Archive for February, 2011

Fay Jones’ Stoneflower

Friday, February 25th, 2011

We’ve focused this week on the history of Eden Isle and the Red Apple Inn on the shores of Greers Ferry Lake near Heber Springs.

There’s a Fay Jones-designed cottage on Eden Isle. Here’s the good part: It can be rented out.

The Red Apple Inn website describes it this way: “Stay in a home designed by famous architect Fay Jones. Stoneflower/Shaheen/Goodfellow Weekend Cottage is now on our rental program. While incorporating many characteristic Jones features, Stoneflower was a milestone in the architect’s work.

“The vertical emphasis of the design, along with the dramatic contrast between an airy, wooden upper structure and a cave-like stone base, created a house strikingly different in appearance from Jones’ previous designs.

“The house features a cave-like den/grotto with stone tables and sofa bases and a stone-covered bathroom complete with a rock waterfall for a shower. Up the spiral staircase is the main floor with an efficient dining area/kitchen and living room with a sweeping ceiling line allowing a fabulous view of the 30-foot deck that extends into the trees toward the lake view (only winter view of the lake). Up another spiral staircase is a loft with a queen bed.”

Stoneflower doesn’t allow children. It rents for $200 per night.

There’s an interesting story behind the cottage. Jones designed it for Bob Shaheen and Curt Goodfellow, the landscape architects who had been hired by Herbert L. Thomas Sr. to make Eden Isle something special. One of the things Thomas offered the two men was a lot in his planned resort community.

“After Shaheen and Goodfellow secured the land in 1963, the two men decided to pool their limited resources and construct a weekend cottage that both families could share,” Rachel Silva writes for the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program. “In order to reduce construction costs, the two men provided boulders and two-by-four boards salvaged from other construction projects on Eden Isle. They also contributed physical labor, lifting stones into place for site and foundation construction. They hired architect Fay Jones to construct a house under a tight budget of $6,000 to $8,000.”

Stoneflower was completed in 1965 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. It was called Stoneflower because the upper story appears to grow out of a stone base. Jones’ design of the cottage would foreshadow the design of his most famous project, Thorncrown Chapel at Eureka Springs.

“The inspiration for Jones’ design of Stoneflower was simple necessity,” Silva writes. “The property owners were trying to build the home under a very tight budget. They wanted something unique, but money was in short supply. When Jones first visited the site, he did not have a specific design in mind. When he arrived, he found a pile of stone the men had gathered and a large number of two-by-fours of considerable length.

“‘What are we going to do with all of those two-by-fours?’ he asked the two owners.

“They told him they hoped he would use them for the house they wanted to build. Jones knew that there were far more boards than needed for a traditional framing job. So he had to be creative and devise a way to use all of the lumber provided him. What he finally came up with was the idea for the intersective beams supporting the ceiling. This was a radical new look in home design, but it allowed him to utilize the great quantity of lumber.

“Jones’ solution to this design problem represented a turning point in his style from a horizontal focus to a vertical focus. He used the stone to create a cave-like lower level, featuring indoor plants, a stone seating area and coffee table and a bathing grotto with a man-made waterfall as a shower. By making the upper story of the house narrower than the lower story, Jones was able to use fiberglass skylights to fill the gap and provide sunlight for the plants below.

“The side walls of the upper level are covered in redwood board-and-batten siding and are devoid of windows to provide privacy from neighbors. The gable ends are glass, and the rear gable end is screened with verticle battens to protect it from stray golf balls.”

The cottage has had a succession of owners. It was purchased by Bob and Lynn Mosesso in 2006, and they use the Red Apple Inn as a booking agent.

The Mosessos had a lot of work to do after purchasing the cottage. They refinished the wood and repainted the exterior. They rewired light fixtures and removed ivy from the rocks.

If you rent Stoneflower for an evening, Silva says you should notice these things:

– There’s a natural cooling system designed by Jones in which glass panes in the eaves are opened with a pully system. This allows cool air from the lower level to circulate through the living area and escape out the upper windows.

– Since Stoneflower was designed to be a summer cottage, there’s no heat except the downstairs fireplace.

– The closets and storage cabinets were all designed by Jones.

– The bathing grotto is concealed from the garden room only by sight lines. There’s a corrugated metal ceiling in the bathing area.

– The furniture and lighting fixtures were designed by Jones.

– The flooring in the sleeping loft is composed of two-by-fours laid on their sides.

Jones was born Jan. 31, 1921, in Pine Bluff. His family moved to Little Rock for a time and then settled in El Dorado in the late 1920s. His parents operated a restaurant, but Jones knew that wasn’t something he wanted to do.

“Even as a child, Jones’ teachers recognized his artistic talent,” Silva writes. “By the time he was in high school, Jones had constructed an elaborate tree house out of construction salvage and discarded fruit grates.”

Jones saw a short film at the Rialto Theater in El Dorado in 1938 about the headquarters building Frank Lloyd Wright had designed for S.C. Johnson Wax in Racine, Wis. The film inspired him to be an architect.

The Rialto, by the way, still stands in El Dorado’s wonderful downtown.

Following his graduation from El Dorado High School in 1938, Jones entered the University of Arkansas as a civil engineering major (there were only a handful of architecture classes offered at the time). He joined the Navy in 1941. Following his discharge in 1945, Jones returned to Fayetteville. In 1950, Jones was one of the first five graduates of a new architecture program started by architect John G. Williams.

Williams took Jones to Houston in 1949 for a meeting of the American Institute of Architects at the new Shamrock Hotel. Jones met Frank Lloyd Wright at that meeting.

“Jones and his friends bumped into Wright as he was sneaking out of an AIA cocktail party,” Silva writes. “Jones and his friends plastered themselves against a wall to let Wright walk past them, but he saw their fright and came over to introduce himself. After that, Wright showed Jones around the new hotel and discussed its architecture for 30 minutes.”

Wright made clear to Jones that he wasn’t a fan of the hotel’s design.

Jones later followed Wright’s advice by returning to the University of Arkansas to teach in the fall of 1953. He also started a small practice in Fayetteville.

“Jones was dedicated to his teaching position, and it kept him on his toes in private practice,” Silva writes.

Jones once said, “You felt the pressure of living up to your students’ expectations. You get to practice what you preach, so to speak. I don’t know how a guy could be luckier than that.”

Jones chaired the department from 1966-74, was the first dean of the School of Architecture from 1974-76, became a professor emeritus in 1988, received an honorary doctorate in 1990 and was awarded the AIA’s Gold Medal in 1990.

The AIA said it was honoring Jones for his “exquisite architecture of gentle beauty and quiet dignity that celebrates the land and embraces the American spirit. … He embodies everything that architecture can and should be.”

Jones died in August 2004 in Fayetteville. The School of Architecture was named after him in 2009.

If you’re a fan of Fay Jones and haven’t booked a night at Stoneflower, you should do so soon.

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Ruby, her descendants and the ongoing feast

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

Here’s how Food & Wine magazine once began a story about Mary Lynn Van Wyck and her son, Bronson: “What do Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, rap mogul Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and socialite Marina Rust Connor all have in common with a tractor repairman from the Mississippi Delta? The answer is Van Wyck & Van Wyck, a mother-son event-planning team with big-name clients and surprisingly deep country roots.

“Bronson Van Wyck … is based in Manhattan, where he stands out on the social scene thanks to his party-planning prowess, old-fashioned manners and iconoclastic dress sense. … But the company’s headquarters and spiritual home is not Van Wyck’s Chinatown studio, it’s Arrowhead Farms in Tuckerman, Ark. (population 1,757), where he grew up and where his mother and business partner, Mary Lynn Van Wyck, still lives.

“Whether the event is a presidential inauguration or a Maine clambake, most of the duo’s extravagant props — 25-foot bamboo branches or moon-size disco balls — originate in Tuckerman. ‘Bronson dreams up these ideas, and I think, how are we going to implement this?’ says Mary Lynn. ‘I’ll end up taking the drawings of a disco ball to the welder who usually repairs tractors, and he’ll make it.’ But, she adds with her Southern lilt, ‘that makes life fun.”’

