Archive for August, 2018

College football: Week 1

Wednesday, August 29th, 2018

Another college football season has arrived.

Thank goodness.

In Fayetteville on what promises to be a sultry Saturday afternoon, more than 70,000 Arkansas fans will witness the debut of a new head coach along with tens of millions of dollars in stadium improvements.

In Jonesboro on Saturday night, Arkansas State will have the same head coach to go along with high expectations. There also have been stadium renovations there.

In Pine Bluff on Saturday night, the Golden Lions will have a new head coach along with stadium improvements at what’s now Simmons Bank Field.

UCA goes on the road to Tulsa with its new head coach.

If you’re doing the math, that’s rookie head coaches at three of the state’s four NCAA Division I schools and major stadium improvements at three of those four schools.

At the Division II level, all games for the 12 teams (six of them from Arkansas) in the Great American Conference are conference games. A bad start can doom you (ask Harding, which didn’t win the conference last year despite an 11-game winning streak). So teams need to start strong. There are two big games right off the bat Thursday night as Harding goes to Arkadelphia to take on Henderson while Arkansas Tech visits Magnolia to battle Southern Arkansas.

Here are the picks for the first week:

Arkansas 47, Eastern Illinois 19 — Labor Day weekend hasn’t always been kind to Razorback teams. Remember 1992 and The Citadel? Arkansas head coach Chad Morris appears to have said the right things and made the correct moves coming into the season. Of course, it’s easy to be popular when you’re undefeated. Morris, 49, has the ability to strengthen Arkansas’ recruiting ties to Texas since he was a legendary high school coach in that state. But Arkansas fans are going to have to be patient. By SEC West standards, there’s just not a lot of talent in Fayetteville right now. That said, Arkansas should have no problem dispatching Eastern Illinois, which went 6-5 a year ago. An Arkansas coach hasn’t lost his first game since Frank Broyles’ first team dropped a 12-0 decision to Baylor in Little Rock to open the 1958 season.

Arkansas State 34, Southeast Missouri State 13 — The Red Wolves have had winning records in all four years of the Blake Anderson regime, though a 7-5 finish in 2017 was a bit of a disappointment. ASU lost three of its final five games, including a 32-25 home loss to Troy to finish the regular season and a 35-30 loss to Middle Tennessee State in the Camellia Bowl. Quarterback Justice Hansen, the Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Year, is back. So is a talented group of receivers along with four offensive linemen. Anderson said: “The excitement and anticipation may be higher than it has ever been here.”

Tulsa 31, UCA 27 — The new head Bear at the University of Central Arkansas is Nathan Brown, who was the UCA quarterback from 2005-08. He’s one of the youngest head coaches in Division I. It will be interesting to see if he can keep things going after UCA won the Southland Conference championship in 2017, finished the regular season 10-1 (the only loss was to Kansas State from the Big 12) and made it to the FCS playoffs (where the Bears lost 21-15 to New Hampshire). Coach Steve Campbell then departed for South Alabama of the Sun Belt Conference. Tulsa was just 2-10 a year ago and 1-7 in the American Conference. Tulsa is picked to finish last in the conference. Expect UCA to hang around on Saturday and even have a chance to win at the end.

UAPB 18, Morehouse 17 — Yes, it’s an FCS team playing a Division II team. That hasn’t meant much in recent years as UAPB has struggled to an 11-44 record during the past five seasons. New head coach Cedric Thomas, who played at UAPB, left his job as the defensive coordinator at Alcorn State to try to return the Golden Lions to respectability. He doesn’t inherit much talent so fans will need to give him time. Thomas said: “The biggest thing was changing the culture.” That journey continues at 6 p.m. Saturday.

Harding 35, Henderson 24 — The Bisons started the season 0-3 a year ago and then went on an 11-game winning streak that saw them advance to the semifinals of the NCAA Division II playoffs. The folks in Searcy are expecting more good things as Paul Simmons enters his second season as head coach. The Bisons were ranked seventh nationally in one of the preseason NCAA Division II polls. They must take on a Henderson team that struggled to a 6-5 record in 2017. It was an unusual down year for Scott Maxfield’s program, which has taken home three of the first seven GAC championships.

