Archive for the ‘Building Arkansas’ Category

Spring at Couchwood

Thursday, April 20th, 2017

It’s time for lunch, but Elizabeth Dober is in no hurry to eat.

She’s pointing to framed black-and-white photos on the walls of the main lodge at Couchwood, the retreat built by Arkansas Power & Light Co. founder Harvey Couch on the shores of Lake Catherine.

Dober is particularly fascinated by a photo of Herbert Hoover that was taken in September 1927 when Couchwood was new.

The Great Flood of 1927 was ongoing, and Arkansas was one of the states hit the hardest. Hoover had run unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920. President Warren G. Harding later appointed him commerce secretary, and President Calvin Coolidge asked him to lead the federal response to the 1927 flood.

“In 1927, the Mississippi reclaimed three-quarters of its flood plain, devastating Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana,” writes historian John Barry. “The statistics recounting the damage are staggering. At its widest, the river created a vast inland sea more than 75 miles across. One could travel the normally dry 70 miles from Vicksburg to Monroe, La., by boat. Not counting the flooding of parts of cities as large as Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, just along the lower river alone, the homes of more than 920,000 people were damaged. The nation’s population at the time was only 120 million.

“Roughly 1 percent — perhaps more — of the entire population of the country was flooded out of their homes; 330,000 were rescued by boat from rooftops, trees, levee crowns and second stories. Hundreds of thousands of homes and commercial buildings were destroyed. No one knows the death toll — the Red Cross claimed it was only 246 but the Weather Bureau said 500, while a professional disaster expert estimated the dead in Mississippi alone at 1,000.

“But the biggest impact of the flood was less on individual communities that were inundated than on America itself. Far more than any other natural disaster, the 1927 Mississippi River flood altered the course of American history. It did this in four chief ways: It revised environmental management, propelled a dark horse to the presidency, altered the political landscape for African-Americans and expanded the role of government in crises.”

Barry writes that the 1927 flood “made Herbert Hoover president of the United States. An enormously wealthy engineer, Hoover developed and owned mines and oilfields in America, Russia, China, Australia, South America and Africa. But for all his wealth, he had no political base. How could he? Hoover had left the United States after graduating Stanford and did not return until the United States entered World War I. He had not even voted in a presidential election until 1920. Nonetheless he wanted to be president. A logistical genius, he had organized American food production and distribution during World War I and fed much of Europe in the immediate aftermath of the war. John Maynard Keynes said he was ‘the only man who emerged from the ordeal (of the peace conference) with an enhanced reputation.’

“He became known as the Great Humanitarian. Using his own wealth, he sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1920. His campaign was mocked, and he received no support. But President Warren G. Harding named him secretary of commerce, and in 1927, President Calvin Coolidge put him in charge of the response to the flood.

“The flood was the biggest story of the year and it lasted for weeks, through several crests, the rescue of populations and recovery planning. Hoover and his staff worked diligently to exploit the coverage; no newspaper was too small. Hoover personally communicated with weekly papers from Arizona and Texas to Washington state, Nebraska and Indiana. In evaluating his strategy, the present-day political commentator James Carville concluded that ‘Hoover had a better press operation than any politician I know today.’ Routinely, the press hailed Hoover as a hero and a savior; a California paper proclaimed, ‘He is the ablest and most efficient American in public life. … In personal fitness for the presidency there is no other American, even remotely, in Mr. Hoover’s class.’

“Coverage like that prompted Hoover to confide to a friend, ‘I shall be the nominee, probably. It is practically inevitable.'”

Hoover indeed captured the presidency in 1928.

Those who are familiar with Arkansas history won’t be surprised to learn that Harvey Couch was among Hoover’s confidants.

Born in 1877 near the Arkansas-Louisiana border in the Columbia County community of Calhoun, Couch took a job at age 21 as a mail clerk for the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway and quickly moved up the ladder.

Writing for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, Patricia Laster described Couch as the man who “helped bring Arkansas from an agricultural economy in the early 20th century to more of a balance between agriculture and industry. His persuasiveness with investors from New York and his ingenuity, initiative and energy had a positive effect on Arkansas’ national reputation among businessmen. He ultimately owned several railroad lines and a telephone company and was responsible for what became the state’s largest utility, AP&L.”

Laster wrote that Couch’s first job away from the family farm was “to fire the boiler of a local cotton gin’s gas steam engine and bring it up to the required pressure. He earned 50 cents a day. While waiting to hear about his application to the Railway Mail Service, he became a drugstore clerk. His hard work and honesty prompted his boss to assign him the additional task of collecting overdue accounts.

