The Louisiana line to El Dorado

FIRST IN A SERIES

The first thing I notice is that somebody shot the pelican.

We’re standing on the edge of Arkansas Highway 7 on the Arkansas-Louisiana line near Lockhart, La., early on a cloudy Tuesday morning. The sign that welcomes visitors to Louisiana features the state bird, and some good ol’ boy has filled the pelican’s belly with buckshot. We speculate that the crime was committed by a disgruntled Arkansas Razorback fan following a football loss to LSU.

On this weekday morning, it’s quiet on the state line.

We pull into the driveway of a house and get out of the car. If people are in the home, they don’t bother to come out and check on us. Chickens roam free in the yard, and a rooster crows out back.

This is pine timber country. Having grown up in the Gulf Coastal Plain region of southwest Arkansas, I’ve long thought that the southwest and south-central parts of our state should have joined up long ago with north Louisiana and east Texas to form a state with Shreveport or Texarkana as the capital. There’s not much difference — culturally, economically, socially — in southwest Arkansas, east Texas and north Louisiana.

I was raised at Arkadelphia, just a few blocks from Highway 7. The highway is an iconic route that runs from this point south of El Dorado and east of Junction City all the way to the shores of Bull Shoals Lake near the Missouri border at Diamond City in Boone County.

At one time or another, I’ve traversed every mile of this highway. But I’ve never done it all on consecutive days. That’s the goal for David Stricklin of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Paul Austin of the Arkansas Humanities Council and me. In two days, we’ll drive through four of the state’s six distinct geographical areas — the Gulf Coastal Plain, the Ouachita Mountains, the Arkansas River Valley and the Ozark Mountains; everything but the Delta and Crowley’s Ridge.

We’ll see more deer than we can count, several elk and a coyote along the way.

We’ll tell stories, we’ll eat well, we’ll see the autumn leaves changing colors and we’ll meet interesting people.

We’ll come to appreciate both the beauty and the variety of Arkansas.

The excursion had begun the previous evening over dinner at the swank new Griffin Restaurant in downtown El Dorado’s Murphy Arts District. Known simply as MAD, the arts and entertainment district is part of a broader effort to stem population loss in a county that has 15,000 fewer people now than it had in the 1930s.

Covering more than 1,000 square miles, Union County is the state’s largest county geographically. About 90 percent of the county is forested, and almost a fourth of its residents live below the poverty line.

Like most of Arkansas, cotton was once king in Union County. There are no longer row crops here. They grow pine trees, chickens and cattle instead.

The oil and gas industry remains important, though it’s not nearly the driver of the south Arkansas economy that it was in the 1920s after Dr. Samuel Busey’s well erupted on Jan. 10, 1921, near El Dorado.

Historian Ben Johnson of Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia, with whom we had shared dinner at the Griffin, writes that there was “a thick column of oil that soiled clothes on wash lines a mile away. The rural market center was unprepared to become a boomtown. Hotels and rooming houses overflowed, and tent-covered cot spaces, restaurants and shops went up along South Washington Street.

“A newspaper reporter noted that a person walking along what became known as Hamburger Row could ‘purchase almost anything from a pair of shoes to an auto, an interest in a drilling tract or have your fortune told.'”

Nearby Smackover also became a boomtown when oil was discovered there in July 1922. By 1925, there were 3,500 wells in the county pumping 69 million barrels of oil. Production declined considerably by the late 1930s.

Just across Cedar Street from the 1929 Rialto Theater in downtown El Dorado is a small park with displays chronicling the oil boom. One marker describes the cold afternoon when Busey, a physician and oil speculator, struck oil.

“The town would never be the same,” the marker reads. “Church bells rang, the sawmill whistle sounded and people streamed out of town to see the oil spewing up through the 75-foot wooden derrick.”

By 1925, El Dorado’s population had grown from about 3,800 residents to almost 25,000.

Writing for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, Kenneth Bridges describes the transformation of El Dorado: “The discovery well touched off a wave of speculators into the area seeking fame and fortune from oil. The state Legislature immediately sent an exploratory train from Little Rock for legislators to inspect the find. Oil production increased exponentially in a matter of months. In March 1921, Arkansas produced 28,000 barrels of oil to sell on the open market, which increased to 908,000 barrels by June. By 1922, 900 wells were in operation in the state. … El Dorado became the epicenter of the oil boom. It changed from an isolated agricultural city to the oil capital of Arkansas. Twenty-two trains each day ran in and out of El Dorado to Little Rock and Shreveport.”

