Archive for the ‘Barbecue’ Category

Rex’s Rankings: After three weeks

Monday, September 16th, 2019

Two of Arkansas’ best teams went out of state and lost on Friday. North Little Rock lost in Shreveport to Baton Rouge Catholic, and Pulaski Academy lost in a 61-47 shootout against Ravenwood from Brentwood, Tenn.

For North Little Rock, it marked the second consecutive defeat following a 37-game winning streak in the regular season. For now, we drop North Little Rock out of the Top 10. Expect the Charging Wildcats to crawl their way back soon.

The most pleasant surprise thus far this season has been Little Rock Central, which moved to 3-0 with a 42-25 victory at Rogers. The Tigers move into the poll at No. 10 overall.

And Scott Reed is off to a great start as head coach at Cabot. The Panthers move up to No. 5 following a 35-14 victory over El Dorado.

Here are the updated rankings:

OVERALL

  1. Bryant
  2. Greenwood
  3. Bentonville
  4. Conway
  5. Cabot
  6. Pulaski Academy
  7. Arkadelphia
  8. Little Rock Christian
  9. Harrison
  10. Little Rock Central

CLASS 7A

  1. Bryant
  2. Bentonville
  3. Conway
  4. Cabot
  5. Little Rock Central

CLASS 6A

  1. Greenwood
  2. Searcy
  3. Lake Hamilton
  4. West Memphis
  5. Jonesboro

CLASS 5A

  1. Pulaski Academy
  2. Little Rock Christian
  3. Harrison
  4. Morrilton
  5. Greenbrier

CLASS 4A

  1. Arkadelphia
  2. Nashville
  3. Warren
  4. Shiloh Christian
  5. Joe T. Robinson

CLASS 3A

  1. McGehee
  2. Prescott
  3. Osceola
  4. Rison
  5. Camden Harmony Grove

CLASS 2A

  1. Fordyce
  2. Hazen
  3. Junction City
  4. Foreman
  5. Dierks

Post to Twitter

From Norman to Lake Ouachita

Tuesday, March 19th, 2019

THIRD IN A SERIES

What’s now Norman was known as Womble until 1925. It had just 378 residents in the 2010 census, down from a high of 552 people a century earlier.

“The town was created as a result of the building of the Gurdon & Fort Smith Railroad and grew because of the lumber mills that sprang up along its right of way,” Russell Baker writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “It was once the home of the Presbyterian Church’s Caddo Valley Academy. In 1905, plans were announced to extend the Gurdon & Fort Smith line from Glenwood, then its terminus, to Black Springs in Montgomery County. This announcement brought a large number of land speculators, including Walter E. Womble Sr., into the area.

“In 1907, a dispute over rights of way halted the project near the Caddo River, several miles short of its goal. The Black Springs Lumber Co. abandoned its plans to build a large lumber mill at Black Springs and chose a site at the railhead instead. It was soon joined by the Bear State Lumber Co. In 1907, Walter Womble, taking advantage of the situation, acquired land and staked out a new town in a corn field just north of the railhead. Its post office opened in July 1907 with Womble as postmaster.”

The town of Womble was incorporated in February 1910.

“In 1914, it became the location of the Ouachita National Forest’s Womble Ranger Station,” Baker writes. “In 1915, the citizens of Womble made the first of three unsuccessful attempts to have the county seat moved from Mount Ida to the new community. Walter Womble was the main backer of this proposal. In 1920, the Arkansas Presbyterian Church began an educational mission work, or mountain mission, at Womble under the care of a local minister, Dr. John T. Barr. The next year, a boarding school called Caddo Valley Academy opened to help educate the area’s ‘worthy but needy’ children. In 1924, the academy obtained a 37-acre site at Womble and began construction of a complex of buildings. For many years, the academy was a landmark in southern Montgomery County. During the 1930s, its operations were gradually consolidated with those of the Norman School District.”

Walter Womble was replaced as postmaster in 1922. Residents of the community voted to change the name of the town to Norman in 1925, and Walter Womble moved his family to Fort Smith.

“By the 1930s, most of the prime timber in the area had been cut, and the mills began to move elsewhere,” Baker writes. “A few small sawmills kept the town’s economy going on a reduced scale. Norman’s schools consolidated with those of nearby Caddo Gap in 1971, forming the Caddo Hills School District. In 1982, Norman lost its railroad connection, and its population dropped to 382 in 1990. Now it serves as a bedroom community for workers with employment in larger towns.”

The Norman Library once was listed in the “Guinness Book of World Records” for being the smallest freestanding public library in the country.

“A garden club was founded by a group of local women in 1936,” writes David Sesser of Henderson State University. “One of the first projects of the club was to replace the barbed-wire fence that surrounded the local park and town square with a native stone wall. By 1939, with the help of the Works Progress Administration, the wall was constructed. The club’s crowning achievement came to fruition in 1940 with the establishment of the library in the center of the park. The building was originally constructed to serve as the town’s pumping station, moving water from the Caddo River to the water tower on the other side of town. Measuring 170 square feet, the small building was rarely used. Even city workers infrequently entered the structure.

“Marie Pinkerton, the president and founder of the garden club, approached the city council to inquire about acquiring the use of the building for the establishment of a town library. The council agreed, and the club raised funds to furnish the building. Mission oak shelving was used to house the more than 500 books that the group gathered. Two librarians were hired, and the library opened to the public. It remained open intermittently during the next half century. During this time, it also served as a temporary office and jail. The building is a single-story masonry structure with a gabled roof. It is rectangular and features a Craftsman-style front porch over the northern entrance, while the southern entrance has a simple shed-roof porch. Two nine-paned windows are in both the eastern and western walls of the building.”

A group was organized to restore the structure in the 1990s. The park and the library were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993.

“Throughout the 1990s, the library was open five days a week and served the community as the only point of internet access in the surrounding area,” Sesser writes. “Grant money was received to repair the stone wall around the park and to replace the roof of the library building. In 2006, the roof of the library was replaced, but it began leaking almost immediately. The library was closed.”

Near Norman is the CCC Company 741 Powder Magazine Historic District. It consists of two stone-and-concrete structures that were used to store powder and blasting caps used by the Civilian Conservation Corps during its work in the Ouachita National Forest.

“CCC Company 741, the oldest CCC company in the Arkansas District, was formed on May 1, 1933, at Camp Pike and moved to Crystal Springs Camp on May 17, 1933,” writes Arkansas historian Mark Christ. “Four side camps were established from the Crystal Springs Camp, including Crystal Valley Camp near Norman. The magazine structures were constructed to serve Crystal Valley, probably around 1936. The company constructed the powder magazine and blasting cap magazine to store explosives for use on projects such as road and bridge construction.

“The powder magazine is the larger of the two buildings. It sits just north of Forest Service Road 177M, about 370 feet southeast of the small blasting cap magazine, which is a 10-by-10 square building. Both buildings are about five feet high with four-inch-thick concrete tops and concrete floors. The cut-stone and concrete walls are about a foot thick. Though they are of simple, functional design, the structures are noteworthy for their association with the contributions of the CCC. They also are notable for their connection to Company 741.”

On the edge of Norman along the banks of the Caddo River is what’s known as the Caddo Indian Memorial. A quarter-mile path allows hikers to read signs explaining the Caddo culture. Unfortunately, several of the signs have been stolen and others are hard to read as maintenance at the memorial has been minimal through the years. The site was a Caddo burial ground where Huddleston Creek runs into the Caddo River.

“In October 1988, the city of Norman had begun excavation at this site for construction of a sewage treatment plant,” Mary Lysobey writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Digging was stopped when bones and artifacts were discovered. Subsequent archaeological excavations by Dr. Ann Early of the Arkansas Archeological Survey found evidence of significant Caddo Indian occupation from 1250-1500. Two burials and a small cluster of residential features and artifacts — including two small incised ceramic jars, a large chert biface and eight novaculite arrow points — were uncovered, indicating that Caddo Indians lived on this plot of ground. Earlier residential use of the site left the remains of a large circular house with a hearth and burned floor. Artifacts of the Archaic and Woodland Fourche Maline periods were also discovered.”

Leaders of the Caddo Indian Nation in Oklahoma asked the city of Norman to relocate the plant, and those wishes were followed. The remains and artifacts were reburied. Caddo Chairman Elmo Clark led a religious ceremony on the grounds in April 1989.

“The burial ground was then covered with a hard-to-dig material to thwart future pilfering and pot hunting,” Lysobey writes. “Grass was planted, and a wooden fence was added to keep vehicles off the premises. The city maintained the area, but nothing indicated that the fence encompassed a sacred place. In 2000, the Southern Montgomery County Development Council received a grant from the Arkansas Humanities Council to create and display interpretive historical signage at the Caddo burial ground. … SMCDC funded and provided the labor to construct a pathway, which was made of natural materials as requested by the Caddo Nation. The path and the signs were in place by the summer of 2002.”

We leave Norman and take Arkansas Highway 27 through the Ouachita National Forest to Mount Ida.

Life traditionally was rough in this mountain community. Writing for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas about the years during and immediately following the Civil War, Debbie Baldwin and Betty Prince note: “With so many men away from their farming duties, citizens of Mount Ida began to suffer from inadequate food supplies even in the early stages of the war. In addition to this hardship, Mount Ida had very little protection from renegades such as jayhawkers and bushwhackers.”

The original Montgomery County Courthouse was dismantled in 1873 and replaced with a two-story frame building. A two-story schoolhouse was built in 1893. A short silver mining boom had brought new people to the area in the 1880s.

By 1920, there were nine general stores, a drugstore, two hardware stores, two blacksmith shops, a garage, two sawmills, a cotton gin, a stave mill, a flour mill and three hotels at Mount Ida. The city received national media attention in 1931-32 when its city council consisted only of women.

Mount Ida’s population was only 566 in the 1950 census, but the construction of nearby Lake Ouachita brought new residents. By the 2010 census, the population had almost doubled to 1,076.

The 1923 Montgomery County Courthouse has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1976.

“The courthouse’s style is often described as Arkansas Adamesque,” Jared Craig writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Designed by Clyde Ferrel and built in 1923, the courthouse is constructed of random-patterned native stone. The structure’s restrained classical elements are reminiscent of courthouses across Arkansas, including pilasters and a stone arch over the principal entrance. The ceiling of the courtroom is made of pressed tin that has been painted white. As county demands grew, Montgomery County built an additional one-story building in 1975 as a courthouse annex.”

Much as is the case at the Stone County Courthouse in north-central Arkansas, music can be heard on the Montgomery Courthouse grounds on Saturday nights.

Craig writes: “In 2000, some Mount Ida residents started the Montgomery County Front Porch to showcase local musicians and others from around the state. A wooden stage, commonly known as the Front Porch Stage, stands on the outer edge of the square where concertgoers sit on the lawn and listen to music. Performances are free to the public. The music includes bluegrass, country and gospel. A concession stand, called the Back Porch Kitchen, serves refreshments. A sound system was donated by the Florida Power & Light Co. following the community’s warm reception to power crews working on downed lines in the area during an ice storm in December 2000.”