“At age 21, he was hired as a mail clerk on the St. Louis-Texarkana route of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway and was soon transferred to head clerk on the St. Louis Southwestern Railway. At a water stop, Couch noticed a construction crew raising a pole — not for the telegraph line but as part of a long-distance telephone system. After questioning the linemen, he saw a chance to help bring phone service to places like Magnolia. He paid a colleague $50 to exchange routes so he could clerk the Magnolia-north Louisiana route. Enlisting his brother Pete as crew leader to move and set up poles and a postmaster in Louisiana to become a partner, Couch began the North Louisiana Telephone Co. The line expanded, and Couch bought his partner’s share of the business.

“Couch’s expanding telephone system took him to Athens, La., where he met Jessie Johnson. They married on Oct. 4, 1904. The couple had five children. In 1911, Couch sold NLTC, which had 1,500 miles of line and 50 exchanges in four states, to Southwestern Bell for more than $1 million. Too young to retire, he was determined to build another company. In 1914, at the age of 35, he bought from Jack Wilson the only electric transmission line in the state, which ran 22 miles between Malvern and Arkadelphia. The system ran only at night.

“Sixteen years later, bolstered by hydroelectric dams on the Ouachita River, the company that Couch named Arkansas Power & Light had 3,000 miles of line serving cities and towns in 63 of the state’s 75 counties as well as 3,000 farmers. The company, now called Entergy, serves 2.4 million customers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.”

Couch went on to create Louisiana Power & Light Co. and Mississippi Power & Light Co. He built the country’s first modern gas-fueled power plant near Monroe, La.

On the Ouachita River, he built Remmel and Carpenter dams, forming Lake Hamilton and Lake Catherine (which was named after his only daughter).

His main home and business offices were in Pine Bluff. Laster wrote that the only luxury he allowed himself was Couchwood.

The famous humorist Will Rogers was among those who visited Couchwood. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dropped by in 1936 while he was in Arkansas to help the state celebrate its centennial.

The compound covers 170 acres and remains in the Couch family. Elizabeth Dober is the granddaughter of Harvey Couch. Her father was Harvey Jr., who went by Don. She lives in Little Rock and has helped manage Couchwood for the past couple of decades.

Dober’s mother was from a prominent old south Louisiana sugar-growing family, the Levert family. The Levert Cos., established in 1915, still own a planation mansion near St. Martinville, La., known as the St. John House. The house, constructed of Louisiana cypress and surrounded by giant live oak trees, was built about 1828 by a wealthy planter named Alexandre DeClouet. Jean Batiste Levert and Louis Bush of New Orleans acquired the plantation and the home in July 1885. In February 1887, Bush sold his interest to Levert. The plantation has been owned by the Levert interests since that date.

After graduating from Virginia Military Institute and the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, Don Couch went to work for a bank in New Orleans and met his wife in the Crescent City.

In a 2014 story in the Levert family newsletter, Dober said: “I sometimes do feel I am married to Couchwood. … I arrange for repairmen such as plumbers and electricians, but a caretaker nearby meets with them. … I pay all the bills, fill out tax forms and get the paperwork ready for the CPA. I really enjoy the work at Couchwood because I feel like I am helping to preserve it.”

When Arkansas Business devoted much of a 2013 issue to Entergy’s 100th birthday, Dober told the publication: “Electric lights, bridges and promoting Arkansas were among grandfather’s favorite things.”

Dober refers to her grandfather as Daddy Couch, though she doesn’t remember him. Couch died of heart disease in 1941 — two years before Dober was born — in a house named Little Pine Bluff at Couchwood. Following funeral services in the city of Pine Bluff, a special train took his body to Magnolia to be buried adjacent to his parents. Couch’s private train car — named Magnolia — is now on the Couchwood grounds.

Hoover was meeting with Couch in 1927 because Gov. John Martineau had appointed Couch as the flood relief director for Arkansas. The Great Flood of 1927 was followed by the drought of 1930-31. Couch was appointed state relief chairman for that event and worked in Washington to help Arkansas obtain more than $20 million in federal loans for farmers.

“Hoover appointed Couch to the seven-member board for the president’s newly formed Reconstruction Finance Corp., which operated from 1931-56,” Laster wrote. “The RFC was the president’s way of getting the government involved. The new program’s mission was to strengthen confidence, facilitate exports, protect and aid agriculture, make temporary advances to industries and stimulate employment. Couch was one of seven directors of the RFC, and he moved to Washington, D.C., for three years. He served as supervisor of the public works section, overseeing budgets and encouraging the building of water and sewage systems, bridges and electric lines. He and Jesse Jones were the only Hoover appointees to stay on after Roosevelt was elected.”

“Look at Hoover with that tie on,” Dober says while admiring the 1927 photo. “They say he would go fishing in a coat and tie. Daddy Couch offered to take him fishing when he was here, but it was a Sunday and Hoover said, ‘The Hoovers don’t fish on Sundays.'”

