Archive for March, 2017

Bouncing back in Cleveland County

Tuesday, March 28th, 2017

The Cleveland County Courthouse in downtown Rison is a graceful structure, designed by Theodore Sanders and incorporating the Modern Renaissance and Classical Revival styles of architecture.

This courthouse deep in the pine woods of south Arkansas was completed in 1911 following a lengthy, contentious battle over where the Cleveland County seat should be located. The county was formed in 1873 by the Reconstruction-era Arkansas Legislature from parts of Bradley, Dallas, Jefferson and Lincoln counties and named Dorsey County in honor of Republican U.S. Sen. Stephen Dorsey.

Dorsey, the son of Irish immigrants, was born on a farm in Vermont and later moved with his family to Oberlin, Ohio. He served in the Union Army, returned to Ohio after the Civil War, founded a tool company and became active in Republican politics.

Dorsey came to Arkansas in 1871 when he was elected president of the Arkansas Central Railway Co. From his base in Helena, he took advantage of legislation that allowed railroad companies to sell government-backed bonds to finance expansion. The Arkansas Legislature chose him as the state’s junior senator in 1872. Dorsey served until 1878 and then moved to New Mexico, where he was plagued by lawsuits concerning his business dealings.

Suzanne Ristow writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Dorsey was quickly accepted into the Arkansas political realm, at the time characterized by its carpetbag politics. The Arkansas Legislature elected Dorsey as its junior senator in the 1872 elections, and Dorsey resigned from the Arkansas Central. … During the last two years of his term, Dorsey chaired the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia. During the Brooks-Baxter War, Dorsey took the side of Joseph Brooks. Elisha Baxter’s success in retaining the office of governor marked an end to Dorsey’s political future in Arkansas, and he did not seek re-election to the Senate in 1878.

“However Dorsey remained active for a time in national politics. In 1876, he was made a member of the Republican National Committee. In 1880, when the Republicans nominated James Garfield for president and Chester Arthur for vice president, Dorsey became the secretary of the Republican National Committee. His reputation was tarnished, though, by a scandal involving the U.S. Postal Service, in which Dorsey and his partners were accused of defrauding the government out of $412,000. Though he was eventually found not guilty, the cost of his defense and the damage to his reputation all but destroyed Dorsey’s political and financial ambitions.

“After his term in the Senate, Dorsey moved to New Mexico, where he raised cattle. He also owned a home in Denver and invested money in mining. Although he named one New Mexico town for himself and another for his son, Clayton, neither community prospered. During his later years, Dorsey was plagued by more lawsuits, some of which were related to the railroad shares he had sold in Arkansas in the 1870s. Dorsey moved to Los Angeles, where he died on March 20, 1916.”

With former Confederates back in control of the Arkansas Legislature, the name of Dorsey County was changed to Cleveland County in 1885 to honor President Grover Cleveland. A fire destroyed the courthouse at Toledo in 1889, and residents of Rison, Kingsland and New Edinburg sought the county seat. Following two contested elections, the Arkansas Supreme Court finally named Rison the county seat in April 1891.

A frame courthouse was constructed in 1892 at a cost of $8,000. It had become dilapidated by the time the 1911 courthouse was built for $65,000. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in April 1977.

Danny Groshong writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “An octagonal dome roof overlooks the town, with a clock tower rising 20 feet above it. The clock has four faces and is surrounded by Tuscan pilasters, which also cover the front façade of the building. The four corners of the central wing are marked with quoins (masonry blocks placed at the junction of two walls), creating an image of permanence and strength. The front portico is supported by Tuscan columns made of limestone. The interior looks much the same in the 21st century as it did when it was built. The floor is made of brightly colored ceramic tiles while the original pressed tin ceilings are in exceptionally good condition.”

Despite this stately anchor in downtown Rison, Britt Talent, publisher of the Cleveland County Herald, noticed something in 2012 after the Fordyce Bank & Trust Co. acquired the Bank of Rison.

Talent says: “The departure of the Bank of Rison was going to leave my newspaper office, a hardware store and a law office as the only businesses on my block of Main Street.”

Talent published an article asking people to attend a meeting on March 1, 2012, to discuss the future of downtown. About 20 people showed up, enough for Talent to call a second meeting two weeks later.

“Our whole idea was to generate traffic to downtown Rison,” he says. “Once we had people coming on a regular basis, we hoped businesses would follow.”

An organization known as Rison Shine Downtown Development was formed, and a Christmas parade was held for the first time in many years.

“Despite it literally raining on the parade, there was a huge turnout,” Talent says. “I recall some people telling me it was the most people they had seen in downtown Rison in several years.”

The group later developed a small park on a vacant lot on Main Street that’s centered around a giant live oak tree. A restaurant was recruited for a vacant building adjacent to the park, a weekly farmers’ market was organized and an annual Halloween event was created. Almost 200 people showed up on the afternoon of July 11, 2013, for the dedication of the park. The crowds downtown for that year’s Halloween event were even larger.

“I don’t think anyone had any idea there would be that many people,” Talent says. “I estimated about 1,000 people showed up. The Dollar General practically sold out of candy that afternoon because no one came prepared for the crowd. I wasn’t expecting any sort of turnaround in the downtown area overnight. We’ve made a dent, but we still have a ways to go. I’m seeing more traffic downtown on a regular basis than I’ve seen in a while. Hopefully more people will see this progress and be willing to take a chance on opening a business.”