Southern Arkansas 28, Arkansas Tech 22 — These are two quality football teams. Arkansas Tech was 8-3 in the regular season a year ago and needed just one more victory to capture at least a share of the conference title. Southern Arkansas was 7-4. The Muleriders should be able to contend for a GAC championship this year with the return of quarterback Barrett Renner, who was the GAC Offensive Player of the Year last season. SAU also returns the GAC Defensive Player of the Year, Davondrick Lison.

Ouachita 40, Northwestern Oklahoma 33 — Ouachita went 9-2 in the regular season a year ago to win its third outright GAC title in seven years. Ouachita has the most consecutive winning seasons (10) of any college football program in the state and returns talented receivers and running backs such as Drew Harris (who scored seven touchdowns in the Battle of the Ravine against Henderson), Allie Freeman and Kris Oliver. The question mark on offense is at quarterback, where redshirt freshman Braden Brazeal from England takes the reins. The Tigers must make the long trip to Alva, Okla., for a Thursday night game against Northwestern Oklahoma, which finished 5-6 in 2017.

UAM 30, Southwestern Oklahoma 29 — The Boll Weevils finished 5-6 a year ago and look to be improved this season with the return of Cole Sears at quarterback. Sears passed for 2,668 yards and 29 touchdowns last year. UAM head coach Hud Jackson doesn’t hesitate when he says: “I think we’ve got a chance to be good.” Like Ouachita, UAM must make a long trip to west Oklahoma for a Thursday night game.  The opponent is Southwestern Oklahoma, which struggled to a 3-8 record in 2017. UAM, which lost its final three games, was the only one of the six GAC teams from Arkansas to have a losing record last year.

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Rex’s Rankings: After one week

Wednesday, August 29th, 2018

North Little Rock defeated Booker T. Washington from Tulsa, 29-28, in a thriller at Bentonville on Saturday.

Bentonville, meanwhile, lost a thriller to Midwest City from Oklahoma, 28-25 in overtime.

Fayetteville defeated a good team out of Missouri (St. John Vianney), and Bentonville West lost to a good team out of Oklahoma (Owasso).

The Salt Bowl ended in chaos.

Those were among the highlights and lowlights with high school games played on seven of the previous nine days.

Big games this Friday include Greenwood against Fort Smith Northside and Pine Bluff at Cabot.

Here are the updated rankings as we head into the second Friday of action:

OVERALL

  1. North Little Rock
  2. Greenwood
  3. Bryant
  4. Bentonville
  5. Pine Bluff
  6. Pulaski Academy
  7. Warren
  8. Fayetteville
  9. Fort Smith Northside
  10. West Memphis

CLASS 7A

  1. North Little Rock
  2. Bryant
  3. Bentonville
  4. Fayetteville
  5. Fort Smith Northside

CLASS 6A

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

CLASS 5A

  1. Pulaski Academy
  2. Little Rock McClellan
  3. Little Rock Christian
  4. Texarkana
  5. Nettleton

CLASS 4A

  1. Warren
  2. Nashville
  3. Joe T. Robinson
  4. Hamburg
  5. Arkadelphia

CLASS 3A

  1. Booneville
  2. Prescott
  3. Clinton
  4. Charleston
  5. McGehee

CLASS 2A

  1. Mount Ida
  2. Junction City
  3. Des Arc
  4. Hazen
  5. Mineral Springs

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From Brinkley to Forrest City

Friday, August 24th, 2018

FIFTH IN A SERIES

If you want to understand this part of the state, the Central Delta Depot Museum at Brinkley is a good place to start.

The Central Delta Historical Society was organized in the 1990s to celebrate the history of Monroe County along with parts of Prairie, Lee, Phillips, Arkansas, St. Francis and Woodruff counties. Louise Mitchell, who had been a teacher at Brinkley High School, began a letter-writing campaign in 1999 to save the historic depot at Brinkley.

In February 2001, Union Pacific Railroad deeded the station to the city of Brinkley. The city, in turn, signed a long-term lease with the Central Delta Historical Society. Renovation work began in 2001, and work was completed in 2003. The museum opened in May 2003.

