Archive for the ‘Building Arkansas’ Category

The weekend drive

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

Spring came early to Arkansas this year, bringing with it the urge to make some weekend drives.

It once was a highly refined art in our state. People would take to the roads on Saturdays and on Sunday afternoons after church, often with no scheduled stops. They would simply make spur-of-the-moment decisions on what turns to take and what sights to see.

They were the great desultory drivers, out to enjoy whatever this state had to offer.

My grandparents in Benton often would make the drive to Lake Norrell, that city’s water-supply lake in the Ouachita Mountain foothills. Sometimes the destination would be the Salem Dairy Bar for ice cream, the Congo Mercantile Store (which had wooden floors and a wood-burning stove in those days), Lake Winona in the Ouachita National Forest or Peeler Bend on the Saline River.

For my grandparents at Des Arc, there was flatter terrain to cover. Weekends might involve a drive to Brinkley or Searcy. My favorite trips were the ones from the Prairie County seat of Des Arc to the other county seat of DeValls Bluff for barbecue at Craig’s or fried catfish at Murry’s.

My parents in Arkadelphia would simply say “let’s drive out around the lake” once the Caddo River was dammed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to form DeGray Lake. We would drive through the campgrounds and look at the license plates to see what states were represented. We would cross the dam. We sometimes would finish with supper at the lodge at DeGray Lake Resort State Park.

In a state filled with nice views, the warm late-winter days and the urge to hit the road had me thinking about my favorite Arkansas vistas.

Near the top of my list is St. Mary’s Mountain above Altus, specifically the view from the parking lot of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, commonly known as St. Mary’s Church.

Maybe it’s not just the view that has me ranking this spot high on the list. Perhaps it’s also the things that go with the trip there — visits to the tasting rooms of Arkansas wineries, the trout for lunch at the Wiederkehr Weinkeller restaurant, the chance to step inside the beautiful church.

The mountain that most people now call St. Mary’s was known as Pond Creek Mountain when the church was founded in 1879 to serve immigrants from Switzerland and Germany.

In April 1869, the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad was chartered. A depot and freight yard were constructed at Argenta (now North Little Rock), and track was laid to the Arkansas River so boats could deliver freight cars, engines and rails. Twenty four miles of track were laid in 1870 toward the west. The total mileage had reached 82 miles by the end of 1871. Due to strikes, the collapse of railroad bonds and foreclosure, progress then slowed.

Larry LeMasters writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “On Dec. 10, 1874, the railroad was foreclosed on, and nine days later, a new group of Eastern investors reopened the company, keeping the name Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad. On June 12, 1875, the name of the railroad was changed to the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railway. An influx of skilled German immigrants in Arkansas allowed the LR&FS to push on across the state. These immigrants worked for the railroad and settled on land grants given by LR&FS and in towns along the railway, eventually forming the basis of Arkansas’ wine industry near Altus. The new LR&FS continued to lay track westward across Arkansas, and on Jan, 30, 1879, the LR&FS finally reached Van Buren.

“On Sept. 21, 1882, New York millionaire Jay Gould purchased the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railway, adding it to his 1881 purchase of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway, forming the largest railroad company in Arkansas. Gould also owned the Missouri Pacific, which would become his parent railroad and into which the LR&FS eventually merged. In April 1906, the Little Rock & Fort Railway was sold to the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway (both railways were owned by Jay Gould and Missouri Pacific), effectively ending the LR&FS Railway.”

The aggressive recruitment of immigrants by the railroads took place because government land grants on either side of the track had little value unless buyers could be found. Land agents promoted the fact that a German-speaking priest lived in the Altus area.

Shirley Sticht Schuette writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “Religious and economic factors came together with the growth of the railroads to promote immigration following the Civil War. For a time, state governments, railroad companies and real estate agents recruited immigrants. Arkansas Gov. Powell Clayton talked of recruiting immigrants in his 1868 inaugural message. Intense efforts came only at the end of the 1870s when railroad construction had progressed to the point that land was widely available in the Arkansas River Valley. German-language publications were issued touting the benefits of Arkansas, and agents were sent to German communities in the eastern United States and also to Europe to entice settlers to the state.

“Given grants of government land, the railroads moved west, financing construction and establishing a market for their services through selling land to immigrants. Both the Lutheran and the Catholic churches, the two denominations most closely associated with the German community, cooperated with the railroads in developing German immigrant communities in Arkansas. The Catholic Church was involved in direct recruitment, acting as an agent for the railroad, while the Lutheran Church concentrated on supporting immigrants after they arrived.

“With encouragement from Bishop Edward Fitzgerald of the Diocese of Little Rock, the Catholic Church entered into agreements with the railroads, setting aside land grant areas for immigrants recruited by the church. Two such agreements resulted in strong areas of German settlement in the Arkansas River Valley. The Benedictine Order founded a colony based in Logan County and remained following the initial immigration period. Subiaco Abbey and Academy in Logan County remains a monument to their work.