There also are framed photos in the main lodge at Couchwood of well-known figures who have visited the compound in the decades since Couch’s death, including former U.S. Sens. Dale Bumpers and David Pryor.

During the 1930s, Harvey Couch would host what he called the Annual Round-Up, bringing together business and government leaders from across the region. A framed program from the March 1938 event gives these directions: “When you come in the big gate, forget all your troubles. Be sure to sign the register. Couchwood is proud of its guests. Go to bed when you like and arise when you please. At meals, take as many helpings as you desire. If you don’t see what you want, ask for it. Stay as long as you like and return soon. Everything is off the record.”

The main lodge has eight rooms and can sleep more than 20 people. A second house named Calhoun was built soon afterward. Its claim to fame is that visitors can fish off the porch. Little Pine Bluff was the next to be constructed, and Remmelwood (Couch’s only daughter, Catherine, married Pratt Remmel) was built after that.

The other four Couch children were boys — Johnson Olin Couch, Don Couch, Kirke Couch and Bill Couch. Catherine Couch Remmel died in January 2006 at age 87, the last of her generation. A fifth generation of the Couch family now enjoys Couchwood with the largest crowds traditionally turning up for the Fourth of July.

When Harvey Couch was presiding over the compound, rumors would spread about the identities of important figures visiting Couchwood. Time magazine reported one year that two visitors had arrived in a plane that landed on Lake Catherine.

The main lodge was designed by John Parks Almand of Little Rock, who was part of the team that designed Little Rock Central High School. Following the school’s completion in 1927, the American Institute of Architects described it as “the most beautiful high school in America.” Almand also designed the Medical Arts Building in downtown Hot Springs, which was the tallest building in the state for almost 30 years after opening in 1930.

“Almand worked in a variety of architectural styles during his 50-year career, including Arts and Crafts, Art Deco, Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival, Gothic Revival and California Mission,” the Encyclopedia of Arkansas said of the architect. “A stickler for detail, Almand recommended the finest materials to his clients and required a high level of workmanship from builders. On more than one occasion, he told a contractor to tear out and replace work that he deemed inferior.”

At Couchwood, Almand used red cedar logs shipped in by train from Oregon.

Harvey Couch later hired sculptor Dionicio Rodriguez to design planters, outdoor seating and even a drink cooler disguised as a tree stump. Rodriguez, a Mexican native, is probably best known for his work on the Old Mill in North Little Rock. Developer Justin Matthews brought Rodriguez to Arkansas in 1932 to work in Matthews’ Lakewood housing development.

“Couchwood offers the best collection of his work in the domestic sculpture category,” said the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Helpers built concrete footings for his sculptures, and the underpinnings were made with reinforcing bars, rods, mesh screen wire and rubble, held together with a rough coat of concrete. Metal materials were bound together with wire, not welded. Working outdoors, the sculptor himself applied the surface coat of smooth concrete or ‘neat’ cement, a term for pure Portland cement. To imitate nature, varied textures were created using his hands, forks, spoons or handmade tools. Secretive about his methodology, the nomadic Rodriguez made no preliminary sketches or drawings and did not record the ingredients of the chemical washes used to tint his sculptures.”

Dober delights in showing off Couchwood and talking about “Daddy Couch.”

On display are Indian artifacts uncovered when Lake Catherine was constructed in the 1920s, a wall devoted to AP&L history and even the plaque presented on Harvey Couch Day in Pine Bluff in 1923.

Massachusetts may have the Kennedy compound on Cape Cod, but Arkansas has Couchwood on Lake Catherine.

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The wisdom of Solomon

Friday, April 14th, 2017

Arkansas lost one of its most important civic leaders last month when David Solomon died in Helena at age 100. He was among the last of the Delta Jews.

The first Jews arrived in that booming Mississippi River town in the 1840s. A Torah was borrowed from a congregation at Cincinnati in 1846 to use for the high holidays. In 1867, 65 people formed Congregation Beth El. Now, 150 years later, the era of Jews living and thriving in the lower Mississippi River Delta nears its conclusion.

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

David Solomon began the first grade at a Catholic school known as Sacred Heart, which was operated by the Sisters of Nazareth. The nuns quickly advanced him from the first grade to the fourth grade due to his intelligence. Solomon liked 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.

Solomon received his bachelor’s degree from Washington University at St. Louis and his law degree from Harvard. He applied to be a tax lawyer at a large firm in Memphis. When he wasn’t chosen, he came home to Helena to practice law.

His wife, Miriam, was the daughter of Charles Rayman, who operated Helena Wholesale Co. The couple had been married 69 years at the time of Miriam’s death in 2011.

During the first half of the 20th century, the Delta was perhaps the greatest American melting pot outside a major city. There are few towns in Arkansas with as colorful a past as Helena. A historic marker was even placed there by the Mississippi Blues Commission to commemorate this Arkansas city’s place in the history of the blues. The marker reads in part: “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 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.”

