Archive for December, 2016

Cycling Hub of the South

Friday, December 30th, 2016

It was a beautiful Saturday in late October when dignitaries from Arkansas and Tennessee gathered on the Harahan Bridge, which crosses the Mississippi River at Memphis.

They were there to celebrate the opening of the Big River Crossing, a pedestrian boardwalk that allows cyclists and walkers to cross the river.

The $18 million boardwalk, the longest of its kind in the country, was funded by federal, state and local government grants along with private contributions. Cyclists and walkers will share the bridge with Union Pacific freight trains.

“Unless you’ve been a train conductor, it’s a view that you’ve not seen of downtown Memphis since 1949,” Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said. “It’s such a civic and cultural amenity for our current residents. I think it will draw tourists from all over the world.”

Doug Friedlander of Helena, who’s leading a regional tourism initiative for the Arkansas Delta, put it this way: “Thanks to visionary leadership, this project has put Memphis and east Arkansas squarely on the map of a rapidly growing national passion for bicycling, walking and other forms of outdoor recreation, ecotourism and physical fitness. This unprecedented attraction was the impetus for the St. Francis Levee Board, which manages the levee from Mississippi County to Lee County, to approve the development of a bike trail atop the Mississippi River levee from the bridge’s western terminus in West Memphis all the way to Marianna.”

Three weeks after the event at Memphis, some of the world’s best mountain bikers gathered on the other side of the state for the International Mountain Bicycling Association World Summit at Bentonville. The summit, which is held every other year, attracted more than 500 people from around the world along with about 60 vendors.

The four-day annual summit began in 2004. Previous host cities included Whistler in British Columbia and Steamboat Springs in Colorado.

With five mountain bike trails designated as “epic rides” by the IMBA, Arkansas and Colorado are tied for second behind only California in the number of trails. IMBA has listed Bentonville, Fayetteville and Hot Springs as “ride centers,” and northwest Arkansas has become the IMBA’s first “regional ride center.”

As one Arkansas cycling enthusiast put it, mountain biking and road cycling are “the new golf.”

In other words, they’re activities that people are willing to spend a large amount of money on and travel to pursue. Consider what Alabama — specifically the Retirement Systems of Alabama — did in creating the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, a collection of world-class golf courses, many of which have adjacent resort hotels. That effort put Alabama on the tourism map for thousands of wealthy Americans who never would have considered visiting the state otherwise.

Arkansas wants to do that in the area of cycling.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the state Department of Parks & Tourism are promoting the state as the Cycling Hub of the South. Hutchinson created a Governor’s Advisory Council on Cycling, and the Walton Family Foundation provided a $309,000 grant to IMPA to maintain the state’s five “epic rides,” which contain almost 200 miles of mountain biking trails. Arkansas is the only state to have full-time professional crews maintain such trails.

In an articled headlined “The unlikely mountain bike mecca of Bentonville” for the website www.pinkbike.com, Danielle Baker wrote: “The only thing I knew about Arkansas before my plane hit the runway at NWA was that Keith Richards had been arrested there in 1975, not long after the state had tried to outlaw rock ‘n’ roll. That was it. As I retrieved my luggage, I wondered what kind of Rolling Stones-hating folk were waiting for me outside the airport.

“Needless to say, I was surprised and excited to find myself in the middle of one of the most elaborate and accessible community-driven trail systems I’ve ever experienced — not to mention greeted and welcomed by some of the warmest and most enthusiastic strangers I’ve come across in the United States. Even with the Walmart head office causing a phenomenal rate of growth, Bentonville is every bit the charming town it was when Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, opened the original Walton five-and-dime store back in 1950. From the quaint town square, the town’s footprint ripples outward, offering world-class culinary options, microbreweries, colorful boutiques, a state-of-the-art museum and miles upon miles of singletrack.

“Originally mountain biking was developed here as a recruitment tool for Walmart back in 2006. As the largest retailer in the world, there is a need to attract employees to Bentonville and keep them here. The Walton family donated the first piece of land to develop trails on, a trail system that is now affectionately referred to as Slaughter Pen. ‘If you build it, they will come has been proven here,’ says Gary Vernon, a program officer for the Walton Family Foundation. While Bentonville has been fortunate to receive assistance from the foundation, Gary is quick to point out that ‘you can’t just throw money at this.’ He credits great community partners and the volunteers as the heart and soul of Bentonville’s mountain bike culture.

“The terrain, year-round riding and hotels that are full of business travelers during the week, leaving the weekends available, are also part of the perfect storm that is creating a world-class riding destination.”

Baker concluded the article this way: “It might be time to put Arkansas on your bucket list.”

One of those who commented on the article wrote: “I felt like I was in some sort of mountain bike utopia — small town with big town amenities thanks to the Walton Family Foundation. The folks at Phat Tire bike shop were great, and it was an awesome shop that stocked high-end stuff — a proper bike shop in a small town. Lot of transplants from other areas make for a little bit of a metropolitan feel. I can’t wait to go back.”

Another wrote: “There is a Walmart museum and also Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which is a completely different thing. It’s a world-class art museum that actually connects to the Slaughter Pen trails network. And it’s free. … I moved back to the area back in August, and it’s everything the article claims.”

Much of the work in northwest Arkansas has been driven by Tom Walton, the son of Jim Walton and grandson of Sam Walton. Tom is the chairman of what’s known as the home region program committee for the Walton Family Foundation.