Lake Ouachita, which is the largest lake completely within the borders of Arkansas at more than 40,000 acres, changed this area of the state.

Congress had authorized surveys of the Ouachita River as early as 1870 to see if there were ways to prevent floods and improve navigability.

“Nothing was done until the 1920s when Harvey Couch and his company, Arkansas Power & Light Co., began searching for sites for hydroelectric dams along the Ouachita River,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “AP&L built Remmel Dam and Carpenter Dam, which were in place by the early 1930s. Plans for a third, larger dam were announced in 1938 for the Blakely Mountain area. It was to be a joint project of AP&L and the federal government, which would fund $6 million and $2 million of the costs respectively. The following year, AP&L sought federal permission to delay the dam’s construction, but the Federal Power Commission terminated the utility’s permit and proceeded by itself.

“Preliminary core drilling was soon carried out, financed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. However, Congress didn’t appropriate any funds until 1946 when $1 million was appropriated to begin construction. Residents of the area that was slated to be inundated had been leaving since the 1930s, and the exodus accelerated as work began. The town of Buckville in Garland County was relocated to high ground, though little remains of it today. The relocation of graves was completed in 1952, and the clearing of the area for the reservoir took place in 1951-52. By 1952, the dam portion of the project was complete and already serving flood-control purposes. Construction on an electric power plant began. The power plant went online, generating its first electric power on July 17, 1955.”

The official dedication of Blakely Mountain Dam occurred on July 4, 1956, with U.S. Sen. John L. McClellan and Congressman William F. Norrell on the program.

“Blakely Mountain Dam is composed of about 4 million cubic yards of earth drawn from the surrounding area,” Lancaster writes. “This material proved to be high in clay content and thus suitable for a dam. It was constructed by Groves, Lundin & Cox, contractors based in Minneapolis, at a final cost of $31 million. The dam is 231 feet tall and 1,100 feet long. The generators in the dam’s power plant are capable of producing 75,000 kilowatt hours of power. Blakely Mountain Dam’s position on the Ouachita River, higher than Remmel and Carpenter dams, lessens the likelihood of those dams facing flood stage.”

The creation of Lake Ouachita State Park as a legal entity occurred in 1955, but the park wasn’t officially established or staffed until 1965. Many of the structures at the park were built in the 1970s. Park improvements since the 1990s have included a visitors’ center, cabins and additional campsites. The park’s location once was known as Three Sisters Springs.

According to the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism: “In 1875, homesteader John McFadden claimed that three springs on his property about 12 miles north of Hot Springs possessed healing properties. The springs’ collective name, Three Sisters, reputedly was derived from the fact that McFadden had three daughters. In 1907, W.M. Cecil and his partners bought the property. Cecil later bought out his partners and began developing McFadden’s Three Sisters Springs Resort. By the mid-1930s, its facilities included cottages, a springhouse and a bottling plant. Claiming each spring could cure a different set of diseases, Cecil distributed his bottled World’s Wonder Waters across the country. Analyses have since shown waters from all three springs contain the same elements — such as iron, potassium and sodium — in slightly different proportions.

“After the site underwent another ownership change in 1939, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers acquired it in 1951 in conjunction with its Lake Ouachita construction project. The actual lake was completed in 1952 but wasn’t opened to the general public until 1955 when the nearby power plant was completed. The Corps approached the state that year about establishing the state park to preserve the Three Sisters springs and leased the state 360 acres, including the springs, for park development.”

There are a number of popular commercial ventures along the south side of the lake with access roads off U.S. Highway 270.

There’s Lake Ouachita Shores, the closest of the establishments to Mount Ida. It long was known as Denby Point Lodge & Marina. It offers motel rooms, cabins and a marina.

There’s Crystal Springs Resort, which the Tommy Trantham family (yes that Tommy Trantham, the former Razorback who was a three-time All-Southwest Conference selection at defensive back from 1965-67) operated for many years. Crystal Springs has a marina with a snack bar and gift shop, a restaurant that’s open during the summer months, a motel, several cabins overlooking the marina and a 14-bedroom lodge with meeting facilities.

There’s Brady Mountain Resort, which has a marina with more than 650 slips, a marina store, lakeside lodging and seasonal dining.

There’s Echo Canyon Resort, which long was known as the Spillway Resort & Marina. It also has a marina, lodging and a restaurant.

The largest and fanciest of the private developments along the lake is Mountain Harbor Resort & Spa. It has been owned and operated by the Barnes family since 1955 when Hal Barnes discovered a nice harbor near Hickory Nut Mountain. His son Bill Barnes, who earlier this year was inducted into the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame, later took over the operation. Bill is still active, but there’s also a third generation of the family involved in a development that offers not only what the other resorts along the lake offer (marina, lodging, restaurant) but also a full spa, three swimming pools, the most upscale condos on the lake and a large conference center.

The establishment on Lake Ouachita that really takes me back in time is Shangri-La Resort, where I would stay with my family when I was a boy. My father loved to fish for bass and crappie. DeGray Lake, near my hometown of Arkadelphia, had yet to fill up. So we would come to spend weekends at Shangri-La so my dad could fish and I could swim while my mother watched.

Longtime Arkansas food and travel writer Kat Robinson wrote in 2017: “Daniel Maurice and Louise Mowbray Hunter opened the Shangri-La Resort just after Blakely Dam was completed to hold in Lake Ouachita. They started out with six motel rooms and two cabins and expanded through the years. From what I’ve been told, Austin and Varine Carr came on about a month before the resort opened. Austin, as the carpenter, built many of the buildings at the resort. The Carrs became part owners of the resort in 1979 or 1980 and full owners in 2006.

“Varine Carr assisted in the kitchen, eventually taking over the cafe. Though Ida Todd and Rosemary Johnson started the legacy of making delectable pies at Shangri-La, it’s Mrs. Carr who has perfected them and become so well known for them. … It it wasn’t for the modern vehicles parked here and there, it would be hard to discern it from photos from long ago. Postcards from years past show the same idyllic scene — a series of small cabins and a long, single-story motor-court hotel spread along a peninsula into Lake Ouachita; a series of boat docks; lush vegetation of the forest separated from the deep blue waters of the lake by a tan strip of shoreline; the white-and-red aluminum awning that keeps the sun from shining directly into the cafe; the neon tubes over the red-and-white sign denoting the location of the cafe and office. … It’s a nostalgic wander down an asphalt lane to a different time when heading to the lake meant losing complete contact with civilization.”

I’m often asked who has the best homemade pie in Arkansas. The restaurant at Shangri-La gets my vote.

Post to Twitter

Food Hall of Fame: Take two

Tuesday, March 20th, 2018

Another Arkansas Food Hall of Fame induction ceremony is in the books.

Our state has a diverse food culture that always has been a bit in the shadow of surrounding states. Thankfully, the Department of Arkansas Heritage last year chose to start the Hall of Fame to recognize restaurants, proprietors and even food-themed events.

I’m honored to be on the selection committee and to have been the master of ceremonies for the annual event the past two years. There were 450 nominations submitted this year to our website in all categories. That’s 150 more than last year, a good sign that this effort is growing.

We will induct three restaurants each year into the Hall of Fame.

The choices in our inaugural year were Jones Bar-B-Que Diner of Marianna, the Lassis Inn of Little Rock and Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales of Lake Village. I don’t think anyone on the selection committee realized it at the time, but all three of those restaurants are owned by African-Americans. I thought that was justified since blacks have contributed so much to the Arkansas food culture through the years.

The three restaurants chosen this year were Franke’s Cafeteria of Little Rock, the Venesian Inn of Tontitown and McClard’s Bar-B-Q of Hot Springs.

In 1919, C.A. Franke opened a doughnut shop on Capitol Avenue in Little Rock. He built a large bakery on Third Street in 1922 and deployed a fleet of trucks nicknamed “wife-savers” that made home deliveries across the capital city. In 1924, he opened Franke’s Cafeteria near major downtown department stores. Franke’s later expanded to multiple locations across the state. There are two remaining locations, both in Little Rock. One is downtown in the Regions Bank Building and the other is on Rodney Parham Road.

The Venesian Inn is in a community that was settled by Italian immigrants who were escaping the mosquitoes and malaria of the Sunnyside Plantation in southeast Arkansas. Germano Gasparotto opened a restaurant in 1947 and later sold it to fellow Italian-Americans John and Mary Granata. The restaurant and its recipes stayed in the family through the years. The signature dish is fried chicken and spaghetti. I consider that a perfect combination of Arkansas and Italy. Visits to the Venesian Inn have been a tradition for decades of fans attending University of Arkansas football and basketball games in nearby Fayetteville. The restaurant still uses the original wooden tables installed by Gasparotto.

McClard’s history of fine barbecue dates back to 1928 when Alex and Alice McClard were running a motor court and gas station in Hot Springs. A man who had spent the night at the motor court was unable to pay his bill but offered to pay with what he claimed was the recipe for the world’s greatest barbecue sauce. The McClards had no choice but to take him up on his offer. They secured the recipe and began serving it on the goat they were selling to travelers. The goat is long gone, but the sauce is still there for beef and pork. So are fourth-generation family members.

There were nine other finalists this year. I predict that all of them will be inducted at some point. They were:

Bruno’s Little Italy of Little Rock: Italian immigrant brothers Nicola, Gennaro, Vincenzo and Giovanni Bruno all immigrated to this country from Naples through New York’s Ellis Island. They brought with them Italian recipes and cooking skills. Giovanni’s son Vince — who was known as Jimmy — was stationed at Camp Robinson during World War II and returned soon after the war ended to open his first restaurant in the Levy neighborhood of North Little Rock. He was known for spinning pizza dough in view of his customers while singing loudly. His sons Jay, Vince and Gio grew up watching their father work. There have been numerous locations through the decades, but the original recipes still are used at the current location on Main Street in downtown Little Rock.

DeVito’s of Eureka Springs: Since opening the restaurant in 1988, James DeVito has been attracting area residents and tourists with Italian cuisine, fresh trout and locally sourced ingredients. Those who go to Eureka Springs year after year tend to put DeVito’s on their list of must-visit restaurants. I know that’s the case in our family.

Dixie Pig of Blytheville: Since 1923, the Halsell family has been serving up pork barbecue with its famous “pig sandwiches” as they’re called in Blytheville. I’ve previously declared Blytheville as the barbecue capital of Arkansas, and the Dixie Pig is one of the reasons why. Ernest Halsell opened the Rustic Inn in 1923, and the Dixie Pig is a direct descendant of that restaurant. It draws barbecue enthusiasts from Arkansas, Tennessee and the Missouri Bootheel.

Doe’s Eat Place of Little Rock: George Eldridge was a pilot who frequently would fly business clients to Greenville, Miss., to eat at the original Doe’s Eat Place on Nelson Street. In 1988, he convinced the Signa family of Greenville to let him open a downtown Little Rock restaurant using the same name and concept. When Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign staff and the national media began hanging out in Eldridge’s restaurant during the 1992 campaign, the Little Rock location became more famous than the original. The private room behind the kitchen at Doe’s is the place to be for political fundraisers and meetings in the capital city.