The size of the depot gives one an idea of what an important railroad town Brinkley once was.

“Brinkley was ideally situated at the crossing of the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad (the state’s first rail line that was completed in 1871; it later became the Rock Island) and the Texas & St. Louis Railroad (later the Cotton Belt), which was laid through the city in 1882,” Bill Sayger writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “With two other rail lines coming in from the north and south, the city rapidly became the regional shipping center for cotton and timber products and a major point of transfer for rail passengers in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

“The brick train station originally opened on Sept. 16, 1912, and was constructed at a cost of $25,000. Its wing design and size, with freight rooms at each end of the building, made it the most striking of the Rock Island stations between Memphis and Little Rock. Passenger service ceased on the Cotton Belt in 1959 and the Rock Island in 1967. Because of the bankruptcy of the Rock Island, the train station was closed in 1980. Union Pacific took over operations of the Cotton Belt line and that part of the Rock Island between Memphis and Little Rock.”

A Missouri Pacific line connected Brinkley to Helena.

The White & Black River Railroad (later owned by the Rock Island) provided service from Brinkley to Jacksonport.

Headed east on U.S. Highway 70 out of Brinkley, I cross from Monroe County into St. Francis County.

St. Francis County has seen its population fall from a high of 36,841 in the 1950 census to about 25,000 people today. The territorial legislature carved St. Francis County from neighboring Phillips County in October 1827.

“A temporary county seat was set up at the home of William Strong until a permanent one was established at Franklin,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “However, in 1840, the county seat was moved to Madison. In 1855, the seat was moved again to Mount Vernon. But the courthouse burned the following year, and Madison regained its role. By 1860, there were 2,621 slaves in the county, constituting roughly 30 percent of the total population. Cotton and corn were the mainstays of the county’s economy at the time.”

The county seat was moved to Forrest City in 1874 following a vote by St. Francis County residents. People in Madison refused to release county records. A group from Forrest City went to Madison one night and stole the safe containing the records. A few months later, the framed building that served as the courthouse at Forrest City was burned.

The Memphis & Little Rock Railroad built a depot at what’s now Wheatley. The community originally was known as Britton. It was named Wheatley in 1872 in honor of a resident named Wheatley Dennis. Wheatley was in Monroe County at the time, but the county boundary was changed the next year.

The Wheatley Rice Milling Co. was established in 1909 as rice cultivation took off on the west side of Crowley’s Ridge. The rice dryer there became part of the Riceland Foods cooperative in 1945. That continues to be the most notable landmark in a community that had 355 residents in the 2010 census.

The next stop is Palestine, which represents a bright spot in the Delta.

While I was watching one of the state championship high school basketball games at Hot Springs in March, someone in the row behind me asked if I could visit for a few minutes. It was Jon Estes, the superintendent of the Palestine-Wheatley School District. Estes grew up in far south Arkansas at Bradley in Lafayette County. He was the superintendent of the Drew Central School District near Monticello when he accepted the Palestine-Wheatley job a decade ago. Estes didn’t know much about the Delta, but he understands rural Arkansas. He knows that for a small community to succeed, its public schools must improve.

The school districts at Palestine and Wheatley consolidated in the 1980s. The Palestine Red Devils and the Wheatley Pirates had been athletic rivals, but students soon learned to play together as Palestine-Wheatley Patriots.

Like most Delta communities, Palestine has struggled to maintain its population base. Palestine had a population of 681 in the 2010 census, down from a high of 976 in 1980.

Estes knew that I’m always looking for success stories in the Delta. He thought I might be interested in seeing what’s happening at Palestine, a place he likes to call the Holy City. I made good on my promise to pay him a visit.

Palestine was named in 1870 when the first post office opened. Some say the community got its name from a sawmill employee who was killed in an accident. Others say the first postmaster selected the name from the Bible. Palestine was incorporated in 1889 as businesses moved in along the busy railroad line. By 1905, there were five general stores, two grocery stores and a drugstore.

“The school, like others in the Delta, was facing declining enrollment, poor test scores and a declining annual fund balance when I got there,” Estes says. “With the help of what I consider the best teaching staff in the state, and under the direction of the best school board, the district turned all of that around. We now bill our district as the Diamond in the Delta.”