The Arkansas Delta is like many parts of rural America, a place that in some ways never made the transition from the agricultural to the industrial age, much less the technological era. Sharecroppers moved from the cotton fields of the South to the steel mills and automobile factories of the Upper Midwest. They deserted towns such as Helena for the promise of better jobs in cities such as Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit.

With the loss of thousands of sharecroppers across the region came a loss of business for Jewish merchants and professionals. It’s common during the holidays each December to see visitors in rural east Arkansas whose automobiles sport license plates from Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. They’re the children and grandchildren of those who left the Delta when their services were no longer needed due to the mechanization of agriculture.

David Solomon witnessed that Delta history firsthand. When Temple Beth El closed in 2006 with fewer than 20 members remaining, David and Miriam Solomon began hosting Friday night services at their home. In December 2009, the Jewish news service JTA distributed an article about those services in which 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 back 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.”

David Solomon’s death marked more than the loss of a legendary lawyer. We live in an increasingly urbanized state in which the majority of counties are losing population. The small-town lawyers who are leaders in their communities — often serving in the Arkansas Legislature or on prominent state boards (Solomon, for instance, served on the Arkansas Highway Commission) — are becoming harder to find.

I think back to 1985 when I was living in my hometown of Arkadelphia and received a call from H.W. “Bill” McMillan, who had practiced law there for decades and was among the top civic leaders in south Arkansas. He told me that he didn’t expect to live long, handed me a file and asked me to write his obituary in advance. I still consider his request to be one of the premier honors of my writing career. That’s because McMillan was a giant in my community. Four generations of McMillans practiced law in Arkadelphia, beginning with Bill McMillan’s grandfather, Henry, who started practicing before the Civil War and died in 1910 at age 80.

Like Bill McMillan in Arkadelphia, David Solomon was a giant in Helena. He practiced law from his office on Cherry Street until 2015. He was honored by the Arkansas Bar Foundation for 75 years of active practice.

When I speak to civic clubs in towns across Arkansas, I’m often struck by how much smaller the attendance is than it was two decades ago. At some of these clubs, most members are retired, preferring to talk about the past rather than the future.

Where are the Bill McMillans and the David Solomons of the future, the small-town lawyers who will make a difference in their communities and the state?

I hope they’re still out there.

___

All three of David and Miriam Solomon’s sons were highly successful.

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.

Lafe Solomon was 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.

At the service honoring David Solomon last month at Beth El, Rayman Solomon and longtime Little Rock attorney John P. Gill spoke.

Here are their remarks:

John P. Gill

It is a privilege and a great honor to stand in this place, which to me is still sacred. To stand under the Star of David in the glass dome above is a thrilling experience. Look up at that star that was so much a part of the lives of Miriam and David Solomon.

I arise to say that the legacy of David Solomon is alive. There is no death to greatness. As the rabbi said, a good name lives forever.

In the “Twelfth Night,” Shakespeare wrote: “Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness.” David achieved greatness by living a life suggested in an old Methodist hymn that says “no one can serve God and despise another.” I’m not sure David paid much attention to Methodist singing, but his life followed that principle.

Except for those who attended Vanderbilt and Rutgers, many people will say that Harvard is the finest law school in America. It has produced justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. It has produced White House counsel. It has produced great lawyers on Wall Street. And it has produced a brilliant and dedicated lawyer on Cherry Street. David Solomon brought Harvard Law to Cherry Street.

When Helena called for courage, Helena turned to Mr. Solomon. When Helena called for compassion in action, Helena turned to Mr. Solomon. When Helena called for trust, Helena turned to Mr. Solomon.

It is not a play on words to say that it was the wisdom of Solomon that made him so special. And not just in Helena. People beg the governor of Arkansas to sit on the Arkansas Highway Commission, and the governor of Arkansas begged David to serve on the commission. David never asked for that job. When the largest bank in the state almost went under, David was asked to go to Little Rock and help revive it. But David was dedicated to this community and always came back to Cherry Street, where he brought Harvard Law to businesses and the needy alike. With all of his accolades and honors, it was his legal work for clients who were too poor to pay him that impressed me the most. No one knows how many chickens and sacks of okra he took for fees.

Today’s lawyers take an oath before the Arkansas Supreme Court that was written long before David began to practice law on Cherry Street 75 years ago. But the oath sounds as though it was modeled after the life of David Solomon. Part of the oath says: “I will not reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the impoverished, the defenseless or the oppressed. I will endeavor always to advance the cause of justice and to defend and to keep inviolate the rights of all persons whose trust is conferred upon me as an attorney at law.”

