Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

“Gay Panic in the Ozarks”

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

In 1968, as Republican Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller stepped up his efforts to root out corruption in Arkansas politics, a 32-year-old former FBI agent named Ed Bethune was asked to help remove the symbol of the Old Guard — Conway County Sheriff Marlin Hawkins — from office.

“The director of the Arkansas State Police warned me that we were walking into a hornet’s nest,” Bethune would write years later. “By the time we got to the courthouse, there were well over 500 Hawkins supporters milling around. Most were on foot and quite a few were armed. They were carrying pistols, rifles and shotguns and making no effort to conceal their weapons.”

Bethune vividly remembers how a Morrilton city policeman “jumped out of the shadows and stuck his shotgun in my stomach, saying, ‘Halt, I’m fixin’ to shoot you.’ As he pushed the gun harder into my belly, I realized that my life depended on the wiring between the rookie’s brain and his trigger finger, and I did not like the odds.”

Ed Bethune survived that day.

And Marlin Hawkins remained in office.

That incident from Arkansas’ colorful political past was one of many Bethune wrote about in his 2011 book “Jackhammered: A Life of Adventure.” In it, the former Republican congressman from Arkansas’ 2nd District did more than tell political war stories. The heart of the book is a trip Bethune took with his wife, Lana, in 1990 aboard their 31-foot sloop named Salute. The goal was to sail from Norfolk, Va., to Portugal. In an incident that received widespread media attention, the couple had to be rescued by U.S. Coast Guard helicopters after withstanding rough seas for 36 hours prior to being spotted.

After writing the book, Bethune told me that the sailing trip fundamentally changed him and helped him better understand his life to that point: “I didn’t really set out to write a memoir. I had a number of friends through the years urge me to write a book about that sailing trip. But I wasn’t real eager at first to write about something I considered a failure. We didn’t make it. I later thought about trying to turn it into a novel. What was I doing out in the middle of the ocean in a 31-foot boat anyway? As I thought about my life and the things that motivate me, I suddenly found myself writing about my childhood. As we grow older, I think we all begin thinking more about who we are and how we got to this point in our lives. My hope was that by reading this story, others might be inspired to be more introspective.”

Soon after finishing the memoir, Bethune began outlining his first novel.

“I had no idea when I started writing this novel almost two years ago that its release would come in the midst of an Arkansas firestorm about gay marriage,” he said last week. “I created two mythical counties in north Arkansas as the setting for my story and then developed this fictional proposition: Wounds and prejudices stemming from the Civil War, the Great Depression and other conflicts run deep in the Ozark hill country.”

The book — titled “Gay Panic in the Ozarks” — begins with the lynching of a young gay man, whose body is left hanging from a tree.

“The papers, blogs and airwaves are full of hot arguments about gay marriage,” Bethune said. ”The culture war is obsessing America, and the noise gets louder every day. My book is not about gay marriage, but it does consider the wide range of cultural changes that have occurred since the 1960s. It digs deep, going beyond superficial political issues to the root causes of prejudice, the ugly force that bedevils humankind.”

Bethune described the protagonist of his novel, Aubrey Hatfield, as a “shamed man who seeks redemption for himself and for his community. ‘Gay Panic in the Ozarks’ deals with homosexuality, but it also invites the reader to think. … Recently, prejudice caused many Americans to fuss about a dispute about A&E and the program ‘Duck Dynasty.’ A few weeks later, people were arguing about an upcoming Discovery Channel show called ‘Clash of the Ozarks.’”

For the record, Bethune said he believes that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

“‘Gay Panic in the Ozarks’ goes to the heart of the matter, the age-old question of how to deal with the multifaceted problem of cultural adaption,” he said. “How do we find tolerance in the face of deep-seated religious beliefs? How do we conquer the curse of indifference, man’s impulse to maintain his neutrality in the face of great moral crisis? These are just a few of the reasons I believe there will be a good market for this story in 2014, a volatile election year that will produce endless talk about gay rights and the culture war.”

The book was edited by Gene Foreman, an Arkansas native who went on to serve for many years as managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

I’ve always found Bethune to be an interesting man. His parents divorced when he was 8. By his early teenage years, he was a self-described “problem child” who was getting into trouble on a regular basis at Little Rock. Bethune went to his mother’s hometown of Pocahontas in northeast Arkansas, a move he says “saved my life.” After graduating from Pocahontas High School in 1953, Bethune joined the U.S. Marine Corps and served until 1957, including a stint in South Korea. He met Lana at what was then Little Rock Junior College — now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock — after leaving the Marine Corps. He was 23 and she was 21 when they married.

Ed Bethune finished college and law school and then worked as a deputy prosecuting attorney in Randolph County in 1963-64. He was an FBI agent from 1964-68, serving in Newark, N.J., during the riots in the summer of 1967 that left 26 people dead and hundreds injured. After leaving the FBI, Bethune returned to Arkansas and began practicing law at Searcy. He lost to Democratic nominee Jim Guy Tucker in the 1972 race for attorney general but shocked the Arkansas political establishment six years later when he was elected to Congress. Bethune served three terms in the U.S. House and then left Washington following an unsuccessful 1984 race against U.S. Sen. David Pryor.

Bethune was the chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party from 1986-88. He and Lana returned to Washington following George H.W. Bush’s 1988 election as president. Lana became the social secretary for Vice President Dan Quayle. Ed became a well-known Washington lawyer and lobbyist, the go-to man for Republicans who found themselves in hot water, men such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. The Bethunes returned to Arknsas in 2009.

Bethune includes two quotes at the first of the novel.

One is from Canadian poet Bliss Carmen: “Indifference may not wreck a man’s life at any one turn, but it will destroy him with a kind of dry rot in the long run.”

The other is from Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel: “What is indifference? Etymologically, the word means ‘no difference.’ A strange and unnatural state in which the lines blur between light and darkness, dusk and dawn, crime and punishment, cruelty and compassion, good and evil. … Indifference can be tempting — more than that, seductive.”

Bethune is a heck of a writer. Just to give you a sample, here’s how the novel begins. The year is 1968: “Aubrey and Prissy finished their picnic and stretched out on a shady spot beside Sycamore Lake, wed to each other and to life in the hills of Arkansas. They listened to the mockingbirds singing their different songs, copycat chords in harmony with the whisper of pine needles and the rustling of leaves. A gentle breeze made a cat’s paw on the still water and then came ashore, a zephyr of cool air. The young couple snuggled and spoke warmly of living an unfussy life in the Ozarks. Their sweet talk added melody to the score. It was music, the music of the hills.

“Their dream, a bond made as childhood sweethearts, was coming true. Prissy would teach kindergarten; Aubrey would run the family hardware store and work part time as the deputy prosecuting attorney for their sleepy little county. Life in the Ozark Mountains, for those who love it, is a magnetic blend of simplicity and hardship, grounded in faith and in an unshakeable belief in the pioneering spirit. It had been good for their parents and grandparents. Surely, it would be good for them.

“Soon the afternoon shadows crept farther out onto the lake, darkening the water, warning of wounds and prejudices stemming from the Civil War, the Great Depression, the World Wars and other human tragedies. Such frailties run deep, and like the scab of a putrid wound, they will from time to time reopen and ooze pus. When that happens, a discordant note seeps into the music. On this September afternoon in 1968, a day made for lovers, Aubrey and Prissy Hatfield heard only what they wanted to hear. This is our home. Life is good.”

The investigation of the gay man’s murder goes nowhere.

Aubrey Hatfield is wracked by guilt that he didn’t do more.

Thirty-eight years later, he gets a second chance to confront what Bethune refers to as man’s greatest vice, “the refusal to see wrong and do something about it.”

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A new owner for That Bookstore

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

Here’s how the entry in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture begins for That Bookstore in Blytheville: “With its straightforward name and the legacy of a legendary proprietress, That Bookstore in Blytheville might be Arkansas’ best-known bookstore. In the early 1970s, Mary Gay Shipley, then a schoolteacher, saw a void in her hometown and opened a paperback exchange store affiliated with a Memphis group called The Book Rack. The bookstore has remained at 316 W. Main St. since 1976. Though locals called it ‘that bookstore’ for years, the store did not become officially known as That Bookstore in Blytheville until 1994.”

Back in February of 2012, I thought That Bookstore was a goner.

Shipley had decided, just prior to her 68th birthday, to retire. She was looking for a buyer, and I doubted a buyer could be found for such a business in a struggling Delta town.

In 2009, That Bookstore had been nominated for the Publishers Weekly Bookseller of the Year award. Shipley wrote in her submission to the magazine: “I opened the bookstore in my hometown of Blytheville because I saw a need. With only a tiny library and no place to buy books, a bookstore that would encourage reading and book conversations became my dream. My goal was, and still is, to create a good bookstore, not merely a store good enough for Blytheville, but a good bookstore. … TBIB understands that we sell a product offered free only a block away at the public library and often available at Walmart for about the same price we pay our suppliers. As a result, we are heavily dependent on customer service. But what is good customer service? For TBIB, customer service is about more than pleasantries and waiting on people immediately. It is about more than knowing our products. For us, service centers on knowing our customers.

