Archive for the ‘Business’ Category

Rush Harding: The coach’s son

Friday, October 11th, 2013

Rush Harding is the son of a coach and proud of it.

Harding, the chief executive officer of the Little Rock-based investment banking firm Crews & Associates Inc., grew up at Clarendon, a historic east Arkansas city on the banks of the lower White River.

Clarendon, which is located near where the Cache River flows into the White River, was first settled in the late 1700s by French hunters and trappers. They recognized the bounty that came from those two slow-moving rivers and the surrounding bottomland hardwood forests. Clarendon’s importance increased in the 1820s when the builders of the Military Road from Memphis to Little Rock chose it as the White River crossing point. A ferry was operating there on a regular basis by 1828.

When Monroe County was created out of parts of Arkansas and Phillips counties in November 1829 by the Arkansas Territorial Legislature, Clarendon was chosen as the county seat. It remains so to this day. The town became an important port for cotton and other commodities. A factory was established to produce buttons from the millions of mussel shells found in the rivers. The hardwood forests were harvested for lumber. Some of that wood was used to make baseball bats for a time in the early 1900s at the Moss Brothers Bat Co.

Rush Harding still loves Clarendon. That love is evident to anyone who has ever visited with him.

As a boy, Harding thrived there. He hunted, fished, swam and played multiple sports. An upscale restaurant that the Harding family will open New Year’s Eve in Little Rock will be named Cache in honor of the area where Harding spent his boyhood.

“I thought Clarendon was the Garden of Eden,” Harding says as he sits in his office high atop the First Security Building in downtown Little Rock’s River Market District. “We were Methodists and never missed church. And I never missed an athletic event in town. If I wasn’t playing in it, I was attending it with my dad.”

Harding’s father, a legendary coach who went by the name of Buddy, was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 in recognition of the almost four decades he worked with high school athletes. The elder Harding, whose football teams were 151-57 at Clarendon, also built the school into a track powerhouse.

The seventh-grade teams were called the Alley Cats. The junior high teams were the Cubs. The high school teams were the Lions.

His father’s work ethic was transferred to Rush Harding, who hasn’t missed a day of work for being sick in the past 37 years. Harding also has been active in the community. He’s a past president of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame and continues to serve on the Hall of Fame board. He also has served on the University of Central Arkansas Board of Trustees and on the board of the Arkansas Arts Center.

The Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame will honor Harding when it holds its annual fall salute on Thursday, Oct. 24. The event will begin at 6 p.m. in the Jack Stephens Center on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

This will be the fifth consecutive year for the Hall of Fame to put on a fall salute. Past honorees are Conway businessman Stephen L. Strange Sr., former University of Arkansas basketball star Joe Kleine, former University of Arkansas football star Jim Lindsey and former University of Arkansas track and field coach John McDonnell.

“My dad coached through my ninth-grade year, and then the principal’s job came open,” Harding says. “He had wanted to coach me all the way through high school, but the increased salary was important to our family. My mom was the guidance counselor and the home economics teacher. With two teachers in the family, you just couldn’t turn down a big pay increase.”

Clarendon went 5-5 in football during Harding’s sophomore and junior seasons.

Ronnie Kerr, who later would become a head coach at the college level at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, came to town in the fall of 1971 for Harding’s senior year. With Kerr as the coach and Harding as the quarterback, Clarendon compiled an 8-2-2 record. The only losses were in the first game to Augusta, which was coached by east Arkansas icon Curtis King (a 1980 Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame inductee), and in the final game to Walnut Ridge in the semifinals of the state playoffs. The tie games were against Brinkley and Carlisle.

“We tied Brinkley 7-7, and I threw two touchdown passes,” Harding says. “I threw an interception to Brinkley’s Jerry Eckwood, which he took all the way for a touchdown. I threw the other touchdown pass to Gary Cook on our team.”

Eckwood went on to become a football star at the University of Arkansas.

Cook went on to play a major role in Harding’s life.

“Gary wanted to go to West Point and play football for Army,” Harding says. “He talked me into going to West Point with him. People told us that it would be unheard of for two boys from the same school to get appointments to the U.S. Military Academy, but we did. That was Gary’s dream, not mine, but I decided to go along.”

During the summer prior to his senior year, Harding was elected governor of Arkansas Boys State, a one-week program in civics that’s sponsored by the American Legion. A year later, he would hand the gavel over to the new Boys State governor, a high school student from Hope named Mike Huckabee.

During their senior year, Harding and Cook were the co-valedictorians at Clarendon High School.

In late May, three days after the graduation ceremony, Harding received word that Cook, who lived near the small community of Monroe, had drowned. He had been swimming in a rice irrigation ditch. It was Coach Ronnie Kerr who took Harding to the scene of the accident that awful day.

Heartbroken, Harding reported to the U.S. Military Academy on June 15 for the start of a grueling summer as a plebe.

“I had wanted to go to UCA, not West Point,” Harding says. “But people I respected said that I had received a coveted appointment and needed to follow through. I decided to prove that I could do it. They would haze the plebes in those days, but I stuck it out. I reported for football but frankly was too slow to play at that level. The coaches suggested that I join the sprint football team.”

Army has a rich football tradition with three national championships, three Heisman Trophy winners and 26 Hall of Famers. The sprint football team, which has been around since 1957, has a tradition of its own.

Few Arkansans even know there is such a sport. What’s known now as the Collegiate Sprint Football League was started in 1934 by George Little of Rutgers. The league’s seven charter members were Cornell, Lafayette, Rutgers, Pennsylvania, Princeton, Villanova and Yale. Yale and Lafayette disbanded their programs at the start of World War II. Play was halted for all schools from 1943-45 due to the war.

In 1946, the U.S. Naval Academy joined the conference and dominated play until the Black Knights came along 11 years later. In its first six years in the league, Army put together a 32-3-1 record and won four titles. After a losing season in 1963, the Black Knights won 17 of their next 18 games. Army had 21 consecutive victories between 1972, when Harding played, and 1975.

The rules of sprint football are largely the same as those for varsity football. Four days prior to a game, though, all sprint football players must weigh in at 172 pounds or less. They must weigh in again two days before a game. Scouting opponents is forbidden, and practice cannot start until three weeks before the first game.

Harding enjoyed playing sprint football. His heart, however, wasn’t in finishing school at West Point without Cook and then serving as an Army officer.

“I started my sophomore year that next summer, but I was miserable,” Harding says. “I didn’t want to become a career military officer. I had spent some time in Conway with friends and decided that I wanted to be a real college student and do the kinds of things most college students do. So I resigned my commission at West Point and enrolled in college at Conway.”

The Bear football team had an outstanding quarterback named Sam Coleman coming in. Harding knew he would never start at quarterback in the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference. He decided instead to join the basketball team, which was coached by Don Nixon, who was inducted earlier this year into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

“I mainly sat by Coach Nixon and kept the shot charts,” Harding says. “I wasn’t eligible the first semester. I did play a bit during the next semester. It was a great experience for me. I got to be around guys like James Dickey, Joe Couch and John Hutchcraft.”

After playing basketball during the 1973-74 season, Harding decided to concentrate on his studies. He graduated in 1976, having majored in math and English. The son of a coach, Harding had once thought he too would teach and coach. He had, after all, grown up around coaches and sports. His Thanksgivings were spent attending Clarendon’s rivalry games against Holly Grove. His summer memories were of attending the annual coaches’ clinic and the all-star football practices in early August with his father.

“My father knew how to connect with young people,” Harding says. “To be honest with you, I was kind of scared of Daddy, but I always knew he loved me. My mom was the nurturer and the encourager. My dad was the boss. No one in Clarendon ever challenged his authority. Yeah, he was the boss.”

Harding’s father had lined up a job for him teaching and coaching at Forrest City at a salary of $8,400 a year.

“I just couldn’t make the math work in my head,” Harding says. “I didn’t know how I could live on that. I was in Little Rock one night and a guy asked me what I would do with $12,000. I thought he meant $12,000 a year and told him that would be wonderful. He said, ‘I’m talking about $12,000 a month selling bonds.’ I decided to give it a try. They would pay me $450 a month plus commissions. I asked my dad for a loan of $300 to rent an apartment, and he wouldn’t do it. I had to go to the bank and get the loan.”

Few people have ever outworked Rush Harding, the overachiever who had been Boys State governor, an Eagle Scout and the high school valedictorian. He joined T.J. Raney & Sons Inc. of Little Rock and, through hard work, soon was experiencing financial success.

“I had never taken a business class,” Harding says. “Things just worked out. When Bob Raney Sr. died in 1979, seven of us left the company and went out on our own.”

Adron Crews, John Bailey, Rick Chitwood, Jim Jones, James Lake, Rob Owens and Harding formed Crews & Associates.

Adron Crews died in May 1996 while on a business trip to New Orleans. In 2000, Crews & Associates became a wholly owned subsidiary of First Security Bancorp.

When Rush Harding was a boy, his father would take him on his birthday in late July to Spaulding Sporting Goods in downtown Little Rock to buy baseball bats from Lee Rogers. Harding has vivid memories of visiting with Rogers, who had starred in multiple sports at the University of Alabama and settled in Little Rock after having pitched for Doc Prothro’s Little Rock Travelers. Rogers was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1983.

Not only birthdays revolved around sports for Rush Harding. So did the other days of the year.

Sports have remained important in Harding’s life. In 1986, Harding’s father retired from school administration. Rush Harding’s parents moved to Little Rock so they could watch Rush’s sons, Buddy and Payne, grow up and participate in sports.