On the late Friday afternoon in February when Talent gave me a walking tour of downtown, a steady stream of people was heading into the Main Street Café adjacent to the small park built around the live oak tree. Meanwhile, the Rison Pharmacy has opened in a former bank building, the Rison Athletic Club has expanded its operation in the old City Pharmacy building and there was new construction downtown in 2016 for the first time in about 25 years with the completion of a banking facility and a floral shop.

The effort to spur activity in one of Arkansas’ least populous counties — Cleveland County had 8,689 residents in the 2010 census, almost 5,000 fewer people than lived there a century earlier — has spread to Kingsland, New Edinburg and Woodlawn.

Mark Peterson, a community development specialist for the University of Arkansas’ Cooperative Extension Service, spoke to Rison Shine members in February 2015 and urged them to expand their efforts across the country. A month later, Kickstart Cleveland County was born.

On the Friday night of my visit to Rison, people from all parts of the county gathered at the Cleveland County Fairgrounds to celebrate the initiative. During a conference in Little Rock last summer, the Cooperative Extension Service presented Kickstart Cleveland County with an award for having the top community development effort of its type in the state.

“There were several worthy candidates, but Kickstart Cleveland County’s strong record of accomplishments and community involvement throughout the county won the day,” Peterson says.

At a time when many rural counties across south and east Arkansas are losing population, Cleveland County has shown slow but steady growth. When Arkansans from other parts of the state think about Cleveland County at all, it’s likely because of the excellent deer hunting or the traditionally potent football program at Rison High School. But those who live in a county that claims both Johnny Cash and Paul “Bear” Bryant as natives understand that economic development in the 21st century is far different than it was several decades ago when it was all about trying to attract manufacturing facilities.

A recent story in the Cleveland County Herald noted: “Talent said Rison Shine still has a long way to go before realizing its ultimate goal of having a thriving downtown area. He said he and a few others have been kicking around the idea of having live music on the new deck at FBT Community Park on Friday nights during the late spring and summer. He said the group will also be considering ways to strengthen its existing events as well as ways to make downtown Rison more attractive.”

Across town, a group known as Friends of Pioneer Village is working to reinvigorate a Rison attraction.

The Cleveland County Herald reported: “The first priority was to replace the roof in the mercantile building, which had fallen in and was allowing rain to rot the interior walls and floors. This project was completed using donations given by residents and former residents of Rison who had close personal connections to the village.

“The Mt. Olivet Church building at the village was adopted by the Mt. Olivet Methodist Church at Calmer. Jimmie Boyd, a longtime church member, approached the congregation about financing the restoration and has since led the effort to repair the wooden floors inside the church and replace the porches and railings. The mercantile, which formerly served as the county clerk’s office, and the Mt. Olivet Church have been improved enough that about the only project left for them is exterior paint.”

Rison will host the South Arkansas Homesteading Conference this Friday and Saturday. The first conference was held April 5, 2014, at Pioneer Village. There were five sessions, and about 150 people attended.

“What really surprised me about that first conference was that we had visitors from 18 counties in Arkansas,” Talent says. “We had some from as far away as Jonesboro and Batesville.”

Here’s how the Cleveland County Herald describes the county’s homesteading brand: “When community development specialist Dr. Mark Peterson looks for ways to help a community grow and flourish, he says one of the first things he looks for is something unique about that community that separates it from every place else. For Rison and Cleveland County, he identified that asset early on: Its connection to the Arkansas Homesteading Conference.

“Peterson is a professor of community and economic development at the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension Service. He’s the founder of Breakthrough Solutions, an economic/community development program that leverages a community’s assets to create breakthroughs that can move them forward, sometimes in dramatic ways.

“Homesteading, as defined by Wikipedia, ‘is a lifestyle of self-sufficiency. It is characterized by subsistence agriculture, home preservation of foodstuffs, and it may or may not also involve the small-scale production of textiles, clothing and craftwork for household use or sale.’

“Peterson said the homesteading niche seemed like a natural fit for Cleveland County. In fact, he made Cleveland County one of the subjects for a branding workshop that was conducted at his statewide Breakthrough Solutions Conference in June 2015. Martin Thoma of Thoma Thoma in Little Rock led the workshop for Cleveland County. Thoma Thoma is a regional brand strategy and marketing communications firm with expertise in branding communities and destinations. The focus group working on the branding workshop for Cleveland County included dozens of community development professionals, elected officials and others from outside Cleveland County.

“After more than two hours of discussion, the group came up with the following brand idea: ‘America’s Homestead — Real. Simple. Life.’ Many of those who took part in the workshop said they felt like the brand was an accurate reflection of the rural culture and its connection with homesteading. The Kickstart Cleveland County steering committee presented the idea at one of its subsequent meetings, and the group voted to adopt the slogan as its official brand.”

Here’s how Peterson explains what’s happening in Cleveland County: “We realized the tremendous potential that comes with an excellent brand for a community, organization or business. Cleveland County was willing to participate as a pilot community. My sense is that it was a good fit for Cleveland County because it emphasizes strong values that most rural people readily embrace, and it would attract people to Cleveland County who would be good citizens and neighbors. To those who see this brand as too restrictive, a recent study revealed that when people come to visit a community because of the brand, they spend 70 percent of their time and money on other things not related to the brand.”

