Archive for the ‘Building Arkansas’ Category

A Delta cultural stew

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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David Solomon at 100

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016

The banner wishing David Solomon a happy 100th birthday stretched across the street that hot July Saturday near the banks of the Mississippi River in Helena.

Solomon long has been one of Arkansas’ most respected attorneys. He’s a Helena native and a stalwart of the Jewish community, which once thrived on both sides of the lower Mississppi River from St. Louis to New Orleans.

They came from across the Delta that Saturday. By late that afternoon, hundreds of people had made their way to the block of old buildings in downtown Helena known as Biscuit Row. Sam Elardo, who began restoring properties in the area in 1974, bought five buildings on what’s now Biscuit Row several years ago and began renovations. In a stuffy, crowded room, Solomon sat for more than two hours, greeting a steady stream of visitors.

Before we get to David Solomon, a bit more about Biscuit Row as downtown Helena tries to bounce back.

“The project started with the five historic buildings that I purchased from Morris Gist,” Elardo said in a 2013 interview with Melissa Martinez. “Back then, there were a number of things there ranging from juke joints and restaurants to liquor stores and gambling joints. … I used to be a merchant in the area so I understand the ins and outs of small businesses.”

In front of the buildings is a marker from the Mississippi Blues Trail celebrating the accomplishments of Sonny Boy Williamson.

That’s right: The Mississippi Blues Trail.

The trail was established in 2006 by the Mississippi Blues Commission. Interpretive markers were placed across the state. Later, those behind the trail’s establishment decided to reach out to surrounding states in places where the blues had been important — places such as Memphis and Helena.

The marker reads: “Helena was home to a flourishing blues scene that inspired Sonny Boy Williamson and other legendary musicians from Mississippi, including Robert Johnson, Pinetop Perkins, Houston Stackhouse, James “Peck” Curtis and Honeyboy Edwards, to take up residence here in the 1930s and 1940s. They and many others performed at a famous juke joint at this site called the Hole in the Wall. Williamson’s rise to fame began in Helena as the star of KFFA radio’s ‘King Biscuit Time.’

“Sonny Boy Williamson was born and laid to rest in Mississippi, and lived in Chicago, East St. Louis, Milwaukee, Detroit and numerous other locales. But Helena was the town he came to regard as home. He established himself as one of the premier blues performers in the Delta (on both the Arkansas and Mississippi sides) through his live appearances in cafes and clubs and his broadcasts on KFFA and other stations. His recordings, including the chart hits ‘Don’t Start Me Talkin’, ‘Keep It To Yourself’ and “Help Me’, brought him national recognition.

“In the 1960s, he played a key role in popularizing the blues in Europe and inspiring a host of British blues-rock musicians. In Europe, Williamson confounded eager fans and reporters who besieged him with questions about his life. As he told fellow bluesman Willie Dixon, ‘It ain’t none of their business. They don’t even know me.’

“Genealogical research and family sources point to a likely birthdate of Dec. 5, 1912, under the name Alex Miller. But he also called himself Rice Miller, Willie Miller, Little Boy Blue, Reverend Blue and Willie Williams, among other monikers, and he gave birthdates as early as 1893. When he eventually took his stage name from another popular bluesman, John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson, in the blues lexicon he became Sonny Boy No. 2.”

There are few, if any, towns in Arkansas with as colorful a past as Helena.

As we left the Solomon reception, I thought back to a far quieter day in July 2010. I spent the better part of a Friday at the home of Solomon and his wife, Miriam, who died the next year. It was a civilized affair with David mixing drinks before lunch and Miriam making sure everyone was comfortable. Lobster shipped in from Maine was served for lunch. Their Helena home was filled with books and art, symbols of a cultured life lived well.

The Solomons had been married 68 years at the time. They were born in Helena. Miriam was three years younger.

Jewish culture once thrived on either side of the river from St. Louis to New Orleans.

At the time of my visit, David Solomon would still put on a suit and tie each morning and head to his office on Cherry Street, which once had been among the busiest commercial streets in Arkansas. In recent decades, Cherry Street has seen its buildings empty out and begin to crumble. With Temple Beth El closed by the time of my 2010 visit, the area’s remaining Jews had begun gathering in the Solomon home for Friday night services.

Beth El was built in 1916. The building has its original organ, purchased for $4,000 by the congregation’s Ladies Benevolent Association. It was a regional congregation, serving Jews not only from Helena but also from smaller farm-oriented communities such as Marvell and Marianna. In 2006, with fewer than 20 members remaining, the synagogue closed and the temple was donated to the state’s Delta Cultural Center to be used as an assembly hall. The loss of thousands of sharecroppers due to the widespread mechanization of agriculture following World War II had led to the loss of the once ubiquitous Jewish merchants up and down the river.

“There are only about six or seven of us,” David Solomon said on that Friday in 2010 when I asked him about the Friday night services. “One lady drives over from Marvell. Another comes from Holly Grove. There was just no way to maintain the temple. There were too few of us left. And we certainly weren’t going to give it to another religion.”

He smiled at me as he said that. His wit is as much a part of his persona as his bow tie.

The Delta is like many parts of rural America, a place that in some ways never made the transition from the agricultural age to the industrial age, much less the technological era.

Those sharecroppers moved from the cotton fields of the South to the steel mills and automobile factories of the Upper Midwest. They deserted places like Helena on the Arkansas side of the river and Greenville on the Mississippi side in droves for the promise of better jobs in cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Gary.

It’s still common during the holidays each December to see visitors in rural east Arkansas whose automobiles sport license plates from Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. There are counties in Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana that had half or less the population in the 2010 census that they had in 1950.

The first Jews arrived in Helena in the 1840s. A Torah was borrowed from a congregation in Cincinnati in 1846 to use for the high holidays.

In 1867, 65 Jews formed Congregation Beth El. Now, almost 150 years later, the era of Jews living and thriving in the lower Mississippi River Delta is nearing its conclusion.

David Solomon, who received his bachelor’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis and his law degree from Harvard, expresses no longing for the past and no sadness at the decline of the Delta’s Jewish population. In his own stoic manner, he simply views it as things having come full circle. The Delta Jews, after all, met in private homes in the 1800s. By the 21st century, they were meeting in private homes once again.

“I relate everything back to economics,” Solomon once told me. “It’s not just the Jewish population that’s being affected in the Delta. All of the mainline Protestant religions are feeling the effect. It’s simple. People are going to go where the jobs are.”

The three Solomon sons, all highly successful, are a case in point. None of them stayed in Helena.

David P. Solomon went on to become the executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society in New York.

Rayman Solomon was the dean of the Rutgers Law School in Camden, N.J., for 16 years and now serves as dean emeritus.

Lafe Solomon is an attorney for the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C., and served as the NLRB’s acting general counsel from June 2010 until November 2013.

For the elder David Solomon, the equation was simple. Jews came to the Delta in the 1800s when cotton was king because there were jobs. They left in the late 1900s because those jobs had disappeared.

The Delta long was known for its diversity. Blacks came in bondage as slaves and stayed on as sharecroppers. The Irish, Italians, Chinese, Syrians, Greeks and Lebanese were other groups who came up the river from New Orleans or down the river from St. Louis, settling in communities along the way.

The Delta was perhaps the greatest American melting pot outside a major city.

In an effort to preserve the state’s Jewish heritage, David P. Solomon (the son) established the Tapestry Endowment for Arkansas Jewish History. The endowment helped create a home at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock for Carolyn Gray LeMaster’s extensive body of research on the history of Arkansas Jews. The fund’s name is taken from the title of LeMaster’s book, “A Corner of the Tapestry: A History of the Jewish Experience in Arkansas, 1820s-1900s.”

The Jewish Genealogy Library Collection calls the book “one of the most comprehensive studies ever done on a state’s Jewish community. … Data for the book have been collected in part from the American Jewish Archives, American Jewish Historical Society, the stones in Arkansas’ Jewish cemeteries, more than 1,500 articles and obituaries from journals and newspapers, personal letters from hundreds of present and former Jewish Arkansans, congressional histories, census and court records and some 400 oral interviews in more than 100 cities and towns in Arkansas.”

David Solomon’s grandfather arrived from Germany shortly before the Civil War and had eight children — six boys and two girls. That second generation later would own a department store, shoe store, wholesale dry goods operation and cotton farms.

Miriam Solomon’s father, Charles Rayman, operated Helena Wholesale Co.

David Solomon started the first grade at a Catholic School known as Sacred Heart, which was operated by the Sisters of Nazareth. The nuns quickly moved him from the first grade to the fourth grade due to his native intelligence. He likes to joke that his mother finally pulled him out of the Catholic school when he kept coming home with crucifixes and tiny vials of holy water.

After his graduation from Harvard Law School, he applied to be a tax lawyer at a large firm in Memphis. He wasn’t chosen and came home to Helena to practice law.

He married Miriam in September 1942, traveling back to Helena from Camp Carson in Colorado Springs where he was stationed in the U.S. Army. Miriam had been working as an occupational therapist at a Chicago hospital. The wedding was in Miriam’s family home.

In December 2009, the Jewish news service JTA distributed an article about a Friday night service at the Solomon home. Ben Harris wrote: “The plight of Helena’s Jews is mirrored in scores of communities across the Bible Belt, where Jews first migrated in the early 19th century, generally as peddlers. Those who stuck around opened small businesses, which for a long time provided an ample livelihood.”

Harris went on to write that Miriam and David Solomon’s “benign resignation” over the impending end of Jewish life in Phillips County derived “at least in part from the success they have had in winding down their affairs and ensuring the continued maintenance of their synagogue and cemetery, which dates to 1875. Their ritual objects have been donated to other communities, and a trust has been established to ensure the cemetery’s upkeep. And with the synagogue and its glass-domed ceiling turned over to the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the building will not only be preserved, it will be put to good use.”

At that lunch in 2010, Miriam Solomon told me: “I had made up my mind that we were not going to have the temple standing there with weeds growing out of the gutter. That wasn’t going to happen on my watch. In my mind, I gave it three years. If we hadn’t found a use for it by then, we were going to have it torn down.”

I’m glad I was there for David Solomon’s 100th birthday party. He’s one of the last of the Delta Jews.

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Along U.S. Highway 67

Tuesday, July 12th, 2016

Before the construction of Interstate 30, U.S. Highway 67 was the route from Arkansas to Texas, making it one of the most important roads in the state.

On a recent trip to south Arkansas, Paul Austin and I drove on the old highway from just outside Benton to Prescott, eschewing the interstate and experiencing the sights along Highway 67.

“The route of Highway 67 is the approximate border between the low Mississippi Delta and Gulf Coastal Plain to the south and east and the Ouachita and Ozark mountains to the north and west,” Steve Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “This boundary is such a natural path of travel that even spring and summer thunderstorms frequently move along the same route. Undoubtedly, native Americans traveled portions of this route.

“After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, as the U.S. government began improving travel through the territory, a military road was constructed from Missouri through Little Rock and south to Fulton on the Red River. This road became known as the Southwest Trail and was the first land route created in Arkansas. When the Cairo & Fulton Railroad began surveying a route to connect southern Illinois to the Red River across Missouri and Arkansas, the same route was used once again. The railroad became the Iron Mountain Railroad and was then acquired by the Missouri Pacific Railroad. The route is still used by the Union Pacific Railroad in the 21st century, although ties and rails have been repaired and replaced through the years.”

