North Little Rock to Lonoke

FIRST IN A SERIES

All you have to do is mention the drive from Little Rock to Memphis on Interstate 40, and the tales of woe start coming.

One person will tell you of the time he was in his car on the interstate without moving for hours following a wreck on the busy stretch.

The next person might talk about an important appointment she missed in Memphis due to a backup in a construction zone.

There are the stories of being hemmed in by big trucks on three sides and a concrete wall on the fourth side.

There are the rumors that West Memphis will name the orange construction barrel as its official symbol.

There are the sections of interstate that seem to have been under constant construction since I was a child.

More Arkansans are choosing to take the old road — U.S. Highway 70 to be exact. If you have time to spare, it’s relaxing and gives a traveler a sense of real life in east Arkansas. The added benefit is that the highway passes two of the oldest and best barbecue joints in the state. It’s not a problem to fill a full day with activities along the route.

I set out from the foot of the new Broadway Bridge in North Little Rock and head east past Verizon Arena. After crossing under Interstate 30, there are the usual convenience stores and chain restaurants found at interstate exits. Within a few blocks, however, I’m in a part of North Little Rock the tourists don’t visit. This is the land of tire shops, discount furniture stores, pawn shops and cheap motels.

I pass the building that once housed Roy Fisher’s Steak House, a place known for its bountiful breakfasts and hearty plate lunches. With Fisher’s long gone — the building now houses an appliance store — the men in suits and ties who work in the downtown Little Rock towers no longer have a reason to come to this stretch of East Broadway Avenue.

I was part of a breakfast group that would gather on a regular basis at Fisher’s. Waitress Mary Daniell, who died in February 2011 at age 71, would trade good-natured insults with a group that included Skip Rutherford of the Clinton School of Public Service, state Sen. Bill Gwatney, Little Rock businessman Gene Fortson and longtime North Little Rock businessman Walter “Bubba” Lloyd Jr. We would tease Gwatney because of his family money, especially when he would order a staple of the Fisher’s menu known as “the working man’s breakfast.”

“That’s as close as you’ll ever come to being a working man,” Daniell would tell the automobile dealer.

Gwatney was the chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party in the summer of 2008 when he was murdered at state party headquarters by a lone gunman, who was killed later in the day during a shootout with the police. No reason for the murder was ever discovered.

I miss Bill. I think of him as I drive by the old Fisher’s location.

I also miss the restaurant. In the spring of 2010, the lights were on at night again for one special moment. Fisher’s was used as the location for the movie “The Last Ride,” which portrayed the final days of Hank Williams Sr. The film was set in late 1952, leading up to Williams’ death on Jan. 1, 1953.

“It’s not hard to see why Fisher’s was chosen to represent that time period,” Jeff LeMaster wrote at the time for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “The restaurant opened its first location in 1947 on the south side of Broadway. It moved across the street in 1958 to the building that still stands today. Sitting in a booth at the now-closed diner is like stepping back in time . … Director Harry Thomason grew up in southwest Arkansas around the time Fisher’s opened, and he remembers well traveling to Little Rock with his parents and making a point to stop in at Fisher’s.”

Thomason told the newspaper: “Folks loved Fisher’s Steak House. When we were looking for a diner, I said, ‘Guys, is Fisher’s still around?’ It looks just like I think I remember it.”

Roy Fisher Sr. opened the restaurant. It was later run by his son, Roy Fisher Jr., and Roy Jr.’s wife Chee Chee, who was famous for her pies. This was the main highway to Memphis in the early years. Elvis Presley would stop at Fisher’s on the way from Memphis to Shreveport to perform on the Louisiana Hayride. The Fishers sold the restaurant in 2005, and it closed for good in 2008.

Fisher’s, known for its homemade salad dressing, had the best fried chicken livers I’ve ever eaten. If you didn’t get there by 11 a.m. for lunch, you were going to wait for a seat. It was usually full from 11 a.m. until almost 2 p.m.

Heading east, I enter Rose City, a neighborhood that has produced the likes of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and former Congressman Tommy Robinson through the years. I also drive past the reason I still come to this area of North Little Rock, the White Pig Inn. The venerable establishment has been serving barbecue since 1920, though the original building has been gone for decades. The sign is such a classic that a photo of it is featured atop this blog.

Just past the White Pig are remnants of a building that once housed a strip joint. There are scrap metal and auto salvage yards. It’s like having gone back in time to, say, the 1960s.

I’m brought back into the modern world by the sight of the multimillion-dollar headquarters of Ben E. Keith’s Mid-South Division. The food services company moved into the 420,000-square-foot facility last year. The Mid-South Division once was the Dillaha Fruit Co., founded by Theo Dillaha Sr. in 1929 and headquartered in downtown Little Rock for almost 45 years. Ben E. Keith purchased the company in 1973 and began construction of a facility near the Port of Little Rock the following year. The Mid-South Division now serves all of Arkansas and parts of Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Tennessee.

I cross under Interstate 440 and go back in time again. I’m transported this time from an urban area to an almost stereotypical version of the agriculturally dominated Old South. On the right is Hills Lake, an oxbow filled with large cypress trees. There are historic homes and huge pecan trees along the route. The perceptive traveler realizes that the Mississippi Alluvial Plain — commonly known as the Delta — extends to the North Little Rock city limits.

Soybean fields give way to ponds as I near the headquarters of the world’s largest minnow farm. I.F. Anderson dug and stocked his first farm ponds in 1949. The farm is now capable of producing more than a billion minnows per year.

The Anderson complex has an 11,000-square-foot hatchery, almost 200 miles of levees and about 6,000 acres of ponds. Anderson received a loan in the late 1940s to buy a bulldozer that he used to build ponds. When he noticed wild minnows appearing in those ponds, he began to explore the idea of raising minnows to supply fishermen with bait. The business took off from there.

