Archive for May, 2017

Home again

Wednesday, May 31st, 2017

I’m home again.

It was December 1981 when I first went to work in the old building on the corner of Capitol and Scott in downtown Little Rock, covering the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference for the sports department of the Arkansas Democrat.

The AIC no longer exists.

Neither does the Democrat, for that matter.

I had grown up in Arkadelphia and stayed there to attend college at Ouachita Baptist University. Fascinated by the newspaper business from an early age, I spent more time in the downtown Arkadelphia newsroom of the Daily Siftings Herald — where I was sports editor — than I did in the classrooms at Ouachita.

I began collecting newspapers at age 7 (they took up a lot of room, leading my father to exclaim, “Why can’t you collect coins or stamps like other kids?”) and wrote stories about Little League baseball games for the local newspaper while I was still a player.

During my college years, I was the one-man sports staff for a newspaper that was published five afternoons a week. I had two college athletic programs to cover along with area high schools. I also used the newspaper to obtain media credentials and then paid my own travel expenses with the money I earned there so I could cover events ranging from the Cotton Bowl to the Sugar Bowl to the Kentucky Derby to Dallas Cowboys home games to the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament.

I was obsessed with putting out the finest small daily newspaper sports section in the region, even while carrying a full class load and having a second job as the sports director for the local radio stations.

The hours were long, but I look back on that as a golden period in my life. Along the way, I became friends with the sports columnist for the Democrat, Wally Hall. When Hall became the sports editor, he let me know that I would have a job once I finished college. I don’t remember a formal job offer. It was just sort of understood.

The newspaper war between the Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette was heating up. While I was still in college in 1979, the afternoon Democrat began publishing a morning edition in an effort to reverse years of declining market share. Front-page color was added, free want ads were offered to non-commercial advertisers, the size of what’s known as the news hole was increased by more than 50 percent and the news staff was doubled.

Revenues increased, but expenses also soared.

The romantic notion of working for the underdog in what was becoming one of the country’s great newspaper wars was exciting to me. Little did I realize the anxiety down on the first floor of the Democrat building among those who were trying to make the numbers work from a business standpoint. Walter Hussman Jr., the newspaper’s publisher, told me years later: “We caught a tiger that was bounding through the jungle by the tail, but he was going so fast we couldn’t get off.”

For me, it was simply an adventure.

I had never lived anywhere but Arkadelphia. That changed on a Sunday afternoon in December 1981 when my parents helped me move into the old Riverdale Apartments on Rebsamen Park Road. They then treated me to dinner at a Steak & Ale on Cantrell Road and headed back to Arkadelphia, leaving me in the big city of Little Rock. I reported to work the next day at Capitol and Scott, and I didn’t look back.

A year later, the Siftings Herald offered me the job of editor. At age 23, I would be the youngest daily newspaper editor in the state. I didn’t want to be known as just a sportswriter, and the job back in Arkadelphia would be a chance to expand my news credentials. I spoke with Hall, and he urged me to accept the position.

The lure of working at a statewide newspaper was strong, though. I returned to the Democrat in the summer of 1985 as the No. 2 person in the sports department. I was quite content in that job when the newspaper’s mercurial managing editor, John Robert Starr, informed me in 1986 that he wanted me to be the Democrat’s Washington correspondent. I loved Little Rock, but he gave me no choice. It ended up being among the best things to ever happen to me. I learned how the political game is played at the highest levels, made new friends and met my wife during my four years on Capitol Hill, where I lived and worked out of the basement of an old townhouse.

While I was working in Washington for the Democrat, the Patterson family of Little Rock sold the Gazette to the Gannett Corp., the nation’s largest newspaper chain. My assignment that day was to cross the Potomac River, go to Gannett headquarters in Arlington, Va., and write about the company. Those of us at the Democrat were scared to have a giant enter the fray.

You likely know the rest of the story.

Hussman and his troops took on Goliath and won. The final editions of the Arkansas Gazette and the Arkansas Democrat were published on Oct. 18, 1991. The first edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette was published the next day.

I had moved back to Little Rock from Washington by then with my new wife and was the editor of Arkansas Business. Hussman soon hired Paul Greenberg away from the Pine Bluff Commercial to be his editorial page editor and made Little Rock attorney Griffin Smith Jr. his executive editor. I should have known something was up in 1992 when Hussman and Smith invited me to lunch at the Little Rock Club atop what’s now the Regions Building in downtown Little Rock. It was becoming evident by that point that the state’s governor, Bill Clinton, was about to win the Democratic presidential nomination, and the newspaper needed someone to coordinate that coverage.

Arkansas was in the international political spotlight, and I wanted to be a part of the action. I accepted the job as this newspaper’s first political editor, returning at age 32 for a third stint in the building at Capitol and Scott. I split my time between Washington and Little Rock the next four years, writing stories while also supervising three reporters in Washington and three reporters at the state Capitol.

In July 1996, the chance to work on the senior management team of a new governor named Mike Huckabee seemed to be a good opportunity to serve a state I love. What I thought would be a short detour into government lasted almost 13 years. I worked for more than nine years in the governor’s office and then spent about four years in the administration of President George W. Bush as one of the president’s two appointees to the Delta Regional Authority. When I returned to the private sector following that long detour into government service, Hussman and Greenberg were kind enough to let me begin a weekly column as a freelance writer. That column has run every week for the past eight years, allowing me to keep a finger in the newspaper world I love.

Still, I haven’t worked full time for a newspaper since the summer of 1996. After more than two decades, that’s about to change.

I’ll be leaving work I enjoy at an Arkansas institution I respect. Simmons Bank, which has called Pine Bluff home since 1903, is about to have operations in seven states. It has been fun to watch the rapid growth of an Arkansas-based company from the inside.

Why make the change?

As noted, the newspaper world has intrigued me since childhood, and it calls again, even with the challenges brought on by the revolution in the way Americans obtain their news.

We live in an era when strong statewide newspapers are almost a thing of the past. The once-great statewide publications such as the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Des Moines Register are shadows of their formers selves, their circulation areas no longer reaching the corners of Kentucky and Iowa. The Commercial Appeal is no longer even printed in Memphis. The presses now roll down the road in Jackson, Tenn. Readers in cities as large as New Orleans and Birmingham can no longer get their cities’ traditional daily newspapers delivered seven days a week. In Arkansas, however, Hussman remains committed to putting out a quality statewide newspaper. Having one of the last true statewide dailies in America is something in which Arkansans can take pride.

The older I get, the more I find myself saying in my travels across the state: “Man, I wish I had time to write that story.”

One column a week is no longer enough. There are too many unique places and colorful characters whose stories I must tell.

At age 57 — almost 36 years since the first stop — I’m about to be back in the building at Capitol and Scott.

It’s good to be home.

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After the flood

Thursday, May 25th, 2017

Pocahontas was in the news in early May for all the wrong reasons.

Water from drenching rains that occurred in southern Missouri during the final weekend of April flowed south down the Current, Eleven Point, Spring, Little Black and Fourche rivers.

The Little Black joins the Current near Datto in Clay County. The Current then flows into the Black River east of Pocahontas.

The Fourche also flows into the Black.

The Eleven Point joins the Spring, which in turn flows into the Black near Black Rock.

Once all of this water came together, it was too much for aging Black River levees to handle. Thousands of acres were flooded in Randolph and Lawrence counties along with dozens of homes and businesses.