The roads that eventually would turn into Highway 67 in Arkansas were part of the original state highway system in 1923.

“Federal and state funding became available for highways early in the 1920s as automobile and truck traffic was beginning to take the place of railroad traffic,” Teske writes. “A joint commission of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads and the American Association of State Highway Officials created the first national system of highways, with nine federal highways established in Arkansas, including Highway 67. Sections of the highway were gradually improved as funds became available. Much pavement was laid for the highway in 1928 through 1931. The highway was 18 feet wide at that time. More improvements were made by federal projects such as the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s.”

Teske notes that the construction of a large ordnance plant at Jacksonville in 1941 led to widening of the highway north of Little Rock.

“After the war, the United States entered a period of prosperity and growth that led to cultural changes,” he writes. “Many of the earliest rock ‘n’ roll performers — including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty and Sonny Burgess — performed in high schools, nightclubs and other venues along Highway 67 from Newport north to Pocahontas. In 2009, the Arkansas General Assembly named this part of the highway the Rock ‘n’ Roll Highway, with a portion also in Miller County in southwest Arkansas, as early rock ‘n’ roll performers played at the Arkansas Municipal Auditorium when they traveled through Texarkana on Highway 67.”

The history of the music scene along Highway 67 in northeast Arkansas is filled with colorful characters, but we’ve covered that in other posts on this blog. We’ll stick to southwest Arkansas in this post.

“During the 1950s, American views of highway travel began to change,” Teske writes. “Until this time, highways existed to connect cities and towns to one another. The beginning of the interstate highway system caused drivers to begin traveling directly between large cities, bypassing the smaller cities and towns. Interstate 30, from Little Rock south to Texarkana and then into Texas, was one of the original interstate highways planned for Arkansas. The new interstate highway made travel into Texas easier but took business away from many of the communities that had relied on travelers’ income to support stores, restaurants and gas stations. … Highway 67 continued to be used by Arkansans traveling shorter distances in the southwestern quarter of the state.”

As we left Haskell, we passed what had been the historic Saline County campus of the Arkansas State Hospital, which opened at this location in the 1930s.

The Legislature created the Arkansas Lunatic Asylum in 1873, but Reconstruction delayed the construction of a facility until 1881, when work began on an asylum at Little Rock. The name was changed to the Arkansas State Hospital for Nervous Diseases (my grandmother in Benton, who lived until age 98, always called it “the nervous hospital,” the same term used in the 1996 movie “Sling Blade”) and then was changed to the Arkansas State Hospital in 1933.

Speaking of “Sling Blade,” the filming of the psychiatric hospital portrayed in the movie starring southwest Arkansas native Billy Bob Thornton took place at the Saline County facility.

In 1881, the Legislature levied a one-mill tax on all property for two years to construct and outfit an asylum. It opened on March 1, 1883. By 1915, there were 12 buildings housing patients. A separate hospital farm was established at Baucum outside of North Little Rock in the 1930s. What was known as the Benton Farm Colony opened in 1936 with room for 2,000 people. Farm operations ceased there in 1957.

A federal grant of $291,950 was used in 1964 to upgrade the Saline County facilities. Several of the buildings are now empty.

These days the complex is known as the Arkansas Health Center. It’s a 310-bed nursing facility. In fact, it’s the only state-operated nursing facility.

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture states: “In 1961, the Arkansas Health Center was designated to receive all African-American psychiatric patients from its section of the state. In July 1962, all African-American phychiatric patients from Pulaski County, including those patients receiving treatment from the Arkansas State Hospital, were transferred to AHC. Although black and white patients were housed in separate buildings, AHC was one of the only facilities of its kind in Arkansas to accept such a large black population. In October 1965, AHC became racially integrated.”

We continued west past Glen Rose High School and then passed the Acme Brick Co. plant at Perla.

Fittingly, it was Brickfest weekend at Malvern. The festival started in 1981 and includes everything from a brick-throwing contest to concerts and arts and crafts displays.

There were dozens of brick plants in Arkansas during the early 1900s. Little Rock, Fort Smith, Clarksville, El Dorado, Hope, Jonesboro, Malvern, Pine Bluff, Mansfield, Pocahontas and Wynne were among the cities with brick-making operations. By the 1980s, there were only plants in the Malvern area, Jonesboro, Hope, Fort Smith and Clarksville. By 2009, there were just four plants in the state, and they all were owned by Acme.

Well-known names in the brick industry in Arkansas included:

— The Fort Smith Brick Co., which dated back to the 1840s and was acquired by Acme in 1923 along with a plant at Mansfield.

— The Hope Brick Works, which was part of the O’Neal-Gardner family’s 100-year tradition of brickmaking. The plant moved to Hope from Gurdon in the 1920s. Acme purchased and closed the facility in 2000.

— The Jonesboro Brick Co., which was operated by three generations of the Charles Stuck family before being closed in 1942. It reopened in 1946 as the Hall-Wheeler Brick Co. It was just the Wheeler Brick Co. from 1951-66, when a modern plant was built on the west site of town. Acme bought that plant in 2000.

— The Eureka Brick & Tile Co. of Clarksville, which began production in June 1946 and operated until it was sold to Acme in 1999.

“Malvern is by far the leading city in brick production in Arkansas and at one time claimed to be the Brick Capital of the World,” Randall Wheeler writes. “It has been the home of Acme Brick Co., Arkansas Brick & Tile, Atchison Brick Works, Clark Pressed Brick Co. (sold to Arkansas Brick & Tile in 1916) and Malvern Brick & Tile. Acme first purchased property at Malvern in 1919 and began negotiations to purchase Arkansas Brick & Tile.

“Malvern Brick & Tile was started in 1925 and, at one time, had a line of bricks in colors such as blue, green, pink and yellow. Other companies sprayed the color onto the face of the brick, but Malvern Brick used stains that colored the whole body of the brick. It is not likely that any other company produced bricks with through-the-body colors. Malvern Brick was purchased by Acme in the late 1970s.”

Acme began in Texas in 1891 and opened its first Arkansas plant in Hot Spring County in 1921. Illinois native George Bennett arrived in Dallas in 1876 and purchased 480 acres in Parker County for the first Acme plant. The headquarters was moved to Fort Worth in 1911, four years after Bennett died. By the 1970s, Acme was the largest American brick manufacturer. Land was purchased at Perla in 1919, and the first bricks were being made two years later.

The fully automated Perla East Gate Plant opened in 1967. Meanwhile, the original Malvern plant was replaced with what’s known as the Ouachita Plant in 1980.

It’s not nearly as big, of course, but I consider Keeney’s Grocery in Malvern to be as much of a Hot Spring County landmark as the brick plants. It’s where Paul and I had breakfast, including some of the best sausage I’ve ever eaten.

Charles and Maureen Keeney opened the grocery store 60 years ago at this same location, hidden from most traffic in a residential area.

Charles Keeney is 80 but is young at heart. He even drives a Corvette.

“She can get old if she wants to,” he says of his wife. “I’m not going to.”

A corner of the store has been turned into a small restaurant. Keeney’s serves breakfast and lunch every day but Sunday.

In 2000, with competition from Walmart and other big retailers hurting his business, Charles Keeney thought about retiring. But he decided that with only $45,000 in the bank he needed to keep working.

Here’s how Wayne Bryan told the story in a 2011 feature for the Tri-Lakes edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: “Rather than just carry on business as usual in a small grocery store that seems to fit more in the 1950s than the new millennium, Charles decided to latch onto what’s still the fastest-growing segment of the supermarket industry, cooking for customers (or, as it is called in the grocery business, home meal replacement). Starting in the late 1990s, many supermarket operators discovered that preparing and serving food in their stores was a good way to bring in new customers, gain greater loyalty from existing customers and increase checkout sales and profits. … Today, in-store restaurants aren’t unusual. Charles had the same idea for his small store on Mill Street in Malvern. The couple, along with several employees, prepare and serve breakfast and lunch six days a week at the back of their store.”

Charles Keeney told Bryan: “I just pushed some of the groceries back and put in a kitchen and some tables. I did it because I had to make a living. We stumbled through the menu for a while. But I was raised country so we fix things in the old home-style way.”

Keeney told us that he sells so much sausage at breakfast that he doesn’t have time to make it to sell by the pound in the grocery section of the store.

On Thursdays, he sells dozens of rib-eye steaks. People eat them in the restaurant for lunch while others come in during the afternoon to get steaks to take home for supper.

Charles and Maureen Keeney arrive at the store at 4:30 a.m. and begin serving breakfast at 6 a.m..

Charles was 20 and Maureen was 17 when they bought the store in 1956.

They’re a special couple, deeply loved in the Malvern area.

A crew from KTHV-TV, Channel 11 in Little Rock showed up last year to visit the store.

Charles Keeney told them: “We went broke like the rest of them little ones. Times changed on us. When I turned 65, we started cooking. We had $45,000 to retire on, so we went to town and borrowed $45,000 more and spent it back there on the kitchen.”

Keeney’s is open from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 6 a.m. until 3 p.m. each Saturday. It’s worth the road trip.

We continued toward Arkadelphia, crossing the old viaduct over the railroad tracks at Donaldson, crossing the Ouachita River, passing Ouachita High School, passing through Friendship, crossing DeRoche Creek into Clark County, getting through the Caddo Valley commercial corridor and then crossing the Caddo River.

 

 

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Cotton country: Part 3

Tuesday, July 5th, 2016

It was an invitation I couldn’t turn down.

Judge Raymond Abramson of Holly Grove had invited me to join him for a lecture at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock.

The lecturer: Sven Beckert, the author of “Empire of Cotton: A Global History.”

Beckert, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., is the Laird Bell Professor of American History at Harvard University. His book, published in 2014, chronicles the rise and fall of cotton and the central role it once played in the world economy.

“This fluffy white fiber is at the center of this book,” Beckert writes. “The plant itself does not make history, but if we listen carefully, it will tell us of people all over the world who spent their lives with cotton: Indian weavers, slaves in Alabama, Greek merchants in the Nile Delta towns, highly organized craft workers in Lancashire. The empire of cotton was built with their labor, imagination and skills. By 1900 about 1.5 percent of the human population — millions of men, women and children — were engaged in the industry, either growing, transporting or manufacturing cotton.

“Edward Atkinson, a mid-19th century Massachusetts cotton manufacturer, was essentially correct when he pointed out that ‘there is no other product that has had so potent and malign an influence in the past upon the history and institutions of the land; and perhaps no other on which its future material welfare may more depend.’ Atkinson was speaking of the United States and its history of slavery, but his argument could be applied to the world as a whole.”

The Abramson family has a long history in the cotton culture of Arkansas. Rue and Venda Abramsom, who in 1921 built the house at Holly Grove were I spent a delightful evening last summer, were Holly Grove natives. Their parents had been among the first people to settle in the area after the Civil War. Raymond Abramson is a grandson of Rue Abramson and part of a rich tradition of Jewish farmers and merchants in the Delta, a tradition that’s rapidly disappearing.

