Archive for July, 2010

Walking down Bathhouse Row

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

It was nice to see things this busy as we walked down Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs on a Saturday morning.

The sidewalks were jammed.

Some of these tourists had no doubt planned to spend their summer vacations along the Gulf Coast. Due to the oil spill, they canceled their reservations and wound up in Arkansas. Let’s hope their first impressions were good.

The key is to have them (a) tell their friends good things about Hot Springs; and (b) come back again.

In the previous post, I outlined some ideas for an even more vibrant downtown Hot Springs — improvements to the aging downtown hotels; bringing back some of Hot Springs’ most famous restaurants and relocating them downtown; and taking empty buildings and turning them into condominiums and apartments in order to build a downtown residential base.

The other needed step is leasing out the four bathhouses that remain empty.

The eight bathhouses in Hot Springs are near the top of the list of Arkansas’ greatest cultural assets. It’s good that four of them are now in use. But I see that as being just halfway toward the goal.

“Bathhouse Row has become the architectural core for downtown Hot Springs,” Earl Adams and Bill Norman wrote for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture (www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net). “The first structures in the area to take advantage of the thermal springs were likely the sweat lodges of local Native Americans, which were followed by an unplanned conglomeration of buildings subject to fires, floods and rot. At one time, the area was subject to numerous claims that eventually had to be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court. For 80 years, the government improved the spring area by containing the creek, filling and widening the narrow valley and constructing the spa landscape. Ornate and numerous wooden bathhouses gave way to large and impressive masonry structures that represent the spa’s highest architectural attainment.

“The peak of bathing came in 1946 when more than 1 million baths were taken; however, a steady decline soon began. City redevelopment eliminated much of the moderate- to low-cost accommodations. The loss of other downtown businesses and the imposition of short-term bathhouse leases that reduced rather than encouraged maintenance also had an adverse effect. The placement of Bathhouse Row on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 saved them but not the use of them. The Fordyce had already closed in 1962 after the decision to have only traditional bathing on the row. …

“Plans for the most recent bathhouses envisioned a uniform architectural style, whereas business owners sought the business advantage of distinctive appearance. Little Rock architects George Mann and Eugene Stern designed several buildings, each unique. A common thread came from capitalizing on the legendary visit of the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto to the spring (most historians now discredit the legend). Mostly built in the the 1910s and 1920s era, design consideration had to take into account all perspectives adjacent to the formal entrance and the Maurice historic spring. In addition, the elevation of first floors for flood resistance called for basements, ramps and steps while fireproofing the structures called for using brick (often veneered with stucco), sawed stone, concrete, marble and tile. Long sunrooms and lobbies and great numbers of windows allowed ingenious manipulations to produce varied appearances and tasteful and artful qualities inside and out.”

Let’s take the bathhouses one by one, starting with the four that are in use:

1. The Fordyce — If you want proof that the federal government can do some things right, this is it. As the bathing business declined during the late 1950s and the early 1960s, the Fordyce became the first of the eight current bathhouses to go out of business when it closed on June 30, 1962. In 1989, after having been padlocked for 27 years, it was extensively renovated by the National Park Service. The Park Service did a beautiful job of restoration. Serving now as the park’s visitors’ center, it was teeming with people on the Saturday we were there. Designed by Mann and Stern, the Fordyce had opened on March 1, 1915, under the supervision of Sam Fordyce’s son. It’s the largest bathhouse on the row and, certainly in the 21 years since the restoration, one of the most beautiful buildings in Arkansas inside and out.

2. The Buckstaff — It’s the only bathhouse along the row to have been in continuous operation since it opened. All Arkansans owe it to themselves to take the baths here, if for nothing else than to say they’ve done so. Designed by Frank W. Gibb & Co., the Buckstaff replaced the Rammelsberg Bathhouse and opened on Feb. 1, 1912. The men are on the first floor. The women are on the second floor. No reservations or appointments are accepted. Just walk in.

3. The Quapaw — The Quapaw has the distinction of being the longest bathhouse on the row. Because of its mosaic-tiled dome, many people also consider it the most beautiful bathhouse on the row. It was reopened two years ago, giving Bathhouse Row two operating bathhouses. Now marketed as Quapaw Baths & Spa, it also features a cafe, reception facilities and a retail shop. In addition to a private bath area, there are four large soaking pools. The bathhouse is closed on Tuesdays. It opens at 10 a.m. on the other six days of the week. The building opened in 1922 and closed in 1984, only to be gloriously brought back to life two years ago.

4. The Ozark — Mann and Stern designed the Ozark, and it opened just a few months after the Quapaw in 1922. It’s beautiful on the outside with its Spanish Colonial Revival style, but it was considered a no-frills bathhouse on the inside. It closed in 1977 and was brought back to life last year as the home of the Museum of Contemporary Art. On the day we were there, a steady stream of people were going in to see an Ansel Adams exhibit (that exhibit closes Saturday). The cost of admission is only $5, and the museum is open for 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. An art museum is a nice adaptive reuse for this bathhouse.

Now, let’s move on to the four bathhouses that remain closed and are in need of tenants:

1. The Lamar — It’s named for a former Supreme Court Justice who has one of my favorite names in American history — Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar. He was the secretary of the interior when the first bathhouse was built in 1888. The Lamar, which opened in 1923 and closed in late 1985, was considered unique because it offered a range of tub lengths for people of various heights.

2. The Maurice — The building opened on Jan. 1, 1912. Designed by architect George Gleim Jr., it was built by Billy Maurice to replace an existing Victorian-style bathhouse. It had a gymnasium, a roof garden, twin elevators and even a therapeutic pool in the basement. It closed in 1974.

3. The Hale — The oldest structure on bathhouse row, most of the Hale was completed in 1892. Mann and Stern remodeled the building in 1914 and modified its style. It was redesigned again in 1939 by the firm Sanders Thompson & Ginocchio, and its red bricks were covered in stucco. The Hale closed on Halloween Day in 1978.

4. The Superior — This is the smallest bathhouse on the row. It was built by L.C. Young and Robert Proctor. It opened in 1916 and closed in late 1983.

The National Park Service administration building was constructed in 1936. Adams and Norman wrote: “Its predecessor fronted on the row and was sometimes mistaken for a bathhouse. The remedy for this confusion was to face the new edifice on the adjacent street. The Spanish style, by this time, had become thoroughly ingrained, hence the large brown double oak doors, iron grills, iron balcony rails and red-tiled hip roof with an exposed beam overhang. …

“The ultimate landscape emerged when the second Arlington Hotel burned on April 5, 1923, and its site became a lawn. A park maintenance shop, cooling towers, the Government Free Bathhouse and the Imperial Bathhouse were razed, and a service road closed, making the Grand Promenade a reality and giving rise to present-day downtown Hot Springs.”

Leaving the site of the administration building, we took the Grand Promenade all the way to the Park Hotel. Downtown Hot Springs seemed more alive than ever on this Saturday, leading to thoughts of what needs to occur to take things to the next level and bring on a new golden age for this important part of our state.

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Summer in Saratoga and Hot Springs

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

Walking into The Pancake Shop on Central Avenue in Hot Springs is a bit like stepping back in time.

That’s especially true in the winter and spring months when the live meet is in progress at Oaklawn Park. It’s not the daily newspaper the breakfast patrons are reading during those weeks. As Southern Traveler put it in a 2006 article, “It’s sometimes hard to get in, but if you keep your ears peeled, you’ll likely hear educated opinions from locals who study the Daily Racing Form like a valedictorian studies textbooks.”

Earlier this month, I took a visitor from Washington, D.C., to Hot Springs for the day. We left Little Rock early with our first stop being The Pancake Shop for breakfast. As usual, there was a wait. We were happy to take two stools at the counter. I likely would stand if necessary for those buckwheat blueberry pancakes and that great sausage. Owners Keeley Ardman DeSalvo and Steve DeSalvo have done a tremendous job maintaining this Arkansas institution.

Steve, a well-known financial adviser during the week who mans the cash register on busy weekends, came over to where we were sitting, and the subject immediately turned to racing.

Regular readers of this blog know that I love thoroughbred racing. They also know that I love Hot Springs.

We talked about Steve’s planned August trip to Saratoga Springs, N.Y. (I’m jealous), and I began thinking about Hot Springs’ old moniker as the Saratoga of the South. The column I’ve written for this Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette will focus on that topic.