“Ten years ago, the odds we would join the ranks of hosts like Whistler, British Columbia, or Steamboat Springs, Colo., were pretty long,” he wrote following the IMBA event in November. “But today northwest Arkansas has arrived as a major destination for mountain biking, and we have made trails an integral part of our urban fabric. I had the privilege of sharing the story of how we got from there to here with more than 500 conference attendees from around the world. My message was simply: While each region is different, every community can use trails to improve the quality of life for its residents.

“By connecting singletrack, greenways and city streets across northwest Arkansas, we have attracted new talent and businesses, created transportation alternatives and offered a healthy and vibrant lifestyle. The Walton Family Foundation took a holistic approach, investing not only in trails but also in energizing our urban core with thriving culinary and art scenes. We are also striving to help kids reap the benefits. We are reaching 27,000 students across our region by partnering with schools to redefine physical education through cycling.

“We want to be a place where cycling — and getting out into nature — is a choice everyone can make, every day. And here’s the great thing: Through trails, we can preserve green spaces, even as the region continues to grow and attract more people.”

What’s happening in northwest Arkansas is far from just a Walton initiative, mind you. Take, for example, the work of the Northwest Arkansas Trailblazers.

“It’s not often a single community sets out to blaze 172 miles of mountain biking, hiking, running and walking trails,” writes Erin Rushing, the Trailblazers’ executive director. “But Bella Vista has a vision, a master plan to build on the momentum of the nearby Razorback Regional Greenway, which spans 36 miles through the heart of northwest Arkansas. The vision was to begin with the Back 40, a connected set of soft-surface trails through the backyard hollows and wooded hills of Bella Vista. What the city needed was a way to bring together local government, its large property owners association, residents, funding and the trail-building experts to get the job done. And that’s where we fit in.

“Founded in 1996 as part of an initiative to build a 1.75-mile loop trail around Lake Bella Vista, the Northwest Arkansas Trailblazers has gone on to coordinate the development of more than 80 miles of trails across the region. We’ve tapped our expertise to help make the Razorback Regional Greenway and Slaughter Pen mountain bike trails possible, while providing tunnels and other critical cycling and pedestrian infrastructure solutions across Bentonville and more. But I believe the Back 40 serves as the greatest example to date of the value and expertise the Northwest Arkansas Trailblazers bring to the table.

“The project was a game changer, but it required the establishment of countless easements, purchase of undeveloped lots and a plan for working around golf courses and other community amenities without disturbing play. It meant rolling up our sleeves and going door to door, talking with and listening to residents. It meant coming up with maintenance agreements between the city of Bella Vista and the property owners association. And it meant securing funding through organizations like the Walton Family Foundation and working side by side with three of the best trail-building companies out there.

“All of that — along with the construction of the trails — began in January 2016 and had to be ready and center stage for the annual International Mountain Bicycling Association World Summit in November. But we did it. What’s even more exhilarating than meeting that timeline is that the residents of Bella Vista and this entire region now have a whole new 40-mile section of the Ozarks to explore.”

Rushing clearly sees how all of this fits together in an era when economic development is based on attracting talented young people to an area through quality-of-life initiatives.

“A new bike shop has opened in Bella Vista and the community is already turning its attention to the remaining 132 miles of trails in its master plan,” Rushing writes. “Northwest Arkansas is experiencing how these investments in connectivity aid revitalization of historic downtowns, spur commercial interest, raise property values and — most importantly — improve quality of life. A lot of communities just don’t have expertise in trail planning and design. We’ve been through the trenches and know everything that goes into getting these undertakings to the finish line. It’s why we exist. With every project, we’re bring people together. And the world is taking notice.”

When it comes to improving quality of life, consider what Fayetteville has done with Kessler Mountain Regional Park.

“On any given Saturday, 1,500 soccer kids and their families converge on the developing 200-acre outdoor sports complex at the base of picturesque Kessler Mountain,” writes Jeremy Pate, the development services director for the city of Fayetteville. “But it’s what’s happening on the 376 acres of the mountain above that serves as an example for communities across the country of what’s possible when organizations work together to preserve natural beauty.

“The opportunity for a community to preserve nearly 400 acres of urban forest for generations to come, all within its city limits — particularly on a slice of mountain as visually stunning and significant as Kessler — doesn’t happen often. Blessed with an abundance of native flora and fauna, stands of native old-growth trees, rock outcroppings and changes in topography and ecosystem, Kessler Mountain represented a chance to show active and passive recreation can coexist.”

John Coleman, a former president of the Fayetteville Natural Heritage Association, put it this way: “Fayetteville has a reputation of being a forward-thinking community when it comes to preservation. With Kessler, this is something I truly believe we’re going to look back in 50 years and applaud the foresight our leaders had.”

Pate writes: “After countless months of research, tracking and gathering public input, organizations like the Walton Family Foundation, Fayetteville Natural Heritage Association, Northwest Arkansas Land Trust and others provided the financial support necessary to help the city turn Kessler Mountain over to the public domain and place it in a conservation easement. This immediately provided the community access to the 9.8 miles of upper-level, singletrack mountain bike trails that already existed. The city continues to collaborate with hiking, mountain biking and environmental organizations to strike a responsible balance between the additional 7.6 miles of planned introductory-level trails and preservation and restoration efforts.

