Archive for June, 2010

Time to cash in on Johnny Cash

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

Johnny Cash is a music icon. His name is known worldwide.

That begs the question: Why haven’t we done more as a state to cash in on the fact that he was from Arkansas?

He was born in Feburary 1932 at Kingsland in the pine woods of south Arkansas. Ray and Carrie Rivers Cash had seven children. In addition to the boy known as J.R., there were Roy, Louise, Jack, Reba, Joanne and Tommy.

The Cash family was one of several families from Cleveland County to be chosen to move to the federal government’s Dyess Colony in Mississippi County. So it was that Johnny Cash would leave the Gulf Coastal Plain at an age too young to remember and be raised instead in the Delta of northeast Arkansas.

“The tragic death of Jack Cash in a 1944 sawmill accident haunted young J.R. for the remainder of his life,” Eric Lensing writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “His mother introduced him to the guitar, and the local Church of God introduced him to music. He acquired a fascination for the guitar and a love for singing. Cash first sang on radio station KLCN in Blytheville while attending Dyess High School. Upon graduation in 1950, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after a brief search for work in Michigan.”

Though Arkansas hasn’t done a good job of claiming the Cash legacy, Johnny never forgot his roots.

In February 1968, he returned for a homecoming show at the Dyess High School gymnasium.

The following September, Paris (as in Logan County, not France) native Bob Wootton came out of the audience to play guitar during a Cash concert in Fayetteville.  Wootton had long been a Cash fan, playing his songs religiously and perfecting the style of the band. Wootton’s chance to fill in came after a flight cancellation left only Cash and drummer W.S. Holland on the stage. Cash was stunned by Wootton’s perfect renditions.

When original lead guitarist Luther Perkins died in a house fire, Wootton was asked to join the Tennessee Three. Wootton performed with Cash until 1997.

One of Cash’s most famous concerts came in April 1969 when he peformed for the inmates at Cummins. In 1980, the Kingsland native became the youngest person ever elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

I recently attended a meeting during which a group of business and civic leaders heard updates on Arkansas State University’s plans to not only capitalize on the Cash name but also interpret the history of the Dyess Colony for visitors.

In March, John Milner Associates Inc. completed work on a redevelopment master plan for Dyess that was commissioned by ASU.

The introduction to the plan states, “The New Deal Works Progress Administration Rural Resettlement Program provided a sense of hope and renewal for farming families of the Arkansas Delta whose lives were devastated by the natural and economic disasters of the early 20th century. Springing forth from 16,000 acres of forested swamp bottomland drained and cut for the new town, an army of workers constructed the 28-block town with 500 small farms surrounding it. In town, historically referred to as Dyess Center, several residences were constructed along with a hospital, school, churches, commissary, canning plant and administration building. After a rigorous interview, selected families were each set up with a 10-acre farmstead complete with house, barn, smokehouse and mule. Built on the fundamental values of achievement through hard work . . . Dyess became an incubator for success and optimism.

“Since its incorporation in the 1960s as a small city independent of federal support and control, it is apparent that the town has seen some hard times. The city council has had to contend with a range of serious issues including depopulation, loss of businesses and tax base, needed upgrade of infrastructure and lax code enforcement. However, the tight-knit sense of community lives on.”

Arkansas State, which has an outstanding record of preserving historic Delta sites, can start the process of preserving that which is historic at Dyess. Eventually, though, it will need the support of the Cash estate, private foundations and others to turn Dyess into the kind of tourist attraction it should be.

The location is ideal — just off busy Interstate 55 between Memphis and St. Louis. Tourists visiting Graceland in Memphis will find it easy to drive up to Dyess.

When tourists stop there now, there’s little to see or do. The Cash home still stands, but it’s in private hands, it’s not in good condition and it isn’t open to the public.

“The Johnny Cash house is owned by the Stegall family and occupied by Willie Stegall and his son,” the redevelopment master plan states. “It has been the Stegall family home for over 40 years. Over those years, the family has made improvements and adjustments to the house just as many other families who lived in small frame houses did in the same decades. The house is currently in declining condition, in part because of the way many wood elements are exposed to water and other weather-related sources of deterioration. The house has some unpainted wood components, both in places where the paint has failed and in places where the wood was never painted. Like many old houses, it has an imperfect system for roof drainage. The conditions inside and out are less than ideal, but the Stegall family has sought different ways to improve the house at different times with totally different approaches.”

According to this assessment, the changes the family made to the home in the 1960s and 1970s were logical for the time. A modern kitchen was added. The living room was changed. But the assessment adds, “If the dwelling is to be restored to its original configuration and appearance, these changes will have to be removed. Also it is important that any remaining historic materials and architectural features be preserved.”

Let’s dream:

– The family sells the Cash home to ASU, a foundation or the Cash estate at a reasonable price. It’s restored to its original condition and it’s opened to tourists.

– The Dyess Colony commissary is reconstructed to appear as it once did and opened as a store so tourists will have a place to shop. The original structure was lost to a fire. Only the foundation remains.

– Arkansas State obtains the money needed to transform the Dyess Colony administration building into a visitors’ center.

– The facades of the historic Dyess Theater and the adjoining Pop Shop restaurant are restored. Eventually those facades are incorporated into a new building that will house a small auditorium and a restaurant. The 100-seat theater will show films of Johnny Cash performances and documentaries on his life. The 30-seat restaurant will be leased to a local entrepreneur. Let’s hope it serves catfish, barbecue and other Delta specialties.

– A major marketing campaign is implemented. Prominent signage is placed on Interstate 55.

– An annual Johnny Cash tribute concert is held to raise funds for continued restoration.

As I reported in an earlier post, Arkansas State University has received a grant from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council to begin restoring the exterior of the administration building and begin stabilizing the theater facade.

There’s much to be done. But at least it’s a start. At least smart people are beginning to understand that we can cash in on Cash while saving an important piece of Arkansas history, this Great Depression resettlement colony that Eleanor Roosevelt visited in 1936.

As the redevelopment master plan points out, “Established on natural swampland, it gave its first residents a fresh start but also replicated the American pioneer experience of taming the wilderness and creating new farms and livelihoods. Dyess also left an indelible mark on American music culture as the town that produced singer and songwriter Johnny Cash. Its influence is particularly evident in Cash’s music and lyrics, many of which reference his family’s experiences as cotton farmers in Dyess.”

Let’s get to work.

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The Southern Jewish experience

Monday, June 28th, 2010

Researching the column I wrote for last Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about a visit to Temple Beth El in Helena ended up being a far more interesting task than I ever would have imagined.

One of the things that has always fascinated me about the Delta is the great diversity there — the Italians, the Chinese, the Lebanese and the Jews were among the groups that came up the Mississippi River from New Orleans and down the river from St. Louis to settle this colorful region.

If you traveled farther inland from the river into the hills of either Arkansas or Mississippi, you historically found far less diversity.

It’s the same reason I always was intrigued with Hot Springs when I was growing up in Arkadelphia. In Arkadelphia, the chances were great that you were either a white Baptist or a black Baptist. Compared to the towns that surrounded it, Hot Springs was an exotic place.

The Delta was like that, though six decades of population loss is changing the demographic picture.

David Solomon, the Helena lawyer who turns 94 next month and still goes to work each day at his office on Cherry Street, established the Tapestry Endowment for Arkansas Jewish History. The endowment created a permanent home at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock for Carolyn Gray LeMaster’s extensive body of research on the history of Jews in Arkansas.

The fund’s name is taken from the title of LeMaster’s book, “A Corner of the Tapestry: A History of the Jewish Experience in Arkansas, 1820s-1900s.”

The Jewish Genealogy Library Collection calls her book “one of the most comprehensive studies ever done on a state’s Jewish community. ‘A Corner of the Tapestry’ is the story of the Jews who helped settle Arkansas and who stayed and flourished to become a significant part of the state’s history and culture. Data for the book have been collected in part from the American Jewish Archives, American Jewish Historical Society, the stones in Arkansas’ Jewish cemeteries, more than 1,500 articles and obituaries from journals and newspapers, personal letters from hundreds of present and former Jewish Arkansans, congressional histories, census and court records and some 400 oral interviews in more than 100 cities and towns in Arkansas.”

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, a project of the Goldring-Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, the first Jew to settle in Arkansas was Abraham Block. He opened a store in the town of Washington in southwest Arkansas in 1823.

“Block settled in Washington when there were no Jewish congregations or institutions in the Arkansas Territory,” the encyclopedia reports. “He was a charter member of the first Jewish synagogue in the region, Congregation Gates of Mercy in New Orleans, joining in 1828. Yet the lack of any organized Jewish life in Arkansas at the time took its toll on his family, and few of his children remained within the faith. Block’s life in Arkansas highlights the challenges that Jews have often faced in a state largely isolated from the centers of American Jewish life.

