Archive for August, 2016

College football: Week 1

Wednesday, August 31st, 2016

So what to make of these Razorbacks of 2016?

Bret Bielema, a man for whom the glass is always half full, enters his fourth season at the University of Arkansas thinking the Hogs have a chance to be in the running late in the season for an SEC championship.

Senior leadership is important in college football, and Bielema is a believer in this senior class. The captains are Dan Skipper, Kody Walker, Brooks Ellis and Deatrich Wise.

“One thing that’s very apparent with this team is we have great senior leadership,” Bielema says. “I don’t think I’ve ever, going into my 11th year as a head coach, been blessed to literally have a senior at every position. … They’re great role models, leaders and players.”

Redshirt junior Austin Allen is, of course, untested at quarterback but reportedly has looked good in preseason drills.

Enough of the preseason talk. It’s time to suit up and see how this edition of the Razorbacks looks at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium on what should be a beautiful Saturday afternoon.

Let’s get to the picks for Week 1:

Arkansas 40, Louisiana Tech 29 — Tech should provide a decent test for this Arkansas team even though the Bulldogs return just three starters on defense and six on offense from a team that went 9-4 overall and 6-2 in Conference USA last season. Coach Skip Holtz is 22-17 in his three seasons at Ruston. A major weapon is senior wide receiver Trent Taylor, who had 99 catches for 1,282 yards and nine touchdowns last year. Those who have departed include tailback Kenneth Dixon from Strong, quarterback Jeff Driskel and defensive tackle Vernon Butler, who was selected in the first round of the NFL draft by the Carolina Panthers. A media panel picked the Bulldogs to finish second in Conference USA West. Tech is one of just 18 FBS programs to win nine or more games in each of the past two seasons.

Toledo 34, Arkansas State 31 — Razorback fans remember Toledo all too well. That’s the school that shocked Arkansas, 16-12, on Sept. 12 of last year at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. Two weeks later, Toledo easily disposed of Arkansas State, 37-7. The Rockets have a new head coach in Jason Candle, who had been an assistant at the school since 2009. Toledo was 10-2 in 2015, its sixth consecutive winning season. This is a rare Friday night game (I hate Friday night college football since it infringes on the high school game, but television now calls the shots) in Jonesboro. It will be the third game between the two schools in the past three seasons. The Rockets also defeated Arkansas State in January 2015 (63-44) in the GoDaddy Bowl. On offense, the Rockets return two All-MAC running backs, senior Kareem Hunt and junior Terry Swanson. Blake Anderson is 16-10 in two years at ASU, including a 9-4 record last year when the Red Wolves went to the New Orleans Bowl (and fell 47-28 to Louisiana Tech). ASU lost key skilled position players. The Red Wolves likely will play both Chad Voytik and Justice Hansen at quarterback Friday.

UCA 28, Houston Baptist 17 — The Bears open at home Thursday. UCA finished 7-4 a year ago, making Steve Campbell 13-10 in his two years as the head coach. Five starters return on defense, and four starters return on offense. Houston Baptist was 2-9 last season and 0-8 in the Southland Conference. The Bears won last year’s meeting in Houston, 43-7, and should be able to roll to victory again Thursday on the stripes in Conway despite having a young team. Campbell says several new assistant coaches have infused a sense of energy into the program. It probably won’t be enough for a conference championship given the number of first-time starters, but the Bears appear poised for another winning season.

Tennessee State 19, UAPB 16 — Two teams that struggled a year ago square off in Nashville on Saturday. UAPB was 2-9 overall and 1-8 in the SWAC last year. Tennessee State finished the season 4-6. The Golden Lions have had three consecutive losing seasons. UAPB won a SWAC title in 2012 but has gone 8-25 since then. Head coach Monte Coleman added four new coaches to his staff in an attempt to address the problems. Last year, UAPB averaged just 19.5 points per game. That ranked ninth in the conference and 93rd nationally. We’ll give a slight edge to the home team in what should be a close game.

Ouachita 30, East Central Oklahoma 22 — Ouachita has had eight consecutive winning seasons, the most of any college program in the state. The Tigers were 10-0 in the regular season two years ago en route to a Great American Conference championship but fell to 7-4 last year. There are, however, 17 starters returning. A key to the season will be how junior Austin Warford out of Malvern performs at quarterback in his second season as a starter. East Central always plays Ouachita tough, and Thursday night’s game at Cliff Harris Stadium in Arkadelphia should be no exception. East Central finished 6-5 last year, including a 31-24 loss to Ouachita in the season opener at Ada.

Henderson 41, Southeastern Oklahoma 27 — The Reddies also open at home in Arkadelphia on Thursday night. Henderson has won three of the past four GAC titles and is favored by most people to win the conference again this year. The Reddies were 11-2 in 2015 and won an NCAA Division II playoff game for the first time. There are six All-GAC performers returning. Among that group is JaQuan Cole, who led the GAC in rushing last year with 1,189 yards. There also are four offensive linemen returning to block for Cole. Southeastern Oklahoma was 6-5 last season.

Arkansas Tech 44, Southern Nazarene 21 — Arkansas Tech was 9-3 last year, including a victory over Eastern New Mexico in the Heart of Texas Bowl. It was the Wonder Boys’ best record since 2009, but Tech must find a way to replace quarterback Arsenio Favor and defensive standout Logan Genz. Still, the Wonder Boys should start the season 3-0 with the first three opponents being Southern Nazarene, Oklahoma Baptist and the University of Arkansas at Monticello. Southern Nazarene, which comes to Russellville on Thursday night, was 1-10 in 2015.

Southwestern Oklahoma 35, Southern Arkansas 33 — This could be the best of the GAC games in the first week of the season as the Muleriders make the long trip to Weatherford, Okla., for a Thursday night game. Southern Arkansas returns 15 starters from a 7-4 team. Quarterback Barrett Renner was a first team all-conference selection as just a freshman, passing for 3,333 yards and 33 touchdowns. He also has four of his top five receivers returning. Renner set team records for passing attempts, pass completions, touchdowns and total yards in a season. Southwestern Oklahoma was 8-3 a year ago and has high expectations for this season. We’ll give the edge to the home team in a game that could easily go either way.

Northwestern Oklahoma 25, UAM 23 — Again, let’s give a small edge to the home team. This is a battle between programs that struggled a year ago. Northwestern Oklahoma was 3-8, and UAM was 1-10. The Boll Weevils have won just three games the past two seasons.

Harding 50, Oklahoma Baptist 20 — The Bisons were 7-4 in 2015 following three consecutive 9-2 seasons. Harding has a 75.5 winning percentage in GAC games since the conference was formed in 2011 and expects to be strong again in the final season for head coach Ronnie Huckeba, who became an assistant at the school in 1986. Oklahoma Baptist finished 2-9 last year as it struggled to make the move up from the NAIA to NCAA Division II. Harding returns its quarterback and top two running backs from a team that averaged 377 yards per game rushing in 2015. Harding should have no problem in Searcy on Saturday night against Oklahoma Baptist.

