Archive for July, 2012

Farewell to Georgetown’s One Stop

Friday, July 6th, 2012

The phone calls and emails began coming in several weeks before that final day.

“Do you know that Joanna Taylor is closing the Georgetown One Stop?” everyone asked.

Last week, the One Stop served its final meal near the banks of the White River in White County. The place was packed for nights as the end neared.

Because I’ve written about the Georgetown One Stop before — here on the Southern Fried blog and in my Arkansas Democrat-Gazette column — a Democrat-Gazette reporter called me for a quote.

First, I told her that I understood that Joanna was tired and needed a break from the tough task of running a restaurant. No one should begrudge her the choice of retiring.

Second, I told the reporter that there were a couple of things that set the One Stop apart. One was the fact that Joanna continued to serve river catfish caught by commercial fishermen at a time when most restaurants serve pond-raised fish. Another was the fact that you don’t just pass through Georgetown. It’s literally the end of the road. You have to make an effort to get there. The drive along the Little Red River and then through those lowlands was an integral part of the overall experience.

Third, I said that the loss of the Georgetown One Stop was to catfish eaters what the loss of Shadden’s near Marvell was to barbecue eaters. I’m a catfish and a barbecue eater, so I mourn the demise of both places.

Again, though, I understand.

People die, people retire, towns lose their population base. We can’t expect even the classic places to last forever.

Here’s what we can do: We can patronize those restaurants that are special on a regular basis. We can tip well while we’re there. We can tell our friends about them.

In an increasingly urbanized culture, my hope is that Arkansas doesn’t lose too many of the rural, out-of-the-way spots like Shadden’s and the Georgetown One Stop, the places that make this state what it is.

I had feared the One Stop was history in 2011 following the devastating floods along the White River. But then something amazing happened. Area people pitched in and after extensive remodeling, the restaurant reopened in July 2011.

Earlier this year, I was going with two other men to Searcy to hear former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speak at Harding University. One of my guests was from Kansas. The other lives here in Little Rock. Neither had ever been to the One Stop.

We pulled out of Little Rock on that third Thursday in April, arriving in Georgetown shortly after 5 p.m. Joanna was smiling and gave her usual friendly greeting. My guests couldn’t stop talking about their meals. She asked to take our photo at the end.

Little did I know that would be my last trip to the One Stop.

Unfortunately, I had come to the One Stop late in life. After having heard about the place for years, I finally made my first trip in April 2010.

I wrote this here on Southern Fried: “Yes, I made it to the Georgetown One Stop, that end-of-the road citadel of fried catfish in the southeast corner of White County. People would constantly ask me if I had partaken of the catfish at the One Stop. Until last Thursday, the answer was ‘no.’ They wondered why. I had no real explanation. Now, I’ve remedied that.

“Just as she has been doing for every customer for more than a decade, Joanna Taylor made sure I was full. The catfish was great. But the trip was even better. Once I left U.S. Highway 67-167, it was like a step back into Arkansas’ past. On that lazy journey down Arkansas Highway 36, you feel enveloped by the past. It happens as soon as you reach downtown Kensett. This was, after all, the home of the A.P. Mills General Store and Wilbur Mills. It was where Mr. Mills was born, and it was where he came home to die.”

Some historians believe that the site of Georgetown was the second settlement established in the state by European explorers, surpassed only by Arkansas Post. That would make Georgetown the oldest exsiting town in the state since Arkansas Post is now a National Park Service site, not an active community.

French explorer Francis Francure received a land grant of 1,361 acres from the Spanish king in 1789 and settled in the area.

Georgetown got its current name in 1909 in honor of three men from Clarendon with the last name of George who purchased, sold and developed land there. The Missouri & North Arkansas Railroad built a bridge over the White River at Georgetown in 1908. The great flood of 1927 damaged the bridge, and it was never properly repaired. The railroad ceased operations to Georgetown in 1946.

In the 2000 census, Georgetown had a population of 126.