A key to economic development these days is creating a quality of life good enough that those natives who go elsewhere for college might return to start small businesses and raise their families. There may be fewer than 10,000 people in the county, but its business and civic leaders appear to have figured that out.

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More hall of famers

Friday, March 24th, 2017

In the previous post, I focused on the 12 restaurants in the inaugural class of the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame.

There also were categories for the best food-themed event and the proprietor of the year.

The inductee in the best food-themed event category was the Cave City Watermelon Festival. In Cave City, they like to say that “Hope’s watermelons might be bigger, but ours are sweeter.”

This summer event has been taking place for almost four decades in the Arkansas Ozarks. There are concerts, car shows, parades, watermelon-themed games and, of course, lots of watermelons.

Other finalists in the food-themed event catergory were:

— The Gillett Coon Supper. The first coon supper was held at Stuttgart in 1933 but soon moved to Gillett. It has been put on by the Gillett Farmers’ and Businessmen’s Club since 1947. It’s a must-attend event for politicians. When the Gillett School District still existed, the January supper basically served as the school’s annual football banquet. The coon supper now raises funds for college scholarships for area students.

— The Bean Fest and Great Arkansas Championship Outhouse Races at Mountain View. This event is held each year during the final weekend of October. Teams begin cooking pinto beans and cornbread at dawn, and judging generally begins about 11:30 a.m. By the afternoon, the Great Arkansas Championship Outhouse Races are taking place with the winning team taking home the coveted Golden Toilet Seat.

— The World Championship Duck Gumbo Cookoff at Stuttgart. It’s an important part of the Wings Over The Prairie Festival, which is held each year right after Thanksgiving. The gumbo cookoff is probably the closest thing we have in Arkansas to a south Louisiana Mardi Gras celebration. It’s a true party as teams cook up gumbo for the hundreds of people fortunate enough to have tickets. This has become such a popular event that there’s a long waiting list for those who want booth space.

— The World Cheese Dip Championship at Little Rock. This event came about partially because of a documentary by Nick Rogers titled “In Queso Fever: A Movie About Cheese Dip,” which asserts that cheese dip was invented in Little Rock in 1935 by Mexico Chiquito owner Blackie Donnelly. Participants come from far and wide for the annual fall festival, and the attendance grows each year.

The winner for proprietor of the year was actually a group of proprietors. It’s a well-deserved honor since this group of men changed dining in Arkansas forever.

With the opening of Jacques & Suzanne atop what’s now the Regions Bank building in downtown Little Rock in the 1970s, the Continental Cuisine team of Paul Bash, Ed Moore, Louis Petit and Denis Seyer set the stage for other quality restaurants such as Graffiti’s, 1620, the Purple Cow and Alouette’s. Their former employees opened additional restaurants such as Café St. Moritz and Andre’s. These men were to restaurateurs what Frank Broyles was to assistant football coaches who went on to become head coaches: The base of a tree with many limbs.

The other three finalists in this category were:

— Capi Peck of Little Rock. She grew up in the hospitality business since her grandparents owned the Sam Peck Hotel downtown. The restaurant at the Sam Peck was one of the few places in those days where Arkansans could enjoy fine dining. It was among the reasons that Winthrop Rockefeller called the Sam Peck’s penthouse home for a time in the early 1950s after moving to Arkansas from New York. Peck has long run Trio’s in Little Rock, cooking local ingredients with an international flair.

— Joe St. Columbia of Helena. St. Columbia, the grandson of Sicilian immigrant Pasquale St. Columbia, is known across the South for his tamales. His grandfather obtained tamale recipes from Mexican laborers in the Delta and added an Italian touch. Joe St. Columbia once shipped the tamales across the country. Now, you have to go to Helena on a Friday or a Saturday and buy them from the trailer he operates.

— Scott McGehee of Little Rock. A descendant of famed Arkansas cook Ruby Thomas of the Red Apple Inn on Eden Isle, McGehee was born in Fayetteville and raised in Little Rock. His father, Frank McGehee, was a partner in the famous Little Rock restaurants Juanita’s and the Blue Mesa Grill. Scott McGehee worked as a line chef at the internationally known Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., and later returned to Arkansas to open the Boulevard Bread Co. He’s now a partner in the company that operates ZaZa, Big Orange, Local Lime, Lost 40 Brewing and Heights Taco & Tamale Co.

Congratulations to them all. They’re all hall of famers in my book.

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Arkansas now has a Food Hall of Fame

Tuesday, March 14th, 2017

Dressed in her Sunday best, Rhoda Adams sat in the lobby of the Ron Robinson Theater in Little Rock’s River Market District on a stormy Tuesday night, flanked by Lake Village Mayor JoAnne Bush and former state Rep. Sam Angel.

Bush and Angel had made sure that the lady commonly known as Miss Rhoda, who doesn’t get out of southeast Arkansas much these days, was in the capital city for the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame’s first induction ceremony.

The Food Hall of Fame, a project of the Department of Arkansas Heritage, was about to induct three restaurants from a list of 12 finalists, and Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales of Lake Village was on that list.