Feltner’s Whatta-Burger of Russellville: Please don’t confuse this with that chain that’s based in Corpus Christi, Texas. Bob Feltner opened the doors of this restaurant on Thanksgiving Day in 1967. He earlier had operated other restaurants in the city, including one called the Wonder Burger. But the Whatta-Burger had staying power. Generations of Arkansas Tech University students, along with Razorback fans driving to and from Fayetteville, have kept the lines long at this classic.

Kream Kastle of Blytheville: In 1952, Steven Johns kept the menu simple. He sold hot dogs, hot dogs with chili and hot dogs with chili and onions. By 1955, however, he had added a barbecue pit and was soon serving his own “pig sandwiches.” In fact, it’s those sandwiches that put the restaurant on the map. The debate over which sandwich is better — the one at the Dixie Pig or the one at the Kream Kastle — has gone on for years. Steven’s daughter Suzanne and husband Jeff Wallace now operate the drive-in.

Neal’s Cafe of Springdale: Housed in a landmark pink building, Neal’s has become more than just a restaurant through the years. It’s a center of the community; a place that draws people together and engages them in conversation. The restaurant was opened by Toy and Bertha Neal in 1944, and the Neal family has owned the business through four generations. Local business owners meet for breakfast and discuss community issues there. At lunch and dinner, people drive from throughout northwest Arkansas for entrees such a chicken fried steak with gravy and chicken and dumplings.

Ed Walkers Drive In of Fort Smith: Anyone who grew up in Fort Smith can tell you about Ed Walker’s. It opened in 1946 and was soon thriving thanks to the car-crazy culture of the 1950s. Even the sign out front that advertises “French dipped sandwiches” is a classic. Visitors also can’t go wrong with burgers and pie in a place that harkens back to Fort Smith’s roots as a tough, blue-collar town where the food was simple and served in large portions.

White House Cafe of Camden: This is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the state. A Greek immigrant named Hristos Hodjopulas opened the White House near the railroad depot in 1907. Camden was booming in those days, and the restaurant was soon operating 24 hours a day. It just serves lunch and dinner these days. There’s everything on the menu from Southern classics to Tex-Mex food. Original furnishings remain. It’s like stepping back in time.

A new category this year was the Gone But Not Forgotten category.

The winner was Cotham’s Mercantile of Scott. Cotham’s long run ended when a fire broke out early on a Tuesday morning in May of last year. It destroyed the century-old building that hung out over Horseshoe Lake. The structure had once housed a general store that served farmers in a thriving area of cotton plantations and pecan orchards.

In 1984, the store began serving lunch and became a favorite of then-U.S. Sen. David Pryor. It was Pryor who first told me about Cotham’s in the late 1980s when I was covering Washington for the Arkansas Democrat. I made the trip to Scott for the famous hubcap burger on my next visit to Arkansas. I instantly was hooked by the place that used the motto “where the elite meet to eat.”

In 1999, Cotham’s in the City opened at the corner of Third and Victory streets near the state Capitol. The building once had housed the capital city’s first fern bar (yes, they were all the rage in the 1970s), a TGI Friday’s. During the years I spent working in the governor’s office, I made frequent walks down the hill for lunch at the Little Rock location. The menu was the same, but there’s nothing quite like sitting near farmers on the banks of an oxbow lake at Scott. There are no plans to rebuild the Scott location.

The other three finalists in the Gone But Not Forgotten category were Coy’s of Hot Springs, Jacques & Suzanne of Little Rock and Klappenbach Bakery of Fordyce.

As soon as I looked down from the podium and saw the tears in Coy Theobalt’s eyes, I knew this new category meant a great deal. Coy’s burned down in January 2009 on the eve of the thoroughbred race meet at Oaklawn Park. Theobalt grew up watching his parents operate the restaurant, which opened in 1945.

“It was seven days a week for them with no vacations,” he said. “It convinced me that I didn’t want to do it. It means a lot to our family to see that so many people have fond memories of the restaurant.”

Family members came from multiple states to see Coy’s honored. Growing up in Arkadelphia, Hot Springs was the place my family went to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and the like. My late father’s three favorite Hot Springs restaurants — Coy’s, Mrs. Miller’s and Mollie’s — are all gone.

I sometimes was allowed to tag along with my parents for anniversary dinners. When I think of Coy’s, I remember valet parking, Mountain Valley Water in big green bottles, booths with the names of certain families attached to them (I aspired to have a booth named after me one day, a goal I never achieved) and warm crackers dipped in house dressing. If it were during the Oaklawn race meet, you could expect a long wait before being seated in the restaurant at 300 Coy St., just off Grand Avenue.

With the opening of Jacques & Suzanne in 1975 atop what’s now the Regions Bank Building in downtown Little Rock, the Continental Cuisine team of Paul Bash, Ed Moore, Louis Petit and Denis Seyer set the stage for other quality restaurants such as Graffiti’s, Restaurant 1620, the Purple Cow and Alouette’s. Their former employees opened additional establishments such as Andre’s and Cafe St. Moritz.

It’s fair to say that Jacques & Suzanne took dining out in Arkansas to a new level. Arkansans accustomed to pork barbecue and fried catfish learned about escargot, caviar and souffles. The dishes were prepared by classically trained chefs, and the kitchen served as a sort of graduate school for those working there. It wasn’t an accident that Bash, Moore, Petit and Seyer won the Proprietor of the Year award during the first Arkansas Food Hall of Fame induction ceremony last year. Jacques & Suzanne closed in 1986, but its influence remains strong more than three decades later.

Often when a place that I consider an Arkansas classic closes, it’s because the owners are tired. As Theobalt noted, it’s a tough business. Klappenbach Bakery is an example of that. The bakery and restaurant, which for 36 years graced the downtown of the Dallas County seat, closed in September 2011. After iconic college football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, it was one of the best-known things to come out of Fordyce.

There are certain places that come to define a town. Klappenbach was one of those places. Norman Klappenbach was 80 and his wife Lee was 77 at the time of the closure. Son Paul, who was 47 at the time, grew up in the business and spent the seven years prior to the closure working full time there. He came in at 3 a.m. and said the 65-hour workweeks had depleted his energy. He had been unable to find an assistant baker.

When the hard-working owners of such establishments die or retire, there’s often no one to take their place. The children have no interest in long hours and limited revenues. Buyers can be hard to find, especially in rural areas that are losing population. Once they’re gone, they’re gone for good.

Post to Twitter

El Dorado to Camden

Tuesday, December 26th, 2017

SECOND IN A SERIES

A few oil wells are visible as we make our way north out of El Dorado on Arkansas Highway 7.

By 1925, there were almost 3,500 wells in Union County pumping 69 million barrels of oil. Production declined significantly by the late 1930s.

We’re on a divided, four-lane portion of the highway. It’s easy to speed on this stretch, which passes near Norphlet and touches the outskirts of Smackover.

There are small, rolling hills and millions of pine trees.

“The forested hills of Union County were thinly populated until after the Civil War and Reconstruction,” Steven Teske writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The railroad industry, combined with the timber industry, brought new life to the area. The St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway built a line running from Gurdon through El Dorado that was completed in January 1891. Norphlet was one of several depots created along the railway. The timber industry was prominent in the settlement of Norphlet for the first 30 years of its existence.

“The town was reportedly named for Nauphlet Goodwin, but the name Nauphlet was misspelled as Norphlet by the Postal Department when the town’s post office was created in 1891. Norphlet was actually the third name selected for the small settlement. Its post office was first designated Haymos and then Jess before becoming Norphlet, all in the same year.”

The oil boom changed everything.

Employees of Oil Operators Trust struck a pocket of natural gas on May 14, 1922. The gas began to escape at a rate of 65 million to 75 million cubic feet per day.

“Efforts to cap the hole were ineffective, and on the morning of May 16, the gas ignited, shooting flames more than 300 feet into the air and creating a crater at least 450 feet across and 75 feet deep,” Teske writes. “The explosion and fire, which demolished the oil derrick, sent fragments of shale up to 10 miles away from Norphlet. A second well, drilled a few weeks later in an effort to reduce the fuel supply of the fire, also caught fire and created a second crater. But the oil industry continued to thrive in Union County as the Smackover Field was successfully tapped in other locations.

“Many oil workers came to Norphlet and the other communities of the area, and hotels, taverns and other businesses quickly arose. Prostitution and gambling were prevalent, and law enforcement only gradually began to establish order in the region. … The population fluctuated at first but became more stable when the MacMillan Oil Refinery was established in the city. The oil refinery closed in 1987. The property was bought by Nor-Ark Industrial Corp. but was abandoned in 1991. Oil had contaminated surrounding waters, leading the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the site through its national Superfund program. The cleanup was completed in 1997.”

And what about that crater from 1922?

It’s filled with water and surrounded by a fence. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.

Norphlet’s population fell from 1,063 residents in the 1930 census to 459 in 1960. It was back up to 844 by 2010 with many residents driving into El Dorado for work.

Nearby Smackover, meanwhile, fell from 2,544 residents in the 1930 census to 1,865 in the 2010 census.

The Smackover Field, which covers 68 square miles, led the nation in oil output in 1925.

“The name Smackover is possibly derived from chemin couvert (meaning covered way), though later histories attribute the name to an 18th-century French description of the north and south-central areas of Union and Ouachita counties dubbed sumac couvert, meaning covered with sumac,” writes local historian Don Lambert.

Prior to the discovery of oil, the economy in this area of the state was dominated by cotton farming and a timber industry that moved in to clear the virgin forests.

A post office designated as Smackover opened in 1879 about five miles from the town’s current location. An unincorporated town named Henderson City sprung up along the railroad that ran from Camden to Alexandria, La. The Smackover post office moved there, and the community became known as Smackover.

“By 1908, Sidney Albert Umsted operated a large sawmill and logging venture two miles north of town,” Lambert writes. “He believed that oil lay beneath the earth’s surface in the region. Few paid attention, but Umsted quietly went about buying land and leasing what was not for sale. An economic blockbuster was about to alter the destiny of a town and its people. In July 1922, Umsted’s wildcat well reached a depth of 2,066 feet. Abruptly, a rumble came from deep beneath the earth’s surface. The crew stepped away, listening. Suddenly, a thick black column of oil burst forth and spurted high above the earth.

“Within six months, 1,000 wells had been drilled with a success rate of 92 percent. The little town had increased from a mere 90 people to 25,000, and its uncommon name would quickly attain national attention. Smackover was officially incorporated on Nov. 3, 1922. Lawlessness was so rampant that, among the 25 petitioners on the incorporation document, none was willing to hold public office. Later that month, the town saw a multi-day riot of unbridled violence. The town’s population steadily declined as oil companies and their employees moved away when more lucrative oil discoveries were made in Texas and Oklahoma. About 100 independent oil companies replaced the 12 major petroleum corporations in this period.”