The story noted that Mary Lynn encouraged her son to become a party planner. After graduating from Yale, he had been a set dresser for the movie “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and an aide to Pamela Harriman at the American embassy in Paris. But a later movie production job in Los Angeles wasn’t the right fit.

Of the father, also named Bronson Van Wyck, the story said: “A direct descendant of the man for whom the expressway in New York City is named, he’s a product of Greenwich, Conn., and Harvard Business School. He had little intention of becoming a farmer ‘until,’ he says, ‘I married a girl from Arkansas.’ The type of ‘girl from Arkansas,’ that is, who decided to transport an abandoned warehouse brick by brick from Louisiana to serve as the main house on her farm. Despite some raised eyebrows back East, Bronson pere took over the day-to-day running of Mary Lynn’s family business, Arrowhead Farms, which grows rice, pecans and soybeans, among other crops. Today he also owns citrus groves in Florida and vineyards in the Lodi/Woodbridge area south of Sacramento, Calif.”

The story pointed out that Mary Lynn’s wedding to Bronson made Town & Country magazine’s list of the 100 best weddings of the 20th century.

All of this connects us to yesterday’s blog post. The Van Wyck family put on a dinner at Tuckerman for the magazine to feature. It was noted that “most of the evening’s recipes — light, fluffy rolls (from Mary Lynn’s Auntie Buck), creamy corn pudding and spice cake with a rich caramel frosting — were culled from a cookbook written by Mary Lynn’s grandmother, Ruby Thomas, who was the presiding culinary spirit at the Red Apple Inn, an Arkansas dining institution on nearby Eden Isle.”

You can go to amazon.com and still find copies of the Ruby Thomas book “Feasts of Eden: Gracious Country Cooking from the Red Apple Inn.”

The online reviews are good ones.

One review from 2007 says, “Having spent Thanksgiving 2006 at the Red Apple Inn in Arkansas, I have been delighted to find many of the recipes served in their dining room are available in this book. I had previously bought several of these from their gift shop. … This is a great book with dependable, authentic Southern cooking recipes.”

A review from last year says, “This book is a beautiful glimpse into the world (and kitchen) of the elegant, timeless lake resort Eden Isle. The recipes are detailed and clear; the commentary transports you to that place — and that place in time. I have made many of the recipes over the years, with great success. Now, I am making the recipes for my parents, as a reminder of their many happy years together at Eden Isle, at a table in the corner of the Red Apple Inn.”

In an interview last year for the Three Rivers zoned edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Red Apple Inn general manager David Smith said the Ruby Thomas book is still sold in the gift shop there.

“We’ve never even attempted writing another book,” he said. “Many Arkansans have rich memories of dining here. My parents and my wife’s parents, all from Little Rock, would drive here to celebrate special occasions because it was one of the few places where folks could find fine dining.”

The dinner menu at the Red Apple Inn still offers everything from prime rib to huge prawns to sesame-crusted tuna. And, yes, that 16th-century wrought-iron gate forged by Spanish craftsmen, which was obtained by Herbert and Ruby Thomas decades ago, is still there.

“A lot of people come in and take pictures of it,” Smith told the Three Rivers edition.

He also noted that the restaurant attempts to use local suppliers as much as possible, including one lady who once worked at the Red Apple Inn before starting a berry farm that, according to Smith, has the “plumpest blackberries, blueberries and strawberries.”

The Red Apple Inn also offers its own line of gourmet candy that has been made since 1997 and is now sold in 20 states. According to the Red Apple website, the toffee “is made in small batches using the finest all-natural ingredients, pure creamery butter, nuts from Oregon, Texas and California, premium imported single-bean varietal chocolate and no preservatives.”

Thank goodness for the rescue provided by Heber Springs entrepreneurs Patti and Dick Upton after Melvyn Bell had allowed the Red Apple Inn to fall into disrepair.

Patti Upton began her company, Aromatique, in 1982 when she mixed items native to Arkansas such as acorns, pine cones, sweetgum balls and hickory nuts and then covered them with spices and oils. She called it The Spirit of Christmas and put it on sale in a friend’s gift shop.

You likely know the rest of the story.

Annette Green, the president emeritus of the Fragrance Foundation of New York, has called Patti Upton “one of our industry’s most creative visionaries. Her trailblazing concepts set the stage for the revolution in the enjoyment and appreciation of fragrance in the home, which is driving the public’s interest in fragrance.”

The Uptons, it seems, are worthy successors to the founding Thomas family.

As far as the amazing Thomas family, Mary Lynn Van Wyck’s father, Jim Thomas, was quite the entrepreneur. When he died at age 79 in 2003, the Democrat-Gazette called him “an agricultural tycoon” and noted that he had stocked his Frostyaire warehouses with “frozen chickens, sandwich meats and vegetables. The savvy businessman also grew kale, collards and mustard greens on his farm in Tuckerman, sold the crops to Birds Eye Frozen Foods and then stored the vegetables in his warehouse. Before Frostyaire, Thomas developed land for row-crop farming, using bulldozers to clear the land of trees. … Thomas grew and exported rice to Russia and Iran.”

His son, Steve Thomas, said at the time: “He would do something for a while, then go on to the next thing. He had a visionary sense.”

After buying horses for Mary Lynn to ride, Jim Thomas later began breeding and racing thoroughbreds. He built his own stables at Tuckerman and bought a training center in Kentucky.

The obituary said, “Thomas, a master at human relations, could talk shop with Wall Street businessmen just as easily as he could chat with a person with a sixth-grade education.”

“Quietly, he pioneered so many things,” Steve Thomas said. “He won’t go down as the most known person in Arkansas, but he is the most creative person I’ve ever been exposed to in my life.”

Herbert Thomas Sr., Ruby Thomas, Jim Thomas, Mary Lynn Van Wyck, Bronson Van Wyck, Patti Upton — all examples of the impressive crop of entrepreneurs this small state has produced.

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Herbert L. Thomas Sr. and the Red Apple Inn

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

Earlier this week, I found myself doing research on the history of Arkansas Capital Corp., which originally was known as First Arkansas Development Finance Corp. when it was formed in 1957 by some of the state’s top business leaders.

The company was created to provide a mechanism for financing the state’s transition from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy. The necessary enabling legislation to allow state funds to be invested in the private corporation was approved during the 1957 legislative session.

The business titans involved in forming the corporation included men such as Raymond Rebsamen, James Penick Sr., Harvey Couch Jr. and J.V. Satterfield.

The first chairman was Herbert Leon Thomas Sr., who had been born Feb. 14, 1899, in rural Ashley County in far south Arkansas. Early in life, Thomas became convinced that the insurance industry could withstand economic downturns. He formed the Mutual Assessment Co. in 1923. By 1925, there were more than 10,000 policyholders. Many of those policyholders were residents of rural Arkansas.

Thomas later incorporated the First Pyramid Life Insurance Co. of America and set up shop in the Southern Trust Building. He purchased the structure in 1937 and renamed it the Pyramid Life Building. That building still stands in downtown Little Rock and is known as Pyramid Place even though the company moved to a facility in west Little Rock in 1980.

Rachel Silva of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program wrote this about Herbert Thomas: “In addition to his work at First Pyramid, Herbert Thomas wore several other hats. Thomas was chairman of the Little Rock Municipal Water Commission from 1937-40 and chairman of the state Highway Audit Commission from 1951-53. He chaired the senior advisory committee of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and while in this position helped form First Arkansas Development Finance Corp., a nonprofit charged with financing industrial expansion in Arkansas. While serving on the advisory council for the Small Business Administration, Thomas appeared before the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking and Currency to promote passage of the Small Business Investment Act of 1958.

“Conscious of the importance of education for financial growth, Thomas served on the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees from 1943-51. He was instrumental in the admission of the first black student to the University of Arkansas School of Law in 1948 (Silas H. Hunt). Thomas was also involved in banking. He acquired City National Bank of Fort Smith in the mid-1950s as well as Citizens Bank of Booneville in 1963.

