Archive for January, 2014

Texarkana: Twice as nice

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

I wrote a newspaper column recently about one of the state’s famous former high school football coaches — Robert E. “Swede” Lee of Arkansas High at Texarkana — and it got me to thinking about that city on the Arkansas-Texas border. You know, the place where the big water tank along Interstate 30 proclaims that it’s “twice as nice.”

Writing that column made me hungry for lunch at Bryce’s Cafeteria.

And it made me hungry for supper at the Cattleman’s Steak House on State Line Avenue.

I grew up at Arkadelphia, about halfway between Little Rock and Texarkana. Our trips for shopping, dinner and sports events generally were to Little Rock or Hot Springs. But just for a change of pace, my parents occasionally would take us to Texarkana, where we would eat at the former Bryce’s location downtown.

Years later, Texarkana played a role in our oldest son getting potty trained. Smart, high-strung boys can be slow to get potty trained. Our son loved trains, and my mother came up with a plan.

She told her grandson that if he would “take care of business” on his end, she would take him for a ride on a real train.

It worked.

We dropped our son off in Arkadelphia, and my mother later reported that he had a difficult time going to sleep the night prior to the train trip. You can hear the Union Pacific trains crossing the Ouachita River at night from our family home. Each time Austin would hear a train, he would pop up and ask his grandmother: “Is that ours? Did we miss it.”

My mother and Austin boarded the Amtrak train the next day at Arkadelphia and took it only as far as Texarkana. My father raced down Interstate 30 in his Oldsmobile so he would be at the station to meet them. He picked them up, and the three of them went to Bryce’s to eat. Austin fell asleep within minutes of leaving the Bryce’s parking lot and slept all the way back to Arkadelphia.

Downtown Texarkana was a booming place when I was a child. Those were the days before restaurants and retailers moved out to Interstate 30. Shoppers from southwest Arkansas, east Texas, northwest Louisiana and southeast Oklahoma flocked to Texarkana and places such as the Belk-Jones and Dillard’s department stores.

The first Belk store was opened in 1888 by William Henry Belk in Monroe, N.C. By 1908, the company had moved its headquarters to Charlotte and built its flagship store downtown. In 1921, the Belk family began forming partnerships in various markets. This resulted in hyphenated store names and more than 300 legal entities. Earl Jones Sr., who had been born in North Carolina in 1916, moved to Texarkana in October 1947 to open the Belk-Jones store. He later developed motels such as the Kings Row Inn and The Town House. His son, Earl Jones Jr., is a former state representative who went on to become one of the best-known lobbyists at the state Capitol.

Meanwhile, William T. Dillard (who had been born in 1914 at Mineral Springs) had opened his first store at Nashville in February 1938 under the name T.J. Dillard’s, the same name as his father’s store at Mineral Springs. He sold the Nashville store in 1948 and moved his family to Texarkana after purchasing a 45 percent interest in Wooten’s Department Store. In 1949, less than two years after Earl Jones Sr. had opened Belk-Jones, Dillard purchased the remaining 60 percent of Wooten’s. He expanded to Magnolia in 1955, Tyler in 1957 and Tulsa in 1960.

Dillard’s move into Little Rock retailing followed with the purchase of Pfeifer’s in 1963 and Blass in 1964. The Dillard family, which had moved from Texarkana to Tulsa in 1960, moved to Little Rock to stay in 1964.

The late 1940s and the 1950s were times of steady growth for Texarkana.

“In the early 20th century, the population of the Texas side outpaced the Arkansas side, though both parts of the city grew and prospered until the Great Depression of the 1930s,” Nancy Hendricks writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The city’s economy rebounded with the coming of World War II in the 1940s, primarily because of the creation of the Red River Army Depot and the Lone Star Ammunition Plant. Along with being an important junction of railroad lines, Texarkana built a strong economy based on timber and minerals along with rockwool (a substance used for insulation and filtering), sand and gravel and crops such as corn, cotton, pecans, rice and soybeans. … By 1952, the population was 40,490 with the Arkansas side reporting almost 16,000. By 1960, the Arkansas side had reached almost 20,000 and the total population of the city was just over 50,000.”

The city has continued to experience consistent, if not spectacular, growth. The Arkansas side had a population of 29,919 in the 2010 census. The Texas side population was 37,103 in the 2010 census.

“The State Line Post Office and Federal Building at 500 State Line Ave. is the only U.S. post office situated in two states, and Texarkana boasts that it is the most photographed courthouse in the country after the Supreme Court in Washington,” Hendricks writes. “The building, constructed in 1932-33, features walls of Arkansas limestone and a base of Texas pink granite. It houses separate ZIP codes. A photographer’s island allows people to take pictures of subjects straddling the two states.”

The area received widespread publicity during the 1992 presidential campaign because Ross Perot was a Texarkana native and Bill Clinton was a native of nearby Hope.

The year after that election, Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa described the Texarkana area this way in the “Almanac of American Politics”: “Texarkana doesn’t look like the political center of anywhere. It is an old city, with a population of 50,000 and a rural and small town hinterland somewhat larger. Its neat grid streets are noteworthy chiefly because the city, as its name suggests, crosses the Texas-Arkansas state line; the downtown post office straddles the boundary, with the west wing serving Texarkana, Texas, and the east wing serving Texarkana, Ark. Yet this small city and its surroundings produced not one but two presidential candidates in 1992. … Did the particular atmosphere of the Texarkana area have an effect on these men’s politics? One can guess that it did. For both, by their own accounts, were taught to believe that they had obligations to those less fortunate, even while they were obliged themselves to work hard and achieve in school to get ahead.

“Texarkana was populist country then, a place where farmers producing cotton and crops felt themselves at the mercy of Dallas cotton brokers, Wall Street financiers and railroad magnates who were grabbing all the gains of their hard work. Outside Texarkana, in a landscape littered with small houses and lazily winding rivers, there was little protection from the sun and wind, and precious little ornament; the reservoirs and motels and shopping centers one sees there now are signs of an affluence still only beginning to penetrate what was a zone of subsistence if not poverty. … The culture here was always traditional: This is an area of heavy churchgoing and proud patriotism. Traces of that can be seen in Perot’s military bearing and Clinton’s religious cadences.”

During his presidential campaign, the billionaire Perot was asked his favorite restaurant in the world.

“Bryce’s in Texarkana,” he replied.

Bryce’s was founded in 1931 by Bryce Lawrence and has been family owned and operated since then. The Chicago Tribune once declared that Bryce’s “has better food for the money than any place on earth.”

Another Texarkana dining tradition is the Cattleman’s Steak House on the Arkansas side of State Line Avenue, which was opened by Roy Oliver in August 1964 when State Line was still a two-lane road and wooded land surrounded the restaurant. The Cattleman’s is still owned by the Oliver family and has an old-school menu that even includes calf fries and turkey fries among the appetizers (if you have to ask, don’t order them. I’m reminded of what it says next to “mountain oysters” on the menu of the Big Texan at Amarillo: “If you think this is seafood, you would prefer the shrimp.”)

That appetizer menu also has shrimp cocktails, escargot, crab claws, oysters on the half shell and something called dragon fries, which are jalapeno peppers stuffed with crabmeat. In addition to the steaks, there are fried chicken livers and fried quail. Like I said, old school.

If I could spend a day in Texarkana with lunch at Bryce’s and dinner at the Cattleman’s, I would indeed be a happy man.

As I said at the outset, it’s twice as nice.

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Searcy County: Chocolate Roll Capital of the World

Friday, January 24th, 2014

I like to think that I know a lot about Arkansas.

But I’ll admit that I had no idea until recently that Searcy County is the Chocolate Roll Capital of the World.

I ran across a photo on a website of a sign in the county that makes that claim.