 

 

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High school football: Preseason rankings

Monday, August 29th, 2016

It’s that fun first week of high school football when you can watch games almost every night.

Monday night sees a doubleheader at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock and a doubleheader at Cliff Harris Stadium in Arkadelphia.

Tuesday night sees another doubleheader at War Memorial Stadium along with a doubleheader at Golden Lion Stadium in Pine Bluff. Meanwhile, at Arkansas State University’s stadium in Jonesboro, ranked teams Batesville and Jonesboro square off in the Simmons Bank Classic in one of the biggest games of Week One.

Thursday night sees Bauxite battle Benton Harmony Grove in a game of interest since both teams have big-name new coaches who dropped down from higher classifications.

Dozens of games take place on Friday, including the Salt Bowl between Benton and Bryant at War Memorial Stadium. A crowd of at least 30,000 people is expected.

I’ll be on the air from 10 p.m. until midnight each Friday on more than 40 radio stations across Arkansas with scores, highlights, statistics, interviews and updated rankings. For those of you in central Arkansas, we can be heard on KARN-FM, 102.9.

Let’s get to it.

Here are the preseason rankings:

Overall

  1. Fayetteville
  2. Greenwood
  3. Pulaski Academy
  4. Cabot
  5. Bentonville
  6. Pine Bluff
  7. Springdale Har-Ber
  8. North Little Rock
  9. Jonesboro
  10. Benton

Class 7A

  1. Fayetteville
  2. Cabot
  3. Bentonville
  4. Springdale Har-Ber
  5. North Little Rock

Class 6A

  1. Greenwood
  2. Pine Bluff
  3. Jonesboro
  4. Benton
  5. El Dorado

Class 5A

  1. Pulaski Academy
  2. Batesville
  3. Wynne
  4. Alma
  5. Little Rock McClellan

Class 4A

  1. Warren
  2. Nashville
  3. Shiloh Christian
  4. Ashdown
  5. Central Arkansas Christian

Class 3A

  1. Harding Academy
  2. Glen Rose
  3. Junction City
  4. Prescott
  5. Charleston

Class 2A

  1. England
  2. Danville
  3. Rison
  4. Mount Ida
  5. Hector

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Buttons and pearls

Friday, August 26th, 2016

I’ve always found Ed Bethune — Marine, prosecutor, a Republican before it was cool in Arkansas, congressman, lawyer, lobbyist, Baltimore Oriole baseball fan — to be an interesting figure.

He’s also a talented writer as evidenced by his first two books.

His memoir “Jackhammered: A Life of Adventure” came out in 2011. The book revolved around a trip Bethune and his wife, Lana, took in 1990 aboard a 31-foot sloop named Salute. The goal was to sail from Norfolk, Va., to Portugal.

In an incident that received widespread media attention, the couple had to be rescued by U.S. Coast Guard helicopters after withstanding rough seas for 36 hours prior to being spotted.

Here’s an example of Bethune’s writing from that first book: “It was going to be a long night, seven more hours to sunrise. Our little ship tossed about, left to right and up and down. She turned first one way and then another. Every five minutes or so an enormous wave would lift us skyward, and when we reached the top, perched on the crest of the wave, our boat would fall sideways off the crest of the wave and crash, and shudder, against the trough of the wave. The fall of 25 feet felt like a thousand.”

The couple eventually was rescued by a helicopter crew.

“As we flew away, I saw Salute with the life raft attached,” Bethune writes. “She was still rolling violently with her mainsail collapsed over the side, hanging into the water. I felt sad that we were leaving her, but it was the right decision. We lost everything that was on the boat. Lana had tied a waterproof pouch around her waist that held our cash, our credit cards and our driver’s licenses. That, and the clothes on our back, were all we salvaged.

“Salute was now just another speck of white in a sea of large whitecaps; she blended in and soon was lost to sight. It was easy to see why it is so hard for search pilots to find a small sailing vessel in a stormy sea, even when they have exact coordinates fixing the position. Our dream of sailing across the Atlantic was also gone, but we took it in stride; after all, we were safe. We would live to see our children and loved ones again.”

Soon after finishing “Jackhammered,” Bethune began outlining his first novel.

The 2014 novel is titled “Gay Panic in the Ozarks” and begins with the lynching of a young gay man, whose body is left hanging from a tree. A murder investigation goes nowhere. The book’s protagonist is wracked by guilt that he didn’t do more. Thirty-eight years later, he gets a second chance to confront what Bethune refers to as man’s greatest vice, “the refusal to see wrong and do something about it.”

Bethune’s third book, which has just been released, is titled “A Pearl for Kizzy.” It’s the story of a child who lives with her family on a houseboat in east Arkansas. The family — like many of the so-called river rats who once inhabited houseboats on the lower Black, White and Cache rivers — survived through commercial fishing and gathering mussels. Family members would look for freshwater pearls in the mussels and then sell the shells to button factories.

In the book, Kizzy becomes friends at the start of World War II with a boy who’s a refugee from Nazi Germany. The book tackles various prejudices, sexual abuse and even the subject of eugenics.

“I owe so much to Pocahontas,” Bethune says. “I probably would have wound up in prison if not for the people there.”

Bethune’s parents divorced when he was 8. He’s quick to admit that he often found himself in trouble during his formative years in Little Rock. He was sent to his mother’s hometown of Pocahontas and graduated from Pocahontas High School in 1953. Bethune joined the U.S. Marine Corps, served three years and then met his wife Lana when both were students at what was then Little Rock Junior College.

Perhaps owing to the fact that my mother was from Des Arc, I’ve always been intrigued by the houseboat culture of east Arkansas.

“Button finishing plants in Iowa and New York were supplied by tons of button blanks that came from small factories lining the northeastern Arkansas rivers, which teemed with the freshwater mollusks that naturally grew mother-of-pearl-lined shells,” Lenore Shoults writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Supplying the button blank factories with raw material offered farm families extra income because shell harvesting fit around the ebb and flow of agriculture. Some families worked together, the men hauling the mussels from the river with the women and children steaming them open, discarding the animal flesh back into the river for fish food, drying and sorting the shells, and keeping an eye out for pearls.

“Some button blank operations consisted of a single man, while other factories employed as many as 60 workers. Factories, which had to be close to a railroad for shipping outbound cargo, had button-cutting machines with variously sized tubular saws that generated small to large button blanks. Coal or propane, and eventually electricity, powered the machinery. The shells were softened by soaking in water prior to drilling, and this necessitated water towers in some locations. A few factories had grinding capability, pulverizing spent shells into agricultural lime or meal.”

There were button factories along the White River at Batesville, Newport, Grand Glaise in Jackson County, Des Arc, DeValls Bluff and Clarendon.

