Archive for the ‘Traveling Arkansas’ Category

From Mena to the mountain

Friday, January 11th, 2019

FIFTH IN A SERIES

Like most of the other places along this route, Mena was founded as a railroad town.

The city takes its name from the nickname of Folmina Margaretha Janssen de Geoijen, the wife of the man who helped finance Arthur Stilwell’s railroad from Kansas City to the Gulf Coast of Texas.

“The first train pulled into Mena on Aug. 19, 1896, the same day the New Era published its first edition,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Mena was incorporated the following month. The Bank of Mena opened its doors on May 5, 1897, and the county seat was moved from Dallas to Mena in 1898. By 1900, the city’s population was 3,423. The new city readily advertised itself both as a spa city situated in a healthy environment and as a center for agriculture and extractive industries such as timber and mineral resources.”

The rapid growth slowed after 1900.

Mena didn’t surpass 4,000 residents until the 1950 census when the population was 4,445. Mena had 5,737 residents in the 2010 census.

Stilwell — whose Kansas City, Pittsburg & Gulf Railroad later became the Kansas City Southern — played an important role in the early development of the city.

“In 1906, Stilwell donated four city blocks of land, containing a log cabin reportedly built in 1851, for a park named Janssen Park,” Lancaster writes. “He also donated land for a campground called Stilwell Park, though this was later built over. In 1910, the railroad moved its division shops from Mena to Heavener, Okla. More than 800 jobs were lost in the transfer.”

Mena had 152 black residents in 1900 but only 16 by 1910. By 1920, there were just nine black residents in all of Polk County.

“The March 18, 1920, edition of the Mena Star proudly advertised the small city as 100 percent white,” Lancaster writes. “In 1922, a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan was organized in Mena with between 2,500 and 4,000 citizens turning out to hear state kleagle D.E. Rhodes speak at the local ballpark on the principles of the Klan.”

A high-profile lynching in 1901 and other instances of racial harassment added to Mena’s reputation as a sundown town.

Meanwhile, an institution known as Commonwealth College brought leftists to the area in the 1920s.

The late historian William H. Cobb described Commonwealth as “the accidental by-product of natural beauty, cheap land and desperation.”

The college was established in 1923 near Leesville, La., at the New Llano Cooperative Colony.

“Its founders were Kate Richards O’Hare, her husband Frank and William E. Zeuch, all socialists and lifelong adherents of the principles established by Eugene V. Debs,” Cobb wrote. “Drawing on their mutual experience at Ruskin College in Florida, where they had been impressed with the possibility of higher education combined with cooperative community, the O’Hares and Zeuch decided to create a college specifically aimed at the leadership of what they designated as a new social class, the industrial worker.”

Due to conflicts between the colony and the college, the founders decided to move the school. They first found a site near Ink in Polk County. More disagreements led to the school renting property in Mena in December 1924.

“On April 19, 1925, Commonwealth moved to its permanent home 13 miles west of Mena,” Cobb wrote. “Like pioneers, the Commoners carved a campus out of this virtual wilderness while carrying on with schooling and tending crops. Its college building was made possible by critical financial help from Roger Baldwin’s American Fund for Public Service. The serenity of these exhausting early years was shattered in 1926, however, when the American Legion charged Commonwealth with Bolshevism, Sovietism, communism and free love. It moved to investigate and close the little school.

“The resulting uproar and unwanted publicity lasted several months and ended only when FBI director J. Edgar Hoover denied that the college had any record of such ideas and activities. Though exonerated and at this point innocent, Commonwealth became permanently identified in the popular mind as ‘Red'”

In 1931, a student-staff revolt seized control of the college and ousted Zeuch, who had sought to maintain cordial relations through the years with the college’s neighbors.

“The Great Depression had radicalized both students and faculty, and Zeuch’s vision of the cooperative commonwealth was deemed inadequate,” Cobb wrote. “Delegations of Commoners were sent to Harlan, Ky., and Franklin County, Ill., to support coal miners in their strikes for union recognition. Other Commoners involved themselves in farm-labor organizations, participating in strike activities in Corinth, Miss., and Paris in Logan County. College faculty and staff were prominent in the formation of a new Socialist Party in Arkansas in 1932, and Clay Fulks, an instructor at the school, was the party’s nominee for governor in 1932. All this activity generated a high profile for the tiny school with charges of atheism, free love and, more frequently, communism being heard throughout the South.”

The school demanded four hours of labor per day from staff and students. Faculty members weren’t paid. They simply had a place to live and plenty of food to eat.

“Women worked primarily in the kitchen, the library, the laundry and the school office while men toiled on the wood crew, carpentry crew, farm crew, masonry crew or hauling crew,” Cobb wrote. “Self-maintenance was never achieved. The Commoners could, at best, produce 70 percent of their subsistence. The continuing deficit had to be gleaned from constant fundraising and grants from radical sources such as the American Fund for Public Service. Classes began at 7:30 each morning and were usually held in the instructor’s cottage.”

There were no grades, no degrees and no required class attendance. There were never more than 55 students at the school.

“The only entrance requirements were intelligence, a sense of humor and dedication to the labor movement,” Cobb wrote. “Commonwealth’s most famous student, Orval Faubus, in an interview just before his death, said he had ‘never been with a group of equal numbers that had as many highly intelligent and smart people as there were at Commonwealth College.'”

Commonwealth became heavily involved with the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, which was headquartered in the Delta of east Arkansas at Tyronza.

“It was, for the college, a fatal attraction,” Cobb wrote.

A document surfaced in August 1938 that critics of the college and the union claimed was a detailed plan by communists at Commonwealth to take over the union. Union leaders moved quickly to disassociate themselves from Commonwealth.

“By the end of the year, it was done, and Commonwealth had lost its reason for being and all of its moderate leftist support,” Cobb wrote. “The estrangement from organized labor, shattered finances, a dilapidated physical plant and poisoned relations with its local neighbors dictated drastic action. Rejecting proposals to close or merge with Highlander Folk School at Monteagle, Tenn., the Commonwealth College Association decided to soldier on and to make the school a drama center under the auspices of the radical New Theatre League of New York City. This was too much for local residents, and charges of anarchy, failure to fly the American flag during school hours and displaying the hammer and sickle emblem of the Soviet Union were filed against the school in a Polk County court. The college was found guilty and fined a total of $5,000, which it could not pay. Appeals were fruitless, and all of Commonwealth’s property, real and otherwise, was sold to pay the fine. By the end of 1940, Commonwealth College had ceased to exist.”

National attention in recent decades regarding Mena has centered on its airport.

The first rough airstrip at Mena was south of town. A hangar and flying school opened in 1942. There was a grass runway that a farmer would mow and bale for hay on a regular basis.

After World War II, the Civil Aeronautics Commission determined that Mena needed a better airport so it could serve as an emergency landing site between Texarkana and Fort Smith. What’s now known as Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport has two runways. There are several aircraft repair facilities at the airport.

Rich Mountain and the foggy weather that’s common atop the mountain have meant that the area has been the scene of a number of plane crashes through the years. The worst occurred on Oct. 31, 1945, when a Douglas R4D-7 crashed and killed all 14 people aboard.

Mena later was alleged to have been a key location for illegal drug shipments and weapons transfers.

“In the 1980s, the airport was the alleged base of a massive drug smuggling, money laundering and arms smuggling ring run by American Adler Berriman ‘Barry’ Seal,” Robert Sherwood writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “There were also allegations that the Central Intelligence Agency used the airport as a base of operations to help train pilots and troops for intervention in the Nicaraguan uprising by the Contras during the 1980s.

“According to some reports, the airport was a major transit point for the entrance of cocaine and heroin into the United States from 1981-85. The estimated value of the narcotics smuggled through the facility is between $3 billion and $5 billion. For a portion of this time, the alleged ringleader of the drug smuggling, Seal, appeared to have been working with the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Administration. The goal was to expose the involvement of the Nicaraguan Sandinista regime as a major supplier of cocaine from Columbia.

“One mission in particular used a C-123K cargo plane outfitted at the facility. The aircraft flew with various cameras used to obtain photographic evidence of the Sandinistas in the act of smuggling narcotics. Allegations later surfaced that many of the gun shipments sent to Nicaragua as part of the Iran-Contra affair were sent from the Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport. In essence, not only was the airport used to smuggle illegal drugs into the United States, it was also a departure point for weapons used to arm the Contras in Nicaragua.

“Three former presidents of the United States — Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton — have faced criticism over the alleged illegal actions at the airport. According to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, all charges and cases dealing with Barry Seal and others with connections to the airport were dropped due to potential national security risks. In other words, the charges of drug smuggling and money laundering weren’t enough to warrant the release of information about the use of the airport in the Iran-Contra affair.

“During his term as president, Bush didn’t attempt to prosecute any people involved in either the drug smuggling or the arms dealing. Clinton was governor of Arkansas during the time period when these actions allegedly occurred. No public figures with a connection to the airport acted to investigate or prosecute those involved, at least not publicly. This has caused a small cottage industry to arise among those who adhere to various conspiracy theories.”

We turn onto Arkansas Highway 88 and begin to climb Rich Mountain along the Talimena Scenic Drive. It’s amazing to watch the temperature drop as we drive. It was 39 degrees when we left downtown Mena. By the time we reach the top of the mountain, it’s 25.

We’re headed west, and the sun is beginning to set. All of a sudden, we’re almost blinded as the sun shines on ice-covered trees. It turns out that what was merely a rain at the bottom of the mountain the night before was a freezing rain that later turned to snow atop Rich Mountain.

It’s a winter wonderland with ice on the trees and snow on the grass. And it’s the best type of winter wonderland — there’s no ice or snow on the road to delay our drive.

The stunted, wind-whipped oaks atop the mountain (Arkansas’ second-highest peak at 2,681 feet above sea level) attest to the fact that the climate is different up here than down below. I’ve stayed at the Queen Wilhelmina Lodge in the month of March. Down below, trees, bushes and flowers were blooming. On top of the mountain, it might as well have been the middle of January. Spring was still several weeks away.

Once the Kansas City, Pittsburg & Gulf Railroad was completed, railroad officials determined they could turn Rich Mountain into an attraction for visitors who would use the railroad. They opened a 35-room lodge in June 1898. Its dining room could seat up to 300 people, and orchestras were hired during the summer to entertain guests. The lodge was named Wilhelmina Inn after Queen Wilhelmina of Holland (don’t forget that there were Dutch investors backing the railroad).

The lodge wasn’t a success. Ownership changed hands on a regular basis after 1900. The lodge was even raffled off as the prize in a $35-dollar-a-ticket raffle in 1905. It closed permanently in 1910 and was soon being used to house livestock.

In the 1950s, a group of investors from Mena purchased the site. That group included state Sen. Roy Riales and state Rep. Landers Morrow.

