From England to Scott

It was late in the duck season, and Randy Ensminger and I had stopped for gas at England on our way back from Little Siberia, the famous southeast Arkansas hunting club where we had spent the previous evening.

The weather was beautiful, and we weren’t in a hurry.

“Let’s take the back road home,” Randy said.

That meant that rather than staying north on U.S. Highway 165 to Little Rock, we would take Arkansas Highway 161, reconnecting with Highway 165 at Scott.

Heading out of England, Highway 161 takes you due west toward the Arkansas River, passing an oxbow known as Clear Lake along the way. When you reach the levee along the river, you must take a hard right.

Now, you find yourself heading north with the Arkansas River on the other side of the levee to your left.

It’s a scenic piece of Arkansas farm country, but the best is yet to come. Before reaching Scott, you’ll drive through a tunnel of pecan trees more than a century old. As one who likes big trees, I consider this to be one of the most majestic stretches of highway in Arkansas.

The trees signal that you’ve reached the Land’s End Plantation. The plantation has remained since its founding in the Alexander family. The family originally is from Scotland but has been in the United States since the 1700s.

James Alexander was a captain during the American Revolution. Nathaniel Alexander later served as governor of North Carolina. Other Alexanders served in the North Carolina Legislature.

President James K. Polk was an Alexander descendant.

Some of the Alexanders eventually made their way west to Arkansas. The most prominent settler in the area around what’s now known as Scott was Chester Ashley, who acquired a large tract of land and maintained a residence known as the Ashley Mill Plantation.

In December 1844, Ashley was selected to fill the U.S. Senate vacancy created by the death of William S. Fulton. Ashley served in the Senate until his own death in April 1848.

In 1898, what had been the Ashley property was purchased by Arthur Lee Alexander, who had come to Arkansas with three cousins in the 1880s. One of those cousins was Asheville, N.C., native J.R. Alexander, who found work as an overseer of plantations in the Scott area. He saved his money (and borrowed some from Col. Thomas William Steele) to buy 640 acres about seven miles south of Scott.

That was the beginning of the Land’s End Plantation.

In 1901, J.R. Alexander married a Virginia native named Evelyn May Crump. Upon arriving from Virginia to experience what must have seemed like a foreign land to a blueblood, she declared that this “must be the end of the land.”

Thus Land’s End.

The plantation would cover almost 5,000 acres in later years.

J.R. Alexander was nationally recognized as an agriculture expert and spoke across the country about cotton and livestock. He served in the Arkansas Legislature for several terms and was urged to run for the U.S. Senate in the 1920s. Alexander decided instead to focus on promoting advanced agricultural practices across Arkansas. He delighted in taking legislators on tours of the state’s agricultural colleges, for instance.

His wife, meanwhile, focused on building and furnishing the Tudor Revival-style house that long has been the plantation’s centerpiece. She died before the home was completed at a cost of $85,000. Little has been changed since the house was built.

The couple had three children. The oldest, Robert Alexander, was educated at Vanderbilt and came home after receiving a degree in chemistry to operate the plantation until his death.

Robert Alexander’s son, James R. “Jim” Alexander, now owns and operates the plantation.

The home, which can clearly be seen from Highway 161, was designed in 1925 by noted Arkansas architect John Parks Almond. The house was completed in 1927.

The architect, who died in 1969, is best known for his design of Little Rock Central High School.

Almond, a Georgia native, graduated second in his class at Columbia. He worked for an American architectural firm in Cuba before coming to Little Rock in 1912 to work for Charles L. Thompson’s firm.

Almond established a private practice in 1915. He designed the Medical Arts Building on Central Avenue in downtown Hot Springs, which was constructed in 1929-30 and for decades was the state’s tallest building. It lost that distinction when Winthrop Rockefeller financed construction of the Tower Building in downtown Little Rock.

In 1934, Almond was among the 21 architects from across the country selected to work with the supervising architect’s office of the U.S. Treasury Department. President Franklin Roosevelt had begun a massive building campaign in Washington, and Almond would be a part of that. He later worked with private developers in Washington.

Almond returned to Little Rock in 1943 and continued to practice until his retirement in 1963.

In the nomination for Land’s End’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program wrote: “John Parks Almond loved architecture and loved to design. He was guided by an idealistic nature and believed being an architect was a special calling, with obligations not only to the client but also to the future. In his design of the imposing Tudor Revival-style house and ancillary to be built as the residence of plantation owner J.R. Alexander, Almond’s attention to detail is highly visible.

“According to his son, Almond personally selected the stones … from Pinnacle Mountain near Little Rock. It is said that he was even involved in the placement of the stones on the walls. The J.R. Alexander House at Land’s End Plantation is undoubtedly one of Almond’s finest residential designs.”

The nomination noted that Almond’s attention to detail “carried through to the grounds surrounding the house. His drawings and plans for the Alexanders included stone walls, flagstone terraces and brick walkways designed to complement the house. A two-story building to the rear of the house in the same Tudor Revival-style was designed as a garage on the first floor with servants’ quarters on the second story.