Just a week prior to the worst of the rainstorms, dozens of history buffs — academics and amateur historians alike — gathered in Pocahontas for the 76th annual meeting of the Arkansas Historical Association. The AHA has a grand tradition of moving its annual meetings across the state, thus allowing county historical societies to show off local attractions.

Almost 100 leading Arkansas scholars and other prominent citizens gathered on Feb. 22, 1941, at the Marion Hotel in downtown Little Rock to form the AHA. Unlike scholarly organizations in other fields, the AHA has had strong representation from the start from those board member Maylon T. Rice of Fayetteville likes to call “civilians.” Rice is a civilian board member, by the way.

I’m also an amateur Arkansas history aficionado. I’ve been attending AHA spring meetings for two decades. My wife likes to refer to it as my annual “history nerd weekend.”

Pocahontas just might have the most charming, vibrant downtown of any of the places the organization has met through the years. And it’s one of our most historic Arkansas communities to boot.

“The earliest documented settler was Ransom S. Bettis, who arrived from Greenville, Mo., and built a house overlooking the Black River,” Gary Buxton writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “From 1815-35, the settlement was known as Bettis Bluff. … In 1826, Thomas S. Drew immigrated to what was then Lawrence County (Randolph County was established in 1835), married Bettis’ daughter Cinderella and later became instrumental in the founding of Pocahontas. Drew served as Lawrency County judge from 1832-35 and was the third governor of Arkansas. He died in Lipan, Texas, but was reinterred in the Masonic Cemetery in Pocahontas on May 30, 1923. More than 5,000 people assembled for his second interment.

“Residents at the Columbia settlement, eight miles north of Pocahontas, tried to locate the county seat there, but Drew and Bettis craftily won favor for Bettis Bluff. On the date set to vote for the county seat, the pair provided free barbecue and alcoholic beverages on their property, the present site of Pocahontas. A majority of residents, who could vote at either site, attended and voted for Bettis Bluff, the name of which was later changed to Pocahontas for reasons that still remain unknown, though a number of theories and legends have emerged.”

Two luncheons and the annual awards dinner during the AHA meeting were held at the 1872 Randolph County Courthouse, which was replaced in 1940 by a courthouse constructed by the Works Progress Administration. The 1872 facility, which is in the center of the town square, has since been renovated and now serves as the home of the Randolph County Chamber of Commerce.

The first Randolph County Courthouse was a frame structure that was built for $2,400 by Thomas O. Marr from 1837-39.

Writing for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Cindy Robinett says of the courthouses: “The first courthouse was built on land donated in July 1837 by Drew and his wife, Cinderella Bettis. The land was then transferred to James S. Conway, the governor of Arkansas at the time. The first courthouse was built between 1837 and 1839 but collapsed due to structural weakness. A second courthouse was built on the same plot. The contract for what’s now the old courthouse was given to John A. McKay of Helena. During the construction of the second courthouse, the offices of clerks and courts were moved first to the lower floor of the county jail, then to the store building of J.P. Black & Co. and then to the St. Charles Hotel. … The architecture of the courthouse is of early Victorian style. With intricate details adorning its woodwork, high stories and stilted windows, the courthouse is an imposing structure. … A cupola adorns the roof. The building once had a vault, but it was removed sometime in the 1930s. Although the old courthouse is no longer home to the court system, it’s still an important landmark for the city of Pocahontas.”

After county offices moved out, the building served during World War II as an entertainment center for those stationed at the nearby Walnut Ridge Army Flying School. It was later used as a library.

The courthouse constructed in 1940 is one block to the west. Voters approved construction of the building that year, and Randolph County Judge Joe Decker appointed an advisory board to oversee construction. The architect was Eugene John Stern and the general contractor was the E.V. Bird Construction Co.

Zachary Elledge writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “Randolph County dedicated its new courthouse on Dec. 28, 1940. The courthouse cost about $130,000, which was financed in part by money from a $78,000 bond issue and a $49,250 grant from the WPA. In the northeastern corner of the courthouse grounds stands a war memorial honoring Randolph County veterans, while in the northwest corner sits a memorial to Sgt. James Ray Hand of the Pocahontas Police Department, who was shot in the line of duty.”

An opening reception for this year’s AHA meeting was held across the street at the Randolph County Heritage Museum, one of the best county museums in the state. The museum contains part of a button factory that once was on the banks of the Black River. Visitors can learn how mussel shells were gathered from the river so mother-of-pearl blanks could be drilled from the shells and then turned into buttons. The museum opened in 2006 during the Pocahontas sesquicentennial celebration.

“A collection of pearls found in the Black River is on display,” Robinett writes. “The walls are lined with photographs of steamboats, bridges, barges and other testaments to the river era. The centerpiece of the room is a seven-foot alligator gar caught in the Black River in the early 1950s.”

Sessions at which various papers were presented during the AHA meeting were held at Marilyn’s Clogging Co. on the square along with the nearby Downtown Playhouse, which occupies a building constructed in 1941 to house the Imperial Theatre. The Imperial showed its first movie — “Blues in the Night” — soon before the United States entered World War II in 1941. It was the first public building in Pocahontas to have air conditioning, the first to use glazed brick and the first with neon lights. There sometimes were live performances by well-known northeast Arkansas musicians such as Gary Gazaway and Robert Bowlin. The last movie was shown in the 1970s, and the building was utilized for a time as an indoor archery range.

Marilyn’s has helped spur the revitalization of downtown Pocahontas by bringing regular crowds of children, their parents and other relatives to the square for dance classes and performances.

The Downtown Playhouse brings in additional crowds for stage productions.

In 1994, a nonprofit organization known as Studio for the Arts purchased the building that had housed the Imperial Theatre. The group, which was founded in 1987 by Andee Evers, renovated the structure and opened the Imperial Dinner Theatre in 1995. The live shows there proved so popular that a larger facility was built east of town in 2004 on Arkansas Highway 304. Unfortunately, that area flooded badly in the spring of 2011 and again this month.

During the first week of May, almost four feet of water flooded the building, which cost more than $2 million to build.

Shane Cummings, the Imperial Dinner Theatre marketing director, told KAIT-TV in Jonesboro: “It could be next spring before everything is back to the way it was before. We were depressed for about two hours and then we said, ‘That’s enough of that. We’ve got to go find out what we have to do next.'”

KAIT reported on its website: “Thick brown silt covered the stage, and the water inside the theater was a foot higher than in 2011. Cummings said he has found a few snakes and even a turtle during the time he and others have been trying to get the building back in order. The force of the floodwaters pushed in the doors and front windows of the facility. Had the flood not happened, the Imperial was set for a performance of ‘Annie.’ Cummings says the show will have to go on the road now. … He says venues in Cherokee Village and Jonesboro have reached out to see if performances could be held in their communities.”

Back downtown in the original movie theater, another group formed the Downtown Playhouse in 2014. Less than a year later, a live production of “A Time to Kill” sold out 13 shows. Other shows have sold out the theater since then.

In addition to having two dinner theaters, Pocahontas boasts the state’s oldest barbershop, the Sanitary Barbershop, which has been at the same location on North Marr Street on the town square since 1893.

Meanwhile, there has been a drugstore at the corner of Bettis Street and Broadway on the square since 1852. The Futrell family has operated the pharmacy there since 1962, and it still has a soda fountain. It’s where the locals gather to discuss sports and politics every weekday morning between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m.