Last Sunday at an African-American church in this community, it was announced that Mr. Solomon had died. One by one, they stood and said, “He helped me.”

Until the very last days of his practice — indeed on the day his office closed — there were client files for the impoverished, the defenseless and the oppressed. Those files were, and are today, a silent sentinel to the greatness of David Solomon.

Rayman Solomon

“Is Lawyer Solomon there?”

This was the question asked David, Lafe or me when we answered the phone at home during our childhood. The caller was a client or a client’s relative, and they were in distress and needed help. It didn’t matter whether it was dinnertime or bedtime, my father was always ready to counsel them. In thinking about how to describe my father’s life today, I could come up with no better description than his clients: Lawyer Solomon. I believe it captures his essential being and what he valued most.

My father was a lawyer’s lawyer who loved his profession. His love of the law began at Harvard Law School following his graduation from Washington University at St. Louis. He was a brilliant student who had finished high school at 16. He flourished at Harvard and enjoyed both the educational and social life in Boston. He returned home to practice in Helena in 1939. In an office on Cherry Street, he practiced law for 76 years, which appears to be an Arkansas record. His practice was interrupted only by his service in World War II. As a solo practitioner, he handled every type of case, both civil and criminal.

By any measure, my father had tremendous success as an attorney. One of the state’s top trial lawyers, he was invited to join the American College of Trial Lawyers. He was twice selected to serve as a special justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court when the justices all had to recuse themselves. He served in all offices of the Arkansas Bar Association except for president, and he turned down that honor.

There are many more honors and awards and successes I could mention, but what I would like to emphasize is that he was the embodiment of professionalism. That term has become synonymous with civility among lawyers, which he certainly was throughout his career. However, it means more. Professionalism requires mentoring of young lawyers, which he constantly did. It was his way of paying forward the training he received from the two generations of lawyers in practice when he entered the profession. Professionalism also requires public service and pro bono activities. My father did both of these without hesitation. For years he represented pro bono Helena’s hospital and then the Helena Hospital Foundation, which recognized his service when he retired two years ago by naming the Solomon Auditorium at its headquarters. He also served as a delegate to the 1969-70 Arkansas Constitutional Convention.

My father never sought political office. The only time I can remember overt political activity was when a racist ran for Supreme Court justice and my father led the east Arkansas campaign of his successful opponent. He served for 10 years on the Highway Commission, the last two of which he was the chairman. Anyone who knows Arkansas knows that is a political position, but David Pryor states in his autobiography that my father’s appointment was a political compromise. Gov. Pryor was able to appoint someone no one could object to and avoid a fight between two people who were campaigning for the position. However, he was no stranger to politicians. My mother used to love to tell the story of their invitation to the opening reception of the Holocaust Museum in Washington. At the reception, my mother wasn’t feeling well and after touring the room, my father said, “Let’s go. I don’t know anyone here.” Just as they started to leave, “Ruffles and Flourishes” played, the room divided and my parents were standing where the foreign leaders entered the room. The last person to enter was President Clinton. As he passed them, he said, “Hello, David. Hello, Miriam.” My mother said to my father: “At least if only one person here knows you, it’s the president of the United States.”

Let me turn to my father as a “Solomon.’ He was very proud of his family, and his family was proud of him. Until last Thursday there had been a Solomon living in Helena for almost 170 years, and my father and his sister, Hannah, were the second generation born here. My grandfather, David, was a farmer and merchant who had five brothers and two sisters. They shared in all things and took care of each other. As my Aunt Hannah and their father used to say, my father was “Mrs. Solomon’s only son” and he was, in fact, the only male of his generation. Like his father and uncles, he took care of all of the relatives. He managed the legal and financial affairs of his widowed aunts, his sister and all of his cousins.

In 1942, my father married Miriam Rayman. She had grown up down the street from him. They both attended Washington University, but they did not really date until my father was in the Army and my mother was working as an occupational therapist in Chicago. After his discharge from the service, my father thought about moving to Memphis to practice. But my mother was pregnant with my older brother, David, and all of their parents and the Solomon uncles wanted them back in Helena. So back they came.

My parents had a 69-year partnership in everything except law, but even there my mother was willing to let my father know what she thought he should do. Neither of my parents were conventional grandparents. My mother was the one who was emotionally probing. It was not that my father did not care or did not pay attention. Quite the contrary. He took great pride in all three of our lives and careers, and those of our wives — Nancy, Carol and Cam. And, of course, he loved hearing about the accomplishments of his grandchildren — Catherine, Hannah, Will, Claire and Jess. He welcomed their spouses into the family with open arms. Both of my parents were wonderful storytellers. They instilled in us the importance and the meaning of family through the stories of the Raymans and the Solomons, which they often told.