The population dropped from 25,000 to 2,500, and an environmental disaster was left behind.

Exploration and drilling increased again during World War II due to heavy demand. The oil industry is still active here, though most operators are small.

Umsted, known as the “Father of the Smackover Oil Field,” had been born in Texas in 1876. His father abandoned the family, and his mother moved her children back to her native Chidester in Ouachita County when Sid Umsted was a boy. She remarried when her son was 8, and the family headed to north Louisiana and settled on a farm near Bernice. Umsted worked in sawmills across north Louiana as a teenager. He owned a sawmill near Homer by the time he was 22 and later moved his operations to Junction City on the Arkansas-Louisiana line. He moved farther north to the Smackover area in 1905.

“His mill served as the primary source of employment in an otherwise undeveloped economic area,” Don Lambert and John Ragsdale write for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “He immediately purchased and leased several hundred acres of land north into Ouachita County with the bulk of it situated in what’s now recognized as the Standard-Umsted/Snow Hill locale. In 1919, oil was discovered in northern Louisiana. Umsted was familiar with the area and recognized that his Arkansas land embodied surface characteristics similar to the acreage that spawned the prolific Homer oil field. By 1921, successful oil discoveries were made in the El Dorado region only 12 miles south of Smackover. Umsted quickly organized an exploration venture that included four partners from Camden — W.W. Brown, T.J. Gaughan, J.D. Reynolds and J.C. Usery, who shared a half-interest with the V.K.F. Oil Co. of Shreveport, which agreed to drill one well for a small share.”

The July 1922 gusher and subsequent discoveries made Umsted and his partners wealthy.

The area around Umsted’s sawmill was purchased in 1923 by the Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey. A small community still goes by the unusual name of Standard-Umsted. Now a millionaire, Umsted built a mansion in Camden in 1924 that still stands. In October 1925, a train on which Umsted was riding derailed in Mississippi. He died Nov. 3, 1925, in a Memphis hospital at the age of just 49.

As we drive along Highway 7 talking about the area’s fascinating history, I want to know more about that November 1922 Smackover riot.

Nancy Snell Griffith writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “A hooded and robed cleanup committee — possibly members of the Ku Klux Klan or some related group — rode through the Smackover oil fields in order to drive away ‘undesirable’ people such as saloon owners and gamblers. The vigilantes killed at least one person, shot at others and destroyed buildings. There were widespread reports of floggings and even cases of people being tarred and feathered.

“This multi-day riot mirrored other vigilante actions in the newly established oil fields in Arkansas. The previous February, the citizens of El Dorado had formed a Law Enforcement League for the same purpose. … On Nov. 27, more than 200 masked and robed men drove through Smackover in cars, carrying signs that warned ‘gamblers and others of the lawless element’ to leave the area within 24 hours.”

The incident received nationwide attention. The New York Times reported that the Nov. 24 murder of a worker named Ed Cox had led to the events. The Arkansas Gazette reported that there also was a murder the next night of a driller named Cotton Parsons outside a bar in the Smackover Field settlement of Patagonia.

Some newspapers ran sensational reports that couldn’t be verified.

The Seattle Star said that “2,000 bootleggers, dive keepers and gamblers are aligned against the vigilantes in a skirmish, which first flared last night and raged for hours.”

The Washington Times reported that a mob of 200 “white-robed and masked men” had taken on gamblers and oil workers in “one of the most spectacular engagements ever noted in this section.”

Some newspapers reported incorrectly that as many as 75 people had been killed or wounded. The New York Times later reported that one man had been killed with four injured and five tarred and feathered.

One thing is clear. Large numbers of the so-called undesirables began leaving the area after these events.

“By Nov. 30, about 1,100 had departed by train from nearby Camden,” Griffith writes. “Although there were rumors that they were gathering in Union County to seek their revenge, Ouachita County authorities assured residents that there would be no more trouble. On Dec. 1, the Arkansas Gazette reported that Sheriff Ed Harper had returned to Camden after touring the oil fields. He found no sign of further trouble and reported that ‘the undesirable element seems to have been thoroughly cleaned out.’

“Smackover constable Hampton Lewis and local bank cashier O.B. Gordon ‘deplored the publicity given the raids, merely a repetition of events which had occurred in all new oil fields.'”

The Arkansas Gazette finally reported that the only death that could be attributed to the vigilantes was that of E.J. Wood at a settlement known as Ouachita City.

Griffith writes: “Unmasked members of the vigilance committee approached what they believed to be a gambling house, supposedly owned by Wood and Slim Sanders. Upon their arrival, Wood ran out the door. Committee members told him to halt, and he was shot when he refused. Wood was initially reported tarred and feathered, but this was later proven false. The house itself was burned down by the committee. According to recently elected sheriff J.B. Newton, all reports of a pitched battle, tarring and feathering and burned buildings were highly exaggerated; most of the gunshots had been fired into the air, and Sanders’ building had been torn down.”

The New York Times said that at least 400 of the reported 2,000 vigilantes were on the payroll of oil companies. Other sources said the size of the vigilante group was only about 200.

Griffith writes: “No one was ever arrested for the murder of E.J. Wood. The coroner’s jury met and found that he had died at the hands of persons unknown.”

Our trip along Highway 7 takes us right by one of the best places to learn more about this colorful period in south Arkansas history, the Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources. In 1975, area civic leaders and legislators began campaigning for a museum. In 1977, the Arkansas Legislature levied a tax on oil production in Arkansas to fund construction of a museum. Two years later, the Legislature levied a tax on brine, from which bromine is extracted. Bromine is used for making pesticides, flame retardants, medicines and other products.

The project gained additional momentum in 1980 when Jack Turner of El Dorado donated 19 acres near Smackover for the museum. The Arkansas Oil and Brine Museum opened in May 1986. It was renamed the Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources in 1997.

The museum is operated by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism, which describes it this way: “The 25,000-square-foot exhibition center includes vintage photographs; an auditorium that features two videos; a Center of the Earth exhibit that visitors enter through a circular corridor depicting rock strata in the earth; a geologic time scale and fossil exhibit explaining how oil is formed; metal-cast and life-size roughnecks working an oil derrick; exhibits on family life in the oil fields; dozens of vintage automobile gasoline pumps and petroleum company signs; exhibits on life in the area before the boom; and exhibits on modern drilling techniques.

“A high-tech elevator takes visitors through time from a Jurassic period sea floor to the Industrial Revolution. An adjoining exhibit focuses on the evolution of oil consumption from 1922 through modern times. From this exhibit, visitors can peer from a replica of the Rogerson Hotel’s second-floor veranda overlooking a re-created, boom-era street scene in Smackover. The scene, which can also be explored on the first floor, includes numerous storefronts, a jail, a newspaper office, mannequins in period dress and vintage automobiles.

“Outside, the center’s Oilfield Park features operating examples of the oil-producing technology employed from the 1920s through today. The park contains a 112-foot wooden derrick similar to the one at the original Busey No. 1 Well in El Dorado. For those wanting to see an active oil field, the museum’s staff has prepared maps for either six- or 15-mile driving tours of the Smackover Field that reveal remnants of early production such as salt flats. The field is located just north of the museum.”

As we drive north, we cross into Ouachita County, passing through the community of Elliott on our way to Camden on the Ouachita River.

Post to Twitter

Arkansas now has a Food Hall of Fame

Tuesday, March 14th, 2017

Dressed in her Sunday best, Rhoda Adams sat in the lobby of the Ron Robinson Theater in Little Rock’s River Market District on a stormy Tuesday night, flanked by Lake Village Mayor JoAnne Bush and former state Rep. Sam Angel.

Bush and Angel had made sure that the lady commonly known as Miss Rhoda, who doesn’t get out of southeast Arkansas much these days, was in the capital city for the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame’s first induction ceremony.

The Food Hall of Fame, a project of the Department of Arkansas Heritage, was about to induct three restaurants from a list of 12 finalists, and Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales of Lake Village was on that list.

Arkansans nominated 59 restaurants in the inaugural year. A committee of food experts narrowed the list down to Bruno’s Little Italy of Little Rock, Craig’s Bar-B-Q of DeValls Bluff, Doe’s Eat Place of Little Rock, Feltner’s Whatta-Burger of Russellville, Franke’s Cafeteria of Little Rock, Jones Bar-B-Q Diner of Marianna, the Kream Kastle of Blytheville, the Lassis Inn of Little Rock, McClard’s Bar-B-Q of Hot Springs, Neal’s Café of Springdale, Rhoda’s and Sims Bar-B-Que of Little Rock.

Adams’ restaurant was one of the three inducted, and she made her way to the stage to receive her award from Gov. Asa Hutchinson. The other two restaurants in the inaugural class are the Lassis Inn and Jones Bar-B-Q Diner. The three establishments specialize in tamales and country-style plate lunches (which Adams serves), fried fish and barbecue — staples of the Arkansas diet, especially in the Delta.

All three restaurants happen to be owned by African-Americans, a powerful symbol of how food can bring people together in a state that too often during its history was divided along racial lines.

People come from across the Delta — not only Arkansas but also Louisiana and Mississippi — to eat with Adams. She has been serving her special blend of tamales for more than 40 years, often selling them out of the back of her car along U.S. Highway 65 in Dumas, McGehee and other southeast Arkansas cities. Private planes have been known to land in Lake Village, shuttling executives from Little Rock for lunch at Rhoda’s.

Adams, 78, was hesitant to get into the business of making tamales. She once told a reporter: “My husband’s auntie asked me about us doing it, but I never wanted to do any hot tamales. We started doing about 25 dozen a day. I kind of liked it, but I didn’t like it without a machine.”

Her husband eventually bought her a machine to craft the tamales. Adams is one of 15 children. She has almost 60 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Adams also treats those who love her cooking like family, regaling them with stories as they eat lunch.

The famous food writer Michael Stern once noted: “Beyond tamales, the menu is a full roster of great, soulful regional specialties. For fried chicken or pigs feet, barbecue or catfish dinner, you won’t do better for miles around. Early one morning, Rhoda made us a breakfast of bacon and eggs with biscuits on the side. Even this simple meal tasted especially wonderful. Rhoda is one of those gifted cooks who makes everything she touches something special. We’ve always considered Arkansas one of America’s top seven pie states (along with Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Virginia, Texas and Maine). Rhoda’s pies are proof. She makes small individual ones. … Her sweet potato and pecan pie are world class.”

Next up, the Lassis Inn.

In a small wooden building near where Roosevelt Road passes under Interstate 30 in Little Rock, Elihue Washington Jr. cooks some of the state’s best fried fish (catfish and buffalo) at the Lassis Inn. The restaurant’s roots date back to 1905 when Joe Watson began selling sandwiches out of his house. He later added fish to the menu, and sales soared.

In 1931, Watson literally moved the building that housed his business to East 27th Street and named it the Lassis Inn. In 1957, the building had to be moved back 12 feet to allow room for the construction of what’s now Interstate 30.