Joanna moved to Georgetown from Little Rock. Her sister, Jeannie, had bought the gas station and convenience store there, and Joanna went to work for her. She began serving lunch and later breakfast to area farmers. When word got out about the quality of the catfish she purchased from commercial fishermen on the White River and then trimmed by hand, patrons began demanding she add dinner. So breakfast became a thing of the past, as did the store and the gas pumps. The One Stop became solely a catfish restaurant. There was no menu.

Granted, Joanna would bring some buffalo ribs, also out of the White River, if you asked for them.

It was $9 for all you could eat.

When I was young, restaurants all over Arkansas still advertised “White River catifsh.” It’s hard to find actual White River catfish these days on a restaurant menu.

A month after that April 2010 post on the One Stop, I was writing about the death of Wayne Shadden and the closing of Shadden’s along U.S. Highway 49 in Phillips County.

Here’s part of what I wrote: “As I passed the venerable Shadden’s store west of Marvell, I noticed that one of my favorite places to eat barbecue in the Delta was closed. I remember hoping that nothing was wrong. I had no way of knowing that last Thursday would be barbecue impresario Wayne Shadden’s final day of life.

“Mr. Shadden died the following day at age 77 at his home near Marvell. The obituary in The Daily World at Helena simply said, ‘Wayne was a good cook and well-known for his barbecue. He was a Navy veteran, a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.’

“What an understatement. Well-known for his barbecue. Wayne Shadden was much more than that. For true Delta barbecue aficionados, he was one of the masters. People heard about Shadden’s and came from across the country to try the barbecue. If you ate in the store, there was one table in the back you could share with others who were on their own barbecue pilgrimages.

“I hope the store survives. Too many places like this don’t. An owner dies, and in small town after small town across the Delta, all we’re left with are convenience stores selling fried chicken under heat lamps.”

Well, my worst fears were realized after writing that. The store didn’t reopen. Wayne Shadden’s wife was tired, and the kids all lived out of state — a son in Washington state, a son in California, a daughter in Texas and a daughter in Virginia.

The wooden building that housed Shadden’s is almost 100 years old. From the outside, it still looks like it did when it closed more than two years ago. I drive by now and sometimes see folks posing for photos out front.

Sadly, that trend of being left only with convenience stores selling fried chicken under heat lamps is not limited to the Delta. We’re seeing it all over rural Arkansas.

Ms. Joanna has retired, and the One Stop has closed.

Mr. Wayne died, and Shadden’s never reopened.

Like I said, patronize the really special places while they’re still in business. Once they’re gone, you’ll have only the memories.

P.S. The Southern Fried blog will be taking a one-month summer hiatus. I’m about to take a much-needed family vacation that will be followed by business travel and work on a couple of other projects. I’ll be back sometime in August with new posts. Have a wonderful rest of the summer.

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Arkansas — A caviar state

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

I mentioned in an earlier Southern Fried post that I had done some writing for the July edition of Arkansas Life magazine. It’s the magazine’s annual food issue, and it’s filled with stories about (and great photos of) Arkansas food.

One of the things I most enjoy about writing is sharing with others stories about Arkansas that they might not otherwise know.

I bet that a majority of Arkansans don’t know that our state produces caviar — very good caviar, in fact.

So it was fun to be asked by the magazine’s editors to make the trip east to Marvell to interview 62-year-old Jessie George — his friends call him John — about the caviar he ships out from George’s Fish Market each winter and early spring.

“It’s comparable to the taste of Russian caviar,” he told me.

He gave me a container of his caviar to take home. I like anything salty, and this was something I found hard to stop eating.

Jessie George knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the rivers of the Arkansas Delta and the things those rivers produce. He grew up on a houseboat at St. Charles on the lower White River during the river-rat era when hundreds of Arkansans lived on houseboats on the lower Arkansas, Cache, St. Francis and White rivers.

These families scratched out a living catching fish, trapping for furs and gathering mussel shells for the button industry.

