Archive for April, 2011

Back from Fordyce

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

The fog was heavy last Thursday night as I drove from El Dorado to Fordyce through the thick pine forests that surround the Ouachita River and Champagnolle Creek.

Storms had rolled through the piney woods earlier in the day and been replaced by fog on a humid evening. As I pulled into the driveway of the 1905 Wynne Phillips House in Fordyce at almost 10 p.m., I thought to myself how glad I was that I didn’t have to drive that extra hour to Little Rock.

I wrote last week about the invitation I had received from Agnes Wynne Phillips and her husband, Col. James Phillips, to spend the evening at their historic home. The home, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is furnished throughout with antiques and Oriental rugs.

Col. and Mrs. Phillips were still awake, and we visited before I headed upstairs to the front bedroom.

It was in this home that Thomas Duncan Wynne and his wife Agnes raised their seven children. Agnes Phillips was the youngest of those seven children.

Five older brothers served in the armed forces during World War II. An older sister also was married to a serviceman. Photos of them in uniform lined an upstairs table outside my bedroom.

The trains passing through downtown Fordyce were loud, but sleep came quickly following an exceedingly long day that had begun with meetings atop Petit Jean Mountain and been followed by the three-hour drive to El Dorado in the rain and an evening dinner speech in that city’s stunning new convention center.

By Good Friday morning, the sun was beginning to peek out for the first time in several days. Col. Phillips had made the short trip down to the street to Klappenbach Bakery. Mrs. Phillips added fresh grapefruit, coffee and orange juice to the mix. We had a delightful breakfast on the front porch as we discussed the city’s plans to capitalize on the Bear Bryant legacy.

It was time for the Fordyce on the Cotton Belt Festival, and Mrs. Phillips was holding her annual garden party that afternoon with proceeds going to the Dallas County Museum.

Ken Gaddy, the director of the Paul W. Bryant Museum in Tuscaloosa, was scheduled to arrive just after lunch.

While Mrs. Phillips spent the morning preparing for her party, Col. Phillips took me on a tour of the Dallas County Museum, one of the best museums for a town this size to be found anywhere.

In 1995, Frank D. Hickingbotham sold his banks in Little Rock, El Dorado, Arkadelphia, Fordyce and Springhill, La., to what was then First Commercial Corp. of Little Rock. He later donated the 13,000-square-foot downtown building that had housed his Fordyce bank to the museum.

Col. Phillips put his engineering skills to work and Mrs. Phillips put her organizational skills to work to make the museum a reality.

The colonel, who played football at the University of Arkansas, spent 30 years in the U.S. Army as a commissioned officer. He was deputy commander of the Lower Mississippi River Valley Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Vicksburg, which supervised Corps districts in St. Louis, Memphis, Vicksburg and New Orleans.

Col. Phillips served commands in South Korea and Vietnam. He also served as secretary of the Mississippi River Commission.

Then-Gov. Bill Clinton put him in charge of the Arkansas Waterways Commission in 1980. The commission fosters development of Arkansas’ navigable waterways.

He worked to improve navigation on the Arkansas River through adequate channel markings that could withstand high, swift flows such as the one I’m looking at right now through my window in downtown North Little Rock.

Col. Phillips also worked to make a slackwater harbor at the Port of Little Rock a reality. He helped lead efforts to construct the Montgomery Point Lock & Dam at the White River entrance linking the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers.

Last year, Col. Phillips was inducted into the Arkansas River Historical Society’s Hall of Fame.

In 1985, while still living in Little Rock, the Phillips began renovation of the historic Wynne family home. In 1988, they started operating it as a bed and breakfast inn.

They stopped taking overnight guests last year. These days, you have to be lucky like I was and receive a special invitation from Col. and Mrs. Phillips, who will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary in July.

Barbecue was being prepared downtown on a huge smoker as lunch approached, and we bought three sandwiches to take back at the house. Gaddy arrived from Tuscaloosa just as we were finishing lunch. He was the curator of the natural history museum on the University of Alabama campus from October 1988 until December 1991, when he got the call to take over the Bryant Museum. That museum had opened to the public three years earlier.

The Bryant Museum in Tuscaloosa now draws almost 40,000 visitors a year.

“We get a lot of the people who come to watch visiting teams play Alabama,” Gaddy said. “They make a visit to the museum a part of their trip. And we’ve worked with a number of other schools through the years that want to establish their own football museums.”

This was Gaddy’s third trip to Fordyce. On one of the two previous trips, he was accompanied by Coach Bryant’s granddaughter.

The Tuscaloosa museum has seven full-time and four part-time employees. Several other members of the staff have been to Fordyce. Gaddy said they came back raving about Klappenbach’s and the Redbug football game they attended.

“Every Alabama fan worth his salt knows where Fordyce is,” he said.

It is, in a sense, holy ground for those football-crazy Bama fans. Gaddy is convinced many of them will make the pilgrimage to south Arkansas if the Phillips are successful in turning an 1884 downtown building into a sports-related exhibit to be known as The Bear and the Bugs.

The building is directly across Main Street from the site of the Lyric Theater, where Bryant had his encounter with a circus bear.

“For a small town with a population of less than 5,000 people, we’ve had a number of famous coaches either grow up here or coach here,” Mrs. Phillips said. “There was Coach Bryant, Larry Lacewell, Red Parker and Houston Nutt Sr. We’ve also produced professional athletes. Our thoughts are to include information about the Redbugs as well as Bryant.”

There’s even a Dallas County Sports Hall of Fame. The first class in 2007 included Bryant, Jim Benton, Click Jordan, Jud Jordan and the famed Sparkman Sparklers girls’ basketball team of 1927-30.

Inductees to subsequent classes have included Nutt Sr., Lacewell, Parker, Footsie Benton, Bobby Richardson, Quinnie Hamm Toler, Ronnie Carter, John Ed Anthony, Sam Cook, Joe Arnette, Convoy Leslie and Don White.

