I really can’t think of a much better way to spend a hot day in late May than this: Sitting in a nice home in the middle of a cotton field, talking politics with intelligent people and eating great meatloaf, slaw, mashed potatoes, peas fresh from the field, sweet squash relish and cornbread.
That’s how I spent the lunch hour Thursday.
The shame was that I had to return to work in downtown Little Rock rather than spending the entire afternoon on the Baucum Plantation at the edge of North Little Rock near Scott.
The occasion was a luncheon hosted by Brenda Fulkerson, the epitome of a warm, witty Southern hostess.
I had attended one of Brenda’s luncheons several years ago. The co-host was Win Paul Rockefeller. The event could best be described as an “Arkansas salon” with interesting people freely discussing interesting topics over good food. These luncheons were, in a sense, an attempt to continue in a small way the storied tradition of the daily luncheons Mr. Witt Stephens would host in his downtown Little Rock office.
After Win Paul died at a tragically young age, Brenda halted the luncheons. Recently, she called me and said it was time to revive the Baucum Plantation events. She asked if I would invite six people to talk politics in this fascinating election year. I happily agreed to do so.
A major condition of these luncheons is that they’re ”off the record,” as we used to say in the newspaper business. Therefore, I won’t name the six people who joined Brenda and me for lunch Thursday. And I won’t write about our discussion, as informative as that post would be. Suffice it to say that these were six of the top political minds in Arkansas. They understand our state, its people and its history. I wish the discussion could have continued all afternoon.
At any rate, I must say that a visit to Scott makes for a great outing even if you’re not fortunate enough to be invited to lunch on the Baucum Plantation.
On Saturday, following my youngest son’s baseball game, we drove out to Scott to make sure I could find the Baucum house. I didn’t want to appear lost on Thursday while driving a car filled with guests. After finding the house, we went to the original Cotham’s for lunch. The place was packed.
During the more than nine years I worked at the state Capitol, I was a regular at Cotham’s In The City on Third Street (originally a TGI Friday’s). It was easy to just walk down the hill. But it’s safe to say the Little Rock location just can’t match the charm of the original Cotham’s Mercantile, housed in a wooden store built in 1917.
The Cotham’s website outlines the history this way: “It has served as a general mercantile store in the Scott area for farmers and plantation owners since its beginning. It has also served as a military commissary and lockup for local law violators awaiting trial by a circuit-riding judge. In 1984, a small eating area was opened to serve lunch to area farmers. Soon discovered by prominent politicians, notably Bill Clinton and David Pryor, the restaurant suddenly became the place to eat and greet for distinguished Arkansans from all walks of life.”
Indeed, it was David Pryor who first told me about Cotham’s when I was living in Washington in the late 1980s and visiting his office each day in my role as a reporter. Last year, I wrote on this blog that if I had to pick one Arkansan with whom to have lunch once a week, it would be David Pryor. And Cotham’s would be a nice location for such gatherings.
Following lunch (I had a hubcap cheeseburger, much to my wife’s chagrin), I took Melissa and Evan to the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism’s Plantation Agriculture Museum. We were fortunate that the park’s longtime curator, Randy Noah, was there on this Saturday afternoon and willing to give us a tour. The museum does an outstanding job of explaining the role cotton and those who raised it played in the state’s history.
The main part of the museum is housed in a brick building that was built in 1912 by Conoway Scott Jr. to house a general store. In 1929, a wing was added to the building to house the Scott post office. In the 1960s, plantation owner and seed developer Robert L. Dortch bought the building and began turning it into a museum that would help visitors experience life on a cotton plantation. Dortch even began an excursion train service. I can remember my parents taking me to ride the train, which is now in Eureka Springs.
Dortch died in 1972, and the museum closed in 1978. A powerful member of the Arkansas Legislature from Lonoke County, Rep. Bill Foster, went to work to have the state take over the museum. Foster’s bill was approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Clinton in 1985. The state’s Plantation Agriculture Museum opened in 1989.
After Amendment 75 to the Arkansas Constitution (the one-eighth-of-a-cent sales tax) was approved by Arkansas voters in 1996, some of the proceeds from that tax were used to resurrect the Dortch cotton gin. The building was rebuilt, but the 1920s Munger cotton gin and press inside are the originals. I’m not sure there’s a finer example in the country of a historic cotton gin that’s open to the public.
The Parks and Tourism Department also has restored one of Dortch’s seed warehouses. Dortch gained a national reputation for the cotton and soybean seeds he developed.
For anyone who wants a better understanding of agriculture and its role in this state’s development, the Plantation Agriculture Museum is worth a visit of at least two hours. It’s open from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. each Tuesday through Saturday and from 1 p.m. until 5 p.m. each Sunday.
Here’s how the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture (www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net) describes the early history of Scott: “William Scott emigrated from Kentucky at an unknown date to the area that would become the town of Scott. His son, Conoway Scott Sr., was born in 1815. By 1862, the Scott family owned 2,000 acres, 10 slaves and other property valued at $37,895. Conoway Scott Sr. died in 1866 just before the birth of his son, Conoway Jr.
“Conoway Scott Jr. eventually operated several successful ventures, including the family plantation and general store. Scott’s landholdings were eventually crossed by the St. Louis & Southwestern Railroad, also known as the Cotton Belt Line, and Scott’s Station or Scott’s Crossing became a regular stop. When damaged, the sign at Scott’s Station was shortened to Scott’s and then just Scott, giving the name to the town. By the turn of the 20th century, a thriving community dominated by cotton plantations was well established. As the cotton farms grew in size and number, merchants opened several general stores.”
While in Scott, it’s also worth your time to visit the Scott Plantation Settlement. A group of area residents formed an organization in 1995 known as Scott Connections Inc. The Scott Plantation Settlement covers just more than eight acres of the Illallee Plantation. Arthur Alexander and Otelia George Alexander had purchased the plantation in 1898. Their daughter Virginia later donated the eight acres.
An early owner of the land was U.S. Sen. Chester Ashley.
After the 1995 creation of Scott Connections Inc., 12 structures were moved to the site from neighboring farms. The relocation of those structures was underwritten by a grant from the Roy and Christene Sturgis Charitable Trust in 1999. There were three tenant houses, a blacksmith shop, a corn crib, a dogtrot house, a cotton pen, a smokehouse, a wash house, a medical clinic, an outhouse and the original Dortch ‘big house.’
An additional 13 structures have been added. The Cotton Belt depot was moved to the site following a $50,000 grant from the Stella Boyle Smith Trust. Other additions include a sorghum mill, a cook’s house and a one-room plantation school.
A visit to the Plantation Agriculture Museum, lunch at Cotham’s, a visit to the Scott Plantation Settlement — it makes for an interesting day.
If you’re really lucky, you might even be invited to a private lunch on the Baucum Plantation one of these days.