Archive for the ‘Traveling Arkansas’ Category

Cycling in the Delta

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017

The recent efforts of the Walton family and Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s administration to make Arkansas the Cycling Hub of the South have centered on areas in the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains.

When it comes to cycling in Arkansas, though, the Delta provides some of the greatest potential.

In the previous Southern Fried blog post, we noted the opening of the $18 million Big River Crossing over the Mississippi River at Memphis and the decision of the St. Francis Levee District board to allow development of a bike trail atop the Mississippi River levee from the bridge’s western terminus in West Memphis all the way to Marianna.

There also are ongoing efforts to pave a route through the St. Francis National Forest from where the levee route ends at Marianna all the way to Helena.

Several years ago, the state entered into an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to develop Mississippi River State Park in the St. Francis National Forest. A visitors’ center staffed by U.S. Forest Service and state Department of Parks & Tourism staff was constructed with interactive exhibits on the Mississippi River, Crowley’s Ridge and the Delta. A campground, day-use area and nature trail were developed at nearby Bear Creek Lake. Future improvements will be made where the St. Francis River empties into the Mississippi River and along Storm Creek Lake. The St. Francis is the only national forest that touches the Mississippi River.

There’s also the ongoing development of Delta Heritage Trail State Park, which is being built in phases along 73 miles of right of way donated by Union Pacific to the state in 1992. This once was the route of Missouri Pacific’s Delta Eagle and passes through the most scenic areas of the Big Woods. This part of the state has the largest remaining segments of the Big Woods, the vast bottomland hardwood forest that once extended down both sides of the Mississippi River from Cairo, Ill., to New Orleans.

The Delta Heritage Trail starts one mile south of Lexa in Phillips County and extends to Cypress Bend in Desha County. The first hiking and biking segment opened in 2002 from Helena Junction near Lexa to Barton. Just more than 20 miles of the trail have been developed.

Hutchinson and Kane Webb, the director of the state Department of Parks & Tourism, have ridden bikes on the trail and made its completion a priority. The southern terminus of the railroad right of way will connect with the Mississippi River levee, and the trail then will extend another 11 miles to historic Arkansas City.

Cyclists eventually should be able to cross the Mississippi River at Memphis and go all the way to Arkansas City.

“Arkansas will be able to boast an extraordinary route that will allow the avid bicyclist to traverse nearly the entire length of Arkansas on dedicated bicycle paths,” says Doug Friedlander of Helena, who’s leading a regional tourism initiative for the Arkansas Delta. “It would be an astonishing jewel of an attraction truly worthy of the Natural State.”

Friedlander, who’s also spearheading efforts to save the old U.S. Highway 79 bridge over the White River at Clarendon for use by cyclists and hikers, envisions a “cascade of economic development for the struggling communities of rural eastern Arkansas in the form of restaurants, convenience stores, bicycle repair services and places for overnight accommodation.”

There’s some irony, of course, in the fact that the Delta — West Memphis in particular — might become a hub of fit people in cycling gear. That’s because of the Delta’s long tradition of attracting people to gamble, drink and listen to live music.

Musician Rufus Thomas once described West Memphis as the Las Vegas of the South.

A March 1941 article in The Commercial Appeal at Memphis noted that “a Negro vice boom town has sprung up on Eighth Street of West Memphis to prey on hundreds of Memphis Negroes lured there by a bait of dice, whiskey and women. … Gambling and liquor dance drunkenly together to tunes from wailing juke boxes, the clatter of dice and the enticing bark of vice salesmen. All this runs wide open in easy view of Crittenden County and West Memphis law enforcement officers.”

The reason that so many Memphis residents — both black and white — were crossing the bridge to Arkansas was that E.H. Crump hated noise at night. The man known as Boss Crump dominated Memphis politics from his first stint as mayor (1910-15) almost until his death in 1954 at age 80.

Crump, who preferred to work behind the scenes, in essence anointed Memphis mayors for decades. He also served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1931-35. Crump made sure that Memphis had the strongest noise ordinances in the country and imposed curfews from time to time.

In West Memphis, however, the action could go until daylight.

“In the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, Eighth Street was often called Beale Street West, reflecting a music and nightlife scene to equal that in Memphis,” Charlotte Wicks writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Some places in West Memphis have been associated with famous entertainers. The Square Deal Café, referred to as Miss Annie’s Place on South 16th Street, is where B.B. King began his public entertaining. The Coffee Cup, located at 204 E. Broadway in the 1950s, is where Elvis Presley ate his first breakfast after being inducted into the U.S. Army on March 24, 1958.

“Other popular nightspots along Broadway were the Willowdale Inn, the Cotton Club and the supper club known as the Plantation Inn. Legal greyhound racing began in the county in 1935. In the years that followed, the track closed several times — once for floods, another time due to the nation’s involvement in World War II and another time due to fire.”

The lot that had housed the Plantation Inn became a parking lot for Pancho’s, a well-known Tex-Mex restaurant. An actual plantation house was once at the site. It later became a gambling hall. Morris Berger opened the Plantation Inn in 1942.

In a 2007 Commercial Appeal story, Bob Mehr wrote: “Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, West Memphis provided a lax legal environment that spawned a variety of musical venues like the Cotton Club and Danny’s. While those clubs catered mostly to country music, the Plantation Inn opened its stages to a host of great black acts. They ranged from the Newborn family — father Phineas and sons Calvin and Phineas Jr. — to band leaders like Ben Branch, Gene “Bowlegs” Miller and Willie Mitchell. Although it survived an early 1960s crackdown on local clubs, the Plantation Inn closed its doors in 1964. … Long before his trumpet would anchor the Memphis Horns and punctuate inimitable hits for the Stax label, the West Memphis-raised Wayne Jackson got his education in R&B at the Plantation Inn.”

Jackson told Mehr: “When I was a kid, I always heard about the Plantation Inn. It was one of those places the adults went. They had linen tablecloths, good steaks and good music. Then as time went by and we became teenagers, we would go and sit around and listen to the bands and the singing. They would serve us a beer and look the other way. We thought we were bigtime.”

Author Robert Gordon noted in his 1995 book “It Came From Memphis” that West Memphis clubs allowed underage white kids to hear black musicians for the first time.

“Kids could get into clubs more easily across the river, and the exposure to bands like Willie Mitchell of Phineas Newborn’s group or the many others who came and went was crucial,” Gordon wrote. “It provided those kids with a kind of primer for R&B, for the rhythms and the repertoires and the unusual horn arrangements.”

The first greyhound track at West Memphis was the Riverside Kennel Club near the Mississippi River bridge.

In 1956, Southland Park opened. It was the only facility in the area to offer pari-mutual wagering, and people came from east Arkansas, west Tennessee, north Mississippi, the Missouri Bootheel and even western Kentucky to visit the track.