Just down Bettis Street, a visit to Futrell’s Hardware is like stepping back into the 1940s.

An important addition to the downtown historic district is the Lesmeister Guesthouse, which opened in 2013 and provides upscale suites and vacation rental apartments. The business is named for Henry Lesmeister, a German immigrant who constructed the building in 1902. Lesmeister first lived in Lexington, Ky., after coming to the United States. He moved to Pocahontas in 1880 and his son became an architect who designed notable buildings in Pocahontas, Jonesboro and Memphis. Local dentist and Pocahontas native Patrick Carroll purchased the building, which had been vacant for several years, in 2011 and began restoration efforts.

Across the street from the guesthouse, an Italian restaurant known as Bella Piazza also brings people downtown at night.

A Randolph County Tourism Association publication describes downtown Pocahontas this way: “Downtown Pocahontas contains a 17-block National Commercial Historic District, one of the best examples of Victorian-era architecture in the state. Buildings dating back to 1860 grace the historic district. Many structures on the square have bronze markers giving the date of construction and history of the buildings. The historic district contains art galleries, flea markets and a variety store featuring Arkansas products and souvenirs. Other features include a dance studio, an online radio station and a day spa. Several structures in the historic district have recently undergone restoration, including the 1920 Frisco Railroad depot, the Lesmeister Guest House and Carroll’s Variety Store.”

Buxton writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “The late 19th century through the mid-1920s marked a golden age for Pocahontas. Seven hotels graced Pocahontas from antebellum days until the mid-1920s. Forty-three steamboats navigated the Black River at the turn of the century, making Pocahontas a strategic port of commerce. The Hoxie, Pocahontas & Northern Railroad came to Pocahontas from the south in 1896. The Hauk Railroading Co. started track construction southward to connect Poplar Bluff, Mo., to Pocahontas in 1902. The Frico constructed a new railroad bridge across the Black River in 1911.

“Early industries included four button factories, a brick company, Hanauer’s cotton gin, Grafton Stave & Heading Co. and Pocahontas Bending Works, which made wooden parts for wagon wheels. … By 1942, an egg dehydrating plant, which made powdered eggs for Army rations, employed about 500 people. In 1944, Brown Shoe Co. became the largest employer in Pocahontas and doubled in size in 1955. It ceased production in November 1995.”

In 2014, Peco Foods Inc. announced that it would build a $165 million poultry processing plant and hatchery in Pocahontas and a $35 million feed mill in Corning. More than 400 chicken houses were contracted by the company in Randolph County. More than 1,000 people eventually could be working at the 272,000-square-foot plant, which was built on 200 acres in the city’s industrial park south of town.

Tim Scott, the executive director of the Randolph County Chamber of Commerce, said last year: “This is probably the biggest economic development project of our lifetimes.”

Recent years also have been marked by a concerted effort to keep downtown viable and make it an attraction for people from throughout northeast Arkansas and southeast Missouri.

Luckily for those who operate businesses there, downtown sits high above the Black River and wasn’t adversely affected by this month’s flood.

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Spring on the Spring

Monday, May 15th, 2017

It’s breakfast time at the Olde Stonehouse Bed & Breakfast Inn on Main Street in Hardy, and innkeeper Vickie Rice is talking about the town she fell in love with after moving to Arkansas from Ohio.

Indeed, Hardy has its charms.

The homemade biscuits are hot, the eggs are cooked perfectly and I listen intently as Rice talks. She serves on the Hardy City Council and the Hardy Advertising & Promotion Commission, and she’s determined to find replacements for several restaurants that have closed in recent years. As the summer tourism season nears in this historic community along the Spring River, Rice hopes to help fill the void with occasional dinners, brunches and even afternoon high teas in a house built during the 1920s at a time when visitors were flocking to the area.

“By 1920, two blocks of Main Street were filled with businesses, including a bank, two cafes, two drugstores, a Ford automobile dealership and a grocery,” Wayne Dowdy writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Town leaders — perhaps most notably drugstore owner William Johnston — tirelessly promoted Hardy as a place where city dwellers could find relaxation. In an interview with a Memphis Press-Scimitar reporter, Johnston boasted that Hardy had the ‘finest fishing in the world.’

“Although most residents welcomed tourists, some townspeople found it difficult to adjust as the average population increased by thousands during the summer months. In 1935, café owner Tennie Meeker exclaimed: ‘You take a big trainload of people and dump them down suddenly in a small town like Hardy, and it nearly works everybody to death.’

“As the 20th century progressed, tourists increasingly relied on automobiles to travel to the Spring River area. Resting near the intersection of national highways 62 and 63, Hardy was easily accessible for those who traveled by car. When large-scale federal highway construction began in the 1950s, the tourism population shifted from long-term visitors to those looking for a weekend getaway.

“The established tourism industry in Hardy was augmented in 1955 with the construction of retirement homes by West Memphis developer John Cooper. The founding of Cherokee Village increased tourism to the Ozark foothills, and within a decade, the Hardy area was recognized as an important retirement center. In 1968, the Arkansaw Traveller Folk Theater was established in Hardy to preserve the culture of the Ozarks.

“When the railroad depot closed in the 1970s, some Main Street businesses relocated. This relocation accelerated when the Spring River flooded in December 1982. In their place, shops specializing in antiques and crafts were opened, which along with the draw of the Ozarks’ natural beauty helped Hardy remain a popular tourist destination.”

Hardy, which was established in 1883, is a product of the Kansas City, Springfield & Memphis Railroad.

The Arkansas Legislature’s offer to pay companies $10,000 for every mile of track laid in the state led to a boom in railroad construction during the decades after the Civil War. The town was named for James Hardy, a railroad contractor from Batesville.

Hardy is in northern Sharp County, and the county seat was in the southern part of the county at Evening Shade. It was a long trip on poorly constructed mountain roads. In 1894, Hardy was named as a second county seat, serving the northern part of Sharp County (Ash Flat was made the sole county seat in 1963). By the 1900 census, there were 347 people living in the town.

A lucky break for Hardy came in 1908 when a train’s mechanical failure resulted in a wealthy Memphis physician named George Gillespie Buford being stranded in Hardy. He walked around the area with his wife while waiting for the train to be repaired, and the couple decided it would be a nice place for a summer cottage.

In 1909, Buford purchased 50 acres on Wahpeton Hill. He later purchased additional land and constructed 10 cottages in 1912 to house summer visitors.

In 1932, L.L. Ward of Blytheville opened a nearby resort known as Rio Vista.

The YWCA built Camp Miramichee in 1916, the Boy Scouts built Camp Kia Kima the same year and the Girl Scouts built Camp Kiwani in 1920.

Hardy was filled each summer with visitors from as far away as St. Louis, Memphis and Little Rock.

“In addition to the railroad, bus service also connected Hardy to the rest of the world,” Dowdy writes. “By 1930, the town held 508 permanent residents, but its visitor population swelled to 1,000 per day between July and September.”

There are still shops in the old brick and stone buildings on Main Street in downtown Hardy, and Saturdays downtown can resemble a large flea market. But the biggest draw remains the Spring River, which in late spring and summer attracts hordes of weekenders in their 20s and 30s to float the river and party along its banks.

