Archive for the ‘Business’ Category

Peaches and coal

Friday, August 5th, 2016

It was almost 100 degrees.

Not exactly the best weather for an outdoor festival.

Still, it was hard to find a parking place in downtown Clarksville on the Saturday of this year’s Johnson County Peach Festival, which first was held in the summer of 1938.

Tents filled the lawn of the Johnson County Courthouse as vendors sold arts, crafts and food items.

There was a time when Arkansas was among the leading peach-growing states in the country.

Peaches came from Johnson, Franklin, Pope and Faulkner counties.

There were northwest Arkansas peaches from Benton, Washington and Boone counties.

There were southwest Arkansas peaches from Howard, Pike and Clark counties.

There were Crowley’s Ridge peaches from Cross and St. Francis counties.

Peaches were shipped commercially to surrounding states, and roadside stands were common.

“All of the farmers around here used to have 20, 30 or even 100 acres of orchards,” Steve Morgan told us at his Peach Pickin’ Paradise between Clarksville and Lamar.

Cars were lined up at the entrance of the pick-your-own operation, which the Morgan family has owned since 1977. The family grows more than 20 varieties of peaches and nectarines on about 3,500 trees. Five generations of the Morgan family have operated orchards in this area.

James Griffin Morgan founded Morgan Farms in 1876 and grew a few peaches on the farm for personal use. George Morgan Sr. began growing peaches commercially during the 1920s. When George Morgan Jr. returned to Johnson County following his service in World War II, he began his own orchards.

Steve’s son Mark told Jessica Mozo of Farm Flavor earlier this year: “Grocery store peaches are picked firm so they can travel. We have the benefit of being able to leave our peaches on the tree until they soften and get their sugar. People can come pick peaches and eat them the same day. It’s a completely different product than what you find in a store.”

George Morgan Jr. and his wife Geraldine — Steve’s parents — began the pick-your-own business in 1977.

“People in the industry scratched their heads and wondered how my grandpa would get people to come out and pick all these peaches,” Mark Morgan told Mozo. “But he did it by staying open seven days a week, 12 hours a day, and building relationships with people so they developed many repeat customers. It’s also a fun family experience. We’re thankful when we see parents and grandparents bringing their kids out. Many grandparents worked picking peaches in the 1950s and 1960s, and they enjoy sharing that with their grandkids. We like to put smiles on faces.”

He noted that his grandmother, Geraldine, still helps out: “It’s pretty cool being able to work with my dad, my stepmom Carol, my brother James and my grandma Geraldine, who’s still involved. And now we have Kate (the daughter of Mark and his wife Shay) crawling around. We hope she will end up performing brain surgeries. But if she wants to grow peaches, that’s all right with me.”

“Peaches were introduced as a crop in Arkansas after the Civil War, as were many other fruits and vegetables, during the New South diversification movement in agriculture,” James Jackson writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “This movement was brought on by the need to diversify crop varieties to avoid the economic risk of a single-crop economy, as evidenced by the overproduction of cotton prior to the war. The 1879 development of the yellow-fleshed Elberta peach variety in Marshallville, Ga., by Samuel Rumph made peach growing possible as a viable industry. The Elberta, named for Rumph’s wife, softened more slowly than other varieties. Because of this advantage and the development of refrigerated railroad transportation, peach transport became possible. As railroad spurs spread westward and into the countryside, commercial peach production first reached Arkansas in areas such as Crowley’s Ridge in northeast Arkansas, Clarksville and Nashville.”

The first Johnson County Peach Festival was held in the community of Ludwig on June 26, 1938. Several thousand people showed up, including Gov. Carl Bailey. The festival was sponsored by the Johnson County Fruit Growers Association.

Jennifer Koenig Johnson writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Bailey crowned Miss Inez Mane Bohannon as the first festival queen — Miss Elberta — and autographed peaches. He was given a basket of locally grown peaches. Clarksville resident Frank E. McAnear related a vivid account of how the peach industry arrived in Johnson County and how peaches became an important part of the county. Other events included orchard tours, a potluck-style picnic and musical events.”

James Tolbert and Johnson Taylor had first raised Elberta peaches in Johnson County in 1893.

“In 1897, the Missouri Pacific Railroad became interested in this rising industry and, after negotiations, created a partnership including the peach farmers, the county and the railroad,” Johnson writes. “Despite financial and environmental setbacks through the years, the industry thrived and became an integral part of the county. … Since the first year, the peach festival has been held in Clarksville during a selected weekend in June or July. Events include musical performances, vendors, street dances, a greased-pig chase and contests (frog jumping, peach eating and terrapin derby). The beauty pageants include Queen Elberta, Miss Arkansas Valley, Miss Arkansas Valley Outstanding Teen, Princess Elberta, Little Mister, Teen Peach, Tiny Peach and Teeny Peach. Events also include a parade, a cardboard boat regatta, a race and a fishing derby. Festivities conclude with horseshoe and bass tournaments.”

The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture operates its Fruit Research Station in Johnson County. What originally was known as the Peach Substation began near Lamar in cooperation with the Johnson County Fruit Growers Association and the Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation. It moved to its current location on Red Lick Mountain in 1959. The current headquarters building opened in 2007. Two years later, the building was named in honor of Cole Westbrook, who was the resident director from the start of the research facility in 1948 until 1976.

A peach substation also opened in Howard County in 1948.

The peak year for peach production in the state was 1940 when almost 2.3 million bushels were shipped. Late freezes in 1952 and 1953 following warm winters spelled doom for the Arkansas peach crop.

“Production sank to 150,000 bushels, hurting both producers and brokers,” Jackson writes. “Brokers contracted with growers in California, Florida and southern Texas — places without a late frost. The Arkansas growers lost the market, and the impact was devastating. For Howard County growers, the only option was to pull up the trees and convert land for other purposes, often for pasture for cattle or to raise chickens. Johnson County fared little better. Growers learned to expect a full crop in only three out of five years while others reported that profits had ceased as far back as 1950.”

Morgan said he lost half of his crop due to a late freeze in March of this year. That night saw temperatures drop as low as 23 degrees in parts of the orchard. He might have lost all of the crop had he not hired a pilot to fly a helicopter over the trees during the evening.

I witnessed the terrapin derby during my walk around the Johnson County square. I also bought peach jellies and jams.

The visit to the Johnson County Peach Festival brought back memories of an equally hot day two decades earlier when I attended the festival with the state’s new governor during his first weekend in office. I had joined the staff of Gov. Mike Huckabee on his first day as the state’s chief executive — July 15, 1996. I accompanied him to Clarksville the following Saturday so he could ride in the Johnson County Peach Festival parade.

I was dressed in a coat and tie since it was a far less casual time. Members of the governor’s staff were expected to dress that way. The state trooper who accompanied us, Bill Stotts, also was dressed in a coat and tie.

As the parade was about to begin, I envisioned Stotts walking the route on one side of the car with me walking on the other side of the street. Being new, I asked him: “What do we do while the governor is riding in the parade?”

Stotts looked at me, smiled and replied: “I don’t know what you’re going to do, but I’m going to sit in that air conditioned police car over there and cool off.”

It was my first lesson in learning to relax a bit on the job.

In addition to peaches, coal mining once was an important part of the Johnson County economy.

“The emergence and use of the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad, which was completed from Little Rock to near Clarksville in 1872 and on to Fort Smith in 1874, as well as telegraph lines, connected Clarksville and other towns in Johnson County to the rest of the nation,” Johnson writes. “Likewise, the coal mining industry increased in size and provided jobs for many citizens in the county. Coal had first been found in 1840 on an outcropping on Spadra Creek, and barges began shipping coal to Little Rock and other places in 1843, though it was not until the advent of railroads in the county that the industry became profitable.

“The principal population centers connected with coal mining were Coal Hill, Spadra, Jamestown, Hartman, Montana and Clarksville. Fletcher Sryglay, the land agent for the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad, recruited many European immigrants for the coal mines, adding to the cultural diversity of the area, especially in the emergence of Catholic and Lutheran populations. However, the use of Slavic immigrants to break a strike led to what’s called the Jamestown War, in which many men died.

“Coal Hill, settled in 1876 and originally known as Whalen’s Switch, was a violent and dangerous place in the latter part of the 19th century, reporting numerous incidents of drunken fights, murders and robberies. However, in 1887 and 1888, Coal Hill shipped 10 times as much coal as the rest of the state. Between 1910 and 1920, it was the second-largest town in the county. This success was in part due to the employment of the convict lease system, in which prisoners served as veritable slave labor. An early strike in 1886 made public the horrors of the system in which convict miners were kept in filthy quarters and whipped if they did not meet their daily quotas. An 1888 legislative inquiry resulted in a few minor changes to the system, though convicts continued to be used for mining coal for years to come.”

While the coal mines are a thing of the past, there are still natural gas wells in Johnson County. The first well to produce profitable quantities of gas began operating in November 1921 five miles northwest of Clarksville. Arkansas Western Gas Co. built an eight-inch gas line in 1929 from the Clarksville Field (then the largest in Arkansas) to Fayetteville.

Each summer, though, it’s neither coal nor natural gas that they celebrate in Clarksville. It’s the peach.

 

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Along U.S. Highway 67

Tuesday, July 12th, 2016

Before the construction of Interstate 30, U.S. Highway 67 was the route from Arkansas to Texas, making it one of the most important roads in the state.

On a recent trip to south Arkansas, Paul Austin and I drove on the old highway from just outside Benton to Prescott, eschewing the interstate and experiencing the sights along Highway 67.

“The route of Highway 67 is the approximate border between the low Mississippi Delta and Gulf Coastal Plain to the south and east and the Ouachita and Ozark mountains to the north and west,” Steve Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “This boundary is such a natural path of travel that even spring and summer thunderstorms frequently move along the same route. Undoubtedly, native Americans traveled portions of this route.

“After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, as the U.S. government began improving travel through the territory, a military road was constructed from Missouri through Little Rock and south to Fulton on the Red River. This road became known as the Southwest Trail and was the first land route created in Arkansas. When the Cairo & Fulton Railroad began surveying a route to connect southern Illinois to the Red River across Missouri and Arkansas, the same route was used once again. The railroad became the Iron Mountain Railroad and was then acquired by the Missouri Pacific Railroad. The route is still used by the Union Pacific Railroad in the 21st century, although ties and rails have been repaired and replaced through the years.”

The roads that eventually would turn into Highway 67 in Arkansas were part of the original state highway system in 1923.

“Federal and state funding became available for highways early in the 1920s as automobile and truck traffic was beginning to take the place of railroad traffic,” Teske writes. “A joint commission of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads and the American Association of State Highway Officials created the first national system of highways, with nine federal highways established in Arkansas, including Highway 67. Sections of the highway were gradually improved as funds became available. Much pavement was laid for the highway in 1928 through 1931. The highway was 18 feet wide at that time. More improvements were made by federal projects such as the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s.”

Teske notes that the construction of a large ordnance plant at Jacksonville in 1941 led to widening of the highway north of Little Rock.

“After the war, the United States entered a period of prosperity and growth that led to cultural changes,” he writes. “Many of the earliest rock ‘n’ roll performers — including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty and Sonny Burgess — performed in high schools, nightclubs and other venues along Highway 67 from Newport north to Pocahontas. In 2009, the Arkansas General Assembly named this part of the highway the Rock ‘n’ Roll Highway, with a portion also in Miller County in southwest Arkansas, as early rock ‘n’ roll performers played at the Arkansas Municipal Auditorium when they traveled through Texarkana on Highway 67.”

The history of the music scene along Highway 67 in northeast Arkansas is filled with colorful characters, but we’ve covered that in other posts on this blog. We’ll stick to southwest Arkansas in this post.

“During the 1950s, American views of highway travel began to change,” Teske writes. “Until this time, highways existed to connect cities and towns to one another. The beginning of the interstate highway system caused drivers to begin traveling directly between large cities, bypassing the smaller cities and towns. Interstate 30, from Little Rock south to Texarkana and then into Texas, was one of the original interstate highways planned for Arkansas. The new interstate highway made travel into Texas easier but took business away from many of the communities that had relied on travelers’ income to support stores, restaurants and gas stations. … Highway 67 continued to be used by Arkansans traveling shorter distances in the southwestern quarter of the state.”

As we left Haskell, we passed what had been the historic Saline County campus of the Arkansas State Hospital, which opened at this location in the 1930s.

The Legislature created the Arkansas Lunatic Asylum in 1873, but Reconstruction delayed the construction of a facility until 1881, when work began on an asylum at Little Rock. The name was changed to the Arkansas State Hospital for Nervous Diseases (my grandmother in Benton, who lived until age 98, always called it “the nervous hospital,” the same term used in the 1996 movie “Sling Blade”) and then was changed to the Arkansas State Hospital in 1933.

Speaking of “Sling Blade,” the filming of the psychiatric hospital portrayed in the movie starring southwest Arkansas native Billy Bob Thornton took place at the Saline County facility.

In 1881, the Legislature levied a one-mill tax on all property for two years to construct and outfit an asylum. It opened on March 1, 1883. By 1915, there were 12 buildings housing patients. A separate hospital farm was established at Baucum outside of North Little Rock in the 1930s. What was known as the Benton Farm Colony opened in 1936 with room for 2,000 people. Farm operations ceased there in 1957.