Jessie George has picked cotton, worked in grain elevators, fished commercially for catfish and buffalo and overcome alcoholism in his life.

One brother was killed in a boating accident while fishing on the White River at Indian Bay.

Another brother was killed when the truck he was driving, which was carrying 750 pounds of catfish, was hit by a train at Almyra.

“People were out there picking the fish up before they could even get his body removed from the vehicle,” George told me.

It hasn’t been an easy life.

Back in the day when Arkansas restaurants primarily sold river-caught catfish rather than farm-raised catfish, the George brothers supplied the owners of the best-known catfish restaurants in the state — men such as Virgil Young of North Little Rock and Olden Murry of DeValls Bluff.

George said he has thrown “tons” of paddlefish back in the river, never realizing there might be a demand for their eggs. Paddlefish can reach more than five feet in length and weigh more than 60 pounds.

George began moving slowly into the caviar business in 1998. At one point, he drove from east Arkansas to Portland, Maine, just so a wholesaler could sample his product.

“I’d send samples to famous companies such as Petrossian and Tsar Nicoulai Caviar,” he said. “In all these years, I’ve never had a pound of eggs returned.”

Within a few years, George was no longer selling buffalo or catfish. He explained it this way: “I would be selling someone $4 worth of buffalo and let $100 worth of caviar get spoiled in the process.”

About 15 commercial fishermen supply George from late November until early April with eggs from paddlefish (often known in the Delta as spoonbill catfish), shovelnose sturgeon and bowfin.

There was a time when George shipped almost 10,000 pounds of eggs a year out of Marvell. He said it’s now too hard for him to find seasonal labor — people willing to work long hours in short stretches — in that part of the Delta. He also has a bad back.

“If you meet a commercial fisherman who is as old as I am, you’ll meet someone with a bad back,” he said.

Pulling in those nets day after day can take its toll.

The output at the Marvell facility is now in the range of 5,000 pounds a season. That’s still a lot of caviar.

George’s biggest buyer is the Great Atlantic Trading Co. of Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., which describes paddlefish roe on its website as ranging from “light to dark steel gray, and comparable in taste to Caspian Sea Sevruga.”

The eggs from shovelnose sturgeon, which are known in the business as hackleback caviar (the term “shovelnose” apparently turns some consumers off), are described by Great Atlantic as “dark, firm with a very mild, subtle flavor.”

George also supplies Great Atlantic with bowfin eggs that are marketed by the company as “black caviar roe with an earthy and distinctive flavor that makes a good, less expensive substitute for sturgeon caviar. Unlike sturgeon, bowfin black caviar roe will turn red if heated.”

George supplied me with the finest of his three types of freshwater caviar, the hackleback.

Caviar has quite a history.

Armenian brothers Melkoum and Mouchegh Petrossian, who were born on the Iranian side of the Caspian Sea and raised on the Russian side, are credited with popularizing caviar in Paris during the 1920s and spurring a worldwide interest in the product.

The brothers went to France to continue their studies of medicine and law, which had been interrupted in Russia by the Bolshevik Revolution.

The Petrossian website tells the story this way: “Paris welcomed exiled Russian princes, intellectuals and aristocrats with open arms, and Parisians embraced all things Russian, especially the arts, ballet, the choreography of Diaghilev and the music of Igor Stravinsky. Nonetheless, there was one thing missing from the Russian expatriates’ lives: caviar. The French had yet to be introduced to this rare delicacy, a situation that the Petrossian brothers immediately set out to remedy.

“Their first attempts to create an awareness of caviar in Paris were assisted by Cesar Ritz, the great impresario of the European hotel trade. His initial reluctance to offer caviar in his prestigious establishment at the Place Vendome was quickly overcome as caviar caught on and assumed its own very special niche in the world of gastronomy.”

Marvell and Jessie George don’t seem to fit alongside Paris and Cesar Ritz.

But there’s no doubt that Arkansas has found its own niche in the world caviar trade.