We are gathered here in this wonderful building with its magnificent dome with a Star of David at its center, which served as Temple Beth El from 1914-2006 when the remaining Helena Jews could no longer afford the upkeep. The Solomon family was one of the original organizers of the congregation in 1867. My father and mother were instrumental in leading the congregation over their adult lifetimes. My father served many years as president of the congregation and warden of the cemetery. As the Jewish community dwindled, my parents’ devotion to that community did not wane. They opened their house for services and organized holiday gatherings. My father was the last remaining lifelong resident of the Helena Jewish community.

My father also was concerned with the well-being of the entire community. He saw the problems of the Delta as the loss of economic opportunity in the area. Whether in his work as a director of First National Bank or in his volunteer service on various commissions and boards, he sought to bring industry and jobs to Helena and the region. One of his favorite stories concerned the time that a tugboat captain, Jim Walden, showed up at his office to inquire about using land on the river that our family owned. Jim asked my father how much the rent would be. My father told him that he should start his business and if it was successful they would talk about rent. In recognition of his assistance for many years, Helena Marine named its new tug the MV David Solomon. To honor my father’s tireless efforts on behalf of Helena, the community gave him an award dinner more than a decade ago. So many people have stopped David, Lafe and me over the past several days to say how much they will miss my father and then describe how he had helped them.

I would like to mention several characteristics of my father. I have noted that he was incredibly smart. But he also had the most disciplined mind I have ever encountered. At the same time that he had a major law practice, he managed a family cotton business, oversaw a family farm and was involved in banking and other civic projects. He had laser-like focus on whatever he had to do and always managed everything flawlessly. Of course, no description of my father would be complete without commenting on his bow ties. He explained that after having to wear long ties in the Army for three years, he vowed never to wear a long tie again. As David and Lafe can attest, among the hundreds of ties in his closet, there isn’t one long tie.

Finally, people have commented on my father’s wit and his not suffering fools. David, Nancy, Carol and I visited with him three weeks ago, and Lafe and Cam had been here a week before that. It was clear that he was slipping away and had good days and bad. The day after we arrived, he told stories and was thoroughly engaged. The next day, he imagined he was in a moving car. When we told him he was safely in his bed, he got agitated and told us to stop the car. I then decided to go with it and told him I was trying but could not do it. He looked up and said, “I’ve raised three idiot sons. They don’t know how to stop a car.” Clearly, he was not that delusional.

Later that day he said something to Carol and Nancy, and Nancy said: “David, you can see things that others can’t.” He replied with a grin, “That has been true all my life.”

David and Nancy, Lafe and Cam, Carol and I and the grandchildren would like to thank a wonderful group of caregivers who have taken care of my father the past two years. Lelia Johnson, Loyce Corbitt, Peggy Henson, Gretchen Ferebee, Jason Odle and Tommy Gause have provided him care, entertainment and love that made his last years so comfortable.

Several years ago, I saw a son introduce his attorney father for an award. The son ended by declaring, “I can only say that if I ever needed a lawyer, I would call my father.” I would echo that but also say that I could not imagine having a more wonderful father

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Bouncing back in Cleveland County

Tuesday, March 28th, 2017

The Cleveland County Courthouse in downtown Rison is a graceful structure, designed by Theodore Sanders and incorporating the Modern Renaissance and Classical Revival styles of architecture.

This courthouse deep in the pine woods of south Arkansas was completed in 1911 following a lengthy, contentious battle over where the Cleveland County seat should be located. The county was formed in 1873 by the Reconstruction-era Arkansas Legislature from parts of Bradley, Dallas, Jefferson and Lincoln counties and named Dorsey County in honor of Republican U.S. Sen. Stephen Dorsey.

Dorsey, the son of Irish immigrants, was born on a farm in Vermont and later moved with his family to Oberlin, Ohio. He served in the Union Army, returned to Ohio after the Civil War, founded a tool company and became active in Republican politics.

Dorsey came to Arkansas in 1871 when he was elected president of the Arkansas Central Railway Co. From his base in Helena, he took advantage of legislation that allowed railroad companies to sell government-backed bonds to finance expansion. The Arkansas Legislature chose him as the state’s junior senator in 1872. Dorsey served until 1878 and then moved to New Mexico, where he was plagued by lawsuits concerning his business dealings.

Suzanne Ristow writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Dorsey was quickly accepted into the Arkansas political realm, at the time characterized by its carpetbag politics. The Arkansas Legislature elected Dorsey as its junior senator in the 1872 elections, and Dorsey resigned from the Arkansas Central. … During the last two years of his term, Dorsey chaired the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia. During the Brooks-Baxter War, Dorsey took the side of Joseph Brooks. Elisha Baxter’s success in retaining the office of governor marked an end to Dorsey’s political future in Arkansas, and he did not seek re-election to the Senate in 1878.

