Archive for the ‘Traveling Arkansas’ Category

From Lake Village to Crossett

Friday, February 14th, 2020


We head west out of Lake Village on U.S. Highway 82 and cross the Boeuf River, which is little more than a drainage ditch in this part of southeast Arkansas. The river, located between Macon Bayou and Bayou Bartholomew, begins in this part of the state and flows for almost 220 miles before entering the Ouachita River in Catahoula Parish in Louisiana.

We’re still in the Delta as we cross into Ashley County and find ourselves at Montrose, which had a population of 354 people in the 2010 census. This was once cotton country. Now cotton must share space on the area’s massive farming operations with rice, soybeans, corn and winter wheat.

“Although western Ashley County is noted for the timber industry, which is centered in Crossett, the eastern part of the county belongs to the Mississippi River Delta region, which was home to numerous cotton plantations before and after the Civil War,” Steven Teske writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Dugald McMillan was the first landowner who registered a patent for the land where Montrose now stands. His plantation, like others in the region, employed a large number of slaves, many of whom remained after the war, working as tenant farmers for the same landowners. Consequently, African-Americans have outnumbered whites in the area from the time slavery ended until now.”

W.T. Cone, a merchant from Hamburg, began acquiring land in the area early in the 20th century along with Sam Wilson.

“In 1922, with the national decline in cotton prices, Cone sold his land to Wilson and left the area,” Teske writes. “Cotton remained the main crop through the 20th century. Around the beginning of the 20th century, the Iron Mountain Railroad built a line in the Mississippi River Valley that extended into Louisiana. It established depots at regular intervals where train engineers could obtain additional fuel and water. Many of these depots were named for railroad executives and employees. This is probably the case for Montrose, although no record of the namesake has been preserved.

“A post office was established at the Montrose stop in 1898. The Montrose depot became more significant when a team of investors created a short-line railroad — called the Mississippi River, Hamburg & Western Railway — to connect the Crossett area to Luna Landing on the Mississippi River. This line intersected the Iron Mountain line at the Montrose depot. Homes and businesses were quickly built around the depot, and Montrose incorporated as a second-class city in 1904.”

Montrose has been losing population since the 1980 census, when there were 641 residents. All schools in this part of the county are now part of the Hamburg School District.

Ashley County was carved out of parts of Union, Drew and Chicot counties in November 1848. It became the state’s 53rd county and was named for Chester Ashley, the third Arkansan in the U.S. Senate. In addition to Montrose, the communities of Parkdale, Portland and Wilmot also thrived in this part of the county when cotton was king and the bottomland hardwoods were being cut.

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “After the Civil War, the county enjoyed prosperity until the Great Depression. The railroads that had developed in the late 1890s helped support the economy but were later supplanted by the growth in highway transportation. Communities in the eastern part of the county were supported by farming, while Crossett continued its growth as a manufacturing center. Ashley County was within the flood zone of the Great Flood of 1927. The greatest effect of the flood was felt in the low-lying Delta region of the county, while the upland wood-product manufacturing area experienced only minor disruptions of activity.

“Ashley County was home to an important federal experiment in the public health sector during this era. In 1916, a mosquito-eradication project was funded, which reduced the incidence of malaria by almost 80 percent using a system of drainage and poisoning. This system became known as the Crossett Project and was used as an example in other parts of the country. The county’s population began to decline after World War II as agricultural workers were replaced by machines and other workers left for better-paying jobs.”

Leaving Montrose, we soon cross Bayou Bartholomew, the longest bayou in the country. It begins near Pine Bluff and then goes through Jefferson, Lincoln, Desha, Drew, Chicot and Ashley counties before entering Louisiana and flowing through Morehouse Parish. Like the Boeuf River, Bartholomew empties into the Ouachita River. Before the railroads came to this part of Arkansas, Bayou Bartholomew was the main transportation corridor.

“The present bayou bed was formed by the waters of the Arkansas River during a period when it was constantly changing course,” writes Rebecca DeArmond-Huskey, the foremost expert on the bayou’s history. “About 1,800 to 2,200 years ago, the river diverted from the present area of the bayou, and the leisurely bayou began to develop in the old riverbed. The first inhabitants along the bayou were Native Americans, who left artifacts along the banks from its source to its mouth. French explorers crossed the bayou in 1687. Henri Joutel, a member of the ill-fated La Salle expedition, left Texas that year in search once again of the Mississippi River. Among the six men he chose to go with him was ‘Little Bartholomew, the Parisian.’

“His party crossed the Saline River and the bayou and eventually found Arkansas Post, where Bartholomew stayed. It is likely that the bayou was named after this young Parisian. Spanish colonists also took note of the bayou. Don Juan Filhiol, commandant of the District of Ouachita in the 1780s, was impressed with its navigation potential as well as the good agricultural land around it. The colonists used the bayou for transportation as there were no good roads in the area. They used flat-bottom barges, propelled by poling, rowing, cordelling (towing with ropes) or by sails if the wind was favorable.”

By the 1830s, there were steamboats on the bayou hauling out cotton and timber.

“All such commerce halted when the Civil War began but resumed soon after it was over,” DeArmond-Huskey writes. “With the advent of the railroad in 1890, steamboat activity began a slow decline, though it continued in Ashley County until some point between 1906-12. Major ports along the bayou in Morehouse Parish were at Point Pleasant and at Lind Grove near Bonita. In southeast Arkansas, the major ports were at Poplar Bluff (present-day Parkdale in Ashley County), Portland, Thebes, Boydell and Baxter. All steamboating was a treacherous business, but according to Ben Lucien Burman, who boated on both large rivers and bayous, ‘bayou steamboating was steamboating at its worst.’ The bayou was much more narrow and shallow than the river, and pilots had to avoid sharp bends, shoals, snags and overhanging trees.

“Although steamboat trade was put on hold during the Civil War, the bayou remained for the duration of the war a significant transportation route for steamboats carrying troops and supplies. … After the war, cotton was the primary export shipped down the bayou until the railroad prompted the development of an extensive timber industry, backed primarily by Northern capitalists. Although locals had used the bayou for log rafting since the 1830s, shipment by rail was much more expedient. The timber companies devastated the fine timber stands and then moved out. Farmers followed by clearing the cutover timberland for farms, which today remain the dominant enterprise along the bayou.”

Area residents had once used the bayou as their major recreation site. They drank water from it, fished in it, swam in it and were baptized in it. With the clearing of the timber, sediment polluted the stream, and it became jammed with logs.

Curtis Merrell of Monticello organized the Bayou Bartholomew Alliance in 1995 to bring the stream back to life. The group began monitoring water quality, planting trees along the bayou’s banks, picking up trash and removing logs and other obstructions.

Before reaching Hamburg on our trip west, we leave the Delta and enter the Gulf Coastal Plain. They grow pine trees here rather than cotton, soybeans, rice, corn and wheat.

Hamburg was laid out in October 1849, soon after Ashley County was formed. The first courthouse and county jail were built in 1850 in an area at the center of the county that once had been known as the Great Wilderness. Hamburg provided troops to the Confederacy during the Civil War. After the war, there were highly publicized lynchings there in 1877, 1884 and 1891.

“Because it’s near the county’s geographic center, Hamburg in some ways is pulled in two economic directions,” David Moyers writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Immediately east and west are prairie regions dedicated to the rice and soybean culture. A dozen miles east of Hamburg is the Delta, where cotton and soybeans dominate the economy. To the north and the south, the timber culture reigns. Many people in Hamburg work at the Georgia-Pacific mills in Crossett or in supporting industries. The city’s economic base is thus divided among agriculture and forestry.

“Agriculture continued as the dominant force of the economy through the early 1900s, though lumber production became increasingly important in later years. After the Great Depression, the city underwent major social and economic shifts. Many small farmers gave up their attempts to subsist on their land and left the region or went to work in sawmills or paper mills. After World War II, continued pressures on small farmers led to increased consolidations of agricultural enterprises with the small family farms replaced by larger, more efficient units.”

As the Delta declined and stores there closed, more residents from the eastern part of the county began coming to Hamburg to shop. The Hamburg School District increased in size as it consolidated with districts at Portland, Parkdale, Wilmot and Fountain Hill. Still, Hamburg’s population fell from 3,394 in the 1980 census to 2,857 in the 2010 census. It’s now estimated at less than 2,700.

“In the 21st century, the downtown square remains surrounded by retail businesses and professional offices, though the courthouse that occupied the center of town for more than a century is now a block away,” Moyers writes. “A gazebo is now in the center of the square.”

We leave Hamburg and head southwest to Crossett, the place once known as the Forestry Capital of the South.

The town was founded in the 1890s by three investors from Davenport, Iowa — Charles Warner Gates, John Wenzel Watzek and Edward Savage Crossett.

“In the last quarter of the 19th century, the demand for wood fiber for a growing country led lumbermen, investors and speculators into the vast forest that stretches from east Texas across the lower Mississippi River Valley to the Florida panhandle,” wrote the late Bill Norman of Crossett. “Demand having outstripped the forest resources of the Great Lakes region, other sources for timber were sought. One result of the interest in the forestland of the South was the founding of Crossett.

“The land in western Ashley County was of the upland forest variety and was largely undeveloped and sparsely settled in this era as the terrain was unsuitable for farming. Towns that were formed, such as Fountain Hill, had populations of less than 500. As an established community with rail service, Hamburg would seem to have been the logical site for a new sawmill. However, company officials eventually decided that the better course would be to establish a new town, and Crossett was born. The site chosen was about 15 miles west of Hamburg. Of the three investors, Crossett and Gates were veteran lumbermen. Watzek was Edward Crossett’s physician. Also considered a founder was Edgar Woodward ‘Cap’ Gates, Charles’ brother. Cap Gates was sent to Arkansas to acquire timberland and to oversee construction of the sawmill and the building of the town.”

The Crossett Lumber Co. was incorporated in 1899. Officials of the company formed close relationships with those at Yale University’s School of Forestry. This resulted in the end of the cut-and-leave practice of clearing forests in Arkansas. The Crossett Co. soon was hiring Yale-trained foresters.

“Yale’s initial research was later augmented by the studies at the 1,680-acre Crossett Experimental Forest, headquartered about seven miles south of town,” Norman wrote. “Established in 1934 and still in operation today, the U.S. Forest Service’s research program at Crossett focuses on the silviculture of naturally regenerated loblolly and shortleaf pine forests. Several of the buildings on the Crossett Experimental Forest are on the National Register of Historic Places.”

The Crossett Lumber Co. owned all the land and homes in town in the early 1900s. Those not wanting to live in company housing settled in communities known as North Crossett, South Crossett and West Crossett.

“The Roaring ’20s, the Great Depression and World War II came and went with little visible effect on the city,” Norman wrote. “Demand for its products grew steadily, and unemployment was low. … The founders insisted on having a first-class school system. Seeing the advantages of the city schools in the 1940s, many rural one-room schools voluntarily consolidated into the city’s school system, and an extensive busing operation developed. The Crossett School District was one of the smallest school districts included when it was accredited in the 1940s by the prestigious North Central Association.

“Crossett became a diversified forest products manufacturing center with the construction of a paper mill in the mid-1930s. A division producing and marketing specialty chemicals and charcoal followed. By 2006, employment in all paper operations was about 1,500 with an annual payroll of $160 million. Following a divisive labor strike in 1940, the workers in Crossett’s manufacturing plants were granted the right to establish trade unions.”

The Crossett Lumber Co. was purchased in 1962 by the Georgia-Pacific Corp. The company began producing plywood from Southern yellow pine at Crossett along with the chemical plant and the pulp and paper production facility.

Crossett has been hit hard in recent years by large layoffs. In September 2011, Georgia-Pacific announced that it was suspending operations at a sawmill and plywood manufacturing facility and laid off 700 people. In June 2019, Georgia-Pacific announced it was closing its bleached board mill and laying off another 530 people.

Despite all of the lost jobs, Georgia-Pacific remains a major employer in this part of south Arkansas. And the history of the Crossett Lumber Co., the Crossett Experimental Forest and their ties to Yale are fascinating.

When the company was founded, the three founders purchased 47,000 acres of land from the Michigan investment firm Hovey & McCracken for $7 per acre.

“At first, the company expanded slowly as new railroad connections were being built, and no commercial timber was sold until 1902, by which time investors had spent $1 million starting the company,” Bernard Reed writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Its first pine mill, built in May 1899, was an enormous operation with two band mills, dry kilns, a planer mill and other equipment to smooth and then distribute the lumber. In 1905, a second pine mill similar to the first was built, and the company was soon producing 84 million board feet annually.

“CLC continued to develop products that allowed company growth and added a paper mill, silo and chemical companies. These endeavors not only helped to eliminate waste but also allowed CLC to invest more in research and development programs to maintain the affordability of its products. These expansions spurred new railroad connections with the Crossett Railway Co., a non-company railroad, connecting Crossett and the settlement of Stephens (now Milo in Ashley County) 10 miles north. The company built houses, a school and a church for the workers and their families. In 1903, all of this was incorporated as the company town of Crossett.”

Electric service soon became available, and the first church opened in 1904. A newspaper began publishing in 1906. Telephone service was added in 1907.

The company remained stable during the Great Depression and provided the government with large amounts of lumber during World War II.

“The standard logging procedure was a cut-and-get-out strategy that resulted in many acres of useless land,” Reed writes. “However, because this cutover land was perfect for growing pine, CLC in 1926 hired a graduate of Yale’s School of Forestry, W.K. Williams. He helped the company begin a program of sustained yield. This involved ceasing the practice of cutting down trees as fast as they were growing. He then left the healthiest trees in an area to repopulate the soil. These techniques kept the forests alive rather than destroying them. Such procedures were progressive at the time in American forestry and had previously only been used in Germany. Soon, a federal forest research station was founded, and CLC was tackling and solving problems in the 1930s that would not be regarded as environmental issues until the 1970s.”

Edward S. Crossett’s son, Edward C. Crossett, died in 1955. Family heirs began to consider the option of selling their stock.

“Many larger Northern lumber companies had expressed an interest in purchasing or merging with CLC, and stockholders were becoming worried about the company’s stability,” Reed writes. “Although millions of dollars were spent in the late 1950s to modernize the company and give the impression of vitality, one of its board members, Peter Watzek, a relative of John Watzek, was instructed to prepare reports on companies with which a merger was possible. He also traveled to New York to meet with several merger prospects. Despite Watzek’s report that CLC was strong enough that a merger was not necessary, stockholders were still not satisfied.

“The announcement of a sale to Union Bag & Paper was made in May 1960, but by the fall of that year the plan had fallen through. For two years, business went on as usual at CLC with a rise in earnings in 1961. But a sale was still pursued.”

The announcement that Georgia-Pacific had purchased the company was made on April 18, 1962.

There have been two major strikes through the years.

“The first one, in 1940, came several years after the company decided to recognize a local union but refused to let it open a union shop,” Reed writes. “Workers commenced a 58-day strike that brought the community’s economy to a near standstill until a compromise was reached with the help of a young pastor named Aubrey C. Halsell.

“The second strike occurred in 1985 during negotiations for a new contract that would force workers to work outside of their traditional job classifications. Workers disapproved of the changes, their pay and the work expectations. When they went on strike, Georgia-Pacific ordered that permanent replacements be sent in. This was the first time that permanent replacements had ever been used in the paper industry. Although it effectively ended the strike, it left many of the union workers bitter. The town was, and in many ways still is, divided because of these issues.”

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The Delta’s ethnic mix

Thursday, January 16th, 2020


It’s fitting that my friend Joe Dan Yee is the mayor of Lake Village.

One of the things that makes the Delta unique is the mix of cultures that occurred as people immigrated to the region back when cotton was king. There were Italians, Irish, Chinese, Jews, Lebanese, Syrians. Their cultures mixed with the rich culture of the African-Americans who had been brought to this land in bondage.