Pick up the latest issue of Arkansas Life to read more about it.

And know that for a recent Friday night meal, my family started with caviar, followed by fried crappie for the main course.

That might seem upscale-downscale to some, but I considered it a meal featuring the best of what comes out of Arkansas’ lakes, rivers and streams.

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The perfect Arkansas summer meal

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

The website www.delish.com, which is owned by the giant Hearst Corp., recently had a feature it titled “All-American Eats: Must-Try Foods from the 50 States.”

The editors at the website chose one ingredient or dish to represent each of the 50 states.

What did they choose to represent Arkansas?

Chocolate gravy.

That’s right. Chocolate gravy.

I had two grandmothers who were great Southern cooks. Both lived and cooked into their 90s, and neither ever prepared chocolate gravy.

I conducted an informal poll on my Facebook page, and the majority of those who responded had never had chocolate gravy when they were growing up.

Yet here’s what the folks at Delish wrote about Arkansas: “Chocolate gravy (a thickened chocolate sauce) is a common accompaniment for biscuits in the South. It’s a breakfast staple in Arkansas. It is thought that recipes for the decadent Southern treat were developed using chocolate pudding as a base in the 19th century. While there is no documentation about the addition of biscuits to the mix, it makes sense that a common baked good was grabbed at some point to dip in the chocolate gravy — and thus a breakfast tradition was born.”

“A breakfast staple in Arkansas.” Come on.

Had they said cream gravy or even redeye gravy, I would have given them a pass.

Too often I see editors in places like New York and Chicago coming up with what they think those of us in Arkansas should be eating and drinking as opposed to what we’re actually eating and drinking.

A couple of other examples are sweet tea and fried green tomatoes, both of which have become “trendy” in Arkansas restaurants but neither of which I was raised on.

When I was growing up in Arkansas, if you wanted your tea sweet, you took a spoon and put sugar in it. It wasn’t automatically brewed that way.

Yes, my grandmothers fried about everything — potatoes, okra, squash. But we were much more likely to have fried green apples (I could use a dish of those right now) than fried green tomatoes. If the green tomatoes fell off the vine early, they were put in the windowsill to ripen.

Sweet tea and fried green tomatoes are more of a product of the Deep South than of Arkansas. Again, though, we have folks who weren’t born and raised here (along with misguided Arkansas young people under the age of 50) incorrectly defining Arkansas cuisine.

Go ahead and have your chocolate gravy, sweet tea and fried green tomatoes. Frankly, I like all three. Just don’t try to tell me they’re Arkansas staples.

That brings me to the July issue of Arkansas Life magazine, which is a feast for the eyes that features beautiful food photography and stories on Arkansas food.

The editors at the magazine were nice enough to ask me to come up with my perfect Arkansas summer meal. I chose fried crappie and bream. Neither fish would have made the Delish list since I doubt the Yankee editors could correctly pronounce crappie or bream.

Here’s what I wrote for an Arkansas audience: “I’ve never been asked one of those High Profile-style questions about ‘what would you have for your last meal?’ But I’ve given the subject some serious thought and come to the conclusion that my last meal needs to occur in the summer since both Arkansas streams and gardens figure into the equation.

“Here goes: My last meal would consist of freshly caught pan fish (bream, crappie or a combination of both), fried potatoes with a bit of onion, slices of cornbread slathered in butter and the following items straight from an Arkansas garden: sliced tomatoes, green onions, sliced bell peppers and sliced cucumbers.

“The fish must be pan fried, not deep fried, and should be consumed the day it’s caught if possible. Also, it’s best if the vegetables are gathered from the garden on the same day. Wash it down with lots of iced tea. You really shouldn’t have room for dessert, but if you insist, it needs to be summer wild berry cobbler using either blackberries or dewberries. You should have the chigger bites to prove you actually picked those berries.