“The Holy Ghost Fathers brought many settlers into the state, some of whom stayed and made important contributions to the economy and politics in Conway and Faulkner counties. However, the order did not maintain a significant presence in the state. Following a series of disasters, including a tornado in April 1883 that destroyed the Catholic church in Conway and an 1892 tornado that destroyed their monastery, the group abandoned its plans for a permanent monastery and seminary in Arkansas.”

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the religious persecution that occurred during the remainder of the decade helped drive many German Catholics to the United States. The priest who had founded St. Mary’s, Beatus Maria Ziswyler, died in 1887, but the Benedictine monks from Subiaco Abbey on the other side of the river saw to it that the parish continued to operate. The railroad donated 40 acres when the church was established, and the congregation met in a wooden structure until 1902.

The cornerstone for the current building was laid on May 24, 1901, and the Romanesque-style church was dedicated on Sept. 2, 1902. The rocks used to build the church were mined from an adjacent hillside. Exterior walls are two-feet thick, and the 120-foot bell tower has walls that are twice that thick. The stonework was done by masons from St. Louis. Painted cedar forms the pillars of the basilica-style church. There are murals that were painted by German artist Fridolin Fuchs in 1915-16, and an 1897 John George Pleffer pipe organ was added in 1925.

Construction of the current structure was overseen by Father Placidus Oechsle.

According to the church website: “Father Placidus also found time to extravagantly decorate the church along with immigrant painter Fridolin Fuchs. Donations from parish members also enabled the acquisition of the four large bells that grace the bell tower and the purchase of a first-class organ to fill the interior with music. His 28-year pastorate was by far the longest of any priest at St. Mary’s. Although times changed rather dramatically throughout the 20th century, little changed around St. Mary’s until the 1960s. That time of transition just after Vatican II also saw the reluctant demolition of the old nun’s house and rectory and their replacement with much more modern buildings. Those projects were headed by Father Thomas Buergler.

“Father Thomas was followed by Father Lawrence Miller, who exhibited great leadership and foresight in getting a new school built in 1973 along with the parish hall, later to be named Lawrence Hall in his honor, in 1979. As is so often the way with progress, the old school was torn down to make room for the new hall.

“Father John Walbe took over care of St. Mary’s parish in 1980 after the untimely death of Father Lawrence. He led the way in the restoration project for the church organ. After having been bought used for $500 from St. Francis de Sales Oratory of St. Louis in 1925, the organ was really showing its age. Thus it came to pass in 1986 that through the efforts of Father John and the parish, the organ was restored to its full glory by Redman Pipe Organs of Fort Worth for more than $100,000.

“Unfortunately, the church itself was also showing its age, especially from roof leaks and moisture infiltrating through the sandstone. After Father John’s recall to Subiaco, he was replaced by St. Mary’s second-longest tenured pastor, Father Hilary Filiatreau. Father Hilary led the massive fundraising and restoration project that followed in 1999. The work was carried out by Conrad Schmitt Studios of Milwaukee. Its current beautiful state serves as a testament to his efforts. The parish will also remember him leading the effort culminating in the complete replacement of the 100-year-old church roof in the summer of 2010.”

Make the drive to St. Mary’s Mountain one Saturday morning.

Enjoy the view.

Admire the inside of the church.

Make sure to leave a small cash donation.

Have lunch nearby and perhaps bring home some Arkansas wine.

By all means, do your part to revive that old Arkansas tradition known as the weekend drive.

 

 

Post to Twitter

A room with a view

Friday, March 3rd, 2017

The sun was shining that Wednesday afternoon as tourists walked along the sidewalk that fronts Hot Springs’ Bathhouse Row.

I was touring the soon-to-open boutique hotel across Central Avenue that’s known as The Waters. My tour was being conducted by Hot Springs financial adviser Robert Zunick, who teamed up with veteran architects Bob Kempkes and Anthony Taylor to transform the century-old Thompson Building, whose upper stories long had been empty.

Even though I grew up only about 30 miles from Hot Springs, I had never experienced this view.

For decades, the upper stories of buildings on that side of Central Avenue were empty and closed to visitors.

I was struck by the view from the rooms on the upper floors. I could study the tops of the bathhouses and watch people walking behind those bathhouses on the Grand Promenade, which runs parallel with Central Avenue from Reserve Street to Fountain Street. It began as a Public Works Administration project in the 1930s and finally was completed in 1957. The north end passes the site of the first Hot Springs National Park superintendent’s residence, which was demolished in 1958. The south entrance is just below the former Army-Navy Hospital, now the Arkansas Career Training Institute.

As Zunick talked about the work that went into the restoration, it became evident that the view from here is dominated by three classic structures dating back to the 1920s and 1930s.

To the south is the Army-Navy Hospital building.

To the north are the Arlington Hotel and the Medical Arts Building.

They’re three of the most iconic structures in the state, and their preservation is vital to the cultural fabric of Arkansas.

The Army-Navy Hospital was the first combined hospital in the country for Army and Navy patients. During an 1882 dinner party on the second floor of the Palace Bathhouse, a former Confederate Army surgeon named A.S. Garnett hosted a former Union Army general, U.S. Sen. John Logan of Illinois.