“Books are very personal, and our business is to get to know our customers and embrace their reading choices and event interests. We serve with a positive mindset, and no matter who the bookseller might be, our customers know they are always speaking to another book lover.”

Shipley told Dan Broun for a 2008 publication that Broun wrote on the creative economy in Arkansas: “We’re still in business because of John Grisham.”

That Bookstore was among a handful of stores to have Grisham, an Arkansas native, for a signing following the publication of his first novel. He rewarded the store by returning time after time through the years for book signings.

Broun wrote: “When most authors announce their book tours, you can usually guess the stops: the big cities, of course, like New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles, and perhaps some college towns with literary bents like Charlottesville, Ann Arbor or Berkeley. So you might be surprised to find your favorite author scheduling a stop in little Blytheville.”

In 2008, an Associated Press travel writer listed That Bookstore among nine destination bookstores in the country, putting it in the company of The Strand in New York.

That same year, Main Street Arkansas named That Bookstore in Blytheville as its Main Street Merchant of the Year.

AY magazine’s list of Arkansas’ 12 most powerful women had Shipley on it.

How on earth, I wondered at the time, would we find someone with the business savvy, determination and marketing ability of Mary Gay Shipley to run a small business in downtown Blytheville?

She said she would part with the 2,400-square-foot building for just $35,000. Shipley also said at the time that she had spoken to Grisham and that he had agreed to “continue to support the store with the new owner.”

In November 2012, Shipley announced that there was a new owner — a 22-year-old nonfiction writer from Mountain Home named Grant Hill.

Hill loves books. He loves writing. But the pressures of running a small business proved daunting for such a young man.

“I had been talking to my folks and doing the math — and checking my blood pressure — and came to the conclusion that I needed to look for a way to, in a sense, minimize any damage to the bookstore and my own health,” Hill told the Courier News at Blytheville in a frank interview in December of last year. “I hadn’t really even told anybody that I wanted to sell the business, and Chris Crawley came in like two days later. Chris and I have had a working relationship since I moved here, and he has done work with the bookstore and me. He said, ‘I’d like to talk to you about us possibly working out a deal to buy the bookstore.’”

Within two weeks of that conversation, Crawley and attorney Yolanda Harrison had purchased That Bookstore in Blytheville.

“I talked with Mary Gay about it, and she really understood that my goal was to see this store succeed, for the community not to lose the store, however that had to happen,” Hill said. “I knew it had to be someone else who would be more prepared, and particularly since it’s a couple, which doubles the amount of work that can get done. I was always committed to seeing the store succeed. I knew with Chris and Yolanda that I had found someone who could do that. That’s why we moved so quickly.”

On Good Friday, as a group of us ate our way through the Arkansas Delta (see the previous two Southern Fried posts), we stopped by the store.

We walked in, and Crawley immediately called out to us, “Come on in and make yourself at home. We have some fresh coffee on.”

It was almost as if Mary Gay Shipley were back in charge.

I introduced myself to Crawley and learned his story.

Here’s part of that story in his own words: “I am a Blythevillian. My birth was at Dr. Fairley’s clinic in Luxora. My parents were Sol and Girtie Crawley. They were sharecroppers, and later my father built houses for people who could afford them. I had eight siblings — five sisters and three brothers. I have one sister left in Milwaukee and one sister in Blytheville. I’m the last brother standing.

“I attended Robinson Elementary School, Lange Elementary School and an assortment of schools as my mother’s Alzheimer’s and dementia became more than anyone should have to bear. At age 11, I went to Wrightsville School for Boys before the foster care system relegated me to Poplar Grove near my school in Marvell, where I graduated with honors. From frequent visits to see my family in Blytheville from the time before I was 16 in early 1976 until October 2012 when I was 52, the Book Rack and later That Bookstore in Blytheville figured strongly in my development and focus.

“Prominent in my memory are Mrs. Harrison, my first-grade teacher; Mrs. Wiggs, my fifth-grade teacher; Mrs. Butler, my seventh-grade teacher; Mrs. Rowland, my junior high school principal; Mrs Nichols, a high school teacher; and Mary Gay Shipley, the owner of the bookstore. There were other teachers and books. Together and collectively, they were the cause of it all.”

Crawley said he “took the first thing smoking” out of Arkansas the day after his high school graduation at Marvell. He moved to Milwaukee. He attended Marquette University and later graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Crawley went on to obtain a master’s degree from Cardinal Stritch University, a small Catholic school at Milwaukee. He did employment policy, staffing and technology work in Milwaukee before moving to Los Angeles to work as a talent manager. After three strokes due to toxic black mold infestation, Crawley moved home to Blytheville.

“I came back to Blytheville to die, but God had other plans for me,” he said.

Books always provided a refuge for Crawley.

“My love affair with books began at an early age,” he said. “Reality was sometimes bleak and seemingly proscribed. I loved books because they gave me options. They piqued my interests. Even when I was avoiding school, I could often be found reading one of my favorite books. Even in my young teens, I thought owning a bookstore would be a little piece of heaven. … I see the bookstore as a mechanism to uplift the town’s spirit.”

Crawley described himself as a “resurrection, restoration and renovation project inspired by God. I want to be a resurrection, restoration and renovation project for That Bookstore in Blytheville and the surrounding communities. I want to improve the look of the store inside and out. I want to increase the inventory, expand product offerings beyond books, bring back the high-quality authors for book signings, conduct new author forums, reintroduce national book tours to Blytheville, present live music, host book and poetry clubs, grow the event calendar, have children’s reading hours, rebuild the website, increase the level of social media interaction and more.”

It’s an ambitious agenda for a man who thought he was coming home to die.

“I want to make the bookstore a place where people will visit and say, ‘That Book in Blytheville is wonderful. It’s more than just a bookstore.’”

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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.

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Mr. Chairman: Congressman Wilbur D. Mills

Monday, March 18th, 2013

I didn’t want to move to Washington, D.C., in 1986.

Even though I was only 26 years old at the time, I was the No. 2 person in the sports department at the Arkansas Democrat and enjoying my work.

A Monday morning call from the newspaper’s mercurial managing editor, John Robert Starr, changed my life.

If you work in a newspaper sports department, the chances are that you work on weekends. That’s when the action occurs.

My days off back then were Mondays and Tuesdays. I was sleeping late on a Monday morning when the phone in my Brightwaters apartment rang.

I was jolted awake by the voice of Bob Starr. If Starr were calling me at home on a Monday morning, I figured we must have made a huge mistake in that morning’s sports section.

“Why haven’t you applied for the Washington job?” he asked almost immediately.

“Because I don’t want to move to Washington,” I replied.

“Well, you need to apply and go through the motions because I’ve already decided you’re going,” Starr said.

If you worked at the Democrat for Bob Starr, you knew better than to question him.

Within days, I was on a flight to Washington. I slept on the couch in my predecessor Damon Thompson’s Capitol Hill apartment while looking for a place of my own to live. I would wind up in the basement of a Capitol Hill townhouse for the next four years.

A few days after my return to Little Rock, I had packed my Oldsmobile Cutlass and was making the 1,100-mile trip on Interstate 40, Interstate 81 and Interstate 66 to the nation’s capital.

I was scared to death.

The newspaper war between the Arkansas Gazette and the Democrat was heating up, and you weren’t supposed to get scooped on your beat. Starr wrote scathing daily critiques for the whole staff to read, identifying those reporters he felt had been outworked by the competition. I would be going up against a veteran Gazette Washington correspondent, Carol Matlack. And I was coming from a sports department, not from a government and political beat.

The big story in Washington at the time was the development of the Tax Reform Act of 1986. I figured a natural angle for an Arkansas newspaper to take would be to talk to former Congressman Wilbur D. Mills from Kensett, who had written much of the tax code.

Even though he had been gone from Congress for almost a decade, Mills still went to his office each day at a K Street law firm. I set up an appointment with him.

I vividly remember walking in and looking at the wooden nameplate on the front of his desk that simply said “Mr. Chairman.”

I began asking questions. He was cordial but not overly friendly. One of the things I love about this small state of Arkansas is the fact that there’s, at most, two degrees of separation. Thus I decided to mention my maternal grandfather, who had died in 1980 at age 96. My grandfather had been the Prairie County judge at the time Mills had vaulted from the position of White County judge to Congress.

White and Prairie are adjoining counties.

“Mr. Chairman, I believe you knew my grandfather,” I said.

“Who was your grandfather, son?” he replied.

“W.J. Caskey of Des Arc,” I said.

Mills’ face lit up as he began to smile.

“Good Lord, son, if it had not been for the votes that Will Caskey delivered me in Prairie County the first time I ran for Congress in 1938, I might not have been elected,” he said.