In addition to farming, Rue Abramson operated a bank and several businesses. He opened the town’s first modern garage and service station in 1927. The official listing of the Abramson house on the National Register of Historic Places states: “The Abramsons were active in the commercial life of Holly Grove as merchants, ginners and plantation owners. By 1922, they also founded the First National Bank of Holly Grove. They were active in civic affairs. They were leaders in such organizations as the Crowley’s Ridge Council of the Boy Scouts of America, the Monroe County Fair Association, the Sahara Temple of Pine Bluff, the American Red Cross, B’nai B’rith, Temple Beth El of Helena and various other Jewish organizations.”

Rue Abramson selected a well-known Memphis architect, Estes Mann, to design his home. Mann had a remarkable career, designing more than 1,800 residences across the Mid-South, including some of the finest houses in Memphis. Mann was a Marianna native.

In the city’s commercial district a few blocks away from the Abramson home, Rue Abramson’s R. Abramson Co. owned four buildings. Rue’s son, Ralph, later took over the family’s businesses. Ralph’s wife, Rosemary, was a Memphis native who married Ralph in 1946 and spent the rest of her life in Holly Grove. Rosemary (Raymond’s mother) died in January 2013 at age 93.

Raymond Abramson received his undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia in 1973 and his law degree from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in 1976. He and his wife Mockie, a Virginia native, split their time between Little Rock and Holly Grove but maintain deep ties to Monroe County. I enjoyed sitting with them at the lecture and then talking about the Arkansas cotton culture at dinner later that evening.

I’ll say it again: You can’t understand the history of Arkansas if you don’t understand the history of cotton cultivation in the state.

Beckert wrote this about the spread of cotton into the American South: “Planters brought with them thousands of slaves. In the 1790s, the slave population of the state of Georgia nearly doubled, to 60,000. In South Carolina, the number of slaves in the upcountry cotton-growing districts grew from 21,000 in 1790 to 70,000 two decades later, including 15,000 slaves newly brought from Africa. As cotton plantations spread, the proportion of slaves in four typical South Carolina upcountry counties increased from 18.4 percent in 1790 to 39.5 percent in 1820 and to 61.1 percent in 1860. All the way to the Civil War, cotton and slavery would expand in lockstep, as Great Britain and the United States had become the twin hubs of the emerging empire of cotton.

“The only substantial problem was the land, as the same patch could not be used for more than a few years without either planting legumes on it or applying expensive guano to it. As one Putnam County, Ga., planter lamented, ‘We appear to have but one rule — that is to make as much cotton as we can, and wear out as much land as we can … lands that once produced 1,000 pounds of cotton to the acre will not now bring more than 400 pounds.’

“Yet even soil exhaustion did not slow the cotton barons; they simply moved farther west and farther south. Newly emptied lands, portable slave labor and the new ginning technology allowed cotton to be easily transferred to new territories. After 1815, cotton planters moved westward into the rich lands of upland South Carolina and Georgia. Their migration to Alabama and Louisiana, and eventually to Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas, was choreographed to the movement of cotton prices.

“While the price of cotton gradually declined over the first half of the 19th century, sharp price upswings — such as in the first half of the 1810s, between 1832 and 1837, and again after the mid-1840s — produced expansionist bursts. In 1811, one-sixteenth of all cotton grown in the United States came from states and territories west of South Carolina and Georgia. By 1820, that share had reached one-third, and in 1860 three-fourths. New cotton fields sprouted in the sediment-rich lands along the banks of the Mississippi, the upcountry of Alabama and the black prairie of Arkansas. So rapid was this move westward that by the end of the 1830s, Mississippi already produced more cotton than any other Southern state.”

Beckert points out that “the entry of the United States into the empire of cotton was so forceful that cotton cultivation in the American South quickly began to reshape the global cotton markets.

Consider these facts:

— In 1790, three years before Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, the United States produced 1.5 millions pounds of cotton.

— By 1800, the United States produced 36.5 million pounds of cotton.

— By 1820, the United States produced 167.5 million pounds of cotton.

— By 1802, the United States had become the most important supplier of cotton to the British market.

— By 1857, the United States was producing almost as much cotton as China.

“American upland cotton, which Whitney’s gin worked up so efficiently, was exceedingly well suited to the requirements of British manufacturers,” Beckert writes. “While the gin damaged the fiber, the cotton remained suitable for the production of cheaper, coarser yarns and fabrics in high demand among the lower classes in Europe and elsewhere. But for American supplies, the miracle of mass production of yarn and cloth, and the ability of new consumers to buy these cheap goods, would have foundered on old realities of the traditional cotton market. The much-vaunted consumer revolution in textiles stemmed from a dramatic transformation in the structure of plantation slavery.”

You will notice that Beckert mentioned blackland prairies when talking about Arkansas. He was referring to lands in southwest Arkansas that were the center of cotton production in the state before the Civil War, making Washington in Hempstead County a key trading center.

It wasn’t until well after the Civil War that most of the swamps were drained and the timber was cut from the vast bottomland hardwood forests of east Arkansas. Once that occurred, the Arkansas Delta became an integral part of the empire of cotton. At one point in the early 1900s, the Wilson Plantation in northeast Arkansas was one of the largest cotton plantations in the country and Mississippi County claimed to grow more cotton than any other U.S. county.

Beckert explains the westward expansion of the empire of cotton this way: “In the United States, the expansion of land under cotton occurred in two distinct ways. Cotton production expanded into the remoter hinterlands of older American cotton states such as Georgia and the Carolinas, now made accessible by railroads, where white upcountry farmers began growing much larger quantities. In the South Atlantic states, annual production, for example, increased by a factor of 3.1 between 1860 and 1920.

“In Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, by contrast, annual cotton production stayed level until the end of the century and declined by about 25 percent in 1920 due to the exhaustion of cotton soils and the emergence of more productive cotton-growing areas farther west. Yes even despite the tired soil, cotton production dramatically expanded in some areas, such as in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, where large numbers of African-Americans cultivated cotton, enabled by new railroads, canals and levees. As a result, by 1900, one of the most highly specialized cotton-producing areas in the world emerged.

“The most dramatic expansion of cotton agriculture, however, occurred farther to the west. In Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas, the production of cotton exploded from 1,576,594 bales in 1860 to 7,283,000 bales in 1920 — a factor of 4.6 in the half century after the Civil War. By far, the most important expansion took place in Texas, a state whose farmers had only produced 431,463 bales of cotton in 1860 but produced 10 times as many — 4,345,000 bales — in 1920. Indeed, the cotton growth of 1920 in Texas alone equaled about 80 percent of that of the entire South in 1860. And by the late 1910s and early 1920s, vast investments in irrigation infrastructure by the federal government enabled a further extension of cotton agriculture in the arid lands of Arizona and California.”

The evils of segregation and the loss of work due to the mechanization of cotton farming made Arkansas a participant in the Great Migration of blacks from the rural South to cities in the upper Midwest.

Drought and low cotton prices also drove a lot of whites from the state. John Steinbeck made the Okies famous in “The Grapes of Wrath,” but there were just as many white Arkies headed west. That trend continued for years.

Between the whites (and some blacks) heading west and the blacks heading north, Arkansas lost a larger percentage of its population between 1940 and 1960 than any other state.

Nationally, about 6 million blacks fled the South from 1915-70.

In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” Isabel Wilkerson writes: “The Great Migration ran along three main tributaries and emptied into reservoirs all over the North and West. One stream carried people from the coastal states of Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia up the Eastern seaboard to Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston and their satellites. A second current traced the central spine of the continent, paralleling the Father of Waters, from Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas to the industrial cities of Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh. A third and later stream carried people from Louisiana and Texas to the entire West Coast, with some black Southerners traveling farther than many modern-day immigrants.”

Wilkerson notes that by the mid-1930s, some grade-school classrooms for blacks in Milwaukee had almost “every child from Mississippi, Tennessee or Arkansas.”

The outmigration continues to this day in a number of Arkansas Delta counties.

Raymond Abramson’s native Monroe County lost a larger percentage of its residents — more than 20 percent — between the 2000 census and the 2010 census than any other Arkansas county.

The irony is that the land in these Delta counties is more valuable than ever, producing bumper crops most years of soybeans, rice, cotton, corn, wheat and grain sorghum. Arkansas farmers are among the best in the world at what they do. They’re so efficient that they need few employees. Land that once required hundreds of sharecroppers to chop and pick cotton can now be farmed with just a handful of laborers.

Left behind in the Arkansas Delta are the landowners — whose wives may drive Mercedes and BMWs and whose kids may attend Ivy League schools — and the poorest of the poor, those who couldn’t escape.

I’m reminded of how Sven Beckert closes “Empire of Cotton”: “A world that seems stable and permanent in one moment can be radically transformed in the next. The capitalist revolution, after all, perpetually re-creates our world, just as the world’s looms perpetually manufacture new materials.”

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Cotton country: Part 2

Friday, July 1st, 2016

The Southern Cotton Ginners Association is holding its summer meeting in Little Rock next month, and I’ve been invited to speak.

That invitation has given me a reason to research the fascinating history of cotton cultivation in the South, a subject that already interested me. As I stated in the previous post, you can’t really understand the history of Arkansas without fully understanding the history of cotton cultivation in the state.

Cotton is still grown in Arkansas, though the acreage is a fraction of what it once was.

In an article last fall, the Delta Farm Press focused on the harvest season at the Rabbit Ridge Gin near Lepanto.

David Bennett wrote: “As tufts of cottonseed debris swirl in the late October air, Tri Watkins walks across the Rabbit Ridge Gin yard warmly greeting employees. This is northeast Arkansas — Lepanto is a few miles west of here and Dyess, where Johnny Cash was raised, is a few miles south — and the gin is one of a shrinking number. Watkins — who is the incoming president of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association — is in business with his cousin, Ernest Portis. The pair are distant cousins of acclaimed Arkansas writer Charles Portis, author of ‘True Grit’ and ‘The Dog of the South.'”

Watkins explained: “Ernest’s father and my grandfather were brothers, and their father actually began the business in 1911.”

Watkins’ great-grandfather had worked for northeast Arkansas cotton king R.E.L. Wilson.

Of his own involvement in ginning, Watkins told Bennett: “We ginned together in Lepanto at two small gins for years. In the early 1970s, after Ernest graduated from college, he and his brother came out here and built the gin. Meanwhile, my side of the family continued to run the gins in town. By the early 1990s, they had become too old and difficult to maintain. So at that time we bought back in with Ernest. He had already been out here for 20 years and was looking for a partner.”

Watkins explained that Rabbit Ridge is “the local name. Around here, a ridge can be two feet high running through a field.”

When running 24 hours a day, Rabbit Ridge can gin 30 bales per hour. The record year was 36,000 bales ginned. Last year, fewer than 10,000 bales were ginned.

Watkins came back to northeast Arkansas to farm with his grandfather after graduation from law school in 1986.

He told Delta Farm Press: “At the time, we had basically a land-only operation, a couple of gins, a farm store — now shut down — and a small bank. I came back and got involved with all of those facets of the business and still am to some degree. I knew I would be back when I was in law school. I graduated college and wasn’t quite ready to come home. My father said, ‘Go to law school. Even if you never practice, you’ll at least have that to fall back on if you decide agriculture isn’t for you. If you do like it, though, given our banking interests, a law degree would be very useful.’

