Archive for March, 2013

Mr. Chairman: Congressman Wilbur D. Mills

Monday, March 18th, 2013

I didn’t want to move to Washington, D.C., in 1986.

Even though I was only 26 years old at the time, I was the No. 2 person in the sports department at the Arkansas Democrat and enjoying my work.

A Monday morning call from the newspaper’s mercurial managing editor, John Robert Starr, changed my life.

If you work in a newspaper sports department, the chances are that you work on weekends. That’s when the action occurs.

My days off back then were Mondays and Tuesdays. I was sleeping late on a Monday morning when the phone in my Brightwaters apartment rang.

I was jolted awake by the voice of Bob Starr. If Starr were calling me at home on a Monday morning, I figured we must have made a huge mistake in that morning’s sports section.

“Why haven’t you applied for the Washington job?” he asked almost immediately.

“Because I don’t want to move to Washington,” I replied.

“Well, you need to apply and go through the motions because I’ve already decided you’re going,” Starr said.

If you worked at the Democrat for Bob Starr, you knew better than to question him.

Within days, I was on a flight to Washington. I slept on the couch in my predecessor Damon Thompson’s Capitol Hill apartment while looking for a place of my own to live. I would wind up in the basement of a Capitol Hill townhouse for the next four years.

A few days after my return to Little Rock, I had packed my Oldsmobile Cutlass and was making the 1,100-mile trip on Interstate 40, Interstate 81 and Interstate 66 to the nation’s capital.

I was scared to death.

The newspaper war between the Arkansas Gazette and the Democrat was heating up, and you weren’t supposed to get scooped on your beat. Starr wrote scathing daily critiques for the whole staff to read, identifying those reporters he felt had been outworked by the competition. I would be going up against a veteran Gazette Washington correspondent, Carol Matlack. And I was coming from a sports department, not from a government and political beat.

The big story in Washington at the time was the development of the Tax Reform Act of 1986. I figured a natural angle for an Arkansas newspaper to take would be to talk to former Congressman Wilbur D. Mills from Kensett, who had written much of the tax code.

Even though he had been gone from Congress for almost a decade, Mills still went to his office each day at a K Street law firm. I set up an appointment with him.

I vividly remember walking in and looking at the wooden nameplate on the front of his desk that simply said “Mr. Chairman.”

I began asking questions. He was cordial but not overly friendly. One of the things I love about this small state of Arkansas is the fact that there’s, at most, two degrees of separation. Thus I decided to mention my maternal grandfather, who had died in 1980 at age 96. My grandfather had been the Prairie County judge at the time Mills had vaulted from the position of White County judge to Congress.

White and Prairie are adjoining counties.

“Mr. Chairman, I believe you knew my grandfather,” I said.

“Who was your grandfather, son?” he replied.

“W.J. Caskey of Des Arc,” I said.

Mills’ face lit up as he began to smile.

“Good Lord, son, if it had not been for the votes that Will Caskey delivered me in Prairie County the first time I ran for Congress in 1938, I might not have been elected,” he said.

Whether or not the story was true, I knew better than to ask the meaning of the word “delivered.”

I can tell you this: From then on, Mills treated me more like a long-lost relative than a newspaper reporter. Anytime I had a question, he would take my call. He didn’t want to be quoted by name, but I could always attribute his background quotes to “someone close to the tax negotiations.”

Little did my readers or the Gazette correspondent know that my source was one of the most powerful people ever to serve in the U.S. Congress.

Kay Goss was making the rounds in Little Rock last week. She spoke to a luncheon meeting of the Political Animals Club at the Governor’s Mansion on Tuesday and spoke the following evening at the Clinton School of Public Service.

She’s promoting her new book, “Mr. Chairman: The Life and Legacy of Wilbur D. Mills,” which recently was released by Parkhurst Brothers of Little Rock. It’s high time that someone wrote a book on Mills, and Goss was just the person to do it. She first met the congressman when she was teaching at the University of Arkansas. While completing her doctoral studies, she worked for then-Congressman Ray Thornton and watched Mills and his staff in action. In fact, she married his chief of staff, the late Gene Goss.

