular as a result of the activities at Williamsburg, Va.

“Jacobs restored the house following the move, and her restoration was in keeping with the general concepts held at that time. She also landscaped the grounds, utilizing plantings mentioned in the Bible. In the 1940s and 1950s, Jacobs developed a large following based on inspirational writings that she produced. … The Moore-Jacobs House, in its dignified simplicity, reflects the tastes, lifestyle and background of its builder and the continued respect that his family holds for the heritage he provided them.”

Let’s quickly climb the family tree:

— John Burton Moore was the son of John Wesley Moore. John Wesley Moore had built the house in 1870.

— John B. Moore’s son, John B. Moore Jr., was the brother of Margaret Moore Jacobs. When Jacobs died in 1976 (her husband had died a dozen years earlier), the house and surroundings gardens were left in a trust with instructions that the property be turned into a park and museum. A 700-acre farm was also left to the trust to produce the income needed to operate the museum. John B. Moore Jr. was appointed as the trustee, but nothing was done with the house for years.

— John B. Moore III (who goes by Burton) later became the trustee and saw to it that the house and gardens were cleaned up.

— John B. Moore IV, who is Jeremiah’s older brother, moved back to Monroe County from Colorado two years ago with his wife and two children. He now oversees the museum and gardens. John IV is 26. Jeremiah is 20. They’re determined to do what they can to revitalize this part of east Arkansas, which has been bleeding population for years.

On Jan. 19, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette published a front-page story by Noel Oman that told of the brothers’ efforts to save the U.S. 79 bridge from demolition once a new bridge is completed.

Oman wrote: “Two young Monroe County brothers say their effort to save an 83-year-old bridge in their hometown from demolition will preserve a link to the impoverished Delta’s past and boost the region’s economic and cultural future. East Arkansas may face long odds in arresting continued economic decline, but John Moore IV and Jeremiah Moore insist they are optimistic in the face of even steeper odds in rescuing the aging bridge over the White River at Clarendon. The Moores have joined forces with city officials and others to stop the planned demolition of the historic bridge on U.S. 79 to provide time to raise money to maintain the bridge as a crossing for cyclists, hikers, bird watchers and other outdoor enthusiasts through one of the largest remaining tracts of contiguous bottomland hardwood forest on the North American continent.”

John IV told the newspaper: “This is one of our great shots at preserving history and rebuilding our future. It won’t be just for Clarendon. It will be for Marianna, Hughes and Roe.”

The brothers already are preserving history at what Margaret Moore Jacobs always described as the “Dear Little House.”

The website for the park and museum — — states that Margaret was born in 1900, the oldest daughter of John Burton Moore.

“As a teenager, she contracted tuberculosis and was confined to bed in a sanatorium in Denver with a view of the Rocky Mountains,” it notes. “Perhaps this is where she gained the inspiration for contemplation and her resulting writings. Perhaps this is the condition that also left her childless, a circumstance that shaped her life and played a role in her creation of the park and museum trust. When Margaret returned to Clarendon, she married Jake Jacobs, who was a partner in a newly established Ford dealership. They were given the former house of Margaret’s grandfather, John Wesley Moore.”

Margaret wrote for magazines ranging from Furniture World to the Presbyterian Observer. Her subjects ranged from spiritual matters to antiques to gardening. She also wrote books.

Here’s how the website describes the property: “The eyes fall upon what appears to be a scene from the 19th century. First there is the iron fence that originally surrounded a court square in Tennessee. This is one of the most intricate fences you will see outside of the corn fence in New Orleans. Next to the fence is a horsehead hitching post to which you can tie your carriage. Lining the inside of the fence and front brick walk are boxwood hedges. Boxwoods were a favorite in English gardens and were brought to America by the colonists, as can be seen in Colonial Williamsburg.

“Guarding the front walk on either side is a pair of great iron dogs. On the north side of the yard is a large, tiered iron fountain. Closer to the house itself is a magnolia with a round iron bench surrounding its trunk. Under its spreading boughs next to the north-perimeter boxwoods and slightly behind an iron bench stands a life-size doe deer hiding in the shadows. At her feet is an iron rabbit. On the outside corner of the south front yard in an antique lamp from Fifth Avenue in New York City.”

The narrative goes on from there, but you get the point.

Best of luck to the Moore brothers. It inspires me to see two Arkansans in their 20s doing so much to preserve the rich history and culture of a region that too many others have forgotten.


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To St. Francis and back

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

I’ve traveled a lot of Arkansas roads through the decades, but a recent trip into northeast Arkansas took me onto roads I’ve never traversed.

The day trip (albeit a long day) was the idea of Mark Christ, perhaps the foremost expert on the Civil War in Arkansas, and Paul Austin, who heads the Arkansas Humanities Council. Two other men with deep knowledge of our state — Center Ridge native and UCA professor Ken Barnes and community development expert Freeman McKindra — joined a trip that would take us to the most northeast spot on an Arkansas map, the Clay County community of St. Francis.