Arkansas historian Nancy Hendricks writes: “At its mid-century high point, Southland was said to be the top dog track in the country. Through the 1960s, ’70s and into the ’80s, a typical Saturday night at Southland might see the parking lots full with 20,000 people in attendance. Annual wagers on the greyhound races at the time generally exceeded $200 million, and more than 600 people were employed at Southland. All that changed in 1992.”

It changed because casino gambling came to nearby Tunica County in Mississippi. The competition almost sank Southland.

In 2005, the Arkansas Legislature passed legislation to permit video gaming at Southland and at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs if approved by local voters. Almost 60 percent of voters in West Memphis supported the initiative, and a $40 million expansion began in late 2006. Business soared in 2011 when the Mississippi River flood closed the Tunica casinos for a time. Another expansion costing more than $37 million occurred in 2014 as West Memphis returned to its roots as the Vegas of the South.

With the Big River Crossing, West Memphis now will be known for more than gambling and truck stops.

Bob Robinson recently wrote an extensive piece for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about a bike trip from Memphis to Marianna.

“The origin of the trail can be traced back to 2009 in Memphis when Charles McVean began manufacturing hybrid bicycles,” he wrote. “McVean is chairman and chief executive officer of McVean Trading & Investment LLC and owner of Aerobic Cruisers Hybrid Cycles LLC. Realizing that the Memphis area offered very little infrastructure to ride the bikes he was building, he came up with the idea of converting the Harahan Bridge, a 100-year-old railroad bridge over the Mississippi River, into a bicycle/pedestrian crossing.

“The bridge conversion developed scope-creep when McVean began to consider where people would ride once they crossed the river and reached the Arkansas shore. Not wanting it to be known as the bridge to nowhere, he gave this issue much consideration before arriving at the obvious solution. Create the Big River Trail, a bicycle or walking path on top of the Mississippi River levee, which stands just a short distance from the west access for the bridge (off Interstate 55) and extends all the way to Marianna.

“Obtaining permission to allow bicyles and pedestrians on top of the levee was no easy task. Sections of the levee in the St. Francis Levee District had not been open to public use since 1893. After five years of working with various associations in charge of the levee, he still lacked approval for a trail. Then McVean hired Terry Eastin of Fayetteville and formed the Big River Strategic Initiative to execute his vision.

“Eastin, Arkansas Delta Byways’ Delta Tourism Person of the Year for 2015, has been chief fundraiser and coordinator of the National Geographic Geotourism Initiative, executive director of the Mississippi River Trail Inc. and a core team member for the Walton Family Foundation-backed advocacy group Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative.”

Robinson described the Harahan Bridge this way: “This century-old bridge was constructed with two rail lines in the center and roadways cantilevered off each side to accommodate vehicles, which at that time consisted mainly of horse-drawn wagons. The roadway was used until 1949. Big River Crossing gives pedestrians use of the former vehicle lane on the north side of the still-active railway for the great upriver views it offers. … Even weeks after the grand opening, when our group bicycled across, the bridge was still drawing a crowd. It appeared to be the most popular attraction along the riverfront.”

Members of the St. Francis Levee District board had long been reluctant to open the levee to the public.

“McVean had worked five years, to no avail, to open the levee,” Robinson wrote. “Just six weeks after Eastin’s hiring, after meeting with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and receiving their endorsement, the Big River Strategic Initiative signed and presented to the St. Francis Levee District board a memorandum of understanding detailing the responsibilities of all the parties involved in the trail. The board then unanimously approved and signed it, thus opening the levee top to bicycles and pedestrians.

“McVean calls her Bulldog. But Eastin says that once she explained the economic development opportunities a Big River Trail would offer and how it could foster new enterprises compatible with the Delta’s agriculture industry, opening the levee was an easy sell. … I had picturesque views of either the Mississippi or the densely wooded ecosystem of its floodplains, whereas a motorist gets a fine view of a grass-covered hillside.”

Robinson concluded the article this way: “Big River Strategic Initiative partners are already at work to extend the route to Arkansas’ southern border. Twenty miles south of Marianna, in the town of Lexa, is the trailhead for the Delta Heritage Trail. When completed, this former Union Pacific Railroad rail bed will contribute another 84 miles to the vision. En route to Arkansas City, the Delta Heritage Trail will cross long trestles through wetlands as well as the expansive White River.

“This historic rail-to-trail conversion is being developed in phases by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism, with work progressing inward from each end. At the northernmost extremity, they have completed 21 miles of compacted crushed rock trail offering a smooth ride through Delta farm regions. From the southernmost point in Arkansas City, 14 miles of paved surface paths head north.

“Eastin’s enthusiasm for these projects is monumental. The Mississippi River does not stop at Arkansas’ southern border, and neither does she. Already she is working on plans to open the levee all the way to New Orleans.”

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Cycling Hub of the South

Friday, December 30th, 2016

It was a beautiful Saturday in late October when dignitaries from Arkansas and Tennessee gathered on the Harahan Bridge, which crosses the Mississippi River at Memphis.

They were there to celebrate the opening of the Big River Crossing, a pedestrian boardwalk that allows cyclists and walkers to cross the river.

The $18 million boardwalk, the longest of its kind in the country, was funded by federal, state and local government grants along with private contributions. Cyclists and walkers will share the bridge with Union Pacific freight trains.

“Unless you’ve been a train conductor, it’s a view that you’ve not seen of downtown Memphis since 1949,” Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said. “It’s such a civic and cultural amenity for our current residents. I think it will draw tourists from all over the world.”

Doug Friedlander of Helena, who’s leading a regional tourism initiative for the Arkansas Delta, put it this way: “Thanks to visionary leadership, this project has put Memphis and east Arkansas squarely on the map of a rapidly growing national passion for bicycling, walking and other forms of outdoor recreation, ecotourism and physical fitness. This unprecedented attraction was the impetus for the St. Francis Levee Board, which manages the levee from Mississippi County to Lee County, to approve the development of a bike trail atop the Mississippi River levee from the bridge’s western terminus in West Memphis all the way to Marianna.”

Three weeks after the event at Memphis, some of the world’s best mountain bikers gathered on the other side of the state for the International Mountain Bicycling Association World Summit at Bentonville. The summit, which is held every other year, attracted more than 500 people from around the world along with about 60 vendors.

The four-day annual summit began in 2004. Previous host cities included Whistler in British Columbia and Steamboat Springs in Colorado.

With five mountain bike trails designated as “epic rides” by the IMBA, Arkansas and Colorado are tied for second behind only California in the number of trails. IMBA has listed Bentonville, Fayetteville and Hot Springs as “ride centers,” and northwest Arkansas has become the IMBA’s first “regional ride center.”

As one Arkansas cycling enthusiast put it, mountain biking and road cycling are “the new golf.”

In other words, they’re activities that people are willing to spend a large amount of money on and travel to pursue. Consider what Alabama — specifically the Retirement Systems of Alabama — did in creating the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, a collection of world-class golf courses, many of which have adjacent resort hotels. That effort put Alabama on the tourism map for thousands of wealthy Americans who never would have considered visiting the state otherwise.