“Although he never ran for political office himself, Thomas was heavily involved in politics. He had a close relationship with J. William Fulbright and headed his initial Senate campaign after convincing Fulbright to run for an office higher than Arkansas’ governorship. Furthermore, Thomas figured prominently in President Kennedy’s 1963 visit to Heber Springs for the dedication of Greers Ferry Dam.”

Thomas and his wife, Ruby, had fallen in love with the Greers Ferry area. In 1961, Thomas purchased 500 acres near Heber Springs for a development that would become known as Eden Isle.

Thomas’ political connections paid off, according to Silva.

“The plans for Greers Ferry Dam had been in the works for years before the structure was built,” she wrote. “After the Flood Control Act was passed in 1938, engineers started surveying for the proposed dam. But the dam wasn’t actually completed until 1962. In the meantime, people had been buying up large chunks of bottomand in hopes that they could sell it to the government at a profit or end up with lakefront property after the completion of a dam. After so many years, most individuals gave up on these notions and sold out. For those wanting lakefront property, it was a gamble to buy land around the proposed dam site because no one knew exactly where the lake would be or what the water level would be … until Herbert Thomas came along.

“Thomas knew Rep. Wilbur D. Mills and Sens. John L. McClellan and J. William Fulbright and was able to find out the location of the lake and its water level. He knew which land to purchase and when to purchase it. Thomas bought property historically owned by the Estes family and known as Estes Hill. It was also the first location of the Heber Springs Airport so some people referred to it as the ‘old airport.”’

Islands in U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ lakes cannot be privately owned. Knowing this, Thomas built a causeway that would be above lake level so what would become Eden Isle couldn’t be classified as an island. Thomas also had to build the causeway before the lake was filled.

Once the lake was filled, 400 of Thomas’ 500 acres were above water.

Thomas began selling lots for homes and initiated construction on what he hoped would be the finest vacation destination in the state, the Red Apple Inn. The lodge and restaurant opened for business in 1963, burned in 1964 following a kitchen fire and reopened in 1965.

I have fond memories of going with my parents to the Red Apple Inn for meals as a child. My father would have his bird dogs trained by a Mr. Lester at Rose Bud. We would drop off a dog at Rose Bud and then head up the road to eat in the restaurant at the Red Apple Inn.

I married Melissa and moved back to Arkansas from Washington, D.C., in late 1989. During those first few years of marriage, with no kids to worry about, I would take Melissa to favorite spots around Arkansas on weekends.

In October 1991, we headed to the Red Apple Inn for our second anniversary. I raved about the beauty of the place on the drive to Heber Springs. Unfortunately, it was not a good experience. The door to the room was jammed, the commode was broken and there were numerous other problems.

As it turned out, the Red Apple Inn had earlier been purchased by Melvyn Bell, who made his early fortune with Enviornmental Systems Co. Bell, however, expanded his real estate holdings far too quickly and fell millions of dollars into debt. In the process, his properties fell into disrepair. The once grand Red Apple Inn was among those sad stories of decay.

Bell died at age 68 in July 2006 following a long battle with cancer.

Along came Dick Upton of Heber Springs and his wife, Patti, the founder of Aromatique, the well-known manufacturer of home fragrance products.

The Uptons spent $4.2 million in 1995 to buy the Red Apple Inn and had to spend millions more on improvements to the facility, which by then even had a leaky roof. They didn’t buy the nearby marina on Greers Ferry Lake.

“I had so much money invested in the Red Apple Inn, I might have been in the middle of a divorce if I had invested any more than I already had invested,” Dick Upton once said in a deposition for a lawsuit involving the marina.

Herbert Thomas, who died in March 1982 at age 83, likely would be proud that the Uptons were able to bring his beloved Red Apple Inn back to life.

Thomas was a perfectionist when it came to Eden Isle.

“Planning and construction restrictions were to be enforced by a community corporation so that homes would blend into the landscape,” Silva wrote. “Houses were supposed to be relatively small and employ native stone, wood and glass construction with a tile roof. First Pyramid provided an architect and maintained a full-time engineer and construction force. The developers also hired full-time landscape architects to ensure that native trees and plants were protected and that yards were attractive yet low maintenance for individual homeowners.

“Herbert and his wife, Ruby, were very involved in the actual construction of homes and management of the restaurant at the Red Apple Inn. The Red Apple Inn consistently enjoyed high national ratings for food, lodging and service. People knew the area because of the Red Apple Inn, not because of Greers Ferry Lake or Heber Springs. In 1978, the Red Apple executive conference center opened in a new addition to the Red Apple Inn and accommodated groups of up to 120 people.”

Thomas resigned as the First Pyramid chairman in 1980 and focused entirely on the development of Eden Isle during the final two years of his life. His home on Eden Isle, known as Northwinds, still stands.

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Learning to love ourselves

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

I wrote in the previous post about Lee Richardson, the talented chef at Little Rock’s Capital Hotel who came here from New Orleans soon after Hurricane Katrina.

Let’s make one thing clear: There were a lot of great cooks and chefs in Arkansas before Lee joined us.

Lee is a superb chef and deserves the national attention he’s receiving. But this has been Lee Richardson’s most important contribution to our state: He made us finally begin to fully appreciate what we’ve always had.

In the months before Ashley’s and the Capital Bar & Grill reopened, Lee traveled the state, getting to know those who raised the vegetables, the apples, the peaches, the strawberries, the pecans, the pigs and the cattle; the people who produced the milk and cheese; those who fished the streams; those who baked the bread and bottled the wine.

He was amazed that a state of fewer than 3 million people could offer such a rich, varied, bountiful harvest.

It’s an old story in Arkansas with our much-discussed inferiority complex — the natives are the last people to truly appreciate what’s here. It sometimes takes an outsider to educate us.

When it came to Arkansas cuisine, that outsider was Lee Richardson.

Here’s what my friend John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss wrote on the Gourmet magazine (rest in peace) website back in December 2008: “Arkansas has long gotten short shrift. Even by Southern standards. Writers for culinary glossies have often deigned a visit, a taste, a report.

“Sure, chow geeks have Craig’s Bar-B-Q and Family Pie Shop, both in DeValls Bluff, programmed into their GPS systems. Ditto McClard’s Bar-B-Q, since 1928, the Hot Springs purveyor of hot tamales and sliced pork.

“Kitchen wonks know about Microplane, the Russellville-based company that discovered high-grade rasps and planes could be used in the kitchen as well as the woodworking shop. And students of agri-activism will no doubt point out that Heifer International, the nonprofit that promotes animal husbandry in the developing world, is based in Little Rock.

“But for most of us, Arkansas has always just been the place that gave birth to Bill Clinton. It has been that state wedged, somehow, between Mississippi, Louisiana and Oklahoma. It has been a province without a personality, a place neither here nor there. (Such sentiments are unfair and inaccurate, but they’re honest reflections of the culinary and cultural zeitgeist).

“Don’t despair, citizens of Arkansas. There’s hope for you yet. Soon, your culinary treasures will be trumpeted. Soon, the blogocracy will descend, in search of Petit Jean ham and White River paddlefish caviar.

“If that comes to pass, Lee Richardson, chef at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock, will have earned a large measure of the credit. He’s not a local — he’s a native of Louisiana who made his bones at John Besh’s grand Restaurant August in New Orleans. But he’s intent on showcasing all that is localish.

“To prove my point, I could walk you through the menus at Ashley’s, where breakfast means sausage gravy, poured from a warmed porcelain pitcher, over cat-head biscuits. And dinner means sorghum-roasted duckling with black apples and bitter oranges. Or I could plant you at the Capital Bar & Grill — where lunch in this, the capital of American rice growing, translates as rice-fried catfish and pickled green tomatoes, served on a disk of jalapeno cheese pudding with a dipping sauce of malt vinegar remoulade.

“But I’ll direct your attention, instead, to the gift basket I found in my room when I checked into the Capital. I was in Little Rock to give a talk at a literary benefit. It wasn’t a paying gig. But it did come with payoffs: dinner in the wine cellar beneath Ashley’s; a breakfast, also at Ashley’s, of buckwheat pancakes and house-made sausage; and that gift basket, a hamper really, overflowing with Arkansas provender.