A federal grant of $291,950 was used in 1964 to upgrade the Saline County facilities. Several of the buildings are now empty.

These days the complex is known as the Arkansas Health Center. It’s a 310-bed nursing facility. In fact, it’s the only state-operated nursing facility.

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture states: “In 1961, the Arkansas Health Center was designated to receive all African-American psychiatric patients from its section of the state. In July 1962, all African-American phychiatric patients from Pulaski County, including those patients receiving treatment from the Arkansas State Hospital, were transferred to AHC. Although black and white patients were housed in separate buildings, AHC was one of the only facilities of its kind in Arkansas to accept such a large black population. In October 1965, AHC became racially integrated.”

We continued west past Glen Rose High School and then passed the Acme Brick Co. plant at Perla.

Fittingly, it was Brickfest weekend at Malvern. The festival started in 1981 and includes everything from a brick-throwing contest to concerts and arts and crafts displays.

There were dozens of brick plants in Arkansas during the early 1900s. Little Rock, Fort Smith, Clarksville, El Dorado, Hope, Jonesboro, Malvern, Pine Bluff, Mansfield, Pocahontas and Wynne were among the cities with brick-making operations. By the 1980s, there were only plants in the Malvern area, Jonesboro, Hope, Fort Smith and Clarksville. By 2009, there were just four plants in the state, and they all were owned by Acme.

Well-known names in the brick industry in Arkansas included:

— The Fort Smith Brick Co., which dated back to the 1840s and was acquired by Acme in 1923 along with a plant at Mansfield.

— The Hope Brick Works, which was part of the O’Neal-Gardner family’s 100-year tradition of brickmaking. The plant moved to Hope from Gurdon in the 1920s. Acme purchased and closed the facility in 2000.

— The Jonesboro Brick Co., which was operated by three generations of the Charles Stuck family before being closed in 1942. It reopened in 1946 as the Hall-Wheeler Brick Co. It was just the Wheeler Brick Co. from 1951-66, when a modern plant was built on the west site of town. Acme bought that plant in 2000.

— The Eureka Brick & Tile Co. of Clarksville, which began production in June 1946 and operated until it was sold to Acme in 1999.

“Malvern is by far the leading city in brick production in Arkansas and at one time claimed to be the Brick Capital of the World,” Randall Wheeler writes. “It has been the home of Acme Brick Co., Arkansas Brick & Tile, Atchison Brick Works, Clark Pressed Brick Co. (sold to Arkansas Brick & Tile in 1916) and Malvern Brick & Tile. Acme first purchased property at Malvern in 1919 and began negotiations to purchase Arkansas Brick & Tile.

“Malvern Brick & Tile was started in 1925 and, at one time, had a line of bricks in colors such as blue, green, pink and yellow. Other companies sprayed the color onto the face of the brick, but Malvern Brick used stains that colored the whole body of the brick. It is not likely that any other company produced bricks with through-the-body colors. Malvern Brick was purchased by Acme in the late 1970s.”

Acme began in Texas in 1891 and opened its first Arkansas plant in Hot Spring County in 1921. Illinois native George Bennett arrived in Dallas in 1876 and purchased 480 acres in Parker County for the first Acme plant. The headquarters was moved to Fort Worth in 1911, four years after Bennett died. By the 1970s, Acme was the largest American brick manufacturer. Land was purchased at Perla in 1919, and the first bricks were being made two years later.

The fully automated Perla East Gate Plant opened in 1967. Meanwhile, the original Malvern plant was replaced with what’s known as the Ouachita Plant in 1980.

It’s not nearly as big, of course, but I consider Keeney’s Grocery in Malvern to be as much of a Hot Spring County landmark as the brick plants. It’s where Paul and I had breakfast, including some of the best sausage I’ve ever eaten.

Charles and Maureen Keeney opened the grocery store 60 years ago at this same location, hidden from most traffic in a residential area.

Charles Keeney is 80 but is young at heart. He even drives a Corvette.

“She can get old if she wants to,” he says of his wife. “I’m not going to.”

A corner of the store has been turned into a small restaurant. Keeney’s serves breakfast and lunch every day but Sunday.

In 2000, with competition from Walmart and other big retailers hurting his business, Charles Keeney thought about retiring. But he decided that with only $45,000 in the bank he needed to keep working.

Here’s how Wayne Bryan told the story in a 2011 feature for the Tri-Lakes edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: “Rather than just carry on business as usual in a small grocery store that seems to fit more in the 1950s than the new millennium, Charles decided to latch onto what’s still the fastest-growing segment of the supermarket industry, cooking for customers (or, as it is called in the grocery business, home meal replacement). Starting in the late 1990s, many supermarket operators discovered that preparing and serving food in their stores was a good way to bring in new customers, gain greater loyalty from existing customers and increase checkout sales and profits. … Today, in-store restaurants aren’t unusual. Charles had the same idea for his small store on Mill Street in Malvern. The couple, along with several employees, prepare and serve breakfast and lunch six days a week at the back of their store.”

Charles Keeney told Bryan: “I just pushed some of the groceries back and put in a kitchen and some tables. I did it because I had to make a living. We stumbled through the menu for a while. But I was raised country so we fix things in the old home-style way.”

Keeney told us that he sells so much sausage at breakfast that he doesn’t have time to make it to sell by the pound in the grocery section of the store.

On Thursdays, he sells dozens of rib-eye steaks. People eat them in the restaurant for lunch while others come in during the afternoon to get steaks to take home for supper.

Charles and Maureen Keeney arrive at the store at 4:30 a.m. and begin serving breakfast at 6 a.m..

Charles was 20 and Maureen was 17 when they bought the store in 1956.

They’re a special couple, deeply loved in the Malvern area.

A crew from KTHV-TV, Channel 11 in Little Rock showed up last year to visit the store.

Charles Keeney told them: “We went broke like the rest of them little ones. Times changed on us. When I turned 65, we started cooking. We had $45,000 to retire on, so we went to town and borrowed $45,000 more and spent it back there on the kitchen.”

Keeney’s is open from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 6 a.m. until 3 p.m. each Saturday. It’s worth the road trip.

We continued toward Arkadelphia, crossing the old viaduct over the railroad tracks at Donaldson, crossing the Ouachita River, passing Ouachita High School, passing through Friendship, crossing DeRoche Creek into Clark County, getting through the Caddo Valley commercial corridor and then crossing the Caddo River.

 

 

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Cotton country: Part 3

Tuesday, July 5th, 2016

It was an invitation I couldn’t turn down.

Judge Raymond Abramson of Holly Grove had invited me to join him for a lecture at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock.

The lecturer: Sven Beckert, the author of “Empire of Cotton: A Global History.”

Beckert, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., is the Laird Bell Professor of American History at Harvard University. His book, published in 2014, chronicles the rise and fall of cotton and the central role it once played in the world economy.

“This fluffy white fiber is at the center of this book,” Beckert writes. “The plant itself does not make history, but if we listen carefully, it will tell us of people all over the world who spent their lives with cotton: Indian weavers, slaves in Alabama, Greek merchants in the Nile Delta towns, highly organized craft workers in Lancashire. The empire of cotton was built with their labor, imagination and skills. By 1900 about 1.5 percent of the human population — millions of men, women and children — were engaged in the industry, either growing, transporting or manufacturing cotton.

“Edward Atkinson, a mid-19th century Massachusetts cotton manufacturer, was essentially correct when he pointed out that ‘there is no other product that has had so potent and malign an influence in the past upon the history and institutions of the land; and perhaps no other on which its future material welfare may more depend.’ Atkinson was speaking of the United States and its history of slavery, but his argument could be applied to the world as a whole.”

The Abramson family has a long history in the cotton culture of Arkansas. Rue and Venda Abramsom, who in 1921 built the house at Holly Grove were I spent a delightful evening last summer, were Holly Grove natives. Their parents had been among the first people to settle in the area after the Civil War. Raymond Abramson is a grandson of Rue Abramson and part of a rich tradition of Jewish farmers and merchants in the Delta, a tradition that’s rapidly disappearing.

In addition to farming, Rue Abramson operated a bank and several businesses. He opened the town’s first modern garage and service station in 1927. The official listing of the Abramson house on the National Register of Historic Places states: “The Abramsons were active in the commercial life of Holly Grove as merchants, ginners and plantation owners. By 1922, they also founded the First National Bank of Holly Grove. They were active in civic affairs. They were leaders in such organizations as the Crowley’s Ridge Council of the Boy Scouts of America, the Monroe County Fair Association, the Sahara Temple of Pine Bluff, the American Red Cross, B’nai B’rith, Temple Beth El of Helena and various other Jewish organizations.”

Rue Abramson selected a well-known Memphis architect, Estes Mann, to design his home. Mann had a remarkable career, designing more than 1,800 residences across the Mid-South, including some of the finest houses in Memphis. Mann was a Marianna native.

In the city’s commercial district a few blocks away from the Abramson home, Rue Abramson’s R. Abramson Co. owned four buildings. Rue’s son, Ralph, later took over the family’s businesses. Ralph’s wife, Rosemary, was a Memphis native who married Ralph in 1946 and spent the rest of her life in Holly Grove. Rosemary (Raymond’s mother) died in January 2013 at age 93.

Raymond Abramson received his undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia in 1973 and his law degree from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in 1976. He and his wife Mockie, a Virginia native, split their time between Little Rock and Holly Grove but maintain deep ties to Monroe County. I enjoyed sitting with them at the lecture and then talking about the Arkansas cotton culture at dinner later that evening.

I’ll say it again: You can’t understand the history of Arkansas if you don’t understand the history of cotton cultivation in the state.

Beckert wrote this about the spread of cotton into the American South: “Planters brought with them thousands of slaves. In the 1790s, the slave population of the state of Georgia nearly doubled, to 60,000. In South Carolina, the number of slaves in the upcountry cotton-growing districts grew from 21,000 in 1790 to 70,000 two decades later, including 15,000 slaves newly brought from Africa. As cotton plantations spread, the proportion of slaves in four typical South Carolina upcountry counties increased from 18.4 percent in 1790 to 39.5 percent in 1820 and to 61.1 percent in 1860. All the way to the Civil War, cotton and slavery would expand in lockstep, as Great Britain and the United States had become the twin hubs of the emerging empire of cotton.

“The only substantial problem was the land, as the same patch could not be used for more than a few years without either planting legumes on it or applying expensive guano to it. As one Putnam County, Ga., planter lamented, ‘We appear to have but one rule — that is to make as much cotton as we can, and wear out as much land as we can … lands that once produced 1,000 pounds of cotton to the acre will not now bring more than 400 pounds.’

“Yet even soil exhaustion did not slow the cotton barons; they simply moved farther west and farther south. Newly emptied lands, portable slave labor and the new ginning technology allowed cotton to be easily transferred to new territories. After 1815, cotton planters moved westward into the rich lands of upland South Carolina and Georgia. Their migration to Alabama and Louisiana, and eventually to Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas, was choreographed to the movement of cotton prices.

“While the price of cotton gradually declined over the first half of the 19th century, sharp price upswings — such as in the first half of the 1810s, between 1832 and 1837, and again after the mid-1840s — produced expansionist bursts. In 1811, one-sixteenth of all cotton grown in the United States came from states and territories west of South Carolina and Georgia. By 1820, that share had reached one-third, and in 1860 three-fourths. New cotton fields sprouted in the sediment-rich lands along the banks of the Mississippi, the upcountry of Alabama and the black prairie of Arkansas. So rapid was this move westward that by the end of the 1830s, Mississippi already produced more cotton than any other Southern state.”

Beckert points out that “the entry of the United States into the empire of cotton was so forceful that cotton cultivation in the American South quickly began to reshape the global cotton markets.

Consider these facts:

— In 1790, three years before Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, the United States produced 1.5 millions pounds of cotton.

— By 1800, the United States produced 36.5 million pounds of cotton.

— By 1820, the United States produced 167.5 million pounds of cotton.

— By 1802, the United States had become the most important supplier of cotton to the British market.

— By 1857, the United States was producing almost as much cotton as China.

“American upland cotton, which Whitney’s gin worked up so efficiently, was exceedingly well suited to the requirements of British manufacturers,” Beckert writes. “While the gin damaged the fiber, the cotton remained suitable for the production of cheaper, coarser yarns and fabrics in high demand among the lower classes in Europe and elsewhere. But for American supplies, the miracle of mass production of yarn and cloth, and the ability of new consumers to buy these cheap goods, would have foundered on old realities of the traditional cotton market. The much-vaunted consumer revolution in textiles stemmed from a dramatic transformation in the structure of plantation slavery.”

You will notice that Beckert mentioned blackland prairies when talking about Arkansas. He was referring to lands in southwest Arkansas that were the center of cotton production in the state before the Civil War, making Washington in Hempstead County a key trading center.

It wasn’t until well after the Civil War that most of the swamps were drained and the timber was cut from the vast bottomland hardwood forests of east Arkansas. Once that occurred, the Arkansas Delta became an integral part of the empire of cotton. At one point in the early 1900s, the Wilson Plantation in northeast Arkansas was one of the largest cotton plantations in the country and Mississippi County claimed to grow more cotton than any other U.S. county.