There are indeed many similarities between Hot Springs and Saratoga Springs.

You can start with the tracks. Saratoga Race Course is the oldest continually operating thoroughbred track in the country and home to the Travers Stakes, America’s mid-summer derby that occurs late each August. In this era of the sport’s decline, I can think of few places where going to the races remains an event – something you circle on the calendar and dress up for. Saratoga, Oaklawn and Keeneland come to mind.

The 142nd season at Saratoga Race Course opened July 23 and runs through Labor Day. Travers day is Aug. 28. Despite heavy rain, the daily average attendance for the first four days of the Saratoga season was 18,113. The largest opening-day crowd ever was 32,913 in 2002.

Racing is an important part of the economy in both cities.

Ken Ivins, the city finance commissioner for Saratoga Springs, puts it this way: “It’s not just the track season but also the people who are up here for several months training the horses, the people who are buying the hay, the veterinarians and many others.”

Famed trainer D. Wayne Lukas has noted the similarities between the two towns. Lukas has spent the entire meet in Hot Springs each of the past two seasons, saying how much he likes a smaller place where life revolves around racing whenever the horses are running.

There are many other similarities between the two towns.

Both tracks have added hundreds of video gaming machines in recent years.

Both have parks that grew up around natural springs — Saratoga Spa State Park and Hot Springs National Park.

Both have spas where visitors can still enjoy natural mineral baths.

Both have historic downtown hotels. In Hot Springs, it’s the Arlington. In Saratoga Springs, it’s the Adelphi.

Unlike the Arlington, which has never closed though it could stand some serious capital investments, the Adelphi at Saratoga Springs had to be brought back from the dead.

The hotel’s website notes: “The first time Sheila Parkert saw the Adelphi Hotel, it was an abandoned building about to be torn down. That was a long way from what it was a century earlier, and it was a long way from where Parkert and her late husband, Gregg Riefker, thought they could take it. Built in 1877, the hotel had been considered a Saratoga Springs jewel from the moment it opened, an occasion that owner William McCaffery celebrated by hiring the 77th Regiment Band of Saratoga to play from the second-floor piazza, which ran the length of the hotel’s facade.

“But a century later, when Parkert and her husband — a pair of Nebraskans in their 20s — took their first good look at the property, the Adelphi was enough of a blight that it had been slated for demolition.

”’At the time, it was painted red,’ Parkert said. ’It had been closed up from the time we had lived here. The people who had it had compeltely pulled up stakes, and vandals had taken everything out of it.”’

The couple from Nebraska had passed through Saratoga Springs in the early 1970s while on a road trip and fallen in love with the place. They were able to buy the Adelphi in 1979 for just $100,000.

“We were really kids,” Parkert said. “Urban renewal was a big thing here, and this town was up for grabs in the ’70s. My God, they were tearing down everything. If you could stop the wrecking ball, you could buy something for $10,000. All the mansions on Union Avenue, you could buy anything you wanted. It was a big ol’ land grab. It had gotten to be big news that they were going to tear this place down. We had gone to France a lot, and we had seen what people had done with old hotels. We were just young enough and dumb enough to think this could work.”

Parkert was 27 at the time.

A similar story can be told about the Saratoga Arms on Broadway in Saratoga Springs. Built in 1870, it had been The Putnam, The Windsor and The Walton. It wound up being a transient hotel before it closed. In 1998, Saratoga native Kathleen Smith and her husband Noel began bringing that structure back to life.

Hot Springs is fortunate that many of its most historic buildings remain intact. Unfortunately, a number of them sit empty. There’s the Medical Arts Building, long known as Arkansas’ first skyscraper. The 16-story art deco structure was constructed in 1929 and was the tallest building in Arkansas until Winthrop Rockefeller built the Tower Building in downtown Little Rock in 1960. An investor with deep pockets, a love of history and a strong business sense is needed to turn it into a condominium project.

There’s the Howe Hotel (later the DeSoto Hotel), constructed in 1926 by William Howe. It has received a fresh coat of paint and is looking for a buyer.

There’s the National Baptist Hotel on Malvern Avenue and the Riviera Hotel on Central Avenue, also in need of investors with vision.

The linchpin of downtown development, however, might just be the redevelopment of the Majestic Hotel, which anchors one end of Central Avenue. It’s a bleeding sore at this point. Arc of Arkansas had promised to renovate it into apartments, but nothing has happened.

It’s a landmark that needs to be saved. The oldest part of the hotel was built in 1902 on the site of the 1882 Avenue Hotel. An eight-story addition was constructed in 1926 on the site of the 1830s Whittington House. The Lanai Tower was added in 1960. While Al Capone liked the Arlington, Bugs Moran normally called the Majestic his home away from home when he came down for rest and relaxation.

If the people behind the Majestic renovation can get financing approved and do a quality job of renovation, it could signal a new day for downtown Hot Springs. Full-time residents downtown will add to the urban fiber, supporting more restaurants and other businesses in the process. I will suggest at the end of Saturday’s newspaper column that three of Hot Springs’ most famous restaurants — Coy’s, Mrs. Miller’s and Mollie’s — be resurrected in the Majestic complex.

Success could begat success.

If residents were to fill up the Arlington, developers could move forward to renovate the Medical Arts Building, the Howe Hotel, the National Baptist Hotel and the Riviera Hotel for residential use. The National Park Service could lease out the four bathhouses that currently sit empty. Capital investments could be made to improve the rooms at the Arlington Hotel, the Velda Rose, the Park Hotel, The Springs Hotel & Spa (formerly The Downtowner) and the Austin Hotel. In a post back on Feb. 18, I discussed the shortcomings of some of those facilities.

I’m told there may soon be movement on the Majestic project.

And after I wrote that Feb. 18 post, the new manager of the Arlington called, said there were some improvements planned and said he would have me down for lunch one day once those improvements are in place. I look forward to the invitation.

Add it up — eight bathhouses humming with activity, hundreds of new downtown residents living in historic structures that have been carefully renovated, classic restaurants brought back to life, better downtown hotels — and you have the Saratoga of the South shining as never before.

I can dream, can’t I?

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Sports in Arkansas

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

Those who visit this blog on a regular basis (thank you, by the way) probably get more than enough of what I write.

I do, however, want to alert those of you who love sports and those of you who love Arkansas to a fun project I’ve taken on in recent months.

I’ve long been a member of the board of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. In an attempt to take that organization to the next level, we’ve recently upgraded our website, added a Facebook page, the whole social media nine yards.

If you get a chance, visit the website at www.arksportshalloffame.org and check it out. It’s a work in progress, but you’ll find a lot of fresh content there.

I’ve been writing an e-newsletter for several months that you can sign up to receive. We won’t bombard you with e-mails. I promise you that much. Three or four times each month, you’ll get something I’ve written that pertains to famous Arkansans who made their names in the world of sports.

I also would urge you to join the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. Regular memberships are $50 annually. Membership allows you to vote on the inductees each year, gives you an opportunity to purchase tickets to the induction banquet and, as we take things to the next level, provides another benefit — a quarterly magazine called Legends that we’re now publishing. Steve Brawner is doing an outstanding job as the publisher of this magazine, and a subscription comes with your membership.

Also, if you’ve not visited the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame Museum in the Verizon Arena in North Little Rock, you should do so. The museum is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. each Monday through Saturday. The cost for adults is $6. Seniors (those ages 62 and above) can get in for $4. Kids and active military personnel with proper identification are charged $3. It’s well worth it. Tell Ray Tucker, who does a tremendous job as executive director, I sent you.

As I have dug deeply into the history of sports in our state, I’ve been amazed at the number of nationally known sports figures we’ve turned out.

Did you realize that seven members of the Baseball Hall of Fame also are members of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame — Bill Dickey, Brooks Robinson, Dizzy Dean, Lou Brock, George Kell, Arky Vaughan and Travis Jackson?

Bill Dickey might just be the most famous baseball player to ever come from Arkansas. In fact, some baseball historians consider Dickey the best catcher in the game’s history. He was a member of the first class of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1959.

Famed sportswriter Dan Daniel once said, “Bill Dickey isn’t just a catcher. He’s a ballclub.”

Dickey actually was born in north Louisiana at Bastrop as one of seven children, but he always considered himself an Arkansan. When he was just 3, his family moved to Kensett in White County. The Dickey family moved to Little Rock when Bill was 15.