Charles Crawford describes the river this way in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Flowing through northeastern Arkansas for about 75 miles in a southeastern direction, the Spring River empties into the Black River near Black Rock. Mammoth Spring, adjacent to the Arkansas-Missouri state line, serves as the headwater for the Spring River. It expels more than 9 million gallons of water each hour through a vent 80 feet below the surface of Spring Lake, a low-turbidity body of water created by a dam downstream from the spring in what’s now Mammoth Spring State Park. Although the water from the spring flows into the lake with great force, the vent’s depth prevents viewers on the surface from seeing the characteristic bubbling that springs typically produce. The consistent discharge at the lake’s bottom keeps the river above a minimum depth year-round.

“The Spring River is joined several miles downstream by the South Fork, which flows eastward from its origin. As it is not fed by Mammoth Spring, the South Fork of the Spring River carries a less consistent volume of water and sometimes isn’t suitable for canoeing during later summer and early fall. However, its extensive gravel bars provide good sites for camping and picnicking.

“The constant supply of cold, clear water provided by this river and its tributary creeks, along with the rich alluvial soil built by the regular flooding from heavy rainfall, attracted people to the area from the first human discovery. … Major development in the area began when the Kansas City, Springfield & Memphis Railroad was built through the valley from 1881-83.”

Mammoth Spring is the largest spring in Arkansas, the second largest in the Ozarks and the seventh largest in the country as it pumps out an average of 9.78 million gallons of water per hour at a constant temperature of 58 degrees.

“U.S. Highway 63 now provides rapid travel through a large part of the scenic landscape along the river,” Crawford writes. “Hardy has particularly benefited from this access, becoming one of the most popular areas in north Arkansas. The upper portion of the Spring River is especially popular for swimming and canoe trips. Fishing also draws many visitors to the river. In addition to fish native to the area, the cool water temperature allows the stocking of trout throughout the year. Fly-fishing for rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout has become a popular sport. Increased recreational use beginning in the 1970s resulted in elevated levels of water pollution, but effective environmental protection has managed to maintain water quality along the river.

“Two fish hatcheries are located on the Spring River. The first, Mammoth Spring National Fish Hatchery, is operated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and is adjacent to Mammoth Spring State Park. The second, the Jim Hinkle Spring River State Fish Hatchery, is operated by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and is located two miles downstream from Mammoth Spring.

“Two small dams are located on the Spring River, both near the origin of the stream at Mammoth Spring. They are too near the headwaters of the river to provide flood control, thus leaving much of the river in a fairly natural state. The upper part contains numerous rocky rapids, several waterfalls and pools containing drifts and underwater snags. Floods occur frequently.”

Like Hardy, the city of Mammoth Spring came about in 1883 due to the railroad.

A Memphis native named Napoleon Hill opened the first school at Mammoth Spring in 1888 and promoted the town as a summer retreat for Memphians.

In 1887, the Mammoth Spring Improvement Co. constructed a dam at the spring to power a gristmill, cotton mill and cotton gin. The 198-foot limestone dam created Spring Lake. The property was purchased by the Arkansas-Missouri Power Co. in 1925. The company constructed a hydroelectric facility that operated until 1972, when it was donated to the state.

“Only the dams on the Spring River remain as testimonies to industrialization as the enterprises failed to find long-term success,” Sarah Simers writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “From the 1880s to the 1920s, Mammoth Spring had a textile mill, a shoe manufacturing plant and a soda bottling factory. Calumet Cotton Factory was the major employer in 1889 and was described as a two-story brick textile mill with 120 looms, 5,000 spindles and 150 employees. According to historian Brook Blevins, this factory was ‘a rare representative of this Southern industry in the Ozarks.’ The Chanticleer Packing Co., a poultry processing plant, opened during the Great Depression and provided jobs for Mammoth Spring and Fulton County residents until 1956.

“The tourist industry also began in the 1880s. In 1889, the first large hotel, the Nettleton, was built, and the Culp Hotel and Charlton Hotel soon followed. Like Eureka Springs and Hot Springs, Mammoth Spring profited from the health crazes of the late 19th century, which recommended bathing in hot natural springs as a cure for a host of physical ailments. … Memphis residents often vacationed in the town during the summer months. Finding the climate of the Ozark town to be much cooler than the Delta, they built large homes on the bluffs overlooking the river.”

Railroad passenger service on the Frisco line ended in 1968, but Mammoth Spring was easily accessible by automobile since it’s on U.S. 63. The former Frisco depot, which was built in 1886, was converted to a state park visitors’ center in 1971.

The Arkansas Legislature had approved the establishment of Mammoth Spring State Park in 1957, but land purchases didn’t begin until the late 1960s. Most land purchases had been completed by 1975.

According to an Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism publication: “In the late 1990s, the depot received a complete restoration with murals, memorabilia, authentic furnishings and life-size figures that portray train crews, station workers and passengers from the early 1900s. Audiovisual programs and exhibits tell the story of Mammoth Spring and the effect of the railroad on the area. A vintage Frisco caboose is parked nearby. On March 16, 1987, the park opened the 10th Arkansas Welcome Center just off U.S. Highway 63 and within sight of Missouri. In addition to providing travel and tourism information, the center also houses a gift shop, exhibits and offices. Park facilities include a modular playground, pedal boat rentals on the lake, a pavilion, picnic sites, a baseball field, a walking trail and an overlook at the springhead. … The walking trail circles the lake and crosses the old mill dam that provided power for the flour mill and the hydroelectric plant. Visitors may also tour the old power plant.”

The Arkansas Welcome Center is on the site that long housed the Mammoth Spring cattle sales barn.

Like Hardy, Mammoth Spring has a downtown district filled with old buildings. On the Friday night I visited, Wood’s Riverbend Restaurant and Fred’s Fish House were crowded with diners.

I had been advised by a friend to try out the German food at a tiny place downtown called La Pastorella. It was good advice.

German food in Mammoth Spring. Who knew?

Rural Arkansas serves up surprises around every turn.

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Cafeteria fare

Thursday, May 11th, 2017

On his way back to Waco, Texas, following an Easter weekend visit to Little Rock, my oldest son stopped at Bryce’s Cafeteria in Texarkana for lunch.

It’s a stop he has been making most of his life.

My wife is from south Texas (Kingsville, Alice, Corpus Christi). On trips to visit her relatives, we usually timed our departures so we could eat at the venerable Texarkana restaurant, which closed its doors at the end of April after 86 years of serving customers.

When I was a boy in Arkadelphia, Hot Springs was usually the first choice if we were going out of town for a special meal.

If shopping and doctors’ visits were involved, Little Rock was the destination.

But to change things up from time to time, my parents would choose Texarkana since both of them loved eating downtown at Bryce’s.

Downtown Texarkana was a busy place in those days. That was before restaurants and retailers moved north to Interstate 30. Shoppers from southwest Arkansas, east Texas, northwest Louisiana and southeast Oklahoma flocked to downtown businesses such as the Belk-Jones and Dillard’s department stores.

Earl Jones Sr., who was born in North Carolina where the Belk chain was founded, moved to Texarkana in October 1947 to open Belk-Jones.

Meanwhile, William T. Dillard, who had been born at Mineral Springs in 1914, opened his first store at Nashville in Howard County in February 1938. He sold the Nashville store in 1948 and moved his family to Texarkana after purchasing a 45 percent interest in Wooten’s Department Store. In 1949, Dillard purchased the remaining 60 percent of Wooten’s.

Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa once described Texarkana in the “Almanac of American Politics” as the heart of “populist country, a place where farmers producing cotton and other crops felt themselves at the mercy of Dallas cotton brokers, Wall Street financiers and railroad magnates who were grabbing all the gains of their hard work. Outside Texarkana, in a landscape littered with small houses and lazily winding rivers, there was little protection from the sun and wind, and precious little ornament; the reservoirs and motels and shopping centers one sees there now are signs of an affluence still only beginning to penetrate what was a zone of subsistence if not poverty.”

Bryce’s fed those who came to Texarkana from the small towns of Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. The cooking was consistent, and it was good.

As my son paid his bill that Monday following his final meal at Bryce’s, he told the cashier of his first visit there. Like a lot of smart, high-strung boys, he was slow in getting potty trained. Austin was obsessed in those days with trains and airplanes, and my mother came up with an idea. She told Austin that if he would get potty trained, the two of them would take a trip on a real train.

It worked, though it was a short journey. They boarded an Amtrak train at Arkadelphia and took it only as far as Texarkana. My father raced down Interstate 30 in his Oldsmobile and picked them up at the Texarkana depot. The three of them then had a big lunch at Bryce’s. My parents later told me that Austin slept soundly on the way back to his grandparents’ home.

“We’ve been hearing a lot of stories along those lines,” the cashier told Austin, who’s now 24.

Bryce Lawrence opened his cafeteria in 1931 during the Great Depression. It remained downtown until February 1989 when it moved near Interstate 30 and Summerhill Road on the Texas side of the state line.

A Chicago Tribune writer once declared that Bryce’s “may have better food for the money than anyplace on earth.”

During his 1992 presidential campaign, Ross Perot, a Texarkana native, was asked to list his favorite restaurant in the world. His choice was Bryce’s, of course.

I would always start meals there with tomato aspic (I suspect I was the youngest person to purchase that old-school dish) and finish with egg custard pie in honor of my mother, who enjoyed both.

Jane and Michael Stern, who became famous for the “Roadfood” series of books, once wrote of Bryce’s: “Going through the line takes you past an array of swoonfully appetizing food — food that has made this place famous since it opened for business in 1931. There are more vegetables than most Yankees see in a year — purple-hulled peas, fried green tomatoes, red beans, turnip greens cooked with chunks of ham and a full array of potatoes, cheesy macaroni casseroles, rice casseroles, buttered cauliflower, sauced broccoli, etc.

“Among the main courses, fried chicken is stupendously crunchy and big slabs of sweet ham are sliced to order. For dessert, we like Karo-coconut pie, hot cobbler with an ethereal crust and banana pudding made with meringue and vanilla wafers. The entire experience is a culinary dream, including a smartly uniformed dining room staff (to help old folks and invalids with their trays, and to bus tables) and servers who address all men as ‘sir’ and ladies as ‘ma’am.'”

One of their readers wrote: “I’m not customarily a fan of cafeterias. Multiples of food behind glass covers bring back not-so-pleasant memories of school cafeterias and unappetizing food. But Bryce’s could make a convert out of me. Here everything looks so good that it is hard to make a choice. We were hungry so it was tempting to order one of everything. As it was, we selected a gracious plenty. The fried chicken is very good and still crisp even though it has been sitting under a heat lamp for a while. The turnip greens, black-eyed peas, squash and coleslaw are well-seasoned and delicious.”

Richard Lawrence, the son of Bryce Lawrence, died in February at age 65.

His obituary read in part: “Richard was born in Texarkana, Arkansas. He went to St. James Day School and Allen Academy. He graduated from Texas High School, where he was an outstanding football player and loved his days playing football for Watty Myers. He went on to play college football at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas. After that, he earned a culinary degree from Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. … Richard was best known for his role in Bryce’s Cafeteria, the family business that was started in 1931 by his father, Bryce Lawrence. He worked there tirelessly for most of his life with his brother, Bryce.

“Richard loved and was loved by all his employees, some of whom worked for Richard and his father for more than 50 years. They all loved to call him Big Daddy. Richard adored his family and extended family, especially the time he spent with them at his cabin at Lake Greeson, teaching all his nieces and nephews how to water ski. Richard’s favorite thing was to cook and entertain, which usually meant telling funny stories about himself. But more than anything else he enjoyed spending time with his family at their summer home in Charlevoix, Mich.”

Shortly before Bryce’s closed, Greg Bischof of the Texarkana Gazette wrote about two veteran employees.

“Leo McCoun and Pearlene Jennings loved working for Bryce’s Cafeteria so much they each worked there for more than a half-century,” he wrote. “Even though the cafeteria will see its last tray full of cuisine slide before the cashiers at the end of April, McCoun’s and Jennings’ memories of working there will likely live on as long as they do. For 86 years, one of Texarkana’s most renowned eateries, founded by local resident Bryce Lawrence in 1931, not only pulled off an entrepreneurial miracle by surviving all 10 years of the Great Depression, it went on to become one of the most popular non-franchised businesses in the region, attracting customers from as far away as Dallas.

“Both McCoun and Jennings were not only eyewitnesses but major contributors to that success — as well as being veteran employees long enough to work at both the cafeteria’s original and current locations. For McCoun, born in 1935 and raised in Lewisville, his employment started Nov. 10, 1958, at Bryce’s original setting at 215 Pine St. with a starting income of $15 a week.”

McCoun told Bischof: “Guys got $15 a week while the girls got $12.50. I loved every one of my jobs here. I enjoyed all 58 years because I just liked being around people. Moving to the north side of town was different and a good move because Interstate 30 pulled business northward, but I think I will always like the look of the old place we had at 215 Pine. It just had a vintage atmosphere about it. At the time we were downtown, there was only one other cafeteria nearby, and that was in Wake Village.

“Bryce’s was a popular place the whole time. We had customers from as far away as Nashville, Ashdown, El Dorado, Magnolia, Camden and, yes, even as far away as Dallas. I got to know customers that were as young as five years old. Now they have grown up and have had children and grandchildren of their own. I got to know so many families and customers from all over. I’ll never forget this. I’m 81 years old, and it’s finally time to retire.”

Bischof wrote: “McCoun, who was 23 years old at the time, began as a pot washer, which he did for three years before becoming a silverware roller for another three years. He eventually became a dining room cleaning attendant as well as an occasional meat slicer in the customer serving line. He still performed both those tasks when the cafeteria made its move from 215 Pine St. to its current location near Interstate 30 in February 1989. Starting in 1996, McCoun became the dining room manager.”

Jennings began working at Bryce’s in May 1965.

“As a 17-year-old Macedonia High School student, she was looking for part-time work as a waitress during the summer of 1965,” Bischof wrote. “Upon graduating the following year, she went full time and made a career of it.”

Jennings told the newspaper: “I started out getting paid $17 a week as take-home pay, which came in a brown envelope. We had an upstairs as well as a downstairs dining room, and we helped customers carry their trays upstairs. I stayed with Bryce’s because I just liked the place, all the friendly customers and the employees. Waitressing was my only job. I loved both locations, but I do miss going up those stairs downtown. I think I got to know hundreds, maybe thousands, of customers through the years.”

Mother’s Day was the busiest day of the year, followed by Easter.

“Both of those holidays drew the crowds,” Jennings said.

Bryce’s is gone, but at least we still have Franke’s at two locations in Little Rock.