On Friday night, Parker’s 12-0 Redbug teams of 1958, ’59 and ’60 were inducted. Also inducted was Benny Mack Estes of Dumas, who excelled in football, basketball and track when he attended Fordyce High School.

During Friday night’s ceremony, Gaddy presented the people of Fordyce with a bronze bust of Bryant that will be a centerpiece of the sports museum.

“It’s a spectacular thing to have,” Mrs. Phillips said.

“I spoke with Paul Bryant Jr.,” Gaddy said. “We went through some of the things we could do for Fordyce. This was the big thing we could do tonight to help them kick off their campaign.”

Col. and Mrs. Phillips hope to have parts of the sports museum open in time for the Fordyce on the Cotton Belt Festival next year.

The official grand opening will be in 2013, the 100th anniversary of Bryant’s birth.

I expect the Phillips to achieve their dream. If you’ve seen the Dallas County Museum, you know they set their sights high and achieve their goals.

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Buddy Benson — Remembering The Man

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

His players often referred to him simply as The Man.

I was in Fordyce on Friday morning, waiting to meet with the director of the Paul W. Bryant Museum at Tuscaloosa, when I received the sad news.

Buddy Benson, the head football coach at Ouachita Baptist University for 31 seasons, had died at age 77.

It was, in a sense, fitting that I was in Fordyce helping the fine folks there plan for a Bear Bryant Museum when the call came. I say that because Buddy Benson was my Bear — a larger-than-life college football coach who influenced me in far more ways than I can begin to describe on this Good Friday night.

I’ve written before how fortunate I was to grow up in Arkadelphia when I did. That’s because my heroes weren’t faraway figures that I watched only on television or read about in magazines.

My three heroes — my father, Buddy Benson and Ouachita head basketball coach Bill Vining — were all right there in town. They were people I saw every day.

It’s easy to become overly sentimental, and I’ll do my best to guard against too many maudlin remembrances on this blog. Suffice it to say I’ve lost two of my heros in recent weeks — my dad last month; Coach Benson today.

I visited Coach Benson several times in the intensive care unit at Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock. He wasn’t conscious, but his son-in-law Tiger and I spent a long time one afternoon during the Masters commenting on golf shots to him.

I would like to think he heard us.

After retiring from coaching following the 1995 season, Coach Benson served as Ouachita’s athletic director until 1998. In retirement, he was a constant presence on the golf course at DeGray Lake Resort State Park, where he was known for rounds of speed golf that tired out his playing partners.

I was raised just down the street from the Ouachita stadium and practice field. From almost the time I was old enough to walk, fall afternoons were spent watching my beloved Tigers practice (at least until I was old enough to have my own football practices to attend).

I was in awe of him.

I’m sure I was in the stands at Ouachita games as a baby, but I don’t ever remember sitting in the stands for a Tiger football game. From the time I was old enough to remember those Saturday games all the way through high school, I was roaming the Ouachita sidelines. By the time I was a freshman in college, I was in the press box broadcasting the games on the radio.

After games, Coach Benson and his family were at our house, we were at the Benson house or I was in the car with the coach and his assistants as we raced from an afternoon Ouachita game to another Arkansas city to watch an evening battle between two of our AIC opponents.

The things that writers and broadcasters look for in a team at the start of any football season are things such as size, speed and depth. Usually, Coach Benson’s Ouachita teams weren’t very big and weren’t very fast. There rarely was any depth. But some way, somehow, those squads consistently won more games than they lost.

Coach Benson always believed that the winning would take care of itself if he took care of the details.

Here’s how Arkansas Democrat sports editor Fred Morrow put it in a column after the Tigers had won a share of the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference championship in 1975: “His athletes are going to go to class. They’re not going to abuse (or even get caught using) tobacco or alcohol, and they’re going to keep their hair nice and neat, and they’re going to say yes sir and no sir. Oh, they’re also going to receive degrees.”

And here’s how Coach Benson put it: “I’m not running a popularity contest. I tell our players to keep working and keep doing the little things right. Just stick to your knitting and something good will happen.”

I mentioned Bear Bryant. It was Coach Bryant who once said, “I ain’t nothin’ but a winner.”

Buddy Benson was a winner all his life.

Coming out of De Queen High School, he was one of the most highly recruited running backs in the nation. Coach Benson’s mother kept wonderful scrapbooks through the years. I’ll never forget a De Queen Bee story posted in one of those scrapbooks that announced that the University of Oklahoma had sent a plane to pick up the touted running back. The plane landed at Horatio because the runway was longer than the runway at De Queen.

The De Queen recruit was taken to dinner that night in Oklahoma City by Sooner head coach Bud Wilkinson, the toast of the town after having won the national championship in 1950.

Coach Benson delighted in telling this story: “The waiter came over and asked us if we wanted to start with something. Coach Wilkinson said: ‘Buddy, I think I’ll have a shrimp cocktail. Do you want one?’ I had rarely been out of Sevier County. I thought he was testing me. So I looked him right in the eye and said, ‘No sir. I don’t drink.”’

Wilkinson’s teams won 47 consecutive games between 1953 and 1957. But Coach Benson missed his home state and transferred to the University of Arkansas. He helped lead the Razorbacks to a share of the 1954 Southwest Conference championship, an 8-3 record and a berth in the Cotton Bowl against Georgia Tech.

Despite all of his accomplishments at Ouachita, thousands of now elderly Arkansans still remember him best for throwing the 66-yard touchdown pass to Preston Carpenter at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium to lead the Hogs to a 6-0 victory over the nationally ranked Ole Miss Rebels.

The late Orville Henry, the longtime sports editor of the Arkansas Gazette, later would describe what was known as the “Powder River Play” as the school’s most famous play to that point because it put the Arkansas program on the map and gave the Razorbacks a statewide following.