It’s as if a second oil boom is taking place in El Dorado these days. But this has nothing to do with the oil and gas industry, which has been depressed in recent years. Instead, it’s about music, theater, art and even fine food and wine.

It’s an audacious effort by the city’s business leaders to reverse a decades-long pattern of population decline. The goal is to turn El Dorado into the arts and entertainment capital of a region that includes south Arkansas, north Louisiana, east Texas and even parts of west Mississippi.

Many consider it to be El Dorado’s last, best chance to break out of the economic doldrums infecting so much of south Arkansas. El Dorado Festivals & Events Inc. is the organization charged with giving life to the vision of business leaders such as Madison Murphy and Claiborne Deming. Murphy, Deming and others have raised more than $60 million already for a first phase of construction. By the time the second phase is completed, more than $100 million will have been invested downtown.

The Griffin Building, constructed during the oil boom in 1928-29 to house a Ford dealership and a gas station, has been transformed into a fine-dining venue with an adjacent indoor performance hall that will hold more than 2,000 seated patrons.

An amphitheater next to the building will hold 8,000 people for outdoor concerts. Adjacent to it will be a two-acre children’s playground and splash pad that will be open at no cost to the public.

The second phase of the project will transform the Rialto into an 850-seat hall for film festivals, touring productions and performances by the South Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. A new lobby will connect the Rialto to the 1928 McWilliams Building, a former furniture store that will become an art gallery and host traveling exhibitions from around the world.

The three publicly traded companies headquartered in El Dorado — Murphy Oil Corp., Deltic Timber Corp. (which recently announced a merger with Potlatch Corp.) and Murphy USA Inc. — must compete for talent against firms with headquarters in Houston and other large metropolitan areas.

Deming served from 1994-2008 as the president and chief executive officer of Murphy Oil. He has been the company’s chairman since 2008. In January 2007, it was announced that Murphy Oil had made a $50 million commitment to create what’s known as the El Dorado Promise. That program allows graduates of El Dorado High School to have their college tuition and fees paid.

I ask Deming, an erudite Tulane University graduate who began working as an attorney for Murphy Oil in 1979, if he’s surprised that the El Dorado Promise, which is recognized as one of the best scholarship programs of its kind in the country, didn’t do more to stop population loss.

“The fact that it didn’t shows just how daunting the situation is in south Arkansas,” he says. “Almost all of the Arkansas counties south of Interstate 40 are facing similar challenges.”

Murphy quickly interjects: “I would hate to think where we would be now without the El Dorado Promise. It takes more than one thing to change long-term trends, however. You have to have a confluence of events.”

Murphy is a former chairman of the Arkansas Highway Commission and was the head of the Murphy Commission, which from 1996-99 studied ways to make Arkansas state government more efficient and accountable to the taxpayers. His interest in public policy was inherited from his father, the late Charles Murphy, who’s considered to be among the state’s greatest business and civic leaders of the 20th century.

Charles Murphy died in March 2002 at age 82.

“We started this effort five years ago with some ideas about how we could turn the economic situation around,” Madison Murphy says. “What you see now is far different from our original concept. I don’t know what it’s going to look like five years from now, but this could be a catalyst for things we haven’t even thought about yet.”

Murphy would like to see more people living in downtown El Dorado. He’s also convinced that the arts district will be enough to make a high-quality downtown boutique hotel — something along the lines of the Alluvian Hotel at Greenwood, Miss. — feasible.

“I regret that the hotel is not already open,” Murphy says. “But I believe it will happen.”

Asked why arts and entertainment was the sector the business leaders decided to focus on, Murphy says bluntly: “Because we’re not going to get the next Toyota plant.”

He goes on to explain: “I see four drivers when it comes to attracting jobs. Those are education, infrastructure, tax rates and quality of life. Quality of life was our weakest link.”