Arkansans nominated 59 restaurants in the inaugural year. A committee of food experts narrowed the list down to Bruno’s Little Italy of Little Rock, Craig’s Bar-B-Q of DeValls Bluff, Doe’s Eat Place of Little Rock, Feltner’s Whatta-Burger of Russellville, Franke’s Cafeteria of Little Rock, Jones Bar-B-Q Diner of Marianna, the Kream Kastle of Blytheville, the Lassis Inn of Little Rock, McClard’s Bar-B-Q of Hot Springs, Neal’s Café of Springdale, Rhoda’s and Sims Bar-B-Que of Little Rock.

Adams’ restaurant was one of the three inducted, and she made her way to the stage to receive her award from Gov. Asa Hutchinson. The other two restaurants in the inaugural class are the Lassis Inn and Jones Bar-B-Q Diner. The three establishments specialize in tamales and country-style plate lunches (which Adams serves), fried fish and barbecue — staples of the Arkansas diet, especially in the Delta.

All three restaurants happen to be owned by African-Americans, a powerful symbol of how food can bring people together in a state that too often during its history was divided along racial lines.

People come from across the Delta — not only Arkansas but also Louisiana and Mississippi — to eat with Adams. She has been serving her special blend of tamales for more than 40 years, often selling them out of the back of her car along U.S. Highway 65 in Dumas, McGehee and other southeast Arkansas cities. Private planes have been known to land in Lake Village, shuttling executives from Little Rock for lunch at Rhoda’s.

Adams, 78, was hesitant to get into the business of making tamales. She once told a reporter: “My husband’s auntie asked me about us doing it, but I never wanted to do any hot tamales. We started doing about 25 dozen a day. I kind of liked it, but I didn’t like it without a machine.”

Her husband eventually bought her a machine to craft the tamales. Adams is one of 15 children. She has almost 60 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Adams also treats those who love her cooking like family, regaling them with stories as they eat lunch.

The famous food writer Michael Stern once noted: “Beyond tamales, the menu is a full roster of great, soulful regional specialties. For fried chicken or pigs feet, barbecue or catfish dinner, you won’t do better for miles around. Early one morning, Rhoda made us a breakfast of bacon and eggs with biscuits on the side. Even this simple meal tasted especially wonderful. Rhoda is one of those gifted cooks who makes everything she touches something special. We’ve always considered Arkansas one of America’s top seven pie states (along with Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Virginia, Texas and Maine). Rhoda’s pies are proof. She makes small individual ones. … Her sweet potato and pecan pie are world class.”

Next up, the Lassis Inn.

In a small wooden building near where Roosevelt Road passes under Interstate 30 in Little Rock, Elihue Washington Jr. cooks some of the state’s best fried fish (catfish and buffalo) at the Lassis Inn. The restaurant’s roots date back to 1905 when Joe Watson began selling sandwiches out of his house. He later added fish to the menu, and sales soared.

In 1931, Watson literally moved the building that housed his business to East 27th Street and named it the Lassis Inn. In 1957, the building had to be moved back 12 feet to allow room for the construction of what’s now Interstate 30.

Washington bought the business in 1990 and has been there almost every day since, cooking some of this state’s best buffalo ribs, catfish steaks and catfish filets. The Lassis Inn also has a fine selection of songs on its jukebox, though the sign on the wall notes that there’s “no dancing.”

Then there’s the barbecue shrine at Marianna.

Jones Bar-B-Q Diner has been a part of the Delta food culture for more than a century. The folks at the Southern Foodways Alliance believe it might be the oldest continuously operated black-owned restaurant in the South.

Current owner James Harold Jones says it started with his grandfather’s uncle. His grandfather and father continued the family tradition of slow-smoking pork over hickory, and Jones’ father moved to the current location in 1964. The methods for cooking the barbecue, preparing the slaw and mixing the sauce haven’t changed in more than a century. In 2012, the James Beard Foundation honored Jones Bar-B-Q Diner as one of its American Classics, making it the first Arkansas restaurant to earn a coveted Beard Award.

The award hangs on the wall adjacent to the counter where Jones stands to take orders.

The finely chopped pork, which is smoked just behind the small dining room, comes with a vinegar-based sauce and a mustard-based slaw. It’s served between two pieces of white bread rather than on buns.

The only change in the tiny cinderblock room since the award was presented almost five years ago is that Jones added a guestbook to record the many states from which barbecue aficionados hail. Jones only smokes so much meat each day. When it’s gone, it’s gone, and that’s often before 10 a.m. Some customers making the barbecue pilgrimage to Marianna now arrive as early as 7 a.m. to buy meat by the pound.

The first three Food Hall of Fame restaurants in Arkansas — Rhoda’s Hot Tamales, Lassis Inn and Jones Bar-B-Q Diner — tell us a lot about the culture of a state that has never received the national attention it deserves when it comes to its cuisine.

I can’t imagine a better trio for the inaugural induction class. And I have no doubt that this year’s other nine finalists will be inducted in the years ahead. They also are fine representatives of who we are as Arkansans.

Bruno’s, which is now on Main Street in Little Rock, has its roots in Italy, specifically Naples. Four brothers came to this country from Naples more than a century ago. They brought their style of cooking and baking to New York and Chicago.