Then, I picked up a guide to the county published by the Greater Searcy County Chamber of Commerce and — wouldn’t you know it — there was a full page devoted to the subject.

Here’s what the guide has to say: “For generations, people in Searcy County have been baking and enjoying a dessert that few folks outside these parts have ever heard of. Namely chocolate rolls. Searcy County’s glory days with strawberries have faded into the pages of history and the stories of its older citizens, but the chocolate roll remains. Can anyone doubt that Searcy County in the Home of the Chocolate Roll and also the Chocolate Roll Capital of the World?”

The chamber even announced a Chocolate Roll Capital of the World initiative.

Who knew?

“Searcy County is the home of the Chocolate Roll Festival, with the centerpiece being the World Champion Chocolate Roll Contest,” the guide says. “This is a unique competition of local bakers to see who is the World Champion Chocolate Roll Maker. This contest is held in the early spring every year. The contest was the brainchild of the Marshall High School Art Club and teacher Brenda Smyth. Individuals get to pay a small fee to sample and judge the chocolate rolls and get to vote on the world champion. The batch of rolls with the most votes wins.

“Chocolate rolls are also available at several locations throughout the county and are always the biggest hit at local events. As you travel through Searcy County, you have to stop and locate one of the Ozarks’ classic desserts, the chocolate roll. Watch for the chocolate roll signs.”

I’ve always admired the natural beauty of this sparsely populated county.

And I like the people.

My wife and I met when we were living in Washington, D.C. We moved to my home state of Arkansas just after our wedding in October 1989. Melissa is a native of far south Texas, and I was anxious to show her various parts of the state after we moved here. One of the first events I took her to outside of Little Rock was the Searcy County Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Day banquet. Told that it was a dinner banquet, Melissa put on her best dress. She was surprised when we walked into the restaurant at Marshall and she saw that some of the men were wearing overalls.

They were at least their “dress overalls,” I explained to Melissa.

Searcy County’s population peaked at 14,825 in the 1910 census. A century later, it was down to 8,195.

I’ve never failed to enjoy the drive north on U.S. Highway 65 from the southeast part of the county to the northwest corner.

Crossing the Middle Fork of the Little Red River.

Driving through Leslie with a stop at Serenity Farm for bread and a one-block detour off the highway to drive through that scenic old downtown of stone structures.

Visiting Marshall, its square around the courthouse, one of the few remaining drive-in theaters in the state and perhaps even a stop for dessert at the Daisy Queen on the highway.

Admiring the scenery along Bear Creek. Among my favorite views in Arkansas is the view when you round a curve on U.S. 65 headed north and there’s a pasture and old barn on your left with rock cliffs to the right.

Seeing the Buffalo National River at Tyler Bend.

Perhaps making a side trip to Gilbert, the coldest spot in Arkansas (it was a negative two degrees on Friday morning) and the place where my old college buddy Rodney Slinkard now turns out wonderful art.

The Gilbert General Store, built in 1901, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places under the name Mays Store. Gilbert was founded in the early 1900s when a rail construction camp for the Missouri & North Arkansas Railroad was built and named in honor of Charles Gilbert, the secretary-treasurer of Allegheny Supply Co, which was building the railroad.

“Gilbert was a hub for commerce,” the chamber guide says. “Cotton, logs, ore and grain came by rail. Gilbert was eventually the home to a repair shop for the railroad, which ceased operation in 1946. While the tracks were removed and sold as scrap, there are still signs of the railroad where the old concrete supports crossed the Buffalo River. The former rail bed is now a hiking route along the river.

“Today Gilbert contains a few homes, guesthouses and cabins for rent. The Gilbert General Store is still in operation, providing supplies and hunting and fishing licenses. The Riverside Kitchen and Gilbert Café serve diners in the area. Remnants of old homesteads provide a hint of its past.”

Gilbert at one time had four stores, two hotels, three doctors and several sawmills. The 2010 census listed 28 residents.

Writing years ago for National Geographic, Craig Ogilvie said of the Gilbert General Store: “The original mercantile flavor remains unchanged despite the passing years. Everything from buttons and axe handles to crackers and cheese are stocked in the homemade shelves and long glass display cases. … Until 1979, the store had been a part of the Mays-Baker families. Until the 1980s, a corner of the store served as the post office.”

As far as Gilbert being the coldest spot in the state, the temperature is said to have dropped to a minus 24 degrees there one morning during the winter of 1939-40. Then there was the day in April 1969 when it was below freezing in the morning and 90 degrees by that afternoon.

Back on the main highway, a stop for smoked bacon and ham at Coursey’s and a cinnamon roll at Ferguson’s is required.

Michael Stern, the famed “Roadfood” writer, had this to say about Coursey’s back in late 2008: “Coursey’s is a 55-year-old ham house in the Ozarks of north Arkansas. Mrs. Paula Hale, whose father started the business, told us that it began as a dirt-floored cabin (which is still standing outside the new, modern display room).

“‘My father hung each ham from a nail in the wall and wrapped it in a dry-goods box,’ she recalled.

“Coursey’s meats are now smoked in stainless steel facilities and the wooden cabin out front is only a reminder of days gone by. Now run by a third generation of the same family, the roadside shop maintains its country charm. We spent an educational half-hour consulting with Mrs. Hale and her kids about how to best get a ham and a couple of pounds of bacon shipped to us during a summer heat wave (we finally decided to wait until cooler weather), and we discussed the fine points of making tasty red-eye gravy.

“Mrs. Hale clued us in to the joy of a good ham hock, which should never be thrown away once the ham has been eaten. It makes the perfect pot companion for long-cooked greens or beans. And she reminded us that when we fried Coursey’s delicious bacon — made from corn-fed hogs and slow-cured over burning green hickory logs — we should save the drippings to season our hominy or cabbage.

“Coursey’s is primarily a mail-order and takeout business, with scarlet hams hanging on a rack in cloth bags, flavoring the air with their hickory perfume; an assortment of jerkies in jars; and shelves of interesting local jellies, sorghum and honey for sale. Coursey’s has a small counter in the back where you can have a sandwich made of ham, turkey or peppered beef. There is nothing fancy here. Just meat (cheese optional) on supermarket bread. But oh what good meat. It is lean, sweet and tender with an alluring wood-smoke bouquet but none of the pungency of salt-cured country ham.”

The next town headed north is St. Joe, where the 1902 depot (a stop on the Missouri & North Arkansas, which ran from Joplin to Helena) was restored in 2009 to serve as a museum and information center.

There once was lead and zinc mining in the St. Joe-Pindall area. Pindall was a railroad stop first known as Kilburn Switch.

“In the early 1920s, a colony of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) from Illinois and other states settled in the Gilbert area,” James Johnston writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The failure of the M&NA after World War II and the decline of the economy forced their Bible college to move to Joplin and the area to lose population. The 1972 designation of the Buffalo as a national river left Gilbert as the only private property on the river, and it has prospered. The communities of Snowball and Witts Springs were once commercial centers, but improved transportation in the 1950s sent business to Marshall, and Snowball’s school and post office closed in the 1960s.”

Witts Springs consolidated with Marshall in 2004.

The Legislature first established Searcy County in November 1835, carving it from western Izard County. The original Searcy County also included parts of what are now Marion, Boone, Baxter and Stone counties.

The first Searcy County’s name was changed to Marion County in late 1836 in honor of Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion. A new Searcy County was created by the Legislature in 1838 from the southern part of Marion County. Lebanon on Bear Creek was the county seat until it was moved to Burrowsville (now Marshall), named for slave-owning secessionist politician Napoleon Bonaparte Burrow.

At the state’s secession convention in Little Rock in May 1861, Searcy County’s representative was one of just five to vote against secession. In the 20th century, at times when there were not many Republicans elsewhere in Arkansas, there always was a contingent of ancestral Republicans in Searcy County. These were people whose family roots in the party went back to the Civil War.