“Interiors of the house feature extensive use of rich teak wood in floors and paneling, ornamental plasterwork and an impressive circular staircase. Closets and storage in the bedrooms were designed behind sliding wood panels in walls. A central steam heating system and colorful tiled bathrooms were just part of the amenities of Almond’s design for the Alexander family.”

To the west of the home are 23 outbuildings that were constructed from 1900-49. They include grain bins, a cotton gin, a cotton warehouse, equipment sheds, a wagon shed and barns. During the heyday of sharcropping from 1900-30, almost 150 families lived on the plantation. Only one of the original tenant houses is still standing. None of the 23 outbuildings are still used, but they have been carefully maintained.

Three years ago, it was reported that Jim Alexander had sold 1,750 acres of the plantation (but not the house or outbuildings) for $5.2 million to investors from Tennessee.

There are other plantation-era homes in the Scott area. The best-known of these is Marslgate, which was designed by Charles L. Thompson and completed in 1904 as the centerpiece of the Dortch Plantation.

Like the Land’s End Plantation, the Dortch Plantation was once the home of more than 100 tenant families. When William Dortch died in 1913, his plantation covered 7,000 acres. There are still at least 25 historic farm structures on that land. These structures date from 1888 to 1930.

Like the Alexander family, the Dortch family migrated from North Carolina. Willis Reeves Dortch first setted in Tennessee in 1838. When he died in 1858, his wife and three children moved to Arkansas. William Dortch was 12 at the time.

William Dortch served in the Confederate Army, attended college at Miami of Ohio after the war and returned to Arkansas after marrying Alice Orr. The couple had one son, Frederick Dortch. Alice died in 1874.

The aforementioned Thomas William Steele, who also had come from North Carolina, was the largest landowner at the time in Pulaski County. Steele’s daughter, Nettie, married William Dortch in January 1885. As a wedding present, Steele gave the couple an 1,800-acre plantation. By 1895, the couple had five sons.

Marlsgate was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and was purchased by David P. Garner Jr. in 1985. Garner, who once taught art and history at McClellan High School and later owned a flower shop, renovated the property so it could be rented out for weddings and other private functions.

The home overlooks Bearskin Lake.

The Marlsgate website describes it this way: “Marlsgate’s fine detail begins with brick Doric columns more than 40 feet in height and continues inside with original beveled glass windows, sliding oak doors, handcrafted woodwork, Carrara marble fireplaces and sculpted metal ceilings throughout the mansion.

“White oak floors were installed over an inch-thick layer of horsehair insulation. The mansion was constructed with 32 rooms and contains 11,000 square feet of living space. The first floor has a magnificent central hall and staircase, drawing room, dining room, music room, master bedroom, plantation office and a separate kitchen and service wing attached to the mansion in the prevailing custom of the day. Second and third floors contain additional bedrooms, sitting rooms and private studies.”

Spring has arrived, and a trip to Scott is a great way to spend a Saturday.

Here are my suggestions:

1. Spend part of your morning just driving around to take in the farms and the plantation homes. The history hangs heavily here.

2. Visit Toltec Mounds State Park, a National Historic Landmark that is one of the largest archeological sites in the lower Mississippi River Valley. Native Americans occupied the site and built some of the largest mounds in the region between the years 650 and 1050 AD. Archaeologists use the name Plum Bayou Culture to refer to their way of life. The site was on the bank of an oxbow lake and served as a religious center for the people who lived in the area. Eighteen mounds were arranged around two rectangular open spaces that were used for ceremonies.

3. Make the short drive from Toltec over to the Plantation Agriculture Museum in Scott for your next stop. It is here you’ll learn about the area’s cotton-growing culture of the 1800s and 1900s. Part of the museum is in a brick building that was constructed by Conoway Scott Jr. in 1912 to house a general store. A post office wing was added in 1929.

Robert Dortch bought the building in the 1960s and established a museum. The museum closed in 1978, six years after Dortch’s death. In 1989, it was reopened as a state park. Next door to the main museum, the Dortch Gin features a 1920s Munger cotton gin and cotton press. Dortch’s seed warehouse is also on the grounds.

4. After a full morning, stop for a late lunch at Cotham’s, which is located in a wooden building that was constructed in 1917 as a mercantile store. In 1984, the store began serving lunch to area farmers. Regulars such as Bill Clinton and David Pryor soon made it a must-stop location for the “Little Rock crowd.”

5. Following lunch, head over to the Scott Plantation Settlement, which has 25 exhibits and is on the old Illallee Plantation. The site was donated by Virginia Alexander, the daughter of Arthur and Otelia George Alexander, who had purchased the land in 1898. Chester Ashley had earlier owned the land.

A group known as Scott Connections Inc. was formed in 1995 and operates the Scott Plantation Settlement.

If it’s not too late in the day and you’re not too tired, you can still slide on down to Keo to shop for antiques.

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