Archive for February, 2017

Radio news

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

Before I began working for a newspaper as a high school student (a real newspaper, not a school newspaper), there was radio.

When I was age 13, a Henderson State University faculty member named Don Pennington allowed two friends (the Balay brothers) and me to have our own show on the school’s radio station, KSWH-FM. Disc jockeys had to be licensed by the Federal Communications Commission in those days. I was too young to drive so my father drove me to Little Rock early one Saturday morning to take the test for my Third Class Radiotelephone Operator License, which I carried in my billfold for years afterward.

The Arkansas Gazette published a feature story on the radio program — which included music and news from Arkadelphia’s Goza Junior High School — complete with a photo of the three of us at the KSWH controls.

The Associated Press picked up the story, and it ended up running in newspapers across the country. Thus began my love affair with radio, which continues to this day.

I started working at my hometown commercial radio stations — KVRC-AM and KDEL-FM — in high school and continued to work there through college while simultaneously holding a newspaper job.

It was common in those days for local radio stations to cover lots of local news with extended newscasts early in the morning, at noon and late in the afternoon. There also were the so-called public affairs shows (required by the FCC back then), for which various people would be interviewed at length, and live coverage of major events in town.

While there are still some Arkansas radio stations with a commitment to local news, radio reporters are becoming rare in an era when many stations obtain their programming from satellite broadcast services. Because of automation, the offices of small-town radio stations often are locked tight even in the middle of a weekday.

I worked full time in my first political campaign in the early 1980s. It was an era when a news conference in Little Rock would bring out reporters from commercial stations such as KARN-AM, KLRA-AM and KLAZ-FM along with the newspaper and television reporters. KAAY-AM also had a strong news operation in its heyday.

The epitome of the hard-charging Little Rock radio newsman was Herbie Byrd, who died last April at age 87. Byrd covered the news for Little Rock radio stations for more than four decades and was a thorn in the side of six governors — Orval Faubus, Winthrop Rockefeller, Dale Bumpers, David Pryor, Bill Clinton and Frank White. John Robert Starr, the former Arkansas Democrat managing editor, once wrote that Byrd was “the best radio newsman who ever worked in Arkansas.”

At news conferences in the governor’s conference room of the state Capitol, the first question for a governor often would come from Byrd rather than a print reporter. Now, the only radio reporters to show up at events usually are those from the state’s public radio stations.

Ben Fry, who was the general manager of Little Rock public stations KUAR-FM and KLRE-FM from 1995 until his death at age 54 last March, determined that the state would be better served if its public stations would collaborate on news stories. He applied for a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the CPB came up with $287,300 for a two-year collaboration between KUAR, KUAF-FM in Fayetteville, KASU-FM in Jonesboro and KTXK-FM in Texarkana.

What originally was known as Natural State News is now Arkansas Public Media.

Bobby Ampezzan, a Michigan native who once worked at public radio giant WNYC in New York, left a job at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last spring to become the managing editor for Arkansas Public Media.

A month later, Vanessa McKuin left her job as the head of the historic preservation organization Preserve Arkansas to serve as the lead administrator and fundraiser for the project.

Both are highly talented at what they do.

“The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has been funding regional collaborations for several years,” McKuin says. “There’s Harvest Public Media in Kansas City, which focuses on food and fuel in the Midwest. There’s the Great Lakes collaboration in upstate New York and Ohio. There’s Inside Energy radio in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota. As far as I know, we’re the only statewide project that has been funded. Our focus is on health care, energy, education and justice. We’re still largely a rural state, and we’re out finding stories that would be missed otherwise. It has been a lot of fun.”

Content partners for the project are the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Anderson Institute on Race and Ethnicity, the Central Arkansas Library System’s Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, the public television network AETN and the Spanish-language newspaper El Latino.

Ampezzan covers stories out of Little Rock along with reporter Sarah Whites-Koditschek, who once worked for nationally known public broadcasting station WHYY in Philadelphia.

Jacqueline Froelich, who has been at KUAF since 1998 and whose stories often are heard on National Public Radio, works out of Fayetteville.

Reporter Ann Kenda works out of Jonesboro, having moved to Arkansas from Boston last month.

“As you can imagine, we’re doing a great deal of legislative coverage right now,” McKuin says. “Increasing the newsgathering capacity is the goal of this project along with focusing on those issues that affect people in Arkansas. I’ve always been a big fan of public radio. When I lived in New York, I would listen to the KUAR livestream because it allowed me to keep up with what was going on back in Arkansas. It’s exciting to be on the front end of something like this. These stations shared stories in the past, but it really wasn’t a coordinated effort like this is.”