Among those in attendance at last Tuesday’s Political Animals Club meeting was former Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, who replaced Mills in Congress in 1977 (and whose grandfather was the incumbent Mills defeated when he first was elected White County judge).

“Kay has special and personal knowledge of Wilbur Mills, both the Chairman and the simply human,” Tucker writes. “She shares it with us wonderfully. Mr. Mills provided steady help and hope for ordinary working Americans and for those in need beginning in 1934 with what was, in effect, a ‘county Medicaid’ program while serving as county judge in White County. There was later the massive strengthening of Social Security and the creation of Medicare and Medicaid. … His good deeds live on in the memories of those who watched and in the lives of those receiving these services today.”

Goss, the former teacher with a keen sense of American history, writes: “The power of Congress has swung like a pendulum through the centuries. The peak of presidential power under Abraham Lincoln was followed by a surge of congressional power after his assassination, causing Woodrow Wilson, a political scientist at the time, before becoming governor of New Jersey and later president, to write in his book ‘Congressional Government’ that congressional committees were ‘lord proprietors.’ However, during the personality cults of the 20th century (Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt), Congress was weak and overshadowed.

“After Roosevelt’s passing and the passage of the Legislative Reform Act of 1946, Congress began regaining power. At this time, Mills was a rising star in Congress and a few years from becoming Ways and Means chairman. He was a part of a new generation in Congress, 40 years younger than Robert Doughton of North Carolina, the chairman of Ways and Means at the time, and compiling the second-longest tenure.

“The power of Congress increased until the congressional reform acts of the 1970s. Thus Mills was a congressional legend while I was a student at the University of Arkansas, pursuing bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science and history, doctoral studies at West Virginia University and teaching public administration and political science at three of Arkansas’ institutions of higher education.”

Former Sen. Dale Bumpers notes that Goss doesn’t ignore Mills’ alcoholism and the personal scandals of his later years.

“The challenges Wilbur Mills faced as he slipped into the disease of alchoholism and resulting controversy are dealt with forthrightly here, rekindling the reaction in the public’s mind during those difficult months,” Bumpers writes. “Unfortunately, Mills’ late-career difficulties dimmed the remembrance of some of his major achievements. … Kay Goss has deftly weighed Mills’ character and shown the complexity that was Wilbur Mills. She lets his example show that no matter how high a person goes, how much he or she achieves, it is possible to fall and then to recover magnificently as Mills did when he went on to help others who suffer from addictions.”

Former Sen. David Pryor remembers that “only a handful of members of the House and Senate called him Wilbur. To most of us, he was Mr. Chairman. No legislative tactician grew to understand better or in more detail the myriad complexities of the federal government, especially our country’s tax code. … In addition, his enormous impact on health programs, most notably Medicare, and social issues remains a hallmark of his service.

“The tremendous respect Chairman Mills enjoyed among his colleagues in the House translated into support from both Democrats and Republicans. It was said that during his years chairing the House Ways and Means Committee, a roll-call vote was needless, as the chairman governed his committee by reason and ultimately consensus.”

After leaving Congress, Mills said: “There was a time when I felt that I couldn’t make a mistake. If I did, the country would go to rack and ruin. I was making myself a god. Human beings make mistakes, but I thought I couldn’t make a mistake. Therefore I didn’t let myself be a human being. That kind of internal pressure is more than the human system can sustain. Here I was doing it to myself consistently. .. I used to be lonesome all the time, even among 10,000 people. I don’t remember any time when I didn’t feel lonesome.”

Goss writes that when the words Mr. Chairman were spoken in Washington, “everyone from the president to the newest elevator operator knew the reference meant Wilbur Mills. He had a personal network of influence in the House.”

But when asked about giving up that power, Mills later told The Daily Citizen at Searcy: “I enjoy life more now. It’s just great to be a human being. In the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee, I was more of a machine than a man.”

In “Mr. Chairman,” Kay Goss probes both the reasons for his greatness and his human frailties.