The Palestine-Wheatley School District has grown from about 535 students when Estes arrived to more than 800. All of the schools are now in Palestine, a move Estes says Wheatley residents bought into. To handle the influx of new students, Estes bought metal buildings in Yazoo City, Miss., that had been used to house evacuees following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The district has purchased 60 acres along Highway 70 on the west side of town, and construction will soon begin on a $20 million high school. A new elementary school opened in 2013.

People like to live where there are quality schools. That’s why it didn’t surprise me when Estes said there’s a subdivision being planned near the new high school. He even showed me where the concrete has been poured for a skating rink. When’s the last time you heard of a skating rink being built anywhere?

Estes shows me C.R. Smalls, the abandoned parts house that Cindy and Roger Smallwood transformed into a restaurant that attracts customers from Forrest City the east and Brinkley to the west. There’s a new Dollar General Store nearby. Estes says the parking lot is full at all hours. Triple G Excavating Inc. has expanded at Palestine in recent years.

Just down Highway 70, Burt Swiney is known by the locals as Barbecue Burt. He transformed his food trailer into a small restaurant.

“His food is so good that people would sit outside and eat it on cold days when there was nothing to cut the wind,” Estes says. “So he built a structure to seat those loyal patrons.”

Estes also mentions the growth of Standridge Heat, Air & Electric Inc.

“Max Standridge bought an old metal shop and moved his operations to Palestine,” Estes says. “He’s somewhat of a hero around the school because he air conditioned the weight room for our football players.”

There’s also the once-abandoned gas station that has been reopened as a modern Valero convenience store. I’m used to seeing empty buildings in the Delta. You don’t see much of that at Palestine.

We head downtown for the highlight of the tour. The Hurd family operates a Forrest City construction company. They’ve now bought most of the downtown area.

Josh and Brandy Hurd and Josh’s parents (Randy and Ladonna Hurd) are involved in the operation. They took an empty service station at Palestine and renovated it for their Crazy Donkey Grill, which serves everything from steaks to pizzas to Mexican food. They then reopened an adjoining car wash.

That’s not to mention Boondocks Down South or their adjacent furniture store.

“Boondocks is the kind of place where you can dress yourself for duck hunting, for a college football game or for Easter Sunday services,” Estes says. “They have everything from hunting equipment to fragrance candles. The Hurds also renovated a grocery store that had been closed for almost 20 years. They sell reclaimed furniture out of there. This is top-of-the-line stuff that’s shipped all over the country.”

Across from the furniture store, Littlefield’s Grocery is still going strong in downtown Palestine.

“It’s a country store that has stood the test of time,” Estes says. “You can buy anything from a chain for your bathtub stopper to a choice steak to Arkansas watermelons in the summer. And they still deliver groceries to people’s homes.”

Ladonna Hurd tells me about the hundreds of people who now converge on downtown for holiday parades and other special events.

Brandy Hurd says the Crazy Donkey was named for Domino, a donkey on their ranch who can always be counted on to “add a little extra crazy to our day.”

Their enthusiasm for what’s going on here is contagious. There’s a sense of promise, something missing in too many rural towns.

Palestine got it right. Instead of chasing industries, its leaders focused on improving the public schools and revitalizing downtown. If those things are done correctly, the rest follows.

Just to the east of Palestine, the traveler on Highway 70 crosses the L’Anguille River. Several creeks come together to form the river west of Harrisburg. It then flows to the south to almost Marianna, cuts across Crowley’s Ridge and empties into the St. Francis River.

“In the 18th century, French trappers operated along the river, naming it after the French word for eel,” Lancaster writes. “Friedrich Gerstacker described the river basin as consisting of ‘swamps and thorns, creepers, wild vines, fallen trees, half or entirely rotted, deep and muddy water-courses, bushes so thick that you could hardly stick a knife into them and, to complete the enjoyment, clouds of mosquitoes and gnats, not to mention snakes lying about on the edges of the water-courses.”

The L’Anguille bottoms later proved to be a major obstacle to the completion of the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad.