When I penned a piece a few years ago about the ethnic stew that is the Delta, one Helena native wrote: “I was raised in Helena from 1938 until our family moved to Little Rock in 1955. There was no place in Arkansas that I could have been more exposed to various cultures. I remember going to temple services as part of the Methodist Youth Fellowship. I had friends who were either Greek, Jewish, Chinese, Italian, Lebanese or Sicilian. There’s nowhere else on this planet that I would have rather grown up than in the Delta. I still miss the sweet smell of kudzu, the scent of the soil and the balmy summer mornings.”

The Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss, which does a marvelous job documenting the food cultures of the South with its oral histories and much more, transcribed a series of interviews with Chinese-Americans in the Delta a few years ago. Yee, who at the time was still operating his family’s Yee’s Food Land, was one of the people interviewed.

The SFA wrote: “Chinese came to America in the late 19th century in search of the fabled Gam Sahn or Golden Mountain. When they arrived at the alluvial plains of the Mississippi Delta, all they found was backbreaking agricultural work. First introduced to the region as indentured servants by planters during Reconstruction, these early Chinese sojourners (mostly from the Guandong or Canton province) soon became disenchanted with working the fields. They moved off the plantations. Some left to go back home to China, but others stayed and opened small neighborhood grocery stores. Serving as an alternative to plantation commissaries and catering to the predominately African-American clientele, the Chinese-American grocer was a mainstay in many Delta neighborhoods well into the 20th century.

“Life in the grocery business was by no means an easy living. Early mornings and late nights were normal, as were the stresses of competition from large supermarket chains. Added to that were the stresses that they endured as immigrants navigating the complex socio-political structure of a region that historian James C. Cobb has called the most Southern place on earth. … Though the numbers of Chinese grocers diminish year by year, family stories tell an important history of immigration. They also speak to the formation of a unique food culture in the Mississippi and Arkansas Deltas.”

Joe Dan Yee was described at the time as someone who “bucked the trend of many second- and third-generation Delta Chinese by staying home, after his parents retired, to take over the family market.”

“Joe Dan and his siblings can speak Catonese, something his parents insisted they learn growing up,” the SFA wrote. “And twice a day you can find them all eating a hot, multicourse Chinese meal.”

Yee said: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in New York and San Francisco, and everywhere I go they would tell my sister: ‘Bring your brother back in here. We love the Arkansas accent that he has on a Chinese accent.’ So I get a big kick out of that.”

He said Chinese restaurant owners will come to his table to hear him speak, noting that “we never heard a Chinese with a Southern accent.”

The SFA wrote: “After graduating with a degree in marketing at the University of Arkansas, Joe Dan Yee could have gone to Dallas, maybe gotten a job with a big department store there. He had already interviewed for a job and been accepted, but in the end he gave all that up to go back home to Lake Village.”

His father found his way to Dumas in the 1940s and began working in a grocery store for a man named Eugene Lee. His father later moved to Lake Village.

“Back in the early 1960s, there were at least eight to 10 (Chinese) families that were in Lake Village, and there were probably six Chinese stores on Main Street back then,” Yee said.

Many of those stores would open at 4 a.m. and remain open until midnight to serve sharecroppers and tenant farmers who were coming to town to shop.

“Lake Village was so busy you couldn’t even walk down Main Street,” Yee said.

He remembers Chinese families having cases of Chinese food shipped from San Francisco.

“You would split it up between the families and then you would divide the costs between the families,” Yee said. “That’s how they did it.”

He said his family never had strong relationships with Chinese families on the Mississippi side of the river.

“A different culture, you know,” Yee said. “It’s just like they did their thing and we did our thing. … We never got together and partied that much or associated that much with the Chinese people in Mississippi.”

By the way, his favorite Southern meal is fried chicken with mashed potatoes and cornbread. His favorite Chinese meals are pepper steak and Peking Duck.

There also was a strong Jewish influence in the Delta. My friend Raymond Abramson of Holly Grove, who serves on the Arkansas Court of Appeals, refers to himself as the last of the practicing Jewish lawyers in the Arkansas Delta. That list once included men such as Oscar Fendler of Blytheville, Kent Rubens of West Memphis, Eddie Graumann of Helena and David Solomon of Helena.

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

There were 22 Jewish-owned businesses in Helena by 1909. Helena had a Jewish mayor, Aaron Meyers, from 1878-80. In 1867, Temple Beth El was founded at Helena and Congregation Anshe Emeth was founded at Pine Bluff. Later Delta congregations were formed at Jonesboro in 1897, Newport in 1905, Dermott in 1905, Eudora in 1912, Osceola in 1913, Forrest City in 1914, Wynne in 1915, Marianna in 1920, Blytheville in 1924 and McGehee in 1947.

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

The Delta Jewish merchants of the late 1800s and early 1900s received their goods from wholesalers in the river cities of Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Memphis.

And then there were the Italians.

In an earlier installment in this series, I wrote about the strong Italian influence in this area of southeast Arkansas. Those interested in the subject of the Delta Italians might be interested in a couple of books written by Paul Canonici, who was born of Italian immigrant parents in Shaw, Miss. The books are titled simply Volumes I and II of “The Delta Italians.”

After being educated in the public schools at Shaw, Canonici headed to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain to study with Benedictine monks at St. Joseph Seminary in Covington, La. He obtained a master’s degree from Notre Dame and a doctorate in sociology from Mississippi State. Canonici was ordained to the priesthood in 1957 and was superintendent of Catholic schools in the state of Mississippi from 1970-83.

Groups of Italian immigrants showed up to work on the Sunnyside Plantation near Lake Village in 1895 and 1897.

Canonici says the books are “based on the premise that Italians who went to the Sunnyside Plantation, and subsequently to other plantations in the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta, had similar characteristics and experiences. … Italians who settled on Delta plantations were mostly from central Italy, with a few from the northern provinces. Most were experienced farmers in a well-structured farming system called mezzadria.”

Under this system, extended families lived under one roof on land that belonged to the man known as the padrone. They shared the harvest with the owner of the land.

“They worked hard and lived simply, but generally there was sufficient food to sustain the family,” Canonici writes. “There was a saying that one might work himself to death but he did not starve to death. Their reason for leaving their native soil was to search for a better life. Many crossed the Atlantic with the intention of returning and would have returned if they had had the means.”

Canonici notes that unlike some cultures, where the men came first for several years, Italians immigrated as family units.

“Once in the Delta, the extended family maintained close ties but no longer lived and worked under the same roof,” he writes. “Most had become indebted to Delta planters before they arrived because they had been forwarded travel and living expenses. They began as tenant farmers, and although disillusioned by the living conditions they encountered, they continued to work hard.

“Italian settlers in the Delta had large families, an advantage for farmers who wanted to save money and improve their lifestyle. They formed their own social and religious communities, retained their Italian language through the first generation in America and remained faithful to their Catholic faith. They married among themselves, and there was minimal divorce.

“Once in the Delta, the Italians struggled to free themselves from debt. Those who were unable to pay off their debts sometimes escaped in the dark of night to avoid foreclosure. Families made numerous moves in search of the better life. Eventually many saved sufficient money to free themselves from tenant living. Some established themselves on their own farms, some found work in cities, a few returned to Italy. Most did eventually find the better life they sought, although not in the exact model of their dreams.”

Canonici recounts a visit to the historic Hyner Cemetery near Lake Village. It was his first visit to the cemetery, which is about six miles north of the bridge that connects Arkansas and Mississippi.

Here’s how Canonici describes the scene: “Soybean fields border the front and west sides of the cemetery. Fifty yards to the front are the road and the power lines that seem to follow the river. … Across the road, cotton fields are almost ready for picking, a reminder of the early days when these rugged, precious Italians were introduced to the crop that would be their livelihood for posterity. Occasionally a car or truck speeds by, breaking the silence of this holy place that contains the dust and bones of our brave ancestors.

“The sinking sun is surrounded by light clouds, forming a bright, flaming horizon. I am totally imbued by the spirit of Sunnyside as I brush my feet against the sandy loam dust just outside the cemetery gate and gaze on that eternal flame over the horizon. The spirit of the settlers of 1895 cries out to me from every side: ‘Come and see, come and see.’ So I walk past the historic marker, down a cotton row. The cotton stalks brush against my armpits and healthy cotton bolls slap against my legs. I think to myself, “What would they say about this crop?’ Then, as the sun sinks completely over the cotton fields of Sunnyside, I hear those voices again. Now they say, ‘Write on, write on, Paul.'”

So Canonici began writing about those who settled the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta.

“Our original settlers are dead,” he writes. “I do have some taped interviews, begun in the 1970s, of people who were children at the turn of the last century. This task should have been accomplished 30 or 40 years ago when the old-timers were still alive. Nevertheless, there will be no better time than today to start. So I begin my account this evening, standing on the dust of those courageous people who paved for us the way to that better life they sought. How sad that most of them never lived to experience the better life.”

It must be noted that Canonici was on a list of 37 Catholic priests, deacons and other ministers in Mississippi that the Diocese of Jackson identified last year as having been “credibly accused” of sexual abuse of minors.

If you’re interested in the rich cultural mix that is the Arkansas Delta, simply talk to some of those of Chinese, Jewish, Italian and Lebanese descent who have remained. They’re proud of their heritage and most are willing to regale you with family stories.

It’s time to head west. We’ll soon exit the Delta and be in the Gulf Coastal Plain for the rest of this trip across south Arkansas on Highway 82.

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The village on the lake

Thursday, January 9th, 2020


For years, bright young people from across the country have come to the Delta areas of Arkansas and Mississippi to work in public schools as part of the Teach for America program. Attracted to Lake Chicot (the largest oxbow lake in North America) and restaurants near the lake, these students sometimes refer to Lake Village as the Hamptons of the Delta.

As I’ve written more than once, don’t laugh.

Lake Chicot, which runs 22 miles in a curve and covers almost 5,000 acres, was the place where Charles Lindbergh conducted his first night flight in 1923. Long before the huge reservoirs built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers covered much of the state, Lake Chicot was a prime attraction for visitors from across Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. The Lake Chicot Water Festival once hosted the national championship hydroplane races.

People have been known to drive for hours (or even take private planes) to buy tamales at Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales, have dinner at The Cow Pen (now known as Table 82 at The Cow Pen) and shop at the Paul Michael Co.

To quote one Teach for America participant from Wisconsin who talked about her family coming to visit: “They love the sunshine, the weather, the beautiful sunsets, the slow pace and the extremely friendly people. They would definitely say the people of Arkansas are the most hospitable they’ve come across.”

Miss Rhoda’s fame has even spread as far away as Jackson, Miss.

A feature story in that city’s Clarion-Ledger began this way: “The lunch rush is over and it is quiet inside Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales, but the air is steamy and filled with the rich smell of cumin and chili powder. At one of the Formica-topped tables, Rhoda Adams takes a break to reflect on her years making what some believe to be the best example of the Delta’s most curious culinary treats. She said she was not sold on the idea of getting into the hot tamales business at first.”

Adams explained: “My husband’s auntie asked me about us doing it, but I never wanted to do any hot tamales. We started doing about 25 dozen a day. I kind of liked it, but I didn’t like it without a machine.”

Her husband bought her a machine, and Adams went to work. She’s the mother of 15 children, only 11 of whom survived to adulthood. She has told me she has almost 60 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, adding: “Some of them I ain’t never seen.”

The Jackson paper noted that Adams’ “tamale family is many times larger. Lovers of the meat and cornmeal treats travel from far and wide to find their holy grail served on a Styrofoam plate for a buck apiece. How far would someone come for Rhoda’s famous tamales? ‘Man, what are you talking about?’ she said with mock gall. ‘Oklahoma, New York, Florida. Honest to God. And I have people here every day from Little Rock.'”

Her pies and plate lunches are as good as her tamales.

Famous food writer Michael Stern noted: “The name of Rhoda Adams’ cafe is no lie. The tamales are delicious and well deserving of the fame they have earned up and down the Mississippi Delta. She makes them with a combination of beef and chicken; the meats combined with steamed cornmeal are wrapped in husks that when unfolded emanate an irresistibly appetizing aroma and are a joy to eat as a snack or meal any time of the day.

“Beyond tamales, the menu at James and Rhoda Adams’ little eat place by the side of the road is a full roster of great, soulful regional specialties. For fried chicken or pig’s feet, barbecue or a catfish dinner, you won’t do better for miles around. Early one morning, Rhoda made us breakfast of bacon and eggs with biscuits on the side. Even this simple meal tasted especially wonderful. Rhoda is one of those gifted cooks who makes everything she touches something special.”

Of her pies, Stern wrote: “We’ve always considered Arkansas one of America’s top seven pie states (along with Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Virginia, Texas and Maine). Rhoda’s pies are proof. She makes small individual ones. … Her sweet potato pie and pecan pie are world class.”

Near the Mississippi River bridge, The Cow Pen has been a Delta dining tradition since 1967. That’s when Floyd Owens converted an old cattle inspection station into a restaurant. Gene and Juanita Grassi bought The Cow Pen in 1977. After 30 years of running the restaurant, they decided to retire. That’s when the Faulk family, who operated the now defunct LakeShore Cafe just down the highway, stepped up and decided to operate a second restaurant.

Just six months after the Faulks took charge, The Cow Pen burned in November 2007. The Faulks, however, were determined to rebuild. The new Cow Pen opened on Nov. 26, 2008. That restaurant eventually closed. It was sold at auction last year and reopened as Table 82 at The Cow Pen. The menu features steaks, shrimp, salmon and fried chicken. The restaurant is open from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Sunday.

It’s a good place to eat after time spent at the Paul Michael Co., which opened its first location in Lake Village in 1994, offering furniture, rugs and high-end decorative accessories. The business later added locations in Louisiana and Texas.

According to the company website: “Paul Michael is from the third generation of his family to be born and raised in this rural, Delta town. His grandfather was one of the first merchants in the area; he traveled to levee camps with a mule and sold pots, pans, thread and other necessities to the levee workers. His dedication to the community led to the opening of Lake Village’s first department store, Mansour’s, which remained for more than 80 years.

“Paul worked in his grandfather’s department store as a young adult. It became evident that he possessed a natural gift in the art of buying, selling and trading. During the 1970s, Paul fostered this gift, buying antiques and selling them to theme restaurants. During this stage in Paul’s life, he fell in love with First Monday Trade Days in Canton, Texas. Always able to foresee future trends, he shifted his focus toward Indian jewelry and diamonds, ultimately becoming one of the first wholesale distributors of sterling silver jewelry to major department stores across the United States. Paul’s ventures into the jewelry trade led him abroad, where he first saw potential in the home decorative accessories market.”

Another area attraction is Lake Chicot State Park. In the first part of this series, we noted how Lake Chicot filled up with silt after work began on the Mississippi River levee in the 1920s. The problems became worse through the years as bottomland hardwoods were cleared and the land was used for row-crop farming. In 1940, the state’s first study of recreational needs was conducted by the state Parks Commission, the state Planning Board and the National Park Service. It recommended that Lake Chicot “be given prime consideration for an addition to the state park system.”

A dam constructed by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission in 1948 resulted in the upper one-fourth of the lake becoming much clearer than the rest of Lake Chicot. Area residents dedicated land for a state park on the lake’s northwest shore in 1957.

After Arkansas voters passed a constitutional amendment in 1996 that provided millions of dollars a year for state park improvements, massive renovations took place. There’s a visitors’ center along with cabins, campsites, a store, a marina, fishing piers, a swimming pool, picnic areas, pavilions and hiking trails.

Though Lake Village wasn’t incorporated as a town until 1898, the first white settlers began to live in the area in the 1820s.

“Agriculture was the mainstay of Lake Village,” Scott Cashion writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Throughout much of the 19th century, this meant plantation agriculture dominated by King Cotton and slavery. Lake Village was home to several of the largest slaveholders in Arkansas and the South. By 1850, there were 145 white families in Chicot County owning 3,984 slaves. The majority of these slaves lived in and around Lake Village. Elisha Worthington became one of the wealthiest men in the South due in large part to plantations that he owned in and around Lake Village. At the height of his power, Worthington owned more than 12,000 acres as well as some 540 slaves.”