“Our primary business at Portis Mercantile Co. is managing and renting out land. My family has 20,000 acres, and Ernest has about 10,000 acres that he and his son, Bradsher, own and manage. Some of that is in timber. This year, we grew about 1,500 acres of cotton with Ernest growing about the same. The most cotton we’ve grown on Portis Mercantile ground was about 6,500 acres. Obviously price is critical to cotton remaining viable. You’ve got to have a good price for lint. You’ve also got to have a good price for cottonseed. The price of cottonseed is what’s helping keep gins open. We have two seed houses. One has a capacity of 2,000 tons, and the other is just under that.”

Much of the cottonseed is sold to the dairy market, where it’s blended with rations to increase milk’s butterfat content.

Nearby Lepanto is where the made-for-television movie “A Painted House,” based on John Grisham’s best-selling novel of the same name, was filmed in 2002. The 2001 book is a fictionalized account of Grisham’s early days on a cotton farm. The farmhouse used in the filming is still there.

The movie was first screened in April 2003 on the Arkansas State University campus at Jonesboro at an event that raised $170,000 for ASU’s nationally recognized program in heritage studies. Grisham and his novel were presented the Arkansiana Award by the Arkansas Library Association. That award recognizes authors and books that make a significant contribution to Arkansas heritage and culture.

Grisham was born at Jonesboro in February 1955. His parents were helping relatives on a cotton farm at Black Oak in Craighead County at the time (there’s also a Black Oak farther south that’s roughly on the Crittenden County-Poinsett County line). His family left the area when Grisham was four as his father worked in various construction jobs. The family eventually settled in Southaven, Miss., but Grisham spent large parts of each summer on the Black Oak farm with his grandparents.

People began settling in the Lepanto area after the Civil War. It was in the northeast Arkansas Sunken Lands, and most of the area consisted of swamps and thick bottomland hardwood forests. Growth began in the early 1900s as lumber companies started harvesting the virgin timber in the area. Tree stumps then were burned, swamps were drained and the land was plowed for cotton.

Cotton: The common theme in the region’s history.

“In 1902, Steve Ralph and Henry S. Portis built a cotton gin in Lepanto so that harvested cotton would not have to be shipped downriver to Memphis,” Steve Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The next year, Chris Bryan Greenwood, who had recently moved into the area from Harrisburg, commissioned four engineers to plat the city. The five main streets of the city were named for Greenwood and the engineers. William C. Dawson built the city’s first sawmill in 1905, and a new logging camp was built between Lepanto and Marked Tree.

“The city grew rapidly. Improved drainage was completed by 1907, and the city was officially incorporated in 1909. A bank and a telephone company were established in 1910 and a railroad depot was built in 1912. … Houses and stores were also being built, and a new school building was erected in 1913. The Portis Mercantile building was constructed in 1915, and a volunteer fire department was organized by 1919.”

As the timber was cut, cotton became king.

Tenant farmers and sharecroppers would pack communities such as Lepanto and Marked Tree as they came to town on Saturdays to shop and seek entertainment.

Van Hawkins explains the system this way for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “The most common lease arrangement in Arkansas called for crop rent, requiring a tenant to pay usually 25 percent to 50 percent of the crops harvested. These percentages vary from year to year, farm to farm and crop to crop. To guarantee crop loan repayment, lenders and sometimes suppliers took a first lien on the tenant’s share of crops and equipment used to produce them. Such liens meant that holders had a legal right to crop proceeds until loans were paid in full. Should proceeds not be sufficient to pay off the lender, a foreclosure could occur with collateral (the equipment and any other asset used to secure the loan) seized and sold to pay off the debt.

“Crop rent came from crops at harvest, and cotton or grain hauled to gins and elevators was split according to contract percentages. Tenants and landowners each received their respective shares of the crop. If a lien existed on the tenant share, checks for crop sale proceeds usually had both the lienholder’s and the farmer’s name so neither could cash the check without both endorsements. By this means, lenders helped enforce their legal rights and protected themselves from conversion of crop proceeds.”

Hawkins notes that many of the plantations “required sharecroppers to purchase business and personal supplies from commissary stores as a condition to farm the land. Farmers received doodlum books (vouchers) for credit at the company store. Prices there sometimes were well in excess of those charged at town stores. The March 1935 edition of Today magazine reported markups in the 25 percent range at Southern plantation commissaries. For example, company stories priced potatoes at $2.25 when they were $1.75 in town. Abusive practices such as these generated ongoing tensions between Arkansas tenants and landowners since many tenants never got out of debt. Some farmers sought to organize better treatment, forming groups such as the Agricultural Wheel for this purpose. An organizational meeting of one union was at the center of violence that erupted in Elaine in 1919.”

Grif Stockley, the author of the 2001 book “Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919,” called what happened in the Elaine area “by far the deadliest racial confrontation in Arkansas history and possibly the bloodiest racial conflict in the history of the United States. While its deepest roots lay in the state’s commitment to white supremacy, the events in Elaine stemmed from tense race relations and growing concerns about labor unions. A shooting incident that occurred at a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America escalated into mob violence on the part of the white people in Elaine and surrounding areas. Although the exact number is unknown, estimates of the number of African-Americans killed by whites range into the hundreds. Five white people lost their lives.”

The union meeting, attended by almost 100 black sharecroppers, occurred on the evening of Sept. 30, 1919, at a church in Hoop Spur, a small settlement three miles north of Elaine. The sharecroppers were seeking better prices for their cotton crops. A shootout in front of the church resulted in the death of a white security officer for the Missouri-Pacific Railroad and the wounding of a white deputy from the Phillips County Sheriff’s Office.

Stockley writes: “The next morning, the Phillips County sheriff sent out a posse to arrest those suspected of being involved in the shooting. Although the posse encountered minimal resistance from the black residents of the area around Elaine, the fear of African-Americans, who outnumbered whites in this area of Phillips County by a ratio of 10 to 1, led an estimated 500 to 1,000 armed white people — mostly from surrounding Arkansas counties but also from across the river in Mississippi — to travel to Elaine to put down what was characterized by them as an insurrection.”

More than 500 federal troops from Camp Pike arrived in Elaine on Oct. 2, 1919, and hundreds of blacks were placed in makeshift stockades.

An Arkansas Gazette employee named Sharpe Dunaway later would allege that the solders “committed one murder after another with all the calm deliberation in the world, either too heartless to realize the enormity of their crimes or too drunk on moonshine to give a continental darn.”

The commander of the troops at Elaine reported that only two blacks were killed by his troops.

As I said, you can’t understand the history of Arkansas without understanding the history of cotton.

“Tenant difficulties increased in the early 1930s when the Great Depression decimated agriculture along with the rest of the economy,” Hawkins writes. “Arkansas farmers faced nickel cotton (a market price of five cents per lint pound, which was the low end of its historic market range) and the locked doors of banks that become insolvent. Unable to borrow money to make crops, many tenant farmers joined the exodus made famous by John Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath.’

“The administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt created federal programs to help prop up cotton prices, including a plan to compensate farmers who agreed to forego planting acreage in exchange for parity payments from the federal government. Though the program stipulated that landowners share parity payments with tenants, some owners kept all of the money, and U.S. Department of Agriculture compliance efforts proved ineffectual. Additionally, owners evicted tenants since acreage reduction made them unnecessary, another violation of regulations. … The USDA financial assistance, developed initially as a temporary fix for Depression-era problems, became ingrained in agricultural economics and grew into a major source of income for state farmers.”

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Cotton country

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

A photo posted recently on the Facebook page for the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum at Tyronza caught my attention.

Next to the Mitchell-East Building, in which the museum is located, are two rows of cotton that are being cultivated to show visitors.

It’s a sign of the times as cotton, which once fueled the Arkansas economy, continues to become less of a factor. In Tyronza, it’s literally becoming a museum piece.

There was a time when cotton was grown in all 75 counties of the state. Even in the Ouachita Mountains and the Ozark Mountains, farmers attempted to scratch out a living with this cash crop. Aging, rusting gins, covered in vines, remain a common site across rural Arkansas.

In looking at the photo from Tyronza, it dawned on me that one cannot truly understand the history of Arkansas without first understanding the history of cotton cultivation in the American South.

“Several visitors to Arkansas in the early 1800s made note in their journals and writings of cotton being grown,” Van Hawkins writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The crop remained a Southern staple because it needed hot summer days and warm summer night nights to bear abundant fruit. It also needed lots of labor, which in the South meant slaves, who handled every aspect of cotton production from planting in the spring to picking in the fall. After cotton planting and the achievement of a stand (a solid row of plants down each bedded row), the crop had to be blocked (elimination of all but one hardy plant per foot) and chopped to eliminate weeds and grass until a laid-by crop stood about waist high.

“Although farmers throughout the state planted cotton, the dark earth of the Arkansas Delta proved most hospitable, encouraging large crops each year in river counties such as Mississippi County in the north and Chicot County in the south. These counties, as did others in the Delta, had easy access to river transport and thus possessed an important shipping advantage over the state’s other cotton farmers.

“When the Civil War ended, slavery stopped as well, and wage labor, tenant farming or a combination of the two became the most common means of production. Typical regional farm wages in 1866 were $13 per month for men and $9 per month for women. Tenant shares varied but usually ranged from 25 percent to 50 percent. Sometimes there was little profit to share. Cotton prices fell after the Civil War and flat-lined through the late 1890s, killing off many Delta operators. For example, the price of lint, which is cotton fiber after the seed is removed, fell to about 9.4 cents per pound by 1888-89, barely covering the cost of production.”

As the 20th century neared, the size of Delta plantations became larger. Plantation owners employed hundreds and even thousands of tenant farmers.

“A typical Arkansas cotton tenant, black or white, rented 40 acres from a landowner and farmed with his own mules, harrow, planter and family for labor,” Hawkins writes. “Landowners got about one-fourth of the crop with the remainder going to the tenant. At the lower end of the tenant food chain, a sharecropper lacked equipment and capital so he farmed with landlord-supplied equipment and capital. Typically his family received only 50 percent of the crop and had to buy supplies and personal items from plantation commissaries, sometimes at high markups. Sharecroppers, particularly African-Americans who lacked mobility due to race, did little more than survive. They generally had little cash after settling up with landlords and often found themselves deeper in debt to the company store.”

Major cotton-related events in Arkansas history included the Lee County cotton picker strike of 1891, the Elaine massacre of 1919 and the formation of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union in 1934 as tension between landowners and tenant farmers grew.

“Profitable cotton prices, sometimes as high as 30 cents a pound, crashed along with the stock market at the beginning of the Great Depression,” Hawkins writes. “There was a drought of financing as banks closed and five-cent cotton devastated state producers. In 1933, the U.S. government devised a program to pay farmers for plowing up cotton acreage to reduce supply and, theoretically, create higher prices. The program made plow-up payments directly to landowners and directed them to share the money with tenants. However, some owners chose to evict tenants rather than share payments, which set in motion numerous conflicts between planters and tenants.”

The widespread mechanization of agriculture after World War II caused tens of thousands of tenant farmers and sharecroppers to lose their jobs. In Delta counties such as Mississippi and Phillips, the highest population was recorded in either the 1940 or 1950 census.