There were factories along the Black River at Corning, Pocahontas and Black Rock.

“Batesville saw two waves of button blank factories,” Shoults writes. “The first, at the turn of the 20th century, was located in Poke Bayou near the present-day jail. The second, a 1940s location, was situated near the Missouri Pacific depot with two factories, one with 10 to 12 machines and the other a solo operation. Newport was a major hub in the button industry due to its proximity to the river and railroad. A factory was listed in Chastain’s Addition as early as 1902.”

Pocahontas had a factory by the early 1920s. A new factory opened in 1941 soon before the start of American involvement in World War II.

“The initial demand for buttons in the first two decades of the 20th century suffered setbacks in the Great Depression as new clothing purchases diminished,” Shoults writes. “During World War II, government restrictions on zippers and other metal garment closures (to save metal for the war effort) reinvigorated the button industry, and demand rose for Arkansas shells. After the war, the factories closed, although some solo operations lingered. Today, little remains of the industry but the occasionally telltale sign spotted on the ground — shells laced with perfectly round holes — and millions of mother-of-pearl buttons saved in button jars across the country, cut from blouses and shirts from a time when nothing was wasted.”

Later, mussels from Arkansas provided the raw material for cultured pearl farming.

“The 1960s until the 1980s were the heyday for shell harvesting for the cultured pearl industry,” Shoults writes. “Most of the shell was shipped to Japan, where Kokichi Mikimoto had perfected a cultured pearl process in the early 1900s. In this process, a bead was inserted into a marine oyster and the creature layered its natural nacre around the orb, thus creating a pearl. As is the case with human organ transplants, pearl oysters could potentially reject an inserted nucleus, and Mississippi River Valley shell proved to be the least likely to be expelled.”

Shoults notes that Arkansans used “the same ingenuity that kept old cars and tractors running on the farm to engineer equipment. Old Model-T car engines were turned into compressors. Garden hoses served as air conduits, and dive helmets were designed from things as disparate as fire extinguishers, hot water tanks or, in one instance, an old torpedo casing. The glass faceplate was useless in the underwater darkness but offered a degree of illumination once the diver returned to the surface. … When the cultured pearl process no longer required a shell nucleus, international demand for Arkansas shell dried up, leaving limited uses for the shell.”

The Black River, which Bethune loves to write about, once had a huge population of mussels. Dr. J.H. Myers found a large pearl two miles north of Black Rock in 1897.

“This led to a pearl rush, and tent camps sprouted along the river,” Jerry Cavaneau writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The shells provided mother of pearl, and Myers, with others, established a button factory at Black Rock three years later. According to Myers, this was the first button factory in the South. Area museums, such as the Randolph County Heritage Museum, have button-making tools and shells from which the buttons were cut.”

The Randolph County Heritage Museum is one of the best local museums in the state. The River Room there is dedicated to the five rivers that flow through Randolph County and their effect on the county. There’s a collection of Black River pearls, a mounted alligator gar caught in the Black River in the early 1950s and walls lined with old photographs of bridges, barges and steamboats.

Of the pearl rush, Shoults writes: “Shanties and tents sprang up along the river, largely the White and Black in the initial rush from 1897 until about 1903 as people destroyed thousands of mussels attempting to find a single perfect pearl. Some stories hold that because everyone was down at the rivers looking for pearls, crops went unharvested and shopkeepers could not find people to work in stores. Buyers traveled by train from New York and San Francisco. Local buyers included John L. Evans, who bought and sold pearls in Batesville. Evans was also known to be skilled in peeling pearls, a process whereby an unattractive outer layer was peeled back to reveal a more lustrous gem within.

“Discoveries could be accidental, as happened when a fisherman in need of bait opened a mussel and happened upon a gem, while others were well-planned expeditions. One account tells of four men who ordered pearling rakes from a blacksmith and set up camp. They had lumber delivered to their camp, built a boat and drilled a freshwater well — and their expedition eventually yielded a gigantic pearl. Families went on summer pearling vacations hoping to find treasure but enjoying the festive atmosphere regardless of whether or not a gem was discovered. The rush had dwindled by 1905, but pearls were still found occasionally.”

Back to Ed Bethune.

Bethune says becoming a novelist was “a case of necessity” since he found himself bored after his memoir came out.

“I needed something else to do,” he says. “The novels have given me a chance to write about my youth, the prejudices I’ve seen, the things I’ve learned. Even after the first novel came out, I discovered that I still wanted to write. When I was a boy in Pocahontas, I was fascinated by the river rats. I often wondered what it might be like to grow up on one of those houseboats out on the Black River.”

That fascination helped lead to this most recent book.

As Bethune wrote his first two books, he wouldn’t let anyone see the manuscripts until they were finished. This time, he allowed Lana to read and offer suggestions each time he finished a chapter.

He explains: “I was writing about a girl going through puberty. Obviously I never had that experience, so I needed Lana to see if the things I wrote rang true. The two things you’ll find in each of my books are a Marine and a mule. The mule appears early in this one.”

Bethune says he’s already at work on an outline for a third novel. At age 80, he shows no signs of slowing down.

 

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Into the Ozarks

Wednesday, August 24th, 2016

Leaving the annual Johnson County Peach Festival, we headed up Arkansas Highway 103 toward Oark.

That road, which winds from the Arkansas River Valley into the Ozarks, can be an adventure. It contains some of the state’s most daunting switchback curves. I can’t imagine trying to drive it when it’s starting to snow or sleet in the winter.

Looking at the covered hillsides along this route, it’s hard to visualize a landscape here that once was denuded by timber companies that would cut the trees and move on, not bothering to replant.

“Throughout the Arkansas River Valley, Johnson County has the largest amount of timber,” Jennifer Koenig Johnson writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “However, the timber industry provided only a temporary respite of prosperity, eventually declining in the 1930s and leaving many people to seek better opportunities elsewhere. In some cases, towns disappeared because they functioned based on the prosperity and success of the lumber industry. Starting in the 1930s, the U.S. Forest Service began buying up land that had been cleared and repopulating it in hopes of returning what was lumbered away.”

Johnson County’s population declined from 21,062 residents in the 1920 census to just 12,421 people by 1960.

Thousands of trees were planted during the Great Depression by the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps who were stationed at Camp Ozone, which was established in 1933. About 200 men lived at the camp.

On Dec. 18, 1907, President Teddy Roosevelt had signed a proclamation creating the Arkansas National Forest (now the Ouachita National Forest) on land south of the Arkansas River.

On March 6, 1908, he signed a proclamation creating the Ozark National Forest north of the Arkansas River, including large parts of Johnson County.