Riales sponsored a Senate concurrent resolution during the 1957 legislative session that designated the site as Queen Wilhelmina State Park. A dedication ceremony to celebrate passage of the legislation was held at Mena on March 21, 1957. The state began acquiring land for the park in June of that year.

According to the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism’s history of the park: “In 1959, using the ruins of the 1898 lodge as a base, a second lodge was constructed as funds became available. A porch was roofed to create a pavilion, and a kitchen and serving room were constructed, leading to the opening of a cafe in 1961. As funds became available, the lodge was constructed in stages and had 17 guest rooms upon completion. Though some rooms had been rented previously, the new lodge was dedicated and officially opened on June 22, 1963, the 65th anniversary of the Wilhelmina Inn opening.

“On Nov. 10, 1973, the second lodge was destroyed by fire. Modeled after the 1898 lodge, a third, modern inn was constructed in 1974-75. On Nov. 23, 1975, the present building was dedicated. Park facilities now include the lodge with 38 guest rooms, a restaurant, hiking trails, a native plant and wildlife center and a campground that accommodates recreational vehicles and tents. Also located on park property are a 1.5-mile miniature railroad brought to the park by Morrow in 1960; a full-size steam locomotive, hauled to the mountaintop by the Arkansas National Guard in 1963; and the Wonder House, built in 1931 and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The unusually designed house, built in two sections, occupies nine levels.”

The lodge closed in early 2012 for renovations. Those renovations were delayed with the state having to change contractors in the middle of the project. The renovated lodge reopened in the summer of 2015, and it’s wonderful. We sat in front of a large fire after dinner that evening and again the next morning.

It was 23 degrees when we left the mountain. We headed back to Mena, took a left and continued our trip north on Highway 71.

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From De Queen to Mena

Friday, January 4th, 2019

FOURTH IN A SERIES

We stop for lunch in downtown De Queen at Stilwell’s, which is owned by my friends Chad and Jessica Gallagher.

Chad and I once worked together for Mike Huckabee in the governor’s office. Before that, Chad was the mayor of De Queen. In fact, he was one of the youngest mayors in the country at the time. He now splits his time between De Queen and Little Rock. We’re fortunate that he’s in the restaurant on this day so we can visit.

Stilwell’s is named for Arthur Stilwell, a Kansas City businessman who wanted to build a railroad from Kansas City to the Gulf of Mexico. De Queen is a product of the railroad.

“Stilwell ran out of money in the Panic of 1893,” writes Billy Ray McKelvy, a former De Queen mayor. “With no investment capital to be found, he made a trip to Holland, where he met Jan de Geoijen, a coffee merchant. With de Geoijen’s help, Stilwell sold an additional $3 million worth of stock, enabling him to finish the railroad. In Sevier County, the railroad ran through a settlement called Hurrah City. Stilwell was also president of Arkansas Townsite Co., a Missouri corporation that owned land around the settlement. The company sent in surveyors to mark off blocks, streets and alleys for the town.

“On opening day, April 26, 1897, a large crowd showed up and bought the lots, which were priced at $25 and up. This town was named De Queen, an Americanized rendering of de Geoijen’s name. De Queen was formally founded on June 3, 1897, when a petition signed by 42 residents asked Sevier County Judge Ben Norwood to incorporate the new town. … The railroad offered transportation for residents of the area and a way to ship crops to distant markets. Freight shipped from De Queen by train included peaches, vegetables, lumber, honey and barrel staves.”

Tragedy struck De Queen on Oct. 1, 1899, when a fire destroyed downtown wooden buildings containing 54 businesses. A brick factory was later built, and the reconstruction of De Queen began.

The Kansas City, Pittsburg & Gulf Railroad went into receivership the following year, but the business began to thrive again after being reorganized as the Kansas City Southern Railroad. New jobs moved to De Queen in 1909 when the railroad built a roundhouse and shop there. Additional jobs came from a booming timber industry in the years that followed.

“Herman Dierks of Iowa, the son of a German immigrant, purchased the Williams Brothers sawmill and timberlands in De Queen in 1900,” McKelvy writes. “After a fire destroyed the first mill, the Dierks Lumber & Coal Co. built another mill and began acquiring more timberland. It also practiced selective cutting and reforestation, buying up unproductive farms and replanting them with pine trees. The company developed the short-line De Queen & Eastern Railroad, chartered in 1900, to transport timber to mills. It even provided some passenger service. The line was pushed east to Dierks in Howard County and in 1921 connected with the Texas, Oklahoma & Eastern Railroad to Valliant, Okla. The Dierks Lumber & Coal Co. provided employment to thousands of residents of southwest Arkansas and southeast Oklahoma. It also operated a company store in downtown De Queen.”

De Queen’s population more than doubled from 1,200 in the 1900 census to 2,517 in the 1920 census. The county seat was moved from Lockesburg to De Queen in 1905.

The poultry industry began to grow alongside the timber industry, and De Queen’s population increased from 2,938 in the 1930 census to 6,594 in the 2010 census. The poultry industry attracted Hispanic laborers, and De Queen became the largest city in the state with a majority Hispanic population (53.5 percent) by 2010.

The De Queen Commercial Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in January 2012. It includes buildings constructed from 1900-61.

“The district boundaries encircle 35 buildings,” Antoinette Fiduccia Johnson writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Contributing buildings retain many of their historic features with the historic integrity of this community at 55 percent intact. The identity of the area is defined through its proximity to the courthouse and its remaining historic structures. Historically, the buildings in this district were related to commerce, health care, recreation, culture and government. There was also a newspaper company (still operating) and a few upstairs apartments over stores and offices.

“The district is composed of portions of West De Queen Avenue, West Stilwell Avenue, North Second Street, North Third Street and North Fourth Street. It wraps around the Sevier County Courthouse. A cohesive whole, it comprises primarily commercial and government buildings with the commercial buildings of similar scale, pattern and building materials. The majority of the building facades are built of brick or stucco over brick.”

Construction began on the current courthouse in June 1930. It was dedicated in September 1934. Most businesses later abandoned downtown, but Hispanic-owned entities helped lead the move back into the city’s historic core.

“The popularity of the automobile and the construction of U.S. 71 in 1926, which did not link to downtown, stymied downtown growth,” Johnson writes. “During the 1950s, new businesses began along the highway, resulting in homes and existing businesses being led away from downtown. By the middle of the 20th century, major poultry corporations and their processing plants appeared. During the 1980s, an influx of Mexican immigrant workers arrived to work in the processing plants. They opened businesses in the underused downtown and bought or rented homes in the adjacent residential area.”

After being elected mayor in 1998, Gallagher made it a priority to obtain grant funds for downtown improvements such as new sidewalks, benches and improved lighting. Those efforts continue to this day.

The city also boasts Herman Dierks Park, which was created in 1954 when Dierks Lumber & Coal Co. gave the city of De Queen a 10-acre site where the company had operated a sawmill.

“Acquisitions and more gifts from the Dierks family have increased the size of the park to 45 acres,” McKelvy writes. “Building Herman Dierks Park was a community effort. Mayor James T. Manning proclaimed a work day and asked volunteers to clean the new park so improvements could be made. Workers supplied their own tools, and heavy equipment was provided by Sevier County. Industries operated split shifts so that employees could help with the effort. The Herman Dierks Park Foundation supported the park with annual donations after the park was finished.”

We walk around downtown after lunch and then head out to De Queen Lake. I wrote earlier in this series about the construction of Millwood Dam. As part of the larger flood-control effort in the Little River/Red River basin, smaller dams were built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the Rolling Fork, Saline and Cossatot rivers in southwest Arkansas.

The Rolling Fork River covers 55 miles before emptying into the Little River. It starts near Hatton in Polk County and flows south through Wickes and Grannis.

The Flood Control Act of 1958 authorized the construction of the dam on the Rolling Fork. That dam led to De Queen Lake. Work began in April 1966 and continued until 1977. The earthen dam is 160 feet tall. There are three campgrounds, six boat ramps and three swimming areas on the lake.

The Saline River (not to be confused with the much longer river of the same name to the east) also begins in the Ouachita Mountains of Polk County. It flows to the south through Howard County (forming the boundary between Howard and Sevier counties at one point) and empties into Millwood Lake. Work on Dierks Dam across the Saline River took place from 1968-75. The 1,360-acre lake is popular with area fishermen.

The Cossatot River also begins in the Ouachita Mountains of Polk County and flows south through Howard and Sevier counties before emptying into the Little River just north of Ashdown. Gillham Dam across the Cossatot forms 1,370-acre Gillham Lake. Work on the dam began in June 1963. The first concrete in the spillway was poured in November 1968. The dam began storing water in May 1975.

“It was 60 percent completed when a coalition of environmental groups (the Ozark Society, Audubon Society, Environmental Defense Fund and Arkansas Ecology Center) filed suit on Oct. 1, 1970, to stop the project, claiming that the dam would take away the last free-flowing and wild river in southwest Arkansas,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The coalition also argued that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had submitted an insufficient environmental impact statement. In February 1971, federal Judge G. Thomas Eisele ruled that the Corps had not sufficiently examined ecological consequences as required by law. After the Corps resubmitted its environmental impact statement, Eisele removed on May 5, 1972, the injunction against further construction on the dam. Work resumed in August 1972. Further appeals against the dam were fruitless.”

The Cossatot, however, remains one of the best whitewater streams for canoeists and kayakers between the Appalachians and the Rockies. Cossatot River State Park-Natural Area was established along the river north of Gillham Lake in 1988. In the early 1990s, 26.6 miles of the river were federally designated as scenic.

“The area along the Cossatot River, especially in the Ouachita Mountains, remained sparsely populated until the 20th century,” Lancaster writes. “The hills weren’t amenable to large-scale agriculture, and only the southern portion of the river below an area dubbed Three Chutes proved useful for transportation, though the stream would on occasion dry up. Robert C. Gilliam established a plantation along the Cossatot River after moving to the region in the 1830s. In the mid-1800s, antimony deposits were discovered along the river, though they weren’t exploited until the 1870s. This mining activity was concentrated in the town of Antimony City in Sevier County and continued until the early 20th century. Between 1898 and 1901, a gristmill was constructed at Three Chutes. In 1899, the Ultima Thule Highway was constructed across the river in the same region.”

The river’s name comes from a French term — casse-tete — meaning “crushed head.” The term made clear the severity of the rapids in the river.

We pass through the town of Gillham, which had a population of 160 people in the 2010 census, before leaving Sevier County. The community was originally known as Silver City. It was relocated and renamed when Stilwell’s railroad came through the county. The line missed Silver Hill by more than a mile. The town was renamed to honor Robert Gillham, the railroad’s chief engineer.