At the outset of the Civil War, a group known as the Peace Society was formed in the Ozarks to oppose the Confederacy.

“More Peace Society members are identified in Searcy County than any other county,” Johnston writes. “The organization was betrayed on Nov. 17, 1861, in Van Buren County by John Holmes, and the discovery of the society spread rapidly. Investigations of the Peace Society, first in Fulton County and then in Izard County, led to its discovery in 1861 on the Izard-Searcy County line.”

Eighty-seven men were marched in chains to Little Rock, forced to join the Confederate Army and shipped to Bowling Green, Ky. Some of those men later would escape and return to Searcy County. There were six Union companies made up of men from Searcy County.

“After the war, Union veterans took control of the county, and they and their descendants have held Searcy County for the Republican Party ever since,” Johnston writes. “By 1870, the county was attracting families from the defeated Southern states. In addition to new homesteads, the lead and zinc mining boom beginning in the mid-1890s brought money and people to St. Joe and northern Searcy County.”

The Great Depression hit Searcy County hard. After World War II, Marshall attracted a shirt factory and there was a push to make the county a center for growing strawberries. The inability to find pickers killed the strawberry industry by the 1960s. Civic leaders in the county felt dams on the Buffalo River and its tributaries would help the economy. The nationally publicized battle to keep the Buffalo a free-flowing stream went on for years. That epic environmental battle has been written about on this blog before.

In addition to chocolate rolls, a Searcy County claim to fame is that it leads the state in walnut production. It ranks 11th among the 75 counties in milk and dairy production, 12th in acres of land used to grow berries, 13th in turkey production, 14th in goat production, 22nd in hogs, 25th in cattle and 29th in horses.

There are hundreds of black bears in the county and some of the elk wander down from Newton County.

Chocolate rolls or no chocolate rolls, it remains a wonderful place for those of us who love rural Arkansas.

 

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The duck season ends

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

The sun is setting on another Arkansas duck season.

Though the 4 a.m. ringing alarms and the drives through the dark will end for now, the stories will continue to be told and retold.

You see, in a duck hunter’s heart, the season never really concludes. There’s just more time to read about duck hunting, tell stories about duck hunting and quietly contemplate future hunts.

One of the people with whom I’ve hunted through the years is fond of saying, “I’ve gotten to the point where I rather talk about it than actually do it.”

The older I get, the more I think back on duck hunts with my father and his friends. They were men who influenced my life greatly.

As a small gift to end the season, I thought I would share this story by longtime Little Rock lobbyist Bill Brady, who grew up at Gregory in Woodruff County and often hunted ducks with his dad. Enjoy.

Take it away, Bill:

“I killed my first duck on Broadwater.

“That’s what we called the wide place on the Cache River where my dad and some of his hunting buddies had a duck blind. My dad was an avid hunter. Deer, duck, quail, squirrel, dove, you name it. If it was game in western Woodruff County in the 1950s, my dad hunted it. His favorite — and mine, too — was mallard hunting on the Cache River at that place we called Broadwater, where he and his buddies had built a fine blind on floating logs. They had managed to tie onto four good logs that they found in the area and then drag those logs by boat to the choice spot on the east side of Broadwater where they knew the ducks would work.

“These seasoned duck hunters knew everything that there was to know about locating, building and camouflaging a duck blind. To an 8-year-old looking to bag his first greenhead, it was all a great mystery and a grand experience just being there with those men.

“Once I turned 8, my dad started getting me ready to go on my first duck hunt. He had a 20-gauge Remington Model 11 shotgun that he used primarily for quail hunting. That was to become my duck gun. I recall that it had a Cutts Compensator on the end of the barrel, and he had put the modified full choke on. My how I loved that gun. It was semiautomatic, but for the first year Dad would only let me put one shell in the barrel and none in the magazine, turning it into a single shot. And that was fine with me.

“The only problem I had back in those days was with boots. I never could keep my feet warm. This was before insulated boots. I hunted in some black leather lace-up boots that were just about the coldest things you can imagine. At about the age of 10, I wrote a letter to the editor of some sporting magazine and suggested that a company should invent electric socks, powered by flashlight batteries. I never heard back from that magazine editor, but about 10 or 15 years later, there they were — electric hunting socks. That was my first good marketing idea.

“Broadwater was a stretch of the Cache River in what we always called Black Swamp. It’s now a part of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s Rex Hancock Black Swamp Wildlife Management Area. It was particularly good for duck hunting in that it was at least 50 yards wide and perhaps a quarter of a mile long, running north to south. Access to Broadwater from our home at Gregory was to the east on a road that the locals referred to as ‘the road to Fred Lee’s place.’ Fred Lee was an old hunter, trapper and fisherman who lived alone on a floating cabin on the Cache in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Usually, we would have to walk or boat the half mile from the edge of the bottoms to the river and then cross by boat to the blind. The blind was on the south end of Broadwater on the east side in an area that ducks really seemed to like.

“The blind had a snug warming shack and a front porch for shooting that would safely accommodate five shooters. They had done a great job of decorating it with freshly cut oak branches so that it looked just like a big brush pile to a duck. Inside the shack were a propane stove, a food locker and cookware. A week before the season, Dad somehow would manage to get a large cylinder of propane brought in by boat so we would be ‘cooking with gas’ for the entire duck season. One of my fondest memories of a meal was when Dad cooked me a fried egg and a spiced ham sandwich right there in the blind. I would give a lot of money for one of those sandwiches right about now.

“I also fondly recall Rule No. 1: Dip the coffee water from the north side (upstream) and take a leak on the south side (downstream). Pretty practical rule, huh?

“In the blind with us the day of my first duck kill were a couple of dad’s buddies, one of whom had a reputation as a quick shot. That’s someone who would take his first shot before the caller yelled ‘take ’em.’ The plan that day was for the caller to work the ducks all the way to the water, right in front of the blind. I would then get the first shot of a greenhead sitting on the water. Mr. Quick Shot would never let the ducks get close to the water before he would start blasting. That’s when my dad told him that if he did that one more time before I could kill my duck, ‘I’m throwing you and that damn gun of yours in the Cache River.’

“I got my first duck about 10 minutes later.

“We also fished from our blind. Yes, we caught crappie right off the front porch. There wouldn’t be many ducks flying some days, and Dad would get out his crappie poles, bait a couple of hooks and we’d try to catch a mess of crappie between flights of mallards. Occasionally, we would take our crappie home to eat the next day. If we only caught three or four, we would clean them and cook them right there in the duck blind for a late lunch of fried fish and light bread.

“Another fond memory concerns the occasional ‘red wasp invasion.’ Dad had a buddy with whom he hunted often, and the two of them enjoyed taking a nip about midafternoon when the ducks had almost quit flying. But they didn’t just pull out the bottle and start drinking. They had a ritual.

“One of them would suddenly slap a leg and complain that he had been stung by ‘a big ol’ red wasp.’ Well, that pretty much mandated that some alcohol be applied to the sting — the bourbon type of alcohol. One of them would fetch a bottle, and they would begin to doctor each other, even the one who had not been stung. The one who had been stung would start it off by taking a long slug, chased with a Coke, in order to ‘ward off infection and swelling.’

“Then, the other one would take his slug to prevent the red wasps from swarming. This routine might go on for the rest of the afternoon, and I would have to drive the boat back over to the launch and get those two happy hunters out of the woods and back home safely (without any swelling or infections from red wasp stings). This routine was funny, and I loved it. Though I never saw a red wasp in that duck blind, I’ve been known to resort to the red wasp antidote a few times myself in the years since then.