“Some of my fondest childhood memories are of days spent at the small cabin that was owned by my grandparents on Lake Norrell, a Benton city water supply lake that covers 280 acres in northern Saline County. It’s the lake where I learned to fish, frog gig, swim and water ski. Mornings were spent ‘perch jerking’ on the dock out front with my grandmother, using cane poles from cane my grandfather had cut. The bait consisted of either the red wigglers my grandfather raised in his worm bed (I got the duty of pouring the kitchen scraps and coffee grounds in that bed) or the catalpa worms gathered from the giant catalpa tree out back. Mam-Maw, as I called her, cleaned whatever we caught (‘If it’s big enough to bite, it’s big enough to eat,’ she would say) and pan fried the fish for lunch. I’ve never had better meals.

“My father also loved to fry the fish he caught. When he died last spring, we decided to hold a fish fry at the church following the memorial service. There was no way to catch the number of bream and crappie needed to feed that throng (my dad was a popular guy), so we catered catfish from Dorey’s in Leola. Still, I have to believe my late father, grandmother and grandfather would have appreciated the gesture.”

That’s my ultimate summer meal in Arkansas.

What’s yours?

When you pick up the magazine, you’ll see the photo that accompanied my short piece. I had warned the editors at Arkansas Life that Arkansans are savvy and that they shouldn’t try to pass off a piece of fried catfish in a photo as either crappie or bream.

Alas, I had to give up a bag of my precious crappie for the photo shoot.

In thinking about what I would rate second on my list of Arkansas summer meals, I came up with this: A bacon and tomato sandwich (no lettuce for me) using Arkansas tomatoes and high-quality bacon. Wash it down with a cold glass of milk and have half an Arkansas cantaloupe for dessert. And, yes, I put salt on my cantaloupe. The same goes for watermelons and grapefruit.

You’ll recognize the common denominator in both of my meals: Arkansas tomatoes.

Paul Greenberg writes his annual ode to the Bradley County Pink.

In a note last month to Paul and me, Bob Nolan of El Dorado wrote lovingly of the tomatoes being picked daily from his garden: “They are not Bradley Pink, of which you rhapsodize so eloquently. They are more pedestrian Early Girls and Celebrities, which I selected with great care and attention for early harvest. … I violated my self-imposed, long-entrenched rule of planting, in that I planted two weeks before Good Friday,

“The Lord, in his mercifulness, did not smite my garden down, and quite the contrary, has blessed it with abandance. I must admit, after only two weeks of having these home-grown delicacies daily, I still swoon with the indescribable aroma, flavor, texture and shape of these beauties. I almost forget, during the bleak winter months, the nuances of these gifts from the earth, but it comes quickly back to me with my first slice and then taste.”

I agree with all of that.

You can have your chocolate gravy.

I’ll take one of those tomatoes.

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July 4 and the Battle of Helena

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

The Fourth of July marks another anniversary of the Battle of Helena.

It took place July 4, 1863.

Because the Battle of Gettysburg occurred July 1-3, 1863, the Battle of Helena has been overlooked by Civil War historians and amateur history buffs alike.

Because Vicksburg fell on July 4, 1863, the happenings that day at Helena have fallen even further into the recesses of history.

As noted in a previous Southern Fried blog post, Helena is doing more than any other Arkansas city to capitalize on its Civil War heritage.

As we approach the Fourth of July, let’s remember what happened there 149 years ago.

In the spring of 1861, two militia companies known as the Yell Rifles and the Phillips Guards left Helena to join other Confederate forces. Additional companies would follow.

Now one of the poorest counties in the country, Phillips County was among the richest places in Arkansas at the start of the Civil War with 224 plantations of 100 acres or more. Forty of those plantations had more than 500 acres, and four of them had more than 1,000 acres.

Of the almost 15,000 people in the county, about 9,000 were slaves.