“The difficulties became a little easier as growing numbers of Jews from central Europe began to arrive in Arkansas in the years before the Civil War. These immigrants were part of the German wave of Jewish immigration, which settled primarily in the large cities of the Northeast and Midwest. But a significant minority of Jews from the German states and from Alsace-Lorraine settled in the rural South, including Arkansas. At the time of the Civil War, they had established small but growing Jewish communities in Little Rock, Fort Smith, Pine Bluff, DeValls Bluff, Van Buren, Jonesboro and Batesville. Despite their relatively short time in the state, Jews felt closely tied to their new home. Of the approximately 300 Jews in Arkansas at the time of the war, 53 fought for the Confederacy.”

Jewish merchants were attracted to Arkansas in the years after the war. They received their goods from Jewish wholesalers in the river cities of Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Memphis. According to the encyclopedia, 14 towns or communities were founded by Jews in Arkansas or named after early Jewish residents. These included Altheimer, Felsenthal and Levy.

The state’s first Jewish congregation, B’nai Israel in Little Rock, was chartered in 1866. A year later, Temple Beth El was founded in Helena and Congregation Anshe Emeth was founded in Pine Bluff. Later congregations were founded in Camden in 1869, Hot Springs in 1878, Texarkana in 1884, Jonesboro in 1897, Newport in 1905, Dermott in 1905, Eudora in 1912, Osceola in 1913, Forrest City in 1914, Wynne in 1915, Marianna in 1920, Blytheville in 1924, El Dorado in 1926, McGehee in 1947, Fayetteville in 1981 and Bentonville in 2004.

Due to a wave of immigration from Eastern Europe, the Jewish population of Arkansas grew from 1,466 in 1878 to 8,850 by the time of the great flood of 1927. You’ll note that many of the congregations listed above were in areas of east and south Arkansas that have been declining economically in recent decades.

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, “Congregations in Helena, Blytheville and El Dorado closed, while others struggled to survive. The Jewish population has become concentrated in a few communities like Little Rock, Hot Springs, Fayetteville and Bentonville. In 1937, 13 cities in Arkansas had more than 50 Jews. In 2006, only four did. As of 2006, only congregations in Little Rock and Hot Springs had full-time rabbis.

“The only exception to this downward trend is Bentonville. In the 21st century, as Wal-Mart has encouraged major suppliers to open offices in its corporate hometown, Bentonville has seen its Jewish population skyrocket. In 2004, a group of 30 families founded Bentonville’s first Jewish congregation, Etz Chaim, which has quickly become the fastest-growing congregation in the state. Bentonville is the exception to the regional trend of small-town Jewish communities declining. Most of the founding members of Etz Chaim are not Arkansas natives. Unlike the peddlers and merchants who initially settled in Arkansas in the 19th century, these 21st century migrants are executives at large corporations. They represent the generation of Jewish professionals who have largely replaced the Jewish merchant class in the South’s metropolitan areas.”

Just as the population base of Arkansas has shifted from east to west during the past 60 years, many of the artifacts from Temple Beth El in Helena went to the northwest when the temple was closed in 2006. The building was donated to the state’s Delta Cultural Center. The artifacts are now used by Etz Chaim in Bentonville.

The remaining Jews in Phillips County now gather for services in homes, just as the early Jews of east Arkansas did before Congregation Beth El was established in 1867.

Last December, the Jewish news service JTA distributed an article about a Friday night service in the home of David and Miriam Solomon at Helena.

“We’re just going back to the cycle,” Miriam Solomon said. “We’ve come full circle.”

Ben Harris wrote in the article, “The plight of Helena’s Jews is mirrored in scores of communities across the Bible Belt, where Jews first migrated in the early 19th century, generally as peddlers. Those who stuck around opened small businesses, which for a long time provided an ample livelihood.”

“I relate everything to economics. People are going where they can make a living,” David Solomon said. “That’s it.”

Harris wrote that David Solomon is “something of a legend in eastern Arkansas. He has held countless civic offices, and all the downtown storekeepers know when he’s around. One of them ticked off the list of legal matters with which he had helped her, including a divorce and real estate issues.”

After reading Saturday’s newspaper column, a Little Rock man e-mailed me about a visit earlier this year to David Solomon’s office: “I was told to ‘hurry down to his office as he goes out for lunch.’ They added that he is into his 90s but you wouldn’t know it. I arrived at his office, and he looked better than I did though I am 35 to 40 years younger. He had on a pinstripe shirt, cuff links, bow tie and he knew who I was immediately though I had only met him once. He was friendly and quietly gave me attention but pointed to a boardroom and said, ’I am so sorry. I have a room full of clients.”’

He’s 93 and going strong, carrying on the legacy of Delta Jews.

As the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities points out, “Despite the fact that they were always less than one-half of 1 percent of Arkansas’ population, Jews have played an important role in the social and economic development of the state. The Kempner, Blass and Pfeifer families all owned leading department stores. Howard Eichenbaum was a celebrated architect who designed many significant buildings in Little Rock. Jacob Trieber of Helena was the first Jew in America ever appointed as a federal judge, serving the Eastern District of Arkansas from 1900 to 1927. Julian Waterman was the first dean of the University of Arkansas Law School. Rabbi Ira Sanders, who served Little Rock Congregation B’nai Israel from 1926-63, became an outspoken supporter of racial equality during the turbulent era of civil rights. Cyrus Adler, who was born in Van Buren, became one of the most prominent Jewish leaders in America during the early 20th century, serving as president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Historical Society.”

All three of Miriam and David Solomon’s sons ended up on the East Coast. All have been highly successful in their careers. Just last week, President Obama announced that Lafe Solomon will serve as the acting general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board.

Those careers, though, have taken place somewhere other than the Delta.

Harris wrote that Miriam and David Solomon have a “benign resignation” over the impending end of Jewish life in Helena that derives “at least in part from the success they have had in winding down their affairs and ensuring the continued maintenance of their synagogue and cemetery, which dates to 1875. Their ritual objects have been donated to other communities, and a trust has been established to ensure the cemetery’s upkeep. And with the synagogue and its glass-domed ceiling turned over to the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the building will not only be preserved, it will be put to good use.”

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Missing oysters and the Redneck Riviera

Friday, June 18th, 2010

Like millions of other Americans, I’ve watched the television stories and read the published accounts as the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico continues to unfold.

BP’s chief executive officer was on Capitol Hill yesterday, saying how sorry he was that this has happened.

The apology didn’t make me feel any better.

I suspect it will be many years before we have a handle on the ramifications of the oil spill.

As is the case with so many other people in the South, annual visits to the Redneck Riviera are a cherished family tradition. We skipped last summer because I had just begun a new job June 1, money was tight and the timing wasn’t right for a vacation.

But in January, looking to warm up from what was a brutally cold winter by Arkansas standards, we went on the Internet and found a house we liked at Orange Beach in Alabama. We then found a week in late July that worked for everyone and made our reservations.

I almost felt guilty when we made the decision a few weeks ago to cancel those reservations. The folks on the coast are begging us to come down, eat in the restaurants, play golf, etc. Frankly, though, it’s too much money to spend for a possible view of work crews in orange vests scouring the beach, complete with loud trucks, early in the morning. That’s not a relaxing thought.

Hopefully, by next summer, things will be better and we can head to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida to celebrate our oldest son’s graduation from high school.

For now, I’ll miss the long walks, I’ll miss cooking on the grill as the sun sets, I’ll miss sitting on the deck and finally taking the time to read a book.

And I’ll miss the fresh seafood, especially the oysters.

I love oysters — raw, fried, steamed, baked, you name it.

Years ago, I convinced my mother-in-law to always make oyster dressing rather than just regular dressing for the holidays.

Things really hit home last week when the news came that P&J Oyster Co., which has been operating in New Orleans for 134 years, has stopped shucking oysters.

“My son — who is delivering oysters right now — he asked me yesterday, ‘Should I go apply for food stamps?”’ said Al Sunseri, the company’s president. “I started here when I was 21, and I remember how I wanted to carry on the tradition of our business, and I remember the feeling of not only the pressures of trying to carry on this long-standing business but also the opportunity that I had to do it.”

Two-thirds of the nation’s oysters come from the Gulf of Mexico. There were almost 13 million pounds of oysters worth about $40 million in sales at the dock harvested in Louisiana alone in 2008.

Sunseri said his oyster shuckers could make from $16 to $24 an hour, depending on their skill levels. Sunseri believes many of the oyster beds will never reopen.

Here’s how the situation was described in a story at www.money.cnn.com: “Restaurants that depend on P&J Oysters have had to scramble. Dickie Brennan is the owner of Bourbon House, a restaurant in New Orleans’ French Quarter. His family owns a handful of restaurants that depend on P&J Oyster Co.

“Many of the restaurants that P&J Oyster works with have been customers for generations and want to continue to support the family-owned distributor. ‘I own and operate three restaurants. We are pretty good volume for these guys,’ Brennan said.

“The Bourbon House buys both shucked oysters — for sauteing, frying and poaching — and whole oysters — for the traditional oyster on the half shell. Brennan said he has been able to get oysters from distributors that draw from outside of the areas shut down by the spill. He hopes P&J Oyster will get back on its feet eventually.

