Archive for June, 2012

Deep in the Arkansas piney woods

Friday, June 29th, 2012

In the previous Southern Fried blog post on Crossett, which centered on its history as a center of innovation in the timber industry, we mentioned R.R. Reynolds. He was a remarkable man.

Reynolds was born Dec. 21, 1906, near Howard City, Mich., and graduated from the University of Michigan’s forestry school with a bachelor’s degree in 1929 and a master’s degree in 1930.

In July 1930, Reynolds joined the U.S. Forest Service’s Southern Forest Experiment Station. He spent his first three years with the Forest Service doing case studies for individual companies and completing county economic studies.

The Crossett Experimental Forest opened in 1933, and Reynolds spent the next three decades directing the research center. He was the author or co-author of almost 175 publications.

Reynolds retired from the Forest Service in 1969 but remained active in the industry as a member of the Society of American Foresters and a practicing tree farmer.

The Crossett Lumber Co., which was extremely progressive for its time, had established a relationship with Yale University in 1912. That relationship with the forestry scholars at Yale resulted in improved forestry and manufacturing practices.

Many Yale-trained foresters found their way to south Arkansas and north Louisiana through the years. Their research was augmented by the work done at the 1,680-acre Crossett Experimental Forest, which was seven miles south of Crossett.

Because of the efforts of the Crossett Lumber Co.’s foresters and the U.S. Forest Service researchers, Crossett became a leader in sustained-yield forestry in which trees were treated as a renewable resource.

A.E. Wackerman was the chief forester for the Crossett Lumber Co. from 1927-32 and later was a member of the staff of the Southern Forest Experiment Station. He worked closely with Reynolds in the early years. They made quite a team.

In 1980, the Forest Service published a fascinating paper by Reynolds titled “The Crossett Story: The Beginning of Forestry in Southern Arkansas and Northern Louisiana.”

The paper covers the period from 1930-55. Reynolds described it as an era in which “clear-cutting of virgin pine timber came to a crashing halt because there was no more. It also marked the start of managing the second-growth stands at a time when no one knew how or why they should be managed. These stands, which had grown up in spite of no protection or management, were generally understocked and widely variable in age classes. To confound the problem, it was a universal belief that lumber from second-growth trees was worthless.”

Reynolds noted that once the Crossett Lumber Co. began to manage the second-growth forests, visitors from “around the country and the world came to Crossett to see the far-reaching developments. They learned how they might put the same practices in use on their own areas and forests.”

Large-scale harvesting of the virgin shortleaf and loblolly forests of south Arkansas began in the 1890s. There were no logging trucks in those days, so railroad spurs were built to haul out the massive logs.

“By the middle to late 1920s, the end of the big cut was near at hand, and by 1930 many of the mill owners, who had come south after logging in the Great Lakes states had been completed, started looking at the big, untapped virgin stands of the West as the location for their next operations,” Reynolds wrote. “Many families had moved into the uplands of southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana, had homesteaded and had established farms before the coming of the big sawmills. To these farmers, trees were something that had to be disposed of by cutting and burning before the areas were suitable for row crops. Since machinery for such operations was not available in those days, the farmers often welcomed the big sawmillers with open arms.”

Reynolds said that when he moved to Arkansas in 1930, he heard a story about how the Crossett Lumber Co. had set up a land office at Hamburg and offered $2.50 per acre in cash for timberland. Small farmers and timberland owners by the hundreds hurried in to get rid of their extra land before those “damn Yankees ran out” of money.

“As late as 1933, many people thought that timberland (or areas with trees) was wild and undeveloped land,” Reynolds wrote. “It would be of real value only when the trees were cleared and the acres put into pasture or row crops.

“When logging of the virgin timber began on a large scale, no one thought about developing the second-growth stands. Only one kind of lumber was worth anything for construction purposes: slow-growth virgin. Second-growth trees were often rapid growth, and second-growth lumber was supposed to be practically worthless ‘because it would warp or shrink or twist.’ And it supposedly had very little strength. So even though the lumber companies only cut trees that were about 14 inches and larger in stump diameter, they made no attempt to keep the smaller pines and hardwoods from injury. Many of those were cut and used for ballast and rough ties for the spur logging railroads.”

Most of the companies logging in the South in the early 1900s closed their mills once the virgin timber was gone and headed to the West Coast. Reynolds said the decision to manage the second-growth forest was a gradual one for those companies that stayed behind.

“Until about 1930, the Crossett Lumber Co. continued to offer its cutover land for sale to farmers and others,” he wrote. “The company also tried raising cattle on an experimental basis. It was decided that something of better grade than usual ‘range’ cattle should be produced, so the company purchased a high-quality and very expensive bull from Iowa in order to improve the strain. The idea was good, but the bull could not stand the ticks and the heat. The story was told that in hot weather they had to put him into a padded cell in the barn with fans blowing on him from ‘before’ and ‘aft.’”

Things changed when Yale professor Haupt Chapman entered the picture. Chapman headed the annual Yale summer camp for forestry students at Urania, La., which is between Alexandria and Monroe. Chapman became interested in the Crossett Lumber Co.’s second-growth stands.

“With the aid of his students, he inventoried some of these areas and suggested that perhaps the company could make a second cut of logs on some locations once the cutting of the virgin timber had come to an end,” Reynolds wrote. “In any event, he undoubtedly was responsible for creating an interest in timber possibilities in the minds of the owners of the Crossett Lumber Co.”

Reynolds said than when he joined the Southern Forest Experiment Station fresh out of the University of Michigan School of Forestry in July 1930, a number of the large Southern mills already had closed.

“The production of lumber had been largely taken over by small, ‘peckerwood’ mills that could be easily moved from place to place, and logging could be done by two or three pairs of mules or horses,” he wrote. “It was agreed almost universally that the South would soon be out of the large-volume, large-sawmill business, and few had any idea as to what would, or should, happen to the cutovers.”

In certain respects, the south Arkansas piney woods were still a wild place when Reynolds first came there in 1930. Most roads were unpaved. Rural residents lacked electricity and running water.

The oasis of civilization for the region was the Rose Inn at Crossett. Crossett natives still treasure the memory of the Rose Inn, which no longer exists. One of my mentors when I was in college at Ouachita Baptist University was Mac Sisson, a Crossett native. He had a framed print of the Rose Inn behind his desk.

Reynolds lived at the Rose Inn before he and his wife Geneva found a home.

“The Rose Inn was a three-story wooden structure with open walk-up stairways,” he wrote. “It was company owned and provided the only public overnight housing in town. It had a large lobby with a big fireplace and a long row of rocking chairs. Another long row of such chairs adorned the covered front porch. Rooms on the third floor were reserved for unmarried schoolteachers, who were required to live there. Not too much space was required since there was only one white and one black school in town.

“Crossett was very much off the main roads. In those days, the rooms on the second floor usually could take care of visiting lumber company officials, plus two or three of the single men who worked for the company and did not have other housing. It also accommodated an occasional salesman and other visitors.

“The large Rose Inn dining room, always with sparkling white tablecloths on the tables and waiters in white jackets, was famous for its good food. For many years, men had to wear ties and coats before they were admitted to the room. To be reasonably sure that those who came without proper attire could have something to eat, Mr. Boardman, the hotel manager, kept a supply of extra coats and ties on a clothes tree just outside the room.

“Geneva and I were allowed to live and eat at the hotel on a monthly rate that was similar to the one paid by the other regulars — $30 each per month. This included steak every night if one wanted it and always plenty of hot biscuits and many choices of potatoes and vegetables.”

All the houses in Crossett in those days were built, owned and maintained by the company. They were painted the same color. Most of them had outside toilets.

“Because of the low wages paid (by sawmills in general, including Crossett), families kept cows and chickens to help make ends meet,” Reynolds wrote. “There was no such thing as a stock law in those days. So, after milking time in the morning, the cows were turned out of each back yard to hunt for grass and other vegetation to eat during the day. Several people owned horses and pigs, and there were even a few mules. These, along with the cows, roamed at will up and down the streets, including the area that might be considered downtown.”

It was only 80 years ago, but it was a far different time in the deep south Arkansas piney woods.

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Crossett: A Southern timber capital

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

I had the honor of addressing the Crossett Rotary Club earlier this month after eating one of the best lunches I’ve had this year.

The meeting was held at Country Vittles, which is in a former drugstore downtown. My lunch consisted of perfectly fried chicken, fresh yellow squash, sliced tomatoes that likely were picked that morning and crowder peas.

I’ve long been fascinated by the history of Crossett – a former company town that has been associated with the timber industry since the city’s founding. It was once known as the Forestry Capital of the South.

As the forests of the Great Lakes region began to be depleted during the late 1800s and early 1900s, American investors turned to the huge swath of Southern forests that ran from east Texas to the panhandle of Florida.

On May 16, 1899, three businessmen from Davenport, Iowa — Edward Savage Crossett, Charles Gates and John Watzek — formed the Crossett Lumber Co. with land in south Arkansas and north Louisiana. They had purchased 47,000 acres at a price of $7 per acre from the Michigan investment firm Hovey & McCracken.

Edward Crossett had been born in February 1828 in West Plattsburgh, N.Y. His father was a veteran of the War of 1812. Crossett worked in a Troy, N.Y., printing office and later as a clerk in a shoe store, earning $2.50 per month along with room and board. With his brother as a partner, he purchased the store in 1848. Two years later, Crossett left the store in the hands of his brother and headed west.

By 1853, Crossett was operating a supply store for lumbermen in Black River Falls, Wis. He also was the town’s postmaster from 1854-56. Crossett purchased timberland along the way, moving from Wisconsin to Davenport in 1875 to join a trading firm known as Renwick Shaw & Crossett.

“In 1882, Crossett made his first investment in yellow pine, which was the predominant softwood species in the Southern forest,” the late Bill Norman wrote for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In 1886, he sold his interest in the Renwick firm, taking as payment 10,000 acres of Arkansas land covered with yellow pine.

“His friends were confident that he had made a serious mistake in this exchange. Having personally inspected it, Crossett was convinced of the great possibilities in yellow pine, and his judgment was speedily vindicated. Along the way, he became interested in other lumber companies just setting up operations in the same part of Arkansas.”

Crossett, Gates and Watzek held three-fourths of the stock of the Crossett Lumber Co. with the remainder held by top employees. Gates was the president and Crossett was the vice president of the new company. Charles Gates’ brother — Cap Gates — was sent to south Arkansas to supervise the building of mills and the development of a company town, which was named in honor of Edward Crossett.