“One driver and one machine cleaned rows that previously required many hands to pick,” Hawkins writes. “Just as machines replaced hand labor on Arkansas farms, soybeans captured a growing share of state farm acreage. In the early 1960s, cotton generated about 33 percent of Arkansas’ agricultural income. By the 1980s, that percentage decreased to 20.”

The 2015 cotton acreage was the lowest on record in Arkansas with about 205,000 acres, but things have improved this year. More than 360,000 acres were planted in cotton for 2016.

“People are looking at their bottom line and potential returns on different commodities, and cotton is looking very favorable compared to all the other crops for 2016,” Bill Robertson, the extension cotton agronomist for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, said before planting began this year. “Grain sorghum isn’t nearly as attractive now as it was this time last year. Some folks had a few issues. They incurred expenses they weren’t expecting so a lot of them didn’t hit the home run with grain sorghum that they thought they were going to.”

Grain sorghum acreage had tripled to more than 500,000 acres in Arkansas last year. Despite the record low number of acres planted in cotton in 2015, Arkansas farmers had their fourth-highest recorded average yield at 1,112 pounds per acre.

“As acreage declines, the remaining cotton is on the better ground,” Robertson said. “Certainly some of our cotton-per-acre yield is increased because of the soil, but some of it is because of better genetics of our varieties.”

The United States is the third-largest cotton producer in the world behind India and China. Arkansas usually ranks in the top six states when it comes to acres planted in cotton.

U.S. farmers have benefited greatly as seed companies continue to develop varieties of cotton that produce higher yield and fiber quality.

“Five to 10 years ago, it really wasn’t possible to get a high fiber quality if you were going for maximum yield,” said Fred Bourland, director of the Northeast Research and Extension Center at Keiser in Mississippi County.

The outmigration from the Delta as cotton farming became mechanized set in motion population trends in the state that continue to this day.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette had a front-page story last week noting that 49 Arkansas counties lost population in 2015 and only 26 counties gained population. The state gained population overall — about 1,400 additional residents — with much of that growth fueled by the economic boom in northwest Arkansas.

The urbanization of Arkansas continues. It dawned on me that if you were to walk up to most northwest Arkansas residents holding a cotton plant, they would be unable to identify it.

Between the 2000 and the 2010 census, 39 counties gained population and 36 lost population. As you might guess, the counties that gained population tended to be in the northwest, west, central and north-central parts of the state. The counties that lost population tended to be in east and south Arkansas. There were exceptions. The Jonesboro area, for instance, has grown at a rapid rate since the turn of the century, fueling growth in Craighead and Greene counties.

In general, though, large parts of the Delta of east Arkansas and the pine woods of south Arkansas are emptying out. The population shift from east and south to north and west has been occurring in Arkansas since at least the 1950 census due to the mechanization of agriculture. But that trend has accelerated in the past 15 years.

People are going to do what’s best for their families and go where the jobs are. What cannot be denied is that Arkansas is a far different place now than it was a decade ago and will be an even more different place a decade from now.

Still, it remains important that we understand how cotton agriculture shaped the state.

The aforementioned Southern Tenant Farmers Museum at Tyronza, which opened in October 2006, is one of the best places to gain that understanding. The museum, which was developed by Arkansas State University, is in the Mitchell-East Building, which during the 1930s housed H.L. Mitchell’s dry-cleaning business and Clay East’s service station. Mitchell and East were instrumental in the formation in July 1934 of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union.

“The fact that the STFU was integrated, that women played a critical role in its organization and administration, and that fundamentalist church rituals and regional folkways were basic to the union’s operation foreshadowed the post-war civil rights era,” historian William Cobb writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “A series of natural disasters in the late 1920s and early 1930s, plus the unique circumstances present in Poinsett County, led to the formation of the STFU. The flood of 1927 revealed the desperate plight of the Delta cropper to the outside world, sparking the interest of unionists and the Socialist Party.

“In Poinsett County, there was some sympathy for socialist ideas among area merchants. The stock market collapse of 1929, coupled with the drought of 1930-31, totally destroyed farm income. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration, as part of a New Deal attempt to raise the price of cotton, paid planters to plow up a percentage of the crop their tenants had already planted. Fifty percent of this payment was meant for the tenant or cropper, but planters devised means to keep almost all of the money. With increasing incentives not to grow cotton, many planters evicted their tenants, leaving them homeless. Indeed, the event that set into motion the creation of the STFU was planter Hiram Norcross removing 23 families from his plantation in late spring 1934.

“At the Sunnyside School on the boundary of Norcross land in July 1934, a group of seven black and 11 white men agreed to form a union of tenants and sharecroppers. After some discussion, they decided that the union should be fully integrated, recognizing that they shared similar needs and economic situations. This was a stunning break with the past, though in some areas there would be separate black and white locals as the union expanded.”

Mitchell, who had been a sharecropper in Tennessee, had become a socialist while farming and recruited East to the socialist cause after moving to Arkansas.

“The two of them went to meetings in Memphis together, organized the local in Tyronza and helped organize the Tyronza Unemployment League in the spring of 1934,” Cobb writes. “The Unemployment League was an attempt to force the local agencies of the AAA to provide jobs for desperate tenants or croppers. At the instigation of Norman Thomas, the leader of the Socialist Party in the United States, the two men participated in the formation of the STFU. Many opponents of the STFU considered it to be a communist plot, and attacks from planters, both physical and verbal, were the norm at early meetings. Ward Rodgers, the STFU’s most effective white organizer, was arrested and jailed in Marked Tree in January 1935. As a result, Mitchell called Lucien Koch, the director of Commonwealth College in Polk County, and asked for help in founding locals. Commonwealth had the reputation of being a communist institution. Given Mitchell and East’s hatred of communists, this appeal was a sign of real desperation.”

Mitchell and East moved the union headquarters to Memphis in late 1935 and began to attract financial support from outside the South. Sen. Joe T. Robinson, despite being heavily supported financially by Delta planters, met with union leaders during the Democratic National Convention in June 1936. Robinson helped persuade Gov. Junius Futrell to take a strong stand against violence directed toward sharecroppers. The high-water mark came in 1938 when the union had more than 35,000 members. Infighting soon led to its demise with Mitchell and his followers leaving in the late 1930s.

“Mitchell returned to the shadow STFU in 1941 as executive secretary and served as president from 1944 to 1960,” Cobb writes. “During this time, the union became the National Farm Labor Union and later the National Agricultural Workers Union. The STFU really died when he died in 1989.”

Cotton has lived on as a cash crop in Arkansas but will never have the influence it once had in shaping the Arkansas economy and the state’s history.

 

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The hydroelectric battle

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

The visitors’ center at Bull Shoals-White River State Park is well worth the visit.

On the back deck is a spectacular view of Bull Shoals Dam with the lake on one side and the cold water of the White River on the other side.

If you have any doubt that Arkansas has the best system of state parks in the country, this facility will help put such doubts to rest.

Inside, exhibits tell the story of the White River, both before the construction of Bull Shoals Dam in the late 1940s and early 1950s and in the decades that have followed.

As an Arkansas history buff, the thing I found most interesting was a framed front page of the Baxter Bulletin from 64 years ago (it now publishes six days a week but was a weekly at the time). It was the issue published after President Truman spoke at the dedication of Bull Shoals Dam on July 2, 1952.

Truman, never one to mince words, took a shot at Arkansas Power & Light Co. (now Entergy Arkansas) and the other private power companies that had opposed the use of federal dams to generate electricity.

According to the articles in the newspaper, AP&L engineers had constructed a model in an attempt to show that flood control and hydroelectric generation weren’t compatible goals for the same dam.

Truman didn’t hesitate on the day of the dedication to make fun of that model.

What you must understand is that AP&L had been the most politically powerful business entity in the state for several decades thanks to the skills of Harvey Couch and C. Hamilton Moses.

Couch, who grew up in rural Columbia County, had at the age of 35 in 1914 purchased the only electric transmission line in the state. That line ran 22 miles from Malvern to Arkadelphia.

Couch later built two dams on the Ouachita River near Hot Springs (forming Lake Hamilton and Lake Catherine) to generate electricity for his growing utility company.

By 1930, AP&L had 3,000 miles of lines and served customers in 63 of the state’s 75 counties. Couch also formed Mississippi Power & Light Co. and Louisiana Power & Light Co. He built the first modern natural gas-fired power plant in this part of the country near Monroe, La., and was appointed by President Hoover to the board of the Reconstruction Finance Corp., which was formed in 1931 to address problems caused by the Great Depression.

“The only luxury the longtime resident of Pine Bluff (where AP&L had its headquarters) allowed himself was a rustic log cabin on Lake Catherine,” Patricia Laster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “He called it Couchwood, and there he entertained everyone who had helped him in his rise to fame, as well as international bankers and presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

Couch used his political influence to persuade officials in Washington not to create a taxpayer-subsidized Arkansas River Valley Authority that would cut into AP&L profits. Instead, the Roosevelt administration pushed for the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was created by Congress in May 1933.

Like Couch, Moses grew up in rural south Arkansas. He was born on a farm near Hampton in 1888 and worked in area logging camps when he wasn’t in school. He graduated from what’s now Ouachita Baptist University at Arkadelphia in 1908 and then headed south to New Orleans, where he obtained his master’s degree in Southern history from Tulane University. He earned his law degree in 1911 in Little Rock and then went to work for Gov. George Donaghey. Moses later served as an adviser to Gov. George Hays and Gov. Charles Hillman Brough.

Moses became the general counsel for AP&L and Couch’s other businesses in 1919. Moses moved into the role of AP&L president following Couch’s death in 1941 and proved just as politically influential as Couch had been. Moses was the AP&L president until 1952 and remained as board chairman until 1955.

Sherry Laymon writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas that “private power companies profited greatly during World War II as they operated at full capacity to meet war production demands. However, decreased power loads after the war created financial difficulties for utility companies, which eventually led to an intense struggle between public and private power entities in the 1940s. To increase public demand for electricity, Moses initiated his Arkansas Plan, designed to encourage community leaders to utilize local residents, resources, capital and labor to strengthen their communities and attract business and industry into the state. The University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, state organizations and private corporations supported his efforts and organized to form the Arkansas Economic Council in December 1944.

“Moses, Arkansas’ business cheerleader, visited many Arkansas communities and motivated Arkansans to demonstrate civic pride in their towns by making notable improvements to attract new industry. As a result, local residents enhanced their communities by paving city streets, whitewashing storefronts, landscaping public property and developing recreational programs. They also built houses, churches, hospitals and schools, which attracted more industry to the state. Moses then traveled across the country preaching the gospel of Arkansas to draw corporate attention to the state. Within 10 years, the state reaped bountiful harvests as new industry created 36,000 jobs.”

Arkansas remained a rural, poor state, though. And large parts of rural Arkansas remained without electricity.

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

Pushing early on for construction of dams on the White River was Congressman Claude Albert Fuller, who served in Congress from 1929-39. Fuller, who had practiced law at Eureka Springs before being elected to Congress, helped lead the fight for adoption of the Flood Control Act of 1938, which followed a series of devastating floods in the region in 1937.

Fuller was defeated in the Democratic primary of 1938 by Clyde Ellis. Fuller went back to Eureka Springs to practice law and served as president of the Bank of Eureka Springs from 1930 until his death in 1968. He continued as a private citizen to advocate for the dams.