After the Civil War, there were several prominent black leaders who called Lake Village home. James Mason, the son of Elisha Worthington and one of his slaves, was elected Chicot County sheriff in 1872 and later was elected to the Arkansas Senate. Blacks held many of the offices in the county until the end of Reconstruction.

Chicot County had been carved out of Arkansas County by the Arkansas Territorial Legislature in 1823. The first county seat was at a community called Villemont, which was named for one of the commanders at Arkansas Post, Don Carlos de Villemont. He had been given a land grant in 1795 called Island del Chicot. Villemont died in 1823. The town of Villemont had almost 500 residents in the 1840s, but the Mississippi River began eating at its banks, and the settlement slowly fell into the river.

“After this, the county seat was moved to the settlement of Columbia until it was relocated inland to Masona on Bayou Macon,” Cashion writes. “Masona was 15 miles inland, however, and thus too far away from the river traffic. The people of the county decided in 1857 to move the county seat to Lake Village. Columbia suffered the same fate as Villemont. The town thrived for a few years until 1885 when Columbia’s courthouse fell into the river and was swept away.

“When it was first established, the county’s borders encompassed much more land than in modern times, extending to the Saline and Ouachita rivers in the west and to within 10 miles of the Arkansas River in the north. This included the present-day counties of Desha, Drew and Ashley counties as well as present-day Chicot County. In the years leading up to the Civil War, Chicot County was widely considered to be the richest county in the state and one of the richest in the country. This was due in part to the amount of cotton production in the county as well as the sheer number of slaves there during this period.”

Chicot County also was blessed with important ports on the Mississippi River.

Cashion writes: “One of these was Gaines Landing, named for Ben P. Gaines, R.M. Gaines and William H. Gaines, who had settled the area. This was one of the chief ports on the lower Mississippi from 1830-80. Another important landing was on Grand Lake near Eudora. This landing served as a docking point for a number of riverboats in the years leading up to the Civil War. The boats came in with freight and mail and left with cotton, fur and other products that were used throughout the region. The landing on Grand Lake was later known as Carriola Landing. From the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the 20th century, this landing was one of the largest shipping points on the Mississippi River south of Helena.”

The population of the county almost doubled from 11,419 in the 1890 census to 21,987 in the 1910 census. The Memphis, Helena & Louisiana Railroad made its way into the county in 1903. This allowed the virgin hardwood timber to be shipped out. That land was then drained and used to raise cotton. The new cotton farms required thousands of sharecroppers and tenant farmers, leading to the population surge.

“The economic growth was cut short by the Great Flood of 1927, which put nearly 13 percent of the state under water,” Cashion writes. “Since most people in the county were farmers, they were hurt most by the flood. The dams, spillways and natural streams that carried water to the farmland were virtually destroyed. Lake Chicot, normally a clear lake, became a settling basin for muddy water all the way from Pine Bluff.”

Population growth slowed. It reached its high point of 27,452 residents in the 1940 census. The widespread mechanization of agriculture significantly reduced the need for sharecroppers and tenant farmers. Chicot County’s population has dropped in each census since 1940. By the 2010 census, it was down to 11,800, the smallest since 1890.

A small prisoner of war camp for Germans was established at Lake Village in 1944. It was a branch of the main camp at Dermott. Nearby Jerome in Chicot County was the site of one of the two Japanese-American internment camps in the state. The other was at Rohwer in Desha County.

The current Chicot County Courthouse at Lake Village was built in 1956. Desegregation came more than a decade later when Larry Potts became the first black student to graduate from Lakeside High School in 1969.

The Italian influence remains strong in Lake Village. This dates back to the 1890s when the Sunnyside Plantation was the home of the largest colony of Catholic immigrants in Arkansas. A New York businessman named Austin Corbin bought more than 10,000 acres in Chicot County and established the plantation.

“Under the auspices of the Sunnyside Co., Corbin consolidated several plantations and named the property after an area plantation that dated back to the 1830s,” Jamie Metrailer writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “When difficulties arose in finding laborers to work these cotton fields, including a stint with convict labor, Corbin made an arrangement with Prince Ruspoli, the mayor of Rome, for Italian immigrants to farm the property. Ruspoli and Corbin arranged for the immigration of 100 Italian families annually for five consecutive years.

“Corbin provided these Italian immigrants with 12 and 1/2 acres of land per family with housing. The land and houses were ‘payable over 21 years at an annual interest rate of 5 percent of the unpaid balance.’ These terms were appealing to potential immigrants. Italy’s economy was then doing poorly, in part from the government’s rush to industrialize rural sectors of the country. The first party of more than 500 Italian Catholics reached Sunnyside Plantation in December 1895, and a similar number reached Chicot County in January 1897. Though the colony was able to build a school, church and railroad connecting the various portions of the plantation, the Italian immigrants experienced many problems.”

Most of these immigrants knew nothing about farming. And since they came from different parts of Italy, they didn’t work together well. Malaria was rampant.

Corbin died in 1896. By 1898, O.B. Crittenden & Co. had taken over the plantation. Many of the immigrants followed Father Pietro Bandini to northwest Arkansas, where he founded the community of Tontitown.

Bandini had been born in 1852 in the Romagna region of Italy. He studied in Monaco beginning in 1869 and began teaching in September 1874 at a Jesuit seminary at Aix en Provence in France. He was ordained as a priest in September 1877. In 1882, he was sent to the Jesuits’ Rocky Mountain Mission in the Montana Territory.

According to the Tontitown Historical Museum: “He studied English and Indian languages there. A year later, he was stationed at the St. Ignatius Mission in Montana, where he built a church and school and traveled into Indian villages instructing both the Crow and Kootenai in the Catholic faith. He later successfully started a mission for the Cheyenne tribe. Bandini returned to Europe in March 1889, where he was appointed vice rector of St. Thomas Aquinas College in Cuneo, Italy. He remained in this position for one year, after which he returned to the United States and established St. Raphael’s Italian Benevolent Society, the purpose of which was to assist Italian immigrants at the Port of New York.”

Bandini helped thousands of Italian immigrants who were entering the country. After five years, he requested to be assigned to Corbin’s plantation in Arkansas. Bandini arrived at Sunnyside in January 1897. He was greeted by contaminated water, mosquitoes and poor sanitation. Bandini felt that the owners who had replaced Corbin cared nothing about the Italians.

Bandini had traveled through the Ozarks and found the land there to be like much of Italy. He headed to northwest Arkansas in January 1898 and found 800 acres for sale. Forty families from Sunnyside soon arrived, and Tontitown was established.

Bandini returned to Italy for a short time in 1911 and received a medal from the Italian government for his work. He died in Little Rock in January 1917 at St. Vincent Infirmary.

About 35 immigrant families remained at Sunnyside during the 1890s.

According to Metrailer: “One account states that the Italians present on the plantation in 1898 ‘did so well under the new regime that they not only remained themselves but of their own volition sent to Italy for their families and friends.’ However, in 1907, the U.S. government issued a report charging O.B. Crittenden & Co. with breaking debt peonage laws, though nothing came of the report. Almost all Italian workers left the plantation by 1910 after the company changed policies and placed the Italian Catholics in a sharecropping arrangement. After World War II, the Sunnyside Plantation was divided and sold as smaller farms.”

The Italian influence at Lake Village remained strong. A major annual event on the first Sunday of each March is the Our Lady of the Lake spaghetti dinner. This year will mark the 109th such event. All the food is homemade. About 3,600 meatballs are made each year. Recipes have been handed down through the generations.

According to a story in the Arkansas Catholic: “There’s bread baking day in January. Over Presidents Day weekend, 100 volunteers spend two days producing 300 pounds of yolk-yellow pasta that air dries overnight on rows of tables. In late February, the Pierini family leads production of 3,600 meatballs that will stew in caldrons of sauce overseen by the most experienced men in the parish. Homemade desserts arrive by the carload as do diners who will line up as early at 7 a.m. for takeout orders.”

Homemade pasta can be purchased throughout the year, meanwhile, at Regina’s Pasta Shop on the shores of Lake Chicot.

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Crossing into Arkansas

Tuesday, January 7th, 2020


Although the bridge opened a decade ago in 2010, folks in southeast Arkansas still refer to it as the “new Greenville bridge.”

The old bridge, which was demolished, had opened in 1940.

“The bridge was intimidating and fascinating to me,” Dr Clyde Brown of Memphis wrote in 2002. “I always thought of it as a powerful steel horse perched in the Delta sky. When I got my driver’s license, my parents trusted me enough to drive them across the bridge to Lake Village. I must say that this experience was as unnerving as landing an F-16 on an aircraft carrier at night.”

In 1951, a jet from the nearby Greenville Air Force Base struck the bridge and exploded. The pilot was killed, and there was a large fire. The crash caused $175,000 in damage, a huge amount at the time, but the bridge was reopened to traffic by the next day.

Greenville, known as the Queen City of the Delta, was a booming place in the 1930s. Cotton was king, and Greenville is where the area planters went to do business and have fun. Mayor Milton C. Smith knew, however, that there needed to be a bridge to Arkansas rather than just a ferry if the good times were to continue. He joined forces with John Fox, the secretary of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce. The two men spent weeks at a time in Washington during the 1930s, lobbying for federal funding. Smith’s barrel hoop business went bankrupt due to his continued absences.

Eventually, Congressman Wade Kitchens of Arkansas introduced a bill to get things moving on the bridge. Sen. Joe T. Robinson of Arkansas had earlier joined forces with Sen. Pat Harrison of Mississippi to promote the bridge. Arkansas Gov. Carl Bailey was another key ally.

Fox met with civic leaders from Birmingham in the east to Lubbock in the west, explaining what the bridge could mean for the South. He urged people across the region to send telegrams to members of Congress. The bill authorizing bridge construction was approved in August 1937 and signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

A consultant from Kansas City determined that Warfield Landing, the site used by the Greenville ferry, wouldn’t be a suitable site for a bridge. The recommendation was to build the bridge below Lake Chicot on the Arkansas side in a straight stretch of the river with stable banks. The new location meant long and expensive approaches would have to be built. The estimated cost was $4.25 million.

In September 1938, the Greenville mayor and his city attorney, S.B. Thomas, went to Washington seek money from the federal Works Progress Administration. They successfully made the case that construction of a bridge would create jobs for hundreds of men who otherwise would be unemployed. On Sept. 21, 1938, Smith and Thomas sent a telegram to Greenville stating that the trip had been a success and that “we can now look forward to the actual materialization of our fondest dream, the construction of the mammoth bridge.”

The Delta Democrat Times at Greenville reported: “And so it was that exactly at 11:30 a.m. on that day, Greenville received the joyful news with the blasting of every steam whistle in the city, a prearranged signal.”

The bridge was opened for traffic on Oct. 2, 1940, and named for former Congressman Benjamin Humphreys of Greenville, a co-author of the Ransdell-Humphreys Flood Control Act of 1917, which established a national flood-control program along the Mississippi River. His granddaughter, Mildred “Maury” McGee, had cut the ribbon during the earlier dedication ceremony in September.

Humphreys, who first was elected to Congress in 1902, was determined to make the folks in Washington aware of the flood problems along the lower Mississippi River. A paper he wrote in 1914 advanced the notion that the river was, in essence, the drainage canal for the nation and thus a federal responsibility. That paper helped sway public opinion. Members of the new House Flood Control Committee toured the region in 1916 so they could see the problems for themselves. The act passed the following year, giving the federal government the responsibility of flood control along the Mississippi Rover.

The Delta Democrat Times would later write of the bridge: “It seems appropriate that the massive structure of steel and concrete which links two sides on the great river he loved should be dedicated to his memory. His life work had been the conquest of that river beside which he now sleeps.”

At the time the bridge opened, it was the longest span for a highway bridge anywhere on the Mississippi River. Dubuque, Iowa, would break that record three years later.

The new bridge that opened in 2010 cost $110 million. The four-lane, cable-stayed structure has become an architectural landmark for the area during the past decade. The approach on the Arkansas side — over the Mississippi River levee and floodplain — cost almost $66 million. The approach on the Mississippi side — over the east side levee and floodplain — cost about $86 million.

It’s fitting that this trip across south Arkansas on U.S. Highway 82 begins in Greenville, which almost seems like a part of Arkansas since it has been a town to which southeast Arkansas residents have flocked for decades. For those of who love history, Greenville is a delight despite the loss of population and economic vitality in recent years.

There’s the Hebrew Union Temple at 504 Main St., which was erected in 1906 and boasts some of the most beautiful stained-glass windows anywhere. The temple houses the Goldstein Nelken Solomon Century of History Museum for those interested in the history of the Delta Jews. The city’s first elected mayor, Leopold Wilzinski, was Jewish.

There’s also the Greenville Writers’ Exhibit in the William Alexander Percy Memorial Library at 341 Main St. More than 100 published writers called Greenville home at one time or another during the 20th century. The exhibit celebrates the work of William Alexander Percy, Walker Percy, Hodding Carter, Shelby Foote and other well-known writers.

There’s the First National Bank Building, built in 1903, with marble and stained-glass windows imported from Italy.

There’s St. Joseph Catholic Church at 412 Main St., which was erected in 1907. It was designed and financed by a Dutch nobleman who served as the parish priest for 33 years. William Alexander Percy wrote about him in his memoir “Lanterns on the Levee.” The stained-glass windows in the church were obtained from the Munich studio of Emil Frei.

There’s the building at the corner of Main and Walnut streets where Hodding Carter penned editorials for the Delta Democrat Times that advocated racial tolerance and won him a Pulitzer Price. There’s a historic marker out front.

And, of course, there’s the original Doe’s Eat Place.

Well-known food writer Michael Stern once said of this restaurant: “There is a special magic about the original Doe’s in Greenville. Located on the wrong side of town in the back rooms of a dilapidated grocery store, it does not look like a restaurant, much less a great restaurant. Many of the dining tables are in fact located in the kitchen, spread helter-skelter among stoves and counters where the staff dresses salads and fries potatoes in big iron skillets. Plates, flatware and tablecloths are all mismatched. It is noisy and inelegant, and service — while perfectly polite — is rough and tumble.

“Doe’s fans, ourselves included, love it just the way it is. The ambience, which is at least a few degrees this side of casual, is part of what makes it such a kick. Mississippians have eaten here since the 1940s; for the regular patrons the eccentricity makes the experience as comfortable as an old shoe. Newcomers may be shocked by the ramshackle surroundings, but Doe’s is easy to like once the food starts coming.”

Dominick “Big Doe” Signa and his wife Mamie started the place in 1941. Doe’s father had moved to Greenville in 1903 and opened a grocery store in the building that now houses the restaurant. The family lived in a house behind the store. The grocery did well until the Great Flood of 1927 devastated the area economy. Big Doe went into bootlegging to make ends meet. In about 1940, his wife received a good recipe for tamales and began selling them at the store.

Here’s how the restaurant’s website tells the rest of the story: “At first, Big Doe ran a honky-tonk in the front part of the store. It was strictly for blacks. He had things like buffalo fish and chili. Ironically, the carriage trade arrived by the back door, like segregation in reverse. One of the local doctors began coming for a meal between calls. Big Doe would cook him up a steak and feed him in the back. Pretty soon the doctor brought another doctor, then a lawyer and before he knew it, Doe had a regular restaurant in the back. After calling in family and in-laws to help with his thriving restaurant, he eventually closed the honky-tonk and focused on the eat place.”

Big Doe retired in 1974. His sons, Charles and Little Doe, took over. Big Doe died in 1987, but the family tradition lives on along Nelson Street.

As you head west into Arkansas, your first stop should be the Lakeport Plantation. The house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Eight years later, it was designated by the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation as part of the Save America’s Treasures program. Using grants from Save America’s Treasures, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council, the home was restored by Arkansas State University and opened to the public.

Turn off U.S. 82 onto Arkansas Highway 142 and go two miles. You’ll later see the house on your left.