Dickey was assigned by the Yankess to the Little Rock Travelers for the 1928 season, but he was moved up to New York later in the season. He became the Yankees’ regular catcher in 1929 and batted .324. His longevity from that point forward was amazing. Dickey would play for the Yankees until 1946. He was an All-Star selection in 1933, ’34, ’36, ’37, ’38, ’39, ’40, ’41, ’42, ’43 and ’46.

Dickey’s best friend on the team was Lou Gehrig. Dickey was the only Yankee teammate to be invited to Gehrig’s wedding and the first Yankee that Gehrig told of the disease that would end his life. Dickey played himself in the move about Gehrig, “Pride of the Yankees,” that starred Gary Cooper.

Inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1979, Little Rock native Brooks Robinson remains a legendary figure in Baltimore, where he spent his major league career. Following his retirement at the end of the 1977 season, Robinson began a 16-year career as a television announcer for the Orioles. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983 in his first year of eligibility. He’s one of only six former Orioles to have had a number retired by the team.

Was Robinson the best third baseman to ever play the game? Some baseball historians think so. He began playing about as soon as he could walk. Robinson’s father, a fireman, had played semipro baseball and also was a member of the 1937 International Harvester softball team from Little Rock that played in the finals of the World Softball Championship in Chicago.

Known as the Human Vacuum Cleaner, Brooks Robinson won an amazing 16 consecutive Gold Glove Awards (1960-75) during his career. His best season offensively came in 1964 when he batted .317 with 28 home runs and 118 RBI. He was the American League MVP that year, receiving 18 of the 20 first-place votes. Mickey Mantle was second in the voting.

Dizzy Dean was born on Jan. 16, 1910, in the small, rural community of Lucas in Logan County. Lucas no longer exists on the official state map put out by the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department. He was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1983. On the same night, his brother, Paul Dee “Daffy” Dean, also was inducted.

Dizzy’s real name was Jay Hanna Dean.

He once said, “The dumber a pitcher is, the better. When he gets smart and begins to experiment with a lot of different pitches, he’s in trouble. All I ever had was a fastball, a curve and a changeup, and I did pretty good.”

Pretty good indeed. Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1953, Dean posted a career pitching record of 150-83 and went on to be one of the country’s most famous and beloved sportscasters from 1941-74. He led the National League in strikeouts four times in 1932, ’33, ’34 and ’35. He won 30 games in 1934, earned National League Most Valuable Player honors and led the Cardinals to a World Series championship against the Detroit Tigers.

Arkansas has always been St. Louis Cardinals territory, and few Cardinals were more popular with fans in this state than native Arkansan Lou Brock. Brock, who turned 71 last month, was born in El Dorado as the seventh of nine children. His father left the family when Brock was just 2. After the father’s abrupt departure, Brock’s mother moved her family to a cotton plantation near tiny Collinston in Morehouse Parish in north Louisiana.

Brock’s mother worked long hours as a field laborer and a domestic employee. Beginning at a young age, her seventh child worked alongside her in the fields. He was quiet and introverted. No one could have guessed at the time that Brock would retire as baseball’s all-time stolen bases leader, a record that stood until 1991.

Born in Swifton in August 1922, George Kell began playing baseball at an early age. His father, a barber, loved baseball and played for a local semipro team. Kell graduated from high school and attended what’s now Arkansas State University in Jonesboro for one year. In 1940, however, he was offered a contract with the Newport team in the Northeast Arkansas League.

With many major league players serving in World War II, Kell (who had been rejected by the military due to a bad knee) was called up to the Philadelphia Athletics. He played there for Athletics Manager Connie Mack before being traded to the Detroit Tigers during the 1946 season. Kell blossomed in the Motor City. As a player and later a longtime broadcaster in Detroit, Kell always made sure people knew he was from Arkansas. He loved the state and its people.

When baseball statistical wizard Bill James finished rating major league players at all positions, he wound up with Joseph Floyd “Arky” Vaughan as the second-best shortstop in the history of the game. The top spot went to Honus Wagner. It’s quite an achievement for a man from tiny Clifty in the hills of Madison County.

Vaughan was one of six children. When he was an infant, his father became an oilfield worker and the family moved to Fullerton, Calif. But the nickname “Arky” stuck, and the people of this state have long claimed this native Arkansan as one of their own. Vaughan was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1985.

Travis Jackson, meanwhile was born in Waldo and died in Waldo. Jackson was widely considered the best shortstop in the National League during the Roaring ’20s when major league baseball captivated the attention of Americans. He earned the nickname “Stonewall” for his defense. Jackson was a member of just the second class of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1960. In 1982, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Jackson, the son of a storekeeper, was born in November 1903. He excelled early in baseball and played for a time for the state’s college baseball powerhouse at Ouachita. Manager John McGraw of the New York Giants eventually would sign Jackson even though the Giants had a shortstop, Dave Bancroft, who would later be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Jackson was just 5-foot-10, 160 pounds but was known for his range as a shortstop.

All of these stories are are archived at www.arksportshalloffame.org. I hope you will check them out. While you’re at it, sign up to have future stories e-mailed to you.

There are some amazing sports stories to tell in Arkansas.

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Spanning the Big Muddy

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

In March 2003, retired Air Force Col. Joe Pope wrote this on the website www.greenvillebridge.com from his home at Fair Oaks Ranch in Texas: “In February 1943, shortly after the Greenville Bridge opened, we moved to Montrose, where my mother and father lived until their deaths in the 1980s. I graduated from high school at Lake Village in 1951, the U.S. Naval Academy in 1956 and spent 22 years in the armed services. During these years, I crossed the bridge many times visiting my parents and even ‘bombed’ it electronically several times when I was a navigator on B-52s at Columbus, Miss., in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

“In 1989, my wife and I moved back to Lake Village and lived there until 2001, when we moved back to Texas for family health reasons. I know firsthand how much the old bridge has meant to generations of people on both sides of the bridge and to millions of travelers who have used the bridge through the years. When we left, we sold our home on Lake Chicot to the project engineer for the new bridge. I am sure he is overseeing the building of a fine and unique new bridge that will serve many more generations of local residents and travelers. May God bless their endeavors.”

On Monday, that “fine and unique new bridge” will be dedicated between Lake Village and Greenville.

On Wednesday, traffic will begin crossing it on U.S. Highway 82.

The old bridge will be demolished. A contract in the amount of $22.4 million was awarded in January to Granite Construction Co. to remove the bridge. Demolition is scheduled to be complete by Sept. 21, 2012. At that point, the 1940 Greenville Bridge will be nothing but a memory. But what a story it was as Delta leaders worked during the Great Depression to find the money needed to build a bridge between Arkansas and Mississippi.

“The bridge was intimidating and fascinating to me,” Dr. Clyde Brown of Memphis wrote in 2002. “I always thought of it as a powerful steel horse perched in the Delta sky. When I got my driver’s license, my parents trusted me enough to drive them across the bridge to Lake Village. I must say that this experience was as unnerving as landing an F-16 on an aircraft carrier at night.”

In the comments section of an earlier post I wrote about Greenville, Jack Rhodes recalled the day in 1951 that a jet from nearby Greenville Air Force Base, which is no longer in operation, struck the bridge and exploded. The pilot was killed, and there was a large fire. The crash caused $175,000 in damage, a huge amount at the time, but the bridge was reopened to traffic after 22 hours.

Greenville, known as the Queen City of the Delta, was a booming place in the 1930s, but Mayor Milton C. Smith knew there needed to be a bridge to Arkansas rather than just a ferry for growth to continue. He joined forces with John A. Fox, the secretary of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce, and spent weeks at a time in Washington during 1937-38, lobbying for congressional funding.

According to the history posted at www.greenvillebridge.com: “The two spent so much time at their efforts, Smith’s Queen City barrel hoop business would eventually go bankrupt from his continued absence. The first order of business was to get Congress to pass a law authorizing the bridge. Fox, whose national network of friends reached all the way to the nation’s capital, wrote to Mississippi Congressman W.M. Whittington about the matter in May 1937 and was told the timing of his request was not good.

“While considering what to do next, Fox was agreeably surprised to pick up the newspaper days later and read that Congressman Wade Kitchens of Arkansas had introduced a bill requesting permission for the bridge. Fox worked Capitol Hill with Kitchens, Whittington and other friends, including Sen. Pat Harrison of Mississippi and Sen. Joe. T. Robinson of Arkansas. The governor of Arkansas, Carl E. Bailey, had been an ally from the early days of the bridge campaign.”