“Adding Kessler to the public domain wasn’t easy. In fact, conversations began a decade ago. But, as the years went by, philanthropic, environmental and outdoor recreation organizations, as well as the public, came together. As a result, Fayetteville has an incredible slice of the Ozarks for everyone from outdoors enthusiasts and athletes to families looking for a unique picnic spot or jaw-dropping view. And while the trails stretch from one side of the mountain to the other, the features that make Kessler unique — the rare Ozark zigzag salamander, Church’s wild rye grass, Missouri ground cherry, 200-year-old post oaks and more — will be protected for generations to come.

“It really is amazing to stand atop Kessler Mountain, taking in the views in every direction — to listen to the songbirds and watch the bikers, hikers and runners pass through; to know classes from local public schools and even the University of Arkansas can now access an ecological laboratory like this. The possibilities really are endless.”

Steve McBee, a mountain biker and runner, put it this way: “I’ve been riding my mountain bike on those trails since 1992, and it’s honestly some of the most beautiful riding you’re going to find. I spend a lot of time riding, from Arkansas to Colorado, but Kessler is home. It’s so unique to have something like this five minutes from your front door.”

From West Memphis on the far eastern side of the state to Bella Vista in the far northwest corner, Arkansas truly is becoming the Cycling Hub of the South.

 

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To Jonesboro and back

Friday, December 23rd, 2016

As a sports fan and former sportswriter, I’ve heard about the Northeast Arkansas Invitational Tournament (commonly known as just the NEA Tournament) all of my life.

The basketball tournament is currently celebrating its 70th edition at the Convocation Center on the campus of Arkansas State University at Jonesboro.

It’s truly an Arkansas classic.

My father coached at Newport High School in the late 1940s and early 1950s and talked about attending some of those early tournaments.

The NEA Tournament first was played in late 1947 and early 1948. The following boys’ teams took part — Bay, Clover Bend, Hickory Ridge, Hoxie, Lake City, Leachville, Manila, Marked Tree, Nettleton, Oxford, Pocahontas, Rector, State High and Trumann.

Hickory Ridge defeated Trumann in the finals, 41-38.

A girls’ division was added in 1977.

Paul Austin of the Arkansas Humanities Council, who grew up at Imboden in Lawrence County, often would tell stories of what a holiday tradition the tournament was for those who lived in the small towns in the northeast quadrant of the state. Schools from the Ozarks and schools from the Delta would come together on a basketball court in Jonesboro during the Christmas holidays each year and do battle.

People in Northeast Arkansas loved high school basketball, and folks would drive an hour or more in those days to see stars such as Chester Barner Jr. of Marmaduke (who later would lead the Greyhounds to state championships as a coach), Rickey Medlock of Cave City and Bill Bristow of Strawberry play in various tournaments.

Bristow would go on to play college basketball at Arkansas College (now Lyon College) in Batesville and then attend law school at Harvard. He became one of the state’s top trial lawyers. I was the campaign manager for Gov. Mike Huckabee in 1998 when Bristow was the Democratic nominee for governor. When I headed Arkansas’ Independent Colleges & Universities (the association representing the state’s 11 four-year institutions of higher education), Lyon was an AICU affiliate and Bristow was on the Lyon board of trustees. It’s a small state.

Medlock, meanwhile, would go on to star in basketball at the University of Arkansas and then become a highly respected ophthalmologist in Little Rock.

In a 2012 newspaper column, Harry King wrote: “The best free throw shooter in Razorback history was a technician with a self-imposed penalty for failure. Rickey Medlock, who set a Southwest Conference record of 48 consecutive while at Arkansas, would eye the back of the rim, his left hand almost underneath the ball, and use his legs, something ignored by many shooters today. He learned under his grandfather, Corbet Medlock, a former high school coach in Sharp County who sat on a stool and rolled Prince Albert cigarettes while watching Rickey shoot at a wire hoop nailed onto a garage.

“Alone at Cave City High School, Medlock would not leave until he made 10 straight free throws. If he missed, he would do a line drill and begin again. He led the NCAA in free-throw shooting in 1973-74 with 87 of 95 and made 62 of 66 the following year, but needed four more attempts to qualify for the NCAA title.”

Chester Barner Sr. was the successful head coach at Marmaduke in the 1950s.

In a 2002 interview with the Clay County Times-Democrat, his son Chester Jr. said: “One day my dad hung a sign in the old gym that said, ‘Those who fly with owls at night can’t run with the Hounds the next day.’ The next morning when I went into the gym, I saw that a dead hoot owl had been draped over the sign. One wing was affixed to the top of the sign, and the other wing touched the floor. A note was attached to the owl that read: ‘Coach, we killed the owl. Now, we’re going to run with the Hounds.’ Being a kid — I was in the seventh grade — this made a big impression on me. I idolized those older boys. That they thought it necessary to really work hard at basketball really impressed me.”

The junior high team that Chester Jr. played on won a state championship in 1957.

As a sophomore, he led the senior high team to a state title in 1958.

“I didn’t start early in the year,” Chester Jr. said of his sophomore season. “I sat on the bench. In a game against Monette, Larry Joe Miller broke his collarbone, and I took his place in the starting lineup. … We started playing well as a team toward the end of the season as we advanced to the finals of the state tournament. In the title game, we faced Caddo Gap. They came into the title game undefeated at 30-0 while we came in with a record of 31-5. When we beat them, we thought we owned the world.”

