Archive for the ‘Building Arkansas’ Category

Coach Broyles

Monday, August 14th, 2017

Frank Broyles wasn’t born and raised in Arkansas.

He hailed from Decatur, Ga., and his rich Southern accent was never replaced by an Arkansas twang. Yet he was one of us. Indeed, he was the best of us.

He moved to Fayetteville following just one season as the head coach at the University of Missouri.

Orville Henry wrote in the Arkansas Gazette the day after Broyles’ Dec. 7, 1957, hiring at the University of Arkansas: “Frank Broyles is the fastest walking, thinking, talking Southern boy I’ve ever run across, in or out of football. He charms the uninitiated with his complete candor and confidence and the rippling softness of his Dixie accent. And he possesses the pigskin technicians with the inside-outside mastery of his subject matter, which is basic football in general and the T formation attack in the specific. As of this hour, he embodies every answer to John Barnhill’s prayer.”

Barnhill, the Arkansas athletic director at the time, told Henry: “Frank is the only man from the outside who could come in and pull us all together toward what we’re after. We’ve lost no ground in the last three years, and we’re in good shape. Within a month I believe we’ll be a lot better than we were.”

Barnhill added: “Broyles convinced me that he wants to come to Arkansas and stay.”

Stay he did, for the next six decades.

National news had been dominated in that fall of 1957 by the Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis. That didn’t deter Broyles, who always would refer to the Arkansas coaching position as his dream job.

The desegregation crisis made Arkansas the subject of derision in other parts of the country. Arkansans had both a strong pride in the place they called home and a glaring inferiority complex.

Though Broyles wasn’t from here, he understood us.

He pledged his allegiance to Arkansas and never left.

It didn’t take Broyles long to build a football powerhouse. John Barnhill’s instincts had been correct.

As least among college football fans, Gov. Orval Faubus wasn’t the only well-known personality in Arkansas. We had Broyles, his shirttail flapping as he paced the sidelines on those glorious fall afternoons.

College Football News once ranked the top college football programs for the 1960s. The ranking was based on Associated Press polls. Alabama (coached by a native Arkansan, Paul “Bear” Bryant) was first in that decade. Arkansas and Texas were tied for second.

I was born in September 1959. Frank Broyles was the only Razorback football coach I knew until high school. Arkansas won several versions of the national championship in 1964, but that was the year my 9-year-old brother was killed in an accident. So the few memories I have of that year are of family tragedy, not college football.

The next year was different. I clearly remember that at the end of the 1965 season, as the Razorback winning streak reached 22 games, my parents announced that they would take my older sister and me to Dallas to see Arkansas tangle with LSU in the Cotton Bowl.

I remember the trip down U.S. Highway 67 from our Arkadelphia home to Dallas. I remember the stop at The Alps restaurant in Mt. Pleasant, Texas, for lunch. I remember staying in downtown Dallas at the Baker Hotel.

And I remember wanting to see Frank Broyles in person, which I finally did.

I got into trouble with my father on that trip when I refused to shake the hand of the LSU head coach, Charlie McClendon. McClendon was from south Arkansas (Lewisville to be exact) and knew my father. McClendon’s brother, Bill, and my dad hunted quail together.

But to a 6-year-old, he was the enemy because he coached the hated purple-and-gold Tigers.

LSU upset Arkansas on Jan. 1, 1966, ending the 22-game winning streak. I cried in the cab on the way from Fair Park back to the Baker Hotel.

With victory having proved elusive, the highlight of the trip for me was having seen Broyles at the hotel.

You could tell by looking at him that he had once been a great athlete. He was a star quarterback at Georgia Tech, where he played for Bobby Dodd and led the Yellowjackets to three bowl games. He started his coaching career as an assistant at Baylor in 1947, but Dodd soon brought him back to Atlanta where Broyles served as the head coach’s right-hand man for a decade. Many Southern football fans felt that Broyles would hang around until Dodd retired and then become the Georgia Tech head coach.

Broyles was restless, however. He wanted to lead his own program and try out his own ideas. He took the Missouri job.

Arkansas, though, was the place where he really saw potential. His vision, in fact, went beyond the football field. He once told me that the smartest move the university made in his early years there was when it offered broadcasts of Razorback games free to any radio station in the state that wanted them. Prior to that, a number of people in west Arkansas followed Oklahoma football, a number of people in south Arkansas followed LSU football and a number of people in east Arkansas followed Ole Miss football. Having one of the largest radio networks in the country united the state.

Broyles continued to make us proud on the national stage after retiring from coaching following the 1975 season. Broyles and play-by-play man Keith Jackson of ABC Sports became the best college football crew on television.

Broyles also proved to be as savvy as an athletic director as he had been as a football coach, raising millions of dollars to improve athletic facilities for multiple sports and moving Arkansas from the Southwest Conference to the Southeastern Conference in the early 1990s.

No wonder the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette named him Arkansas’ most influential sports figure of the 20th century.

No wonder David Bazzel created the Broyles Award to honor the top college assistant coach in the country. Think of those who played and/or coached under Broyles — Barry Switzer, Jimmy Johnson, Joe Gibbs, Johnny Majors and on and on.

Still, Broyles’ most important accomplishment was that he made us proud to be from Arkansas at a time when we most needed it.

Finally Winthrop Rockefeller became governor in January 1967 after 12 years of Faubus.

Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell hit it big on the national stage.

And Frank Broyles’ Razorbacks kept winning football games — lots of them.

Even though the end result was an excruciating 15-14 loss to the hated Longhorns, we were proud that what was known as the Game of the Century was played on Arkansas soil in 1969. I was 10 years old and still recall that gray December afternoon.

As a state at that time, we were just more than decade removed from the embarrassment of 1957. Arkansas also had lost the highest percentage of population of any state from 1940-60.

Frank Broyles helped us to believe in ourselves again.

I didn’t fully understand that at age 10.

I do now.

He was a giant in his field. Yes, he was born in Georgia. But he became one of us and was never ashamed to be known as an Arkansan.

Thank you, Coach Broyles. You were the right man at the right time for Arkansas.

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Grady Manning and Southwest Hotels Inc.

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

Monday’s sale of the Arlington Hotel at Hot Springs marked the end of hotel ownership for Southwest Hotels Inc., which once had a large portfolio of famous hotels in this region of the country.

The company, founded by H. Grady Manning, once owned the Arlington Hotel and the Majestic Hotel in Hot Springs; the Marion, Grady Manning, Albert Pike and Lafayette in downtown Little Rock; and hotels in Memphis, Vicksburg and Kansas City.