In the Civil War interpretive plan developed for Helena, Joseph and Maria Brent of the Kentucky firm Mudpuppy & Waterdog Inc. write: “The cotton grown on the plantations meant money, and the money brought power. Helena on the Mississippi was a thriving port. Cotton went downriver to New Orleans, where it was exchanged for goods from Europe. The war brought the easy life that Helena’s upper class enjoyed to an end. The Union navy captured New Orleans and controlled traffic on the river. In July 1862, the Union army marched into Helena, capturing the city.

“The Union army used Helena as a supply center and a base of operations. It was also a freedom center. As the Union army marched from Missouri and across Arkansas, thousands of slaves left farms and plantations, following the army to Helena. The escaped slaves, known as contraband, found themselves wards of the army. Unfortunately, the army had no idea how to feed, clothe and house several thousand destitute civilians.”

These escaped slaves were housed in tents, churches, stables and other structures at Helena. Some of them were used to help build Fort Curtis for the Union forces along with a ring of batteries on Crowley’s Ridge that were designed to protect Helena from a Confederate attack.

“Thousands of Union troops came to Helena en route to Vicksburg,” the Brents write. “As a result of the crowded conditions, hot weather and poor sanitation, many men became sick and hundreds died. Helena became ‘hell in Arkansas’ to many Union soldiers.

“Part of the problem was 19th century understanding of disease and sanitation. Many of the drugs given to soldiers were actually poison, including mercury and silver nitrate. At one point, the doctors ordered soldiers not to drink water from the springs on Crowley’s Ridge and to only drink water from the river.”

Following the Emancipation Proclamation, Union forces declared the contraband to be free. Hundreds of the freedmen in Helena joined the Union Army, forming several regiments.

In the area surrounding Helena, Union forces confiscated abandoned plantations and leased the land to sympathizers. These Union sympathizers hired freedmen to raise cotton. President Lincoln believed that the plantation lease system would serve as proof that freedmen would work and serve as productive citizens after the war.

Confederate generals believed an attack on Helena was needed to relieve the pressure on besieged Vickburg and force the Union to use its resources farther north on the Mississippi River.

Almost 8,000 Confederate soldiers under the command of Gen. Theophilus H. Holmes attacked Helena on July 4, 1863.

Writing for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, Michael Taylor says that “for the size of the forces engaged” the Battle of Helena was ”as desperate a fight as any in the Civil War, with repeated assaults on heavily fortified positions similar to the fighting that was to be seen in 1864 in Gen. Ulysses Grant’s overland campaign in Virginia and Gen. William T. Sherman’s Atlanta campaign.

“It was the Confederates’ last major offensive in Arkansas (besides cavalry raids and the repulse of the Camden Expedition) and the last Confederate attempt to seize a potential chokepoint on the Mississippi. But the Battle of Helena has been little noted and not long remembered.”

Because of its location overlooking the Mississippi River, Helena was considered strategically important. Holmes’ decision to attack came after prodding from Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon and Confederate Lt. Gen. Kirby Smith.

Holmes met on June 18, 1863, in Jacksonport with Maj. Gen. Sterling Price and Brig. Gen. John Marmaduke to plan the attack. The Confederate troops left Jacksonport four days later.

Traveling on muddy roads, Marmaduke’s cavalry and Price’s infantry moved south to Moro in Lee County, covering 69 miles in 10 days.

Taylor writes that they had to improvise a ferry over the Bayou DeView after a bridge constructed by Price’s engineer washed away. Meanwhile, Gen. James Fagan headed east out of Little Rock with additional Confederate troops. Their trip was easier since they could travel by rail and steamboat as far as Clarendon.

In a meeting on July 3 at the Allen Polk house five miles west of Helena, it was decided that the battle would begin at daybreak. Fagan would attack from the southwest, Price would attack from the west and Marmaduke would attack from the north.

It’s clear that the Confederates underestimated how strongly fortified the Union positions were.

“Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin M. Prentiss had learned at Shiloh in Tennessee about the need for prepared positions,” Taylor writes. “He established four fortified positions on the bluffs north and west of town, Batteries A and B to the north taking advantage of Rightor Hill, Battery C west of the city on Graveyard Hill and Battery D near the home of Gen. Thomas Hindman on Hindman Hill.”