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “The impressed senator said the city was ‘an ideal location for an institution of this character’ and promised to introduce legislation for an appropriation upon his return to Washington. By the end of June, $100,000 was approved for the building of a 30-bed joint military hospital, the first such effort in U.S. history. President Chester A. Arthur signed the bill in 1882. The Army-Navy Hospital opened to patients in January 1887 under the direct jurisdiction of the secretary of war. It was not until 1957 that control of the facility was transferred to the U.S. Army.”

The current seven-story, brick-and-steel structure was built in the early 1930s at a cost of almost $1.5 million. Because of its therapeutic baths, it was the largest center in the country during World War II for treating adults with polio. More than 100,000 people were treated for various ailments at the hospital from 1887 until the end of World War II.

“After World War II, military men and women were streaming back from the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific,” the Encyclopedia of Arkansas notes. “Many who suffered severe wounds or the loss of limbs were sent to Hot Springs to take advantage of the hydro-therapy treatments. The influx of injured soldiers taxed the Hot Springs facilities.

“To have more beds and space for added staff, the federal government bought the Eastman Hotel across and down the street from the main hospital. A connecting ramp linked the two buildings, and the number of beds available for patients tripled almost overnight. This gave the hospital badly needed space for recreational and reconditioning projects, in addition to providing space for overnight family visitors.

“Along with soldiers being treated for war injuries, servicemen from battle zones were sent to the Hot Springs facility for rest, relaxation and rehabilitation. The Arlington and Majestic hotels housed the overflow solders who could not be accommodated on the hospital base.”

On April 1, 1960, the facility was transferred to the state as a rehabilitation hospital. It later became known as the Hot Springs Rehabilitation Center. The name was changed to the Arkansas Career Training Institute in 2009, the medical wing was closed and the focus became vocational training.

While parts of the old Army-Navy Hospital remain in use, the Medical Arts Building at 236 Central Ave. sits sadly empty. It was the tallest building in the state from its completion in 1930 until 1960, when the Tower Building was completed in downtown Little Rock. Preserve Arkansas listed it in 2012 as one of the state’s most endangered structures.

The Medical Arts Building was erected by general contractor G.C. Gordon Walker with work beginning on Dec. 1, 1929. Investors from Little Rock and New Orleans purchased the site, which had been occupied by the Rector Bath House, from the Rector estate of St. Louis. The Rector family had obtained the property from the federal government in 1893.

The Medical Arts Building was designed by the Little Rock architectural firm Almand & Stuck, which also designed Little Rock’s Central High School. It has long been recognized as one of the top Art Deco skyscrapers in the South. Bas-relief limestone carvings on the frieze and on the facing of the main entrance are among the building’s notable features, along with the bronze grille work above the doors.

A September 1930 article in the Sentinel-Record at Hot Springs declared: “The structure as it stands is one of the most imposing buildings in Arkansas and a valuable addition to the business district of Hot Springs.”

The brick-and-reinforced-concrete structure cost $375,000 to build. Tall ceilings and large windows were designed to help keep the building cool in the summer. Corridors feature terrazzo floors and Arkansas marble wainscoting. Two brass-trimmed elevators were run by uniformed operators in the building’s early days. A 1932 Arkansas Gazette feature noted that the elevators were equipped with telephones that could be used while the elevators were in motion.

The building was advertised as the “Skyscraper of Health” and eventually housed 55 physicians and five commercial businesses. When the building opened, the first floor was home to a florist and Martin Eisele’s Medical Arts Drug Store. The drugstore, which had been established in 1875, was the city’s oldest. Eisele renamed it the Colonial Drug Store and moved to a new location in September 1930. The fifth floor housed a medical and pathological laboratory. Lower floors generally housed six medical offices each.

There were fewer offices on the upper floors because the building narrowed. The 15th floor housed a medical library and Dr. Earl McWherter’s dental offices from 1946-68.

The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, three years after it was purchased from the Medical Arts Realty Co. by Richard Shofstall’s Styro Products Inc. of St. Louis.

In January 1979, building manager Connie Tapanna told the Sentinel-Record: “There seems to be a certain feeling, an attachment for the building itself that frankly amazes me.”

However, the building was mostly vacant by the mid-1980s. Dr. George Fotioo, who began his medical practice in the building in 1945, was the last physician to leave the Medical Arts Building in 1991. He closed his downtown office after receiving a notice to vacate it from Freeling Properties, which represented Little Rock investor Melvyn Bell, who had purchased the middle 13 floors of the building. Robert LiMandri, whose father had moved his tailoring business into the Medical Arts Building in 1976, also was evicted at that time. Bell had purchased all but the ground floor and the top two floors in September 1986. He shut off electricity and water to the 13 floors he owned after experiencing financial problems.

In placing the building on its list of most endangered places, Preserve Arkansas stated: “The structure is Art Deco and due to the fineness of its massing and detail, it is the most significant structure of this style in the state of Arkansas.”

As I looked to my left from The Waters, The Arlington Hotel joined the Medical Arts Building in dominating the view.

This is the third incarnation of the Arlington. The original hotel was across Fountain Street on what’s now known as the Arlington Lawn. It was completed in 1875.

A larger hotel was built in 1893 but burned in April 1923.

The current building was completed in November 1924. It was designed by George Mann, the primary architect of the Arkansas State Capitol.