Crossett died in December 1910 in Davenport. By then, the company had taken off.

Investors spent almost $1 million (a fortune for the time) starting the company — including building railroad connections — before the first commercial timber was sold. Construction of the first pine mill began in 1899, and construction of a second mill began in 1905. By the time both mills were in operation, the Crossett Lumber Co. was producing 84 million board feet annually.

The Crossett Lumber Co. became a leader in Southern forestry, adding paper mills and chemical plants in an effort to ensure there was minimal waste. Money also was spent on research and development projects, unusual in the early 1900s when many companies had a cut-and-run philosophy in the South.

The company built a school and homes, incorporating the city of Crossett in 1903. There was full electric service, something that was rare at the time in south Arkansas. A Methodist church was built in 1904, the city’s newspaper began publishing in 1906 and telephone service was added in 1907.

“The town-company dynamic was the epitome of how these two establishments could work together successfully,” Bernard Reed wrote for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “During the Great Depression, Crossett Lumber Co. remained financially stable, and it supplied the government with lumber during World War II. In the 1940s, Crossett Lumber Co. focused on the expansion of the town, and many of its residents came to own rather than rent their houses.”

As part of its progressive philosophy, the company hired a Yale graduate named W.K. Williams in 1926 to help it begin a program of sustained forestry based on practices in Germany. The company also was helped by a Yale professor named Herman Haupt Chapman.

With the virgin timber running out across south Arkansas and north Louisiana, company officials knew they would either have to change their ways or go out of business.

“This involved ceasing the practice of cutting down trees as fast as they were growing, and then leaving the healthiest trees in an area to repopulate the soil,” Reed wrote. “These techniques kept the forests alive rather than destroying them. … The Crossett Lumber Co. was tackling and solving problems in the 1930s that would not be regarded as environmental issues until the 1970s.”

In 1933, the U.S. Forest Service established the Crossett Experimental Forest, which was among the first experimental tracts in the South. For decades, the forest was the home for scientific research in areas such as wildlife, hydrology, soils and silviculture.

“The scores of studies conducted on the Crossett Experimental Forest have generated hundreds of scientific publications, making the station an internationally known example of high-quality, long-term forestry research,” wrote Don Bragg and James Guldin of the Forest Service.

In July 1930, the Forest Service’s Southern Forest Experiment Station hired a University of Michigan forestry graduate named Russell Reynolds to help Southern landowners develop sustainable forestry plans.

In 1932, Reynolds was assigned to help the Ozark-Badger Lumber Co. of Wilmar in Drew County. During that period, he became familiar with the work of the Crossett Lumber Co. At the time, the Crossett Lumber Co. was down to its final 25,000 acres of virgin pine.

Reynolds moved to Crossett in August 1933 and began to work with a Civilian Conservation Corps crew to help the company inventory and mark its timber. In the fall of 1933, Reynolds joined forces with a forester named Albert Wackerman to find a site on the company’s cutover land that would be suitable for an experimental forest.

The 1,680-acre parcel they found seven miles south of Crossett had been cut prior to 1920. The Crossett Lumber Co. agreed to give the Forest Service the land in exchange for the standing volume of timber and the promise that research would be conducted there for the next 50 years. The deed conveying the property to the government was dated Aug. 2, 1934.

By late 1934, the federal government was building a lodge to house the CCC crew along with a filling station and a garage. The Works Progress Administration later built a log cabin-style home for Reynolds and his family that was completed in July 1936. Reynolds would live in this home for the next 33 years.

Several buildings on the site are now on the National Register of Historic Places.

“The primary objective of Reynolds and his staff at the Crossett Experimental Forest was to develop silvicultural principles and practices to manage the cutover second-growth loblolly-shortleaf stands typical of the area,” Bragg and Guldin wrote. “The challenge was whether it was possible to rehabilitate existing stands while simultaneously providing landowners with an acceptable return on their investment. If so, Crossett Experimental Forest research had considerable practical application not just for the Crossett Lumber Co. but also for other companies and landowners across the southern United States.”

U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers once declared that “forestry began in Crossett.”

In a very real sense, many of the advancements in modern forestry came as a result of the work done by Crossett Lumber Co. foresters and Forest Service researchers stationed in south Arkansas.

Edward Crossett’s son died in 1955, and some of the heirs became interested in selling their stock in the company. By the late 1950s, there were consistent rumors about a sale or merger.

“Many larger Northern lumber companies had expressed interest in purchasing or merging with the Crossett Lumber Co, and stockholders were becoming worried about the company’s stability,” Reed wrote. “Although millions of dollars were spent in the late 1950s to modernize the company and give the impression of vitality, one of its board members, Peter Watzek, a relative of John Watzek, was instructed to conduct reports on companies with which a merger was possible. He also traveled to New York to meet with several merger prospects.”

Watzek concluded in his report that the company was strong enough to stand alone, but other stockholders remained restless. A sale to Union Bag & Paper that was announced in May 1960 fell through.

On April 18, 1962, it was announced that Georgia-Pacific had reached an agreement to buy the Crossett Lumber Co. It was the end of an era in south Arkansas.

Georgia-Pacific has now been a major part of the state’s corporate landscape for decades. In October 2010, the company announced that it would invest more than $250 million to upgrade one of its existing paper machines in Crossett with advanced technology and install associated equipment. About 1,300 people work at the Crossett paper mill.

Bad news followed in September 2011 when it was announced that Georgia-Pacific would shut down its plywood and stud mills in Crossett as the housing recession continued. The last day at work was Nov. 7 for almost 700 employees.

More than 70 of those employees have since found work at the company’s other divisions in Crossett. The upgrade at the paper mill, which makes bath tissues, continues with more than 350 construction workers involved in the project.

Crossett, founded because of the surrounding pine forests, remains joined at the hip with the forest industry, its ups and its downs.

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Elk of the Ozarks

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Elk were native to Arkansas, though the eastern subspecies that roamed the region already was dwindling by the time Arkansas became a state in 1836.

Still, there are reminders that Arkansas once had been a state where the elk roamed freely.

One of the oldest banks in the state was Elk Horn Bank & Trust Co. in my hometown of Arkadelphia (whose name was changed to Southern Bancorp several years ago).

The Elkhorn Tavern was a landmark during the Civil War battle at Pea Ridge.

In the late 1700s, elk could be found as far south and east as northern Alabama. Too much hunting and the loss of habitat meant the end of the Arkansas elk herd by the 1840s. The eastern elk, in fact, is now extinct.

The U.S. Forest Service brought Rocky Mountain elk to Franklin County’s Black Mountain Refuge in 1933. Three bulls and eight cows were transported from the Wichita National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. These elk were themselves transplants, having come to Oklahoma from Wyoming. The Arkansas herd increased to almost 200 elk by the 1950s and then disappeared.

“No one knows for sure what caused these elk to disappear,” says Mike Cartwright, the retired elk program coordinator for the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission.

Poaching, no doubt, played a part in the herd’s demise.

During his first year in the governor’s office in 1979, Gov. Bill Clinton named Hilary Jones of Newton County to the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission. Jones, an avid elk hunter who made regular trips to Colorado, thought elk could survive on the public lands that make up the National Park Service’s Buffalo National River and the AGFC’s Gene Rush Wildlife Management Area.

In 1981, the AGFC entered into an agreement with the state of Colorado to trade elk for Arkansas fish. Jones recruited friends to take trailers to Colorado and bring the Rocky Mountain elk east. In the years that followed, seven elk from Nebraska’s Sand Hills also were brought in.

The first elk calf was born in Arkansas in 1982.

In the winter of 1985, local volunteers raced winter storms to bring back seven loads containing 74 additional elk. Gooseneck cattle trailers were lined with plywood sheets.

“They’re mean, wild and stout,” volunteer Bobby Harrison of Jasper said of the Rocky Mountain elk. “If there was a small crack they could see through, they’d go for it. At night, the car lights coming up behind us and shining through the cracks really startled them.”

Colorado authorities built corrals of heavy-duty steel pipe frames and nylon mesh fencing to trap the elk. During the next two decades, the Arkansas herd would grow to almost 500. Now the bugle call of bull elk can be heard in the fall. The antlers of these magnificent bull elk can spread from three to five feet with five to seven points on each side.

The AGFC partnered with the National Park Service, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and local landowners on the restoration project. It has never been easy as many landowners have complained about the elk depleting pastures meant for cattle, knocking down fences, etc.

The gestation period for elk is 249 to 269 days. Calves are born in May and June.

Hilary Jones had predicted in the early 1980s, “We’ll have a hunt in 20 years or less.”

Jones died shortly before that first hunt in 1998.

“When you think of elk, you can’t help but think of Hilary Jones,” Cartwright says. “He had the vision.”

My friend Joe Mosby, who’s among the best outdoors and sports writers this state has ever produced, wrote in a piece last year for Arkansas Wildlife: “No one saw the tourism impact coming. Elk viewing has become very popular and accounts for a multitude of visitors to mountainous Newton County and the surrounding area in northwestern Arkansas.”

Mosby adds that there are times when Arkansas Highways 21 and 43 are “choked with mini traffic jams, and parking is limited. Some elk viewers park partially on the pavement and others stop on the side of the road opposite the fields and dash across to the fence to get closer looks. They are in danger from log trucks and other traffic on the road.”

Mike Mills of the Buffalo Outdoor Center told Mosby: “Some local people don’t like the parking on the side of the highway to view the elk. On some Friday and Saturday nights in the fall, there will be 60 to 70 cars lined up in Boxley Valley watching or waiting for elk. There needs to be viewing area parking established at both ends of the valley at the most popular spots.”

Mills calls elk viewing “a major fall activity” for his customers and says he has people who “come from all over to see elk and stay in our cabins.”

Hundreds of Arkansans apply each year for the handful of elk hunting permits, which were awarded during last week’s Buffalo River Elk Festival at Jasper.

The best times to see the elk are just after sunrise and just before dark.

The elk brought to Arkansas in the early 1980s were released in the Pruitt area near Arkansas Highway 7. Much of the herd migrated through the years to the Boxley Valley near Ponca.

The Boxley Valley generally is closed to elk hunting, but hunting opportunities can be found downstream in the Gene Rush Wildlife Management Area. The management area extends from Newton County east into Searcy County. It originally was known as the Buffalo River Wildlife Management Area but later was named in honor of Gene Rush, a Newton County native who worked for the AGFC for many years, eventually heading its wildlife management division.