Beckert explains the westward expansion of the empire of cotton this way: “In the United States, the expansion of land under cotton occurred in two distinct ways. Cotton production expanded into the remoter hinterlands of older American cotton states such as Georgia and the Carolinas, now made accessible by railroads, where white upcountry farmers began growing much larger quantities. In the South Atlantic states, annual production, for example, increased by a factor of 3.1 between 1860 and 1920.

“In Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, by contrast, annual cotton production stayed level until the end of the century and declined by about 25 percent in 1920 due to the exhaustion of cotton soils and the emergence of more productive cotton-growing areas farther west. Yes even despite the tired soil, cotton production dramatically expanded in some areas, such as in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, where large numbers of African-Americans cultivated cotton, enabled by new railroads, canals and levees. As a result, by 1900, one of the most highly specialized cotton-producing areas in the world emerged.

“The most dramatic expansion of cotton agriculture, however, occurred farther to the west. In Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas, the production of cotton exploded from 1,576,594 bales in 1860 to 7,283,000 bales in 1920 — a factor of 4.6 in the half century after the Civil War. By far, the most important expansion took place in Texas, a state whose farmers had only produced 431,463 bales of cotton in 1860 but produced 10 times as many — 4,345,000 bales — in 1920. Indeed, the cotton growth of 1920 in Texas alone equaled about 80 percent of that of the entire South in 1860. And by the late 1910s and early 1920s, vast investments in irrigation infrastructure by the federal government enabled a further extension of cotton agriculture in the arid lands of Arizona and California.”

The evils of segregation and the loss of work due to the mechanization of cotton farming made Arkansas a participant in the Great Migration of blacks from the rural South to cities in the upper Midwest.

Drought and low cotton prices also drove a lot of whites from the state. John Steinbeck made the Okies famous in “The Grapes of Wrath,” but there were just as many white Arkies headed west. That trend continued for years.

Between the whites (and some blacks) heading west and the blacks heading north, Arkansas lost a larger percentage of its population between 1940 and 1960 than any other state.

Nationally, about 6 million blacks fled the South from 1915-70.

In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” Isabel Wilkerson writes: “The Great Migration ran along three main tributaries and emptied into reservoirs all over the North and West. One stream carried people from the coastal states of Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia up the Eastern seaboard to Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston and their satellites. A second current traced the central spine of the continent, paralleling the Father of Waters, from Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas to the industrial cities of Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh. A third and later stream carried people from Louisiana and Texas to the entire West Coast, with some black Southerners traveling farther than many modern-day immigrants.”

Wilkerson notes that by the mid-1930s, some grade-school classrooms for blacks in Milwaukee had almost “every child from Mississippi, Tennessee or Arkansas.”

The outmigration continues to this day in a number of Arkansas Delta counties.

Raymond Abramson’s native Monroe County lost a larger percentage of its residents — more than 20 percent — between the 2000 census and the 2010 census than any other Arkansas county.

The irony is that the land in these Delta counties is more valuable than ever, producing bumper crops most years of soybeans, rice, cotton, corn, wheat and grain sorghum. Arkansas farmers are among the best in the world at what they do. They’re so efficient that they need few employees. Land that once required hundreds of sharecroppers to chop and pick cotton can now be farmed with just a handful of laborers.

Left behind in the Arkansas Delta are the landowners — whose wives may drive Mercedes and BMWs and whose kids may attend Ivy League schools — and the poorest of the poor, those who couldn’t escape.

I’m reminded of how Sven Beckert closes “Empire of Cotton”: “A world that seems stable and permanent in one moment can be radically transformed in the next. The capitalist revolution, after all, perpetually re-creates our world, just as the world’s looms perpetually manufacture new materials.”

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Cotton country: Part 2

Friday, July 1st, 2016

The Southern Cotton Ginners Association is holding its summer meeting in Little Rock next month, and I’ve been invited to speak.

That invitation has given me a reason to research the fascinating history of cotton cultivation in the South, a subject that already interested me. As I stated in the previous post, you can’t really understand the history of Arkansas without fully understanding the history of cotton cultivation in the state.

Cotton is still grown in Arkansas, though the acreage is a fraction of what it once was.

In an article last fall, the Delta Farm Press focused on the harvest season at the Rabbit Ridge Gin near Lepanto.

David Bennett wrote: “As tufts of cottonseed debris swirl in the late October air, Tri Watkins walks across the Rabbit Ridge Gin yard warmly greeting employees. This is northeast Arkansas — Lepanto is a few miles west of here and Dyess, where Johnny Cash was raised, is a few miles south — and the gin is one of a shrinking number. Watkins — who is the incoming president of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association — is in business with his cousin, Ernest Portis. The pair are distant cousins of acclaimed Arkansas writer Charles Portis, author of ‘True Grit’ and ‘The Dog of the South.'”

Watkins explained: “Ernest’s father and my grandfather were brothers, and their father actually began the business in 1911.”

Watkins’ great-grandfather had worked for northeast Arkansas cotton king R.E.L. Wilson.

Of his own involvement in ginning, Watkins told Bennett: “We ginned together in Lepanto at two small gins for years. In the early 1970s, after Ernest graduated from college, he and his brother came out here and built the gin. Meanwhile, my side of the family continued to run the gins in town. By the early 1990s, they had become too old and difficult to maintain. So at that time we bought back in with Ernest. He had already been out here for 20 years and was looking for a partner.”

Watkins explained that Rabbit Ridge is “the local name. Around here, a ridge can be two feet high running through a field.”

When running 24 hours a day, Rabbit Ridge can gin 30 bales per hour. The record year was 36,000 bales ginned. Last year, fewer than 10,000 bales were ginned.

Watkins came back to northeast Arkansas to farm with his grandfather after graduation from law school in 1986.

He told Delta Farm Press: “At the time, we had basically a land-only operation, a couple of gins, a farm store — now shut down — and a small bank. I came back and got involved with all of those facets of the business and still am to some degree. I knew I would be back when I was in law school. I graduated college and wasn’t quite ready to come home. My father said, ‘Go to law school. Even if you never practice, you’ll at least have that to fall back on if you decide agriculture isn’t for you. If you do like it, though, given our banking interests, a law degree would be very useful.’

“Our primary business at Portis Mercantile Co. is managing and renting out land. My family has 20,000 acres, and Ernest has about 10,000 acres that he and his son, Bradsher, own and manage. Some of that is in timber. This year, we grew about 1,500 acres of cotton with Ernest growing about the same. The most cotton we’ve grown on Portis Mercantile ground was about 6,500 acres. Obviously price is critical to cotton remaining viable. You’ve got to have a good price for lint. You’ve also got to have a good price for cottonseed. The price of cottonseed is what’s helping keep gins open. We have two seed houses. One has a capacity of 2,000 tons, and the other is just under that.”

Much of the cottonseed is sold to the dairy market, where it’s blended with rations to increase milk’s butterfat content.

Nearby Lepanto is where the made-for-television movie “A Painted House,” based on John Grisham’s best-selling novel of the same name, was filmed in 2002. The 2001 book is a fictionalized account of Grisham’s early days on a cotton farm. The farmhouse used in the filming is still there.

The movie was first screened in April 2003 on the Arkansas State University campus at Jonesboro at an event that raised $170,000 for ASU’s nationally recognized program in heritage studies. Grisham and his novel were presented the Arkansiana Award by the Arkansas Library Association. That award recognizes authors and books that make a significant contribution to Arkansas heritage and culture.

Grisham was born at Jonesboro in February 1955. His parents were helping relatives on a cotton farm at Black Oak in Craighead County at the time (there’s also a Black Oak farther south that’s roughly on the Crittenden County-Poinsett County line). His family left the area when Grisham was four as his father worked in various construction jobs. The family eventually settled in Southaven, Miss., but Grisham spent large parts of each summer on the Black Oak farm with his grandparents.

People began settling in the Lepanto area after the Civil War. It was in the northeast Arkansas Sunken Lands, and most of the area consisted of swamps and thick bottomland hardwood forests. Growth began in the early 1900s as lumber companies started harvesting the virgin timber in the area. Tree stumps then were burned, swamps were drained and the land was plowed for cotton.

Cotton: The common theme in the region’s history.

“In 1902, Steve Ralph and Henry S. Portis built a cotton gin in Lepanto so that harvested cotton would not have to be shipped downriver to Memphis,” Steve Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The next year, Chris Bryan Greenwood, who had recently moved into the area from Harrisburg, commissioned four engineers to plat the city. The five main streets of the city were named for Greenwood and the engineers. William C. Dawson built the city’s first sawmill in 1905, and a new logging camp was built between Lepanto and Marked Tree.

“The city grew rapidly. Improved drainage was completed by 1907, and the city was officially incorporated in 1909. A bank and a telephone company were established in 1910 and a railroad depot was built in 1912. … Houses and stores were also being built, and a new school building was erected in 1913. The Portis Mercantile building was constructed in 1915, and a volunteer fire department was organized by 1919.”

As the timber was cut, cotton became king.

Tenant farmers and sharecroppers would pack communities such as Lepanto and Marked Tree as they came to town on Saturdays to shop and seek entertainment.

Van Hawkins explains the system this way for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “The most common lease arrangement in Arkansas called for crop rent, requiring a tenant to pay usually 25 percent to 50 percent of the crops harvested. These percentages vary from year to year, farm to farm and crop to crop. To guarantee crop loan repayment, lenders and sometimes suppliers took a first lien on the tenant’s share of crops and equipment used to produce them. Such liens meant that holders had a legal right to crop proceeds until loans were paid in full. Should proceeds not be sufficient to pay off the lender, a foreclosure could occur with collateral (the equipment and any other asset used to secure the loan) seized and sold to pay off the debt.

“Crop rent came from crops at harvest, and cotton or grain hauled to gins and elevators was split according to contract percentages. Tenants and landowners each received their respective shares of the crop. If a lien existed on the tenant share, checks for crop sale proceeds usually had both the lienholder’s and the farmer’s name so neither could cash the check without both endorsements. By this means, lenders helped enforce their legal rights and protected themselves from conversion of crop proceeds.”

Hawkins notes that many of the plantations “required sharecroppers to purchase business and personal supplies from commissary stores as a condition to farm the land. Farmers received doodlum books (vouchers) for credit at the company store. Prices there sometimes were well in excess of those charged at town stores. The March 1935 edition of Today magazine reported markups in the 25 percent range at Southern plantation commissaries. For example, company stories priced potatoes at $2.25 when they were $1.75 in town. Abusive practices such as these generated ongoing tensions between Arkansas tenants and landowners since many tenants never got out of debt. Some farmers sought to organize better treatment, forming groups such as the Agricultural Wheel for this purpose. An organizational meeting of one union was at the center of violence that erupted in Elaine in 1919.”

Grif Stockley, the author of the 2001 book “Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919,” called what happened in the Elaine area “by far the deadliest racial confrontation in Arkansas history and possibly the bloodiest racial conflict in the history of the United States. While its deepest roots lay in the state’s commitment to white supremacy, the events in Elaine stemmed from tense race relations and growing concerns about labor unions. A shooting incident that occurred at a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America escalated into mob violence on the part of the white people in Elaine and surrounding areas. Although the exact number is unknown, estimates of the number of African-Americans killed by whites range into the hundreds. Five white people lost their lives.”

The union meeting, attended by almost 100 black sharecroppers, occurred on the evening of Sept. 30, 1919, at a church in Hoop Spur, a small settlement three miles north of Elaine. The sharecroppers were seeking better prices for their cotton crops. A shootout in front of the church resulted in the death of a white security officer for the Missouri-Pacific Railroad and the wounding of a white deputy from the Phillips County Sheriff’s Office.

Stockley writes: “The next morning, the Phillips County sheriff sent out a posse to arrest those suspected of being involved in the shooting. Although the posse encountered minimal resistance from the black residents of the area around Elaine, the fear of African-Americans, who outnumbered whites in this area of Phillips County by a ratio of 10 to 1, led an estimated 500 to 1,000 armed white people — mostly from surrounding Arkansas counties but also from across the river in Mississippi — to travel to Elaine to put down what was characterized by them as an insurrection.”

More than 500 federal troops from Camp Pike arrived in Elaine on Oct. 2, 1919, and hundreds of blacks were placed in makeshift stockades.

An Arkansas Gazette employee named Sharpe Dunaway later would allege that the solders “committed one murder after another with all the calm deliberation in the world, either too heartless to realize the enormity of their crimes or too drunk on moonshine to give a continental darn.”

The commander of the troops at Elaine reported that only two blacks were killed by his troops.

As I said, you can’t understand the history of Arkansas without understanding the history of cotton.

“Tenant difficulties increased in the early 1930s when the Great Depression decimated agriculture along with the rest of the economy,” Hawkins writes. “Arkansas farmers faced nickel cotton (a market price of five cents per lint pound, which was the low end of its historic market range) and the locked doors of banks that become insolvent. Unable to borrow money to make crops, many tenant farmers joined the exodus made famous by John Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath.’

“The administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt created federal programs to help prop up cotton prices, including a plan to compensate farmers who agreed to forego planting acreage in exchange for parity payments from the federal government. Though the program stipulated that landowners share parity payments with tenants, some owners kept all of the money, and U.S. Department of Agriculture compliance efforts proved ineffectual. Additionally, owners evicted tenants since acreage reduction made them unnecessary, another violation of regulations. … The USDA financial assistance, developed initially as a temporary fix for Depression-era problems, became ingrained in agricultural economics and grew into a major source of income for state farmers.”

