It was, in so many ways, a trip back in time.
We exited Interstate 40 at Hazen on that Friday afternoon and headed north on Arkansas Highway 11 to Des Arc.
How many times had I made the trip on this section of highway through the years to visit my grandparents at Des Arc? It would be impossible to count them.
Dad, who died two years ago yesterday, would be at the wheel of the big Oldsmobile. Mom would be in the passenger seat up front. My sister and I would be in the back. Having been raised in the pine woods of south Arkansas, I was intrigued by the huge fields and the views that seemed to stretch for miles to the horizon.
Then, as now, the Delta and Grand Prairie were places apart.
We knew what awaited us in Des Arc — great cooking by my grandmother, Bess Rex Caskey, in the old family home on Erwin Street; a visit to the chicken yard to gather eggs each morning with my grandfather, W.J. Caskey; a walk across the street to check his post office box, a stop in the Farmers and Merchants Bank and then a stroll down Main Street, where the Caskey Funeral Home and the Caskey Hardware Store had once been located.
If it were summer, we might go down to Haley’s Fish Market to buy catfish that had been hauled that morning out of the White River, frying them for supper that evening. My grandfather would ask if they had any “fiddlers,” small catfish that he liked to fry whole.
If it were winter, Dad might take me along for a duck hunt.
I was in the company of three of Arkansas’ most noted storytellers on that recent Friday afternoon. Don Tilton, Paul Berry and Mary Berry had graciously invited me to tag along for dinner at The Tamale Family, the restaurant that Mary’s cousin George Eldridge has operated since November in a barn on the family farm at Gregory in Woodruff County.
As we headed up Highway 11 between Hazen and Des Arc, we passed the familiar landmarks — the Wattensaw Bayou, where we would sometimes hunt ducks; the Darrell Saul Farm, where I had attended political fundraising events in my earlier life as a politico; the headquarters for the Wattensaw Wildlife Management Area, which had once been a club called Riverwood where we would go to swim; the cemetery where we buried my grandfather on a hot summer day and my grandmother on a cold winter day; the Presbyterian Church, which is being turned into a library; the offices of the White River Journal, one of this state’s best weekly newspapers, which has been in the Walls family for decades; the building my grandfather built to house his hardware store, a structure that still stands and still is home to a hardware store.
My grandfather sold his businesses to Willis Eddins who, in turn, sold them to Billy Garth. They remain in the Garth family.
Just across the street from that building is the Prairie County Courthouse, where my grandfather served terms as county assessor, county clerk and county judge. Though the man I called Pam-Pa had last held elective office in 1941, I loved it when people would still refer to him as Judge Caskey. It made me feel like he was important.
With Don — who’s known by his friends as Tilco — at the wheel, we crossed the White River bridge, looking to our right at that always magnificent view of the courthouse and downtown Des Arc. The current bridge is far safer than its predecessor, but it doesn’t have the character of what was known by locals as the Swinging Bridge. The massive suspension bridge, which was in operation from 1928-70, indeed would sway when trucks crossed it.
Whenever horses crossed the bridge, owners had to put covers over their heads and lead them. They refused to cross otherwise.
Here are a few of the comments posted about the Swinging Bridge on a website about bridges:
— “I lived east of the river and grew up crossing the bridge every day. We called it rattletrap bridge because of the sounds the boards made as the car went across. … It was terrifying to cross on those few boards on a school bus. When I started driving, I drove to school across the bridge every day. One day it was raining, and I lost control on the way up to the center of the bridge. My car fishtailed and hit the rails on the side three times before coming to rest. I remember the feeling of knowing I wasn’t going to make it. I’m now almost 60 years old, and I still dream about it and wake up shivering.”
— “I had such a love-hate relationship with the wonderful Swinging Bridge. One time, my dad had to back down past the huge curve in the bridge to let another car pass. I was so scared I got in the floorboard. As I grew older, my friends and I would walk the bridge on Sunday afternoons. Boards were always missing, and I never got close to the sides.”
— “I grew up in this area and walked and rode across this bridge countless times. It never occurred to me to be scared. It was just the bridge we had to cross to get to Des Arc. I remember riding in trailers filled with cotton, being pulled by a tractor and feeling the swing of the bridge. I’m not sure I would do that today if I could.”
— “I rode in a school bus for 11 years across the bridge every day. Sometimes we had to wait for someone to back down to one of the wide sections, and then sometimes we had to back up in the school bus ourselves. I don’t remember being afraid, but after I married, my husband was terrified to cross it.”
East of the river, there are large fields and pecan orchards. As we head east on Arkansas Highway 38, we pass the road that my dad and I would turn down to fish on Spring Lake and Horn Lake, both White River oxbows.
On the Prairie County-Woodruff County line, we reach the community of Little Dixie and turn left onto Arkansas Highway 33, passing through Dixie on our way to Gregory (yes, there’s both a Dixie and a Little Dixie).
The Eldridge family home, built in 1910, has been beautifully restored.