“A prosperous farmer named John Bellah claimed land in northern Sevier County in 1850,” Steven Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Sometime in the following decade, Bellah found a sample of gray metal on his land that he believed to be silver. He sank a shaft of 10 to 20 feet but found no further samples. During the 1860s, the Confederate government also sought silver on Bellah’s property without success. Following the Civil War, investors drawn into Arkansas during Reconstruction further investigated Bellah’s land, and a mining community was created that was named Silver Hill. A post office was established in 1874, and the community acquired a store that is said to have earned almost $10,000 a year during the mining boom.

“The material Bellah had found proved to be not silver but antimony. This metal, useful in alloys with lead or with tin, was attractive to miners who worked the area from 1873-1924 with peak production occurring during World War I.”

Gillham was incorporated in 1902.

“It had a large feed store, two sawmills, a hotel, a school, a newspaper called The Miner and about 400 residents,” Teske writes. “Local crops brought to town and shipped by rail included strawberries, turnips, cucumbers, green beans, squash, grapes, cantaloupes, radishes and blackberries. Timber was also an important industry for the area. A bank was chartered in 1905. By 1909, Gillham had a cotton gin, a gristmill, a second hotel, a restaurant, a Baptist church, a Methodist church, a Masonic lodge and a public school.

“The town remained economically strong through the 1920s, even after a fire in 1928 destroyed the telephone exchange, four businesses and three residences. It also damaged the bank and the Goff & Gamble Merchandise Store. Even with the tightening of the national economy during the Great Depression, fruit and vegetable production continued to provide jobs.”

In 1942, one packing company shipped 40,000 bushels of cucumbers from Gillham. But workers became scarce during World War II, and the fruit and vegetable industry started to die out. Gillham began a long decline.

As we continue our trip north on Highway 71, we head into Polk County, which covers about 858 square miles and had a population of 20,662 residents in the 2010 census.

“White settlement in Polk County began about 1830,” Roy Vail writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “At that time, the region was part of Sevier County. Polk County, named for President James K. Polk, was separated from Sevier County by the Legislature on Nov. 30, 1844. The 1860 census gave the Polk County population as 4,090 whites and 172 black slaves. Slaves weren’t widely used in Polk County because the mountainous terrain wasn’t good for row crops, though some corn, wheat, oats and cotton were farmed early on. Hunting and timber attracted many of the early settlers, who came principally from Illinois, Tennessee and Kentucky.”

Polk County’s first courthouse was in a community known as Dallas, which was named for Polk’s vice president, George Dallas. The first courthouse burned, and a second one was built in 1869. It burned in 1883.

“Dallas, with its location on Long’s Trail (which connected to the Butterfield Overland Mail Co. to the north and passed into what’s now Oklahoma to the south), became a regional center and a major stop for the stagecoach,” Vail writes. “At its height, it had a weekly newspaper, two churches, a dozen stores, three mills, livery stables and boarding houses.”

Stilwell chose a site three miles to the west for what became Mena. The railroad arrived there in August 1896. In a June 1898 special election, county residents voted to move the county seat to Mena.

Grannis, Wickes, Vandervoort and Hatfield all were products of Stilwell’s railroad.

“The heavily wooded slopes of the Ouachita Mountains were uninviting to the cotton farmers who first settled the area, and no landowners appear in records of the Grannis vicinity prior to 1893,” Teske writes. “The oldest monument to any human presence in the region is a tombstone on a hilltop that’s now the location of the Grannis cemetery. The name of the traveler buried there has been erased by weather, but the year 1881 is still legible on the monument. A sawmill was built nearby in the 1880s, and a post office was established in June 1883. The post office was named Leon Station, but the reason for that name has been forgotten.”

Stilwell named the depot “Grannis” at what had been Leon Station. He wanted to honor a railroad official with that name. The post office also changed its name the next year. Grannis was incorporated in October 1899.

“Even when the area was cleared of trees, the rocky soil was unfit for cotton,” Teske writes. “Landowners began to plant orchards of apple and peach trees. They also planted berry bushes, grapevines and melon patches. A two-room schoolhouse was built around 1909. By 1912, Grannis had six stores, two hotels, a livery stable, two planing mills, two custom mills and three churches. The Bank of Grannis opened in 1919. A Ford dealership began operations in Grannis in 1926. In 1938, the Grannis Canning Co. began to market canned fruits featuring blackberries and other fruits from the area.”

Clift and Dorothy Lane began processing chickens near their home in the early 1950s. As their business grew, they bought the depot at Grannis to use as offices. A rendering plant was opened in 1962, and a hatchery began operations in 1968. Lane Poultry became a major employer in the area. It was sold to Tyson Foods in 1986, and the Lane Poultry headquarters building parking lot ceased to be as full as it was when there was a large company headquartered in town.

“Grannis gained national notoriety in 1975 when several families gathered in a house in the city expecting the imminent return of Jesus Christ,” Teske writes. “Abandoning jobs and property, they existed upon the supplies from a store one of the family members owned. Several weeks later, local authorities intervened to return several children in the group to classes in the public schools. The next year, the waiting adults were removed from the house because of their failure to pay the mortgage on the property. Around the same time, Grannis received attention of a different kind when it embraced 238 Vietnamese refugees and other refugees from Southeast Asia, many of whom had previously been housed at Fort Chaffee near Fort Smith following their escape from Vietnam.”

Grannis had 554 residents in the 2010 census with about a quarter of them being identified as Hispanic. Wickes had a population of 754 with 393 of them identified as Hispanic.

Wickes was named for Thomas Wickes, a vice president of the Pullman Co., which built railroad cars for Stilwell. The post office there was established in 1897. Most of the jobs at Wickes these days are associated with the poultry industry.

Vandervoort had just 87 residents in the 2010 census. How did it get its interesting name?

Janice Kelley explains for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “When the town site was first laid out, it was known as Janssen, taking its name from the maiden name of Jan de Geoijen’s wife. There was another town in Arkansas with that name, however, and mail between the two towns was constantly being mixed up. In 1907, the town’s name was changed to Vandervoort in honor of the mother of Jan de Geoijen (Vandervoort was de Geoijen’s mother’s maiden name).

“Stilwell and his crew purposely missed established towns while laying out the railroad as their money came from land speculation, not rail traffic. For this reason, and because Vandervoort had a naturally marshy area adjacent to the planned route, the railroad built a large pond with a spillway to be used by the steam engines. Vandervoort was also a good halfway point for the trains to take on water. Through service between Kansas City and Port Arthur began after the last spoke was driven near Beaumont on Sept. 11, 1897.”

Vandervoort soon had more than 550 residents with eight general stores, four hotels, doctors, drugstores, a bank and a telephone office. Highway 71 later bypassed Vandervoort. The highway went directly from Hatton to Cove, and the decline of Vandervoort began.

Hatfield was named for a worker who died while building the railroad.

“The cause of the explosion that killed him was undetermined, but it followed a period of strife among foreign railroad workers from Ireland, Austria-Hungary, Italy and China, as well as local workers,” Teske writes. “Hatfield was incorporated as a town in 1901. The new town had several businesses. … A public school was also established. A bank opened in Hatfield in 1912. The town sponsored an annual fair, held first in an oak grove south of town, later on the school grounds and still later in a field north of town. As the highway through town became more traveled, several service stations opened in or near Hatfield.

“Hatfield prospered until 1938 when a fire destroyed most of the businesses on Main Street. … Although the post office was rebuilt, most of the other businesses ceased operation.”

Hatfield is now the home of the Christian Motorcyclists’ Association, whose facilities we pass as we head north on Highway 71.

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From Ashdown to De Queen

Friday, December 28th, 2018

THIRD IN A SERIES

We drive around Millwood State Park on this cold, windy day. Except for employees, the park is deserted.

At the southwestern end of the 3.3-mile-long Millwood Dam, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers established the Cypress Slough recreational area soon after the lake opened in 1966. On April 1, 1976, the Corps of Engineers signed a lease agreement with the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism to transform Cypress Slough into Millwood State Park.

The name Millwood comes from a nearby river landing that was used to bring goods into the area from as far away as New Orleans from 1845-75.

We next drive to Yarborough Landing, where several hundred people live in homes near the banks of Millwood Lake. There’s just one pickup truck parked at the boat ramp, and a man who appears to be in his 80s is getting ready to fish for crappie despite the heavy winds and frigid temperatures.

“Are they biting today?” one of my passengers asks.

“They’re always biting,” he says. “You just have to know where they are. And I know where they are.”

As we drive back toward Ashdown, several men are cleaning a deer outside a small meat processing facility.

A old man fishing for crappie. A deer being processed. These things says rural Arkansas to me.

We get back on U.S. Highway 71 and head north toward De Queen. We drive through Wilton, which had 374 residents in the 2010 census.

“Although the city was at one time a candidate for the county seat of Little River County, Wilton’s current condition is exemplified by its four properties on the National Register of Historic Places — a strip of highway, an abandoned store, a railroad depot and a cemetery,” Steven Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.

When the residents of Richmond in Little River County told officials from the Texarkana & Northern Railroad that they couldn’t build tracks through the city, a farmer named Sergent Smith Prentiss Mills sold the right of way through his property. A community called Millkin was named in honor of Mills and Paschal Kinsworthy, who also owned land in the area. By the late 1800s, there were three lawyers, two doctors and a pharmacist in Millkin.

In 1892, the name of the depot there was changed from Millkin to Wilton since a major railroad stockholder was from the town of Wilton in England. Wilton was incorporated in 1894. By the turn of the century, there were four blacksmith shops, three livery stables and several stores at Wilton.

“The construction of U.S. Highway 71 brought automobile traffic passing between Texarkana and Fort Smith,” Teske writes. “A celebration marking the opening of a highway bridge near Wilton brought state officials to the city. The celebration featured music, a barbecue and motor boat races on the Little River. … The Wilton School District was consolidated into the Ashdown School District in 1941. Six businesses in the city remained open in 1950, but all of them had closed by 1975.”

We continue north on Highway 71 and cross the Little River just as it enters Millwood Lake. The river begins in the Ouachita Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma and enters Arkansas for the final 92 of its 220 miles. The Little River empties into the Red River near Fulton. Steamboats once made up the river as far as Millwood Landing when the river was high.

“During the territorial period, several saline springs along the Little River were important for the area’s salt industry,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “An 1832 congressional act authorizing Arkansas’ territorial governor to lease salt springs in the territory specifically mentioned a Little River Lick. … Many farmers along the river bottoms grew cotton. The river often overflowed onto lower areas, providing rich farmland. What later became the Kansas City Southern Railroad crossed the Little River in 1895 and opened up the area to large-scale timber harvesting and processing operations. One of the largest of these companies was Dierks Lumber & Coal, which for a while was the largest producer of pine lumber in the South. In 1913, a bridge was built over the Little River at a place called Mills Ferry. This was replaced in April 1935 by a new bridge north of Wilton.”