One of McKuin’s primary tasks will be to find the funds needed to ensure that Arkansas Public Media lives on once the grant runs out. She says the newsgathering operation will become a multimedia effort with a constantly updated website, frequent social media posts and even video capability through the partnership with AETN.

Radio news isn’t dead just yet in Arkansas, it seems.

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March in the Spa City

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

The month of March approaches.

It’s a month that has become prime time for tourism in Hot Springs.

The weather warms, and the crowds grow at Oaklawn Park. The crab apple trees bloom, and the infield opens.

The city hosts 14 state championship high school basketball games (seven girls’ games and seven boys’ games) during a three-day period early each March (March 9-11 this year).

And thanks to the imagination and promotional ability of Steve Arrison, who heads Visit Hot Springs, the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade is now among the top events of its type in the country. With the parade falling on a Friday night this year, record crowds are expected to fill the streets downtown if the weather cooperates.

Adding to the excitement is the opening of The Waters, a boutique hotel across Central Avenue from Bathhouse Row. Renovation work on the historic Thompson Building, which will house the hotel, began in October 2015. More than $8 million later, 62 rooms are ready for guests from across the region.

“I had no idea when we started this how long it takes to build a hotel or to remodel a 100-year-old building,” Robert Zunick, one of the three partners in the project, told the Hot Springs National Park Rotary Club last month. “It took nine months to negotiate the sale. Once we owned the Thompson Building, it took 16 months to close the financing. We’re 15 months on the construction now.”

Zunick, a Hot Springs financial adviser, teamed up with veteran Spa City architects Bob Kempkes and Anthony Taylor to create The Waters. The work of Kempkes and Taylor can be seen around town, especially their beautiful renovation of the Ozark Bathhouse on the other side of Central Avenue.

The three men considered hundreds of potential names for the hotel before deciding on one.

Zunick said: “We really wanted to settle in on the essence of what really ties everything together, the reason all of those people came to Hot Springs in the first place, and all of this kind of boils down to one thing — the waters that we’ve been blessed with here in the national park.”

The Thompson Building was constructed in 1913. It has housed everything from a hotel to gift shops to apartments to doctors’ offices through the decades. A century ago, the term “taking the waters” was common in this country, and the Thompson was built to serve those who came to the Spa City for that reason.

Zunick said construction crews found a hotel receipt from 1949. He told the Rotarians: “They spent two nights at the Thompson Hotel for $16 a night. We’re going to be a little bit higher than that.”

Chris Wolcott, the hotel’s general manager, said the renovation resulted in a facility in which “not a single one of the rooms is like the other. We have different sizes. We have different layouts. … We have exposed brick walls and bench-seat windows.”

The Thompson Building also is the home of the recently opened fine-dining venue known as The Avenue. Casey Copeland, the former chef at So Restaurant-Bar in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Little Rock, is at the helm of the restaurant.

Copeland decribes himself as a person who “eats, sleeps and breathes food. We want to work with the community, local artisans and local farmers and bring Hot Springs something that I don’t think is here, a whole new dining experience.”

Within the next year, a rooftop bar and an outdoor garden will be added to the mix.

In addition to attracting more tourists, business leaders in Hot Springs hope to attract talented new residents who like living in an urban environment. Quality restaurants like The Avenue, brew pubs such as the one across the street in the Superior Bathhouse, art galleries and entertainment venues are the type of amenities that attract residents who enjoy urban loft living.

If Zunick, Kempkes and Taylor are successful with the businesses in the Thompson Building, I have no doubt that outside investors with even deeper pockets will follow with renovations of the Medical Arts Building, the Howe Hotel, the Wade Building, the Velda Rose Hotel, the Vapors Club and other downtown structures that are empty and waiting on saviors.

There’s still so much potential there.

A report on Hot Springs compiled several years ago by an economic consulting firm out of Indianapolis noted: “One of Hot Springs’ greatest assets is its compact downtown district. A national park nestled within the central business district, four distinct urban neighborhoods, a prestigious high school, the convention center, the trailhead for the Hot Springs Greenway Trail and a number of hotels, restaurants and other tourist attractions all call downtown Hot Springs home.

“Like most downtowns, Hot Springs has a variety of architectural styles representing different periods in the city’s history. Unlike many downtowns, though, the architecture in Hot Springs is especially interesting due to the unusual collection of bathhouses on Bathhouse Row, an art deco high-rise structure that was once the tallest building in the state and several large structures such as the Arkansas Career Training Institute (the former Army-Navy Hospital) and the Arlington Hotel, which dominate the view from several vantage points along the downtown streets.”