After his college graduation in the spring of 1956, Coach Benson was offered a professional contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He turned down that offer (professional football paid rookies very little in those days) to try his hand at coaching high school football.

Once again, Buddy Benson was a winner.

He took a job at Lewisville High School in far south Arkansas, and his first team there went 10-1. His second team had a record of 7-1-2, and Buddy Benson was being talked about as one of the hottest young coaches in the region.

He needed to provide for his young family, though, and coaching high school sports in Arkansas was a good way to starve in the 1950s. So he decided to sell automobiles.

He told the sports editor of the Texarkana newspaper: “I’m getting a better deal going into the automobile business. It’s just one of those things. I had the opportunity to go, and I couldn’t pass it up. As much as I like it here, I have to make a living for my family.”

The writer Buddy Benson was speaking to was Wick Temple, who would go on to become a top executive for The Associated Press.

Temple wrote in a column: “His was the model small school coaching situation. He produced fine athletes and a fine athletic program. He had a good record and no difficulties with anyone, much less the school board. But he quit. He left what had taken him 10 years of playing and coaching to achieve.”

Three years later, Buddy Benson realized he had made a mistake.

It was August 1961 when he showed up at the annual coaching clinic in Little Rock to look for a job. He wasn’t choosy. He just wanted to be back in coaching.

Someone told him that the Ouachita head coach, Rab Rodgers, needed an assistant. Coach Benson met with Rodgers, and the older coach offered him an assistant’s position.

Buddy and Janet Benson moved to Arkadelphia 50 years ago and never left.

Rab Rodgers decided to get out of coaching in 1965 and serve as the school’s full-time athletic director. Coach Benson was promoted. It was, at best, a risky proposition for him. Few people believed Ouachita could win in football, and some of Coach’s Benson’s friends believed he had doomed his career by taking on an impossible task.

The school’s president, Dr. Ralph Phelps, had told the student body in the late 1950s: “We should not expect overnight miracles of our teams or coaching staffs. Ouachita, after having been at the pinnacle of athletic glory, has sunk about as low as a school can go without dropping competition altogether.”

The school had experienced just two winning seasons the previous 16 years.

That’s what makes this fact so remarkable in retrospect: Coach Benson did not have a losing season in his first 12 years. He worked his magic quickly. By his second year as head coach, the Tigers had captured a share of the AIC championship.

His players were a reflection of their leader. They wore suits on road trips, they maintained a clean-cut appearance and they played the game cleanly.

The Man turned boys into men.

His hundreds of former players had a strong loyalty to The Man, who had been a tough taskmaster when they were in school.

Yes, Buddy Benson was tough. He accepted nothing less than a player’s best.

“Suck it up,” he was fond of saying.

Coach Benson’s 162-140-8 record at Ouachita is amazing when you consider how little money he had to spend on his program and how poor the facilities were. He rarely had more than two or three full-time assistants. Most high school coaching staffs in Arkansas were larger than what he ever had at Ouachita.

Yet he produced 16 all-America and 208 all-conference players. His greatest accomplishment was the fact that almost all of his players graduated. Former Tigers moved on to success in business, medicine, law, education and other professions.

Buddy Benson’s recruiting strategy was based on quality rather than quantity, not only physical quality but also mental and moral excellence. Once those recruits reached the Ouachita campus, Coach Benson saw to it that football and social life did not outweigh academic concerns.

Let me put it this way: Those players were scared not to graduate.

Yes, Buddy Benson had opportunities to move to larger schools.

Sitting in his den one day, I asked him why he stayed at Ouachita despite the tiny athletic budgets and the crumbling facilities.

Here’s what he told me: “There’s just something special about this school. You can see it in the students and feel it when you walk around the campus. We have a high class of individuals who go to school here. I think that if a kid can stick it out with us for four years, he’ll end up being a pretty high-class person himself.”

Coach Benson’s most famous player, of course, was Cliff Harris. Cliff played in five Super Bowls for the Dallas Cowboys and was inducted into the Cowboys Ring of Honor.

I visited with Cliff by telephone this afternoon. He told me that he thought of Coach Benson often, even during those Super Bowl games.

Cliff said his college coach “taught us to achieve at levels we didn’t believe were possible. At critical moments in my life, I’ve thought of Coach Benson and the things he taught me. It was his influence that allowed me to step it up a notch at those important times.”

On the night my father died — as I waited at the Little Rock nursing home for the funeral home personnel to arrive from Arkadelphia and pick up his body — the first call I received on my cell phone was from Coach Benson.

“Are you all right?” he asked me. “Do you need me to come up there?”

“No sir,” I replied. “I’ll be OK.”

You see, he had taught me long ago to “suck it up” in tough times.

I have no doubt, though, that he would have been in the car headed to Little Rock in minutes had I said I needed him.

It’s Easter weekend, and we celebrate the resurrection. I’ll go to bed tonight with this good thought: The coffee is hot in heaven and Coach Benson has joined up with my dad, Quintus Crews, Ike Sharp, Otis Turner, Cliff’s dad Buddy Harris and all of those other great men who went before him.

They’re telling football stories around that round table just like the old days, discussing recruits and even second-guessing some of Coach Benson’s past play calls. Mac Sisson is there taking notes.

I’ll be honest. It’s hard to lose another hero.

On those hot August days when the preseason practices seemed to last until dark, Coach Benson would pace up and down the practice field under that big pecan tree and chant this to his players: “It’s hard but it’s fair. You had a good home, you should have stayed there.”

You know, I did have a good home in Arkadelphia. I had a good home because the town had men like Buddy Benson.

I hope you know what you meant to me, Coach. I loved you and everything you stood for.

Buddy Benson: He was one of a kind.

He was The Man.

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Fordyce on the Cotton Belt

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

Ken Gaddy, the director of the Paul W. Bryant Museum on the campus of the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, will make the pilgrimage to Fordyce on Friday.