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Cotton country

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

A photo posted recently on the Facebook page for the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum at Tyronza caught my attention.

Next to the Mitchell-East Building, in which the museum is located, are two rows of cotton that are being cultivated to show visitors.

It’s a sign of the times as cotton, which once fueled the Arkansas economy, continues to become less of a factor. In Tyronza, it’s literally becoming a museum piece.

There was a time when cotton was grown in all 75 counties of the state. Even in the Ouachita Mountains and the Ozark Mountains, farmers attempted to scratch out a living with this cash crop. Aging, rusting gins, covered in vines, remain a common site across rural Arkansas.

In looking at the photo from Tyronza, it dawned on me that one cannot truly understand the history of Arkansas without first understanding the history of cotton cultivation in the American South.

“Several visitors to Arkansas in the early 1800s made note in their journals and writings of cotton being grown,” Van Hawkins writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The crop remained a Southern staple because it needed hot summer days and warm summer night nights to bear abundant fruit. It also needed lots of labor, which in the South meant slaves, who handled every aspect of cotton production from planting in the spring to picking in the fall. After cotton planting and the achievement of a stand (a solid row of plants down each bedded row), the crop had to be blocked (elimination of all but one hardy plant per foot) and chopped to eliminate weeds and grass until a laid-by crop stood about waist high.

“Although farmers throughout the state planted cotton, the dark earth of the Arkansas Delta proved most hospitable, encouraging large crops each year in river counties such as Mississippi County in the north and Chicot County in the south. These counties, as did others in the Delta, had easy access to river transport and thus possessed an important shipping advantage over the state’s other cotton farmers.

“When the Civil War ended, slavery stopped as well, and wage labor, tenant farming or a combination of the two became the most common means of production. Typical regional farm wages in 1866 were $13 per month for men and $9 per month for women. Tenant shares varied but usually ranged from 25 percent to 50 percent. Sometimes there was little profit to share. Cotton prices fell after the Civil War and flat-lined through the late 1890s, killing off many Delta operators. For example, the price of lint, which is cotton fiber after the seed is removed, fell to about 9.4 cents per pound by 1888-89, barely covering the cost of production.”

As the 20th century neared, the size of Delta plantations became larger. Plantation owners employed hundreds and even thousands of tenant farmers.

“A typical Arkansas cotton tenant, black or white, rented 40 acres from a landowner and farmed with his own mules, harrow, planter and family for labor,” Hawkins writes. “Landowners got about one-fourth of the crop with the remainder going to the tenant. At the lower end of the tenant food chain, a sharecropper lacked equipment and capital so he farmed with landlord-supplied equipment and capital. Typically his family received only 50 percent of the crop and had to buy supplies and personal items from plantation commissaries, sometimes at high markups. Sharecroppers, particularly African-Americans who lacked mobility due to race, did little more than survive. They generally had little cash after settling up with landlords and often found themselves deeper in debt to the company store.”

Major cotton-related events in Arkansas history included the Lee County cotton picker strike of 1891, the Elaine massacre of 1919 and the formation of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union in 1934 as tension between landowners and tenant farmers grew.

“Profitable cotton prices, sometimes as high as 30 cents a pound, crashed along with the stock market at the beginning of the Great Depression,” Hawkins writes. “There was a drought of financing as banks closed and five-cent cotton devastated state producers. In 1933, the U.S. government devised a program to pay farmers for plowing up cotton acreage to reduce supply and, theoretically, create higher prices. The program made plow-up payments directly to landowners and directed them to share the money with tenants. However, some owners chose to evict tenants rather than share payments, which set in motion numerous conflicts between planters and tenants.”

The widespread mechanization of agriculture after World War II caused tens of thousands of tenant farmers and sharecroppers to lose their jobs. In Delta counties such as Mississippi and Phillips, the highest population was recorded in either the 1940 or 1950 census.

“One driver and one machine cleaned rows that previously required many hands to pick,” Hawkins writes. “Just as machines replaced hand labor on Arkansas farms, soybeans captured a growing share of state farm acreage. In the early 1960s, cotton generated about 33 percent of Arkansas’ agricultural income. By the 1980s, that percentage decreased to 20.”

The 2015 cotton acreage was the lowest on record in Arkansas with about 205,000 acres, but things have improved this year. More than 360,000 acres were planted in cotton for 2016.

“People are looking at their bottom line and potential returns on different commodities, and cotton is looking very favorable compared to all the other crops for 2016,” Bill Robertson, the extension cotton agronomist for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, said before planting began this year. “Grain sorghum isn’t nearly as attractive now as it was this time last year. Some folks had a few issues. They incurred expenses they weren’t expecting so a lot of them didn’t hit the home run with grain sorghum that they thought they were going to.”

Grain sorghum acreage had tripled to more than 500,000 acres in Arkansas last year. Despite the record low number of acres planted in cotton in 2015, Arkansas farmers had their fourth-highest recorded average yield at 1,112 pounds per acre.

“As acreage declines, the remaining cotton is on the better ground,” Robertson said. “Certainly some of our cotton-per-acre yield is increased because of the soil, but some of it is because of better genetics of our varieties.”

The United States is the third-largest cotton producer in the world behind India and China. Arkansas usually ranks in the top six states when it comes to acres planted in cotton.

U.S. farmers have benefited greatly as seed companies continue to develop varieties of cotton that produce higher yield and fiber quality.

“Five to 10 years ago, it really wasn’t possible to get a high fiber quality if you were going for maximum yield,” said Fred Bourland, director of the Northeast Research and Extension Center at Keiser in Mississippi County.

The outmigration from the Delta as cotton farming became mechanized set in motion population trends in the state that continue to this day.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette had a front-page story last week noting that 49 Arkansas counties lost population in 2015 and only 26 counties gained population. The state gained population overall — about 1,400 additional residents — with much of that growth fueled by the economic boom in northwest Arkansas.

The urbanization of Arkansas continues. It dawned on me that if you were to walk up to most northwest Arkansas residents holding a cotton plant, they would be unable to identify it.

Between the 2000 and the 2010 census, 39 counties gained population and 36 lost population. As you might guess, the counties that gained population tended to be in the northwest, west, central and north-central parts of the state. The counties that lost population tended to be in east and south Arkansas. There were exceptions. The Jonesboro area, for instance, has grown at a rapid rate since the turn of the century, fueling growth in Craighead and Greene counties.

In general, though, large parts of the Delta of east Arkansas and the pine woods of south Arkansas are emptying out. The population shift from east and south to north and west has been occurring in Arkansas since at least the 1950 census due to the mechanization of agriculture. But that trend has accelerated in the past 15 years.

People are going to do what’s best for their families and go where the jobs are. What cannot be denied is that Arkansas is a far different place now than it was a decade ago and will be an even more different place a decade from now.

Still, it remains important that we understand how cotton agriculture shaped the state.

The aforementioned Southern Tenant Farmers Museum at Tyronza, which opened in October 2006, is one of the best places to gain that understanding. The museum, which was developed by Arkansas State University, is in the Mitchell-East Building, which during the 1930s housed H.L. Mitchell’s dry-cleaning business and Clay East’s service station. Mitchell and East were instrumental in the formation in July 1934 of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union.

“The fact that the STFU was integrated, that women played a critical role in its organization and administration, and that fundamentalist church rituals and regional folkways were basic to the union’s operation foreshadowed the post-war civil rights era,” historian William Cobb writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “A series of natural disasters in the late 1920s and early 1930s, plus the unique circumstances present in Poinsett County, led to the formation of the STFU. The flood of 1927 revealed the desperate plight of the Delta cropper to the outside world, sparking the interest of unionists and the Socialist Party.

“In Poinsett County, there was some sympathy for socialist ideas among area merchants. The stock market collapse of 1929, coupled with the drought of 1930-31, totally destroyed farm income. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration, as part of a New Deal attempt to raise the price of cotton, paid planters to plow up a percentage of the crop their tenants had already planted. Fifty percent of this payment was meant for the tenant or cropper, but planters devised means to keep almost all of the money. With increasing incentives not to grow cotton, many planters evicted their tenants, leaving them homeless. Indeed, the event that set into motion the creation of the STFU was planter Hiram Norcross removing 23 families from his plantation in late spring 1934.

“At the Sunnyside School on the boundary of Norcross land in July 1934, a group of seven black and 11 white men agreed to form a union of tenants and sharecroppers. After some discussion, they decided that the union should be fully integrated, recognizing that they shared similar needs and economic situations. This was a stunning break with the past, though in some areas there would be separate black and white locals as the union expanded.”

Mitchell, who had been a sharecropper in Tennessee, had become a socialist while farming and recruited East to the socialist cause after moving to Arkansas.

“The two of them went to meetings in Memphis together, organized the local in Tyronza and helped organize the Tyronza Unemployment League in the spring of 1934,” Cobb writes. “The Unemployment League was an attempt to force the local agencies of the AAA to provide jobs for desperate tenants or croppers. At the instigation of Norman Thomas, the leader of the Socialist Party in the United States, the two men participated in the formation of the STFU. Many opponents of the STFU considered it to be a communist plot, and attacks from planters, both physical and verbal, were the norm at early meetings. Ward Rodgers, the STFU’s most effective white organizer, was arrested and jailed in Marked Tree in January 1935. As a result, Mitchell called Lucien Koch, the director of Commonwealth College in Polk County, and asked for help in founding locals. Commonwealth had the reputation of being a communist institution. Given Mitchell and East’s hatred of communists, this appeal was a sign of real desperation.”

Mitchell and East moved the union headquarters to Memphis in late 1935 and began to attract financial support from outside the South. Sen. Joe T. Robinson, despite being heavily supported financially by Delta planters, met with union leaders during the Democratic National Convention in June 1936. Robinson helped persuade Gov. Junius Futrell to take a strong stand against violence directed toward sharecroppers. The high-water mark came in 1938 when the union had more than 35,000 members. Infighting soon led to its demise with Mitchell and his followers leaving in the late 1930s.

“Mitchell returned to the shadow STFU in 1941 as executive secretary and served as president from 1944 to 1960,” Cobb writes. “During this time, the union became the National Farm Labor Union and later the National Agricultural Workers Union. The STFU really died when he died in 1989.”

Cotton has lived on as a cash crop in Arkansas but will never have the influence it once had in shaping the Arkansas economy and the state’s history.

 

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The hydroelectric battle

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

The visitors’ center at Bull Shoals-White River State Park is well worth the visit.

On the back deck is a spectacular view of Bull Shoals Dam with the lake on one side and the cold water of the White River on the other side.

If you have any doubt that Arkansas has the best system of state parks in the country, this facility will help put such doubts to rest.

Inside, exhibits tell the story of the White River, both before the construction of Bull Shoals Dam in the late 1940s and early 1950s and in the decades that have followed.

As an Arkansas history buff, the thing I found most interesting was a framed front page of the Baxter Bulletin from 64 years ago (it now publishes six days a week but was a weekly at the time). It was the issue published after President Truman spoke at the dedication of Bull Shoals Dam on July 2, 1952.

Truman, never one to mince words, took a shot at Arkansas Power & Light Co. (now Entergy Arkansas) and the other private power companies that had opposed the use of federal dams to generate electricity.

According to the articles in the newspaper, AP&L engineers had constructed a model in an attempt to show that flood control and hydroelectric generation weren’t compatible goals for the same dam.

Truman didn’t hesitate on the day of the dedication to make fun of that model.

What you must understand is that AP&L had been the most politically powerful business entity in the state for several decades thanks to the skills of Harvey Couch and C. Hamilton Moses.

Couch, who grew up in rural Columbia County, had at the age of 35 in 1914 purchased the only electric transmission line in the state. That line ran 22 miles from Malvern to Arkadelphia.

Couch later built two dams on the Ouachita River near Hot Springs (forming Lake Hamilton and Lake Catherine) to generate electricity for his growing utility company.

By 1930, AP&L had 3,000 miles of lines and served customers in 63 of the state’s 75 counties. Couch also formed Mississippi Power & Light Co. and Louisiana Power & Light Co. He built the first modern natural gas-fired power plant in this part of the country near Monroe, La., and was appointed by President Hoover to the board of the Reconstruction Finance Corp., which was formed in 1931 to address problems caused by the Great Depression.

“The only luxury the longtime resident of Pine Bluff (where AP&L had its headquarters) allowed himself was a rustic log cabin on Lake Catherine,” Patricia Laster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “He called it Couchwood, and there he entertained everyone who had helped him in his rise to fame, as well as international bankers and presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

Couch used his political influence to persuade officials in Washington not to create a taxpayer-subsidized Arkansas River Valley Authority that would cut into AP&L profits. Instead, the Roosevelt administration pushed for the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was created by Congress in May 1933.

Like Couch, Moses grew up in rural south Arkansas. He was born on a farm near Hampton in 1888 and worked in area logging camps when he wasn’t in school. He graduated from what’s now Ouachita Baptist University at Arkadelphia in 1908 and then headed south to New Orleans, where he obtained his master’s degree in Southern history from Tulane University. He earned his law degree in 1911 in Little Rock and then went to work for Gov. George Donaghey. Moses later served as an adviser to Gov. George Hays and Gov. Charles Hillman Brough.