“The Ozark National Forest was the only major hardwood timberland under governmental protection at that time, and the forest would assist the furniture industry in northwest Arkansas as a renewable source of valuable hardwood,” Mary Wood writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The first forest headquarters was in Fort Smith. Samuel J. Record was the first forest supervisor, administering both the Arkansas (Ouachita) and Ozark national forests. Late in 1908, the Ozark National Forest received its own supervisor, David Fitton, who moved the headquarters to Harrison. In 1918, the headquarters moved to Russellville.

“Presidential proclamations increasing and decreasing the area of the Ozark National Forest occurred frequently during the early years. Three of the more significant changes were the executive order of President Franklin Roosevelt transferring the Magazine Ranger District from the Ouachita National Forest to the Ozark; the addition of the Henry R. Koen Experimental Forest on June 14, 1950; and the proclamation of President Dwight Eisenhower on Nov. 8, 1960, creating the St. Francis National Forest.”

We continued north on Highway 103 to where the Mulberry River flows. This tributary of the Arkansas River is one of our state’s most beautiful mountain streams.

“It flows generally southwest from its source and empties into the Arkansas River south of the city of Mulberry in Crawford County for a total length of approximately 70 miles,” Guy Lancaster writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Reportedly named for the number of mulberry trees growing in its vicinity, it is today well known among canoeists. The area around the Mulbery River has been the site of human habitation as far back as about 10,000 B.C. In historic times, the Osage Indians claimed much of this part of Arkansas, including the area drained by the Mulberry River, as their hunting grounds.

“The Cherokee settled in the area after leaving northeastern Arkansas and were formally given land in much of northwestern Arkansas in 1817, though they were later pressured to cede these lands in 1828. Permanent white settlement in the Mulberry River Valley began soon thereafter, mostly along the lower reaches of the river, near where it empties into the Arkansas River. The largest of these settlements was the community of Mulberry, which got its start after the completion of the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad in 1876.”

Canoeists and kayakers are drawn to the Mulberry when the water is right like bugs to a lamp. Margaret and Harold Hedges once wrote in a magazine story: “It offers an infinite variety of faster water, slow water, roaring rapids, rock gardens, choppy chutes, twisty channels — all sandwiched between pools of deep milky water that is serene and beautiful.”

Paul Austin, his son Josh and I even crossed the footbridge across the upper Mulberry between Oark and Catalpa. A group of children who had been swimming there were headed back to the highway on the hot summer day. It was an idyllic scene, like something out of a movie.

At that point, we were in the middle of seeing if we could finish the huge burgers at both the Oark General Store and the Catalpa Café & General Store.

Josh and I succeeded. Paul was the wimp in the group, unable to finish the second burger.

Oark is the best known of the two establishments. But the food is just as good — maybe even better — at Catalpa. Highway 103 ends at Oark, but the pavement continues near the banks of Mulberry on what’s now a Johnson County road to Catalpa. You’ll see signs so you’ll know when to turn down a short gravel road to the Catalpa Café.

The breakfast menu there features everything from homemade biscuits to pancakes to a breakfast burrito. Eggs benedict is served on Sundays. Coffee is free with any order.

The burgers for lunch and dinner all contain a half of pound of beef. The Catalpa Burger has barbecue sauce, sautéed onions and pepper jack cheese. Dad’s Burger has fried jalapenos, pepper jack cheese and Sriracha sauce. The Bubblehead comes with bacon, pepper jack cheese and jalapenos. The Juicy Lucy, which I had, is a cheese-stuffed burger with sautéed mushrooms and onions.

There’s also pulled pork, smoked brisket, turkey and several daily specials. There are always several kinds of homemade pies, and they’ll sell you whole pies if you order them in advance.

The Oark General Store, which is popular with bikers, opened in 1890. Its menu also has a selection of half-pound burgers (such as the Angry Hornet with grilled jalapenos, bell pepper, pepper jack cheese and chipotle mayonnaise).

Here’s how Michael Tilley described the place in a 2013 story for The City Wire: “Reagan and Brian Eisele are not who you would expect to find mixing up a special hushpuppy recipe or applying an egg wash to the top of a homemade pie. The couple, who married in April 2012, bought the historic Oark General Store on May 18, 2012. With little to no restaurant experience, they dug their entrepreneurial hooks into an unforgiving, low-margin business. The store first opened in 1890 to provide supplies for those intrepid souls who chose to scrap out a living in Oark, a town connected to the world then by a few rugged and often impassable logging trails. The building purchased by the Eiseles includes some of the original furnishings from that 1890 building. Today the store is a restaurant but does sell fuel and several food items.”

Tilley went on to tell how the couple met: “Reagan was a staffer for then-U.S. Rep. John Boozman, and Brian was a staffer with U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina. They were part of a tour to learn about the emerging energy industry in Azerbaijan. Although the energy reserves were abundant, the fledgling country had little in the way of modern pipeline and storage infrastructure when it became an independent country. The first major pipeline — the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan — opened in July 2006. Brian and Reagan and other congressional staffers ventured into the important geopolitical crossroads — the country is located between Russia and Iran — during February 2010. The tour period included Valentine’s Day. … The love blossomed, and Brian and Reagan visited each other’s families.

“Brian grew up in Aiken, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina in December 2005. Reagan grew up in Hartman in Johnson County and graduated from Arkansas Tech University in May 2006. During an April 2012 visit, Brian proposed to Reagan, and the wedding was planned for a site near Ponca in the scenic Boxley Valley. While Reagan was in Arkansas planning the wedding, she noticed a blurb about the Oark General Store.”

She had taken Brian there once for pie and coffee. She let him know it was for sale.

Brian told Tilley: “When I worked in Congress, I worked under and alongside some of the most hardworking and intelligent people. But at the end of the day, just because I was a lowly peon in the scheme of things, I never really felt any concrete achievement for myself. It was always for others.”

He wanted a business of his own. And he didn’t want to raise a family in the nation’s capital.

Brian’s parents helped finance the $170,000 purchase a few weeks after the couple was married in 2012.

Well-known Arkansas food writer Kat Robinson described the store this way: “The fantastic burgers from past incarnations are still there, great pies of half a dozen varieties are always in the case and there’s always a conversation going on within the walls, just like with those gentlemen of old who came to warm themselves around the stove with gossip and coffee.”

After eating at Catalpa and Oark, we took Arkansas Highway 215 from Oark until the road intersects with Arkansas Highway 23 (the Pig Trail) at Cass. If there’s a more scenic stretch of road in Arkansas, I don’t know what it is.

Highway 215 runs along the Mulberry for 18 miles between Oark and Cass and is more like a national parkway than a state highway with its scenic overlooks and interpretive panels.

In the November 2014 issue of Arkansas Highways magazine, Marilyn Collins wrote: “The flowing water of the Mulberry River offers an Ozark view not experienced by many. The river twists and turns around rock ledges, beneath scenic overlooks, and reveals the geological history and cultural heritage of Johnson and Franklin counties. … During the spring, water levels are high and challenge the most adventurous. Water calms during the summer months, providing a playground for visitors to swim, float, skip rocks and fish.”