“I spied three different sorts of Arkansas apples. And some Arkansas squash, too. And two paper pails of spiced Arkansas pecans. And a jar of Arkansas rice meal, accompanied by a handwritten recipe card. Yes, there’s a bottle of Australian Shiraz in the mix, but you’ll note that it’s flanked by two jelly jars filled with honest Arkansas moonshine.

“All of which is to say that Richardson, it seems, has his head on straight. He knows what curious culinary folks want, and he’s committed to delivering the best Arkansas has to offer. And that’s a good start.”

Well said, John T.

Take, for instance, that Arkansas caviar. Lee has used it while bringing it to the attention of people both inside and outside the state.

What do you mean you didn’t know caviar comes from Arkansas? Our freshwater caviar is served in some of the finest restaurants in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.

Joe York, who makes documentaries at Ole Miss, has turned out more than 25 short films for the Southern Foodways Alliance. He’s currently working on a feature-length documentary to be called “Southern Food: The Movie.”

Joe spent several days in Arkansas, making sure our state is a part of the Southern food story.

I took him to Lassis Inn in Little Rock for fried buffalo ribs and to Gene’s in Brinkley for the Sunday night wild game dinner. On a cold morning, Joe went out onto the Mississippi River with Lee Ross and Billy Ray Manues from DeWitt in search of paddlefish and their tasty eggs.

Joe wrote a piece on the harvest for the most recent issue of Gravy, a Southern Foodways Alliance publication.

“Growing up in Alabama with my steelworker dad and my high-school-teacher mom, we didn’t eat that much caviar — and by ‘that much,’ I mean ‘any,”’ Joe wrote. “Caviar just wasn’t for us. It was for action-movie villains who shoveled it into their big, evil mouths and then shot people dispassionately for trivialities like forgetting to feed the cat or not liking caviar.

“But not long ago, I heard that folks from Arkansas were working the Mississippi River to harvest sacs of roe from a peculiar fish that looks like a small dolphin sans blowhole with a canoe oar for a nose. I thought I’d better give caviar a chance.

“Lee Ross is one of those folks. He runs a catfish joint in DeWitt, but between November and March he also deals in caviar. On cold winter mornings when reasonable folks are settling into their third cup of coffee and thinking about calling in sick, Lee and his sidekick, Billy Ray Manues (who Lee says looks exactly like the Red Baron as portrayed on a box of Red Baron-brand frozen pizza), are already howling down the river in search of these fish with black gold in their bellies.”

They’re after paddlefish. We tend to call them spoonbills in Arkansas (isn’t it interesting that we have what’s generally considered a “trash fish” and what’s generally considered a “trash duck” by sportsmen that are both called spoonbills by Arkansans?).

When asked if they like the eggs, Billy Ray said: “I don’t want that crap in my mouth.”

Lee Ross said: “I eat it up there when we process it, but I don’t really know how to eat it. People have told me they eat it with toast and butter and smear it on there, or on them little pancake things. I like it all right, but it just ain’t something I want to eat.”

Lee Richardson makes sure that artisans such as Lee Ross get their due.

Lee Richardson is one of us now. If you doubt it, check out an interview with him at the Viking Range Corp. website.

When asked what his favorite pastimes are when he’s not cooking, eating or drinking, Lee answered: “Deer hunting and late-night blues. Getting in the woods and letting loose a litle inhibition are both a little like medication when I get caught up in the grind.”

When asked his philosophy in the kitchen, he answered: “I have one major driver: My cooking is a very personal and intimate communication between myself and the recipient of my food. With that as an understood foundation, I focus on a continual and incremental growth and improvement as opposed to say perfection and only perfection at every step of the way.”

Thanks, Lee, for making us realize what we already had when it comes to Arkansas food.

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Vote for Chef Lee

Monday, February 21st, 2011

There’s still time to vote for Lee Richardson of Little Rock’s Capital Hotel in a Food & Wine magazine contest titled The People’s Best New Chef.

Lee is running neck and neck with a chef from Minnesota for the title of best chef in the Midwest.

I know. I know.

Arkansas isn’t in the Midwest.

But what do those magazine folks in New York know?

Some of Lee’s fans — and there are many of them — have made it easy for you to vote. Simply go to www.VoteForChefLee.com. All you have to do is scroll down to the bottom and click. There’s no registration required, and it will take you less than 20 seconds.

It appears to be coming down to Richardson and Erik Anderson, the chef at a Minneapolis restaurant known as Sea Change.

Food & Wine will name a best chef from each of 10 regions — Midwest, Pacific, Southwest, Northwest, New England, Southeast, New York area, Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic and Gulf Coast.

The contest website describes it this way (in text obviously written by PR type rather than a magazine writer): “If there’s one thing our friends at Food & Wine do even better than throwing fabulous festivals all around the country, developing stellar recipes and generally making our lives more appetizing — it’s identifying up-and-coming talent from around the country. Since 1998, the editors of Food & Wine have feasted their way from coast to cost, seeking out 10 innovative chefs, each with a distinctive vision, creating exceptionally delicious food. They’ve bestowed upon these shining stars the title of Best New Chef. This year, the dining public has a say.”

I wouldn’t exactly describe Lee as a new chef, but he deserves the accolades.

In an interview posted on the Viking Range Corp. website, Lee described his culinary roots this way: “I grew up in New Orleans. Wrapped around the influences of Gulf seafood and the general culture of Creole and threads of Cajun tradition, I was blessed to have exposure to not only some of the very best home cooking that can be had but also to the area’s finest restaurants. Combined with early exposure to hunting and fishing, I became a very adventurous eater early in life.

“All celebrations in all cultures are centered upon food and around a table, but for me there were some unique circumstances to my own experiences that have been powerful contributors to my outlook. On one side of my family, my grandfather was a naval air commander — a fighter pilot. My grandmother, who was raised on a kitchen countertop in a French-speaking household in New Orleans by an African-American housekeeper, raised five children virtually on her own as they moved around the country from one naval base to the next.

“This was a tight community and a time where family values were a world away from where we are today. When the pilots returned home, the community gathered. Grills were fired up and the reunion of family was motivated by the separation and the uncertainty of war. Living was about giving, loving and appreciating the precious bounty, companionship and family. This set the stage for our extended family gatherings around the table during my childhood.

“In balance to this, my mother, also raised in New Orleans, was a debutante and surrounded by a family of successful investors and philanthropists. We celebrated all of the same things on this side of the family that we did with the other, only we did it in New Orleans’ finest restaurants.

“So, back to the question, my foundation begins with Creole, which by my definition is predominated by French technique and approach to cuisine. It is a little more unique for a couple of primary reasons. The array of available ingredients is a little different, and there is the mixing of other cultures. Most recognized are Spanish and Italian, though I think African is the most significant contributor to the unique cuisine of New Orleans. The thing that is most obvious but rarely articulated is that it is all peasant food. It’s not fancy, though it is difficult to replicate by the unknowing. This cuisine developed into what it became because it was prepared emotionally, whether to soothe the soul of the cook or the cooked for. This is quite literally the heart of Louisiana food and where my foundation begins.”

Warren Stephens gave our state a gift when he brought Lee Richardson to Arkansas. Not only did he outfit a kitchen that’s as fine as anything in the country, he gave Lee plenty of time before the renovated hotel was reopened. Lee used that time to get to know farmers and other producers across the state.

Using as many Arkansas ingredients as possible, Lee calls his style of cooking New Americana. He says it’s a “celebration of Southern tradition meets genuine Midwestern values. Country ham and sorghum, catfish and pecans, black apples and walnuts in a patchwork quilt. … Not the Southern biscuits and cornbread of today but the stuff from which that nostalgia was derived, unspoiled and natural.”

In a March 2009 feature for the Los Angeles Times, Whitney Friedlander wrote: “The Capital Hotel is a gem of Southern hospitality. Like many other cities’ grand old sites, the Capital’s stardom had tarnished. But it underwent a two-year renovation and reopened in 2007 with all its charms intact. Rooms in the 1872 building were combined and expanded into 94 luxe accommodations.