I’m reminded of a statement that Courtney Crouch of Hot Springs made during a National Park Rotary Club meeting at the Arlington Hotel a couple of years ago. Crouch is a devoted historic preservationist whose Selected Funeral & Life Insurance Co. makes its home in the city’s ornate old post office building on Convention Boulevard.

“I encourage you to go out when you leave here and look at the buildings,” he told those gathered at the Arlington that day. “The Thompson Building is one of the finest architectural treasures there is. The same thing can be said about the Medical Arts Building. And what a structure the old Army-Navy Hospital is.

“We’re on a new path. We’re seeing a lot of things develop. We’re headed in a new direction. I hope we can see this become the great American spa it was back around the turn of the century.”

Crouch has made numerous trips through the years to Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, a resort that attracts the rich and famous from New York City each August in search of cooler temperatures and thoroughbred racing.

He told me: “You know, Hot Springs has more to work with from an architectural standpoint than Saratoga Springs has.”

There was a time when Hot Springs called itself “the Saratoga of the South.”

With more upscale hotels, restaurants, spas and retailers, why can’t downtown Hot Springs attract people with money to spend from the booming Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex (it’s less than a five-hour drive away) just as Saratoga Springs attracts people from New York City?

With the development of the Thompson Building in downtown Hot Springs, the first domino has fallen.

It will be interesting to see if others follow.

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Land of ducks

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017

In a previous post, I wrote about how Ernest Hemingway decided to head south from Piggott, where he was visiting his in-laws, in order to hunt ducks along the lower White River in southeast Arkansas in late 1932.

Hemingway was accompanied by Max Perkins, the legendary book editor known for discovering and nurturing authors such as Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe.

I had the pleasure of quail hunting in Clay County earlier this year with Perkins’ granddaughter, and she gave me a copy of a letter her grandfather wrote on Christmas Day in 1932.

Perkins wrote: “I’ve just got back, two days ago, from the sunny South. In six days on the White River in Arkansas, we saw the sun once for a couple of minutes and all the time we froze. Hemingway wrote that he ‘needed’ to see me, and it had to be done while duck shooting, in the snow, on the shore of a river with cakes of ice in it. And you have to kneel down a lot of the time or sit. We got quite a lot of ducks, but not nearly so many as Hem thought we should; but I had a fine time.”

I quoted from this letter in the previous post. My favorite part by far was Perkins’ description of the men who lived along the lower White and Arkansas rivers, making their living hunting, fishing, gathering mussel shells and trapping: “We were five hours by train from Memphis, but we went half of that by motor and almost ran down several hogs that ambled across our road. The whole country and the people were just as in the days of Mark Twain. We went into several houseboats to get some corn whiskey and saw men who lived always on the river. They were dressed just like the men told about in Huckleberry Finn, their trousers stuffed into their boots, and they talked just like them.”

A few such men can still be found living on houseboats on the rivers of east Arkansas — the Arkansas, White, Cache and Black — but much of what you will now find during duck season are well-heeled people from across the country who come to this mecca of mallards.

East Arkansas long has attracted the rich and famous during duck season. Vice presidents, former presidents, ambassadors, movie stars, well-known musicians, professional athletes and titans of industry descend on our state in search of ducks.

They say that if you were to stake out the Stuttgart airport during the 60-day duck season, you would be shocked by the number of faces you recognize.

Given that rich tradition, I shouldn’t have been surprised last month when I found myself at a duck club near DeWitt as dinner was being prepared by Dickie Brennan from the Brennan family of New Orleans, one of the best-known restaurant families in the world. Brennan is an avid duck hunter and was spending several days at a duck club known as Little Siberia before heading east for another hunt in Mississippi.

Brennan drove to the Arkansas Delta from the Crescent City and brought food with him — lots of food.

We started with cobia (also known as lemon fish) from the Gulf of Mexico, which was sliced paper thin as sashimi. That was followed by grilled wild boar sausages, turtle soup, fried oysters, a crab dip on French bread, a salad and prime rib. I didn’t bother to ask if there was dessert.

Brennan was born in 1960 in New Orleans and lived a block away from the historic Garden District restaurant Commander’s Palace, where his father Dick Sr., his uncle John and his aunts Adelaide, Ella and Dottie ran the show. He began working in the kitchen there as a teenager under the tutelage of chef Paul Prudhomme.

After helping his family open Mr. B’s in the French Quarter in 1979, Brennan worked under chefs in Mexico City, New York and France. He became the general manager of the family’s Brennan’s of Houston in 1986 before moving back to New Orleans in 1990 to open the Palace Café in the old Werlein’s Music Store on Canal Street.