Whether or not the story was true, I knew better than to ask the meaning of the word “delivered.”

I can tell you this: From then on, Mills treated me more like a long-lost relative than a newspaper reporter. Anytime I had a question, he would take my call. He didn’t want to be quoted by name, but I could always attribute his background quotes to “someone close to the tax negotiations.”

Little did my readers or the Gazette correspondent know that my source was one of the most powerful people ever to serve in the U.S. Congress.

Kay Goss was making the rounds in Little Rock last week. She spoke to a luncheon meeting of the Political Animals Club at the Governor’s Mansion on Tuesday and spoke the following evening at the Clinton School of Public Service.

She’s promoting her new book, “Mr. Chairman: The Life and Legacy of Wilbur D. Mills,” which recently was released by Parkhurst Brothers of Little Rock. It’s high time that someone wrote a book on Mills, and Goss was just the person to do it. She first met the congressman when she was teaching at the University of Arkansas. While completing her doctoral studies, she worked for then-Congressman Ray Thornton and watched Mills and his staff in action. In fact, she married his chief of staff, the late Gene Goss.

Among those in attendance at last Tuesday’s Political Animals Club meeting was former Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, who replaced Mills in Congress in 1977 (and whose grandfather was the incumbent Mills defeated when he first was elected White County judge).

“Kay has special and personal knowledge of Wilbur Mills, both the Chairman and the simply human,” Tucker writes. “She shares it with us wonderfully. Mr. Mills provided steady help and hope for ordinary working Americans and for those in need beginning in 1934 with what was, in effect, a ‘county Medicaid’ program while serving as county judge in White County. There was later the massive strengthening of Social Security and the creation of Medicare and Medicaid. … His good deeds live on in the memories of those who watched and in the lives of those receiving these services today.”

Goss, the former teacher with a keen sense of American history, writes: “The power of Congress has swung like a pendulum through the centuries. The peak of presidential power under Abraham Lincoln was followed by a surge of congressional power after his assassination, causing Woodrow Wilson, a political scientist at the time, before becoming governor of New Jersey and later president, to write in his book ‘Congressional Government’ that congressional committees were ‘lord proprietors.’ However, during the personality cults of the 20th century (Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt), Congress was weak and overshadowed.

“After Roosevelt’s passing and the passage of the Legislative Reform Act of 1946, Congress began regaining power. At this time, Mills was a rising star in Congress and a few years from becoming Ways and Means chairman. He was a part of a new generation in Congress, 40 years younger than Robert Doughton of North Carolina, the chairman of Ways and Means at the time, and compiling the second-longest tenure.

“The power of Congress increased until the congressional reform acts of the 1970s. Thus Mills was a congressional legend while I was a student at the University of Arkansas, pursuing bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science and history, doctoral studies at West Virginia University and teaching public administration and political science at three of Arkansas’ institutions of higher education.”

Former Sen. Dale Bumpers notes that Goss doesn’t ignore Mills’ alcoholism and the personal scandals of his later years.

“The challenges Wilbur Mills faced as he slipped into the disease of alchoholism and resulting controversy are dealt with forthrightly here, rekindling the reaction in the public’s mind during those difficult months,” Bumpers writes. “Unfortunately, Mills’ late-career difficulties dimmed the remembrance of some of his major achievements. … Kay Goss has deftly weighed Mills’ character and shown the complexity that was Wilbur Mills. She lets his example show that no matter how high a person goes, how much he or she achieves, it is possible to fall and then to recover magnificently as Mills did when he went on to help others who suffer from addictions.”

Former Sen. David Pryor remembers that “only a handful of members of the House and Senate called him Wilbur. To most of us, he was Mr. Chairman. No legislative tactician grew to understand better or in more detail the myriad complexities of the federal government, especially our country’s tax code. … In addition, his enormous impact on health programs, most notably Medicare, and social issues remains a hallmark of his service.

“The tremendous respect Chairman Mills enjoyed among his colleagues in the House translated into support from both Democrats and Republicans. It was said that during his years chairing the House Ways and Means Committee, a roll-call vote was needless, as the chairman governed his committee by reason and ultimately consensus.”

After leaving Congress, Mills said: “There was a time when I felt that I couldn’t make a mistake. If I did, the country would go to rack and ruin. I was making myself a god. Human beings make mistakes, but I thought I couldn’t make a mistake. Therefore I didn’t let myself be a human being. That kind of internal pressure is more than the human system can sustain. Here I was doing it to myself consistently. .. I used to be lonesome all the time, even among 10,000 people. I don’t remember any time when I didn’t feel lonesome.”

Goss writes that when the words Mr. Chairman were spoken in Washington, “everyone from the president to the newest elevator operator knew the reference meant Wilbur Mills. He had a personal network of influence in the House.”

But when asked about giving up that power, Mills later told The Daily Citizen at Searcy: “I enjoy life more now. It’s just great to be a human being. In the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee, I was more of a machine than a man.”

In “Mr. Chairman,” Kay Goss probes both the reasons for his greatness and his human frailties.

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My Christmas reading list

Friday, December 21st, 2012

If you’re out there scrambling for last-minute Christmas gifts, you should consider heading to your nearest independently owned bookstore and buy some books.

Books long have been among my favorite Christmas gifts.

I have two books I want to recommend for this Christmas. Both have been released this year, and both are written by erudite Arkansans.

Both of these authors were kind enough, in fact, to appear with Blake Eddins and me on Fresh Talk 93.3 FM in Little Rock this week to talk about their books.

The first book on my list is “Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow: The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Marriage” by Ruth Hawkins of Arkansas State University at Jonesboro.

The second book on my list is “Arkansas Pie: A Delicious Slice of the Natural State” by Little Rock food and travel writer Kat Robinson with photos by Grav Weldon.

Literature, history, food, Arkansas — all things I like. Whenever I take a break from reading one, I pick up the other.

Let’s start with Ruth’s book.

In 1996, Ruth was leading an eight-county effort to attain national scenic byway status for the Arkansas segment of Crowley’s Ridge, the natural formation that extends 200 miles from just below Cape Girardeau, Mo., to Helena. Ruth needed an attraction in far north Arkansas to promote, and she thought Piggott might provide just such an attraction.

“The Delta Cultural Center and the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena anchor the southern end,” Ruth said at the time. “Identifying a northern anchor for the ridge, however, was somewhat problematic.”

She finally focused on the fact that Paul and Mary Pfeiffer had called Piggott home. The couple moved to Piggott in 1913 and eventually acquired 63,000 acres in the area. The Pfeiffers had the first electric refrigerator and stove in Piggott and later led efforts to provide electricity for the entire town.

They also had a daughter named Pauline, who in 1927 became Ernest Hemingway’s second wife. The marriage lasted until 1940, and during that time there were regular visits to Piggott. Hemingway wrote parts of “A Farewell to Arms” along with short stories in the Pfeiffer barn, which had been converted into a place for him to work.

Ruth learned that the Pfeiffer home was for sale. ASU bought the home, which is now the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum & Educational Center. After a short break for the holidays, the museum will reopen Jan. 2 and be open each Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. and each Saturday from 1 p.m. until 3 p.m.

Along the way, Ruth determined that she had gathered enough information for a book.

“When I began researching Pauline Pfeiffer Hemingway and her family nearly 15 years ago, I was surprised at what little attention the Pfeiffers had received,” she writes in the preface to the book. “Though the Pfeiffers were mentioned by many Hemingway scholars, this family’s impact on Ernest Hemingway and his writing career essentially was neglected. Today, that hasn’t changed significantly, and much of what is written is inaccurate or does not capture the family’s true contributions. Only a few writers, such as Michael Reynolds, have suggested the breadth of the Pfeiffers’ influence, and it was Reynolds who convinced me that this book should be written.”

Ruth attributes the lack of attention to two things:

1. The Pfeiffers were an extremely private family and never publicly discussed their relationship with Hemingway.

2. Pauline died before her former husband did.

“His other three wives had the good health and the good sense to outlast him and contribute their own views of life with Hemingway, thus balancing out the record, if not actually setting things straight,” Ruth writes. “In spite of the greater attention given to Hemingway’s other wives, Pauline lived and worked with him during his most productive period as a writer and bore two of his three children. Thus she deserves more than to be dismissed as a man-chaser who went after Hemingway and broke up his marriage, got what she deserved when the same thing happened to her and ultimately wound up in an unmarked grave.

“Even Pauline’s uncle, Gus Pfeiffer, acknowledged as Hemingway’s financial backer, is mostly ignored except as the man who wrote occasional big checks that helped Hemingway get through the rough spots. Yet Uncle Gus had a profound influence on Hemingway’s career, including gathering research materials, providing sound advice and enabling him to live the lifestyle necessary for his writing success.”