Grady Manning was born in March 1892 in rural Scott County, attended a business college in Fort Smith and began working in the dining room of a Fort Smith hotel to help pay the cost of his education.

“Discovering he enjoyed working in the hotel business, he moved to Hot Springs, where he took a job at the Eastman Hotel,” Nancy Hendricks writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “With the town’s thermal waters said to offer medical benefits, Hot Springs became known as the Spa City and was one of the premier resort destinations in the country during the early 20th century. Many of its visitors were affluent travelers who had taken the waters at the leading spas of Europe and expected superior service at lodgings in Hot Springs.

“Manning traveled to Niagara Falls, Canada, where he was employed as a clerk at the Queen Royal Hotel, which was said to be one of Canada’s most exclusive. Manning became renowned for his outstanding service and courtesy, a reputation that followed him when he returned to his home state of Arkansas.

“In 1917, he became assistant manager of the Marion Hotel in Little Rock. The hotel was named for the wife of its founder, Herman Kahn, who built the Marion in 1905. At eight stories high, it was the tallest building in Arkansas until 1911. In 1919, Manning became manager of the Basin Park Hotel in Eureka Springs, a popular summer resort. His success there led to his being named manager of the Goldman Hotel in Fort Smith. In the prosperity of the 1920s, Manning formed Southwest Hotels Inc, which then sought ownership of a number of landmark hotels. Manning married Ruth Seaman around this same time.”

Herman Kahn, the Marion Hotel founder, had moved to Little Rock from Frankfurt, Germany, in 1870. Kahn’s great-grandson, Jimmy Moses, has been the driving force behind many of the developments in downtown Little Rock in recent decades. Kahn and his sons, Sidney L. Kahn Sr. and Alfred G Kahn, were heavily involved in banking and real estate development. Sidney Kahn developed the Prospect Terrace neighborhood of Little Rock.

The 500-room Marion Hotel, designed by architect George Mann, had green carpets, bellboys in green uniforms and a marble fish pond in the lobby. The Marion billed itself as the Meeting Place of Arkansas. Indeed many of the state’s top organizations held their conventions at the Marion. Its bar was named the Gar Hole and featured a huge, mounted alligator gar. Well-known visitors to the Marion through the years included Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Douglas MacArthur, Helen Keller and Will Rogers. The Marion sometimes was referred to as the real state Capitol since legislators congregated there during legislative sessions, cutting after-hour deals and forging compromises.

Writer Richard Ford, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his 1996 novel “Independence Day,” once lived in Room 600 of the Marion. Ford was born in Jackson, Miss., in 1944. Beginning in 1952, Ford spent summers in Little Rock with his maternal grandparents. Ford’s grandfather, Ben Shelley, was the hotel manager.

“It created for me a nice sense of comfort because I knew everybody,” Ford said in a 2013 interview with the Arkansas Times. “Everybody was family — all the bellmen, all the telephone operators, all the front-office people, all the cooks, all the waitresses, all the waiters. And yet all around that little island of home-like experience, there were all these people coming and going, day in and day out, people I would never see again. I could lie in my bed, and I could hear the buses coming and going from the Trailways bus station. Down behind the hotel, I could hear the Missouri Pacific switch cars. I could hear voices out on the street. I could hear sirens. I never thought of it as lonely.”

Southwest Hotels owned the Marion in its final decades. The hotel closed in early 1980 and was demolished along with the Grady Manning Hotel (also owned by Southwest Hotels at the time) on Feb. 17, 1980, to make way for the Excelsior Hotel (which later became the Peabody and then the Marriott) and the Statehouse Convention Center. Little Rock television stations provided live coverage of the implosion of the two hotels on a cold Sunday morning.

The Grady Manning Hotel had opened in 1930 as the Ben McGehee Hotel. It was designed by architect Julian Bunn Davidson and originally was owned by Benjamin Collins McGehee.

The Lafayette Hotel in downtown Little Rock opened in 1925 and closed in 1973. Now known as the Lafayette Building, it houses offices and condominiums.

Little Rock was experiencing solid growth during the 1920s, and an entity known as the Little Rock Hotel Co. decided to capitalize on that growth with a new hotel. A.D. Gates of St. Louis was the company president, and John Boyle of Little Rock was the vice president. The 10-story structure, which has a full basement, was designed by St. Louis architect George Barnett.

The Lafayette opened on Sept. 2, 1925, with 300 fireproof guest rooms. The rooms, which featured private baths with running water, rented for $2.5o per night. The building’s exterior featured elements of the Renaissance Revival style of architecture with its decorative terra cotta detailing, arched windows on the top floor and a projecting copper cornice. The interior public spaces were designed by decorator Paul Martin Heerwagen.

The Great Depression hurt the hotel industry, and the Lafayette closed in 1933. The building remained vacant until a housing shortage due to an influx of soldiers at Camp Robinson increased the demand for hotel rooms and apartments. The Lafayette was purchased by Southwest Hotels and reopened on Aug. 23, 1941. Southwest reduced the number of guest rooms from 300 to 260. A coffee bar and lunch counter were added with an entrance off Sixth Street.

An Arkansas Gazette article the day after the opening said: “Guest rooms, suites and efficiency apartments are the newest, freshest and most livable rooms in the city, high above the street, light and airy.” The newspaper described the coffee bar as “truly the most beautifully decorated and artistically designed coffee bar in the state.”

The interior of the hotel was completely repainted. The lobby ceiling was stenciled and painted by John Oehrlie, a Swiss mural painter. Oehrlie and his crew redecorated the hotel in eight months, spending three months of that period working on the lobby ceiling. Oehrlie had been Heerwagen’s foreman in 1925 so he was familiar with the hotel.

After the renovation by Southwest Hotels, the Optimist Club, Lions Club, Kiwanis Club and Civitan Club all began having meetings at the hotel. The Missouri Pacific and Rock Island railroads had ticket offices in the lobby. There also was a telephone answering service, a coin shop and a beauty parlor. The Gaslite Club opened in the basement and remained in business until the 1960s.

There was yet another remodeling effort in 1953 as the hotel’s owners tried to keep up with the growing number of motels and tourist courts on the highways leading in and out of Little Rock. Mechanical, electrical and plumbing updates were made. The interior decor was changed to incorporate a red-and-white color scheme. The Lafayette closed as a hotel on Nov. 23, 1973. The Gazette described it as the “victim of more modern competition, one-way streets and no parking facilities.”