Fox met with chambers of commerce from Birmingham in the east to Lubbock in the west, explaining what the bridge would mean for the South. Everywhere he spoke, he urged people to send telegrams to members of Congress. The bill authorizing bridge construction was approved in August 1937 and signed by President Roosevelt.

“With all permissions granted, Smith and Fox turned their focus to financing,” the website history states. “How much would a new bridge truly cost? Smith and Fox hired Ash Howard Needles & Tammen of Kansas City, an engineering consultant with a large portfolio of major bridges, to conduct a study and make the estimate. The consultant determined that Warfield Landing, the site used by the Greenville fairy, was not a suitable site for a bridge. Their recommendation was to build the bridge downstream, below Lake Chicot on the Arkansas side, in a straight stretch of the river with stable banks. The new location meant long and expensive approaches to the bridge would be needed. The new estimate for construction: $4.25 million.

“Where Fox succeeded as a master of politics, Mayor Smith succeeded as a master of finance, and during the year that followed, the mayor’s skills would be tested to the fullest. A survey of traffic volume, commissioned to satisfy possible investors, concluded there wouldn’t be sufficient income from tolls to warrant construction of a $4.5 million bridge and that the project merited only $2.55 million in financing. The Reconstruction Finance Corp. would lend the $2.55 million, but this left Smith and Fox some $2 million short.”

In September 1938, Smith and his city attorney, S.B. Thomas, went to Washington to seek money from the Works Progress Administration. They had to make the case to the WPA that construction of a bridge would create lots of jobs for men who otherwise would be unemployed in the Delta. They made that case successfully.

On Sept. 21, Smith and Thomas sent a telegram to Greenville stating that the trip had been a success and that “we can now look forward to the actual materialization of our fondest dream, the construction of the mammoth bridge.”

The Delta Democrat Times reported, “And so it was that exactly at 11:30 a.m. on that day, Greenville received the joyful news with the blasting of every steam whistle in the city, a prearranged signal.”

On Oct. 2, 1940, the bridge was officially opened to traffic. It was named for former Congressman Benjamin G. Humphreys of Greenville, a co-author of the Ransdell-Humphreys Flood Control Act of 1917 that established a national flood control program along the Mississippi River. His granddaughter, Mildred “Maury” McGee, had cut the ribbon during the earlier dedication ceremony in September.

Humphreys, who was born in 1865 and died in 1923, was known as Our Ben to his constituents. His father, Benjamin Grubb Humphreys, had been a Confederate general who fought at Gettysburg and served as Mississippi’s governor from 1865-68. His great-grandfather, Ralph Humphreys, was the colonel of a Virginia regiment in the American Revolution. When Ben Humphreys married Louise Yerger, the daughter of Greenville’s mayor, Jefferson Davis was one of the guests at the wedding.

Ben Humphreys was elected to Congress in 1902 and was determined to make the folks in Washington aware of the flood problems along the lower Mississippi River. A paper he wrote in 1914 advanced the notion that the river was, in essence, the drainage canal for the nation and a federal responsibility. That paper swayed public opinion. Members of the new House Flood Control Committee toured the region in 1916 so they could see the problems for themselves. The act passed the following year, giving the federal government the responsibility of flood control along the Mississppi River.

The Delta Democrat Times later would write of the 1940 bridge, “It seems appropriate that the massive structure of steel and concrete which links two sides on the great river he loved should be dedicated to his memory. His life work had been the conquest of that river beside which he now sleeps.”

Beginning next week, there will be no traffic on that bridge for the first time in seven decades.

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Lake Village’s Lakeport Plantation

Monday, July 19th, 2010

One of our Southern Fried readers who is faithful about posting comments whenever I write about the Delta is Blake Wintory of the Lakeport Plantation near Lake Village.

Blake, this one is for you.

If your Delta travels take you anywhere near southeast Arkansas, you owe it to yourself to pay a visit to this plantation home.

The Lakeport Plantation house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places way back in 1974. Eight years ago, it was designated by the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation as an official project of the Save America’s Treasures program. Using grants from Save America’s Treasures, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council, the home was restored by Arkansas State University and opened to the public.

Tours are available at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. each Monday through Friday. The cost of admission is a suggested $5 donation ($3 for senior citizens or if you’re in a group of 10 or more).

You can find detailed directions by going to the Lakeport Plantation website at www.lakeport.astate.edu.

The plantation is near the new Mississippi River bridge to Greenville. That bridge will open to traffic next week.

As you head east toward Mississippi on U.S. Highway 82, look for the sign advertising The Cow Pen restaurant (as we have mentioned on this blog before, it’s a wonderful place to eat).

Turn right onto Arkansas Highway 142 and go two miles. Turn left when you see a wooden sign that says Epstein Land Co.

We’ll let Blake take it from here on the Lakeport website: “The name Lakeport has been applied to a number of things here in the Arkansas Delta. If you look on a contemporary highway map, you’ll see the name Lakeport beside a dot near the Mississippi River south of U.S. Highway 82 at the terminal point of Highway 142. This marks the spot of a steamboat landing from which thousands of bales of cotton were shipped down the river to New Orleans.

“If you look at a slightly older map, you will see the name applied to a large plantation established before the Civil War by a man named Joel Johnson from Kentucky. More recently, the name Lakeport has been given to the house built on the plantation in 1859 for Joel’s son, Lycurgus, and his wife, Lydia Taylor Johnson. Their descendants remained there until it was sold to Sam Epstein 1927.

“This Lakeport Plantation house is the only remaining Arkansas plantation home on the Mississippi River. Today you can tour it, thanks to a gift in 2001 to Arkansas State University from the Sam Epstein Angel family. … The Lakeport Plantation researches and interprets the people and cultures that shaped plantation life in the Mississippi River Delta, focusing on the antebellum, Civil War and Reconstruction periods. Our mission includes teaching the methods by which we know, develop and remember these stories. …

“The plantation has remained in continuous cotton production since the 1830s when slaves carved it from the heavily forested Arkansas frontier. Thus it provides complete documentation of agricultural development in the region and the accompanying changes in the African-American experience. These include the transition from frontier and plantation slavery to sharecropper and tenant farmer systems, to agricultural mechanization and the resultant mass exodus of African-Americans to factories in the North, to large-scale corporate farming.”

Historian Tom DeBlack, who is writing a book on the history of the Lakeport Plantation, writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Lycurgus Johnson died on Aug. 1, 1876. The plantation remained in the family until 1927, when Lycurgus Johnson’s son Victor sold Lakeport to Sam Epstein for $30,000. Born in Russia in 1875, Epstein was one of a sizable number of poor East European Jews who migrated to the United States and sought their fortune in the Delta. Epstein started out peddling clothes and eventually opened a small store and made some good investments, overcoming poverty and religious bigotry to acquire a sizable fortune and become one of Chicot County’s most respected citizens.

“Upon Epstein’s death in 1944, his son-in-law, Ben Angel, served as trustee of the estate, managed the family’s operations and carried on his father-in-law’s tradition of civic service. Ben Angel’s son, Sam Epstein Angel, currently runs the Epstein Land Co., encompassing some 13,000 acres of land and a large cotton ginning operation, and serves as the senior civilian member of the Mississippi River Commission.”

Blake explains Arkansas State’s philosophy as far as how it interprets history in this corner of southeast Arkansas: “It is the philosophy of the restoration team (and endorsed by the university) that furnished houses have been done well in other places. Rather than create another ‘pretty house,’ or one in which representative furnishings substitute for the original, this restoration and interpretation focuses on the lifestyles and relationships between the people who lived and worked at Lakeport — as slaves and masters, as tenant farmers and land owners.”

The themes at Lakeport are:

1. The westward push for new agricultural lands.

2. The pivotal role of African-Americans in the agricultural development of the region and in shaping the culture that exists there today.

3. The differences and similarities between the Arkansas Delta and other Southern states in plantation agriculture and lifestyles.

4. The skills, techniques and issues involved in the preservation of historic structures.

5. The continuous struggle to harness the Mississippi River, clear the swamps and convert land to agricultural production.

I wrote in an earlier post about the culinary delights of Lake Village — The Cow Pen, the LakeShore Cafe and Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales.

People drive from as far away as Little Rock, Jackson and Memphis not only to eat at these restaurants but also to shop at the Paul Michael Co. and Nonie’s Antiques.