Moses became the general counsel for AP&L and Couch’s other businesses in 1919. Moses moved into the role of AP&L president following Couch’s death in 1941 and proved just as politically influential as Couch had been. Moses was the AP&L president until 1952 and remained as board chairman until 1955.

Sherry Laymon writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas that “private power companies profited greatly during World War II as they operated at full capacity to meet war production demands. However, decreased power loads after the war created financial difficulties for utility companies, which eventually led to an intense struggle between public and private power entities in the 1940s. To increase public demand for electricity, Moses initiated his Arkansas Plan, designed to encourage community leaders to utilize local residents, resources, capital and labor to strengthen their communities and attract business and industry into the state. The University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, state organizations and private corporations supported his efforts and organized to form the Arkansas Economic Council in December 1944.

“Moses, Arkansas’ business cheerleader, visited many Arkansas communities and motivated Arkansans to demonstrate civic pride in their towns by making notable improvements to attract new industry. As a result, local residents enhanced their communities by paving city streets, whitewashing storefronts, landscaping public property and developing recreational programs. They also built houses, churches, hospitals and schools, which attracted more industry to the state. Moses then traveled across the country preaching the gospel of Arkansas to draw corporate attention to the state. Within 10 years, the state reaped bountiful harvests as new industry created 36,000 jobs.”

Arkansas remained a rural, poor state, though. And large parts of rural Arkansas remained without electricity.

“Private power companies had explored the possibility of building a dam at Wildcat Shoals above Cotter as early as 1902 but never began work toward it,” Scott Branyan writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Congress approved the construction of six reservoirs in the White River basin in the Flood Control Act of 1938. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report in 1930 had recommended the Wildcat Shoals site along with seven others as being the most effective of the 13 investigated. However, in a 1940 report, the Corps of Engineers presented the Bull Shoals site as an alternative to Wildcat Shoals, where unsuitable foundation conditions had been found. This report recommended the construction of Table Rock and Bull Shoals as multipurpose reservoirs for flood control, hydropower generation and other beneficial purposes, coming to the conclusion that the reservoir projects were justifiable.”

Pushing early on for construction of dams on the White River was Congressman Claude Albert Fuller, who served in Congress from 1929-39. Fuller, who had practiced law at Eureka Springs before being elected to Congress, helped lead the fight for adoption of the Flood Control Act of 1938, which followed a series of devastating floods in the region in 1937.

Fuller was defeated in the Democratic primary of 1938 by Clyde Ellis. Fuller went back to Eureka Springs to practice law and served as president of the Bank of Eureka Springs from 1930 until his death in 1968. He continued as a private citizen to advocate for the dams.

Meanwhile, Ellis took up the fight in Congress. Ellis, the oldest of nine children, had been raised on a farm near Garfield in Benton County. The farm had no electricity, and rural electrification became his passion.

Ellis helped form the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which was designed to protect the interests of the New Deal rural electrification programs.

Ellis ran for the Senate in 1942 and lost in the Democratic primary. John L. McClellan became the state’s new senator. Ellis was hired in 1943 as the first general manager of the NRECA.

In a 1984 history of the NRECA titled “The Next Greatest Thing,” it was written: “The record of NRECA in those years, stamped with the strong and powerful personality of Ellis and his spellbinding, single-minded leadership, is studded with stunning victories, few defeats.”

Sheila Yount writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “Known as Mr. Rural Electrification, Ellis led the electrification association through funding battles for the Rural Electrification Administration, which provided low-interest loans to the nation’s electric cooperatives, and fiercely fought the power companies, which opposed the rural electrification program. Rural service was far more expensive to create than service in urban areas. When the power companies charged higher rates for rural service, their customers used less electricity, making the service increasingly unprofitable.

“Ellis also helped persuade the federal government to include hydropower plants at Norfork Dam in Baxter County and other dams in Arkansas that were originally designed for flood control only. He fought major battles to give the cooperatives access to the power from those dams. Ellis credited the NRECA’s success to the grassroots support of the electric cooperatives.”

Ellis wrote a book titled “A Giant Step” in 1966.

“The wires which tied the houses of rural people together also seemed to unite their spirits,” he wrote. “Beginning in the early days and growing through the years, there has been some unusual quality about the rural electrification program, which has drawn people of diverse political and social views together in a common purpose. The people who work for our program feel they’re working in a cause or movement or a crusade, which many of them can’t define.”

Yount writes: “Besides the political arena, the association’s role expanded to provide many services for the nation’s electric cooperatives, including retirement and insurance plans; training for directors and employees; legal seminars for cooperative attorneys, safety training; and communications assistance. Ellis also helped bring electricity to people in 30 other countries through the Agency for International Development. This program was a compilation of various federal efforts to provide foreign aid during the Cold War. Created by the Kennedy administration, AID used American dollars to fight poverty and bring about development in Third World nations. Ellis traveled to Colombia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and other countries promoting rural electrification, using his experiences in Arkansas to prove to governments and citizens that such a program was possible anywhere in the world.”

Construction on Norfork Dam on the North Fork River began in the spring of 1941.

“The North Fork River was a strong candidate for a tributary flood control project,” Branyan writes. “The Corps noted it was a primary contributor to flooding in the White River because of its steep banks and big feeder streams, which frequently swelled quickly during periods of runoff. For a number of years, the Corps and private entities had studied the site for potential hydropower use as well. … Securing funding for Depression-era projects at the time of a possible impending war, however, was difficult.

“Congressman Ellis argued that a dam with a power plant was immediately needed for any increased manufacturing requirements during possible wartime production demands. He succeeded in obtaining funding and additional authorization for hydropower in the Flood Control Act of 1941, and the Little Rock District of the Corps of Engineers awarded the construction contract to the Utah Construction Co. and Morrison-Knudsen Co.”

The Norfork powerhouse was operational by 1944. A second generator was in use by February 1950.

The dam was made entirely of concrete — about 1.5 million cubic yards to be exact. The site that was chosen is 4.8 miles upstream from the confluence of the White and North Fork rivers at Norfork.

A Missouri Pacific railroad spur from Norfork to the site of the dam was built to move equipment, concrete and 2,000 tons of reinforcing steel. A total of 27,000 railroad cars moved along the spur during construction.

“During 1940, several hundred small farms were abandoned in Baxter County and left in foreclosure,” Branyan writes. “However, the construction of a dam in the area meant prospects for work during the Depression. As soon as word of the approval of Norfork Dam appeared in the newspapers, locals began contacting Ellis to inquire about jobs. During the four years of the project, the number of workers employed on both the dam and powerhouse was 815.

“Farmland around two communities along the river — Henderson in Baxter County and Bakersfield in Missouri — was inundated. Around Henderson, about 400 landowners had to relocate. Twenty-six cemeteries were moved. Crops continued to be harvested into the late fall of 1942. The lake began to fill by Feb. 1, 1943.”

Construction of Bull Shoals Dam began in 1947. That dam required 2.1 million cubic yards of concrete. At the time of its construction, it was the fifth-largest concrete dam in the country, and its powerhouse was the largest building in the state. Powerhouse construction began in September 1950 and concluded two years later. The final two generating units were installed in 1963.

“The completion of the dam and reservoir immediately began to affect the local economy,” Branyan writes. “Media coverage attracted attention to the region and resulted in the quick growth of the tourist industry. In 1940, there were only 13 businesses in the area that provided overnight accommodations. By 1970, 300 such establishments could be found. Assessed taxable real estate values, per capita income and manufacturing payroll rose dramatically in the following decades. The area also now supports a retirement community.

“The dam put an end to long, multiday fishing floats from Branson, Mo., to Cotter. Jim Owen of the Owen Boat Line had operated a float trip business on the river for many years. Largely through Owen’s promotion, the White River garnered a reputation for excellent smallmouth bass fishing. But the new reservoir soon offered equally excellent lake fishing for a number of warm-water species as well as stocked trout below the dam. Marina, boat businesses and fishing guide services sprang up rapidly to handle the influx of anglers.”

Resorts such as Gaston’s became nationally known due to the quality of the trout fishing created by cold-water releases from the dam.

Back to Clyde Ellis: The man known as Mr. Rural Electrification retired from the NRECA following a heart attack and stroke in 1967. He was named general manager emeritus.

Ellis later worked for the U.S. secretary of agriculture and for McClellan in the U.S. Senate. Ellis died in February 1980 in Washington following another stroke and is buried across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital at Arlington National Cemetery.

Here in Arkansas, he probably should be remembered as the man who handed AP&L a rare political defeat while bringing government-subsidized hydropower to a poor, rural state.

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Arkadelphia rising

Monday, May 9th, 2016

In the May issue of Arkansas Life magazine there’s a profile of my hometown of Arkadelphia written by Heather Steadham.

The headline reads: “From its new town hall and hybrid police cars to its plans to send every child to college, Arkadelphia is a small town with a big vision.”

Following a riding tour of Arkadelphia with Jimmy Bolt, the city manager, Steadham wrote: “Behind the Amtrak station lies the old Arkadelphia Milling Co., which burned about a century ago but is still a giant part of Arkadelphia’s history and serves as a local landmark with its three old concrete silos standing stalwart against time and tornadoes. It seems like the town has always, in its way, tried to be progressive, and when Arkadelphia Milling Co. shut down, Arkadelphia looked toward tourism to help out its economy. Jimmy tells me how Arkadelphia used to be known for having more gas stations (per capita) than any other town and, in fact, the Encyclopedia of Arkansas reports that ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not’ proclaimed that the small God-fearing town had more service stations than — gasp! — churches.

“But these days there are much better things for Jimmy to brag about. He shows me the beauty of the flowerbed full of tulips and azaleas next to the Martin Luther King Jr. overpass that the Rotary Club constructed when he was president, making one of the two major entrances into town a joy upon arrival. He shows me the user-friendly arrangement of the Baptist Health System buildings, which are clustered together to form an entire medical village. And he shows me the super-inclusive recreation center at Feaster Park, where tourists and residents alike can enjoy a water park, a skateboard park, an indoor recreation facility, softball fields, outdoor basketball courts and other play areas all in one centralized location. It’s like … there was a plan.”

Steadham ends her glowing profile of the city this way: “When I leave Arkadelphia, driving back down the street that separates what I first thought were two contentious universities, I see what I somehow missed on my way in. Above the road, a bridge links the two sides of the ravine. Written along its face are the words ‘Arkadelphia: It’s a great place to call home.’ When a small town becomes unstuck after a devastating disaster, when good people fight to end intolerance, when the bitterest of rivalries become literally and metaphorically linked, and all of these become inextricably intertwined to form a community, I have to agree. It is a great place to call home.”

The article, mind you, was written before it was announced late last month that a Chinese company with 10,000 employees worldwide — Shandong Sun Paper — will build a $1.3 billion pulp mill near Arkadelphia to create materials for baby diapers and other products. It will be Sun Paper’s first North American operation and represents one of the largest private-sector investments in Arkansas history. So Arkadelphia is hotter than ever from an economic development standpoint.

More than 2,000 workers will be involved in the construction phase during the next three years, which should cause business at area motels, restaurants and retail locations to boom. Once it’s operating, the plant will employ 250 people directly. The biggest impact, however, will come from the 400 truckloads of pine timber the mill will consume daily once it’s at full capacity. That timber demand will create an estimated 1,000 additional jobs. That’s right: 400 truckloads per day.

In the decade since the housing downtown began, the south Arkansas pine belt has been producing timber more quickly than it can be harvested. There’s an enormous oversupply of pulpwood. Thousands of acres that once were row crops or cattle pastures in south Arkansas have been planted in pine, but the needed thinning hasn’t occurred due to a lack of demand. There’s more timber in Arkansas now than at any point in the past 75 years.

As the home of Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University, Arkadelphia will always be first and foremost a college town.

What the Sun announcement does, though, is position Arkadelphia and the rest of Clark County at the center of the state’s timber industry. Other south Arkansas cities have seen job cuts in the industry for at least the past decade, but Georgia-Pacific in nearby Gurdon already bucked the trend by investing $37 million in its lumber mill, increasing capacity by 60 percent.

In addition to being a college town since the late 1800s, Arkadelphia has a long tradition of processing products grown and found in the area.

The salt factory operated by John Hemphill just across the Ouachita River from Arkadelphia in the early 1800s was considered to be among the state’s first manufacturing concerns. A large salt kettle graces the lawn of the Clark County Courthouse. The plaque on the kettle (which for decades was on the Henderson campus) reads: “Used in the production of salt from the water of the Saline Bayou one mile east of Arkadelphia by John Hemphill, pioneer salt maker of Arkansas Territory. Given to the Henderson State Teachers College Museum by the family of Capt. Robert W. Huie, 1845-1929, friend and benefactor of the college.”

The Caddo Indians had been getting salt from the area for hundreds of years. In the late 1700s, Louis Badins referred to Saline Bayou, “whose water yields through evaporation a fifth of salt so corrosive that it consumes meats which are salted with it and it burns sacks in which it is placed.”

Hemphill’s salt refinery operated from 1812-51. There were other places in Clark County where salt was produced. In 1830, H.A. Whittington described the Barkman estate as having “about 5,000 acres with several salt springs on it, from which he makes about 5,000 bushels of salt per annum.”