But death also has rocked the Franke family of Little Rock. Bill K. Franke died in Little Rock just 12 days after Richard Lawrence died in Texarkana.

Franke’s obituary noted that he “spent the majority of his life serving Arkansas food to Arkansas people at his family business, Franke’s Cafeteria. He was known for his strong presence and was the definition of honor and integrity. … A man of many hobbies, he loved most what nature had to offer. Astronomy, hunting, fishing, cooking and riding motorcycles were among his favorites.”

The death came just more than three months after his daughter, Christen Franke, died suddenly at age 37.

Fortunately, Bill’s widow, Carolyn Cazort Franke, and other family members plan to keep the restaurants going.

Here’s how the Franke’s website describes the history of the company: “In 1919, C.A. Franke opened a doughnut shop on Little Rock’s West Capitol Avenue. After a few short years, it became a thriving business, and in 1922, Franke built a large bakery at 111 W. Third St. Soon a fleet of trucks, nicknamed ‘wife savers,’ could be seen delivering fresh baked goods door to door in neighborhoods throughout the city.

“In 1924, Franke opened the original Franke’s Cafeteria at 115 W. Capitol. The cafeteria was near the major department stores and businesses in downtown Little Rock, and the eatery prospered in this vital commercial area of downtown. A separate dining room was opened around the corner at 511 Louisiana and shared the same kitchen, preparing food for both locations. C.A.’s son, W.J. Franke, worked with his father and eventually became the second generation to run the cafeteria. W.J.’s son, Bill Franke, learned the business from his father and took the reins as the third generation to run the cafeteria in 1983.

“In 1960, the original cafeteria closed its doors but not before inspiring newer locations around the state. Franke’s has had many locations, including Hot Springs, Fort Smith, North Little Rock’s McCain Mall and Little Rock’s University Mall. Today the cafeteria has come full circle with a location on West Capitol in the Regions Bank building and our newest addition, the Market Place location on Rodney Parham.

“Some of Franke’s menu items are legendary, led by the eggplant casserole and egg custard pie. The sliced roast beef, candied sweet potatoes, hand-breaded fried okra and Karo-nut pecan pie continue to be customer favorites. Most recipes have remained unchanged from the originals and are often the subject of recipe duplication debates. The food line at Franke’s, with its array of cold dishes, steaming meats, assorted vegetables and mouthwatering desserts, has kept customers coming through the doors for many decades.

“Franke’s success and longevity are due to consistently serving good food at reasonable prices, a long history of staff who have served the people of Arkansas with a full heart and loyal customers who have become a part of our family. As an Arkansas tradition, Franke’s offers more than just a home-cooked meal. It’s a place for older generations to remember and a home for younger generations to begin making memories.”

I eat lunch often at the downtown Little Rock location and always study the framed black-and-white photo of Capitol Avenue looking west toward the state Capitol. It was taken decades ago. You can see the Franke’s sign on the left and the sign for the Capitol Theater on the right. There’s also a framed gavel that was used by Lee Cazort when he was the Arkansas House speaker in 1917, the Arkansas Senate president in 1921 and the state’s lieutenant governor from 1929-31 and 1933-37.

Cafeterias were once common across the state. My family often would eat in the 1960s at a downtown Arkadelphia cafeteria called Homer’s.

Now locally owned cafeterias are becoming hard to find.

Bryce’s is but a memory. Here’s hoping that Franke’s will flourish for many years to come.

 

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The pizza man

Monday, May 8th, 2017

I was visiting with one of the civic leaders in Hot Springs recently when the subject turned to the rebirth of the Spa City’s downtown.

We began talking about a Brooklyn native who showed up in Hot Springs almost four years ago, hit the ground running and hasn’t slowed down since.

My lunch companion stated: “We’re lucky to have gotten that guy.”

“That guy” is Anthony Valinoti of DeLuca’s Pizzeria on Park Avenue.

Food enthusiasts across the state think he turns out the best pizza in Arkansas. Some have even proclaimed DeLuca’s to be among the best pizzerias in the country.

It’s quite a story for a former Wall Street banker who landed in Arkansas in 2013. At the time, he knew nothing about either Hot Springs or making pizzas.

I arrived at DeLuca’s prior to the 4 p.m. opening time on a recent Thursday. I mentioned that I had come from a lunch meeting that day, but the demonstrative Valinoti gave me a hug and still insisted on bringing me a Caesar salad along with several meatballs to snack on while we visited.

“I’m very, very lucky to have chosen this place,” he said in his thick New York accent. “I don’t think I could have made this work anywhere else. The people of Hot Springs simply refused to allow me to fail in those early days when I really didn’t know what I was doing.

“I’m not a chef. I’m a kid from a blue-collar family in Brooklyn. My style is to put my head down and get to work on whatever project I take on. I should have declared this a failed experiment and quit during the first year. But I couldn’t quit because I knew how many people in Hot Springs were pulling for us. I didn’t want to let anyone down. I’m still that way. If someone comes in here to eat, I want to make sure that we don’t let them down. I walk around the room asking them what they think. If they have a suggestion, I take it to heart.”

Valinoti, 54, decided as a child that he would one day work on Wall Street. His father was a truck driver and a policeman. Valinoti indeed worked on Wall Street for 13 years and made good money.

Something was missing, however.

Even though the paychecks were large, the work itself ceased to be rewarding. Valinoti quit his job and moved to Las Vegas. Though Sin City had its charms, Valinoti still wasn’t fulfilled. A friend from California, who developed shopping centers for a living, was visiting Las Vegas and said one day, “If it weren’t for my ex-wife, I would live in Hot Springs.”

The man told Valinoti about an old resort city in rural Arkansas that had, in a sense, been Las Vegas before there was a Las Vegas — casinos, floor shows, the works. He said that the downtown area of Hot Springs was a bit down on its luck but that the place had history, charm and hospitable people.

Valinoti was intrigued.

He booked a Southwest Airlines flight from Las Vegas to Little Rock the next morning, rented a car upon arrival and drove to Hot Springs. He got a room at the Arlington Hotel, walked down the street to drink at Maxine’s and soaked in the atmosphere.

“I knew immediately that I was home,” Valinoti said. “I couldn’t believe that I had never heard of this place. I was overcome by its charm and felt more relaxed than I had ever felt before. I knew within a few hours that I would move here and start a business.”

In cities across the country, Valinoti had found himself frustrated with the inability to find pizzas like the ones he grew up eating in Brooklyn. He’s quick to admit that he has a short attention span and needed a new project. Valinoti began experimenting with how to make Brooklyn-style pizzas, found space in a building on a stretch of Park Avenue that has seen better days and opened the doors of DeLuca’s with six tables on Nov. 22, 2013.

He admitted to me that he locked himself in the men’s room that first afternoon before the restaurant’s doors opened.

“I was terrified,” he said. “I couldn’t believe that I had the hubris to do this. The idea of feeding other people had sounded good as a general concept, but then I actually had to do it.”

Valinoti eventually unlocked the restroom door, came out and fed several hungry patrons that night. He continued to perfect his methods, especially the way he makes the dough. Within months, foodies across the state were talking about this new spot in Hot Springs.