As soon as we cross the river, we’re in a long stretch of bottoms that are now a part of the Pond Creek National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge, which covers almost 28,000 acres, was established in 1994 in the Pond Creek Bottoms. Local residents requested in 1997 that the refuge’s name be changed from its original name of Cossatot National Wildlife Refuge in order to preserve the Pond Creek name. The Cossatot flows into the Little River at this point.

“The bottoms — with an intricate system of drains, natural oxbow lakes, streams and cypress breaks — provide an extremely valuable yet rapidly disappearing wetland hardwood forest community that’s a haven for myriad native wildlife and migratory birds,” a National Wildlife Refuge System history of Pond Creek states. “Migrating and wintering waterfowl use the forested wetlands of the refuge during the fall, winter and spring. The wood duck, the only year-round resident waterfowl species, uses the area heavily for breeding and nesting.

“About 20 species of waterfowl traditionally use the seasonally flooded wetland habitats of the refuge any given year. Neotropical migratory birds use the area as a rest stop during fall and spring migration to replenish energy reserves for the long journey to and from wintering areas in Central America and South America. At least 20 of these species are known to nest on the refuge during the spring and summer months.

“Most of the area is a contiguous forest of bottomland hardwoods, pine mixed with hardwoods and pine plantations. Weyerhaeuser converted about 6,000 acres of hardwoods to pine plantations that were planted from 1970-87. A result of this conversion was a loss of high-quality wildlife habitat that supported important wildlife species indigenous to bottomland hardwoods. A priority management objective is to convert these plantations to native hardwoods.”

The exit from the bottoms is rather dramatic as we begin to climb into the hills that will mark the rest of this journey. We pass by the turn to Ben Lomond and go through the community of Falls Chapel.

“The site of Ben Lomond remained unclaimed until the middle of the 19th century when settlers from Scotland — including Wiley and Mary McElroy and James Willson — arrived and named the hill location for a famous Scottish mountain,” Teske writes. “In the years following the Civil War, more settlers came to southern Sevier County. Ben Lomond grew into one of the more important towns in the county, rivaling Paraclifta and Lockesburg in significance. In 1868, the oldest continuous post office in the county — known as Pine Woods from 1833-46 and then renamed Brownstown — was moved to Ben Lomond. The town became an agricultural center, especially for cotton farmers. In some years, Choctaw would come from the west to work in the cotton fields during the harvest season. …  A Masonic lodge was built, and a two-story schoolhouse served as many as 50 students.

“The timber industry developed in the area during the 1880s. Lumber workers harvested pine, oak, cypress, hickory, ash and cedar trees. Trapping animals for their fur was also profitable. Some farmers invested in cattle and hogs as well as cotton.”

We’ve been in Sevier County since crossing the Little River. The county was created by the Arkansas Territorial Legislature in October 1828. It included parts of what are now Little River, Miller, Howard and Polk counties.

“Joseph McKean and his wife Lucy arrived in 1833 on a steamboat that traveled up the Red River,” writes Billy Ray McKelvy, a longtime Arkansas newspaperman and the current De Queen mayor. “McKean was elected as Sevier County’s representative to the first state constitutional convention in 1836 and served two terms in the Arkansas Senate. He was the first postmaster of Ultima Thule, a settlement on the east side of the present Arkansas-Oklahoma border. As a government agent, he provided supplies for the Indians during removal. Other early settlements around the county included Brownstown, Dilworth, Red Colony, Norwoodville, Falls Chapel, Ben Lomond and Walnut Springs.

“On Oct. 22, 1828, the Arkansas Territorial Legislature designated the county seat in the home of Joseph English. Five appointed commissioners located the seat of justice at a spot about one mile east of the Cossatot River. The site was called Paraclifta, reputedly in honor of a Choctaw Indian chief who intervened to resolve a dispute between some Indians and white men over a horse. The first courthouse was a log building on a public square. The Territorial Legislature made Paraclifta the permanent seat of justice in 1831. Maintenance of the courthouse and jail occupied much of the early county government’s attention.”

The poultry industry began to grow in the area by the 1920s. Giant companies such as Tyson Foods and Pilgrim’s Pride later moved in. Sevier County was producing almost 50 million broilers annually by 2005.

The poultry plants brought Hispanic immigration. By the 2010 census, almost 30 percent of the county’s population was Hispanic. The timber industry also remains important with about 70 percent of the land area covered in timber.

We pass through Lockesburg. Though it had a population of just 739 people in the 2010 census, it served as the Sevier County seat for almost 36 years.

“The city lost much of its importance when it was bypassed by the railroad in the late 19th century and also when it lost its status as the county seat in the early 20th century,” Mike Polston writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “When Sevier County was created in 1828, the centrally located settlement of Paraclifta was designated as the county seat. In 1867, when an area of Sevier County was carved away to become part of newly created Little River County, Paraclifta was no longer centrally located. Discussions began about the possibility of relocating the county seat. The Locke brothers — James, William and Matthew — offered 120 acres of land, and Royal Appleton offered 60 acres for the site of a new county seat. On Jan. 18, 1869, a petition to relocate the seat of government to Lockesburg was accepted by the county court.

“In October 1869, the county board of commissioners contracted with A.M. Hawkins & Brothers to construct a two-story brick courthouse and jail at a cost of $12,400. The contract ultimately cost twice that amount. The first session of the county court was held in the new building in March 1871. Poor construction resulted in a new jail being built in 1884. It burned in 1887, and a third structure was built. Though the city wasn’t incorporated until Nov. 7, 1878, it saw significant growth in the early 1870s. William Locke, as the first elected mayor, led that early development. Many people moved from Paraclifta, with some of its buildings dismantled and moved to Lockesburg. A post office was established on May 3, 1870, with Matthew Locke as postmaster.”

By the 1890 census, there were three general stores, three blacksmith shops, a shoe shop, a drugstore, three doctors and a hotel at Lockesburg.

“A major blow to the city’s importance occurred in 1905 when the county quorum court voted to build a new courthouse,” Polston writes. “Almost immediately, De Queen residents began a campaign to relocate the seat of government to their city by offering $10,000 for the new courthouse. Later that year, a special election was held, and Lockesburg suffered the same fate as Paraclifta had years before.”

The Lockesburg School District was consolidated into the De Queen School District in 2005, and the high school campus there closed in 2010.

Much of the fate of modern Sevier County was determined by the aforementioned railroads, the poultry industry and what became Dierks Forests Inc.

Dierks Forests had holdings of 1.75 million acres by the time it was sold to Weyerhaeuser in 1969.

German immigrant Peter Henry Dierks became a successful businessmen in eastern Iowa. His sons Hans and John joined another partner to develop a retail business with seven western Iowa locations. In 1895, four Dierks brothers incorporated Dierks Lumber & Coal and moved the headquarters from Iowa to Lincoln, Neb.

“In 1896, the company moved its headquarters to Kansas City due to that city’s position as a new railway hub that brought lumber from Arkansas and Texas,” Nancy Hendricks writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “In February 1900, the Dierks company purchased the Williamson Brothers mill in De Queen. Moving to De Queen to manage that operation, Herman Dierks became closely associated with Arkansas, going on to purchase large tracts of timberland in the southwestern part of the state. … Other Dierks family members joined the business, which included managing company ventures in Arkansas and Oklahoma. When the Dierks family established a logging camp along the De Queen & Eastern Railroad in the early 1900s, the name of Hardscrabble was changed to Dierks. The mill at De Queen burned in 1909 and was replaced in 1918 by operations in the company town of Dierks in Howard County.”

In 1925, the company bought an additional 88,000 acres of timberland in the Ouachita Mountains. A large mill opened at Mountain Pine in Garland County in 1928.

“By 1930, most of the company retail lumber yards in Nebraska were closed, but in Arkansas and Oklahoma the company was operating five lumber mills and two rail systems,” Hendricks writes. “The company had purchased more than 1.25 million acres of land and in the 1920s implemented some of the first forestry conservation policies in the South. In 1954, Dierks Lumber & Coal changed its name to Dierks Forests Inc. The company diversified, opening box factories and a paper mill, and producing pressure-treated wood products, fiberboard, grocery bags, window frames and gypsum wallboard.”

The company’s headquarters moved from Kansas City to Hot Springs in 1956.

It’s past noon by the time we enter De Queen as part of our trip north on Highway 71. We head downtown for lunch at Stilwell’s.

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From Texarkana to Ashdown

Wednesday, December 26th, 2018

SECOND IN A SERIES

Breakfast is at Johnny B’s in downtown Texarkana on this second day of the road trip.

After our pancakes and eggs, we take the obligatory photos while straddling the state line at the U.S. post office and federal building downtown. It’s cold and windy, so we don’t waste much time.

We head north on State Line Avenue and leave town on U.S. Highway 71. We’re briefly in Texas with its higher speed limit (those Texans love to drive fast) before crossing back into Arkansas after crossing the Red River.

The Red River begins in the Texas Panhandle and forms the border between Oklahoma and Texas during part of its 1,290-mile route. At this point, it forms the border between Arkansas and Texas (Oklahoma is just a few miles to the west).

The river continues flowing east from here to Fulton, where it suddenly turns to the south and flows through southwest Arkansas and into Louisiana.

The French established trading posts along the Red River in the 1700s.

“Until the late 19th century, the Red River’s utility as a transportation corridor between the Mississippi River and points west of present-day Shreveport was impeded by the Great Raft (or Red River Raft), an enormous logjam that clogged the lower part of the river,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “It extended to more than 130 miles at one point. The raft likely existed for hundreds of years. It was so old that, according to some sources, it actually became a part of Caddo mythology.

“In 1828, Congress set aside $25,000 for the raft’s removal, and Capt. Henry Miller Shreve, then serving as the superintendent of Western river improvement, was assigned the task of clearing the raft in 1832. In 1838, he completed the task, though it re-formed farther up the river soon thereafter and eventually extended to the Arkansas border. Congress hesitated in setting aside more money for the clearance project with many members feeling it to be a lost cause.”

The part of the raft that had re-formed was removed in 1873. Dams were placed along Red River tributaries to keep the raft from forming again.

“Despite the eventual clearing of the river, no major towns in Arkansas were established upon the Red, though Texarkana, Hope and Lewisville all lie at a few miles’ remove,” Lancaster writes. “Until 1900, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers straightened the channel of the river with the result that steamboat traffic increased as boats were able to transport goods from the mouth of the Mississippi River through Arkansas and into Texas and Oklahoma and back again. The river was navigable all year to Garland in Miller County where the St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas Railway (Cotton Belt) crossed the river. The railroad — as well as the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway, which crossed the River River at Fulton — provided stiff competition for steamboats, soon replacing them entirely.”

We’ve entered Little River County, which the Legislature carved out of parts of Hempstead and Sevier counties in 1867.

