From Forrest City to West Memphis

SIXTH IN A SERIES

With a population of 15,371 in the 2010 census, Forrest City is by far the largest town between North Little Rock and West Memphis as we continue our trip east on U.S. Highway 70.

Located on the western slope of Crowley’s Ridge, it has been a center of commerce for the area since the 1870s and has served as the St. Francis County seat since 1874. The city is now home to more than half of the county’s residents.

If time allows, the St. Francis County Museum, a block off the highway on Front Street in the Rush-Gates Home, is worth a stop.

It’s also worth a stop for barbecue at Delta Q.

A recent review of Delta Q in the Arkansas Times read in part: “The stereotypical Southern U.S. barbecue joint, especially in the Delta, is in a rundown shack with a decades-old provenance. Perhaps some of us take quiet delight at the gasps on newcomers’ faces when they see some of the more dilapidated versions out there. But bad news for those looking to shock visiting relatives from states with stricter building codes: Forrest City’s Delta Q is tidy outside, clean inside and came of age during President Obama’s second term. … While the architectural rules of barbecue restaurants may vary, it is pretty standard that a barbecue place is first judged on its barbecue sandwich. In Arkansas, it will be pulled pork. Delta Q does brisket and ribs and smokes chicken, but this restaurant’s tagline is ‘fine Southern swine.’ And that’s where we found Delta Q — in addition to everything else it does — has a different take on pork ‘cue. … Delta Q is presenting a style in barbecue and beyond all its own; we like that. Long may it run, until it has a lengthy history and a rustic patina all its own.”

Forrest City, named for Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, has produced such well-known Americans as singer Al Green and professional baseball player Donnie Kessinger through the decades.

By the early 1800s, white settlers were attracted to the high ground of Crowley’s Ridge, which was free of the flooding found on either side of the ridge. The Civil War interrupted construction of the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad in the area. After the war, Forrest (the former general) contracted with the railroad to lay tracks across Crowley’s Ridge. He hired almost 1,000 Irish laborers, and they began work in 1866.

“The founding of Forrest City is traced to the commissary established by Forrest,” Mike Polston writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Local businessman U.B. Izard proposed a survey for a town, and on March 1, 1869, a 36-block town site was marked off by county surveyor John C. Hill near the old commissary site. The name Izardville was considered, but with the founding of a post office that same year, the name of Forrest City was recorded. The town began to develop rapidly. By the end of 1869, the first freight train arrived, and passenger service was available within two years. The first mercantile, Izard Brothers & Prewitt, was open before 1870. With its connection to the railroad, Forrest City was becoming the commercial center for local cotton farmers.”

Following an 1874 election, the county seat moved from Madison to Forrest City.

Forrest City continued to grow along with the area cotton industry, though growth was slowed by a major fire in the winter of 1874, a yellow fever outbreak in 1879, the Great Flood of 1927, the Great Drought of 1930-31 and the Great Flood of 1937.

“By the late 1940s and early 1950s, the city began to experience significant economic growth,” Polston writes. “The area was an attractive site for industrial growth due to its railroad connections and U.S. Highway 70. Shortly after World War II, an industrial park was established by the city government with Forrest City Machine Works being the first industry to build. The opening of the Hamilton Moses Power Plant in 1951 four miles west of Forrest City stimulated growth, as did the construction of Interstate 40. Even before its completion in the 1960s, the city began to expand toward the interstate.”

Forrest City has, however, been beset by racial problems through the decades. What was known as the Forrest City Riot of 1889 resulted in four deaths. The event — a dispute between black and white voters over a school board election — received national media attention. The 1960s were also tumultuous.

Polston writes: “During the 1960s, the city played a role in the civil rights movement as one of three Delta communities to serve as a headquarters for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a national civil rights organization. The quality of the schools quickly became an issue. In September 1965, 90 percent of the black student body staged a school boycott protesting the conditions. Almost 200 protestors were arrested.

“Four years later, a boycott of white-owned businesses and a march on Little Rock were organized to protest the firing of a black teacher by the all-white school board. By the 2010 census, the percentage of black residents was 67 percent.”