“‘We are like family — New Orleans is a small city,’ Brennan said. “I talk to Sal or Al five times a day, and we are trying to come up wth different strategies. But the goal is that P&J can get back to normal.’”

P&J’s roots go back to Croatia, where fishing in the Adriatic Sea has been a way of life for centuries. During the 1800s, many Croatian fishermen began to migrate to south Louisiana. One of them was John Popich, who wound up near New Orleans. He became an oysterman. The French Quarter company he began in 1876 is the oldest continually operating dealer of oysters in the country.

Some of the most famous dishes in New Orleans – including the oysters Rockefeller invented at Antoine’s by the Alciatore family — traditionally have used oysters from P&J Oyster Co.

The Sunseri brothers plan to bring in oysters from the Atlantic Coast and the Pacific Coast for customers. But they won’t be Gulf oysters shucked in the French Quarter.

“It is like trying to sell oranges instead of apples in an apple market,” Al Sunseri said. “Those oranges that people aren’t accustomed to eating instead of those apples, they are having to pay three times the price.”

It takes oysters between 18 months and 24 months to grow to full size.

How long will it take the oyster industry in the Gulf to recover once the oil is stopped?

“There is a lot of unknown, and it has everything to do with so much that we have never seen happen before,” Al Sunseri said.

Kevin McGill of The Associated Press began his story this way in a dispatch last week: “An early morning workday ritual — the shucking of small mountains of oysters for New Orleans restaurants — fell victim to the BP offshore oil spill at a 134-year-old French Quarter oyster house where neighbors treated the news like a death in the family. Amid the din of nearly a dozen men and women hammering and prying at the last piles of craggy oyster shells at P&J Oyster Co., Jerry Amato wandered in bearing comfort food: aluminum trays full of scrambled eggs, fried ham, grits and biscuits.

”’That’s what we do in New Orleans. After the funeral, we bring food,’ said Amato, proprietor of Mother’s Restaurant.

“P&J isn’t quite dead yet but, barring an unforeseen reopening of the oyster beds that supply the business, Thursday was to be the final day of shucking at the family owned business.”

Al Sunseri, 52, nodded toward the shuckers on that last day and told McGill: “These ladies here, those guys — I grew up with them. We were in our 20s when we started.”

To the west in Franklin, La., Ameripure Oyster Co. (the oysters they serve at the Back Porch in Destin, a restaurant familiar to Arkansans, come from there), company owner John Tesvich said, “The same thing happening over at P&J is happening over here also. … They’re on the point of depletion now.”

Wilbert Collins, 73, is a third-generation oyster farmer. He told McGill that it could take three years to replenish the stock on some of his leases. Two of Collins’ three boats are idle, and the third is helping clean up the spill.

The oystermen of Louisiana truly seem to be in a no-win situation.

“Oyster growers and harvesters are facing a double threat,” McGill wrote. “On the one hand, oil gushing from the blown-out well off Louisiana could contaminate the beds, killing the oysters or rendering them unsafe to eat. On the other hand, a method of fighting the encroaching oil by opening inland water diversion gates in hopes of pushing the oil back also could kill oysters. The fresh inland water dilutes saltier waters oysters need to thrive. Complicating the problem: It’s spawning season for young oysters.”

Here’s how McGill ended his story: “At P&J, longtime employee Wayne Gordon, 42, said his emotions ran the gamut from pain at the prospect of losing a job he’s held since he was 18 to anger at what he sees as the incompetence that caused the unending underwater gusher. ‘Twenty-four years,’ Gordon said as he took a break in the room where freshly shucked oysters were being packed into plastic cartons. ‘I cannot imagine not being here.”’

Tom Fitzmorris, a veteran New Orleans food writer and radio host who sends out The New Orleans Menu Daily online (I’ve subscribed for years and love it) summed up my feelings when he wrote: “This is very bad news. Sal Sunseri has been one of the most positive and active people in the seafood business in New Orleans. His product has been good enough that many restaurants around town specify on their menus that they serve P&J oysters. For him to lay off his staff and shut his doors indefinitely does not bode well for our favorite local seafood. It is not an act designed to just get attention, that’s for sure.

“The oil spill . . .  is still putting fresh oil into the water. It’s meeting with what’s there already to create a really abysmal glop that is flowing into all the best areas for oystering. And there’s not going to be an easy fix for this. Some are saying (although I don’t believe this myself) that it will be many years before we have oysters again from the prime beds in Barataria Bay and on the East Bank of the river.

“Unlike many inside and outside of the media, I don’t pretend to know the solution. That’s really the worst part of this: Questions are everywhere, answers are nowhere. It’s scary when even the best people don’t know what to do. (There’s a difference between saying you know and actually knowing.) Nor do I think the orgy of blame assignment, lawsuits and shoulda woulda coulda scenarios is adding anything to this horrible turn of events.

“I just want to cry. And then I want to wait and see, with crossed fingers. They said it would be years before we’d have oysters again after Katrina. It proved to be only weeks. I know this is different, but. . . well, I’m waiting and watching. What else can one do other than help those affected directly?”

Like Tom, I don’t pretend to know the solution.

Like Tom, I just want to cry.

I’ve written before about how my parents sometimes would take my sister and me to Biloxi and Gulfport in the summer. As noted in earlier posts, we didn’t even know the prettier blue water and the whiter sand was just to the east of us in the Florida Panhandle. The Mississippi coast was the first one we hit heading south from Arkansas, and that was as far as my father cared to drive.

But we loved it. To this day, I find myself enjoying each part of the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida.

I tasted my first raw oyster at a place on the Mississippi coast called the Friendship House. Unlike most kids, I immediately fell in love with fresh, salty raw oysters.

Years later, my wife and I honeymooned in New Orleans just so we could eat in various restaurants there for a week. I told her I thought I could get my name on the wall at the Acme along with the other people who had eaten large numbers of raw oysters. She wouldn’t let me try.

I now feel that same sense of loss I felt from afar in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

We’ll go another summer without making it to the Gulf Coast. I’ll look out the window and daydream about walking around one of my favorite towns — Pass Christian in Mississippi, Fairhope in Alabama, Apalachicola in Florida.

They’ll have to wait another year.

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The ghosts of Blackton

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

In the previous post, I described the Louisiana Purchase State Park at the point where Monroe, Lee and Phillips counties meet as “hauntingly beautiful.”

Intrigued by the silence of the headwater swamp, I’ve sometimes hiked that boardwalk alone. On most of my visits, my car has been the only one in the lot.

It’s quiet. And even on a brutally sunny day, the thick water tupelo trees form a canopy that almost makes it dark in the swamp.

There were four of us there Saturday. Still, ours was the only car.

We were startled for a moment on the walk back when we found a large snake wrapped into the fencing on the side of the boardwalk. The snake had not been there on the walk out to the Louisiana Purchase monument. We didn’t bother the snake. It didn’t bother us. For the moment, we were simply sharing this headwater swamp of the Little Cypress Creek watershed.

Here’s how the Arkansas State Parks website at www.arkansasstateparks.com describes a visit to the park: “As you walk along the boardwalk, you’ll experience the captivating beauty and natural sounds of the surrounding swamp. Along the boardwalk, interpretive wayside exhibits tell about the Louisiana Purchase and describe the flora and fauna of the swamp. This headwater swamp is representative of the swamplands that were common in eastern Arkansas before the vast bottomlands were drained and cleared for farming and commercial purposes.”

Just down the road on U.S. Highway 49, there’s yet another hauntingly beautiful place. It’s the Palmer House, built in the early 1870s by John Coleman Palmer, a lawyer, farmer and newspaper owner from Helena. Some people referred to it as Palmer’s Folly.

For years, motorists along U.S. 49 would notice its ruins under the pecan trees. The once grand but now dilapidated house was situated at the edge of a field like something out of a movie.

Like others, I would drive by and think to myself: “I wish someone had the vision, money and ambition to renovate that place.”

A few years ago, someone began the massive task.

I later discovered it was Richard Butler Jr. of Little Rock, a man I’ve known since we both were part of the Arkansas group that attended the Republican National Convention in Dallas in 1984.

Butler and business partner Jeremy Carroll took on the project after Carroll saw what was left of the house and fell in love with it anyway.

Kane Webb wrote this last year in Arkansas Life magazine: “Butler and Carroll are only the third owners of the property. Palmer’s great-grandson, R.E. Palmer, sold the house and dozens of farming acres around it to the Griffith family three decades back. And Joe Griffith, who farmed the land with his father, sold the house and five surrounding acres to Butler and Carroll almost three years ago. For a while, Griffith kicked around the idea of turning Palmer’s Folly into a duck hunting bed and breakfast. After all, the house may be surrounded by cotton fields, but it backs up to some prime Delta wetlands.”

Most of the work on the outside of the house has been completed. The inside likely will be a work in progress for several years to come.