“Team sports have been a top influence on me, and that’s because of the relationships I’ve had with teammates and coaches,” Rush Harding says. “One of the best compliments I ever received came from J.B. Grimes, who was a year behind me at Clarendon and went on to be a college football coach. I wasn’t the greatest athlete to ever come through that school, but J.B. once said to me: ‘You were a leader. You led our team.’ Participation in sports made me a better husband, a better friend and a better employer. In a sense, I’m still kind of a quarterback. I like to have a positive impact on the young people who work here. I do a lot of coaching down here at this office each day.”

Harding’s son Buddy recently had a son of his own. The baby’s name: Rush Harding V.

The grandfather isn’t quite ready to slow down.

“I got certified to teach several years back because I figured that I would get out of the business by this age,” says the man who will be honored later this month by the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. “I later decided to stick with this. We have about 250 employees who are my teammates. I didn’t take that job my dad got me at Forrest City all those years ago, but I’m still teaching and coaching. It’s just not in a classroom or on the sideline.”

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Downtown Fort Smith — vibrant is the word

Thursday, July 18th, 2013

I devoted my Wednesday newspaper column to downtown Fort Smith this week and heard from everyone from the mayor on down it seemed.

They were pleased to see something other than a business section story about a manufacturing plant either laying off some of its workers or closing completely.

Fort Smith long has been our state’s manufacturing center. With the decline in American manufacturing in recent years, there has been a steady stream of such stories coming out of Sebastian County.

Living in central Arkansas, I can see how people who don’t travel much can stereotype other parts of our state. The average Little Rock resident probably would tell you that Benton and Washington counties are booming while Sebastian County is losing population.

The fact is that Sebastian County had an almost 6 percent population increase from the 2000 census to the 2010 census. That doesn’t come close to the growth in the northwest corner of the state, but you can see that the Fort Smith area isn’t losing population.

All of this brings us to downtown Fort Smith.

Following a lunch meeting in Siloam Springs last Friday, I decided to weave my way down U.S. 59 through the Ozark National Forest to Van Buren. I needed a change of pace from the usual route down Interstate 540.

Because of construction on Interstate 540 into Fort Smith, I took Interstate 40 west out of Van Buren to the Dora exit on the Oklahoma state line. I like that entrance into downtown Fort Smith. You drive through the corn and winter wheat fields along the Arkansas River for a few miles after leaving the interstate and then cross the Garrison Avenue Bridge into Fort Smith.

What immediately struck me was how busy things were along Garrison Avenue late on a Friday afternoon.

Go into the downtowns of most Arkansas cities on a slow Friday afternoon in the middle of the summer and you will see few people on the streets.

That wasn’t the case along Garrison Avenue. The parking spots were full, and there was bumper-to-bumper traffic.

That’s when the thought struck me: The folks trying to revitalize Main Street in Little Rock could learn a lesson or two from business and civic leaders in our state’s second-largest city.

It was just after 11 p.m. on a Sunday — April 21, 1996, to be exact — when a strong F2 tornado took dead aim at downtown Fort Smith. That tornado caused $300 million of damage.

A lot of downtowns across Arkansas would not have recovered from such a blow. But the leadership of Fort Smith — pushed by a visionary developer named Richard Griffin — decided not only to rebuild the buildings that had been destroyed but also to renovate historic properties that long had been neglected.

The city’s Central Business Improvement District became much more aggressive in marketing downtown, updating design guidelines and trying to attract downtown residents with projects such as the West End Lofts.

Traditional retailers such as Newton’s Jewelers — which has been around since 1914 — were encouraged to stay downtown while new restaurants and entertainment venues such as the Varsity Sports Grill & Adelaide Ballroom, Rolando’s Nuevo Latino Restaurante, R. Landry’s New Orleans Cafe, Doe’s Eat Place, 21 West End and Neumeier’s Rib Room ensured there was life along Garrison Avenue and adjoining streets at night and on weekends.

Down by the Garrison Avenue Bridge, the Park at West End was opened, featuring a 1950s Ferris wheel and an Italian carousel.

Riverfront Amphitheater was built to accommodate more than 1,100 people for outdoor concerts and other events.

Ross Pendergraft Park opened adjacent to the Fort Smith National Historic Site in 2001, offering visitors restrooms, parking, benches and a pavilion. A statue of famed U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves was recently erected in the park.

Further east at North 10th Street and Garrison Avenue, Cisterna Park — named after Cisterna, Italy, which is Fort Smith’s sister city — opened with a fountain, nature area and picnic tables.

Visitors to the Fort Smith National Historic Site now can spend an entire day downtown if they choose to do so. There’s the excellent Fort Smith Museum of History in the 1907 Atkinson-Williams Warehouse Building adjacent to the National Park Service site. There’s the Fort Smith Trolley Museum. There are plenty of restaurants and shops within walking distance.

Sixteen new businesses opened downtown last year, including two antique stores in the 700 block of Garrison Avenue.

Fort Smith received an unexpected boost when True West magazine rated the city No. 1 on its list of “Top True Western Towns” for 2013.

Already, more of what’s known in the business as “cultural heritage tourists” had been attracted to Fort Smith by the remake of the movie “True Grit.”

And how many cities have a former bordello as a visitors’ center? To further enhance the visitor experience, a series of historical plaques was placed in downtown Fort Smith last year.

The next major step forward for downtown Fort Smith will be completion of the $50 million U.S. Marshals Museum. If the current fundraising effort succeeds, that museum will open along the banks of the Arkansas River in the fall of 2016.

Groundbreaking for the 52,260-square-foot museum will be Sept. 24, 2014, to coincide with the release by the U.S. Mint of a commemorative coin marking the 225th anniversary of the Marshals Service. There’s still about $27.5 million left to be raised.

While the nationwide fundraising effort for the Marshals Museum continues, Griffin Properties is moving forward with projects elsewhere downtown. Last year, the company completed an upscale market and cafe at the northwest corner of Garrison Avenue and North Fifth Street on an open lot where the KWHN radio studios once stood. The store, designed to provide groceries and other services to downtown residents, is in front of St. Charles Place, an office building developed by Griffin Properties.

Richard Griffin has said there are three keys to getting more people to live downtown:

— Buildings must be modernized

— Quality accommodations must then be added inside those buildings

— Things like grocery and fuel must be available in the neighborhood

In April, Griffin Properties announced that it will spend at least $3 million to renovate six buildings in the 400 block of Garrison Avenue. There will be retail space and 12 apartments once the project, known as Garrison Pointe West, is completed.

In May, it was announced that Fort Smith-based Propak Logistics will renovate the 1911 Friedman-Mincer Building — known by locals as the old OTASCO building — for its headquarters. The company will spend about $2 million to convert the three-story, 24,000-square-foot bulding into offices for 40 employees.

The company’s owner, Steve Clark, told Michael Tilley of The City Wire: “With each building we see removed in that area, it removes some of the heart of our history. So I see this as a preservation of a truly iconic building on a historic corner.”

Clark said he will use a Fayetteville-based architect with Fort Smith ties to “create a buzz in northwest Arkansas about what’s going on in Fort Smith.”

Clark took a trip with architects to Cincinnati to visit that city’s national historic districts.

Fort Smith native Ben Boulden, an expert on the city’s history, told Tilley: “It’s a real special building on the avenue. It has that triangular, mini-Flatiron appearance. … This is good news because we don’t need to lose any more historic architectural assets on the avenue.”

There also are preliminary plans to light and repaint the Garrison Avenue Bridge. Add to that efforts to relocate a railroad maintenance facility behind the vistors’ center, build a pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks there, install a splash pad for children and add green space.

You know the old saying: Perception is reality.

But if you perceive Fort Smith as nothing but a declining industrial town, take a walk down Garrison Avenue. Your perception will change.

Once the Marshals Museum is completed, that perception will change for thousands of other people in the region.

The Marshals Museum should mean to downtown Fort Smith what the Clinton Presidential Center has meant to downtown Little Rock and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has meant to downtown Bentonville.

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Don Munro: Gentleman and scholar

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

This story originally was published in the July issue of Celebrate Arkansas magazine:

Arkansas was a far different place in 1959 than it is today.

The state’s image was tied to the 1957 desegregation crisis at Little Rock Central High School, Orval Faubus was in the governor’s office and thousands of Arkansas homes were still without electricity.

A young New Hampshire native named Don Munro moved to this rural state in 1959 to establish Lake Catherine Footwear, a division of the New Hampshire-based shoe manufacturer that employed him.

In early 1953, another East Coast native — Winthrop Rockefeller — had moved to Arkansas to escape a failed marriage and the prying New York media.

In 1955, Faubus — who was in the first of six two-year terms — decided to capitalize on Rockefeller’s famous name. He appointed Rockefeller to head the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission.

Rockefeller took the assignment seriously during his nine years in the job, bringing almost 600 new industrial plants to the state. Industrial employment grew by 47.5 percent and manufacturing wages grew by 88 percent in Arkansas during that era.

“Sears Roebuck & Co. was our biggest customer,” says Don Munro, now 85. “I always suspected that Winthrop Rockefeller was friendly with someone on the Sears board and that’s how the shoe company got to Arkansas from New Hampshire.”

The two partners in the shoe manufacturing company traveled to Arkansas to scout locations with AIDC (now the Arkansas Economic Development Commission) representatives. They visited small towns such as Lepanto and DeWitt during the day. They came back to Hot Springs each night.

Gambling was technically illegal but wide open in the Spa City in those days. There were nice hotels, good restaurants and live entertainment. The AIDC representatives undoubtedly felt that Hot Springs would be the best place to impress the visitors from New England at night.

Eventually, those visitors also decided Hot Springs would be the best place for a plant.

“It was either out here on Lake Catherine or over by the airport,” Don says of the two locations that were the finalists for the manufacturing facility. “This location has a lake, and the other location didn’t. So we ended up here. It has been a good spot for us.”

Back home in New Hampshire, Don and his wife Barbara had four children — daughter Lindy, son Bruce, son Neil and daughter Mollie. Another daughter, Christine, later would be born in Arkansas.