The Confederates cranked back up salt production in the county during the Civil War. Kettles such as the one now on display at the courthouse could hold 200 gallons and were used to boil water, with the salt left at the bottom.

By the early 1900s, one of the most prosperous industries in Arkansas was the Arkadelphia Milling Co., which produced flour, meal and stock feed. The mill operated 24 hours a day and had the motto: “We never sleep.” Its Dolly Dimple brand of flour was known across the region. The mill unfortunately became a victim of the Great Depression and closed in 1932.

From 1915 into the 1920s, the Arkadelphia Lumber Co. operated one of the South’s largest sawmills west of Arkadelphia at the company town of Graysonia. Almost 500 employees produced more than 150,000 board feet of lumber each day. Graysonia no longer exists, long since having been overtaken by the pine forests that once provided a livelihood for the hundreds of people who lived there.

Arkadelphia was among the state’s leading cities in the early 1900s. In addition to the Arkadelphia Lumber Co. and the Arkadelphia Milling Co, the Temple Cotton Oil Co. also was thriving. The Arkadelphia Rotary Club was formed in 1919, just six years after the famous Club 99 had been established in Little Rock. The Arkadelphia club played a key role in raising money to update the city’s water system and lobbied for getting city streets paved.

Companies that added to the economic mix in Arkadelphia after World War II included Reynolds Metals Co., Hollywood Maxwell, Oberman Manufacturing, Ouachita Marine, Levi Strauss & Co. and the Tectum Corp.

Education long has been a major part of the economy.

Ray Granade wrote for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Arkadelphia became an educational center with the opening of two colleges for white people (Ouachita Baptist College in 1886 and Arkadelphia Methodist College in 1890), two schools for African-Americans (Bethel College AME in 1891 and Colored Presbyterian Industrial School in 1896), and the first in a series of business colleges (Draughon’s in 1891).

“In addition to these, an elementary and secondary school for black students, called the Arkadelphia Presbyterian Academy, was founded in 1882. The Arkadelphia Baptist Academy opened in 1890, later updating its name and becoming associated with Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock in 1892. The activity by education-minded citizens led one local newspaper to refer to the community consistently as ‘the city of colleges’ while other locals called it ‘the Athens of Arkansas.’ Beginning with their first game in 1895 and continuing into present day, Henderson State University and Ouachita Baptist University have maintained a football rivalry called the Battle of the Ravine because the two schools are positioned across from another on either side of U.S. Highway 67.”

Timber remained an important part of the area’s economy. In 1967, Esther Ross and her daughter, Jane Ross, began the Ross Foundation. Esther’s father, J.G. Clark, had been an owner of vast tracts of south Arkansas timberland.

The Ross Foundation manages more than 60,000 acres for conservation and charitable purposes. It has poured millions of dollars in charitable funds into the county through the years. Its most notable accomplishment occurred in 2010 when the foundation joined forces with the Arkadelphia-based Southern Bancorp to establish the Arkadelphia Promise, which ensures that college tuition is paid for graduates of Arkadelphia High School.

J.G. Clark had begun his empire in the forest products industry in the late 1800s. After her father’s death in 1955, Jane Ross managed her family’s business interests. She remained chairman of the Ross Foundation until her death in 1999. In 1979, Ross relinquished much of the control over the daily operations of the foundation to Ross Whipple, a relative. Whipple, who founded and later sold both Horizon Bancorp and Summit Bancorp, proved to be a shrewd manager of the foundation’s assets. He once described the foundation lands as being “like a mini-national forest. … I cut my teeth in the woods. Those trees don’t talk back to you. Here in Clark County, the strong history of the forest industry as well as the future growth excites me.”

In her article for Arkansas Life, Steadham described the Ross Foundation offices this way: “The circular silo-like centerpiece I saw from the outside is actually an atrium in the center of the building, its glass ceiling throwing the midday light onto a floor made from concentric wood rings fashioned like a cut tree stump. The walls are rock, and vines crawl up wood support beams. I immediately know I am in a place of uncommon thinking.”

In writing about the Arkadelphia Promise, Steadham said: “Since the scholarship program began in 2011, the Arkadelphia Promise has awarded almost $2 million in scholarships. It awards an average of more than $3,000 per student per year, and Arkadelphia students have attended more than 45 institutions of higher education in 10 states. What I find especially remarkable is how things are looking at the high school level: The retention rate at Arkadelphia High School was up to 87.1 percent for 2014. … Athens of Arkansas, indeed.”

At the same time Whipple was building his banking business, then-Gov. Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Mack McLarty, Rob Walton and other well-known Arkansans were teaming up with nonprofit organizations such as the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation to create the state’s first community development bank holding company in the 1980s. The goal was to use the proceeds from commercial banks to fund rural development activities rather than paying dividends to stockholders. The first bank purchased was Arkadelphia’s Elk Horn Bank & Trust Co. in 1988. Since then, additional banks have been purchased in Arkansas and Mississippi. Those acquisitions have made Southern Bancorp the largest rural development banking organization in the country.

On the day the Arkadelphia Promise was announced in 2010 by then-Gov. Mike Beebe, Whipple described it as “one of the best economic events to ever happen in Arkadelphia as well as being a tremendous educational benefit for every graduate of Arkadelphia High School.”

The announcement of Sun’s $1.3 billion investment was the biggest economic event in the city since the Arkadelphia Promise unveiling more than five years earlier. And, I can promise you, the existence of the Arkadelphia Promise is an incentive for companies such as Sun to locate facilities in the area.

In my weekly column for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I wrote about Bill Clinton’s visit to Arkadelphia three days after the F4 tornado on March 1, 1997, that destroyed all or parts of 60 city blocks. During a reception following his walking tour of the destroyed downtown business sector, the president said to me: “I can’t say this publicly, but most towns in the south half of the state would never bounce back from something like this. But Arkadelphia will come back because it has strong banks and two colleges.”

Now, add to the mix one of the largest private-sector investments in Arkansas history.

Arkadelphia appears to be south Arkansas’ shining star, living up to the prediction made by President Clinton in those dark days of March 1997.

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The breakfast club

Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

It’s shortly past 7 a.m. on a Wednesday, and Don Allen is sitting at his usual spot.

They call it the Round Table, and it’s in the corner of the state Capitol’s basement cafeteria in Little Rock.

Allen, 85, is the patriarch of the Round Table, a legendary breakfast spot where politics, sports and personalities have been cussed and discussed for decades.

Allen became a regular at the table in 1972 when he joined the staff of then-Gov. Dale Bumpers. He can be found in the same seat most weekday mornings, having arrived by 5:20 a.m.

“They let me in the back door,” he says.

When Allen began coming to the Capitol basement for breakfast, legislators such as Rep. John Miller of Melbourne and Rep. Lloyd Reid George of Danville ruled the roost at the Round Table.

On the large lazy Susan in the middle of the table, brass nameplates for Miller and George state that their seats are “reserved in perpetuity.” The nameplates were purchased by Little Rock attorney George Jernigan, a former chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party and a former chairman of the Little Rock-based Political Animals Club.

“When someone dies, we move the nameplates from the actual table to the lazy Susan,” Allen says.

George, a noted raconteur, was born in 1926 in his grandparents’ house at Centerville in Yell County and grew up at Ola. He graduated from Hendrix College and then became a coach and teacher at Fourche Valley, Ola, Morrilton and Gillett. George later borrowed enough money from his father and grandmother to open a butane gas company at Danville, where he was elected mayor.

George first was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives in 1962 and served a total of 28 years. He would celebrate the final day of legislative sessions by wearing overalls, a sign that it was time to go back to the farm in Yell County. George died in February 2012 at age 85.

Miller, who lived in Izard County for 84 of his 85 years, was a 1949 Arkansas State University graduate who worked in his family’s retail business before spending four years as the Izard County clerk. He later opened an insurance agency, a title abstract business and a real estate brokerage.

Miller was elected to the Arkansas House in 1958, the start of a 40-year legislative career. He soon became recognized as the expert on the state budget. Miller died in June 2014.

There’s one other nameplate on the lazy Susan. It belongs to former Rep. William K. “Mac” McGehee of Fort Smith, who was elected to the Legislature in 1996 and was found dead of natural causes in his apartment in the Capitol Hill Building adjacent to the state Capitol just before the 1999 legislative session. McGehee was given his “reserved in perpetuity” spot because he had the current lazy Susan made by the Riverside Furniture Co. in Fort Smith and then flew it to Little Rock in his private plane.

“It’s a lot bigger than the old lazy Susan,” Allen says matter of factly. “George Jernigan gave us the old one, but it was hard to reach.”

The lazy Susan has not only bottles of barbecue sauce, hot sauce and pepper sauce but also jars of homemade jams, jellies and preserves that legislators bring and leave there. Jars of honey and sorghum molasses also are dropped off from time to time.

The table was constructed by the staff of Arkansas Secretary of State Bill McCuen, who later was imprisoned for corruption in office. McCuen died of cancer at age 57 in 2000. Before his election as secretary of state in 1984, he had served as a public school teacher and principal at Hot Springs, as the Garland County judge and as state land commissioner.

McCuen put his signature on most everything at the Capitol during his decade as secretary of state and had a soft spot for those who sat at the Round Table. The new table — the smaller version used in earlier years now sits on the other side of the cafeteria — was made out of leftover plywood from a Christmas display.

Capitol observers thought the Round Table’s days were numbered in November 2014 when Arkansas voters approved an ethics amendment that would no longer allow lobbyists to buy breakfast for legislators. For years, top lobbyists would put money in the pot to fund the breakfast activities. Legislators who were invited to sit at the table simply went through the line, got what they wanted and had their purchases recorded in the spiral-bound notebook that rested next to the cash register.

Ron Harrod is a longtime lobbyist who became a regular at the Round Table after being appointed in early 1983 to the powerful Arkansas Highway Commission to replace James Branyan of Camden. Harrod, a Dumas native, was an insurance agent in Prescott at the time.

“When the ethics amendment passed, we decided to shut down the table,” Harrod says. “But you know what? Not a single legislator complained about having to buy breakfast. We found out that it was about the fellowship rather than the food.”

He then adds (with a smile for the benefit of the legislators at the table): “We’re not allowed to buy them breakfast, although one of them could buy me breakfast. To this day, not a single legislator has offered to buy my breakfast.”

There are still two brass nameplates on the table for living legends.

One belongs to Allen, who became the executive vice president of the influential Arkansas Poultry Federation in 1976 and held the job until 2000, when he retired and was replaced by former state Sen. Morril Harriman. When Mike Beebe became governor in January 2007, Harriman resigned from the Poultry Federation to become Beebe’s chief of staff, a job he held for Beebe’s entire eight years as governor.

The other nameplate belongs to Tim Massanelli, a native of the community of Goat Shed in Lincoln County. Massanelli worked on his family farm, ran a liquor store and managed a coin-operated machine business during the early years of his career. In 1973, at the suggestion of state Rep. G.W. “Buddy” Turner, he became the parliamentarian for the Arkansas House of Representatives and served for 38 years until retiring in 2011.

Massanelli worked with 19 speakers, seven governors and more than 1,000 House members. He was replaced by Buddy Johnson, who began working for the House in 1985 after having served as a reporter for United Press International. Johnson joins the breakfast group on this Wednesday morning, trading barbs easily with Allen and Harrod.

Massanelli’s nameplate has a spelling mistake. It says that his chair is “reserved in perpeturity.” The regulars decided to leave the plate just like it is so they could give Massanelli a hard time.

Allen tells stories of past legislators such as the late state Rep. Bobby Newman of Smackover, who Allen says would order three soft eggs each morning and then sop up all the yolk with his toast. Then there was the legislator who irked the late Zelma Maxenberger, who managed the cafeteria for a quarter of a century. The legislator, who shall remain nameless, would loudly ring a bell for service prior to the official opening time of 6 a.m. Told by the management that no coffee would be served to those at the Round Table until 7 a.m. if he didn’t stop ringing the bell, the offending legislator was banned from the table.

“Sometimes we have 14 or 15 people sitting over here at one time,” Allen says. “I have to tell you that the idea of lobbyists buying off politicians with a meal is pure BS. This has simply been a way for us to get to know each other through the years.”

Harrod says: “Most of these legislators have someplace where they go for coffee back in their towns. This is just the Little Rock version of what they have back at home.”

Many of the traditional spots where Arkansans gathered for breakfast and political talk in the 20th century are gone. One notable example was the Sno-White Grill at Pine Bluff, which closed last year and was replaced by an Italian restaurant. Sno-White was founded in 1936, one year before Walt Disney produced his first full-length animated classic, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

The Pine Bluff institution closed when Bobby Garner decided to retire at age 79. Garner would arrive at 5:30 a.m. six mornings a week with the restaurant opening at 6 a.m. Among the coffee-drinking regulars, there were 6 a.m., 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 9 a.m. and even 10 a.m. shifts.

While the state Capitol has the Round Table, Sno-White had the famed Back Booth. It was a large booth with political posters covering the walls behind it — “I’m for Arkansas and Faubus,” “John McClellan for Senate,” “Dale Bumpers for Senate” and even “Monroe A. Scharwazlose, Democratic Candidate for Governor, The Law and Order Candidate.”