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From England to Scott

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013

It was late in the duck season, and Randy Ensminger and I had stopped for gas at England on our way back from Little Siberia, the famous southeast Arkansas hunting club where we had spent the previous evening.

The weather was beautiful, and we weren’t in a hurry.

“Let’s take the back road home,” Randy said.

That meant that rather than staying north on U.S. Highway 165 to Little Rock, we would take Arkansas Highway 161, reconnecting with Highway 165 at Scott.

Heading out of England, Highway 161 takes you due west toward the Arkansas River, passing an oxbow known as Clear Lake along the way. When you reach the levee along the river, you must take a hard right.

Now, you find yourself heading north with the Arkansas River on the other side of the levee to your left.

It’s a scenic piece of Arkansas farm country, but the best is yet to come. Before reaching Scott, you’ll drive through a tunnel of pecan trees more than a century old. As one who likes big trees, I consider this to be one of the most majestic stretches of highway in Arkansas.

The trees signal that you’ve reached the Land’s End Plantation. The plantation has remained since its founding in the Alexander family. The family originally is from Scotland but has been in the United States since the 1700s.

James Alexander was a captain during the American Revolution. Nathaniel Alexander later served as governor of North Carolina. Other Alexanders served in the North Carolina Legislature.

President James K. Polk was an Alexander descendant.

Some of the Alexanders eventually made their way west to Arkansas. The most prominent settler in the area around what’s now known as Scott was Chester Ashley, who acquired a large tract of land and maintained a residence known as the Ashley Mill Plantation.

In December 1844, Ashley was selected to fill the U.S. Senate vacancy created by the death of William S. Fulton. Ashley served in the Senate until his own death in April 1848.

In 1898, what had been the Ashley property was purchased by Arthur Lee Alexander, who had come to Arkansas with three cousins in the 1880s. One of those cousins was Asheville, N.C., native J.R. Alexander, who found work as an overseer of plantations in the Scott area. He saved his money (and borrowed some from Col. Thomas William Steele) to buy 640 acres about seven miles south of Scott.

That was the beginning of the Land’s End Plantation.

In 1901, J.R. Alexander married a Virginia native named Evelyn May Crump. Upon arriving from Virginia to experience what must have seemed like a foreign land to a blueblood, she declared that this “must be the end of the land.”

Thus Land’s End.

The plantation would cover almost 5,000 acres in later years.

J.R. Alexander was nationally recognized as an agriculture expert and spoke across the country about cotton and livestock. He served in the Arkansas Legislature for several terms and was urged to run for the U.S. Senate in the 1920s. Alexander decided instead to focus on promoting advanced agricultural practices across Arkansas. He delighted in taking legislators on tours of the state’s agricultural colleges, for instance.

His wife, meanwhile, focused on building and furnishing the Tudor Revival-style house that long has been the plantation’s centerpiece. She died before the home was completed at a cost of $85,000. Little has been changed since the house was built.

The couple had three children. The oldest, Robert Alexander, was educated at Vanderbilt and came home after receiving a degree in chemistry to operate the plantation until his death.

Robert Alexander’s son, James R. “Jim” Alexander, now owns and operates the plantation.

The home, which can clearly be seen from Highway 161, was designed in 1925 by noted Arkansas architect John Parks Almond. The house was completed in 1927.

The architect, who died in 1969, is best known for his design of Little Rock Central High School.

Almond, a Georgia native, graduated second in his class at Columbia. He worked for an American architectural firm in Cuba before coming to Little Rock in 1912 to work for Charles L. Thompson’s firm.

Almond established a private practice in 1915. He designed the Medical Arts Building on Central Avenue in downtown Hot Springs, which was constructed in 1929-30 and for decades was the state’s tallest building. It lost that distinction when Winthrop Rockefeller financed construction of the Tower Building in downtown Little Rock.

In 1934, Almond was among the 21 architects from across the country selected to work with the supervising architect’s office of the U.S. Treasury Department. President Franklin Roosevelt had begun a massive building campaign in Washington, and Almond would be a part of that. He later worked with private developers in Washington.