“I enjoyed many a day in the Cache River bottoms and the beautiful Black Swamp. In the process, I observed both hunting and hunters at their best. Some of my fondest memories still emanate from that Broadwater duck blind on the Cache. I learned a lot about hunting: The building of a blind, the setting of a spread of decoys, the calling (my favorite part), the living by the rules, the actual hunts.

“And I learned a lot about life and being a sportsman and a good guy. Most of all, I still cherish the memories of my time there with my dad and his buddies, all great men and all gone now to that big duck blind in the sky, where I suspect the mallards are still working and the red wasps are still swarming on beautiful, mild winter afternoons on a stretch of water much like Broadwater.”

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A new preservation ethos

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

Raised in a small home near Dyess in the cotton fields of Mississippi County, Joanne Cash Yates made it clear Friday night at the Clinton Center that she’s proud to be from Arkansas.

You might have heard of Joanne’s older brother.

He was known in his adult years as Johnny.

I was at the Clinton Center to serve as the master of ceremonies for the annual awards banquet of the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas. As I pointed out in my opening remarks last Friday night, this was my kind of crowd: People who love Arkansas, its history, its culture, its places and its people.

The preservation movement in the state has taken off in recent years. When the HPAA was formed in 1981, most Arkansans believed in tearing down old buildings rather than renovating them. It was economic development via a wrecking ball.

One old example: The beautiful Carnegie Library in Little Rock, which was replaced by a downtown architectural monstrosity that thankfully no longer serves as the main branch of the Central Arkansas Library System.

A more recent example: Replacing Ray Winder Field with a parking lot. That tells me we still have a long way to go. But nights like last Friday make me an optimist. There are so many exciting projects that are ongoing across Arkansas. The Johnny Cash boyhood home restoration at Dyess stands at the forefront of the current projects right now. It was the winner of the award for Excellence in Preservation through restoration. Ruth Hawkins and her staff at the Arkansas State University’s Heritage Sites Program have worked wonders across the Arkansas Delta, from the Lakeport Plantation at Lake Village in the southeast corner of the state to the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum at Piggott in the northeast corner of the state. In between there are the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum at Tyronza and the Rohwer Japanese American Relocation Center.

ASU has joined forces with the city of Dyess and the Rural Heritage Development Initiative of the National Trust for Historic Preservation to make this project a reality. Ray and Carrie Cash moved their family from the piney woods near Kingsland in south Arkansas to Dyess in 1935. It was during the Great Depression and the Cash family was among those chosen to live in this federal resettlement project for poor white farmers. Late each night, young J.R. (only later to be known as Johnny) would listen to country and gospel music on the radio.

He graduated from Dyess High School in 1950, and the family continued to live in the house until 1954. By 2006, the HPAA had placed the home on its list of the state’s most endangered places. ASU purchased the house in 2011.

During the restoration process, the Cash home was lifted off its original site. Soil underneath was removed and replaced with fill dirt. Only then could exterior and interior restoration work begin. Extensive research was done on similar New Deal homes. With the foundation stabilized, the original floor plan was restored and railings and porches were rebuilt.

This is, of course, far from the only project of this type taking place across Arkansas. Here are the other award recipients:

— The Delta Cultural Center at Helena was presented the award for Excellence in Heritage Preservation for the work it has done through the decades. It has been a key player in the effort to preserve and interpret the Delta’s history and heritage. The restored 1912 Missouri-Pacific Railroad depot opened to the public in 1990 with a number of museum exhibits. Since then, the Delta Cultural Center has expanded down Cherry Street while also restoring the city’s former synagogue into the Beth El Heritage Hall and restoring the 1859 Moore-Hornor House as part of the Helena’s effort to capitalize on its rich Civil War history.

— The Boone-Murphy House at Pine Bluff received an honorable mention for Excellence in Preservation through Rehabilitation. The house was built in 1860 by Thomas Boone. During the Union occupation of Pine Bluff from 1863-65, it served as the federal headquarters. The house was moved in the 1890s so a larger structure could be built on the site. Boone-Murphy served as servants’ quarters and later as a storeroom. The house was moved twice more during the 20th century. It’s amazing that it even survived. The house had been vacant for years when Pine Bluff city staff member Robert Tucker began pushing for its restoration. The restoration effort began in 2008. Rotten floor joists were removed, the metal shingle roof was repaired and hardwood floors, windows and doors were restored. The house is now the home of the Pine Bluff Historic District Commission. Last year, a Civil War marker was erected at the site to commemorate the role the house played during the federal occupation of Pine Bluff.

— An award for Excellence in Preservation through Rehabilitation went to the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum. The structure, built in the middle of the previous century as a bank, had been gutted and been empty for several years. It was situated among nondescript retail buildings from the 1960s. The architectural firm Polk Stanley & Wilcox then stepped in and worked wonders. The monumental stairway was saved and usable spaces were created for art exhibits. A lantern atop the building that changes colors is now a beacon in Fort Smith, drawing people to the galleries inside.

— An award for Excellence in Preservation through Rehabilitation for a large project went to the Mann on Main in downtown Little Rock. The 1913 Blass Department Store building was designed by George Mann, the architect for the state Capitol. In 1999, Batesville developer Doyle Rogers Sr. purchased the building and an adjoining annex. In 2012, the Doyle Rogers Co. partnered with Moses Tucker Real Estate in a mixed-use project that has resulted in office space, 20 residential units and the resurrection of one of my favorite restaurant’s, Bruno’s Little Italy. The Mann on Main is a cornerstone of the ongoing rebirth of Main Street in the state’s largest city.

— An award for Excellence in Preservation through Rehabilitation for a small project went to the Lesmeister Guest House in downtown Pocahontas. Henry Lesmeister built this commercial structure near the downtown square in 1902, and it served as the home of various businesses. Many people in northeast Arkansas remember it as the Bennett & Rice Grocery. Following a year of rehabilitation, the building now provides overnight accommodations for visitors to Randolph County. A 1910 photo was used to make decisions about the rehabilitation. Contemporary walls and ceiling layers were demolished to expose the building’s earliest features. A large cistern was discovered in the basement and is now glass-covered and visible from one of the bedrooms.

— The award for Outstanding Achievement in Preservation Advocacy went to the Newport Economic Development Commission and the Clinton School of Public Service for work on the White River Bridge project at Newport. Constructed in 1930, what’s known locally as the Blue Bridge will be replaced. Jon Chadwell of the Newport Economic Development Commission worked with Clinton School students Foster Holcomb, Abby Olivier and James Stephens to come up with a plan to reuse the old bridge. The students surveyed area leaders and conducted interviews with preservation experts. They then recommended adaptive reuse scenarios. A final decision has not yet been made on the future of the Blue Bridge.

— The award for Outstanding Achievement in Preservation Education went to Nancy Lowe, who was the principal design consultant for Main Street Arkansas from the program’s inception in 1984 until last August. Her experience with Main Street programs across the country made her an asset to the Arkansas program as it got off the ground. She has conducted hundreds of meetings across the state through the years to train directors, board members and volunteers for local Main Street restoration efforts.

— An honorable mention for Outstanding New Construction in a Historic Setting went to the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock for the blacksmith shop at the Plum Bayou Homestead. The blacksmith shop was designed and built to reflect the 1840s and 1850s when the services of a blacksmith would have been in high demand. Designed by Ruby Architects, the blacksmith shop includes a fully functioning forge with authentic leather bellows and a rocker arm for stoking the fire. No nails were used in the timber frame.

— The award for Outstanding New Construction in a Historic Setting went to Ozark Hall on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Constructed in the 1940s in the collegiate gothic style, Ozark Hall is in the historic core of the university just south of Old Main. The building was envisioned in the 1925 university master plan as a U-shaped facility but only one side was ever completed because the school ran out of money. This project included complete exterior and interior renovation along with a multistory addition. That addition completed the U-shaped configuration imagined in the 1925 master plan. Limestone was selected from the original quarry. Renovated spaces include classrooms, laboratories, offices and an auditorium. A new courtyard ties together the historic and new parts of the building. WD&D Architects and VCC Construction worked on the building.