One of the brothers was named Giovanni. His son Vincent (better known as Jimmy) was stationed at Camp Robinson during World War II. Jimmy Bruno returned to the state after the war and opened his Little Italy Café in the Levy neighborhood of North Little Rock. Bruno was as good an entertainer as he was a chef. He would spin pizza dough and toss it high into the air to the delight of his customers. He was known to sing loudly in the kitchen. The restaurant has been in several locations through the years, but the recipes remain the same.

Doe’s, meanwhile, was the brainchild of entrepreneur George Eldridge. It opened in 1988. Eldridge, a pilot, had been flying friends for years to the original Doe’s in Greenville, Miss., for steaks and tamales. He paid the Signa family for the rights to use the Doe’s name in Little Rock.

The Little Rock Doe’s became more famous than the original in 1992. That’s because key staffers for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign began hanging out there on a nightly basis, and the media followed, turning out stories about Lucille Robinson’s work in the kitchen. One of the many photos on the walls of the restaurant features Eldridge and Robinson at Clinton’s presidential inauguration in January 1993.

Cafeterias once were far more common in the state than they are now, and Franke’s helped pioneer the concept in 1924. C.A. Franke opened a doughnut shop on Capitol Avenue in Little Rock in 1919 and built a large bakery on Third Street three years later. His fleet of bakery trucks could be seen across the city as the drivers made home deliveries.

The cafeteria opened downtown near the city’s major department stores and became a favorite of those who worked in the stores and those who shopped downtown. Franke’s, which now has two locations in Little Rock, once had locations in other Arkansas cities. You can still get the cafeteria’s well-known eggplant casserole and egg custard pie.

The other Little Rock restaurant on the list, Sims, dates back to 1937 when Allen and Amelia Sims opened their establishment. After working at the 33rd Street location for many years, Ron Settlers took over the restaurant and expanded the concept to multiple locations. Sims has been featured on numerous television programs and in national magazines through the years.

In Russellville, Feltner’s Whatta-Burger is not to be confused with that Texas-based chain. Bob Feltner once owned the Wonder-Burger near the Arkansas Tech University campus but decided to move over to the Arkansas Avenue portion of Arkansas Highway 7 so he could take advantage of the heavier traffic. Customers have been lining up for the burgers and generous portions of fries there since Thanksgiving Day 1967. The Whatta-Burger has served several generations of Arkansas Tech students along with thousands of people making the trip to and from Fayetteville for University of Arkansas athletic events.

In Springdale, Neal’s Café has been a fixture since 1944. Housed in a distinctive pink building, it’s the place where politicians and business leaders gather for breakfast and where others go for dinners of country cooking such as pan-fried chicken and homemade pies. Neal’s is the type of place that once was common across Arkansas — a gathering spot that brings people together for lively conversations. Arkansas is worse off for the demise of such locally owned businesses. Thank goodness Neal’s is still going strong.

The Kream Kastle opened in July 1952 in the then-booming cotton center of Blytheville when Steven Johns began selling hot dogs out of a small building with only window service. One early ad for the Kream Kastle read: “Take home a sack of six for $1.”

In 1955, Johns added a barbecue pit. The drive-in restaurant is now best known for its pork barbecue sandwiches, referred to in Blytheville as “pig sandwiches.” The restaurant is operated by Johns’ daughter, Suzanne Johns Wallace, and her husband, Jeff Wallace.

The Kream Kastle ranks high on my list of favorite barbecue places in the state, as does Craig’s in DeValls Bluff. In 1947, Lawrence Craig and his brother Wes opened Craig Brothers Café in that community along the White River. Lawrence Craig had learned to cook on a boat on the Mississippi River, and word of his skill at producing fine barbecue soon had people traveling to Craig’s from as far away as Little Rock to the west and Memphis to the east.

As far as national notoriety, McClard’s just might be the most famous Arkansas restaurant of them all. Bill Clinton grew up nearby, and the national media produced a number of stories on McClard’s during Clinton’s eight years as president.

The McClard family was running a tourist court in the 1920s that also included a gas station and a small diner specializing in barbecued goat. A guest at the tourist court was unable to pay his bill but offered instead the recipe for what he claimed was the world’s best barbecue sauce. The family accepted the recipe in lieu of cash payment, made a few changes to it through the years and ended up with a restaurant where waits for seats are common even during the middle of the afternoon. A fourth generation of the McClard family is now working at the restaurant, which is sure to be a future inductee into the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame.

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The weekend drive

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

Spring came early to Arkansas this year, bringing with it the urge to make some weekend drives.

It once was a highly refined art in our state. People would take to the roads on Saturdays and on Sunday afternoons after church, often with no scheduled stops. They would simply make spur-of-the-moment decisions on what turns to take and what sights to see.

They were the great desultory drivers, out to enjoy whatever this state had to offer.

My grandparents in Benton often would make the drive to Lake Norrell, that city’s water-supply lake in the Ouachita Mountain foothills. Sometimes the destination would be the Salem Dairy Bar for ice cream, the Congo Mercantile Store (which had wooden floors and a wood-burning stove in those days), Lake Winona in the Ouachita National Forest or Peeler Bend on the Saline River.