Black bears often are seen in the area.

“People have strong attachments to the Mulberry River Valley landscape,” said Mary Brennan of the U.S. Forest Service. “While many people visit here to participate in recreational opportunities, others return as descendants of the pioneer families who settled here 100 years or more ago. Many people who live and work in this area today are third- and fourth-generation residents. People’s attachments to this landscape are very strong.”

Matt Pfeifler of the U.S. Forest Service is a third-generation Oark resident. He said: “The Mulberry River was an important part of my childhood and my family’s lives. … It’s important that people have opportunities to appreciate and experience this place.”

What’s known as the Mulberry River Interpretive Driving Trail is a partnership between the Forest Service, the Federal Highway Administration, the Arkansas State Highway & Transportation Department, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and the Cass Job Corps Center.

Spots along the route include:

— The Redding Recreation Area and Spy Rock Trailhead: There’s a canoe launch on the river here. The Spy Rock Trail, which can be accessed from the Redding campground, is an eight-mile loop that connects with the Ozark Highlands Trail. Signage at the Redding campground interprets historic settlements along the Mulberry River and the nearby Hill Cemetery.

— Indian Creek canoe launch: Signage at this site interprets the impact of the Civil War on the area.

— High Bank canoe launch — Signage here interprets prehistoric occupation of the region.

— Yale Store site — The store was located at the confluence of the Mulberry River and Little Mulberry Creek. Signage interprets the schools, churches and social life along the Mulberry River.

— Wolf Pen Recreation Area — There are campgrounds and picnic areas. Signage interprets the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Forest Service.

The road was busy on the day we made the trip from Oark to Cass since an event known as the Homegrown Music Festival was being held at Byrd’s Adventure Center on the banks of the river. Hundreds of people were camping at Byrd’s, which has an 800-acre area for camping and an extensive trail network for ATVs and motorcycles. There’s a heated shower house, covered picnic areas, stages, a general store and even a 2,500-foot grass airstrip for those wanting to travel to the area in small private planes.

Byrd’s offers canoe, kayak, raft and tube rentals on the Mulberry.

Once we hit Highway 23, we headed south toward Ozark. No trip along the Pig Trail, of course, would be complete without a stop at Turner Bend.

The first Turners moved to the area from Tennessee in about 1830. Elias Turner arrived in 1848, served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War and was a member of the Arkansas Legislature in the 1870s.

In 1900, the first bridge across the Mulberry River at this point was constructed. Eleven years later, William Eli Turner built a store at the south end of the original bridge. The years 1935-36 saw a new bridge built and the original store burn. The Turner family built another store just south of the current location. In 1939, Champ Turner (the son of William Eli Turner) married Flora Coleman and took over operation of the store. The store closed during World War II while Champ served in the Army. In 1946, Champ and Flora reopened the store. They continued to operate it until 1978 when Champ died of cancer.

Enter Brad Wimberly.

Wimberly bought the store from the Turner family in 1981, moved into the back and started renting canoes. He built the current facility in 1986-87 and expanded his operations through the years with campgrounds, cabin rentals and other improvements.

In August 2011, Wimberly threw a big celebration to mark the 100th anniversary of the store and his 30th year of ownership.

Beth Turner, a granddaughter of Champ and Flora, told the state Department of Parks & Tourism in 2011: “Turner Bend for 100 years has kept that valley going. Grandma and Grandpa, they made that area a family. They were always there, and the light was always on.”

Beth Turner produced a documentary on the area titled “Ties That Bind.” She said her grandparents did everything from bandaging cuts to pulling cars out of ditches.

“The Turners raised three sons in half of their building while conducting business out of the other half,” Wimberly said in 2011. “In those days, the store was known as the home of Bubbles the myna bird. Apparently, Bubbles had a large vocabulary, some of it X-rated. Champ was something of a trader and had lots of old guns hanging from the wall inside the store. The public restroom was an outhouse sitting over a creek.”

Jill Rohrbach wrote in 2011: “Turner Bend was more than an outfitter or supply source. It was a social center, like an office water cooler. State politicians, including a young Bill Clinton, stopped by to shake hands and explain their positions to Champ, who would then pass the information on to people in the valley who visited the store. People, mostly from outside the region, began flocking to the Mulberry to canoe in the later 1960s after the guide book ‘The Mighty Mulberry’ was published.”

Wimberly said: “Champ did not have a gauge as such but could tell you how many steps were covered and whether the river was rising or falling.”

No all of the natives welcomed the visitors.

“Wimberly and his friends canoed the Mulberry often,” Rohrbach wrote. “He particularly remembers conversations with Champ during the 1976 and 1977 spring float seasons. ‘When we returned for a float trip in 1978, the store was closed,’ he says. ‘Champ was soon to pass on.’ The Turner family leased the store out for a couple of years before selling it.”

Wimberly said: “As the saying goes, fools rush in. I purchased the store in May 1981. Good thing I was only 26 since there were hardships and problems at every turn. I lived in the back of the old store like the Turners before me. The wiring was faulty, the water well was suspect, the roof was leaky and there was no insulation. It was so hot inside the store that I would step outside and hose myself down and then step in the cooler just to be able to stand it.”

Wimberly built a rock landing on the river in the fall of 1981. He married his wife Vien on the banks of the river.

“University of Arkansas students flew down the trail on Fridays and back up on Sundays,” Wimberly said. “Businessmen traveling to and from Little Rock would stop, going and coming back. Hog fans with their flags flying stopped on their way to games. Canoeing on the Mulberry grew in popularity.”

A new store was built adjacent to the old building in 1986.

“We had to build part of the new building, tear part of the old one down, build some more, tear the rest of the old building down, then complete the construction,” Wimberly told Rohrbach. “The whole process took about a year, and we never closed a day.”

When what’s now Interstate 49 opened in 1999, traffic slowed on Highway 23.

“I had naively thought that a lot of the regulars would continue to travel the Pig Trail since it is so much shorter than the interstate route, but I was wrong,” Wimberly said. “We lost all of the regular traffic. Students now attend the University of Arkansas and don’t even know what the Pig Trail is.”

Turner Bend lives on, though. The Mulberry has continued to increase in popularity as a float stream, and motorcyclists discovered the Pig Trail. There were several dozen motorcycles in the parking lot the day we were there. It remains an Arkansas classic.

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Peaches and coal

Friday, August 5th, 2016

It was almost 100 degrees.

Not exactly the best weather for an outdoor festival.

Still, it was hard to find a parking place in downtown Clarksville on the Saturday of this year’s Johnson County Peach Festival, which first was held in the summer of 1938.

Tents filled the lawn of the Johnson County Courthouse as vendors sold arts, crafts and food items.

There was a time when Arkansas was among the leading peach-growing states in the country.

Peaches came from Johnson, Franklin, Pope and Faulkner counties.