The Albert Pike, meanwhile, operated as a hotel from 1929-71 when Little Rock’s Second Baptist Church bought it for $740,000 and transformed it into a residence hotel. The block on which the hotel was built once had been occupied by a house constructed in 1827 for Robert Crittenden, the secretary of the Arkansas Territory. The Crittenden House was among the first brick residences built in Little Rock. Facing financial problems, Crittenden attempted to trade the house for 10 sections of undeveloped land, hoping the brick home would become the site of the territorial capitol. Foreclosure followed Crittenden’s death in 1834, and the house was sold to Judge Benjamin Johnson, whose heirs later sold it to Dr. E.V. Dewell. Dewell, in turn, sold it to Gov. James P. Eagle, and it was the official governor’s residence from 1889-93. The Crittenden House was razed in 1920.

The 175-room Albert Pike was constructed at a cost of almost $1 million. The hotel was built in the Italian-Spanish Revival style, which was popular in California at the time. It featured tiled roofs, exposed beams, decorative inside tile, iron work and stained-glass windows. The hotel is among Little Rock’s last remaining major examples of this type of architecture.

At the time the Farrell Hotel Co. opened it, the Albert Pike was considered to be one of the finest hotels in the South. Architect Eugene John Stern designed two main wings of eight stories each that extended toward Scott Street and were connected across the back by a 10-story section. Above the entries were terra-cotta medallions with heraldic shields and the initials “AP.” The two-story main lobby was overlooked by a mezzanine that featured a custom-made Hazelton Brothers grand piano designed to match the building’s interior features. Officials of the Farrell Hotel Co. decided to name the hotel after Albert Pike, a prominent lawyer who died in 1891. Pike, a central figure in the development of Freemasonry in the state, was a poet, writer and Confederate commander in the Indian Territory during the Civil War.

In Hot Springs, railroad executive Samuel Fordyce joined forces with Samuel Stitt and William Gaines to build the first Arlington Hotel as the area around the springs gained in popularity.

“The original hotel was located across Fountain Street from the current Arlington, a site that’s now a public park,” Michael Hodge writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The first location was unique in that it was the only hotel property on the original Hot Springs National Reservation land. In 1893, to keep up with other nearby hotels such as the Eastman, Majestic and Park, the Arlington was razed and rebuilt on the same site with a more elegant design, a larger guest capacity and updated amenities.

“On April 5, 1923, an employee of the hotel noticed smoke coming from an electrical panel. Authorities were notified as a fire slowly began to spread. William Pinkerton, the founder of the famous security service and a guest at the hotel at the time, was so certain that the fire would be controlled that he sat on the veranda and smoked a cigar rather than retrieve his belongings, all of which he eventually lost to the fire that leveled the building.

“The owners had been discussing building an addition across Fountain Street. The plans for this now became plans for rebuilding the entire hotel on that site, thus removing it from reservation property. On Nov. 28, 1924, the third and current version of the Arlington Hotel was completed. Designed by George R. Mann, primary architect of the state Capitol, 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.”

Southwest Hotels purchased the Arlington in 1954.

What became the Majestic was built in 1882 on the site of the old Hiram Whittington House. It was known as the Avenue Hotel at the time. The name was changed to the Majestic in 1888. A yellow-brick building was added in 1892. The original hotel was razed in 1902 and a brick building with 150 rooms was added. A new restaurant known as The Dutch Treat was also added with a replica of a windmill over the door.

“In the prosperity of the 1920s, greater numbers of average Americans could visit the Majestic Hotel,” Hendricks writes. “In addition, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Boston Red Sox stayed at the hotel for spring training and fitness programs. … During this era, the legendary Babe Ruth frequented the Majestic. The in-house thermal baths at the Majestic also appealed to notorious 1920s underworld figures who did not have to leave the hotel for their spa therapy.

“The year 1926 saw the addition of the eight-story annex (a red-brick building to the west of the yellow-brick building), which later housed the Grady Manning Dining Room. … Southwest Hotels purchased the Majestic in 1929. … In the 1940s, the U.S. Army used the Majestic to house World War II-era soldiers. On Dec. 15, 1945, the hotel reopened to civilians. It attracted celebrities such as actor Alan Ladd, comedian Phyllis Diller and orchestra leader Guy Lombardo.

“After Hawaii became a state in 1959, all things Hawaiian became popular. The Majestic opened the Lanai Tower in 1963. The Lanai suites were said to boast the first modern sliding-glass doors. The suites surrounded a waterfall and tropical-themed pool. With the completion of the Lanai Tower, the Majestic became an eclectic mix of architectural styles — traditional red brick, the yellow-brick building and the tropical-themed Lanai suites. As was the case with most of downtown Hot Springs, business at the Majestic steadily declined through the 1980s due to a combination of highway rerouting, medical advances that made spa bathing outdated and the cessation of illegal gambling in the city.”

Southwest Hotels closed the Majestic in 2006. The yellow-brick building burned in a huge fire in February 2014. The remainder of the hotel, which was boarded up and deteriorating badly, was torn down last year.

H. Grady Manning was only 47 when he died in Hot Springs on Sept. 4, 1939. He reportedly drowned. The Little Rock City Council passed a resolution saying that Manning would “always be remembered as a man of the highest integrity and devotion toward the welfare of his community, the state and the nation.”

His widow continued to operate Southwest Hotels before passing the company on to the couple’s only child, Joy Manning Scott, who died in June 2014. She grew up in her family’s hotels and later married Morin Scott, living in Austin, Texas. The couple was married for 55 years.

Control of the company passed to Monty Scott, the son of Joy and Morin Scott.

Monty Scott, who was born at Austin in 1949, worked for a time at the investment firm Goldman Sachs and in the oil and gas industry before joining Southwest Hotels. He died unexpectedly in January 2016. Soon afterward the Scott family began entertaining offers for the Arlington, the last hotel under the auspices of a company that once had owned 10 hotels.

 

 

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The Arlington: Relief and anxiety

Tuesday, July 11th, 2017

My initial reaction, like that of a lot of Arkansans, was relief when I heard Monday that the sale of the Arlington Hotel had been finalized.

The Arlington is the most iconic privately owned structure in our state. For decades, those of us who love this Southern grande dame watched with sadness as she became a shell of her former self.

We dreamed of a day when a new owner would step in and restore her.

We dreamed of a day when those in surrounding states once more would flock to the hotel, knowing that it was THE place to stay in Arkansas.

We dreamed of a day when those of us close enough to make day trips to Hot Springs would go to the Arlington just for the food.