During the day, we drove the back roads of Lawrence, Randolph and Clay counties with Paul, an Imboden native, at the wheel. Lunch was on the front porch of a Mennonite store at Dalton, just south of the Missouri border in Randolph County. Supper (a reward for the hundreds of miles covered) was in Bald Knob at Who Dat’s, a longtime favorite. We saw the big raven at Ravenden, walked down to the spring at Ravenden Springs and even passed the road to Success (Success being a community in Clay County).

The first stop of the day was at Jacksonport in Jackson County on the White River. By late afternoon, we were walking through the thick Crowley’s Ridge hardwoods to Chalk Bluff on the St. Francis River. A town developed here in the 1820s with the name derived from a white clay bluff that’s still visible. Abraham Seitz operated a ferry crossing and general store from the 1830s until the Civil War. In May 1863, this was the site of the Battle of Chalk Bluff as Union Gen. William Vandever failed in his efforts to prevent troops commanded by Confederate Gen. John Marmaduke from crossing the St. Francis River.

Marmaduke, after suffering heavy casualties, had abandoned a second expedition into the Missouri Bootheel and was trying to get back to Arkansas.

Marmaduke, accompanied by 5,000 men, headed for the Bootheel in the spring of 1863. He was defeated at Cape Girardeau and began withdrawing toward Arkansas with the crossing of the St. Francis River planned for Chalk Bluff. Fighting began there on May 1 and lasted until the next day. Marmaduke’s rear guard was able to hold off the Union forces long enough for his engineers to complete a bridge across the river.

Minor skirmishes would occur at Chalk Bluff on and off for the remainder of the war.

I noted that we began our day on the banks of the White River and found ourselves by late afternoon on the banks of the St. Francis River. So while this day was supposed to be about the Civil War, it was really about rivers — the rivers that have so shaped the eastern half of our state through the decades.

The St. Francis River originates in Missouri. It’s a mountain stream until it slows down near Poplar Bluff. It forms the boundary between the Missouri Bootheel and Arkansas before continuing its path in east Arkansas between Crowley’s Ridge and the Mississippi River. The St. Francis flows into the Mississippi north of Helena in the St. Francis National Forest.

During the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, parts of northeast Arkansas dropped by six to eight feet, leading to a huge swampy area that slowed development for decades. That area is now known as the St. Francis Sunken Lands, and much of it is managed by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission as a wildlife management area.

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

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

The law establishing the St. Francis Levee District was Act 19 of the Arkansas General Assembly of 1893. It was the first improvement district in Arkansas. It addressed flood control in Craighead, Crittenden, Cross, Lee, Mississippi, Phillips, Poinsett and St. Francis counties. Gov. W.N. Fishback made the first appointments to the levee board with three representatives from each county.

Previous efforts at flood control through the federal Swamp Land Grant of 1850 and state organizations had been ineffective. The levee district initially was funded by an appropriation from the Mississippi River Commission and a tax levy on the increased land values that were anticipated.

The St. Francis Levee District ended up draining a large portion of east Arkansas with hardwood forests replaced by row crops.

Take the Little River of northeast Arkansas (not to be confused with the Little River of southwest Arkansas) as an example of what the levee district did. The Little River starts west of Cape Girardeau and flows into northeast Arkansas, where it enters what’s now the Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge and the state’s Big Lake Wildlife Management Area near Manila in Mississippi County. It joins the St. Francis River at Marked Tree. Before the New Madrid earthquakes, the Little River was a clear, swift stream. It’s now described by the state encyclopedia as “not much more than a series of stagnant mud holes due to channeling and ditching.”

After leaving the Big Lake area, the Little River is part of a floodway that’s about a mile wide and enclosed by levees. The floodway includes Ditch No. 1, Ditch No. 9, Left Hand Chute of the Little River, Right Hand Chute of the Little River and the Little River itself.

“These waterways run together, separate and join again,” Norman Vickers writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The dominant channel is the Right Hand Chute of the Little River. Near the southern end of the St. Francis Sunken Lands Wildlife Management area, the floodway enters the St. Francis River.”

The L’Anguille River, another tributary of the St. Francis River, begins west of Harrisburg and flows down the west side of Crowley’s Ridge before crossing the ridge near Marianna and flowing into the St. Francis. The L’Anguille River and the Cache River to its west were major obstacles to the construction of the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad. The east Arkansas gap in the line existed until 1871.

The Cache begins near the Arkansas-Missouri border and flows south until emptying into the White River near Clarendon. Flood-control efforts during the 1920s and 1930s split the river into two ditches between Bono and Egypt in Craighead County. The Flood Control Act of 1950 authorized the Cache River-Bayou DeView Project, which was designed to dredge 140 miles of the river upstream from Clarendon while also dredging 77 miles of the Bayou DeView. Initial funds for the project weren’t approved until 1969.