“I would like to put period furniture in it and open it to the public several times a year,” Butler told Webb. “Maybe rent it out for parties.”

Butler also has relocated some sharecropper shacks on the property. He said legendary musician Levon Helm grew up in one of the shacks, which he moved over from the Thompson farm at Turkey Scratch.

The nearest community on the map to both the Palmer House and the Louisiana Purchase State Park is Blackton. Like so many Delta towns that once existed to serve the hundreds of tenant farmers and sharecroppers who shopped and obtained services in those communities, Blackton has about dried up.

Blackton was named for William Black of Brinkley, who in the late 1800s built a railroad south from Brinkley into this area to transport timber to his sawmill.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the hardwood forests of east Arkansas represented one of the country’s great lumber sources. Most of the large fields of crops one now sees in the region originally were forests filled with giant oak, hickery and cypress trees. The trees were cut, the swamps were drained and the crops were planted over a period of decades.

The Arkansas Legislature created the Blackton Special School District on April 1, 1919. The district was consolidated with Holly Grove in the 1930s, though elementary classes continued to be taught there until 1952.

Here’s how the online Enyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture at www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net describes Blackton: “Goats graze where stores once stood, and only a few houses remain. But from the 1880s to the early 1950s, Blackton was a center of activity and community support for a population of perhaps 100 families. Until after World War II, grocery stores, sawmills, a cotton gin, the railroad, dance halls and beer joints flourished. Migration to California and ‘up north’ that had begun during the Depression sped up during the war, and as farming methods changed, the exodus spelled the end of the town. The post office was discontinued in 1966. By that time, the train depot and the school had long been gone, and by the mid 1970s, all commercial activity was gone; the little white frame church that had stood for nearly 100 years was torn down.”

Most of the people who lived in this area — the rich who lived in places like the Palmer House and the poor who lived in their sharecropper shacks — are long gone. Now, there are just fields of cotton, soybeans, rice, corn and wheat.

Duck season will bring visitors from Memphis and Little Rock. But for now, once you get off U.S. 49 where anxious gamblers race toward the Isle of Capri, it’s mostly farmers in their trucks.

It’s quiet here in the swamp on a hot June day. Even the snakes seem sluggish.

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A day of Delta driving and dining

Monday, June 14th, 2010

Last year, I donated an item for a fundraising auction at Little Rock Catholic High School.

It wasn’t exactly an item.

I donated a day in the Delta — eating barbecue, viewing the sites, generally having fun.

I didn’t know if anyone would bid on it or not. But it was my gift to the school where my oldest son is receiving an excellent education.

To my surprise, a number of people bid. The high bidder was Gerald Grummer of Sherwood, a great guy who owns the Western Sizzlin at Jacksonville.

On Saturday, we finally got around to taking our trip. We were accompanied by two of Gerald’s sons, Jordan and Conner. Jordan majors in journalism at the University of Arkansas. Conner, who graduated last month from Catholic High, plans to attend the University of Arkansas and major in broadcast journalism.

Jordan is working this summer as a reporter for the Times Record at Fort Smith. He saw a far different world Saturday from the one he covers in west Arkansas.

Gerald began his career with Western Sizzlin in 1977 as a store manager in North Little Rock. He became the general manager of the Jacksonville location in 1995 and purchased the restaurant in February 2002.

We pulled out of Little Rock at 9 a.m. and made our first stop at my favorite vegetable stand in the state, the one at Biscoe in Prairie County where Arkansas Highway 33 intersects with U.S. Highway 70. I bought locally grown tomatoes and some squash.

On my way back to Little Rock from Arkansas City last week, I had purchased Bradley County pink tomatoes at the produce stand on U.S. 65 in Pine Bluff where Mrs. Jones’ restaurant once stood (I still miss that place). When the Arkansas tomatoes are ripe, we run through them quickly at our house. So those tomatoes were already gone.

I was tempted to buy a couple of big cantaloupes (I enjoy having half a cantaloupe for breakfast when they ripen each summer), but we had a long, hot day ahead of us. Frankly, I didn’t want to subject my guests to the smell of cantaloupes left in a hot car. It wouldn’t have bothered me. That smell always reminds me of childhood vacations, when my mother would buy cantaloupes on the way back from Texas.

After the stop at the vegetable stand, we pulled in just down the road at Martin’s IGA in Biscoe for something to drink. Back when I was going to Clarksdale, Miss., on a weekly basis, Martin’s was my morning stop for coffee and sausage biscuits. We were too late for biscuits Saturday morning. They were all gone. That was fine. There was plenty of eating ahead of us. I did, however, want the Grummers to get a feel for a real east Arkansas country store — one with lots of duck hunting photos on the wall.

We worked our way over to the Louisiana Purchase State Park, which I consider one of the most hauntingly beautiful places in the state. This National Historic Landmark just off U.S. Highway 49 preserves the initial point from which all surveys of the Louisiana Purchase began.

Twelve years after the 1803 purchase by President Thomas Jefferson, President James Madison ordered an official survey of the purchase area. This territory included parts of what are now 13 states stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada. In October 1815, a survey party left the confluence of the Mississippi River and the Arkansas River and headed north to establish a north-south line known as the Fifth Principal Meridian.

On the same day, a party headed west from the confluence of the Mississippi River and the St. Francis River to establish an east-west line known as the baseline. The crossing of the two lines would be the point from which all future land surveys in the Louisiana Purchase would originate.

In 1921, two surveyors found marks on water tupelo trees in this headwater swamp. They knew this marked the initial survey point.

A granite marker was placed here in 1926 by the L’Anguille Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Despite the historical significance of this point where Monroe, Lee and Phillips counties intersect, few people visited until the Arkansas Parks and Tourism Department used revenues from Amendment 75 to build a modern boardwalk to the 1926 marker. There are interpretive exhibits along the boardwalk that tell of the Louisiana Purchase and explain what can be found in the swamps of east Arkansas.

The park is open from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. each day. Be ready for solitude. You likely will be the only one there. Twenty-one miles south of Brinkley, you turn onto Arkansas Highway 362 and travel two miles to the east. You can park right at the start of the boardwalk.

Having worked up an appetite after our visit to the park, we drove quickly to our first barbecue stop. When I put this day up for auction, I had planned for the first eating stop to be Shadden’s on U.S. 49 just west of Marvell. We reported last month the death of Wayne Shadden and the fact that his legendary country store likely won’t reopen. We drove by slowly Saturday and stared at the wreath still on the front door of the old building.

Our first eating stop ended up being on the other side of Marvell at Poplar Grove. It used to be called J.R.’s. It’s now called A.C.’s. But it looks just the same inside, the service is friendly and the pork sandwiches with slaw (we went with medium sauce rather than hot) are still good. Just look for the pink-and-purple pig on the wooden sign by the highway. It’s on your left as you head toward Helena.

We took a left at Walnut Corner and drove north on Arkansas Highway 1 to Marianna. The destination was Jones, the barbecue joint that no less of an authority than John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance believes might be the oldest continuously operated, black-owned restaurant in the South. Unfortunately, the place was closed. You just never know when it comes to getting barbecue at Jones. At least the Grummers were able to see the old house that holds the restaurant. Fresh hickory was piled outside.

We drove back south on Highway 1 and picked up our second barbecue sandwich of the day at Cypress Corner Bar-B-Q near Lexa. The barbecue is excellent here. Cypress Corner, in fact, ranks in my Top 10 of Arkansas barbecue restaurants.

With two eating stops behind us, we crossed the Mississippi River bridge at Helena and drove into Clarksdale. Taking a break from barbecue, we dropped by Hicks World Famous Hot Tamales to sample the tamales. The always affable Eugene Hicks took us into the back room to show us where he makes these tamales, which he ships across the country.

Since Gerald is a restaurant owner, he was fascinated by the $8,000 electric press that Mr. Hicks uses. That commercial press was intended for stuffing Italian sausages. But Mr. Hicks uses it for his beef tamale fillings. He has a tray with dozens of three-inch cylindrical plastic molds to shape the meat before it is hand rolled in white cornmeal and paprika. The 66-year-old Delta legend says the most time-consuming part of the job is rolling the tamales in corn shucks, which he orders from a company in Dallas. The tamales are then tied in groups of three.

We left Mr. Hicks and headed out to the Hopson Plantation on the edge of town. In 1935, Hopson’s owners began a serious effort to mechanize their cotton operations. In the fall of 1944, International Harvester introduced its first mechanical cotton picker at Hopson. The plantation has long claimed that it was the first place in the world to grow and harvest cotton completely by mechanical methods — no more rows of humans hoeing cotton in the summer and picking cotton in the fall.

The mechanization of agriculture changed the South, so Hopson is an important place for those who study Southern history. Fortunately, my friend James Butler was there on Saturday and hosted us for a visit in the Hopson commissary, which was built in 1924. The commissary now serves as a special events center.

We said so long to James and went downtown to Delta Avenue to visit Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art Inc., a store that Roger Stolle started in 2002.