“As with much of northeastern Arkansas, the L’Anguille River basin was the site of enormous timber harvests in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” Lancaster writes. “After the land was cleared, the area became home to large agricultural enterprises, especially the rice farming that was emerging west of Crowley’s Ridge. … Many of the channels feeding into the river have been straightened for agricultural use, which has increased soil erosion. This runoff, combined with the presence of fecal coliform bacteria, resulted in portions of the river being listed by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality as ‘not supporting aquatic life’ in 1998.”

Numerous initiatives to improve water quality haven taken place since then.

Heading east into Forrest City, I begin to climb that geological oddity known as Crowley’s Ridge.

It begins in southern Missouri and ends at Helena.

“It is made up of a continuous series of rolling hills except for a slight break at Marianna,” Hubert Stroud writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “This break was created by the L’Anguille River as it flowed across the ridge. The ridge received its name from Benjamin Crowley, the first white settler to reach the area near present-day Paragould, sometime around 1820. … Crowley’s Ridge is an unusual geological formation that rises above the Mississippi Alluvial Plain. The ridge contrasts sharply with the surrounding flatlands of the Delta. In terms of formation, the ridge is generally thought to have once been an island between the Mississippi River and the Ohio River. It became a long and narrow hilly ridge after the rivers changed courses millions of years ago.”

Stroud notes that the ridge is capped by a deep layer of wind-deposited soils created millions of years ago when glaciers moved across the continent. He says that “rivers and streams that continued to meander across the plain washed away the loessial material. On Crowley’s Ridge, however, the loess continued to collect, up to 50 feet in depth in some locations. Since loess is very easily eroded, steep slopes and deep valleys characterize much of Crowley’s Ridge. One of the unique features of Crowley’s Ridge is its natural vegetation. Interestingly, many of the trees that make up the forest on Crowley’s Ridge are similar to those found in the west Appalachian Mountains. The ridge is covered with a lush mixed forest, including oak and hickory and uncommon hardwood trees such as American beech, sugar maple and the tuliptree or yellow poplar.

“Crowley’s Ridge also has extensive areas of pasture. Although the soil is relatively fertile, row crops such as soybeans and wheat are limited almost entirely to small floodplains along and near streams that flow out of the region onto the Mississippi Alluvial Plain. This is due to the highly erosive nature of the wind-blown soils of Crowley’s Ridge. The soils need a protective vegetative cover of some type such as pasture grasses or forests to combat severe soil erosion.”

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Rex’s Rankings: The preseason

Friday, August 17th, 2018

High school football season has arrived, a week earlier than usual due to the addition of an extra week that will allow teams to have an open date during their 10-game regular season.

Starting Monday, I will see as many teams the first week as possible.

If you love high school football, it’s the week you live for.

There will be two games at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock on Monday night.

There will be two more games at War Memorial Stadium on Tuesday night.

The fifth high school game of the week will be at War Memorial Stadium on Thursday night.

There will be a full slate of games on Friday night across the state.

On Saturday, Aug. 25, there will be two day games starting at 10 a.m. at the North Little Rock High School stadium followed by the annual Salt Bowl (which attracts the biggest high school crowd of the year) between Benton and Bryant that evening at War Memorial Stadium.

For the devoted high school fan, it will be possible to attend nine games in six days.

I’ll again be hosting a Friday night scoreboard show each week on almost 50 radio stations across the state. During the show, I’ll update the rankings. The updated rankings will later be posted on this blog.

Here are the preseason rankings as we prepare to begin the 2018 season:

OVERALL

  1. North Little Rock
  2. Bentonville
  3. Bryant
  4. Greenwood
  5. Pine Bluff
  6. Pulaski Academy
  7. Warren
  8. Benton
  9. Fayetteville
  10. Bentonville West

CLASS 7A

  1. North Little Rock
  2. Bentonville
  3. Bryant
  4. Fayetteville
  5. Bentonville West

CLASS 6A

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

CLASS 5A

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

CLASS 4A

  1. Warren
  2. Arkadelphia
  3. Joe T. Robinson
  4. Pea Ridge
  5. Nashville

CLASS 3A

  1. Booneville
  2. Prescott
  3. McGehee
  4. Clinton
  5. Charleston

CLASS 2A

  1. Mount Ida
  2. Junction City
  3. Foreman
  4. Hazen
  5. Mineral Springs

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Biscoe to Brinkley

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

FOURTH IN A SERIES

The community of Biscoe, which had just 363 residents in the 2010 census, is located on what passes for a high spot in east Arkansas. It’s known as Surrounded Hill.