Congressman Bill Alexander, a Mississippi County native who owed allegiance to the big planters, was a strong supporter of the dredging but was opposed by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, the Arkansas Wildlife Federation and others entities across the state. Federal Judge J. Smith Henley ruled in favor of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in May 1972, but a federal appeals court sent the case back to Henley, saying the Corps had not properly prepared its environmental impact statement. That statement wasn’t approved until 1977. By then, support in Congress had waned. The Cache River National Wildlife Refuge was established from Grubbs to Clarendon in 1986 to protect the stream.

The St. Francis, Little, Cache and L’Anguille rivers are lowland streams. A bit to the west — but still in northeast Arkansas — are the many streams of the Ozark foothills. The flat Delta quickly gives way to the rolling foothills after you cross the Black River at Black Rock. Most of these streams are fed by springs in Missouri before flowing south into Arkansas.

There’s the Eleven Point River, which flows into the Spring River.

To the west, Myatt Creek and the South Fork also empty into the Spring.

The Spring River, which flows through Arkansas for almost 75 miles, then empties into the Black River near Black Rock.

The Little Black River comes out of Missouri and flows into the Current River just northwest of Datto.

The Current River then merges with the Black River near Pocahontas.

The Fourche River (not to be confused with the Fourche La Fave River in west-central Arkansas) comes out of Missouri and flows through Randolph County for about 20 miles before emptying into the Black River.

The Strawberry River flows for 90 miles to the southeast before emptying into the Black River in Independence County.

The eastern half of the state truly is a land of rivers, both swift and slow.

Three rivers come together in southeast Missouri to form the Black River. The Black crosses the Arkansas border northeast of Corning and then passes the Dave Donaldson Black River Wildlife Management Area, Pocahontas, Davidsonville Historic State Park, Black Rock and Powhatan.

From there, the river flows through the Shirey Bay-Rainey Brake Wildlife Management Area before turning toward the southeast and entering the White River at Jacksonport. The sharp bends in the Black River have colorful names such as Deadman, Hole in the Wall, Box Factory, Battle Axe and Dead Mule. The first steamboat to go up the Black River to Pocahontas was the Laurel in 1829.

Jacksonport, Powhatan, Davidsonville and Pocahontas all prospered as steamboat ports. More than 40 steamboats were traveling the Black River in 1900. The first train had reached Pocahontas in 1896, however, and river traffic declined.

Jacksonport, where we started our day, thrived until the railroad bypassed the town in 1872, leading to the rise of Newport. For decades prior to that, boats bound for Memphis, New Orleans and St. Louis had offloaded goods at Jacksonport. Confident that river traffic would reign supreme, Jacksonport officials voted against giving the Iron Mountain, St. Louis & Southern Railroad the land grant and $25,000 that railroad officials had requested to pass through the city. It was a big mistake. Newport grew after completion of the railroad and was incorporated in 1875.

“Businesses and residents began drifting away from Jacksonport for the upstart Newport,” Adam Miller writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Newport marginally edged out Jacksonport in population by 1880, but the growth momentum was thereafter permanently in Newport’s favor. In 1882, construction of a narrow-gauge railway began in an effort to stem the loss of business. The railway ran from Jacksonport to Brinkley via Newport and was utilized by lumber businesses for a few decades. In February 1882, a devastating flood and fire that consumed most of the town — both within the span of a week — further accelerated the depopulation of Jacksonport. Hotly contested elections to move the county government to Newport first arose when Jacksonport was surpassed in population in the 1880s. Jacksonport rallied and won the first two elections, managing to postpone removal of the county seat until 1891, when Newport won a third election.

“By 1900, the population of Jacksonport had dwindled to 265, and the schools at Jacksonport were consolidated with Newport in 1944. Apart from a levee built in 1909, there were few infrastructure improvements at Jacksonport until the old courthouse was saved from demolition in 1962 by the Jackson County Historical Society, which purchased the derelict building and adjacent lands. The old courthouse was renovated to its former grandeur and became part of Jacksonport State Park in 1965.”

It was quiet at Jacksonport near the banks of the White River on a Thursday morning, just as it would be quiet more than eight hours later at Chalk Bluff on the banks of the St. Francis River in the northeast corner of the state. In both places, though, you could almost feel the rich history. Like so much of Arkansas, these places were shaped by rivers.


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Dogpatch country: Circa 2014

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014

For Arkansans of a certain age, Dogpatch USA comes to mind when Newton County is mentioned.

Dogpatch, some believed, was the thing that would turn this remote, lightly populated county into the center of tourism for Arkansas.

The online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture 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 as a wilderness area.”

The Buffalo River and Little Buffalo River flow through the county, which was part of Carroll County when that county was created in 1833 as part of the Arkansas Territory. Arkansas became a state three years later.

In late 1842, the Arkansas Legislature created a new county in the Ozarks and named it after a 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,” C.J. Miller writes for the state encyclopedia. “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 could not afford land in other parts of the state. A school opened at Mount Judea around 1860. Western Grove Academy opened in 1886. Hunting and small farms sustained the residents, and livestock grazed the rugged land. The difficulty in farming the rough terrain resulted in farms being located along the river.”