Dickie Brennan has since opened three additional restaurants in the French Quarter — Dickie Brennan’s Steak House, Bourbon House and Tableau.

It was a magical night at Little Siberia that combined many of my favorite things — the Delta, ducks, hunting clubs with a long history, good food, fascinating people and intelligent conversation. There also was a touch of melancholy since the men who built the current Little Siberia lodge in 1983 are selling the club this month to George Dunklin Jr. of Stuttgart, the immediate past president of Ducks Unlimited who founded the Five Oaks Duck Lodge near Stuttgart. Dunklin, who served for seven years on the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, was in the inaugural class of the Arkansas Waterfowler Hall of Fame, which was inducted in December.

The Little Siberia lodge sits on the banks of a reservoir that covers almost 700 acres and is adjacent to Bayou Meto. The reservoir was constructed in part by German prisoners of war in 1943-44.

It was warm for late January, the kind of day when club members often pull large crappie from the reservoir. The door was left open so there could be a roaring fire in the lodge’s fireplace. Veteran club members told stories of the other duck clubs in this area of the state and the colorful characters who inhabit them each season.

On the bookshelf in the lodge was a copy of Ohio native Keith Russell’s book “The Duck Huntingest Gentleman.” First published in 1977, the collection of waterfowling stories contains a piece about a Thanksgiving trip Russell made to Arkansas one year. The hunting was slow from a pit blind in a flooded field his first morning in Arkansas. It was even slower the second morning in the pin oak flats.

When the late Dr. Rex Hancock of Stuttgart heard Russell complain in the back of Buerkle Drug Store on Main Street in Stuttgart, he promised to take the visitor “where the ducks are.”

That place was the reservoir at Little Siberia. Hancock, a dentist who died in 1986, was among the South’s foremost conservationists. He was best known for his lengthy battle to keep the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from turning the Cache River into a drainage ditch. Shortly after Hancock’s death, the federal government earmarked more than $33 million from the federal duck stamp program for the establishment of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge.

The lodge at Little Siberia faces west, which allowed us to watch a glorious winter sunset as Dickie Brennan prepared dinner.

“We got up in pitch dark every morning, Hem’s idea of daybreak,” Max Perkins wrote back in 1932. “I had an argument with him about it, but he said the sun had nothing to do with it; that was the only way to shoot ducks. So I gave in, with mental reservations. We really had a grand time.”

Another Arkansas duck season has ended, but the memories will linger for the thousands of people who found their way to the fields and flooded timber of east Arkansas.

From Ernest Hemingway to Jimmy Carter to Dick Cheney to Dickie Brennan, famous Americans have been lured to Arkansas for decades by its duck hunting culture.

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Thoughts turn to baseball

Thursday, February 9th, 2017

Pitchers and catchers are about to report for spring training in Florida and Arizona.

The Super Bowl is over, and thoughts turn to baseball.

For decades, Seattle’s professional baseball team played in the Pacific Coast League. Prior to this season, that’s about the only thing Seattle had in common with the Arkansas Travelers.

And even that’s a stretch.

Few people remember it, but the Travelers were members of the Pacific Coast League during the 1964-65 seasons. After attracting fewer than 68,000 fans during a 77-game home schedule in 1958, the Travelers moved to Shreveport for the 1959 season.

Then-general manager Ray Winder never lost faith that professional baseball would return to Little Rock.

Indeed, the team returned to the Southern Association in 1960 following the purchase of the New Orleans Pelicans. Winder was determined not to lose the team again. Thanks to a decision he made 57 years ago, fans of the Travelers don’t have to worry about the club being sold and moved outside of Arkansas.

Winder formed the Arkansas Travelers Baseball Club Inc. in 1960 and led a public stock drive to buy the New Orleans franchise. Each share of stock in the Travelers was worth $5. The price of that stock has never changed, and no dividends are paid to shareholders.

Even though the purchase of the Pelicans was successful, the Southern Association was on its last legs, forcing Winder to scramble yet again. The Travelers affiliated with the Philadelphia Phillies and were scheduled to play in the Class AAA American Association in 1963. That league folded prior to the beginning of the season. Arkansas played instead in the Class AAA International League. In 1964-65, Arkansas was in the Class AAA Pacific Coast League as a Phillies affiliate.

Now, Arkansas finds itself as an affiliate of the Seattle Mariners.

The Seattle Indians were a Pacific Coast League member from 1903-06 before spending the 1907-18 seasons in the Class D Northwest League. The Indians returned to the Pacific Coast League from 1919-37 and stayed in the league as the Seattle Rainers from 1938-64 and the Seattle Angels from 1965-68.