“I was living in St. Louis with my now ex-wife (Jennifer), and after seven or eight years of visiting the Mississippi Delta, we started talking about moving there to start a blues business and try to support the far-from-flourishing blues scene as well as the culture and personalities behind it,” Roger writes on the store’s website. “I was running a marketing department at the time for a large retailer in downtown St. Louis, and the job was awesome — the kind people kill over. Still, it just felt like at the end of the day I was really just punching a clock, trying to make the most widgets and amass bigger and bigger slices of the pie. At some point, it just didn’t make sense to me anymore.”

Eight years later, the store is going strong.

Our fourth eating stop of the day was next on the agenda — Abe’s Barbecue in Clarksdale, which has been around since 1924. After World War II, Abe’s moved from the intersection of Fourth and Florida streets to the crossroads of U.S. Highways 61 and 49. Among the musicians who have eaten at Abe’s through the years are Paul Simon, Charlie Pride and Conway Twitty.

Michael Stern writes at www.roadfood.com: “Abe’s has been sung about in blues songs and written about in Faulknerian novels set in the Mississippi Dleta; and to the traveling foodie, it is a must-eat destination. Its legend goes back to 1924 when Abe Davis opened a snack stall on the street in Clarksdale. Today at the famous crossroads of Highways 61 and 49, Abe’s grandson Pat Davis maintains the name and the high-quality cooking, which includes thin-sliced, crisp-edged barbecued pork as well as that incongruous Mississippi Delta specialty, the hot tamale.”

Having had tamales with Mr. Hicks, we had our third pork sandwich of the afternoon at Abe’s.

It was time to head back west toward Arkansas.

Before crossing the bridge into the promised land, I showed my guests Uncle Henry’s Place on Moon Lake, just off U.S. 49. Moon Lake is an oxbow lake, and Uncle Henry’s is in the historic building that housed the Moon Lake Club (a casino famous across the Delta) in the 1930s. Tennessee Williams mentioned the Moon Lake Club (which he called the Moon Lake Casino) in “Summer and Smoke” and referred to Moon Lake itself in several other works.

According to www.roadtripusa.com, “Moon Lake was home to one of the South’s most famous Prohibition landmarks, the Moon Lake Club. Unlike speakeasies associated with thugs and tarts, this club was a family destination where parents could dance and gamble while the kids played in the lake. In a place and time when planes were still so rare the sound of their engines could interrupt work and empty classrooms, the club flew in fresh Maine lobster and Kansas City steak for its clientele of rich white Memphians.”

George Wright now operates the restaurant at Uncle Henry’s with service beginning at 6 p.m. each Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. George likes you to call ahead for reservations at (662) 337-2757. I can highly recommend his cooking. This is fine dining in an unlikely spot. Sarah Wright will also rent you one of the five rooms and serve you breakfast the next morning.

We didn’t eat with George on this night. Our final stop was to be that most famous of Arkansas Delta barbecue restaurants, Craig’s in DeValls Bluff.

We drove briefly around downtown Helena. We also stopped to read the new Civil War marker once we reached DeValls Bluff.  We walked into Craig’s at 7 p.m. This would be our fifth and final eating stop of the day.

Stern once wrote of Craig’s: “‘Mild, medium or hot?’ you will be asked when you place an order at this roadside smokehouse. Even the mild stuff packs a pleasant punch; medium is very spicy; hot is diabolical, enough to set your tongue aglow for hours. It was quite a sight to watch local boys in overalls come to Craig’s for ‘extra hots’ at lunch and quickly ingest two or three big sandwiches before hopping in their trucks and driving back to work. Not a one of the big fellers combusted from the heat.”

Well, these four Arkansas boys went the “medium” route on the barbecue sauce. As always, the food was excellent.

We arrived back in Little Rock less than 12 hours after we had departed — two states, four barbecue restaurants, one tamale restaurant, a swamp and several historic sites covered on a Saturday. It was quite a day.

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A full belly at Lake Village

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

I’ve made several trips in recent weeks to the far southeast corner of Arkansas, and I’m again reminded that Lake Village is one of this state’s best towns in which to eat out.

That’s right, Lake Village.

I’ve written before about Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales.

But just to the southeast on the banks of Lake Chicot, North America’s largest oxbow lake, is the outstanding LakeShore Cafe.

Continue east on U.S. 82, and just before you cross the Mississippi River bridge, you’ll find The Cow Pen.

Let’s take them one at a time.

Miss Rhoda’s fame has spread east to the state of Mississippi. A feature story by Chris Joyner in The Clarion-Ledger at Jackson last month began this way: “The lunch rush is over and it is quiet inside Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales, but the air is steamy and filled with the rich smell of cumin and chili powder. At one of the Formica-topped tables, Rhoda Adams, 71, takes a break to reflect on 35 years making what some believe to be the best example of the Delta’s most curious culinary treats. She said she was not sold on the idea of getting into the hot tamales business at first.”

Here’s what she told the reporter from Jackson: “My husband’s auntie asked me about us doing it, but I never wanted to do any hot tamales. We started doing about 25 dozen a day. I kind of liked it, but I didn’t like it without a machine.”

Her husband bought her a machine to craft the tamales, and Rhoda went to work. We should note that she’s the mother of 15 children, only 11 of whom survived to adulthood.

She said she has almost 60 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She added, “Some of them I ain’t never seen.”

Joyner writes, “Her tamale family is many times larger. Lovers of the meat and cornmeal treats travel from far and wide to find their holy grail served on a Styrofoam plate for a buck apiece. How far would someone come for Rhoda’s famous tamales? ‘Man, what are you talking about?’ she said with mock gall. ‘Oklahoma, New York, Florida. Honest to God. And I have people here every day from Little Rock.’”

She told the reporter that three private planes came down from Little Rock one day in April so a group of executives could eat with her.

The thing to remember is that Rhoda’s plate lunches are as good as her tamales. So are her pies.

Here’s what famed food writer Michael Stern had to say in his review at www.roadfood.com: “The name of Rhoda Adams’ cafe is no lie. The tamales are delicious and well deserving of the fame they have earned up and down the Mississippi Delta. She makes them with a combination of beef and chicken; the meats combined with steamy cornmeal are wrapped in husks that when unfolded emanate an irresistibly appetizing aroma and are a joy to eat as a snack or meal anytime of the day.

“Beyond tamales, the menu at James and Rhoda Adams’ little eat place by the side of the road is a full roster of great, soulful regional specialties. For fried chicken or pigs feet, barbecue or catfish dinner, you won’t do better for miles around. Early one morning Rhoda made us breakfast of bacon and eggs with biscuits on the side. Even this simple meal tasted especially wonderful. Rhoda is one of those gifted cooks who makes everything she touches something special.”

Stern was also impressed when it came time for dessert.

He wrote: “We’ve always considered Arkansas one of America’s top seven pie states (along with Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Virginia, Texas and Maine). Rhoda’s pies are proof. She makes small individual ones. … Her sweet potato pie and pecan pie are world class.”

Rhoda’s is at 714 St. Mary St. If you’re headed south on U.S. Highway 65, take a left at that wonderful old sign with the bass on it that proclaims Lake Village as the home of good fishing. Then, be looking on your left as you head toward downtown for the shed that houses the small restaurant.

A nice plan would be to have lunch with Rhoda, spend the afternoon visiting the Lakeport Plantation and then have dinner at the LakeShore Cafe or The Cow Pen.

The LakeShore Cafe website describes the place this way: “The two comfortable dining rooms and the back porch with king-size rockers overlooking Lake Chicot are not all that draw diners to LakeShore Cafe, says cafe manager Charles Faulk IV. Faulk’s dad and stepmom are the owners, and ever since he can remember, Faulk says his dad — known to all as Big Charles — has loved to cook for others. Today, he’s doing it on a grand scale at the eatery many say is the best-kept secret in the Arkansas Delta.

“Big Charles takes pride in catering to the tastes of his fellow baby boomers, both with the food he serves and the musical entertainment LakeShore Cafe offers on Friday and Saturday nights. Using family recipes handed down for generations — replete with vegetables straight from the farmers’ market — Big Charles and his staff of old-fashioned Southern cooks serve up hot plate lunches, mouth-watering steaks, sumptuous seafood and barbecue.”

Charles and Teresa Faulk were living in Mississippi’s capital city in 1997 when they bought the LakeShore Motel from 94-year-old Idell Smith, who had built it on the shores of Lake Chicot in the 1950s. Charles IV ended an Army career and moved to Lake Village to supervise the renovation of the motel. His parents would drive over from Jackson on weekends. They built the cafe after they finished renovating the motel. They later added a marina and a meeting facility.

A new dining room, bar and porch overlooking the lake were added in 2003.

While there, try what’s known as Elizabeth’s baked eggplant.

Elizabeth was Big Charles’ late mother who apparently was known for her cooking in Vicksburg.