He will be in south Arkansas for a very important reason – to attend the Redbug Reunion Rally, a gathering of former Fordyce High School students that’s a key part of the annual Fordyce on the Cotton Belt Festival.

Gaddy also will work with those who are attempting to establish a museum in Fordyce to honor that Southern icon known simply as The Bear.

Last Saturday, the Bryant Museum in Tuscaloosa set a single-day attendance record of 4,367 visitors. On the same day, 92,310 Tide fans filled Bryant-Denny Stadium for a spring game.

More than 92,000 people to watch a scrimmage.

Think about it.

It’s proof that there are no more ardent college football fans than Alabama fans, which is why I’ve long contended that Fordyce is missing out by not having a museum devoted to Bryant, a former Redbug. Not only would the museum attract Arkansans to this historic town, I have no doubt that people would make the trip all the way from Alabama to pay homage to the memory of their beloved coach.

Work has begun to restore the 1884 Bank of Fordyce building, which adjoins what’s known as the Bill Mays Annex. The two buildings will be connected with an archway, and a new area will feature exhibits about Bryant and Fordyce’s rich high school football history.

On Friday afternoon, Col. James Phillips and his wife, Agnes Wynne Phillips, will hold an open house and garden party at the antique-filled Wynne Phillips House. Proceeds from the event will benefit the Dallas County Museum and its expansion plans.

After speaking in El Dorado on Thursday night, I plan to drive through the pine woods (dodging deer the entire way) to Fordyce to spend the night at the Wynne Phillips House, which was built in 1905 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The house was the home of prominent Fordyce attorney and former mayor Thomas Duncan Wynne, his wife Agnes and their seven children. Agnes Wynne Phillips is the youngest of those seven children.

In 1981, during his next-to-last year as the head coach of the Crimson Tide, Bryant suggested the establishment of a museum to honor former Alabama players and assistant coaches. A committee studied the idea and decided that the Tuscaloosa museum should cover the university’s entire football history from the first team in 1892 to the present.

The museum opened to the public in October 1988. Bryant had died in early 1983, just weeks after his final game in the Liberty Bowl at Memphis, a Tide victory over Illinois that I attended on a frigid evening.

Despite the fact that he never lived in Arkansas following high school, Bryant never forgot his Redbug roots. The effort in Fordyce won’t equal what has been done in Tuscaloosa, but it’s time for the town to cash in on the Bryant legacy.

I’ve always considered Fordyce to be a special place, and Gaddy will see that community spirit on display during his visit to south Arkansas for this weekend’s Fordyce on the Cotton Belt Festival.

“Joe Bill Meador, a member of the board of directors of the Fordyce Chamber of Commerce, first had the idea for an annual festival,” Paula Reaves writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture (www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net). “As Meador traveled across the Southern states, he saw how a festival could infuse life into a small town.

“In 1980, he began discussing the idea with the other members of the chamber. A committee was formed to plan a festival for Fordyce. Three goals for the festival began to evolve: to promote Fordyce in the state and beyond, to teach local students the history of Fordyce and to bring the local community together for a good time.”

The inaugural festival was held in 1981.

“The festival received its unusual name for two reasons,” Reaves writes. “‘Fordyce on the Cotton Belt between Pine Bluff and Texarkana’ is an old gambling term. Meador traveled with his father, and when they told people they lived in Fordyce, many times they got the response ‘Fordyce on the Cotton Belt.’ The expression also highlighted the history of the railroad in Fordyce.”

There was a strong railroad flavor in those early years of the festival. Area dignitaries were fed on a luxury railroad dining car. Free train rides were offered.

In the late 1870s, Col. Samuel Fordyce had made three trips by horseback from Cairo, Ill., to Texarkana to find the best route for the Texas & St. Louis Railway Co. It later became the St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas Railway, commonly known as the Cotton Belt. The town of Fordyce was incorporated in April 1884 and grew along the busy railroad line.

“Fordyce was a relatively late bloomer in Dallas County as compared to centrally located Princeton, which was incorporated in 1849 and served as the first county seat, and Tulip, which was considered the cultural center of Arkansas in the mid-1800s,” Reaves writes. “Settlers began to make their way into the southeast part of the county by the late 1850s, and small trade centers such as Bucksnort and Chambersville began to develop near present-day Fordyce. Prior to 1850, the land that became Fordyce was partly cleared and settled by W.W. Killabrew.”

Kingsland native Johnny Cash heard about the nascent Fordyce on the Cotton Belt Festival from his cousin, Marie Cash, and agreed to bring his show to town in April 1982. Cash, wife June Carter Cash and son John Carter Cash entertained a packed house in the local gymnasium. Marty Stuart also performed that night.

Cash donated his appearance and the $10,000 it earned for a festival operations fund.

“The first (festival) turned out better than we expected, and then the next year, Johnny Cash put us on the map,” Meador told writer Jim Taylor in 2005. “When the big day arrived, I remember coming across the overpass and meeting the biggest, blackest, shiniest 18-wheeler truck I had ever seen. It was solid black with ‘Johnny Cash’ in handwritten script on the side. I thought to myself, ‘My goodness. Looky here, looky here.’”

Meador drove a horse-drawn wagon in the festival parade with Cash in the back.

“I’ll never forget the adoration I saw in people’s eyes as we went along that parade route,” Meador said. “It was like everyone had a kinship to Johnny and they felt like he was part of the family.”

The threat of rain forced the concert from the Fordyce High School football field into the gym.

“Talk about a packed house,” Meador told Taylor. “We had people everywhere — in the bleachers, on the floor, standing in the doorways and even standing outside to hear the best they could. And Johnny had brought his full show — band, lights, video screen.”

Others who have performed at the Fordyce on the Cotton Belt Festival through the years include Jerry Reed, Boxcar Willie and Jim Ed Brown. A wrestling bear was even brought in one year to commemorate the event that gave Bryant his nickname.