The original wildlife management area was assembled in two parts. The first tract of 9,198 acres was purchased from 1966-73 from Paul Meers, the Eleven Sixty-Six Corp. and smaller landowners. The second tract of 7,248 acres was purchased from 1978-80 from the Sutton family.

In 2008, 2,880 acres in the Richland Valley were added to the wildlife management area. Sonny Varnell of St. Paul in Madison County, who served on the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission from 2003-08, pushed for the acquisition of the additional land, which is southwest of St. Joe and south of the Woolum access on the Buffalo River. It’s now known as the Richland Valley Sonny Varnell Elk Conservation Area.

“Hunters and observers believe the elk have changed over time,” Mosby wrote. “They say the animals are more wary, that they’ve learned about gunshots. They’ve changed where they hang out, too.

“Arkansas’ elk management, including the hunts, has been studied by other states. Kentucky reintroduced elk in 1997 in a large area of abandoned coal mines, and the herd has grown to about 11,000, the largest population among states where elk have returned.

“Michigan and Pennsylvania brought back elk about 90 years ago. More recently, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Carolina have reintroduced elk. Missouri, Ohio, Alabama and Virginia are in the beginning stages of elk programs.”

In 2002, the AGFC established the Ponca Elk Education Center just across the road from the Buffalo Outdoor Center headquarters. Housed in a log building, the center has displays of elk and other wildlife, photographs, a meeting room and a gift shop. There are also picnic tables and restrooms.

The center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. each Thursday through Monday. During October, the prime month for viewing elk, the center is open seven days a week.

On Highway 7 in Jasper, just north of the bridge over the Little Buffalo River, the Hilary Jones Wildlife Museum and Elk Information Center is open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. seven days a week. This facility also has a gift shop.

During my visit to Newton County last weekend, I was in several places where the wonderful work of wildlife photographer Michael Dougherty of Compton was on display. He offers this advice for viewing and photographing elk: “The very best way to make sure you don’t miss great opportunities to see the elk is to drive the entire length of the Boxley Valley surveying the fields before settling on a particular herd location. At peak periods, you might find four different herds in the valley, but only one will be the best viewing and photo opportunity.

“The same applies to bull fights during the rut. I guarantee that if you don’t check out the whole valley first, you will miss out because sometimes the scene of a lifetime will be in the field next to the one you decided park at. Trust me on this. I have the shirt. … I generally make this survey before there is enough light to take pictures. Keep moving and don’t stop until you are ready to start shooting. If you stop before you intend to shoot, you may startle the animals and an opportunity will be lost. Believe me on this point.

“Drive slowly. Forty miles per hour is enough. You don’t want to hit an elk. If the elk are pooled beside the road, they are getting ready to cross. Don’t expect elk to be any more rational than whitetail deer. At 700 pounds, they pack a lot of punch. Hitting a live animal is a terrible experience. Going slow is much safer for the elk and you.

“Don’t expect the elk to move too much from day to day, but they might. If you are looking for bull fights, they can be anywhere and just about anytime during the rut, peaking in September and October. I have photographed elk fights in November and December.”

The Arkansas elk now range over 225,000 acres. In addition to Newton and Searcy counties, elk have been reported through the years in Washington, Carroll, Boone, Marion, Stone, Conway, Pope, Van Buren and even Faulkner counties.

Biologists in helicopters count elk each year. In 1994, the AGFC initiated a thermal infrared sensing project to provide more information on elk numbers and distribution.

Efforts to improve elk habitat in the Ozarks have included prescribed burns and the establishment of native grass openings. Unlike the 1950s, this Arkansas elk herd appears here to stay.

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Elk Festival time in Jasper

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

The invitation proved irresistible.

Rhonda Watkins of Jasper asked me to judge the homemade pie competition to be held in conjunction with the 15th annual Buffalo River Elk Festival. The competition would take place on a Saturday morning with proceeds from the auction of the pies going to the Single Parent Scholarship Fund.

Coupled with a chance to spend the weekend at businessman Bubba Lloyd’s luxurious private retreat, the Black Bear Lodge, this was an invitation that went on my calendar many weeks ago.

I pulled off Interstate 40 in Russellville late Friday afternoon and began the climb north on Arkansas Highway 7 — past the empty buildings of what once was the tourist trap Booger Hollow, past the Rotary Ann overlook operated by the U.S. Forest Service and past the Cliff House just south of Jasper (which has a small inn, a restaurant and a gift shop), its parking lot crowded with diners.

As I rolled down the mountain into downtown Jasper, it was clear that the town was filled with visitors. Craftsmen and other vendors crowded the grounds of the Newton County Courthouse and music could be heard playing in the background.

With 8,330 residents in the 2010 census (down from 12,538 in 1900), Newton County is among the state’s smallest counties in terms of population.

Only six counties have fewer residents.

Three are in the pine woods of south Arkansas — Calhoun County with 5,368; Lafayette County with 7,645; and Dallas County with 8,116.

Two are in the Delta — Woodruff County with 7,260 and Monroe County with 8,149.

One is next door to Newton County in the Ozarks — Searcy County with 8,195.

Newton County is one of the state’s most isolated, scenic places. The area was made part of Carroll County in 1833, and white settlers began to move in as the Indians moved out. Jasper appeared on maps as early as 1840, though the city wasn’t incorporated until 1896.

The Legislature created Newton County in December 1842, naming it after Thomas Willoughby Newton, a U.S. marshal who was elected to Congress after the resignation of Archibald Yell. Jasper became the county seat in 1843.

In the 1860 census, there were just 24 slaves in the county (farming was limited to fields along the Buffalo and Little Buffalo rivers), and Union sentiment was strong, even after Arkansas joined the Confederacy.

James Vanderpool of Jasper was a Union hero. Meanwhile, former Newton County sheriff John Cecil was a guerrilla leader for the Confederacy. Cecil was known for his twin pearl-handled pistols.

“Farming changed little in the county after Reconstruction,” C.J. Miller writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Smaller farms were prevalent, while larger farms existed near the rivers. Potatoes, apples and peaches supplemented the main crop, corn. Cotton provided the cash crop for the Buffalo River valley. Lumber camps developed.

“Whether for added income or personal use, the production of moonshine made use of the surplus corn. A legend was born as ‘Beaver Jim’ Villines became known for his trapping ability. Visitors went to Marble Falls and Tom Thumb Spring for the water’s healing power.”

Villines remains a common name in the county. Yes, Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines comes from that stock of hearty mountain settlers.

Oak was harvested for stave bolts, and cedar was harvested for pencils. There was even zinc and lead mining in the early 1900s. Ponca, in fact, was established on land owned by Ponca City Mining Co. of Oklahoma.

Still, change was slow to come to Newton County. Highway 7 between Jasper and Harrison wasn’t paved until 1951. The current courthouse was built in 1942 as a Works Progress Administration project.

There were high hopes when the Dogpatch USA amusement park opened in 1968, but the isolated location resulted in the park’s ultimate demise. It closed for good in 1993. Its ruins can still be seen along Highway 7 north of Jasper.

The Buffalo became the country’s first national river on March 1, 1972. The signing of the bill by President Nixon followed decades of sometimes bitter debates and political battles.

The state earlier had operated two parks along the river, Buffalo River State Park (established in 1938 as a Civilian Conservation Corps project) and Lost Valley State Park (established in 1966).

Following congressional passage of the Flood Control Act of 1938, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers identified two sites for potential dams on the Buffalo — one near its mouth with the White River and one just upstream from Gilbert in Searcy County.

The pro-dam Buffalo River Improvement Association was led by James Tudor of Marshall in Searcy County. The anti-dam Ozark Society was led by Dr. Neil Compton of Bentonville. The battle for the Buffalo even received national media attention when Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas floated the river.

In December 1965, Gov. Orval Faubus, a Madison County native, informed the Corps that he wouldn’t support a dam on the river. Efforts to keep the river flowing freely received yet another boost when Republican John Paul Hammerschmidt of Harrison defeated Democratic Rep. James Trimble in 1966. Trimble had supported damming the Buffalo.

Hammerschmidt joined forces with the state’s two Democratic senators, John L. McClellan and J. William Fulbright, in pushing to make the Buffalo a national river.

A park superintendent, a chief ranger and a secretary set up temporary headquarters in Harrison in 1972. National Park Service staff members eventually were divided into three management districts. For years, federal employees have dealt with residents still angry about land they had to sell to the government.

The Buffalo National River, though, has become a tremendous success from a tourism standpoint with more than 800,000 visitors per year to its 94,293 acres. As Jimmy Driftwood sang, the Buffalo is “Arkansas’ gift to the nation, America’s gift to the world.”

Other attractions have developed in the county. From the spacious back deck of Bubba’s Black Bear Lodge, I can look down on the Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, which draws visitors from across the country for its horseback riding, outdoor cookouts, rock climbing and other activities.

The owners of this well-known dude ranch, Barry and Amy Johnson, met when they were working at a Wyoming ranch while enrolled at Brigham Young University. The involvement of the couple’s four children — Cameron, Cody, Sierra and Creed — make it a true family operation.

In addition to its superb rock climbing opportunities, Horseshoe Canyon is adding one of the longest zip lines in the country.

Bubba and I were in downtown Jasper by 9 a.m. Saturday for the pie judging. I took bites of 24 homemade pies — blackberry, blueberry, pecan, plum, lemon, chocolate, apple, egg custard, strawberry, peach and more. It was tough work, but somebody had to do it.

After the pie auction, we headed west out of Jasper on Arkansas Highway 74. We stopped briefly at the commuity of Low Gap to visit with noted chef Nick Bottini, who now operates the Low Gap Cafe in an old general store along with his wife Marie. Bottini once operated an upscale restaurant in Harrison. He’s open at Low Gap from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m. each Wednesday and Thursday, from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. each Friday and Saturday and from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. each Sunday.

We took a right on Arkansas Highway 43 and stepped into the beautiful new headquarters of Mike Mills’ Buffalo Outdoor Center at Ponca. Mills, who has long been among the state’s leading tourism entrepreneurs, offers everything from cabins to a lodge for family reunions and corporate retreats. Visitors can also book canoe trips and visit the zip line.

In May, Mills added what’s known as the Big Ol’ Swing. Built with 65-foot pine poles outfitted with a cable system, riders are secured into a harness and then launched.

Mills, a Hendrix College graduate, served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1969-71. He managed the Lost Valley Lodge in Ponca from 1974-76 and in 1976 began Buffalo Outdoor Center as a canoe rental operation on the upper Buffalo.