“The land in and around Little River County is rich and fertile,” Martha Trusley writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “It contains an abundance of lime formations in some areas near White Cliffs, Okay and Foreman. Because of the available limestone, the Western Portland Cement Co. once thrived at White Cliffs, though now only its ruins exist. Much later, because of the limestone running through Little River County, Sevier County and Hempstead County, Ideal Cement Co. was built at Okay. It made quality cement for years but was later sold to a German company that did not want to make the costly repairs that were needed.

“At the same time that Ideal Cement Co. was operating full scale, Foreman Cement Co., owned by Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co., was producing an abundance of quality cement. Eventually Foreman Cement became the leading producer of cement in the southwest region of Arkansas. It is still a thriving plant owned by Ash Grove Cement Co.”

Members of the Caddo tribe had moved out of this area by 1778 as white settlers began to move in.

“The first town to be plotted was Laynesport in 1836 on land donated for development by Benjamin Layne,” Trusley writes. “By 1845, Willow Springs, later renamed Rocky Comfort, began to flourish in the western part of the county. By 1854, the community of Richmond had begun to thrive. … After the legal establishment of Little River County in 1867, the first courthouse and jail in the county were located near the area that’s now known as Alleene on land owned by the first sheriff, William M. Freeman. In 1868, Gov. Powell Clayton had all county records moved to Rocky Comfort.

“In 1880, the citizens of Richmond built a new courthouse. The property on which the courthouse was built was deeded to the county on the condition that Richmond would remain the county seat. After this courthouse burned, citizens of Richmond built another courthouse at no cost to the county because they wanted to keep the county seat in Richmond. In 1902, the county seat was moved from Richmond to Foreman, formerly called Rocky Comfort. Foreman and Ashdown later competed for the county seat. When an election was held in 1906, Ashdown won the most votes to become the new county seat. After this election, records were moved from Foreman to a vacant building known as the Mizell Building. A new courthouse was constructed in Ashdown in 1907.”

We make our way through Ogden, which had just 180 residents in the 2010 census.

A century ago, Ogden had a number of businesses that served those who lived on cotton farms in the area.

“M.W. Bates arrived around 1878 and named the settlement Ogden, which was the maiden name of his second wife,” Steven Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Bates, who served as Little River County judge from 1884-88, owned the first cotton gin, first sawmill and first store built in the community. His son-in-law, R.L. Bright, was the first doctor in Ogden. A school with seven students was established in the Methodist church, which was organized in 1892. A post office had opened the previous year.”

The population of Little River County began to increase as the railroads entered the area. The first railroad entered the county in 1889. The Arkansas & Choctaw Railroad had made it to Ashdown by 1895, and the Texas & Fort Smith Railroad brought additional settlers.

“Cotton was the leading crop, and most of the early communities had cotton gins,” Trusley writes. “Corn was the second-largest crop, but later the timber industry would become the leading industry in the county. Many of the small settlements in Little River County were located near sawmills, cotton gins or rivers. … The presence of the Kansas City Southern Railroad, the St. Louis & San Francisco Railroad and the Memphis, Dallas & Gulf Railroad caused the county to grow rapidly. Before the construction of railroads, the rivers were used to transport goods by way of ferries, steamboats and flatboats. Passenger trains began operating in the county in the late 1890s. After the emergence of railroads, electrical and telephone services became available to parts of the county by 1912, and natural gas came to Ashdown in 1930.”

The construction of what’s now Highway 71 had an even bigger effect on the county than the railroads.

Teske writes: “In 1915, the Arkansas General Assembly passed the Alexander Road Improvement Act. Ogden was one of the first communities in the state to benefit. According to the Third Biennial Report of the Department of State Lands, Highways and Improvements: ‘The first permanent road built under the Alexander law was the road from Ashdown to Ogden and Richmond in Little River County. It is about 15 miles long and cost about $60,000.’ The road eventually would become U.S. Highway 71. Increased traffic meant increased business, and Ogden grew large enough to seek incorporation in 1920. … The highway through Ogden was paved in 1940. It continued to endure heavy use for the next 30 years until a bypass to the east of the city was created about 1970. The old highway through town continues to be used for local traffic. In 2013, the road was added to the National Register of Historic Places as a well-preserved stretch of concrete highway built in the 1940s.”

We head north to Ashdown and pass the paper mill that led to growth here in the late 1960s and the 1970s.

“The development of Millwood Lake in 1966 was a major boost to Ashdown’s industrial growth,” Trusley writes. “The Nekoosa paper mill was built at Ashdown in 1968. … The mill was sold to Georgia-Pacific in 1991 and sold again to Domtar in 2001. Ashdown is known for its timber industry, and Domtar is a major employer.”

Ashdown first was known as Turkey Flats and then Keller. It was incorporated as Ashdown in June 1892. The town was named by Lawrence Alexander Byrne, who owned sawmills in the area. When his mill at Keller burned, he said that though it was reduced to ashes, he would help grow a town there and call it Ashdown.

We spend about an hour at the Two Rivers Museum in downtown Ashdown. It’s at the intersection of Main Street and Highway 71. The museum was created in 2005 by the Little River County Historical Society.

The museum is in the Bishop Building, which was built in 1908. The building once housed a pharmacy and later an antiques store. A mural depicts the Little River County Courthouse, the lumber industry, cotton fields and a train. One exhibit in the museum honors Henry Kaufman, an immigrant of German-Jewish descent who founded Kaufman Seeds at Ashdown.

After visiting the museum, we take a side trip to Millwood Lake.

The construction of Millwood Dam by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took place from 1961-66 at a cost of $46.1 million. The dam is on the Little River and was designed to control flooding downstream along the Red River. The earthen dam is 3.3 miles long. The lake it created is in parts of four counties — Little River, Howard, Hempstead and Sevier.

“Millwood Dam was made possible by the federal Flood Control Act of 1946, though opposition within the state and from neighboring states delayed the project,” Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Within Arkansas, Dierks Forests Inc. faced the loss of 6,465 acres of land in an area that would become the reservoir. Ideal Cement Co. of Okay initially objected on the basis of its quarries potentially being flooded. A Corps of Engineers proposal to build a $2.5 million levee with pumps to protect the plant, along with plans to relocate a railway servicing the plant, allayed the resistance of the latter. However, the Little River Valley Improvement Association maintained its objections, especially the point that the dam would be sited in profitable bottomland, used for both farming and lumber rather than hillier areas upstream, and that it would leave too little free-flowing water for the development of industry in the area. The governments of Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma argued about who had the right to dam the tributaries of the Red River. The government of Louisiana expressed concern that Millwood Dam would hinder a navigation project on the lower Red River.”

Congressman Oren Harris broke the deadlock during a 1956 meeting of the Red River Valley Association.

Harris, who was born in rural Hempstead County in 1903 and graduated from what’s now Henderson State University at Arkadelphia in 1929, picked peaches and played semi-professional baseball to pay for college. He received his law degree from the Cumberland Law School in Tennessee in 1930 and practiced law at El Dorado before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1940. Harris served in Congress for almost 25 years before being appointed by President Lyndon Johnson as a federal judge in 1965. Harris died in February 1997 at age 93.

“Harris presented a plan whereby the proposed dam was reduced in size by 25 percent and redesigned to provide a stable water supply as well as flood control,” Lancaster writes. “A provision was made for the construction of smaller dams elsewhere in the Little River basin — three in Oklahoma and three in Arkansas — making Millwood Dam the centerpiece of a seven-dam system. The compromise was accepted and written into the Flood Control Act of 1958.”

Construction began in September 1961. The dam was dedicated in December 1966. The lake covers 29,200 acres. Timber was left standing in much of the reservoir, which made it one of the hottest fishing lakes in the country in its early years.

“Millwood Lake provides drinking water to a number of nearby communities, including Texarkana,” Lancaster writes. “Companies such as Domtar use water from the lake for their operations.”

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Heading up U.S. Highway 71

Friday, December 21st, 2018

FIRST IN A SERIES

The goal is to spend two days exploring west Arkansas as we drive north on U.S. Highway 71 from Texarkana to Fort Smith.

It’s pouring rain as I pull into Texarkana. I’m accompanied by Paul Austin, who recently retired as head of the Arkansas Humanities Council, and David Stricklin of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. These are the same two people who accompanied me a year earlier when we took Arkansas Highway 7 from the Louisiana border to where it ends on the shores of Bull Shoals Lake near the Missouri line.

We check into our hotel on the Arkansas side of the state line and then head to one of my favorite restaurants in Arkansas, the Cattleman’s Steak House. Yes, it’s in Arkansas — barely. It sits on the Arkansas side of State Line Avenue.

When Roy Oliver opened the restaurant more than 50 years ago, State Line was a two-lane road. The restaurant was surrounded by woods. The road is much wider now and the woods are gone, but this place is like stepping back in time. That’s why I like it. It looks like a steak house should look with heavy wood paneling, green chairs and a red carpet.

As far as I know, it’s also the only restaurant in the state where you can order calf fries and turkey fries as an appetizer. If you have to ask what they are, don’t bother ordering them. Paul, David and I get them, of course.

You can also order a quail here on the side with your steak. Like I said, it’s truly old school.

I grew up about halfway between Little Rock and Texarkana. We usually went to Little Rock when we wanted to visit the “big city,” but my parents occasionally took me to Texarkana as a change of pace.

Downtown Texarkana was hopping in those days. Lunch was always at Bryce’s Cafeteria when it was still downtown.

I write a lot about places in Arkansas that are revitalizing their downtowns. There are some efforts along those lines at Texarkana, but it has a long way to go.

There’s potential here — Union Station, the former Grim Hotel, etc.

“Interstate 30 was completed through the area in the early 1960s, and it was a double-edged sword,” Beverly Rowe writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “It brought many new businesses because of increased traffic and more efficient transportation of products to market. On the other hand, it took business away from Texarkana’s downtown. … Since 1968, downtown buildings in Texarkana have deteriorated and businesses have closed. Perhaps the most vibrant businesses are the jails, law offices and bail bondsmen’s shops.

“Smaller towns in Miller County such as Doddridge, Fouke, Garland and Genoa have continued to shrink while Texarkana’s city limits are pushing out on all sides. … Interstate 30 also negatively affected passenger railroad traffic. In past decades, as many as nine railway companies served the area, using Texarkana’s Union Depot as the main station. Today, freight trains provide most of the traffic.”

Union Station was built in 1928-29 by the Union Station Trust, a joint effort of the Missouri Pacific, Cotton Belt, Kansas City Southern and Texas & Pacific railroads. E.M. Tucker, the chief Missouri Pacific architect, used the same style he had used in rebuilding the Little Rock depot following a 1921 fire.

A formal dedication ceremony was held on May 12, 1930. The building straddles the state line with entrances and exits in both states. The station, which needs a lot of work, has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978.