Washington bought the business in 1990 and has been there almost every day since, cooking some of this state’s best buffalo ribs, catfish steaks and catfish filets. The Lassis Inn also has a fine selection of songs on its jukebox, though the sign on the wall notes that there’s “no dancing.”

Then there’s the barbecue shrine at Marianna.

Jones Bar-B-Q Diner has been a part of the Delta food culture for more than a century. The folks at the Southern Foodways Alliance believe it might be the oldest continuously operated black-owned restaurant in the South.

Current owner James Harold Jones says it started with his grandfather’s uncle. His grandfather and father continued the family tradition of slow-smoking pork over hickory, and Jones’ father moved to the current location in 1964. The methods for cooking the barbecue, preparing the slaw and mixing the sauce haven’t changed in more than a century. In 2012, the James Beard Foundation honored Jones Bar-B-Q Diner as one of its American Classics, making it the first Arkansas restaurant to earn a coveted Beard Award.

The award hangs on the wall adjacent to the counter where Jones stands to take orders.

The finely chopped pork, which is smoked just behind the small dining room, comes with a vinegar-based sauce and a mustard-based slaw. It’s served between two pieces of white bread rather than on buns.

The only change in the tiny cinderblock room since the award was presented almost five years ago is that Jones added a guestbook to record the many states from which barbecue aficionados hail. Jones only smokes so much meat each day. When it’s gone, it’s gone, and that’s often before 10 a.m. Some customers making the barbecue pilgrimage to Marianna now arrive as early as 7 a.m. to buy meat by the pound.

The first three Food Hall of Fame restaurants in Arkansas — Rhoda’s Hot Tamales, Lassis Inn and Jones Bar-B-Q Diner — tell us a lot about the culture of a state that has never received the national attention it deserves when it comes to its cuisine.

I can’t imagine a better trio for the inaugural induction class. And I have no doubt that this year’s other nine finalists will be inducted in the years ahead. They also are fine representatives of who we are as Arkansans.

Bruno’s, which is now on Main Street in Little Rock, has its roots in Italy, specifically Naples. Four brothers came to this country from Naples more than a century ago. They brought their style of cooking and baking to New York and Chicago.

One of the brothers was named Giovanni. His son Vincent (better known as Jimmy) was stationed at Camp Robinson during World War II. Jimmy Bruno returned to the state after the war and opened his Little Italy Café in the Levy neighborhood of North Little Rock. Bruno was as good an entertainer as he was a chef. He would spin pizza dough and toss it high into the air to the delight of his customers. He was known to sing loudly in the kitchen. The restaurant has been in several locations through the years, but the recipes remain the same.

Doe’s, meanwhile, was the brainchild of entrepreneur George Eldridge. It opened in 1988. Eldridge, a pilot, had been flying friends for years to the original Doe’s in Greenville, Miss., for steaks and tamales. He paid the Signa family for the rights to use the Doe’s name in Little Rock.

The Little Rock Doe’s became more famous than the original in 1992. That’s because key staffers for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign began hanging out there on a nightly basis, and the media followed, turning out stories about Lucille Robinson’s work in the kitchen. One of the many photos on the walls of the restaurant features Eldridge and Robinson at Clinton’s presidential inauguration in January 1993.

Cafeterias once were far more common in the state than they are now, and Franke’s helped pioneer the concept in 1924. C.A. Franke opened a doughnut shop on Capitol Avenue in Little Rock in 1919 and built a large bakery on Third Street three years later. His fleet of bakery trucks could be seen across the city as the drivers made home deliveries.

The cafeteria opened downtown near the city’s major department stores and became a favorite of those who worked in the stores and those who shopped downtown. Franke’s, which now has two locations in Little Rock, once had locations in other Arkansas cities. You can still get the cafeteria’s well-known eggplant casserole and egg custard pie.

The other Little Rock restaurant on the list, Sims, dates back to 1937 when Allen and Amelia Sims opened their establishment. After working at the 33rd Street location for many years, Ron Settlers took over the restaurant and expanded the concept to multiple locations. Sims has been featured on numerous television programs and in national magazines through the years.

In Russellville, Feltner’s Whatta-Burger is not to be confused with that Texas-based chain. Bob Feltner once owned the Wonder-Burger near the Arkansas Tech University campus but decided to move over to the Arkansas Avenue portion of Arkansas Highway 7 so he could take advantage of the heavier traffic. Customers have been lining up for the burgers and generous portions of fries there since Thanksgiving Day 1967. The Whatta-Burger has served several generations of Arkansas Tech students along with thousands of people making the trip to and from Fayetteville for University of Arkansas athletic events.

In Springdale, Neal’s Café has been a fixture since 1944. Housed in a distinctive pink building, it’s the place where politicians and business leaders gather for breakfast and where others go for dinners of country cooking such as pan-fried chicken and homemade pies. Neal’s is the type of place that once was common across Arkansas — a gathering spot that brings people together for lively conversations. Arkansas is worse off for the demise of such locally owned businesses. Thank goodness Neal’s is still going strong.

The Kream Kastle opened in July 1952 in the then-booming cotton center of Blytheville when Steven Johns began selling hot dogs out of a small building with only window service. One early ad for the Kream Kastle read: “Take home a sack of six for $1.”

In 1955, Johns added a barbecue pit. The drive-in restaurant is now best known for its pork barbecue sandwiches, referred to in Blytheville as “pig sandwiches.” The restaurant is operated by Johns’ daughter, Suzanne Johns Wallace, and her husband, Jeff Wallace.

The Kream Kastle ranks high on my list of favorite barbecue places in the state, as does Craig’s in DeValls Bluff. In 1947, Lawrence Craig and his brother Wes opened Craig Brothers Café in that community along the White River. Lawrence Craig had learned to cook on a boat on the Mississippi River, and word of his skill at producing fine barbecue soon had people traveling to Craig’s from as far away as Little Rock to the west and Memphis to the east.

As far as national notoriety, McClard’s just might be the most famous Arkansas restaurant of them all. Bill Clinton grew up nearby, and the national media produced a number of stories on McClard’s during Clinton’s eight years as president.

The McClard family was running a tourist court in the 1920s that also included a gas station and a small diner specializing in barbecued goat. A guest at the tourist court was unable to pay his bill but offered instead the recipe for what he claimed was the world’s best barbecue sauce. The family accepted the recipe in lieu of cash payment, made a few changes to it through the years and ended up with a restaurant where waits for seats are common even during the middle of the afternoon. A fourth generation of the McClard family is now working at the restaurant, which is sure to be a future inductee into the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame.

Post to Twitter

Rex’s Rankings: The playoffs continue

Monday, November 14th, 2016

A number of the state’s top teams received byes in the first round of the high school football playoffs.

There were a few upsets (such as Watson Chapel over Sylvan Hills in Class 5A) but not many.

This week, it gets serious.

Here are the updated rankings as we enter the second week of the playoffs:

Overall

  1. Fayetteville
  2. Greenwood
  3. North Little Rock
  4. Pulaski Academy
  5. Bentonville
  6. Wynne
  7. Springdale Har-Ber
  8. Fort Smith Northside
  9. Pine Bluff
  10. Warren

Class 7A

  1. Fayetteville
  2. North Little Rock
  3. Bentonville
  4. Springdale Har-Ber
  5. Fort Smith Northside

Class 6A

  1. Greenwood
  2. Pine Bluff
  3. Jonesboro
  4. Russellville
  5. Benton

Class 5A

  1. Pulaski Academy
  2. Wynne
  3. Little Rock McClellan
  4. Alma
  5. Batesville

Class 4A

  1. Warren
  2. Nashville
  3. Robinson
  4. Prairie Grove
  5. Pea Ridge

Class 3A

  1. Prescott
  2. Charleston
  3. Glen Rose
  4. Bald Knob
  5. Fordyce

Class 2A

  1. England
  2. Danville
  3. Des Arc
  4. Hampton
  5. Mount Ida

Post to Twitter

The Most Southern City on Earth

Thursday, December 24th, 2015

In 1992, historian James Cobb’s book on the Mississippi Delta came out.

The title: “The Most Southern Place on Earth.”

Having spent four years as one of the two presidential appointees to the Delta Regional Authority, I have no doubt that Cobb got it right.

The city at the heart of the Delta — the place that serves as a regional hub for east Arkansas, north Mississippi, west Tennessee and the Missouri Bootheel — is Memphis.

That must make Memphis the Most Southern City on Earth.

Thousands of Arkansans will descend on Memphis next week to watch the University of Arkansas football team play Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl. Many of them — especially those from the northwest part of our state — will have no idea of the strong ties between the Bluff City and eastern Arkansas.

For decades, those who lived in the eastern half of the state read Memphis newspapers.

They listened to Memphis radio stations.

They watched Memphis television stations.

They went to Memphis to eat out and have a good time.

They went to Memphis to visit the doctor.

They went to Memphis to do their Christmas shopping.

A friend who grew up in the Arkansas Delta was fond of saying, “We thought that when you died, you went to Memphis.”

The connections between east Arkansas and Memphis have frayed some in recent decades.

As the newspaper war between the Arkansas Gazette and the Arkansas Democrat heated up in the 1980s, people who once had subscribed to The Commercial Appeal from Memphis began getting one of the Little Rock newspapers since subscription prices were steeply discounted.

Cable television opened up new worlds.

The perception became that Memphis was a dangerous, crime-ridden place. People in small towns in the northeast quadrant of Arkansas who once had driven to Memphis to go to the doctor and shop now went to Jonesboro to do those things. As a result, Jonesboro prospered as a regional center.

The late Willie Morris, who’s among my favorite writers, joked that the two most important cities in Mississippi are Memphis and New Orleans.

In some ways, despite the growth of Jonesboro, Memphis remains the most important city for east Arkansas.

It was 1935 when writer David Cohn from Greenville, Miss., penned these words: “The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg. The Peabody is the Paris Ritz, the Cairo Shepheard’s, the London Savoy of this section. If you stand near its fountain in the middle of the lobby … ultimately you will see everybody who is anybody in the Delta.”

Those words still ring true. I can’t count the number of famous people I’ve seen in the Peabody lobby through the years.

Razorback fans will hang out there in force next week, turning that ornate lobby into an Arkansas family reunion.

Julia Reed, the talented New Orleans-based writer who grew up at Greenville, describes the Peabody as a “legendary hotel where my great-grandfather stayed when he came to town to get hot-towel shaves and meet his cotton broker — and where he once dropped a pint of contraband liquor (this was when Tennessee was still, supposedly, dry) on the marble floor of the grand lobby. The doorman swept up the glass so fast no one was the wiser, and the current staff remains now as attentive.”

Reed went on note that the Delta “probably doesn’t officially begin at the Peabody’s address on Union Street, but there is no mistake that Memphis was the Delta’s spiritual capital and the Peabody its clubhouse. Jackson, our actual state capital, was two hours south of my hometown of Greenville, and therefore an hour closer, but we never even thought of going there. Like the bluesmen before us, we headed north, following the river on old Highway 1, before cutting over to the blues highway, U.S. 61, that takes you almost directly downtown.