Meanwhile, Ellis took up the fight in Congress. Ellis, the oldest of nine children, had been raised on a farm near Garfield in Benton County. The farm had no electricity, and rural electrification became his passion.

Ellis helped form the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which was designed to protect the interests of the New Deal rural electrification programs.

Ellis ran for the Senate in 1942 and lost in the Democratic primary. John L. McClellan became the state’s new senator. Ellis was hired in 1943 as the first general manager of the NRECA.

In a 1984 history of the NRECA titled “The Next Greatest Thing,” it was written: “The record of NRECA in those years, stamped with the strong and powerful personality of Ellis and his spellbinding, single-minded leadership, is studded with stunning victories, few defeats.”

Sheila Yount writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “Known as Mr. Rural Electrification, Ellis led the electrification association through funding battles for the Rural Electrification Administration, which provided low-interest loans to the nation’s electric cooperatives, and fiercely fought the power companies, which opposed the rural electrification program. Rural service was far more expensive to create than service in urban areas. When the power companies charged higher rates for rural service, their customers used less electricity, making the service increasingly unprofitable.

“Ellis also helped persuade the federal government to include hydropower plants at Norfork Dam in Baxter County and other dams in Arkansas that were originally designed for flood control only. He fought major battles to give the cooperatives access to the power from those dams. Ellis credited the NRECA’s success to the grassroots support of the electric cooperatives.”

Ellis wrote a book titled “A Giant Step” in 1966.

“The wires which tied the houses of rural people together also seemed to unite their spirits,” he wrote. “Beginning in the early days and growing through the years, there has been some unusual quality about the rural electrification program, which has drawn people of diverse political and social views together in a common purpose. The people who work for our program feel they’re working in a cause or movement or a crusade, which many of them can’t define.”

Yount writes: “Besides the political arena, the association’s role expanded to provide many services for the nation’s electric cooperatives, including retirement and insurance plans; training for directors and employees; legal seminars for cooperative attorneys, safety training; and communications assistance. Ellis also helped bring electricity to people in 30 other countries through the Agency for International Development. This program was a compilation of various federal efforts to provide foreign aid during the Cold War. Created by the Kennedy administration, AID used American dollars to fight poverty and bring about development in Third World nations. Ellis traveled to Colombia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and other countries promoting rural electrification, using his experiences in Arkansas to prove to governments and citizens that such a program was possible anywhere in the world.”

Construction on Norfork Dam on the North Fork River began in the spring of 1941.

“The North Fork River was a strong candidate for a tributary flood control project,” Branyan writes. “The Corps noted it was a primary contributor to flooding in the White River because of its steep banks and big feeder streams, which frequently swelled quickly during periods of runoff. For a number of years, the Corps and private entities had studied the site for potential hydropower use as well. … Securing funding for Depression-era projects at the time of a possible impending war, however, was difficult.

“Congressman Ellis argued that a dam with a power plant was immediately needed for any increased manufacturing requirements during possible wartime production demands. He succeeded in obtaining funding and additional authorization for hydropower in the Flood Control Act of 1941, and the Little Rock District of the Corps of Engineers awarded the construction contract to the Utah Construction Co. and Morrison-Knudsen Co.”

The Norfork powerhouse was operational by 1944. A second generator was in use by February 1950.

The dam was made entirely of concrete — about 1.5 million cubic yards to be exact. The site that was chosen is 4.8 miles upstream from the confluence of the White and North Fork rivers at Norfork.

A Missouri Pacific railroad spur from Norfork to the site of the dam was built to move equipment, concrete and 2,000 tons of reinforcing steel. A total of 27,000 railroad cars moved along the spur during construction.

“During 1940, several hundred small farms were abandoned in Baxter County and left in foreclosure,” Branyan writes. “However, the construction of a dam in the area meant prospects for work during the Depression. As soon as word of the approval of Norfork Dam appeared in the newspapers, locals began contacting Ellis to inquire about jobs. During the four years of the project, the number of workers employed on both the dam and powerhouse was 815.

“Farmland around two communities along the river — Henderson in Baxter County and Bakersfield in Missouri — was inundated. Around Henderson, about 400 landowners had to relocate. Twenty-six cemeteries were moved. Crops continued to be harvested into the late fall of 1942. The lake began to fill by Feb. 1, 1943.”

Construction of Bull Shoals Dam began in 1947. That dam required 2.1 million cubic yards of concrete. At the time of its construction, it was the fifth-largest concrete dam in the country, and its powerhouse was the largest building in the state. Powerhouse construction began in September 1950 and concluded two years later. The final two generating units were installed in 1963.

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

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

Resorts such as Gaston’s became nationally known due to the quality of the trout fishing created by cold-water releases from the dam.

Back to Clyde Ellis: The man known as Mr. Rural Electrification retired from the NRECA following a heart attack and stroke in 1967. He was named general manager emeritus.

Ellis later worked for the U.S. secretary of agriculture and for McClellan in the U.S. Senate. Ellis died in February 1980 in Washington following another stroke and is buried across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital at Arlington National Cemetery.

Here in Arkansas, he probably should be remembered as the man who handed AP&L a rare political defeat while bringing government-subsidized hydropower to a poor, rural state.

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Anita Davis and the South Main renaissance

Thursday, May 12th, 2016

The original version of this story ran in the May-June issue of Talk Business & Politics magazine.

Anita Davis never set out to rehabilitate part of downtown Little Rock.

She wasn’t a historic preservation activist or one of those people who write letters to the local newspaper.

She describes herself as shy.

She simply likes walkable neighborhoods and felt it was time to give back to the city she has called home since the late 1980s.

“I started thinking one day about the fact that I had never really been involved in the community or given anything back,” Davis says during breakfast at the Capital Hotel. “I had a bunch of stuff that I needed to store and began looking for a place to put everything. What I found was a building on South Main Street.”

A love affair with the neighborhood ensued.

Davis, a Murfreesboro native, purchased the Bernice Building at 1417 S. Main St. in 2004.

A year later, she bought an empty lot at 1401 S. Main St.

She admits now that she viewed the neighborhood as dangerous and ran back to her car following her first visit there. But she was captivated by the Bernice Building, constructed in 1923, and soon was reading everything she could get her hands on about the concept of “placemaking.”

Davis found herself attending conferences from Boston on the East Coast to Seattle on the West Coast in an effort o learn more about building walkable neighborhoods.

One of Davis’ daughters lived in New York City in the Chelsea neighborhood. She could easily walk to restaurants, grocery stores, boutiques and entertainment venues from her home. Davis wanted to see if she could bring a touch of Chelsea to South Main Street.

She also wanted to bring a touch of Murfreesboro.

Yes, Murfreesboro.

“When I was growing up in Murfreesboro in the 1950s, we had three drugstores downtown, a hardware store, a movie theater and a lot more,” Davis says. “We could walk to all of those places. You didn’t have to get in the car and drive from place to place. Anyone who grew up in a thriving Arkansas town in the 1950s and 1960s knows what I’m talking about. I had seen it work in a town as small as Murfreesboro, and I had seen it work in a city as big as New York.”

Davis’ parents, Clarence and Bennie Sue Anthony, were well-known in their corner of southwest Arkansas. Davis had a maternal grandmother named Bernice (who once had worked at Franke’s, the venerable Little Rock cafeteria), which was another part of the attraction of the Bernice Building on South Main.

The empty lot adjacent to the building once had been the site of a Captain D’s fast-food restaurant, which had burned. The restaurant’s owners decided not to rebuild in a neighborhood that was becoming increasingly downtrodden. There were still crepe myrtles on the lot. Davis began bringing in plants and benches. A sculpture competition was held. In 2011, a wooden structure was built to serve as a shelter.

The Bernice Garden was born.

It’s now the home of everything from Mardi Gras celebrations to beard-growing contests to farmers’ markets to the annual Arkansas Cornbread Festival each fall.

Prior to Captain D’s opening in January 1981, the lot long had been the home of a tiny restaurant known as the Little Rock Inn. Suddenly, there was life again at 1401 S. Main St. after Anita Davis stepped in.

By 2006, Davis was ready to make another purchase. This time it was the Lincoln Building at 1423 S. Main St., which had been built in 1906.

In 2006 on the other side of Main Street, she bought the property that once had housed a popular dairy bar known as the Sweden Crème.

Now, the Bernice Building houses the downtown location of Boulevard Bread Co.

The Lincoln Building houses the Green Corner Store and the soda fountain that has helped make Loblolly Creamery’s products well known across Arkansas.

The old Sweden Crème is now an innovative restaurant known as The Root Café, which has received national attention.

All of these businesses attract people from throughout central Arkansas and even out-of-state visitors to South Main Street on a daily basis.

Between Boulevard Bread and the Green Corner Store is the home of studioMAIN, a nonprofit organization that brings architects and others in the design community together to introduce urban design concepts for Little Rock. Exhibitions sponsored by studioMAIN have included everything from the work of students to professional designers. An architectural film was produced for the Little Rock Film Festival, and pop-up events are held throughout the city to show what neighborhoods can become. Design awards are given and partnerships have been established with organizations such as the Arkansas Arts Center.

Boulevard Bread began serving customers in 2000 at its flagship location at the corner of Kavanaugh Boulevard and Grant Street in the Heights neighborhood of Little Rock. Attracted by the South Main vibe, Boulevard’s owners decided to open a downtown location with an expanded bakery that’s open from Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m.

The nearby Green Corner Store describes itself as “Arkansas’ first eco lifestyle store” since products sold there are made from natural, organic, recycled or reclaimed materials. Many of the products — ranging from bath and beauty items to apparel to packaged food — are made in Arkansas. Owner Shelley Green calls it a chance to “showcase the array of green products that are both beautiful and functional.”

The soda fountain portion of the building, which had housed the C.H. Dawson Drugstore from 1905-67, became the home in 2012 of Loblolly Creamery, founded by Sally Mengel and Rachel Moore. They debuted their ice cream samples at the 2011 Arkansas Cornbread Festival. Loblolly ice cream initially was sold at only the Green Corner Store. Now, Loblolly products, which often are seasonal and use local ingredients as much as possible, can be found in numerous locations, from Little Rock restaurants such as Big Orange and Graffiti’s to retailers such as Whole Foods and Stratton’s Market.

With the success of its ice cream, Loblolly diversified into drinks and syrups. The ice creams have names such as Rock Town Bourbon Pecan, Little Rocky Road and Earl Grey Lemon.

On the other side of Main Street, Jack and Corri Sundell opened The Root in June 2011 after three years of planning. They featured everything from burgers to homemade bratwurst to vegetarian dishes and soon gained a dedicated following.

In December 2014, The Root won an award from the HLN cable television network’s program “Growing America: A Journey to Success.” The honor came with a $25,000 check. Soon afterward, it was announced that The Root had been awarded a $150,000 Mission Main Street grant from JPMorgan Chase Bank. The Root was among just 20 small businesses nationally to get a grant.

Using shipping containers, the Sundells are expanding the restaurant. Three containers are being used for additional dining space, three containers are being used to expand the kitchen and one is being used as a walk-in cooler.