“Surrounded Hill was surveyed by the federal government in 1849,” writes Steven Teske of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. “Edwin Burr was the first settler to claim title to the land, registering his deed in Batesville in 1853. The area remained relatively unpopulated through the Civil War but gained significance with construction of the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad, which was completed through the Surrounded Hill area in 1871. A depot was built on flat land near the hill, and a post office was established in 1872 with the name Fredonia. The name of the post office was changed to Surrounded Hill in 1875, renamed Fredonia in 1881, then renamed Surrounded Hill again later the same year, and finally named Biscoe in 1902. The name Biscoe appears to have been chosen to honor landowner John Biscoe. An African-American Baptist church was established in 1872. Eldridge Atkins acquired land in the area in 1874. Abraham Boyd acquired land a few years later, which he divided into lots and sold to prospective homeowners. Boyd referred to the development community as Fredonia.”

By 1890, according to Teske, there were two general stores, two grocery stores, two saloons, a post office, a hotel, a blacksmith shop, a steam-powered cotton gin and a gristmill. Almost 2,000 refugees headed to Biscoe during the Great Flood of 1927.

“By 1937, Biscoe had a community hall, two schools, five churches (all African-American), eight general stores, a drugstore, a barbershop, two bus stations, two blacksmith shops, two gins, three filling stations, a train depot and a post office,” Teske writes.

Now, the main business is Mack’s IGA, a classic country store that has been around in one form or another since 1926.

The next community toward the east is Brasfield. U.S. 70 crosses the Cache River here, dividing Prairie County from Monroe County. Crossing the Cache means entering a vast bottomland that includes not only the lower Cache but also the Bayou DeView, Robe Bayou, Hickson Lake, Gator Pond, Bowfin Overflow, Straight Lake, Apple Lake and other oxbow lakes and sloughs.

Much of the land is owned by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission as part of Dagmar Wildlife Management Area. It’s among the most important wintering areas for ducks in the country and also has cypress trees that are hundreds of years old, black bears, alligators and bald eagles.

One of my favorite places to eat catfish in Arkansas once was on the banks of the Cache River at Brasfield. W.O. and Patsy Prince ran the Riverfront Restaurant & Fish Market. It was quite the experience. When headed east, you would turn down the gravel road to your right just before crossing the Cache River. You would order your meal in the bait shop on the banks of the river. You would then walk down to the boat that floated on the Cache. They would bring the food down the hill to you when it was ready.

The restaurant eventually closed, and the floating portion was swept away in a flood. The Princes later reopened the restaurant in a building on land in 2011. When they retired, that building was transformed into housing.

The Cache River begins near the Arkansas-Missouri border and runs through east Arkansas before emptying into the White River near Clarendon. It runs almost parallel to the White River in parts of the Arkansas Delta.

“After the Civil War, the lowlands of the Cache River proved a major obstacle for the construction of the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In fact, the federal military government deemed the section between the Cache and the L’Anguille rivers too expensive and difficult to build. The gap in the line wasn’t completed until 1871. … Though the Cache River area was an important source of timber, the area was not as extensively cleared as were other parts of eastern Arkansas due to the river’s reputation for flooding. Major stands of native hardwood survived.

“Because the Cache moves at a slow speed due to its low amount of fall per mile and the fact that the contour of the flat land surrounding it does not lend itself to levee construction, the Cache River can overflow its banks after only a few inches of rainfall. Work on the river in northeast Arkansas in the 1920s and 1930s straightened the channel of the river, even splitting the river into two separate ditches between Bono and Egypt in Craighead County. That helped speed the flow of the river, but farming along it was still a risky endeavor.