Almond returned to Little Rock in 1943 and continued to practice until his retirement in 1963.

In the nomination for Land’s End’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program wrote: “John Parks Almond loved architecture and loved to design. He was guided by an idealistic nature and believed being an architect was a special calling, with obligations not only to the client but also to the future. In his design of the imposing Tudor Revival-style house and ancillary to be built as the residence of plantation owner J.R. Alexander, Almond’s attention to detail is highly visible.

“According to his son, Almond personally selected the stones … from Pinnacle Mountain near Little Rock. It is said that he was even involved in the placement of the stones on the walls. The J.R. Alexander House at Land’s End Plantation is undoubtedly one of Almond’s finest residential designs.”

The nomination noted that Almond’s attention to detail “carried through to the grounds surrounding the house. His drawings and plans for the Alexanders included stone walls, flagstone terraces and brick walkways designed to complement the house. A two-story building to the rear of the house in the same Tudor Revival-style was designed as a garage on the first floor with servants’ quarters on the second story.

“Interiors of the house feature extensive use of rich teak wood in floors and paneling, ornamental plasterwork and an impressive circular staircase. Closets and storage in the bedrooms were designed behind sliding wood panels in walls. A central steam heating system and colorful tiled bathrooms were just part of the amenities of Almond’s design for the Alexander family.”

To the west of the home are 23 outbuildings that were constructed from 1900-49. They include grain bins, a cotton gin, a cotton warehouse, equipment sheds, a wagon shed and barns. During the heyday of sharcropping from 1900-30, almost 150 families lived on the plantation. Only one of the original tenant houses is still standing. None of the 23 outbuildings are still used, but they have been carefully maintained.

Three years ago, it was reported that Jim Alexander had sold 1,750 acres of the plantation (but not the house or outbuildings) for $5.2 million to investors from Tennessee.

There are other plantation-era homes in the Scott area. The best-known of these is Marslgate, which was designed by Charles L. Thompson and completed in 1904 as the centerpiece of the Dortch Plantation.

Like the Land’s End Plantation, the Dortch Plantation was once the home of more than 100 tenant families. When William Dortch died in 1913, his plantation covered 7,000 acres. There are still at least 25 historic farm structures on that land. These structures date from 1888 to 1930.

Like the Alexander family, the Dortch family migrated from North Carolina. Willis Reeves Dortch first setted in Tennessee in 1838. When he died in 1858, his wife and three children moved to Arkansas. William Dortch was 12 at the time.

William Dortch served in the Confederate Army, attended college at Miami of Ohio after the war and returned to Arkansas after marrying Alice Orr. The couple had one son, Frederick Dortch. Alice died in 1874.

The aforementioned Thomas William Steele, who also had come from North Carolina, was the largest landowner at the time in Pulaski County. Steele’s daughter, Nettie, married William Dortch in January 1885. As a wedding present, Steele gave the couple an 1,800-acre plantation. By 1895, the couple had five sons.

Marlsgate was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and was purchased by David P. Garner Jr. in 1985. Garner, who once taught art and history at McClellan High School and later owned a flower shop, renovated the property so it could be rented out for weddings and other private functions.

The home overlooks Bearskin Lake.

The Marlsgate website describes it this way: “Marlsgate’s fine detail begins with brick Doric columns more than 40 feet in height and continues inside with original beveled glass windows, sliding oak doors, handcrafted woodwork, Carrara marble fireplaces and sculpted metal ceilings throughout the mansion.

“White oak floors were installed over an inch-thick layer of horsehair insulation. The mansion was constructed with 32 rooms and contains 11,000 square feet of living space. The first floor has a magnificent central hall and staircase, drawing room, dining room, music room, master bedroom, plantation office and a separate kitchen and service wing attached to the mansion in the prevailing custom of the day. Second and third floors contain additional bedrooms, sitting rooms and private studies.”

Spring has arrived, and a trip to Scott is a great way to spend a Saturday.

Here are my suggestions:

1. Spend part of your morning just driving around to take in the farms and the plantation homes. The history hangs heavily here.