The premise of the HLN program won by The Root was that teams of MBA graduates and students from top business schools across the country would help three small businesses become more efficient. Also featured were a disaster-relief company in Denver and a barbershop in Detroit. The team that came to Little Rock helped the Sundells improve their website and their social media efforts.

While the Green Corner Store, Loblolly Creamery, Boulevard Bread and The Root Café were achieving acclaim in the neighborhood she adopted, Davis had her own expansion plans. She has always enjoyed collecting items, and purses became a specialty. Davis was intrigued as a child by her mother’s and grandmother’s purses, considering them a reflection of the individuals. She was part of a group that put together a traveling exhibit titled “The Purse and the Person: A Century of Women’s Purses” that stopped in cities across the country, including the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock in 2006. Among the cities where the purses were exhibited were Dallas, Seattle and Sacramento.

Davis eventually decided to create the Esse Purse Museum at 1510 S. Main St. in a building that had been constructed in 1946. The museum opened in June 2013.

Davis says she started collecting purses more than three decades ago, but having one of the premier collections in the country was “not intentional. It was kind of my way of honoring women. There just aren’t a lot of things in this country that honor women.”

Davis believes the museum complements her vision for the rest of South Main Street, which she likes to describe as the “feminine side of Little Rock,” not because men aren’t welcome but because she sees it as an area that’s open to new ideas. The purses on display — more than 250 of them — are arranged by decade beginning in 1900. Davis views the collection as not only a look at the history of fashion but also as something that gives insight into the history of women. Photos and accessories accompany the purses.

Davis’ collection grew to more than 3,000 handbags, most of which were stored in her attic before the traveling exhibition, which toured the country for three years. Davis is hopeful that the museum will lead to additional restaurants and shops along South Main Street.

Though she’s a collector, Davis has a more muted personal style. She admits that she carried the same shoulder bag for a decade prior to opening Esse.

In 2014, The Huffington Post included Esse on its list of the “World’s Hottest Museums.”

It wrote: “Set in an emerging neighborhood filled with boutiques and trendy eateries, Esse Purse Museum celebrates the art and history of women’s handbags. And the best part is that it sells purses too.”

Also on the list were the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the 21c Museum Hotel in Bentonville. Among the other museums on the list were the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., and the Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo, Norway.

Anita Davis was in very good company.

“When I first got involved with this neighborhood, I asked myself, ‘What do you want it to be?'” Davis says. “I fell in love with the area, and I’m constantly looking for ways to bring more people here. I also feed off the energy and ideas of people like Corri and Jack Sundell. I like people who make things happen, and they know how to make things happen.”

Davis is quick to give credit to other people and entities who have helped spur development along South Main Street. They include:

— Joe Fox and his Community Bakery at 12th and Main. The bakery began in the Rose City area of North Little Rock in 1947 but moved to its current location when Fox purchased it in 1983. Fox moved to Little Rock from Boston in the 1970s and says he yearned for a place where he could read The New York Times and get a bagel and a good cup of coffee early in the morning. Fox became the Little Rock distributor for The New York Times. At the bakery, he has more than a dozen bakers who work through the night.

— The nationally award-winning literary quarterly Oxford American, which moved its offices to South Main Street several years ago and then teamed up with Matt and Amy Bell for a restaurant and entertainment venue known as South On Main, which is in the building once occupied by the popular Tex-Mex restaurant Juanita’s. South On Main has received acclaim for its food and the quality of its concert series.

— Midtown Billiards, which made Esquire magazine’s 2007 list of Best Bars in America. Midtown holds a private club license so it can stay open until 5 a.m. It’s a favorite haunt of musicians, restaurant workers, newspaper reporters and others who work late.

The South Main Street scene received another boost in February 2015 when Bart Barlogie Jr., Eric Nelson and Jason Neidhardt opened what’s now Raduno Brick Oven & Barroom, which features Neapolitan pizzas from a double-deck, brick-lined gas oven that can reach temperatures of 650 degrees. To keep things in the South Main family, the owners announced from the first that they would use products from Loblolly and Boulevard.

Davis calls her involvement along South Main Street “the best thing that has ever happened to me.” She said it was “an area that needed some love, and I love it. What’s funny is that I had once been warned by my dad to never buy a building with a flat roof. All the buildings I’ve bought down here have flat roofs. What would he think?”

Davis says she has learned through the years to “figure out what you like and go for it.”

So what does the future hold for Davis?

“I don’t really have firm plans right now,” she says. “I’ve found that running a museum is a full-time job.”

Davis would like to see the Southside Main Street organization, a nonprofit entity that promotes economic development on Main Street between Interstate 630 and Roosevelt Road, continue to grow. Southside Main Street is affiliated with Main Street Arkansas and the National Main Street Center.

She also wants the Arkansas Cornbread Festival to grow. This year’s event will be held Oct. 29 with the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance and Our House as beneficiaries. The stated goal of the festival, which began in 2011, is to raise awareness and funds for worthy nonprofit organizations while celebrating Southern culture and heritage through food, crafts and music.

“If you grew up in Arkansas, you grew up eating cornbread,” Davis says. “I see it as a link to our shared history and our grandmothers who would make cornbread. What better way to pull in a diverse audience is there than food? I know I grew up on cornbread. We had it about every day with our vegetables.”

These days, there are plenty of food, shopping and entertainment options along South Main Street in Little Rock, thanks in large part to a lady who remembers what it was like to grow up in Murfreesboro.

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Arkadelphia rising

Monday, May 9th, 2016

In the May issue of Arkansas Life magazine there’s a profile of my hometown of Arkadelphia written by Heather Steadham.

The headline reads: “From its new town hall and hybrid police cars to its plans to send every child to college, Arkadelphia is a small town with a big vision.”

Following a riding tour of Arkadelphia with Jimmy Bolt, the city manager, Steadham wrote: “Behind the Amtrak station lies the old Arkadelphia Milling Co., which burned about a century ago but is still a giant part of Arkadelphia’s history and serves as a local landmark with its three old concrete silos standing stalwart against time and tornadoes. It seems like the town has always, in its way, tried to be progressive, and when Arkadelphia Milling Co. shut down, Arkadelphia looked toward tourism to help out its economy. Jimmy tells me how Arkadelphia used to be known for having more gas stations (per capita) than any other town and, in fact, the Encyclopedia of Arkansas reports that ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not’ proclaimed that the small God-fearing town had more service stations than — gasp! — churches.

“But these days there are much better things for Jimmy to brag about. He shows me the beauty of the flowerbed full of tulips and azaleas next to the Martin Luther King Jr. overpass that the Rotary Club constructed when he was president, making one of the two major entrances into town a joy upon arrival. He shows me the user-friendly arrangement of the Baptist Health System buildings, which are clustered together to form an entire medical village. And he shows me the super-inclusive recreation center at Feaster Park, where tourists and residents alike can enjoy a water park, a skateboard park, an indoor recreation facility, softball fields, outdoor basketball courts and other play areas all in one centralized location. It’s like … there was a plan.”

Steadham ends her glowing profile of the city this way: “When I leave Arkadelphia, driving back down the street that separates what I first thought were two contentious universities, I see what I somehow missed on my way in. Above the road, a bridge links the two sides of the ravine. Written along its face are the words ‘Arkadelphia: It’s a great place to call home.’ When a small town becomes unstuck after a devastating disaster, when good people fight to end intolerance, when the bitterest of rivalries become literally and metaphorically linked, and all of these become inextricably intertwined to form a community, I have to agree. It is a great place to call home.”

The article, mind you, was written before it was announced late last month that a Chinese company with 10,000 employees worldwide — Shandong Sun Paper — will build a $1.3 billion pulp mill near Arkadelphia to create materials for baby diapers and other products. It will be Sun Paper’s first North American operation and represents one of the largest private-sector investments in Arkansas history. So Arkadelphia is hotter than ever from an economic development standpoint.

More than 2,000 workers will be involved in the construction phase during the next three years, which should cause business at area motels, restaurants and retail locations to boom. Once it’s operating, the plant will employ 250 people directly. The biggest impact, however, will come from the 400 truckloads of pine timber the mill will consume daily once it’s at full capacity. That timber demand will create an estimated 1,000 additional jobs. That’s right: 400 truckloads per day.

In the decade since the housing downtown began, the south Arkansas pine belt has been producing timber more quickly than it can be harvested. There’s an enormous oversupply of pulpwood. Thousands of acres that once were row crops or cattle pastures in south Arkansas have been planted in pine, but the needed thinning hasn’t occurred due to a lack of demand. There’s more timber in Arkansas now than at any point in the past 75 years.

As the home of Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University, Arkadelphia will always be first and foremost a college town.

What the Sun announcement does, though, is position Arkadelphia and the rest of Clark County at the center of the state’s timber industry. Other south Arkansas cities have seen job cuts in the industry for at least the past decade, but Georgia-Pacific in nearby Gurdon already bucked the trend by investing $37 million in its lumber mill, increasing capacity by 60 percent.

In addition to being a college town since the late 1800s, Arkadelphia has a long tradition of processing products grown and found in the area.

The salt factory operated by John Hemphill just across the Ouachita River from Arkadelphia in the early 1800s was considered to be among the state’s first manufacturing concerns. A large salt kettle graces the lawn of the Clark County Courthouse. The plaque on the kettle (which for decades was on the Henderson campus) reads: “Used in the production of salt from the water of the Saline Bayou one mile east of Arkadelphia by John Hemphill, pioneer salt maker of Arkansas Territory. Given to the Henderson State Teachers College Museum by the family of Capt. Robert W. Huie, 1845-1929, friend and benefactor of the college.”

The Caddo Indians had been getting salt from the area for hundreds of years. In the late 1700s, Louis Badins referred to Saline Bayou, “whose water yields through evaporation a fifth of salt so corrosive that it consumes meats which are salted with it and it burns sacks in which it is placed.”

Hemphill’s salt refinery operated from 1812-51. There were other places in Clark County where salt was produced. In 1830, H.A. Whittington described the Barkman estate as having “about 5,000 acres with several salt springs on it, from which he makes about 5,000 bushels of salt per annum.”

The Confederates cranked back up salt production in the county during the Civil War. Kettles such as the one now on display at the courthouse could hold 200 gallons and were used to boil water, with the salt left at the bottom.

By the early 1900s, one of the most prosperous industries in Arkansas was the Arkadelphia Milling Co., which produced flour, meal and stock feed. The mill operated 24 hours a day and had the motto: “We never sleep.” Its Dolly Dimple brand of flour was known across the region. The mill unfortunately became a victim of the Great Depression and closed in 1932.

From 1915 into the 1920s, the Arkadelphia Lumber Co. operated one of the South’s largest sawmills west of Arkadelphia at the company town of Graysonia. Almost 500 employees produced more than 150,000 board feet of lumber each day. Graysonia no longer exists, long since having been overtaken by the pine forests that once provided a livelihood for the hundreds of people who lived there.

Arkadelphia was among the state’s leading cities in the early 1900s. In addition to the Arkadelphia Lumber Co. and the Arkadelphia Milling Co, the Temple Cotton Oil Co. also was thriving. The Arkadelphia Rotary Club was formed in 1919, just six years after the famous Club 99 had been established in Little Rock. The Arkadelphia club played a key role in raising money to update the city’s water system and lobbied for getting city streets paved.