After leaving Ponca, we took a left onto Arkansas Highway 103 and followed it into Carroll County, where the road intersects with U.S. Highway 412 at Osage. In a building that was constructed in 1901, Newt Lale continues to operate Osage Clayworks. Lale has been a potter for three decades, and his pottery is in demand across the Ozarks.

We then drove east on Highway 412 for a late lunch at the Top Rock in Alpena. The evening was spent back on the Jasper square for the final night of the Elk Festival, including the much-anticipated 7 p.m. drawing by Arkansas Game & Fish Commission officials for elk hunting permits.

I visited with a college buddy from Ouachita Baptist University, Rodney Slinkard. The guy we called Slink was a heck of a college football player three decades ago. He now lives on the Buffalo River at Gilbert, where he paints Ozark Mountain scenes. Rodney had his art for sale both days of the festival.

The Ozark Cafe has been on the Jasper square since 1909. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. Last year, the website www.newyork.grubstreet.com did a feature called “50 State Dinners: Food Treks Worth Taking This Summer.” The Ozark was picked as the location in Arkansas.

On Saturday, the Ozark closed at 5 p.m. to allow its employees a chance to enjoy the Elk Festival. So we wandered down the street to the Boardwalk Cafe, known for using buffalo, elk, locally grown produce and locally baked bread.

Owners Joseph and Janet Morgan also operate the adjacent Arkansas House, which has two suites on the ground floor and three rooms on the second floor. The dinner menu Saturday at the Boardwalk featured a number of elk dishes. I had elk gumbo with locally grown okra. It was excellent.

The Buffalo River Elk Festival concluded with fireworks over the Jasper square, beginning at 10 p.m. Saturday. By then, I had returned to Bubba’s Black Bear Lodge and was prepared to turn in for the night. Full of homemade pie and elk, I slept well after a long day.

Sunday dawned clear and hot. Looking down through the mountains toward Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, I enjoyed ham, eggs and biscuits and coffee before heading south on Highway 7.

I have no doubt that Newton County will beckon again.

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A Friday in Logan County

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

I was invited to address the Booneville Rotary Club on a recent Friday, a reason to head west on Arkansas Highway 10.

It was a pleasant morning on yet another scenic Arkansas route as I made my way past Lake Maumelle and through Perryville, Perry, Adona, Casa, Ola, Danville, Havana and Magazine.

Not much traffic. Beautiful scenery. A good day to travel through rural Arkansas.

Logan County is one of those counties off the beaten path for most Arkansans. It is, however, well worth a visit.

There’s Mount Magazine, of course, and the magnificent lodge at the state park there. There also are unique historic and cultural attractions such as the former Arkansas Tuberculosis Sanatorium at Booneville, the Cowie Wine Cellars and the adjoining Arkansas Historic Wine Museum at Paris, the coal miners memorial at Paris, the Logan County Museum in Paris’ old city jail and the Subiaco Abbey and Academy.

I managed to hit them all in the course of one long day. For those wanting a more relaxed pace, the Cowies operate a small bed and breakfast inn in conjunction with their winery. You can spend the night there and take two days to explore Logan County.

Cowie Wine Cellars was established in 1967 by Robert Cowie, who had begun making wine as a hobby at age 15. He started the winery in a small metal building on the former property of St. Ann’s School just west of Paris at Carbon City.

Cowie began building a house on the property in 1972 and began construction of the current winery building in 1973.

The Arkansas Historic Wine Museum is the only museum in the country dedicated to preserving the wine culture of an entire state.

My host for the day in Booneville, Ron West, earlier had taken me to the former Arkansas Tuberculosis Sanatorium grounds. The sanatorium had its beginnings in Arizona during the winter of 1907. Judge Joseph M. Hill of Fort Smith and Dr. C.P. Meriwether of Little Rock had traveled west in hopes of finding relief from their TB. They were joined there the following year by state Sen. Kie Oldham of Pulaski County.

Upon their return to Arkansas, the three men met with Gov. George Donaghey, who had lost several family members to TB. The governor presented a plan to the Legislature, and on March 31, 1909, a bill was approved calling for the construction of a TB sanatorium “somewhere in Arkansas.”

By the time the Booneville facility closed in 1973, it had treated more than 70,000 patients. During those years, the mortality rate for TB dropped from 80 percent to 10 percent.

Several offers of land came from across the state following the 1909 legislative session. A committee spent several months searching for the best location. By October 1909, members of the committee had decided on Potts Ridge just outside Booneville. Committee members were attracted by its scenery and clean mountain air.

The first patient was admitted in August 1910. By the end of the year, there were 64 patients.

The Belle Pointe Masonic Lodge of Fort Smith constructed the Mason’s Building for Children at the sanatorium in 1924. Three years later, a school was added for young patients.

In 1938, the Legislature approved the Nichols-Nyberg Act to fund the construction of a large hospital on the grounds. The act was named after Rep. Leo Nyberg of Phillips County, who had TB, and Rep. Lee Nichols of Logan County. The five-story hospital building, which still towers over the site, housed 511 patients, doctors’ offices, an employee cafeteria and a morgue. Nyberg died before the building was completed in 1941, and it was named for him.

The grounds also contained dormitories, a chapel, a laundry, a water treatment plant and a fire station. At one time, almost 300 staff members lived on the grounds.

It’s important to note that the Booneville facility was for white patients. Blacks with TB were housed at Alexander in Saline County. The final seven patients at Booneville were discharged on Feb. 26, 1973.

Logan County is among those Arkansas counties with two county seats. The two towns are about the same size. Booneville had 3,990 residents in the 2010 census, and Paris had a population of 3,532.

Booneville was founded in the late 1820s when Walter Cauthron built a log cabin and opened a store near the Petit Jean River in what was then Crawford County. He intended to name the settlement in honor of a friend, Capt. Benjamin Bonneville, an Army officer stationed at Fort Smith. Somewhere along the way, the spelling changed.

When Scott County was carved out of Crawford County in 1833, Booneville was made the Scott County seat. During the Civil War, the deeply divided county supplied troops to both the Union and Confederate armies.

In 1871, Sarber County was formed from parts of Franklin, Johnson, Scott and Yell counties. Sarber County, which included Booneville, was named after a Republican carpetbagger who had been a Union solder. Upon regaining control of the Legislature, Democrats renamed it Logan County in 1875.

A site near Short Mountain had been chosen for the Sarber County courthouse, and the city of Paris grew up around it. Paris remained the county seat of Logan County, which was named after early settler James Logan.

In 1901, Logan County was divided into two judicial districts. Booneville became the county seat for the southern district, and a brick courthouse was built at Booneville.

Six generals have come from Booneville through the decades. Gen. John Paul McConnell was the Air Force chief of staff from 1964-69. His personal and military memorabilia are displayed in the Booneville Public Library, which I visited before leaving town.

Leaving Booneville, I headed north on Arkansas Highway 23 and then east on Arkansas Highway 22 to Paris. After my stop at the Cowie Wine Cellars, I drove through downtown Paris and viewed its impressive Catholic church, St. Joseph.

There’s a stronger Catholic influence in Logan County than in most parts of Arkansas. The reason is that when a railroad line was being built from Fort Smith to Dardanelle in the 1870s, company officials embarked on a campaign to entice German-Catholic immigrants to settle along the line.

The railroad executives had heard that German-Catholic immigrants in other states worked hard and were excellent farmers. Farmland was offered to the immigrants at attractive prices. The railroad gave land to St. Meinrad’s Abbey in Indiana for a Catholic mission in Logan County.

German settlers arrived in droves, establishing towns such as Ratcliff, Subiaco and Scranton.

St. Joseph established a school at Paris in 1880 when Mrs. Levise Waddill, who was not Catholic, sold property to the parish for $1 provided that a school was built. The school was staffed by Benedictine sisters and lay teachers.

Nearby Subiaco Abbey and Academy had begun as St. Benedict’s Colony in 1877. Abbot Martin Marty of St. Meinrad’s had obtained the land from the railroad in December 1877. By late January 1878, there were almost 30 German families in the area.

In the spring of that year, Father Wolfgang Schlumpf, Brother Casper Hildesheim and Brother Hilarin Benetz left St. Meinrad’s in a mule-drawn wagon for Arkansas. They celebrated the first recorded mass in Logan County on March 19, 1878. By the end of 1878, there were 150 immigrant families at the colony.

Funds and personnel from St. Meinrad’s were supplemented by the Abbey Maria-Einsiedeln in Switzerland. Swiss monks would help staff St. Benedict’s for years.

Pope Leo XIII made St. Benedict’s an abbey in the summer of 1891, and it was renamed Subiaco Abbey. Seminarians from the Diocese of Little Rock were trained there from 1892-1911. A high school for boys was opened in 1902.

The town of Subiaco was born when a post office was located there in 1910.

The monks at Subiaco come from diverse backgrounds. In addition to operating the academy, they raise cattle, keep the vineyards and make a habanero pepper sauce known as Monk Sauce. Visitors to the abbey’s website (www.countrymonks.biz) can order not only the hot sauce but also abbey brittle, calligraphy products, rosaries, wood carvings and books.

After leaving Subiaco, I went back to Paris to visit the Logan County Museum in the old jail. Among other things, the museum tells the story of an incident that received statewide attention in 1914. A Logan County girl was murdered, and a boyfriend named Arthur Tillman was tried and found guilty of her murder. On July 14, 1914, Tillman was hanged on a gallows beside the jail. It was the last legal public execution by hanging in Arkansas.

My next stop was the coal miners memorial. Coal mining was never widespread in Arkansas, but it was a mainstay of the Logan County economy until the end of World War II. A small museum, which is open each day but Tuesday from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m., is adjacent to the memorial. Vistors can see artifacts such as coal cars and fresh-air fans.

A fine grade of coal had been discovered in the county in the 1880s. Next to a bronze statue of a miner with his shovel, bucket and carbide light are the names of those who worked in the coal mines of Logan County through the decades.

Other counties in Arkansas with a coal mining heritage are Sebastian, Johnson, Franklin, Pope and Scott. There’s also a statue of a coal miner at nearby Altus in Franklin County. Just east of the Sebastian County Courthouse in Greenwood on Highway 10, there’s a statue of a miner with a lunch bucket in his hand alongside a coal cart that came from a local mine.