2. Visit Toltec Mounds State Park, a National Historic Landmark that is one of the largest archeological sites in the lower Mississippi River Valley. Native Americans occupied the site and built some of the largest mounds in the region between the years 650 and 1050 AD. Archaeologists use the name Plum Bayou Culture to refer to their way of life. The site was on the bank of an oxbow lake and served as a religious center for the people who lived in the area. Eighteen mounds were arranged around two rectangular open spaces that were used for ceremonies.

3. Make the short drive from Toltec over to the Plantation Agriculture Museum in Scott for your next stop. It is here you’ll learn about the area’s cotton-growing culture of the 1800s and 1900s. Part of the museum is in a brick building that was constructed by Conoway Scott Jr. in 1912 to house a general store. A post office wing was added in 1929.

Robert Dortch bought the building in the 1960s and established a museum. The museum closed in 1978, six years after Dortch’s death. In 1989, it was reopened as a state park. Next door to the main museum, the Dortch Gin features a 1920s Munger cotton gin and cotton press. Dortch’s seed warehouse is also on the grounds.

4. After a full morning, stop for a late lunch at Cotham’s, which is located in a wooden building that was constructed in 1917 as a mercantile store. In 1984, the store began serving lunch to area farmers. Regulars such as Bill Clinton and David Pryor soon made it a must-stop location for the “Little Rock crowd.”

5. Following lunch, head over to the Scott Plantation Settlement, which has 25 exhibits and is on the old Illallee Plantation. The site was donated by Virginia Alexander, the daughter of Arthur and Otelia George Alexander, who had purchased the land in 1898. Chester Ashley had earlier owned the land.

A group known as Scott Connections Inc. was formed in 1995 and operates the Scott Plantation Settlement.

If it’s not too late in the day and you’re not too tired, you can still slide on down to Keo to shop for antiques.

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A trip to The Tamale Factory

Monday, March 4th, 2013

It was, in so many ways, a trip back in time.

We exited Interstate 40 at Hazen on that Friday afternoon and headed north on Arkansas Highway 11 to Des Arc.

How many times had I made the trip on this section of highway through the years to visit my grandparents at Des Arc? It would be impossible to count them.

Dad, who died two years ago yesterday, would be at the wheel of the big Oldsmobile. Mom would be in the passenger seat up front. My sister and I would be in the back. Having been raised in the pine woods of south Arkansas, I was intrigued by the huge fields and the views that seemed to stretch for miles to the horizon.

Then, as now, the Delta and Grand Prairie were places apart.

We knew what awaited us in Des Arc — great cooking by my grandmother, Bess Rex Caskey, in the old family home on Erwin Street; a visit to the chicken yard to gather eggs each morning with my grandfather, W.J. Caskey; a walk across the street to check his post office box, a stop in the Farmers and Merchants Bank and then a stroll down Main Street, where the Caskey Funeral Home and the Caskey Hardware Store had once been located.

If it were summer, we might go down to Haley’s Fish Market to buy catfish that had been hauled that morning out of the White River, frying them for supper that evening. My grandfather would ask if they had any “fiddlers,” small catfish that he liked to fry whole.

If it were winter, Dad might take me along for a duck hunt.

I was in the company of three of Arkansas’ most noted storytellers on that recent Friday afternoon. Don Tilton, Paul Berry and Mary Berry had graciously invited me to tag along for dinner at The Tamale Family, the restaurant that Mary’s cousin George Eldridge has operated since November in a barn on the family farm at Gregory in Woodruff County.

As we headed up Highway 11 between Hazen and Des Arc, we passed the familiar landmarks — the Wattensaw Bayou, where we would sometimes hunt ducks; the Darrell Saul Farm, where I had attended political fundraising events in my earlier life as a politico; the headquarters for the Wattensaw Wildlife Management Area, which had once been a club called Riverwood where we would go to swim; the cemetery where we buried my grandfather on a hot summer day and my grandmother on a cold winter day; the Presbyterian Church, which is being turned into a library; the offices of the White River Journal, one of this state’s best weekly newspapers, which has been in the Walls family for decades; the building my grandfather built to house his hardware store, a structure that still stands and still is home to a hardware store.