— The award for Outstanding Service in Neighborhood Preservation went to Anita Davis for her work along South Main Street in Little Rock. When she saw an empty lot at 1401 S. Main St. several years ago, she envisioned a gathering spot for local artists, visitors and those who lived in the neighborhood. The lot had been part of the 1873 Garland-Mitchell House. In the 1940s, the lot was split, and a drive-in restaurant was built facing Main Street. A small motel and later a fast-food restaurant occupied the corner. A fire in 2005 left only a concrete pad and a few crepe myrtles. Davis bought the lot in 2006 and founded the Bernice Garden, which now hosts a farmers’ market, an annual cornbread festival and additional efforts to foster community involvement. Other Davis properties in the area serve as a home for the Green Corner Store, the Root Café, Boulevard Bread Co. and the Esse Purse Museum.

— The award for Outstanding Work by a Craftsperson went to Danny Ball Sr. for his work on the New Hope School near Wynne. New Hope was built in 1903 as a one-room school. A second room was added a few years later, and the building remained in use as a school until 1951. In 2001, the Cross County Historical Society began efforts to preserve the building. Ball was chosen to complete the window restoration and replacement. He began by researching the original details and then determined that almost all of the window components would have to be replicated. The originals had either been lost or severely damaged. He wanted the lumber to be locally milled and finally found a source of Arkansas cypress at Powhatan. The lumber was hand-planed to the original size and dimension. Ball spent dozens of hours ensuring that every original detail was replicated.

— The award for Excellence in Personal Projects went to the Connelly-Harrington House at Siloam Springs and its owners, Ron and Christina Drake. The house was constructed in 1913 for a local banker. It later was used as a hospital and then was divided into apartments. In January 2012, a fire destroyed the third floor and caused smoke and water damage on the other flowers. The Drakes decided to rehabilitate the structure. The third floor was reconfigured as a two-bedroom apartment with views of downtown Siloam Springs. The building also is home to the Windgate Foundation and has been a catalyst for additional developments in downtown Siloam Springs.

— An honorable mention for Excellence in Preservation through Restoration went to the Tushek Building in Lake Village. The building was constructed in 1906 and occupies a prominent corner of downtown Lake Village. It sat vacant for years before the mayor of Lake Village, JoAnne Bush, led an effort to restore the building and consolidate city offices into one facility. The structure was donated to the city and funding was provided by the state, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Delta Regional Authority and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The rehabilitation effort has spurred even more investment in downtown Lake Village.

— The Ned Shank Award for Outstanding Preservation Publication went to authors Cheryl Batts, Janis Kearney and Patricia McGraw for “John Lee Webb, the Man and His Legacy.” Born in Alabama in 1877 as the oldest of 10 children, John Lee Webb was educated at the Tuskegee Institute. He later worked as a general contractor in Mississippi and Arkansas. In 1913, he joined a fraternal organization known as the Supreme Lodge of the Woodmen of the Union. He was living in Hot Springs by 1930. He became head of the fraternal organization and the president of a large insurance company. He also led the effort to build what would become the National Baptist Hotel in downtown Hot Springs. The book outlines how Webb made Hot Springs a center of black tourism during a time of segregation.

— The Parker Westbrook Award for Lifetime Achievement went to Missy McSwain of Lonoke, who was hired in 1987 as the HPAA executive director. She later purchased her grandmother’s house, the 1885 Trimble-McCrary House at Lonoke. She left the HPAA staff in 1993 but went on to lead the Main Street program at Lonoke while being involved in other preservation efforts. She would later manage federal programs for the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program (an agency of the Department of Arkansas Heritage) for 10 years. In 2007, she was appointed to serve as the director of that agency.

“Through Missy’s work with the AHPP, she has been a part of some of the state’s most recognizable preservation projects such as the Jacob Wolf House in Baxter County, the Lakeport Plantation in Chicot County and the Drennen-Scott House in Crawford County,” says HPAA executive director Vanessa McKuin. “As deputy state historic preservation officer, Missy serves not only as the voice for the agency in Arkansas but also as Arkansas’ voice in the national preservation forum. Elected by her peers, Missy now serves on the board for the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers.

“Missy is a tireless advocate in her outreach to local, state and federal officials, always beating the drum of how preservation ties into quality of place and how building places where people want to live is the key to 21st century economic development.”

Missy and Vanessa are my kinds of Arkansans.

Like I said at the outset, this was my kind of crowd.

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Grapette: A legendary Arkansas brand

Friday, January 10th, 2014

A version of this story appears in the January edition of Celebrate Arkansas magazine.

The nondescript metal building is on Industrial Drive in Malvern, just a mile or so from busy Interstate 30. There’s a small sign out front, but most of those who drive by likely don’t know that it’s now the home of one of the country’s iconic soft drink brands, Grapette.

When older Arkansans think of Grapette, they likely think of Camden rather than Malvern. And for good reason.

It was at Camden in 1926 that a service station owner named Benjamin Tyndle Fooks learned that a local bottling plant was for sale and decided to purchase the business. A customer at the service station, Henry Furlow, had told Fooks that he wanted to sell his plant on Adams Street in Camden. Fooks was ready for a change and wasted no time borrowing $4,000 from a local businessman named Charles Saxon so he could buy the bottling plant from Furlow.

Fooks soon became the first bottler in south Arkansas to make regular truck deliveries in rural areas.

Business was steady initially, and Fooks bought another plant at Arkadelphia in 1927. He purchased an additional bottling operation at Hope a year later.

With the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, however, Fooks’ fortunes took a hit. He sold the Arkadelphia and Hope operations. But he held onto his Camden plant and began driving through the piney woods of south Arkansas, north Louisiana and east Texas selling what were known as Fooks Flavors out of his car. He would take orders from local bottlers for the flavors and then return to Camden to mix the flavors. Fooks would work late into the night in the syrup room of his Camden plant.

Fooks continued to experiment with various flavors through the years. He drove trucks during the day and did his experiments at night. In the winter, when the demand for soft drinks fell off, Fooks made peanut patties and brittle.

Fooks developed a grape flavor in the late 1930s that he thought would be popular. He obtained a copyright for the name Grapette and began selling the drink at Camden in 1940. Grapette came in six-ounce clear bottles that showed off the drink’s beautiful color.

Lemonette, which contained a large amount of real citrus juice, came along in 1946. Fooks added an orange drink in 1947. Naturally, it was called Orangette.

“Realizing the potentialities of an outstanding grape drink, Mr. Fooks devoted a great deal of time and research to perfecting such a beverage,” Herbert C. Fooks wrote in a family history titled “Fooks Family.” “After thousands of experiments, he developed an unusually distinctive taste quality of the grape soft drink, which is known internationally today as Grapette. In May 1940, Grapette was first placed on the market at Camden. It was the beginning of a successful business. In 1950, after 10 short years, Grapette had become a most popular grape-flavored beverage. The Grapette Co. became the seventh-ranking beverage company in the industry.”

Fooks was an interesting character to say the least. He was born in 1901 on a farm near Paducah, Ky. His family moved to Camden in 1914, and Fooks finished high school there in 1918. He went back to Paducah to attend a business college and then returned to Camden to enter the lumber business with his father.

In 1920, Fooks decided to become a Methodist minister and headed to the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. After three months, he changed his mind about becoming a minister. He instead became a prominent Methodist layman, later serving on the boards of Southern Methodist University and Hendrix College.