“To us, the difference between the two cities could be summed up with a line from Peter Taylor’s excellent novel ‘A Summons to Memphis,’ with Jackson standing in for Nashville: ‘Nashville … is a city of schools and churches and Memphis is — well, Memphis is something else again. Memphis is a place of steamboats and cotton gins, of card playing and hotel society.’

“We knew exactly where we’d rather be, and we made the three-hour trek to Memphis with astonishing regularity. We went for school clothes and allergy shots, the Ice Capades and trips to the zoo. We saw movies, got our hair cut, ate barbecue. When we felt especially festive, we’d go just for dinner at the late lamented Justine’s, a justifiably famous Frenchish restaurant in a gorgeous old mansion, where we’d eat lump crabmeat swathed in hollandaise sauce and run into everybody we knew.”

The first Peabody Hotel was built by Robert Campbell Brinkley in 1869. He named it in honor of philanthropist George Peabody. The two men had met several years earlier on a ship bound for England. Brinkley’s reason for going to England was to find financing for a railroad linking Little Rock and Memphis. Brinkley later gave the hotel to his daughter, Anna Overton Brinkley, and her fiancé, Robert Snowden, as a wedding gift.

The Snowden family would have a connection to the hotel for the next 96 years (in addition to developing the Horseshoe Plantation across the river in Arkansas and building a home on Horseshoe Lake).

“The hotel was magnificent,” a history of the Peabody states at www.historic-memphis.com. “It had 75 gas-lit rooms with private bathrooms, a first-class dining room, shops, entertainment, a large and beautiful lobby and a grand ballroom, where lavish balls were held. It was the place to see and been seen. The hotel was highly successful. Guests paid $3 to $4 for a room with meals included in the price. … After the turn of the century, the Peabody constructed a $350,000 addition at the back. It was an all-steel structure, the first of its kind in Memphis. But it wasn’t enough. In 1923, hotel management decided it was time for a new and larger building and closed the Main Street Peabody. They had negotiated with Lowenstein’s, who wanted to take over the corner and build a grand new department store.

“A block away at Second and Union, a new, bigger and better Peabody was scheduled to open within two years. Construction began on the new Peabody within a month after the old Peabody on Main closed. The new hotel was designed by Chicago architect Walter W. Ahlschlager with a plan for 625 rooms with baths. … The cost in 1925 was $5 million. For the 1925 opening of the Peabody, 1,200 preview party invitations were sent to the who’s who of the South. Everyone who was anyone wanted to be seen at Second and Union during the event. Once again the hotel established a reputation as the center of social life for the entire region. The grand new Peabody saw a steady stream of the wealthy and prominent congregate to dine and dance. It was the largest and most elegant hotel in the South.”

The story then picks up in the early 1950s: “During the 1950s, a nationwide move to the suburbs began. Memphians were no longer shopping regularly on Main Street, and downtown Memphis began to feel the pain. The Peabody was no exception. The hotel had many vacancies, and the restaurants were almost empty. The building was beginning to be in need of repairs, and by 1953 it was known that the Peabody was for sale. There were two bidders. … The hotel went to the Alsonett Hotel Group.

“It soon became obvious that the hotel would never be the same. Alsonett set aside tradition in favor of economy. Cost-cutting practices were evident everywhere. Downgrading was the name of the game. And any profits were used to upgrade Alsonett properties elsewhere. The profitable convention business completely disappeared. The hotel faced huge debts and was unable to get financing. In 1965, the grand old Peabody was forced into foreclosure.

“The auction began in December 1965. Robert B. Snowden placed the winning bid. Within 48 hours, he sold the Peabody to the Sheraton chain. … Snowden knew that Sheraton was going to improve the hotel. And Sheraton assured Memphis that all Peabody traditions would remain the same and set about restoring the old building. But they neglected to mention there would be a name change. For the next nine years, the hotel would be called the Sheraton-Peabody. Memphians felt this was better than nothing.

“Sheraton really tried. Unfortunately the steady decline of downtown Memphis continued, at a much faster pace after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In December 1973, Sheraton-Peabody closed the doors and posted a for-sale sign. … The Peabody had a short reprieve in 1974 when a group of Alabama investors reopened the hotel. But it was doomed to failure and by April 1, 1975, this group was forced to declare bankruptcy, and the Peabody was put up for public auction by the county.”

Belz Enterprises bought the hotel for $400,000 in July 1975. Six years and $25 million later, it reopened and has been going strong ever since.

A number of those Razorback fans next week will leave the Peabody lobby, cross the street and walk down the ally to Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous for ribs. Though it has become fashionable for foodies to turn their noses up at the Rendezvous for being too touristy, it remains a Memphis landmark.

Vergos cleaned up a basement below his diner in 1948, discovered a coal chute and decided that it would give him a vent, allowing him to smoke ribs in addition to serving sandwiches. Vergos was a major force in the revival of downtown Memphis. When he died, the city’s mayor described him as an “icon for saving downtown.” His three children continue to run the restaurant.

The famous Peabody ducks even have an Arkansas connection.

Frank Schutt, the hotel’s general manager from 1925-56, and one of his friends had been duck hunting in east Arkansas one day in 1932. They had too much to drink that evening at the hotel and put their live decoys (which were allowed in those days) in the lobby fountain.

The guests loved it.

Schutt decided to train mallards to walk into the fountain each morning and exit the lobby each evening. The daily tradition continues.

Have fun in Memphis next week, Hog fans.

The Most Southern City on Earth has a knack for welcoming visitors from Arkansas.

Post to Twitter

Arkansas Delta food tour: Part Two

Thursday, April 24th, 2014

This post picks up where we left off in Part One with the Good Friday food tour of the Arkansas Delta. You’ll recall that I was joined by Jason Parker, Jordan Johnson, Gabe Holmstrom and Denver Peacock. We left Little Rock at 8 a.m. We were back by 8:30 p.m. In less than 13 hours, we covered more than 400 miles and made 10 food stops. We ate so much barbecue — all of it good — that at times we were afflicted by what we called the “meat sweats.” When we left you at the end of Part One, we had departed Blytheville and were headed for Dyess in the southern part of Mississippi County.

It was quiet at Dyess on Good Friday afternoon.

We pulled up to the Dyess Colony administration building to view the work being done there. A few years ago, Arkansas State University and the National Trust for Historic Preservation partnered with the city of Dyess to begin promoting the heritage of Dyess Colony. The renovation of the 1934 administration building is almost complete, and work continues on the façade of the adjoining theater (the rest of the building is gone), which was built in 1940.

We looked through the front window of the administration building and could see that some interpretive displays are already in place. I can’t wait for the day when buses out of Memphis are filled with tourists wanting to learn more about the place where Johnny Cash grew up. For the first time, they will have somewhere to go at Dyess. Funds for the restoration effort have been received from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council, the annual Johnny Cash Music Festival and other sources.

What was once only a dream is close to becoming a reality in this remote corner of northeast Arkansas.

“The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as president in 1932 led to new programs that worked to pump life into the nation’s economy, especially in places like Arkansas, which was among the states hardest hit,” Nancy Hendricks writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Such agencies as the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration tried to ease the poverty of destitute farmers and sharecroppers. William Reynolds Dyess, a Mississippi County plantation owner, was Arkansas’ first WPA administrator. He suggested an idea to Harry Hopkins, special adviser to Roosevelt, in which tenant farmers could have a chance to own their own land. FERA would purchase 16,000 acres of uncleared bottomland in Mississippi County, which was rich and fertile though also swampy and snake infested, and would open the land, with $3 million in federal aid, as a resettlement colony to homesteading families, who would each have to clear about 30 acres of land for cultivation.”

Almost 1,300 men, whose names were taken from relief rolls across Arkansas, began construction of the colony in May 1934.

“In the autumn of 1934, the first of about 500 families arrived and began clearing the land,” Hendricks writes. “They cut down trees and blasted stumps to farm cotton, corn and soybeans, along with maintaining a pasture for livestock. In time, along with the administration building, the town center included a community bank, beauty salon/barbershop, blacksmith shop, café, cannery, cotton gin, feed mill, furniture factory, harness shop, hospital, ice house, library, theater, newspaper, post office, printing shop, service station/garage, sorghum mill and school.”

In June 1936, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Dyess. She gave a speech and ate supper at the café.

Ray Cash, Carrie Rivers Cash and their children were among the five families selected to move to Dyess in 1936 from Cleveland County in the pine woods of south Arkansas. Their son, listed as J.R. in his high school yearbook, graduated from Dyess High School in 1950. He was the class vice president.

Members of the Cash family have helped with restoration of the family home, which is several miles from the administration building. Furnishings have been gathered based on descriptions given by family members. The home, which was in danger of falling in just more than a year ago, has been completely renovated, down to the wooden walls and linoleum floors.

After our visit to Dyess, we moved on to Poinsett County, which includes the incorporated towns of Harrisburg, Marked Tree, Trumann, Lepanto, Tyronza, Weiner, Fisher and Waldenburg.

Like many Delta counties, the high-water mark as far as population for Poinsett County came in the 1950 census prior to the widespread mechanization of agriculture. There were 39,311 people in the county that year. By the 2010 census, the county’s population had fallen to 24,583.

Harrisburg has been the county seat since 1856. The town was named after Benjamin Harris, who gave the land where the courthouse was built and was the son of the first county judge.

During the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, a large part of what’s now eastern Poinsett County sunk, resulting in what locals simply refer to as “the sunken lands.”

Poinsett County was harder hit by the Great Flood of 1927 than any other Arkansas county. More than 200,000 acres were covered by water at one point. Thousands of sharecroppers were forced to flea from the lowlands to Crowley’s Ridge.

During World War II, there were German prisoner of war camps at Harrisburg and Marked Tree.

At Harrisburg, we circled the square and looked over the courthouse and the newspaper office that houses the Modern News. Both buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. The courthouse, designed in the classical revival style by Pine Bluff architect Mitchell Selligman, was built in 1917.

The next stop was tiny Waldenburg, which has one of the best food intersections in Arkansas where Arkansas Highway 14 and U.S. Highway 49 meet.

There’s the D-Shack, a dairy bar with great hamburgers.

There’s Crossroads Country Café, where I had a nice lunch back in the fall.

And there’s the original Josie’s, where I’ve enjoyed fine steaks on Saturday nights through the years following afternoon college football games in Jonesboro. There has been a better-known, bigger Josie’s on the banks of the White River in Batesville since 2004, serving lunch Tuesday through Friday and dinner on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. But the original Josie’s (dinner only on weekends) is in Waldenburg and has long been a favorite in the late fall and winter for those who flock to the duck camps in the area.

I remember stopping at Josie’s with my youngest son following an Arkansas State football game several years ago. It was during duck season. He looked around the big room and whispered to me, “We’re the only ones in here not wearing camouflage.”