“But it is Ashley’s, the hotel restaurant, that’s generating the buzz. Chef Lee Richardson left New Orleans’ famed Restaurant August after Hurricane Katrina and came to town shortly after the Capital closed for remodeling. The hotel’s pristine, white-tiled lobby and stained-glass ceiling recall the era of top hats and tails, but the restaurant’s focus is on the latest culinary influences.

“Richardson has revamped Ashley’s menu, using regional ingredients for a high-class take on Southern favorites for such dishes as Arkansas rice grits with tasso and rock shrimp, and sweet potato gnocchi with creme fraiche.”

Here’s how Lee’s official biography on the Capital Hotel website describes his background: “‘What would you like me to prepare for your birthday dinner?’

“‘Where would you like to go to dinner for your birthday?’

“Fairly typical questions for anyone born and raised in New Orleans, those two innocent but contrasting questions from his grandmothers indelibly framed Chef Lee Richardson’s perspective on food. After taking the conventional path of attaining a psychology degree from the University of Colorado, Richardson dashed back to New Orleans to follow his heart into the exotic world of restaurants. Declining the opportunity to attend the Culinary Institute of America, Richardson elected to embark on a traditional apprenticeship as a prep cook in Emeril Lagasse’s French Quarter restaurant NOLA.

“With so many culinarians waiting in line at Emeril’s restaurants, Richardson accepted an invitation to join legendary hotel chef Kevin Graham (the Savoy, the Royal Orleans, the Sagamore and the Windsor Court Hotel) in an avant garde restaurant bearing his name, Graham’s. Ironically, it was during his tenure with Graham that Richardson had his first brush with another budding chef who would be his most important professional influence, John Besh.

“Before their paths crossed again, however, Richardson had the opportunity to round out his veritable who’s who of New Orleans chefs with a stint at Anne Kearney’s award-winning Peristyle and another partnership with Graham before a multiyear sojourn to North Carolina. Ten years later he would finally reunite with John Besh, ultimately becoming chef d’cuisine at Besh’s celebrated Restaurant August.”

Like I said, we’re lucky to have him here.

New Orleans’ loss was Little Rock’s gain.

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Arkansas’ best fried chicken?

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

Where do you go for the best fried chicken in Arkansas?

When I think of barbecue, I tend to think of the Delta.

But when it comes to fried chicken, northwest Arkansas is the part of our state that first comes to mind.

Maybe it’s because my parents would take me to the AQ Chicken House in Springdale when I was a child whenever we were in the area. There was even an AQ at Russellville for a time, and it was the place we would stop after making the trip up Arkansas Highway 7 from Arkadelphia to Russellville to watch Ouachita take on Arkansas Tech in football and basketball.

I mentioned in the previous post that my restaurants of choice when spending two nights in northwest Arkansas are the Venesian Inn at Tontitown and the Monte Ne Inn near Rogers.

Of course, at Monte Ne there is no other choice. It’s fried chicken or nothing. You sit down in a small restaurant near the place Coin Harvey tried to make famous, and they start bringing food.

It’s all you can eat. Maybe that’s why I like it so much. I find it hard to stop when eating fried chicken.

You start with the bean soup. That’s followed by the fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, coleslaw, rolls and apple butter. You should call ahead for reservations at (479) 636-5511. The restaurant serves its chicken from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m. each Tuesday through Saturday and from noon until 7 p.m. each Sunday.

To get to the Monte Ne Inn, take exit 83 off Interstate 540. That will put you on New Hope Road. You’ll head east for several miles, and New Hope Road will turn into Monte Ne Road.

As far as the Venesian Inn is concerned, all of those who have ever attended the University of Arkansas (and even many of those who have simply attended Razorback football games through the years) have Venesian stories.

Sure there’s a lot more than fried chicken on the menu here. But I usually find myself going for the No. 1 — three pieces of fried chicken served with spaghetti and meat sauce. There are also what might just be the best rolls in any Arkansas restaurant.

Ordering the No. 1 is a good way to combine the Italian culture of Tontitown with the fried chicken heritage of the Ozarks.

Here’s how the restaurant’s website describes the history of this venerable place: “For more than 60 years, the Venesian Inn has been a treasured part of the northwest Arkansas community. Germano Gasparotto, an Italian by birth, opened the restaurant in 1947. A few years later, he sold the Venesian Inn to John and Mary Granata, also native Italians, who passed it on to their daughter, Alice Leatherman. Alice, the beloved prankster, served customers at the restaurant for many years with her fun-loving nature and commitment to fine Italian food always made from scratch.

“The family tradition was then passed on to her nephew, Johnny Mhoon, and his wife, Linda, in 1992. With dedication, hard work and a focus on high-quality food and service, Johnny and Linda continued to draw people from all over the area. The sense of family is also reflected in the fact that some of the restaurant’s employees have been here for more than 30 years.”

You’ll still sit at the wooden tables installed by Gasparotto in 1947. The brick walls and hardwood room dividers are original.

According to the website, “Mhoon says some of her regular customers recall the days when a Venesian Inn #9 steak cost only $1.50. As one of the restaurant’s original waitresses, Elsie Mae Pianalto, explains, the Venesian Inn charm is what keeps customers coming back again and again: ‘People who came here as children bring their children here. … They say it’s neat to see everything the same.”’

By the way, the #9 is a 16-ounce sirloin that will now set you back $18.95. I think it’s a bargain at that price. Pay the additional $2 to replace the fries with spaghetti.

The AQ Chicken House in Springdale, meanwhile, opened on July 20, 1947. The founder, Roy C. Ritter, was among the pioneers of the poultry industry in the Ozarks. He had large chicken houses and his own processing plant.

What’s does AQ stand for?

Arkansas Quality.

The company claims to serve more than 1 million customers a year at its two locations in Springdale and Fayetteville.

In 1949, half a chicken cost 65 cents and a cup of coffee cost 5 cents. In 1966, AQ shipped 400 dinners to Miss Universe contestants, and by 1972 franchises were available. The Fayetteville location was added in 1991, and an outlet was opened for football games in the expanded Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in 2001.

So in northwest Arkansas you have the Monte Ne Inn, the Venesian Inn and the AQ Chicken House.

What about Little Rock?

I would cast my vote for the Kitchen Express at 4600 Asher Ave. The fried chicken dinner there is $5.59 for one piece, $6.09 for two pieces and $6.99 for three pieces. Add an extra 79 cents for all white meat. Those prices include the choice of two vegetables, and the vegetables at Kitchen Express are excellent (don’t miss the boiled okra).

On the day fried chicken is served at lunch — if you want to go upscale — the Capital Bar & Grill at the Capital Hotel is hard to beat.

I’ve also found Franke’s to have consistently good fried chicken.

Several years ago, I was one of the judges on KABZ-FM, 103.7, for a fried chicken contest that Tommy Smith put together. I ate chicken with the famous Taz at 7 a.m. until I was about to pop.

Get this: Browning’s was the winner. I have no idea if the new incarnation of Browning’s that will soon open on Kavanaugh will offer fried chicken.

Fried chicken places I miss?

I miss Paul’s in the Park Hill area of North Little Rock. The fried chicken there was worth the wait.

I especially miss Mrs. Miller’s in Hot Springs, which was probably my father’s favorite restaurant in the state. You also could order fried quail there, a special treat on my family’s regular trips to Hot Springs when I was young.

What restaurants am I leaving out?

Who do you think serves the best fried chicken in Arkansas and why?

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Dinner with Brett and George

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

During the four years I worked for the Delta Regional Authority, I spent a lot of time driving around the Arkansas Delta, the Mississippi Delta, the Missouri Bootheel and west Tennessee.

Much of that time in the car was spent listening to WHBQ-AM, 560, in Memphis, a famous old radio station that has had an all-sports format for a number of years.

In the 1950s, though, WHBQ was famous for its music. It was owned by RKO General, and one of its disc jockeys was Dewey Phillips, who had a show each night known as “Red, Hot and Blue.” In 1954, Phillips played a recording by a young man named Elvis Presley. It was the first Elvis song ever played on the radio.

Phillips, who often went by Daddy-O, was a Tennessee native who began working at WHBQ in 1949 when he was just 23. He became legendary for his frantic delivery and his propensity for showcasing the music of both black and white artists.