“During the Flood of 1937, the Cache River was one of a number of eastern Arkansas rivers that spilled across agricultural land. Planters, landowners and businessmen long advocated for some form of flood control along the Cache, which had no well-developed system of levees. The Flood Control Act of 1950 authorized the Cache River-Bayou DeView Project, which was a plan to dredge, clear and realign 140 miles of the Cache upstream from Clarendon, 15 miles of the upper tributaries and 77 miles of Bayou DeView. Initial funds for the project, projected to cost $60 million, were not approved until 1969.”

That set off one of the great environmental battles in Arkansas history. U.S. Rep. Bill Alexander of Osceola joined forces with farmers in the area so the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could move the project forward.

“On May 5, 1972, U.S. District Judge J. Smith Henley in Little Rock ruled in favor of the Corps,” Lancaster writes. “The plaintiffs soon appealed the decision. In July 1972, while the project was still under litigation, the Corps, in a controversial move, began the initial clearing and dredging in the Clarendon area. On Dec. 15, 1972, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis remanded the case to Henley, ruling that the Corps had not met the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act in preparing its environmental impact statement.

“In March 1973, the court ordered construction halted until the impact statement was revised. Three years later, the statement was finally approved. But the battle over the project had become a political contest, and funding for it was stalemated in Congress in 1977. Opponents of the project moved to create a national wildlife refuge along the river, partly to block the project but also to protect the river from rampant development then going on. In 1986, the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge was established, stretching south from Grubbs in Jackson County to Clarendon and incorporating a large swatch of Bayou DeView.”

William Faulkner was among those who wrote about the Big Woods of the Delta.

The Big Woods once stretched down both sides of the Mississippi River in parts of Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri. When Hernando DeSoto explored the region in the 1500s, the Big Woods made up the largest expanse of forested wetlands in North America. There were 24 million acres of forests in the Big Woods at that time.

There are now fewer than 5 million forested acres remaining.

Most of the acreage that made up the Big Woods was cleared of trees, drained and converted to row-crop agriculture during the past 100 years. Of the remaining forested land in the Delta, almost 1 million of those acres are in Arkansas.

The Big Woods of Arkansas are an international treasure. In 1989, these remaining bottomland forests in east Arkansas were recognized by the 49 countries of the United Nations’ Ramsar Convention as a “Wetland of International Importance.”

A stretch of 550,000 forested acres in east Arkansas is the largest corridor of bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the region north of the Atchafalaya River in south Louisiana.

For five decades, the ivory-billed woodpecker was thought to be extinct. That’s why people became so excited in the early 2000s when there were reported sightings in the Big Woods of Arkansas.

Frank Gill, a senior ornithologist at the National Audubon Society, called the discovery “huge, just huge. It’s kind of like finding Elvis.”

John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, said in April 2005: “Through the 20th century, it has been every birder’s fantasy to catch a glimpse of this bird, however remote the possibility. This really is the holy grail.”

Eight independent sightings were reported in 2004-05 as ornithologists converged on east Arkansas. The reports all came within two miles of each other. Fitzpatrick headed a team that assessed the sightings and published his findings in the journal Science.

National Geographic stated in 2005: “Among the world’s largest woodpeckers, the ivory-bill is one of six North American bird species suspected or known to have gone extinct since 1880. The last conclusive sighting of the woodpecker was in Louisiana in 1944. The black-and-white bird’s disappearance followed extensive logging in the southeastern United States, which decimated the woodpecker’s habitat of mature virgin forests. Since then this charismatic species has become the Elvis of the bird world, with whisperings over the years that it might still be alive in some secret hideaway. Experts remained highly skeptical. That is, until now.”

On Feb. 11, 2004, amateur naturalist Gene Sparling of Hot Springs reportedly encountered an ivory-billed woodpecker while kayaking on Bayou DeView.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology conducted research in the area during the next 14 months and announced on April 28, 2005, during a news conference in Washington that the bird had been rediscovered. Ongoing research resumed on Nov. 1, 2005, but there was never anything more definitive.

Was it really an ivory-bill or just a large pileated woodpecker?

Was there only one male left and it died?

Who knows?

National Geographic wrote that Fitzpatrick viewed the ivory-bill as “a powerful symbol of the forests of the Deep South.”