According to the website, “Elizabeth’s scalloped oysters — a dish that graced the family dining table every holiday alongside her sparkling crystal goblets, delicate heirloom china and gleaming sterling silver — now please the palates of cafe patrons who come from miles around looking for something special.”

Let’s hope they can still find oysters despite the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Cow Pen, meanwhile, has been a Delta dining tradition since 1967. It’s open for dinner from Wednesday through Saturday and for Sunday lunch from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m.

There are tamales, catfish, frog legs, fried oysters, shrimp, steaks, Italian food and Mexican dishes on the huge menu. On a recent Friday night, I had the seafood platter with a side of eggplant parmesan.

In 1967, Floyd Owens converted an old cattle inspection station into a restaurant. Those of us of a certain age can remember inspection stations. When I was a child, I loved having our family automobile stopped at the inspection station near the Texas border on U.S. Highway 67 so the man could ask: “Got any cotton or sweet potatoes?”

They had to make sure we weren’t bringing boll weevils back from our Texas vacation.

Gene and Juanita Grassi bought The Cow Pen in 1977. After 30 years of running the restaurant, they decided to retire. That’s when the Faulks — Big Charles and Teresa and Little Charles and his wife Lydia — stepped in and decided they would own a second restaurant. They wanted The Cow Pen tradition to live on.

Just six months after the Faulks took charge, The Cow Pen burned in November 2007. The Faulks, however, were determined to rebuild. The new Cow Pen opened on Nov. 26, 2008. It will now serve as the Arkansas anchor to the spectacular new bridge that’s about to open over the Mississippi River.

Rhoda’s, LakeShore Cafe, The Cow Pen — you can’t go wrong with any of the three. Folks drive from Louisiana and Mississippi each day to eat at Lake Village, a place that has become one of Arkansas’ culinary gems.

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Bentonville strikes gold with 21c

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

I love hotels.

Old hotels and new hotels. I love to sit in their lobbies. I love to check out their restaurants. I love to take the extra shampoo and conditioner home. I love to read the online reviews.

Of all the hotels I’ve visited (consider the fact that I spent 110 nights away from Little Rock in 2008), the 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville is perhaps the most unique. I was there in July 2008 for a Southern Foodways Alliance event.

Trust me when I tell you that Tuesday’s announcement that a 21c will be built in downtown Bentonville (an announcement overshadowed by that day’s Democratic runoff for the Senate) is big news for Arkansas.

We realize that Alice Walton’s construction of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville is transformative. Attracting a 21c gives us an indication of the kind of people and amenities that Crystal Bridges will bring to Northwest Arkansas.

Consider the fact that the readers of Conde Nast Traveler last year voted 21c Louisville as the best hotel in the country and the sixth best hotel in the world.

Best in the country. Sixth best in the world. And one is coming to downtown Bentonville.

Sit back and think about that for a moment.

A 21c also will be built in downtown Austin and downtown Cincinnati. Funky, progressive Austin is pretty good company for a town in Benton County to keep.

“The growth of 21c Museum Hotels is something that has happened organically,” says Michael Bonadies, the president and CEO of the company that’s owned by Louisville philanthropists Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson. “The success of the brand has surpassed our expectations. As a hub of global commerce and a rapidly emerging arts and entertainment destination, Bentonville is the perfect place for a 21c Museum Hotel.”

Bonadies, by the way, is an acclaimed restaurateur and author. He was a founding partner of the New York group that developed such famous restaurants as Tribeca Grill, Nobu and Rubicon. The restaurant in 21c Louisville, which is called Proof on Main, was listed by Esquire in 2006 as one of the best new restaurants in the country.

Thus we can expect there also to be a world-class restaurant in downtown Bentonville.

Steve Wilson once told the Austin American-Statesman that he’s “not very good about rules.”

“I was born in a fairly restrictive community in the Bible Belt,” he said. “I’m all about opening up the barriers and encouraging people to be creative and expressive.”

Wilson grew up on a farm at Wickliffe in far western Kentucky, just below where the Ohio River empties into the Mississippi River at Cairo, Ill. He majored in political science at Murray State and later worked in the communications division of the Kentucky governor’s office.

He met Laura Lee Brown in 1994, and they married two and half years later. Brown’s great-grandfather founded what’s now Brown-Forman Corp., the giant liquor conglomerate that owns brands such as Jack Daniel’s and Woodford Reserve. Brown’s father was president and CEO of the business. She grew up outside Louisville on a 400-acre property known as Sutherland.

Brown and Wilson now live on a 1,000-acre farm in Goshen, Ky., known as Woodland Farm. They raise bison there. Bison, by the way, is on the menu at Proof on Main.

Here’s how a 2006 feature on the couple in W magazine began: “In Kentucky horse country, it’s nearly impossible to discern a man’s social standing by the car in his driveway or the watch on his wrist. The region has its own set of status symbols, which, though no less powerful, aren’t obvious to the untrained eye. The type of fence that surrounds one’s thoroughbred farm matters — four horizontal slats denote more prosperity than three — as do the initials stamped on the bottom of one’s silver mint julep cups. (They indicate who was president in the year the vessel was made. Old julep cups, of course, suggest old money).

“But perhaps the most telling is the company one keeps on Derby Day, the climax of Louisville’s social swirl. On that front, Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson are hard to beat. This year two members of Congress, the co-founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (who is also a former governor) and three Miss Americas watched the races from the couple’s fourth-floor suite at Churchill Downs. It was a fitting entourage for Louisville’s reigning power pair, who put their guests up at their just-opened hotel downtown, treated them to dinner at their chic new restaurant and hosted them for Sunday brunch at their contemporary art-filled 19th century plantation house overlooking the Ohio River.”

Now, they’re bringing their act to Arkansas in partnership with the Walton family.

Wilson and Brown have traveled around the world to collect the art that will be displayed at 21c Bentonville. The combination of an art museum, a boutique hotel and a widely recognized restaurant is an interesting one that they’ve pulled off in Kentucky.

They only collect art by living artists. They like things that surprise and shock, including video. While standing at the lobby men’s room urinals of 21c Louisville, you look through a one-way mirror at people walking right in front of you while you’re taking care of your business.

Here’s how Elizabeth Blair described 21c Louisville in a piece for National Public Radio: “When you go to an art museum, you don’t expect to be able to take a shower or sleep there. But in Louisville, there’s a place where you can do both. It’s called 21c, and it feels a lot more like a contemporary art gallery than a hotel. … Wilson and Brown have been buying contemporary art from around the world for a long time. About three years ago, they opened 21c as a place to show their collection, Now, anyone can view the art, no matter the time of day, even if they’re not staying here. Sculptures, paintings, interactive video installations are everywhere — even in the bathrooms. … 21c has a permanent collection, rotating exhibitions and even a full-time museum director.”

Wilson said, “I love doing this because it’s so unlike a traditional museum. It’s so accessible, and that’s what to me contemporary art should be all about.”

Charles Venable, director of the Speed Art Museum in Kentucky, told NPR in late 2008: “I think what they’re doing down there is very relevant to a lot of people. Because it is commercial, they combine a restaurant, a bar, a place where you can stay — and they have great art there as well. It’s the combination of different parts of culture that make it so special, whereas older-style museums tend to parse that out in ways that don’t make it as meaningful for a lot of people.”

Rooms in Louisville begin at about $150 a night and can bump up to more than $200. 21c Louisiville has a portfolio of about 2,500 works of art.

So now Bentonville will have two great art museums. And you’ll be able to spend the night in one of them.

We’ve come far from the days when Dogpatch was considered one of this state’s top attractions.

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Training new leaders (at home and elsewhere)

Monday, June 7th, 2010

I will be driving down to DeGray Lake Resort State Park later today to speak at the graduation ceremony for the Leadership Clark County program. There will be 24 graduates of Leadership Clark County, which is in its second year of existence.

I’m a huge proponent of leadership programs. In a small state like Arkansas, where personal connections are vital, these programs allow a new generation of leaders to make contacts and learn about parts of their city, county and state they might not have learned about otherwise.

Such programs also allow these emerging leaders to come up with fresh ideas and, hopefully, begin making some of those ideas a reality.

When I was at the Delta Regional Authority, we created an eight-state program called the Delta Leadership Institute. The governors of the eight states in which we worked (Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Missouri, Kentucky and Illinois) each were able to name four people to the program. The federal co-chairman, appointed by the president, could name another four people in order to round out a class of 36.

I also participated in the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Arkansas program, and it proved to be an outstanding experience.

The Leadership Clark County initiative is an outgrowth of the Clark County Strategic Plan, a countywide effort that set goals and then began implementing various action steps.

Back in 2006, I was visiting with the president of one of the state’s major associations. This man, who had once lived in Southwest Arkansas but now lives in the booming city of Conway, said something that startled me. He knew I was an Arkadelphia native and mentioned that he had recently been in my hometown.

“Arkadelphia is really a town in decline, isn’t it?” he said.

I was working with the DRA at the time, a job that took me into struggling Delta towns in several states on an almost daily basis. I can tell you all about towns in decline.