For my grandparents at Des Arc, there was flatter terrain to cover. Weekends might involve a drive to Brinkley or Searcy. My favorite trips were the ones from the Prairie County seat of Des Arc to the other county seat of DeValls Bluff for barbecue at Craig’s or fried catfish at Murry’s.

My parents in Arkadelphia would simply say “let’s drive out around the lake” once the Caddo River was dammed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to form DeGray Lake. We would drive through the campgrounds and look at the license plates to see what states were represented. We would cross the dam. We sometimes would finish with supper at the lodge at DeGray Lake Resort State Park.

In a state filled with nice views, the warm late-winter days and the urge to hit the road had me thinking about my favorite Arkansas vistas.

Near the top of my list is St. Mary’s Mountain above Altus, specifically the view from the parking lot of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, commonly known as St. Mary’s Church.

Maybe it’s not just the view that has me ranking this spot high on the list. Perhaps it’s also the things that go with the trip there — visits to the tasting rooms of Arkansas wineries, the trout for lunch at the Wiederkehr Weinkeller restaurant, the chance to step inside the beautiful church.

The mountain that most people now call St. Mary’s was known as Pond Creek Mountain when the church was founded in 1879 to serve immigrants from Switzerland and Germany.

In April 1869, the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad was chartered. A depot and freight yard were constructed at Argenta (now North Little Rock), and track was laid to the Arkansas River so boats could deliver freight cars, engines and rails. Twenty four miles of track were laid in 1870 toward the west. The total mileage had reached 82 miles by the end of 1871. Due to strikes, the collapse of railroad bonds and foreclosure, progress then slowed.

Larry LeMasters writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “On Dec. 10, 1874, the railroad was foreclosed on, and nine days later, a new group of Eastern investors reopened the company, keeping the name Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad. On June 12, 1875, the name of the railroad was changed to the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railway. An influx of skilled German immigrants in Arkansas allowed the LR&FS to push on across the state. These immigrants worked for the railroad and settled on land grants given by LR&FS and in towns along the railway, eventually forming the basis of Arkansas’ wine industry near Altus. The new LR&FS continued to lay track westward across Arkansas, and on Jan, 30, 1879, the LR&FS finally reached Van Buren.

“On Sept. 21, 1882, New York millionaire Jay Gould purchased the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railway, adding it to his 1881 purchase of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway, forming the largest railroad company in Arkansas. Gould also owned the Missouri Pacific, which would become his parent railroad and into which the LR&FS eventually merged. In April 1906, the Little Rock & Fort Railway was sold to the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway (both railways were owned by Jay Gould and Missouri Pacific), effectively ending the LR&FS Railway.”

The aggressive recruitment of immigrants by the railroads took place because government land grants on either side of the track had little value unless buyers could be found. Land agents promoted the fact that a German-speaking priest lived in the Altus area.

Shirley Sticht Schuette writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “Religious and economic factors came together with the growth of the railroads to promote immigration following the Civil War. For a time, state governments, railroad companies and real estate agents recruited immigrants. Arkansas Gov. Powell Clayton talked of recruiting immigrants in his 1868 inaugural message. Intense efforts came only at the end of the 1870s when railroad construction had progressed to the point that land was widely available in the Arkansas River Valley. German-language publications were issued touting the benefits of Arkansas, and agents were sent to German communities in the eastern United States and also to Europe to entice settlers to the state.

“Given grants of government land, the railroads moved west, financing construction and establishing a market for their services through selling land to immigrants. Both the Lutheran and the Catholic churches, the two denominations most closely associated with the German community, cooperated with the railroads in developing German immigrant communities in Arkansas. The Catholic Church was involved in direct recruitment, acting as an agent for the railroad, while the Lutheran Church concentrated on supporting immigrants after they arrived.

“With encouragement from Bishop Edward Fitzgerald of the Diocese of Little Rock, the Catholic Church entered into agreements with the railroads, setting aside land grant areas for immigrants recruited by the church. Two such agreements resulted in strong areas of German settlement in the Arkansas River Valley. The Benedictine Order founded a colony based in Logan County and remained following the initial immigration period. Subiaco Abbey and Academy in Logan County remains a monument to their work.

“The Holy Ghost Fathers brought many settlers into the state, some of whom stayed and made important contributions to the economy and politics in Conway and Faulkner counties. However, the order did not maintain a significant presence in the state. Following a series of disasters, including a tornado in April 1883 that destroyed the Catholic church in Conway and an 1892 tornado that destroyed their monastery, the group abandoned its plans for a permanent monastery and seminary in Arkansas.”

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the religious persecution that occurred during the remainder of the decade helped drive many German Catholics to the United States. The priest who had founded St. Mary’s, Beatus Maria Ziswyler, died in 1887, but the Benedictine monks from Subiaco Abbey on the other side of the river saw to it that the parish continued to operate. The railroad donated 40 acres when the church was established, and the congregation met in a wooden structure until 1902.

The cornerstone for the current building was laid on May 24, 1901, and the Romanesque-style church was dedicated on Sept. 2, 1902. The rocks used to build the church were mined from an adjacent hillside. Exterior walls are two-feet thick, and the 120-foot bell tower has walls that are twice that thick. The stonework was done by masons from St. Louis. Painted cedar forms the pillars of the basilica-style church. There are murals that were painted by German artist Fridolin Fuchs in 1915-16, and an 1897 John George Pleffer pipe organ was added in 1925.