It would no doubt be a culture shock for this New England family.

“Most of the people we knew in New England had never even heard of Arkansas,” Don says. “It was a foreign land to them. They were a bit shocked we would move the family here.”

To prepare for his move to the South, Don read W.J. Cash’s exploration of the region, “The Mind of the South.” The book originally was published by Alfred Knopf in 1941 and was widely acclaimed for the way it explored Southern culture.

Cash wrote in the book’s concluding paragraph: “Proud, brave, honorable by its lights, courteous, personally generous, loyal, swift to act, often too swift, but signally effective … such was the South at its best.”

Don Munro sometimes is described as the ultimate Southern gentleman who just happens to hail from New England.

Through the decades, he has earned the reputation of being one of the state’s leading businessmen and philanthropists.

Through it all, he has never forgotten his obligations to his family.

“I had some advantages growing up that my children didn’t have,” Don says. “By that I mean that there were a lot of relatives around. We moved to Arkansas and my kids didn’t have all of those relatives. Family time was always important to me.”

He says the move to Arkansas proved easier than expected. He spent $24,000 on a lakefront home but only on the condition that the previous owners throw in their wooden Chris Craft boat. Munro family members brought a love of the water with them from New Hampshire.

“Reading ‘The Mind of the South’ was helpful,” Don says. “It made everything more understandable. But from the first, people here were very accommodating. And the terrain was much like that in New Hampshire. It wasn’t as big of an adjustment as you might think.”

Bruce Munro says of his father: “The first thing you recognize in him is his respect for other people. He looks at everyone the same. He has that innate respect for each individual.”

Indeed, Don Munro became famous for knowing hundreds of employees on a first-name basis along with remembering the names of their spouses and children.

“It wasn’t something that just came naturally,” Bruce says. “He worked hard at it. His respect for people is one thing that makes us different as a company.”

Don replies matter of factly: “People like to be called by their names.”

He says learning his employees’ names was part of “the bigger picture” during those early years in Arkansas.

“I was the only person who had ever made a shoe when we started,” Don says. “I had to be intimately involved in every part of the process. You get to know people when you’re working by them.”

More than a third of Munro & Co. employees have been with the company for at least 20 years.

There have been plenty of honors that have come Don Munro’s way through the years. All of them were well-deserved. In 2005, he was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame. At a time when his competitors were moving their operations to other countries, he remained determined to make shoes in this country.

He purchased the Southern division of his longtime employer, Connors & Hoffmann Footwear Co., in 1972, establishing Munro & Co. That family company grew into the country’s largest shoe manufacturer and maintains operations at Hot Springs, Mount Ida and Clarksville.

Neil Munro bought the Wynne plant and now has his own company, NMF.

Bruce is the president and chief executive officer of Munro & Co.

Mollie is the company’s executive vice president and marketing mastermind.

At age 85, Don puts on a tie each morning and comes to work.

“He gets here at 6:45 a.m. and doesn’t leave until 5:15 p.m.,” Bruce says.

He then smiles and adds, “Don is starting to slack off a bit, though. He leaves by noon on Saturday. I’ve never known him not to wear a tie, but he was never formal and proper in a stuffy sort of way. He always had a sense of adventure. He was always taking us on trips.”

Don Munro is remarkably fit for his age. He has earned his good health. For years, he would swim at least a mile a day in area lakes. When swimming at night, he would wear a strobe light on his wrist to ensure he wasn’t hit by a boat.

“He has never slowed down,” Bruce says. “He’s our hardest worker.”

His father replies: “I pretend to work, and they pretend to pay me.”

The Munro American brand comes in 75 size and width combinations. The typical shoe producer makes only 17 sizes per style. Many of the shoes made by the company are women’s professional footwear, and Nordstrom is the biggest customer these days.

Mollie has worked to develop a modern website for the company, and both she and Bruce travel extensively so they’ll better understand customer wants and needs.

All the while, Don is there to offer advice and insight.

Despite his exercise habits, Don claims that his wife Barbara is the real “health nut” in the family. At age 83, she often kayaks on area lakes for two to three hours at a time. She also walks three to four miles each day.

“We never had what I would describe as goodies around the house when we were children,” Bruce says. “But here’s a secret: Don has a sweet tooth. He usually would keep some candy stashed away.”

Don had left college at Yale to serve in the Army and was sent to Japan soon after the end of World War II. He was the news editor of the Pacific Stars & Stripes and thought he might become a journalist. He wrote a story that displeased at least one general, and his journalism career came to an early end.

He returned to Yale to finish his degree and then went to work in the shoe manufacturing business.

“I used to think that writing would be my creative outlet,” Don says. “I later discovered you also could be creative in the world of business.”

After opening the Lake Catherine Footwear facility at Hot Springs for his employer in 1960, Don added the Addison Shoe Co. in Wynne and Mount Ida Footwear in 1967. Munro & Co. continued to operate those three plants following its establishment in 1972.

In 1979, DeWitt Footwear and Clarendon Footwear were added to produce children’s shoes.

Clear Lake Footwear was started at England in Lonoke County in 1975 to produce work boots for men. That plant closed in 1995.

In 1960, more than 90 percent of the shoes sold in the United States were made in this country. It’s now less than 1 percent.

As other shoe companies moved production out of the country, the Munro family knew changes would have to be made at Munro & Co.

“American companies were paying their workers $4 to $5 an hour for a 40-hour week, and Chinese workers were paid $10 a month for a 56-hour week,” Theresa Sullivan Barger wrote in the Saturday Evening Post in 2009. “Munro & Co. faced pressure to lower it prices or lose business. Munro founder Don Munro did not want to go overseas. He believed in buying American, insisting on purchasing American cars and TVs. He did not want to close factories, lay off workers and move jobs out of the counry.”

Many major retailers were no longer willing to pay what it cost to buy shoes from domestic manufacturers.

Mollie says her father once told her: “There are two reasons to own a business. One is to make money, and one is to be in business. I always chose the latter. My decisions have been predicated on staying in business.”

Don says: “We had hundreds of people working for us and depending on us for their living. I always wanted to be fair to those people and their families. I didn’t want to desert them.”

“Around here, ASAP means ‘After Sears and After Penney’s,'” Bruce says. “As the business changed, Don recognized in the early 1980s that we were going to have to get into the branding business. We have been able to establish an extremely loyal customer base. It’s probably unique in the shoe business. The first things to really go south on people as they age are their feet. We recognize that and thus work to provide superior support, comfort and fit. That’s what we’re known for.”

Rather than making shoes that were later sold under store brands, the company began establishing in-house brands.

The women’s brand now known as Munro American was started in 1984.

Two years later, the Child Life brand was acquired. In 1991, Jumping Jack Shoes was purchased.

The major niche is now women with thin, wide, small or long feet.

The company’s workforce did, however, shrink from more than 2,200 people in the early 1980s to fewer than 1,000 today. In the 1970s, there were more than 1,000 U.S. shoe factories. There now are fewer than 50.

Munro & Co. always had the advantage of not having to answer to shareholders. Don Munro and his family could do it their way. They take pride in being responsive to retailers. If a retailer calls early in the morning to place an order, the order is shipped that day.

“We use what we learned from Don to focus on consumers and get them on the Munro team,” says Bruce, who joined the company at age 25.

Looking at his son, Don says: “He always wanted to introduce more sizes and more widths. That’s what led to Nordstrom being our main customer.”

It’s obvious that Don Munro is proud of his children.

“Each one is unique and each one brings different skills to the table,” he says. “They have all been successful in their own way and seem to be happy. That’s the most you can ask for.”

On a sunny late-spring morning on the shores of Lake Catherine, it’s evident that this isn’t just a business story.

It’s a story about family — Don Munro’s immediate family and his extended family of hundreds of employees.

“Don has set the standard here since the start,” Bruce says. “And he continues to do that every day.”

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Jeremy Jacobs: Hall of Famer

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

This is the third in a series of profiles of the 2013 inductees into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

Southland Park Gaming and Racing, formerly known as Southland Greyhound Park, has been part of the Arkansas sports scene since 1956 when it became Arkansas’ only greyhound racetrack.

Originally owned by the Upton family and others, Southland has been owned for decades by the Delaware North Companies. The chairman and chief executive officer of Delaware North, Jeremy M. Jacobs, is best known nationally for his role as chairman of the board of governors of the National Hockey League. Jacobs, though, long has been an important part of the Arkansas sports scene.

The Jacobs family was the original concession operator when Southland opened. West Memphis had a tradition of greyhound racing. The Riverside Kennel Club once had been at the Arkansas end of the Mississippi River bridge.

On the evening of Friday, March 8, Jacobs will be inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

Jacobs was born in January 1940 at Buffalo, N.Y. When he was just 16, Southland expanded its business hundreds of miles to the southwest in Arkansas. The dog track at West Memphis was the only legal gambling operation in the Mid-South and drew patrons from Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Missouri.

When Delaware North bought the track outright in the early 1970s, it was one of the top dog racing operations in the country.

“Through the 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s, a typical Saturday night at Southland might see the parking lots full with 20,000 people in attendance,” Nancy Hendricks writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Annual wagers on the greyhound races at the time generally exceeded $200 million, and more than 600 people were employed at Southalnd.

“All that changed in 1992. To spur their local economy, residents of nearby Tunica County in Mississippi approved ‘riverboat’ gambling. They welcomed gaming establishments in the early 1990s as long as the casinos could show that they were at least in part physically housed on the Mississippi River. Large, nationally known resort casinos mushroomed around Tunica until it became the third-largest gambling venue in the country after Las Vegas and Atlantic City, drawing gamblers away from Southland.

“Southland fell on hard times with daily attendance ebbing to about 500. Its annual revenues dropped from more than $200 million in the 1980s to less than $35 million in the 1990s. More than half of its employees lost their jobs.”