There were only 24 slaves in the county in the 1860 census. A strong Union sentiment was present in these hills, and that resulted in a base of ancestral Republicans who thrived in Newton County when there were few Republicans elsewhere in Arkansas. Indeed, when I attended the Newton County Elk Festival last month, I saw dozens of Republican lapel stickers being worn and none for Democratic candidates. Long before the rest of Arkansas began to go red politically, Newton County had plenty of people whose loyalties were with the GOP.

The Civil War split families. Guerrilla warfare was common, and some families lived in caves.

“The county produced two famous leaders, fighting for different causes,” Rose Lacy writes for the encyclopedia. “James Vanderpool was a Union hero who returned home in August 1865. John Cecil, the former sheriff of Newton County, was known for showing off his twin pearl-handled pistols he had worn as a guerrilla leader for the Confederacy. Newton County most supported the Union. However, while searching for Cecil in 1863, Union troops burned Jasper to the ground and moved their sympathizers to Springfield, Mo.”

By 1870, there were only seven black residents of Newton County.

Change came slowly.

“Smaller farms were prevalent, while larger farms existed near the rivers,” Miller writes. “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.”

Newton County hit its population peak in 1900 with 12,538 residents. There were 8,330 residents in the 2010 census.

Zinc and lead mining occurred in the county early in the 20th century. The community of Ponca was named after the Ponca City Mining Co. of Oklahoma. There wasn’t a paved road in the county until 1951, when Arkansas Highway 7 was paved from Harrison to Jasper.

Dogpatch would change everything, Newton County residents thought.

Businessman Oscar Snow of Harrison came up with the idea for a major amusement park and bought a trout farm at Marble Falls from Albert Raney Sr. to serve as the site of what would become known as Dogpatch USA.

“Snow and nine other investors formed Recreation Enterprises Inc. and approached Bostonian Al Capp with the idea,” Russell Johnson writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Capp, who had rejected such offers in the past, agreed to be a partner in the enterprise. The partners acquired 1,000 acres. … Capp spoke at the groundbreaking on Oct. 3, 1967. The cost of the original 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, the West Po’k Chop Speshul. 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 H. Schermerhorn. The logs in each building were numbered, cataloged, disassembled and reassembled at the park. In 1968, the first year of operation, general manager Schermerhorn reported that Dogpatch had 300,000 visitors. Admission was $1.50 for adults, half price for children. Al Capp’s son, Colin C. Capp, worked at the park that year and met and married Vicki Cox, the actress portraying Moonbeam McSwine.”

Real estate investor Jess Odom later bought controlling interest in the park. Odom added rides and campsites. He also hired former Gov. Orval Faubus as his general manager.

Odom’s financial downfall came in the early 1970s when he attempted to build a winter sports complex adjacent to the amusement park. There were warm winters, faulty snowmaking equipment, rising interest rates and a lack of interest in winter sports in the South.

“In order to keep the ski resort open, Odom used Dogpatch assets to secure loans at unfavorable interest rates,” Johnson writes. “Although Dogpatch made a profit in all but two years of operation, it could not overcome the burden of the Marble Falls debt. The city of Harrison rejected Odom’s proposals to refinance the debt with a bond issue, and plans to turn Dogpatch into a religious theme park called God’s Patch never advanced. … Dogpatch had its worst summer during the drought of 1980. Dogpatch declared bankruptcy in November 1980.”

A company headed by Wayne Thompson operated the park from 1981-87 before selling it to Melvyn Bell.

Bell, a Fort Smith native with an engineering degree from the University of Arkansas, was flying high in the 1980s. His company, Environmental Systems Co., generally was known as Ensco. It had a rare federal permit allowing it to destroy PCBs and other hazardous materials at an incinerator in El Dorado. The permit was obtained in 1981 after three years of public hearings. Only six commercial PCB incinerators were operating in the United States in the 1980s.

Bell had bought out his partners in the company in 1972. The company broke even or lost money until obtaining the federal permit. By 1986, there were revenues of $66.5 million at Ensco.

“I have no reason to do anything in the environment that’s wrong,” Bell told The Associated Press in early 1987. “In a state as small as Arkansas, or in a community as small as El Dorado, where 1 percent of that population works with me, it would be foolish to think that you could do anything wrong and not have that become immediately public.”

Bell gained widespread attention when he leased four of the bathhouses at Hot Springs from the National Park Service with plans to convert them into a restaurant, a bed-and-breakfast inn, a museum and a spa.

Other high-profile acquisitions by Bell included the Red Apple Inn near Heber Springs, a lodge on Lake Eufaula in Oklahoma, the Market Street Plaza shopping complex in west Little Rock, children’s radio station KPAL in Little Rock and Little Rock restaurants SOB, Alexander’s and the Heights Fish House.

He bought the Magic Springs amusement park at Hot Springs in addition to Dogpatch.

He even purchased the famed Belvedere Country Club at Hot Springs.

It all began going south for Bell following the stock market crash in October 1987. The value of his Ensco holdings fell from $42.3 million to $21.7 million in a two-month period. He had become highly leveraged with his myriad acquisitions. In a 1998 deposition, Bell said he was $5.6 million in debt.