My grandfather sold his businesses to Willis Eddins who, in turn, sold them to Billy Garth. They remain in the Garth family.

Just across the street from that building is the Prairie County Courthouse, where my grandfather served terms as county assessor, county clerk and county judge. Though the man I called Pam-Pa had last held elective office in 1941, I loved it when people would still refer to him as Judge Caskey. It made me feel like he was important.

With Don — who’s known by his friends as Tilco — at the wheel, we crossed the White River bridge, looking to our right at that always magnificent view of the courthouse and downtown Des Arc. The current bridge is far safer than its predecessor, but it doesn’t have the character of what was known by locals as the Swinging Bridge. The massive suspension bridge, which was in operation from 1928-70, indeed would sway when trucks crossed it.

Whenever horses crossed the bridge, owners had to put covers over their heads and lead them. They refused to cross otherwise.

Here are a few of the comments posted about the Swinging Bridge on a website about bridges:

— “I lived east of the river and grew up crossing the bridge every day. We called it rattletrap bridge because of the sounds the boards made as the car went across. … It was terrifying to cross on those few boards on a school bus. When I started driving, I drove to school across the bridge every day. One day it was raining, and I lost control on the way up to the center of the bridge. My car fishtailed and hit the rails on the side three times before coming to rest. I remember the feeling of knowing I wasn’t going to make it. I’m now almost 60 years old, and I still dream about it and wake up shivering.”

— “I had such a love-hate relationship with the wonderful Swinging Bridge. One time, my dad had to back down past the huge curve in the bridge to let another car pass. I was so scared I got in the floorboard. As I grew older, my friends and I would walk the bridge on Sunday afternoons. Boards were always missing, and I never got close to the sides.”

— “I grew up in this area and walked and rode across this bridge countless times. It never occurred to me to be scared. It was just the bridge we had to cross to get to Des Arc. I remember riding in trailers filled with cotton, being pulled by a tractor and feeling the swing of the bridge. I’m not sure I would do that today if I could.”

— “I rode in a school bus for 11 years across the bridge every day. Sometimes we had to wait for someone to back down to one of the wide sections, and then sometimes we had to back up in the school bus ourselves. I don’t remember being afraid, but after I married, my husband was terrified to cross it.”

East of the river, there are large fields and pecan orchards. As we head east on Arkansas Highway 38, we pass the road that my dad and I would turn down to fish on Spring Lake and Horn Lake, both White River oxbows.

On the Prairie County-Woodruff County line, we reach the community of Little Dixie and turn left onto Arkansas Highway 33, passing through Dixie on our way to Gregory (yes, there’s both a Dixie and a Little Dixie).

The Eldridge family home, built in 1910, has been beautifully restored.

Also cleaned up and restored is the Eldridge family cemetery, the final resting place of family patriarch Rolfe Eldridge, who was born in November 1807 and died in April 1859. Mary Eldridge Berry gave me a tour of the cemetery just as the sun was setting. Paul went inside the restaurant (the barn is between the family home and the cemetery) to secure a table from George.

Anyone who knows George, the owner of the Little Rock outpost of Doe’s Eat Place, understands that he has the golden touch when it comes to restaurants. It was George who first talked Charles and “Little Doe” Signa in Greenville, Miss., into letting him use the Doe’s name and menu in a location other than the original on Nelson Street in Greenville.

Doe’s Eat Place locations now can been found throughout the region, but George was the first to take the concept out of Greenville. Due to a politician named Bill Clinton, the Little Rock location soon became more famous than the Greenville original. That’s because presidential campaign staffers such as James Carville and George Stephanopoulos would hang out there on a nightly basis.

The national political media followed and began writing about the place. The back room at Doe’s was where P.J. O’Rourke, Hunter S. Thompson and William Greider conducted the interview of Clinton for a September 1992 edition of Rolling Stone.