“At first, convict labor was used in Arkansas coal mining, but increasingly the mines depended upon immigrants from central Europe,” John Ragsdale writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Coal miners were strongly recruited by labor organizations, and in 1903 every coal miner in Arkansas was required to belong to the United Mine Workers of America. Coal mines were, for a time, ‘closed shops’ in which non-union workers were forbidden.”

Having learned much about the coal mining heritage of west Arkansas, I left Paris and headed south on Arkansas Highway 309 to begin my trek up Mount Magazine. Dinner at the state park lodge awaited.

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From Grandview to Hollywood

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

It’s as if we’ve stepped back in time to an era when the buffalo roamed the blackland prairies of southwest Arkansas.

Paul Austin, the executive director of the Arkansas Humanities Council, and I are driving on a Wednesday afternoon through the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission’s Rick Evans Grandview Prairie Wildlife Management Area.

As we make our way down the gravel road, we look out on acres and acres of native grasses and wildflowers. At 4,885 acres, it’s the largest blackland conservation site in the country.

The blackland prairie once covered 12 million acres of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. It was the home of more than 600 plant and 300 animal species. Because of the fertile soils and treeless landscapes, settlers were busy converting the blackland prairie to cotton fields and cattle pastures by the 1800s.

Only about 10,000 acres of this prairie remains in its native condition. The prairie was hurt through the decades by the absence of fires, which were needed to keep species such as the Eastern red cedar at bay. Invasive plants took over. As cedars flourish, they block sunlight from the ground, meaning that wildflowers and other native plants cannot grow.

What once was the site of the antebellum Grandview Plantation was purchased by the state in 1997 from owners who had operated it as a hunting preserve with pen-raised native and non-native upland game birds. There also were two lakes built for bass fishing.

The state’s first order of business was to cut down thousands of cedar trees. Controlled burns followed, removing fescue, Johnson grass, Chinese bush clover and over invasive plants.

The results have been spectacular. On the day we were there, a teacher workshop was being held at the Grandview Prairie Conservation Education Center, which has room for overnight guests. The teachers were out admiring the prairie as we drove through.

After the visit to Washington in Hempstead County (discussed in yesterday’s Southern Fried blog post), Paul and I eschewed the direct route home on Interstate 30 and took what I call the “back route” from Washington to Arkadelphia. We went through Ozan, Tollette, Mineral Springs, Nashville, Murfreesboro, Delight, Antoine and Hollywood.

Football is big in southwest Arkansas, and Paul and I are both football fans. One reason we didn’t go directly to Nashville after leaving Grandview is because we wanted to see the smallest school in the state — Mineral Springs — with artificial turf on its football field.

The blacklands of southwest Arkansas were covered by the Gulf of Mexico millions of years ago. As the water receded, deposits of shellfish were left behind. They formed a chalky layer underneath the rich, black soil. Fossils of marine life from millions of years ago have been found at Grandview. The area also was heavily used by the Caddo tribe, and Indian artifacts abound.

I’ve written before on the Southern Fried blog that Nashville is among my favorite towns in Arkansas — from its love of Scrapper football to the fact that it has two competing newspapers to its vibrant downtown, Nashville is a special place.

In an age when the downtowns of so many small towns consist of empty storefronts and cracked sidewalks, a trip to downtown Nashville is like stepping back into the 1960s. Locally owned businesses fill both sides of the street. Most of the parking places are taken on this Wednesday afternoon in June.

From Nashville, we take Arkansas Highway 27 to Murfreesboro, crossing from Howard County into Pike County. In his song “Arkansas,” native son Glen Campbell sings of “Pike County’s sandy loam.” The county sports an amazing geological diversity.

We don’t have time on this day to visit the Crater of Diamonds State Park, the volcanic crater that’s home to one of the 10 largest diamond deposits in the world and is the only site where the public can search for diamonds and keep what’s found. It remains a unique Arkansas attraction, drawing tourists from around the world.

Farmer and prospector John Wesley Huddleston first found diamonds here in 1906, sparking a flood of fortune hunters who descended on the county. A town known as Kimberly was born to accommodate the new residents.

Two rival companies, the Arkansas Diamond Co. and Ozark Diamond Mines Corp., competed for years. The online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture says it best when it notes that the period was marked by “constant financial strain, poor management, lawsuits and sabotage.”

The rival companies formed a partnership in 1952 and began operating a tourist attraction known as the Crater of Diamonds. The state purchased the property in 1972 and turned it into the state park.

Murfreesboro, with a population of 1,641 in the 2010 census, remains a fascinating town. When I worked in the governor’s office, we chose Murfreesboro as the site for the unveiling of the Arkansas quarter on Oct. 28, 2003. The Arkansas quarter, the 25th to be released in the series of state quarters, featured a diamond as part of its design.

Arkansas’ territorial legislature created Pike County on Nov. 1, 1833, out of parts of Clark and Hempstead counties. It was named for explorer Zebulon Pike and was the state’s 26th county. A post office named Murfreesborough was established in 1836. The spelling later was changed to Murfreesboro.

In 1900, Pike County railroad and property owner Martin White Greeson began a campaign for a dam on the Little Missouri River northwest of Murfreesboro. Congress finally approved the project in 1941 and authorized $3 million. Construction began on June 1, 1948, and ended on July 12, 1951. The dam was named Narrows Dam and the lake was named Lake Greeson.

Before DeGray Lake was completed on the Caddo River by the Vicksburg District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, my dad would make the trip over from Arkadelphia to fish for bass on Greeson on a regular basis.

Occasionally, he would fish for trout in the Little Missouri River just below the dam. I would attend Boy Scout camp each June at Camp Tula on the banks of the lake. Much later in life, I would go to Lake Greeson on a regular basis for meetings and retreats at Gov. Mike Huckabee’s lakehouse.

From Murfreesboro, Paul and I make our way east on Arkansas Highway 26 to Delight. It’s common for people to write that Glen Campbell was raised at Delight, but he actually was born about six miles to the southwest at Billstown on April 22, 1936. His parents were Wes and Carrie Campbell.

Billstown’s schools consolidated with Delight in the fall of 1948.

Delight first was known as Wolf Creek. A post office was established there on Jan. 18, 1832, and became an important stop between Little Rock and Washington. The residents later decided to allow a popular doctor, William Kirkham, to come up with a new name for the town. He decided to call it Delight because he considered it a delightful place to live. Delight was incorporated on Sept. 15, 1904.

Delight was blessed to be in the middle of a productive timber area in the early 1900s. The Ozan Lumber Co. owned 132,000 acres in the area by 1956. That land was sold to the Potlatch Corp. in 1965.

Paul and I continue to make our way east to Antoine, where we cross one of this state’s many beautiful small rivers — the Antoine River – and enter my native Clark County. The river is a short one at 35 miles. It begins with a confluence of creeks in the Ouachita Mountains of Pike County and empties into the Little Missouri River near Okolona. The river is an excellent fishing stream, though the water levels are low in this dry June.

Near here was Graysonia, which at its peak was home to one of the biggest timber mills in the South. Graysonia is now a ghost town. William Grayson and Nelson McLeod purchased the Arkadelphia Lumber Co. in 1902 and moved to a site near the Antoine River in 1907 to take advantage of the area’s virgin forests.

From 1915-20, more than 500 men worked at the Graysonia mill, producing 150,000 board feet per day. Graysonia was a company-owned town with a large commissary, a movie theater, three hotels, a school, electricity and a water system.

The Bemis family bought the company in 1924 and renamed it the Ozan-Grayson Lumber Co. Due to the cut-and-move philosophy of timber companies in those days and the ravages of the Great Depression, the mill eventually closed.

During the 1930s, the Ozan-Grayson board of directors reported to stockholders that the land in the vicinity of Graysonia was worthless and not worth the tax burden. The McMillan family of Arkadelphia bought 10,000 acres. The Bemis family, meanwhile, built a mill at Delight, using some of the equipment from Graysonia.

The post office at Graysonia closed on Nov. 19, 1950.

The route from Antoine to Hollywood is lovely and shady on an early summer day with large trees on either side of the highway forming a canopy over the road.

The Hollywood area has its own colorful history. Settlers began farming along Terre Noire Creek as early as 1811. Greenville (which no longer exists) became the county seat of Clark County in 1830 and served in that role for a dozen years until the county seat was moved to Arkadelphia in 1842.

Arkadelphia’s civic leaders held a picnic in 1842 and invited all the residents of surrounding areas. Speakers boasted of Arkadelphia’s population of 250, its central location in the county and its position on the Ouachita River. Those at the meeting were enthused by the speeches, and the Clark County Quorum Court soon moved the county seat from Greenville to Arkadelphia. When the Southwest Trail (also known as the Military Road) was rerouted to bypass Greenville, the town ceased to exist.

A post office was established at Hollywood — named for the native holly trees in the area — in 1860. A year later, as the Civil War began, a two-story building was constructed there to house both a school and a Masonic lodge.

Hollywood was incorporated in February 1880 with a population of 103. In 1884, the Davidson Methodist Campground was established near Hollywood. It still conducts summer camp meetings and is among the oldest campgrounds of its type.

By 1931, junior high and high school students at Hollywood were going to school at Arkadelphia. By 1950, all grades had been consolidated into the Arkadelphia School District. 

On the way to Arkadelphia, we pass the beautifully restored Bozeman House, built in the 1840s by wealthy planter Michael Bozeman. Just as we enter Arkadelphia, we pass Magnolia Manor, built between 1854 and 1857 by master builder Madison Griffin. It still sports its namesake magnolia tree, the seedling for which was brought by river from New Orleans.

A catfish dinner awaits. It has been a day of history along the back roads of southwest Arkansas.

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Digging southwest Arkansas

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

The sun is already high in the June sky by the time Paul Austin, the executive director of the Arkansas Humanities Council, and I arrive at Washington in Hempstead County on a Wednesday morning.

In a small field in the middle of one of the state’s most historic communities, tarps help keep the early summer sun off the professional archeologists and the amateurs who are hard at work.

This spot was the merchant center of Washington in the 1830s. It was therefore among the most important places in Arkansas during the final years of the Arkansas Territory and the first years of the state (Arkansas became the nation’s 25th state in 1836).

In those days, what we now think of as the cotton country of the Arkansas Delta was mostly mosquito-infested swamps and impenetrable forests of bottomland hardwoods. The cotton country in those days was farther to the southwest with Camden and Washington as centers of trade.

Paul and I are greeted by Tom Green of Fayetteville, the director of the Arkansas Archeological Survey, the finest organization of its type in the country.