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “The building’s entrance faces the southeast corner of the intersection of Fountain Street and Central Avenue and includes two massive towers, like its predecessor but designed in a Mediterranean rather than Spanish Revival style. Throughout its history, the Arlington has hosted notable people and events. Joe T. Robinson, former governor and U.S. senator from Arkansas, announced his acceptance of the Democratic nomination for vice president in 1928 on the front steps of the Arlington and used the hotel as his campaign headquarters for the duration of the campaign.

“Robinson’s announcement was broadcast across the continent by radio station KTHS, which broadcast from the Arlington and was the first radio station in Hot Springs. The radio tower was mounted on the roof between the two hotel towers and can be seen in photographs from the era.

“Infamous gangster Al Capone regularly booked the entire fourth floor for himself and his associates. Capone’s favorite room was 443. Other notable celebrities made the hotel a regular stop. Babe Ruth began coming to the city with the Boston Red Sox for spring training and visited often afterward, always staying at the Arlington. Will Rogers, Kate Smith and George Raft were also visitors.”

With the new view from the renovated Thompson Building, a visitor gains a renewed sense of the city’s rich history.

Post to Twitter

March in the Spa City

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

The month of March approaches.

It’s a month that has become prime time for tourism in Hot Springs.

The weather warms, and the crowds grow at Oaklawn Park. The crab apple trees bloom, and the infield opens.

The city hosts 14 state championship high school basketball games (seven girls’ games and seven boys’ games) during a three-day period early each March (March 9-11 this year).

And thanks to the imagination and promotional ability of Steve Arrison, who heads Visit Hot Springs, the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade is now among the top events of its type in the country. With the parade falling on a Friday night this year, record crowds are expected to fill the streets downtown if the weather cooperates.

Adding to the excitement is the opening of The Waters, a boutique hotel across Central Avenue from Bathhouse Row. Renovation work on the historic Thompson Building, which will house the hotel, began in October 2015. More than $8 million later, 62 rooms are ready for guests from across the region.

“I had no idea when we started this how long it takes to build a hotel or to remodel a 100-year-old building,” Robert Zunick, one of the three partners in the project, told the Hot Springs National Park Rotary Club last month. “It took nine months to negotiate the sale. Once we owned the Thompson Building, it took 16 months to close the financing. We’re 15 months on the construction now.”

Zunick, a Hot Springs financial adviser, teamed up with veteran Spa City architects Bob Kempkes and Anthony Taylor to create The Waters. The work of Kempkes and Taylor can be seen around town, especially their beautiful renovation of the Ozark Bathhouse on the other side of Central Avenue.

The three men considered hundreds of potential names for the hotel before deciding on one.

Zunick said: “We really wanted to settle in on the essence of what really ties everything together, the reason all of those people came to Hot Springs in the first place, and all of this kind of boils down to one thing — the waters that we’ve been blessed with here in the national park.”

The Thompson Building was constructed in 1913. It has housed everything from a hotel to gift shops to apartments to doctors’ offices through the decades. A century ago, the term “taking the waters” was common in this country, and the Thompson was built to serve those who came to the Spa City for that reason.

Zunick said construction crews found a hotel receipt from 1949. He told the Rotarians: “They spent two nights at the Thompson Hotel for $16 a night. We’re going to be a little bit higher than that.”

Chris Wolcott, the hotel’s general manager, said the renovation resulted in a facility in which “not a single one of the rooms is like the other. We have different sizes. We have different layouts. … We have exposed brick walls and bench-seat windows.”

The Thompson Building also is the home of the recently opened fine-dining venue known as The Avenue. Casey Copeland, the former chef at So Restaurant-Bar in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Little Rock, is at the helm of the restaurant.

Copeland decribes himself as a person who “eats, sleeps and breathes food. We want to work with the community, local artisans and local farmers and bring Hot Springs something that I don’t think is here, a whole new dining experience.”

Within the next year, a rooftop bar and an outdoor garden will be added to the mix.

In addition to attracting more tourists, business leaders in Hot Springs hope to attract talented new residents who like living in an urban environment. Quality restaurants like The Avenue, brew pubs such as the one across the street in the Superior Bathhouse, art galleries and entertainment venues are the type of amenities that attract residents who enjoy urban loft living.

If Zunick, Kempkes and Taylor are successful with the businesses in the Thompson Building, I have no doubt that outside investors with even deeper pockets will follow with renovations of the Medical Arts Building, the Howe Hotel, the Wade Building, the Velda Rose Hotel, the Vapors Club and other downtown structures that are empty and waiting on saviors.

There’s still so much potential there.

A report on Hot Springs compiled several years ago by an economic consulting firm out of Indianapolis noted: “One of Hot Springs’ greatest assets is its compact downtown district. A national park nestled within the central business district, four distinct urban neighborhoods, a prestigious high school, the convention center, the trailhead for the Hot Springs Greenway Trail and a number of hotels, restaurants and other tourist attractions all call downtown Hot Springs home.

