Archive for the ‘Building Arkansas’ Category

Cycling in the Delta

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Solomon at 100

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s right: The Mississippi Blues Trail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post to Twitter

Along U.S. Highway 67

Tuesday, July 12th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Post to Twitter

Cotton country: Part 3

Tuesday, July 5th, 2016

It was an invitation I couldn’t turn down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider these facts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post to Twitter