Here’s how Stephanie Smittle began a wonderfully written feature on Valinoti in the Arkansas Times back in March: “Anthony Valinoti, owner of DeLuca’s Pizzeria at 407 Park Ave. in Hot Springs, thrives on the kind of volatility involved in making pizza, as he says, ‘the hard way.’ DeLuca’s has no freezer. It has no microwave, and it has no stand mixer — all standard equipment for reducing a restaurant’s margin of error and streamlining a production process. It has no dedicated room in which to ‘grow the dough’ (Valinoti’s words), and therefore no consistent way to sequester the fermenting mounds from the litany of things that can affect dough rise — humidity, the temperature outdoors, whether the yeast is feeling feisty that particular afternoon.

“‘If you treat it with a lot of respect, it can turn out well,’ Valinoi told me. ‘I’m not a chef. I don’t consider myself a chef. But a chef takes something that’s pretty much dead and reanimates it. Chefs are reanimators. This is what they do.’

“Valinoti is a storyteller and a gesturer. He cupped an imaginary globe of yeasty life in the air with hands covered in smudges of nonimaginary pizza dough, dusting my laptop and the table beneath it with fine flour at each firm conclusion. ‘When you put water, salt, flour and yeast in a bowl, it comes to life. And the idea behind what I’ve learned over the last there years is how do you harness that life?’

“As a kid, Valinoti would visit Di Fara Pizza in a Hasidic Jewish neighborhood on Brooklyn’s Avenue J, watching the revered Dom De Marco hunched over the counter, forming discs by hand and snipping basil over the finished pies with a pair of kitchen scissors.”

Valinoti told Smittle: “He has been doing what I guess we all try to emulate at some point. Nobody really understood what it was. It was just really that good.”

When the subject turned to his previous career, he told her: “Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to work on Wall Street. There was something prestigious about banking, especially in New York. And that’s what I gravitated towards. … I’m very lucky in that if I lock into something, I can get to be pretty good at it. You know, it may take me a minute, but my attention span is that of a gnat so you’ve got to lock me in, and you’ve got to lock me into a project that is way above my head. That makes me keep going. That makes me keep looking for answers.”

He seems to have found the answer to making great pizzas.

An earlier Arkansas Times review described DeLuca’s pizzas this way: “After making my selection from the menu, and a very short wait, my server placed the pie on my table. This thing was like a work of art. A rainbow of colors — red, orange, white and green. Pepperoni, onions, cherry tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms and fresh basil. I wasn’t sure if I should eat it or frame it.

“The first bite made me realize that this is what real pizza is. For those old enough to remember Pop Rocks candy, the candy that would pop and crack in your mouth, the sensation was the same. Only this time, instead of sweet candy flavor, what popped was the basil, the sauce, the fresh tomatoes and mushrooms, and the spicy pepperoni. The thin crust had a crisp texture to it, but a little chewy at the same time, very enjoyable. Everything has a flavor all its own, but it all comes together to make a flavor unlike any pizza I’ve had. Now you might say that this reaction was due to it being my first visit, but I assure you the reaction is the same on every visit, and there have been many, with many more still to come.”

The huge fire that consumed what remained of the oldest section of the Majestic Hotel just down the street occurred a few months after DeLuca’s opened. The power at the restaurant went out that Thursday night, and the street was blocked by emergency vehicles. But rather than being a setback to the neighborhood, the fire proved to be a wake-up call for Arkansans. People not only in Hot Springs but across the state realized that they had allowed a place that had once been the jewel of the South to deteriorate over a period of decades.

Feb. 27, 2014 — the night of the fire — was the beginning of the ongoing renaissance of downtown Hot Springs.

And DeLuca’s, which now draws customers from across the region, has been a key part of that renaissance.

The restaurant was full by 4:30 p.m. on the day I was there. I talked to a couple in a nearby parking lot who had driven from Little Rock to bring their granddaughter to DeLuca’s for the first time.

“I learn more about this city and love it more with each passing day,” Valinoti told me as I chewed on a meatball. “The Majestic fire was awful, but I saw hope and optimism in the wake of that event. Look at all of the buildings that are being sold downtown. Look at the developments that are now taking place. People said that I shouldn’t open a business on Park Avenue, but sometimes it takes an outsider to see what other people can’t see. Now there are people walking down here at night from the hotels on Central Avenue. They feel safe.

“I’m hoping to see more businesses on this street. I had a guy in here the other day who had ridden his motorcycle 112 miles just to eat here. Those kinds of stories keep me going.”

Like me, Valinoti hopes the city of Hot Springs will develop outdoor thermal pools on the Majestic site, which finally has been cleared of debris. He believes that will bring even more visitors his way.

Summing up the past four years, Valinoti said, “It’s serendipity that I’m in Hot Springs. You know, the fork in the road sometimes takes you to where you’re supposed to be.”

The restaurant is only open four days a week, which Valinoti calls the perfect schedule.

“I don’t think I could enjoy doing this seven days a week,” he said.

Valinoti lives on Lake Hamilton. He told me: “My friends have boats, and they love to take me out of the water. By Monday morning, after four days of this, I just want to be out on the lake. This is so much more satisfying to me than my work on Wall Street. My father wanted to kill me when I told him I was leaving Wall Street, but this was meant to be. There’s something beautiful about feeding people things they enjoy. And there’s still plenty of room for improvement.”

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The farkleberry

Thursday, May 4th, 2017

The farkleberry is a shrub that can be found from the East Coast to Texas. It can grow to a height of almost 25 feet and has black berries that birds feed on.

Curtis Morris writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “The shrub is nearly unknown today.”

So why does it have its own entry in the state encyclopedia?

If you don’t know the answer to that question, you’re likely not old enough to remember Gov. Orval Faubus and editorial cartoonist George Fisher.

Faubus, who served as governor from 1955-67, helped clear brush along a state highway in Franklin County one day for what’s now referred to as a “photo op.” Lou Oberste, a writer and photographer for what later would become the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism, shot photos of the governor, who was dressed in overalls and carrying an ax.

Faubus had grown up in Madison County in the Ozarks and claimed to know the identities of most of the trees and bushes native to Arkansas. Along the highway that day, he pointed out redbuds, dogwoods and other trees he wanted saved.

After hearing about the publicity stunt, Fisher decided to draw cartoons showing Faubus with a farkleberry, whose wood was considered worthless.

Fisher grew up at Beebe and died in 2003 at age 80. He has been described by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial cartoonist John Deering as a man whose work “influenced and helped define Arkansas politics for a generation. He created a series of visual metaphors and themes that were widely associated with the politicians he caricatured and became a part of Arkansas political folklore. Fisher focused primarily on political, social and environmental issues.

“Fisher was born on April 8, 1923, near Searcy to Charles W. Fisher, a tree nursery owner, and Gladys Fisher. His mother died when he was five, and his father raised Fisher’s two brothers, sister and him. Fisher grew up in Beebe, where he attended school and started the Beebe Grammar School News. Fisher’s father was an avid reader and encouraged his son’s interest in drawing. He suggested an idea for Fisher’s first published carton, a sketch lampooning Gov. Homer Adkins.

“Fisher attended college in Beebe for a year while serving in the Army Reserves. He left college in 1943 after being called to active duty. While stationed in England, he attended drawing classes at the Municipal College of Art at Bournemouth and drew cartoons for his regiment’s newspaper. In Bournemouth, he met art student Rosemary Beryl Snook. While serving as an infantryman in the Battle of the Bulge, Fisher maintained a sketch diary of his fighting experiences. After the war, in 1946, Fisher married Snook and returned to college.