Construction of the current structure was overseen by Father Placidus Oechsle.

According to the church website: “Father Placidus also found time to extravagantly decorate the church along with immigrant painter Fridolin Fuchs. Donations from parish members also enabled the acquisition of the four large bells that grace the bell tower and the purchase of a first-class organ to fill the interior with music. His 28-year pastorate was by far the longest of any priest at St. Mary’s. Although times changed rather dramatically throughout the 20th century, little changed around St. Mary’s until the 1960s. That time of transition just after Vatican II also saw the reluctant demolition of the old nun’s house and rectory and their replacement with much more modern buildings. Those projects were headed by Father Thomas Buergler.

“Father Thomas was followed by Father Lawrence Miller, who exhibited great leadership and foresight in getting a new school built in 1973 along with the parish hall, later to be named Lawrence Hall in his honor, in 1979. As is so often the way with progress, the old school was torn down to make room for the new hall.

“Father John Walbe took over care of St. Mary’s parish in 1980 after the untimely death of Father Lawrence. He led the way in the restoration project for the church organ. After having been bought used for $500 from St. Francis de Sales Oratory of St. Louis in 1925, the organ was really showing its age. Thus it came to pass in 1986 that through the efforts of Father John and the parish, the organ was restored to its full glory by Redman Pipe Organs of Fort Worth for more than $100,000.

“Unfortunately, the church itself was also showing its age, especially from roof leaks and moisture infiltrating through the sandstone. After Father John’s recall to Subiaco, he was replaced by St. Mary’s second-longest tenured pastor, Father Hilary Filiatreau. Father Hilary led the massive fundraising and restoration project that followed in 1999. The work was carried out by Conrad Schmitt Studios of Milwaukee. Its current beautiful state serves as a testament to his efforts. The parish will also remember him leading the effort culminating in the complete replacement of the 100-year-old church roof in the summer of 2010.”

Make the drive to St. Mary’s Mountain one Saturday morning.

Enjoy the view.

Admire the inside of the church.

Make sure to leave a small cash donation.

Have lunch nearby and perhaps bring home some Arkansas wine.

By all means, do your part to revive that old Arkansas tradition known as the weekend drive.

 

 

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A room with a view

Friday, March 3rd, 2017

The sun was shining that Wednesday afternoon as tourists walked along the sidewalk that fronts Hot Springs’ Bathhouse Row.

I was touring the soon-to-open boutique hotel across Central Avenue that’s known as The Waters. My tour was being conducted by Hot Springs financial adviser Robert Zunick, who teamed up with veteran architects Bob Kempkes and Anthony Taylor to transform the century-old Thompson Building, whose upper stories long had been empty.

Even though I grew up only about 30 miles from Hot Springs, I had never experienced this view.

For decades, the upper stories of buildings on that side of Central Avenue were empty and closed to visitors.

I was struck by the view from the rooms on the upper floors. I could study the tops of the bathhouses and watch people walking behind those bathhouses on the Grand Promenade, which runs parallel with Central Avenue from Reserve Street to Fountain Street. It began as a Public Works Administration project in the 1930s and finally was completed in 1957. The north end passes the site of the first Hot Springs National Park superintendent’s residence, which was demolished in 1958. The south entrance is just below the former Army-Navy Hospital, now the Arkansas Career Training Institute.

As Zunick talked about the work that went into the restoration, it became evident that the view from here is dominated by three classic structures dating back to the 1920s and 1930s.

To the south is the Army-Navy Hospital building.

To the north are the Arlington Hotel and the Medical Arts Building.

They’re three of the most iconic structures in the state, and their preservation is vital to the cultural fabric of Arkansas.

The Army-Navy Hospital was the first combined hospital in the country for Army and Navy patients. During an 1882 dinner party on the second floor of the Palace Bathhouse, a former Confederate Army surgeon named A.S. Garnett hosted a former Union Army general, U.S. Sen. John Logan of Illinois.

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “The impressed senator said the city was ‘an ideal location for an institution of this character’ and promised to introduce legislation for an appropriation upon his return to Washington. By the end of June, $100,000 was approved for the building of a 30-bed joint military hospital, the first such effort in U.S. history. President Chester A. Arthur signed the bill in 1882. The Army-Navy Hospital opened to patients in January 1887 under the direct jurisdiction of the secretary of war. It was not until 1957 that control of the facility was transferred to the U.S. Army.”

The current seven-story, brick-and-steel structure was built in the early 1930s at a cost of almost $1.5 million. Because of its therapeutic baths, it was the largest center in the country during World War II for treating adults with polio. More than 100,000 people were treated for various ailments at the hospital from 1887 until the end of World War II.

“After World War II, military men and women were streaming back from the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific,” the Encyclopedia of Arkansas notes. “Many who suffered severe wounds or the loss of limbs were sent to Hot Springs to take advantage of the hydro-therapy treatments. The influx of injured soldiers taxed the Hot Springs facilities.

“To have more beds and space for added staff, the federal government bought the Eastman Hotel across and down the street from the main hospital. A connecting ramp linked the two buildings, and the number of beds available for patients tripled almost overnight. This gave the hospital badly needed space for recreational and reconditioning projects, in addition to providing space for overnight family visitors.