Arkansas wants to do that in the area of cycling.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the state Department of Parks & Tourism are promoting the state as the Cycling Hub of the South. Hutchinson created a Governor’s Advisory Council on Cycling, and the Walton Family Foundation provided a $309,000 grant to IMPA to maintain the state’s five “epic rides,” which contain almost 200 miles of mountain biking trails. Arkansas is the only state to have full-time professional crews maintain such trails.

In an articled headlined “The unlikely mountain bike mecca of Bentonville” for the website www.pinkbike.com, Danielle Baker wrote: “The only thing I knew about Arkansas before my plane hit the runway at NWA was that Keith Richards had been arrested there in 1975, not long after the state had tried to outlaw rock ‘n’ roll. That was it. As I retrieved my luggage, I wondered what kind of Rolling Stones-hating folk were waiting for me outside the airport.

“Needless to say, I was surprised and excited to find myself in the middle of one of the most elaborate and accessible community-driven trail systems I’ve ever experienced — not to mention greeted and welcomed by some of the warmest and most enthusiastic strangers I’ve come across in the United States. Even with the Walmart head office causing a phenomenal rate of growth, Bentonville is every bit the charming town it was when Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, opened the original Walton five-and-dime store back in 1950. From the quaint town square, the town’s footprint ripples outward, offering world-class culinary options, microbreweries, colorful boutiques, a state-of-the-art museum and miles upon miles of singletrack.

“Originally mountain biking was developed here as a recruitment tool for Walmart back in 2006. As the largest retailer in the world, there is a need to attract employees to Bentonville and keep them here. The Walton family donated the first piece of land to develop trails on, a trail system that is now affectionately referred to as Slaughter Pen. ‘If you build it, they will come has been proven here,’ says Gary Vernon, a program officer for the Walton Family Foundation. While Bentonville has been fortunate to receive assistance from the foundation, Gary is quick to point out that ‘you can’t just throw money at this.’ He credits great community partners and the volunteers as the heart and soul of Bentonville’s mountain bike culture.

“The terrain, year-round riding and hotels that are full of business travelers during the week, leaving the weekends available, are also part of the perfect storm that is creating a world-class riding destination.”

Baker concluded the article this way: “It might be time to put Arkansas on your bucket list.”

One of those who commented on the article wrote: “I felt like I was in some sort of mountain bike utopia — small town with big town amenities thanks to the Walton Family Foundation. The folks at Phat Tire bike shop were great, and it was an awesome shop that stocked high-end stuff — a proper bike shop in a small town. Lot of transplants from other areas make for a little bit of a metropolitan feel. I can’t wait to go back.”

Another wrote: “There is a Walmart museum and also Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which is a completely different thing. It’s a world-class art museum that actually connects to the Slaughter Pen trails network. And it’s free. … I moved back to the area back in August, and it’s everything the article claims.”

Much of the work in northwest Arkansas has been driven by Tom Walton, the son of Jim Walton and grandson of Sam Walton. Tom is the chairman of what’s known as the home region program committee for the Walton Family Foundation.

“Ten years ago, the odds we would join the ranks of hosts like Whistler, British Columbia, or Steamboat Springs, Colo., were pretty long,” he wrote following the IMBA event in November. “But today northwest Arkansas has arrived as a major destination for mountain biking, and we have made trails an integral part of our urban fabric. I had the privilege of sharing the story of how we got from there to here with more than 500 conference attendees from around the world. My message was simply: While each region is different, every community can use trails to improve the quality of life for its residents.

“By connecting singletrack, greenways and city streets across northwest Arkansas, we have attracted new talent and businesses, created transportation alternatives and offered a healthy and vibrant lifestyle. The Walton Family Foundation took a holistic approach, investing not only in trails but also in energizing our urban core with thriving culinary and art scenes. We are also striving to help kids reap the benefits. We are reaching 27,000 students across our region by partnering with schools to redefine physical education through cycling.

“We want to be a place where cycling — and getting out into nature — is a choice everyone can make, every day. And here’s the great thing: Through trails, we can preserve green spaces, even as the region continues to grow and attract more people.”

What’s happening in northwest Arkansas is far from just a Walton initiative, mind you. Take, for example, the work of the Northwest Arkansas Trailblazers.

“It’s not often a single community sets out to blaze 172 miles of mountain biking, hiking, running and walking trails,” writes Erin Rushing, the Trailblazers’ executive director. “But Bella Vista has a vision, a master plan to build on the momentum of the nearby Razorback Regional Greenway, which spans 36 miles through the heart of northwest Arkansas. The vision was to begin with the Back 40, a connected set of soft-surface trails through the backyard hollows and wooded hills of Bella Vista. What the city needed was a way to bring together local government, its large property owners association, residents, funding and the trail-building experts to get the job done. And that’s where we fit in.

“Founded in 1996 as part of an initiative to build a 1.75-mile loop trail around Lake Bella Vista, the Northwest Arkansas Trailblazers has gone on to coordinate the development of more than 80 miles of trails across the region. We’ve tapped our expertise to help make the Razorback Regional Greenway and Slaughter Pen mountain bike trails possible, while providing tunnels and other critical cycling and pedestrian infrastructure solutions across Bentonville and more. But I believe the Back 40 serves as the greatest example to date of the value and expertise the Northwest Arkansas Trailblazers bring to the table.

“The project was a game changer, but it required the establishment of countless easements, purchase of undeveloped lots and a plan for working around golf courses and other community amenities without disturbing play. It meant rolling up our sleeves and going door to door, talking with and listening to residents. It meant coming up with maintenance agreements between the city of Bella Vista and the property owners association. And it meant securing funding through organizations like the Walton Family Foundation and working side by side with three of the best trail-building companies out there.

“All of that — along with the construction of the trails — began in January 2016 and had to be ready and center stage for the annual International Mountain Bicycling Association World Summit in November. But we did it. What’s even more exhilarating than meeting that timeline is that the residents of Bella Vista and this entire region now have a whole new 40-mile section of the Ozarks to explore.”

Rushing clearly sees how all of this fits together in an era when economic development is based on attracting talented young people to an area through quality-of-life initiatives.

“A new bike shop has opened in Bella Vista and the community is already turning its attention to the remaining 132 miles of trails in its master plan,” Rushing writes. “Northwest Arkansas is experiencing how these investments in connectivity aid revitalization of historic downtowns, spur commercial interest, raise property values and — most importantly — improve quality of life. A lot of communities just don’t have expertise in trail planning and design. We’ve been through the trenches and know everything that goes into getting these undertakings to the finish line. It’s why we exist. With every project, we’re bring people together. And the world is taking notice.”

When it comes to improving quality of life, consider what Fayetteville has done with Kessler Mountain Regional Park.