“Like most downtowns, Hot Springs has a variety of architectural styles representing different periods in the city’s history. Unlike many downtowns, though, the architecture in Hot Springs is especially interesting due to the unusual collection of bathhouses on Bathhouse Row, an art deco high-rise structure that was once the tallest building in the state and several large structures such as the Arkansas Career Training Institute (the former Army-Navy Hospital) and the Arlington Hotel, which dominate the view from several vantage points along the downtown streets.”

I’m reminded of a statement that Courtney Crouch of Hot Springs made during a National Park Rotary Club meeting at the Arlington Hotel a couple of years ago. Crouch is a devoted historic preservationist whose Selected Funeral & Life Insurance Co. makes its home in the city’s ornate old post office building on Convention Boulevard.

“I encourage you to go out when you leave here and look at the buildings,” he told those gathered at the Arlington that day. “The Thompson Building is one of the finest architectural treasures there is. The same thing can be said about the Medical Arts Building. And what a structure the old Army-Navy Hospital is.

“We’re on a new path. We’re seeing a lot of things develop. We’re headed in a new direction. I hope we can see this become the great American spa it was back around the turn of the century.”

Crouch has made numerous trips through the years to Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, a resort that attracts the rich and famous from New York City each August in search of cooler temperatures and thoroughbred racing.

He told me: “You know, Hot Springs has more to work with from an architectural standpoint than Saratoga Springs has.”

There was a time when Hot Springs called itself “the Saratoga of the South.”

With more upscale hotels, restaurants, spas and retailers, why can’t downtown Hot Springs attract people with money to spend from the booming Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex (it’s less than a five-hour drive away) just as Saratoga Springs attracts people from New York City?

With the development of the Thompson Building in downtown Hot Springs, the first domino has fallen.

It will be interesting to see if others follow.

Post to Twitter

Cycling in the Delta

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post to Twitter

Cycling Hub of the South

Friday, December 30th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arkansas wants to do that in the area of cycling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Post to Twitter

Dyess: Project of the year

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not a factory.

It’s not a business of any kind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music, on the other hand, can unite us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cash family donated some items from the original home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In addition to Dyess, sites in the program are:

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

— The Lakeport Plantation near Lake Village.

— The Southern Tenant Farmers Museum at Tyronza.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Post to Twitter

Wilson: The model town

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

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

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

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

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

That’s an understatement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Post to Twitter

A War Memorial vision

Friday, November 4th, 2016

My wife constantly reminds me that I get involved in too many crusades.

There are worse things in life, I suppose, than having multiple passions.

And I was passionate about trying to save Ray Winder Field, which was one of the 10 oldest professional baseball parks in America. I knew that if the Arkansas Travelers were to retain their big league affiliation, they had to move out of the crowded old park in the middle of Little Rock. But it could have — should have — been saved for amateur baseball.

Some of us tried.

We lined up high school, college and American Legion teams to play there. We formed a nonprofit organization to operate the ballpark.

But the city of Little Rock barely gave us the time of day. Our “city leaders” sold the iconic Arkansas structure to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences to turn into a parking lot.

To this day, I can’t bear to look when driving down Interstate 630.

Jay Jennings, a Little Rock-based writer and editor who once was a reporter for Sports Illustrated, put it this way in a beautifully written essay for Arkansas Life magazine back in 2012: “Ray Winder Field is now flattened, no mound in its middle, its concrete rubble hauled away, its fences knocked down, its I-beams only a ghostly memory. I mourn its demise and can conjure up my youthful summer nights there, chasing down foul balls through empty rows of seats, rushing to the dugout fence to ask for a broken bat, reveling in the varying textures of a Drumstick ice cream cone. Baseball has always been about nostalgia and fungible time.

“Maybe it’s the absence of Ray Winder Field that is causing me to think about its bigger, younger sibling just down the road, its seeming opposite: War Memorial Stadium. Even the names are a contrast: One the home of bucolic and breezy summer languidness (rays, wind, a field), the other evoking martial battles, death and enormity. A field is where games are played; a stadium is where crowds assemble.

“But there’s something about War Memorial that’s also worthy of nostalgic reflection, of civic affection. As a child (too young or too unruly for my parents to consider taking me to a game), on fall Saturdays, I would take my radio out on the front porch to listen to the game, and though I was more than two miles away, I could hear the roar from the crowd not only through my radio but from the stadium itself. But more than gratuitous self-reflection led me to consider War Memorial anew. Since it hosts Razorback games, high school football games (preseason, Catholic High and state championships), University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff games, band competitions, concerts and various other events, it’s possible that War Memorial Stadium is the most visited site in the state.”

In all of the statewide debate in recent years as to whether the University of Arkansas should continue playing football games in the capital city, one thing has been forgotten: War Memorial Stadium is one of this state’s top public works projects and also its largest memorial to the veterans of World War I and World War II.

It deserves to be preserved and treasured as we hopefully atone for the sin of allowing Ray Winder Field to be demolished — for a parking lot, for gosh sakes.

On Sept. 18, 1948, the University of Arkansas brought its football team to Little Rock to play Abilene Christian at the new stadium. Maurice “Footsie” Britt, who would be elected lieutenant governor 18 years later, led the dedication ceremonies.