We dreamed of a day when statewide associations again would make it the headquarters hotel for their conventions.

We dreamed of a day when its bathhouse would rival any spa in America.

We dreamed of a day when the place to see and be seen in Arkansas would be the lobby of the renovated Arlington Hotel.

We dreamed of a day when the Arlington veranda would be described as Arkansas’ front porch, a civilized place to sit in a comfortable chair under a spinning ceiling fan while having a well-made drink.

So we cheered when we heard that the last remaining hotel in the once formidable Southwest Hotels portfolio had been sold. Perhaps the day we had dreamed of wasn’t far away.

Soon, however, relief turned to anxiety.

We worried that so little is known about the new owner, Al Rajabi of San Antonio. He recently renovated what had been the Clarion (and the Hilton before that) into the Four Points by Sheraton on South University Avenue in Little Rock. But this isn’t a chain hotel catering to folks with relatives in nearby hospitals. This is the Arlington, a hotel that should be mentioned in the same breath as other old Southern resorts such as the Greenbrier in West Virginia and the Homestead in Virginia.

We worried when we were told that Rajabi had owned 30 hotels through the years. That’s because no list of those hotels was provided.

We worried that an announcement that had been in the works for weeks gave no details whatsoever about renovation plans.

We worried that Rajabi would not answer questions from the media, directing people instead to a news release that contained precious few details.

We worried that the company that bought the hotel, Sky Capital Group LP, was only formed in April.

We worried that the news release said Sky Capital was the owner and operator of the Four Points in Little Rock even though the owner of record is Windsor Capital LLP, of which Rajabi is a partner.

For all we know, these questions will be answered in the days to come.

Please forgive us for having doubts, Mr. Rajabi, but we’ve been fooled so many times through the years in Hot Springs.

Southwest allowed the Majestic Hotel to deteriorate as the Arlington has done. Two subsequent owners made promises but did nothing. That old gal finally burned.

Several  developers promised to redevelop the Velda Rose. It still sits empty today.

South down Central Avenue, we were told that the Royale Vista Inn finally would be redeveloped. Scaffolding went up, but nothing was ever completed.

What has been the trademark of Hot Springs in recent decades? More than hot baths and thoroughbred racing, unfortunately, it has been landlords who have allowed their properties to deteriorate, milking every dime out of them and putting little back in.

You will excuse us, Mr. Rajabi, for being skeptical. You see, we’ve seen too many people fail to deliver on their promises in our beloved Spa City.

Your online biography says you graduated from UCLA in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, so maybe you can understand the anxiety on the part of this societal segment known as Arkansans.

Prove us wrong, Mr. Rajabi.

Please prove us wrong.

Renovate the rooms, reducing the number while increasing the size.

After refreshing the beautiful Venetian Dining Room (so much potential there), bring in a big-name chef who will be an attraction in his/her own right.

Mixology is all the rage these days, so hire some hip, young bartenders who will have millennials driving all the way from Little Rock for a drink.

Transform the bathhouse into a spa that people as far away as Dallas will want to visit.

Fill the veranda with furniture in Dorothy Draper pastels and add an outside bar.

Fill your basement with high-end boutiques.

Transform the neighboring Wade Building into a place for high-dollar suites.

Mr. Rajabi, as I stated at the outset, the Arlington isn’t just another hotel, at least for those of us born and raised in this state. I’ll say it again: It’s the most iconic privately owned building in Arkansas.

With this purchase comes certain obligations to the 3 million people of Arkansas.

We wish you well, Mr. Rajabi.

Please don’t disappoint us.

 

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The great disasters

Thursday, July 6th, 2017

You really can’t understand Arkansas without understanding the effect the Great Flood of 1927, the Great Drought of 1930-31 and the Great Flood of 1937 had on this state.

Those events combined to create an image of Arkansas as a place you wanted to move away from rather than move to.

That exodus lasted long past these three landmark natural disasters. In fact, Arkansas lost a higher percentage of its population from 1940-60 than any other state.

This has without a doubt been a bad year as far as flooding in east Arkansas. April rains were common in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, and that water flowed south, inundating almost 980,000 acres of farmland at an estimated cost of $175 million.

Extension agents reported damage to row crops in 21 of the state’s 75 counties.

The counties impacted the most in terms of acres flooded were Poinsett (194,900), Greene (138,000), Prairie (125,000), Lawrence (80,000) and Randolph (60,000).

As bad as this year’s spring floods were, they pale in comparison to what occurred in 1927 and 1937.

Those events changed our state forever. Combined with the 1930-31 drought, the mechanization of agriculture and the Great Migration of black sharecroppers and tenant farmers, we’ve seen the inexorable decline of the Arkansas Delta, which once was the richest area of the state with the most powerful political players.

The 1927 flood covered almost 6,600 square miles in Arkansas with 36 of 75 counties affected.

Nancy Hendricks writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “In Arkansas, more people were affected by the floodwaters (more than 350,000), more farmland inundated (more than 2 million acres), more Red Cross camps were needed (80 of 154 total) and more families received relief (41,243) than any other state. In Arkansas, almost 100 people died, more than any state except Mississippi. In monetary terms, the losses in Arkansas surpassed all other affected states.”

The September 1927 issue of National Geographic described the scene in Arkansas City. The streets were dry at noon one day. By 2 p.m., according to the magazine, “mules were drowning on Main Street faster than people could unhitch them from wagons.”

Hendricks describes what was going on across east Arkansas this way: “Water poured in and had nowhere to go. Homes and stores stood for months in six to 30 feet of murky water. Dead animals floated everywhere. Rich Arkansas farmland was covered with sand, coated in mud or simply washed away, still bearing shoots from spring planting.”

She contends that the 1927 flood had its origins in both nature and man. She explains: “In the late 1920s, technological advances kept pace with the growing economy. Heavy machinery enabled the construction of a vast system of levees to hold back rivers that tended to overrun their banks. Drainage projects opened up new, low-lying lands that had once been forests but had been left bare by the timber industry.

“Feeling protected from flooding by the levees, farmers borrowed money with easy credit from banks booming with the record levels of the stock market. They expanded their fields to low-lying areas on their own property or moved to new lands that were fertile from centuries of seasonal flooding. They felt safe behind the levees and secure in selling their crops to new markets, now accessible by railroad, truck, automobiles and even international shipping. The buy-now-pay-later mindset of the 1920s encouraged people, including farmers of modest means, to purchase washing machines and other labor-saving devices on installment plans. Even nature seemed to be cooperating as the summer of 1926 brought rain instead of drought.