In his senior season, Chester Jr. set an NEA Tournament single-game scoring record by scoring 58 points in a victory over Mount Pleasant from Izard County. That record still stands.

While Chester Sr. was achieving success as a coach at Marmaduke, Jess Bucy (who later would be the head coach at Harding University) was doing the same eight miles to the north at Rector.

“It was the biggest game of the year,” Chester Jr. said. “Both Rector and our team had great fan support. When we met, it was something. It was the one game that mattered the most.”

Chester Jr. graduated from high school in 1960 and then played college basketball at Arkansas Tech. He met his wife Sue, who was a Tech cheerleader, in Russellville. He coached at several high schools following his college graduation, sold insurance for a time and then returned to Marmaduke High School as head basketball coach in 1974.

His first team there was 23-11, and his second team had a record of 28-10.

In Chester Jr.’s third season as head coach, a senior named Tim Porter transferred to Marmaduke and was named the most valuable player in the state tournament. The team finished 37-5, losing in the state championship game to McNeil from south Arkansas in what at the time was the Class B tournament.

The Hounds were led the next year by 6-8 Scott Horrell. They went 35-8 and won the 1978 state championship.

In Horrell’s senior year of 1979, Marmaduke went 40-2 and won the Class A state title again in a game I covered as a young sportswriter. It was played in the Duke Wells Center on the campus of Henderson State University at Arkadelphia. Parkdale then beat Marmaduke, 73-62, in the finals of the Overall Tournament on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas at Conway.

Chester Jr.’s final season as head basketball coach was the 1997-98 season. He retired in 2002 as athletic and transportation director for the Marmaduke School District.

I was thinking about all of this rich high school basketball tradition in northeast Arkansas when Paul Austin picked me up at my home in Little Rock at 7 a.m. last Saturday morning. The destination was Jonesboro, where we would attend the first day of this year’s NEA Tournament.

For sentimental reasons (I mentioned that my dad had coached at Newport, and my older sister was born there), we stopped at Newport for breakfast. The restaurant of choice was Lackey’s Smoke House BBQ. That stop not only resulted in an excellent breakfast but also allowed us to buy some of Lackey’s fine tamales to take home for Christmas.

Newport was a hopping place when my parents moved there in 1948. A fellow named Sam Walton was still running the Ben Franklin five-and-dime store downtown.

“Newport’s most significant growth occurred in the postwar period,” Marvin Schwartz writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The Newport Air Base, utilized as a training site for the U.S. Army Air Force, the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Navy, operated from 1942-46, bringing a large influx of military personnel and families to town. After the war, the air base was leased to the city. Former base housing met the demand for public housing. Base hangars and other large structures were used as incentives in a successful industrial recruiting campaign by the Newport Chamber of Commerce. Manufacturers originally located at the site included Trimfoot Shoe, Victor Metals (the world’s largest producer of aluminum toothpaste tubes) and Revere Copper & Brass.

“The May 18, 1951, Newport Daily Independent ranked Jackson County as one of the wealthiest counties in the United States, being 10th in the nation in cotton production, eighth in rice, 11th in soybeans, 110th in strawberries and 42nd in local volume of timber. A 1954 Federal Reserve report cited Newport’s economic development as a leading example of community adjustment to national economic growth, noting Newport’s effective balancing of its agricultural and industrial economies.”

Schwartz goes on to note that the economic growth was complemented by “many civic initiatives, including music and drama associations, women’s groups and civic organizations. In the 1940s and 1950s, numerous honky-tonks and music clubs were established in Newport and Jackson County. The clubs became a popular performance venue for rockabilly musicians, many of whom recorded for Sun Records in Memphis. Newport also had a popular summer league baseball program. Professional and semiprofessional local baseball teams were affiliated through the Northeast Arkansas League with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Brooklyn Dogers.”

The city’s population peaked at 8,339 in the 1980 census. It had fallen to 7,849 by the 2010 census.

“Newport has been negatively influenced by problems common to the Arkansas Delta region,” Schwartz writes. “Mechanization of agriculture and an economy of scale that promotes large corporate farming have caused land loss in the rural population. Limited employment opportunities have caused outmigration and restricted growth. The dense retail activity formerly concentrated along Front Street has diminished.”

While Newport has struggled in recent decades, Jonesboro has boomed.

There was a time when those in east Arkansas gravitated toward Memphis — they read Memphis newspapers, they watched Memphis television stations, they listened to Memphis radio stations, they went to Memphis to visit the doctor, to shop, to eat out, to attend concerts, etc.

Fueled in part by a perception that Memphis is a place with bad traffic, a place that’s dirty and a place that’s dangerous, Jonesboro’s population has more than tripled since the 1960 census. In 1960, the city had 21,418 residents. In the 2010 census, Jonesboro had 67,263 residents. That growth has continued with more than 70,000 people now calling Jonesboro home. By the 2020 census, the city likely will have 80,000 residents.

Compare that to Memphis.

In 1960, Memphis had a population of 505,563.

By the 2010 census, there were 298,645 people living within the 1960 city limits. That’s a loss of more than 200,000 people in those neighborhoods.

Jonesboro has become a true regional center.

The people in small towns throughout northeast Arkansas have, in certain instances, now turned their backs on Memphis. They read the Jonesboro Sun, they watch Jonesboro television stations, they listen to Jonesboro radio stations, they go to Jonesboro to visit the doctor, to shop, to eat out, to attend concerts, etc.