In 2005, the Arkansas Legislature approved a bill allowing Southland and Oaklawn Park at Hot Springs to install video games known as “games of skill” as long as local voters approved. Local approval was granted in both Crittenden County and Garland County.

Under Jacobs’ leadership, Delaware North began a huge renovation effort at Southland costing more than $40 million. A gaming room, an events center, a lounge with live music, a buffet and other restaurants were added. Since then there have been additional expansions.

Delaware North’s reach extends around the globe. The company is a global leader in the hospitality and food service industries with more than 55,000 employees serving more than 500 million customers each year. Annual revenues exceed $2 billion. The company owns Boston’s TD Garden, which is recognized as one of the country’s finest entertainment venues.

Delaware North traces its beginning to 1915 in Buffalo, where its headquarters remain. That was the year that brothers Marvin, Charles and Louis Jacobs established a popcorn and peanut vending business. They worked in theaters during the fall, winter and spring and then turned their attention to ballparks during the hot summer months.

Jeremy Jacobs is the son of Louis Jacobs.

Jeremy Jacobs’ three sons — Jerry Jr., Lou and Charlie — now hold executive positions with the company.

By 1926, the family-owned company had contracts with minor league ballparks in Buffalo and Syracuse. Four years later, it moved into the major leagues when an agreement was signed to handle the food service for the Detroit Tigers.

In 1939, the Jacobs brothers expanded into the racing business with the purchase of a thoroughbred track. By 1941, Delaware North also had moved into the transportation arena following a contract to provide food service at Washington National Airport.

Following his father’s death in 1968, Jacobs took over the company at age 28. Major developments under his leadership include:

— The 1975 acquisition of the Boston Garden along with Jacobs’ purchase of the Boston Bruins, one of the six original NHL franchises

— The 1987 acquisition of Sky Chefs to increase Delaware North’s airport business

— The 1993 awarding of a contract to provide visitor services at Yosemite National Park, moving the company into the parks and resorts business

— A 1995 contract to run the visitors’ complex at the Kennedy Space Center

— A move into the hotel business in early 2002 with the purchase of resorts at the entrance to Yosemite and in British Columbia

— The 2006 entry into the European market with a contract at Wembley Stadium in London

Jacobs’ company now has:

— Contracts at more than 50 professional sports venues for teams such as the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Bears

— More than 10,000 video gaming machines at tracks across the country

— Contracts at tourist attractions ranging from the Grand Canyon to Niagara Falls

— Contracts with airports from Los Angeles to Detroit to Buffalo

Jacobs ranks 151st on the Forbes 400 with an estimated net worth of $2.7 billion. His Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011 following a 39-year drought.

Jacobs also was a pioneer in the regional television sports industry, transforming NESN into a model for regional sports networks nationwide.

Southland has donated millions of dollars to charity in Arkansas through the years. Recent donations include $1 million to Mid-South Community College at West Memphis for the Southland Greyhound Science Center, $1 million to Mid-South for its hospitality program and kitchen incubator project and $250,000 to Mid-South to start an athletic program.

Jacobs also has been a tireless advocate for tourism in the United States. He served four consecutive terms on the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Travel and Tourism Advisory Board. The board, appointed by the U.S. commerce secretary, created a national tourism strategy that has been championed by President Obama.

Jacobs received widespread national publicity during this season’s NHL lockout. At a news conference held when the lockout ended, he said: “I’m coming off winning a Stanley Cup. I’ve got a sold-out building. I have a financially sound business — no debt. I’ve owned the team for 37 years. I’m the last guy who wants to shut this down. … Unfortunately, I play in a league with 30 teams, and when I step back and look at what’s going on with the broadest sense of the league, I’ve got to play a role that is constructive.”

Jacobs has been playing constructive roles for decades now, including on the Arkansas sports scene. He’s a natural for induction into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

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Sporting Life Arkansas

Monday, November 26th, 2012

I knew big changes were afoot when Jeff Hankins left the Arkansas Business Publishing Group.

Jeff was a fixture at Arkansas Business, one of those people I thought might be there until retirement.

Now that Jeff has landed at the Arkansas State University System offices here in Little Rock, I have a feeling he will be happier than ever. He has long had a passion for ASU, his alma mater. There’s nothing like getting paid to do something you’re passionate about. Take it from a guy who is passionate about our state’s private colleges and universities and now has the chance to work full time for those 11 schools.

I hate to date myself, but I first met Jeff more than 30 years ago. He was a high school student in Pine Bluff working part time at the Pine Bluff Commercial. I was a college student in Arkadelphia, holding down a full-time job as the sports editor of the Daily Siftings Herald. The Commercial and the Siftings Herald were owned at the time by the Freeman family of Pine Bluff, and we worked closely together.

I became friends in the late 1970s with a Commercial sportswriter named Jim Harris, who was working for the newspaper’s well-known sports editor, the late Frank Lightfoot.

Let’s just say that Jim and I have covered a lot of miles together through the years — from the Liberty Bowl in Memphis to the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville (how many of you remember the fog that descended on the Arkansas-North Carolina game there in December 1981?) to the late (and not so great) Hall of Fame Bowl in Birmingham.

Within days of Jeff’s departure from Arkansas Business, it was announced that the vehicle for Jim Harris’ outstanding reporting and commentary on sports in our state — Arkansas Sports 360 — would be shut down by the Arkansas Business Publishing Group.

Fortunately, Jim was not without a vehicle for long.

Enter Simon Lee.

Simon, another longtime friend, was once an Arkansas Business employee. He’s an Internet whiz who has now made a career of doing web-based work for the health care industry. With most of Simon’s and business partner Jon Davis’ clients based outside the state, Simon has kept a low profile in Arkansas. But this Dumas native loves our state. He loves sports. He loves hunting and fishing. He loves the people and events that make Arkansas unique.

So two ol’ southeast Arkansas boys — Simon Lee from Dumas and Jim Harris from Pine Bluff — have hooked up to launch a go-to website at SportingLifeArkansas.com. The site went live last week.

Here’s what Simon had to say in his introduction letter on the site: “If you understand that sports in Arkansas is even more than tackles and blocks and dunks and homers and includes tee-ball, volleyball, swim meets, deer woods and eating some great food with good people, welcome. We are happy to launch a new online publication that features Jim Harris and a cast of other sports journalists and opinion makers from around the state.

“We want to bring you writers who will report and write about all levels of Arkansas sports, from the Razorbacks and Red Wolves to the Bears and Reddies. … We are going to work to be an outlet for sportswriters and aspiring sportswriters from high school through college. Part of the excitement of this for us is building a platform and outlet for the next generation of journalists and writers in our state.”

I’m happy to be part of the initial cast of characters at Sporting Life Arkansas.

Arkansas Business Publishing Group had a large audience for Arkansas Sports 360 but never could figure out how to make money off the venture. Simon thinks he can put his past business experience to work and find a way to monetize the site.

Sporting Life Arkansas won’t ignore hunting and fishing, which are so much a part of who we are as Arkansans.

“The sporting life in Arkansas is fun,” Simon writes. “The site should reflect that fun.”

Go to SportingLifeArkansas.com and check it out.

I like what I see so far.

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Archie Schaffer: Another Arkansas original

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

It was among the best writing assignments I’ve had in a long time.

A couple of months ago, Roby Brock called to ask if I would be interested in doing a cover story for TBQ magazine about Archie Schaffer III of Tyson Foods.

I jumped at the opportunity to write about one of my favorite Arkansans.

Grab a copy of the new issue of TBQ and tell me what you think.

Later this month, Archie’s retirement from Tyson Foods will become official, though he will continue to serve as a consultant for the company. On Friday from 4:30 p.m. until 7:30 p.m. at Arvest Ballpark, the Springdale Chamber of Commerce will sponsor an event known as “Chicken, Peelin’ and Politickin'” with Schaffer as the guest of honor.

More than 1,000 people are expected to show up to eat chicken jambalaya while peeling boiled shrimp and crawfish.

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Paul Greenberg once described Archie as “everybody’s favorite Arkansas lobbyist.”

Greenberg wrote: “Even when arguing with him over some petty political matter, I’ve always found him candid, convivial, convinced — the way everybody in politics should be.

“Okay, maybe a little cantankerous on occasion, but who isn’t? I certainly am. If curmudgeonhood were a crime, who should ‘scape whipping? Life would be so much poorer without its Menckens or even Carvilles. And certainly without its Archie Schaffers.”

As I wrote in a recent newspaper column, one of the nice things about this story assignment was that it gave me the opportunity to spend a long lunch with his aunt and uncle, Dale and Betty Bumpers.

I kidded Archie later by saying, “We spent about 10 minutes talking about you and the next two hours telling political war stories.”

If I make it to age 87, I hope I’m doing half as well as Sen. and Mrs. Bumpers are doing at that age. We actually spent a lot more than 10 minutes talking about Archie, who the Bumpers call “Spike.”

A Franklin County family tree probably is in order at this point.

Elizabeth Callan Flanagan Bumpers — that would be Betty — was born Jan. 11, 1925, to Herman Flanagan and Ola Callan Flanagan in the Franklin County community of Grand Prairie. The family moved to Fort Smith during World War II and later to Iowa before returning to Franklin County. Betty Bumpers attended both the Chicago Academy of Fine Art and the University of Iowa.

Dale Leon Bumpers was born Aug. 12, 1925, in Charleston. He was one of four children born to William Rufus and Lattie Jones Bumpers. His father began working for the Charleston Hardware & Funeral Home beginning in 1924 and bought the business along with a partner in 1937.

Betty’s older sister, Maggie, was Archie’s mother.