Lakeport once was used as the name of a steamboat landing on the Mississippi River from which thousands of bales of cotton were shipped each year down the river to New Orleans. The house, which was given to ASU by the Sam Epstein Angel family, is the only remaining plantation home in Arkansas that’s on the Mississippi River. The surrounding plantation has remained in continuous cotton production since the 1830s when slaves cleared out the bottomland hardwood forests.

Joel Johnson came from Kentucky and established the plantation in the early 1830s. The house was built in 1859 for Joel’s son, Lycurgus, and his wife, Lydia Taylor Johnson. Their descendants remained there until it was sold to Sam Epstein in 1927.

Arkansas historian Tom DeBlack writes: “Lycurgus Johnson died on Aug. 1, 1876. The plantation remained in the family until 1927 when Lycurgus Johnson’s son Victor sold Lakeport to Sam Epstein for $30,000. Born in Russia in 1875, Epstein was one of a sizable number of poor East European Jews who migrated to the United States and sought their fortune in the Delta. Epstein started out peddling clothes and eventually opened a small store and made some good investments, overcoming poverty and religious bigotry to acquire a fortune and become one of Chicot County’s most respected citizens.

“Upon Epstein’s death in 1944, his son-in-law, Ben Angel, served as trustee of the estate, managed the family’s operations and carried on his father-in-law’s tradition of civic service. Ben Angel’s son, Sam Epstein Angel, currently runs the Epstein Land Co., encompassing some 13,000 acres of land and a large cotton-ginning operation, and serves as the senior civilian member of the Mississippi River Commission.”

DeBlack describes Joel Johnson as “the scion of a large and prestigious Kentucky family. Johnson sold his house and gristmill in Scott County, Ky., and set off for Chicot County. He purchased a tract of land southeast of Old River Lake (present day Lake Chicot) just above a large curve in the river called American Bend. … For the next 15 years, Johnson expanded his holdings in land and slaves and brought more land under cultivation. The soil produced abundantly, and slave-based plantation agriculture became firmly entrenched in Chicot County. By the time of his death in June 1846, Joel Johnson owned more than 3,700 acres of rich Delta land, as well as 95 slaves.”

Lycurgus Johnson was 28 when his father died. He had been born in 1818 in Kentucky and joined his father in Arkansas in the 1830s. He and Lydia Taylor had 12 children, four of whom died before reaching age three. By 1860, Lycurgus Johnson owned about 4,400 acres and 155 slaves.

DeBlack describes the house, which was built in the Greek Revival style, as “an imposing two-story, L-shaped structure containing 17 rooms and about 8,000 square feet. Constructed largely of cypress from the surrounding region and situated amidst cotton fields, the mansion faced east toward the river. The house was a showplace of the state’s cotton aristocracy. The exterior of the house was painted the color of straw, and blue-green shutters adorned the windows. The front of the structure, along with the base of the L, was graced by a two-story portico with a triangular pediment gable and centered rose windows. Tapered white columns supported both levels of the portico. An ornate, wrought-iron and lacework grill, in an oak leaf and acorn design, surrounded a first-floor porch on the northeastern corner of the house.

“The house was built on a slight elevation in the terrain, and the first floor was set four feet above the grade as protection against flooding. The entry had 11-foot-high wood-paneled doors flanked by glass sidelights and a large central entry hall measuring more than 26 feet long and almost 16 feet wide. A chandelier hung from an elaborate ceiling rosette on the 14-foot ceiling, and a decorative painted cloth covered the floor. The hallway was large enough to accommodate parties and dancing.”

Union soldiers descended on Lakeport during the Civil War and took all of the horses, mules and cattle.

“Wealthy planters like Lycurgus Johnson were severely affected by the war,” DeBlack writes. “Johnson’s loss in slaves alone was well over $100,000, to say nothing of his losses in crops and livestock. But while many of his neighbors sank into economic ruin and despair, Johnson survived and even prospered. He was able to negotiate successfully for the services of many of the freedmen who had been his slaves before the war, and he quickly developed a reputation as a fair and honest employer.

“The local Freedmen’s Bureau agent, a man not generally favorably disposed toward the planters, wrote that Johnson was a ‘model man of Chicot County.’ The 600 bales of cotton that Lakeport produced in 1870 made Johnson the largest cotton producer in Chicot County, though it was considerably less than the 1,300 bales the plantation produced in 1860.”

Continuing toward Lake Village on U.S. 82, we drive along the western shore of Lake Chicot, the largest oxbow lake in North America. The lake runs for almost 22 miles and covers 5,000 acres. Charles Lindbergh conducted his first night flight over the lake in 1923.

“Geologists estimate that Lake Chicot likely separated from the Mississippi River several centuries ago when the river cut a shorter pathway to the east,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The expedition of Hernando de Soto likely touched upon the site of the lake. After his death and burial near Lake Village, his body was exhumed and thrown into the Mississippi River. Many historians today believe that part of the river became Lake Chicot. The lake was given its name by later French explorers, being derived from a French word meaning ‘stump,’ in reference to the many cypress knees that dot the lakeshore.

“White settlement of the area began in the late 1820s. Before the Civil War, slave-driven agriculture flourished in the vicinity of Lake Chicot, originally called by American settlers Old River Lake. Most of the slaves worked on plantations situated in the vicinity of Lake Chicot, where they worked primarily on cotton. Sunnyside Plantation, to give one example, was founded in the 1830s on the inside of the C-shaped curve of the lake.”

In the 1860 census, there was a population of 9,234 people in Chicot County. Of those residents, 7,512 were slaves.

“Until the 1920s, water from Lake Chicot was considered pure enough that the city of Lake Village used it untreated,” Lancaster writes. “However, that changed later in the decade as local work on the Mississippi River levee began. To prevent flooding behind the levee, Cypress Creek Gap, through which flowed drainage north of Lake Chicot to the Mississippi, was closed. A new system of ditches and canals diverted drainage waters southward. In 1926-27, the local drainage district extended Connerly Bayou on the lake’s northern end to connect Lake Chicot with nearby Macon Lake, with drainage extended through Ditch Bayou on the lake’s southern end.”

The Great Flood of 1927 caused the dam on Connerly Bayou to break. Silt poured into Lake Chicot, and water levels dropped.

“Pressured by the state attorney general, the local drainage district built a dam on Ditch Bayou in 1932 in an attempt to restore the lake to its normal level, but the dam washed out the following year,” Lancaster writes. “Beginning in the 1940s, increased clearing and cultivation of the surrounding watershed, combined with the growing use of pesticides on farmland, left the lower three-quarters of the lake (south of where Connerly Bayou entered it) a polluted and sediment-laden waste, its muddy brown water in dramatic contrast with the bright blue of the upper part of the lake, which was isolated by an earthen dam constructed by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission in 1948 to protect that portion of the lake.”

A concrete dam was built across Ditch Bayou in 1956, but mud and silt continued to enter the lake. What had once been one of the South’s great spots for bass fishing almost saw the end of recreational fishing with the exception of the northern part of the lake.

The Game & Fish Commission joined forces with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Chicot County Rural Development Authority beginning in 1968 on what was known as the Lake Chicot Project. A dam was built on Connerly Bayou with gates that could open or close depending on the quality of the water. Dirty water was diverted to a pumping plant that sent it to the Mississippi River via Rowdy Bend.

“Obtaining the necessary funding for the project took some time, and the pumping plant was installed in 1985,” Lancaster writes. “That year, the Corps of Engineers drew down the lake to compact the sediment on the bottom and seeded the lake with plants that would provide a food base for fish populations. Game fish were restocked. Within a few years, the lake had largely recovered.”

I believe it to be one of the most important government projects ever done in the Arkansas Delta. Arkansas’ largest natural lake had been restored. Lake Chicot was beautiful again.

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From Montrose to Wilmot

Friday, August 16th, 2019


Montrose is the place where two U.S. highways — 165 and 82 — meet.

The town’s population was 354 people in the 2010 census, down from a high of 641 in the 1980 census. Like most small towns in this part of southeast Arkansas, Montrose struggles to remain relevant.

Timber companies cleared the virgin hardwood trees during the period of Arkansas history known as the Big Cut (which lasted from about 1880 to 1930), and men such as W.T. Cone and Sam Wilson bought up the land to raise cotton.

“Cone had been a merchant in Hamburg before acquiring farmland in the Montrose area,” Steve Teske writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “In 1922, with the national decline in cotton prices, Cone sold his land to Wilson and left the area. Cotton remained the main crop throughout the 20th century. Around the beginning of the century, the Iron Mountain Railroad built a line that extended into Louisiana. It established depots at regular intervals where train engineers could obtain additional fuel and water. Many of these depots were named for railroad executives and employees. This is probably the case for Montrose, although no record of the namesake has been preserved.

“A post office was established at the Montrose stop in 1898. The Montrose depot became more significant when a team of investors created a short-line railroad called the Mississippi River, Hamburg & Western Railway. It connected the Crossett area to Luna Landing on the Mississippi River. This line intersected the Iron Mountain line at the Montrose depot. Both lines became part of Missouri Pacific later in the century. Homes and businesses were quickly built around the depot, and Montrose incorporated as a second-class city in 1904.”

The area was ravaged by the Great Flood of 1927 and the Great Depression.

“By the middle of the century, the combination of mechanized agriculture and social changes brought about a decline in population as many farm workers sought better-paying jobs in the larger cities of Arkansas as well as in Northern states,” Teske writes. “Due to school consolidation, all the schools in the area are now part of the Hamburg School District, which doesn’t have any school buildings in Montrose. In 1986, Bill Jones opened a business in Montrose based around the barbecue sauce recipe of his grandfather, Jasper Jones of Mississippi. Sassy Jones Sauce & Spice Co. makes and distributes various foods, including sauces, jams, jellies and syrups.”

The next town headed south is Portland, which was once a steamboat port on the Bayou Bartholomew.

“The earliest known settlers were John P. Fisher and William Brady, who were there in the 1830s,” writes Rebecca DeArmond-Huskey, the author of two books about life along the Bayou Bartholomew. “Fisher arrived in 1833, established a plantation and constructed a two-story house on the west side of the bayou. A short distance down the bayou from Fisher’s house, a small settlement emerged on the opposite side. Steamboat captains called this stopping place ‘the port.’ Upon establishment of a post office in 1857, it was named Portland.

“The bayou village consisted largely of mercantile stores that received their goods from steamboats and served the plantations and smaller farms. Brothers John Cicero Bain, James Oliver Bain and their half-brother Dolphus Leroy Bain installed a steam gin and traded in cotton and cottonseed. A Mr. Culpepper operated a sawmill. He cut the lumber for Fisher’s house. A one-room school and a church stood on a bluff facing the bayou.”

The railroad reached the area in 1890, and many merchants moved almost two miles so they would be by the railroad rather than the bayou.

“Three stores opened the next year and two more in 1892,” DeArmond-Huskey writes. “The town incorporated in October 1893. Instrumental in incorporation were Robert Aaron Pugh, Joseph Cicero Bain and Edward J. Camak. Agriculture continued to be the basis of the economy, but the railroad soon attracted the timber industry. William Harrell Wells was in the barrel stave business in 1896, and the Stell & Boothby Stave Mill was open by early 1897. The first Northern-based concerns were American Forest Lumber and Wheeler Cypress Lumber Co.”

By the early 1900s, there were four large hardwood mills operating in or near Portland.

“When most of the timber was cut by the end of World War I, the mills began to close,” DeArmond-Huskey writes. “Despite the loss of the timber industry, agriculture thrived, and the town continued to grow until the Great Depression. Many small businesses closed, and small farmers began to sell their land in the 1930s. This continued through World War II. With the loss of tenant labor during the war and the emergence of farm mechanization, the surviving large mercantile businesses gradually closed.”

Some of the largest, most prosperous farms in the state traditionally have been in this area of Arkansas. Planters built homes in Portland that reflected their wealth. Noted architect Charles Thompson of Little Rock was hired to design the Joel Wilson Pugh house and the Jess Dean house. The Pugh house, the Dean house and the Henry Naff house all were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

I continue south to Parkdale. Folks my age might best remember Parkdale as the little school that won the state’s Overall Basketball Tournament. It was our state’s version of the movie “Hoosiers.”

I was there that night in March 1979 on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas when the Class B school (which was consolidated with Hamburg in 1994) won it all.

I was a young sportswriter looking to see history made as the Parkdale Dragons beat Marmaduke. The Dragons had earlier defeated Osceola and Pine Bluff in the tournament. Ronald Claiborne scored 32 points for Parkdale in the championship game.

Parkdale originally was known as Poplar Bluff.

“Once a busy, prosperous and even violent city, Parkdale has become a relatively quiet community in the 21st century,” Teske writes. “John Tillman Hughes built a store at the present location of Parkdale in 1857. Some farmers were already working the land near the bayou, including William Morris, John Harris and William Butler. Morris’ son, John William Morris, worked as a clerk in Hughes’ store and later opened his own store.”

The Bayou Bartholomew steamboat landing derived its original name from a grove of poplar trees along the bayou. Union troops raided Poplar Bluff in January 1865, burning a gristmill, a distillery and a large amount of corn and cotton.

“Following the war, the settlement was rebuilt with stores, saloons, mills, a post office and the Baptist church,” Teske writes. “A public school was established in 1884. Poplar Bluff incorporated as a town in 1889. The railroad through Poplar Bluff was completed in the early 1890s. Because the railroad also served the larger city of Poplar Bluff, Mo., railroad officials named the depot Parkdale. The name of the post office and of the city followed. Sawmills were built to process timber, and the city grew rapidly.”

The Bank of Parkdale was established in 1905. A new schoolhouse and bridge across the bayou opened in 1908. There was a telephone exchange by 1912.

“In the early part of the 20th century, Parkdale became notorious for violent crimes, including murders,” Teske writes. “Historian Y.W. Ethridge described Parkdale as a ‘boisterous community’ due to the railroad, sawmills and saloons. One citizen later said: ‘Parkdale was terrible. There were a bunch of outlaws. It was a shoot-up town. … There was a rough and rowdy white element here. It was wild.’

“One of the most unusual crimes in Parkdale was the lynching of Ernest Williams, an African-American man, in June 1908. A group of African-American women had organized a league to enforce better moral conduct, and Williams had evidently not complied with their standards. Consequently, they seized him one evening, dragged him to a telegraph pole on the outskirts of Parkdale and hanged him. His body wasn’t discovered by local authorities until the next morning, and no one was ever charged with the crime.”

Parkdale’s population peaked at 471 people in 1980. A 1910 Baptist church, a 1926 Methodist church and the homes of two doctors (the M.C. Hawkins home built in 1912 and the Robert George Williams home built in 1903) are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Wilmot is the last community headed south before crossing into Louisiana. It’s along Lake Enterprise, an oxbow of the Bayou Bartholomew.

The community once was known as Enterprise, but the post office was called Bartholomew when it was established in 1880. The name Wilmot eventually was used in honor of a surveyor for the railroad, which arrived in 1890.

“J.W. Harris anticipated the coming of the railroad and bought large portions of land, reselling the parcels after the surveyor had planned the city surrounding the depot that bore his name,” Teske writes. “Edward O. McDermott, a physician and the son of inventor Charles McDermott, was hired by the railroad as a tie contractor. He made his home in Wilmot  and opened a store in the growing city.”

A theater opened in 1911, the same year a two-story school building was finished. A newspaper was established the following year. Edward McDermott even built a hotel on the banks of Lake Enterprise. A golf course was constructed in the 1920s.

“The businesses of Wilmot were largely agricultural,” Teske writes. “Several plantations shipped out cotton, corn and other produce. Cypress trees were harvested from the lake and made into shingles. The city also had a stave mill and a furniture store. A cottonseed oil mill was built in 1902.

“Following the Great Depression and World War II, the population of the area dropped as agriculture became more mechanized and as industry attracted workers to cities in Arkansas and in Northern states. Historians estimate that half the black residents of eastern Ashley County emigrated in the middle of the 20th century. Remaining farmers, with financial support from the federal government, diversified their crops, adding rice, soybeans and cattle.”