The message boards at the Convocation Center were advertising upcoming concerts by Luke Bryan and The Four Tops along with a Harlem Globetrotters game in January.

As we drove in heavy traffic down Red Wolf Boulevard (formerly Stadium Boulevard) on Saturday, the parking lot of every restaurant and store appeared full.

For Jonesboro, these are the good ol’ days.

After watching four basketball games and part of a fifth, it was time to drive back off Crowley’s Ridge and into the heart of the Arkansas Delta.

In a driving rain as the temperature tumbled, we headed south on U.S. Highway 49 through Weiner, Waldenburg, Fisher, Hickory Ridge, Tilton, Fair Oaks, Hillemann, Hunter, Zent and Fargo.

We made our way to Brinkley where Gene DePriest was waiting for us in the back room of his namesake restaurant.

Gene killed more than 100 squirrels this fall, and I had called in advance to see if my friend would fry us up some squirrel to be served alongside mashed potatoes, slaw, biscuits and cream gravy.

I signed a copy of my new book, “Southern Fried,” and gave it to Gene since he’s featured in one of the chapters. Gene is 80 now but still going strong. He’s the type of character who makes the Delta such a fascinating, colorful section of our state.

We watched part of Arkansas State’s Cure Bowl victory on television while finishing off the squirrel, content at the end of a long day in northeast Arkansas.

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Dyess: Project of the year

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016

I write a lot about economic development in my beloved home state of Arkansas.

As we near the end of another year, I began making a list of the most important economic development projects in our state.

Looking at that list, it would be easy to point toward the northeast (Mississippi County to be exact) and go with the Big River Steel plant at Osceola, which recently produced its first hot roll coil tube.

The steel plant, which sits on a 1,300-acre tract along the Mississippi River, cost more than $1 billion to build and is expected to be fully operational in early 2017. It will be able to produce 1.6 million tons of steel each year with a workforce of 525 people earning an average annual salary of $75,000.

There’s no doubt that this is an important project for Arkansas.

However, there’s a project that might have an even greater impact on the state in the decades ahead, and it’s also in Mississippi County.

It’s not a factory.

It’s not a business of any kind.

It’s the former Dyess Colony, where a visitors’ center was dedicated back on May 21.

Yes, my vote for Arkansas economic development project of the year goes to Dyess.

I know you’re shaking your head. So allow me to explain the reasons for my pick.

Tourism is, of course, a big piece of the economic development puzzle in Arkansas. The Dyess restoration gives those traveling between Memphis and St. Louis a reason to stop in our state.

But my reasons for choosing Dyess go much deeper than that. They have to do with attitude and self-esteem.

The Dyess project represents a growing willingness to celebrate the rich cultural heritage of this state.

Say goodbye (I hope) to the Arkansas inferiority complex, which plagued our state for decades and was exacerbated when Arkansas lost a higher percentage of its population from 1940-60 than any other state.

When Arkansans feel better about themselves, those looking to relocate their businesses and families here will feel better about Arkansas.

Who better than an internationally known performer such as the late Johnny Cash to pull us together?

Bill Clinton may be the best-known Arkansan, but politics tends to divide us.

Music, on the other hand, can unite us.

Ruth Hawkins, the director of Arkansas State University’s Heritage Sites program, understands that better than most. It’s why she has worked for years to obtain government grants and private donations to restore structures at Dyess. The resettlement colony was created in 1934 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal efforts to get the country out of the Great Depression. Almost 500 poor Arkansas farm families came to Dyess. Cash’s family made the long trip from the pine woods around Kingsland in south Arkansas to the bottomland hardwoods of northeast Arkansas to resettle in 1935.

Johnny Cash, who was known in Dyess simply as J.R., died in 2003.

A town center was established as the hub of the colony with small farmsteads of 20 to 40 acres each stretching out from there. The first 13 families arrived at Dyess in October 1934. An official dedication finally was held in May 1936 with the colony named for W.R. Dyess, the state’s first Works Progress Administration manager who had been killed earlier that year in a plane crash.

Several weeks after the dedication, the nation’s first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, visited Dyess and spoke from the front steps of the administration building. Her visit received national media coverage.

The new visitors’ center is on the site of a former theater and what was known as the Pop Shop. When the original community building burned, a theater was built in 1947. Only the front façade was standing when ASU began renovations. This year’s opening of the visitors’ center is part of the second phase of renovations at Dyess. The first phase concluded in August 2014 when the restoration of the administration building was completed and the former Cash home was opened to the public.

As work was being completed on the boyhood home, Rosanne Cash (Johnny’s daughter) came to Little Rock in November 2013 for a sold-out show. It was the first time she had performed in Little Rock.

The concert came in advance of the January 2014 release of a CD titled “The River & The Thread,” which had songs based on the Delta.

“I haven’t done any of the hard work,” she said at the time of that visit. “I’ve just shown up and helped them raise some money by performing. The real credit goes to the team who has done the restoration. My dad was always incredibly proud of where he came from, and it was always a real part of who he was. His persona in the world was that he was from Arkansas. He was raised on a cotton farm.

“Coming back to that when we started the restoration of his boyhood home and seeing what that really meant — how far he walked from the house to school, how big the land was that they farmed, how hard the life was — really gave me a whole new level of respect and understanding. … It helps you know who you are if you know who your parents really were. … I was really thrilled to be involved and really moved by what they’ve done. Their historical accuracy is just beyond belief — to find just a chip of paint and then send it to the lab to find exactly what the color was. And they consulted my Aunt Joanne a lot about what the furniture, what the linoleum looked like.”