Companies that added to the economic mix in Arkadelphia after World War II included Reynolds Metals Co., Hollywood Maxwell, Oberman Manufacturing, Ouachita Marine, Levi Strauss & Co. and the Tectum Corp.

Education long has been a major part of the economy.

Ray Granade wrote for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Arkadelphia became an educational center with the opening of two colleges for white people (Ouachita Baptist College in 1886 and Arkadelphia Methodist College in 1890), two schools for African-Americans (Bethel College AME in 1891 and Colored Presbyterian Industrial School in 1896), and the first in a series of business colleges (Draughon’s in 1891).

“In addition to these, an elementary and secondary school for black students, called the Arkadelphia Presbyterian Academy, was founded in 1882. The Arkadelphia Baptist Academy opened in 1890, later updating its name and becoming associated with Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock in 1892. The activity by education-minded citizens led one local newspaper to refer to the community consistently as ‘the city of colleges’ while other locals called it ‘the Athens of Arkansas.’ Beginning with their first game in 1895 and continuing into present day, Henderson State University and Ouachita Baptist University have maintained a football rivalry called the Battle of the Ravine because the two schools are positioned across from another on either side of U.S. Highway 67.”

Timber remained an important part of the area’s economy. In 1967, Esther Ross and her daughter, Jane Ross, began the Ross Foundation. Esther’s father, J.G. Clark, had been an owner of vast tracts of south Arkansas timberland.

The Ross Foundation manages more than 60,000 acres for conservation and charitable purposes. It has poured millions of dollars in charitable funds into the county through the years. Its most notable accomplishment occurred in 2010 when the foundation joined forces with the Arkadelphia-based Southern Bancorp to establish the Arkadelphia Promise, which ensures that college tuition is paid for graduates of Arkadelphia High School.

J.G. Clark had begun his empire in the forest products industry in the late 1800s. After her father’s death in 1955, Jane Ross managed her family’s business interests. She remained chairman of the Ross Foundation until her death in 1999. In 1979, Ross relinquished much of the control over the daily operations of the foundation to Ross Whipple, a relative. Whipple, who founded and later sold both Horizon Bancorp and Summit Bancorp, proved to be a shrewd manager of the foundation’s assets. He once described the foundation lands as being “like a mini-national forest. … I cut my teeth in the woods. Those trees don’t talk back to you. Here in Clark County, the strong history of the forest industry as well as the future growth excites me.”

In her article for Arkansas Life, Steadham described the Ross Foundation offices this way: “The circular silo-like centerpiece I saw from the outside is actually an atrium in the center of the building, its glass ceiling throwing the midday light onto a floor made from concentric wood rings fashioned like a cut tree stump. The walls are rock, and vines crawl up wood support beams. I immediately know I am in a place of uncommon thinking.”

In writing about the Arkadelphia Promise, Steadham said: “Since the scholarship program began in 2011, the Arkadelphia Promise has awarded almost $2 million in scholarships. It awards an average of more than $3,000 per student per year, and Arkadelphia students have attended more than 45 institutions of higher education in 10 states. What I find especially remarkable is how things are looking at the high school level: The retention rate at Arkadelphia High School was up to 87.1 percent for 2014. … Athens of Arkansas, indeed.”

At the same time Whipple was building his banking business, then-Gov. Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Mack McLarty, Rob Walton and other well-known Arkansans were teaming up with nonprofit organizations such as the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation to create the state’s first community development bank holding company in the 1980s. The goal was to use the proceeds from commercial banks to fund rural development activities rather than paying dividends to stockholders. The first bank purchased was Arkadelphia’s Elk Horn Bank & Trust Co. in 1988. Since then, additional banks have been purchased in Arkansas and Mississippi. Those acquisitions have made Southern Bancorp the largest rural development banking organization in the country.

On the day the Arkadelphia Promise was announced in 2010 by then-Gov. Mike Beebe, Whipple described it as “one of the best economic events to ever happen in Arkadelphia as well as being a tremendous educational benefit for every graduate of Arkadelphia High School.”

The announcement of Sun’s $1.3 billion investment was the biggest economic event in the city since the Arkadelphia Promise unveiling more than five years earlier. And, I can promise you, the existence of the Arkadelphia Promise is an incentive for companies such as Sun to locate facilities in the area.

In my weekly column for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I wrote about Bill Clinton’s visit to Arkadelphia three days after the F4 tornado on March 1, 1997, that destroyed all or parts of 60 city blocks. During a reception following his walking tour of the destroyed downtown business sector, the president said to me: “I can’t say this publicly, but most towns in the south half of the state would never bounce back from something like this. But Arkadelphia will come back because it has strong banks and two colleges.”

Now, add to the mix one of the largest private-sector investments in Arkansas history.

Arkadelphia appears to be south Arkansas’ shining star, living up to the prediction made by President Clinton in those dark days of March 1997.

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Greeks in Arkansas

Thursday, May 5th, 2016

On the day that my column about the history of Greeks in Arkansas ran in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I received a text from my old friend Sam Stathakis in Hot Springs.

“From all the Greeks, thanks for the shout out,” he wrote. “Opa!”

The history of Greeks in Arkansas is fascinating, and James and Helen Hronas did yeoman’s work in pulling it together through the years.

“Because so few single women were among the first immigrants, men would return to Greece or to a larger U.S. city where they had relatives so they could be introduced to eligible women,” Helen Hronas writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Partly because of the scarcity of eligible Greek-American females, about half of the marriages took place with local women who were not Greek. With the first generation, much more intermarriage with non-Greeks occurred, though non-Greek spouses often became active members of the Greek Orthodox Church.

“The Balkan Wars that preceded World War I inspired many immigrants to return to Greece to help free it from the Ottoman Turks. Among those who saw action there were Theo Stathakis and Harry Hronas of Little Rock and Andrew Makris of Pine Bluff, all of whom returned safely to the United States. Newspaper clippings from the Arkansas Gazette and the Pine Bluff Daily around 1911 described how dozens of patriotic young men from Pine Bluff, Texarkana and Little Rock departed from Union Station in Little Rock for New York to offer their services to ‘overthrow barbarism’ in their native land.

“The contingent of Greek immigrants in Arkansas grew quickly through the 1920s until laws were passed to limit immigration. By then, the Greek population was quite large in Little Rock, probably more than 200. Afterward, it slowed considerably, but those who stayed in Little Rock remained united by their Orthodox faith, common culture and native language.”

Based on the Hronas’ research, here’s a breakdown on Greek immigration to several Arkansas towns:

Little Rock — Most early Greek families who came to Arkansas settled in Little Rock. The first Greek immigrant known to have arrived in Little Rock was Anastasios Stathakis in 1892. New immigrants often would stay at the home of Pelopida and Eugenia Kumpuris. The Homer Society was formed in Little Rock in 1905 to bring Greeks together, and what’s now Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church began meeting in 1913.

Helen Hronas writes: “Annunciation in Little Rock bought its first building in 1919 from Winfield Methodist Church at 15th and Center streets. The congregation outgrew this facility and in the 1970s bought land to build a new church on Napa Valley Drive. It was completed in 1983. The first Greek Food Festival was organized in 1984. Held on the church grounds, it has become a popular event that benefits the church and local charities. The Greek Folklore Society was organized in 1989 to promote Greek folk dancing and to perform at the festival.”

El Dorado — During the oil boom of the 1920s, William Photioo and his wife, Johanna Theoharis Photioo, moved to Union County to open a pharmacy and soda fountain. A plan by the Ku Klux Klan, which was active in south Arkansas at the time, to burn down their business was thwarted by friends of the couple. These friends spoke up on their behalf, and the KKK changed its plans.

Fort Smith — By the 1940s, there were about 40 Greek families in Fort Smith. Many of them were in the restaurant business. St. George Greek Orthodox Church was established after World War II, but it became inactive in the 1990s.

Hronas writes about Fort Smith: “The cafes were so busy that they had to close for several hours a day to catch up with washing huge stacks of dishes, cleaning the premises and cooking more food. The Nick Avlos family entertained Greek-American servicemen stationed at Fort Chaffee. In Fort Smith, all but about five families were composed of Greek husbands and non-Greek wives. They did not have a full-time priest or church services, but occasionally a priest would arrive from Little Rock for a sacrament, funeral or liturgy.”

Pine Bluff — Andrew Makris came to the United States in 1906 and helped begin the OK Ice Cream & Candy Co. in Pine Bluff in 1912.

Hronas writes: “When Makris returned to Greece to fight in the Balkan Wars, he married and then returned to Arkansas with his bride and sponsored relatives, George and Peter Zack and Gus Pappas, who became partners at OK. Pappas first sold ice cream as a street vendor and later became proficient in candy making, which became a part of OK. In 1930, the OK founders had a grand opening of their new, modern plant on Main Street, which employed 35 people making ice cream. An upstairs room was devoted to candy making. George Zack headed the milk and Angel Food ice cream department. As the company prospered, they invested in a liquor distributorship. Andrew Makris’ sons, Pete and George, were each named Outstanding Young Men of the Year by the Junior Chamber of Commerce, and each served as president of the Junior Chamber.”

Because Pine Bluff did not have a Greek Orthodox church, most Greek families there attended the Episcopal church and then traveled to Little Rock for holidays at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church.

Hot Springs — Greeks have a long history in the Spa City, having become doctors and leading business owners. In 1954, a movement headed by the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association began with the goal of establishing a Greek Orthodox church in Hot Springs. In 1959, the first building ever constructed in Arkansas specificially for an Orthodox congregation was completed, and the parish of Zoodochos Peghee (commonly known as St. Mary’s) opened with a dedication ceremony on Jan. 30, 1960.

Hronas writes: “The Greeks and their families who settled in Hot Springs in the early 1900s were entrepreneurs and worked long hours to support their families. One enduring company was the Pappas Brothers Confectionary. Peter Pappas arrived in Hot Springs in about 1903 and his brothers — John, Angelo and William — later joined him in business. During the Depression, Pappas Brothers, the Deluxe Café (owned by George Gabriel) and other Greek eateries served countless needy people, including students at nearby schools who had no lunch money.”

Texarkana — About 10 Greek families settled in Texarkana. Most of them were in the restaurant business. A priest would come once a month from Shreveport, La., to celebrate the liturgy. People from the Greek Orthodox church in Shreveport also would come during the summer to teach the Greek language to children.

The Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese established a mission in Little Rock known as Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in the 1990s. Another mission was established in Fayetteville. Out of the Fayetteville mission grew St. Nicholas Orthodox Christian Church in Springdale. Noted architect Marlon Blackwell designed a facility for St. Nicholas in 2010.

“During the Great Depression in the 1930s, several families had great financial troubles, losing property and investments,” Helen Hronas writes. “Others lost most of their bank savings. Some families were evicted from their homes and lived in their businesses or elsewhere. Few, if any, Greek families went hungry since their principal occupations were most ofen associated with food. Some local banks and investors worked with small business owners and allowed them leeway in paying their rent so that they did not lose their businesses entirely.”

Many of the male children of the first Greek immigrants to Arkansas served in World War II. Hronas notes that for years after the war, Arkansas Greeks “shipped supplies to Greece and helped financially with the recovery there.”

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