The population of Dallas County has declined from 14,471 in the 1940 census to 8,116 in the 2010 census. The county lost almost 12 percent of its residents from 2000 to 2010.

But Fordyce remains a town of proud people who are determined to capitalize on their past.

Bryant would tell his players this: “Have a goal. And to reach that goal you better have a plan. Have a plan that you believe in so strongly you’ll never compromise.”

The folks in Fordyce now have a plan to fully celebrate the Bryant legacy. I hope to see some of you south Arkansas readers at the Wynne Phillips House on Friday afternoon.

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A Derby Day to remember

Monday, April 18th, 2011

Red Smith has long been recognized as one of the greatest sportswriters in American history.

He spent more than four decades writing columns, first for the New York Herald Tribune and later for The New York Times.

Smith, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for distinguished commentary, once said: “There are more stories per square foot at the racetrack than anywhere else in sports. If there are 80 horses running today, there are at least 80 stories, most of them more interesting than who won or lost a ballgame.”

I thought of Red Smith’s words as I drove down Central Avenue shortly after 2 p.m. Saturday.

It was Derby Day at Oaklawn, and the town was hopping. There were so many potential stories here, I thought to myself, thinking yet again like the newspaper editor I once was.

I was late arriving at the track — the gates had opened at 10 a.m. and the first of 12 races had exited the starting gate at 12:05 p.m. — because I had spent the morning attending the 70th annual meeting of the Arkansas Historical Association in Little Rock.

Perhaps it was better this way. I avoided the morning traffic jam, I still arrived in plenty of time for the Arkansas Derby and I was able to contemplate the magnitude of this event as I looked at the parking lots, the yards and the side streets filled with cars.

Following the deadly storms of Thursday night and the cold winds of Friday, the weather Saturday could not have been more beautiful. A crowd of 62,364 — numbers surpassed in this state only by a Razorback football game in Fayetteville — turned out to watch a long shot with Arkansas owners win the Arkansas Derby.

I have a hard time remembering a better day at the track. It’s not about winning money for me. I can have a fine time without ever placing a bet. It’s about people watching, visiting with friends, eating and soaking in the unique atmosphere of Derby Day.

When you think about it, you realize that thoroughbred racing is the only professional sport in which our state is in the major leagues.

We don’t have a major league baseball team.

We don’t have an NBA, NFL or NHL team.

But we do have Oaklawn. With the success of the 3-year-olds that have competed in this race in recent years, the Arkansas Derby certainly has solidified its standing as a leading Triple Crown prep race.

It was good to see that the state’s top two sports columnists — Wally Hall and Harry King — were at Oaklawn on Saturday. Frankly, it amazes me that Little Rock television stations will lead their sportscasts with what in essence is a glorified football practice rather than one of the top events in American racing.

Oh well.

My print bias is showing.

In the introduction to a collection of stories on thoroughbred racing titled “Finished Lines,” Frank Scatoni writes: “There is an old saying, often attributed to Sir Winston Churchill, that adequately sums up man’s relationship with the horse: ‘There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.’

“Anyone, from the smallest child to the most wizened old curmudgeon, who has ever seen a horse run — unfettered, graceful and with the look of eagles in his eyes — knows this saying to be true. Men, women and children alike find their affections running deep for the thoroughbred.

“Unlike any other sport (with the possible exception of baseball), horse racing has been a breeding ground for quality literature. Talented writers have found the grace, beauty and sheer athleticism of the thoroughbred the inspiration for which to wax poetic about the sport, the animal and, most important, man’s relation — physical, spiritual and psychological — to this near-perfect creature and the races it runs.

“William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway wrote about the sport: Faulkner about the 1955 Kentucky Derby showdown between Swaps and Nashua; Hemingway — in ‘A False Spring’ — about attending the jump races in France, penniless and in dire need of a long shot.

“Hunter S. Thompson, offbeat chronicler of America’s political traditions, spent a week at Churchill Downs covering the 1970 Kentucky Derby, won by 15-1 shot Dust Commander. Humorist A.J. Liebling, who spent many a year penning columns for The New Yorker, was a huge fan of the sport and wrote about it regularly for that bastion of literary tradition. Sports Illustrated hit the newsstands in 1954 to give us almost 50 years of sophisticated racing coverage with Whitney Tower and William Nack.”

Indeed, Saturday was the kind of day that invites colorful prose. I’ll try to spare you my own feeble attempts to write eloquently on the subject of a Derby Day held on a perfect April afternoon in Hot Springs with the exception of these observations:

– I was glad to see Charles Cella’s thoroughbred, Uncle Brent, win The Northern Spur stakes race. Arkansas is fortunate to have one of the few family-owned tracks remaining in the country, especially since the man known around the track as CJC has raised his own children to share his love for the sport and for Hot Springs.

The Cellas bring a touch of class to Oaklawn, never allowing the gaming aspect to overcome the color and tradition of thoroughbred racing.

“People waste countless hours debating whether thoroughbred racing is a sport or a form of gambling, when the answer is simple and obvious: It’s both,” Daily Racing Form editor Steven Crist wrote in ”Finished Lines.” “Without wagering, which ultimately provides all of the economic fuel for the racing game, only a few wealthy eccentrics would raise horses, as if they were champion orchids or poodles. Without the emotional impact of the sport that surrounds the gambling, racing would be no more compelling than jai-alai or slot machines, a way of generating numbers and payoffs.”

For the Cellas, this family tradition is about more than generating numbers.

– I like the addition of the corporate tents on the infield for the Racing Festival of the South. It gives the Arkansas Derby the feel of a Triple Crown race and introduces new people to the sport.

– I noticed more hats on ladies than ever before this year. Hats have always been de rigueur for the Kentucky Derby. Now, the trend seems to be growing for the Arkansas Derby. It’s a welcome trend. Go ahead, ladies. Start shopping for the perfect hat for next year’s Arkansas Derby.