Union intelligence had brought word of the impending attack, and the 4,129 Union forces were on alert beginning at 2:30 a.m. on July 4. Prentiss had trees cut to block the approaches to the city.

Price thought “daybreak” meant “dawn.”

Fagan thought “daybreak” meant “first light.”

Fagan attacked Battery D at first light and came under heavy fire from Battery C to the left of the attacking forces.

An hour later, Price’s men charged up Graveyard Hill at dawn and took Battery C. A charge on Fort Curtis, however, proved unsuccessful.

“To the north, Marmaduke’s cavalry failed to take Rightor Hill, stymied by troops under Col. Powell Clayton in a flanking position on the Union right behind the levee,” Taylor writes. “Col. Joseph Shelby’s attack was repulsed. Marmaduke’s anger about Brig. Gen. Marsh Walker’s failure to advance on the right resulted in a Little Rock duel on Sept. 6, 1863, in which Marmaduke killed Walker.”

Union defenders received support from the timber-clad USS Tyler, which fired 413 rounds from the river.

Holmes ordered a retreat at 10:30 a.m. Large numbers of Confederate troops who were trapped in the ravines of Crowley’s Ridge surrendered.

The Second Arkansas Infantry, which consisted of black soldiers, held the extreme left of the Union line, something that received nationwide attention in the abolitionist press.

“From the Confederate point of view, the Battle of Helena was a tragic waste,” Taylor writes. “The bloody attack turned out to be a cruel and pointless irony, coming as it did on the day Vicksburg fell. Holmes’ army clearly brought with it to Helena a fighting spirit, but morale suffered badly after such a repulse. The fierce riverside battle was the unsuccessful culmination of the last major Confederate offensive in Arkansas. … For the Union, Helena represented the long-awaited crack in the Arkansas Confederate facade.”

Estimated casualties at Helena were 239 Union soldiers and 1,614 Confederate troops.

“The summer heat added to the misery,” the Brents write. “Wounded and sick men filled every house in Helena. Hell had returned in Arkansas.”

In August 1863, 2,000 sick and wounded men were transferred from Helena to hospitals in Memphis and St. Louis.

Fresh Union troops later were shipped to Helena. Under the command of Gen. Frederick Steele, they marched from the city and captured Little Rock.

The overcrowding, heat and poor sanitation also affected the general population of Phillips County. Homes were taken for use as hospitals, storage rooms and offices. Crops and livestock were confiscated. Slaves left the farms by the thousands.

“Helena was never again threatened by a large Confederate army,” the Brents write. “By 1864, more and more freedmen were working on the leased plantations. Those too old, too young or too sick to work lived on the ‘Home Farm’ on the Pillow Plantation about three miles south of Helena. Another large group was housed opposite Island 63, about 11 miles south of the city. After several attacks on the plantations by Confederate cavalry, Union Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte Buford, commander of Helena, ordered forts built to protect the freedmen at both locations.”

Northern benevolent organizations sent representatives to Helena to help in hospitals and teach in schools. Quakers from Indiana operated an orphan asylum and later opened a freedmen’s school. The school and asylum evolved into Southland College, which attracted blacks from across the South. The school, which operated from 1865 to 1925, later moved to Lexa.

The federal Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands — usually known as the Freedmen’s Bureau — operated in Helena from 1865-67.

“The bureau operated schools, distributed rations to both freedmen and white refugees and worked with planters to contract the freedmen for farm work,” the Brents write. “Ironically, it was the Freedmen’s Bureau that developed the concept of the sharecropper. When crop prices were high, this system worked to the advantage of the cropper; when they were low, the cropper ended the year in debt. For the next 75 years, sharecropping was a way of life in the Delta. People were tied to the land by debt with little or no hope of a better future.”

Phillips County had exited one era and entered another.

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