“On any given Saturday, 1,500 soccer kids and their families converge on the developing 200-acre outdoor sports complex at the base of picturesque Kessler Mountain,” writes Jeremy Pate, the development services director for the city of Fayetteville. “But it’s what’s happening on the 376 acres of the mountain above that serves as an example for communities across the country of what’s possible when organizations work together to preserve natural beauty.

“The opportunity for a community to preserve nearly 400 acres of urban forest for generations to come, all within its city limits — particularly on a slice of mountain as visually stunning and significant as Kessler — doesn’t happen often. Blessed with an abundance of native flora and fauna, stands of native old-growth trees, rock outcroppings and changes in topography and ecosystem, Kessler Mountain represented a chance to show active and passive recreation can coexist.”

John Coleman, a former president of the Fayetteville Natural Heritage Association, put it this way: “Fayetteville has a reputation of being a forward-thinking community when it comes to preservation. With Kessler, this is something I truly believe we’re going to look back in 50 years and applaud the foresight our leaders had.”

Pate writes: “After countless months of research, tracking and gathering public input, organizations like the Walton Family Foundation, Fayetteville Natural Heritage Association, Northwest Arkansas Land Trust and others provided the financial support necessary to help the city turn Kessler Mountain over to the public domain and place it in a conservation easement. This immediately provided the community access to the 9.8 miles of upper-level, singletrack mountain bike trails that already existed. The city continues to collaborate with hiking, mountain biking and environmental organizations to strike a responsible balance between the additional 7.6 miles of planned introductory-level trails and preservation and restoration efforts.

“Adding Kessler to the public domain wasn’t easy. In fact, conversations began a decade ago. But, as the years went by, philanthropic, environmental and outdoor recreation organizations, as well as the public, came together. As a result, Fayetteville has an incredible slice of the Ozarks for everyone from outdoors enthusiasts and athletes to families looking for a unique picnic spot or jaw-dropping view. And while the trails stretch from one side of the mountain to the other, the features that make Kessler unique — the rare Ozark zigzag salamander, Church’s wild rye grass, Missouri ground cherry, 200-year-old post oaks and more — will be protected for generations to come.

“It really is amazing to stand atop Kessler Mountain, taking in the views in every direction — to listen to the songbirds and watch the bikers, hikers and runners pass through; to know classes from local public schools and even the University of Arkansas can now access an ecological laboratory like this. The possibilities really are endless.”

Steve McBee, a mountain biker and runner, put it this way: “I’ve been riding my mountain bike on those trails since 1992, and it’s honestly some of the most beautiful riding you’re going to find. I spend a lot of time riding, from Arkansas to Colorado, but Kessler is home. It’s so unique to have something like this five minutes from your front door.”

From West Memphis on the far eastern side of the state to Bella Vista in the far northwest corner, Arkansas truly is becoming the Cycling Hub of the South.

 

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To Jonesboro and back

Friday, December 23rd, 2016

As a sports fan and former sportswriter, I’ve heard about the Northeast Arkansas Invitational Tournament (commonly known as just the NEA Tournament) all of my life.

The basketball tournament is currently celebrating its 70th edition at the Convocation Center on the campus of Arkansas State University at Jonesboro.

It’s truly an Arkansas classic.

My father coached at Newport High School in the late 1940s and early 1950s and talked about attending some of those early tournaments.

The NEA Tournament first was played in late 1947 and early 1948. The following boys’ teams took part — Bay, Clover Bend, Hickory Ridge, Hoxie, Lake City, Leachville, Manila, Marked Tree, Nettleton, Oxford, Pocahontas, Rector, State High and Trumann.

Hickory Ridge defeated Trumann in the finals, 41-38.

A girls’ division was added in 1977.

Paul Austin of the Arkansas Humanities Council, who grew up at Imboden in Lawrence County, often would tell stories of what a holiday tradition the tournament was for those who lived in the small towns in the northeast quadrant of the state. Schools from the Ozarks and schools from the Delta would come together on a basketball court in Jonesboro during the Christmas holidays each year and do battle.

People in Northeast Arkansas loved high school basketball, and folks would drive an hour or more in those days to see stars such as Chester Barner Jr. of Marmaduke (who later would lead the Greyhounds to state championships as a coach), Rickey Medlock of Cave City and Bill Bristow of Strawberry play in various tournaments.

Bristow would go on to play college basketball at Arkansas College (now Lyon College) in Batesville and then attend law school at Harvard. He became one of the state’s top trial lawyers. I was the campaign manager for Gov. Mike Huckabee in 1998 when Bristow was the Democratic nominee for governor. When I headed Arkansas’ Independent Colleges & Universities (the association representing the state’s 11 four-year institutions of higher education), Lyon was an AICU affiliate and Bristow was on the Lyon board of trustees. It’s a small state.

Medlock, meanwhile, would go on to star in basketball at the University of Arkansas and then become a highly respected ophthalmologist in Little Rock.

In a 2012 newspaper column, Harry King wrote: “The best free throw shooter in Razorback history was a technician with a self-imposed penalty for failure. Rickey Medlock, who set a Southwest Conference record of 48 consecutive while at Arkansas, would eye the back of the rim, his left hand almost underneath the ball, and use his legs, something ignored by many shooters today. He learned under his grandfather, Corbet Medlock, a former high school coach in Sharp County who sat on a stool and rolled Prince Albert cigarettes while watching Rickey shoot at a wire hoop nailed onto a garage.

“Alone at Cave City High School, Medlock would not leave until he made 10 straight free throws. If he missed, he would do a line drill and begin again. He led the NCAA in free-throw shooting in 1973-74 with 87 of 95 and made 62 of 66 the following year, but needed four more attempts to qualify for the NCAA title.”

Chester Barner Sr. was the successful head coach at Marmaduke in the 1950s.

In a 2002 interview with the Clay County Times-Democrat, his son Chester Jr. said: “One day my dad hung a sign in the old gym that said, ‘Those who fly with owls at night can’t run with the Hounds the next day.’ The next morning when I went into the gym, I saw that a dead hoot owl had been draped over the sign. One wing was affixed to the top of the sign, and the other wing touched the floor. A note was attached to the owl that read: ‘Coach, we killed the owl. Now, we’re going to run with the Hounds.’ Being a kid — I was in the seventh grade — this made a big impression on me. I idolized those older boys. That they thought it necessary to really work hard at basketball really impressed me.”

The junior high team that Chester Jr. played on won a state championship in 1957.

As a sophomore, he led the senior high team to a state title in 1958.

“I didn’t start early in the year,” Chester Jr. said of his sophomore season. “I sat on the bench. In a game against Monette, Larry Joe Miller broke his collarbone, and I took his place in the starting lineup. … We started playing well as a team toward the end of the season as we advanced to the finals of the state tournament. In the title game, we faced Caddo Gap. They came into the title game undefeated at 30-0 while we came in with a record of 31-5. When we beat them, we thought we owned the world.”