Wilmot now has almost four times as many black residents as white residents.

This is the Delta part of Ashley County, far different from the pine woods of the Gulf Coastal Plain that surround Crossett and Hamburg.

Ashley County was formed in November 1848 out of parts of Chicot, Drew and Union counties. It became the sixth-largest county in terms of area. It was named for Chester Ashley, the third Arkansan elected to the U.S. Senate.

“When U.S. surveyor Nicholas Rightor entered the Arkansas Territory in 1826, he found settlers who had come to a land that they found to be abundantly fertile and in which game and fish were plentiful,” Deirdre Kelly and Bill Norman write for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The area abounded with timber, especially hardwood. As the hardwood was cleared for cultivation, pine took over. … By 1855, many farms were producing cotton, corn, wheat, potatoes and livestock. … Both rafting and timber were profitable, though rafting stopped when the railroads arrived.”

The population of Ashley County soared from 2,058 residents in the 1850 census to 8,590 residents in the 1860 census.

Like most south Arkansas counties, Ashley County is losing population these days. The population fell from 26,538 in the 1980 census to 21,853 in the 2010 census.

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The most Southern place in Arkansas

Thursday, August 8th, 2019


In 1992, historian James C. Cobb from the University of Georgia came out with a book titled “The Most Southern Place on Earth.”

The book is about the Mississippi Delta, a region like none other.

Plumerville native Rupert Vance, who became a noted sociologist at the University of North Carolina, described the region in 1935 as “cotton obsessed, Negro obsessed. Nowhere but in the Mississippi Delta are antebellum conditions so nearly preserved.”

I’m driving south on this summer day on the stretch of road that I consider the most Southern place in Arkansas — not only geographically but also historically and culturally. I’m on U.S. Highway 165, traveling from Dermott in Chicot County to the Louisiana state line just below Wilmot in Ashley County.

Cotton and other row crops remain king in this part of the state.

Along the route are things that have come to represent the Delta in the minds of Arkansans — the well-kept homes of farm owners, the rundown homes of laborers, the flat landscape, a man selling produce alongside the highway, empty buildings in decaying downtowns whose businesses once catered to sharecroppers who no longer live here, Spanish moss dripping from the cypress trees in Lake Enterprise.

About 20 miles to the east is the Mississippi River.

Just to the west of the highway is the Bayou Bartholomew, the longest bayou in the country. The bayou begins in Jefferson County near Pine Bluff and then heads south through Lincoln, Desha, Drew, Chicot and Ashley counties before entering Louisiana and emptying into the Ouachita River.

“Bayou Bartholomew was, until the construction of railroad lines in the area in 1890, the most important stream for transportation in the interior Delta,” writes Rebecca DeArmond-Huskey, who in 2001 was the author of a book titled “Bartholomew’s Song: A Bayou History.”

She writes: “While the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers served their adjoining areas, it was the bayou that provided a transportation route into an otherwise landlocked area. This route allowed the development of one of the richest timber and agricultural tracts in the Delta. The present bayou bed was formed by the waters of the Arkansas River during a period when it was constantly changing courses. About 1,800 to 2,200 years ago, the river diverted from the present area of the bayou, and the leisurely bayou began to develop in the old river bed.”

It’s likely that the bayou was named after a man known as “Little Bartholomew, the Parisian.” He was part of Henri Joutel’s 1687 band of French explorers who crossed the bayou before finally reaching Arkansas Post.

“Spanish colonists also took note of the bayou,” DeArmond-Huskey writes. “Don Juan Filhiol, commandant of the District of Ouachita in the 1780s, was impressed with its navigation potential as well as the agricultural land around it. The colonists used the bayou for transportation as there were no good roads in the area. They used flat-bottom barges, propelled by poling, rowing, cordelling (towing with ropes) or by sails if the wind was favorable.

“The advent of the steamboat made the bayou a major thoroughfare for exporting cotton, timber and other goods as well as for importing supplies. These boats were on the bayou in Morehouse Parish in Louisiana before 1833. All such commerce halted when the Civil War began but resumed soon after it was over. With the advent of the railroad, steamboat activity began a slow decline, though it continued in Ashley County until some point between 1906 and 1912. … All steamboating was a treacherous business, but according to Ben Lucian Burman, who boated on both large rivers and bayous, ‘bayou steamboating was steamboating at its worst.’ The bayou was more narrow and shallow than the river, and pilots had to avoid sharp bends, shoals, snags and overhanging trees.”

There were ports along the bayou at Point Pleasant and Lind Grove in Morehouse Parish.

In Arkansas, there were ports at Poplar Bluff (now Parkdale), Portland, Thebes, Boydell and Baxter.

“Although steamboat trade was put on hold during the Civil War, the bayou remained, for the duration of the war, a significant transportation route for steamboats carrying troops and supplies,” DeArmond-Huskey writes. “In 1865, Union cavalrymen under the leadership of Col. Embury D. Osband carried out a raid to impede this supply route. They reached the bayou in Chicot County and continued down it to Portland and Parkdale, where they captured the Confederate steamer Jim Barkman, which was loaded with corn. After using the Barkman at Point Pleasant in Morehouse Parish to transport their own troops across the bayou, they burned the boat.

“After the war, cotton was the primary export shipped through the bayou until the railroad prompted the development of an extensive timber industry, backed primarily by Northern capitalists. Although locals had used the bayou for log rafting since the 1830s, shipment by rail was much more expedient. The timber companies devastated the timber stands and then moved out. Farmers followed by clearing the cutover timberlands for farms, which today remain the dominant enterprise along the bayou.”

DeArmand-Huskey notes that the bayou played a major role in the lives of those who lived along it.

She writes: “They swam and fished in it, held barbecues and picnics by it, and were baptized in it.”

In 1995, Curtis Merrell of Monticello organized the Bayou Bartholomew Alliance to restore the natural beauty of the stream following decades of neglect. He secured the help of state agencies, federal agencies and nonprofit groups such as the Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited.

Dermott thrived in the early 1900s as a railroad and timber town, growing from 467 residents in 1900 to 1,602 in 1910. It reached its highest population of 4,731 residents in the 1980 census but had fallen to 2,316 by 2010.

“The first settlers chose the rich and heavily timbered land along the bayou,” DeArmand-Huskey writes. “John Smith and his wife, Sarah Bowden, arrived in 1811 and opened the first settlement in the vicinity. The town was named after Dr. Charles McDermott, who first visited in 1834. He bought land and established a plantation. He moved there in 1844, and the settlement began to progress.”

In the early 1870s, the Mississippi, Ouachita & Red River railroad line was constructed from Gaines Landing in Chicot County to the Mississippi River. It would later become part of the Iron Mountain line. In 1887, the north-south line of the Houston, Central Arkansas & Northern Railroad intersected with the Iron Mountain at Dermott. A depot, general merchandise store, cotton gin and saloon sprang up. As the town became busier, drugstores and grocery stores were added to the mix.

Dermott was known for its wide, tree-lined streets. J. Tom Crenshaw, the first mayor, and city recorder C.H. VanPatten had oak trees planted along major streets in the 1890s.

“The French Oak Stave Co. opened in 1891, employing more than 150 people,” DeArmand-Huskey writes. “William Henry Lephiew Jr. established shingle mills in the early 1900s. The Leavitt Land & Lumber Co. installed a mill in 1908 and cut more than 28,000 acres of timber west of the city limits. Around 1907, the Schneider Stave Co. built a slack barrel stave mill that could produce 45,000 staves a day.

“The Bimel-Ashcroft Manufacturing Co. was in existence by about 1910. It produced oak and hickory products such as single trees for plows, tool handles, yokes and spokes. In 1912, W.B. Bynum established Bynum Cooperage, which made whiskey barrel staves. The Burleigh family of Scotland owned a handle mill, managed locally by Sherer Burleigh. Two other mills, Mark’s Veneer and Frecration, produced hardwood flooring.”

In addition to having a growing timber industry, Dermott was doing well as a railroad town. Several hotels were constructed. The town even had a bottling plant and an ice cream factory. The Exchange Bank, the Dermott Bank & Trust Co. and the Bank of Dermott opened between 1916-22.

“Jewish and Chinese families contributed to the town’s economy,” DeArmand-Huskey writes. “Many Jewish families owned clothing stores. Having come to the town as peddlers, several Chinese families established grocery stores. Descendants of these families still live in Dermott. African-American families worked primarily in the agriculture and timber industries, but the town had several black doctors as early as 1887.

“The town was booming at the outbreak of the Great Depression. Most business concerns were locally owned, and the timber industry was still strong with five mills in operation. During the decade, many smaller businesses closed, but the town survived and struggled onward just as it did after the Civil War. During World War II, Dermott remained a thriving town. The stave mills and three gins continued to operate. Camp Dermott housed German POWs. After the war, several new businesses opened.”

In 1940, the Benedictine Sisters opened St. Mary’s Hospital. It operated until 1971.

Traveling south on U.S. 165, I pass into a corner of Drew County and enter the community of Jerome, which had just 39 residents in the 2010 census. A sawmill town called Blissville was established at the spot where the railroad tracks met the bayou. The town was incorporated in 1908.

Like nearby Dermott, Jerome benefited from the railroad and the timber companies that had come to southeast Arkansas to clear the virgin hardwood forests.

“In 1835, Moses Upshard Payne of New Orleans purchased several tracts of land near the bayou as an investment,” Steve Teske writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Some cotton was grown on the clearer patches of land, but much of the land was swampland. … The land was frequently rented or sold during the remaining years of the 19th century with little development taking place. In 1886, J.M. Waddell of New Orleans, along with at least two partners, acquired an interest in the land. The group of investors conveyed a right of way for a railroad line to E.P. Reynolds & Co. in 1890. The company was building a rail line for the Houston, Central Arkansas & Northern Railroad. The line through Jerome would eventually become part of the Missouri Pacific system, which later folded into the Union Pacific Railroad.

“In 1900, interest in the land was acquired by the Chicot Lumber Co. of Chicago, which sold the same interest in 1905 to Aaron Bliss, who began the Bliss-Cook Oak Co. at that time. … At the time the town was incorporated in 1908, it consisted of 25 men living on 260 acres. Herman Moehler, the secretary of the company, owned the sawmill in the town and began to refer to the company as the Jerome Hardwood Lumber Co. in honor of his son, Jerome Moehler. In 1919, Moehler officially incorporated the company under the name he had chosen, and the next year the town also reincorporated as Jerome, though its incorporation would later lapse.”

In the 1920s, Jerome had a pharmacy, three doctors, several hotels and a school. Things began to go downhill as timber cutting wound down in the area. A major sawmill burned in 1927 and wasn’t replaced. The hardwood lumber company sold its land and buildings to Sam Wilson of Montrose in 1937. Two years later, Wilson sold the property to the federal government for $100,000.

“The government received 3,508 acres of land, all the houses in Jerome, a cotton gin, a general store, 65 mules and three tractors,” Teske writes. “Under the guidance of the Farm Security Administration and the National Youth Administration, Jerome became a resettlement colony, populated by 36 families who were moved from the Sunnyside Plantation near Lake Village. A different group of Americans was resettled into the Jerome area after the United States entered World War II. Japanese-American citizens were removed from their homes in the western states of California, Oregon and Washington and resettled inland based on fears that these Americans might cooperate with the government of Japan during the course of the war.”

These days, Jerome is best known statewide for having been the site of one of the two Japanese-American relocation camps in the state. The other camp was at nearby Rohwer in Desha County. The Jerome Relocation Center operated from Oct. 6, 1942, until June 30, 1944. The peak population of the camp was 8,497.

The camp at Jerome was the last of the 10 relocation camps across the country to open and the first to close. The A.J. Rife Construction Co. of Dallas built it for about $4.7 million. It covered more than 10,000 acres between Big Bayou and Crooked Bayou. Once the Japanese-Americans were sent to other camps in June 1944, the structures were used until the end of the war for German POWs.

“After the war, the government began selling the land it had acquired,” Teske writes. “The town of Jerome was purchased by John Baxter, who then sold the land to Charles Clifford Gibson Sr. Gibson and his son used the town as a headquarters for their extensive farming operations, running both the general store and the cotton gin. The Jerome School District was consolidated with that of Dermott in 1950, and the main school building was moved to Dermott, where it was used exclusively for black students until the end of segregation. In 1954, the Alice-Sidney Dryer & Seed Co. built a large drying plant along the railroad tracks in Jerome. The dryer has a storage capacity of 267,000 bushels of grain.”

Russell Bearden described the relocation camp this way for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “The compound eventually became nearly 500 acres of tar-papered, A-framed buildings arranged into specifically numbered blocks. Each block was designed to accommodate about 300 people in 14 residential barracks with each barrack (20 feet by 120 feet) divided into four to six apartments. This was the traditional military style for barracks, though the internees rebuilt or remodeled the insides. Each block also included a recreational building, a mess hall, a laundry building and a building for a communal latrine.

“All the residential buildings were without plumbing or running water and were heated during the winter months by wood stoves. The camp also had an administrative section that was segregated from the rest of the camp to handle camp operations, a military police section, a hospital section, a warehouse and factory section, a segregated residential section for barracks for white War Relocation Authority personnel, barracks for schools and auxiliary buildings for such things as canteens, motion pictures, gymnasiums, auditoriums, motor pools and fire stations. The camp itself was partially surrounded by barbed wire or heavily wooded areas with guard towers situated at strategic areas and guarded by a small contingent of soldiers.”

The route south out of Jerome on U.S. 165 takes me into Ashley County. I drive through Boydell and into Montrose, which is where the highway I’m on meets U.S. 82.

When most Arkansans think of Ashley County, they picture the vast pine forests and timber industries near Crossett and Hamburg. But as Teske notes: “This eastern part of the county belongs to the Mississippi Delta region, which was home to numerous cotton plantations before and after the Civil War. Dugald McMillan was the first landowner who registered a patent for the land where Montrose now stands. His plantation, like others in the region, employed a large number of slaves, many of whom remained after the war working as tenant farmers for the same landowners. Consequently, African-American citizens have outnumbered white citizens in the area from the time slavery ended up to the present time.”

We’ll continue south in the next part of the trip. We’ll remain in Ashley County until we reach the Louisiana line and pass through four small communities. In the 2010 census, Montrose had 354 residents while Portland had 430, Parkdale had 277 and Wilmot had 550.

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The trip ends in the Bootheel

Monday, July 29th, 2019


We’ve reached Greene County, the final county in our trip across north Arkansas on U.S. Highway 412.

Greene County was once an isolated place filled with swamps, but it has boomed in recent years alongside Craighead County to the south. Greene County’s population almost doubled from 24,765 in the 1970 census to 42,090 in the 2010 census.

Mark Hamblen writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “For many years, Greene County’s main attraction, Crowley’s Ridge, was isolated because of swamplands on three sides — the St. Francis bottoms to the north and east, and the Cache River and Black River lowlands on the west. But drainage of the swampland led to growth in the area.”

Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac, the French governor of Louisiana, likely was the first European to visit the area.

“In 1715, the French crown ordered him to explore the headwaters of the St. Francis River,” Hamblen writes. “Indians with whom he came into contact reported that the area contained silver, though he found only lead near Fredericktown, Mo. Suffering great discomfort while ascending the river, he wrote in his diary: ‘This colony is a monster. … I have never seen anything so worthless.’ However he felt about the area, he did move European civilization closer to what is now Greene County.”

The first European to actually live in the area appears to have been Pierre Le Mieux, who settled in the 1790s at Peach Orchard. He died in 1817.

Peach Orchard is in what’s now Clay County

“Le Mieux owned a small estate on the south shore of the Black River,” Steve Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “In 1816, he deeded that land to Lewis DeMunn. The deed shows that Le Mieux called the estate Petit Baril but that his English-speaking neighbors were already calling it Peach Orchard. Le Mieux (also known by his Americanized name Peter LeMew) relocated to Clover Bend, where he also owned land and where his wife’s family lived. Historians speculate that the English name of his estate was due to a peach orchard planted by Le Mieux, but no evidence of that orchard remains.”