“Along with soldiers being treated for war injuries, servicemen from battle zones were sent to the Hot Springs facility for rest, relaxation and rehabilitation. The Arlington and Majestic hotels housed the overflow solders who could not be accommodated on the hospital base.”

On April 1, 1960, the facility was transferred to the state as a rehabilitation hospital. It later became known as the Hot Springs Rehabilitation Center. The name was changed to the Arkansas Career Training Institute in 2009, the medical wing was closed and the focus became vocational training.

While parts of the old Army-Navy Hospital remain in use, the Medical Arts Building at 236 Central Ave. sits sadly empty. It was the tallest building in the state from its completion in 1930 until 1960, when the Tower Building was completed in downtown Little Rock. Preserve Arkansas listed it in 2012 as one of the state’s most endangered structures.

The Medical Arts Building was erected by general contractor G.C. Gordon Walker with work beginning on Dec. 1, 1929. Investors from Little Rock and New Orleans purchased the site, which had been occupied by the Rector Bath House, from the Rector estate of St. Louis. The Rector family had obtained the property from the federal government in 1893.

The Medical Arts Building was designed by the Little Rock architectural firm Almand & Stuck, which also designed Little Rock’s Central High School. It has long been recognized as one of the top Art Deco skyscrapers in the South. Bas-relief limestone carvings on the frieze and on the facing of the main entrance are among the building’s notable features, along with the bronze grille work above the doors.

A September 1930 article in the Sentinel-Record at Hot Springs declared: “The structure as it stands is one of the most imposing buildings in Arkansas and a valuable addition to the business district of Hot Springs.”

The brick-and-reinforced-concrete structure cost $375,000 to build. Tall ceilings and large windows were designed to help keep the building cool in the summer. Corridors feature terrazzo floors and Arkansas marble wainscoting. Two brass-trimmed elevators were run by uniformed operators in the building’s early days. A 1932 Arkansas Gazette feature noted that the elevators were equipped with telephones that could be used while the elevators were in motion.

The building was advertised as the “Skyscraper of Health” and eventually housed 55 physicians and five commercial businesses. When the building opened, the first floor was home to a florist and Martin Eisele’s Medical Arts Drug Store. The drugstore, which had been established in 1875, was the city’s oldest. Eisele renamed it the Colonial Drug Store and moved to a new location in September 1930. The fifth floor housed a medical and pathological laboratory. Lower floors generally housed six medical offices each.

There were fewer offices on the upper floors because the building narrowed. The 15th floor housed a medical library and Dr. Earl McWherter’s dental offices from 1946-68.

The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, three years after it was purchased from the Medical Arts Realty Co. by Richard Shofstall’s Styro Products Inc. of St. Louis.

In January 1979, building manager Connie Tapanna told the Sentinel-Record: “There seems to be a certain feeling, an attachment for the building itself that frankly amazes me.”

However, the building was mostly vacant by the mid-1980s. Dr. George Fotioo, who began his medical practice in the building in 1945, was the last physician to leave the Medical Arts Building in 1991. He closed his downtown office after receiving a notice to vacate it from Freeling Properties, which represented Little Rock investor Melvyn Bell, who had purchased the middle 13 floors of the building. Robert LiMandri, whose father had moved his tailoring business into the Medical Arts Building in 1976, also was evicted at that time. Bell had purchased all but the ground floor and the top two floors in September 1986. He shut off electricity and water to the 13 floors he owned after experiencing financial problems.

In placing the building on its list of most endangered places, Preserve Arkansas stated: “The structure is Art Deco and due to the fineness of its massing and detail, it is the most significant structure of this style in the state of Arkansas.”

As I looked to my left from The Waters, The Arlington Hotel joined the Medical Arts Building in dominating the view.

This is the third incarnation of the Arlington. The original hotel was across Fountain Street on what’s now known as the Arlington Lawn. It was completed in 1875.

A larger hotel was built in 1893 but burned in April 1923.

The current building was completed in November 1924. It was designed by George Mann, the primary architect of the Arkansas State Capitol.

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “The building’s entrance faces the southeast corner of the intersection of Fountain Street and Central Avenue and includes two massive towers, like its predecessor but designed in a Mediterranean rather than Spanish Revival style. Throughout its history, the Arlington has hosted notable people and events. Joe T. Robinson, former governor and U.S. senator from Arkansas, announced his acceptance of the Democratic nomination for vice president in 1928 on the front steps of the Arlington and used the hotel as his campaign headquarters for the duration of the campaign.

“Robinson’s announcement was broadcast across the continent by radio station KTHS, which broadcast from the Arlington and was the first radio station in Hot Springs. The radio tower was mounted on the roof between the two hotel towers and can be seen in photographs from the era.

“Infamous gangster Al Capone regularly booked the entire fourth floor for himself and his associates. Capone’s favorite room was 443. Other notable celebrities made the hotel a regular stop. Babe Ruth began coming to the city with the Boston Red Sox for spring training and visited often afterward, always staying at the Arlington. Will Rogers, Kate Smith and George Raft were also visitors.”

With the new view from the renovated Thompson Building, a visitor gains a renewed sense of the city’s rich history.

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