In his senior season, Chester Jr. set an NEA Tournament single-game scoring record by scoring 58 points in a victory over Mount Pleasant from Izard County. That record still stands.

While Chester Sr. was achieving success as a coach at Marmaduke, Jess Bucy (who later would be the head coach at Harding University) was doing the same eight miles to the north at Rector.

“It was the biggest game of the year,” Chester Jr. said. “Both Rector and our team had great fan support. When we met, it was something. It was the one game that mattered the most.”

Chester Jr. graduated from high school in 1960 and then played college basketball at Arkansas Tech. He met his wife Sue, who was a Tech cheerleader, in Russellville. He coached at several high schools following his college graduation, sold insurance for a time and then returned to Marmaduke High School as head basketball coach in 1974.

His first team there was 23-11, and his second team had a record of 28-10.

In Chester Jr.’s third season as head coach, a senior named Tim Porter transferred to Marmaduke and was named the most valuable player in the state tournament. The team finished 37-5, losing in the state championship game to McNeil from south Arkansas in what at the time was the Class B tournament.

The Hounds were led the next year by 6-8 Scott Horrell. They went 35-8 and won the 1978 state championship.

In Horrell’s senior year of 1979, Marmaduke went 40-2 and won the Class A state title again in a game I covered as a young sportswriter. It was played in the Duke Wells Center on the campus of Henderson State University at Arkadelphia. Parkdale then beat Marmaduke, 73-62, in the finals of the Overall Tournament on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas at Conway.

Chester Jr.’s final season as head basketball coach was the 1997-98 season. He retired in 2002 as athletic and transportation director for the Marmaduke School District.

I was thinking about all of this rich high school basketball tradition in northeast Arkansas when Paul Austin picked me up at my home in Little Rock at 7 a.m. last Saturday morning. The destination was Jonesboro, where we would attend the first day of this year’s NEA Tournament.

For sentimental reasons (I mentioned that my dad had coached at Newport, and my older sister was born there), we stopped at Newport for breakfast. The restaurant of choice was Lackey’s Smoke House BBQ. That stop not only resulted in an excellent breakfast but also allowed us to buy some of Lackey’s fine tamales to take home for Christmas.

Newport was a hopping place when my parents moved there in 1948. A fellow named Sam Walton was still running the Ben Franklin five-and-dime store downtown.

“Newport’s most significant growth occurred in the postwar period,” Marvin Schwartz writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The Newport Air Base, utilized as a training site for the U.S. Army Air Force, the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Navy, operated from 1942-46, bringing a large influx of military personnel and families to town. After the war, the air base was leased to the city. Former base housing met the demand for public housing. Base hangars and other large structures were used as incentives in a successful industrial recruiting campaign by the Newport Chamber of Commerce. Manufacturers originally located at the site included Trimfoot Shoe, Victor Metals (the world’s largest producer of aluminum toothpaste tubes) and Revere Copper & Brass.

“The May 18, 1951, Newport Daily Independent ranked Jackson County as one of the wealthiest counties in the United States, being 10th in the nation in cotton production, eighth in rice, 11th in soybeans, 110th in strawberries and 42nd in local volume of timber. A 1954 Federal Reserve report cited Newport’s economic development as a leading example of community adjustment to national economic growth, noting Newport’s effective balancing of its agricultural and industrial economies.”

Schwartz goes on to note that the economic growth was complemented by “many civic initiatives, including music and drama associations, women’s groups and civic organizations. In the 1940s and 1950s, numerous honky-tonks and music clubs were established in Newport and Jackson County. The clubs became a popular performance venue for rockabilly musicians, many of whom recorded for Sun Records in Memphis. Newport also had a popular summer league baseball program. Professional and semiprofessional local baseball teams were affiliated through the Northeast Arkansas League with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Brooklyn Dogers.”

The city’s population peaked at 8,339 in the 1980 census. It had fallen to 7,849 by the 2010 census.

“Newport has been negatively influenced by problems common to the Arkansas Delta region,” Schwartz writes. “Mechanization of agriculture and an economy of scale that promotes large corporate farming have caused land loss in the rural population. Limited employment opportunities have caused outmigration and restricted growth. The dense retail activity formerly concentrated along Front Street has diminished.”

While Newport has struggled in recent decades, Jonesboro has boomed.

There was a time when those in east Arkansas gravitated toward Memphis — they read Memphis newspapers, they watched Memphis television stations, they listened to Memphis radio stations, they went to Memphis to visit the doctor, to shop, to eat out, to attend concerts, etc.

Fueled in part by a perception that Memphis is a place with bad traffic, a place that’s dirty and a place that’s dangerous, Jonesboro’s population has more than tripled since the 1960 census. In 1960, the city had 21,418 residents. In the 2010 census, Jonesboro had 67,263 residents. That growth has continued with more than 70,000 people now calling Jonesboro home. By the 2020 census, the city likely will have 80,000 residents.

Compare that to Memphis.

In 1960, Memphis had a population of 505,563.

By the 2010 census, there were 298,645 people living within the 1960 city limits. That’s a loss of more than 200,000 people in those neighborhoods.

Jonesboro has become a true regional center.

The people in small towns throughout northeast Arkansas have, in certain instances, now turned their backs on Memphis. They read the Jonesboro Sun, they watch Jonesboro television stations, they listen to Jonesboro radio stations, they go to Jonesboro to visit the doctor, to shop, to eat out, to attend concerts, etc.

The message boards at the Convocation Center were advertising upcoming concerts by Luke Bryan and The Four Tops along with a Harlem Globetrotters game in January.

As we drove in heavy traffic down Red Wolf Boulevard (formerly Stadium Boulevard) on Saturday, the parking lot of every restaurant and store appeared full.

For Jonesboro, these are the good ol’ days.

After watching four basketball games and part of a fifth, it was time to drive back off Crowley’s Ridge and into the heart of the Arkansas Delta.

In a driving rain as the temperature tumbled, we headed south on U.S. Highway 49 through Weiner, Waldenburg, Fisher, Hickory Ridge, Tilton, Fair Oaks, Hillemann, Hunter, Zent and Fargo.

We made our way to Brinkley where Gene DePriest was waiting for us in the back room of his namesake restaurant.

Gene killed more than 100 squirrels this fall, and I had called in advance to see if my friend would fry us up some squirrel to be served alongside mashed potatoes, slaw, biscuits and cream gravy.

I signed a copy of my new book, “Southern Fried,” and gave it to Gene since he’s featured in one of the chapters. Gene is 80 now but still going strong. He’s the type of character who makes the Delta such a fascinating, colorful section of our state.

We watched part of Arkansas State’s Cure Bowl victory on television while finishing off the squirrel, content at the end of a long day in northeast Arkansas.

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Dyess: Project of the year

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016

I write a lot about economic development in my beloved home state of Arkansas.

As we near the end of another year, I began making a list of the most important economic development projects in our state.