Memphis was booming in those days, and musicians flocked there from rural towns in Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee. Phillips introduced many of them to the listening audience. He wasn’t afraid to mix it up on his show, playing not only rhythm and blues but also country music and even jazz.

The station let Phillips go in late 1958 when it adopted a Top 40 format. He died in 1968 at the age of just 42 following years of alcohol and drug abuse.

WHBQ was a bit of a farm club for the bigger RKO stations. DJs such as Rick Dees and Wink Martindale would pass through on the way to the company’s stations in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Boston.

RKO sold WHBQ to Flinn Broadcasting in 1988.

During those years I spent driving through the flat Delta cotton fields and listening to the sports talk on WHBQ, I felt as if I knew all of the station’s on-air personalities.

Fortunately, I actually do know some of them. Those of you who listen to my Sunday morning appearances with Bill Vickery on KABZ-FM, 103.7, in Little Rock know that a frequent guest on Bill’s show is Arkansan Brett “Stats” Norsworthy.

Brett began working on the air in Memphis with George Lapides in 1992 and has become a Mid-South radio fixture during the past two decades. He’s making the trip to Little Rock on Saturday to watch UALR’s 3 p.m. basketball game against Middle Tennessee State. We’ll then have an early dinner at Doe’s.

It will be great fun since Brett and I share the same interests — sports, politics, Southern culture and good food.

What could be better than eating tamales followed by a steak at Doe’s, discussing politics and maybe even telling some old Paul “Bear” Bryant stories?

That’s another thing we have in common: Coach Bryant was a childhood hero for both of us.

Even though he lives in Forrest City, Brett helps host the pregame and postgame shows on the Ole Miss football radio network. Nobody knows Southeastern Conference football better. If you’re headed east, you can hear him each Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m. on 560 AM.

I mentioned George Lapides, who’s indeed a Mid-South legend. Back in the fall, my friend Keith Ingram of West Memphis invited George and me to speak to a meeting of the West Memphis Chamber of Commerce. George talked about sports. I talked about politics.

George could just as easily have talked about politics. He’s highly opinionated, well read, articulate and funny. We shared a delighful dinner afterward, which leads me to perhaps my most important point — George loves to eat out and knows the best restaurants across the South and in other major U.S. cities.

We each choose Galatoire’s in New Orleans as our favorite restaurant in the country.

Go to the website www.georgelapides.com. Ignore the fact that parts of the site haven’t been updated in years. Click on “Places To Eat” and enjoy yourself. You can find George’s opinion on restaurants in Atlanta, Birmingham, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Dallas, Fayetteville, Houston, Kansas City, Knoxville, Little Rock, Louisville, Mobile, Nashville, New Orleans, Oklahoma City (which George describes as a terrible restaurant city), Orlando, Oxford (the one in Mississippi, of course), Phoenix-Scottsdale, St. Louis (George shares my love for eating Italian food on The Hill), San Antonio, Shreveport and Tuscaloosa

The best part of listening to George from 8 a.m. until 9 a.m. on WHBQ is hearing him do live ads for various Memphis restaurants. I’m always hungry when I turn off the radio.

Be advised that a few of the restaurants listed on the website are no longer in business.

In his Fayetteville listing, George says his favorite is Herman’s Ribhouse. When it comes to Fayetteville itself, I agree with him. Give me a single rib for an appetizer, a gear salad and a New York strip with hashbrowns at Herman’s. But as far as northwest Arkansas as a region, I’ll usually make the trip to Venesian Inn in Tontitown for fried chicken and spaghetti or to the Monte Ne Inn near Rogers for fried chicken.

When the Memphis Tigers came to North Little Rock to play in the 2008 NCAA basketball tournament, George became a fan of Capeo in downtown Argenta. We agree on that. He called it a “don’t-miss place.”

On the Little Rock side of the river, George likes Ferneau, Brave New Restaurant and Ashley’s.

Here’s how the WHBQ website describes him: “When you think Memphis and sports, you instantly think of George Lapides. George is a native Memphian, his parents were Memphians, their parents were Memphians and his great-grandparents were raised in the Mid-South. In fact, George was part of the first-ever graduating class at White Station High School. George attended the University of Tennessee and the University of Memphis. There aren’t too many people who have the firsthand knowledge of the history of this area that George does.

“George has spent nearly 50 years in the sports business , whether as sports editor of the Memphis Press Scimitar or sports director at WREG-TV. … He is in his 40th consecutive year of doing sports talk on radio. It’s the longest-running sports talk show in the country and, according to some, the second longest-running radio show of any kind.”

Though the Press Scimitar is long gone, I still cherish my copy of the afternoon newspaper that came out the day of Bear Bryant’s final game as head coach at Alabama in the 1982 Liberty Bowl. George’s column ran on the front page that day.

In 2006, George donated his sports memorabilia collection to the University of Memphis

“I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to do something to which I first aspired when I was in the fifth grade at Vollentine School — that is, work in journalism,” George said at the time.

Here’s a sample of the kind of history George remembers. He was asked about his memories of Russwood Park on Madison Avenue in Memphis, which was destroyed by fire in 1960. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Stan Musial had all played there at one time or another.

“It smelled,” George told The Commericial Appeal last year. “The minute you walked into the guts of the entry plaza, you could smell the hog dogs and the popcorn. I have two strong memories, and that’s one of them.

“The other memory is the unbelievable noise because everything was wood and when people started clapping for a rally, they also stomped their feet on the wood, and it was just unbelievably loud when they did that. They’d do this rhythmic clapping and stomp their feet.”

Good memories. Good stories. Brett and George — two Memphis radio personalities who make fine dining companions.

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The case for college football

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

Football season has concluded, though the true college football fan never rests.

Once the national championship game is played in early January, fans turn their attention to recruiting and the February signing date.

After that, it’s time to look forward to spring football.

The NCAA announced last week that college football set a new attendance record for the fourth time in five seasons in 2010. That’s no surprise. The sport has never been more popular.

A record of 49,670,895 people attended games at 639 NCAA schools last fall, breaking the previous high set in 2008.

So much for a bad economy.

The total attendance increase of 1,386,222 people from 2009 to 2010 came mostly from Division I, which saw an increase of 713,527 fans.

Michigan’s 111,825 fans per game over seven home games set an all-time individual school record, breaking a record set at Michigan in 1999. It was the 13th consecutive season for Michigan to lead the country in attendance despite having mediocre teams in recent years.

Four other schools averaged more than 100,000 fans per home game — Ohio State at 105,278; Penn State at 104,234; Alabama at 101,821; and Texas at 100,654.

The 120 FBS teams averaged 45,912 fans per game in 755 home games last season. The Southeastern Conference had a total attendance of 6,521,151. That’s an average of 76,719 fans per game.

It goes without saying that football is big business.

What’s truly amazing is the number of colleges and universities that have launched programs during the Great Recession.

Almost 30 schools have added football during the past decade, and there’s no end in sight to this trend.

Why are colleges adding this expensive sport?

1. A football program can attract students to a school, especially schools that want to increase the percentage of male students. We’re not necessarily talking about football players. We’re talking about males who simply want to attend a school that has football.

2. A football program energizes campus life in the fall.

3. A football program increases the media attention devoted to a school and allows that school to better brand itself in the minds of prospective students, their parents, alumni and potential donors.

4. A football program can boost alumni support in all areas.

5. In addition to bringing in more male applicants, a football program plays a role in attracting students interested in sports journalism, cheerleading, band, athletic training and other areas.

These are among the reasons that Hendrix College in Conway has been considering the addition of a football program at the NCAA Division III (nonscholarship) level.

And these are the reasons I still think it would make sense for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to add football at some point. UALR already is in a football conference (the Sun Belt) and would have an automatic rival in Arkansas State University.

The Trojans could play their home games at War Memorial Stadium — not conflicting with the two University of Arkansas games played there each fall — and schedule nonconference games at the stadium each season against the University of Central Arkansas and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. That would guarantee several decent crowds each year.