Schwarzlose, who raised turkeys in nearby Kingsland, ran for governor in the Democratic primaries of 1978, 1980, 1982 and 1984.

Kelley-Wyatt’s in Batesville had its Round Table, where Independence County politicians gathered for years. The restaurant closed for a time but reopened last fall.

Jerry’s in Fayetteville, long a breakfast gathering spot near the Washington County Courthouse, is gone. But a well-known restaurant up the road in Springdale lives on. In 1944, Toy and Bertha Neal began serving meals in Springdale. Neal’s Café still opens at 6 a.m. seven days a week and is a political gathering place for the northwest corner of the state. It fact, its political cachet increased when owner Micah Neal was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives in 2012. Toy and Bertha Neal were Micah Neal’s great-grandparents. Micah’s father, Don Neal, later ran the restaurant in the landmark pink building.

In Conway, Bob’s Grill on Oak Street downtown has the motto: “If it happens in Conway, it’s talked about at Bob’s Grill.”

Away from the state Capitol in Little Rock, the breakfast spot for politicians was once the Coachman’s Inn, a hotel owned by famed financiers Jack and Witt Stephens. It stood where the downtown post office is now located. In 1983, Skip Rutherford left the staff of U.S. Sen. David Pryor and moved to the private sector to work for Mack McLarty, the chief executive officer of Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co. Rutherford missed politics and wanted an excuse for those with a strong interest in the political game to gather and talk about what was going on in Arkansas. He asked some friends to join him one morning at the Coachman’s for breakfast. Judge William J. Smith was invited to talk about former Gov. Orval Faubus and the 1957 Little Rock school desegregation crisis. Afterward, those in attendance agreed to meet again and bring friends to what they decided to call the Political Animals Club.

At first, the Political Animals Club’s membership was limited to people who were not running for or holding elective office. When Rutherford announced in 1987 that he was going to run for the Little Rock School Board, he stepped down as club chairman. The Political Animals Club had moved its meetings from the Coachman’s Inn to the Little Rock Hilton (now the Clarion) on University Avenue by that time. Jernigan took over as the second chairman in 1987 and was succeeded by his law partner, Russ Meeks.

The fourth Political Animals chairman was Bob Lyford, who was the general counsel for the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. During Lyford’s tenure, the club often held its 7 a.m. breakfast meetings in the ornate conference room at the AECC headquarters in southwest Little Rock. In January 2007, Lyford handed over the chairmanship to Steve Ronnel, a Little Rock businessman who had worked in the White House during the Clinton administration. Ronnel switched the meeting times from breakfast to lunch as people’s habits changed and fewer people wanted to show up at 7 a.m.

The Coachman’s has long since been replaced by downtown’s Capital Hotel (also owned by the Stephens family) as the breakfast gathering spot of choice for lobbyists who are looking for something a bit fancier than the basement of the state Capitol. Most mornings now find several tables at the Capital Hotel filled with lobbyists and legislators (who presumably are paying for their own meals).

Though breakfast meetings of the Political Animals Club are now a rarity, there are smaller breakfast groups that meet on a regular basis to talk politics. Rutherford is a member of two such groups. One group began meeting in 1991 at a now-defunct downtown Little Rock restaurant known as Hungry’s. The group later met in North Little Rock at Roy Fisher’s Steak House, also now defunct.

For years, Fisher’s waitress Mary Daniell, who died in February 2011 at age 71, would trade good-natured insults with a group whose regulars included Rutherford, then-state Sen. Bill Gwatney, former Little Rock bank executive Gene Fortson and longtime North Little Rock political gadfly Walter “Bubba” Lloyd Jr.

Members of the group and even the waitress would tease Gwatney because of his family money, especially when he would order a staple of the Fisher’s breakfast menu known as “the working man’s breakfast.”

“That’s as close as you’ll ever come to being a working man,” Daniell would tell the automobile dealer.

Gwatney was the chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party in the summer of 2008 when he was murdered at state party headquarters by a lone gunman, who was killed later in the day during a shootout with the police. No reason for the murder was ever discovered.

Soon afterward, Rutherford said of the breakfast group: “We had no regular schedule. It was just when somebody sent a notice out. It was always a long breakfast, talking about politics, sports, current issues. Those conversations were great because Gwatney would unload on any issue. Politics was a common ground. When I was state party chairman, I used to say in speeches that my best achievement was making sure Bill Gwatney ran as a Democrat and won as a Democrat.”

After taking a break following Gwatney’s death, the group began meeting again. The members now gather at the Red Door at the foot of Cantrell Hill in Little Rock.

Rutherford also is a member of a Saturday group organized by Little Rock businessmen Bill Booker and Graham Catlett.

“Bill and I began having brunch on Saturdays at Buster’s in the early 1980s,” Catlett says. “We later began meeting at Copper Grill at 8 a.m. each Saturday, and the group grew. Our meeting places move seasonally.”

One of the regulars is Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola.

“By 9 a.m., all the world’s problems are solved,” Catlett says.

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Tomb of Doom (now Boom)

Wednesday, December 30th, 2015

Sidney Shlenker descended on the city of Memphis like a character out of “The Music Man.”

He talked a big game, but he had the credentials to back up the talk.

He once owned the Denver Nuggets.

He once was the chief executive of the company that ran the Astrodome in Houston.

He was born in Monroe, La., in August 1936. Two years later, his family moved to Houston. Shlenker’s father became wealthy in the liquor business and real estate, eventually purchasing Houston National Bank.

Shlenker headed to Tulane University at New Orleans but had little interest in his studies. He returned to Houston without a degree and worked his way up the ladder at his father’s bank, moving from teller to the vice president in charge of installment loans.

He teamed up with an insurance salesman named Allen Becker in 1966 to convince a client to sponsor a boat show at a new facility known as the Astrodome. Becker and Shlenker earned about $9,000 each and decided to form a company known as Pace Management Corp. It produced events at the Astrodome that ranged from demolition derbies to motorcycle races.

By 1990, the renamed Pace Entertainment was producing multiple Broadway touring shows, hundreds of rock concerts, dozens of motorcycle races and even tractor pulls. The company invested in Broadway shows and owned several theaters.

Shlenker owned 45 percent of Pace until the early 1990s, but he let Becker run the day-to-day operations beginning in 1968. That allowed Shlenker to concentrate on sales and marketing of the Astrodome.

“He brought in heavyweight fights and other events to the world’s first domed stadium,” the Los Angeles Times reported after Shlenker died at age 66 in April 2003. “But his promotional piece de resistance may have been securing the rights to the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. The so-called Battle of the Sexes drew 33,000 paying customers to the Astrodome, one of the largest crowds ever to watch a tennis match.

“After the Astrodome’s builder, Judge Roy Hofheinz, suffered a stroke in 1975, Shlenker was made chief executive and president of Astrodomain Corp., the Astrodome’s parent organization. In so doing, he became president of the Houston Astros baseball club. In 1982, Shlenker became minority owner of the Houston Rockets basketball team. Three years later, he sold his share of the Rockets and purchased the Denver Nuggets for $20 million from fellow Texan Red McCombs, a friend and sometimes business partner. The deal was consummated during a 30-minute phone call. Four years later, Shlenker sold the Colorado basketball team for $65 million.”

Flush with money, he turned his eyes to Memphis and the idea of The Great American Pyramid, a 20,000-seat facility on the banks of the Mississippi River.

It was to include a Grammy music museum, the College Football Hall of Fame, a Hard Rock Café and an amusement park known as Rakapolis. Mud Island would be renamed Festival Island.

Shlenker told The New York Times: “It’s going to be a monument like the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower, a signature for the city. The difference is, this will have something inside it.”

Memphis magazine named Shlenker its Memphian of the Year for 1989 and put him on the cover.

The project, however, had problems from the start.

In the 1950s, Memphis artist Mark Hartz had come up with a plan for three pyramids to be built overlooking the Mississippi River. Years later, Hartz’ son resurrected the idea and convinced entrepreneur John Tigrett to take it on. It was Tigrett who brought Shlenker to town. Tigrett and Shlenker later would have a falling out and were no longer speaking by the time Shlenker left Memphis.

The groundbreaking ceremony was in September 1989, and The Pyramid opened in November 1991 without the amenities that had been promised by Shlenker. There was no music museum, no College Football Hall of Fame, no Hard Rock Café, no amusement park.

It was owned and operated by the city of Memphis and Shelby County. The county sold its share to the city in April 2009.

“Shlenker left town, leaving Memphians holding a bag full of past-due construction bills,” The Memphis Flyer later wrote. “In 1991, our former Memphian of the Year earned a Memphis magazine Kudzu Award (our version of Esquire’s Dubious Achievements) and was featured on the cover as a comical Humpty-Dumpty figure atop The Pyramid that had been his downfall.”

Things only got worse for Shlenker.

He moved to Los Angeles and found himself entangled in 1995 in the Heidi Fleiss affair. Shlenker, Mexican businessman Manuel Santos and actor Charlie Sheen testified in the Hollywood madam’s trial that they had written the checks produced in court by Fleiss’ prostitutes.

Three years later, Shlenker was involved in a highway accident that left him a paraplegic.

Back in Memphis, The Pyramid came to be known by locals as the Tomb of Doom.

On opening night, the arena floor flooded. The acoustics and sight lines left much to be desired. The surrounding Pinch neighborhood never fully developed into the tourist attraction that had been promised to Memphis taxpayers.

There were a few bright spots. Some good Memphis Tiger basketball teams played there. Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson boxed there in 2002. A huge concert marking the 25th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death occurred there in 2002. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament held first- second-round games there in 1995, 1997 and 2001.

When Memphis landed an NBA team, the new tenant declared that its stay at The Pyramid would only be temporary. The truly world-class FedEx Forum was built adjacent to Beale Street at a cost of more than $250 million and opened in 2004.

The Pyramid went dark.

So what would go there?

Some said it should be a casino.

Others proposed the nation’s largest aquarium.

An outlet mall?

An indoor theme park?

Enter Johnny Morris.

Morris had started his career selling fishing supplies in the back of a liquor store owned by this father in Springfield, Mo. Fishermen on the way to Branson would stop and buy supplies.

Bass Pro Shops was incorporated in 1971. Morris added a catalog business three years later.

Bass Tracker boats became part of the growing Morris empire in 1978.

In 1984, Morris began construction of a giant showroom in Springfield that would become one of the state’s top tourist attractions.

His Big Cedar Lodge on Table Rock Lake opened near the Arkansas border in 1988.

The first Bass Pro Shop outside Missouri opened at Atlanta in 1995.

The company Morris founded now has more than 20,000 employees and annual revenues of more than $4 billion.

Morris saw potential in the empty Pyramid and began talking to Memphis officials in 2005. In 2008, the city announced a tentative agreement with Bass Pro Shops. But negotiations bogged down, and it seemed the facility would forever be the Tomb of Doom.

Miracle of miracles, the city and Bass Pro announced in June 2010 that they had signed an agreement for Bass Pro to lease The Pyramid for 55 years and redevelop the structure. The city committed $105 million to help with seismic retrofitting and other improvements. Bass Pro invested another $30 million.

Finally, something was going right at The Pyramid.

The Tomb of Doom became the Tomb of Boom.

Almost 700 employees were hired. A replica of a cypress swamp was built between the retail displays. There are archery ranges, gun ranges, a Ducks Unlimited museum, a 30th-floor observation deck, aquariums, restaurants, a bowling alley and even a 103-room hotel.

The 500,000-square-foot facility opened in April, and the turnstile count reached 1 million by July. That’s far more people than visit Graceland.

Morris said the facility has been such a success that he’s considering adding a second hotel downtown and perhaps a zip line.

All of downtown has benefited.

The owner of The Majestic restaurant on Main Street said May was the best month in the nine years the restaurant has been in business.

“Bass Pro is not cheap,” restaurant owner Deni Reilly said. “People coming to see Bass Pro and experience Bass Pro are people with money to spend. They’re advertising The Pyramid in places like Washington, D.C.”

Morris told The Commercial Appeal: “We think we’ll continue to thrive as a regional destination and experience. Only time will tell, but our goal is to keep fueling the fire.”

Almost a quarter of a century after it opened, The Pyramid appears to have found (as the real estate folks like to say) its highest and best use.

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Oaklawn’s renaissance

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015

With Oaklawn Park entering the final days of the 2015 race meeting, I figured it would be a good time to share this story that I wrote originally for Talk Business & Politics magazine:

Eric Jackson, the longtime general manager of Oaklawn Park at Hot Springs, vividly remembers that trip across the Chesapeake Bay more than 17 years ago.

It was February 1998, and it was cold. Jackson and Bobby Geiger, Oaklawn’s director of gaming and wagering, had taken a flight to Baltimore and then gotten on a small boat that was headed to an island in the bay.

“It was dark, it was sleeting and Bobby and I just had on our suits,” Jackson says as he sits in his Oaklawn office on a Monday afternoon. “We were freezing. We also knew we had a lot of work ahead of us.”

They were bound for Parsons Island, which once was described by the Baltimore Sun as a “bucolic, privately owned island covered in corn and sunflowers and with scattered wildlife.”