“However Dorsey remained active for a time in national politics. In 1876, he was made a member of the Republican National Committee. In 1880, when the Republicans nominated James Garfield for president and Chester Arthur for vice president, Dorsey became the secretary of the Republican National Committee. His reputation was tarnished, though, by a scandal involving the U.S. Postal Service, in which Dorsey and his partners were accused of defrauding the government out of $412,000. Though he was eventually found not guilty, the cost of his defense and the damage to his reputation all but destroyed Dorsey’s political and financial ambitions.

“After his term in the Senate, Dorsey moved to New Mexico, where he raised cattle. He also owned a home in Denver and invested money in mining. Although he named one New Mexico town for himself and another for his son, Clayton, neither community prospered. During his later years, Dorsey was plagued by more lawsuits, some of which were related to the railroad shares he had sold in Arkansas in the 1870s. Dorsey moved to Los Angeles, where he died on March 20, 1916.”

With former Confederates back in control of the Arkansas Legislature, the name of Dorsey County was changed to Cleveland County in 1885 to honor President Grover Cleveland. A fire destroyed the courthouse at Toledo in 1889, and residents of Rison, Kingsland and New Edinburg sought the county seat. Following two contested elections, the Arkansas Supreme Court finally named Rison the county seat in April 1891.

A frame courthouse was constructed in 1892 at a cost of $8,000. It had become dilapidated by the time the 1911 courthouse was built for $65,000. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in April 1977.

Danny Groshong writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “An octagonal dome roof overlooks the town, with a clock tower rising 20 feet above it. The clock has four faces and is surrounded by Tuscan pilasters, which also cover the front façade of the building. The four corners of the central wing are marked with quoins (masonry blocks placed at the junction of two walls), creating an image of permanence and strength. The front portico is supported by Tuscan columns made of limestone. The interior looks much the same in the 21st century as it did when it was built. The floor is made of brightly colored ceramic tiles while the original pressed tin ceilings are in exceptionally good condition.”

Despite this stately anchor in downtown Rison, Britt Talent, publisher of the Cleveland County Herald, noticed something in 2012 after the Fordyce Bank & Trust Co. acquired the Bank of Rison.

Talent says: “The departure of the Bank of Rison was going to leave my newspaper office, a hardware store and a law office as the only businesses on my block of Main Street.”

Talent published an article asking people to attend a meeting on March 1, 2012, to discuss the future of downtown. About 20 people showed up, enough for Talent to call a second meeting two weeks later.

“Our whole idea was to generate traffic to downtown Rison,” he says. “Once we had people coming on a regular basis, we hoped businesses would follow.”

An organization known as Rison Shine Downtown Development was formed, and a Christmas parade was held for the first time in many years.

“Despite it literally raining on the parade, there was a huge turnout,” Talent says. “I recall some people telling me it was the most people they had seen in downtown Rison in several years.”

The group later developed a small park on a vacant lot on Main Street that’s centered around a giant live oak tree. A restaurant was recruited for a vacant building adjacent to the park, a weekly farmers’ market was organized and an annual Halloween event was created. Almost 200 people showed up on the afternoon of July 11, 2013, for the dedication of the park. The crowds downtown for that year’s Halloween event were even larger.

“I don’t think anyone had any idea there would be that many people,” Talent says. “I estimated about 1,000 people showed up. The Dollar General practically sold out of candy that afternoon because no one came prepared for the crowd. I wasn’t expecting any sort of turnaround in the downtown area overnight. We’ve made a dent, but we still have a ways to go. I’m seeing more traffic downtown on a regular basis than I’ve seen in a while. Hopefully more people will see this progress and be willing to take a chance on opening a business.”

On the late Friday afternoon in February when Talent gave me a walking tour of downtown, a steady stream of people was heading into the Main Street Café adjacent to the small park built around the live oak tree. Meanwhile, the Rison Pharmacy has opened in a former bank building, the Rison Athletic Club has expanded its operation in the old City Pharmacy building and there was new construction downtown in 2016 for the first time in about 25 years with the completion of a banking facility and a floral shop.

The effort to spur activity in one of Arkansas’ least populous counties — Cleveland County had 8,689 residents in the 2010 census, almost 5,000 fewer people than lived there a century earlier — has spread to Kingsland, New Edinburg and Woodlawn.

Mark Peterson, a community development specialist for the University of Arkansas’ Cooperative Extension Service, spoke to Rison Shine members in February 2015 and urged them to expand their efforts across the country. A month later, Kickstart Cleveland County was born.

On the Friday night of my visit to Rison, people from all parts of the county gathered at the Cleveland County Fairgrounds to celebrate the initiative. During a conference in Little Rock last summer, the Cooperative Extension Service presented Kickstart Cleveland County with an award for having the top community development effort of its type in the state.