Britt was the first person to earn all of the U.S. Army’s top awards, including the Medal of Honor, while fighting in a single war. Born in 1919 at Carlisle, Britt later moved to Lonoke and became a high school sports star. Because he wore size 13 shoes, he became known as “Footsie.” Britt was the captain of the football, basketball and track teams at Lonoke. He also was elected class president and was the valedictorian of his senior class.

Following his graduation in June 1937, Britt received an athletic scholarship to Arkansas, where he played football and basketball for the Razorbacks in addition to serving as the sports editor of the student newspaper.

After college, Britt signed a contract to play professional football for the Detroit Lions. His professional career was cut short when he joined the Army at the outset of World War II. He received the Medal of Honor for his gallantry in a battle near Mignano, Italy, on Nov. 10, 1943.

On Feb. 12, 1944, Britt lost his right arm when an artillery shell landed near him.

War Memorial Stadium was built to honor Arkansans such as “Footsie” Britt.

We forget that, don’t we?

Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s announcement at the state Capitol last month was significant. Hutchinson proposed that the stadium become a part of the state Department of Parks & Tourism, a move that could at last take the spotlight off the issue of Razorback games and put it back where it should be — the protection of an Arkansas shrine.

The War Memorial Stadium Commission — under the leadership of Little Rock attorney Kevin Crass and his predecessor as chairman, Little Rock businessman Gary Smith — has done an outstanding job updating the facility since the turn of the century.

The stadium that Britt helped dedicate in 1948 had 31,000 seats. A major expansion project occurred in 1967 as interest in Razorback football reached a fever pitch following the 22-game winning streak in 1964-65. The stadium now holds almost 54,000 people.

In the past 15 years, virtually every area of the stadium has been updated — new lights, new artificial turf, a restoration of the outside of the structure, new scoreboards and video boards.

In 2010, the commission completed a $7.3 million project that included a three-story press box and additional club seats.

If there’s an area in which the commission has fallen short, it’s probably in properly informing Arkansans about those improvements. Each time the debate about Razorback games in Little Rock rages, uneducated Hog fans and message board trolls post comments on social media that paint the picture of an aging, municipal-owned stadium (think Legion Field in Birmingham) that has been allowed to deteriorate.

The truth is that it’s a state-owned facility that looks better than it ever has.

“Maybe the state doesn’t completely understand that 250 days out of the year, we have one or more events that are at War Memorial Stadium,,” says Jerry Cohen, the stadium manager. “We’re an event center as well as a football stadium. We look at this as a chance for growth. … There are only two bathrooms and a kitchen that haven’t been redone. We’re basically a new structure other than the concrete and the bleachers.”

Regardless of whether the University of Arkansas continues playing games at War Memorial Stadium past 2018 or not, this is a story that could have a happy ending for the stadium. With the inherent strengths of the Department of Parks & Tourism — think sports and veterans’ exhibits around the concourse, a gift shop, a small theater, maybe even a restaurant — some of the beloved memorial’s best days could be ahead.

“War Memorial Stadium is a critical part of our lifeblood,” Hutchinson says.

Jennings wrote in the 2012 magazine story: “I usually park for free on Kavanaugh’s commercial strip in Hillcrest and walk past modest houses to Markham, where the stadium suddenly rises in front of me. It’s a neighborhood stadium. That charm may be one reason the Bleacher Report website named War Memorial one of the top 50 stadiums in college football last year. … She’s an old lady who has aged well. Look closely at the architecture, which you may never have done before.

“The main facade’s portal is a lovely piece of postwar simplicity, an example of a trend that one contemporary critic has described as ‘the postwar revolt against the stylistic clutter of traditional moldings and ornamentation.’ Over an aluminum canopy covering the entrance are three large windows made of translucent glass bricks (as are all of the external windows in the stadium), and these in turn are covered by an aluminum grill of six long horizontal bars and six shorter vertical bars, similar to what you might see on the front of cars of that vintage.

“The architects, Burks and Anderson, were liberal in their use of aluminum because at the time, Arkansas produced more of it than any other state in the country, and they wanted to showcase Arkansas materials. Above the grilled windows are three enormous aluminum plaques depicting football players in stylized action poses. I don’t know who the artist is, but they’re quite striking. … Above them is a terrific mid-century-modern sans-serif font spelling out War Memorial Stadium. All of these elements speak of a thoughtful and sensitive public building.”

The director of the state Department of Parks & Tourism, Kane Webb, is a former sports reporter like Jennings and also a fan of the stadium.

“I love War Memorial Stadium,” Webb says. “I saw my first college football game there in 1972. My dad took me to see Joe Ferguson and the Hogs. Unfortunately, they lost to Rice that day, but he gave me a souvenir on the way home to make me feel better. I played there at Catholic High for the Rockets. I covered dozens of high school and college games there as a sportswriter. Now on Friday night, when the Rockets are home, I’m out there watching my daughter perform as a Mount St. Mary Rockette. It means a lot to me.”

Members of the commission overseeing Webb’s department seem excited about the opportunity to have a flagship facility in the middle of the state’s largest city. They already operate 52 state parks, and Arkansas’ parks system is recognized as being among the best of the country.