“The spring of 1927, however, saw warm weather and early snow melts in Canada, causing the upper Mississippi to swell. Rain fell in the upper Midwest, sending its full rivers gushing into the already swollen Mississippi. Its destination, the Gulf of Mexico, acted as a stopper when it too became full. Then, in the South, it began to rain.”

The Mississippi backed up into the Arkansas, St. Francis and White rivers.

The White backed up into the Cache, the Little Red and the Black.

The St. Francis backed up into the L’Anguille.

Near its confluence with the Mighty Mississippi in southeast Arkansas, the White even ran backward at one point as Mississippi River water poured in.

“Levees could not hold, with every one between Fort Smith and Little Rock failing under the enormous surge of water,” Hendricks writes.

Almost twice as much farmland was under water in Arkansas as in Louisiana and Mississippi combined.

“Radios broadcast warnings,” Hendricks writes. “Airplanes helped locate survivors clinging to rooftops or tree limbs. Motorboats aided the evacuation, and trains carried people to shelters on high ground. The American Red Cross, as well as fellow citizens, responded quickly with emergency workers arriving by trains, trucks and automobiles. In Arkansas, 50 refugee camps, using Army tents and cots, were hastily built by the Red Cross, with one in Forrest City holding more than 15,000 of the homeless. But victims kept arriving from all around Arkansas — cold, sick and hungry. Some found shelter in public buildings or other makeshift locations. Nearly all found themselves without food, water or dry clothing. The segregated tent cities on high ground could barely hold them all. Disease ran rampant in overcrowded camps. Conditions then worsened.

“With the floodwater having nowhere to go, much of Arkansas remained under water through the spring and summer and into September 1927. Farmers could not plant crops. The carcasses of thousands of dead animals lay rotting in stagnant pools. Mosquitoes found perfect conditions to breed that summer, carrying malaria and typhoid to refugee camps already burdened with dysentery and the threat of smallpox. Emergency workers at the camps were also shocked at the extent of pellagra, a vitamin deficiency disease brought on by lack of protein.”

John Barry notes in his classic work of nonfiction “Rising Tide” that a struggle that began as man against nature changed to one of “man against man. Honor and money collided. White and black collided. Regional and national power structures collided. The collisions shook America.”

Hendricks says that some of those man-against-man collisions occurred in Arkansas: “Planters feared that their sharecroppers, both black and white and mostly in debt, might not return home from the Red Cross camps, leaving them without enough labor to put crops in the fields when the land dried out. This led to a controversial mandate in which sharecroppers, particularly black sharecroppers, were admitted to and released from the camps only under the supervision of their planters. African-Americans needed a pass to enter or leave the Red Cross camps. Some were forced at gunpoint by law enforcement officials to survive on the levees indefinitely in makeshift tents as water rose around them while would-be rescue boats left empty. They were forced by the National Guard with fixed bayonets to work on the levees.”

She says the flood “spurred a mass migration of black sharecroppers who had tired of farming, poverty and debt. Thousands left the plantation as soon as they could, heading north to look for jobs in cities such as Detroit and Chicago. Mechanization and corporate farming replaced their labor.”

The misery in Arkansas didn’t end when 1927 ended.

Far from it.

Just as the state was starting to recover from the Great Flood of 1927, the Great Depression began in 1929.

The problems were compounded by the state’s worst drought of the 20th century in 1930-31. That drought affected 23 states. Just as had been the case with the Great Flood, Arkansas bore the brunt of the damage. Rainfall in June and July of 1930 was the lowest on record for those months. Temperatures reached as high as 107 degrees in July and soared as high as 113 degrees in August.

By Aug. 2, 1930, Little Rock had gone 71 days without rain.

Arkansas’ leading cash crop was cotton in all but five counties (Benton, Carroll, Madison, Newton and Washington), and average yield fell from six to two bales per 20 acres. T. Roy Reid of the Agricultural Extension Service noted that of the state’s 75 counties, only Benton County would have “sufficient food for its farm population and livestock feed to tide it over the winter.”

Indeed, there was a food riot in England on Jan 3, 1931, as more than 500 people demanded rations outside a Red Cross office.

Though the drought eased in 1931, it remained serious.

Historian Ben Johnson of Southern Arkansas University writes: “Drought-stricken Arkansas became a metaphor for anxieties spawned by the Depression.

“Without crops to sell or gardens to live off of, family food supplies dwindled, with tenant farmers often hit hardest, depending on fishing, hunting and the few surviving garden plants,” John Spurgeon writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Arkansas’ U.S. senators, Joe T. Robinson and Thaddeus Caraway, outlined a relief program using both state and federal money. Robinson described the drought as having brought ‘almost complete crop failure.’ Between 30 and 50 percent of Arkansas crops were lost. … Delta plantation owners did not want free food given to their tenants, fearing it would disrupt their labor force and destabilize already reduced wages.”

In 1937, there was another huge flood in Arkansas. It inundated 1,037,500 acres of farmland and 756,800 acres of other land. An estimated 40,916 families were affected, and 75 relief camps had to be established in the state. An additional 14 camps were set up at Memphis to serve refugees from Arkansas.

“Arkansas’ floodwaters came from tributary streams no longer able to drain effectively due to the cresting Mississippi River,” Spurgeon writes. “Bayou de View as well as the Black, Cache, L’Anguille, Little Red, Spring, Strawberry, St. Francis, Tyronza and White rivers spilled across agricultural terrain mostly bare of crops that time of year. While the Arkansas River was at flood stage at Van Buren for only one day, the White River exceeded flood stages below Calico Rock, and the St. Francis River had considerable flooding from January into March. The largely rural, agricultural Delta saw the spread of the floodwaters into tenants’ and sharecroppers’ homes and communities already struggling from the effects of drought, the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.”

R. S. Hayden, a Methodist preacher at Forrest City, wrote in early February that the city housed “15,000 refugees with more coming, plus 20,000 mules, cows, dogs, cats and chickens.”

“The U.S. Army, Arkansas National Guard and volunteers prepared twice-daily meals for the displaced,” Spurgeon writes. “As floodwaters receded and families returned home, baskets of food were distributed. Law and order were the responsibility of the local authorities supplemented by the National Guard. A principal warehouse at Forrest City was established to collect and move materials to other sites. Recreation programs were instituted for adults and children at camps and centers. The Works Progress Administration’s Federal Theater Project had a mobile unit that offered a variety show touring Arkansas.”