“With more than 1 million high school football participants and only 66,000 playing college football, it makes sense that colleges would want to give high school players more options for playing at the next level,” says Archie Manning of New Orleans, the chairman of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame. “We are proud to highlight the college presidents and their trustees who have recognized the educational benefit of our sport. Their foresight will provide more student-athletes the opportunity to continue to learn to be leaders through football.”

Launching programs in 2009 were Old Dominion University in Virginia, the University of Incarnate Word in San Antonio, the University of New Haven in Connecticut, Anna Maria College in Massachusetts and Castleton State College in Vermont.

Launching varsity teams last season were the University of South Alabama, Georgia State University, Lamar University in Texas, Pacific University in Oregon, Lindsey Wilson College in Kentucky and Notre Dame College in Ohio.

Still to come in the next few seasons are the University of Texas at San Antonio, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, LeMoyne-Owen College at Memphis, Presentation College in South Dakota and Stevenson University in Maryland.

South Alabama played a junior varsity schedule in 2009 and a varsity schedule last season. The school will join the Sun Belt Conference in 2012.

In a 2009 article by Raul Colon published at www.fftoolbox.com, South Alabama president Gordon Moulton said: “We know from experience that there are many academically talented students whom we recruit each year who choose other universities because we don’t offer these programs. For many universities across the nation, NCAA-sanctioned football and a marching band program serve as the centerpiece of student life and campus tradition. They serve as a catalyst for a wide range of student life activities.”

In 2007, more than 2,500 South Alabama students signed a petition saying they would support a $300 increase in the annual student activity fee to help fund a football program.

Former athletic director Joe Gottfried put it this way: “Having homecoming, parents’ weekend and other activities that our university will have on football weekends will be great. In the past, we tried to do these types of activities around other sports, and it was not the same.”

Georgia State, which began in 1913 and now has 30,000 students attending college in downtown Atlanta, conducted extensive research before announcing in April 2008 that it would launch a program. Bill Curry — the former head coach at Georgia Tech, Alabama and Kentucky — was hired as the school’s first head football coach.

At the news conference held to announce his hiring, Curry said: “Football will be a huge success at Georgia State University. That’s a promise. There would be no Georgia State football program starting today if the student body did not respond in such a positive way and frankly in such an unusual way by supporting the increase in the student athletic fee. That’s inspirational to everybody.”

Administrators hope the program will help change the school’s reputation as a commuter school.

I once heard a prominent Arkansas business leader say that UALR needed “dorms and a football team” to change its image among people across the state.

Dorms have been added in recent years, and more are being built. Drive down Fair Park and look at the construction just before reaching Asher. It’s impressive.

So what about a Division I college football team based in Little Rock?

Consider what happened in San Antonio.

Even though San Antonio is the seventh largest city in the country, it had only a Division III program at Trinity University. That’s why both UTSA and Incarnate Word stepped in to fill the void.

When the UTSA program was announced, athletic director Lynn Hickey said: “We’re in a city where we really need to enhance the idea of going to college and finishing high school. If we can put a product in the Alamodome that kids in this community can come and watch and be a part of, that may give them the idea that it’s cool to go to college.”

Lamar, which is located 80 miles east of Houston with about 11,000 students, decided to reinsitute football after 79 percent of its student body voted to raise fees by $105 per year. The school then launched a $29 million project to renovate its stadium and surrounding areas.

It’s a bit of an anomaly: At a time when schools across the country were forced to cut expenses, a number of them decided that football makes sense.

I remember being on a committee at my alma mater, Ouachita Baptist University, a number of years ago. The committee was charged with coming up with recommendations for the school’s athletic program. We discussed whether college football was a good fit at Ouachita. With 1,500 students, Ouachita is one of the smallest schools in the country to compete at the Divison II level in football.

The president at the time, Ben Elrod, told us this: “I was president of a school without football (Georgetown College in Kentucky), and it was boring in the fall. It’s well worth the investment.”

Guess what? During the past three seasons combined, Ouachita has a better winning percentage than any other college football program in Arkansas. UCA is second, and the University of Arkansas is third.

Almost 20 years later, it seems a lot of college presidents are coming to the same conclusion that Ben Elrod reached back then.

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Some daylight at Dyess

Monday, February 14th, 2011

Mark your calendar for Aug. 4.

That’s when it appears a concert will be held at the Convocation Center on the Arkansas State University campus in Jonesboro to bolster efforts to restore the site of the former Dyess Colony in Mississippi County.

I’ve written about those efforts before.

A quick recap: Johnny Cash was born in February 1932 in the pine woods of south Arkansas at Kingsland in Cleveland County. In 1936, the Cash family moved to Dyess to participate in an experimental cooperative.

Soon after having been elected president in 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt created a number of agencies to battle the Great Depression. The first administrator of the Works Progress Administration in Arkansas was William Reynolds Dyess, who was part of a group of politically powerful plantation owners from Mississippi County. Dyess convinced the Federal Emergency Relief Administation to purchase 16,000 acres of bottomland hardwoods in Mississippi County and then pump $3 million into the area so impoverished rural families could move there from across the state and clear about 20 acres each for cultivation.

The resettlement colony was established in May 1934. Federal officials searched the state’s relief rolls and initially brought almost 1,300 men to the area to begin building roads and homes.

By the time first lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Dyess Colony in June 1936, there were about 2,500 residents. Ray Cash and Carrie Rivers Cash headed one of the five families that had been selected to move there from Cleveland County. Their son John was identified as “J.R.” in the Dyess High School yearbook when he was the class vice president as a senior in 1950.

Last year, the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council awarded a $337,888 grant to Arkansas State for restoration work at Dyess Colony. The actual home where Johnny Cash was raised remains in private hands, though it appears a restoration will be built as part of the interpretive exhibit.

Proceeds from the August concert will be used to supplement the work already being done by Arkansas State and the National Trust for Historic Preservation at Dyess.

Johnny Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, is expected to host the benefit concert. Among those invited to perform are Rosanne Cash and George Jones. Rosanne, in fact, has already posted a newspaper story about the event on her official website at www.rosannecash.com.

Following the release of the critically acclaimed movie “Walk The Line” in 2005, there was a significant increase in the number of tourists coming to Dyess. They came from not only across the United States but also Canada and Europe. There was a large tour group from Ireland, for example. A Belgian cooking show filmed an episode there. Unfortunately, there was little for these visitors to see or do.

The movie, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, chronicled Cash’s early life in Arkansas, his interest in music and his move out of Arkansas to join the Air Force. Once the movie was released, some of those still living in Dyess began efforts to increase awareness of the community, hosting music events in the old school gym there.

In 2008, Kirkley Thomas and Carmie Henry, who both work for the Arkansas Electric Cooperatives in Little Rock, were lamenting the fact that the state wasn’t doing enough to capitalize on the Cash legacy and other parts of Arkansas’ rich musical heritage. Millions of tourists flock to Nashville, Memphis and Branson each year. Why, Thomas and Henry asked, was this state not doing more to capture those dollars?

Dyess seemed to have potential. It’s located just off Interstate 55, which connects cities with strong music traditions – Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans. It’s a short day trip from Memphis and its many music-related attractions — Graceland, Beale Street, the Rock ’n’ Soul Museum, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the Sun Studio, the Gibson Guitar factory, etc.

Thomas and Henry headed to Dyess to visit with the mayor, Larry Sims. In 2009, they enlisted the help of Ruth Hawkins, who heads up Delta heritage initiatives at Arkansas State. Hawkins had been instrumental in establishing the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Education Center at Piggott and the Southern Tenant Farmers Union Museum at Tyronza. She also led efforts to restore the Lakeport Plantation near Lake Village.

In July 2009, a meeting of various stakeholders in the project was held in Little Rock. Then-state Sen. Steve Bryles of Blytheville helped secure money for a master plan. After proposals were solicited nationally, the firm John Milner & Associates of Pennsylvania was chosen to conduct assessments and offer recommendations for a redevelopment project at Dyess.

The Dyess Colony redevelopment master plan was completed in March of last year. Soon after that, Arkansas State received the NCRC grant to begin the first phase of the rehabilitation effort.