I took my wife to the Red Apple Inn in 1990, remembering it as the grand resort that Little Rock insurance magnate Herbert Thomas had built. I was shocked to see it had fallen to Motel 6 status under Bell’s ownership. Fortunately, Dick and Patti Upton of Heber Springs later returned the Red Apple Inn to its past glory.

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 in May 2006. Bell died at age 68 in July 2006 of cancer.

The final summer season at Dogpatch had been in 1993.

Dogpatch briefly was back in the news in 2011 when Stewart Nance, Pruett Nance and Brent Baber (the Nances’ attorney) were awarded the Dogpatch property in circuit court. The Nances had brought a lawsuit following a 2001 accident in which Pruett Nance struck a steel cable while driving an ATV on the property.

Newton County’s hopes of attracting hundreds of thousands of people to an amusement park each year had ended. But something interesting has happened in a part of our state that some of us still think of as Dogpatch Country.

People ranging from Oklahoma oil and gas executives to Arkansas automobile moguls have built second homes there. Others with money rent cabins. There is, in fact, a bit of an upscale vibe.

Take the Floating Buffalo in Jasper, which can only be described as an upscale boutique. Or the adjacent Arkansas House, where one can purchase buffalo and elk burgers.

People with money to spend can be found in places such as the Nelms Gallery in downtown Jasper and Nick Bottini’s Low Gap Café, which is between Mount Sherman and Ponca.

Last Saturday night, folks crowded onto the large outdoor deck at the Low Cap Café, listening to live music.

“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. Horseshoe Canyon Ranch is just up the road, and we are only a few miles from the Buffalo River.”

The restaurant is packed most weekends.

Horseshoe Canyon, the nationally recognized dude ranch operated by Barry and Amy Johnson, is one of those places that attract high-dollar tourists to the county. In addition to the families who spend the week there, the ranch has become a favorite spot for rock climbers from around the world.

Ponca-based Buffalo Outdoor Center also has gained a nationwide reputation. Mike Mills started Buffalo Outdoor Center as a canoe rental operation in 1976. The Buffalo River had been designated a national river just four years earlier. There are now modern log cabins and a lodge, zip lines and more.

There also are 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 ever tasted.

“We operate only 100 hives,” Watkins says. “Our bees harvest nectar from wildflowers untouched by chemical pesticides. Each year our honey, like fine wine, varies according to the flower blooms and the impact of the seasons. One thing remains constant: The character of our honey is unlike any you have ever tasted. You’ve not tasted pure wild honey until you taste our honey.

“We honor and practice our ancient craft much as beekeepers have through the centuries. Our bees have bred with wild strains. We avoid chemicals and manage pests with essential oils. Tasting is believing. All natural, totally wild honey is a revelation. From the first explosion of the floral scents and tastes to the finishing notes of our honey, it’s an unparalleled experience of complexity and nuance. The key is staying all natural. That’s when the floral gifts of our pristine wilderness areas come through.”

No, tourists aren’t flocking to get on rides at an amusement park in Newton County. That effort couldn’t sustain itself. But wild, wonderful Newton County appears to have found its niche. For those who love mountain scenery, good music, great food and friendly people, there are few better places to spend a weekend or longer.

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A new owner for That Bookstore

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

Here’s how the entry in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture begins for That Bookstore in Blytheville: “With its straightforward name and the legacy of a legendary proprietress, That Bookstore in Blytheville might be Arkansas’ best-known bookstore. In the early 1970s, Mary Gay Shipley, then a schoolteacher, saw a void in her hometown and opened a paperback exchange store affiliated with a Memphis group called The Book Rack. The bookstore has remained at 316 W. Main St. since 1976. Though locals called it ‘that bookstore’ for years, the store did not become officially known as That Bookstore in Blytheville until 1994.”

Back in February of 2012, I thought That Bookstore was a goner.

Shipley had decided, just prior to her 68th birthday, to retire. She was looking for a buyer, and I doubted a buyer could be found for such a business in a struggling Delta town.

In 2009, That Bookstore had been nominated for the Publishers Weekly Bookseller of the Year award. Shipley wrote in her submission to the magazine: “I opened the bookstore in my hometown of Blytheville because I saw a need. With only a tiny library and no place to buy books, a bookstore that would encourage reading and book conversations became my dream. My goal was, and still is, to create a good bookstore, not merely a store good enough for Blytheville, but a good bookstore. … TBIB understands that we sell a product offered free only a block away at the public library and often available at Walmart for about the same price we pay our suppliers. As a result, we are heavily dependent on customer service. But what is good customer service? For TBIB, customer service is about more than pleasantries and waiting on people immediately. It is about more than knowing our products. For us, service centers on knowing our customers.

“Books are very personal, and our business is to get to know our customers and embrace their reading choices and event interests. We serve with a positive mindset, and no matter who the bookseller might be, our customers know they are always speaking to another book lover.”

Shipley told Dan Broun for a 2008 publication that Broun wrote on the creative economy in Arkansas: “We’re still in business because of John Grisham.”