The first location of the Paul Michael Co. opened in Lake Village in 1994, offering furniture, rugs and high-end decorative accessories for the home. The Lake Village store covers 35,000 square feet. There are also locations in Lafayette, La.; Canton, Texas; and Monroe, La. The Monroe location opened in 2003, the Canton store opened in 2006 and the Lafayette store opened last fall.

The company’s website at www.paulmichaelhome.com tells the story this way: “Our original location in Lake Village is situated across from beautiful Lake Chicot and literally in a cotton field. Paul Michael is from the third generation of his family to be born and raised in this rural, Mississippi Delta town. His grandfather was one of the first merchants in the area; he traveled to levee camps with a mule and sold pots, pans, thread and other necessities to the levee workers. His dedication to the community led to the opening of Lake Village’s first department store, Mansour’s, which remained for more than 80 years.

“Paul worked in his grandfather’s department store as a young adult. It became evident that he possessed a natural gift in the art of buying, selling and trading. During the ’70s, Paul fostered this gift buying antiques and selling them to theme restaurants. During this stage in Paul’s life, he fell in love with First Monday Trade Days in Canton, Texas. Always able to foresee future trends, he shifted his focus toward Indian jewelry and diamonds, ultimately becoming one of the first wholesale distributors of sterling silver jewelry to major department stores across the United States. Paul’s ventures into the jewelry trade led him abroad, where he first saw potential in the home decorative accessories market.”

Nonie’s Antiques, meanwhile, has been a family-owned business for more than 25 years. The store has a huge inventory, having added two large metal buildings behind the wooden main store.

Indeed, Lake Village offers far more than most Arkansas towns its size — a historic site in the Lakeport Plantation, great restaurants and stores that draw people from surrounding states.

Then, there’s Lake Chicot.

As you likely know, it’s the largest oxbow lake in North America, a 20-mile former main channel of the Mississippi River. There’s a great little park along the lake in downtown Lake Village. Meanwhile, Chicot County Park near the lake’s southern end offers full hookups for recreational vehicles.

On the north end of the lake, Lake Chicot State Park offers more than 120 campsites and 14 cabin units with kitchens (some have fireplaces and patios) in a shady pecan grove. There’s a marina, a store that sells camping and fishing supplies, a swimming pool and two group pavilions. The visitors’ center has interpretive exhibits about the area’s history. Bicycles can be rented. It’s one of our best state parks.

One of the first major studies of recreational needs in the state in 1940 recommended that Lake Chicot be the site of a state park. The lake remains a great place for hikers, birdwatchers and fishermen. The occasional alligator has been known to make an appearance in this lake, which was formed more than 500 years ago. Trained interpreters at the state park offer regular lake and levee tours. 

Charles Lindbergh made his first night flight over Lake Chicot in 1923. Now, whether you’re driving or flying, the Lakeport Plantation house, Lake Chicot, The Cow Pen, the LakeShore Cafe, Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales, the Paul Michael Co. and Nonie’s Antiques all provide reasons to spend a day or more in the far corner of southeast Arkansas.

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The Great Delta Bookstore Tour

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

I’ve led my own version of the Great Delta Barbecue Tour several times. You can never get enough barbecue, after all.

I’ve also led my version of the Great Delta Tamale Tour (I hope you saw the feature on AETN regarding that memorable trip with Kane Webb and Bill Vickery).

Next, I want to do the Great Delta Bookstore Tour.

There’s something special about independent bookstores. And we’re blessed with some fine ones in the Delta. Along the way, we can also eat barbecue and tamales. A man has to eat while visiting all of these bookstores, right?

Here are our stops:

1. We’ll start in Blytheville at perhaps my favorite bookstore of all, Mary Gay Shipley’s That Bookstore In Blytheville.

Mary Gay opened her store in 1976 in historic downtown Blytheville. There are 2,400 square feet of space and about 25,000 titles in stock.

As her website points out, “Browse while sipping a cup of coffee. You can relax in a rocking chair next to a wood stove, engage in conversation about the book you’ve just read or enjoy a spontaneous reading of the new favorite children’s book of the day.”

Sounds like heaven.

2. We head south from Blytheville and cross the Mississippi River to Memphis. The destination is Burke’s Book Store, which opened in 1875. Its oldest book in stock is from 1866: Two volumes written by Bayard Taylor titled “Northern Travel: Summer and Winter Pictures.”

Cheryl Mesler and her husband, author Corey Mesler, own Burke’s. They are only the fourth family to have owned the store in its 135 years of existence. Bill Burke was the third and final member of the Burke family to own the store. Diana Crump (got to have a Crump in there somewhere when you write about Memphis) owned the store from 1978-84. Harriette Beeson owned it from 1984-2000.

“Independent bookselling is never an easy thing to do, but we love it,” Cheryl recently told the Memphis Flyer.

The Flyer goes on to report, “The Meslers met in the store when both were staff members in the late ’80s and bought it in 2000. Though Burke’s has carried a variety of products over the years — toys, newspapers and literary journals and magazines — the Meslers have expanded what they feel is at the core of the business: buying and selling used books. … Their devotion to old books has served them well, as has the store’s most recent move, from a building on Poplar at Evergreen.”

The move to the funky, artsy Cooper-Young neighborhood gave them foot traffic again. People spend hours browsing there.

“Though they do stock some new books and magazines, it’s the couple’s attention to customer service that is a focal point,” the Flyer reports. “Burke’s carries textbooks for three local private schools, devotes an entire section to Southern writers and buys all their used books from people in the community.”

“I have no fear that the printed word is going to go out,” Cheryl says. “My husband says it’s the perfect little invention. You can’t improve on that.”

3. Our next stop is Square Books in Oxford. OK, OK, I realize that Oxford isn’t in the Delta. It’s in the north Mississippi hill country on the edge of the Delta. But it’s close enough for our purposes. The town square in Oxford is quite simply one of the best places in the South to spend the day.

Square Books was opened in September 1979 by Richard and Lisa Howorth, who had worked for two years at the Savile Bookshop in Washington, D.C., before returning to Richard’s hometown.

Here’s part of the history as published on the Square Books website: “While the Square Books customer base was centered in the Oxford and university community, the selection and display of books was focused upon literature about Mississippi and the South. Customers were pleased to find such books as a hardover edition of ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men’ or Shelby Foote’s ‘Civil War,’ books that at the time were not commonly available in a retail setting anywhere. Square Books also hosted book signings and readings as soon as the store opened. …

“Around the same time Square Books opened, Bill Ferris came to Oxford as the first director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, immediately creating great enthusiasm for academic and cultural interest in the South and Oxford. Ferris was a great friend of Square Books and was key in bringing such writers as Toni Morrison, Allen Ginsberg, Alex Haley and Alice Walker to the store for readings and book signings.

“Willie Morris became writer in residence at the university in 1980 and also was a great friend to the bookstore who brought to town William Styron. … In 1981, Barry Hannah moved to town, a writer who was to literary fiction as Morris was to literary journalism. Hannah had an enormous effect on his students — Donna Tartt among them in those early days — and many writers came to town to visit Hannah and thus Square Books.”

The store expanded to its current location, the former Blaylock Drug Store, in 1986.

4. Returning to the real Delta, the next stop is Turnrow Book Co. on wonderful Howard Street in downtown Greenwood. You should spend the night just down the block at the Alluvian Hotel, visit the Viking store across the street and make an appointment at Viking’s spa while you are there. There also are antique stores and furniture stores on Howard Street. Head to Lusco’s for dinner and let them pull the curtain on your booth.

5. Head next over to Greenville and McCormick Book Inn. I discussed this delightful store in a previous post that I hope you’ll read if you have not already done so. While you’re in the store, make sure and ask Mr. McCormick what he thinks of John Barry’s “Rising Tide.”

6. Go south on U.S. Highway 61 to Vicksburg and spend some time at Lorelei Books on Washington Street in the historic downtown district. Stay at one of the bed-and-breakfast inns in Vicksburg to end your tour — Anchuca or Duff Green perhaps.

I’ll close with something that’s posted on the Lorelei Books website. It’s part of what novelist Howard Frank Mosher wrote about independent bookstores:

“A good independent bookstore always puts good books and good customers ahead of the bottom line. Interestingly, by doing so, passionately and knowledgeably, many (though, sadly, not all) independent bookstores have managed to stay in business in this economically depressed era when even chain stores are suffering.