But I had never thought of Clark County in the same way. To me, Arkadelphia will always be one of this state’s garden spots — a beautiful old town with two universities, two rivers, interstate highway access, a popular lake just down the road, history, charm and character.

The banner of the Southern Standard weekly newspaper, which no longer exists, once proclaimed Arkadelphia to be the Athens of Arkansas. I had a pretty idyllic childhood there. Yet I was determined that on my next trip home to Arkadelphia, I would try to view the city as an outsider. Mentally taking on that role, I saw many things I didn’t like. These were things that to the outsider made this look much more like a shrinking Delta town than a thriving university town.

That’s why Clark County’s strategic planning effort, which was just cranking up at the time, has been so important. A lot of people suddenly were coming together back in 2006 to address the lack of growth and economic development in the county. I wrote a guest column for the Daily Siftings Herald in Arkadelphia, and I knew it had struck the proper nerves when I was criticized by some of the political powers there.

That was good.

It showed people were reading. A debate had been started.

Having viewed firsthand what a similar strategic planning effort had done for Phillips County, I asked Phil Baldwin of Southern Bancorp in Arkadelphia if such a planning effort could begin in Clark County. Southern Bancorp had been instrumental in getting the strategic plan off the ground in Phillips County, which started with far more severe economic problems than Clark County. And Clark County, not Phillips County, is the home base of Southern Bancorp.

As usual, Phil was ahead of me.

He responded, “It’s interesting you mentioned it because we’re planning to do a strategic plan for Clark County.”

Having lived away from Arkadelphia for the past quarter of a century, I’ve watched from afar as the city has responded to major challenges. When Reynolds Metals Co. shut down its Patterson Plant in the 1980s, the business leaders worked to bring in new jobs. Within a few years, Clark County had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state.

In the late 1990s, though, things slowed down again.

When the tragic tornado changed the face of Arkadelphia on March 1, 1997, people responded. I’ll never forget something President Clinton told me on Tuesday, March 4, 1997, after he had finished his walking tour of what remained of downtown Arkadelphia. A reception was being held at Elk Horn Bank even though the bank still had no electricity.

“A lot of towns would never recover from this blow,” the president told me that afternoon. “But with two universities and strong banks, Arkadelphia is better situated to recover from something like this than most towns in the southern half of the state.”

The president was right. Arkadelphia did build back in those areas that had been destroyed. But the growth was not what it should be in a place with two well-respected universities.

So what will I tell the group tonight?

1. Don’t let this be the end. Go out there and truly be leaders in the years ahead. In too many Arkanasas communities, people sit back and wait for elected officials — the mayor, members of the city board, the county judge, members of the quorum court, legislators — to do something for them. Don’t wait on them. The communities that are thriving in Arkansas have strong grassroots support from the business and civic sectors. Simply waiting on government to do something is a recipe for rot.

2. Play to your strengths. The county shouldn’t stop trying to attract manufacturing jobs, but I see too many towns that spend way too much time chasing jobs that likely are headed to Mexico, China and India anyway. Arkadelphia’s strength will always be the fact that it’s home to Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University. I firmly believe Arkadelphia’s niche in this century should be as an attractive Southern college town — a smaller version of Oxford, Miss., if you will. The goal should be to position it as the educational, cultural, literary and artistic center of south Arkansas. For college students, quality of life is now more important than ever. If properly executed, such an effort could also attract artists, writers and others looking for just such an oasis offering culture, a low cost of living and a safe environment.

3. Try harder to attract retirees. High-income retirees put much into an area’s economy with their need for medical care, their spending in restaurants, the time they have for volunteering, etc. They pay property taxes to support the public schools but don’t have children in those public schools. College towns across the country have become increasingly attractive to high-income retirees due to the steady diet of concerts, lectures, plays and sporting events that colleges provide. Arkadelphia should be perfectly positioned to take advantage of this trend.

4. The city should also take better advantage of its old houses and other historic sites. Old river towns such as Camden and Helena don’t have the benefit of being home to four-year universities. And college towns like Jonesboro, Magnolia and Monticello aren’t historic old river towns. Arkadelphia is both — a college town and a historic river town. Play to that strength.

5. Arkadelphia should aim for a bookstore, some art galleries, a music store and some additional restaurants and coffeehouses downtown. The vision should be that of a funky, somewhat artsy place with loft apartments on the second floors of downtown buildings. I’ll urge the emerging leaders to visit the downtown square at Oxford and then envision a modified version of that for downtown Arkadelphia.

6. These leaders should make it their goal to create the cleanest county in the state. There should be strong Adopt-A-Street programs across the county. I remember as a Boy Scout distributing free dogwood trees that had been donated by the Ross Foundation. How about something like an organized effort to plant thousands of new dogwood trees while encouraging people to keep them watered and healthy? Eventually, the area could be promoted as the Dogwood Capital of the South, yet another draw for tourists and retirees.

7. Finally, something I advocate for every community from Little Rock on down: Strict code enforcement. No excuses. No lenience. Abandoned houses should be torn down quickly. Absentee owners should be forced to adhere to the codes and brought to justice quickly when they fail to do so.

Maybe there are lessons here for other towns in Arkansas when it comes to playing to your strengths, cleaning up the town, etc.

Maybe not.

At any rate, it will be good to be home, among friends, talking about helping a place I love finally achieve its full potential.

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Fried crappie at Gene’s

Friday, June 4th, 2010

In the June issue of Arkansas Life magazine, the short biography of me on the contributors’ page states: “He says he would choose fried crappie for his last meal.”

Hopefully, I won’t be choosing my last meal anytime soon.

But I stick by the choice of fried crappie. Last night, Arkansas Life executive editor Kane Webb and I made the drive to Brinkley and Gene’s Barbeque on North Main Street so we could hang out in the famous back room of the restaurant with owner Gene DePriest and duck hunting legend Wiley Meacham.

Here was the deal: We would bring Gene 50 copies of the magazine’s June issue. In exchange, he would feed us fried crappie.

Let me make one thing clear: You cannot go to Gene’s and order crappie off the menu. It’s a game fish. It’s served to invited friends at no cost. It cannot be bought.

The catfish and buffalo ribs on the menu are great, though.

The fried crappie on my plate must have weighed at least two pounds. I left nothing but a pile of bones.

I also finished off a huge baked potato, a bowl of slaw, some pickles, hushpuppies, sliced tomatoes and green onions fresh from Gene’s garden.

I went to bed a full but happy man. My wife gave me this compliment: “You smell like an onion.”

Gene wanted the extra copies of the magazine because there’s an article by yours truly (with some wonderful photos by Little Rock’s Michael Juliano) titled “Eat Anything At Gene’s: Wild Game Sunday Nights Are An East Arkansas Tradition.”

I should also make clear that you cannot just show up on a Sunday night and pay to be a part of this event. Again, it’s illegal to sell wild game. You would have to be invited as a friend of Gene’s.

But if you’re ever lucky enough to be invited, say “yes” quickly.

There’s a seven-page spread in the magazine. You should pick one up if for no other reason than to see Michael’s photos.

I will quote from the first of the piece: “It’s shortly past 5 p.m. on an early spring Sunday, and the side parking lot of Gene’s Barbeque in Brinkley is crowded with pickups. You park behind a truck with a bumper sticker that proclaims ‘Proud To Be An American.’ The folks getting out of these trucks are all men. And they’re all headed for the side door of the restaurant rather than the front door.

“In the front room of Gene’s Barbeque, which draws travelers from nearby Interstate 40 and locals alike, few of the tables are taken at this early dinner hour. But in the back room — the room where the Brinkley Rotary Club meets, the room where former Congressman Tommy Robinson and his sons accosted a banker (receiving statewide media coverage in the process), the room that has been the scene of everything from political fundraising events to the occasional card game — things are hopping.

“With the exception of a waitress who walks in and out from time to time, it’s all men. Some are watching the large flat-screen television in the corner as the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is played. Baylor is trying to upset Duke, and those in the room seem to favor Arkansas’ former Southwest Conference rival. Others are visiting with each other. Some seem to be meditating, perhaps dreaming of the feast that awaits them.”

Back when the restaurant was operated by Gene’s brother, it was known as Sweet Pea’s. On July 1, 1994, it became Gene’s. The restaurant hasn’t been closed since. It’s open on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Thanksgiving Day. It even remained open a few years ago when a fire damaged a large part of the restaurant and forced the closure of the main dining room. The kitchen and the back room weren’t badly damaged, so Gene used the back room as his dining room until the rebuilding process was completed.

Soon after taking over the restaurant, Gene began holding the Sunday night dinners for friends.

Back to the Arkansas Life story: “One regular attendee of the invitation-only affairs describes the menu as ‘whatever Gene shot, caught or ran over the previous week.’ There might be venison one week, squirrel the next, rabbit the next, catfish and buffalo fish the next. The rule seems to be that if it can be cut up and fried, DePriest will give it a try. Two visitors on this Sunday night tell him about bringing home a limit of sandhill cranes from a Canadian hunting trip and what an excellent meat it was.