That Bookstore was among a handful of stores to have Grisham, an Arkansas native, for a signing following the publication of his first novel. He rewarded the store by returning time after time through the years for book signings.

Broun wrote: “When most authors announce their book tours, you can usually guess the stops: the big cities, of course, like New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles, and perhaps some college towns with literary bents like Charlottesville, Ann Arbor or Berkeley. So you might be surprised to find your favorite author scheduling a stop in little Blytheville.”

In 2008, an Associated Press travel writer listed That Bookstore among nine destination bookstores in the country, putting it in the company of The Strand in New York.

That same year, Main Street Arkansas named That Bookstore in Blytheville as its Main Street Merchant of the Year.

AY magazine’s list of Arkansas’ 12 most powerful women had Shipley on it.

How on earth, I wondered at the time, would we find someone with the business savvy, determination and marketing ability of Mary Gay Shipley to run a small business in downtown Blytheville?

She said she would part with the 2,400-square-foot building for just $35,000. Shipley also said at the time that she had spoken to Grisham and that he had agreed to “continue to support the store with the new owner.”

In November 2012, Shipley announced that there was a new owner — a 22-year-old nonfiction writer from Mountain Home named Grant Hill.

Hill loves books. He loves writing. But the pressures of running a small business proved daunting for such a young man.

“I had been talking to my folks and doing the math — and checking my blood pressure — and came to the conclusion that I needed to look for a way to, in a sense, minimize any damage to the bookstore and my own health,” Hill told the Courier News at Blytheville in a frank interview in December of last year. “I hadn’t really even told anybody that I wanted to sell the business, and Chris Crawley came in like two days later. Chris and I have had a working relationship since I moved here, and he has done work with the bookstore and me. He said, ‘I’d like to talk to you about us possibly working out a deal to buy the bookstore.'”

Within two weeks of that conversation, Crawley and attorney Yolanda Harrison had purchased That Bookstore in Blytheville.

“I talked with Mary Gay about it, and she really understood that my goal was to see this store succeed, for the community not to lose the store, however that had to happen,” Hill said. “I knew it had to be someone else who would be more prepared, and particularly since it’s a couple, which doubles the amount of work that can get done. I was always committed to seeing the store succeed. I knew with Chris and Yolanda that I had found someone who could do that. That’s why we moved so quickly.”

On Good Friday, as a group of us ate our way through the Arkansas Delta (see the previous two Southern Fried posts), we stopped by the store.

We walked in, and Crawley immediately called out to us, “Come on in and make yourself at home. We have some fresh coffee on.”

It was almost as if Mary Gay Shipley were back in charge.

I introduced myself to Crawley and learned his story.

Here’s part of that story in his own words: “I am a Blythevillian. My birth was at Dr. Fairley’s clinic in Luxora. My parents were Sol and Girtie Crawley. They were sharecroppers, and later my father built houses for people who could afford them. I had eight siblings — five sisters and three brothers. I have one sister left in Milwaukee and one sister in Blytheville. I’m the last brother standing.

“I attended Robinson Elementary School, Lange Elementary School and an assortment of schools as my mother’s Alzheimer’s and dementia became more than anyone should have to bear. At age 11, I went to Wrightsville School for Boys before the foster care system relegated me to Poplar Grove near my school in Marvell, where I graduated with honors. From frequent visits to see my family in Blytheville from the time before I was 16 in early 1976 until October 2012 when I was 52, the Book Rack and later That Bookstore in Blytheville figured strongly in my development and focus.

“Prominent in my memory are Mrs. Harrison, my first-grade teacher; Mrs. Wiggs, my fifth-grade teacher; Mrs. Butler, my seventh-grade teacher; Mrs. Rowland, my junior high school principal; Mrs Nichols, a high school teacher; and Mary Gay Shipley, the owner of the bookstore. There were other teachers and books. Together and collectively, they were the cause of it all.”

Crawley said he “took the first thing smoking” out of Arkansas the day after his high school graduation at Marvell. He moved to Milwaukee. He attended Marquette University and later graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Crawley went on to obtain a master’s degree from Cardinal Stritch University, a small Catholic school at Milwaukee. He did employment policy, staffing and technology work in Milwaukee before moving to Los Angeles to work as a talent manager. After three strokes due to toxic black mold infestation, Crawley moved home to Blytheville.

“I came back to Blytheville to die, but God had other plans for me,” he said.

Books always provided a refuge for Crawley.

“My love affair with books began at an early age,” he said. “Reality was sometimes bleak and seemingly proscribed. I loved books because they gave me options. They piqued my interests. Even when I was avoiding school, I could often be found reading one of my favorite books. Even in my young teens, I thought owning a bookstore would be a little piece of heaven. … I see the bookstore as a mechanism to uplift the town’s spirit.”