A bid to move the Cleveland Indians to Seattle had failed in 1965, but a consortium led by William Daley won an expansion franchise known as the Seattle Pilots for the 1969 season. Due to financial problems, the Pilots were sold and became the Milwaukee Brewers in 1970.

A long-running lawsuit was filed by the city, the county and the state of Washington against the American League for breach of contract. King County built the Kingdome in hopes of attracting a team, but NFL football came first when the Seattle Seahawks began playing in the stadium in 1976.

Finally, the American League offered Seattle an expansion team in exchange for dropping the lawsuit.

On April 6, 1977, Major League Baseball returned to Seattle when the Mariners took on the California Angels in front of a Kingdome crowd of 57,762.

The Mariners finished that inaugural season with a 64-98 record and then went on to finish 56-104 in 1978 and 67-95 in 1979. The Mariners hosted their first MLB All-Star Game in 1979.

Advance the clock 37 years — from 1979 to 2016 — and one would find a new era of Mariners baseball as general manager Jerry Dipoto took over and hired Scott Servais as his manager. There were numerous roster changes and a new philosophy as the Mariners made a 10-game improvement from the previous season to 86-76 while staying in the hunt for an American League Wild Card berth up until the final weekend of the regular season.

As their season wound down, the Mariners signed a two-year player development contract that made the Travelers their Class AA affiliate. The Travelers had spent the previous 16 seasons as an affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Traveler officials had worked closely with Dipoto and Servais when Dipoto was the Angels’ general manager from October 2011 until July 2015. Servais was the team’s assistant general manager.

Dipoto calls the Travelers “a franchise with great fans, a great staff and a great ballpark, as well as a long and storied history in professional baseball. Both organizations are committed to the community, good baseball and an entertaining ballpark experience.”

In 2016, the Mariners’ seven minor league affiliates combined for a 451-314 record, the best winning percentage in baseball. All seven teams had winning records and qualified for their league playoffs. Jackson, Tenn. — the Mariners’ former Double-A affiliate — won the Southern League championship.

In the Travelers, Seattle finds itself affiliated with a club with one of the richest traditions in minor league baseball. The Travelers first played in the Southern League in 1895, competing against Atlanta, Chattanooga, Memphis, Nashville, Evansville, Montgomery and New Orleans. The club posted a 25-47 record that inaugural season.

After the Southern League folded, professional baseball was absent in Little Rock for five years. The Travelers returned in 1901 with the formation of the Southern Association and finished second, just one game behind Nashville. They finished second again in 1902.

The first championship came in 1920 as the Travelers concluded the season with an 88-59 record. Their final season at Kavanaugh Field (located where Little Rock Central High School’s Quigley-Cox Stadium now stands) was in 1931. The Travelers attracted 113,758 fans that year, their second-highest attendance since the 1920 title. Land near the Arkansas State Hospital was given to the Travelers by the city of Little Rock in 1932, and Travelers Field became the team’s home.

In 1966, the stadium was renamed for Winder, who had started as a ticket taker for the Travelers in 1915 and rose to the rank of general manager. Winder spent more than five decades with the team.

The first official affiliation with a Major League team came in 1937 when the Travelers affiliated with the Boston Red Sox. The Travelers were affiliated with the Red Sox for three seasons. Later affiliations came with the Chicago White Sox in 1946, the Boston Braves in 1947, the Detroit Tigers from 1948-55, the Kansas City A’s in 1957-58 and the Baltimore Orioles in 1961.

Following the period spent in Triple-A baseball as a Phillies affiliate, Winder moved the Travelers to the Texas League in 1966. The long Pacific Coast League trips to places such as Salt Lake City and Portland had taken their toll. The Travelers now would have far shorter trips, and there was a new affiliation with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Arkansas long had been Cardinals country. Major League Baseball had half a century of stability from 1902-52 with the Cardinals (along with the less poplar St. Louis Browns) being the westernmost and southernmost team. Because of this, the Cardinals developed a huge following in the Deep South and in states west of the Mississippi River. The Cardinals won two pennants in the 1920s, three in the 1930s and four in the 1940s while developing the largest radio network in American sports. The Travelers were a Cardinals affiliate for 35 years, the second-longest active affiliation when it ended.

The Texas League was a Class D League in 1902, moved to Class C in 1904, moved to Class B in 1911 and moved up to Class A in 1921. Among current Texas League clubs, the Travelers have been in the league the longest.

Terry Turner writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture that the team found “immediate success. With shorter trips and players provided by the Cardinals, the Travelers placed first in 1966 and 1968.”