The first Johnny Cash Heritage Festival will be held next fall at Dyess. Hawkins said the event, scheduled for Oct. 19-21, will include educational and entertainment components. She said much work still must be done to achieve her goal of making Dyess a well-known tourist destination. Farmstead buildings will be re-created at the Cash home and additional services will be added for tourists who visit the home.

“It’s fitting to incorporate the New Deal heritage that was part of Johnny Cash’s formative years into a major annual event that shines light on a crucial era that’s fading from memory,” Hawkins said.

Vendors of crafts and local foods will be added to the mix. ASU officials are working closely with Rosanne Cash to plan the festival.

“We foresee an annual festival that will include both world-renowned artists on the main stage and local musicians on small stages,” Rosanne said when the festival was announced. “For four years, we held concerts in Jonesboro with such great artists as George Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Vince Gill and Willie Nelson to raise funds for the restoration of the Cash boyhood home. … This new tradition will honor the art of my father, the resilience of the Cash family and all the hard-working families of Dyess Colony, and the very origins of my dad’s musical inspiration in the Sunken Lands.”

Joanne Cash Yates, Johnny Cash’s sister, said: “This is about the people. It’s about the many families who lived in the Dyess Colony, survived and worked hard to make a living and raise a family.”

Hawkins said: “Assisting in carrying out the master plan for making the Dyess Colony and Johnny Cash boyhood home a major tourism destination will continue as one of the key goals of the festival.”

Another positive development occurred recently when signs were placed on Interstate 55 to direct people to Dyess.

Last spring, Rosanne took part in a fundraiser at the Governor’s Mansion to benefit the Dyess project. She said that day that her father had told her that his first memory after Ray and Carrie Cash moved their family to Dyess was “going into this new home that really saved their lives, that the government had provided, and that there were five empty cans of paint sitting in the front room. I put that right into a song I wrote called ‘The Sunken Lands.’ The first line is ‘five cans of paint.’

“When Arkansas State University came to the family and said we want to do this, I immediately said yes. We all said yes because we knew it would be important to my dad. He always talked about where he grew up and was so proud of it. … So many of the songs he wrote came from there.”

“The Sunken Lands” was part of Rosanne’s aforementioned 2014 CD “The River & The Thread,” which won three Grammy Awards

The Cash family left the Dyess house in the 1950s, and it was lived in by a number of other families during the next five decades.

“It was almost to the ground,” Rosanne said of the home’s condition when ASU purchased it in 2011. “It was falling apart. They got it just in time.”

Contractors lifted the home onto the back of a truck so the gumbo soil underneath, which had shifted for years, could be replaced. Wall covers and linoleum were stripped out in search of the original materials.

“Not only are the exterior and the frame restored, but they’ve meticulously furnished the house in period furnishings,” Rosanne said.

The Cash family donated some items from the original home.

“My sisters and I have also donated many things to the museum that are now in the administration building, including my dad’s Air Force trunk, his prom booklet where he had all his friends sign the booklet, report cards, letters,” Rosanne told KUAR-FM during the spring fundraising event. “The house itself is like time travel. When you walk in, you feel like you could be in 1940.”

A grant from the Arkansas Natural & Cultural Resources Council (on which I serve) helped pay for the visitors’ center. In addition to displays, there’s an orientation film and a gift shop.

“The next phase will be putting all of the outbuildings back at the Cash home, at the farmstead there, so we’re looking at building back the barn, putting back a smokehouse, a chicken coop and even an outhouse,” Hawkins told KUAR.

Rosanne said Dyess is becoming a regular stop for tourists from around the world who are touring the Mississippi River Delta.

“They go on down into the Delta, and they see where B.B. King came from, and they see where Howlin’ Wolf sat on a juke joint porch, and they may go on to see William Faulkner’s house in Oxford, Miss.,” Rosanne said. “The Delta and this part of the world are so rich in music and literature and history. I think people around the world are fascinated by it.”

While I believe the Dyess restoration is the project of the year in Arkansas, the most deserved award presentation occurred when Hawkins received a lifetime achievement award during the 75th annual meeting of the Arkansas Historical Association earlier this year. The projects she has overseen help Arkansans take more pride in their heritage and hopefully believe more in their own capabilities.

The ASU Heritage Sites program was established in 1999 to preserve and promote significant sites in the Arkansas Delta. The stated goal of the program is “to promote the natural and cultural heritage in the region, thus serving as an economic catalyst for communities and providing an educational laboratory for students at Arkansas State and throughout the region.”

In addition to Dyess, sites in the program are:

— The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center at Piggott.

— The Lakeport Plantation near Lake Village.

— The Southern Tenant Farmers Museum at Tyronza.

— The ASU Museum and the V.C. Kays House on the ASU campus at Jonesboro.

— Affiliation with the Japanese-American Relocation Center at Rohwer.

“Our heritage sites at Arkansas State are not just about preserving buildings,” Hawkins said after receiving the award from the Arkansas Historical Association. “They’re about telling stories that are important to the history of our state and our nation. So it means a great deal for our work to be recognized by the organization representing Arkansas’ finest historians.”