Another landmark downtown is the U.S. post office and federal building, which also straddles the state line. It serves as a courthouse for the Western District of Arkansas and the Eastern District of Texas. The structure was built in 1933 and has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2000. The first courthouse at this location served Arkansas and Texas from 1892 until 1911. A courthouse entirely in Texas was built at that point. The Western District of Arkansas continued to use the building on the border until it was torn down in 1930.

The current structure features a base of Texas pink granite and walls of Arkansas limestone.

For years, the Hotel Grim (one of my favorite business names; it’s right up there with the old Gross Mortuary at Hot Springs) housed many of those coming in and out of Texarkana by train.

After spending the night in Texarkana, I picked up a copy of the Texarkana Gazette and was greeted by this headline on the front page: “Hotel Grim developer expects a spring start: Sale expected to close in February.”

Tom Anderson, the managing director of the Cohen-Esrey Development Group, told the newspaper that the project will convert the hotel’s upper floors into more than 90 apartments. Cohen-Esrey will be the general contractor and the building’s property manager. Developer Jim Sari brought on Cohen-Esrey as a partner this summer.

According to the news story: “Certain areas of the building have been identified as having high historical significance and will be restored to their original condition as much as possible. They include the hotel’s lobby, Palm Room ballroom and roof garden. Restoring and relighting the large Hotel Grim sign on the top of the building is also in the budget. … Sari floated several different start times for the project in recent years — at one point, renovations were forecast to be completed by the end of 2018 — only for those dates to come and go without work beginning. But Cohen-Esrey’s involvement seems to have jump-started the process.”

The hotel, which opened in 1925, was named after William Rhoads Grim. He was a banking, timber and railroad magnate.

“Construction cost almost $1 million, and the 250-room hotel was luxuriously appointed in marble and other elegant decor,” the newspaper reported. “The hotel served the many train passengers who in the course of their travels spent a night or longer in Texarkana. Through the years, many Texarkanians visited the Palm Room and roof garden — popular venues for special events — as well as the beauty parlor, barbershop, coffee shop and bookstore that were there.

“A restaurant called Sue and Carol’s Kitchen was the most recent resident of the hotel, which closed in 1990. Since then, only homeless squatters and a group of feral cats have occupied the crumbling building, now widely considered an eyesore.”

Texarkana was a product of the railroads. The Cairo & Fulton Railroad completed its tracks to the Texas border in 1873. The site for a town was established on Dec. 8, 1873, at the point where those tracks met the Texas & Pacific Railroad tracks.

“There’s evidence that the city’s name existed before the city,” Nancy Hendricks writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Some say that as early as 1860, it was used by the steamboat Texarkana, which traveled the Red River. Others say a supposed medicinal drink called Texarkana Bitters was sold in 1869 by a man named Swindle who ran a general store in Bossier Parish in Louisiana. The most popular version credits a railroad surveyor, Col. Gus Knobel, who was surveying the right of way from Little Rock to southwest Arkansas for the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad in the late 1860s. Knobel later became chief engineer for the Texarkana & Northern Railroad. When Knobel came to the state line between Arkansas and Texas — and believing he was also at or near the Louisiana border — he reportedly wrote the words TEX-ARK-ANA on a board and nailed it to a tree with the statement that ‘this is the name of a town which is to be built here.'”

A meeting was held in December 1873 to formally organize a town on the Texas side. That town was granted a charter in June 1874.

“In 1880, 21 citizens met and petitioned to incorporate Texarkana, Ark.,” Hendricks writes. “Public sentiment was divided. An opposing group gathered 15 names of citizens who opposed organizing a government on the Arkansas side. Texarkana, Ark., was granted a charter on Aug. 10, 1880.”

By 1890, there were more people living on the Arkansas side (3,528) than the Texas side (2,852). The Miller County Courthouse was built at Texarkana in 1893. It was torn down in 1939 to make way for the current courthouse.

“Both cities grew throughout the 1890s, installing streetcar lines, gas works, an electric light plant, an ice factory and sewer lines,” Hendricks writes. “At the time, four newspapers served Texarkana.”

In a history of his family for the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter E. Hussman Jr. wrote: “In 1909, my grandfather, Clyde Eber Palmer, was taking a train from Fort Worth to Florida with his new bride. They got off the train in Texarkana, Ark., to spend the night and while they were there, they decided they liked the town and decided to stay. My grandfather paid $900 for one of several newspapers in Texarkana at the time, the Texarkana Courier, which he renamed the Four States Press. He eventually prevailed against other competitors in the Texarkana market, and he ended up as publisher of the Texarkana Gazette.”

Palmer’s daughter Betty was born at Texarkana in 1911. She attended college at the University of Missouri, where she met Walter E. Hussman Sr. The couple married in 1931. After selling insurance for a time, Hussman Sr. went to work for his father-in-law in the newspaper business. After working in Texarkana for several years, he moved to Hot Springs to serve as publisher of the newspaper there.

By the early 1900s, the Texas side was growing faster than the Arkansas side. Growth on both sides of the line slowed during the Great Depression.

“The city’s economy rebounded with the coming of World War II in the 1940s, primarily because of the creation of the Red River Army Depot and the Lone Star Ammunition Plant,” Hendricks writes. “Along with being an important junction of railroad lines, Texarkana built a strong economy based on timber and minerals such as rockwool (an inorganic substance used for insulation and filtering).”

Sand and gravel were mined in area streams. Cotton, soybeans, rice, corn and pecan trees thrived in the Red River bottoms. With the ability to draw customers from four states (Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma), Texarkana became a regional retail and entertainment center. It also attracted distribution and logistics jobs.

Texarkana had more than 40,000 residents by 1952 with almost 16,000 of those living on the Arkansas side. The Arkansas side reached 20,000 population shortly after the 1960 census. In the 2010 census, the Arkansas side had 29,919 residents.

Texarkana is the county seat of Miller County, which the Arkansas Territorial Legislature created on April 1, 1820. The county was named for a territorial governor, New Hampshire native James Miller.

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

“Texas declared its independence from Mexico in 1836, and the first Miller County was abolished two years later. Gov. James Conway said the easiest solution would be to abolish the county and remove its records to a ‘more patriotic’ area — that is, the United States. Until 1874, area settlers found themselves included in Lafayette County.”

Miller County was re-established in 1874 with Texarkana as the county seat.

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

Those of a certain age remember Texarkana for a series of murders in which five people were killed and several others were injured from February until May in 1946.

“Newspapers dubbed them the Texarkana Moonlight Murders,” Hendricks writes. “The victims were couples parked on back roads and lovers’ lanes around town. The only description of the killer was that he wore a plain pillowcase over his head with eyeholes cut out. The case was never solved, and the killing spree ended as suddenly as it began. Three decades after the crime, the murders inspired the 1977 movie ‘The Town That Dreaded Sundown.’ It was directed by Charles B. Pierce of Hampton.”

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Good times in West Memphis

Tuesday, December 18th, 2018

SEVENTH IN A SERIES

The good news keeps coming for West Memphis.

In November, Arkansas voters approved a constitutional amendment that will allow four full-fledged casinos across the state. One of those casinos will be at Southland Park Gaming & Racing in West Memphis.

Officials at Delaware North, Southland’s nationally known and well-financed parent company, say they will build a $200 million hotel and convention center. A Delaware North official has called it “a priority of the company to get it up and going.”

West Memphis once had the reputation of being the place where residents of Memphis and the Delta came to play. At a time when the Bluff City had a curfew, dozens of bars, juke joints and technically illegal but wide-open gambling establishments flourished 24 hours a day on the Arkansas side of the river.

Greyhound racing began in Crittenden County in 1935. Southland Park has been at the same location since 1956. The dogs first raced at the Riverside Kennel Club, which was at the Arkansas end of the bridge crossing the Mississippi River. When Southland was established in the 1950s, it was the only legal gambling venue in the Mid-South. It drew patrons from Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Missouri and even western Kentucky and southern Illinois. Delaware North bought the track in the 1970s.

“At its high point, Southland was said to be the top dog track in the country,” Nancy Hendricks writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Through the 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s, 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.”

That’s when casino gambling came to nearby Tunica County in Mississippi.

“Southland fell on hard times with daily attendance ebbing to about 500,” Hendricks writes. “Its annual revenues dropped from $200 million in the 1980s to less than $35 million in the 1990s. More than half of its employees lost their jobs.”

Southland was on the verge of closing when the Arkansas Legislature voted in 2005 to allow what it called “games of skill” at Southland and at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs. Thanks to those electronic games, a $40 million facility was being built at the dog track by late 2006. It included a 55,000-square-foot gaming room, a 400-seat event center and additional restaurants.

The next big thing to happen at Southland was the Mississippi River flood of 2011. It caused the Tunica casinos to close for weeks. Memphis residents began crossing the bridge to Southland instead, and business has been booming ever since.

Additional renovations followed. Delaware North has now invested more than $100 million since 2006. There are about 765 employees.

Southland soon will be able to add dealers, big-name entertainment, a sports book, a luxury hotel, additional restaurants and more to the mix. That should take the employment level past 1,000. Regardless of what one thinks about casino gambling, it seems destined to help the West Memphis economy.

The other good news at West Memphis concerns health care. Construction has been completed on Baptist Memorial Hospital-Crittenden County. The $43 million facility has 115 employees.

West Memphis had been without a hospital since Crittenden Regional Hospital closed in August 2014. The new hospital will have 65,000 square feet of patient rooms, operating suites and more. Crittenden County voters approved a 1-cent sales tax in 2016 to pay for the facility. Baptist Memorial Health Care, which also operates a medical center at Jonesboro, has a 10-year lease with a 10-year renewal option.

West Memphis has long lived in the shadow of Memphis. The first river bridge for a railroad opened in May 1892. The Harahan Bridge, which still stands, opened in 1916 for rail traffic. Two narrow automobile lanes were added in 1917 and a toll was charged.

Floods and the construction of levees brought an end to the first West Memphis, which was on the banks of the river. The second West Memphis developed near the intersection of three railroad lines that served the timber industry.

“During the summer of 1862, Memphis fell into the hands of Union forces,” writes historian Rachel Patton. “Most Confederate soldiers were ferried across the river to Hopefield and surrounding farms. Many of these soldiers were moved to other locations, but some remained to harass the Union forces at Memphis and disrupt river traffic. This became such a problem that on Feb. 19, 1863, four companies of Union forces burned Hopefield to the ground. The town of Hopefield was rebuilt after the war but never regained the prominence it once held in Crittenden County.

“In 1871, the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad was completed, aiding Hopefield’s economic recovery. Hopefield was eventually destroyed by floodwaters in 1912 when the Mississippi River changed course. Today the supporting piers of the Interstate 40 bridge rest atop the old location of Hopefield.”