Fooks worked in the lumber industry for several years, operating sawmills in Louisiana and assisting his father with the family’s sawmill at Camden. He also operated a wholesale lumber business at Memphis before selling it in 1925 so he could return to Camden and buy a service station. Fooks later took an interest in cattle. His Fooks Farms near Camden covered almost 1,500 acres and had 300 head of Aberdeen-Angus cattle.

Fooks even introduced a challenger to Coca-Cola in 1962 with Mr. Cola, known for its distinctive 16-ounce bottles. He added a product known as Lymette in 1963. At its peak, Grapette had more than 600 bottlers in 38 states.

In 1972, Fooks sold the Grapette Co. to the Rheingold Corp., which brewed beer along with bottling regional soft drinks in California, New Mexico and Puerto Rico. Rheingold changed the company name to Flavette and moved the headquarters to Florida.

Pepsico began a hostile takeover of Rheingold in 1975, and the Federal Trade Commission ruled that Pepsico had to divest several soft drink lines. The Grapette brand was purchased in 1977 by Monarch, the bottler of NuGrape. The Grapette name was shelved, and industry observers believed Grapette had become a thing of the past in this country.

The Grapette brand lived on in other countries.

In 1942, an Arkansas oilman named R. Paul May persuaded Fooks to allow him to market Grapette in Latin America. Grapette, Orangette and Lemonette became highly popular in the region, especially in Guatemala. A separate company known as Grapette International was established in 1962. May retained the international ownership of Grapette after the brand was retired in the United States. Following May’s death, Grapette International was passed on to his son-in-law, Brooks Rice.

Rice had been an early Walmart stockholder and began considering ways to partner with the company. During a 1986 meeting with Rice, Walmart founder Sam Walton made it clear that he wanted Grapette in his stores. Rice couldn’t use the Grapette name, but he could provide the famous flavor.

In 1989, Grapette International began producing a line of drinks for Walmart under the Ozark Farms brand. The drinks were brought back on the market in 1993 under the Sam’s Choice brand, and Walmart was given the right to the flavors. Sam’s Choice grape was, in fact, Grapette.

In 2000, Monarch finally agreed to sell the Grapette name. Slowly, the Grapette and Orangette brands replaced the Sam’s Choice label. For the first time in more than two decades, Grapette was being sold in the United States.

___

Of the seven children of Brooks Rice, two were males — Paul and David Rice. They’re 11 years apart in age. The two brothers, along with their brother-in-law Ed King, now operate Grapette International.

The building that houses the company in Malvern covers 45,000 square feet and was built to house a plastic recycling firm that later closed. Grapette, needing more room, moved its operations from Hot Springs to Malvern in 1999.

“We had begun producing an isotonic sports drink for Walmart,” Paul says. “It really took off, and we needed a bigger facility almost overnight. This building fit the bill.”

There are no traffic lights around the building, and it’s easy for trucks to get in and out at all hours. Drinks aren’t actually bottled at the Malvern plant. The products coming out of Malvern are highly concentrated flavor compounds. A five-gallon drum of one of these compounds is enough for 20,000 12-ounce cans. The smells of the concentrates — which are quite pleasant — permeate the building.

“By concentrating the flavors so intensely, you reduce shipping costs,” Ed says.

The industry landscape has changed dramatically in recent decades with far fewer bottlers than there once were. The flavor compounds produced by Grapette International are used in everything from sports drinks to snow cone mixes to margarita mixes. For competitive reasons, the company is sensitive about revealing the private label flavors it produces. It’s not a large operation from an employee standpoint. There are only about 15 full-time employees, most of whom have been with the company for a number of years.

The company’s conference room is a bit of a Grapette museum. Visitors immediately are offered a cold Grapette. In a case, there’s a 1945 six-ounce Grapette bottle that has never been opened.

On the company’s website, there’s a “memory lane” section so people can write about their memories of drinking Grapette. A Grapette advertising campaign in Central America uses the tagline “the memories that make you smile.”

Nostalgia is important.

“There often are emotions associated with soft drinks,” Ed says. “It’s something fun, something different. Grapette is special to people because that name disappeared for almost a generation in this country. A lot of gratitude goes to Walmart. They are largely responsible for bringing it back.”

Sam Walton had said in the meeting with Brooks Rice: “I want Grapette in my stores.”

The name Grapette wasn’t in the stores until after Walton’s death in 1992. But company executives remembered the founder’s wishes.

The current flavor is a little less sweet and has a higher carbonation level than the original. The government has also restricted one of the ingredients that originally made the drink’s color so rich.

“The beauty of Grapette is that it affected so many of the senses,” David says. “It was bright. It was sweet. It had a great grape taste.”

Dozens and dozens of flavors now come out of the Malvern plant.

“We do everything from dill pickle to blueberry flavors,” Paul says. “We do flavors that are spicy and specific to the Latin-American market. We do flavors that are bitter with vinegar and specific to the Asian market. We ship worldwide.”

He notes that the company’s first shipment to the Netherlands occurred several days before my visit.

“There aren’t a bunch of moving parts here,” David says. “If somebody mentions the Grapette International headquarters, people probably expect a huge bottling operation. That’s just not what we do.”

Instead, there are labs where the company continually experiments with new flavors and colors.

“We work on new products and types of packaging for those products,” Ed says. “We’re even into frozen yogurt flavors and yogurt delivery systems. Our strength is our large flavor portfolio.”

An example of the innovation that goes on at Grapette International is a line of sugar-free frozen pops that can be used by athletes and industrial employees to hydrate rather than having to consume more traditional electrolyte drinks.

“Kids on youth sports teams like them, and their parents like them,” Paul says.

Another growth area is a line of frozen slush drinks that are sold in convenience stores. Convenience store owners like the drinks because they attract consumers into the store after they have paid for gas at the pump.

The three partners are astute businessmen. Ed and Paul once worked in the financial industry. Ed is a graduate of the University of Arkansas, Paul is a graduate of Hendrix College at Conway and David is a graduate of Rhodes College at Memphis.

Paul says: “We’re nimble, and we’re innovative. We don’t necessarily know what the next big thing is, but we’ll be ready to respond. We also have really smart people working here. They believe in what we’re doing. Several of them were chemistry majors in college.”

“In a good family company, you have a higher level of trust,” Ed says. “And this is a good family company. We have a very low employee turnover rate.”

It all goes back to Benjamin Tyndle Fooks, who decided decades ago that he had developed a grape soda that tasted the way a grape soda should taste.

Thanks to a helping hand from Walmart, consumers across the country are still enjoying the taste of Grapette.

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Curtis King: Arkansas’ legendary coach

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

Sometimes you strike a chord with people.

I did that with my weekly newspaper column when I wrote about Coach Curtis King, who was the coach at Augusta High School from 1944-73, compiling a 182-105-12 record in football despite annually playing larger schools such as Batesville, Newport and Searcy. King also coached boys’ basketball, girls’ basketball and track while doing whatever else needed doing around the east Arkansas school.

He touched the lives of hundreds of former students, and I’ve heard from many of them this week.

I chose to write about Coach King this week because of the huge amount of national media coverage about the fact that Auburn University head football coach Gus Malzahn spent much of his career as a high school coach in Arkansas.

As I pointed out in the column, high school coaches are an important part of the fabric of this state. Start talking to Arkansans and you’ll find a lot of them who will tell you that outside of their parents, the people who had the most influence on them were high school coaches.

King died in October 1980 but is still remembered fondly.

I closed the column this way: “Gus Malzahn often tells interviewers that he comes from the high school coaching tree in Arkansas. For years, Augusta’s Curtis King was the base of that tree.”

I want to share a couple of things that I didn’t have room for in the newspaper column.

First, some quotes from a story Heber Taylor did on King for the Three Rivers Edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette back in April 1997.