“There were several worthy candidates, but Kickstart Cleveland County’s strong record of accomplishments and community involvement throughout the county won the day,” Peterson says.

At a time when many rural counties across south and east Arkansas are losing population, Cleveland County has shown slow but steady growth. When Arkansans from other parts of the state think about Cleveland County at all, it’s likely because of the excellent deer hunting or the traditionally potent football program at Rison High School. But those who live in a county that claims both Johnny Cash and Paul “Bear” Bryant as natives understand that economic development in the 21st century is far different than it was several decades ago when it was all about trying to attract manufacturing facilities.

A recent story in the Cleveland County Herald noted: “Talent said Rison Shine still has a long way to go before realizing its ultimate goal of having a thriving downtown area. He said he and a few others have been kicking around the idea of having live music on the new deck at FBT Community Park on Friday nights during the late spring and summer. He said the group will also be considering ways to strengthen its existing events as well as ways to make downtown Rison more attractive.”

Across town, a group known as Friends of Pioneer Village is working to reinvigorate a Rison attraction.

The Cleveland County Herald reported: “The first priority was to replace the roof in the mercantile building, which had fallen in and was allowing rain to rot the interior walls and floors. This project was completed using donations given by residents and former residents of Rison who had close personal connections to the village.

“The Mt. Olivet Church building at the village was adopted by the Mt. Olivet Methodist Church at Calmer. Jimmie Boyd, a longtime church member, approached the congregation about financing the restoration and has since led the effort to repair the wooden floors inside the church and replace the porches and railings. The mercantile, which formerly served as the county clerk’s office, and the Mt. Olivet Church have been improved enough that about the only project left for them is exterior paint.”

Rison will host the South Arkansas Homesteading Conference this Friday and Saturday. The first conference was held April 5, 2014, at Pioneer Village. There were five sessions, and about 150 people attended.

“What really surprised me about that first conference was that we had visitors from 18 counties in Arkansas,” Talent says. “We had some from as far away as Jonesboro and Batesville.”

Here’s how the Cleveland County Herald describes the county’s homesteading brand: “When community development specialist Dr. Mark Peterson looks for ways to help a community grow and flourish, he says one of the first things he looks for is something unique about that community that separates it from every place else. For Rison and Cleveland County, he identified that asset early on: Its connection to the Arkansas Homesteading Conference.

“Peterson is a professor of community and economic development at the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension Service. He’s the founder of Breakthrough Solutions, an economic/community development program that leverages a community’s assets to create breakthroughs that can move them forward, sometimes in dramatic ways.

“Homesteading, as defined by Wikipedia, ‘is a lifestyle of self-sufficiency. It is characterized by subsistence agriculture, home preservation of foodstuffs, and it may or may not also involve the small-scale production of textiles, clothing and craftwork for household use or sale.’

“Peterson said the homesteading niche seemed like a natural fit for Cleveland County. In fact, he made Cleveland County one of the subjects for a branding workshop that was conducted at his statewide Breakthrough Solutions Conference in June 2015. Martin Thoma of Thoma Thoma in Little Rock led the workshop for Cleveland County. Thoma Thoma is a regional brand strategy and marketing communications firm with expertise in branding communities and destinations. The focus group working on the branding workshop for Cleveland County included dozens of community development professionals, elected officials and others from outside Cleveland County.

“After more than two hours of discussion, the group came up with the following brand idea: ‘America’s Homestead — Real. Simple. Life.’ Many of those who took part in the workshop said they felt like the brand was an accurate reflection of the rural culture and its connection with homesteading. The Kickstart Cleveland County steering committee presented the idea at one of its subsequent meetings, and the group voted to adopt the slogan as its official brand.”

Here’s how Peterson explains what’s happening in Cleveland County: “We realized the tremendous potential that comes with an excellent brand for a community, organization or business. Cleveland County was willing to participate as a pilot community. My sense is that it was a good fit for Cleveland County because it emphasizes strong values that most rural people readily embrace, and it would attract people to Cleveland County who would be good citizens and neighbors. To those who see this brand as too restrictive, a recent study revealed that when people come to visit a community because of the brand, they spend 70 percent of their time and money on other things not related to the brand.”

A key to economic development these days is creating a quality of life good enough that those natives who go elsewhere for college might return to start small businesses and raise their families. There may be fewer than 10,000 people in the county, but its business and civic leaders appear to have figured that out.

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The weekend drive

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy the view.

Admire the inside of the church.

Make sure to leave a small cash donation.

Have lunch nearby and perhaps bring home some Arkansas wine.

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

 

 

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A room with a view

Friday, March 3rd, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

To the south is the Army-Navy Hospital building.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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March in the Spa City

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

The month of March approaches.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s still so much potential there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It will be interesting to see if others follow.

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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.”

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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