Ruth believes that Pauline actually was a naive women who became “enamored of Ernest beyond all ability to judge or care about right and wrong. Not only did Pauline have the misfortune to fall in love with him, but she continued to love him until the day she died. It is questionable whether Ernest ever truly loved her, though a strong sexual chemistry existed for a time. More likely, he loved everything she brought to the marriage — her family money, her editorial skills, her strong belief in him and her devotion to his every need.”

Ruth admits that Pauline made bad choices.

“Though witty and intelligent, she had little ambition of her own and chose to promote the man she loved rather than attempting anything in her own right,” she writes. “Perhaps her greatest failing was in her role as a mother. When married to Ernest Hemingway, one often had to choose between being a wife and being a mother. Pauline chose being his wife, and in the end she lost both her husband and, to a degree, the respect of her children.”

It is Ruth’s contention, though, that the support of the Pfeiffer family enabled Hemingway to develop the literary style that brought him international recognition.

“Despite her faults, Pauline and her family deserve recognition for the major impact they had on Ernest Hemingway financially, emotionally and artistically,” she writes.

“Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow” provides that recognition.

On to pie.

Way back in 1983, famed “Roadfood” authors Jane and Michael Stern did an interview with People magazine.

When asked what part of the country had the best regional cooking, Michael Stern responded: “The Deep South. It’s a stewpot of different influences and dishes. There’s New Orleans Creole, Louisiana Cajun, Southern fried chicken, barbecue, catfish, Arkansas pies, country ham and redeye gravy.”

Yes, he singled out Arkansas for pie.

Asked directly who serves the best pie, he said later in the interview: “Arkansas is the greatest pie state. We found terrific Karo-nut pies in a converted tool shed called Family Pie Shop in DeValls Bluff.”

Enter Kat Robinson, a former television producer turned food blogger turned communications pro for the state Department of Parks and Tourism.

In the foreword to “Arkansas Pie,” North Little Rock writer Eric Francis states bluntly: “If I’m hungry and I’m in Arkansas, I let Kat Robinson tell me where to eat. I’d be a fool not to.”

In a 2011 response to a website posting in which a bunch a Yankees presumably said Arkansas was identified with “jelly pie” (something none of us had ever heard of), Kat responded: “It’s true, Arkansas has no official state food. But there are foods that originate here. We host the Hope Watermelon Festival, which claims the world’s largest melons, and the Cave City Watermelon Festival, which serves up the (academically asserted) world’s sweetest melons. We produce a fantastic amount of rice and soybeans. … We love sassafras tea and rice smothered in chicken gravy (and rice with just sugar and butter to boot). Our state produces fabulous cheese straws, funnel cake mix, yellow corn grits and muscadine wine.

“We like our pies — oh heavens we do — but we prefer them meringued or creamed or with a little coconut in them.”

After reading Kat’s book — and staring at Grav’s beautiful photos — I’m prepared to agree with Stern that Arkansas is America’s top pie state.

“I suppose in some states a restaurant might be like as not to have pie,” Kat writes. “Here in Arkansas, we love pie. We love its infinite diversity and its infinite combinations (to paraphrase the old Vulcan maxim). We claim so many varieties that the head swivels.

“In Arkansas around the holidays, pecan pie is so prevalent that a dinner table is empty without one. Feuds have broken out over the superiority between sweet potato and pumpkin pie. Restaurants compete over which has the tallest meringue on its coconut or chocolate pies, and you can tell the progressing weeks of summer based on what pie shows up at Sunday dinner.

“Our oldest and most famous restaurants, for the most part, are known for their pies. Every innovative young chef seems to have a special one. Almost every drive-in, diner, family-style restaurant and soul food shack has its own version, and it’s nary a barbecue restaurant that doesn’t have a grand fried pie. You can even find good pie in Chinese restaurants, at service stations and inside flea markets and antique stores. Pie is everywhere in Arkansas.”

The majority of my favorite Arkansas restaurants are in this book — the Bulldog at Bald Knob, Burge’s at Lewisville, the Colonial Steak House at Pine Bluff, Ed & Kay’s at Benton, Franke’s in Little Rock, the Hurley House in Hazen, the Kirby Restaurant at (you guessed it) Kirby, Mama Max’s at Prescott, Neal’s Cafe at Springdale, the Oark General Store in Oark, the Pickens Store at Pickens, Ray’s at Monticello, Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales at Lake Village, Sweet Treats at Lamar, the Wagon Wheel at Greenbrier, the White Pig in North Little Rock and Wood’s Place at Camden to name just a few.

Here’s to good reading.

And good eating.

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From Greasy Slough to Screaming Wings

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour describes duck hunting this way: “The camaraderie and collegiality you get in duck hunting is totally different from other hunting because you’re together and form a bond of shared experience. You may be an ambassador or a governor. But when you duck hunt, you can always be a 17-year-old.”

I thought about those words on my most recent duck hunt in east Arkansas as my hunting companions and I laughed, told jokes and generally acted like a bunch of 17-year-old boys.

My host, mind you, is past the age of 80. I’m past the age of 50. It really didn’t matter.

In the previous Southern Fried blog post, we told you about the latest book from Wild Abundance Publishing Co. of Memphis. It’s titled “A Million Wings” and focuses on 12 duck clubs along the Lower Mississippi Flyway — three in Missouri, one in Kentucky, three in Arkansas, three in Mississippi and two in Louisiana.

The Arkansas clubs featured in the book are Greasy Slough near the upper Bayou DeView in northeast Arkansas, the Coca Cola Woods near Wynne and Screaming Wings near Stuttgart.

“Greasy Slough has never been a hunting club for the faint of heart,” writes Susan Schadt of Memphis, the book’s author. “Take, for instance, the Tag Shack. The shack is a rickety monument to the antics and aberrations of hunters at Greasy in pursuit of the perfect hunt. The Tag Shack is indeed a shack. The tool shed-sized edifice is a simple structure, but that’s not a problem for the overly zealous members who illuminate the property map on the wall with car headlights and play games of extreme one-upsmanship to be the first to ‘tag’ their favorite hole for the morning hunt.

“Originally, the club used a ‘first in time rule’ to determine who got to hunt which hole. It was not unheard of for members to drive to the property at 2 a.m. or earlier in order to stake claim on their hole of choice. They would sleep in the blind, in the boat or in their trucks, warding off all other comers, until first shooting light.”

Club member Hughes Lowrance remembers “waiting to see who was going to show up because there were no cell phones and no one knew where anyone was. If someone was being nice, they’d flash their light at you to let you know they were out there.”

Massive poker games would take place at a hotel in Jonesboro. At about 2 a.m., teenage sons would be sent out to hold the holes.

“Holding the hole was not only a lonely and potentially scary vigil; it could be a very frigid one as well,” Schadt writes. “Charlie Lowrance remembers holding a hole one freezing night with his Uncle Collie and being so cold that they resorted to building a fire in the bottom of the metal boat for warmth.”

The club consists of more than 1,000 acres of timber and farmland on the northern end of the Bayou DeView. J.H. “Jim” Crain formed the Greasy Slough Outing Club in November 1945. The property included timber that could be flooded, a reservoir and Greasy Slough. Crain sold 33 memberships in the club for $1,000 each.

There are now 26 members. About half are from Memphis. The other half are from Arkansas.

Schadt notes that the club still has some of the Crain family as members and maintains a beneficial relationship with the adjacent Crain farm when it comes to attracting ducks.

As one of the Lowrances put it: “We can pick Greasy out from the air at 30,000 feet, and that’s why we think ducks can pick it out. As they come down the flyway, the first flooded timber they see is Greasy. We are the most northern club in the area, and we’re surrounded by rice fields.”

Schadt writes: “Many members have had the same opening weekend guests, many of whom are neighbors in Memphis, for 20 years. Guests are treated to some of the South’s finest hunting in some of its more famous holes, including the Grasspatch, the Lowrance Hole, the Big Woods Hole, the Carter Hole and the Lil’ Marty.”

The next Arkansas club featured in the book, Coca Cola Woods near Wynne, is owned by Memphis businessman John Dobbs Jr.

Everett Pidgeon, whose family bought the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Memphis in 1909, acquired the property over a three-year period at a price of $1.20 an acre. There was only one small cabin there at the time. Pidgeon moved a house from Snow Lake to serve as the lodge.

“During that era, the property known as Morton’s to close family and friends was used as a hunting club on weekends and a place to entertain their Coca-Cola clients during the week,” Schadt writes. “As its reputation for great hunting and good times spread among customers, friends and locals, it became referred to as ‘that Coca-Cola place’ and before long the unofficial nickname was Coca Cola Woods.

“Typically a men’s-only retreat, Bobby Pidgeon Jr. has fond memories of trips to the camp with his grandmother before opening day of duck season transformed it into an all-male bastion. When he came of age to hunt, he ‘enjoyed camaraderie and fellowship with my dad’s friends, and also with my friends, some of whom I’ve known and hunted with for 47 years now.”’