“Of course, one of the reasons that chain bookstores are having their own difficulties is that many of them do not place a top priority on books and customers. In fairness, though, I have to say that, from time to time, in chain stores, I meet very independent booksellers who love books and respect customers and like to match them up.

“Good independent bookstores — like Tolstoy’s families — are all different. But they are very happy places. When I walk into one, the colorful jackets of books that are my old friends or may become new friends excite me the way walking out of the dim concourse of a major league baseball stadium onto the bright, geometrical familiarity of the diamond below excites me.

“Good independent bookstores are always welcoming. Customers are invited to browse. Booksellers make time to talk about — books! Go into any university English department at the end of the day. All you hear is people grousing about poor students, parking restrictions, pay freezes. Booksellers should be so lucky. Still, they’re as enthusiastic about Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Committed” and the new Raymond Carver collection at the end of the day as at 10 a.m. They just plain love books.”

At all of the above stops, you’ll find people who indeed love books.

These are six excellent independent bookstores in six historic, interesting towns.

Happy travels and happy reading.

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The Carnegie libraries

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

When you think about the classic facilities we have abandoned, neglected or torn down in Little Rock through the decades, you just want to cry.

A current example is Ray Winder Field, widely recognized on websites that cover sports facilities as one of the most historic old ballparks in the country. No one associated with City Hall ever lifted a finger to save this facility for use as a high school and college ballpark, perhaps one that included a baseball museum.

What a jewel that would have been in Little Rock’s crown. Soon, it will be gone.

In a few years, once the UAMS bulldozers have done their job, all we will have are photos of this historic facility.

The same fate befell Little Rock’s Carnegie Library. We didn’t save it.

It was one of only four Carnegie libraries in the state. A grant of $88,100 from the Carnegie Foundation of New York in 1906 allowed planning to begin.

The library was opened on Feb. 1, 1910. That library continued to be utilized until 1964 when it was torn down and replaced by the ugly building that now serves as some kind of computer center. There are still tables from the Carnegie Library in use at the Main Library in the River Market District and the adjacent Cox Creative Center. Original shelving from the library is still used at River Market Books & Gifts.

And Bobby Roberts, the director of the Central Arkansas Library System who is a historian by training, found four stone columns that were part of the original library. Roberts rescued them from a scrap yard, and they now stand proudly in front of the Main Library.

The people of Fort Smith, Morrilton and Eureka Springs were wiser than those in Little Rock. Those three cities saved their Carnegie libraries, though Fort Smith’s building has long been used as a studio and office complex for KFSM-TV.

The beginnings of what’s now the Fort Smith Public Library can be traced back to the formation of something called the Fortnightly Club in October 1888. It was a women’s literary and social organization. Mrs. Isaac C. Parker, the wife of the famous federal judge, was a charter member and the organization’s first president.

The ladies in the club organized the Fortnightly Club Library Association and sold shares for $5 each to help pay for a library. That library was opened in the Belle Grove school building with 1,100 books on the shelves. The Fort Smith Public Library website says the opening was in July 1892. The University of Arkansas Libraries Special Collections (where the Fortnightly Club papers are housed) website says it was the summer of 1889.

At any rate, it was the largest public library in the state by 1902.

The Fortnightly Club played a key role in obtaining a Carnegie grant for $25,000 in March 1906. Construction took place during 1907 and the building opened in January 1908 on North 13th Street on the site of the house in which Judge Parker had died.

Construction of a new library on South Eighth Street began in 1969 and was completed in 1970 with the Carnegie library becoming part of the television operation soon afterward.

“I grew up in the Carnegie Library in Fort Smith,” Brian D. Johnson wrote on his blog “Context & Continuity” a couple of years ago. “I remember the wooden floors, the enormous wooden rails on the stairs leading up to the children’s room and the fact that it was so convenient that the Dr. Seuss books were shelved so that I could easily reach them. … My library card was pale blue with rounded corners, and there was a metal tag affixed to it. I can remember exactly how the library smelled.”

There’s that special library smell again, something mentioned in the previous post.

Johnson went on to write, “Andrew Carnegie was a wicked man in many respects, but I can’t help but second the person who called him the patron saint of the library. I would not be me it it weren’t for the Carnegie Library and the Fort Smith Public Library. It’s impossible for me to calculate how many hours, days I spent there. For my mother, it was a combination of child care and a priceless gift that created. . . me.”

In Morrilton, a women’s club known as the Pathfinder Club was established in 1897. Like the women’s group in Fort Smith, the ladies collected books and began raising money for a library.

A town meeting was called in 1914, and community members pledged to help the club build and maintain a library. Funds were solicited to purchase the Old School Presbyterian Church. The club’s books were moved to that building once shelves were added. Those in town who were sponsored by a club member could use the library for a small charge.

W.S. Cazort of Morrilton purchased a collection of more than 1,000 rare books from a reclusive Chicago engraver named William Porter. Cazort, in turn, transferred the books to the Pathfinder Club for what was described as a modest sum. Using the rare book collection as a bargaining chip, the Pathfinder Club applied to the Carnegie Foundation for a grant. A $10,000 grant was received in September 1915, and Morrilton soon became one of the smallest cities in the South with a Carnegie Library.

Of the grant, $7,500 was used to build a 3,628-square-foot facility. The rest of the money was used to buy furniture and coal for heating. The building opened in October 1916. The top floor held the books. The lower floor had a meeting room, kitchen, furnace and coal bin.

In Eureka Springs, meanwhile, a board of trustees was organized in 1910 and plans for a library building were sent to Carnegie. A grant was received for $12,500 and construction began.

We’ll let the website for the Eureka Springs Carnegie Public Library take it from here: “The original site for a stone structure designed by St. Louis architect George W. Hellmuth was not suitable, and the new site on Spring Street was a solid stone cliff. The new site was donated by R.C. Kerens, a Eureka Springs investor. Eventually, the site was excavated but because of delays, bad weather and the additional costs of excavation, B.J. Rosewater, the president of the library board of trustees, petitioned — and petitioned repeatedly — Carnegie for additional funds to complete the project.”

The Carnegie Foundation finally agreed to send an additional $3,000 to Eureka Springs. The building opened in 1912. When the city turned down a request for $1,250 annually to operate the library, Rosewater went to the people. Memberships were sold for $1 per year. Books and furniture were donated.

In the winter of 1916, the library closed due to insufficient funds for fuel and staff. Funds were later raised to reopen the facility. By 1921, it was open six days a week. The building, constructed of locally quarried stone, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.

The library in Eureka Springs is now celebrating the centennial of the original Carnegie gift.

“The people of Eureka Springs cherish their history,” says Lynn Larson, a centennial committee member. “One of the most remarkable aspects of that history is the Eureka Springs Carnegie Public Library. How it came to be here in our little town and how it has continuously served the community is worthy of recognition and honor. It is a fulfillment of Andrew Carnegie’s belief that knowledge should be freely available to all, regardless of financial means or station in life. We are proud to carry on the legacy, providing materials and resources that bring the world of information to every patron free of charge.”

Events such as book fairs, teas, garden parties and lectures are being held every month this year.

Hats off to the people of Morrilton and Eureka Springs for still operating libraries in their historic Carnegie buildings.

As for Little Rock … well, it was Little Rock just being Little Rock. Take a long look at sad old Ray Winder Field for proof of how things work in the state’s largest city.

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A summer day at the library

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

They’re about to open a new library at Helena.

It’s a nice location downtown in what was the Save-A-Lot grocery story. There’s even a local architectural connection: The lead architect in the redesign was Thad Kelly III of the Little Rock-based company Cromwell Architects Engineers Inc.

His father, the late Thad Kelly II, was a mayor of Helena. Thad Kelly Pocket Park was named in the former mayor’s honor.

The building that will house the library was built as a Kroger store in the 1950s, and the younger Kelly remembers the excitement surrounding the opening of that store. Renovation costs for the facility on Columbia Street were $1.6 million. The 13,000-square-foot facility will have three times the space of the current library. There will be a children’s room, a computer lab, a genealogy room and a community room.

The project was funded with a $300,000 grant from Southern Bancorp Capital Partners’ Delta Bridge Project, a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a $50,000 grant from the Carl B. and Florence E. King Foundation and locally raised money.