During their 16 years as an Angels affiliate, the Travelers won Texas League championships in 2001 and 2008 and also captured five division championships. Mike Trout, Francisco Rodriguez, Joe Saunders, Ervin Santana, John Lackey, Bobby Jenks, Jered Weaver and Juan Segura all spent time in Arkansas uniforms during their time with the Travelers.

The Mariner era now begins for this historic Arkansas baseball club that has played on only three fields in more than 120 years, is one of the few teams in professional sports in which fans were able to buy ownership shares, is the first professional team to be named for an entire state and is among only a handful of minor league baseball teams to have its own museum.

The nickname Travelers is the second-longest-running nickname in minor league baseball, trailing only the Buffalo Bisons.

Truly, it’s a franchise that’s unique in the annals of professional sports.

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Hunting with Hemingway: Part 2

Friday, February 3rd, 2017

We made our way to downtown Piggott on that wet, cold Saturday in January for breakfast at the Inn at Piggott.

In addition to enjoying the company of those in the hunting party with whom I would shoot quail later in the day, I visited with Link Fuller, a hometown football star who graduated from Piggott High School in 1969 and went on to become a well-known high school coach in Texas and a scout for the Dallas Cowboys. Fuller was in town to speak at that evening’s Piggott Mohawk football banquet.

Following the Saturday quail hunt, most members of the party planned to go to southeast Arkansas to hunt ducks for two mornings near Yancopin in Desha County, near where the White River and the Arkansas River empty into the Mississippi River.

The group — including the grandson of Ernest Hemingway and the granddaughter of famed book editor Max Perkins — was determined to re-create a trip Perkins and Hemingway took to that area in late 1932.

Perkins wrote in a letter dated Dec. 25, 1932: “I’ve just got back, two days ago, from the sunny South. In six days on the White River in Arkansas, we saw the sun once for a couple of minutes and all the time we froze. Hemingway wrote that he ‘needed’ to see me, and it had to be done while duck shooting, in the snow, on the shore of a river with cakes of ice in it. And you have to kneel down a lot of the time or sit. We got quite a lot of ducks, but not nearly so many as Hem thought we should; but I had a fine time.

“We were five hours by train from Memphis, but we went half of that by motor and almost ran down several hogs that ambled across our road. The whole country and the people were just as in the days of Mark Twain. We went into several houseboats to get some corn whiskey and saw men who lived always on the river. They were dressed just like the men told about in Huckleberry Finn, their trousers stuffed into their boots, and they talked just like them.

“We walked one day for several miles through the forest to a desolate narrow lake. I never was in a perfectly natural forest before. I never understood how people rode through them, but you could, rapidly, because of wide spaces between the trees. It was a ghostly walk. The trees were all whitened with ice and snow. Everything was white, and there was a white mist. We heard a dozen old trees fall under the weight of ice. But the lake was frozen over so we got no ducks there, and a big branch almost fell on Hem on the way back.

“We got up in pitch dark every morning, Hem’s idea of daybreak. I had an argument with him about it, but he said the sun had nothing to do with it; that was the only way to shoot ducks. So I gave in, with mental reservations. We really had a grand time. After dinner in the evening, we’d have two or three highballs and talk. He’s wonderful company.”

I would later hear that the duck hunting was good for our modern Arkansas visitors, but I get to duck hunt on a regular basis.

It had been years, on the other hand, since I had been behind bird dogs pointing quail on Arkansas soil.

There were few things my father loved more than what he referred to simply as “bird hunting.” And there were few things I enjoyed more as a boy than hunting with him.

I knew I was becoming a man when he would allow me to take our truck and our bird dogs out alone. When I was in high school, winter afternoons meant going out after school for an hour or so of hunting before dark — just our Brittany spaniel, our English setter and me. I never much enjoyed hunting pen-raised birds. Once wild quail became rare in Arkansas, I stopped hunting. I miss the sport.

Alas, we would hunt pen-raised birds in Clay County.

Stephen Crancer of Rector has transformed his family farm on Crowley’s Ridge near Rector into a beautiful facility for guided quail and pheasant hunts. Crancer hosts everything from corporate retreats to church outings at what’s known as Liberty Hill Outfitters. After breakfast, our group took the back route in the rain along winding gravel roads as we made our way south down the Ridge from Piggott to Liberty Hill. Several wrong turns later, we arrived, only to find that the rain had gotten harder.

After we had waited for about 30 minutes, the rain stopped.

John Hemingway, who lives in Montreal and is the grandson of Ernest, warmed up by shooting clay pigeons over a pond.