Betty and Dale dated during their senior year in high school but were separated for a time after that. Dale briefly attended the University of Arkansas and then joined the U.S. Marines. He was on a ship headed for the Pacific theater when World War II ended. He was discharged from the Marines in July 1946 and graduated two years later from the University of Arkansas with a degree in political science.

While attending law school at Northwestern University, Dale received word in March 1949 that both of his parents had been killed in a car crash.

On Sept. 4, 1949, he married Betty, who had been teaching the fifth grade.

After Dale graduated from law school, the couple returned to Charleston. Dale took over his father’s store, which he owned until 1966, while also practicing law. Betty continued to teach school.

Archie’s dad, Archibald Schaffer II, had come to Arkansas in the early 1940s for Army basic training at Fort Chaffee. He met Maggie while in Arkansas. The couple married in 1944, and Archie III was born in January 1948.

Archie’s father, who was in the Army Reserves, later was reactivated to serve in Korea.

“From a young age, Archie was always there for anyone, dating back to when his father went to Korea,” Betty Bumpers said. “He was responsible for looking out for his two younger brothers, and he often watched our three children. He just had this incredible sense of responsibility from a very young age.”

Former Sen. David Pryor is just as big a fan of Archie as is Dale Bumpers. Schaffer chairs the board of the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History at the University of Arkansas.

“There is no one who listens more effectively to people than Archie Schaffer,” David Pryor said. “He’s a walking sponge, soaking up Arkansas history and politics. He just absorbs information and then uses it in a wise way.”

Pryor said people often come to Archie for advice “because they trust him. They know he’s someone they can confide in. When he speaks, it’s always in measured tones. He exudes confidence. Archie is imbued with wisdom.”

The former senator was quick to note that Archie is also a fun person to be around.

“I can’t think of many people I’d rather be with,” Pryor said. “Everybody loves Archie. He’s just one of those people everybody considers a friend. Because of that, everybody asks him to serve, and he often says ‘yes.’ He has 20 balls in the air at any one time.”

Archie, whose official title at Tyson Foods is executive vice president for corporate affairs, is further described by Pryor as the “eyes and ears of that company. I can’t imagine that John Tyson will let him go too far.”

During our lunch, Dale Bumpers related numerous tales of how Archie could calm people down, turning enemies into friends. Bumpers remembered one incident during his 1974 Democratic primary campaign against U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright when an angry man stormed into the campaign headquarters.

“Richard Arnold tried to reason with him, and the man just kept getting madder,” Bumpers said. “Then Archie came out of his office. After Archie spent about three minutes with him, everything was fine.”

Martha Perry, a longtime, Bumpers aide, said Archie was invaluable because “he was family. He was the kind of guy who could tell Dale when he had spinach between his teeth.”

Archie thought he had retired from working in politics when in 1985 rumors began to fly that then-Gov. Bill Clinton was thinking about challenging Bumpers in the 1986 Senate primary.

“There were people encouraging him to run against me, and I know he was taking polls,” Bumpers said.

It came as no surprise when Bumpers asked Archie to go to Little Rock and make sure Clinton ran for re-election as governor rather than seeking the Senate seat.

Mission accomplished.

My favorite quote in the TBQ story was this one from Archie: “My job was to raise lots of money and scare Clinton off. We were successful in doing that.”

You know what they say: Bill Clinton became president because he couldn’t figure out a way to beat Dale Bumpers or David Pryor and become senator.

Scahffer took the job with Tyson Foods in 1991.

Most of those who followed Arkansas politics and public affairs during the 1990s are well aware that on Jan. 15, 1998, Archie was indicted by a federal grand jury on seven felony charges for allegedly providing illegal gifts to then-U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy. Jack Williams, a Washington lobbyist for Tyson Foods, was charged at the same time following an investigation by an overzealous independent counsel named Donald Smaltz. Don Tyson, John Tyson, Tyson Foods and the Tyson Foundation were named as unindicted co-conspirators.

“People thought Archie was being singled out unfairly,” said Gov. Mike Beebe, who has known Archie since they were both students at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.

Soon after the indictment, Archie told Arkansas Business: “I’m not really sure why they have chosen to come after me. It has been suggested to me that my political history and my ties to a well-known Democratic senator like Dale Bumpers and a Whitwater figure like my wife (Beverly Bassett Schaffer, who served as state securities commissioner in the 1980s) might have something to do with it, but I choose not to speculate about that.”

Schaffer had been quoted when various investigations involving the Clinton administration began that Clinton’s election as president was “one of the worst things that ever happened to Tyson Foods and the state of Arkansas.”

He later told Arkansas Business: “Throwing the state of Arkansas in there may have been an overstatement, but I still think it’s the worst thing that ever happened to Tyson Foods. Were it not for all the extraneous issues such as the perceived Tyson-Clinton connection and the Espy investigation and all of those issues, I think my job would be great. I still believe strongly that Tyson Foods is a great company. Once we get all the extraneous nonsense behind us, I think the job can be what I thought it could be … when I first came here. I have no plan to do anything different. The company has said they fullysupport me. Obviously, I’m going to be somewhat distracted for the next few months, but I have no plans to leave the company.”

Long story short, a jury later found Schaffer guilty only of violating an obscure 1907 law known as the Meat Inspection Act, along with the federal gratuity statute. A federal court overturned that verdict, but in July 1999 a three-judge panel reinstated the Meat Inspection Act conviction, which carried a mandatory one-year prison sentence.

In October 2000, U.S. District Judge James Robertson reluctantly sentenced Schaffer to a year in prison. The judge made clear at the time that he believed Schaffer deserved only probation and a fine but said he was required by the 93-year-old law to impose the prison sentence.

During his final weeks as president, Clinton pardoned Schaffer.

“I did not see it coming,” Archie later told me. “I guess I was naive about what might end up happening. I was probably a bit overaggressive in my public statements about the investigation, which led to me being the primary target.”

He admitted that the months between the initial indictment and the pardon were “difficult. One of the things that made it even more difficult was that my wife was being written and talked about in the media each day. We used to joke that we were the only household in American being investigated by two different independent counsels at the same time.”

As securities commissioner, Beverly Bassett Schaffer had dealt with Jim McDougal’s Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan, a key part of the Whitewater investigation.

“The company was very supportive and continued to pay my legal fees or I would have never made it,” Archie said.

He said the trial judge realized that the charges against him “were a farce.”

When he later was sentenced under the Meat Inspection Act, the judge set a January reporting date, allowing for Clinton to issue a pardon just before leaving office.

In November 2000, Archie was deer hunting in south Texas with Little Rock businessman Craig Campbell (son-in-law of the late Witt Stephens) when his cell phone rang. It was someone from the Federal Bureau of Prisons telling him he had two weeks to report to a federal prison in El Reno, Okla.

“I explained to the person on the other end of the line that the judge had given me until January to report,” Archie said. “I suggested that they get a copy of the judge’s order.”

Arkansas Republicans and Democrats alike called the White House to ask Clinton to pardon Archie. A group of friends who hung out each afternoon at Uncle Gaylord’s in Fayetteville came up with the idea of the “Free Archie” bumper stickers, which at one time could be spotted on cars and trucks in all parts of the state.

After the pardon, Tyson Foods moved aggressively into the beef and pork sectors in addition to poultry, becoming almost three times as big as it had been. So it’s not as if life slowed down for Archie.

What’s next?

A book?

He doesn’t think so.

Running for office?

He was a constitutional convention delegate once and served for five years on the Charleston School Board in the early 1980s after having returned home from Washington.

Again, though, there are no such plans.

“I have a great deal of appreciation for those willing to put their names on the ballot, but I’ve decided that’s not something I want to do again,” Archie said.

In addition to being on the Pryor Center board, he serves on boards for the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, the Nature Conservancy, the University of Arkansas Foundation and the Jones Center at Springdale. Those board assignments, along with more time spent with his three grown children and three grandchildren, should keep him busy for now.

“I think I’ll take a few months to decide what the next stage in my life will be,” Archie said.

With friends in all 75 counties, the options are many.

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Deep in the Arkansas piney woods

Friday, June 29th, 2012

In the previous Southern Fried blog post on Crossett, which centered on its history as a center of innovation in the timber industry, we mentioned R.R. Reynolds. He was a remarkable man.

Reynolds was born Dec. 21, 1906, near Howard City, Mich., and graduated from the University of Michigan’s forestry school with a bachelor’s degree in 1929 and a master’s degree in 1930.

In July 1930, Reynolds joined the U.S. Forest Service’s Southern Forest Experiment Station. He spent his first three years with the Forest Service doing case studies for individual companies and completing county economic studies.

The Crossett Experimental Forest opened in 1933, and Reynolds spent the next three decades directing the research center. He was the author or co-author of almost 175 publications.

Reynolds retired from the Forest Service in 1969 but remained active in the industry as a member of the Society of American Foresters and a practicing tree farmer.

The Crossett Lumber Co., which was extremely progressive for its time, had established a relationship with Yale University in 1912. That relationship with the forestry scholars at Yale resulted in improved forestry and manufacturing practices.

Many Yale-trained foresters found their way to south Arkansas and north Louisiana through the years. Their research was augmented by the work done at the 1,680-acre Crossett Experimental Forest, which was seven miles south of Crossett.

Because of the efforts of the Crossett Lumber Co.’s foresters and the U.S. Forest Service researchers, Crossett became a leader in sustained-yield forestry in which trees were treated as a renewable resource.

A.E. Wackerman was the chief forester for the Crossett Lumber Co. from 1927-32 and later was a member of the staff of the Southern Forest Experiment Station. He worked closely with Reynolds in the early years. They made quite a team.

In 1980, the Forest Service published a fascinating paper by Reynolds titled “The Crossett Story: The Beginning of Forestry in Southern Arkansas and Northern Louisiana.”