There were northwest Arkansas peaches from Benton, Washington and Boone counties.

There were southwest Arkansas peaches from Howard, Pike and Clark counties.

There were Crowley’s Ridge peaches from Cross and St. Francis counties.

Peaches were shipped commercially to surrounding states, and roadside stands were common.

“All of the farmers around here used to have 20, 30 or even 100 acres of orchards,” Steve Morgan told us at his Peach Pickin’ Paradise between Clarksville and Lamar.

Cars were lined up at the entrance of the pick-your-own operation, which the Morgan family has owned since 1977. The family grows more than 20 varieties of peaches and nectarines on about 3,500 trees. Five generations of the Morgan family have operated orchards in this area.

James Griffin Morgan founded Morgan Farms in 1876 and grew a few peaches on the farm for personal use. George Morgan Sr. began growing peaches commercially during the 1920s. When George Morgan Jr. returned to Johnson County following his service in World War II, he began his own orchards.

Steve’s son Mark told Jessica Mozo of Farm Flavor earlier this year: “Grocery store peaches are picked firm so they can travel. We have the benefit of being able to leave our peaches on the tree until they soften and get their sugar. People can come pick peaches and eat them the same day. It’s a completely different product than what you find in a store.”

George Morgan Jr. and his wife Geraldine — Steve’s parents — began the pick-your-own business in 1977.

“People in the industry scratched their heads and wondered how my grandpa would get people to come out and pick all these peaches,” Mark Morgan told Mozo. “But he did it by staying open seven days a week, 12 hours a day, and building relationships with people so they developed many repeat customers. It’s also a fun family experience. We’re thankful when we see parents and grandparents bringing their kids out. Many grandparents worked picking peaches in the 1950s and 1960s, and they enjoy sharing that with their grandkids. We like to put smiles on faces.”

He noted that his grandmother, Geraldine, still helps out: “It’s pretty cool being able to work with my dad, my stepmom Carol, my brother James and my grandma Geraldine, who’s still involved. And now we have Kate (the daughter of Mark and his wife Shay) crawling around. We hope she will end up performing brain surgeries. But if she wants to grow peaches, that’s all right with me.”

“Peaches were introduced as a crop in Arkansas after the Civil War, as were many other fruits and vegetables, during the New South diversification movement in agriculture,” James Jackson writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “This movement was brought on by the need to diversify crop varieties to avoid the economic risk of a single-crop economy, as evidenced by the overproduction of cotton prior to the war. The 1879 development of the yellow-fleshed Elberta peach variety in Marshallville, Ga., by Samuel Rumph made peach growing possible as a viable industry. The Elberta, named for Rumph’s wife, softened more slowly than other varieties. Because of this advantage and the development of refrigerated railroad transportation, peach transport became possible. As railroad spurs spread westward and into the countryside, commercial peach production first reached Arkansas in areas such as Crowley’s Ridge in northeast Arkansas, Clarksville and Nashville.”

The first Johnson County Peach Festival was held in the community of Ludwig on June 26, 1938. Several thousand people showed up, including Gov. Carl Bailey. The festival was sponsored by the Johnson County Fruit Growers Association.

Jennifer Koenig Johnson writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Bailey crowned Miss Inez Mane Bohannon as the first festival queen — Miss Elberta — and autographed peaches. He was given a basket of locally grown peaches. Clarksville resident Frank E. McAnear related a vivid account of how the peach industry arrived in Johnson County and how peaches became an important part of the county. Other events included orchard tours, a potluck-style picnic and musical events.”

James Tolbert and Johnson Taylor had first raised Elberta peaches in Johnson County in 1893.

“In 1897, the Missouri Pacific Railroad became interested in this rising industry and, after negotiations, created a partnership including the peach farmers, the county and the railroad,” Johnson writes. “Despite financial and environmental setbacks through the years, the industry thrived and became an integral part of the county. … Since the first year, the peach festival has been held in Clarksville during a selected weekend in June or July. Events include musical performances, vendors, street dances, a greased-pig chase and contests (frog jumping, peach eating and terrapin derby). The beauty pageants include Queen Elberta, Miss Arkansas Valley, Miss Arkansas Valley Outstanding Teen, Princess Elberta, Little Mister, Teen Peach, Tiny Peach and Teeny Peach. Events also include a parade, a cardboard boat regatta, a race and a fishing derby. Festivities conclude with horseshoe and bass tournaments.”

The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture operates its Fruit Research Station in Johnson County. What originally was known as the Peach Substation began near Lamar in cooperation with the Johnson County Fruit Growers Association and the Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation. It moved to its current location on Red Lick Mountain in 1959. The current headquarters building opened in 2007. Two years later, the building was named in honor of Cole Westbrook, who was the resident director from the start of the research facility in 1948 until 1976.

A peach substation also opened in Howard County in 1948.

The peak year for peach production in the state was 1940 when almost 2.3 million bushels were shipped. Late freezes in 1952 and 1953 following warm winters spelled doom for the Arkansas peach crop.

“Production sank to 150,000 bushels, hurting both producers and brokers,” Jackson writes. “Brokers contracted with growers in California, Florida and southern Texas — places without a late frost. The Arkansas growers lost the market, and the impact was devastating. For Howard County growers, the only option was to pull up the trees and convert land for other purposes, often for pasture for cattle or to raise chickens. Johnson County fared little better. Growers learned to expect a full crop in only three out of five years while others reported that profits had ceased as far back as 1950.”

Morgan said he lost half of his crop due to a late freeze in March of this year. That night saw temperatures drop as low as 23 degrees in parts of the orchard. He might have lost all of the crop had he not hired a pilot to fly a helicopter over the trees during the evening.

I witnessed the terrapin derby during my walk around the Johnson County square. I also bought peach jellies and jams.

The visit to the Johnson County Peach Festival brought back memories of an equally hot day two decades earlier when I attended the festival with the state’s new governor during his first weekend in office. I had joined the staff of Gov. Mike Huckabee on his first day as the state’s chief executive — July 15, 1996. I accompanied him to Clarksville the following Saturday so he could ride in the Johnson County Peach Festival parade.

I was dressed in a coat and tie since it was a far less casual time. Members of the governor’s staff were expected to dress that way. The state trooper who accompanied us, Bill Stotts, also was dressed in a coat and tie.

As the parade was about to begin, I envisioned Stotts walking the route on one side of the car with me walking on the other side of the street. Being new, I asked him: “What do we do while the governor is riding in the parade?”

Stotts looked at me, smiled and replied: “I don’t know what you’re going to do, but I’m going to sit in that air conditioned police car over there and cool off.”

It was my first lesson in learning to relax a bit on the job.

In addition to peaches, coal mining once was an important part of the Johnson County economy.