Looking at that list, it would be easy to point toward the northeast (Mississippi County to be exact) and go with the Big River Steel plant at Osceola, which recently produced its first hot roll coil tube.

The steel plant, which sits on a 1,300-acre tract along the Mississippi River, cost more than $1 billion to build and is expected to be fully operational in early 2017. It will be able to produce 1.6 million tons of steel each year with a workforce of 525 people earning an average annual salary of $75,000.

There’s no doubt that this is an important project for Arkansas.

However, there’s a project that might have an even greater impact on the state in the decades ahead, and it’s also in Mississippi County.

It’s not a factory.

It’s not a business of any kind.

It’s the former Dyess Colony, where a visitors’ center was dedicated back on May 21.

Yes, my vote for Arkansas economic development project of the year goes to Dyess.

I know you’re shaking your head. So allow me to explain the reasons for my pick.

Tourism is, of course, a big piece of the economic development puzzle in Arkansas. The Dyess restoration gives those traveling between Memphis and St. Louis a reason to stop in our state.

But my reasons for choosing Dyess go much deeper than that. They have to do with attitude and self-esteem.

The Dyess project represents a growing willingness to celebrate the rich cultural heritage of this state.

Say goodbye (I hope) to the Arkansas inferiority complex, which plagued our state for decades and was exacerbated when Arkansas lost a higher percentage of its population from 1940-60 than any other state.

When Arkansans feel better about themselves, those looking to relocate their businesses and families here will feel better about Arkansas.

Who better than an internationally known performer such as the late Johnny Cash to pull us together?

Bill Clinton may be the best-known Arkansan, but politics tends to divide us.

Music, on the other hand, can unite us.

Ruth Hawkins, the director of Arkansas State University’s Heritage Sites program, understands that better than most. It’s why she has worked for years to obtain government grants and private donations to restore structures at Dyess. The resettlement colony was created in 1934 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal efforts to get the country out of the Great Depression. Almost 500 poor Arkansas farm families came to Dyess. Cash’s family made the long trip from the pine woods around Kingsland in south Arkansas to the bottomland hardwoods of northeast Arkansas to resettle in 1935.

Johnny Cash, who was known in Dyess simply as J.R., died in 2003.

A town center was established as the hub of the colony with small farmsteads of 20 to 40 acres each stretching out from there. The first 13 families arrived at Dyess in October 1934. An official dedication finally was held in May 1936 with the colony named for W.R. Dyess, the state’s first Works Progress Administration manager who had been killed earlier that year in a plane crash.

Several weeks after the dedication, the nation’s first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, visited Dyess and spoke from the front steps of the administration building. Her visit received national media coverage.

The new visitors’ center is on the site of a former theater and what was known as the Pop Shop. When the original community building burned, a theater was built in 1947. Only the front façade was standing when ASU began renovations. This year’s opening of the visitors’ center is part of the second phase of renovations at Dyess. The first phase concluded in August 2014 when the restoration of the administration building was completed and the former Cash home was opened to the public.

As work was being completed on the boyhood home, Rosanne Cash (Johnny’s daughter) came to Little Rock in November 2013 for a sold-out show. It was the first time she had performed in Little Rock.

The concert came in advance of the January 2014 release of a CD titled “The River & The Thread,” which had songs based on the Delta.

“I haven’t done any of the hard work,” she said at the time of that visit. “I’ve just shown up and helped them raise some money by performing. The real credit goes to the team who has done the restoration. My dad was always incredibly proud of where he came from, and it was always a real part of who he was. His persona in the world was that he was from Arkansas. He was raised on a cotton farm.

“Coming back to that when we started the restoration of his boyhood home and seeing what that really meant — how far he walked from the house to school, how big the land was that they farmed, how hard the life was — really gave me a whole new level of respect and understanding. … It helps you know who you are if you know who your parents really were. … I was really thrilled to be involved and really moved by what they’ve done. Their historical accuracy is just beyond belief — to find just a chip of paint and then send it to the lab to find exactly what the color was. And they consulted my Aunt Joanne a lot about what the furniture, what the linoleum looked like.”

The first Johnny Cash Heritage Festival will be held next fall at Dyess. Hawkins said the event, scheduled for Oct. 19-21, will include educational and entertainment components. She said much work still must be done to achieve her goal of making Dyess a well-known tourist destination. Farmstead buildings will be re-created at the Cash home and additional services will be added for tourists who visit the home.

“It’s fitting to incorporate the New Deal heritage that was part of Johnny Cash’s formative years into a major annual event that shines light on a crucial era that’s fading from memory,” Hawkins said.

Vendors of crafts and local foods will be added to the mix. ASU officials are working closely with Rosanne Cash to plan the festival.

“We foresee an annual festival that will include both world-renowned artists on the main stage and local musicians on small stages,” Rosanne said when the festival was announced. “For four years, we held concerts in Jonesboro with such great artists as George Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Vince Gill and Willie Nelson to raise funds for the restoration of the Cash boyhood home. … This new tradition will honor the art of my father, the resilience of the Cash family and all the hard-working families of Dyess Colony, and the very origins of my dad’s musical inspiration in the Sunken Lands.”

Joanne Cash Yates, Johnny Cash’s sister, said: “This is about the people. It’s about the many families who lived in the Dyess Colony, survived and worked hard to make a living and raise a family.”

Hawkins said: “Assisting in carrying out the master plan for making the Dyess Colony and Johnny Cash boyhood home a major tourism destination will continue as one of the key goals of the festival.”

Another positive development occurred recently when signs were placed on Interstate 55 to direct people to Dyess.

Last spring, Rosanne took part in a fundraiser at the Governor’s Mansion to benefit the Dyess project. She said that day that her father had told her that his first memory after Ray and Carrie Cash moved their family to Dyess was “going into this new home that really saved their lives, that the government had provided, and that there were five empty cans of paint sitting in the front room. I put that right into a song I wrote called ‘The Sunken Lands.’ The first line is ‘five cans of paint.’

“When Arkansas State University came to the family and said we want to do this, I immediately said yes. We all said yes because we knew it would be important to my dad. He always talked about where he grew up and was so proud of it. … So many of the songs he wrote came from there.”

“The Sunken Lands” was part of Rosanne’s aforementioned 2014 CD “The River & The Thread,” which won three Grammy Awards

The Cash family left the Dyess house in the 1950s, and it was lived in by a number of other families during the next five decades.

“It was almost to the ground,” Rosanne said of the home’s condition when ASU purchased it in 2011. “It was falling apart. They got it just in time.”

Contractors lifted the home onto the back of a truck so the gumbo soil underneath, which had shifted for years, could be replaced. Wall covers and linoleum were stripped out in search of the original materials.

“Not only are the exterior and the frame restored, but they’ve meticulously furnished the house in period furnishings,” Rosanne said.

The Cash family donated some items from the original home.