The planned opening of a new library brought back a flood of memories for Helena native A.B. Naylor (who was nice enough to bring me a couple of bottles of Shadden’s barbecue sauce last week).

“I spent many a summer day in the old library,” he wrote. “I always checked the sign-out card in the back to see if perhaps I was reading a book that my dad had read as a kid. I never ran across one. It was an unfulfilled treasure hunt. The old library was what a library is supposed to be — dark in the corners, cool air, quiet, a little mysterious and the wonderful smell of books (in retrospect, I hope it wasn’t rotting paper).

“The limit on the number of books a kid could check out was three. I would read a book or two a day. They must have gotten tired of seeing me. They finally let me check out as many books as I could read in the two-week loan period. I would take as many as 10 sometimes. Some of the books were more fragile or special or who knows what. They were kept in glass cases, accessible only to the librarians. I would peer through the glass to see what they had. One of the books was ‘Animal Farm.’ I thought I wanted to read it, so I checked it out. That was in the early 1980s. No one had borrowed it in at least 25 years. That’s the one I was sure I had a chance of spying my dad’s name on the card. It wasn’t there.

“The one thing that stuck out the most was the smell. Several years ago, National Geographic had an article on how scent was the sense that invoked the most memories. I can almost smell the library while I’m typing this. I wanted to get down and check it out before they moved, but I’m not going to make it. If you happen to be over that way, stick your head in the door and take a whiff for me.”

A.B.’s note brought back memories for me. I too spent many summer days in my hometown library. It was in downtown Arkadelphia, just behind my father’s store. The library is still in the same building it has been in since 1903. It’s a wonderful old building.

Like A.B., I remember the smells.

My favorite part of the Clark County Library was called the Arkansas Room. It contained all sorts of books, newspaper articles, magazine articles, photos and manuscripts about our state. My favorite items were the special editions the Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat put out in 1936 to celebrate the state’s centennial. Whole summer afternoons were spent reading the articles in those special issues.

Both the old library building at Helena and the library at Arkadelphia are well worth a visit.

What was known as the Helena Library and Museum was built in 1891 and is the oldest public building still standing in the city. The museum will continue to operate out of the building. The library was a center of civic life in Helena in the late 1890s and early 1900s. It was used for receptions, dances and club meetings. School classes and religious services even took place in the building from time to time. The main room was not used exclusively for library purposes until 1914.

The museum wing was added in 1929 to display Civil War relics, Native American artifacts and items having to do with the history of Phillips County. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

In Arkadelphia, efforts to build the library began in November 1897 when a group of about 30 women formed the Woman’s Library Association. The association began to collect books from area residents, and the books were stored in the association president’s home. Those books later were moved into a rent-free space downtown. By 1899, the association was forced to rent space for its book collection. A fund to build a library was established that same year.

The website for the Clark County Library System tells the rest of the story: “Through money-raising events such as oyster suppers, bazaars, spelling bees and fiddlers’ contests, about $1,000 was raised. In 1903, a loan was secured and construction of a library building began. During the 10 years following its opening, money-raising activities continued to pay off the library building loan. The most significant event occurred in 1905 when William Jennings Bryan gave a benefit lecture for the library. By 1913, the debt was fully paid.

“Designed by architect Charles L. Thompson of Little Rock, the library was built by James Pullen. An oversized portico with ionic columns mark the facade of this one-story red brick structure. The Clark County Library was completed in 1903 and remains intact today as an example of early 20th century institutional architecture in Arkansas.

“Throughout its history, the Clark County Library has served more than just the academic needs of the Arkadelphia community. It has often been used by recitals, by church and civic groups and for public meetings. During World War I, it was converted to a Red Cross workshop filled with cutting tables and sewing machines.

“From its 1903 opening until 1939, the library was owned and operated by the Woman’s Library Association. In 1939, the building and its contents were donated to the city. In 1974, the deed was transferred to the Clark County Library Board, enabling the library to better serve the entire county. It was added to the National Rgister of Historic Places in 1974.”

If you love old buildings, you owe it to yourself to visit these buildings in Arkadelphia and Helena.

While you’re at it, you should visit the Carnegie libraries at Morrilton and Eureka Springs.

Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donated money to fund the construction of 2,509 libraries between 1883 and 1929. There were 1,689 of these libraries built in the United States, 660 in Great Britain and Ireland (Carnegie was a native of Scotland), 123 in Canada and a few others elsewhere.

Eureka Springs received a grant of $15,500 to build a library that opened in 1912. Morrilton received a grant of $10,000 to build a library that opened in 1916. More to come in a later post on those two libraries and what happened to the Carnegie libraries in Little Rock and Fort Smith.

Do you have any favorite Arkansas libraries and library memories?

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Summer in Arkansas

Friday, July 9th, 2010

The July issue of Arkansas Life magazine (www.arkansaslife.com) is out, and there’s a nice series of essays about summer in Arkansas.

For those of us who love summer, the essays bring back plenty of memories.

Here’s the introduction: “That first sweet bite of watermelon. The waxy-fine feel of a ripe tomato in the palm of your hand. Slapping your skin over and over, hoping the pesky mosquitoes will find another host. These are the staples of an Arkansas summer. But the soul of the season hides in the most unusual places and moments. For there is magic in a pre-dawn bike ride, a float down the Buffalo River or a cold mojito sweating in your hand. There is pure joy found in the eyes of children as they swat at lightning bugs or watch the fireworks sizzle in the sky before falling into the lake.”

During the summer, for instance, I simply cannot get enough of Arkansas tomatoes and peaches.

I plan to drive tomorrow to Clarksdale, Miss., for part of the Oxford American’s Most Southern Weekend On Earth event. On the way home, I hope to stop at the fruit and vegetable stand on U.S. Highway 70 at Biscoe to buy peaches, tomatoes and perhaps a big cantaloupe.

My friend Kane Webb, the executive editor of Arkansas Life, asked me to contribute a couple of short pieces. I addressed two subjects I’ve written about on this blog before — eating outside at the Dairyland Drive-In just off the Prothro Junction exit off Interstate 40 in North Little Rock, and getting my fill of vegetables at Franke’s in the Regions Center in downtown Little Rock.

I visited Dairyland at 1 p.m. on a sunny Wednesday. There were two other people eating outside. That left me two of the four small picnic tables from which to choose.

A steady stream of traffic wound slowly down Arkansas Highway 161 — big, loud trucks; cars with the windows open and their radios playing full blast. Don’t expect a quiet dining experience at the Dairyland Drive-In.

You can sit facing the traffic or you can sit with your back to the highway, facing an old shed and a dilapidated mobile home with boxes piled high on the added-on wooden deck. The lunch special was a hamburger, fries and a drink. With tax, the total came to $4.42. And there were enough fries to feed two. These aren’t the mass-produced, frozen version, either. They’re fresh cut and fried to a golden brown. It costs an extra 40 cents if you want cheese on the burger.

There’s a full selection of milkshakes, malts, sundaes, floats and banana splits. I ordered a milkshake to take back to the office with me. It was as good as any milkshake you can find in this state.

On the day I visited Franke’s for the magazine story (I’m in the same building; I’ve already visited twice for lunch this week), my choice for a salad was the marinated tomato and cucumber salad. Vegetables? I went that day with turnip greens and Franke’s famous eggplant casserole. The entree was the stuffed bell pepper. I added a cornbread muffin. A piece of egg custard pie is de rigueur for dessert when you visit Franke’s.

There’s a Franke’s out on Rodney Parham in west Little Rock that’s open seven days a week, serving lunch and dinner. The downtown location is only open from 10:45 a.m. until 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, still overseen by a member of the founding family, Kristin Franke. The demographics vary greatly between the two locations. Out west, it tends to be an older crowd — retired folks, people from out of town who have doctors’ appointments. Downtown, it’s more of a business crowd — good suits, well-shined shoes (I’m the exception; my shoes badly need a shine. Can someone suggest a good place to get a shine?).

The July edition of Arkansas Life also includes short pieces by:

– Christopher Irons on cycling at dawn

–Kyle Brazzel on Fourth of July fireworks

– Tammy Keith on drive-in movies and on peaches

– Werner Trieschmann on mosquitoes

– Steve Straessle on snow-cone shacks

– Nancy Elizabeth Dement on Lake Ouachita

– Kane Webb on baseball

– Sean Clancy on driving through the Delta with bugs hitting the window (I will no doubt experience some of those bugs on the way back from Clarksdale tomorrow)

– Bobby Ampezzan on summer heat

– Keith Sutton on fishing the oxbow lakes in the White River National Wildlife Refuge

That one brought back memories of summer evenings spent fishing with my dad on an oxbow in the Ouachita River bottoms south of Arkadelphia. We were always the only boat on the water. It was quiet, eerie even.

