One of our Southern Fried readers who is faithful about posting comments whenever I write about the Delta is Blake Wintory of the Lakeport Plantation near Lake Village.
Blake, this one is for you.
If your Delta travels take you anywhere near southeast Arkansas, you owe it to yourself to pay a visit to this plantation home.
The Lakeport Plantation house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places way back in 1974. Eight years ago, it was designated by the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation as an official project of the Save America’s Treasures program. Using grants from Save America’s Treasures, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council, the home was restored by Arkansas State University and opened to the public.
Tours are available at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. each Monday through Friday. The cost of admission is a suggested $5 donation ($3 for senior citizens or if you’re in a group of 10 or more).
You can find detailed directions by going to the Lakeport Plantation website at www.lakeport.astate.edu.
The plantation is near the new Mississippi River bridge to Greenville. That bridge will open to traffic next week.
As you head east toward Mississippi on U.S. Highway 82, look for the sign advertising The Cow Pen restaurant (as we have mentioned on this blog before, it’s a wonderful place to eat).
Turn right onto Arkansas Highway 142 and go two miles. Turn left when you see a wooden sign that says Epstein Land Co.
We’ll let Blake take it from here on the Lakeport website: “The name Lakeport has been applied to a number of things here in the Arkansas Delta. If you look on a contemporary highway map, you’ll see the name Lakeport beside a dot near the Mississippi River south of U.S. Highway 82 at the terminal point of Highway 142. This marks the spot of a steamboat landing from which thousands of bales of cotton were shipped down the river to New Orleans.
“If you look at a slightly older map, you will see the name applied to a large plantation established before the Civil War by a man named Joel Johnson from Kentucky. More recently, the name Lakeport has been given to the house built on the plantation in 1859 for Joel’s son, Lycurgus, and his wife, Lydia Taylor Johnson. Their descendants remained there until it was sold to Sam Epstein 1927.
“This Lakeport Plantation house is the only remaining Arkansas plantation home on the Mississippi River. Today you can tour it, thanks to a gift in 2001 to Arkansas State University from the Sam Epstein Angel family. … The Lakeport Plantation researches and interprets the people and cultures that shaped plantation life in the Mississippi River Delta, focusing on the antebellum, Civil War and Reconstruction periods. Our mission includes teaching the methods by which we know, develop and remember these stories. …
“The plantation has remained in continuous cotton production since the 1830s when slaves carved it from the heavily forested Arkansas frontier. Thus it provides complete documentation of agricultural development in the region and the accompanying changes in the African-American experience. These include the transition from frontier and plantation slavery to sharecropper and tenant farmer systems, to agricultural mechanization and the resultant mass exodus of African-Americans to factories in the North, to large-scale corporate farming.”
Historian Tom DeBlack, who is writing a book on the history of the Lakeport Plantation, writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Lycurgus Johnson died on Aug. 1, 1876. The plantation remained in the family until 1927, when Lycurgus Johnson’s son Victor sold Lakeport to Sam Epstein for $30,000. Born in Russia in 1875, Epstein was one of a sizable number of poor East European Jews who migrated to the United States and sought their fortune in the Delta. Epstein started out peddling clothes and eventually opened a small store and made some good investments, overcoming poverty and religious bigotry to acquire a sizable fortune and become one of Chicot County’s most respected citizens.
“Upon Epstein’s death in 1944, his son-in-law, Ben Angel, served as trustee of the estate, managed the family’s operations and carried on his father-in-law’s tradition of civic service. Ben Angel’s son, Sam Epstein Angel, currently runs the Epstein Land Co., encompassing some 13,000 acres of land and a large cotton ginning operation, and serves as the senior civilian member of the Mississippi River Commission.”
Blake explains Arkansas State’s philosophy as far as how it interprets history in this corner of southeast Arkansas: “It is the philosophy of the restoration team (and endorsed by the university) that furnished houses have been done well in other places. Rather than create another ‘pretty house,’ or one in which representative furnishings substitute for the original, this restoration and interpretation focuses on the lifestyles and relationships between the people who lived and worked at Lakeport — as slaves and masters, as tenant farmers and land owners.”