Envision this:

— The concourse open to the public six or seven days a week so visitors can see displays on those who served in World War I and World War II along with displays on the state’s sports history.

— A gift shop filled with Arkansas-made items.

— A small theater where visitors can watch short films about the state.

— High school games there every Thursday and Friday night during the season, more soccer events, maybe even a college bowl game.

“It’s in our wheelhouse,” Webb says. “It’s what we do in the hospitality and tourism business. We run facilities. We put on events. We serve the public, and we know how to get the good word out about Arkansas and its many attractions. … We have an established record of getting things done, taking care of business, doing right by the taxpayers. Our team is ready for the challenge.

“I had a small group go out and meet with Jerry Cohen the other day. They speak the same language. It just seems like a natural fit for us. I really like the governor’s idea of a feasibility study. It always helps to have an objective, outside look at something, especially when it comes to such an emotional and cultural touchstone for so many of us in Arkansas.”

What would be even more exciting is if the city of Little Rock, which owns the land around the stadium, would hire a team of landscape architects and transform War Memorial Park into all it can be.

When the golf course at what was then Fair Park was built in 1931, it was on the far western edge of the city. Now, it’s in the middle of town. Frankly, the city already has too many holes of municipal golf given the declining number of golfers.

It’s time to transform the valuable greenspace in War Memorial Park into a place that will attract a broad segment of the city’s population — a place where residents of the city can run, walk, bike, fish, have picnics, play soccer, etc.

Great cities have great parks.

War Memorial Park — despite city government’s disastrous decision to sell Ray Winder Field so it could be turned into a parking lot — holds the potential of being a great park.

“One morning, I decided to take advantage of my right as a taxpayer to run some bleachers,” Jennings wrote for Arkansas Life. “It was a day forecast to reach 110 degrees, so it wasn’t a surprise that no one else was there, except for one unlucky worker who was repainting the stadium aisles red for the start of the football season. I began on the north side of the west stands and traversed them north to south, up one aisle, across the top, down the next, over and up again. In the center at the highest point, there are 62 rows, and the steps near the top are taller than the rest. Burks and Anderson must have had a good reason for doing that.

“At the other end, I paused at the top to catch my breath and could hear the call of some wild bird from the zoo piercing the morning air. In one direction, I could see the rolling fairways of the War Memorial Golf Course, and in the other the ever-growing campus of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. In addition to the long-distance views, there’s something expansive to the imagination about being alone in a stadium intended for 55,000.”

Community developers talk a lot these days about creating “great places.” Great places, you see, can attract talented young people to live and work.

If the state of Arkansas (the owner of War Memorial Stadium) and the city of Little Rock (the owner of War Memorial Park) will work together, we could have one of the state’s great places right in the middle of the capital city. And that would be true regardless of what the Razorbacks do.

Post to Twitter

The First Tee

Friday, September 16th, 2016

It’s a safe bet that Jack Stephens didn’t think about golf when he was growing up in Prattsville during the Great Depression.

As people tried to scratch out a living from the red clay soil in the pine woods of Grant County, there wasn’t much time for golf.

Stephens died in July 2005 at age 81. One way his legacy lives on is through the First Tee program.

I remember well that spring day in 2001 when the guest list at the First Tee of Central Arkansas complex in south Little Rock — the former Rock Creek Golf Course — consisted of former President George H.W. Bush, Arnold Palmer, Byron Nelson and PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem.

They had come to Arkansas to honor Stephens for his $5 million contribution that helped start The First Tee program nationally. The goal was to get more children involved in the sport and teach them life lessons along the way.

The First Tee of Central Arkansas became a model program for the country.

Jack Stephens was among the most successful business figures in Arkansas during the 20th century, joining his older brother Witt in earning Stephens Inc. a spot among the nation’s largest investment banks.

Jack Stephens also became an icon in the world of golf even though he didn’t begin playing the sport seriously until he was 36.

Because of his many business connections, Stephens was invited to join the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia in 1962. I had the honor of working with him closely for a year after I moved back to Arkansas from Washington, D.C., in late 1989. I learned that he wasn’t one for social events, small talk or society climbers. That’s why the story his son Warren told when Jack Stephens was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2000 rang so true.

According to Warren, his father had walked out of a boring social gathering at Augusta. He was walking alone along the course when someone spoke to him. The man who spoke was sitting on the porch of a cabin overlooking the course. A conversation ensued. That conversation led to a friendship between Jack Stephens and the founder of the Augusta National Golf Club, Bobby Jones.

In 1975, Stephens became a member of the executive committee at Augusta.

In 1991, he became only the fourth chairman in the history of the club. He served in that role until 1998.

After turning over the duties of chairman to Hootie Johnson, Stephens was named chairman emeritus.

Las Vegas-based writer Jack Sheehan said this about Jack Stephens: “Most golfers recognize Stephens as the soft-spoken gentleman with a buttery Southern drawl who presided over Butler Cabin ceremonies from 1992-98, including Tiger Woods’ historic 12-stroke win in 1997, the Nick Faldo-Greg Norman drama of ’96 and Ben Crenshaw’s emotional ‘win it for Harvey Penick’ triumph in 1995. One of the few structures allowed on the grounds at Augusta is the Stephens Cabin, a naming privilege that put Jack in company with Bobby Jones, Cliff Roberts and President Dwight Eisenhower.