Our group, led by Crancer, walked from the pond to the fields where the quail were. It was a joy to watch Crancer’s two dogs — one of them is 13 years old — work. These were not wild birds, but it was still enough to bring back memories of those hunts with my father. And I was hunting with a Hemingway in Clay County, a story I no doubt will still be telling years from now.

Following the morning hunt, it was time for lunch, a meal catered at Liberty Hill by Chow At One Eighteen, which is located in downtown Paragould. The menu consisted of grilled quail with mushrooms, black truffle oil risotto, green beans, biscuits and a French apple tart for dessert. In other words, it wasn’t the average Saturday lunch.

As we ate, I thought about the Hemingway visits to Clay County. The Pfeiffer family back in Piggott didn’t realize it, but the marriage between Ernest and Pauline essentially was over by 1939. Ernest was spending most of his time at his home named Finca Vigia in Cuba, and Pauline remained in Key West.

On Dec. 12, 1939, Ernest wrote to Mary Pfeiffer in Piggott: “I counted very much on coming to see you last fall with the children. I wanted to see you very much, and I wanted to ask your advice about some things. … If we could have talked I believe you would have found that I have changed much less than Pauline and Virginia. … I do not mean that I have ever been in the right in everything, but the true version would be very different from anything you have heard.”

Ernest and Pauline’s divorce was final in November 1940, and Ernest soon married Martha Gellhorn, the third of his four wives. He would not return to Piggott. He committed suicide in Idaho with his favorite shotgun on July 2, 1961.

In an August 1934 letter to Mary Pfeiffer, Ernest had written: “Everything is going well with us. As usual when I am writing a novel I am making nothing and am probably regarded by the family intelligence service as a loafer. On the other hand when I am all through with a novel I make plenty of money and then, while I am loafing, am regarded with respect as a money maker.”

The “loafing” time occasionally included hunting quail in the far northeast corner of Arkansas.

On one glorious January weekend, we did our best to relive those days.

 

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Hunting with Hemingway: Part 1

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

The invitation proved irresistible: Hunt quail with the grandson of Ernest Hemingway in Clay County on land near where the famous author once hunted.

Yes, that Ernest Hemingway — the man who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1953 for the novel “The Old Man and the Sea” and was named Nobel Laureate in Literature in 1954.

The invitation came from former state Sen. Kevin Smith of Helena, a longtime friend and a Hemingway aficionado of the first order.

Smith said a group from Savannah, Ga., would fly in on a Friday afternoon in January after having purchased the trip during a charitable auction at Key West, Fla. Part of the attraction would be the chance to spend time with John Hemingway, whose father was Dr. Gregory Hemingway and whose grandfather was Ernest Hemingway.

John Hemingway would come to Piggott from Montreal, where he now lives, with his wife Kristina and son Michael.

Also traveling to Piggott for the weekend would be Jenny Phillips, the granddaughter of Max Perkins, the book editor known for discovering and nurturing famous authors such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe.

Phillips, who lives in the Boston area, is a cultural anthropologist, writer and psychiatric nurse. In 2008, she produced and directed the documentary film “The Dhamma Brothers,” which tells the story of a group of prisoners inside a maximum-security prison in Alabama who participated in a meditation program based on the teachings of the Buddha.

While working on the film, Phillips collected more than 200 letters from Alabama inmates documenting their lives in prison. The collected letters later were published in a book titled “Letters from the Dhamma Brothers.”

Phillips would be accompanied to Clay County by her husband, the well-known journalist Frank Phillips, who’s the state capitol bureau chief for The Boston Globe.

In 2002, Jenny and Frank Phillips began a project to restore the Cuban home of Ernest Hemingway and save the Hemingway papers that remained in Cuba following Hemingway’s death in 1961. An agreement was signed by Fidel Castro at Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s Cuban home. The collection included more than 9,000 books, 3,000 photographs and 2,000 letters and documents.

John Hemingway is the author of the memoir “Strange Tribe,” which examines the complex relationship between his father and grandfather. He studied history and Italian at UCLA and later lived for a number of years in Italy. After leaving Italy, he spent a year in Spain before moving to Montreal.

In an interview several years ago with The Hemingway Project, John Hemingway said of his grandfather (who died when John was a baby): “I admire him tremendously. I think that he was a great writer and a very interesting man, much more complicated than the general public usually gives him credit for being. Understanding him and what motivated him has helped me, in turn, to understand my father.

“I think that he was a compassionate person. He had his problems and his issues, but for the most part he was a generous and vulnerable man. He was a poet in the true sense of the word.”

We gathered on a cold, foggy Friday night at the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center on West Cherry Street in Piggott, which has been operated since 1999 by Arkansas State University. The property consists of a house and barn built in 1910.