Crawley described himself as a “resurrection, restoration and renovation project inspired by God. I want to be a resurrection, restoration and renovation project for That Bookstore in Blytheville and the surrounding communities. I want to improve the look of the store inside and out. I want to increase the inventory, expand product offerings beyond books, bring back the high-quality authors for book signings, conduct new author forums, reintroduce national book tours to Blytheville, present live music, host book and poetry clubs, grow the event calendar, have children’s reading hours, rebuild the website, increase the level of social media interaction and more.”

It’s an ambitious agenda for a man who thought he was coming home to die.

“I want to make the bookstore a place where people will visit and say, ‘That Book in Blytheville is wonderful. It’s more than just a bookstore.'”

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Arkansas Delta food tour: Part Two

Thursday, April 24th, 2014

This post picks up where we left off in Part One with the Good Friday food tour of the Arkansas Delta. You’ll recall that I was joined by Jason Parker, Jordan Johnson, Gabe Holmstrom and Denver Peacock. We left Little Rock at 8 a.m. We were back by 8:30 p.m. In less than 13 hours, we covered more than 400 miles and made 10 food stops. We ate so much barbecue — all of it good — that at times we were afflicted by what we called the “meat sweats.” When we left you at the end of Part One, we had departed Blytheville and were headed for Dyess in the southern part of Mississippi County.

It was quiet at Dyess on Good Friday afternoon.

We pulled up to the Dyess Colony administration building to view the work being done there. A few years ago, Arkansas State University and the National Trust for Historic Preservation partnered with the city of Dyess to begin promoting the heritage of Dyess Colony. The renovation of the 1934 administration building is almost complete, and work continues on the façade of the adjoining theater (the rest of the building is gone), which was built in 1940.

We looked through the front window of the administration building and could see that some interpretive displays are already in place. I can’t wait for the day when buses out of Memphis are filled with tourists wanting to learn more about the place where Johnny Cash grew up. For the first time, they will have somewhere to go at Dyess. Funds for the restoration effort have been received from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council, the annual Johnny Cash Music Festival and other sources.

What was once only a dream is close to becoming a reality in this remote corner of northeast Arkansas.

“The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as president in 1932 led to new programs that worked to pump life into the nation’s economy, especially in places like Arkansas, which was among the states hardest hit,” Nancy Hendricks writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Such agencies as the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration tried to ease the poverty of destitute farmers and sharecroppers. William Reynolds Dyess, a Mississippi County plantation owner, was Arkansas’ first WPA administrator. He suggested an idea to Harry Hopkins, special adviser to Roosevelt, in which tenant farmers could have a chance to own their own land. FERA would purchase 16,000 acres of uncleared bottomland in Mississippi County, which was rich and fertile though also swampy and snake infested, and would open the land, with $3 million in federal aid, as a resettlement colony to homesteading families, who would each have to clear about 30 acres of land for cultivation.”

Almost 1,300 men, whose names were taken from relief rolls across Arkansas, began construction of the colony in May 1934.

“In the autumn of 1934, the first of about 500 families arrived and began clearing the land,” Hendricks writes. “They cut down trees and blasted stumps to farm cotton, corn and soybeans, along with maintaining a pasture for livestock. In time, along with the administration building, the town center included a community bank, beauty salon/barbershop, blacksmith shop, café, cannery, cotton gin, feed mill, furniture factory, harness shop, hospital, ice house, library, theater, newspaper, post office, printing shop, service station/garage, sorghum mill and school.”

In June 1936, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Dyess. She gave a speech and ate supper at the café.

Ray Cash, Carrie Rivers Cash and their children were among the five families selected to move to Dyess in 1936 from Cleveland County in the pine woods of south Arkansas. Their son, listed as J.R. in his high school yearbook, graduated from Dyess High School in 1950. He was the class vice president.

Members of the Cash family have helped with restoration of the family home, which is several miles from the administration building. Furnishings have been gathered based on descriptions given by family members. The home, which was in danger of falling in just more than a year ago, has been completely renovated, down to the wooden walls and linoleum floors.

After our visit to Dyess, we moved on to Poinsett County, which includes the incorporated towns of Harrisburg, Marked Tree, Trumann, Lepanto, Tyronza, Weiner, Fisher and Waldenburg.

Like many Delta counties, the high-water mark as far as population for Poinsett County came in the 1950 census prior to the widespread mechanization of agriculture. There were 39,311 people in the county that year. By the 2010 census, the county’s population had fallen to 24,583.

Harrisburg has been the county seat since 1856. The town was named after Benjamin Harris, who gave the land where the courthouse was built and was the son of the first county judge.

During the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, a large part of what’s now eastern Poinsett County sunk, resulting in what locals simply refer to as “the sunken lands.”

Poinsett County was harder hit by the Great Flood of 1927 than any other Arkansas county. More than 200,000 acres were covered by water at one point. Thousands of sharecroppers were forced to flea from the lowlands to Crowley’s Ridge.

During World War II, there were German prisoner of war camps at Harrisburg and Marked Tree.

At Harrisburg, we circled the square and looked over the courthouse and the newspaper office that houses the Modern News. Both buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. The courthouse, designed in the classical revival style by Pine Bluff architect Mitchell Selligman, was built in 1917.