“When Tiger shot 270 to win by 12 strokes, the word spread quickly that the members would try to Tiger-proof the course. Stephens didn’t seem in a particular rush. When someone asked what he’d do if Tiger were to shoot even lower scores in coming years, Jack replied, ‘I suppose we’ll anoint him.”’

At the time of the 2001 First Tee dedication ceremony in Little Rock, Byron Nelson was 89. The winner of an unprecedented 11 consecutive PGA tournaments in 1945, Nelson had lived a lot of golf history. Yet he didn’t hesitate to say on that day: “I don’t know anybody who has done for golf what Jack Stephens has.”

Warren Stephens said on the day of the dedication: “Anybody who has ever spent any time with my father knows that golf is important in Dad’s life. But to know that you also have to understand that he was somewhat a late arrival to the game. Unlike these young people who will enjoy the Jack Stephens Youth Golf Academy and the opportunities that will come with it, Dad didn’t start playing until he was 36 years old. He grew up in a time and a place where golf literally was unthinkable. But I think Dad would agree that golf is a great teacher of life. And that’s why Dad firmly believes in exposing young people early on to golf and to the lessons golf teaches.

“It has been said that golf mirrors the virtues that society desires — integrity, honor, respect, rules, discipline. I think all of those traits can be applied when I talk about my father. And I think all of those traits are what we’re exposing young people to when we get them interested in golf.”

When the First Tee of Central Arkansas celebrated its 10th anniversary in May 2011, former President George W. Bush was there. He serves as the honorary chairman of The First Tee, a role in which his father served when the program began in 1997.

First Tee has now reached more than 5 million children across the country.

George W. Bush took part in 2011 in the dedication of a garden area at the Little Rock complex to honor Warren Stephens and his wife Harriet for their continued support. Warren Stephens has hosted events at his internationally recognized Alotian Club west of Little Rock featuring Woods, Palmer, Crenshaw and Phil Mickelson among others. Proceeds from the events went to local charities, including The First Tee of Central Arkansas.

Finchem is the person who first approached Jack Stephens to talk about The First Tee.

“We initially went to Jack for advice on the startup,” Finchem said in an interview several years ago. “We weren’t asking for money. But Jack’s grant really got us started in a big way. … Jack Stephens was more important than any other individual in moving this program forward.”

Jack Stephens once told a reporter: “Golf is a great teacher in life. The skills needed to master this game are the same skills needed to master life, a life full of unseen obstacles and excitement.”

He also said this on a regular basis: “There are only two pleasures associated with money — making it and giving it away.”

His gift to The First Tee bears fruit each day just off South University Avenue in Little Rock.

Because of past Stephens family support, a number of Arkansans think that The First Tee of Central Arkansas doesn’t need their support. They think it’s only for rich kids. And they don’t realize they can play there as adults.

Here’s how writer Jim Harris put it in a column for Sporting Life Arkansas: “The game of golf at First Tee is not just about putting a little white ball into a little hole. I know how hard these people are working to make golf available to kids in families of all incomes. These folks not only teach golf, they pass along life lessons in the same way Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts do — developing citizens with strong character when they become adults.

“Partly because it was built so nicely by the Stephens’ largesse, some people have viewed First Tee as an elitist place for country club kids to play. And just the same, some of the well-to-do families have thought of First Tee as geared only to more impoverished families in the area. In truth, its charter directed the First Tee to focus first on impoverished families, minorities, children with disabilities, children of military families and girls. And it does that.

“To me, though, First Tee can be better described as a perfect place for the family, any family, no matter the financial status, where bonds between parent and child, or brother and sister, can be better formed. A full-size nine-hole course with easily some of the best holes anywhere in Arkansas offers a quick getaway from any age player at a ridiculously low greens fee. A nine-hole, par-three course presents a learning facility for the smallest of golfers as well as a superb practice area for the adult player to hone the short game.

“More than 2,000 children are participating in a range of First Tee offerings, from camps to daily classes. There’s still plenty of opportunity for golfers of all ages to play there. … It continues to be a secret to many of the city’s 25 to 85-year-old golfers.”

“The First Tee of Central Arkansas is a model for establishing public and private partnerships that contribute to the well-being of the community,” says Joe Louis Barrow Jr., the chief executive officer of The First Tee. “The First Tee is committed to being a force for good in this society, and our programs are proven to have a positive impact on young people. We’re proud of the tremendous growth of The First Tee of Central Arkansas.”

The program emphasizes nine core values — honesty, perseverance, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, judgment, responsibility and courtesy.

“Golf is just a way for us to teach young people skills that can be applied to their lives off the course,” says Laura Nix, the executive director of The First Tee of Central Arkansas. “Our goal is to teach children the nine core values that are inherent to the game of golf and then show them how to transfer those values to their everyday lives.”

The First Tee of Central Arkansas is trying to raise $150,000 to celebrate the fact that it has been around for 15 years now. For more information, go to www.thefirstteear.org or call (501) 562-4653.

 

Post to Twitter

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.

Post to Twitter