Too often we fail to recognize the areas in which Arkansas is a national leader. This is certainly one such area. In 1967, the Arkansas Legislature created the Arkansas Archeological Survey, becoming the first state to have a coordinated research and public service organization of this type. The survey is responsible for studying prehistoric and historic archeological sites, managing information about those sites and sharing that information with Arkansans.

A longtime state representative from my mother’s hometown of Des Arc, John Bethel, was interested in archeology. As early as 1959, he sponsored legislation creating an archeological laboratory on the University of Arkansas campus. Bethel also sponsored a 1959 bill protecting archeological sites on state land.

The work of the survey has been complemented through the years by the efforts of the Arkansas Archeological Society, which was formed in 1960.

In 1964, a series of weekend excavations began under the direction of University of Arkansas Museum archeologists and society members. The Arkansas Archeological Survey partnered with the society in 1967 on these events.

By 1972, what had begun as a series of weekend events had expanded into a 16-day training program with excavations at various sites across the state. It’s the oldest and best program of its type in the country.

The archeologists are in Washington for a second consecutive summer, discovering the foundations of buildings that were once on the site and carefully removing everything from nails to pieces of pottery to coins.

Meanwhile, life goes on in this part of southwest Arkansas as a large lumber truck rumbles down the sunken gravel road that once was part of the Southwest Trail.

The Southwest Trail was the network of routes that linked St. Louis with what’s now northeast Texas. The trail entered the state at Hix’s Ferry across the Current River in Randolph County and exited the state southwest of Washington along the Red River.

The first big wave of immigration to Texas occurred in the 1820s. After 1817, an estimated four-fifths of the new arrivals in Texas came via the Southwest Trail. Sam Houston, Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie were among those who came through Washington on their way to Texas. Washington was later a mustering point for troops marching south to fight in the Mexican War.

Elijah Stuart had built a log house on the sandy hill that would become Washington as early as 1818. That house served as an inn and tavern. Stuart’s Tavern was designated as the first permanent seat of government for Hempstead County in 1824 because of its location.

“The land around the tavern was then surveyed and laid out in square blocks oriented along the Southwest Trail,” Steven Teske writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “A land auction in 1826 created the structure of the city, and merchants began to conduct business soon thereafter.”

A courthouse (just across the Southwest Trail from the site being excavated this summer) was built in 1836. A Presbyterian church was established in 1836, and a Baptist church was built in 1845.

The Washington Telegraph began publication in 1840 and was the oldest weekly newspaper west of the Mississippi River when it ceased publication in 1946.

“By 1860, Washington had seven dry goods stores, two drugstores, a tailor shop, a watch repairman and other businesses,” Teske writes. “Many wealthy families built mansions, some of which have been restored and are preserved in the contemporary state park. The area also held many slaves, who served as household servants and also worked in the cotton fields surrounding the city. A Methodist church was built in 1861.”

A new courthouse was constructed in 1874, and the businesses at the site being excavated this summer began to move. A major economic blow came in the 1870s when the Cairo & Fulton Railroad bypassed Washington and went through Hope. A depot was built, and Hope was incorporated on April 8, 1875.

Devastating fires struck Washington on July 3, 1875, and Jan. 21, 1883, furthering its demise as a center of business. As early as 1879, people were advocating that the Hempstead County seat be moved to Hope, though the change did not take place until 1939.

“Unethical behavior abounded on both sides, consisting of lies, cheating, mudslinging and election fraud,” writes Bryan McDade. “Finally, the Arkansas Supreme Court intervened and, in a ruling in May 1939, declared that Hope was the county seat.”

The Legislature appropriated $5,000 in 1929 to help restore the 1836 courthouse. The United Daughters of the Confederacy played a key role in pushing for those funds and supplementing them with private contributions.

In 1958, the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation was organized to raise money and plan the preservation of Washington’s historic homes and commercial properties. Annual tours of remodeled homes were part of the group’s efforts.

During the administration of Gov. Dale Bumpers, when the state parks system was in an expansion mode, the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation donated buildings and antiques to the state.

On July 1, 1973, Old Washington Historic State Park opened.

During my years in the Huckabee administration, I regularly was contacted by the noted Arkansas preservationist Parker Westbrook.

“It’s not Old Washington,” Parker would insist. “It’s just Washington.”

Parker got his wish in September 2006 when the state Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission voted to change the name to Historic Washington State Park.

I consider Washington to be among the most important historical and cultural assets in this part of the country. The 101 acres in the park contain 54 buildings, 30 of which are historically significant. Several of the buildings are open for tours.

When my mother was still living at Arkadelphia, we would attend the Jonquil Festival each March at Washington. The jonquils only bloom in late winter and early spring, but the trees are always there — the massive, gnarled trees.

The catalpas. The magnolias. The pecans. The black walnuts.

Trees that were planted in the 1800s for shade and nuts still survive. I can’t imagine that there’s a better collection of catalpa trees anywhere in the country. Just across the street from where the archeological work is taking place is an enormous magnolia that reportedly was planted in 1839. The road is blocked off to traffic at this point with the limbs of the old tree covering half the street.

In 1995, the state created what’s known as the Arkansas Famous and Historic Tree Program. There are several trees at Washington that made the list – a pecan tree associated with Abraham Block, the first permanent Jewish settler in the state in 1823; a catalpa associated with mail carrier John H. Smith; a black walnut on the grounds of the 1914 public school; and a loblolly pine on the grounds of the 1836 courthouse that was planted in 1976 from seeds taken on the Apollo 14 mission to the moon.

There are eight professional archeologists at work during what Paul and I refer to as the summer dig. The volunteers include everything from a firefighter to a hairdresser. Some of them have been participating in the 16-day summer program since the 1970s, spending the night in tents that are placed in a grove of trees next to the excavation site. They are building on the work done last summer, digging 10 centimeters at a time, bagging artifacts and keeping meticulous records.

Under a pavilion in an area known as the lab, 86-year-old Anna Parks helps bag items. She has participated in the summer excavation since 1976.

The volunteers are particularly anxious to show us the ornate label that came off a bottle of olive oil in the 1800s. American coins minted in 1806 and 1827 have been found. Spanish coins minted in the 1700s also have been discovered.

Jamie Brandon, an archeologist stationed on the campus of Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia, shows us around. We walk through the Pioneer Cemetery, where both black and white residents of Washington were buried beginning in the 1820s. Whites continued to be buried in the cemetery until the 1880s. Blacks continued to be buried there until the 1920s.

The Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives, which is in a former elementary school at Washington, has produced a book on the pioneer cemetery titled “Thou Wert Dear To Us” by Mary Kwas and Jami Lockhart of the Arkansas Archeological Survey.

The past envelops us as we walk through Washington. A country lunch of stuffed porked chops, squash and okra awaits at the state park’s Williams’ Tavern, bringing us back to the present.

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Lee Wilson’s Delta empire

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

I’ve written on the Southern Fried blog before about my fascination with Lee Wilson & Co., which once operated one of the largest cotton plantations in the world, helped shape life in northeast Arkansas and remained in the same family for almost 125 years.

If you have an interest in the history of the Arkansas Delta, you should read Jeannie Whayne’s book “Delta Empire,” which was released last year by the Louisiana State University Press.

Whayne, a history professor at the University of Arkansas, is an expert on the Delta, having written “A New Plantation South” and having edited “Sunnyside: Evolution of a Plantation in Arkansas, 1830-1945″ along with “Arkansas Delta: A Land of Paradox.”

More than just the story of Robert E. “Lee” Wilson, “Delta Empire” is in many respects the story of Southern agriculture from the late 1800s through the early 1950s.

Lee Wilson inherited 400 acres in Mississippi County following his father’s death in 1870. He expanded that initial inheritance into a 50,000-acre lumber and cotton operation, buying swampland for as little as 50 cents an acre, draining it, selling the harvested cypress and other bottomland hardwoods and turning it into cotton fields.

Whayne had considered doing her dissertation on the Wilson plantation in the 1980s but says “an encounter with a snake in the basement of a Mississippi County jail convinced me to look elsewhere for a dissertation topic. No company records existed, or so it seemed at the time, and a county official indicated that county records were unavailable to me.

“Oscar Fendler, a longtime attorney representing the Wilson family, gained me entry to the basement of the county jail so that I could examine the records discarded there. Thus began an adventure that Fendler, who died a few years ago, never tired of recalling, though he only heard the story from me — I think.

“The jailer held a flashlight, a guard stood by with a rifle as two black prisoners in jail jumpsuits picked up the books and held them in the light for me to examine. Finding nothing of interest, I noticed another stack of books across the room and started to move toward them. Years later it occurred to me that the entire charade — aside from the snake which slithered by at that moment and could not have been choreographed — was intended to discourage me. It worked. I chose another topic.”

Before entering that basement, Whayne had visited the company offices in the English Tudor-style town of Wilson and had come up empty in her search for records.

Following the release of “Arkansas Delta: A Land of Paradox,” Whayne was participating in a book signing event at Mary Gay Shipley’s wonderful That Bookstore In Blytheville. Whayne was approached during the event by Mike Wilson, who asked her to write a history of Lee Wilson & Co.

“I had some understandable misgivings,” Whayne writes. “Any book I wrote, I explained to Mike, would be critical of certain aspects of the company’s operation. He insisted he understood that and believed that it was important to cover all aspects of the company’s history. He wanted the unvarnished truth, and I came to understand that he meant what he said.”

Mike Wilson donated company ledgers to the University of Arkansas archives. The real breakthrough came with the discovery of company correspondence files.

“Mike called me some time in the late 1990s to tell me that when workmen removed a malfunctioning air conditioning unit to replace it, they discovered a false wall and a room full of boxes,” Whayne writes.

Those papers also were donated to the university.

Mike Wilson died suddenly in 2008 while Whayne was working on the book. His brother Steve, his sister Midge and Mike’s son Perry continued to work with Whayne. Meanwhile, the late Dr. Eldon Fairley of the Mississippi County Historical Society rescued those county records from the basement of the jail.

In October 2010, it was announced that the Wilson family was selling the company. In December of that year, it was revealed that Gaylon Lawrence Sr. of Sikeston, Mo., and Gaylon Lawrence Jr. of Nashville, Tenn., had paid an estimated $150 million for Lee Wilson & Co.

An era had ended in the Arkansas Delta.

Lawrence Jr. is known in the Nashville area as the owner of Tennessee Bank & Trust. The father and son own four other banks in Missouri and Arkansas. Their diversified Lawrence Group even purchased U.S. Air Conditioning Distributors, which had almost $600 million in annual sales and operations.