The paper covers the period from 1930-55. Reynolds described it as an era in which “clear-cutting of virgin pine timber came to a crashing halt because there was no more. It also marked the start of managing the second-growth stands at a time when no one knew how or why they should be managed. These stands, which had grown up in spite of no protection or management, were generally understocked and widely variable in age classes. To confound the problem, it was a universal belief that lumber from second-growth trees was worthless.”

Reynolds noted that once the Crossett Lumber Co. began to manage the second-growth forests, visitors from “around the country and the world came to Crossett to see the far-reaching developments. They learned how they might put the same practices in use on their own areas and forests.”

Large-scale harvesting of the virgin shortleaf and loblolly forests of south Arkansas began in the 1890s. There were no logging trucks in those days, so railroad spurs were built to haul out the massive logs.

“By the middle to late 1920s, the end of the big cut was near at hand, and by 1930 many of the mill owners, who had come south after logging in the Great Lakes states had been completed, started looking at the big, untapped virgin stands of the West as the location for their next operations,” Reynolds wrote. “Many families had moved into the uplands of southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana, had homesteaded and had established farms before the coming of the big sawmills. To these farmers, trees were something that had to be disposed of by cutting and burning before the areas were suitable for row crops. Since machinery for such operations was not available in those days, the farmers often welcomed the big sawmillers with open arms.”

Reynolds said that when he moved to Arkansas in 1930, he heard a story about how the Crossett Lumber Co. had set up a land office at Hamburg and offered $2.50 per acre in cash for timberland. Small farmers and timberland owners by the hundreds hurried in to get rid of their extra land before those “damn Yankees ran out” of money.

“As late as 1933, many people thought that timberland (or areas with trees) was wild and undeveloped land,” Reynolds wrote. “It would be of real value only when the trees were cleared and the acres put into pasture or row crops.

“When logging of the virgin timber began on a large scale, no one thought about developing the second-growth stands. Only one kind of lumber was worth anything for construction purposes: slow-growth virgin. Second-growth trees were often rapid growth, and second-growth lumber was supposed to be practically worthless ‘because it would warp or shrink or twist.’ And it supposedly had very little strength. So even though the lumber companies only cut trees that were about 14 inches and larger in stump diameter, they made no attempt to keep the smaller pines and hardwoods from injury. Many of those were cut and used for ballast and rough ties for the spur logging railroads.”

Most of the companies logging in the South in the early 1900s closed their mills once the virgin timber was gone and headed to the West Coast. Reynolds said the decision to manage the second-growth forest was a gradual one for those companies that stayed behind.

“Until about 1930, the Crossett Lumber Co. continued to offer its cutover land for sale to farmers and others,” he wrote. “The company also tried raising cattle on an experimental basis. It was decided that something of better grade than usual ‘range’ cattle should be produced, so the company purchased a high-quality and very expensive bull from Iowa in order to improve the strain. The idea was good, but the bull could not stand the ticks and the heat. The story was told that in hot weather they had to put him into a padded cell in the barn with fans blowing on him from ‘before’ and ‘aft.'”

Things changed when Yale professor Haupt Chapman entered the picture. Chapman headed the annual Yale summer camp for forestry students at Urania, La., which is between Alexandria and Monroe. Chapman became interested in the Crossett Lumber Co.’s second-growth stands.

“With the aid of his students, he inventoried some of these areas and suggested that perhaps the company could make a second cut of logs on some locations once the cutting of the virgin timber had come to an end,” Reynolds wrote. “In any event, he undoubtedly was responsible for creating an interest in timber possibilities in the minds of the owners of the Crossett Lumber Co.”

Reynolds said than when he joined the Southern Forest Experiment Station fresh out of the University of Michigan School of Forestry in July 1930, a number of the large Southern mills already had closed.

“The production of lumber had been largely taken over by small, ‘peckerwood’ mills that could be easily moved from place to place, and logging could be done by two or three pairs of mules or horses,” he wrote. “It was agreed almost universally that the South would soon be out of the large-volume, large-sawmill business, and few had any idea as to what would, or should, happen to the cutovers.”

In certain respects, the south Arkansas piney woods were still a wild place when Reynolds first came there in 1930. Most roads were unpaved. Rural residents lacked electricity and running water.

The oasis of civilization for the region was the Rose Inn at Crossett. Crossett natives still treasure the memory of the Rose Inn, which no longer exists. One of my mentors when I was in college at Ouachita Baptist University was Mac Sisson, a Crossett native. He had a framed print of the Rose Inn behind his desk.

Reynolds lived at the Rose Inn before he and his wife Geneva found a home.

“The Rose Inn was a three-story wooden structure with open walk-up stairways,” he wrote. “It was company owned and provided the only public overnight housing in town. It had a large lobby with a big fireplace and a long row of rocking chairs. Another long row of such chairs adorned the covered front porch. Rooms on the third floor were reserved for unmarried schoolteachers, who were required to live there. Not too much space was required since there was only one white and one black school in town.

“Crossett was very much off the main roads. In those days, the rooms on the second floor usually could take care of visiting lumber company officials, plus two or three of the single men who worked for the company and did not have other housing. It also accommodated an occasional salesman and other visitors.

“The large Rose Inn dining room, always with sparkling white tablecloths on the tables and waiters in white jackets, was famous for its good food. For many years, men had to wear ties and coats before they were admitted to the room. To be reasonably sure that those who came without proper attire could have something to eat, Mr. Boardman, the hotel manager, kept a supply of extra coats and ties on a clothes tree just outside the room.

“Geneva and I were allowed to live and eat at the hotel on a monthly rate that was similar to the one paid by the other regulars — $30 each per month. This included steak every night if one wanted it and always plenty of hot biscuits and many choices of potatoes and vegetables.”

All the houses in Crossett in those days were built, owned and maintained by the company. They were painted the same color. Most of them had outside toilets.

“Because of the low wages paid (by sawmills in general, including Crossett), families kept cows and chickens to help make ends meet,” Reynolds wrote. “There was no such thing as a stock law in those days. So, after milking time in the morning, the cows were turned out of each back yard to hunt for grass and other vegetation to eat during the day. Several people owned horses and pigs, and there were even a few mules. These, along with the cows, roamed at will up and down the streets, including the area that might be considered downtown.”

It was only 80 years ago, but it was a far different time in the deep south Arkansas piney woods.

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Crossett: A Southern timber capital

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

I had the honor of addressing the Crossett Rotary Club earlier this month after eating one of the best lunches I’ve had this year.

The meeting was held at Country Vittles, which is in a former drugstore downtown. My lunch consisted of perfectly fried chicken, fresh yellow squash, sliced tomatoes that likely were picked that morning and crowder peas.

I’ve long been fascinated by the history of Crossett — a former company town that has been associated with the timber industry since the city’s founding. It was once known as the Forestry Capital of the South.

As the forests of the Great Lakes region began to be depleted during the late 1800s and early 1900s, American investors turned to the huge swath of Southern forests that ran from east Texas to the panhandle of Florida.

On May 16, 1899, three businessmen from Davenport, Iowa — Edward Savage Crossett, Charles Gates and John Watzek — formed the Crossett Lumber Co. with land in south Arkansas and north Louisiana. They had purchased 47,000 acres at a price of $7 per acre from the Michigan investment firm Hovey & McCracken.

Edward Crossett had been born in February 1828 in West Plattsburgh, N.Y. His father was a veteran of the War of 1812. Crossett worked in a Troy, N.Y., printing office and later as a clerk in a shoe store, earning $2.50 per month along with room and board. With his brother as a partner, he purchased the store in 1848. Two years later, Crossett left the store in the hands of his brother and headed west.

By 1853, Crossett was operating a supply store for lumbermen in Black River Falls, Wis. He also was the town’s postmaster from 1854-56. Crossett purchased timberland along the way, moving from Wisconsin to Davenport in 1875 to join a trading firm known as Renwick Shaw & Crossett.

“In 1882, Crossett made his first investment in yellow pine, which was the predominant softwood species in the Southern forest,” the late Bill Norman wrote for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In 1886, he sold his interest in the Renwick firm, taking as payment 10,000 acres of Arkansas land covered with yellow pine.

“His friends were confident that he had made a serious mistake in this exchange. Having personally inspected it, Crossett was convinced of the great possibilities in yellow pine, and his judgment was speedily vindicated. Along the way, he became interested in other lumber companies just setting up operations in the same part of Arkansas.”

Crossett, Gates and Watzek held three-fourths of the stock of the Crossett Lumber Co. with the remainder held by top employees. Gates was the president and Crossett was the vice president of the new company. Charles Gates’ brother — Cap Gates — was sent to south Arkansas to supervise the building of mills and the development of a company town, which was named in honor of Edward Crossett.

Crossett died in December 1910 in Davenport. By then, the company had taken off.

Investors spent almost $1 million (a fortune for the time) starting the company — including building railroad connections — before the first commercial timber was sold. Construction of the first pine mill began in 1899, and construction of a second mill began in 1905. By the time both mills were in operation, the Crossett Lumber Co. was producing 84 million board feet annually.

The Crossett Lumber Co. became a leader in Southern forestry, adding paper mills and chemical plants in an effort to ensure there was minimal waste. Money also was spent on research and development projects, unusual in the early 1900s when many companies had a cut-and-run philosophy in the South.

The company built a school and homes, incorporating the city of Crossett in 1903. There was full electric service, something that was rare at the time in south Arkansas. A Methodist church was built in 1904, the city’s newspaper began publishing in 1906 and telephone service was added in 1907.

“The town-company dynamic was the epitome of how these two establishments could work together successfully,” Bernard Reed wrote for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “During the Great Depression, Crossett Lumber Co. remained financially stable, and it supplied the government with lumber during World War II. In the 1940s, Crossett Lumber Co. focused on the expansion of the town, and many of its residents came to own rather than rent their houses.”

