The ghosts of Blackton

In the previous post, I described the Louisiana Purchase State Park at the point where Monroe, Lee and Phillips counties meet as “hauntingly beautiful.”

Intrigued by the silence of the headwater swamp, I’ve sometimes hiked that boardwalk alone. On most of my visits, my car has been the only one in the lot.

It’s quiet. And even on a brutally sunny day, the thick water tupelo trees form a canopy that almost makes it dark in the swamp.

There were four of us there Saturday. Still, ours was the only car.

We were startled for a moment on the walk back when we found a large snake wrapped into the fencing on the side of the boardwalk. The snake had not been there on the walk out to the Louisiana Purchase monument. We didn’t bother the snake. It didn’t bother us. For the moment, we were simply sharing this headwater swamp of the Little Cypress Creek watershed.

Here’s how the Arkansas State Parks website at www.arkansasstateparks.com describes a visit to the park: “As you walk along the boardwalk, you’ll experience the captivating beauty and natural sounds of the surrounding swamp. Along the boardwalk, interpretive wayside exhibits tell about the Louisiana Purchase and describe the flora and fauna of the swamp. This headwater swamp is representative of the swamplands that were common in eastern Arkansas before the vast bottomlands were drained and cleared for farming and commercial purposes.”

Just down the road on U.S. Highway 49, there’s yet another hauntingly beautiful place. It’s the Palmer House, built in the early 1870s by John Coleman Palmer, a lawyer, farmer and newspaper owner from Helena. Some people referred to it as Palmer’s Folly.

For years, motorists along U.S. 49 would notice its ruins under the pecan trees. The once grand but now dilapidated house was situated at the edge of a field like something out of a movie.

Like others, I would drive by and think to myself: “I wish someone had the vision, money and ambition to renovate that place.”

A few years ago, someone began the massive task.

I later discovered it was Richard Butler Jr. of Little Rock, a man I’ve known since we both were part of the Arkansas group that attended the Republican National Convention in Dallas in 1984.

Butler and business partner Jeremy Carroll took on the project after Carroll saw what was left of the house and fell in love with it anyway.

Kane Webb wrote this last year in Arkansas Life magazine: “Butler and Carroll are only the third owners of the property. Palmer’s great-grandson, R.E. Palmer, sold the house and dozens of farming acres around it to the Griffith family three decades back. And Joe Griffith, who farmed the land with his father, sold the house and five surrounding acres to Butler and Carroll almost three years ago. For a while, Griffith kicked around the idea of turning Palmer’s Folly into a duck hunting bed and breakfast. After all, the house may be surrounded by cotton fields, but it backs up to some prime Delta wetlands.”

Most of the work on the outside of the house has been completed. The inside likely will be a work in progress for several years to come.

“I would like to put period furniture in it and open it to the public several times a year,” Butler told Webb. “Maybe rent it out for parties.”

Butler also has relocated some sharecropper shacks on the property. He said legendary musician Levon Helm grew up in one of the shacks, which he moved over from the Thompson farm at Turkey Scratch.

The nearest community on the map to both the Palmer House and the Louisiana Purchase State Park is Blackton. Like so many Delta towns that once existed to serve the hundreds of tenant farmers and sharecroppers who shopped and obtained services in those communities, Blackton has about dried up.

Blackton was named for William Black of Brinkley, who in the late 1800s built a railroad south from Brinkley into this area to transport timber to his sawmill.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the hardwood forests of east Arkansas represented one of the country’s great lumber sources. Most of the large fields of crops one now sees in the region originally were forests filled with giant oak, hickery and cypress trees. The trees were cut, the swamps were drained and the crops were planted over a period of decades.

The Arkansas Legislature created the Blackton Special School District on April 1, 1919. The district was consolidated with Holly Grove in the 1930s, though elementary classes continued to be taught there until 1952.

Here’s how the online Enyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture at www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net describes Blackton: “Goats graze where stores once stood, and only a few houses remain. But from the 1880s to the early 1950s, Blackton was a center of activity and community support for a population of perhaps 100 families. Until after World War II, grocery stores, sawmills, a cotton gin, the railroad, dance halls and beer joints flourished. Migration to California and ‘up north’ that had begun during the Depression sped up during the war, and as farming methods changed, the exodus spelled the end of the town. The post office was discontinued in 1966. By that time, the train depot and the school had long been gone, and by the mid 1970s, all commercial activity was gone; the little white frame church that had stood for nearly 100 years was torn down.”

Most of the people who lived in this area — the rich who lived in places like the Palmer House and the poor who lived in their sharecropper shacks — are long gone. Now, there are just fields of cotton, soybeans, rice, corn and wheat.

Duck season will bring visitors from Memphis and Little Rock. But for now, once you get off U.S. 49 where anxious gamblers race toward the Isle of Capri, it’s mostly farmers in their trucks.

It’s quiet here in the swamp on a hot June day. Even the snakes seem sluggish.

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6 Responses to “The ghosts of Blackton”

  1. Joe Dempsey says:

    Rex, my good friend Larry Fugate forwarded this post to me. Going to the park, photographing it and publishing a couple of essays had long been a “been-gon” for me, as in ” … I been-gon do that for a while.”

    Spurred on by your visit, I made my visit and also looked at the old Palmer house. I’m pasting a couple of links below to show you what I do. Bottom, line, I covet the opportunity to do a photo-essay of the old house, but am not acquainted with the owners. Since you are, and if you believe the noble intent of what I publish weekly, I would consider it a favor if you would put me in contact with the owners.

    Links are: http://corndancer.com/joephoto/photohome.html
    http://weeklygrist.wordpress.com/ and a collection with a shot of the house in it: http://www.joedempseyphoto.com/grist-062010/index.html

    Kindest regards,
    Joe Dempsey

    PS: Enjoyed your recent talk at Pine Bluff Rotary

  2. rexnelson says:

    Joe: Thanks for the links.

    I really enjoy your sites.

    I will make Richard Butler aware of your desire to see the house — Rex

  3. Diana Hotard says:

    Rex, My great grandfather ,Godwin Palmer Raliegh, was John Coleman Palmer’s great grandson. In fact, Coleman and Palmer are both names that have been passed down through the generations. We have been trying to find out more information about the Palmer house and its progress. Is there any way you can help? We would really appreciate it as any piece of information has the potential to be of use.
    Sincerely,
    Diana M. Hotard

  4. Jeff Duncan says:

    Rex, I was traveling back from Helena yesterday and noticed work going on at the old Palmer House. Naturally, I had to stop. I once lived in that little run down shack at what is now called 5837 Hwy 49 there at Blackton. That was in about 1967. We were struggling farm hands. There was an old general store in Blackton where us few kids hung out. Anyway, I stopped at the house and Jeremy Carroll was there. I got a grand tour of the place. The old Levon Helm house is to be turned into a caretakers house and a seperate kitchen is to be built away from the house. We got into the boiler heat in the basement. Seems the Palmer wife was a Yankee and felt slighted by the southern women and put that in to show off a little. Loved brag about the nice heat but not carrying firewood. Jeremy says Mr. Butler is no longer part of the renovation process. Drp me a line sometime. By the way, did you hear that Uncle Gus’s Fried Chicken is on the way to Little Rock. I’ve eat over there. It’s really good.

  5. R. B. Palmer says:

    The man who built the Palmer House was the son of my great-great-grandfather’s younger brother, an immigrant from so. Scotland who dwelled Philadelphia, Lexington, Louisville. Are there any descendants in the area at this time?

  6. Info says:

    I see no one has updated on this house it very sad but the house burned completely down

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