– Thanks for keeping me on your list to receive an Arkansas Derby tie, Mr. Cella and Eric Jackson. Those silk ties from Italy are another outstanding tradition (there’s a well-written story on that tradition in the April issue of Arkansas Life magazine). The 2011 tie is especially beautiful. I wore it to the track on Saturday, and I wore it again today. Heck, Harry King and I still wear Arkansas Derby ties from the early 1980s.

Melissa — my wife of almost 22 years who I hauled to both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness infields shortly after we were engaged in 1989 — and I stayed until the end on Saturday. As the crowd cleared out and the sun began to set, we stood along the rail to watch the marathon (a mile and three quarters) known as The Trails End, a race that didn’t begin until almost 7 p.m.

The traffic remained gridlocked on Central Avenue even after that 12th race, so we stepped into Stubby’s so I could indulge in some ribs.

A man at the next table — a fellow who obviously attends big races across the country — was talking on his cell phone to a friend.

“I’ll see you in Kentucky,” he said. “I wish you could have been here today. It’s not Santa Anita, but I like it down here.”

So do we.

For me, Arkansas Derby Day is a special day on my calendar — marked annually along with events such as the Grady Fish Fry, the Battle of the Ravine, the first day of dove season and the Slovak Oyster Supper.

I saw old friend Kelley Bass on the infield Saturday. He was attending his 32nd consecutive Arkansas Derby.

I can claim no such record. But since I’ve placed eating an Oaklawn burger on the infield on Arkansas Derby Day among the entries on the Natural State bucket list, it was fitting that I had two Oaklawn burgers in my hand at the time.

One for me.

One for Melissa.

Yes, I still left room for those Stubby’s ribs. By 8:15 p.m., the traffic on Central Avenue was moving again. We got in the car and said so long to live racing for another year.

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The demise of the longleaf pine

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

House Concurrent Resolution No. 2 during the Arkansas legislative session of 1939 designated the pine tree as our state tree.

A state representative from down in my neck of the woods, Boyd Tackett of Pike County, called timber one of the greatest sources of wealth in our state and “one of the few renewable resources.”

Tackett’s resolution drew no opposition.

Unfortunately, the resolution never specified a particular type of pine as the state tree even though Arkansas’ forests are covered with shortleaf and loblobby pine trees.

“Before European-American in-migration, almost all of Arkansas was forested with notable diversity,” David Ware writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture (www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net). “Until the maturation of Arkansas’ rail network in the late 19th century, timber cutting was driven by agricultural concerns or local demands for wood. Rails brought mass access to external markets, and Arkansas timber left the state at a rapid rate.

“By 1930, many former forest sections were effectively logged out. However, war production plus postwar economic and housing booms ensured good markets for pine. Depression-era forest restoration measures, public and private alike, ensured future supplies of salable logs. By 1951, pine growth exceeded annual removals by some 13 percent.”

While Arkansas is known for its shortleaf and loblolly pines, there was a time when the longleaf pine belt dominated much of the South. The longleaf range was from southeastern Virginia to east Texas in a belt running about 150 miles inland from the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

That longleaf belt even widened northward into west-central Georgia and east-central Alabama. I’ve found claims that some longleaf pines once were native to small parts of Arkansas, but they were rare.

Through the years, those longleaf pine stands became almost a thing of the past. In 1995, an organization known as The Longleaf Alliance was formed to foster partnerships between private landowners, the forest industry, federal agencies, conservation groups and researchers.

Based in Andalusia, Ala., the organization has set about restoring the longleaf pine in parts of the South.

“Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden used the phrase ‘be quick but don’t hurry’ to encourage his record-breaking teams to be so good at the basics of basketball that they could set a phenomenal, game-winning pace while avoiding the mistakes inherent in hurrying,” writes Emily Jo Williams, the director of the alliance. “I think this philosophy fits well with our approach at The Longleaf Alliance and in our collective approach to longleaf restoration and management. When you think about an ecosystem reduced from 90 million acres to about 3.5 million acres, a sense of urgency is appropriate. Maybe we should hurry. Then again, let’s think about the challenge that we face.

“Much has changed across the range of longleaf country since the glory days of seemingly endless longleaf forests that afforded a squirrel a hassle-free journey across vast distances without so much as a tiptoe onto terra firma. Towns, cities, interstates, country roads, industrial complexes and other less-than-friendly features now populate places that once nurtured longleaf forests and their inhabitants. People just don’t seem to understand that smoke can actually be a good thing.”

She mentions smoke because it was fire that defined where longleaf pine forests were found. Frequent fires skimmed along the ground’s surface, nurturing the ecosystem. Following the Civil War, the South began changing rapidly. By 1880, virgin longleaf forests had attracted the interest of Northern logging companies. Production of longleaf pine timber peaked in 1909.

By 1938, the Great Southern Lumber Co, the largest sawmill in the world, had run out of longleaf pine trees to cut. The sawmill shut down. The last crop of longleaf pine to be worked for turpentine was in 1994.

“In a little over 150 years, the longleaf pine forest transitioned from a forest that dominated the Southern landscape to one of near anonymity,” the alliance writes at its website (www.longleafalliance.org). “Although remnants of this once great forest abound, they are often only noticeable to the ardent observer.”

In a 1913 article that referred to longleaf pine trees as pitch pine, the American Lumberman stated: “Almost as soon as the beautiful white pine of New England began to be expropriated by the English government for its navy, and immediately following the development of commerce in that wood, pitch pine began to be exported from Savannah, Brunswick and Darien, all in Georgia. The last is a name that would hardly be known as that of an American port but for pitch pine, while Brunswick has its chief fame, and its only fame abroad, because of its exports of pitch pine. But lumber and timbers of size and strength have not been the only products of the longleaf forests. Chiefly from this wood has been developed our century-old business in naval stores.