The themes at Lakeport are:
1. The westward push for new agricultural lands.
2. The pivotal role of African-Americans in the agricultural development of the region and in shaping the culture that exists there today.
3. The differences and similarities between the Arkansas Delta and other Southern states in plantation agriculture and lifestyles.
4. The skills, techniques and issues involved in the preservation of historic structures.
5. The continuous struggle to harness the Mississippi River, clear the swamps and convert land to agricultural production.
I wrote in an earlier post about the culinary delights of Lake Village — The Cow Pen, the LakeShore Cafe and Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales.
People drive from as far away as Little Rock, Jackson and Memphis not only to eat at these restaurants but also to shop at the Paul Michael Co. and Nonie’s Antiques.
The first location of the Paul Michael Co. opened in Lake Village in 1994, offering furniture, rugs and high-end decorative accessories for the home. The Lake Village store covers 35,000 square feet. There are also locations in Lafayette, La.; Canton, Texas; and Monroe, La. The Monroe location opened in 2003, the Canton store opened in 2006 and the Lafayette store opened last fall.
The company’s website at www.paulmichaelhome.com tells the story this way: “Our original location in Lake Village is situated across from beautiful Lake Chicot and literally in a cotton field. Paul Michael is from the third generation of his family to be born and raised in this rural, Mississippi Delta town. His grandfather was one of the first merchants in the area; he traveled to levee camps with a mule and sold pots, pans, thread and other necessities to the levee workers. His dedication to the community led to the opening of Lake Village’s first department store, Mansour’s, which remained for more than 80 years.
“Paul worked in his grandfather’s department store as a young adult. It became evident that he possessed a natural gift in the art of buying, selling and trading. During the ’70s, Paul fostered this gift buying antiques and selling them to theme restaurants. During this stage in Paul’s life, he fell in love with First Monday Trade Days in Canton, Texas. Always able to foresee future trends, he shifted his focus toward Indian jewelry and diamonds, ultimately becoming one of the first wholesale distributors of sterling silver jewelry to major department stores across the United States. Paul’s ventures into the jewelry trade led him abroad, where he first saw potential in the home decorative accessories market.”
Nonie’s Antiques, meanwhile, has been a family-owned business for more than 25 years. The store has a huge inventory, having added two large metal buildings behind the wooden main store.
Indeed, Lake Village offers far more than most Arkansas towns its size — a historic site in the Lakeport Plantation, great restaurants and stores that draw people from surrounding states.
Then, there’s Lake Chicot.
As you likely know, it’s the largest oxbow lake in North America, a 20-mile former main channel of the Mississippi River. There’s a great little park along the lake in downtown Lake Village. Meanwhile, Chicot County Park near the lake’s southern end offers full hookups for recreational vehicles.
On the north end of the lake, Lake Chicot State Park offers more than 120 campsites and 14 cabin units with kitchens (some have fireplaces and patios) in a shady pecan grove. There’s a marina, a store that sells camping and fishing supplies, a swimming pool and two group pavilions. The visitors’ center has interpretive exhibits about the area’s history. Bicycles can be rented. It’s one of our best state parks.
One of the first major studies of recreational needs in the state in 1940 recommended that Lake Chicot be the site of a state park. The lake remains a great place for hikers, birdwatchers and fishermen. The occasional alligator has been known to make an appearance in this lake, which was formed more than 500 years ago. Trained interpreters at the state park offer regular lake and levee tours.
Charles Lindbergh made his first night flight over Lake Chicot in 1923. Now, whether you’re driving or flying, the Lakeport Plantation house, Lake Chicot, The Cow Pen, the LakeShore Cafe, Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales, the Paul Michael Co. and Nonie’s Antiques all provide reasons to spend a day or more in the far corner of southeast Arkansas.