Next, some memories from longtime Little Rock businessman and lobbyist Bill Brady, who played for King at Augusta.

This from the newspaper story of 17 years ago: “He was a natural as a teacher. Although small (5-7 and about 160 pounds), he had a booming voice and a presence that demanded respect. Former students say he would throw an eraser or a piece of chalk at a recalcitrant student.

“He might have the class sing the math principles he was teaching.

“He used the Bible to back up his quest for student achievement. A favorite statement was ‘woe be unto him that does not get his homework, for there shall be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.’

“To emphasize the mathematical formula for determining a circle’s circumference, he had his wife bake a special pie. He brought it to class covered and asked a student what shape the pie was. When the answer was ’round,’ he took a towel off his square-shaped pie as a reminder: ‘Pie are squared.’

“He was known to kneel beside the desk of an unprepared student and pray, ‘Lord, send your great angels and put some brains in this poor nincompoop’s head.’

“Billy Ray Smith remembers, ‘He would tear you up in class if you didn’t have your lesson.’ But he and other former Augusta athletes all say King was a great teacher.

“Bobby Pearrow, who played as a 135-pound guard in the early 1950s, said: ‘He went to great lengths to help. He gave me a good math background and that benefited me more than any other subject.’ King had such an influence on Pearrow, in fact, that he and his wife named their son Curtis after the coach.

“Smith and his cousin, Boots Simmons, who also played tackle for Augusta, told about King making them come to the front of the class for a spanking with a book. ‘He wouldn’t hurt you much, but he could sure scare you,’ Smith says.

“In 1978, Suzy Potter Lawler, who played basketball at Augusta in the late 1940s, wrote: ‘He not only taught us to work math problems and be good in sports, he taught us how to cope; how to get along in life; how to respect and be respected; how to live and, when necessary, to fight to live with dignity.'”

I’ll never forget how King described his offense during his induction speech at the 1980 Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame banquet: “I ran a single wing with an unbalanced coach.”

One of the most famous games of the King years occurred at Pocahontas in 1949 when King learned that the home team was planning to use a white ball with no stripes to blend in with its uniforms. King had a colored ball and told the officials that if Pocahontas used a white ball during the first half, Augusta would use the colored ball that matched its uniforms during the second half. The Pocahontas coach would not agree to the arrangement, and the officials awarded a forfeit to Pocahontas. On appeal, the governing board of high school athletics in the state reversed the decision.

Brady played for what he describes as the worst team King ever coached. He writes: “By any measure, Coach King was one of the finest coaches ever to field a high school team in Arkansas. However, as good as he was, he was not a miracle worker. And thus the Red Devil football team of 1958 stands alone as perhaps the worst team Coach King ever had. I was a member of that team. The 1957 team was a talented one. Ten guys from that team got college scholarship offers. For the 1958 season, we had only three lettermen returning — Larry Wayne Matthews at fullback and linebacker, Robert ‘Roebuck’ Arthurs, who moved from end to quarterback, and me.

“I’ll never forget being in Little Rock with Matthews late in the summer of 1958. He had been in an accident and was either still on crutches or limping pretty badly from having had his leg messed up. We wandered into Spaulding Sporting Goods in downtown Little Rock, just looking around and killing time. There was Coach King, talking with some of his fellow coaches and buddies. When he saw us, he called us over and began to tell all of the other guys just how bad it was going to be for the Red Devils. He pointed out that we were exactly two-thirds of his total returning lettermen. Then, he pointed out that Matthews was a ‘cripple,’ having been in an accident a month or so earlier.

“He pulled me to the front of the group and said: ‘Right here is my right halfback. He may be small, but he sure is slow.’ I had never heard that before, and we all had a good laugh. It was true. I was small at 144 pounds, and I was anything but fast. Well, coach was prophetic. We were awful in 1958, winning only one game, the homecoming game against Cotton Plant. He coached his heart out, but he couldn’t work miracles with an undersized bunch of guys who had made up the B team the previous year. We couldn’t get it together, no matter how hard we tried or how many trick plays we ran. During halftime of one game, he didn’t even want to come into the dressing room with us to give a halftime talk. It must have been the absolute low point in his otherwise stellar career.

“I think that we all learned a lot that night. I know I did. Somehow we pulled it together for him. We went back out onto the field and played solid, error-free football against a superior Trumann team. We didn’t win the game, but we did OK that night. I think Coach King was proud of the effort.

“Coach King told me one day when we were fishing on the bayou south of Gregory that he felt he hadn’t done a good job of coaching that year. I reminded him that he didn’t have much to work with and that perhaps we should be proud of that lone victory over Cotton Plant. We discussed the fact that sometimes you can learn more and develop more in the way of character in defeat than you can in victory. I’ve never forgotten how bitter those defeats were that year, how sweet that one victory was and how much respect I had for Coach King during both the great season of 1957 and the sorry season of 1958. Next to my parents, he was the most influential man in my life. I will forever be grateful for having known him. And he taught me some pretty good math, too.”

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All aboard the Gus Bus

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

Do you want to understand what makes Gus Malzahn tick?

Well, don’t spend the weekend in Pasadena (though the warmer weather would be nice).

Don’t head to east Alabama to visit Auburn, either.

Drive instead through the rice, soybean and cotton fields of the Arkansas Delta and visit the poor farming community of Hughes.

Hughes’ population in the 2010 census was 1,441. That was down from a high of 1,919 in the 1980 census.

The Hughes entry in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture notes that the second largest town in St. Francis County is “typical of the towns in this part of the state, although it is not known for any major historical events or as the home of any significantly famous people.”

Translation: Not much happens here.

But if you really want to understand why the head football coach at Auburn University is so driven, go to Hughes.

It was at Hughes, far from the limelight of American sports, that Malzahn’s coaching career began.

It was at Hughes that Malzahn learned to love the challenges of being a football coach.

It was at Hughes that Malzahn began to refine his coaching philosophies.

Remember the Hail Mary pass that Auburn used back in November to beat Georgia?

In the Auburn playbook, the play is called Little Rock, as in the city that hosts the high school state championships in Arkansas each year. Malzahn thought back then that such a play might be necessary to get his team to War Memorial Stadium.

George Schroeder, the former Arkansas Democrat-Gazette sportswriter who’s now the lead college football writer for USA Today, was in Arizona three years ago this week as Auburn prepared to play the University of Oregon for the national championship (a game Auburn would win). Schroeder was writing for the Sports Illustrated website at the time and remembered the weekend in 1994 when Malzahn brought his Hughes squad to War Memorial Stadium for the Class 4A title game.

“They’d arrived a few minutes late, and as they were about to take their seats in the stands, the coach turned around, pointed to the state championship game unfolding below and addressed the stunning reality,” Schroeder wrote. “The next day, his bunch would play for a title, too. ‘This,’ Gus Malzahn told the Hughes Blue Devils, ‘is the big time, guys.’ For those wide-eyed kids from a tiny farming community in the Mississippi River Delta, there was nothing bigger. For their 29-year-old, third-year head coach, too.”

Hughes lost to Lonoke the next day, 17-13.

“I thought I’d never be back,” Malzahn told Schroeder. “I thought I’d never get a chance again.”

This is the man who will try to lead Auburn to a national championship on Monday night in just his second year as a college head coach.

He’s a man who often describes himself as a “high school coach who just happens to be coaching college.”

Two years ago, soon after he had taken the head coaching job at Arkansas State University, I sat down with Malzahn at his office in Jonesboro. I asked him about the coaches he had looked up to when he was just getting started in the business.

He didn’t list college head coaches.

He listed Don Campbell of Wynne, now retired and soon to be inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

He listed Frank McClellan of Barton, also retired and already in the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

He listed Barry Lunney Sr., formerly of Fort Smith Southside and now at Bentonville.