The Kansas City, Fort Scott & Memphis Railroad was completed in 1883 through northeast Arkansas to the Mississippi River south of Hopefield. The railroad built a depot, roundhouse and terminal yard at the ferry landing. A sidewheeler known as the Charles Merriam then transported railcars to the Tennessee side of the river.

“A settlement known as Garvey grew near the ferry landing,” Patton writes. “By 1885, the village had more than 200 residents as well as a grain elevator, hotel and two sawmills. Gen. George H. Nettleton, chief executive officer of the Kansas City, Fort Scott & Memphis Railroad, changed the name of the settlement to West Memphis in order to bring a higher price for lumber. … Floods and the construction of levees brought an end to the first West Memphis, which was built right on the river.”

Michigan native George Kendal and William Johnson of Memphis platted the second West Memphis in 1912. The area consisted at the time of thick canebrakes and swamps. One surveyor reported seeing a black bear at what’s now the corner of Eighth and Broadway.

Zack Bragg moved to West Memphis in 1904 and opened a large sawmill. In 1914, P.T. Bolz of St. Louis opened the Bolz Slack Barrel Cooperage Plant.

It was the importance of the automobile, however, that truly spurred growth in West Memphis.

“Before the Harahan Bridge was built, most vehicles had to ferry across the Mississippi River,” Charlotte Wicks writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The Harahan Bridge was damaged by fire in 1928, and it reopened after 18 months of repairs. In 1927, West Memphis was incorporated. The first mayor was Zach Bragg. … In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, Eighth Street was often called Beale Street West, reflecting a music and nightlife scene to equal that in Memphis.

“Some places in West Memphis have been associated with famous entertainers. The Square Deal Cafe, which was often referred to as Miss Annie’s on South 16th Street, was where B.B. King began his public entertaining. … Other popular nightspots along Broadway were the Willowdale Inn, the Cotton Club and the supper club known as the Plantation Inn.”

The population of West Memphis increased from 895 people in 1930 to more than 9,000 residents by 1950.

The 1938 Sanborn Fire Insurance map showed that West Memphis had four lumber companies, four cottonseed oil companies, three cotton gins, a cotton compress, a feed mill, a distillery and an ice plant.

Before the construction of Interstates 40 and 55, Broadway (which doubled as U.S. Highway 70) had an abundance of tourist courts, hotels and restaurants. Thanks to voters statewide, West Memphis again appears primed to be the place where the Mid-South comes to play.

Those driving down Broadway these days can see buildings built during the boom period from the 1930s through the 1950s.

Fred and Zell Jaynes built the 1,025-seat Joy Theater at the southeast corner of West Broadway and Rhodes where a Sonic now stands. In 1953, it was leased by Malco and renamed the Avon. By the late 1940s and early 1950s, theaters such as this one were hosting burlesque shows and prize fights that were banned in Memphis.

“The city’s rapid population increase in the 1930s created a demand for better municipal services and led to the construction of a city administration building that would house the city hall, fire station and jail,” Patton writes. “Prior to 1938, city council meetings were held in various local businesses, and fire protection was weak at best. In 1930, West Memphis still relied on Memphis for its fire protection, and by 1938 there was one fire truck in West Memphis with a part-time crew. City Hall was built during the Great Depression when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs were distributing mass amounts of federal aid to put people to work on projects that would benefit the general public and stimulate the local economy. The June 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act established the Public Works Administration.

“The PWA initially approved a $16,500 loan and a $13,500 grant for the West Memphis City Hall project and later approved another $14,000 grant. A city ordinance was passed to issue bonds for the remaining construction costs. R.D. Eberdt was the architect and engineer for the project. Construction began on July 29, 1938, with a crew of 50 people. The building was completed on June 13, 1939, and officially opened on July 18, 1939. The jail for ready to be occupied in August.”

A new City Hall was built in 1975 at 205 S. Redding Street. The old building is now known as the O.I. Bollinger Building in honor of a 33-year city council member. It houses the municipal court.

“Highway 70 in West Memphis had started off in about 1917 as a two-lane dirt road,” Patton writes. “It was graveled in 1918-19 and paved in 1926. Because Highway 70 stretched from North Carolina to California, it was called the Broadway of America. U.S. Highway 61 (Missouri Street) was also cleared in 1917. It was graveled in 1921 and paved in 1922. Both roads have gradually gone from two- to four-lane roads. In 1936, West Memphis adopted the street names Broadway and Missouri.

“Missouri Street serves as the dividing line between West Broadway and East Broadway. West Broadway was sparsely developed before 1950. In fact, a man named James Thomas was living in a houseboat moored in a drainage ditch on the north side of Broadway just west of Missouri Street as late as 1919. Sanborn maps from 1949 only show West Broadway as far as Redding.”

The Wonder City Cafe opened on Broadway in 1937 and became a popular stop for those traveling along Highway 70. Bill Abernathy purchased the restaurant in 1960, and it later became the Wonder City Cafeteria. It was destroyed by fire in the early 1970s.

KWEM radio went on the air in West Memphis in 1947 with studios on Broadway.

“In 1948, Chester Arthur Burnett, better known as Howlin’ Wolf, moved to West Memphis and worked in a local factory,” Patton writes. “But he was really drawn by the city’s blues clubs. He played the clubs at night and had his own show on KWEM. His radio show caught the attention of record producer Sam Phillips in Memphis, and Howlin’ Wolf soon signed with Chess Records. He moved to Chicago in 1952 and went on to perform throughout the United States and Europe. He died in 1976. In 1980, he was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and then was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.

“Local merchant and musician Danny Craft also had a connection to KWEM. His father, also named Danny Craft, had a radio show on KWEM with his band Delta Dan & The Swamp Riders. This was during the same time period that Howlin’ Wolf was there. The elder Danny Craft later played in a band called Danny Craft & The Craftsmen.”

When the Federal Compress & Warehouse Co. opened in 1923 on the south side of the 600 block of East Broadway, it was the largest compress in the state. The company even had its own water and electrical plants. There were major fires in 1939 and 1972. Most of the buildings were demolished in 1980.

Turn off Broadway onto South Eighth Street, and you enter a neighborhood that was known as Little Chicago (in addition to the aforementioned Beale Street West moniker) due to its numerous black-owned clubs, restaurants and hotels. The street was hopping from the late 1930s until the early 1960s.

“On weekends, it was so crowded that you couldn’t drive down the first few blocks of South Eighth,” Patton writes. “Cars also were parked along East Broadway for several blocks in either direction. There was a 9 p.m. curfew in Memphis during part of this time, so musicians would come to Arkansas to play late at night. The West Memphis police chief was paid to look the other way. There were often illegal activities going on in the beer joints like gambling and prostitution. The bagmen collected fees to pay off city officials. Some of the businesses on South Eighth Street were Andrew & Louise Bass’ Be-Bop Hall, Lois Knight’s Little Brown Jug, ‘Pimpy’ Jones’ Pool Hall, the Silver Moon Cafe, Samuel ‘Tub’ Irvin’s Brown Derby, Jack Butler’s Busy Bee, Bubba Wright’s Doll House, Miss Sweet’s Cafe, the Dinette Lounge, the Blue Goose and the Cozy Kitchen.”

The Harlem Theater in the 900 block of Broadway was built by Jack Rhodes for black patrons.

J.H. Horton of Memphis built the Hotel Crittenden for white patrons on what’s now Broadway in 1925. It was purchased by L.E. Turner in 1934 and called the Turner Hotel. Ben Wever demolished the hotel in 1941 to make room for Buck’s Cafe and Wever-Riehl Motor Co.

In 1935, J.H. ‘Spec’ Horton built the Plantation Inn supper club for wealthy white patrons who came from across the Delta. It offered gambling on the second floor. It was demolished in September 1965.

Elvis Presley ate his first breakfast at the Coffee Cup on East Broadway after joining the U.S. Army. The Coffee Cup was known throughout the region for its country ham, fried chicken and steaks. The building was demolished in 1965 to make way for a new restaurant.

One of the last ice plants still in operation in the state is along Broadway. It was built about 1930 and later sold to Arkansas Power & Light Co., which operated 17 ice plants across the state before getting out of the business in 1945. The plant was purchased from AP&L by Roy Morley and Vance Thompson, who renamed it Delta Ice Co.

The whites-only Crittenden Theater on the 100 block of North Missouri was built in 1938. Ushers wore tuxedos and people could win cash prizes at the weekly Bank Night. The building no longer stands.

“Construction on Interstate 40 and Interstate 55 began in 1950, and a small section from the Mississippi River levee to Missouri Street opened in June 1951,” Patton writes. “By December 1963, Interstate 55 was open all the way north to Blytheville. As motorists began using the new interstate highways, commercial and residential development shifted toward the interstates. Businesses along Broadway suffered as big-box retailers constructed stores several blocks to the north. But Broadway remains a major thoroughfare in West Memphis, and it has lots of potential.”

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From Forrest City to West Memphis

Friday, December 14th, 2018

SIXTH IN A SERIES

With a population of 15,371 in the 2010 census, Forrest City is by far the largest town between North Little Rock and West Memphis as we continue our trip east on U.S. Highway 70.

Located on the western slope of Crowley’s Ridge, it has been a center of commerce for the area since the 1870s and has served as the St. Francis County seat since 1874. The city is now home to more than half of the county’s residents.

If time allows, the St. Francis County Museum, a block off the highway on Front Street in the Rush-Gates Home, is worth a stop.

It’s also worth a stop for barbecue at Delta Q.

A recent review of Delta Q in the Arkansas Times read in part: “The stereotypical Southern U.S. barbecue joint, especially in the Delta, is in a rundown shack with a decades-old provenance. Perhaps some of us take quiet delight at the gasps on newcomers’ faces when they see some of the more dilapidated versions out there. But bad news for those looking to shock visiting relatives from states with stricter building codes: Forrest City’s Delta Q is tidy outside, clean inside and came of age during President Obama’s second term. … While the architectural rules of barbecue restaurants may vary, it is pretty standard that a barbecue place is first judged on its barbecue sandwich. In Arkansas, it will be pulled pork. Delta Q does brisket and ribs and smokes chicken, but this restaurant’s tagline is ‘fine Southern swine.’ And that’s where we found Delta Q — in addition to everything else it does — has a different take on pork ‘cue. … Delta Q is presenting a style in barbecue and beyond all its own; we like that. Long may it run, until it has a lengthy history and a rustic patina all its own.”

Forrest City, named for Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, has produced such well-known Americans as singer Al Green and professional baseball player Donnie Kessinger through the decades.

By the early 1800s, white settlers were attracted to the high ground of Crowley’s Ridge, which was free of the flooding found on either side of the ridge. The Civil War interrupted construction of the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad in the area. After the war, Forrest (the former general) contracted with the railroad to lay tracks across Crowley’s Ridge. He hired almost 1,000 Irish laborers, and they began work in 1866.