The next stop was tiny Waldenburg, which has one of the best food intersections in Arkansas where Arkansas Highway 14 and U.S. Highway 49 meet.

There’s the D-Shack, a dairy bar with great hamburgers.

There’s Crossroads Country Café, where I had a nice lunch back in the fall.

And there’s the original Josie’s, where I’ve enjoyed fine steaks on Saturday nights through the years following afternoon college football games in Jonesboro. There has been a better-known, bigger Josie’s on the banks of the White River in Batesville since 2004, serving lunch Tuesday through Friday and dinner on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. But the original Josie’s (dinner only on weekends) is in Waldenburg and has long been a favorite in the late fall and winter for those who flock to the duck camps in the area.

I remember stopping at Josie’s with my youngest son following an Arkansas State football game several years ago. It was during duck season. He looked around the big room and whispered to me, “We’re the only ones in here not wearing camouflage.”

The fourth dining spot at the intersection is the trailer from which the town’s mayor, William “Woody” Wood, sells barbecue. That’s where we stopped on Good Friday afternoon.

Woody and his wife Cecelia began selling barbecue in 1985 in the months when things were slow for Woody’s crop-dusting service. There was such a demand, not only for the smoked meats but also for Woody’s sauces and rubs, that the couple began selling barbecue on a full-time basis in 1992. Woody’s sauces and rubs are now available across the state. He also caters.

The stand in Waldenburg — there are a couple of picnic tables to eat on — is open on most Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

From Waldenburg, we drove south on U.S. 49 to Woodruff County, which is among the state’s smallest counties from a population standpoint (Calhoun County in south Arkansas is the least populated county, in case you’re wondering). The population in Woodruff County fell from 22,682 in the 1930 census to just 7,260 in the 2010 census. Famous natives of Woodruff County include Sister Rosetta Tharpe of Cotton Plant, bluesman Peatie Wheatstraw (his real name was William Bunch) of Cotton Plant, football star Billy Ray Smith of Augusta, high school coach Curtis King of Augusta and high school coach Joe Hart of McCrory.

Denver Peacock hails from McCrory, so we had to drive through downtown before heading a bit south to Gregory to visit with George Eldridge at his Tamale Factory, which is a restaurant in the barn between the Eldridge family home and the Eldridge family cemetery.

George is best known these days as the owner of Doe’s Eat Place in downtown Little Rock, but The Tamale Factory on his family land (where the tamales for Doe’s are made and where dinner is served on Friday and Saturday nights) is a labor of love for him.

In a highly positive review of Doe’s last week, the Arkansas Times summed up George’s career this way: “Veteran restaurateur George Eldridge (chronologically: Band Box, Sports Page, Buster’s, Doe’s, Blues City Café in Memphis, The Tamale Factory in Gregory) loved the original Doe’s in Greenville, Miss., and worked a deal to open the world’s second Doe’s on West Markham a little west of the Little Rock Police Department headquarters. Eldridge, like many high-profile Arkansans, was buddies with the governor who would become president, and during the 1992 campaign the famed Rolling Stone interview with Bill Clinton was conducted at Doe’s. Bill has been back, and the stories and pictures live on (check the Annie Leibovitz shot of Eldridge with chef Lucille Robinson before the inaugural ball).”

We had tamales at Gregory, of course. We had fried shrimp and boiled shrimp. We hadn’t saved room for George’s steaks.

We did, however, save room for one last stop, the Bulldog in Bald Knob in neighboring White County, where Denver’s parents had met decades ago.

Bald Knob was named for the outcropping of stone that was a landmark in the region. Development in the area took off with the completion of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad in 1872. The bald knob was quarried for railroad bed ballast. The quarry also furnished ballast for Jay Gould’s Bald Knob & Memphis Railroad. In the 1920s, it furnished the stone used to build some of the buildings on the Rhodes College campus in Memphis (which ranks among the most beautiful college campuses in America).

William Leach of the White County Historical Society explains the importance of the strawberry to Bald Knob: “The sandy, upland soil was ideal for the fruit, which was introduced in neighboring Judsonia in the 1870s. The first strawberry association in Bald Knob was organized in 1910. In 1921, Benjamin Franklin Brown, June ‘Jim” Collison and Ernest R. Wynn organized The Strawberry Co. They built the longest strawberry shed in the world, a three-quarter-mile structure parallel to the tracks of the Missouri Pacific Railroad (now Union Pacific).

“In the peak year of 1951, Bald Knob growers sold $3.5 million worth of strawberries. Bald Knob became the Strawberry Capital of the World, which described the city until the 1960s when berries ceased to be a major crop because of changing market and labor conditions.”

Though raising strawberries is no longer a top industry in the area, the tradition of strawberry shortcakes at the Bulldog continues each spring. People drive from miles around when the word gets out: “The shortcakes are here.”

There was a traffic jam in front of the restaurant last Friday night.

It was time to get back to Little Rock.

Ten food stops down. And dreams of doing it all over again next spring.

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