And he said his football bible in those days was a book titled “The Delaware Wing-T: An Order of Football.”

Schroeder described that 1994 state championship loss to Lonoke: “In the final moments, the Blue Devils drove inside the 10. But a halfback pass misfired. A sure touchdown pass was dropped. Their last chance was intercepted. And the head coach still second-guesses himself. He knows he should have run the ball because there was still time and that was the Blue Devils’ strength. He remembers the awful empty feeling, that this was his one shot at the big time.”

Malzahn coached one more season at Hughes and then moved across the state to Shiloh Christian, a private school at Springdale that had started in 1976 as an outgrowth of the First Baptist Church.

In 1986, a Texas native named Ronnie Floyd came to First Baptist as the senior pastor. In addition to the growth at the church, the dynamic minister oversaw growth at the school.

We all know how important high school football is to Texans. Having a winning football program at Shiloh Christian was important to Ronnie Floyd, especially since his son Josh was the quarterback.

The Shiloh Christian athletic director was Jimmy Dykes, now an ESPN commentator. When Malzahn saw a note on his desk at Hughes High School asking him to call Dykes, he knew what it was about. He knew he would be heading from the Delta to the Ozarks.

At Hughes, his offense had depended primarily on the running game. At Shiloh, Malzahn moved from a run-oriented offense to the hurry-up passing attack for which he’s known. He coached the Saints from 1996-2000. The 1998 team set what at the time was a national record with 66 passing touchdowns, and Josh Floyd almost set a national record with 5,878 yards of offense (5,221 passing yards and 657 rushing yards).

Malzahn, who had feared he would never get back to War Memorial Stadium for a state championship game, led the Saints to four consecutive title game appearances. His teams lost 54-30 to Frank McClellan’s Barton Bears in 1997, defeated Hector 49-14 in 1998, defeated Carlisle 47-35 in 1999 and lost 30-29 in overtime to Rison in 2000.

Following the 2000 season, Malzahn was the choice of the Springdale School Board to replace highly respected Springdale High School head coach Jarrell Williams.

“What people don’t remember is that there were still a lot of questions about whether I could coach in the state’s largest classification,” Malzahn told me that day two years ago. “I guess I was the only one crazy enough to try to fill Coach Williams’ shoes. He was Springdale football.”

The memory of the Williams years cast a long shadow over Springdale High School football during the 2001 season.

“The job I did wasn’t good enough for the people of Springdale, and I knew it,” Malzahn said.

Across town, Shiloh was winning another state championship, defeating Augusta 34-20 in the 2001 title game. Malzahn questioned whether he had made the right career move. By 2002, though, Malzahn had the Bulldogs in the state championship game, where they lost to Barry Lunney Sr.’s Fort Smith Southside Rebels, 17-10.

Gus Malzahn was well on his way to becoming an Arkansas high school coaching legend at age 37.

Malzahn’s legend grew at Springdale when his 2005 squad went 14-0, outscored its opponents 664-118 and routed West Memphis, 54-20, in the state championship game at War Memorial Stadium in front of the largest crowd to ever watch a high school event in the state.

Sportswriter Kurt Voight even wrote a book about that 2005 Springdale team.

All Arkansans who follow sports are familiar with what happened next.

Malzahn joined Houston Nutt’s staff at the University of Arkansas in December 2005. There are those who believe that Frank Broyles, the school’s athletic director at the time, forced Nutt’s hand. Nutt mispronounced Malzahn’s name at the news conference that was held to introduce the coach, and Malzahn was never fully accepted by members of the coaching staff (some of whom derisively referred to him as “high school”) even though Arkansas won the Southeastern Conference Western Division championship in 2006.

With the tension between Malzahn and the rest of the staff evident, few were surprised when Malzahn accepted an offer from the new head coach at the University of Tulsa, Todd Graham. The two men had become friends when Graham, now the head coach at Arizona State University, was coaching the high school powerhouse at Allen, Texas. Graham purchased a video that Malzahn had hosted. It concerned the hurry-up, no-huddle offense. Graham discovered that they had the same ideas.

With Malzahn as the offensive coordinator, Tulsa ranked first nationally in total yards per game and third in passing in 2007. The Golden Hurricane became the first college team to have a 5,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and three 1,000-yard receivers in the same season. In 2008, Tulsa led the nation again in total yards, averaging 570 yards per game while ranking second in scoring.

It didn’t take Auburn’s new head coach, a defensive specialist named Gene Chizik, long to lure Malzahn back to the SEC in December 2008. The Tigers finished the 2009 season ranked 16th in total offense and 17th in scoring after having been tied for 100th in the country in scoring the previous season.

Auburn won the 2010 national championship, quarterback Cam Newton won the Heisman Trophy and Malzahn won the Broyles Award as the top assistant football coach in the country.

No assistant coach in America had a higher profile at the time. Some reports had Vanderbilt University offering Malzahn as much as $3 million a year to be its next head coach. Malzahn feared that accepting the Vanderbilt job in December 2010 would take the focus off preparations for Auburn’s appearance in the national championship game. Auburn increased his annual salary from $500,000 to $1.3 million, making him one of the nation’s highest paid assistant football coaches.

Gus Malzahn stayed at Auburn for the 2011 season.

To the west in Jonesboro, Arkansas State relieved Steve Roberts of his duties as head football coach at the end of 2010 and promoted first-year offensive coordinator Hugh Freeze to the top position. At the time, Freeze was best known as the man who had coached Michael Oher at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis. Oher was the subject of Michael Lewis’ 2006 book “The Blind Side” and the 2009 movie of the same name in which Freeze was portrayed by Little Rock actor Ray McKinnon.

ASU went 10-2 in 2011, won the Sun Belt championship and earned a spot in a bowl game at Mobile, Ala.

Freeze parlayed his success at ASU into the head coaching job at Ole Miss, where he replaced Houston Nutt.

A year earlier, then-ASU athletic director Dean Lee had called Malzahn at Auburn to ask him about Freeze. At the end of that phone conversation, Lee joked: “You wouldn’t want to come back to Arkansas, would you?”

As soon as Freeze left for Ole Miss in December 2011, Lee again called Malzahn to pick his brain about possible successors. Once more the ASU athletic director joked: “You wouldn’t want to come back to Arkansas, would you?”

This time, though, there was a long pause.

Finally, Malzahn said: “I would consider that.”

He was ready to be a college head coach.

On Friday, Dec. 9, 2011, Lee and Malzahn talked three more times on the phone. By 10:30 a.m. that Saturday, Lee was on the way to Auburn in his personal vehicle. Paranoid that Malzahn’s home was being watched by the media, Lee had taken the ASU license plate off the front of the vehicle and even removed the Red Wolf bumper stickers. For three hours that Saturday evening, Lee visited Malzahn and his wife in their home.

Lee pulled out of Auburn late that evening. Too nervous to sleep, he drove through the night to Jonesboro, arriving at 6:45 a.m. Sunday. He had made calls on the way back to ASU President Chuck Welch and Gov. Mike Beebe, an ASU graduate and strong supporter of the school’s football program.

By the following Wednesday, Malzahn was being introduced as the next ASU head coach before a large, enthusiastic crowd in the Convocation Center on the ASU campus.

Things had moved quickly.

No one, however, could have guessed all that would happen during the next two years.

Like Freeze, Malzahn led ASU to a Sun Belt title and a spot in a bowl game at Mobile.

Like Freeze, Malzahn left ASU after one season to become a head coach in the SEC.

Like Freeze, Malzahn turned around an SEC program and got his team to postseason play.

But this is a far larger game than the one in Birmingham where Freeze took his Rebels a year ago.

This is the national championship game.

This is the famous Rose Bowl stadium.

This is indeed the big time.

This is a long way from Hughes.

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