The aforementioned St. Francis County Museum opened in 1995 at 419 Front St. It reopened in the Rush-Gates home in August 1997. The house was built in 1906 by Dr. J.O. Rush.

“The home was used as his residence and housed his medical practice until his death,” Stephanie Darnell writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Rush started collecting Native American and prehistoric artifacts in 1912 when he helped a patient who was unable to pay him for his time. As he was leaving, he noticed some pottery in the patient’s yard and accepted it as payment. Over his lifetime, he collected and cataloged more than 3,700 pieces. Much of his personal collection was donated to the museum by his descendants.”

I leave Forrest City, head east and find myself in Madison on the west side of the St. Francis River. The town, named for President James Madison, was once a stopping point for steamboats.

“It flourished because of its location on the St. Francis River, which at the time was large enough to accommodate riverboats,” Darnell writes. “Some of the larger steamboats had ballrooms and orchestras. When the boats were anchored overnight, people came from miles around to attend balls on board.

“The St. Francis County seat was moved from Franklin to Madison in 1841, where it remained until about 1855 when the county seat was moved to Mount Vernon. Madison regained the seat the next year after the Mount Vernon courthouse and records burned. … Following the Civil War, the Arkansas Delta attracted migrants from the Midwest and other regions outside the South. The city was able to re-establish itself when lumber companies such as Griffith & DeMange took an interest in the area. By the 1880 census, there were 210 recorded households in Madison, making it the largest community in the area. The town was incorporated in 1914.”

Scott Winfield Bond of Madison likely was the wealthiest black businessman in the state by the early 1900s. He was born into slavery in Mississippi in 1852. Bond’s mother died during the Civil War, and Bond moved with his stepfather to Madison.

“Around the age of 22, Bond began renting a portion of the 2,200-acre Allen farm,” writes Fon Louise Gordon of the University of Central Florida. “The next year, Bond increased the amount of acreage he rented and hired one man. He established himself as a farmer and married Magnolia ‘Maggie’ Nash of Forrest City in 1877. They had 11 sons during their long-lasting marriage. … Bond engaged in business opportunities that facilitated his farming and gained a reputation for prudence. He opened a store in Madison in partnership with his stepfather and Abe Davis, with Bond operating the store. Undercapitalized, he closed the store after several months. Eventually he bought the Madison Mercantile Co. as sole proprietor and maintained the store to supply his farms. He also purchased four additional town lots.

“By 1915, he owned five cotton gins, a sawmill and a gravel pit that supplied the Rock Island Railroad. The number of farms he owned had increased to 21 with a total of 5,000 acres. The farm on which the Bond family resided was called The Cedars.”

Three sons — Ulysses, Theophilus and Waverly — joined him in managing the businesses. Scott Bond died in March 1933 after being injured by a bull he owned. He owned almost 12,000 acres at the time of his death. Bond was 81.

Madison had 769 residents in the 2010 census.

Leaving Madison, I cross the St. Francis River. Wisconsin Bridge & Iron Co. constructed the Highway 70 bridge in 1933. It was the main bridge for traffic traveling between Little Rock and Memphis until Interstate 40 opened. The bridge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.

The St. Francis River is wide, slow and often muddy at this point. The river originates in Missouri as a clear, fast-flowing stream until it reaches the Mississippi Alluvial Plain near Poplar Bluff. It forms the boundary between the Missouri Bootheel and northeast Arkansas and then flows between Crowley’s Ridge and the Mississippi River. The St. Francis flows into the Mississippi just north of Helena.

The St. Francis Levee District was created in 1893 and began constructing levees and drainage canals in the region. There are numerous diversion ditches along and near the St. Francis River that have been constructed since Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1928.

If you head south off U.S. 70 for a couple of miles, you can visit Widener. The town, which had 273 residents in the 2010 census, is the birthplace of famous blues musician Luther Allison. A railroad depot and post office were established here in 1888. The name of the community was changed from Mead to Widener in 1895 to honor John Widener, who had major farming and timber interests in this part of the state. The town was incorporated in 1909.

Headed east, I cross into Crittenden County. The county was named for Robert Crittenden, the first secretary of the Arkansas Territory. It’s a county where row-crop agriculture rules.