The Lawrence Group owns more than 165,000 acres in Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Florida, Illinois and several other states. Everything from cotton to soybeans to citrus is grown on that land.

The Lawrence purchase of the Wilson estate stands as one example of the trend toward investors holding agricultural real estate as part of their portfoilios, Whayne writes.

“Most of these people have little understanding of agricultural production or appreciation for the local communities,” she says. ”Lawrence himself, a banker (with Tennessee Bank & Trust of Nashville) who holds agricultural lands from California to Florida, including part of the old Delta Pine & Land Co. in Mississippi, does possess some connection to southeast Missouri and northeastern Arkansas. His family has roots in Sikeston and at some point acquired ownership of Farmers Bank & Trust in Blytheville. The latter connection shadows an earlier association with Lee Wilson, who became a director of Farmers Bank & Trust in 1932.

“Lawrence’s purchase of the Wilson estate mirrors a larger trend among investment firms acquiring agricultural lands, purchases that made sense during the economic crisis which began in 2007. While residential and commercial real estate prices plummeted, agricultural lands rose in value, in tandem with the rise in agricultural prices.

“Investment firms like the Winchester Group of Champaign, Ill., and TIAA-CREF, the college pension fund, have increased their holdings in agricultural lands as a way to offset the declining value of other kinds of real estate.”

The trend of Delta farms becoming part of corporate portfolios followed other major changes in the region.

“With fewer farmworkers needed, the population of the county began to decline after World War II, falling from 80,286 in 1950 to 70,055 in 1960 to 51,979 in 2000 (after Whayne had finished work on her book, the 2010 census figure for Mississippi County came in at 46,480. That means the county has lost 34,000 residents in the past six decades).”

She continues: “While industrial jobs began providing some alternative sources of employment, they were late in arriving and remain insufficiently robust enough to offset the decline in farm labor jobs made obsolete by the advent of scientific agriculture. Only the northern end of the county has exceeded expectations, largely for two reasons. First, given the higher incidence of land ownership and the ability of even landless famers there to gain at least some personal property, they were the least likely of any population in the county — or elsewhere in the Delta — to depart.

“Second, the placement of the Air Force training base in Blytheville provided an anchor which sustained a population base. When the government closed the base in the early 1990s, things looked bleak for a while but then Nucor moved into the area just east of Blytheville in the mid-1990s and turned things around.”

Whayne notes that as sharecroppers left the Delta, plantation owners “burned or bulldozed their tenant houses and planted cotton or soybeans on their foundations in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Although plantation agriculture had some prominence in north Mississippi County — particularly east of Big Lake with Wilson’s Armorel operation as merely the most prominent example — small farmers also operated there and remained in place. As they struggled to stay alive in the capital-intensive economic environment confronting farmers, whether big or small, they served as a ready labor force as Nucor and allied industries moved into the region in the 1990s.”

Whayne worries that investment firms and portofolio managers will have little inclination to improve the quality of life for those who live in these areas.

“Unlike local planters who have established long-standing relationships with the men who lease their lands, portfolio planters will be interested only in the bottom line,” she writes. “When the enterprise becomes strictly a business transaction, lessees potentially become expendable. … As out-of-state investors looking to maximize their profits, they will have even less interest in the environmental consequences of burning rice stubble or the overuse of certain potentially harmful chemicals.”

Only time will tell whether the move toward more corporate farming and out-of-state ownership will be good for the Arkansas Delta. Regardless, those interested in the region and its history will enjoy “Delta Empire” as Jeannie Whayne recounts a part of our state’s history that has come to an end.

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Charlotte Schexnayder: Salty Old Editor

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

I wasn’t surprised that the room was packed even though it was the middle of the day on a weekday. People had come from across Arkansas to hear Charlotte Tillar Schexnayder speak at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock.

She has had that kind of impact on our state and its people during her 88 years.

I’ve known Charlotte in several of her roles.

As a young newspaperman, I came to know her as the person who ran (along with her husband Melvin) one of the best weekly newspapers in the South.

Later, as a political reporter and as a member of the governor’s staff, I knew Charlotte as a leading light in the Arkansas Legislature.

She’s the epitome of a gracious Southern lady — but with a tough streak; governors and others learned the hard way never to underestimate her — and an Arkansas institution.

Her new book from Butler Center Books in Little Rock — titled “Salty Old Editor — An Adventure in Ink” – makes for fascinating reading.

“She’s a treasure,” says former President Clinton. “I’m so grateful I’ve had the chance to know her, work with her and be her friend.”

Former U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers calls her “one of those too rare people who not only cares about what’s right and wrong in the world but spends a lifetime trying to do something about it. Together, she and her late husband Melvin were the bedrock of their community, the Delta and the entire state.”

Former U.S. Sen. David Pryor calls her a “powerful force for equality, fairness and justice. Her life has been an epic story of how one person can make a difference. She is a true public servant.”

Charlotte is a former president of the Arkansas Press Women, the Little Rock professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Federation of Press Women, the Arkansas Press Association and the National Newspaper Association.

She also was the first female president of the Dumas Chamber of Commerce.

She has always been a pacesetter.

In the late 1940s, Melvin and Charlotte Schexnayder found themselves living in the pine woods of east Texas at Marshall. Melvin had accepted a job in early 1948 with the Texas & Pacific Railroad as a chemical engineer.

“His job involved analyzing oil and water samples for steam engines,” she writes. “I always dreaded the possibility that he might dislocate his lame shoulder when he climed the company water tanks for samples.

“More often, he was in the company laboratories or on a train going as far as Pecos, Texas — 800 miles away. The job demanded five to six days a week on the road, leaving us miserable with little home life.

“Mother came to visit in Marshall in the summer of 1948. Melvin drove her 1937 Plymouth there, and on the back was a coop of chickens from Tillar. We had a flat tire on the way, and a man who stopped to help us was much amused. However, we thought the fried chicken was very tasty that summer.

“My solution while Melvin was constantly traveling was to read and keep our domicile, all the while missing the news business. Occasionally, I traveled with him and particularly remember the dust storms in west Texas. Neither of us was content away from the other.

“In late summer, we received a telegram from W.M. Jackson, owner of the McGehee Semi-Weekly Times. He asked if we would come to McGehee as editor and advertising manager. Melvin had never sold advertising but had done well in business courses in graduate school. Tired of his constant traveling, we said to one another: ‘Let’s try the newspaper business for a year.’

“Little did we then realize, it would last a half-century.”

Southeast Arkansas had no bigger advocate during that half-century than Charlotte Schexnayder.

She was born Christmas Day 1923. Her father was Jewell Stephen Tillar, the son of Dr. Stephen Olin Tillar and Fannie Harrell Tillar, pioneer residents of southeast Arkansas. They had come over from Selma in Drew County to help found the town of Tillar as the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad laid its track south from Little Rock in 1870.

Stephen Olin Tillar had fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. He was captured and imprisoned near Chicago.

“When he was released, he walked home barefooted and was so emaciated that his family did not recognize him,” Charlotte writes. “He studied medicine and became a practicing physician. My father was born on Dec. 19, 1886, and was the youngest of his family.”

After working for the newspaper in McGehee, Charlotte and Melvin bought the Dumas Clarion.

Charlotte says they learned the following lessons during their years in McGehee:

– “Manage with one-boss rule editorially. A showdown with a composing room foreman who sought to direct all operations quickly taught me that I had to control content and deadlines. I made editorial decisions and always faced the consequences.”

– “Believe in your community, and the people will join you. Many coummunities depend on their newspaper publishers/owners for leadership.”

– “Plain hard work exceeds inspiration, probably in proportion of 90-10.”

– “Never leave to others some job you should do. A staff will seek to excel when the editor-publisher sets the standard.”

– “Listen for the little stories. They often are the most compelling because they touch the human heart. I once gained wisdom from interviewing a 90-year-old who said: ‘When ah walks, ah walks slow; when ah rocks, ah rocks easy; and when ah worries, ah goes to sleep.’”

– “Expect broadly flung daggers. I didn’t cause trouble but was blamed for reporting it. Many would rather blame the messenger than the culprit. Moreover, it seems more fun to fire at the messenger.”

– “Remember that you are writing current history and make every effort to get it right.”

– “Rely on some humor during tough times. It’s the best antidote.”

 – “If the job isn’t fun, find another. I looked forward to every day. I was the eternal optimist; Melvin, the pragmatist. Together we knew how to set goals and reach them.”

Charlotte tells how her mother walked into the Dumas newspaper office for the first time and asked, “Are you sure you want this place?”

Charlotte and Melvin’s son John was just five months old at the time.

Tillar was 13 miles south. Dumas had 2,512 residents with the Missouri Pacific railroad tracks splitting its four-block business district.

“Climate control, virtually unheard of in small newspaper plants, was relegated to window and oscillating fans for cooling and an overhead butane gas heater for heating,” Charlotte writes. “It was drafty in winter we found, as we stood looking it over in late January 1954. We suspected the building could be much more uncomfortable in summer because of extra heat from the single linotype, metal-casting typesetter.

“Weekly newspaper offices were notoriously messy, and this was no exception. Stacks of exchange newspapers were piled in a corner, while metal single spindles held important copy waiting to be sent to a typesetter.”

Did they really want this place? Her mother’s question rang in Charlotte’s ears.

“We thought of the people who wanted us,” she writes. “Perhaps the desire for our very own newspaper obscured our vision of the surroundings, and we foresaw a great adventure. Melvin and I looked at one another, instead of at the plant, and affirmed, ‘We really do want this place.’”

At that point, Charlotte could not have foreseen a future political career.

In the 1970s, she became the first woman appointed to what was then called the state Board of Pardons & Parole.

She says her experience on the board led her to believe “I might bring energy, perseverance and my varied experience to the political scene. I found naysayers; I often had as a women who broke barriers. But I reasoned that a citizen legislature, as in Arkansas, would include members with potential conflicts of interest because of primary occupations. Since legislators were part time, serving in biennial sessions, one had to depend on personal wealth or employment.”

When she announced in 1984 that she would run for the Legislature, no one dared oppose her. Charlotte was already a legend in her district.

At the state Capitol, though, she still had to prove herself during that first session in 1985.

“As a newspaper editor, I was treated with obvious wariness, a bit of suspicion and even a tinge of distrust by a few,” Charlotte writes. “With quiet dignity and hard work, I tried to overcome those attitudes. There was one huge advantage, however. No one dared to offer a shady deal; I owned a newspaper.”