Benjamin Crowley, for whom Crowley’s Ridge is named, moved his family to northeast Arkansas from Kentucky in 1815. He settled along the Spring River.

“In December 1821, Crowley crossed the Black and Cache rivers to explore the ridge area,” Hamblen writes. “Armed with a War of 1812 land grant, the man known as Old Ben selected a vacated Delaware Indian site that had developed around a large spring on a ridge. No one knows when the ridge became known as Crowley.

“Some pioneers had settled on the lower ridge area near Helena several years before Crowley’s home became the community meeting place where county officers discussed and solved civic matters. When the volume of legal and court activities required a seat of law, Isaac Brookfield and Lawrence Thompson wrote a petition seeking permission to organize a county. The Arkansas Territorial Legislature approved the petition in November 1833. … The county seat remained in Crowley’s home until it was moved.”

Some records say the county seat was moved to a community called Paris, but no records of such a town exist. In 1840, Gainesville became the county seat.

“Two documents were found in 1996 indicating that Gainesville was laid out with 86 lots,” Hamblen writes. “A state auditor’s report dated May 18, 1842, noted that ‘nearly all lots were sold and deeded to the purchasers.’ The lowlands of the St. Francis, Cache and Black rivers slowed settlement in Greene County. In 1849, Congress passed an act intended to reclaim the swamplands. It transferred all the Arkansas swamplands to the state and provided funds for locating, evaluating and draining them.”

Craighead County was created in 1859 from parts of Greene, Mississippi and Poinsett counties. Development of the area slowed due to the Civil War and Reconstruction.

“In November 1872, Cairo-Fulton Railroad construction crossed the Missouri border into Randolph County,” Hamblen writes. “Greene County officials watched helplessly as an economic boom followed to the west of them. By 1874, the line had become part of the Iron Mountain system. It operated across the full length of Arkansas. During the 1873 legislative session, state Rep. B.H. Crowley introduced a bill to create Clayton County from the northern part of Greene County. Because they did not like Gov. Powell Clayton, the citizens of the new county voted in 1875 to change the county name to Clay. Greene County then gained a small part of Randolph County, but it gave up a small northeast area to Clay County a decade later.”

Enter Jay Gould, James Paramore and the birth of Paragould, now the Greene County seat.

“Gould gained control of the Iron Mountain Railroad in 1880,” Hamblen writes. “He learned that Paramore’s St. Louis-Texas Railroad was licensed to build a cheaper narrow-gauge line through Arkansas to Texas. Gould decided to construct a regular-gauge line to closely parallel Paramore’s route. It would branch off the main Iron Mountain line at Knobel in Clay County and run through Greene County toward Helena. The railroads crossed six miles south of Gainesville. After the crossing gained a post office, the postmaster named the town Paragould, deriving the name from Paramore and Gould. The new town grew rapidly and became the county seat in 1884, beginning the sharp and sudden decline of Gainesville.”

We pass through the community of Light on our trip east and begin climbing Crowley’s Ridge before entering Paragould.

Crowley’s Ridge runs from southern Missouri to Helena. The only break is a small one at Marianna where the L’Anguille River runs through it. The ridge ranges in width from one to 12 miles.

“The ridge contrasts sharply with the surrounding flat land of the Delta,” Hubert Stroud writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “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 course millions of years ago. Prior to the change in course, the Mississippi River flowed along the west side of what’s now Crowley’s Ridge with the Ohio River meandering along the east side. The work of these major rivers and their subsequent shifting in course resulted in the formation of an erosional remnant that’s now Crowley’s Ridge.

“Crowley’s Ridge, completely surrounded by the Mississippi Alluvial Plain, is clearly visible because it rises some 250 feet above a relatively flat landscape. The ridge is capped by a deep layer of wind-deposited soils, a fine-grained soil created millions of years ago as glaciers moved across the continent. Extensive areas, including the Mississippi Alluvial Plain and Crowley’s Ridge, were covered by windblown soil. 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 easily eroded, steep slopes and deep valleys characterize much of Crowley’s Ridge.”

Many of the trees on the ridge are like those found in the Appalachian Mountains far to the east. It’s like no place else in Arkansas.

“The ridge is covered with a lush mixed forest of oak, hickory and uncommon hardwood trees such as American beech, sugar maple and yellow poplar,” Stroud writes. “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 area. This is due to the highly erosive nature of the wind-blown soil of Crowley’s Ridge. The soil needs a protective vegetative cover of some type such as pasture grasses or forests to combat severe soil erosion.”

Paragould sits atop the ridge.

“Postmaster Marcus Meriwether named the town Paragould without any official approval,” Hamblen writes. “Paragould became a thriving community. Investors knew that the forests covering east Arkansas contained one of the few remaining quality hardwood sources in the nation. The availability of rail transportation brought about a surge of large investments. Men abandoned their farms and flocked to work in the timber mills and factories that had been hurriedly constructed around the area. Merchants and professionals followed.”

Hamblen notes that the “drained and newly cleared bottomland on both sides of Crowley’s Ridge led to the development of large farm operations before the turn of the century. Timber-related businesses continued to spur industrial growth through the 1920s, but as the timber business declined, production of cotton, corn and soybeans increased. Significant rice production didn’t come to the county until after World War II.”

A large railroad machine shop came to Greene County in 1911 and serviced locomotives into the 1950s, employing up to 300 people at times.

Paragould became the county seat after a countywide vote in 1884. Construction was completed on a courthouse there in 1888.

“Having noted that fire swept rapidly through the wooden buildings in downtown Gainesville in 1890, the Paragould City Council passed an ordinance requiring that all new buildings in the main part of town be constructed of brick,” Hamblen writes. “An electric light plant went into operation in 1891, telephone service appeared in 1896 and a municipally owned water works opened in 1898. By 1896, Paragould had six miles of gravel streets. It was 1912 before the downtown streets were paved.

“By 1890, there were 14 lumber mills in Paragould. Products included both slack and tight barrel staves, boxes, wood veneer, spokes, dowel pins, caskets, baskets, handles, shingles and railroad ties. The Wrape Stave & Heading Mill was shipping five million barrels a year, more than any factory in the state. In 1894, that firm shipped more whiskey barrels than any other plant in the world. … Paragould became the principal trading center of northeast Arkansas. The city’s infrastructure had been developed to the extent that it could support the demands of new industry and increased population. By 1910, the town had three department stores, an opera house, a hospital and six banks.”

Paragould became known as a sundown town — a place where blacks weren’t welcome after sundown.

“Attempts at violently expelling the local black population took place in 1888, 1892, 1899 and 1908,” Hamblen writes. “Black railroad crewmen were told they could stay in town as long as they were working, but their activities were limited to where they were boarding overnight. Black children were not provided any form of public education until 1948.”

One of the more interesting events in the city’s history occurred when a meteorite came crashing down in 1930.

“At 4:08 a.m. on Feb. 17, 1930, Paragould residents were awakened by a prolonged loud noise and a sky filled with a fiery glow made by a meteorite with a long reddish tail that streamed through the sky before striking the earth four miles southwest of Paragould near the small community of Finch,” Hamblen writes. “Two major fragments were found and displayed in Paragould for several weeks. The first one that was discovered was small but weighed about 75 pounds, unusually heavy for its size. The second fragment was found 30 days later. Buried nine feet into hard clay more than two miles from where the first rock was found, the big rock measured 24 inches in height, 28 inches in length and 24 inches in breadth. It weighted 820 pounds, and five men and a team of horses spent three hours dislodging it.”

It was given to the University of Arkansas.

Six years later, Paragould was back in the news thanks to a mastodon skeleton.

Hamblen writes: “While Frank Reynolds and his brother-in-law Lowell Rodgers were fishing in Hurricane Creek just north of Paragould, Reynolds hit something that gave off a metallic sound. Curious, the two men pulled out of the deep sand in the creek bed an enormous thigh bone, 3 1/2 feet in length. They worked almost continuously during the next 20 days removing all bones from the creek. The two men toured the state in a borrowed truck for three weeks, charging 10 cents a look. When the two got to Fayetteville, they were told by members of the University of Arkansas science faculty that they had found the skeleton of a 10,000-year-old mastodon. Reynolds was offered $5,000 for the bones by a man from Kentucky, but he chose to give them to the museum at Arkansas State University.”

Through the years, Paragould became one of the state’s manufacturing centers. City leaders were able to attract the Ely Walker shirt factory in 1937, the Ed White shoe factory in 1947, Wonder State Manufacturing in 1950, Foremost Foods’ dairy division in 1952 and Emerson Electric Co. in 1955.

We spend the final night of this trip at a bed-and-breakfast inn on Court Street known as the White House Inn. It’s in the 1892 Hays-Porter House.

The house was built by Alfred Hays, a Kentucky native who operated a hotel in Paragould and served a term as mayor. Hays died in 1932, but his descendants occupied the house until the 1960s. Marilyn and Bob White later renovated the home.

Dinner downtown that evening is at Chow at 118, a fine-dining establishment that resembles something one would expect in a far larger city.

Paragould has seen its population increase from 18,540 in 1990 to an estimated current population of 28,500. Better dining and overnight options have followed the growth.

We end the trip the next morning with the short drive to the state line. We cross the St. Francis River into the Missouri Bootheel, go as far as Cardwell (a depressed Delta town) and turn around.

The Bootheel is unlike the rest of Missouri but much like northeast Arkansas. Cotton became king here in the early 1900s. Most black families left the region (due to the mechanization of agriculture) for jobs in the upper Midwest. Bootheel counties are now predominantly white.

It was a pioneer planter named John Hardeman Walker in what’s now Pemiscot County who argued when Missouri was admitted to the Union that this area had more in common with the Mississippi River towns of St. Louis, Sainte Genevieve and Cape Girardeau in Missouri than with the Arkansas Territory. The area once was known at Lapland because it’s where Missouri laps over into Arkansas.

We cross back over the St. Francis River into Arkansas.

The river starts in the northeast corner of Iron County in Missouri and is a mountain stream for its first 25 miles. It reaches the Delta north of Poplar Bluff. It turns south and covers 207 miles before emptying into the Mississippi River just north of Helena in the St. Francis National Forest.

The part of the river between Lake City in Craighead County and Marked Tree in Poinsett County is known as the Sunken Lands. The land dropped several feet in this area during the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, forming a swamp. More than 27,000 acres of this region are now part of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission’s St. Francis Sunken Lands Wildlife Management Area.

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

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

The world’s largest siphons were placed on the St. Francis at Marked Tree in 1939 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help control flooding.

In 1977, the Corps built the W.G. Huxtable pumping plant southeast of Marianna to prevent the Mississippi River from backing up into the St. Francis. It’s one of the largest pumping plants of its kind in the world.

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From Walnut Ridge to Paragould

Friday, July 26th, 2019


When I was asked to give an evening lecture last year at Williams Baptist University, I was told that I would spend the night at the Hotel Rhea in downtown Walnut Ridge.

Downtown Walnut Ridge?

I didn’t know you could spend the night downtown.

I had no idea what to expect, but I can tell you that it was delightful. I could hear the freight trains passing through town during the night, but I liked that. And it was just a short walk to breakfast the next morning at Moni’s Grill, where I was greeted by the city’s mayor, Charles Snapp.

We all know about the economic problems faced by towns in the Arkansas Delta. But a handful of those communities are revitalizing their downtowns and trying to buck the trend of population loss in the region.

Walnut Ridge belongs on that list.

With the Hotel Rhea at Walnut Ridge, the Lesmeister Guesthouse at Pocahontas and the Inn at Piggott, there are three towns in northeast Arkansas with old downtown properties that have been transformed into first-class overnight accommodations.

The first Hotel Rhea was constructed in phases from 1904-08. Once it was finished, it was considered to be among the finest hotels in the state. There was steam heat, running water and a bath in every room. The Rhea took up most of the 100 block of West Main Street before a fire on Nov. 16, 1914, destroyed part of the building.

The portion left standing was renovated in 1915-16 and became the home of Cooper Drugs. A dentist and doctor had their offices upstairs.

Those rooms later were used for apartments. The Snapp family bought the building in 2012 and created three suites upstairs and one suite downstairs. A separate area downstairs can be rented for private functions.

Unlike most Delta towns its size, Walnut Ridge isn’t bleeding population. The decrease in population from 2000 to 2010 was a small one — 4,925 to 4,890. The most recent population estimate for the city was 5,062.

Sales tax collections jumped considerably last year with the opening of additional businesses. Snapp told Talk Business & Politics: “It’s a larger variety of shopping opportunities. If our residents can buy what they need here, they don’t have to go to Jonesboro or Pocahontas or another town. We’re keeping our people here. Our sales have gone up and up. We plan for that to continue.”

The city’s annual Beatles at the Ridge festival in September had a record turnout, attracting almost 15,000 people. More than 100 vendors were in town for the two-day event, and there were two stages with live music. It was the eighth time for the festival to be held. It celebrates the fact that Walnut Ridge was the only Arkansas city visited by the Beatles.

Late on the evening of Sept. 18, 1964, Walnut Ridge businessman Jack Allison saw a large plane headed toward the city’s airport. He asked three teenage boys to go see who was on the plane. When the door opened, the members of the band stepped out. They had left a concert at Dallas and were on their way for some rest and relaxation at a dude ranch near Alton, Mo.

Their plane was too big to land at most airports in the area, but Walnut Ridge’s airport had long runways since it had been the Walnut Ridge Army Flying School during World War II.

“That year, the popularity of the Beatles was without rival,” Michael Bowman writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were mobbed by teenage fans at each public appearance. The Fab Four, as they were dubbed, had five singles in the top five slots on the Billboard charts. Their first film, ‘A Hard Day’s Night,’ appeared in 500 U.S. theaters. The group’s first appearance on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ drew an estimated 73 million viewers. In their legendary 1964 concert tour, they performed 32 shows in 34 days.”

After the concert in Dallas, the members of the group had boarded a plane operated by Reed Pigman, who owned American Flyers Airlines in Dallas. Pigman also owned the ranch near Alton that would serve as a place for rest and relaxation before the final concert of the year in New York.

“The Walnut Ridge airport provided the ideal spot for the group to change planes before heading to Missouri,” Bowman writes. “The runway was built as a training facility during World War II and could handle large aircraft. Also, the Beatles could avoid the crush of screaming fans by landing at a secluded airport at the edge of a small town.”

Pigman, who was also the pilot, would die on April 22, 1966, of a heart attack while at the controls of a Lockheed Electra coming into Ardmore, Okla. The crash that followed killed more than 80 members of the military who were being flown under a Department of Defense contract with Pigman’s company.

Nighttime landings were rare in Walnut Ridge in those days so a large plane circling at midnight created plenty of attention.

A smaller plane was already at the airport to take the band to Missouri. Word spread about the stop, and it was speculated that the Beatles would depart from Walnut Ridge on a Sunday.

“While most people attended Sunday morning church services, 200 to 300 people descended on the Walnut Ridge airport in anticipation of the Beatles’ return,” Bowman writes. “The plane that had carried the group across the United States sat on the runway waiting for their return from Missouri. Parents snapped photographs of their children next to the plane. Home movie cameras captured the crowd’s excitement. The sounds of teenagers singing Beatles songs could be heard across the runway.

“There were many false alarms that morning. Teenagers mobbed a local crop-duster mistaken for the Beatles plane. Little did they know that McCartney and Harrison had arrived at the airport an hour early and watched the spectacle from an old truck parked across the runway. Suddenly, a small commuter aircraft with Lennon and Starr landed and taxied up the runway. The two left the plane, walking through a gauntlet of polite but excited spectators. As Lennon and Starr ascended the steps to the larger plane, the old truck that held Harrison and McCartney pulled up next to it. All four Beatles quickly boarded and left for their last U.S. concert of the year. For many of the Walnut Ridge teenagers, it was their only chance to see the Beatles in person.”

In September 2011, civic leaders unveiled a monument in downtown Walnut Ridge designed to look like the cover of the album “Abbey Road.”