Schadt notes: “During those days there were no blinds so hunters stood in the water behind trees. Hunters followed a strict set of rules. There was no hunting after noon, and hunters were not allowed to walk ducks up. While the ducks have certainly appreciated these considerations, they are also drawn to the property’s natural features, including a creek that splits the back part of the property in half and the extensive flooded green timber. Hunters from St. Louis to New Orleans came to enjoy this duck-filled paradise.”

The Pidgeon family sold the club to Harvey Robbins of Tuscumbia, Ala., in 1995 and it was renamed Harvey’s Duck Club.

When Dobbs bought the property three years ago, he officially changed the name to Coca Cola Woods.

The club’s manager and lead guide is Rusty Creasy, who began hunting at age 8 and calling at age 10. Brother Mike Creasy and their uncle, Harvey Shue, also serve as guides.

“Rusty Creasy is a special guy,” Dobbs says. “He has been around the club since he was born, and he cares deeply about his job and about being a good host and guide.”

Dobbs adds: “Historically it has been known for great duck hunting, but more importantly it has been known for the adventures and stories people tell about their experience at Coca Cola Woods. Now it’s a place for everyone, just the guys or our families or three generations of families. Some people hunt ducks their entire lives and never see the things we see at Coca Cola Woods with the quality of ducks and camaraderie.

“As a man, sometimes it’s hard to identify this feeling, but when you’re out there, there’s a realization that you’re doing what you’re meant to do. There’s no thinking about other problems. The focus in on killing the ducks. It all goes back to man’s most primal instincts as hunters and gatherers and doing what you’re supposed to do.”

Next, Screaming Wings.

Russell McCollum placed a full-page ad in the Daily Leader at Stuttgart in 1952, urging landowners to flood their fields to attract ducks.

“McCollum’s marketing ploy surely contributed to Stuttgart’s undisputed reputation as Duck Hunting Capital of the World,” Schadt writes. “After some 50 years as a commercial hunting operation known interchangeably as Wildlife Acres, McCollum’s and Russell’s, this property is now a private retreat in the capable hands of Witt Stephens of Little Rock.”

The land on which the club sits was purchased by Otis McCollum in 1925.

“Otis McCollum was a visionary,” Schadt writes. “To transform the land into a magnum-size commercial hunting operation, he enlisted the aid of water management engineer T.J. Fricke and built a series of levees that created the ideal conditions for hunting. Today there are more than 15 miles of Otis McCollum-built levees in the Bayou Meto basin.”

His nephew Russell bought the land in 1952 and charged visitors for daily hunts.

“Soon referred to as Russell’s by those in the know, it accommodated as many as 1,400 shooters per year,” Schadt says. “There was no advertising. Duck hunters from around the country came to experience the thrill of world-class duck hunting replete with local guides fully loaded with sharp wits, tall tales and an expert feeding chuckle that all but guaranteed a limit of mallards.”

Buck Mayhue began guiding on the property in 1951 and became the club’s manager in 1959 when Russell McCollum developed health problems.

The book states: “Buck’s one-year trial as manager turned into a career spanning 42 years and counting. He has managed the land and duck hunts for Russell McCollum, Russell’s daughter and son-in-law, Nancy and Mike Smith, and now for Witt Stephens. While many envy his dream job, make no mistake, for Buck the hunt is strictly professional.”

“It’s like going to the office,” he says. “When I’m out there, I’m all business. When I pull that duck caller out, I’m serious.”

Witt Stephens Jr. began looking at the property in 2005.

“The owners wanted to sell the property in a private manner and knowing of Witt’s longstanding interest, they sent a cryptic message through a mutual friend, Mike’s brother, Steve Smith, and soon the deal was sealed. It was a perfect fit. Buck was, of course, inseparable from the property and although initially skeptical of new ownership, he is a firm believer in Witt’s vision for the land.”

He says: “I’m 110 percent committed to this operation. I was happy when Witt took over. I was so afraid that somebody would make a bean field out of those woods out there.”

The book tells how Witt Jr. learned to shoot on his father’s cattle farm at Prattsville, where the man known as Mr. Witt spent his weekends. It talks about the person often known around Little Rock as Little Witt “trying to breathe” on the way to the farm. That’s because Mr. Witt smoked his ever-present cigars as the longtime driver named Finley steered the car south out of Little Rock.

Mr. Witt would always start meals at Prattsville with a prayer. Finley would add loudly at the end, “And Jesus wept.” That, by the way, isn’t in the book.

Soon after buying the property, Witt Jr. was having dinner with friends when the name of the winery Screaming Eagle came up. One thing led to another, and the name Screaming Wings was chosen for the club.

A spacious lodge was built on the historic property.

“There are no public roads into, out of or around Screaming Wings, ensuring prime hunting conditions,” Schadt writes.

Witt Jr. says: “We plant corn or rice and leave them in some of the fields. We never hunt out in the fields. It’s purely for the ducks. In the afternoon they’ll come out and feed, and in the morning they’ll roll into the flooded timber to loaf, feed and find thermal cover.”

Sam Leder, who has been working on the property for more than two decades, has taken over the club’s day-to-day management.

“You can’t be exposed to it every day and not appreciate the natural beauty of it,” Leder says. “Not many people get to see the things that Buck and I get to see, the wildlife and the way nature works.”

The book “A Million Wings” offers a glimpse into that world. It will make quite a Christmas gift for the waterfowl lover in your life.

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“A Million Wings” — Duck hunting at its finest

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

The folks at Wild Abundance Publishing Co. have done it again.

Just in time for Christmas 2012, the publishing division of ArtsMemphis has released “A Million Wings,” a beautiful collection of essays and photographs from a dozen of the top private duck clubs along the Lower Mississippi Flyway.

Three of those clubs are in Arkansas. They are:

– Greasy Slough, which is in northeast Arkansas near the upper Bayou DeView.

– Coca Cola Woods near Wynne.

– Witt Stephens Jr.’s Screaming Wings near Stuttgart.

The coffee table book also features three clubs in eastern Missouri, one in western Kentucky, three in Mississippi and two in south Louisiana.

Susan Schadt, the president and CEO of ArtsMemphis, produced her first book in 2008. It was titled “First Shooting Light: A Photographic Journal Reveals the Legacy and Lure of Hunting Clubs in the Mississippi Flyway.”

Two years later, she released “Wild Abundance: Ritual, Revelry & Recipes of the South’s Finest Hunting Clubs.”

The first book in the series focused on clubs in Arkansas and Mississippi. The photographer was Murray Riss, who established the photography department at the Memphis College of Art. The Arkansas clubs featured in “First Shooting Light” were:

– 713 in Lee County near the north end of the St. Francis National Forest.

– Bayou DeView/Section 13 Farms in Woodruff County.

– Bear Bayou near Humnoke, which was founded in the 1940s by the Marks family of Stuttgart.

– Blackfish Hunting Club in Crittenden County.

– Circle T near Wabbaseka, which was established in 1959 to entertain customers of Central Transformer Corp. of Pine Bluff.

– Five Lakes Outing Club on Horseshoe Lake in Crittenden County, which has been around since 1901.

– George Dunklin Jr.’s Five Oaks Duck Lodge in Arkansas County. Dunklin will soon become the national president of Ducks Unlimited.

– Greenbriar Hunting Club near Stuttgart. Referred to by locals as the Old Winchester Club, the club was founded in 1945 by John Olin of Illinois.

– Hatchie Coon Hunting & Fishing Club between Marked Tree and Trumann, which was established by a group of Memphis residents in 1889.

– The Snowden family’s Kingdom Come near Stuttgart.

– Menasha Hunting & Fishing Club between Gilmore and Turrell, which dates back to 1902.

– Mud Lake Hunting Club near Hughes, which also dates back to 1902.

– The famed Claypool’s Reservoir near Weiner, which was purchased by Wallace Claypool of Memphis in 1941 and was the site of a well-known NBC national television program in December 1956.

The concept of “Wild Abundance,” meanwhile, was to take some of the South’s best chefs and put them in the region’s top hunting clubs. One of the nine chefs in the book is Lee Richardson of Little Rock (I’m anxious to find out what Lee’s next adventure will be).

“Wild Abundance” featured the photography of Lisa Waddell Buser. She is back with dozens of great shots in “A Million Wings.”

Schadt calls Buser a “talented and tenacious photographer who was truly unstoppable in her pursuit of these shots. She was able to capture the slightest movements on a rest lake while standing on a two-by-four railing 40 feet off the ground. She tracked, step for step, a hunter in pursuit of a wild pig. She waded through muck, downed logs and various temperaments shouldering 20 pounds of gear. And while she smiled through the entire season and was always willing but demure, her voice is loud and clear.”