The 100-acre retreat belonged at the time to Jim Corckran, who along with his brother owned an east Baltimore manufacturer of nails, rivets, nuts, bolts and other fasteners that had been founded in 1865. Corckran had purchased the island from McCormick & Co., the well-known spice manufacturer that had begun doing business in 1889 at Baltimore.

Jackson and Geiger weren’t headed to the island to talk about nuts, bolts or spice. They were there to talk thoroughbred racing and ways to preserve the sport in the face of increased casino competition.

Two years earlier, brothers John and Jim Corckran had teamed up with Ted Mudge, the owner of a Baltimore-based insurance brokerage who was active in the thoroughbred racing industry, to purchase AmTote International Inc. Founded in 1932 as the American Totalisator Co., the firm specialized in the equipment used to control pari-mutuel betting at horse racing and greyhound racing facilities. American Totalisator installed its first mechanical tote system at Chicago’s Arlington Park in 1933.

Besieged by the proliferation of casinos in Oklahoma, Mississippi and Louisiana, Oaklawn’s Jackson had come up with the concept of Instant Racing, an electronic gambling system that allows players to bet on replays of past races. Instant Racing terminals resemble slot machines.

“The 1980s had been great for Oaklawn,” Jackson says. “At the time, we didn’t fully appreciate just how great they were. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, we began to face competition from new tracks in Oklahoma and Texas (Remington Park opened at Oklahoma City in 1988 and Sam Houston Race Park opened at Houston in 1994). “We responded by instituting simulcasting, becoming the first track to offer full cards from other tracks. But while we were looking west toward Texas and Oklahoma, the casinos were being built to the east in Mississippi and to the south in Louisiana.”

An initiative that would have allowed some casinos in Arkansas — including one at Oaklawn — was tossed off the ballot just before the November 1994 election. Oaklawn made another run at it in 1996.

“We got sucker punched about a month before the 1996 election,” Jackson says. “We had gone into it with the idea that the companies operating casinos in Mississippi would not oppose us since two casinos would be allowed at Hot Springs in addition to what happened here at Oaklawn. Then they came after us. The ads were brutal, and we got our teeth kicked in. Simulcasting had been Plan A. The casino initiative had been Plan B. Frankly, we didn’t have a Plan C.”

Proposed Amendment 4 in 1996 would have established a state lottery, permitted charitable bingo games and raffles by nonprofit organizations and allowed Hot Springs voters to decide whether to authorize casino gambling at Oaklawn and two other sites in the city. The initiative failed 61-39 percent.

It was then that Jackson began to play around with the idea of Instant Racing.

“I thought that there had to be a way to take past races and put them in a format that people would still enjoy,” Jackson says. “Our advertising agency came up with artwork of what the terminals might look like, and we invited representatives of three companies to come and hear what we had to say. Two of them thought it was a dumb idea. The third person was Ted Mudge of Amtote. He wanted to give it some additional thought.”

That was in 1997.

Mudge’s interest set the stage for the February 1998 trip to Parsons Island.

“It was like a think tank out on that island,” Jackson says. “There were all kinds of people there. We worked for about 36 straight hours. It became known as the Parsons Island Project. You can still find old files around here labeled P.I.P., which stands for Parsons Island Project.”

During the 1999 legislative session, the Arkansas Legislature removed the requirement that simulcast races be shown live, opening the door for Instant Racing. The first test terminals were placed on the floor at Oaklawn and at Southland Greyhound Park in West Memphis in January 2000. There were 50 machines at each track. By 2002, the concept was taking off in Arkansas.

“For the longest, Instant Racing was just here in Arkansas,” Jackson says. “We then started to get into other states. Louis Cella has been what I call our Fuller Brush salesman. He has gone all over the country talking about Instant Racing. He’s the reason it’s in other states.”

Louis Cella is the son of Charles Cella, who has been at the track’s helm since 1968.

Charles Cella’s grandfather and great-uncle, also named Charles and Louis Cella, were among the founders of Oaklawn and were investors in racing ventures across the country in the early 20th century.

Charles Cella’s father, John Cella, led Oaklawn into the modern era and was the track’s president for many years until his unexpected death in 1968.

The fourth generation of the Cella family operating Oaklawn — Louis A. and John G. Cella — both serve on the board.

Louis is a 1987 graduate of Washington and Lee University in Virginia and received his law degree from the University of Arkansas in 1990.

John is a 1985 graduate of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and is a thoroughbred owner.

Both men inherited their father’s passion for the Hot Springs track. And both have confidence in Jackson, a Hot Springs native who grew up playing golf on the par-three course that once was on the Oaklawn infield. Jackson graduated from Hendrix College at Conway with degrees in business and economics and has been with Oaklawn since 1978. He was the director of operations from 1978 until he was promoted to general manager in 1987.

Jackson became the general manager following the death of the legendary W.T. “Bish” Bishop, who had taken over in July 1972 from the equally legendary J. Sweeney Grant following Grant’s death. Grant had been the general manager since 1954.

In other words, Oaklawn has had just three general managers in 60 years.

Oaklawn celebrated its centennial year in 2004. A year later, Oaklawn and the Cella family were awarded the Eclipse Award of Merit, the most prestigious award in racing. But no longer was Instant Racing enough to keep up with casinos in Mississippi, Louisiana and Oklahoma. The track needed additional relief from the Legislature and got it when legislators passed an act in 2005 permitting Oaklawn and Southland to install “games of skill” such as electronic blackjack and electronic poker if approved by the city or county. Gov. Mike Huckabee allowed the bill to become law without his signature.

More than 60 percent of West Memphis voters approved the games at Southland. In late 2006, work began on a $40 million Southland expansion that included a new main entrance to the dog track, a 55,000-square-foot gaming room, a 400-seat special events center, a 150-seat nightclub, a 280-seat buffet and additional restaurants. Last year, a $37.4 million expansion at Southland was announced, including dozens of new gaming machines and the addition of Sammy Hagar’s Red Rocker Bar & Grill.

In Hot Springs, meanwhile, a public referendum to allow expanded electronic games at Oaklawn passed by just 89 votes in November 2005. Litigation ensued.

In September 2007, the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the law authorizing Oaklawn to add expanded games of skill. On the day after the Arkansas Derby in April 2008, Oaklawn began construction on a 60,000-square-foot, two-level structure to house the electronic games.

Things have taken off from there:

— In August 2012, Oaklawn announced that there would be a record $20 million in purses for the 2013 race meeting. The purses, in turn, attracted a higher quality of horses. When Rebel Stakes runner-up Oxbow won the Preakness Stakes at Baltimore in May 2013, he became the 10th Triple Crown race winner to have come from Oaklawn in 10 years.

— In June 2013, Oaklawn announced plans for an expansion of its gaming area that would increase capacity by another 50 percent. The work began in early August of that year and ended just prior to the start of the 2014 race meet.

— Construction on the additional $20 million expansion resumed the day after the Arkansas Derby last April.

— In November, the new gaming area and Silks Bar & Grill opened.

— By the start of this January’s race meet, a high-limits area and a poker room had also opened.

“We’re going to have purses of $23 million this year,” Jackson says. “We’ve picked ourselves up off the mat. This is just as much fun as it was in the 1980s, but this time we appreciate it more. We realize that we looked into the abyss and survived. When things were at their worst in the 1990s, Charles Cella insisted that we keep the racing quality up until we could find a lifeline. He was, in essence, underwriting the purses.

“These days most tracks are owned by gaming companies. We consider ourselves a racetrack that happens to have gaming. We’re the only one who truly uses the gaming proceeds to vastly improve the quality of racing. Gaming now pays the light bill here, but racing is our passion. It’s in our DNA.”

David Longinotti, Oaklawn’s director of racing, is a Hot Springs native like Jackson. He began covering Oaklawn when he wrote sports for The Sentinel-Record at Hot Springs. He later helped open Remington Park in Oklahoma City before becoming director of media relations at sister track Thistledown in Cleveland in 1991. Longinotti returned to Remington as director of communications in 1994. He later spent more than a decade handling the Oaklawn account for Little Rock advertising agency CJRW and then joined the Oaklawn staff in 2006.

“This is David’s Christmas,” Jackson likes to say of the racing season, which runs from early January until the middle of April.

Oaklawn is now among the top five tracks in the country in average daily purse distribution. Race fields were full early in this year’s meet, and there was a lack of stall space. Jackson laughs when asked about the multiple facility expansions that have occurred in recent years.

“That’s a clear indication of the poor job that management did with projections,” he says. “It would have been much cheaper if we had done it all at once.”

In 2014, Oaklawn and Southland saw combined electronic games of skill wagers of almost $3.53 billion. Oaklawn pulled in $1,359,074.501. Southland had $2,172,451.426.

The totals are expected to be even higher this year.

A bad winter played havoc with Oaklawn’s schedule, but Jackson is philosophical. He says, “There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s an outdoor sport.”

The Hot Springs track continues to gain momentum at a time when a number of other tracks across the country are suffering. The Fair Grounds at New Orleans has cut purses consistently in recent years. Oaklawn, meanwhile, has been increasing its purses for more than a decade.

In an interview last year with The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, thoroughbred owner Maggi Moss of Des Moines, Iowa, said of the Fair Grounds: “Nobody cares, so why would I take the time to care? When I go to Oaklawn, I know people care. You get treated great.”

“I don’t think anyone ever expected to see our purses double in just 10 years thanks to Instant Racing, gaming and good racing,” Longinotti says.

Off-track handle picked up last year when Oaklawn’s races returned to the racing channel TVG after only being shown on competing channel HRTV in 2013. The track also has benefited from a product known as “OaklawnAnywhere,” an advance deposit wagering site that allows Arkansas residents to bet using the Internet.

At age 79, famed trainer D. Wayne Lukas is one who spends his winters and early springs at Hot Springs. The Wisconsin native has won more Triple Crown races than any other trainer with 14 (he has captured the Kentucky Derby four times, the Preakness Stakes six times and the Belmont Stakes four times). Lukas already had become a legend in the quarter horse industry when he made the switch to thoroughbreds in 1978.

He says: “Arkansas has something special going on here. Something happens here that’s now missing at a lot of other tracks. You have real fans here.”

Lukas believes Oaklawn could serve as an example for tracks across the country. That’s because it’s still a place for family outings, a spot where the food and the chance to visit with friends is as much a part of the experience as the betting.

Lukas calls Hot Springs “a national treasure,” a resort town where a day at the races is a social event worth getting dressed up for. He says about the only racing towns that can compare these days are Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and Lexington, Ky.

“Racing got soft all over the country,” Lukas says. “We became too confident that people would keep coming to the track. Going to the races is still a part of the culture of this state. There’s a genuine enthusiasm for the game that’s hard to find elsewhere. Look at the average daily attendance at Oaklawn. It’s higher than most of the other tracks.”

Lukas says that he likes the fact that he can walk into a Waffle House for breakfast and have people come over to talk racing. That doesn’t happen in New York, Los Angeles or Miami. Across the American landscape, thoroughbred tracks have become sad, empty places, mere adjuncts to adjoining slot facilities. Oaklawn, though it now has an extensive gaming center, has been able to remain a bit different. The racing still matters.

In a book titled “Crown Jewels of Thoroughbred Racing,” Hot Springs native Randy Moss wrote: “No palm trees line the entrance to this racetrack, and its paddock isn’t one of those botanical gardens that make horseplayers want to fold up their Daily Racing Form and splash on suntan lotion. It doesn’t have a Phipps or a Hancock on its board of directors. Thomas Jefferson never raced there and overalls outnumber neckties by three-to-one in the grandstand. But ask well-traveled horse lovers to recite their favorite racetracks and chances are good that Oaklawn Park will pop up in the conversation. For a little country track in Hot Springs, Ark., on a two-lane road between nowhere and no place, Oaklawn has made quite an impact on the racing world.

“During the track’s rapid rise to prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, racing executives from throughout the country and even reporters from Sports Illustrated and The New York Times were dispatched here in hopes of determining what made this unlikely racetrack so special. They usually returned home with a hangover and a stretched-to-the-limit credit card, reporting that they couldn’t figure out the secret formula but sure enjoyed the heck out of the search. But without even knowing it, they knew it. The key to Oaklawn has always been simple. The track is one big party.”

Moss, who now works for NBC Sports, related the story of Cuban-born trainer Laz Barrera, who remarked after a race in Hot Springs that he had never been to Oklahoma. Told that he still hadn’t been to Oklahoma, Barrera replied: “Well, wherever we are, it’s a long way from California.”

With the glory days of the 1980s and the early 1990s over, Randy Moss wrote in 1997: “Although great horses still are flown in for the Racing Festival of the South stakes, the crowds and enthusiasm have dimmed somewhat in recent years. The Clydesdales have been replaced by a tractor, the infield critters and wagon rides are gone, riverboat casinos in Mississippi and Louisiana have taken away many of the celebrants and some fans now stay home for the convenience of watching the track’s races on simulcast screens in Shreveport, Dallas-Fort Worth, Oklahoma City and West Memphis.”

Little did Moss know in 1997 that a new chapter was about to be written at Oaklawn.

The old lady of Central Avenue has received a remarkably successful facelift since those words were written. Along came Instant Racing. Along came the other so-called games of skill. Up went the purses. Horses went on from Oaklawn to win Triple Crown races. And the national media noticed.

For Oaklawn Park at Hot Springs, maybe these are the good ol’ days.

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