Working with Hawkins, Beth Wiedower of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and others, the group behind the project began discussing the idea of a Johnny Cash music festival to raise funds and increase awareness of their initiative at Dyess.

Hawkins made contact with Bill Carter, a Nashville producer who was an attorney for the Rolling Stones and has extensive contacts in the music industry. Carter agreed to produce the August event. He had attended college at Arkansas State and is friends with everyone from Reba McEntire to Tanya Tucker.

Among those who will be invited to perform at this or future festivals are Kid Rock, Ronnie Dunn, Sheryl Crow, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard and Travis Tritt.

Meanwhile, restoration work on the Dyess Colony administration building began Jan. 17 with a completion date set for May.

In other words, there’s real progress being made.

John Carter Cash, 40, is the only son of Johnny and June Carter Cash. He has long worked as a music producer for artists ranging from Vince Gill to Elvis Costello to Willie Nelson. The first CD of his own music was released in 2003. He’s also the author of his mother’s biography, “Anchored In Love.”

John Carter Cash has even written two children’s books with a third scheduled for release in 2012. He owns and operates the Cash Cabin Studio near Nashville.

Rosanne Cash, 55, is the oldest child of Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian Liberto. She was born in Memphis in May 1955. Johnny Cash was taking radio broadcasting classes at Keegan’s School of Broadcasting and working as an appliance salesman for the Home Equipment Co. in Memphis at the time. Johnny Cash divorced his first wife in 1968.

Rosanne Cash joined her father’s television show at age 18 and went on to study drama at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and the Lee Strasberg Institute in Los Angeles. She has relased 12 albums through the years and recorded 11 No. 1 singles. She won the Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance in 1985. Rosanne also has had a collection of short stories, a children’s book and a memoir pubished.

Having the Cash children involved in this effort is huge.

Finally, it seems, good things are happening for Dyess.

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The two states of Arkansas

Friday, February 11th, 2011

We are two states.

The census figures released this week for Arkansas make that clear.

There are the northwest and central parts of our state, places that are doing relatively well economically and consistently gaining population.

Then there is most of east and south Arkansas.

Thirty-nine counties gained population during the past decade.

Thirty-six counties lost population.

Yes, in many ways, we are two states within a state.

Monroe County, where I hope to be Sunday night for the weekly wild game dinner at Gene’s in Brinkley, lost 20.5 percent of its population during the past decade.

Compare that to Benton County, which had a 44.3 percent population increase.

Monroe County has little in common with Benton County. They are almost as different as two parts of a state can be.

Pulaski County remained the state’s largest county in terms of population, growing 5.9 percent. But that growth rate paled in comparison to adjoining Faulkner County’s growth rate of 31.6 percent, the second highest rate in the state.

Other counties surrounding Pulaski County did well. Saline County grew 28.2 percent. Lonoke County grew 29.4 percent. Yet head a few miles away toward the Delta and notice the 8.1 percent population decrease in Jefferson County. As a city, Pine Bluff lost 10.9 percent of its population during the decade, falling below the 50,000 mark.

Back up in northwest Arkansas, Washington County grew 28.8 percent. Even Sebastian County, despite the loss of manufacturing jobs, grew 9.3 percent.

In a post earlier this snowy week, I discussed efforts to come up with a plan to bring some life to far southeast Arkansas.

When we discuss the southern and eastern parts of our state, we must remember that no one strategy is going to change the broad demographic trends that date back decades. There are, however, effective approaches that can be taken if we’ll allow ourselves to think differently than in the past.

Simply put, our definition of economic development must change.

The old strategy of obtaining government grants and using them to build industrial parks is no longer going to be sufficient.

The draft strategic plan for southeast Arkansas to which I referred earlier this week touts tourism as part of the solution.

Southeast Arkansas generally is not a place tourists consider.

“The state’s tourists typically visit Hot Springs, Eureka Springs, Greers Ferry, Mountain View, Helena-West Helena, Little Rock, the Ozarks or any of another dozen destinations,” the report states. “Those who do include this region of the state in their travels are, more often than not, merely passing through as they head elsewhere. In fact, Chicot and Desha counties actually have less market share of Arkansas’ overall tourism business than they did just a decade ago.”

The report goes on to ask two questions:

1. Why is this the case?

2. What can be done about it?

“As to the ‘why’ question, a lot of factors come into play,” the report states. “For one thing, there’s no getting around the fact that tourism has simply never been a priority in southeast Arkansas. With its strong agricultural base, the region was among the state’s wealthiest areas until four or five decades ago when mechanization completely transformed the agricultural economy and reduced the number of farm-related jobs.

“When things were going well, there was little impetus for community leaders to look at options to expand the area’s economic foundation. As the tide turned, the usual reaction has been to establish an industrial park and then attempt to bring in small manufacturing concerns of one sort or another. That approach, combined with the prevailing local assumption that the region holds no interest for potential visitors, has kept tourism off the radar.”

And how about the question “what can be done?”

The report notes: “That, too, is rather complex. The first thing to recognize is that the region’s rich and diverse inventory of natural and cultural resources has real potential to become a significant player in Arkansas’ tourism industry. With its long and growing list of attractions plus the 7,000 vehicles traveling up and down U.S. Highway 65 each and every day, southeast Arkansas is on the verge of having the critical mass necessary to attract significant numbers of visitors. Convincing the locals — leaders and residents alike — of that reality must be a priority before any successful advancement can be made.”

The plan points out that the consumers’ perspective must be taken into consideration.

“Leisure travelers need certain basic tourism products: things to see and do, places to eat and places to stay. Included would be outdoor adventures such as kayaking, ATVing and fishing; a mix of historic and cultural attractions; a variety of dining options; and lodging opportunities ranging from bed and breakfast inns, cabins and hotels to recreational vehicle parks. Supporting these essentials would be outfitters and guides for outdoor activities along with retail shops to provide groceries, souvenirs and other supplies.”

The plan proposes the establishment of a development group that would be structured so it could partner with government organizations, colleges, universities and other entities to make something happen. This umbrella organization would work to unify the region, provide more annual events, assemble financial packages for entrepreneurs and market business opportunities to those private investors.

“If the objective of the organization is kept fairly broad to encompass any relevant aspect of the Delta, it could sponsor events as diverse as fishing tournaments, musical performances, birding expeditions, museum tours and visits to historic homes and sites,” the plan states. “It could partner with festival organizers in the region to provide additional programming immediately before and after an event to extend a visitor’s stay in the area. It could help promote interest in a marina complex on the lower Arkansas River. In short, it would be involved in just about any proposal designed to offer improved and enhanced tourism opportunities in southeast Arkansas. Its overall mission would be to grow the regional economy and increase employment while elevating the quality of life through the development of new tourism products.”

Don’t believe for a second that this will be easy.

As the report states, “This corner of the state lacks elements commonly associated with traditional tourism development: beaches, casinos, mountains, a major reservoir or a large national park. Not only is the area not in the collective mindset of the traveling public, many of the local residents probably have little appreciation for the region’s tourism potential.

“In addition, the current economic situation compounded by the region’s lack of recognition as a tourism destination will make it doubly hard to convince entrepreneurs to invest their dollars in southeast Arkansas. Yet the right mix of public- and private-sector projects combined with an aggressive marketing and promotional campaign could get things headed in the right direction.

“While there’s an ongoing political debate about the role of government in the American economic system, there’s no question that public investments have served as crucial development catalysts for communities across the country. Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg – two thriving Tennessee towns — would not be known today had Great Smoky Mountains National Park not been established in 1934. Closer to home, the Norfork and Bull Shoals projects allowed Mountain Home to embrace prosperity. Likewise, Heber Springs would most likely still be a small, sleepy town had Greers Ferry Dam not been built. In every case, once the public investment was completed, visitors followed and they, in turn, attracted a wide variety of private-sector involvement.”

Tourism, of course, is not the answer.

It’s simply one piece in a much larger puzzle as people try to improve the quality of life in south and east Arkansas. The biggest piece of that puzzle remains the improvement of public education.

Still, it’s apparent that what the good folks in east and south Arkansas have been doing in recent decades isn’t working from an economic development standpoint.

It’s high time to try some different approaches.

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