”’They call it the rib-eye in the sky,’ one of the men says.

“Across the room, the basketball game has ended. Duke has vanquished Baylor, and CBS has moved from basketball to ’60 Minutes.’ The story being aired is about the commercial harvest of shark fins for Asian consumption.

”’Hey, Gene,’ a visitor yells out. ‘Would you cook shark fins if we were to bring them in?’

”’If you bring it in, Gene will cook it,’ another man answers before DePriest can speak.”

I’ve attended the Sunday night dinners several times a year for more than a decade. The menu on the night we worked on this story was fried rabbit, rabbit gravy, wild duck, wild goose, fried Irish potatoes, baked sweet potatoes, cornbread dressing, turnip greens and sliced onions.

Here’s how Gene explains the start of the Sunday night dinners: “I was killing a lot of squirrels. My wife wouldn’t cook them at home. I started to cook them here at the restaurant and invite friends over to help me eat them. It just kind of mushroomed.”

I put the following paragraph in the story while imagining ladies in the Heights, who pick up the magazine to see what parties Phyllis Brandon attended, getting queasy: “During squirrel season, which generally runs from early September through the end of February in Arkansas, fried squirrel is served most weeks. One elderly man, who attended the weekly dinners until just before his death, would bring his own pliers and ice pick from home. The pliers were used to crack the squirrel heads that Gene would cook for him. The ice pick was then used to scrape out the brains for consumption. Visitors from Little Rock would simply refer to him as the Squirrel Head Man.”

Gene lamented the fact that “a number of the regulars have died. The man who ate the squirrel brains was 87.”

I enjoy these Sunday night wild game dinners because they seem to be a throwback to another time, a time when small towns across the Arkansas Delta were filled with businesses that existed to serve the tenant farmers who raised cotton there; a time when winter meant daily hunts until it was time to plant the cotton again; a time when Sundays offered a rare chance to relax, eat a big meal and visit with friends.

On the Sunday night that we put together the magazine story, I asked my duck hunting mentor Wiley Meacham about the saying that the dinners consist of whatever Gene shot, caught or ran over.

“You know, he does put an awful lot of miles on that Lincoln,” Wiley said with a smile.

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To Helena and back

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

Even though the structure was in terrible shape, I had always enjoyed driving by the old Coca-Cola bottling plant in downtown Helena. There was something about the building that harkened back to the days when this port city was among the most vibrant, important places in the state.

I’ve long been intrigued by the Mississippi River cities and towns (large and small) in our region — St. Louis, Cape Girardeau, Memphis, Helena, Rosedale, Arkansas City, Greenville, Vicksburg, Natchez, Baton Rouge, New Orleans and others.

I like their history. I like the feeling of continuity and place one gets from walking their downtown streets.

Most of these places have had their economic struggles in recent decades. But there remains a haunting beauty to these river towns — the hint of a glorious past, sadness at the current situation and the potential for a better future.

So it is with Helena.

I was back in the city last week with Trey Berry, a deputy director of the Department of Arkansas Heritage. Trey and I grew up together in Arkadelphia. I could not have guessed at the time that Trey would turn out to be one of the top historians in the South. Trey, of course, could not have guessed that I would be writing about barbecued bologna at age 50.

We drove past the old bottling plant. It’s now a pile of rubble.

“It just fell in,” Trey said.

Among the rubble, men worked to pull out red bricks to use elsewhere.

Perhaps the fate of the bottling plant can serve as a clarion call for those who have an interest in saving crumbling downtown structures in other historic river cities — not just those along the Mississippi but also those along the White, Arkansas and Ouachita rivers. We’re talking about places like Newport, Des Arc, Clarendon, Pine Bluff and Camden.

As for Helena, don’t get the impression there’s nothing going on there. Actually, I had accompanied Trey to Helena because there’s a lot going on.

In my Saturday column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I’ll detail the city’s efforts to capitalize on its Civil War heritage. Civil War fanatics tend to be high-demographic tourists. They don’t mind spending money to stay in nice bed-and-breakfast inns and eat in good restaurants. Fortunately for all of those with an interest in the Arkansas Delta, the leaders of Helena are putting a plan in place that hopefully will convince some of the tens of thousands of people who visit Shiloh and Vicksburg each year to spend an extra day in Arkansas.

Trey drove slowly through the gates marked “Maple Hill Cemetery 1861″ on a hot Wednesday morning.

Helena and Phillips County can claim seven Confederate generals — Charles Adams, Patrick Cleburne, Archibald Dobbins, Thomas Hindman, Daniel Govan, Lucius Polk and James Tappan. Tappan and Hindman are buried at Maple Hill Cemetery.

Just up the hill in the adjoining Confederate Cemetery is Cleburne’s impressive gravesite. In front of the marker on this day was a wreath that was left recently. A ribbon on the wreath had these words: ”Battle of Richmond.”

“There’s a cult following that has developed around Cleburne,” Trey said. “People come from all over, even Ireland, to visit his grave.”

It was quiet at Confederate Cemetery, which was established in 1869 when members of the Phillips County Memorial Association began relocating the remains of the Confederate dead who had been buried in scattered graves across the county. As recently as March 2005, the remains of six men called the Fagan Six, which were found at the Union artillery emplacement known as Battery D, were reinterred at Confederate Cemetery.

Cleburne, the son of a doctor, was born in County Cork in Ireland in March 1828. His father died when he was 15. Cleburne’s family expected him to follow in his father’s footsteps. He apprenticed for two years with plans to enroll in Apothecary Hall in Dublin. He failed the entrance exam in February 1843. Too embarrassed to return home, Cleburne enlisted in the British Army.

Cleburne decided to move with a sister and two brothers to the United States in 1849. The four siblings landed in New Orleans on Christmas Day that year and began working their way up the Mississippi River in search of work. Cleburne was hired in April 1850 as a druggist at Nash & Grant’s in Helena. He passed the Arkansas bar exam in 1856 after becoming a naturalized citizen and later became Hindman’s law partenr.

As tensions grew just before the Civil War, plantation and business owners in Phillips County began a militia company known as the Yell Rifles (named for Gov. Archibald Yell). Cleburne was elected captain of the company, and he immediately began teaching the men the skills he had learned in the British Army.

When Arkansas seceded from the Union, the Yell Rifles became part of the First Arkansas Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and Cleburne was elected colonel. He was promoted to brigadier general in March 1962 and participated in the Battle of Shiloh the following month.

At the Battle of Richmond in Kentucky in Auguust of that year, Cleburne was struck in the face by shrapnel. He stayed with his men, however, and was promoted to major general that December. In 1863, he participated in battles at Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge and Ringgold Gap in Georgia.

Cleburne was killed while leading a charge on Nov. 30, 1864, in Franklin, Tenn. He was buried in the cemetery adjacent to St. John’s Church in Columbia, Tenn. In 1870, his remains were reinterred at Helena. He’s remembered as the highest-ranking Irish-born officer in American military history.

With no promotion and little signage, the fact that people still come from all over to visit Cleburne’s grave is testament to the potential for Civil War-related tourism in Helena. The places I’ve mentioned — Confederate Cemetery, Maple Hill Cemetery, Battery D — are just three of 27 interpretive sites beings planned. A replica of a Union fort — Fort Curtis — will be built. A park to celebrate the contribution of freed slaves — Freedom Park — will be established.

According to the interpretive plan: “No two locations will be interpreted in exactly the same way. Some exhibits will consist, at least initially, of a single freestanding wayside or kiosk. Others will be enhanced with art, reproduction artifacts and architectural details. Plans call for Fort Curtis and Battery C to be reconstructed in part. Other locations will be interpreted with stations designed to evoke the emotions connected with a particular event or a place that no longer exists. All have the same objective — to make Helena’s complete Civil War history accessible, meaningful and relevant to the community and its visitors.”

For those who visit Helena, there’s more good news. In the past year, the Edwardian Inn has reopened under the ownership of a couple of former educators who moved from North Little Rock. Also, two restaurants downtown — The Blue Tulip in the beautifully restored space that once housed River Road and El Rio Lindo in the historic building that previously housed Oliver’s — have opened in the past year.

I had lunch at The Blue Tulip (try the squash casserole) with Trey, Delta Cultural Center director Katie Harrington and Cathy Cunningham of Southern Bancorp Capital Partners. Their excitment was palpable.

A number of funding sources have been tapped for this project. But more are needed. For example, one of the city’s oldest and most beautiful landmarks, Estevan Hall, needs to be developed into a visitors’ center as part of the greenbelt that’s planned for Biscoe Street on the route into downtown Helena from the Mississippi River bridge.

Downtown, some old buildings are indeed still falling in. But elsewhere around Helena, people are planning for the future. That future can be made brighter by tapping into Helena’s colorful past. That’s the irony — people interested in long-dead Confederate and Union soldiers could help keep an Arkansas town from dying.

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