As part of its progressive philosophy, the company hired a Yale graduate named W.K. Williams in 1926 to help it begin a program of sustained forestry based on practices in Germany. The company also was helped by a Yale professor named Herman Haupt Chapman.

With the virgin timber running out across south Arkansas and north Louisiana, company officials knew they would either have to change their ways or go out of business.

“This involved ceasing the practice of cutting down trees as fast as they were growing, and then leaving the healthiest trees in an area to repopulate the soil,” Reed wrote. “These techniques kept the forests alive rather than destroying them. … The Crossett Lumber Co. was tackling and solving problems in the 1930s that would not be regarded as environmental issues until the 1970s.”

In 1933, the U.S. Forest Service established the Crossett Experimental Forest, which was among the first experimental tracts in the South. For decades, the forest was the home for scientific research in areas such as wildlife, hydrology, soils and silviculture.

“The scores of studies conducted on the Crossett Experimental Forest have generated hundreds of scientific publications, making the station an internationally known example of high-quality, long-term forestry research,” wrote Don Bragg and James Guldin of the Forest Service.

In July 1930, the Forest Service’s Southern Forest Experiment Station hired a University of Michigan forestry graduate named Russell Reynolds to help Southern landowners develop sustainable forestry plans.

In 1932, Reynolds was assigned to help the Ozark-Badger Lumber Co. of Wilmar in Drew County. During that period, he became familiar with the work of the Crossett Lumber Co. At the time, the Crossett Lumber Co. was down to its final 25,000 acres of virgin pine.

Reynolds moved to Crossett in August 1933 and began to work with a Civilian Conservation Corps crew to help the company inventory and mark its timber. In the fall of 1933, Reynolds joined forces with a forester named Albert Wackerman to find a site on the company’s cutover land that would be suitable for an experimental forest.

The 1,680-acre parcel they found seven miles south of Crossett had been cut prior to 1920. The Crossett Lumber Co. agreed to give the Forest Service the land in exchange for the standing volume of timber and the promise that research would be conducted there for the next 50 years. The deed conveying the property to the government was dated Aug. 2, 1934.

By late 1934, the federal government was building a lodge to house the CCC crew along with a filling station and a garage. The Works Progress Administration later built a log cabin-style home for Reynolds and his family that was completed in July 1936. Reynolds would live in this home for the next 33 years.

Several buildings on the site are now on the National Register of Historic Places.

“The primary objective of Reynolds and his staff at the Crossett Experimental Forest was to develop silvicultural principles and practices to manage the cutover second-growth loblolly-shortleaf stands typical of the area,” Bragg and Guldin wrote. “The challenge was whether it was possible to rehabilitate existing stands while simultaneously providing landowners with an acceptable return on their investment. If so, Crossett Experimental Forest research had considerable practical application not just for the Crossett Lumber Co. but also for other companies and landowners across the southern United States.”

U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers once declared that “forestry began in Crossett.”

In a very real sense, many of the advancements in modern forestry came as a result of the work done by Crossett Lumber Co. foresters and Forest Service researchers stationed in south Arkansas.

Edward Crossett’s son died in 1955, and some of the heirs became interested in selling their stock in the company. By the late 1950s, there were consistent rumors about a sale or merger.

“Many larger Northern lumber companies had expressed interest in purchasing or merging with the Crossett Lumber Co, and stockholders were becoming worried about the company’s stability,” Reed wrote. “Although millions of dollars were spent in the late 1950s to modernize the company and give the impression of vitality, one of its board members, Peter Watzek, a relative of John Watzek, was instructed to conduct reports on companies with which a merger was possible. He also traveled to New York to meet with several merger prospects.”

Watzek concluded in his report that the company was strong enough to stand alone, but other stockholders remained restless. A sale to Union Bag & Paper that was announced in May 1960 fell through.

On April 18, 1962, it was announced that Georgia-Pacific had reached an agreement to buy the Crossett Lumber Co. It was the end of an era in south Arkansas.

Georgia-Pacific has now been a major part of the state’s corporate landscape for decades. In October 2010, the company announced that it would invest more than $250 million to upgrade one of its existing paper machines in Crossett with advanced technology and install associated equipment. About 1,300 people work at the Crossett paper mill.

Bad news followed in September 2011 when it was announced that Georgia-Pacific would shut down its plywood and stud mills in Crossett as the housing recession continued. The last day at work was Nov. 7 for almost 700 employees.

More than 70 of those employees have since found work at the company’s other divisions in Crossett. The upgrade at the paper mill, which makes bath tissues, continues with more than 350 construction workers involved in the project.

Crossett, founded because of the surrounding pine forests, remains joined at the hip with the forest industry, its ups and its downs.

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The south Arkansas oil boom — past and future

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

South Arkansas wasn’t prepared for the oil boom that occurred in the early 1920s, an event recounted in the previous Southern Fried blog post.

After the Busey No. 1 well struck oil on Jan. 10, 1921, one mile southwest of El Dorado, Union County became the center of activity in south Arkansas for a time.

The gusher sprayed between 3,000 and 10,000 barrels of oil up to a mile away. Speculators rushed in from across the country. The Arkansas Legislature even sent an exploratory train down from Little Rock so legislators could see what was going on (those legislative junkets have a long history, don’t they?).

In March 1921, Arkansas produced 38,000 barrels of oil.

That increased to 325,000 barrels in April of that year, 578,000 barrels in May and 908,000 barrels in June. There were 900 wells in operation by 1922.

Kenneth Bridges writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture about what happened at El Dorado: “It changed from an isolated agricultural city of 4,000 residents to the oil capital of Arkansas as 22 trains each day ran in and out of El Dorado to Little Rock and Shreveport.”

There was even regular air service from Shreveport to El Dorado.

The boom moved a bit north in the summer of 1922 with Sid Umsted’s discovery of oil near the Union County-Ouachita County line.

Don Lambert describes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture what happened next: “Abruptly, a rumble came from deep beneath the earth’s surface. The crew stepped away, listening. Suddenly, a thick black column of oil burst forth and spurted high above the earth.

“Within six months, 1,000 wells had been drilled with a success rate of 92 percent. The little town of Smackover had increased from a mere 90 to 25,000, and its uncommon name would quickly attain national attention.

“Smackover was officially incorporated on Nov. 3, 1922. Lawlessness was so rampant that among the 25 petitioners on the incorporation document, none was willing to hold public office. The town’s population steadily declined as oil companies and their employees moved away when more lucrative oil discoveries were made in Texas and Oklahoma. About 100 independent oil companies replaced the 12 major petroleum corporations in this period.

“Unfortunately, conservation laws were absent in Arkansas and, as a result, wells were allowed to run wild until the natural gas had been vented into the atmosphere. This practice eventually ruined the giant oil field, which could be compared to a punctured aerosol can that has half of its contents remaining but no remaining interior pressure to remove it. By the early 1930s, the Smackover oil field’s production had declined dramatically, and the petroleum industry’s attention turned to new discoveries in Texas and Oklahoma. The 1923 population of 25,000 decreased to 2,500.”

Things improved some during World War II with new discoveries and a tremendous demand due to the war effort.

“Although the Smackover field is still going strong into the 21st century, it has none of the robust vigor that was so prevalent in the 1920s,” Lambert writes. “Its landscape is scarred by oil and saltwater running freely over the earth and into its streams due to the work of the oil industry.”

Arkansas Business has a story on the front page of its current issue with this headline: “Oil Field Viability Remains Mystery: First wells in Brown Dense yield fewer barrels than hoped.”

Luke Jones writes, “In the wake of the natural gas boom in north-central Arkansas, residents near the Louisiana border are hoping for a similar bonanza in the oil-rich area known as the lower Brown Dense formation. So far, however, it’s simply not clear whether there’s enough oil trapped in the carbonate mudstone to be worth the millions of dollars it costs to sink each well.

“Southwestern Energy Co. of Houston went on a leasing spree in the Brown Dense a couple of years ago, spending some $195 million to lease mineral rights on 520,000 acres across the formation. It has completed one test well so far and has a permit for a second.”

Columbia County Judge Larry Atkinson told Arkansas Business: “By the numbers I had heard, Southwestern needs 400 barrels a day to make it feasible. … They spent a lot of money and leased a lot of land, but I haven’t seen as much activity as I anticipated. I’m not saying it’s not coming, but the community expected an overflow of equipment. It hasn’t happened yet. We are waiting. We hope they haven’t decided to go anywhere else.”

It you think the predictions of El Dorado’s Richard Mason are overblown (see the previous Southern Fried blog post), consider the initial failures of the previous century.

“In 1914, oil explorers dug an unsuccessful test hole at Urbana, east of El Dorado,” Bridges writes. “A 1916 effort near the Union-Columbia county line also proved unsuccessful. Samuel S. Hunter commissioned a well some two miles east of Stephens in Ouachita County in April 1920. This well, the Hunter No. 1 well, produced some oil but never enough to sell commercially. This site was later acquired by Standard Oil Co. for exploration.”

As noted, everything changed when the Busey No. 1 gushed oil in January 1921.

A new oil boom could still happen in south Arkansas. And if it does, I can state with certainty that what’s now called the Golden Triangle is much more prepared now than it was back then.

Here’s how the website www.unioncountysheriff.net describes the scene in 1921: “People continued to pour into El Dorado. Chief of Police Hamp S. Lewis hired more policemen to cope with the rising crime rate. A full-time health officer was appointed, and two nurses and two sanitary officers were hired to help him. The city water supply had to be increased, and Harvey Couch, president of Arkansas Power & Light Co., came to the city to work out the arrangements.

“Something to do after dark was a problem, too. Men congregated on street corners in the evening to talk oil and some would break off into a quartet. … E.C. Robertson, who owned the Victory Theater in Fayetteville, came to El Dorado and opened a motion picture and vaudeville theater.