“Because of the county’s location, levees and drainage districts have been essential to its development,” Grif Stockley writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “An act of Congress in 1850 created the first organized efforts toward levee construction as well as the donation of about 8.6 million acres of swampland to Arkansas to be sold to make levee and drainage systems possible. By 1852, a three-foot levee had been developed along the Mississippi River for most of the county’s border. It was not until 1893, however, that major flood-control efforts resulted in the Arkansas Legislature’s creation of the St. Francis Levee District. Bonds were issued, and a levee had been constructed almost from the Missouri state line into Crittendent County in 1897. … Completion of the ditches — eliminating swamps and brakes — allowed thousands of acres to be used for agricultural purposes.”

A short detour south will take you to Horseshoe Lake, a large oxbow lake that long has been the site of weekend homes for well-to-do residents of Memphis and the Arkansas Delta.

Meanwhile, juke joints in this area once attracted the likes of B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf.

“During the early 20th century, hunters and lumbermen discovered the lake,” Nikki Walker writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “It was dammed at Lost Lake Bayou, raising the water level by more than six feet. This made it possible to float timber directly from the area to the Mississippi River, where a sawmill was built to process the lumber. Russell Gardner of St. Louis — maker of the Banner buggy and Gardner automobile — purchased 1,200 acres along the river for his private hunting reserve. It was named Bruin for the many bears in the area.

“Five Lakes Outing Club was established by Memphis residents as a hunting club on the land in the middle of the horseshoe of the lake. They purchased the land from Gardner and the Fritz family and established an immense hunting and fishing reserve for the club’s 45 members. The Horseshoe Recreation Club was established around the same time. J.O.E. Beck purchased land on the western side of the lake stretching to Hughes. He cleared the land of trees and drained the swampland, putting in more than 9,000 feet of drainage tiles some 10 feet deep. Bob Snowden purchased 1,000 acres on the northwestern side of the lake and established a commissary known as Baugh Store, which had the first frozen food lockers in the area. Gus Zanone purchased land on the northeastern side of the lake on which to build cabins, and E.H. Clarke Sr. purchased land east of the lake.”

There were numerous court cases through the years concerning the lake’s depth.

During World War II, German prisoners of war were held near the lake and used as labor on plantations. A developer named Jack Rich created Horseshoe Lake Estates in 1965 and sold more than 400 lots. Homeowners became members of what was known as the Surf Club, which had a clubhouse, marina and pier. Residents of the subdivision voted to incorporate in 1983.

“Huxtable Pumping Plant near Marianna, completed in 1977, stopped the flooding but also prevented runoff, keeping the lake from replenishing itself,” Walker writes. “Droughts brought the lake to new lows and canals dried up, diminishing access to the lake. A vote was taken in 2007, and the Horseshoe District was formed, taxing homeowners around the lake in order to fund the installation of 10 pumps to maintain the water level. The drainage canal once built by Beck and Snowden was cleared of brush and widened, and a gate was installed across the bayou to keep the water level constant and prevent flooding. … Summer brings an influx of people from Memphis to the lake. The owners of the property surrounding the lake have sold many lots for summer and retirement homes, renovating or replacing the cabins and tenant houses that once stood there.”

I head back to Highway 70, which closely parallels Interstate 40 until reaching the edge of West Memphis. The road then takes me downtown. Just as was the case in North Little Rock at the start of this trip, the highway is Broadway Avenue as it passes through the city.

And just as was the case in North Little Rock, used car lots and surplus stores mark much of the route.

The Memphis skyline is visible across the Mississippi River, and it’s time for a meal at an Arkansas classic. Louis Jack Berger’s father, Morris Berger, surprised him with a trip to Mexico as a high school graduation gift. Their enjoyment of the food there inspired them to open Pancho’s in 1956.

The original restaurant featured packed dirt floors and a live tree that was saved during construction. A large truck destroyed that building, but a new structure was built, and people still come from throughout the Arkansas Delta to eat there. This is also the area where the famous Plantation Inn, a club that had live music nightly, once stood.

Instead of music and dancing, a plate of enchiladas will have to suffice as the trip east on Highway 70 comes to a close.

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