“His first cartooning experience was with the West Memphis News, run by World War II veterans determined to fight the abuses of Arkansas’ machine politicians. At the time of his hiring in 1946, Fisher wrote news stories in addition to drawing cartoons. The paper’s staunch reformist stance led to threats of lawsuits from the local political machine.”

The newspaper at West Memphis was shut down in 1949, and Fisher moved to Little Rock to begin a commercial art service. He approached Robert McCord at the North Little Rock Times and offered to draw political cartoons. McCord accepted his offer. Soon, the Arkansas Gazette and the Pine Bluff Commercial were reprinting some of the cartoons, giving Fisher a statewide audience.

“Fisher and his wife created a syndicated television show, ‘Phydeaux and His Friends,’ featuring puppets they sculpted,” Deering writes. “The puppets appealed to children, and the show’s political satire delighted adults. Local political figures, including Faubus, made guest appearances. Although Fisher initially supported Faubus, he quickly concluded that Faubus was an opportunist. Fisher’s most famous Faubus cartoon showed the governor addressing a Legislature of Faubus look-alikes in a biting commentary on his influence on state government.

“In 1972, the Gazette published Fisher’s cartoons several times a week. By the time he was hired as the paper’s editorial cartoonist in 1976, Fisher’s name was synonymous with the Gazette’s. Many of his cartoon symbols have become icons. He popularized the farkleberry bush in an account of a bizarre meeting of Faubus with state highway workers. As the story goes, Faubus stopped at a site where workers were clearing brush to demonstrate how it should be done. He named all the native plants, including the obscure farkleberry.”

So it was that the farkleberry came to be identified with the Faubus administration.

Faubus later called the walking path behind his Huntsville home the Farkleberry Trail.

When the Arkansas chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists began looking for ways to raise money for college scholarships, it decided to put on a stage show that would lampoon newsmakers. The inaugural show was held in 1967 (Winthrop Rockefeller’s first year as governor) and was known as the Farkleberry Follies. The follies were held every other year during legislative sessions through 1999.

Last month, the Political Animals Club of Little Rock held a program to mark the 50th anniversary of that first show. Veteran Little Rock advertising and public relations executive Ben Combs, who played Faubus, was joined by former Arkansas Senate chief of staff Bill “Scoop” Lancaster, who played Congressman Tommy Robinson. Lancaster brought back his Robinson character for the luncheon.

“We had some great Arkansas political characters to use as script material through the years,” Combs says. “These types of shows often are called gridiron shows, but the lawyers were already using that name. We came up with Farkleberry Follies for that first show, and it stuck.”

The show would sell out from Wednesday night through Saturday night. Combs says the tradition was for local elected officials to be seated up front on Wednesday nights followed by members of the Legislature on Thursday nights, the governor and other statewide constitutional officers on Friday nights and the members of the state’s congressional delegation on Saturday nights.

“We liked to put them up front so the other people attending could see their reactions when we made fun of them,” Combs says.

A driving force behind the Farkleberry Follies was Leroy Donald, who died in 2009 at age 73 after a long career as a writer and editor at the Arkansas Gazette and later the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Months in advance of the Farkleberry Follies, people such as Lancaster and Combs would gather with Donald for long nights of eating, drinking and script writing.

Combs says the goal was to “skewer the inflated egos of the political class with skits and songs.”

In his book “Inside the Arkansas Legislature,” Lancaster gives an example of the writing that made the show memorable: “The Arkansas Senate is like a fine bottle of Montrachet while the House is like a pitcher of Miller Lite — warm Miller Lite.”

The show was held at what originally was the Olde West Dinner Theatre and is now Murry’s Dinner Playhouse in southwest Little Rock. There was a political connection since the theater, which was new in 1967, was owned by Ike Murry, who served two terms as the state’s attorney general from 1949-53 when Sid McMath was governor. Murry ran for governor in 1952 and finished last in a field of five in the Democratic primary. He later became a regular at the weekday luncheons hosted for years by Little Rock financier Witt Stephens. Politics often dominated the discussions at those luncheons, where cornbread was always on the menu.

Bill Lewis, who was a longtime Gazette reporter, was the local chapter president for the Society of Professional Journalists the year the show began. He’s now 87 and still lives in Little Rock.

“We were attempting to get by on dues of $10 a year, and it was becoming increasingly difficult,” Lewis says. “So I invited the board to my little house at 14 Westmont Circle in Meadowcliff one Sunday afternoon. The board consisted of Marcus George, Robert McCord, Margaret Smith Ross, George Fisher and one or two others I can’t recall. I had been in a gridiron show while working for United Press in Baton Rouge so I proposed that we attempt one in the campaign off years to avoid conflict with the lawyers’ show. We talked about the idea, and everyone seemed agreeable. It was Fisher who came up with the name that afternoon. I was a little dubious, but I was overridden by the others. They thought it was great, and they were right.

“I negotiated with Ike Murry to use the Olde West Dinner Theatre. There were only two performances of the first show, but later we bowed to public demand, and it went up to a full week. The $12 ticket price for the first show included a buffet dinner and an open bar. The show made a ton of money. I hired Betty Fowler, who worked every show thereafter. The last production had a ticket price of $50, and it sold out.

“We rehearsed in the old synagogue on Broadway. The editor of the Benton paper volunteered to direct the show provided he had full control of the script. I reluctantly agreed, but then he began inserting four-letter words that I knew would be destructive. I called his hand on it. He threw down his script and stormed out. I’ve never seen him since. This happened two weeks before the opening. In desperation, I called Margaret Carter at UALR. She agreed. By some miracle, she whipped the show into shape. It was a huge hit. It made so much money that it was decided to open a scholarship fund for students studying journalism.”

Ernie Dumas writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Fisher had a significant role in formulating, producing and performing in the show, which took the name of the Faubus icon. Fisher usually began the show by caricaturing a few of the figures who would be lampooned. … Donald brainstormed and produced each show, rewrote the whimsical skits of others (“funnying them up,” as he described it) and directed the performances. The skits were often built around Broadway show tunes and popular songs, the lyrics altered to fit current public controversies.

“A few peformances proved so popular that they became regular features — Donald as the perennial political candidate Jim Johnson, Gazette news editor Bill Rutherford as University of Arkansas football coach and athletic director Frank Broyles, Arkansas Democrat political cartoonist Jon Kennedy as Sen. J. William Fulbright.”

When Little Rock banker B. Finley Vinson was planning the skyscraper that’s now the Regions Bank building, he wanted a fine-dining venue on the top floor. That became Restaurant Jacques & Suzanne’s. Vinson also wanted a less formal restaurant on the first floor that also would serve as a happy hour watering hole for the downtown business crowd. Public relations executive Ron Robinson suggested to Vinson that the place be called The Farkleberry and that the walls be covered with political cartoons and caricatures of well-known Arkansans.

The Farkleberry operated from 1975-88. Years later, Jack Fleischauer, who headed Arkansas operations for Regions Bank, found the cartoons from The Farkleberry in boxes in a storage room. He thought about throwing them away but decided to ask Skip Rutherford, the founder of the Political Animals Club, if he wanted them. Rutherford, now dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, saved the cartoons. Some of them are on display at the Clinton School and the others are stored at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.

In that sense, the fruit of the farkleberry lives on.

 

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