“It is still, next to the chief species of the Pacific coast, the wood of greatest supply, and its range of growth is greatest, so far as solid bodies of it are concerned, of any wood. Compared to it, the splendid forests of northern white pine were limited in area. But pitch pine was native from southern Virginia south along the Atlantic seaboard and thence westward into Texas. Only one interval of account was found, and that was where the longleaf pine belt was cut across by the Mississippi valley.”

In the spring of 1773, Philadelphia naturalist William Bartram had traveled across the South and described a huge forest of the “most stately pine trees that can be imagined.”

The decline from those 90 million acres to less than 4 million acres is among the most drastic reductions of any major natural ecosystem in the country.

Longleaf pine trees can live for 300 years. But the virgin longleaf pines were cut decades ago, and the removal of the necessary fire that allows longleaf pines to thrive and reproduce also led to the decline of this ecosystem.

“Areas with productive soils were cleared for agriculture,” it’s written at www.landscope.org. “Other areas with sandy, less fertile soils were left in trees and grazed as open range. During most of the 1800s, longleaf pine trees were used for turpentine production. The sides of the trees were scarred with sharp tools so the resin ran into containers, then collected and distilled for a wide variety of uses.

“By the 1880s, railroads had been built into much of the region, and pine trees close to the railroads had been cut for lumber. By 1930, nearly all the longleaf pine trees on the entire coastal plain from Virginia to Texas had been cut. Cutover lands were abandoned as lumber companies moved on to uncut areas.

“When these lands were reforested, usually loblolly pine or slash pine was planted. These trees were much easier to grow commercially and were better suited to the short-rotation pine plantations that supported the growing paper industry in the region.”

Here’s wishing The Longleaf Alliance success in bringing back forests filled with this majestic tree.

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Crystal Bridges: Nov. 11, 2011

Friday, April 8th, 2011

We’re only seven months away from the opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville.

Friday, Nov. 11, 2011.

11/11/11.

Mark that date on your calendar.

That’s the day a lot of negative impressions about Arkansas will change for the better.

Yes, I’ve long felt that Arkansans spend too much time worrying about what others think of us. That doesn’t change the fact that quality development is important in our state. And no one can deny that Alice Walton’s art museum will be among the most important additions to the Arkansas cultural landscape ever.

Crystal Bridges has the potential of changing not only the way others think of us but how we think of ourselves.

One of the top draws in the northern section of our state will now be a world-class art museum.

Contrast that to the days when I was a child and we were hoping that our Ozarks tourism salvation would be Dogpatch.

In his classic book “The Battle for the Buffalo River,” Dr. Neil Compton touched on Dogpatch.

Compton was the Bentonville physician who joined other conservationists to form the Ozark Society. He then led a decade-long battle to keep the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from damming the Buffalo River.

Under the auspices of the Flood Control Act of 1938, the Corps had begun an aggressive dam-building campaign. The battle for the Buffalo was won by the conservationists in 1972 when President Nixon designated the Buffalo as the country’s first national river.

On Jan. 4, 1967, the Arkansas Gazette had reported this piece of news: “Dogpatch and its hillbilly inhabitants, which have existed so far only in the comic strip world of Al Capp, will come to life as a tourist attraction in the Ozark Mountains near Harrison, backed by Capp and a group of Harrison businessmen.

“O.J. Snow of Harrison announced Tuesday that Capp, the creator of Li’l Abner and other Dogpatch characters, had joined him and nine others in a corporation to develop 825 acres along scenic state Highway 7 south of Harrison into a tourist magnet with the sights, sounds – and even some of the food — of the make-believe community.”

Just after that announcement, Edwin Haefele of the Brookings Institution in Washington and Leon Moses, an economics professor from Northwestern University, said during a policy conference at the Hotel Marion in Little Rock that the project would be a financial and aesthetic mistake.

The Gazette reported it this way: “In this opinion, they somewhat confirmed the expressed fears of two members of the state Publicity and Parks Commission last week that the Dogpatch project might undermine the image of Arkansas as a ‘progressive 20th century state.’ Bob Evans, director of the commission, and Lou Oberste, associate director of publicity, based their complaint on the possibility of such a project reviving ‘a Bob Burns type image’ of the state.”

Compton later wrote, “The estimates of Haefele and Moses would prove to be right on the money, which tender would go down the Dogpatch drain by the millions from that day on. We in the Ozark Society took no great part in this monetary melodrama, being forced to watch the environmental and cultural insult with unease and great misgivings. For one thing, there was absolutely nothing we could do to thwart it.

“The National Park Service had drawn the line at Pruitt, and then there were people involved who were good friends of co-workers in our No. 1 objective, to stop the Gilbert dam. Jim Schermerhorn, our longtime compatriot and cave expert, had assumed the management and development of the big cave, now to be known as Dogpatch Cavern.”

Now, we’ve moved as a state from Jubilation T. Cornpone to some of the greatest masterpieces in American art history. We’ve progressed from Li’l Abner to Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

Rather than scarring the Ozark landscape as Dogpatch did, the design of Crystal Bridges by world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie will blend in with its corner of northwest Arkansas. A series of pavilions set around two creek-fed ponds will house the galleries, the meeting rooms and the glass-enclosed gathering hall.

There will be a cafe on a glass-enclosed bridge overlooking the ponds. There will be a Marlon Blackwell-designed museum store. There will be sculpture and walking trails that link the museum’s 120-acre park and gardens to downtown Bentonville.

As we’ve written before at Southern Fried, downtown Bentonville also will be the home of the incredible 21c Museum Hotel. Conde Nast Traveler in 2009 voted the original 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville as the best hotel in the country and the sixth best hotel in the world.

Sit back and contemplate for a moment the idea that such a development is coming to Arkansas.

Located on the northeast corner of the Bentonville town square, the five-story contemporary building will offer public art spaces, a spa, a fitness center and a restaurant that likely will be among the best in this part of the country.