Arkansas State Heritage Sites also is the administrative agent for Arkansas Delta Byways, the nonprofit regional tourism promotion association that serves 15 Delta counties — Arkansas, Chicot, Clay, Craighead, Crittenden, Cross, Desha, Drew, Greene, Lee, Mississippi, Monroe Phillips, Poinsett and St. Francis.

Arkansas State Heritage Sites also has helped develop and promote two National Scenic Byways — the Crowley’s Ridge Parkway and the Arkansas segment of the 10-state Great River Road.

 

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Wilson: The model town

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

I parked my car on the town square at Wilson in Mississippi County on a weekday earlier this fall, and I could hear it: The sound of construction.

It’s a sound that hadn’t been heard here in decades.

Last year, architects, designers, elected officials and employees of the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism gathered on the square for the groundbreaking of a new home for the Hampson Archeological Museum State Park. It marked the first new construction on the town square in 57 years.

At the time of the 2015 ceremony, Becton Bell, the mayor, told reporters that the Wilson square “defines our city. It’s the first thing everyone notices when they come to town. Hopefully it’s going to bring a lot of tourism to the town and, in turn, help all of our businesses. … Things aren’t always looking up for the Delta. For Wilson, they are right now.”

That’s an understatement.

Thanks to the passion of businessman Gaylon Lawrence Jr., Wilson is being transformed into the shining jewel of the Delta.

What once was the company town for one of the largest cotton plantations in the world has become the headquarters for The Lawrence Group, an entity with real estate, bank and other holdings. The Lawrence Group even controls the nation’s largest privately owned air conditioning distributor. The company owns an estimated 180,000 acres of farmland across the country, including some of the largest citrus groves in Florida.

Lawrence told the Nashville Business Journal earlier this year that he’s “an accumulator” who prefers investing in “good, solid assets that I can own for a lifetime.”

The company was started by his father in Sikeston, Mo., a place Arkansans probably know best for the “throwed rolls” at Lambert’s Cafe. After graduating from Mississippi State University, the younger Lawrence went to work for his father. For almost 15 years, he oversaw the company’s farming asset management division. Lawrence also owns banks in Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee.

In late 2010, The Lawrence Group purchased the assets of Lee Wilson & Co., including almost all of the commercial property in Wilson. Lawrence moved from Nashville to Memphis at the time of the purchase, explaining to the Nashville Business Journal: “Along with our other interests up an down the Mississippi Delta, I just needed to be closer. It was a little bit of the situation in reverse when I first moved to Nashville in 2003.”

In the past couple of years, though, Lawrence has become more engaged than ever in the booming Nashville market.

In a profile of Lawrence published earlier this year, the Nashville Business Journal’s Scott Harrison wrote: “He prefers to be out of the limelight. But Gaylon Lawrence Jr. is about to grab Nashville’s attention in a major way. Few have the resources or the inclination to pay all cash for a bank. Lawrence did just that last fall. With one $85 million check, the Nashville billionaire swooped in and bought one of the largest banks in Middle Tennessee and the region’s second-largest mortgage lender, Clarksville’s F&M Bank.

“The Missouri native has flirted with Greater Nashville for more than a decade, launching Tennessee Bank & Trust in Franklin 13 years ago and playing his hand in various commercial real estate deals, including financing the Gulch’s newest office tower. But with his purchase of F&M, Lawrence established himself as a power player in Nashville banking. And he isn’t done yet — not in the least.

“On the hunt for his next investments, both in banking and real estate, Lawrence stands to be a mover and shaker in Nashville business circles for the foreseeable future.”

Despite the diverse portfolio, his background is in agriculture, and Lawrence long had coveted the Wilson family land in northeast Arkansas.

“Business colleagues and partners describe Lawrence as intelligent and savvy, able to quickly sift through and vet potential ventures,” Harrison writes. “He looks like the consummate businessman: Tall, well-dressed in a navy pinstriped suit and red tie, hair parted to the left. A smile pops up on his face with regularity as he describes his business plans in a measured cadence, accented by his Southern drawl.”

In northeast Arkansas, Lawrence follows in the footsteps of the Wilson family, long titans in Arkansas business and political circles.

R.E. Lee Wilson established a sawmill at what’s now Wilson in 1886 and then cleared the thousands of surrounding acres of virgin bottomland hardwood trees. A company store was soon added along with company-owned homes. As the timber was cut and drainage ditches were dug, the land surrounding the town was converted to cotton fields.

When R.E. Lee Wilson Jr. and his bride returned from their honeymoon to Great Britian, they vowed to construct not only their home but also the commercial buildings at Wilson in the Tudor style. The company began selling the homes it owned to residents in 1945.

“Existing buildings were retrofitted with brick facades to obtain the Tudor styling as well,” Cindy Grisham writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The cottonwood trees that shade the community were among the first beautification projects. They were chosen because they had no commercial value, and no one would be tempted to cut them down. Lee Wilson & Co. operated the town of Wilson as a wholly owned subsidiary until after World War II. Its residents were all company employees, and no tax revenue was collected to assist with maintenance and upkeep of the town. By 1945, the town was operating at a considerable loss, and the company decided to sell the homes to their owners and incorporate the town. This allowed the town access to tax dollars, which finally stabilized it financially.

“The average price of a home in Wilson at the time was about $4,000. R.E. Lee Wilson III, who by this time was in charge of the operations, believed that individual ownership of homes made the residents happier and more involved in the success of the community. With the increased mechanization in agriculture, fewer laborers were needed to successfully operate the Wilson farming operation. Residents of Wilson began seeking employment elsewhere. Today, most of the town’s residents commute to the larger communities in the region such as Osceola or Blytheville to work.”