“The emergence and use of the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad, which was completed from Little Rock to near Clarksville in 1872 and on to Fort Smith in 1874, as well as telegraph lines, connected Clarksville and other towns in Johnson County to the rest of the nation,” Johnson writes. “Likewise, the coal mining industry increased in size and provided jobs for many citizens in the county. Coal had first been found in 1840 on an outcropping on Spadra Creek, and barges began shipping coal to Little Rock and other places in 1843, though it was not until the advent of railroads in the county that the industry became profitable.

“The principal population centers connected with coal mining were Coal Hill, Spadra, Jamestown, Hartman, Montana and Clarksville. Fletcher Sryglay, the land agent for the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad, recruited many European immigrants for the coal mines, adding to the cultural diversity of the area, especially in the emergence of Catholic and Lutheran populations. However, the use of Slavic immigrants to break a strike led to what’s called the Jamestown War, in which many men died.

“Coal Hill, settled in 1876 and originally known as Whalen’s Switch, was a violent and dangerous place in the latter part of the 19th century, reporting numerous incidents of drunken fights, murders and robberies. However, in 1887 and 1888, Coal Hill shipped 10 times as much coal as the rest of the state. Between 1910 and 1920, it was the second-largest town in the county. This success was in part due to the employment of the convict lease system, in which prisoners served as veritable slave labor. An early strike in 1886 made public the horrors of the system in which convict miners were kept in filthy quarters and whipped if they did not meet their daily quotas. An 1888 legislative inquiry resulted in a few minor changes to the system, though convicts continued to be used for mining coal for years to come.”

While the coal mines are a thing of the past, there are still natural gas wells in Johnson County. The first well to produce profitable quantities of gas began operating in November 1921 five miles northwest of Clarksville. Arkansas Western Gas Co. built an eight-inch gas line in 1929 from the Clarksville Field (then the largest in Arkansas) to Fayetteville.

Each summer, though, it’s neither coal nor natural gas that they celebrate in Clarksville. It’s the peach.

 

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A Delta cultural stew

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016

It was mentioned in the previous post that the Mississippi Blues Trail has placed several markers outside of Mississippi in places where blues music was important.

Few places were more important to the evolution of the blues than Helena.

A Mississippi Blues Trail marker on Cherry Street, once the top commercial street in the Arkansas Delta, outlines some of that history.

It reads: “Helena has played a vital role in blues history for artists from both sides of the Mississippi River. Once known as a wide-open spot for music, gambling and nightlife, Helena was also the birthplace of ‘King Biscuit Time,’ the groundbreaking KFFA radio show that began broadcasting blues to the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta in 1941. The program had logged more than 15,000 broadcasts by 2009 and inspired Helena to launch its renowned King Biscuit Blues Festival in 1986.

“The town emerged as a major center of culture and commerce in the Delta during the steamboat era and maintained its freewheeling river port atmosphere well into the mid-20th century. Cafes, nightspots and good-time houses flourished, and musicians flocked here to entertain local field hands, sawmill workers and roustabouts who came off the boats ready for action. Many bluesmen ferried across the river from Mississippi or later motored across the Helena bridge. Others came from elsewhere in Arkansas, up from Louisiana or down from Memphis.

“Helena was at one time home to Mississippi-born blues legends Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson No 2 (Rice Miller), James Cotton, Honeyboy Edwards and Pinetop Perkins, as well as to Arkansas natives Roosevelt Sykes, Robert Nighthawk, Robert Lockwood Jr., Frank Frost, Jimmy McCracklin and George ‘Harmonica’ Smith, all of whom became influential figures in the blues. Williamson, Nighthawk and Lockwood were among the first bluesmen to play their instruments through amplifiers, paving the transitional path of blues from acoustic to electric music, a development often attributed to Muddy Waters in Chicago in the late 1940s.

“Soon after KFFA went on the air in 1941, Williamson’s broadcasts on ‘King Biscuit Time’ brought blues to an audience that had seldom if ever heard such music on the radio. Up-and-coming bluesmen B.B. King, Albert King, Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters all tuned in to the lunchtime broadcasts from the KFFA studios, or on occasion WROX in Clarksdale, advertising King Biscuit Flour and promoting their upcoming shows at local juke joints and house parties. The sponsor, Interstate Grocer Co., even introduced a Sonny Boy brand of cornmeal.

“During Williamson’s extended stays away from Helena, drummer James ‘Peck’ Curtis kept the program going with an assortment of band members. The show eventually switched to records instead of live music and continued with deejay Sonny Payne at the helm. Off the air only from 1980 until 1986, it still ranks as one of the longest-running programs in radio history. The Delta Cultural Center began hosting the broadcast in the 1990s.”

A separate Mississippi Blues Trail marker a block away on Biscuit Row in downtown Helena is devoted to Williamson.

It reads in part: “Williamson had played in Helena even before he began performing on ‘King Biscuit Time’ in 1941. He was joined by a succession of ‘King Biscuit Entertainers’ — James ‘Peck’ Curtis was a constant presence on the show, and others included Pinetop Perkins, Willie Love, Joe Willie Wilkins, Houston Stackhouse, Elmore James and W.C. Clay — all originally from Mississippi — as well as Robert Lockwood Jr. from Arkansas and Robert ‘Dudlow’ Taylor from Louisiana. The band performed in surrounding towns to advertise King Biscuit Flour and Sonny Boy Cornmeal, and they also played locally at theaters and nightspots.

“Venues in Helena included the Owl Café, Busy Bee, Kitty Cat Café, Mississippi Café, Dreamland Café and Silver Moon. But the best-remembered juke joint was the Hole in the Wall, operated by another native Mississippian, James Oscar Crawford. Williamson and various band members, along with Willie Johnson, Doctor Ross, Hacksaw Harney and Honeyboy Edwards, were among those recalled at the Hole in the Wall. Rumors even circulated that Robert Johnson — another associate of Sonny Boy’s — was murdered while playing here. But his death actually occurred in Greenwood, Miss., in 1938.

“During his extensive travels, Williams periodically revisited Helena and returned for the final time in 1965, telling Stackhouse, ‘I done come home to die now.’

“On May 25, Williamson failed to show for the KFFA broadcast and was found dead in the boardinghouse where he roomed at 427 1/2 Elm St. His sisters buried him in Tutwiler, Miss., where fans often leave harmonicas and whiskey bottles on his grave.”

Blues music is just one part of the rich cultural mix that makes the Delta so fascinating.

The combination of those who immigrated to the region when cotton was king — Italians, Irish, Chinese, Jews, Lebanese, Syrians, etc. — is central to making the Delta a unique region.

In the previous post, I wrote about attending the 100th birthday party for David Solomon of Helena.

“David and I are the last of the Jewish lawyers in the Arkansas Delta,” says my friend Raymond Abramson of Holly Grove. “The list at one time included Oscar Fendler of Blytheville and Kent Rubens of West Memphis, both deceased, along with Eddie Graumann, who was municipal judge for many years in Helena and who’s now retired in Memphis.”