The first 21c Museum Hotel was founded in 2006 by Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, philanthropists and arts patrons who wanted to not only support the revitalization of downtown Louisville but also engage the public with contemporary art in a new way.

Bentonville is about to become very chic.

Here’s how the Crystal Bridges press kit describes what the public will experience on and after 11/11/11: “Two glass-walled bridge buildings constructed of suspended cable, wood and copper-clad roofs are located at opposite ends of one of the ponds: the northern bridge contains galleries; the southern bridge accommodates reception, dining and hospitality facilities.

“Additional structures are nestled into the sloping terrain on both sides of the ravine and contain galleries, meeting rooms, education rooms, museum library, curatorial spaces and administrative offices. The liberal use of glass throughout the complex provides great transparency and enhances views of the site from within the pavilions.

“Set gently within a public park in a natural ravine, the project’s design aims to protect the natural beauty of the site as well as to emphasize a strong sense of place. Set within a forested valley, more than 100 acres surround Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, offering a revitalizing environment to experience art and cultural events. Three miles of pedestrian and mixed-use trails are planned throughout the campus connecting downtown Bentonville and surrounding neighborhoods to the museum.”

I’m drawn back to the words of Dr. Neil Compton: “Any reasonable man cannot look upon these marvels in their pristine state without feeling an innermost sense of awe and humility. To realize that we are a part of this grand combination of natural forces and basic particles woven on the loom of time comforts the soul and restores our often jaded spirits. With that comes the realization that if we are to survive the unpredictable future, we must not upset this wonderful balance on planet earth.”

I’m convinced that those who designed Crystal Bridges have achieved balance with their surroundings.

Nov. 11, 2011.

It should be a day Arkansans will remember.

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Adding to the bucket list

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

Thanks for your many suggestions for the Natural State bucket list.

They keep pouring in.

Here’s a compilation of items you’ve sent in along with some items I’ve added.

These are things you should do at least once in your life to earn bona fide All-Arkansan status:

– Visit Bald Knob when the strawberries are ripe in May and order the strawberry shortcake at the Bulldog.

– Sample the fried chicken at the Mount Nebo Chicken Fry while watching the Little Miss Pullet contest.

– Pick wild blackberries while watching for snakes and worrying about how many chigger bites you’ll have at the end of the day.

– Eat some peaches at the Johnson County Peach Festival.

– Kayak with folks who know what they’re doing on the Mulberry River and the Big Piney Creek.

– Have a steak at Jerry’s in Trumann.

– Hang out with some bikers at Roy’s in Paragould.

– Attend the Fourth of July community picnics at Corning, Piggott and Portia.

– Cross the U.S. Highway 62 bridge over Norfork Lake on a clear day and admire how blue the water is.

– Eat the gear salad and the filet mignon at Herman’s Ribhouse in Fayetteville on the night before a Razorback football game.

– Sit outside at Basin Spring Park in downtown Eureka Springs on an early fall Saturday evening and enjoy the music.

– Visit Judge Parker’s courtroom at the Fort Smith National Historic Site and then take a walk down Garrison Avenue.

– Drive along the Talimena Scenic Drive when the leaves are changing and then spend the night at the Queen Wilhelmina State Park Lodge.

– Spend the day walking around Historic Washington State Park in late June and then head over to Nashville to buy peaches.

– Take a boat out onto Grassy Lake in southwest Araknsas at night to look for alligators.

– Walk around the courthouse squares in El Dorado and Magnolia, going into as many of the locally owned shops as possible.

– Eat a turkey sandwich at the original Burge’s in Lewisville.

– Max out your credit card buying things at Mack’s Prairie Wings in Stuttgart.

– Wrangle an invitation to the Sunday night wild game dinner at Gene’s in Brinkley.

– Have a weekday plate lunch at the Pickens Commissary in Desha County during the harvest season and then head south to visit the cotton gin at Winchester.

– Order the buffalo ribs at the Lassis Inn in Little Rock

– Visit the Lower White River Museum at Des Arc on a Friday afternoon and then have a catfish dinner at Dondie’s.

– Spend a summer Saturday morning at the farmers’ market on the square in Fayetteville.

– Visit a sand blow in northeast Arkansas while contemplating the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12.

– Get sunburned while attending Riverfest.

– Go to a Sunday afternoon performance of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra at Robinson Auditorium in Little Rock.

– Eat one of Bobby Garner’s cheeseburgers at the Sno-White Grill in Pine Bluff.

– Buy a stack of books at That Bookstore At Blytheville.

– Watch Sonny Payne do his “King Biscuit Time” radio show on Cherry Street in Helena.

– Drink some water at the Mountain Valley headquarters in Hot Springs.

– Fish for crappie on a south Arkansas oxbow lake during the day and go frog gigging on the same lake that night.

– Watch the cardboard boat races at Greers Ferry Lake and then have dinner at the Red Apple Inn.

– Buy some wine at Altus and then visit the monastery at Subiaco.

– Sit on the east side of Mount Nebo and watch the sun rise over the Arkansas River Valley.

– Watch the Memphis fireworks on the Sunday before Memorial Day from a sandbar on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River.

– Take a slow walk through Mount Holly Cemetery in Little Rock.

– Attend a high school basketball game one winter Friday night at Valley Springs.

– Attend a high school football game one fall Friday night at Nashville.

– Eat a turkey leg at the Arkansas State Fair.

– Attend the fall and spring craft fairs at War Eagle.

– Join in singing “Amazing Grace” during a funeral at a country church.

– Fix a casserole for a church potluck.

– Help clean up a rural cemetery.

– Fish for smallmouth bass from a canoe on the Kings River.

 – And that true test to be an Arkansan: Buy far more milk and bread than you need when there’s a 20 percent chance of snow flurries.

Let’s hear from you.

What’s on your list?

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