“The founding of Forrest City is traced to the commissary established by Forrest,” Mike Polston writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Local businessman U.B. Izard proposed a survey for a town, and on March 1, 1869, a 36-block town site was marked off by county surveyor John C. Hill near the old commissary site. The name Izardville was considered, but with the founding of a post office that same year, the name of Forrest City was recorded. The town began to develop rapidly. By the end of 1869, the first freight train arrived, and passenger service was available within two years. The first mercantile, Izard Brothers & Prewitt, was open before 1870. With its connection to the railroad, Forrest City was becoming the commercial center for local cotton farmers.”

Following an 1874 election, the county seat moved from Madison to Forrest City.

Forrest City continued to grow along with the area cotton industry, though growth was slowed by a major fire in the winter of 1874, a yellow fever outbreak in 1879, the Great Flood of 1927, the Great Drought of 1930-31 and the Great Flood of 1937.

“By the late 1940s and early 1950s, the city began to experience significant economic growth,” Polston writes. “The area was an attractive site for industrial growth due to its railroad connections and U.S. Highway 70. Shortly after World War II, an industrial park was established by the city government with Forrest City Machine Works being the first industry to build. The opening of the Hamilton Moses Power Plant in 1951 four miles west of Forrest City stimulated growth, as did the construction of Interstate 40. Even before its completion in the 1960s, the city began to expand toward the interstate.”

Forrest City has, however, been beset by racial problems through the decades. What was known as the Forrest City Riot of 1889 resulted in four deaths. The event — a dispute between black and white voters over a school board election — received national media attention. The 1960s were also tumultuous.

Polston writes: “During the 1960s, the city played a role in the civil rights movement as one of three Delta communities to serve as a headquarters for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a national civil rights organization. The quality of the schools quickly became an issue. In September 1965, 90 percent of the black student body staged a school boycott protesting the conditions. Almost 200 protestors were arrested.

“Four years later, a boycott of white-owned businesses and a march on Little Rock were organized to protest the firing of a black teacher by the all-white school board. By the 2010 census, the percentage of black residents was 67 percent.”

The aforementioned St. Francis County Museum opened in 1995 at 419 Front St. It reopened in the Rush-Gates home in August 1997. The house was built in 1906 by Dr. J.O. Rush.

“The home was used as his residence and housed his medical practice until his death,” Stephanie Darnell writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Rush started collecting Native American and prehistoric artifacts in 1912 when he helped a patient who was unable to pay him for his time. As he was leaving, he noticed some pottery in the patient’s yard and accepted it as payment. Over his lifetime, he collected and cataloged more than 3,700 pieces. Much of his personal collection was donated to the museum by his descendants.”

I leave Forrest City, head east and find myself in Madison on the west side of the St. Francis River. The town, named for President James Madison, was once a stopping point for steamboats.

“It flourished because of its location on the St. Francis River, which at the time was large enough to accommodate riverboats,” Darnell writes. “Some of the larger steamboats had ballrooms and orchestras. When the boats were anchored overnight, people came from miles around to attend balls on board.

“The St. Francis County seat was moved from Franklin to Madison in 1841, where it remained until about 1855 when the county seat was moved to Mount Vernon. Madison regained the seat the next year after the Mount Vernon courthouse and records burned. … Following the Civil War, the Arkansas Delta attracted migrants from the Midwest and other regions outside the South. The city was able to re-establish itself when lumber companies such as Griffith & DeMange took an interest in the area. By the 1880 census, there were 210 recorded households in Madison, making it the largest community in the area. The town was incorporated in 1914.”

Scott Winfield Bond of Madison likely was the wealthiest black businessman in the state by the early 1900s. He was born into slavery in Mississippi in 1852. Bond’s mother died during the Civil War, and Bond moved with his stepfather to Madison.

“Around the age of 22, Bond began renting a portion of the 2,200-acre Allen farm,” writes Fon Louise Gordon of the University of Central Florida. “The next year, Bond increased the amount of acreage he rented and hired one man. He established himself as a farmer and married Magnolia ‘Maggie’ Nash of Forrest City in 1877. They had 11 sons during their long-lasting marriage. … Bond engaged in business opportunities that facilitated his farming and gained a reputation for prudence. He opened a store in Madison in partnership with his stepfather and Abe Davis, with Bond operating the store. Undercapitalized, he closed the store after several months. Eventually he bought the Madison Mercantile Co. as sole proprietor and maintained the store to supply his farms. He also purchased four additional town lots.

“By 1915, he owned five cotton gins, a sawmill and a gravel pit that supplied the Rock Island Railroad. The number of farms he owned had increased to 21 with a total of 5,000 acres. The farm on which the Bond family resided was called The Cedars.”

Three sons — Ulysses, Theophilus and Waverly — joined him in managing the businesses. Scott Bond died in March 1933 after being injured by a bull he owned. He owned almost 12,000 acres at the time of his death. Bond was 81.

Madison had 769 residents in the 2010 census.

Leaving Madison, I cross the St. Francis River. Wisconsin Bridge & Iron Co. constructed the Highway 70 bridge in 1933. It was the main bridge for traffic traveling between Little Rock and Memphis until Interstate 40 opened. The bridge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.

The St. Francis River is wide, slow and often muddy at this point. The river originates in Missouri as a clear, fast-flowing stream until it reaches the Mississippi Alluvial Plain near Poplar Bluff. It forms the boundary between the Missouri Bootheel and northeast Arkansas and then flows between Crowley’s Ridge and the Mississippi River. The St. Francis flows into the Mississippi just north of Helena.

The St. Francis Levee District was created in 1893 and began constructing levees and drainage canals in the region. There are numerous diversion ditches along and near the St. Francis River that have been constructed since Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1928.

If you head south off U.S. 70 for a couple of miles, you can visit Widener. The town, which had 273 residents in the 2010 census, is the birthplace of famous blues musician Luther Allison. A railroad depot and post office were established here in 1888. The name of the community was changed from Mead to Widener in 1895 to honor John Widener, who had major farming and timber interests in this part of the state. The town was incorporated in 1909.

Headed east, I cross into Crittenden County. The county was named for Robert Crittenden, the first secretary of the Arkansas Territory. It’s a county where row-crop agriculture rules.

“Because of the county’s location, levees and drainage districts have been essential to its development,” Grif Stockley writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “An act of Congress in 1850 created the first organized efforts toward levee construction as well as the donation of about 8.6 million acres of swampland to Arkansas to be sold to make levee and drainage systems possible. By 1852, a three-foot levee had been developed along the Mississippi River for most of the county’s border. It was not until 1893, however, that major flood-control efforts resulted in the Arkansas Legislature’s creation of the St. Francis Levee District. Bonds were issued, and a levee had been constructed almost from the Missouri state line into Crittendent County in 1897. … Completion of the ditches — eliminating swamps and brakes — allowed thousands of acres to be used for agricultural purposes.”

A short detour south will take you to Horseshoe Lake, a large oxbow lake that long has been the site of weekend homes for well-to-do residents of Memphis and the Arkansas Delta.

Meanwhile, juke joints in this area once attracted the likes of B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf.

“During the early 20th century, hunters and lumbermen discovered the lake,” Nikki Walker writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “It was dammed at Lost Lake Bayou, raising the water level by more than six feet. This made it possible to float timber directly from the area to the Mississippi River, where a sawmill was built to process the lumber. Russell Gardner of St. Louis — maker of the Banner buggy and Gardner automobile — purchased 1,200 acres along the river for his private hunting reserve. It was named Bruin for the many bears in the area.

“Five Lakes Outing Club was established by Memphis residents as a hunting club on the land in the middle of the horseshoe of the lake. They purchased the land from Gardner and the Fritz family and established an immense hunting and fishing reserve for the club’s 45 members. The Horseshoe Recreation Club was established around the same time. J.O.E. Beck purchased land on the western side of the lake stretching to Hughes. He cleared the land of trees and drained the swampland, putting in more than 9,000 feet of drainage tiles some 10 feet deep. Bob Snowden purchased 1,000 acres on the northwestern side of the lake and established a commissary known as Baugh Store, which had the first frozen food lockers in the area. Gus Zanone purchased land on the northeastern side of the lake on which to build cabins, and E.H. Clarke Sr. purchased land east of the lake.”

There were numerous court cases through the years concerning the lake’s depth.

During World War II, German prisoners of war were held near the lake and used as labor on plantations. A developer named Jack Rich created Horseshoe Lake Estates in 1965 and sold more than 400 lots. Homeowners became members of what was known as the Surf Club, which had a clubhouse, marina and pier. Residents of the subdivision voted to incorporate in 1983.

“Huxtable Pumping Plant near Marianna, completed in 1977, stopped the flooding but also prevented runoff, keeping the lake from replenishing itself,” Walker writes. “Droughts brought the lake to new lows and canals dried up, diminishing access to the lake. A vote was taken in 2007, and the Horseshoe District was formed, taxing homeowners around the lake in order to fund the installation of 10 pumps to maintain the water level. The drainage canal once built by Beck and Snowden was cleared of brush and widened, and a gate was installed across the bayou to keep the water level constant and prevent flooding. … Summer brings an influx of people from Memphis to the lake. The owners of the property surrounding the lake have sold many lots for summer and retirement homes, renovating or replacing the cabins and tenant houses that once stood there.”

I head back to Highway 70, which closely parallels Interstate 40 until reaching the edge of West Memphis. The road then takes me downtown. Just as was the case in North Little Rock at the start of this trip, the highway is Broadway Avenue as it passes through the city.

And just as was the case in North Little Rock, used car lots and surplus stores mark much of the route.

The Memphis skyline is visible across the Mississippi River, and it’s time for a meal at an Arkansas classic. Louis Jack Berger’s father, Morris Berger, surprised him with a trip to Mexico as a high school graduation gift. Their enjoyment of the food there inspired them to open Pancho’s in 1956.

The original restaurant featured packed dirt floors and a live tree that was saved during construction. A large truck destroyed that building, but a new structure was built, and people still come from throughout the Arkansas Delta to eat there. This is also the area where the famous Plantation Inn, a club that had live music nightly, once stood.

Instead of music and dancing, a plate of enchiladas will have to suffice as the trip east on Highway 70 comes to a close.

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From Brinkley to Forrest City

Friday, August 24th, 2018

FIFTH IN A SERIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Missouri Pacific line connected Brinkley to Helena.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It begins in southern Missouri and ends at Helena.

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

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

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

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Biscoe to Brinkley

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

FOURTH IN A SERIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are now fewer than 5 million forested acres remaining.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was there only one male left and it died?

Who knows?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Hazen to Biscoe

Friday, May 11th, 2018

THIRD IN A SERIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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