Paul Pfeiffer, a wealthy St. Louis businessman, bought the house and barn in 1913 and moved his family to Piggott, where he began buying what eventually would be more than 60,000 acres of farmland. Paul Pfeiffer lived in the house until his death in 1944. His wife, Mary, lived there until her death in 1950. The Tom Janes family purchased the property in 1950 and owned it until it became ASU’s property in 1997.

Ernest Hemingway married Pauline Pfeiffer, the daughter of Paul and Mary Pfeiffer, in France in May 1927 after divorcing his first wife. Pauline was a writer who was in Paris on an assignment for Vogue magazine when she met Hemingway.

Hemingway visited Piggott for the first time in the spring of 1928 so Pauline could be with her family during her first pregnancy. He spent his time working on a new novel, “A Farewell to Arms.” On later trips to Piggott, he sometimes would hunt quail on his father-in-law’s extensive holdings.

In 1932, Hemingway came to Piggott with his wife and three children (a 9-year-old son from his first marriage and two sons with Pauline) for a visit during the winter holidays. He wrote a short story, “A Day’s Wait,” about that visit.

“It was a bright, cold day, the ground covered with a sleet that had frozen so that it seemed as if all the bare trees, the bushes, the cut brush, and all the grass and the bare ground had been varnished with ice,” Hemingway wrote. “I took the young Irish setter for a little walk up the road and along a frozen creek, but it was difficult to stand or walk on the glassy surface and the red dog slipped and slithered and I fell twice, hard, once dropping my gun and having it slide away over the ice.

“We flushed a covey of quail under a high clay bank with overhanging brush and I killed two as they went out of sight over the top of the bank. Some of the covey lit in trees, but most of them scattered into brush piles and it was necessary to jump on the ice-coated mounds of brush several times before they would flush. Coming out while you were poised unsteadily on the icy, springy brush, they made difficult shooting and I killed two, missed five, and started back pleased to have found a covey close to the house and happy there were so many left to find on another day.”

Karl Pfeiffer, Pauline’s younger brother, enjoyed hunting with Hemingway.

“Ernest was unpredictable,” Karl Pfeiffer would later say. “There were times when he’d be at ease and other times when his pomposity would show. He liked to freeze the quail he hunted and give them as Christmas gifts to his friends back east. So one day — it was near the end of his visit — he remarked about not getting to hunt much this trip and how he wanted to shoot quail before he left.

“We all went, and the rest of us had a field day, but Ernest wasn’t doing so well. When they got ready to leave the next morning, I started to get some of the birds I’d shot and give them to him to give away, but he wouldn’t have any part of it. He just snorted, ‘I’m not going to give away brids that I didn’t kill.'”

Hemingway’s sister-in-law, Virginia Pfeiffer, remodeled the barn loft to create a place for Hemingway to write. A fire in the barn later destroyed many of his possessions.

On that January night in Piggott, we all got to know each other better while eating barbecue following a tour of the home Paul and Mary Pfeiffer once occupied and the barn where Ernest Hemingway once wrote.

Most of the hunting party spent the night on the downtown square at The Inn at Piggott, which is in a building constructed in 1925 to house the Bank of Piggott. The bank went under during the Great Depression. In 1930, Paul Pfeiffer chartered Piggott State Bank and also used the building to house offices for the Pfeiffer Land Co.

In 1957, part of the Elia Kazan movie “A Face in the Crowd” was shot at Piggott. The movie starred Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Lee Remick and Walter Matthau and was based on the Bud Schulberg short story “Your Arkansas Traveler.”

Griffith played a drunken drifter who was discovered by the producer of a radio program in northeast Arkansas. In the movie, the character played by Griffith rose to fame and a career on national television. The first scene was filmed from the front doorstep of the building that now houses the Inn at Piggott.

The owners of the inn, Joe and Tracy Cole, are Piggott natives who gave up careers in law and international marketing after 24 years in Memphis and returned to their hometown. One of their projects was to renovate the former bank into a nine-room bed-and-breakfast inn.

I was joined by Paul Austin, the head of the Arkansas Humanities Council, in staying on the edge of town at the Rose Dale Farm Bed and Breakfast, a home built on the Norred Farm in 1917. This house sometimes was visited by Hemingway when he would hunt quail in the adjoining fields.

The home is filled with Hemingway books, and a note from the owner states: “My grandfather and his brother-in-law would take Ernest Hemingway hunting when he came to town. After the hunt, they would have bourbons at the secretary, leaving rings from the glasses. The lady of the house would get so mad she would make Ernest come in the back door of the house and then she would leave when he was in the room. You can still see the rings on the writing surface.”

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