In his foreword to “A Million Wings,” 2012 U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III writes: “I learned that being an outdoorsman was not just about hunting. The sportsmen I met were truly stewards of the land. They were involved with Ducks Unlimited, marsh projects and property management. I was immediately pulled into that contagious culture so I was committed to conservation very early. … This is what outdoorsmen do: They work together to make a difference for wildlife and embrace the preservation of precious habitat for all time.”

Love understands that the average duck hunter will never be invited to any of the clubs in the book. But he knows why they want a glimpse inside those clubs.

“The stunning photographs and the heartfelt stories in ‘A Million Wings’ inspire people,” he writes. “While everybody will not play golf at Augusta National or play in the U.S. Open, they watch. They watch, they see it and it inspires them to play the game; it inspires them to play the game better.

“Like Augusta National, the private retreats shared by the individuals on these pages may seem like the ultimate experience. But these are the places that do the work to keep duck hunting alive. And through their stories and these photographs, they are inspiring people to get out there and hunt and to gain a better understanding of the sport. And like in golf, the big clubs and the professional game are a small part of the whole story, but they motivate people to grow the game. The families and the members in these clubs are the ones who motivate the rest of us. They are the ones who are growing the sport.”

Schadt explains the book’s name: “Witnessing the phenomenon of a million collective wings is a rare sight. Yet most sportsmen enthusiastically recollect massive numbers of ducks, millions of wings, seen in a single day, over multiple seasons or throughout a lifetime. Some exhibit decades of patience in anticipation of the possibilities and all extol the limitless pleasure they derive from a flight of ducks.

“The third in our series of collectible books that seeks to chronicle and preserve the unique culture and tradition of American duck hunting is a journey into that world, dedicated to the lure of nature and conservation efforts to restore and perpetually protect habitats and populations of migrant waterfowl.

“Our journey along the migratory route of the Mississippi Flyway follows the lower Mississippi Valley through Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. We begin in St. Charles County, Mo., at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, one of the finest confluences in the world, and conclude in the coastal marshes and bayous of southwest Louisiana.

“Our Wild Abundance Publishing team was welcomed wholeheartedly into this culture. We blessed the ducks; we traversed the timber and flooded wheat fields; ‘we’ shot a wild pig; we painted our faces; we were in full gear at 4:30 a.m.; we stood knee deep in water; froze our fingers and toes and we sipped circa 1895 whiskey. We learned about food plots and acorns, hens and drakes, when to shoot, when not to shoot and a few new jokes. We were fully immersed, thankfully not with a waderful of cold water but with respect, guidance and patience by our mentors.

“We felt the pleasure of anticipation, the beauty of the silence, the noises of the waking morn and the thrill of the first sight of ducks. We became part of the team, as eager as our subjects. The rare photographic glimpse into the 12 private retreats is a gift to be shared and is only eclipsed by the passion, trust and time the lodge owners and club members bestowed upon us.”

The historic duck clubs are part of our heritage in this part of the country. I couldn’t put the book down until I had flipped through all 260 of its pages. I’ve written at length on the Southern Fried blog about several of this state’s legendary duck hunters, men such as Wiley Meacham of Monroe County and the aforementioned George Dunklin Jr. of Arkansas County. While impressed with their ability to call and shoot ducks, I’m most impressed by their dedication to the land and their conservation efforts.

“Throughout our journey, we certainly saw hundreds of thousands of wings,” Schadt writes. “Those spectacular displays made for great photographs and unforgettable stories. But ultimately, they point to the dedication of all the sportsmen in this book and across the country. The most amazing story is the way that outdoorsmen have worked together with truly remarkable results. Thanks to them, future generations will experience awe-inspiring moments, poignant memories and the astonishing prospect of a million wings.”  

 

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Lee Wilson’s Delta empire

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

I’ve written on the Southern Fried blog before about my fascination with Lee Wilson & Co., which once operated one of the largest cotton plantations in the world, helped shape life in northeast Arkansas and remained in the same family for almost 125 years.

If you have an interest in the history of the Arkansas Delta, you should read Jeannie Whayne’s book “Delta Empire,” which was released last year by the Louisiana State University Press.

Whayne, a history professor at the University of Arkansas, is an expert on the Delta, having written “A New Plantation South” and having edited “Sunnyside: Evolution of a Plantation in Arkansas, 1830-1945″ along with “Arkansas Delta: A Land of Paradox.”

More than just the story of Robert E. “Lee” Wilson, “Delta Empire” is in many respects the story of Southern agriculture from the late 1800s through the early 1950s.

Lee Wilson inherited 400 acres in Mississippi County following his father’s death in 1870. He expanded that initial inheritance into a 50,000-acre lumber and cotton operation, buying swampland for as little as 50 cents an acre, draining it, selling the harvested cypress and other bottomland hardwoods and turning it into cotton fields.

Whayne had considered doing her dissertation on the Wilson plantation in the 1980s but says “an encounter with a snake in the basement of a Mississippi County jail convinced me to look elsewhere for a dissertation topic. No company records existed, or so it seemed at the time, and a county official indicated that county records were unavailable to me.

“Oscar Fendler, a longtime attorney representing the Wilson family, gained me entry to the basement of the county jail so that I could examine the records discarded there. Thus began an adventure that Fendler, who died a few years ago, never tired of recalling, though he only heard the story from me — I think.

“The jailer held a flashlight, a guard stood by with a rifle as two black prisoners in jail jumpsuits picked up the books and held them in the light for me to examine. Finding nothing of interest, I noticed another stack of books across the room and started to move toward them. Years later it occurred to me that the entire charade — aside from the snake which slithered by at that moment and could not have been choreographed — was intended to discourage me. It worked. I chose another topic.”

Before entering that basement, Whayne had visited the company offices in the English Tudor-style town of Wilson and had come up empty in her search for records.

Following the release of “Arkansas Delta: A Land of Paradox,” Whayne was participating in a book signing event at Mary Gay Shipley’s wonderful That Bookstore In Blytheville. Whayne was approached during the event by Mike Wilson, who asked her to write a history of Lee Wilson & Co.

“I had some understandable misgivings,” Whayne writes. “Any book I wrote, I explained to Mike, would be critical of certain aspects of the company’s operation. He insisted he understood that and believed that it was important to cover all aspects of the company’s history. He wanted the unvarnished truth, and I came to understand that he meant what he said.”

Mike Wilson donated company ledgers to the University of Arkansas archives. The real breakthrough came with the discovery of company correspondence files.

“Mike called me some time in the late 1990s to tell me that when workmen removed a malfunctioning air conditioning unit to replace it, they discovered a false wall and a room full of boxes,” Whayne writes.

Those papers also were donated to the university.

Mike Wilson died suddenly in 2008 while Whayne was working on the book. His brother Steve, his sister Midge and Mike’s son Perry continued to work with Whayne. Meanwhile, the late Dr. Eldon Fairley of the Mississippi County Historical Society rescued those county records from the basement of the jail.

In October 2010, it was announced that the Wilson family was selling the company. In December of that year, it was revealed that Gaylon Lawrence Sr. of Sikeston, Mo., and Gaylon Lawrence Jr. of Nashville, Tenn., had paid an estimated $150 million for Lee Wilson & Co.

An era had ended in the Arkansas Delta.

Lawrence Jr. is known in the Nashville area as the owner of Tennessee Bank & Trust. The father and son own four other banks in Missouri and Arkansas. Their diversified Lawrence Group even purchased U.S. Air Conditioning Distributors, which had almost $600 million in annual sales and operations.

The Lawrence Group owns more than 165,000 acres in Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Florida, Illinois and several other states. Everything from cotton to soybeans to citrus is grown on that land.

The Lawrence purchase of the Wilson estate stands as one example of the trend toward investors holding agricultural real estate as part of their portfoilios, Whayne writes.

“Most of these people have little understanding of agricultural production or appreciation for the local communities,” she says. ”Lawrence himself, a banker (with Tennessee Bank & Trust of Nashville) who holds agricultural lands from California to Florida, including part of the old Delta Pine & Land Co. in Mississippi, does possess some connection to southeast Missouri and northeastern Arkansas. His family has roots in Sikeston and at some point acquired ownership of Farmers Bank & Trust in Blytheville. The latter connection shadows an earlier association with Lee Wilson, who became a director of Farmers Bank & Trust in 1932.

“Lawrence’s purchase of the Wilson estate mirrors a larger trend among investment firms acquiring agricultural lands, purchases that made sense during the economic crisis which began in 2007. While residential and commercial real estate prices plummeted, agricultural lands rose in value, in tandem with the rise in agricultural prices.

“Investment firms like the Winchester Group of Champaign, Ill., and TIAA-CREF, the college pension fund, have increased their holdings in agricultural lands as a way to offset the declining value of other kinds of real estate.”

The trend of Delta farms becoming part of corporate portfolios followed other major changes in the region.

“With fewer farmworkers needed, the population of the county began to decline after World War II, falling from 80,286 in 1950 to 70,055 in 1960 to 51,979 in 2000 (after Whayne had finished work on her book, the 2010 census figure for Mississippi County came in at 46,480. That means the county has lost 34,000 residents in the past six decades).”