Also cleaned up and restored is the Eldridge family cemetery, the final resting place of family patriarch Rolfe Eldridge, who was born in November 1807 and died in April 1859. Mary Eldridge Berry gave me a tour of the cemetery just as the sun was setting. Paul went inside the restaurant (the barn is between the family home and the cemetery) to secure a table from George.
Anyone who knows George, the owner of the Little Rock outpost of Doe’s Eat Place, understands that he has the golden touch when it comes to restaurants. It was George who first talked Charles and “Little Doe” Signa in Greenville, Miss., into letting him use the Doe’s name and menu in a location other than the original on Nelson Street in Greenville.
Doe’s Eat Place locations now can been found throughout the region, but George was the first to take the concept out of Greenville. Due to a politician named Bill Clinton, the Little Rock location soon became more famous than the Greenville original. That’s because presidential campaign staffers such as James Carville and George Stephanopoulos would hang out there on a nightly basis.
The national political media followed and began writing about the place. The back room at Doe’s was where P.J. O’Rourke, Hunter S. Thompson and William Greider conducted the interview of Clinton for a September 1992 edition of Rolling Stone.
Was it O’Rourke or Thompson who tried to eat a tamale with the shuck still on?
In November 1992, People published a story on George and his chief cook, Lucille Robinson. The following January, George escorted Robinson to one of the inaugural balls in Washington. An Annie Leibovitz portrait of the pair is among the photos that hang on the walls of the Little Rock restaurant.
If you like the food at Doe’s, you’ll like the food at The Tamale Factory. The menus are similar.
One thing about Delta residents is that they don’t mind driving a long distance for a good meal on a Friday or Saturday. Since it opened in November, The Tamale Factory has been pulling them in from as far away as Little Rock, Memphis and Jonesboro. Reservations are recommended.
On the other side of the barn that houses the restaurant, George keeps his quarter horses in a well-appointed stable. He introduced us to the horses and his three cats (cats are a tradition in horse barns). He also opened a pen that was filled with goats.
There’s also a show ring where George occasionally rolls the dirt, puts down a wooden dance floor and brings in a band from Memphis. Oh how I would love to be back in Gregory on one of those nights.
Roots run deep in this part of Arkansas. Like other east Arkansas counties, Prairie and Woodruff counties have bled population for decades.
Prairie County has only half the population it had in 1920, falling from 17,447 that year to 8,715 in the 2010 census.
Woodruff County has just a third of the population it had in 1920, dropping from 21,527 that year to 7,260 in 2010. Those who remain, though, are a proud people with a strong sense of history and place. They are also people who know how to have a good time, as we saw on this night at The Tamale Factory.
Prairie County has two county seats — Des Arc and DeValls Bluff — and a rich history.
“European exploration of the area began as early as the late 17th century,” Marilyn Hambrick Sickel writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “While the area became occupied by both the Spanish and French, the county remained vital to trade expeditions. … French traders traveled up and down the White River in the early 1700s. Bear oil and skins, abundant in this area at the time, were sought-after commodities in the New Orleans markets. The rivers were the highways of this early era. Early maps identify the White River as Eau Blanche and Riv Blanche. Des Arc was the earliest settlement. Creoles named Watts and East are credited as being Des Arc’s first residents, arriving around 1810.”
Sickel writes that Des Arc was “a flourishing river town prior to the Civil War. Timber for homes was plentiful. Fish and game were abundant, and the population grew rapidly. Selling wood to power the steamboats and rafting timber along the river were viable occupations. The Butterfield Overland Mail route in the late 1850s was key in the development of Des Arc. The city, depending on how wet the roads were or how low the river was, had the fortune of being on the direct route from Memphis to Fort Smith.”
Because it was so swampy, Woodruff County wasn’t settled as early as Prairie County.
Woodruff County was established during the Civil War in November 1862. When Arkansas was no longer part of the Confederacy, it was approved again as a county in 1865. It was named after William Woodruff, the founder of the Arkansas Gazette at Arkansas Post in 1819 (the newspaper moved to Little Rock along with the territorial capital in 1821).
“In the years after the Civil War, Woodruff County prospered with wood and agriculture industries,” Paula Harmon Barnett writes in the online encyclopedia. “Sawmills and woodworking factories thrived, making use of the many acres of timber in the county. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, railroads began to move into the county, and towns sprang up around them, increasing the county’s population each year and greatly improving the economy. Cotton, corn, oats and hay thrved in the fertile, well-watered soil, and the two rivers in the county by which to ship products (the White and Cache) added to the area’s prosperity.”
The county’s population grew each decade from the 1870 census to the 1930 census. It has fallen each decade since then.
There’s a haunting beauty to the Delta and the Grand Prairie in late winter and early spring. History hangs heavily here. Come early to Gregory, taking time to walk through the Eldridge family cemetery and maybe even going to the historic area of Augusta Memorial Park, where there also are Eldridges buried.
Yes, come early and stay late, letting your tamales and steak digest while convincing George to tell stories about the politicians, musicians and other colorful characters he has known.
Spring is beginning in Arkansas, and with it the desire for Friday and Saturday road trips. The drive to Gregory is a trip back in time with good food awaiting at your final destination.