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, a project of the Goldring-Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, the first Jew to settle in Arkansas was Abraham Block, who opened a store at Washington in southwest Arkansas in 1823.

“Block settled in Washington when there were no Jewish congregations or institutions in the Arkansas Territory,” the encyclopedia reports. “He was a charter member of the first Jewish synagogue in the region, Congregation Gates of Mercy in New Orleans, joining in 1828. Yet the lack of any organized Jewish life in Arkansas at the time took its toll on his family, and few of his children remained within the faith. Block’s life in Arkansas highlights the challenges that Jews have often faced in a state largely isolated from the centers of American Jewish life.

“The difficulties became a little easier as growing numbers of Jews from central Europe began to arrive in Arkansas in the years before the Civil War. These immigrants were part of the German wave of Jewish immigration, which settled primarily in the large cities of the Northeast and Midwest. But a significant minority of Jews from the German states and from Alsace-Lorraine settled in the rural South, including Arkansas.”

By the start of the Civil War, there were Jewish communities in Little Rock, Pine Bluff, Fort Smith, Van Buren, DeValls Bluff, Batesville and Jonesboro. Of the almost 300 Jews in Arkansas at the time of the war, at least 53 fought for the Confederacy.

Additional Jewish merchants were attracted to Arkansas in the years after the Civil War. They received their goods from Jewish wholesalers in the river cities of Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis and Memphis. According to the encyclopedia, 14 Arkansas communities were founded by Jews or named after early Jewish residents. These include Altheimer, Felsenthal and Levy.

The state’s first Jewish congregation, B’nai Israel in Little Rock, was chartered in 1866. A year later, Temple Beth El was founded in Helena and Congregation Anshe Emeth was founded in Pine Bluff. Later congregations were formed in Camden in 1869, Hot Springs in 1878, Texarkana in 1884, Jonesboro in 1897, Newport in 1905, Dermott in 1905, Eudora in 1912, Osceola in 1913, Forrest City in 1914, Wynne in 1915, Marianna in 1920, Blytheville in 1924, El Dorado in 1926, McGehee in 1947, Fayetteville in 1981 and Bentonville in 2004.

In Helena, the 1870 census showed that a majority of the city’s Jews had been born in Prussia and other parts of what would become Germany. By the start of the 20th century, Jews dominated the retail trade there. There were 22 Jewish-owned businesses by 1909. Helena had a Jewish mayor, Aaron Meyers, from 1878-80.

A number of the Jewish immigrants had come to Arkansas as traveling peddlers. Many of their descendants went on to become wealthy merchants and planters. Due to a wave of immigration from Eastern Europe, the Jewish population of Arkansas grew from 1,466 in 1878 to 8,850 by the time of the Great Flood of 1927.

Jacob Trieber, whose family settled in Helena in 1868, became the first Jewish federal judge when President William McKinley appointed him to the bench in 1900. Trieber, who had been born in Prussia in 1853, served as a federal judge until 1927.

Last year, Congress passed legislation to rename the federal building at Helena in Trieber’s honor. A dedication ceremony was held earlier this year.

“We owe this honor to Judge Trieber, who was a well-respected leader in Phillips County,” said Sen. John Boozman. “This is a great tribute that symbolizes the important work he did for the community and in pursuit of justice as the nation’s first Jewish federal judge.”

Congressman Rick Crawford said: “Driven by his unmatched dedication to justice and equality for all people, Judge Trieber took it upon himself to fight against all types of injustices, including institutionalized racism, which he opposed for six decades before finally being vindicated by the Supreme Court and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Trieber was born in Prussia in 1853 and moved with his family to St. Louis in 1866. Two years later, the family moved to Helena to open a store.

Carolyn Gray LeMaster writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “In 1873, Trieber began studying law in the evenings under former Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Marshall L. Stephenson He was admitted to the state bar in 1876 and formed a partnership with Stephenson’s brother, L.C. Stephenson, and later with Marshall Stephenson. As his adopted home, Arkansas became dear to him, although the blatant racism he saw had a lifelong effect on his life and work. He sought to communicate — through his own life and deeds and his commitment to equal justice — that racism was detrimental to the people of Arkansas and that only until the state’s race relations problem was solved could the state’s potential be achieved. He attacked Arkansas’ election laws, saying they disenfranchised black voters. … He spoke out for women’s suffrage.

“Trieber’s interest in civil rights stemmed from what he had seen in Europe as a youth. He later recalled his childhood days in Prussia, remembering how the discrimination against Jews consumed the country. He said he ‘feared any country’s future that would allow such discrimination against its citizens,’ and he hoped Arkansas could steer a different course.

“He became a member of the Republican Party in 1874, believing its policies of that day — a strong union, primacy of the U.S. Constitution, pro-business policies, greater opportunities for African-Americans and a high protective tariff — were best for the nation. He was elected to Helena’s city council in 1882, named superintendent of the state census in 1890 and elected Phillips County treasurer in 1892. In 1897, he was appointed U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas and moved to Little Rock. In 1900, President William McKinley appointed him federal judge for the Eastern District of Arkansas.

“Trieber’s civic legacy in Arkansas was far-reaching. He was at the forefront of varying campaigns, such as saving the Old State House from destruction, establishing the Arkansas State Tuberculosis Sanatorium in 1909 and, during World War I, serving on the Arkansas State Council of Defense and representing the state on the American Red Cross national board.”

Just as the population base of Arkansas has shifted from east to west since Trieber’s time, a lot of the artifacts from Temple Beth El at Helena went northwest when the temple was closed in 2006. The artifacts are now used by the Etz Chaim congregation in Bentonville.

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities: “Congregations in Helena, Blytheville and El Dorado closed, while others struggled to survive. The Jewish population has become concentrated in a few communities like Little Rock, Hot Springs, Fayetteville and Bentonville. In 1937, 13 cities in Arkansas had more than 50 Jews. In 2006, only four did. … The only exception to this downward trend is Bentonville. In the 21st century, as Wal-Mart has encouraged major suppliers to open offices in its corporate hometown, Bentonville has seen its Jewish population skyrocket. In 2004, a group of 30 families founded Bentonville’s first Jewish congregation, Etz Chaim, which has quickly become the fastest-growing congregation in the state.

“Bentonville is the exception to the regional trend of small-town Jewish communities declining. Most of the founding members of Etz Chaim are not Arkansas natives. Unlike the peddlers and merchants who initially settled in Arkansas in the 19th century, these 21st-century migrants are executives at large corporations. They represent the generation of Jewish professionals who have largely replaced the Jewish merchant class in the South’s metropolitan areas.”

One of the few things to remain constant in the Delta as the population has steadily declined since the 1950s is the “King Biscuit Time” radio show, which first aired on a November day in 1941 just before the United States entered World War II. Sonny Payne became a part of the show in 1951 and is still at it.

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