The next year, the town built the guitar-shaped plaza downtown. That plaza mainly honors the musicians who once traveled up and down U.S. Highway 67 to play at clubs in the area.

In 2009, the Arkansas Legislature designated a 111-mile stretch of the highway through Jackson, Lawrence, Randolph and Clay counties as Rock ‘n’ Roll Highway 67. A portion of the road in Miller County in southwest Arkansas later received the designation.

“The term rockabilly is defined as a mixture of blues, country and western and rhythm and blues music that saw its biggest popularity beginning in the post-World War II era and lasted until around the time of the so-called British Invasion of the early 1960s,” Keith Merckx writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Original rockabilly artists included Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis along with noted Arkansans Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Sonny Burgess and Billy Lee Riley. These same musicians are cited as influences by later musical legends –ranging from the Beatles to Bob Dylan — who credit rockabilly as an inspiration for their own distinctive styles of music.

“Establishments on U.S. 67 that hosted these acts included Bob King’s King of Clubs in Swifton, the Silver Moon Club in Newport and the rooftop of the Skylark Drive-In Theater in Pocahontas. … The idea to honor the road originated in 2005 with noted Pocahontas musician Gary Gazaway (who has performed and recorded with the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Steve Winwood, Joe Cocker and Phish). As a lifelong resident of the area, Gazaway had long recognized the significance of the highway as a musical artery. He suggested the idea to Michael Luster, the director of the Arkansas Folklife Program at Arkansas State University, and music historian Stephen Koch, co-founder and host of the radio program ‘Arkansongs.'”

The three men wanted the highway to be known as the Rockabilly Highway.

A committee was formed, and some members feared the term rockabilly would harken back to the stereotype of Arkansas hillbillies. The committee voted 8-5 in favor of using Rock ‘n’ Roll Highway 67. Gazaway was among those in the minority.

“This hillbilly culture is what made the music,” he said. “To call it anything else is to go against the historical aspect of it.”

Arkansas author and music historian Marvin Schwartz notes that the height of the rockabilly era was the late 1950s.

“Many Arkansas rockabilly groups such as Sonny Burgess & the Pacers and Billy Lee Riley & the Little Green Men had recorded for Sun Records and were rising to national attention,” he writes. “Dale Hawkins, a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, specialized in creating a sound (called Swamp Rock by some) that went on to help shape rock ‘n’ roll music. Bobby Brown of Olyphant in Jackson County was a popular rockabilly performer of the 1950s and 1960s, often playing at the Cotton Club in Trumann. On May 13, 1957, the Little Rock CBS television affiliate began broadcasting ‘Steve’s Show,’ hosted by Steve Stephens and featuring local teenagers who danced to hit records as rockabilly artists and other performers lip-synched the words.

“Sonny Burgess’ ‘Sadie’s Back in Town,’ released by Sun Records on Dec. 31, 1959, could be considered the last rockabilly hit of the era. The popular music industry was shifting to a softer format and more banal subject matter than rockabilly’s fast cars, rowdy women and rebellious partying. Arkansas rockabilly artists either modified their styles or retired from the music business. A rockabilly revival in the 1970s brought renewed attention to the genre, while European audiences have maintained a nearly cult-like devotion to the original sound. Arkansans such as Jason D. Williams of El Dorado continue to perform in a traditional rockabilly mode.”

In addition to capitalizing on its music traditions, Walnut Ridge has done an excellent job of putting interpretive signage downtown to give the history of the city’s old buildings. Walnut Ridge is home, however, to one of the newer courthouses in the state. The Lawrence County Courthouse was completed in 1966. Still, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2015 because of its New Formalism style.

In 1870, the Legislature split Lawrence County into two judicial districts. Walnut Ridge served the eastern half of the county, and Powhatan served the western half.

A two-story courthouse built at Walnut Ridge in 1897 lasted until only 1900. In 1901, county offices moved into a building constructed by the Steward Brothers Co. of Newport and designed by noted Arkansas architect Charles Thompson.

“Powhatan’s courthouse suffered after decades of population depletion in the town, weakened commerce and neglect,” Jared Craig writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Lawrence County officials attempted to consolidate the county seats to Walnut Ridge three times, but voters turned down each measure. Meanwhile, Walnut Ridge’s courthouse deteriorated. County officials warned that both courthouses probably should be condemned. In 1963, county residents finally voted to consolidate the county seats to Walnut Ridge and approved the construction of a new courthouse.

“A record turnout voted in the special election, which was likely due to a $500 prize the Lawrence County Development Council awarded in a drawing to a participating voter. Additionally, Walnut Ridge merchants contributed money for another drawing, signaling the business community’s support. County officials alleviated residents’ concern of funding with an extension of a two-mill hospital tax and a hefty grant from the federal government that U.S. Rep. Wilbur Mills advocated. The courthouse cost $450,000.”

We leave Walnut Ridge and continue the trek east on U.S. Highway 412, soon crossing into Greene County. The Cache River forms the county line.

The Cache begins near the Arkansas-Missouri border and flows through northeast Arkansas until it empties into the White River near Clarendon.

“With the arrival of American settlers, steamboats began plying the waters of the Cache River, and towns were established in its vicinity,” writes Arkansas historian Guy Lancaster. “The town of Maberry in Woodruff County, founded in 1842, was a notable shipping point for cotton and locally harvested timber. So was Patterson in Woodruff County. However, the towns established along the White River, which runs nearly parallel to the Cache from Newport on south, grew larger given the White River’s greater reach and use as a transportation corridor.”

The lowlands between the Cache and L’Anguille rivers served as a major obstacle to the completion of the Little Rock & Memphis Railroad. The line linking the two cities 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,” Lancaster writes. “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, 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 east Arkansas rivers that spilled across agricultural land. Planters 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 along with 15 miles of the upper tributaries and 77 miles of Bayou DeView. Initial funds for the project, projected to cost $60 million, weren’t approved until 1969.”

A lengthy environmental battle ensued.

Indebted to east Arkansas planters, U.S. Rep. Bill Alexander pushed hard for the project. It was opposed by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, the Arkansas Wildlife Federation and a large number of other organizations. A federal lawsuit was filed to stop the project. U.S. District Judge J. Smith Henley ruled in favor of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in May 1972, and his verdict was appealed. In July 1972, the Corps began clearing and dredging in the Clarendon area.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the case to Henley in December 1972, noting that the Corps had not met the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act. In March 1973, the court ordered that work be halted. The Corps’ environmental impact statement finally was approved three years later, but by then Congress had backed off funding such a controversial project.

“Opponents of the project worked to create a national wildlife refuge along the river, partly to block the project but also to protect the river from rampant development,” Lancaster writes. “In 1986, the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge was established, stretching south from Grubbs in Jackson County to Clarendon and incorporating a large swath of Bayou DeView. North of Grubbs, the Cache River exists as little more than a ditch or series of ditches.”

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From Portia to Walnut Ridge

Wednesday, July 24th, 2019


We’ve left the Ozarks and are in the Delta now.

The first town we visit on this leg of our trek east across north Arkansas on U.S. Highway 412 is Portia, which long was known for its Fourth of July picnic that attracted politicians from across the state. The event was discontinued several years ago.

The railroad came to this area in the early 1880s, and Portia was incorporated in May 1886.

The town’s population in the 2010 census was 437, even less than the 571 people who resided there in 1890 when the virgin hardwood forests were being cleared and cotton was becoming king.

“Due to its convenient location to both river travel and the railroad, the town was considered for relocation of the Lawrence County seat,” Mike Polston writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “After much debate, the seat remained in Powhatan. Many believed that the move had been vetoed because of reporting by the local populist newspaper editors W.S. and S.W. Morgan and their criticism of the Democratic Party. The paper, the Portia Free Press, was published from 1886-88.”

The Portia Lumber Co. was a major employer by 1890 as the forests of the Delta were cleared during the period of Arkansas history known as the Big Cut.

“The town’s population began to decrease with the decline of the timber industry by the turn of the century,” Polston writes. “By 1903, the town had 11 businesses, including two cotton gins. It was also home to a section house and depot with two passenger and two freight trains passing through daily. … In 1906, a devastating fire swept through the town, having been ignited by a butcher shop’s exploding coal oil lamp. Winds quickly spread the fire until all the businesses on the south side of the tracks were destroyed. A number of homes were also burned, requiring some citizens to live temporarily in tents. The fire resulted in a town ordinance requiring new buildings to be constructed of brick or some other fire-retardant material. Many did not rebuild.”

A schoolhouse that was constructed in 1914 still stands at Portia. The Fourth of July event was on the grounds of the school, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

The picnic began in 1905. Some of the annual events attracted almost 10,000 visitors.

The next town on the route east is Hoxie, which received nationwide publicity in 1955 for becoming one of the earliest Southern cities to desegregate its public schools.

Danyelle McNeill writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “Hoxie moved to desegregate in June 1955, becoming one of the first school systems in the state to do so. The superintendent of schools, Kunkel Edward Vance, gave three reasons for integration: It was ‘right in the sight of God,’ it complied with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling the previous year in Brown v. Board of Education and it saved money.

“Hoxie’s desegregation was not an uneventful one, though it had been uneventful at first. But when Life magazine ran a three-page article about the desegregation, segregationist groups traveled to the area and began a campaign to stop the integration. These segregationists circulated petitions and publicly protested at the school. Parents opposed to the integration boycotted the school by pulling their children out of classes. Consequently, Hoxie’s summer term ended two weeks early. A tense standoff between the Hoxie School Board and segregationists began. Gov. Orval Faubus refused to become involved.

“Meetings and hearings were held in an effort to determine if the integration should go forward. … Hoxie continued to experience difficulties due to segregationists’ attempts to challenge the decision. Their attempts failed, and a permanent injunction stating that the school had the right to integrate without outside interference was issued by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Hoxie schools officially integrated. Desegregation at Hoxie was overshadowed two years later by the 1957 desegregation crisis at Little Rock Central High School.”

Hoxie owes its existence to the fact that the leaders next door in Walnut Ridge couldn’t come to an agreement with officials of the Kansas City, Springfield & Memphis Railroad.

“They weren’t able to obtain enough land for a depot and terminal facilities at a reasonable price,” McNeill writes. “Mary Boas approached railroad officials and suggested that the railroad use her land instead. She informed the railroad that she would give them the right of way through her land for no charge. The railroad gladly accepted this offer. Boas’ husband, Henry, received a contract for part of the railroad’s construction, and the Boas family built a hotel near the tracks in 1879.”

Hoxie was incorporated in 1888. It was named for railroad executive H.M. Hoxie.

“Hoxie experienced strong economic growth in the early 1900s,” McNeill writes. “Due to the railroad’s installation of a roundhouse, repair shops and a railroad office, local steel workers, blacksmiths, carpenters, painters and other skilled laborers and office workers found employment. With the arrival of the railroad, businesses moved to the area. An ice plant and stockyards for cattle were opened. This was followed by the opening of the first Bank of Hoxie (which no longer exists), a bottling company and a lumber company. Jobs remained plentiful, and the town flourished until the 1920s. During this time, famous people traveled through the town by train. William Jennings Bryan and Jack Dempsey, the world heavyweight boxing champion, made short stops in Hoxie.”

A strike by the railroad workers in 1923 caused a number of families to leave the area. A tornado did damage in 1927, and railroad facilities later were moved from Hoxie to Poplar Bluff, Mo. The population of Hoxie dropped from 1,711 in the 1920 census to 1,448 in the 1930 census. Growth was slow until the 1960s.

Hoxie then grew from 1,886 residents in the 1960 census to 2,780 residents in 2010.

The adjacent county seat of Walnut Ridge, meanwhile, has grown from 1,798 residents in the 1910 census to 4,890 residents a century later.

“Col. Willis Miles Ponder, a Civil War veteran from Missouri, formally founded the town of Walnut Ridge in 1875,” McNeill writes. “He later served as its first mayor. Before applying for a post office, Ponder called the town Pawpaw because of the number of pawpaw trees in the area. The town’s name was changed after moving to its new location. Upon application for a post office at the new site, Ponder was informed that there was already another town in Arkansas with the name of Pawpaw. Ponder changed the name to Walnut Ridge due to the number of walnut trees in the new area.

“Both timber cutting and agriculture provided income for the citizens of Walnut Ridge. Cotton was the main crop. Corn and hay were also grown. … After many years of sharing a dual county seat with Powhatan, Walnut Ridge became the lone county seat in 1963. The Lawrence County Courthouse was completed in 1966.”

An ugly incident that became known as the Walnut Ridge Race War occurred in 1912.

Arkansas historian Guy Lancaster describes it as “an instance of violent nightriding in which a group of white vigilantes attempted to drive African Americans from Walnut Ridge. They did not succeed in making Walnut Ridge an all-white town, but they did manage to drive black laborers from certain local industries. This was often the aim of nightriders, who were frequently poor whites who wanted those jobs for themselves.”

Notices signed “Kit Karson and Band” were posted in April 1912. The notices ordered blacks to leave the city.

A group of white citizens posted a notice that said: “We will protect our help and prosecute you to the limit of the law. Furthermore, the white people will arm their servants with instructions to shoot the first intruders who disturb them.”

On the evening of April 19, 1912, a group of white men dynamited one black-owned home and fired upon another.

Business leaders contacted Gov. George Donaghey, and he called out the local militia to restore order.

“By the time the militia, under the command of Brig. Gen. William K. Surridge, arrived in the city from Black Rock, half of an estimated black population of 400 was reported to have fled,” Lancaster writes. “Some white citizens reportedly opposed the militia quartering there, but state and local newspaper accounts generally credit the action with restoring peace in the city. … This event bears similarities to other instances of nightriding in Lawrence County. On Jan. 12, 1894, a group of unknown vigilantes posted a notice warning all African Americans to leave Black Rock. At the time, about 300 black workers lived in the city, laboring in the timber and manufacturing industries. One third of them reportedly left in response to this threat, despite the fact that local industry leaders had pledged to protect them.”

A major boost for the city came when the federal government decided to create an Army Air Forces flying school near Walnut Ridge during World War II.

The flying school was among seven that were established across Arkansas. Contract primary flying schools were at Camden, Helena and Pine Bluff. Newport and Walnut Ridge had basic flying schools. Blytheville and Stuttgart had advanced twin-engine flying schools.

“The Walnut Ridge Army Flying School enrolled during its existence 5,310 students; 4,641 of them graduated,” Harold Johnson writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “In early April 1942, a board of three Army Air Forces officers went in search of a new location for a basic flying school. The site that was planned for Dyersburg, Tenn., was deemed unacceptable because it would require moving five million cubic yards of dirt. The three men flew over an area just northeast of Walnut Ridge that looked promising. Returning by car the next day, they looked over the site and checked on public schools, housing, utilities and transportation. On April 15, 1942, they recommended it for the flight school.  The U.S. government approved the recommendation, and construction on the airfield began June 20, 1942.

“The government paid $305,075 for 3,096 acres. The land housed private homes and the Moran School, a typical two-room rural public school. Forty-five families lived on the land and were forced to move out quickly. Their homes were torn down. Landowners were paid an average of $110 an acre for their land while the sharecroppers and tenant farmers who constituted most of those living on the land were reimbursed for a share of their crop.”

Auxiliary airfields were built at Biggers, Pocahontas, Walcott, Beech Grove and Bono. The government had to purchase 2,624 acres of farmland for those airfields.

“These other airfields were used for safety reasons,” Johnson writes. “There were about 250 airplanes based at the field, and students did extensive takeoff and landing practice. It would have been risky and impractical for that many airplanes to be in a traffic pattern at one time. Construction of the airfield brought in 1,500 workers. Walnut Ridge and Pocahontas residents opened their homes to the workers. The mayors and the Boy Scouts worked to find housing for them. Churches and civic groups provided recreational facilities. Residents rented out rooms, garages and attics to accommodate workers. … People who were once glad to get $1 a day could make 50 cents to $1 an hour or more at the airfield. They came from Jonesboro, Monette, Paragould, the Ozark foothills and southern Missouri.”