The talented Sutton writes: “Bass live in the emerald waters of the oxbows, and catfish and bluegills and crappie — lots of them. Yet anglers don’t visit often. The lakes are remote and it can be difficult to launch a boat. One might fish a lake for days without seeing another soul. But you can drop in a cricket or minnow, cast a crankbait or spinner, and catch fish after fish.

“Watch, and you will see flashes of yellow in the cypress trees — stunning prothonotary warblers, gleaning insects for their young. Breathe deeply, and you will smell the evergreen fragrence of cypress needles and the redolence of rich, bottomland earth and fertile water. Listen, and you will hear the haunting calls of barred owls — Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you? — and the sonorous hum of summer cicadas. Relax, and you will feel your cares melt away. Senses stir every minute you are there.”

It’s nice writing, and it brings back nice summer memories.

What things, places and events define an Arkansas summer for you?

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Greenville on the river

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

I mentioned in an earlier post that Clarksdale, Miss., just might be the most Southern place on earth.

If isn’t Clarksdale, it must be Greenville.

The new U.S. Highway 82 bridge over the Mississippi River between Lake Village and Greenville is scheduled to open to traffic late this month. It will be an exciting day for the Delta.

When the current bridge was dedicated on Sept. 17, 1940, more than 5,000 people gathered for the ceremony. At the time, it was the longest span for a highway bridge anywhere on the Mississippi River (Dubuque, Iowa, would break that record three years later).

Seventy years later, many Arkansans dread crossing the aging, narrow, two-lane bridge. That’s about to change with a four-lane, cable-stayed structure that will have wide shoulders in addition to those four lanes. The bridge itself cost $110 million. The approach on the Arkansas side over the Mississippi River levee and floodplain cost almost $66 million. The approach on the Mississippi side over the levee and floodplain cost about $86 million.

As you can see, we’re talking real money.

In a post on a website that’s maintained by the Mississippi Department of Transportation (www.greenvillebridge.com), Jean Horton Armstrong of Pelahatchie, Miss., wrote: “I was born in Greenville, spent most of my young life there, and the bridge is one of those things in life that was awe inspiring (the largest thing around Greenville in 1955). The class ring design of the 1955 graduating class of Greenville High contains a replica of the bridge. After all the wear and tear, I still enjoy taking out that old ring and sharing stories about the bridge, Greenville Air Force Base, the beautiful trees on Main Street and two-way traffic on Washington Avenue with my grandchildren. When the old bridge comes down, all of the above will have disappeared. There will be only memories surrendered to different elements.”

Greenville Air Force Base was established in 1940 and originally known as Greenville Army Airfield. Thousands of airmen received their instruction there. Cadets from U.S. allies were even shipped to Greenville, as were firefighters and emergency medical personnel. These days, there’s a museum devoted to the base at the Mid Delta Regional Airport.

A couple of other places those interested in the history of the Delta should visit are the Flood of 1927 Museum at 118 S. Hinds St. between Main and Washington streets downtown and the Greenville History Museum at 409 Washington Ave. The flood museum is a project of the city of Greenville, the Mississippi Levee Board, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and numerous volunteers. The museum opened in March 2009 in a carriage house built in the 1850s. There’s an excellent 12-minute video presentation for visitors. The flood museum is open each Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.

The Greenville History Museum is a project of Benjy Nelken, who has spent many years collecting items dealing with the history of Greenville. The museum is open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 9 a.m. until noon on Saturdays.

I’ve already written extensively in an earlier post about my love for McCormick Book Inn (check out the store’s fact-filled website at www.mccormickbookinn.com) at 825 S. Main St. No visit to Greenville is complete without a stop at the bookstore.

Other points of interest in downtown Greenville include:

– The Hebrew Union Temple at 504 Main St. The temple was erected in 1906 and boasts some of the most beautiful stained-glass windows anywhere. The temple houses the Goldstein Nelken Solomon Century of History Museum for those interested in the history of Delta Jews. The city’s first elected mayor, Leopold Wilzinski, was Jewish.

– The Greenville Writers’ Exhibit in the William Alexander Percy Memorial Library at 341 Main St. More than 100 published writers called Greenville home at one time or another during the 20th century. The exhibit celebrates the work of William Alexander Percy, Walker Percy, Hodding Carter, Shelby Foote and others.

– The First National Bank Building, built in 1903 when Greenville was thriving. Its marble and its stained-glass windows were imported from Italy. The building now houses the city’s municipal court.

– The Greenville Inn & Suites at 211 S. Walnut St. If you’re a history lover, you’ll be spending the night here since this building, constructed in the 1880s, long was the levee board’s headquarters.

– The building at the corner of Main and Walnut streets where Hodding Carter penned editorials for the Delta Democrat Times advocating racial tolerance. You can’t go in the old building, but you can read the historic marker out front.

– St. Joseph Catholic Church at 412 Main St, which was erected in 1907. It was designed and financed by Father P.J. Korstenbroek, a Dutch nobleman who served as the parish priest for 33 years. William Alexander Percy wrote about him in “Lanterns on the Levee.” The stained-glass windows in the church were obtained from the Munich studio of Emil Frei.

Of course, your day must end with dinner at the original Doe’s Eat Place at 502 Nelson St.

Michael Stern writes at www.roadfood.com: “There is a special magic about the original Doe’s in Greenville. Located on the wrong side of town in the back rooms of a dilapidated grocery store, it does not look like a restaurant, much less a great restaurant. Many of the dining tables are in fact located in the kitchen, spread helter-skelter among stoves and counters where the staff dresses salads and fries potatoes in big iron skillets. Plates, flatware and tablecloths are all mismatched. It is noisy and inelegant, and service — while perfectly polite — is rough and tumble.

“Doe’s fans, ourselves included, love it just the way it is. The ambience, which is at least a few degrees this side of casual, is part of what makes it such a kick. Mississippians have eaten here since the 1940s; for regular patrons the eccentricity makes the experience as comfortable as an old shoe. Newcomers may be shocked by the ramshackle surroundings, but Doe’s is easy to like once the food starts coming.”

Amen. Don’t ever change a thing. It’s not just the Mississippians who are comfortable. It’s a lot of us from Arkansas who make regular pilgrimages there.

Dominick “Doe” Signa and his wife Mamie started the place in 1941. Doe’s father had moved to Greenville in 1903 and opened a grocery store in the building that now houses the restaurant.

The restaurant’s website at www.doeseatplace.com goes on to explain: “The family lived in a house behind the store. The grocery, which the Signa family called Papa’s store, did well until the 1927 flood. After that, Big Doe Signa went into bootlegging to help the family get back on its feet. After several years, he sold his 40-barrel still for $300 and a Model T Ford. Around 1941, Mamie received a partial recipe for hot tamales. She improved the recipe and began selling them. That was the beginning of Doe’s.

“At first, Signa ran a honky-tonk in the front part of the store. It was strictly for blacks. He had things like buffalo fish and chili. Ironcially, the carriage trade arrived by the back door, like segregation in reverse. One of the local doctors began coming for a meal between calls. Big Doe would cook him up a steak and feed him in the back. Pretty soon the doctor brought another doctor, then a lawyer and before he knew it, Doe had a regular restaurant in the back. After calling in family and in-laws to help with his thriving restaurant, he eventually closed the honky-tonk and focused on the eat place.”

Big Doe retired in 1974. His sons, Charles and Little Doe, took over. Big Doe died in 1987, but the family tradition lives on along Nelson Street.

Plan on crossing that new bridge when it opens and spend a day in Greenville. It struggles economically like the rest of the Delta. Yet for those who love history and tradition, it remains a magical place. You don’t even need to step foot in one of its three casinos.

Get there in the middle of the morning for a cup of coffee and a long visit at McCormick Book Inn. After leaving the bookstore, drive a few yards south on Main Street and take a walk through the Greenville Cemetery. Go a little further south for lunch at Sherman’s at 1400 S. Main St.

After lunch, visit the downtown sites listed above. They’re all within walking distance of each other.

End the day with dinner at Doe’s. I might see you there.

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