The fourth dining spot at the intersection is the trailer from which the town’s mayor, William “Woody” Wood, sells barbecue. That’s where we stopped on Good Friday afternoon.

Woody and his wife Cecelia began selling barbecue in 1985 in the months when things were slow for Woody’s crop-dusting service. There was such a demand, not only for the smoked meats but also for Woody’s sauces and rubs, that the couple began selling barbecue on a full-time basis in 1992. Woody’s sauces and rubs are now available across the state. He also caters.

The stand in Waldenburg — there are a couple of picnic tables to eat on — is open on most Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

From Waldenburg, we drove south on U.S. 49 to Woodruff County, which is among the state’s smallest counties from a population standpoint (Calhoun County in south Arkansas is the least populated county, in case you’re wondering). The population in Woodruff County fell from 22,682 in the 1930 census to just 7,260 in the 2010 census. Famous natives of Woodruff County include Sister Rosetta Tharpe of Cotton Plant, bluesman Peatie Wheatstraw (his real name was William Bunch) of Cotton Plant, football star Billy Ray Smith of Augusta, high school coach Curtis King of Augusta and high school coach Joe Hart of McCrory.

Denver Peacock hails from McCrory, so we had to drive through downtown before heading a bit south to Gregory to visit with George Eldridge at his Tamale Factory, which is a restaurant in the barn between the Eldridge family home and the Eldridge family cemetery.

George is best known these days as the owner of Doe’s Eat Place in downtown Little Rock, but The Tamale Factory on his family land (where the tamales for Doe’s are made and where dinner is served on Friday and Saturday nights) is a labor of love for him.

In a highly positive review of Doe’s last week, the Arkansas Times summed up George’s career this way: “Veteran restaurateur George Eldridge (chronologically: Band Box, Sports Page, Buster’s, Doe’s, Blues City Café in Memphis, The Tamale Factory in Gregory) loved the original Doe’s in Greenville, Miss., and worked a deal to open the world’s second Doe’s on West Markham a little west of the Little Rock Police Department headquarters. Eldridge, like many high-profile Arkansans, was buddies with the governor who would become president, and during the 1992 campaign the famed Rolling Stone interview with Bill Clinton was conducted at Doe’s. Bill has been back, and the stories and pictures live on (check the Annie Leibovitz shot of Eldridge with chef Lucille Robinson before the inaugural ball).”

We had tamales at Gregory, of course. We had fried shrimp and boiled shrimp. We hadn’t saved room for George’s steaks.

We did, however, save room for one last stop, the Bulldog in Bald Knob in neighboring White County, where Denver’s parents had met decades ago.

Bald Knob was named for the outcropping of stone that was a landmark in the region. Development in the area took off with the completion of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad in 1872. The bald knob was quarried for railroad bed ballast. The quarry also furnished ballast for Jay Gould’s Bald Knob & Memphis Railroad. In the 1920s, it furnished the stone used to build some of the buildings on the Rhodes College campus in Memphis (which ranks among the most beautiful college campuses in America).

William Leach of the White County Historical Society explains the importance of the strawberry to Bald Knob: “The sandy, upland soil was ideal for the fruit, which was introduced in neighboring Judsonia in the 1870s. The first strawberry association in Bald Knob was organized in 1910. In 1921, Benjamin Franklin Brown, June ‘Jim” Collison and Ernest R. Wynn organized The Strawberry Co. They built the longest strawberry shed in the world, a three-quarter-mile structure parallel to the tracks of the Missouri Pacific Railroad (now Union Pacific).

“In the peak year of 1951, Bald Knob growers sold $3.5 million worth of strawberries. Bald Knob became the Strawberry Capital of the World, which described the city until the 1960s when berries ceased to be a major crop because of changing market and labor conditions.”

Though raising strawberries is no longer a top industry in the area, the tradition of strawberry shortcakes at the Bulldog continues each spring. People drive from miles around when the word gets out: “The shortcakes are here.”

There was a traffic jam in front of the restaurant last Friday night.

It was time to get back to Little Rock.

Ten food stops down. And dreams of doing it all over again next spring.

Post to Twitter

The great Arkansas Delta food tour

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

The troops gathered at 8 a.m. on Good Friday in the parking lot of the Clinton Presidential Center along the banks of the Arkansas River in Little Rock.

The goal: To sample as much Delta barbecue as possible in one day with some catfish and tamales thrown in for good measure.

I was joined by Denver Peacock, Gabe Holmstrom, Jordan Johnson and Jason Parker for an excursion that would take us more than 400 miles and allow us to eat at 10 places before dusk. Yes, we did it all in one day.

We began with the fried catfish at the Wilson Café in the unique Arkansas community of Wilson in southern Mississippi County.

We warmed up for the barbecue part of the agenda at the Hog Pen along the Great River Road — U.S. Highway 61 — a couple of miles south of Osceola.

We then headed to Blytheville, the barbecue capital of Arkansas, to sample pig sandwiches (that’s what they call them in Blytheville) from five places — the Dixie Pig, the Kream Kastle, Penn’s, the trailer in the parking lot of the Hays store (that’s how everyone in Blytheville refers to it — I don’t think it has a formal name) and the Razorback carryout trailer.

The next barbecue sandwich was from Woody’s at the intersection of Arkansas Highway 14 and U.S. Highway 49 at Waldenburg, another east Arkansas dining hot spot.

We made our way from there to The Tamale Factory at Gregory in Woodruff County to visit with George Eldridge (best known as the owner of Doe’s in downtown Little Rock) while sampling tamales, fried shrimp and boiled shrimp. We had no room left for George’s steaks at that point.

Our final stop was at the legendary Bulldog in Bald Knob for strawberry shortcake, which is only served in the spring. Cars were lined up onto the highway that Friday night as people from all over White County waited to purchase shortcake.

In between all of the eating, we managed to:

— Walk around the former company town of Wilson

—  Read the historic markers and drop by the museum on the courthouse square at Osceola

— Head out to the banks of the Mississippi River at Armorel

— Visit Dyess to check on the restoration work being done there by Arkansas State University

— Check out the beautiful Poinsett County Courthouse at Harrisburg

Back in January, the town of Wilson was featured in The New York Times due to the efforts of Gaylon Lawrence Jr. to restore it to its past glory.

“The little farm towns here in Delta cotton country spin by, each rusting grain silo and boarded-up discount store fading into the next,” Kim Severson wrote. “Then, seemingly out of nowhere, comes Wilson, a collection of Tudor-style buildings with Carrara marble on the bank counter, a French provincial house with Impressionist paintings hanging on the walls and air-conditioned doghouses in the yards. Wilson was once the most important company town in the South. It sits amid 62 square miles of rich farmland, most of which was once controlled by Lee Wilson, a man almost everyone called Boss Lee. He built his fortune off the backs of sharecroppers and brought Southern agriculture into the modern age.

“For 125 years, the Wilson family owned this town. It ran the store, the bank, the schools and the cotton gin. For a time, the Wilsons even minted their own currency to pay the thousands of workers who lived on their land. Bags of coins still sit in the company vault. After the town incorporated in the 1950s, a Wilson was always mayor. But now the town — home to 905 people — is under new management, which plans to transform the civic anachronism into a beacon of art, culture and education in one of the poorest regions of the state.”

Lawrence, a native of nearby Sikeston in the Missouri Bootheel, owns more than 165,000 acres of land in Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois.

He owns citrus groves in Florida.

He owns five banks.

He has the largest privately owned air conditioning distributor in the world.

In other words, Gaylon Lawrence Jr. has the wherewithal to make Wilson as good as he wants it to be.

Lawrence, who was described by Severson as a “can-do kind of man who prefers to check his fields and watch the sunset than speak with reporters,” bought the land from the Wilson family for an estimated $110 million in 2010.

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

The buildings on the Wilson square have been repainted, and the majestic hardwood groves (which include some of the largest cottonwood trees in Arkansas) have been cleaned up. A private school is planned along with a new building to house the Hampson collection of pre-Columbian pottery and other artifacts. Wilson will host British car shows and art shows in an attempt to attract visitors from Memphis, the Bootheel and northeast Arkansas.

In addition to sampling the excellent catfish at the Wilson Café, we visited with chef Joe Cartwright, whose food is attracting people from miles around. The recently reopened restaurant on the square serves lunch from Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. and serves dinner on Friday and Saturday nights. Friday nights feature fried catfish, shrimp, frog legs and oysters. Saturday is prime rib night.

Cartwright grew up at West Memphis and attended college at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, where he worked at Lazzari Italian Oven.

“I was in college for music education, and I started washing dishes at Lazzari,” Cartwright told an interviewer several years ago. “And then one night we were a man down on the line or something. This chef put me up on the line and one thing led to another, and I never really looked back. It got ahold of me, and it’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”

Cartwright later moved to Memphis, where he became the chef at Spindini on South Main Street and The Elegant Farmer.

The restaurant in Wilson reopened on Dec. 20.

Locals refer to the Wilson Café as The Tavern (and indeed Cartwright informed us that he has just received a wine and beer permit).

Cartwright even packs box lunches for farmers and construction crews (he’s hoping the construction of a steel mill just up the road at Osceola will help that part of the business), and he plans to offer fresh vegetables from the Wilson community garden during the summer. This is a quality of food you do not expect in a town this small.

We headed north on U.S. 61 after leaving Wilson. The plan was to begin the barbecue portion of the tour at Blytheville. That’s when we saw the Hog Pen on the right side of the road (the river side, in other words) south of Osceola. We decided to sample its barbecue, which was quite tasty. The piles of hickory out back let us know that this place takes its barbecue seriously. We ate outside on a picnic table. Inside, the walls feature memorabilia from Cortez Kennedy, who played his high school football in Wilson at Rivercrest High School and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame two years ago. Kennedy, who now lives in Florida, eats at the restaurant on visits home.

Kennedy played college football for the University of Miami and spent his entire pro career with the Seattle Seahawks. He participated in the Pro Bowl eight times, earning a spot in the game in just his second NFL season. He was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1990s. Kennedy was an iron man, completing seven seasons without missing a game and playing in at least 15 games 10 times during his career. He was just the 14th defensive tackle to make it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In the cotton country around Rivercrest High, which has a rich sports tradition, playing football was the thing to do.

“Where I grew up, there was nothing else to do,” Kennedy once said. “We used to throw rocks at each other for fun.”

The next stop was in downtown Osceola for a view of my favorite Arkansas courthouse. Until 1901, Osceola was the only county seat. Blytheville and Osceola then were named as dual county seats. The southern division courthouse at Osceola was built in 1912 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. It was designed in the classical revival style by John Gainsford and is known for its copper dome, its baked stone tiles and the fact that the first floor has no windows (in case the Mississippi River flooded).

Downtown Osceola was booming at the time of the courthouse’s construction. There were electric and water utilities, two ice plants, two bottling works, a wagon factory and even an opera house. Six passenger trains a day stopped at the St. Louis & San Francisco Railroad depot. The Osceola Times building, constructed in 1901, is still home to a newspaper that first was published in 1870. It’s the oldest weekly newspaper in eastern Arkansas.