She continues: “While industrial jobs began providing some alternative sources of employment, they were late in arriving and remain insufficiently robust enough to offset the decline in farm labor jobs made obsolete by the advent of scientific agriculture. Only the northern end of the county has exceeded expectations, largely for two reasons. First, given the higher incidence of land ownership and the ability of even landless famers there to gain at least some personal property, they were the least likely of any population in the county — or elsewhere in the Delta — to depart.

“Second, the placement of the Air Force training base in Blytheville provided an anchor which sustained a population base. When the government closed the base in the early 1990s, things looked bleak for a while but then Nucor moved into the area just east of Blytheville in the mid-1990s and turned things around.”

Whayne notes that as sharecroppers left the Delta, plantation owners “burned or bulldozed their tenant houses and planted cotton or soybeans on their foundations in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Although plantation agriculture had some prominence in north Mississippi County — particularly east of Big Lake with Wilson’s Armorel operation as merely the most prominent example — small farmers also operated there and remained in place. As they struggled to stay alive in the capital-intensive economic environment confronting farmers, whether big or small, they served as a ready labor force as Nucor and allied industries moved into the region in the 1990s.”

Whayne worries that investment firms and portofolio managers will have little inclination to improve the quality of life for those who live in these areas.

“Unlike local planters who have established long-standing relationships with the men who lease their lands, portfolio planters will be interested only in the bottom line,” she writes. “When the enterprise becomes strictly a business transaction, lessees potentially become expendable. … As out-of-state investors looking to maximize their profits, they will have even less interest in the environmental consequences of burning rice stubble or the overuse of certain potentially harmful chemicals.”

Only time will tell whether the move toward more corporate farming and out-of-state ownership will be good for the Arkansas Delta. Regardless, those interested in the region and its history will enjoy “Delta Empire” as Jeannie Whayne recounts a part of our state’s history that has come to an end.

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Charlotte Schexnayder: Salty Old Editor

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

I wasn’t surprised that the room was packed even though it was the middle of the day on a weekday. People had come from across Arkansas to hear Charlotte Tillar Schexnayder speak at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock.

She has had that kind of impact on our state and its people during her 88 years.

I’ve known Charlotte in several of her roles.

As a young newspaperman, I came to know her as the person who ran (along with her husband Melvin) one of the best weekly newspapers in the South.

Later, as a political reporter and as a member of the governor’s staff, I knew Charlotte as a leading light in the Arkansas Legislature.

She’s the epitome of a gracious Southern lady — but with a tough streak; governors and others learned the hard way never to underestimate her — and an Arkansas institution.

Her new book from Butler Center Books in Little Rock — titled “Salty Old Editor — An Adventure in Ink” – makes for fascinating reading.

“She’s a treasure,” says former President Clinton. “I’m so grateful I’ve had the chance to know her, work with her and be her friend.”

Former U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers calls her “one of those too rare people who not only cares about what’s right and wrong in the world but spends a lifetime trying to do something about it. Together, she and her late husband Melvin were the bedrock of their community, the Delta and the entire state.”

Former U.S. Sen. David Pryor calls her a “powerful force for equality, fairness and justice. Her life has been an epic story of how one person can make a difference. She is a true public servant.”

Charlotte is a former president of the Arkansas Press Women, the Little Rock professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Federation of Press Women, the Arkansas Press Association and the National Newspaper Association.

She also was the first female president of the Dumas Chamber of Commerce.

She has always been a pacesetter.

In the late 1940s, Melvin and Charlotte Schexnayder found themselves living in the pine woods of east Texas at Marshall. Melvin had accepted a job in early 1948 with the Texas & Pacific Railroad as a chemical engineer.

“His job involved analyzing oil and water samples for steam engines,” she writes. “I always dreaded the possibility that he might dislocate his lame shoulder when he climed the company water tanks for samples.

“More often, he was in the company laboratories or on a train going as far as Pecos, Texas — 800 miles away. The job demanded five to six days a week on the road, leaving us miserable with little home life.

“Mother came to visit in Marshall in the summer of 1948. Melvin drove her 1937 Plymouth there, and on the back was a coop of chickens from Tillar. We had a flat tire on the way, and a man who stopped to help us was much amused. However, we thought the fried chicken was very tasty that summer.

“My solution while Melvin was constantly traveling was to read and keep our domicile, all the while missing the news business. Occasionally, I traveled with him and particularly remember the dust storms in west Texas. Neither of us was content away from the other.

“In late summer, we received a telegram from W.M. Jackson, owner of the McGehee Semi-Weekly Times. He asked if we would come to McGehee as editor and advertising manager. Melvin had never sold advertising but had done well in business courses in graduate school. Tired of his constant traveling, we said to one another: ‘Let’s try the newspaper business for a year.’

“Little did we then realize, it would last a half-century.”

Southeast Arkansas had no bigger advocate during that half-century than Charlotte Schexnayder.

She was born Christmas Day 1923. Her father was Jewell Stephen Tillar, the son of Dr. Stephen Olin Tillar and Fannie Harrell Tillar, pioneer residents of southeast Arkansas. They had come over from Selma in Drew County to help found the town of Tillar as the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad laid its track south from Little Rock in 1870.

Stephen Olin Tillar had fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. He was captured and imprisoned near Chicago.

“When he was released, he walked home barefooted and was so emaciated that his family did not recognize him,” Charlotte writes. “He studied medicine and became a practicing physician. My father was born on Dec. 19, 1886, and was the youngest of his family.”

After working for the newspaper in McGehee, Charlotte and Melvin bought the Dumas Clarion.

Charlotte says they learned the following lessons during their years in McGehee:

– “Manage with one-boss rule editorially. A showdown with a composing room foreman who sought to direct all operations quickly taught me that I had to control content and deadlines. I made editorial decisions and always faced the consequences.”

– “Believe in your community, and the people will join you. Many coummunities depend on their newspaper publishers/owners for leadership.”

– “Plain hard work exceeds inspiration, probably in proportion of 90-10.”

– “Never leave to others some job you should do. A staff will seek to excel when the editor-publisher sets the standard.”

– “Listen for the little stories. They often are the most compelling because they touch the human heart. I once gained wisdom from interviewing a 90-year-old who said: ‘When ah walks, ah walks slow; when ah rocks, ah rocks easy; and when ah worries, ah goes to sleep.’”

– “Expect broadly flung daggers. I didn’t cause trouble but was blamed for reporting it. Many would rather blame the messenger than the culprit. Moreover, it seems more fun to fire at the messenger.”

– “Remember that you are writing current history and make every effort to get it right.”

– “Rely on some humor during tough times. It’s the best antidote.”

 – “If the job isn’t fun, find another. I looked forward to every day. I was the eternal optimist; Melvin, the pragmatist. Together we knew how to set goals and reach them.”

Charlotte tells how her mother walked into the Dumas newspaper office for the first time and asked, “Are you sure you want this place?”

Charlotte and Melvin’s son John was just five months old at the time.

Tillar was 13 miles south. Dumas had 2,512 residents with the Missouri Pacific railroad tracks splitting its four-block business district.

“Climate control, virtually unheard of in small newspaper plants, was relegated to window and oscillating fans for cooling and an overhead butane gas heater for heating,” Charlotte writes. “It was drafty in winter we found, as we stood looking it over in late January 1954. We suspected the building could be much more uncomfortable in summer because of extra heat from the single linotype, metal-casting typesetter.

“Weekly newspaper offices were notoriously messy, and this was no exception. Stacks of exchange newspapers were piled in a corner, while metal single spindles held important copy waiting to be sent to a typesetter.”

Did they really want this place? Her mother’s question rang in Charlotte’s ears.

“We thought of the people who wanted us,” she writes. “Perhaps the desire for our very own newspaper obscured our vision of the surroundings, and we foresaw a great adventure. Melvin and I looked at one another, instead of at the plant, and affirmed, ‘We really do want this place.’”

At that point, Charlotte could not have foreseen a future political career.

In the 1970s, she became the first woman appointed to what was then called the state Board of Pardons & Parole.

She says her experience on the board led her to believe “I might bring energy, perseverance and my varied experience to the political scene. I found naysayers; I often had as a women who broke barriers. But I reasoned that a citizen legislature, as in Arkansas, would include members with potential conflicts of interest because of primary occupations. Since legislators were part time, serving in biennial sessions, one had to depend on personal wealth or employment.”

When she announced in 1984 that she would run for the Legislature, no one dared oppose her. Charlotte was already a legend in her district.

At the state Capitol, though, she still had to prove herself during that first session in 1985.

“As a newspaper editor, I was treated with obvious wariness, a bit of suspicion and even a tinge of distrust by a few,” Charlotte writes. “With quiet dignity and hard work, I tried to overcome those attitudes. There was one huge advantage, however. No one dared to offer a shady deal; I owned a newspaper.”