Just before entering Lonoke, I pass the turn to the Joe Hogan State Fish Hatchery, among the oldest and largest state-operated hatcheries in the country. In 1928, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission instructed its secretary, Guy Amsler, to find land for a hatchery. Amsler settled on two adjacent rice farms, and the state purchased 266 acres.

The first superintendent was Dell Brown, who had supervised the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries’ Mammoth Spring National Hatchery. The federal hatchery in far north Arkansas had been established in 1903. Joe Hogan, who had worked with Brown at Mammoth Spring, came with his boss to Lonoke. Hogan took over as superintendent soon after the hatchery was completed.

According to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s history of the facility: “Pond construction for the hatchery took place in the fall of 1928. Due to the lack of mechanized machinery, the early ponds were dug by mules pulling dirt slips and by laborers using shovels to load dirt onto wagons by hand. The soil had enough clay material to make pond levees that could hold water. Another crucial factor was that the water table was about 60 feet, and the alluvial water in the subterranean sand formation provided plenty of water for filling the ponds. During the initial phase of construction, 32 ponds covering 40 acres were built. They ranged in size from three-fourths of an acre to two and a half acres.

“In the spring of 1929, only a few of the ponds were complete to the point that they were usable. Wild stocks of largemouth bass and bluegill bream were captured from the White River and stocked in the available ponds. The first crop of fish was produced that same year. The commission continued to build rearing ponds after World War II and into the 1950s until the hatchery encompassed 56 ponds covering 214 acres of water. Because of its location near the town of Lonoke, the hatchery was first known as the Lonoke Fish Hatchery. In 1956, it was renamed the Joe Hogan State Fish Hatchery.

“The standard fish reared at the hatchery are warm-water species that include largemouth bass, bluegill bream, redear bream, crappie, channel catfish, blue catfish and white amur. Through the years, the hatchery has experimented with raising species such as smallmouth bass, walleye, saugeye, striped bass, striped bass hybrids, hybrid bream, Israeli carp, buffalo and paddlefish. The hatchery produces about three to four million fish annually for Arkansas’ public lakes and streams. In addition to stocking public waters, the hatchery provides some species of fry and fingerling fish for the other warm-water state fish hatcheries and for other state conservation agencies. The hatchery also provides more than 250,000 eight-inch catfish to the Pot Shoals Net Pens on Bull Shoals Lake and the Jim Collins Net Pens on Lake Ouachita, which are also owned and operated by the AGFC. These facilities grow the catfish to a larger size to stock area lakes.

“The hatchery has made great strides in the advancement of fish culture work. In the beginning, the hatchery simply collected adult fish from the wild and placed them in hatchery ponds for spawning. The fish were hauled to lakes and streams in 10-gallon milk cans and in wooden barrels in the back of a Model A truck. In the 1940s, larger tanks made of cypress lumber were built and used to transport fish. The hatchery now uses modern transport trucks with custom-made fish hauling tanks that are insulated to maintain a constant temperature. Liquid oxygen is used to provide optimum conditions for the fish.

“In the early days of the AGFC, the hatchery indiscriminately stocked fish wherever it thought they might be needed without much scientific research or evaluation of the fish populations of that particular lake or stream. In the 1950s, the commission for the first time hired five fisheries biologists and stationed them in various regions around the state in order to manage the fish populations on the lakes in their respective regions.”

Hogan managed the facility until 1960. Lee Brady took over in 1961 and served until 1972, when he was replaced by Berry Beavers.

I pass through Lonoke, which had a population of 4,245 people in the 2010 census. I spend about an hour at the Lonoke County Museum, which is along the highway downtown. Lonoke is the only county seat in the state that shares its name with the county.

“In 1858, the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad was building its tracks through Brownsville, then the county seat of Prairie County, located three miles north of the future town of Lonoke,” Charles William Cunning writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Five years later, during the Civil War, the tracks were destroyed during a skirmish at Brownsville. After the war, the company decided to take a more direct route and bypass Brownsville, resulting in its eventual demise and the birth of the town of Lonoke.”

The city was named by two men who were doing work for the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad.

“They suggested naming the town for a massive lone red oak tree that stood isolated on the prairie,” Cunning writes. “Isaac C. Hicks and Hamilton Reynolds surveyed the site and completed the town lot plan in 1869. The first business in Lonoke was the general store W.K. Hocker & Co., which moved from Hick’s Station to the new town site in 1868 before it was laid out. In 1869, T.C. Beard and William Goodrum opened a general store.

“Lonoke was incorporated as a town on Jan. 22, 1872, and elected its first officials, headed by Mayor Isaac C. Hicks. On April 16, 1873, Lonoke County was created from portions of Prairie and Pulaski counties with Lonoke as the county seat. Within three years the population had grown to almost 500 people as most of the citizens of Brownsville moved south with the railroad. By 1910, the population had grown to 1,547.

“The first courthouse was the building formerly used as the Prairie County Courthouse in Brownsville that was dismantled, moved to Lonoke and reassembled. In 1928, the town built a three-story brick courthouse with the county jail on the top floor. This building still serves as the courthouse, though the jail has moved to another site.”

This is the western edge of the Grand Prairie and was once mostly used to raise cattle along with hay, corn and cotton.

Then came rice.

“In the spring of 1897, W.H. Fuller planted the first rice crop in Lonoke County,” Cunning writes. “The flat land with its abundance of water was ideal for this new crop. Soon, rice rivaled cotton as the area’s most profitable harvest. Around 1940, soybeans joined the agricultural mix.”

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