In 1927, political and economic power in Arkansas were centered in the Delta. The poorest counties were in the Ozarks, where rocky land proved unsuitable for growing cotton. Companies such as Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt were still far in the future.

The shift began with the Great Flood of 1927 and continued with the Great Drought of 1930-31 and the Great Flood of 1937.

The mechanization of agriculture and the resulting loss of tens of thousands of Delta residents followed.

Now counties that were among the richest in 1927 are among the poorest, and those that were the poorest are the richest.

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Civil discourse on Petit Jean

Tuesday, June 27th, 2017

I can understand why the late Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller loved it so here.

It’s a Tuesday morning, and I’m the only person at Stout’s Point, the easternmost tip of Petit Jean Mountain. It’s quiet. I listen to the oak leaves rustling in the wind and a couple of crows who insist on making their presence known.

This also once was known as Nelson Point. Daniel Nelson (who’s not an ancestor as far as I can tell) built his home here in the early 1890s and planted apple orchards. Those orchards later failed, and the Nelson land was sold. The name Stout’s Point honors William Cummings Stout, who in 1849 had become the first ordained Episcopal priest in the state. There was a hotel here — the Hotel Petit Jean — at one time. It became part of a YMCA camp in 1920. That camp ceased operations in the 1940s, and the land was purchased by the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas, which now operates Camp Mitchell atop Petit Jean and lets the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism use Stout’s Point as a park.

“Petit Jean claimed 100 family farms by 1900,” Donald Higgins writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “For perhaps 75 years, small farm agriculture and orchards flourished on Petit Jean Mountain. By the late 1920s, however, a crash in cotton prices, droughts, blight and insect infestations, combined with poor soil management practices, took a toll on family farms. Petit Jean’s population decreased, making land available for other uses.

“Petit Jean’s Dr. T.W. Hardison had bigger ideas and in 1921 influenced Congressman Henderson Madison Jacoway to introduce House Resolution 9086 in the U.S. House of Representatives, creating Petit Jean National Park with the mountain’s rugged Seven Hollows area as its foundation. The action failed, but shortly thereafter, in 1923, Hardison led an effort by a group of local businessmen to donate land in Cedar Creek Canyon to become Arkansas’ first state park by Act 276 of the Legislature.

“Depopulation during the Great Depression and World War II struck hard at the mountain community, but as farming diminished, new residents and recreation enthusiasts took up the slack. The Civilian Conservation Corps-constructed park infrastructure drew increasing numbers of visitors, and various commercial enterprises blossomed.”

In 1953, Rockefeller began purchasing what essentially was worn-out scrubland that once had been used to raise cotton. Locals found jobs that paid far better than what they could get elsewhere in Conway County. It was unusual for working-class whites to take orders from a black man in the early 1950s, but Rockefeller foreman Jimmy Hudson quickly earned the respect of those who worked for him.

Land was cleared, grass was planted, fences were erected and an irrigation system was installed. Rockefeller brought the famed Santa Gertrudis breed of cattle to Arkansas. The tropical beef breed had been developed in south Texas. The breed was named for the Spanish land grant in south Texas where Richard King established the King Ranch. When the breed was recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1940, it became the first beef breed to have been developed in the United States.

In his 2004 book “Winthrop Rockefeller, Philanthropist,” former aide John Ward wrote: “Winrock Farms was on the world stage as far as cattle breeding and research were concerned, and this was just what Rockefeller intended. From its inception, Winrock served to provide education, expertise and guidance to the many people who came in contact with it. Rockefeller was especially proud of the quality of the operation, from the scientific to the utterly practical, and the farm’s contributions to development of better beef cattle was widely known and appreciated.

“His annual cattle sale at the farm attracted buyers and interested participants from throughout the world who needed fine Santa Gertrudis breeding stock. … Representatives of the King Ranch were regular buyers at the sale, as was Rockefeller at their sales in Texas. To some degree, Rockefeller buying King Ranch stock at high prices and King Ranch doing the same at the Winrock cattle sale was a bit of public relations, but it was a source of amazement to those who watched prices of $40,000 to $50,000 being paid for outstanding bulls.

“Winrock had intern programs for youth and other opportunities for young and old alike to gain knowledge and experience, and it pleased him to see the acceptance and continuing development of the livestock and science surrounding it he so carefully husbanded at the farm.

“From that operation evolved the Winrock International Livestock Research and Training Center, established in response to Rockefeller’s request in his will that trustees of his estate be venturesome and innovative in creating and supporting institutions that would help people help themselves. A decade later, a larger entity was created from combining with Winrock two other organizations also rooted in the philanthropic tradition of the Rockefeller family. One was the Agricultural Development Council, which grew from an organization founded by Winthrop’s eldest brother, John. It was designed to stimulate and support economic training related to human welfare in rural Asia. The other was the International Agricultural Development Service, created with initial support from the Rockefeller Foundation. Its aim was to provide services to developing countries that wanted to strengthen their agricultural research and development programs. Together they became the Winrock International Institute for Agricultural Development. The Winthrop Rockefeller Trust put more than $85 million into it during its first decade of existence.”

Marion Burton, who has long helped manage the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust, said the late governor viewed Arkansas “as a place where he could make a difference. I think he was frustrated with where he had been living. I think he simply got tired of the routines.”

More than anything, Rockefeller wanted his ranch atop Petit Jean Mountain to be a place where people would come, discuss ideas and have time for contemplation in a relaxing setting away from their offices.

Former journalist and Rockefeller friend Dorthy Stuck said Rockefeller “found a certain amount of peace right here on this mountain. The big task now is to keep his legacy alive.”

That job has fallen to the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, which the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust and the University of Arkansas joined forces to create when Winrock International moved its offices from Petit Jean to Little Rock’s Riverdale neighborhood. More than $20 million was spent to create a world-class conference center atop the mountain. A gallery and interactive theater tell the story of the Rockefeller years in Arkansas. The gallery is titled “Winthrop Rockefeller: A Sphere of Power and Influence Dropped Into a River of Need.”

Those involved in the institute’s creation have shared with me from time to time their frustration in finding a focus. In its early years, WRI tried to be all things to all people and met with limited success. In 2011, the chief operating officer of the Paley Center for Media in New York City, Christy Carpenter, was hired and tasked with increasing WRI’s national profile. Carpenter brought along her husband, actor Robert Walden, a New York native best known for his role as Joe Rossi on the television series “Lou Grant.”