“My sisters and I have also donated many things to the museum that are now in the administration building, including my dad’s Air Force trunk, his prom booklet where he had all his friends sign the booklet, report cards, letters,” Rosanne told KUAR-FM during the spring fundraising event. “The house itself is like time travel. When you walk in, you feel like you could be in 1940.”

A grant from the Arkansas Natural & Cultural Resources Council (on which I serve) helped pay for the visitors’ center. In addition to displays, there’s an orientation film and a gift shop.

“The next phase will be putting all of the outbuildings back at the Cash home, at the farmstead there, so we’re looking at building back the barn, putting back a smokehouse, a chicken coop and even an outhouse,” Hawkins told KUAR.

Rosanne said Dyess is becoming a regular stop for tourists from around the world who are touring the Mississippi River Delta.

“They go on down into the Delta, and they see where B.B. King came from, and they see where Howlin’ Wolf sat on a juke joint porch, and they may go on to see William Faulkner’s house in Oxford, Miss.,” Rosanne said. “The Delta and this part of the world are so rich in music and literature and history. I think people around the world are fascinated by it.”

While I believe the Dyess restoration is the project of the year in Arkansas, the most deserved award presentation occurred when Hawkins received a lifetime achievement award during the 75th annual meeting of the Arkansas Historical Association earlier this year. The projects she has overseen help Arkansans take more pride in their heritage and hopefully believe more in their own capabilities.

The ASU Heritage Sites program was established in 1999 to preserve and promote significant sites in the Arkansas Delta. The stated goal of the program is “to promote the natural and cultural heritage in the region, thus serving as an economic catalyst for communities and providing an educational laboratory for students at Arkansas State and throughout the region.”

In addition to Dyess, sites in the program are:

— The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center at Piggott.

— The Lakeport Plantation near Lake Village.

— The Southern Tenant Farmers Museum at Tyronza.

— The ASU Museum and the V.C. Kays House on the ASU campus at Jonesboro.

— Affiliation with the Japanese-American Relocation Center at Rohwer.

“Our heritage sites at Arkansas State are not just about preserving buildings,” Hawkins said after receiving the award from the Arkansas Historical Association. “They’re about telling stories that are important to the history of our state and our nation. So it means a great deal for our work to be recognized by the organization representing Arkansas’ finest historians.”

Arkansas State Heritage Sites also is the administrative agent for Arkansas Delta Byways, the nonprofit regional tourism promotion association that serves 15 Delta counties — Arkansas, Chicot, Clay, Craighead, Crittenden, Cross, Desha, Drew, Greene, Lee, Mississippi, Monroe Phillips, Poinsett and St. Francis.

Arkansas State Heritage Sites also has helped develop and promote two National Scenic Byways — the Crowley’s Ridge Parkway and the Arkansas segment of the 10-state Great River Road.

 

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Wilson: The model town

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

I parked my car on the town square at Wilson in Mississippi County on a weekday earlier this fall, and I could hear it: The sound of construction.

It’s a sound that hadn’t been heard here in decades.

Last year, architects, designers, elected officials and employees of the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism gathered on the square for the groundbreaking of a new home for the Hampson Archeological Museum State Park. It marked the first new construction on the town square in 57 years.

At the time of the 2015 ceremony, Becton Bell, the mayor, told reporters that the Wilson square “defines our city. It’s the first thing everyone notices when they come to town. Hopefully it’s going to bring a lot of tourism to the town and, in turn, help all of our businesses. … Things aren’t always looking up for the Delta. For Wilson, they are right now.”

That’s an understatement.

Thanks to the passion of businessman Gaylon Lawrence Jr., Wilson is being transformed into the shining jewel of the Delta.

What once was the company town for one of the largest cotton plantations in the world has become the headquarters for The Lawrence Group, an entity with real estate, bank and other holdings. The Lawrence Group even controls the nation’s largest privately owned air conditioning distributor. The company owns an estimated 180,000 acres of farmland across the country, including some of the largest citrus groves in Florida.

Lawrence told the Nashville Business Journal earlier this year that he’s “an accumulator” who prefers investing in “good, solid assets that I can own for a lifetime.”

The company was started by his father in Sikeston, Mo., a place Arkansans probably know best for the “throwed rolls” at Lambert’s Cafe. After graduating from Mississippi State University, the younger Lawrence went to work for his father. For almost 15 years, he oversaw the company’s farming asset management division. Lawrence also owns banks in Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee.

In late 2010, The Lawrence Group purchased the assets of Lee Wilson & Co., including almost all of the commercial property in Wilson. Lawrence moved from Nashville to Memphis at the time of the purchase, explaining to the Nashville Business Journal: “Along with our other interests up an down the Mississippi Delta, I just needed to be closer. It was a little bit of the situation in reverse when I first moved to Nashville in 2003.”

In the past couple of years, though, Lawrence has become more engaged than ever in the booming Nashville market.

In a profile of Lawrence published earlier this year, the Nashville Business Journal’s Scott Harrison wrote: “He prefers to be out of the limelight. But Gaylon Lawrence Jr. is about to grab Nashville’s attention in a major way. Few have the resources or the inclination to pay all cash for a bank. Lawrence did just that last fall. With one $85 million check, the Nashville billionaire swooped in and bought one of the largest banks in Middle Tennessee and the region’s second-largest mortgage lender, Clarksville’s F&M Bank.

“The Missouri native has flirted with Greater Nashville for more than a decade, launching Tennessee Bank & Trust in Franklin 13 years ago and playing his hand in various commercial real estate deals, including financing the Gulch’s newest office tower. But with his purchase of F&M, Lawrence established himself as a power player in Nashville banking. And he isn’t done yet — not in the least.

“On the hunt for his next investments, both in banking and real estate, Lawrence stands to be a mover and shaker in Nashville business circles for the foreseeable future.”

Despite the diverse portfolio, his background is in agriculture, and Lawrence long had coveted the Wilson family land in northeast Arkansas.

“Business colleagues and partners describe Lawrence as intelligent and savvy, able to quickly sift through and vet potential ventures,” Harrison writes. “He looks like the consummate businessman: Tall, well-dressed in a navy pinstriped suit and red tie, hair parted to the left. A smile pops up on his face with regularity as he describes his business plans in a measured cadence, accented by his Southern drawl.”

In northeast Arkansas, Lawrence follows in the footsteps of the Wilson family, long titans in Arkansas business and political circles.

R.E. Lee Wilson established a sawmill at what’s now Wilson in 1886 and then cleared the thousands of surrounding acres of virgin bottomland hardwood trees. A company store was soon added along with company-owned homes. As the timber was cut and drainage ditches were dug, the land surrounding the town was converted to cotton fields.

When R.E. Lee Wilson Jr. and his bride returned from their honeymoon to Great Britian, they vowed to construct not only their home but also the commercial buildings at Wilson in the Tudor style. The company began selling the homes it owned to residents in 1945.

