I’ve written about tamales on this blog before. I love eating tamales. I love visiting with the people who make them and sell them.
The tamale tour I conducted, along with Kane Webb and Bill Vickery, for an Arkansas Educational Television Network special focused on the Delta with stops in east Arkansas and west Mississippi.
My office phone rang recently, and on the other end of the line was Phyllis Dennie of Benton.
“You’re from Arkadelphia, right? she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you remember Joe Villa, the one who sold tamales?” she asked.
No, I never met Joe Villa. He died Sept. 7, 1963, just five days after I turned 4.
But I’ve certainly heard my parents talk about Joe Villa and his tamales. The migration of tamales from Mexico into Arkansas wasn’t confined to the Delta.
In fact, Joe might have been the most famous Arkansas purveyor of tamales at one time.
Here’s part of the story that ran in the Southern Standard, a weekly newspaper in Arkadelphia that no longer exists, following Villa’s death. It was written in a simpler and less politically correct time: “Joe Villa was an institution of a bygone day in Arkadelphia. He and his large family came here many years ago from Old Mexico. He denied any kinship with the famous bandit Pancho Villa, and his life in this city certainly showed he had none of the undesirable traits of that other one.
“Joe was a hot tamale specialist, and he made the best there was to be had. Joe’s tamales were tasty, and you bet his utensils were clean and the ingredients pure. Joe literally reared and educated a large number of children on his tamale sales to his fellow townsmen and townswomen and certainly to the boys and girls.
“One of the local churches got Joe enlisted and all his children into Sunday school. None of the dozen children, more or less, of Mr. and Mrs. Villa ever became a juvenile delinquent or gave any trouble. This Mexican family was law-abiding and decent in every way. Several of the boys played on the athletic teams at Arkadelphia High and acquitted themselve creditably.
“Anybody who follows the right kind of road in this life like Joe Villa ought not to have much trouble in finding the pearly gates open when he arrived up yonder, nor have too much trouble orienting himself in that new community.”
Allen Syler later wrote this about Villa: “He was always on the streets and corners of Arkadelphia with his push wagon from which he sold his tamales, especially near the factories at lunch time. During the summer months he also had ice cream bars. Many people depended on him for their lunches. He retired in the early 1950s and moved to Little Rock with some of his daughters.”
Joe Villa was born in 1877 in Mexico. He later married Millie Salazar of Laredo, Texas. They moved to Arkadelphia in 1910 and rasied their family of three sons and seven daughters. Joe and Millie Villa are buried in Arkadelphia’s famous old Rose Hill Cemetery.
Phyllis mailed me a copy of a page from the 1921 college yearbook at Henderson, “The Star.” In it is an ad that states: “Hot Tamale Joe. You know me, girls. Ice cream sandwiches and hot tamales. Delivered a la carte. Joe Villa.”
I also was intrigued by an ad next to it. I remember W. H. Halliburton as the city’s veteran newspaperman, but I never knew he had been a representative for Tipton & Hurst of Little Rock.
The ad states: “Cut flowers. We have the best. W.H. Halliburton local representative. Tipton & Hurst Florists.”
I checked with Stacy Hurst about the use of local representatives across the state in the early 1920s. She, in turn, checked with her husband, Howard.
Here’s what she reported back: “Howard said Tipton & Hurst had representatives scattered throughout the state before the days of wire-order services like FTD. The representatives would take orders for arrangements, loose flowers and orchids, and Tipton & Hurst would send the order, usually by train. They were usually located in a town too small to have its own florist, and they did receive a commission on sales.”
Back to Joe Villa.
His granddaughter Phyllis writes: “His parents were hard workers — his father in the field and his mother in the homes of the well-to-do, cleaning house and cooking for them.”
Villa’s family crossed the border at El Paso in 1889. Joe became a U.S. citizen in 1894. He had a job helping build railroad lines in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Missouri. He liked Arkadelphia so much that he decided to stay there and raise his family. In a town filled with college students from Henderson and Ouachita, he decided to try selling tamales, using an old family recipe.
Joe Villa would sell those tamales for decades, making enough to raise 10 children.
Phyllis would like to write a book about Joe Villa if she can find someone to help her.
“The story needs to be told now because it ends with me,” she says.