The deal between the Wilson family and The Lawrence Group was finalized in December 2010 at an estimated price of $150 million. Lawrence at first considered keeping the 40,000 acres of farmland that came with the purchase while divesting himself of the commercial property at Wilson. He became fascinated with the history of the town, though, and decided instead to pour millions of dollars into Wilson in an effort to transform it into a model community for the Delta.

Lawrence wants Wilson to be a center for education, culture and the arts.

In a May feature about Wilson in the Arkansas Times, David Koon wrote: “These days, the small Delta towns that once bustled with scrubbed up field hands on weekend nights are well on their way to ghostly. Since 2012, however, something fairly amazing has been taking place in Wilson, a town of just over 900 on U.S. Highway 61 in Mississippi County. On a recent Friday, excavators and dump trucks trundled back and forth at sites all over town, moving dirt in preparation for new construction. At the Wilson Café on the town square, new forks and spoons clinked on new plates, the food prepared by a young chef uprooted from a ritzy restaurant in Memphis and repotted here, the dining room tiled and painted and polished until it looked like something out of Architectural Digest.

“Near the center of town, an organic garden pushed into the damp April daylight, overseen by a young, never-slowing idealist and her staff, the operation spinning out from a new classroom/concert space/demonstration kitchen meant to resemble a tin barn, but which is decidedly not a tin barn. On the outskirts of town, in a restored mansion that might remind one of Harry Potter’s alma mater inside and out, 45 kids attended the private Delta School, where a lesson on photosynthesis might be taught with a trip to the garden and physics might be demonstrated by building a go-kart, under the watchful eye of a brilliant, Ivy League-educated teacher whose groundbreaking ideas once landed her on the bestseller list.

“In town, property values have doubled, with houses that go on the market routinely selling in fewer than four days. Residents out for a walk are getting used to being stopped by drivers who ask if they know of property in town, any property, that’s for sale. The town’s movie theater, which screened its last film around the time Raquel Welch was a big deal, will soon flicker to life again as a modular space that can host stage plays, concerts and films.”

These are all pieces of the puzzle that Lawrence is putting together at Wilson.

There’s The Delta School, the private institution centered around a former Wilson family mansion.

There’s the community garden that was created under the direction of a former Oxford, Miss., organic farmer named Leslie Wolverton.

There’s the food of Joe Cartwright, the chef from Memphis who reopened the Wilson Café. The idea was that a quality restaurant would help people become accustomed to stopping once more in Wilson.

Late next year, the new home of the Hampson Museum will give those traveling between Memphis and St. Louis yet another reason to visit the Wilson square.

The museum houses a collection of artifacts from a Mississippian Period village that existed in the area from about 1400 to 1650. Dr. James K. Hampson, who died in 1956, began collecting artifacts in the 1930s.

“As a boy, Hampson was fascinated by arrowheads,” Marlon Mowdy writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “His interest in archaeology was rekindled in the early 1920s when he returned to the family plantation, Nodena, to set up a successful medical practice. In 1927, he began a painstaking study of the physical remains of the people who inhabited the Nodena site. Hampson, his wife and his children excavated and carefully documented portions of the Nodena site. Their well-documented discoveries led to national recognition for Hampson and major excavations by the University of Arkansas and the Alabama Museum of Natural History. The two entities excavated, surveyed, inventoried and cataloged many Late Mississippian Period artifacts from the site from the early 1930s to the 1970s, including a 1973 field school that was held at the same location.

“The original museum was constructed on Hampson’s Nodena Plantation in 1946 and named the Henry Clay Hampson Memorial Museum in honor of Hampson’s son, who was killed in action flying over Burma during World War II. The museum collection numbered more than 40,000 artifacts when Hampson died on Oct. 8, 1956. The collection stayed in the old wooden facility during the 1950s until a building next to the museum burned. The Hampson family promptly offered the collection to the state.”

The current state museum was dedicated in 1961 after R.E. Lee Wilson III donated a five-acre site. The museum was renovated in 1978, but it’s tiny and outmoded. The folks at The Lawrence Group decided that a state-of-the-art facility, which will cost more than $4 million to build, was key to their vision for Wilson.

Lawrence’s efforts at Wilson first attracted national attention in January 2014 when Kim Severson wrote a story for The New York Times.

“At first you are thinking, ‘How can I get this off my back?'” Lawrence told Severson. “But then you look around and think how can you be a catalyst. I can’t really say I am the boss. I say I am here to help. … This town has so much character we don’t have to make it up.”

Here’s what Lawrence had to say earlier this year when the Arkansas Times asked him why he has invested so much time, money and manpower in Wilson: “In 2010, when we were afforded the opportunity to acquire the historic Lee Wilson & Co., what came with that was a significant part of the town of Wilson itself. We were therefore confronted with the challenge of moving forward as stewards of the physical buildings in town and a very unique legacy. But over time, and through many discussions with the local community, development experts and folks across the state, we understood a very real chance to make a positive difference.

“I’m from the Bootheel of Missouri and have lived most of my life in and around the Delta. So reinvesting in Wilson not only makes business sense for the farming operation, but it will also hopefully help build a renewal model for the entire region.”

Those who know Gaylon Lawrence Jr. expect there will be much more to come in the years ahead.

 

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