“Existing buildings were retrofitted with brick facades to obtain the Tudor styling as well,” Cindy Grisham writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The cottonwood trees that shade the community were among the first beautification projects. They were chosen because they had no commercial value, and no one would be tempted to cut them down. Lee Wilson & Co. operated the town of Wilson as a wholly owned subsidiary until after World War II. Its residents were all company employees, and no tax revenue was collected to assist with maintenance and upkeep of the town. By 1945, the town was operating at a considerable loss, and the company decided to sell the homes to their owners and incorporate the town. This allowed the town access to tax dollars, which finally stabilized it financially.

“The average price of a home in Wilson at the time was about $4,000. R.E. Lee Wilson III, who by this time was in charge of the operations, believed that individual ownership of homes made the residents happier and more involved in the success of the community. With the increased mechanization in agriculture, fewer laborers were needed to successfully operate the Wilson farming operation. Residents of Wilson began seeking employment elsewhere. Today, most of the town’s residents commute to the larger communities in the region such as Osceola or Blytheville to work.”

The deal between the Wilson family and The Lawrence Group was finalized in December 2010 at an estimated price of $150 million. Lawrence at first considered keeping the 40,000 acres of farmland that came with the purchase while divesting himself of the commercial property at Wilson. He became fascinated with the history of the town, though, and decided instead to pour millions of dollars into Wilson in an effort to transform it into a model community for the Delta.

Lawrence wants Wilson to be a center for education, culture and the arts.

In a May feature about Wilson in the Arkansas Times, David Koon wrote: “These days, the small Delta towns that once bustled with scrubbed up field hands on weekend nights are well on their way to ghostly. Since 2012, however, something fairly amazing has been taking place in Wilson, a town of just over 900 on U.S. Highway 61 in Mississippi County. On a recent Friday, excavators and dump trucks trundled back and forth at sites all over town, moving dirt in preparation for new construction. At the Wilson Café on the town square, new forks and spoons clinked on new plates, the food prepared by a young chef uprooted from a ritzy restaurant in Memphis and repotted here, the dining room tiled and painted and polished until it looked like something out of Architectural Digest.

“Near the center of town, an organic garden pushed into the damp April daylight, overseen by a young, never-slowing idealist and her staff, the operation spinning out from a new classroom/concert space/demonstration kitchen meant to resemble a tin barn, but which is decidedly not a tin barn. On the outskirts of town, in a restored mansion that might remind one of Harry Potter’s alma mater inside and out, 45 kids attended the private Delta School, where a lesson on photosynthesis might be taught with a trip to the garden and physics might be demonstrated by building a go-kart, under the watchful eye of a brilliant, Ivy League-educated teacher whose groundbreaking ideas once landed her on the bestseller list.

“In town, property values have doubled, with houses that go on the market routinely selling in fewer than four days. Residents out for a walk are getting used to being stopped by drivers who ask if they know of property in town, any property, that’s for sale. The town’s movie theater, which screened its last film around the time Raquel Welch was a big deal, will soon flicker to life again as a modular space that can host stage plays, concerts and films.”

These are all pieces of the puzzle that Lawrence is putting together at Wilson.

There’s The Delta School, the private institution centered around a former Wilson family mansion.

There’s the community garden that was created under the direction of a former Oxford, Miss., organic farmer named Leslie Wolverton.

There’s the food of Joe Cartwright, the chef from Memphis who reopened the Wilson Café. The idea was that a quality restaurant would help people become accustomed to stopping once more in Wilson.

Late next year, the new home of the Hampson Museum will give those traveling between Memphis and St. Louis yet another reason to visit the Wilson square.

The museum houses a collection of artifacts from a Mississippian Period village that existed in the area from about 1400 to 1650. Dr. James K. Hampson, who died in 1956, began collecting artifacts in the 1930s.

“As a boy, Hampson was fascinated by arrowheads,” Marlon Mowdy writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “His interest in archaeology was rekindled in the early 1920s when he returned to the family plantation, Nodena, to set up a successful medical practice. In 1927, he began a painstaking study of the physical remains of the people who inhabited the Nodena site. Hampson, his wife and his children excavated and carefully documented portions of the Nodena site. Their well-documented discoveries led to national recognition for Hampson and major excavations by the University of Arkansas and the Alabama Museum of Natural History. The two entities excavated, surveyed, inventoried and cataloged many Late Mississippian Period artifacts from the site from the early 1930s to the 1970s, including a 1973 field school that was held at the same location.

“The original museum was constructed on Hampson’s Nodena Plantation in 1946 and named the Henry Clay Hampson Memorial Museum in honor of Hampson’s son, who was killed in action flying over Burma during World War II. The museum collection numbered more than 40,000 artifacts when Hampson died on Oct. 8, 1956. The collection stayed in the old wooden facility during the 1950s until a building next to the museum burned. The Hampson family promptly offered the collection to the state.”

The current state museum was dedicated in 1961 after R.E. Lee Wilson III donated a five-acre site. The museum was renovated in 1978, but it’s tiny and outmoded. The folks at The Lawrence Group decided that a state-of-the-art facility, which will cost more than $4 million to build, was key to their vision for Wilson.

Lawrence’s efforts at Wilson first attracted national attention in January 2014 when Kim Severson wrote a story for The New York Times.

“At first you are thinking, ‘How can I get this off my back?'” Lawrence told Severson. “But then you look around and think how can you be a catalyst. I can’t really say I am the boss. I say I am here to help. … This town has so much character we don’t have to make it up.”

Here’s what Lawrence had to say earlier this year when the Arkansas Times asked him why he has invested so much time, money and manpower in Wilson: “In 2010, when we were afforded the opportunity to acquire the historic Lee Wilson & Co., what came with that was a significant part of the town of Wilson itself. We were therefore confronted with the challenge of moving forward as stewards of the physical buildings in town and a very unique legacy. But over time, and through many discussions with the local community, development experts and folks across the state, we understood a very real chance to make a positive difference.

“I’m from the Bootheel of Missouri and have lived most of my life in and around the Delta. So reinvesting in Wilson not only makes business sense for the farming operation, but it will also hopefully help build a renewal model for the entire region.”

Those who know Gaylon Lawrence Jr. expect there will be much more to come in the years ahead.

 

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Southern Fried: The book

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016

In September 1965, I turned age 6.

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

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

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

The memories of that year remain vivid.

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

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

I was in heaven.

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

We ate pieces of pie in country restaurants.

We listened to KAAY-AM on the car radio.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

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Battle of the Ravine: The 90th edition

Monday, November 7th, 2016

We became spoiled in recent years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, these are two good football teams.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s nothing else in America quite like it.

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

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Buttons and pearls

Friday, August 26th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

The couple eventually was rescued by a helicopter crew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Ed Bethune.

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

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

That fascination helped lead to this most recent book.

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

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

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

 

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Into the Ozarks

Wednesday, August 24th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black bears often are seen in the area.

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

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

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

Spots along the route include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter Brad Wimberly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No all of the natives welcomed the visitors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Delta cultural stew

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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