El Dorado’s population decreased from 25,292 residents in the 1960 census to 18,884 in the 2010 census. Since that 2010 census, the city has taken additional steps to stop the bleeding. A $43 million high school was constructed and numerous advanced placement courses were added to the high school curriculum. A conference center also was built downtown.

“We have a lot of white-collar jobs here because the three public companies are headquartered in El Dorado, and we have high-paying blue-collar jobs,” Deming says. “So we have jobs. We also have the El Dorado Promise. And we’re still losing population. So what do we do? We address those quality-of-life issues.”

Murphy quotes Daniel Burnham, one of the country’s most famous architects and urban planners in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Speaking about the design for the city of Chicago, Burnham said: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans, aim high.”

“This is not a small plan,” Murphy says of the effort to transform El Dorado into a four-state arts and entertainment magnet. “It’s blood stirring.”

Deming believes the attention the Murphy Arts District will bring to El Dorado could put it on the radar of everyone from young families to retired couples.

“The most appealing lifestyle in the country these days is the lifestyle of the small-town South,” he says. “People here are friendly. It’s easy to get around. This lifestyle is contagious. What we must do is be able to grow without losing that small-town feel. This is already a wonderful place to live. We now have the opportunity to make it even better while attracting the attention of people across the country.”

Murphy says those behind the Murphy Arts District aren’t oblivious to the challenges they still face.

“We’re not on an interstate highway,” he says. “We don’t have adequate air service. At least people in this region are willing to drive some distance for events.”

Murphy says he and Deming are “like heat-seeking missiles on a fundraising mission.”

There are still millions of dollars to be raised for the second phase. Almost $9.5 million has come from a 1 percent city sales tax that was approved by voters in 2007 for economic development projects. Historic preservation tax credits also have helped. Gov. Asa Hutchinson committed $5 million in state funds.

The focus is on what the visionaries behind MAD hope will be future growth. But they haven’t forgotten the past. The state’s oldest pool hall — Hill’s Recreation Parlor, which has been in business since the oil boom days of the 1920s — will continue to operate right in the middle of the district. And a 110-foot oil derrick has been placed next to the Griffin Building, paying homage to the boom that first put El Dorado on the nation’s radar screen.

Once more, El Dorado seeks to draw the nation’s attention.

“The team we’ve assembled here makes me proud,” Murphy says. “These folks are living it, breathing it, walking it, talking it, making it happen. We’re going to succeed.”

David, Paul and I cover the short distance from the state line to El Dorado quickly. I think about Union County’s history — the boom, the bust and the current attempts to spur growth.

“With the onset of World War II, Union County’s industrial base attracted the attention of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” Ben Johnson writes. “Entering a unique partnership with Lion Oil, the Corps supplied $28 million for construction of the Ozark Ordnance Plant to produce ammonium nitrate. The private company oversaw the operation of the plant and acquired it for a fraction of the construction costs at the end of the war. In 1983, the enterprise became El Dorado Chemical, which continued to make explosives as well as fertilizer.

“World War II encouraged dramatic growth in manufacturing, and state lawmakers authorized local communities to provide financial incentives to attract industry. Union County established one of the first industrial development organizations, enticing Jess Merkle to build a large-scale poultry processing plant that became the largest employer in El Dorado. Beginning in 1965, Great Lakes Corp. processed the underground brine into a variety of brominated products, including flame retardants.

“Despite the manufacturing expansion, Union County’s population declined steadily after the war. Yet in the face of the loss of manufacturing jobs throughout the state in the 1990s, that sector held its own in the county. New glossy brochures and websites integrated tourism into the campaign to jolt the economy. These new advertisements highlighted the refurbishment in the 1990s of El Dorado’s downtown square into a historic district.

“Beginning early in the 20th century, the Army Corps of Engineers built and maintained a lock and dam system designed to boost navigation on the Ouachita River. Although the shipped tonnage failed to match local economic boosters’ expectations, water-level management aided boating, hunting and fishing. The navigation project sustained the Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge, the world’s largest green-tree reservoir. The pools at the dams on the river provided an alternative water source in the early 21st century to the underground Sparta Aquifer, depleted by decades of industrial consumption.”

We reach El Dorado and detour a few blocks off the highway to get a cup of coffee at PJ’s Coffee on the square.

It’s time to head north on Highway 7 to Camden.

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