Was it O’Rourke or Thompson who tried to eat a tamale with the shuck still on?

In November 1992, People published a story on George and his chief cook, Lucille Robinson. The following January, George escorted Robinson to one of the inaugural balls in Washington. An Annie Leibovitz portrait of the pair is among the photos that hang on the walls of the Little Rock restaurant.

If you like the food at Doe’s, you’ll like the food at The Tamale Factory. The menus are similar.

One thing about Delta residents is that they don’t mind driving a long distance for a good meal on a Friday or Saturday. Since it opened in November, The Tamale Factory has been pulling them in from as far away as Little Rock, Memphis and Jonesboro. Reservations are recommended.

On the other side of the barn that houses the restaurant, George keeps his quarter horses in a well-appointed stable. He introduced us to the horses and his three cats (cats are a tradition in horse barns). He also opened a pen that was filled with goats.

There’s also a show ring where George occasionally rolls the dirt, puts down a wooden dance floor and brings in a band from Memphis. Oh how I would love to be back in Gregory on one of those nights.

Roots run deep in this part of Arkansas. Like other east Arkansas counties, Prairie and Woodruff counties have bled population for decades.

Prairie County has only half the population it had in 1920, falling from 17,447 that year to 8,715 in the 2010 census.

Woodruff County has just a third of the population it had in 1920, dropping from 21,527 that year to 7,260 in 2010. Those who remain, though, are a proud people with a strong sense of history and place. They are also people who know how to have a good time, as we saw on this night at The Tamale Factory.

Prairie County has two county seats — Des Arc and DeValls Bluff — and a rich history.

“European exploration of the area began as early as the late 17th century,” Marilyn Hambrick Sickel writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “While the area became occupied by both the Spanish and French, the county remained vital to trade expeditions. … French traders traveled up and down the White River in the early 1700s. Bear oil and skins, abundant in this area at the time, were sought-after commodities in the New Orleans markets. The rivers were the highways of this early era. Early maps identify the White River as Eau Blanche and Riv Blanche. Des Arc was the earliest settlement. Creoles named Watts and East are credited as being Des Arc’s first residents, arriving around 1810.”

Sickel writes that Des Arc was “a flourishing river town prior to the Civil War. Timber for homes was plentiful. Fish and game were abundant, and the population grew rapidly. Selling wood to power the steamboats and rafting timber along the river were viable occupations. The Butterfield Overland Mail route in the late 1850s was key in the development of Des Arc. The city, depending on how wet the roads were or how low the river was, had the fortune of being on the direct route from Memphis to Fort Smith.”

Because it was so swampy, Woodruff County wasn’t settled as early as Prairie County.

Woodruff County was established during the Civil War in November 1862. When Arkansas was no longer part of the Confederacy, it was approved again as a county in 1865. It was named after William Woodruff, the founder of the Arkansas Gazette at Arkansas Post in 1819 (the newspaper moved to Little Rock along with the territorial capital in 1821).

“In the years after the Civil War, Woodruff County prospered with wood and agriculture industries,” Paula Harmon Barnett writes in the online encyclopedia. “Sawmills and woodworking factories thrived, making use of the many acres of timber in the county. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, railroads began to move into the county, and towns sprang up around them, increasing the county’s population each year and greatly improving the economy. Cotton, corn, oats and hay thrved in the fertile, well-watered soil, and the two rivers in the county by which to ship products (the White and Cache) added to the area’s prosperity.”

The county’s population grew each decade from the 1870 census to the 1930 census. It has fallen each decade since then.

There’s a haunting beauty to the Delta and the Grand Prairie in late winter and early spring. History hangs heavily here. Come early to Gregory, taking time to walk through the Eldridge family cemetery and maybe even going to the historic area of Augusta Memorial Park, where there also are Eldridges buried.

Yes, come early and stay late, letting your tamales and steak digest while convincing George to tell stories about the politicians, musicians and other colorful characters he has known.

Spring is beginning in Arkansas, and with it the desire for Friday and Saturday road trips. The drive to Gregory is a trip back in time with good food awaiting at your final destination.

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