“The lure of the wild and the lure of the beauty of birds and the lure of the mysterious-and-possibly-gone is enveloped in the idea of this bird,” he said.

When soybean prices soared in the early 1970s, tens of thousands of acres were drained and cleared in east Arkansas. Fortunately, much of that land is now being replanted in hardwoods

The Nature Conservancy describes the situation this way: “The rivers of the Mississippi River Delta and the Big Woods are vital to the health of their surrounding hardwood forests. Without naturally functioning rivers, the ecosystem changes dramatically. The forests are no longer wetlands.

“Dams, levees and irrigation projects … have virtually eliminated floods along the Mississippi River’s main stream, and tributary flooding has been reduced by 90 percent. Unable to disperse among the forests, water runs faster and stronger in straightened river channels, thus accelerating erosion. As riverbanks erode, forest vegetation loses its foothold and is swallowed by the river.”

Monroe County, which lost the highest percentage of population of any Arkansas county from the 2000 census to the 2010 census, contains a large part of the Big Woods. Those population losses have continued. The people of this county have known plenty of troubles through the decades.

“Two natural disasters devastated large sections of the county,” Louise Mitchell writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “First was a massive tornado on March 8, 1909, that destroyed everything in its path from about five miles southwest of Brinkley to about 10 miles northeast of it. Thirty-five people were killed, and about 200 were injured. Nearly every building in the city was destroyed or damaged. Second was the Flood of 1927 along the White River, which soon covered most settlements in the lower section of the county. On April 20, 1927, the levee system protecting Clarendon failed. Soon, the town stood in 20 feet of water.”

Brinkley, once a significant railroad town, has been bleeding population for decades, falling from 5,275 residents in the 1970 census to about 3,000 people now.

Robert Campbell Brinkley of Memphis was one of the promoters of the Little Rock & Memphis Railroad, which was given a land grant by the state of Arkansas in 1852 to run through the northern part of the county.

The town of Brinkley, which was named for the railroad promoter, was platted in 1869-70 and incorporated in 1872.

“Situated at the highest point between Crowley’s Ridge and the west side of the White River at DeValls Bluff, the community grew from a campsite called Lick Skillet that was used by the railroad’s construction workers,” Jane Dennis writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Legend has it that when the day’s work was completed, the railroad crew cooked dinner over a campfire and retired for the evening only when the last skillet was licked.

“Construction of the rail lines between Memphis and Little Rock brought the city of Brinkley into being, but the accomplishment wasn’t without challenges. In 1862, when the railway advertised the opening of the route, 17 miles between DeValls Bluff and Brinkley had to be negotiated by boat or stage via Clarendon — 16 miles by stage when possible and 35 miles by boat, a trip of five to six hours depending upon weather. But after the completion of the bridge across the White River in 1871, the two portions of the line were connected, making the Little Rock & Memphis Railroad the first completed in Arkansas.”

Memphis investors William Black and John Gunn established a large sawmill south of town in the late 1870s. They later started a company to construct parts for the rail line. They completed a line to the north that became part of the Rock Island Railroad. They built a line to the south that became part of the Arkansas Midland Railroad. The wholesale business John Gunn Grocery Co. also became one of the largest businesses in east Arkansas.

Taking advantage of the railroad traffic moving through the town, the Cotton Belt Hotel was constructed in 1883 and the first electric plant was established in 1896.

“The railroads facilitated the rapid export of lumber and lumber products from area sawmills, stave mills and related industries,” Dennis writes. “Brinkley developed as a pivotal crossroads in east Arkansas, halfway between Memphis and Little Rock with railroads leading in all directions. The town increased in size from 325 people in 1880 to 1,648 in 1900. … By the 1890s, Brinkley’s business district included several mills, factories and shops. Land surrounding Brinkley was used for farming. As the densely wooded land was cleared, cotton cultivation began. Cotton gins and compresses were established. Besides cotton, rice cultivation became a major economic factor in the early 1900s. In the early 1890s, the business district was rebuilt after fire destroyed it.

It was rebuilt again following the 1909 tornado. The mechanization of agriculture after World War II eventually did what floods and tornadoes couldn’t do — cause massive population losses.

 

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