The airfield was activated on Aug. 15, 1942. The first 100 troops arrived 10 days later. There was no base housing yet, so the troops were transported each day from a Civilian Conservation Corps camp at Five Mile Spring north of Pocahontas. Due to delays, the first three classes of cadets scheduled for Walnut Ridge were sent to Blytheville instead.

“Blytheville was scarcely better prepared than Walnut Ridge,” Johnson writes. “Circus tents were used for operation headquarters and classrooms. The runways weren’t ready so flying was done from oil-coated dirt strips.”

Training at Walnut Ridge finally began on Oct. 12, 1942, as students began training on the BT-13. Forty-two students and instructors died while training. The last class graduated on June 27, 1944.

The airfield was transferred to the Department of the Navy on Sept. 1, 1944, and operated as a Marine Corps facility. It was decommissioned on March 15, 1945.

Walnut Ridge was selected after the war as a place to store obsolete planes.

“The planes came in droves with as many as 250 arriving in a single day,” Johnson writes. “An estimated 10,000 to 11,000 warplanes were flown to Walnut Ridge in 1945 and 1946 for storage and sale. At least 65 of the military’s 118 B-32 heavy bombers were flown to Walnut Ridge, many straight from the assembly line.”

The Texas Railway Equipment Co. bought 4,871 of the aircraft at Walnut Ridge in September 1946 for just more than $1.8 million.

“Two giant smelters were constructed to melt the scrap aluminum, which was formed into huge ingots for shipping,” Johnson writes. “In about two years, the planes were all scrapped. When the salvage was completed, the airfield proper, along with about 60 percent of the land, was turned over to the city of Walnut Ridge to be used as a public airport. All runways are still active, and one has been extended to 6,000 feet.”

Part of the grounds later would serve as the home of what’s now Williams Baptist University. Hubert Ethridge Williams, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Pocahontas, decided that northeast Arkansas needed a Baptist college.

“Williams aggressively cultivated support from many area residents for the proposed college,” Kenneth Startup writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “He found substantial encouragement from Jonesboro Baptist College alumni (the school had failed during the early years of the Great Depression) and from former students and supporters of Maynard Baptist Academy, another attempt at Baptist-sponsored education in the region that lasted from 1900-26. Williams’ relentless commitment to the cause culminated in the opening of the college, then named Southern Baptist College, in Pocahontas on Sept. 10, 1941. The college offered a two-year liberal arts curriculum, and a majority of the college’s early students studied to become clergymen or public school teachers.”

The city of Pocahontas made a community center that had been built by the Works Progress Administration available for classes. H.E. Williams became the school’s first president and stayed in the post for 32 years. The main building being used by Southern Baptist College burned on Dec. 26, 1946. That’s when negotiations began with the federal government to move the school to the former airbase.

“Sen. John L. McClellan and Rep. Wilbur Mills advocated for the college in its negotiations with the federal government,” Startup writes. “During the next several decades, the college transformed the airbase through millions of dollars of construction and renovations.”

In 1968, the school was formally adopted by the Arkansas Baptist State Convention.

The school became a four-year institution in the early 1980s. The name was changed to Williams Baptist College in 1990 and to Williams Baptist University in 2017.

In May 2016, residents of Walnut Ridge and College City, where Williams Baptist was officially located, voted to consolidate the two towns.

The Beatles had made a stop at the airport on the way to a ranch in nearby Missouri in the 1960s.

“To commemorate the Beatles’ stopover in Walnut Ridge in the 1960s, the town has changed the name of a downtown street to Abbey Road, erected a sculpture of the Beatles in a downtown park and created a music festival called Beatles at the Ridge,” McNeill writes. “The town has also added a guitar-shaped plaza downtown that has plaques honoring nine musicians who traveled U.S. Highway 67 and played around the Walnut Ridge area in the 1950s, including Sonny Burgess, Johnny Cash and Conway Twitty.”

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From Hardy to Black Rock

Friday, July 19th, 2019


The Spring River is just a few hundred yards to our right as we continue east on U.S. Highway 412 out of Hardy.

A huge spring at Mammoth Spring marks the start of the river, which travels almost 75 miles across north Arkansas before emptying into the Black River near Black Rock. More than 9 million gallons of water an hour comes from that spring.

“The Spring River is joined several miles downstream by the South Fork, which flows eastward from its origin near Salem,” Charles Crawford writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “As it is not fed by the spring, the South Fork of the Spring River carries a less consistent volume of water and sometimes isn’t suitable for canoeing during late summer and early fall. However, its extensive gravel bars provide good sites for camping and picnicking.

“The constant supply of cold, clear water provided by this river and its tributary creeks, along with the rich alluvial soil built by the regular flooding from heavy rainfall, attracted populations to the area. The early inhabitants were the Native Americans, who hunted, fished and maintained camps and villages in the valley between the river and the rocky bluffs and tree-covered hills flanking both sides of the stream. Artifacts and burial sites can still be found after each flood in the fields along the banks.”

Mammoth Spring National Fish Hatchery is adjacent to Mammoth Spring State Park. The hatchery is operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Jim Hinkle Spring River State Fish Hatchery, which is operated by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, is two miles downstream from Mammoth Spring.

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

Before leaving Sharp County and crossing into Lawrence County, we pass the turn to Williford, which had a population of 75 residents in the 2010 census. That was down from a high of 357 residents in the 1920 census.

“During the early 20th century, it was one of the county’s largest and fastest-growing towns, but since then it has experienced a steady decline resulting in an almost nonexistent business district,” writes Arkansas historian Mike Polston, a Williford native.

The first white settler in the area was reportedly Jeremiah Pitt Baird, who established a home on the banks of the Spring River in 1841.

“Shortly after he settled his family on the opposite side of the river from the present-day town, others began to move into the area,” Polston writes. “Among those was Ambrose Williford, who became a prominent landowner after whom the town was named. In the community’s earliest days, homes were established on both sides of the river with the town eventually being established on the north side.”

The coming of the railroad that ran from Memphis to Springfield, Mo., brought growth. Railroad construction began in 1870 and was completed in 1883.

“On Oct. 1, 1883, the first train to pass through Williford attracted spectators from miles around,” Polston writes. “A station was soon built, and the town became a center of local shipping and commerce. The rail line later became part of the Frisco Railroad. The tracks are still in use today.

“A major contributor to local growth was the establishment of a limestone quarry east of town in 1884. Many of the town’s merchants sold goods to the workers. Ownership of the operation changed, and a new quarry was opened west of town where a better grade of stone was found. A work camp of 14 company houses was constructed with each being painted green, resulting in the name Greenville. The local economy prospered with merchants selling goods and many of the townspeople also working at the quarry. Forty to 50 railroad cars of stone were shipped each day.”

Williford had three general stores, a saloon, a cotton gin, a blacksmith shop, a one-room schoolhouse, a doctor’s office and a post office by 1890. A steel-frame bridge across the Spring River was constructed in 1907. The Sharp County Bank was established in 1911. A 10-room hotel opened the following year.

Then came the floods and fires from which Williford never fully recovered.

“Flooding of the town has always been a threat,” Polston writes. “In 1915, the town sustained major damage, and the river bridge was washed out. It was soon rebuilt. By the mid-1920s, the town had more than 25 businesses. A major fire destroyed seven of those in the spring of 1929. Most did not rebuild. … The growth of the town has always been tied to the railroad, whose tracks run not more than 100 yards from the business district. With the decline of passenger service and the development of roads and highways as an alternate means of trade and travel, growth became stagnant.”

Polston says the proposed construction of Bell Foley Dam on the nearby Strawberry River in the late 1960s “brought some hope for renewed growth, and work began on a vacation resort near the town in anticipation of the lake. However, the controversial dam was never built. In the 21st century, most of the old business buildings are vacant and in ruins.”

As we continue east, we leave Sharp County and move into the hill country of Lawrence County.

Lawrence County is divided by the Black River. On the west side, there are the Ozarks. On the east side, it’s the flat, row-crop country of the Arkansas Delta. Lawrence County is known as the Mother of Counties because it once covered most of north Arkansas, an area that eventually would be divided into 31 counties.

The county is named for James Lawrence, a naval hero in the War of 1812. It was created in 1815 as part of the Missouri Territory and was the second (after Arkansas County) of the five counties that would become the Arkansas Territory in 1819.

“White settlers first inhabited the county’s western regions, traveling on the Black River or, after 1811, over the Military Road,” John Jacobsen writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “This route, along with the swampy conditions in the east, explains the early settlement concentration in the county’s hilly western half. The earliest important settlement was at Davidsonville along the Black River. Named for territorial legislator John Davidson, the town served as the first county seat in 1816. Exaggerated tradition claims 3,000 Davidsonville residents before yellow fever ended the settlement. In 1829, the county seat moved to Jackson on the Military Road.”

The first Lawrence County community we pass through on our U.S. 412 route is Ravenden, which came about once the railroad was established in the 1880s.

“With the development of the town along the tracks, it soon became an important trade center in the area,” Polston writes. “The business sector is no longer located on the original site. In 1947, the business sector slowly began to move to the newly completed U.S. highway, where it remains today.”

The first white settler in the area was a former British soldier named William J. Ball, who had fought at the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. He settled along the Spring River in 1858.

“He named his developing settlement Opposition, saying it was in opposition to the nearest town of Smithville,” Polston writes. “It never grew very large and died when it was bypassed by the railroad in the 1880s. With the completion of the main line of the Kansas City, Fort Scott & Memphis Railroad in 1883, it was decided to build a trunk line to the resort town of Ravenden Springs in Randolph County, about seven miles to the north. The new town at the intersection was to be called Ravenden Junction. Though the trunk line was never constructed, a settlement that had begun to develop along the main line before its completion began to thrive, especially with the completion of a depot and section house. Two passenger trains a day serviced the town. The last passenger coach passed through on Dec. 8, 1967.”

The sons of William Ball — Sam and Trick — were leading merchants in the area. The name Ravenden became official when a post office was established in 1891.

“The local economy was driven by the production of cotton and cattle, both of which could be shipped by train,” Polston writes. “The abundance of timber led to a thriving lumber trade, especially railroad ties. The town was incorporated on Nov. 15, 1901. The Bank of Ravenden, established in December 1905, was in continuous operation until closing during the Great Depression in 1930. Around 1905, John Chun founded a short-lived weekly newspaper call The Ravenden Hustler.”

A brick schoolhouse built in 1918 was used until consolidation with Sloan-Hendrix at Imboden in the 1940s.

“Sometime in the 1930s, the town suffered a major fire that destroyed or damaged all but one of the businesses on Main Street,” Polston writes. “Ravenden still maintains a small business district on the highway. Perhaps the most striking feature of the town is a 12-foot-tall raven first constructed in 1991.”

The next town we enter is Imboden. Paul Austin, the former head of the Arkansas Humanities Council who hails from Imboden, is along for this trip. We take a break on the back deck of his mother’s home, which overlooks the Spring River.

“Though a number of settlers lived in the area by the 1820s, the town, which became a local trade center, did not exist until the construction of the railroad in 1883,” Polston writes. “By the 1820s, the Military Road crossed the Spring River near the present town, attracting new settlers. There is evidence that a few houses and a store existed prior to the coming of the railroad. One of those early settlers was Benjamin Imboden, who moved his family to the area in 1828. Imboden acquired considerable property, eventually owning the largest amount of land in the area. The town would be named in his honor.

“In 1882, just prior to the coming of the railroad, Imboden sold the land where much of the town would be built to wealthy local developer W.C. Sloan. … The first business, Sloan Mercantile Co., opened in late 1883 and remained in business until 1930. It was soon followed by others, including the first hotel, known as The Strawn, and an African-American-owned barbershop that opened in 1885. The first brick building, owned by G.W. Hooper, was constructed in 1886.”

Imboden was incorporated in April 1889.

“At the time, it consisted of three general stores, two grocery stores, two saloons, a hotel, a livery stable, a school and a Catholic church,” Polston writes. “The population, which numbered a little more than 150 at the time, increased to more than 400 during the next 10 years.”

There was a ferry across the Spring River until the first bridge was constructed in 1898. A new bridge was built in 1938 by the federal Public Works Administration.

In 1891, the board of Hendrix College decided to establish five academies across the state. Sloan-Hendrix Academy was established at Imboden. It remained in operation until 1931 when the campus was sold to the Imboden School District. The name Sloan-Hendrix is still used for the public schools.

Polston writes about how town leaders bought a radio for the community: “Benches were set up, and people came into town on a nightly basis to listen to the broadcasts. In the 1920s, Otho Crouch opened a movie theater called the Hippodrome. Movies were also screened at the school until the 1930s by the school organization known as the Sloan-Hendrix Helpers.”

Ravenden had 470 residents in the 2010 census; Imboden had 677.

Black Rock marks the end of the Ozarks as you head east. Once the railroad came, timber companies began moving in to cut the virgin timber in the Ozark foothills. Black Rock boomed for a time.

“General stores were quickly established, and a sawmill was built on the Black River,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “In 1884, the city incorporated with a recorded population of 277. By 1890, the city had about 10 sawmills. The decade of the 1890s saw the creation of numerous industries, many linked to the timber businesses — shingle mills, planing mills, a furniture factory, a handle factory and a wagon factory. In addition, Black Rock featured a stone quarry and the Southern Queensware Co., which was established in 1896 to produce porcelain, earthenware, encaustic tiles and enamel brick. Between 1890 and 1900, the city grew from 761 to 1,400.”

The population was down to 662 residents by the 2010 census.

When J.H. Myers found a large pink pearl inside a mussel in 1897, a pearl rush ensued.

“Most people simply threw away the mussel shells they opened, but Myers shipped a load of ostensibly worthless shells to Lincoln, Neb., in 1899 to be used in the manufacture of buttons,” Lancaster writes. “Along with partners N.R. and H.W. Townsend, Myers established the Black Rock Pearl Button Co., which was reportedly the first button factory in the South. It was later purchased by a company in Davenport, Iowa, and expanded. The Chalmers Button Factory opened in 1909.

“After World War II, with the increased availability of plastic buttons, the industry foundered. The last button factory in Black Rock closed in 1954, though mussels are still harvested from the Black River and shipped to China, where they are used for cultured pearls.”

We cross the Black River at Black Rock on the bridge that opened in May 2015 to replace a bridge that had been built in 1949.

Three rivers join in southeast Missouri to form the Black River. It crosses into Arkansas northeast of Corning in Clay County. Its route then takes it through the Dave Donaldson Black River Wildlife Management Area, through Randolph County to the county seat of Pocahontas and then past Davidsonville, Black Rock and Powhatan.

“From there, it flows south through the Shirey Bay-Rainey Brake Wildlife Management Area, crosses the southern border of Lawrence County and forms the east-west border between Independence and Jackson counties,” Jerry Cavaneau writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “It finally turns southeast and enters the White River at Jacksonport, just north of Newport. Its Arkansas tributaries are the Current, Spring and Strawberry rivers. The Black has numerous sharp bends, many with colorful names such as Deadman and Hole in the Wall in the Davidsonville area along with the Box Factory, Battle Axe and Dead Mule bends along the lower course of the river.

“The river and the wildlife management areas through which it flows provide abundant opportunities for hunters, fishermen, hikers and wildlife watchers. The main species of fish are largemouth bass, crappie and catfish. Duck, squirrel, deer, rabbit and turkey hunting are popular along its course. Both the Donaldson and Shirey Bay WMAs offer fine green tree reservoir habitat for ducks. There’s also a population of furbearers such as beaver, muskrat, mink and raccoon.”

Batesville lawyer Fent Noland wrote in 1839: “The country up White River and the Black is destined to be the finest in Arkansas. Nature has done all she could. Man will do the rest.”

By the late 1800s, more than 40 steamboats were operating on the Black River.

“The first train arrived in Pocahontas in 1896, and the railroads gradually replaced river traffic,” Cavaneau writes. “As late as the 1920s, however, steamboats and snag boats (used to clear river debris) were still in operation.”

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