Veteran state Rep. Bill Foster of Keo, who had served in the House since 1961, once told her: “I was determined to dislike you. You were a newspaper editor. But it took me only a week to change my mind.”

During her first week in the House, Rep. Geno Mazzanti of Lake Village approached Charlotte and said, “No one expects much of a freshman representative. Just sit and listen and you will be fine.”

She replied: “You obviously don’t know me very well. I am not a sideline sitter, and I always have plans.”

Charlotte says she believes in the people of the Delta, and they believe in her.

“I have drawn strength from them and my forebears, beginning with my childhood in Tillar,” she writes. ”Tiny towns can launch fulfilling and diverse careers such as mine. The seed for the dream was planted in my childhood.”

What a life she has lived. And she still has more to give.

Arkansas is a better place because Charlotte Tillar Schexnayder is among us.

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McClellan vs. Pryor: June 1972

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

In her biography of the late Sen. John L. McClellan, titled “Fearless,” Sherry Laymon begins a chapter with something Paul Greenberg wrote in the Pine Bluff Commercial following McClellan’s death in late 1977.

“Not even the Angel of Death would have dared creep up on John L. McClellan in broad daylight,” Greenberg wrote.

Norma McClellan was unable to wake the senator for breakfast on Nov. 28, 1977. She ran to get her neighbor at the Riviera Apartments at the foot of Cantrell Hill in Little Rock, U.S. District Judge Elsijane T. Roy.

Judge Roy called the authorities. The senator was pronounced dead at about 6:30 a.m.

Laymon writes: “Norma McClellan then called several of McClellan’s staff members, who came up to their apartment to visit with her. After Emon A. Mahony Jr. and Paul Berry arrived at the McClellan apartment and greeted Norma, she told them, ‘I want you to go look in the top drawer there — his underwear drawer.’ She showed them the Valentine boxers that they had purchased for him during the 1972 campaign. Norma told them that McClellan brought the boxers with him to Little Rock to ‘model for my boys.’

“In the days following McClellan’s death, state and national newspapers, members of Congress, former opponents, state leaders and others who had made McClellan’s acquaintance over the years lauded him for his tireless devotion to Arkansas and for his important accomplishments in the Senate, including a record number of Senate investigations (2,808 hours, 831 days and 2,183 witnesses).

“They referenced how the multitude of personal tragedies he had endured turned him into a man of steel and a man of faith, and they mentioned that he performed his duties as a public servant by consistently voting his convictions and doing what he believed to be right.”

Mahony and Berry will join another former McClellan staff member, Bob Snider, for the June meeting of the Political Animals Club in Little Rock as we mark the 40th anniversary of one of the great political races in Arkansas history — the Democratic primary runoff between McClellan and then U.S. Rep. David Pryor in June 1972.

Laymon also will be a member of that panel, which I will moderate. She will autograph copies of “Fearless” before and after the event.

What’s always a good lunch will be included for the $20 cost, which you can pay in cash or by check at the door. We’ll begin at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, June 19, in the Grand Hall of the Governor’s Mansion and conclude by 1 p.m.

You can make reservations by emailing Susan Edwards at sedwards@arkindcolleges.org and giving her the names of those who will be attending.

Advance reservations are required.

Laymon describes the David Pryor of 1972 as “a young and attractive congressman who hungered for higher office.”

On Oct. 19, 1967, Pryor had attended the John L. McClellan Day festivities in Camden as a first-term congressman.

McClellan told Pryor that day: “I want you to know that when I do leave the Senate, you’re the type of young man that I’d like to see succeed me.”

Laymon writes of similarities between the early careers of Pryor and McClellan.

“In 1934, McClellan quietly drove over the district to learn the intentions of possible candidates and to assess his chances of winning the congressional race. … In 1972, Pryor traveled outside his congressional district, talking to people and steadily building support. Many of Pryor’s friends told him they would support him for re-election, but not in a race against Sen. McClellan; however, he toyed with the idea of challenging McClellan and pursuing his longtime dream of becoming a senator.”

Pryor had to think about the political timing.

“A McClellan win in 1972 would handicap Pryor’s chances of challenging J. William Fulbright in 1974 with the rest of the state since McClellan and Pryor both called south Arkansas home,” Laymon writes. “If Pryor stayed in the House until 1978, his seniority in that chamber might not make the change worthwhile. Also, by 1978 he could lose some of the national momentum he had gained in the early 1970s when he crusaded for nursing home reforms.”

McClellan announced in a Little Rock news conference on Feb. 11, 1972, that he would run for re-election even though he had reached age 76. He emphasized the benefits of seniority with the campaign slogan “Strong Voice for Arkansas.”

Two days later, Bryant attorney Ted Boswell announced his intention to run against McClellan in the Democratic primary.

Pryor’s announcement came on Feb. 19 during a speech in his hometown of Camden.

“McClellan felt betrayed, disappointed and astonished when he learned that Pryor opted to challenge him,” Laymon writes. “McClellan thought highly of David Pryor and considered Pryor a protege. Some of McClellan’s staff believed that had Pryor first advised McClellan of his intentions, the senator would have stepped aside and endorsed Pryor for the office because of his friendship with Pryor’s family. Also, by Pryor not first informing McClellan of his plans, McClellan felt that Pryor did not acknowledge McClellan’s prominence and status in Arkansas politics, which offended McClellan.

“Regardless, McClellan never backed down when challenged, so he campaigned just as hard against Pryor in 1972 as he had against D.D. Glover in 1934, Hattie Caraway in 1938, Jack Holt Sr. in 1942 and Sid McMath in 1954.”

It had been 18 years since someone had seriously challenged McClellan. Rison native John Elrod was named the campaign manager. Berry was selected to drive McClellan to campaign stops across the state.

McClellan had two rules for staff members.

The first: “Don’t ever lie to me.”

The second: “Don’t ever be late.”

Given McClellan’s age, his staff would leave time in the campaign schedule for the senator’s afternoon nap followed by time to prepare for evening appearances.

Back to those underwear.

Laymon writes: “Often staff invited local young men to visit McClellan in his motel suite during those periods, which was the case when the McClellan party stopped in Newport in February 1972. While McClellan showered, a group assembled to meet the senator, but McClellan stayed an extra long time in the bathroom.

“Finally, he attracted Paul Berry’s attention and told Berry, ‘I don’t have any fresh underwear.’

“Berry and Mahony walked to a store across the street and purchased the necessary items, which Berry handed to McClellan enclosed in the store sack so as not to reveal the contents to the roomful of guests. Soon afterward, a blushing Sen. McClellan emerged to meet his visitors for the first time wearing loud boxer shorts covered with big hearts, cupids and arrows. McClellan credited his mischievous staff for his predicament as he circled the room, extending his hand and greeting the amused individuals.”

Television ads and a 30-minute paid television program that showed McClellan fishing were intended to convey the message that the senator’s age and health weren’t issues.

“Critics became less vocal about McClellan’s age after he took the stage and performed a quick, lively dance at Mountain View as musicians played their instruments,” Laymon writes.

She says McClellan would hold the attention of audiences across the state by interjecting stories from “his former campaigns or his experiences as a lawyer and prosecutor. … He said the barbs from his 1972 opponents reminded him of advice that he was given as a young lawyer — when the law is on your side, argue the law; when the facts are on your side, argue the facts; when neither is on your side, find fault with the other lawyers.”

Bill Wilson, now a federal judge, recalls being asked to speak on behalf of an opposing candidate during a rally attended by McClellan at Antioch in White County.

Wilson won a coin toss and could have gone last.

McClellan said, “Aw, you go ahead and go first.”

Wilson did, and it was a mistake.

“That taught me a lesson,” he later said. “I never did that again. After I got through, he wore me out.”

At one joint event, McClellan grabbed Pryor by the arm and said, “Pour it on me, son.”

“His grueling weekly schedule that began early Monday morning and extended until late Saturday night exhausted him physically, emotionally and mentally,” Laymon writes. “He rested on Sundays before repeating the cycle.”

McClellan received 44.7 percent of the vote in the primary. Pryor was second with 41.4 percent, and Boswell was third with 12.6 percent. Foster Johnson received the remainder of the primary votes.

The two-week runoff was on. Those were the “tantamount to” days of Arkansas politics when winning the Democratic primary was tantamount to election. Whoever won the Democratic runoff would have little problem dispatching Republican Wayne Babbitt in the fall.

Conventional wisdom was that an incumbent was finished if forced into a runoff.

“While the Pryor camp exploded with enthusiasm, the people in McClellan’s headquarters became disheartened and dejected as though all the air had been let out of the campaign tires,” Laymon writes. “Patrick Hays, who worked in McClellan’s campaign, compared the senator’s headquarters to a ship without a rudder. After a couple of days, the old steam engine began to sputter and then get a little traction, and as that traction increased, the wheels started rolling a little faster.”

McClellan informed his staff that he could not continue at the current pace for another two weeks. More than 150 key supporters from across the state arrived for a meeting in Little Rock. They committed an additional $280,000 and promised to all hit the trail on the senator’s behalf, covering far more ground than he could alone.

Every favor imaginable was called in as McClellan worked the phones from early in the morning until late at night. Boswell, meanwhile, endorsed Pryor, and Pryor challenged McClellan to a debate.

KATV-TV, Channel 7, in Little Rock agreed to air the debate in prime time the Sunday night before the Tuesday election. McClellan accepted the debate challenge on June 6 under the condition that McClellan would speak last.

“McClellan approached the debate as he did everything he attempted — by working hard, doing his homework and relying upon his years of experience and political savvy,” Laymon writes. “As an effective debater, McClellan habitually opted to speak last when he argued his position on the Senate floor, which allowed him to respond to points raised by his opponents.”

Mahony prepared McClellan a chart of Pryor’s numerous contributions from organized labor. McClellan hit hard in what would be remembered as the cookie jar debate.

“We talk about 50-cent donations out of overall pockets and out of cookie jars — I believe he said cookie jars,” McClellan said, looking at Pryor. “Listen, this is no overall pocket money. This is no cookie jar nickels and dimes. Take a look at this. Big, out-of-state contributions to Pryor. They total $79,877.16. … Yes, that’s a cookie jar — quite a cookie jar indeed.”

Pryor later said, “They wanted to see blood, and it was my blood that they saw, not his.”

McClellan won the runoff with 52 percent of the vote, carrying 52 of the state’s 75 counties.

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