Carpenter’s parents were two Washington-based journalists, Les and Liz Carpenter of the Carpenter News Bureau. Liz Carpenter went to work for Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson and was with LBJ on that November day in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. It was Liz Carpenter who wrote the short statement Johnson released after being sworn in as president aboard Air Force One at Love Field.

Christy Carpenter seemed to have the pedigree needed to advance WRI. But by the spring of 2013, Carpenter — a city girl at heart — had tired of the remoteness of Petit Jean Mountain. Back at square one, the WRI trustees decided this time to go with an Arkansan who might stay around awhile. In December 2013, it was announced that Marta Loyd of Greenwood, the vice chancellor for university advancement at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, had been hired as WRI’s executive director.

Loyd worked at UAFS for 17 years. A dozen of those years were as vice chancellor. She had headed the school’s foundation since 2002 and helped raised the money needed to transform Westark Community College into UAFS.

During a luncheon speech last year, Loyd said: “I put very little serious thought into my future when I was young. I wanted to be a dental hygienist because I could work part time, make a good wage and be a wife and mother. I accomplished all of that by the age of 26.”

In a story about the WRI executive director, Jeff LeMaster wrote: “Her opportunity to step into higher education came when Westark was hiring a part-time continuing education program coordinator. The job requirements were a bachelor’s degree and organizational experience. Citing her organizational experience from church committees and the school PTA, Marta got the job. Not too long after, she was approached about helping to start a dental hygiene school at the college. She took that on for no extra pay but proved herself and made connections with key people in the college’s administration.

“Along the way, the university earned her loyalty by giving her an opportunity to stay home and care for her son after he was involved in an accident that almost claimed one of his eyes. Marta had to take off two weeks to care for him, and the timing couldn’t have been worse. It fell right when she was supposed to finish and submit an application for the new dental hygiene school, and her taking off the two weeks meant a six-month delay in the project. But the college’s president at the time, Joel Stubblefield, didn’t hesitate in telling Marta to take the time off. … She has never forgotten that. In her own words, Marta determined then ‘that if I ever became a leader, I would do all I could to make sure people didn’t have to choose between work and family.’

“After returning to work and successfully starting the dental hygiene school, Marta was hired to work in development. The vice chancellor for university advancement at the time, Dr. Carolyn Moore, brought Marta under her wing, promising her she would teach her everything she knew about development and that someday Marta could take her job. Moore also encouraged Marta to pursue advanced degrees, first her master’s in educational leadership and then her doctorate in educational leadership and policy analysis.”

Loyd has proved to be a good fit at WRI, where she has raised staff morale and found ways to use the mountaintop property to its highest potential. She also has ensured that the Winthrop Rockefeller legacy is never forgotten.

“It’s ingrained in the culture here,” LeMaster, WRI’s director of communications and marketing, says. “There’s nothing we do that doesn’t recognize the impact he had on this state. We’re always mindful of his legacy.”

Janet Harris, WRI’s director of programs, puts it this way: “You can feel Gov. Rockefeller’s presence here. He chose Arkansas as his home and believed so strongly in the potential of this state. We want people to come here and see the possibilities for what Arkansas can be.”

Rockefeller loved it when national and world leaders would visit his ranch and say, “I had no idea there was anything like this in Arkansas.”

Loyd says she now smiles when she hears WRI visitors express amazement at how nice the facility is.

LeMaster says that one of the best things about Rockefeller is that he built the Republican Party in Arkansas while at the same time forcing the Democratic Party to modernize. Because of that, both Republicans and Democrats claim his legacy.

Loyd, LeMaster and Harris say Petit Jean is a place where people can unwind and think. It’s a place where partisan Republicans and Democrats can get together, debate issues in a thoughtful manner and decide on a path forward for the state.

“It’s quiet here,” Harris says. “It forces people to get to know each other.”

I wrote a post on this blog back in May 2010 that closed this way: “Arkansas needs a place such as the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, a secluded spot where we can gather to examine our past, debate our current problems and design our future. I can’t help but believe WR would be proud of what has become of the ranch he called home for almost two decades.”

There have been bumps in the road in the more than seven years since that was written. But I still believe WR would be proud, especially now that the institute that bears his name has found its focus.

 

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Pine Bluff proud

Friday, June 16th, 2017

I’m proud of the people of Pine Bluff.

On Tuesday, they went to the polls and approved by more than a 2-to-1 margin a sales tax initiative designed to stem the loss of population in southeast Arkansas’ largest city.

Nothing is ever easy in Pine Bluff with its us vs. them, rich vs. poor, black vs. white style of politics.

Loud-mouthed demagogues have too often held sway in that city through the years. Indeed, there was organized opposition to this initiative and people (including at least one member of the Pine Bluff City Council) made outrageous claims.

This time, though, a majority of those who voted said “enough.”

Enough of the race baiting.

Enough of the scare tactics.

Enough of the politics of division.

They realized that this was the last chance to truly turn Pine Bluff around before it was in a death spiral.

During 2016, about 100 Pine Bluff residents participated in a planning process funded by the Simmons First Foundation. The effort is known as Go Forward Pine Bluff. In January, members of the Go Forward Pine Bluff task force unveiled a 27-point plan for revitalization covering everything from education to infrastructure.

How to fund the implementation of those recommendations?

The five-eighths of a cent sales tax approved last week is expected to produce about $4 million annually for the next seven years.

Go Forward Pine Bluff officials have said that they will raise another $20 million in private funds to give the city a pot of almost $48 million to implement the recommendations.

There were plenty of business leaders across the state who were prepared to write Pine Bluff off for good had the initiative failed.

Now, there’s hope.

But it’s going to take a lot more than $48 million to revitalize Pine Bluff, which has been bleeding population in recent years. Additional private capital is needed.

A Yankee just might be what this bastion of the Old South needs.

Meet Tom Reilley.

Reilley is the entrepreneur who brought a wood pellet plant to Pine Bluff.

He lives in New Hampshire and began his career with the investment firm Bear Stearns. He was transferred to London by the company in 2002 to establish a wealth management division. Reilley left the company in 2007 to form a private equity company known as Kalan Capital.

While searching for the ideal place to locate the Highland Pellets facility, Reilley fell in love with the people of Pine Bluff.

He also came to appreciate the potential of the old building downtown that once housed the Hotel Pines.

More on that in a moment. First, a bit more about Highland Pellets.

There’s a growing demand in Europe for wood pellets, which are used as fuel for power plants. The United Kingdom and countries in the European Union are trying to phase out coal-fired plants.