We also read all of the downtown historical markers, which tell of famous musicians who once lived in the area and performed in the clubs along U.S. 61 (known as the Cotton Highway). We even went into the Mississippi County Historical Center and Museum. That facility is located in what was the Patterson Dry Goods Store. Fred Patterson purchased the lot that the building sits on for $250 in 1901 and built his store, which opened a year later. He purchased an adjoining lot in 1904 to construct another building for expanded operations. Patterson Dry Goods operated until 1987.

“The store was famous for cotton pick sacks, shoes and hats for men, women and children as well as work clothes,” the museum’s website states. “Through the years, Mr. Patterson’s store was the only place to purchase certain items. Customers came from not only the Osceola area but all of Mississippi County, surrounding counties and the Missouri Bootheel. The trademark of the store was shoes sitting outside at the entrance to announce the store was open. Fred Patterson may have had five or six styles outside at once, but they were never stolen. They were all for the same foot.

“Henry Patterson (Fred’s son) would have only a single shoe sitting out to indicate he was open for business. It is a practice continued today by the museum. The store became the loafing place for Henry’s retired contemporaries with time on their hands. The chairs around the potbellied stove held both men and women who managed to solve the problems of the world.”

The first stop in Blytheville was the Dixie Pig, the only Blytheville restaurant where we actually ate inside.

We picked up sandwiches from the other four establishments and took them out by the river behind the Nucor-Yamato plant at Armorel.  We laid them out on the hood of the vehicle, sampled them and watched the barges move down the Mighty Mississippi while enjoying the nice spring weather.

Armorel was founded in 1899 by R.E.L. Wilson (Boss Lee). The name of the town represents Arkansas, Missouri and the first three initials of Wilson’s name.

The town is the home of the Armorel Planting Co., whose chairman is 82-year-old John Ed Regenold, the current chairman of the powerful Arkansas Highway Commission. Regenold had served on the Arkansas Economic Development Commission before being appointed to the Highway Commission in January 2005 by Gov. Mike Huckabee. Regenold also served for a number of years on the St. Francis Levee Board, which is in seven northeast Arkansas counties. Those familiar with the Delta understand just how powerful levee boards are.

Back in Blytheville, we drove around the downtown business district and the city’s older residential neighborhoods, which were filled with blooming azaleas and dogwood trees. Like many Delta towns, Blytheville has bled population in recent decades. It has gone from 24,752 residents in the 1970 census to 15,620 residents in the 2010 census. At its peak, Eaker Air Force Base employed 3,500 military and 700 civilian personnel. The base closed in 1992. Some of that economic blow was softened by the 1988 opening of Nucor-Yamato Steel (which expanded in 1992) and the 1992 opening of Nucor Steel Arkansas (known locally as Nucor Hickman).

Another bright spot was the 1976 opening by Mary Gay Shipley of the Book Rack. The store’s name was changed in 1994 to That Bookstore in Blytheville. Located in a 1920s building on Main Street, it gained a reputation of being one of the top independently owned bookstores in the country, attracting the likes of John Grisham, Pat Conroy and Bill Clinton to sign books. Shipley retired and sold the store to a young man named Grant Hill, who soon tired of running the business. Enter Blytheville native Chris Crawley.

Crawley had moved from Blytheville after high school, living in Wisconsin and California. He moved back to the city in 2012.

“Mary Gay has been like my big sister for about 30 years,” Crawley told the Courier News at Blytheville. “I kind of got the bug years ago watching Mary Gay. … This was like my playground. I would read whole books while in the store.”

In visiting with Shipley after his return to Blytheville, Crawley found out that she was “still so passionate about the store, and that passion was infectious. Once I came in the space, it was just so welcoming. We believed that the legacy was something that was valuable.”

He and partner Yolanda Harrison purchased the store from Hill late last year.

Leaving Blytheville behind schedule, we made our way to Dyess.

Dyess, Poinsett County, Woodruff County and the strawberries of Bald Knob will have to wait for Part Two.

Post to Twitter

The pig sandwich

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

I determined long ago that the quickest way to the heart of an Arkansan is directly through the stomach.

Invariably, when I write about food, I get more comments than about any other subject.

Such was the case recently when I delved into the history of the Kream Kastle at Blytheville. The comments poured in.

Earlier on this blog I had declared Blytheville as the barbecue capital of Arkansas. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: For quality smoked pork per capita, no other Arkansas city comes close.

What’s your favorite Blytheville barbecue joint?

The venerable Dixie Pig?

The Kream Kastle?

Penn’s?

Or is it one of the other barbecue places around town such as Yank’s?

The impetus for my newspaper column was a 34-page paper written by Revis Edmonds, an adjunct history professor at Arkansas State University-Newport who’s pursuing a doctorate in heritage studies on ASU’s Jonesboro campus. The title of the paper is “The Kream Kastle and its Place in Blytheville’s Barbecue Mecca.”

I revealed in the column that Paul Austin, the director of the Arkansas Humanities Council, and I had made a barbecue pilgrimage to Blytheville earlier this year and eaten lunch three times that day.

In Blytheville, the distinctive barbecue — finely chopped with a vinegar-based sauce (and the sandwiches automatically come with slaw unless you say otherwise) — is the basis for what’s known as the pig sandwich.

Our first pig sandwich that day was at the Kream Kastle, a drive-in restaurant. We ate in the car.

The second stop was the Dixie Pig, where we ate inside.

The third stop was the drive-through window at Penn’s. Again, we ate in the car.

Three pig sandwiches. All jumbo.

I have to share with you what one of Paul’s boyhood friends, who lived for a time in Dell, wrote.

“It was then that I was first introduced to the Kream Kastle pig sandwich,” he said of his family’s move to Dell. “In the mid-1960s to early 1970s, it was called a white pig because only the light-colored meat went into the sandwich. Then, as now, the only sauce was the seasoned vinegar they still use.

“Those sandwiches were the nearest thing to heaven on earth to me and caused me to embark on my lifelong quest to find a better pulled pork. Everywhere I go, without fail, I search out locals to point me to the best in town.

“I’ve sampled ‘the best’ from every section of this country, from large cities to crossroads, and of every regional variety. I’ve tasted whatever appeared similar in several European countries and in South America. Some of the samples were outstanding, many were pretty darn good, but I swear nothing has ever touched the Kream Kastle.

“There was a lapse of nearly two decades in which distance deprived me of contact with the pinnacle of pulled pork. Then, several years ago after a relative’s funeral at Manila, I traveled to Blytheville just to see if my brain’s record of that tender, smoky burst of flavorful sinew could possibly still exist.

“The waitress came to my car window. I asked for the white pig. I knew better than to try to custom order. You take it as it is prepared. I waited expectantly but tentatively.

“I was astounded as the first chunk of beautiful white pork fell onto my tongue. That succulence that I remembered flooded my taste buds and opened the gates of grateful salivary glands.

“Stop. I can’t go on. I have work to do and am very nearly abandoning it in favor of an absent afternoon en route to the Kream Kastle.

“Having gone on like this, it’s only fair that I also opine about the other establishments you recently visited, the Dixie Pig and Penn’s. Both were flourishing during my experiences in and around Blytheville. Both produced, and I hope still do, wonderful pulled pork. So wonderful, in fact, that the creations of either likely surpass the best I’ve tasted elsewhere. But my personal ranking back then was Kream Kastle with Dixie Pig and Penn’s in a dead-heat second.

“Can any other location on earth surpass Blytheville for the tastiest, tenderest, smokiest, most succulent pulled pork? I doubt it, though I’ve not been everywhere. Blytheville residents, as do most locals, take their treasure for granted. It’s all they’ve ever known so the idea of being the world’s best doesn’t cross their consciousness. But they are missing a marketing gold mine and a place in porcine history.

“I hope you will forgive the superlatives, but as you can see, I’m a true believer.”

It seems there are a lot of true believers when it comes to the Blytheville pig sandwich.

In his paper, Edmonds delves into the history of Blytheville and its barbecue traditions. Ernest Halsell opened the Rustic Inn in a log cabin in 1923. He later moved the restaurant to a rock building and later to Sixth Street in the 1950s.

“The forerunner of the iconic Dixie Pig, it symbolized the economic and social pinnacle of Blytheville’s history in the 1960s when the community boasted a growing population, a major Air Force base, a seemingly solid industrial base led by Bush Brothers & Co., a booming retail sector and an agricultural industry that still clothed and fed the world,” Edmonds writes. “Founded in 1879 by Methodist clergyman Henry T. Blythe, Blytheville grew quickly due to an abundance of timberland. The city was incorporated in 1889. The first era of growth came because of the massive harvesting of lumber to rebuild after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The lumber industry and its attendant businesses, such as the railroad, brough a proliferation of sawmills and, to put it mildly, a rowdy crowd.”

At one point, Chicago Mill & Lumber Co. owned 70,000 acres of timberland in northeast Arkansas and operated a huge mill at Blytheville. The Delta hardwood forests weren’t replanted, however. Instead, the land was drained and the production of cotton began to dominate the economy.

An Air Force base was established at Blytheville in 1942 and reactivated in the early 1950s. At its peak during the Cold War, the base employed almost 3,500 military personnel and 700 civilians. When the base closed in 1991, the Blytheville area lost thousands of residents with an estimated loss of $46 million in personal income.

The population of Mississippi County decreased 3.7 percent between 1970 and 1980, decreased another 3.9 percent during the 1980s, decreased a depressing 20.2 percent during the 1990s and then decreased another 14.5 percent during the first decade of this century.

“There’s no denying that the decline, when it came, hit retail concerns like the food service industry hard,” Edmonds writes. “When the Kream Kastle was established in 1952, Blytheville had come off a 1950 census that reflected a 52.4 percent increase in population over the 1940 census. This would remain relatively stable for most of the first two decades of the business’ existence.”

Like other Delta communities, Blytheville had a rich ethnic mix.

Huddy Cohen, who was Jewish, recalled that “middle and upper-class whites belonged to the Blytheville Country Club, where women golfers lunched on chicken salad-stuffed tomatoes and deviled eggs and couples gathered on Saturday nights to enjoy seafood Newburg and broiled steaks. There were black-owned soul food restaurants like the Dew Drop Inn on Ash Street, which paralleled the white Main Street in Blytheville, but we never ate there. Their world was divided from ours by the legacy of Jim Crow.”

Blacks and whites alike learned to enjoy the Blytheville style of barbecue. Despite the population decline, the barbecue joints hang on.

Edmonds describes the people of Blytheville this way: “Far from a place whose people wallow in despair and who lament that Blytheville’s as well as Mississippi County’s best days are in the past, they mostly share the sentiments of Jeff Wallace when he simply stated that ‘Blytheville will come back. It has before.’ Outsiders do not have to understand what makes this community and its hangouts persevere. All it takes is the loyalty and faith of its own people, come what may.”

Long live the Blytheville pig sandwich.

Post to Twitter