Veteran state Rep. Bill Foster of Keo, who had served in the House since 1961, once told her: “I was determined to dislike you. You were a newspaper editor. But it took me only a week to change my mind.”

During her first week in the House, Rep. Geno Mazzanti of Lake Village approached Charlotte and said, “No one expects much of a freshman representative. Just sit and listen and you will be fine.”

She replied: “You obviously don’t know me very well. I am not a sideline sitter, and I always have plans.”

Charlotte says she believes in the people of the Delta, and they believe in her.

“I have drawn strength from them and my forebears, beginning with my childhood in Tillar,” she writes. ”Tiny towns can launch fulfilling and diverse careers such as mine. The seed for the dream was planted in my childhood.”

What a life she has lived. And she still has more to give.

Arkansas is a better place because Charlotte Tillar Schexnayder is among us.

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“The Slaw and the Slow Cooked”

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

I’ve referred earlier on the Southern Fried blog to a wonderful book published last year by the Vanderbilt University Press with the intriguing title “The Slaw and the Slow Cooked: Culture and Barbecue in the Mid-South.”

The book is a collection of essays. Those essays approach the subject of barbecue in this region from an almost academic standpoint.

When I say “academic standpoint,” I don’t mean to imply that the writing is boring.

It’s anything but.

What the essays do have are plenty of footnotes and references to guide the reader who wants to learn as much as possible about the Mid-South barbecue culture.

“Indeed, barbecue is not merely the process or the paraphernalia of grilling, or the meaty burnt ends that result, but a choreographed dance, from woodlot to smokehouse to mixing bowl to platter to picnic table, bar, roadside diner or juke joint,” Gary Paul Nabhan writes in the book’s foreward.

Nabhan is the author of two dozen books on various scientific and literary subjects.

“Prospective barbecue aficionados are selected early by their fathers, mothers, aunts or uncles and nurtured for many years, until their predilection for a certain balance of smoke, sour, sweet and meat is finely honed,” Nabhan writes. “They may not be able to verbally describe how to reach that perfect balance, but they definitely know when it has been achieved or when some gargantuan effort seems to have missed the mark. Satisfaction with barbecue is a lot like pregnancy — either you are or you aren’t.

“Someone recently wondered aloud to me, ‘Why in the world would anthropologists and historians, linguists and ethnozoologists, theologians and evolutionary biologists be consumed by the topic of barbecue?’ What other American food and its preparation are so strongly linked to the distinctive identities of so many American cultures?

“We are what and where we eat, but we are also how we prepare our most beloved foods. And who we prepare it with. And who we eat it with. And who we leave out beyond the smokehouse, who longingly wishes they were in there with us, no matter how stifling hot and claustrophobically congested it may be. No other American food is imbued with such symbolism, such smoke, such spirit.”

I agree.

There is a spirit there.

Because I hail from south Arkansas, my favorite essay in this collection is by Justin Nolan, who grew up in El Dorado and went on to earn his doctorate and become an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas.

Nolan’s essay is titled “Piney Woods Traditions at the Crossroads: Barbecue and Regional Identity in South Arkansas and North Louisiana.”

He begins his piece by describing a visit to Karl Brummett’s store just off U.S. Highway 82 on the eastern outskirts of El Dorado.

“Down from the hills of the Ozarks comes the native son,” Brummett says to Nolan.

“Yessir!” Nolan replies. “And thanks for taking time out for a local boy.”

Brummett says modestly, “Now, I know very ltitle about barbecue, but I’ll tell you what I do know.”

“In a sense, Brummett is right, of course,” Nolan writes. “Few people claim to know much of anything about barbecue down here in southern Arkansas, where I was born and raised. Partly this is because the region is known a bit more for its Louisiana-based flavors and soul food — neither of which, however, excludes barbecue, it might be noted.

“El Dorado, my hometown of 22,000, occupies the center point of Union County’s broad, gently rolling pine forests. Driving south from Fayetteville, the swift blue-green streams of the upcountry had given way to the flooded forests and gumbo backwaters of the low country somewhere near Gurdon.”

Nolan notes that his career has long been inspired by the great cultural anthropologist Charles E. Thomas, “who depicted the slow burn of cultural loss and modernization in ‘Jelly Roll,’ his ethnographic account of an African-American community in a small rural mill town north of El Dorado.”

The mill town to which Nolan refers is Calion.

The book, first published in 1986, has just been reissued by the University of Arkansas Press.

Residents of Jelly Roll lived in houses owned by the Calion Lumber Co. Thomas, who was a professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis for 17 years, returned to his family’s Calion Lumber Co. in 1975 and has run the company ever since.

The UA Press spring catalog says the book combines Thomas’ “unique perspective as both an academician and the grandson of the sawmill’s founder. Thomas conducted extensive interviews covering three generations among the 84 households forming the community.”

Like Thomas, Nolan understands the region and its people.

“My father’s parents and their relatives have deep roots here, and my mother became an acculturated insider after moving to El Dorado in 1957,” he writes. ”My mission, as an anthropologist, was clear — I would revisit these Pine Woods, with hopes of discovering something perhaps unseen in ordinary life, something meaningful about social relationships through a binding food tradition we celebrate and fancy ourselves to have mastered. That tradition, of course, is barbecue.”

He comments on the similarities between those who live in north Louisiana and those who live in south Arkansas.

“Folks in north Louisiana, just 15 miles south, share a cultural affinity with south Arkansas,” Nolan writes. “A cultural connectivity can be seen in the culinary traditions, which erase the boundaries, momentarily, betwixt the cup and lip.”

While I’ve long believed that the Delta has this state’s strongest barbecue tradition, Nolan points out that the barbecue tradition in the Piney Woods runs ”deep and wide, and like a fair number of culinary mainstays originating in these rolling pinelands, it yields much more than a flavor; it brings forth stories of kinship, solidarity and survival.”

He outlines how the Piney Woods are a crossroads, “a place in the world where black and white people have coexisted for many decades, where social boundaries exist mainly in the background of everyday life, where class lines are more evident in neighborhood architecture than social convention, and where Southeastern and Southwestern cultural traits interpenetrate to form a mosaic that’s just subtle enough to overlook unless you’re seeking to describe it.”

Nolan adds: “The Piney Woods, in some ways, constitute an ambivalent Southern culture. While clearly Southern, this country is neither upcountry nor coastal, neither Eastern nor Western. Aspects of many different ethnic and regional groups are visible among the colorful threads of its history and tapestry. Like the famous watery bayous of south-central Louisiana’s Cajun country, the Piney Woods are a swirl of peoples whose memories make up an amalgam, stroked by Southern history, seasoned through hard times, change, chance and choice.”

Nolan says Brummett is known throughout south Arkansas and north Louisiana for his brisket, pork ribs and smoked sausages. While barbecue in the Delta is always pork, you can see the “crossroads” influence with Nolan’s mention of brisket and smoked sausages. Those are barbecue staples more commonly associated with Texas.

Nolan quoted one pitmaster as saying, “You can tell you’re in timber country straightaway. All you gotta do is see what meats they serve. Mostly oak-smoked, hickory too, sweet sauce but not that sweet, I tell you, and don’t let the slaw trip you up. Most folks aren’t inclined to put slaw on the sandwich bread, and it’s sometimes creamy — and then other times, it’ll pucker you right up. Keeps you on your toes, I guess you’d say.”

Like I said, a crossroads.

Nolan says the region’s barbecue can be viewed as a “blend of Texas and Eastern styles, and as such it is decidedly different from neighboring regions. While I cannot claim the mandate to judge my home region’s slow-smoked flavor, no self-respecting resident would deny that it’s delicious.

“Like other regions of the American South, a culinary pride of place is alive and well along the Arkansas-Louisiana border. Typical barbecue menus in the Piney Woods showcase beef brisket, sliced or chopped; smoked pork, sliced or chopped; sliced pork tenderloin; pulled pork shoulder; pork ribs (beef ribs are served at home mainly); pork sausage; and smoked chicken.”

An elderly pitmaster near Magnolia explained it this way: “It’s a melting pot here. Black, white, east, west: everything comes together in our barbecue. You got the Cajun spices and sweet ribbon cane from Louisiana, a hint of vinegar from the east, the sweet tomato sauce — that’s ours!

“The beef brisket’s so popular around here and chili notes that I suspect must come from Texas, along with their pinto beans. We’re pretty tolerant around here. In fact, I think we’ve been adopting a bit of this and that from each other all along.”

Nolan concludes: “Piney Woods barbecue is perhaps undiscovered by the outside world, but for these long-timers, that’s just as well. While Piney Woods barbecue may not ring a bell in the mind of American food geographers, its hallmark feature is its inclusiveness, it’s shape-shifting habit of incorporating neighboring flavors from the Southeast, Louisiana and Texas.”

It’s the barbecue I was raised on.

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