“Boxing matches were arranged, and on Feb. 3, 1921, Little Rock’s own ‘Red Herring’ and Patsy McMahon of Memphis ‘occupied the center of the sports arena.’ Jack Parsons, the ‘dean of Arkansas showmen,’ had a tent theater a block and a half from the square that presented shows nightly.

“Three months after the Busey well came in, work was under way on an amusement park located three blocks from the town that would include a swimming pool, picnic grounds, rides and concessions. Culture was not forgotten as an old cotton shed in the center of town near the railroad tracks was converted to an auditorium.”

Ninety years later, much more infrastructure is in place in El Dorado, Magnolia and Camden to handle the situation should a new boom occur.

The Arkansas Oil & Gas Commission, which has nice offices in El Dorado, was established in 1939 to prevent the kind of waste seen in the 1920s.

Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia, South Arkansas Community College at El Dorado and SAU-Tech at East Camden stand ready to provide higher education opportunities.

El Dorado, meanwhile, has done much in recent years to improve its quality of life with the most attractive downtown retail and entertainment area in the state, a first-class conference center, a new high school and more.

The downtown square in Magnolia also rates among the better downtowns in Arkansas.

El Dorado public relations executive Don Hale wrote earlier this year: “What we found in El Dorado was that our award-winning downtown was one thing that made us unique. It separates us from many other communities. El Dorado is fortunate to have one of the best downtowns in the South. Tree-lined streets surround a stately courthouse with retail boutiques and restaurants in a pedestrian-friendly setting ideal for shopping or enjoying a live performance at one of our weekend events.

“It’s the same setting that retail developers in Branson and other destinations have attempted to re-create with ‘lifestyle centers’ that lure tourists, shoppers and overnight guests to their destination. But even the most vibrant downtown is not a destination that can provide several hundred new jobs and have a major economic impact.

“We were asked, ‘What would tourists drive to El Dorado to get that they cannot get closer to home?’ This question challenged us to create an attraction that would draw visitors from 300 to 400 miles away. A plan that centers on the downtown was designed to develop an entertainment district featuring performing arts theaters, musical venues, festivals and events — a bold step for even the most imaginative of communities.

“The city’s existing annual events — for example, MusicFest, the South Arkansas Mayhaw Festival, the Boomtown Classic — serve as the basis for future events. More recently, El Dorado launched the first Southern Food & Wine Festival in our new conference center adjacent to downtown.

“Building on a deeply rooted artistic community, El Dorado will become the Festival City with the theme or tagline of ‘It’s Showtime!’ This new brand will not be launched with an extravagant marketing campaign. Instead, the community will work in the coming years to earn this distinction. Plans are to host an event every month along with year-round activities.”

Bring on the new oil boom.

I think south Arkansas is ready.

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Northwest Arkansas: A hot travel destination

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

It was a thrill to see Bentonville on the Travel & Leisure magazine list of Hottest Travel Destinations of 2012.

Bentonville was right there alongside Sri Lanka, Toronto, Abu Dhabi and Hamburg (the one in Germany, not the one in Ashley County).

“Until now, Bentonville has been famous for one thing: It’s the home of big-box retailer Walmart,” Stephen Wallis wrote for Travel & Leisure. “But Alice Walton, youngest heir to the empire, is using a large share of her wealth — estimated by Forbes at $21 billion — to transform the region into a world-class cultural destination.”

Wallis called the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art “an audacious gamble that a large-scale arts institution can thrive in the Ozarks.”

As I wrote in the previous Southern Fried blog post, it’s a gamble that seems to be paying off based on attendance for the museum’s first five months of operation.

“To hedge her if-you-build-it-they-will-come bet, Walton hired architect Moshe Safdie to design the museum, set on 120 wooded acres just outside town,” Wallis wrote. “He created a series of gently curving pavilions hovering dramatically around and over ponds fed by natural springs.

“Walton also approached 21c Museum Hotels — which put Louisville, Ky., on the art-world map — about opening a property in town. Designed by Deborah Berke, it’s due next January.

“Her biggest investment may be the collection itself, bought at often eyebrow-raising prices and covering the full sweep of American art, from colonial portraitists Gilbert Stuart and John Singleton Copley to 19th-century masters Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins, with a splash of contemporary art (Andy Warhol; Roxy Paine; Jenny Holzer) thrown in.

“The museum is already being touted by some as a countrified Guggenheim Bilbao — and Walton herself as a latter-day Morgan or Frick, digging deep into her pockets and dreaming big. This may be enough to attract culture seeekers from around the country, if not the world.”

I have only one quibble with Travel & Leisure’s assessment: It should have been northwest Arkansas, not just Bentonville, listed as being among the world’s hottest travel destinations.

I have no doubt that the people who come to visit Crystal Bridges will venture down to Rogers, Springdale, Fayetteville and even places such as Tontitown to eat and shop.

I say that after having recently spent a delightful couple of days in Fayetteville.

I stayed for the first time at the Dickson Street Inn, a two-building complex that has been remodeled into a 10-room inn. The main house, an 1894 Victorian, has eight of the rooms. An adjacent building houses the other two rooms.

Go to the online reviews at www.TripAdvisor.com and you’ll find sometimes brutal assessments of hotels, motels and bed and breakfast inns across the country. Reviews of the Dickson Street Inn are almost all positive.

Here’s an example: “Dickson Street Inn far exceeded my expectations during a recent trip to Fayetteville. The historic home converted to a B&B may look like a traditional inn from the outside, but it is so much more. The rooms are well appointed with comfortable beds and updated bathrooms.”

Here’s another: “My friend and I were early for a matinee performance at Walton Arts Center so decided to go for a short walk. We came upon this place and decided to stop in to check it out. Was I ever glad we did. We visit Fayetteville frequently and have stayed at various places. Unfortunately, after staying here for a weekend getaway with a group of friends, I will never be happy staying anyplace else, and certain weekends (i.e. football, parents, graduation, etc.) are booked solid far in advance. Everything was perfect.”

My two-night stay was just as advertised. After hearing Ernie Dumas interview former U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers at an event on the Fayetteville square, several hours were spent late on a Friday afternoon at one of my top places in Arkansas to browse, the Dickson Street Bookshop.

Located at the corner of Dickson and School for more than three decades, the used bookstore is a classic.

Here’s how the Fayetteville Flyer described it a few years ago: “With an estimated 100,000 used books lining the tall floor-to-ceiling shelves (and sometimes in tall stacks in available corners), the Dickson Street Bookshop is one of the best independent used bookstores in the country. Visitors to the area are amazed at the incredible selection of used and out-of-print books and the unique maze-like layout, the dim lighting and the dusty smell that has become a staple of Dickson Street. … The Dickson Street Bookshop buys used books for cash or for store credit, and all transactions are done with paper and pen instead of computers and cash registers.

“There is no membership program. No Starbucks inside. Just a whole lot of books, and a lot of loyal customers, some of whom have been frequenting the store for its entire existence.

“In addition to the estimated 100,000 books kept inside the store, an additional 50,000 books are kept in storage, just waiting for their time on the shelves of the bookshop. The store sells an estimated 800-900 books a week and has somehow managed to stay open on Dickson Street during a time when dozens of retail establishments have come and gone in what has become more a restaurant and bar entertainment district than a downtown shopping area.”

I purchased a copy of John Gould Fletcher’s history of the state, “Arkansas,” for only $27.50. Published in 1947, the book was in excellent condition. I considered it a steal.

Fletcher, the famed poet and essayist who earned a Pulitzer Prize in poetry, drowned himself in a pond at his west Little Rock estate during a bout with depression just three years after publication of the book.

Writing for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, historian Ben Johnson of Southern Arkansas University says “Arkansas” served for many years as the “most readable and accessible history of the state but attracted little attention elsewhere.”

I took the John Gould Fletcher book to the wooden deck that the Dickson Street Inn shares with the Dickson Street Pub and read several chapters while enjoying the glorious spring weather.

I had visited Crystal Bridges the previous day.

I had spent the previous evening with friends on the deck of Herman’s Ribhouse, which has changed very little since it opened in 1964. It became a favorite haunt back when I was a newspaper sportswriter. Ask me my top spots for hash browns, and I’ll tell you Herman’s and the Waffle House.

The next morning began with a leisurely breakfast at the Dickson Street Inn while reading the weekend Wall Street Journal. A brisk walk to the Fayetteville square followed so I could visit the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market, founded in 1974 and ranked among the top such markets in the country.

The remainder of the morning was spent at the annual meeting of the Arkansas Historical Association, and the afternoon was spent at Baum Stadium watching the No. 3 and No. 11 college baseball teams in the country square off.

Perfection.

Throughout my visit, I thought that Crystal Bridges might just be the draw that will open the floodgates, allowing visitors from across the country and around the world to enjoy all this part of the state has to offer.

For example, I hope a number of them will drive over to spend a night or two in Eureka Springs, which I’ve always considered a far more authentic, relaxing place to spend leisure time than the choked roadways of Branson.

While trying not to stereotype anyone, I do suspect that Eureka Springs will hold more appeal than Branson for the types of tourists who spend money to fly across the country to see art museums.

Or how about combining art museum visits with fly-fishing on the White River?

There have been dozens of published reviews of Crystal Bridges already, and most have been positive.

Writing in The New York Times, Roberta Smith called it “a big, serious, confident, new institution with more than 50,000 square feet of gallery space and a collection worth hundreds of millions of dollars in a region almost devoid of art museums. Much more than just a demonstration of what money can buy or an attempt to burnish a rich family’s name, Crystal Bridges is poised to make a genuine cultural contribution, and possibly to become a place of pilgrimage for art lovers from around the world.”

Let’s hope those world travelers take the time to also enjoy the charms of Fayetteville, Eureka Springs and other parts of northwest Arkansas.

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