In a statement last year, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said: “I believe that this renewable resource can help play a role in the global shift toward clean and more sustainable energy sources. … As governor of Arkansas, I aim to maintain both the vitality of Arkansas’ forests as well as the wood energy trade between Arkansas and nations within the EU.”

EU member states are assigned national renewable energy targets.

Plans for the $229 million Pine Bluff wood pellet plant were first announced in August 2014. The initial employment is 68 people, and the facility is expected to create hundreds of indirect jobs in south Arkansas as it helps revitalize the timber industry in that part of the state. The facility will use about 1.4 million tons of wood annually, most Southern yellow pine. Pellets will be transported by Union Pacific to the Port of Baton Rouge in railcars and then loaded onto ships in order to make the trip to Europe.

The Arkansas Economic Development Commission estimates the financial impact of the facility will be more than $86 million annually.

The Pine Bluff plant delivered its first pellets in April. It’s expected to be fully operational by the third quarter of this year.

According to the Highland website: “All fiber supplied to these sites will be sustainable with a significant proportion coming from residual waste wood (shavings and sawdust) from local sawmills.”

Highland Pellets is a privately held company with veterans from the wood pellet, finance and energy markets involved.

At the groundbreaking ceremony for the plant last fall, Hutchinson said: “Highland Pellets’ leadership is passionate about this new facility and the impact it will have on Jefferson County’s economy. They are determined to have a lasting effect, not only on their employees but also also on the entire community.”

Arkansas has more than 18.8 million acres of forestland, providing plenty of raw materials for the plant. Reilley also took into consideration competitive utility rates and a good transportation infrastructure.

He didn’t count on becoming obsessed with rebuilding Pine Bluff.

Reilley was instrumental in the formation of a grassroots group known as Pine Bluff Rising that works to complement the efforts of Go Forward Pine Bluff. In January, Pine Bluff Rising purchased the Hotel Pines for $1 from previous owner Elvin Moon.

At the time of the purchase, Reilley said: “Pine Bluff Rising is undertaking a thorough investigation of the structure as well as the challenges and opportunities that may exist.”

He told me in January that he didn’t know if the building could be saved but was willing to spend whatever was necessary to find out.

“The Hotel Pines was conceived and built to attract more business to the section of Main Street that lies to the south of the city’s railroad tracks,” states the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “As such, it provides a glimpse at one effort to alter a city’s main business and shopping area in the early 20th century. This classically designed hotel was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on Aug. 10, 1979.

“Since the area north of the tracks was a thriving commercial district, the city’s Main Street property owners believed that the presence of a modern hotel would lure business south of the tracks. Many of Jefferson County’s leading citizens became stockholders in the new enterprise. Architect George Mann, who designed the state Capitol and the Marion Hotel in Little Rock, was selected to plan the new facility. Paul Heerwagen of Fayetteville was hired to decorate the interior. Heerwagen’s experience included work on hotels such as the Piedmont in Atlanta. Gov. George Washington Hays delivered the principal address at the Nov. 6, 1913, opening.

“When it opened, the Hotel Pines was regarded as one of the finest hotels in Arkansas. Located near Union Station, the hotel offered porter service to carry baggage to and from the station. It also was the location of society balls and dances, banquets and business and civic meetings. … Hotel Pines operated continuously for 57 years. When passenger rail service to Pine Bluff ended in 1968, the hotel lost its primary clientele, closing in the spring of 1970.”

What once had been a symbol of Pine Bluff prosperity came to symbolize Pine Bluff’s decline.

Reilley knows that symbolism is important. He understands that a revived Hotel Pines will send a message statewide that Pine Bluff has reclaimed its status as the regional capital for the southeast quadrant of Arkansas.

Reilley thinks it will take at least $35 million to renovate the building. He plans to utilize a combination of state and federal historic renovation tax credits, New Market tax credits, charitable contributions and private capital to get the job done. He brought in WER Architects/Planners of Little Rock, East Harding Construction of Little Rock and interior designer Kaki Hockersmith to come up with a plan to show potential investors.

Writing in The Pine Bluff Commercial, Knowles Adkisson related what has gone on with the building the past few decades: “The property has changed hands many times over the years, usually with promises from the buyer to restore the hotel to its former glory. None have yet comes to pass, and it has presented a conundrum: Too expensive to rebuild yet too expensive to tear down. The city first inspected the hotel during the 1970s with plans to renovate it, according to Luther Drye, a former building inspector for the city. However, the city was never able to come up with the funds, he said. By the 1980s, it had fallen into disrepair.”

Drye told the newspaper: “It was substandard. The city has codes covering existing buildings. It was dilapidated, windows falling out, hitting the sidewalk below, stuff like that. There was a bad roof in the northwest corner. … The basement stayed full of water. That didn’t help.”

A nonprofit organization called Citizens United to Save the Pines purchased the property but couldn’t come up with the funds to restore it. Moon, a Los Angeles resident who grew up in Pine Bluff, bought the hotel in 2008 but also failed to find funds for renovations.

Pine Bluff Rising announced in early June that it will move forward with renovation efforts. The group released a statement that said: “Some have asked why we are doing this. The answer to us is clear: We wish to help rebuild the economic, social and cultural heart of downtown Pine Bluff through an asset the community can … point to with pride.”

I sometimes compare Pine Bluff to an old boxer who has been knocked down many times but is trying to make a comeback. I find that people across the state are now rooting for Pine Bluff rather than making jokes about Crime Bluff.

Reilley wants a building that will have people coming and going at all hours since it will include doctors’ offices, dentists’ offices, floral shops, beauty shops and the like in addition to hotel rooms. He dreams of restaurants, craft breweries and live music venues up and down the street. He wants to see the day when people from places like Dumas, McGehee and Warren will no longer need to drive all the way to Little Rock for a night out.

Reilley has been especially impressed by the city’s new mayor, Shirley Washington, a former educator.

“Think of her as a no-nonsense principal,” he says. “That’s exactly what Pine Bluff needs.”

He’s an optimist in a town where it had become hard to be optimistic.

Reilley, who bought a home in Pine Bluff, explains his efforts this way: “I’ve never been to a place with such a deep sense of community. People who could have left Pine Bluff long ago refused to do so because they love the place so much. And I fell in love with those people. Last year, even though I was extremely busy lining up financing and hiring a Highland management team, I started asking questions that people had a hard time answering. I wanted to know how a place with such a storied history — a place filled with people who love it — could have gotten into the shape Pine Bluff is in now.”

 

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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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