The village on the lake

SECOND IN A SERIES

For years, bright young people from across the country have come to the Delta areas of Arkansas and Mississippi to work in public schools as part of the Teach for America program. Attracted to Lake Chicot (the largest oxbow lake in North America) and restaurants near the lake, these students sometimes refer to Lake Village as the Hamptons of the Delta.

As I’ve written more than once, don’t laugh.

Lake Chicot, which runs 22 miles in a curve and covers almost 5,000 acres, was the place where Charles Lindbergh conducted his first night flight in 1923. Long before the huge reservoirs built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers covered much of the state, Lake Chicot was a prime attraction for visitors from across Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. The Lake Chicot Water Festival once hosted the national championship hydroplane races.

People have been known to drive for hours (or even take private planes) to buy tamales at Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales, have dinner at The Cow Pen (now known as Table 82 at The Cow Pen) and shop at the Paul Michael Co.

To quote one Teach for America participant from Wisconsin who talked about her family coming to visit: “They love the sunshine, the weather, the beautiful sunsets, the slow pace and the extremely friendly people. They would definitely say the people of Arkansas are the most hospitable they’ve come across.”

Miss Rhoda’s fame has even spread as far away as Jackson, Miss.

A feature story in that city’s Clarion-Ledger began this way: “The lunch rush is over and it is quiet inside Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales, but the air is steamy and filled with the rich smell of cumin and chili powder. At one of the Formica-topped tables, Rhoda Adams takes a break to reflect on her years making what some believe to be the best example of the Delta’s most curious culinary treats. She said she was not sold on the idea of getting into the hot tamales business at first.”

Adams explained: “My husband’s auntie asked me about us doing it, but I never wanted to do any hot tamales. We started doing about 25 dozen a day. I kind of liked it, but I didn’t like it without a machine.”

Her husband bought her a machine, and Adams went to work. She’s the mother of 15 children, only 11 of whom survived to adulthood. She has told me she has almost 60 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, adding: “Some of them I ain’t never seen.”

The Jackson paper noted that Adams’ “tamale family is many times larger. Lovers of the meat and cornmeal treats travel from far and wide to find their holy grail served on a Styrofoam plate for a buck apiece. How far would someone come for Rhoda’s famous tamales? ‘Man, what are you talking about?’ she said with mock gall. ‘Oklahoma, New York, Florida. Honest to God. And I have people here every day from Little Rock.'”

Her pies and plate lunches are as good as her tamales.

Famous food writer Michael Stern noted: “The name of Rhoda Adams’ cafe is no lie. The tamales are delicious and well deserving of the fame they have earned up and down the Mississippi Delta. She makes them with a combination of beef and chicken; the meats combined with steamed cornmeal are wrapped in husks that when unfolded emanate an irresistibly appetizing aroma and are a joy to eat as a snack or meal any time of the day.

“Beyond tamales, the menu at James and Rhoda Adams’ little eat place by the side of the road is a full roster of great, soulful regional specialties. For fried chicken or pig’s feet, barbecue or a catfish dinner, you won’t do better for miles around. Early one morning, Rhoda made us breakfast of bacon and eggs with biscuits on the side. Even this simple meal tasted especially wonderful. Rhoda is one of those gifted cooks who makes everything she touches something special.”

Of her pies, Stern wrote: “We’ve always considered Arkansas one of America’s top seven pie states (along with Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Virginia, Texas and Maine). Rhoda’s pies are proof. She makes small individual ones. … Her sweet potato pie and pecan pie are world class.”

Near the Mississippi River bridge, The Cow Pen has been a Delta dining tradition since 1967. That’s when Floyd Owens converted an old cattle inspection station into a restaurant. Gene and Juanita Grassi bought The Cow Pen in 1977. After 30 years of running the restaurant, they decided to retire. That’s when the Faulk family, who operated the now defunct LakeShore Cafe just down the highway, stepped up and decided to operate a second restaurant.

Just six months after the Faulks took charge, The Cow Pen burned in November 2007. The Faulks, however, were determined to rebuild. The new Cow Pen opened on Nov. 26, 2008. That restaurant eventually closed. It was sold at auction last year and reopened as Table 82 at The Cow Pen. The menu features steaks, shrimp, salmon and fried chicken. The restaurant is open from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Sunday.

It’s a good place to eat after time spent at the Paul Michael Co., which opened its first location in Lake Village in 1994, offering furniture, rugs and high-end decorative accessories. The business later added locations in Louisiana and Texas.

According to the company website: “Paul Michael is from the third generation of his family to be born and raised in this rural, Delta town. His grandfather was one of the first merchants in the area; he traveled to levee camps with a mule and sold pots, pans, thread and other necessities to the levee workers. His dedication to the community led to the opening of Lake Village’s first department store, Mansour’s, which remained for more than 80 years.

“Paul worked in his grandfather’s department store as a young adult. It became evident that he possessed a natural gift in the art of buying, selling and trading. During the 1970s, Paul fostered this gift, buying antiques and selling them to theme restaurants. During this stage in Paul’s life, he fell in love with First Monday Trade Days in Canton, Texas. Always able to foresee future trends, he shifted his focus toward Indian jewelry and diamonds, ultimately becoming one of the first wholesale distributors of sterling silver jewelry to major department stores across the United States. Paul’s ventures into the jewelry trade led him abroad, where he first saw potential in the home decorative accessories market.”

Another area attraction is Lake Chicot State Park. In the first part of this series, we noted how Lake Chicot filled up with silt after work began on the Mississippi River levee in the 1920s. The problems became worse through the years as bottomland hardwoods were cleared and the land was used for row-crop farming. In 1940, the state’s first study of recreational needs was conducted by the state Parks Commission, the state Planning Board and the National Park Service. It recommended that Lake Chicot “be given prime consideration for an addition to the state park system.”

A dam constructed by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission in 1948 resulted in the upper one-fourth of the lake becoming much clearer than the rest of Lake Chicot. Area residents dedicated land for a state park on the lake’s northwest shore in 1957.

After Arkansas voters passed a constitutional amendment in 1996 that provided millions of dollars a year for state park improvements, massive renovations took place. There’s a visitors’ center along with cabins, campsites, a store, a marina, fishing piers, a swimming pool, picnic areas, pavilions and hiking trails.

Though Lake Village wasn’t incorporated as a town until 1898, the first white settlers began to live in the area in the 1820s.

“Agriculture was the mainstay of Lake Village,” Scott Cashion writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Throughout much of the 19th century, this meant plantation agriculture dominated by King Cotton and slavery. Lake Village was home to several of the largest slaveholders in Arkansas and the South. By 1850, there were 145 white families in Chicot County owning 3,984 slaves. The majority of these slaves lived in and around Lake Village.¬†Elisha Worthington became one of the wealthiest men in the South due in large part to plantations that he owned in and around Lake Village. At the height of his power, Worthington owned more than 12,000 acres as well as some 540 slaves.”

After the Civil War, there were several prominent black leaders who called Lake Village home. James Mason, the son of Elisha Worthington and one of his slaves, was elected Chicot County sheriff in 1872 and later was elected to the Arkansas Senate. Blacks held many of the offices in the county until the end of Reconstruction.

Chicot County had been carved out of Arkansas County by the Arkansas Territorial Legislature in 1823. The first county seat was at a community called Villemont, which was named for one of the commanders at Arkansas Post, Don Carlos de Villemont. He had been given a land grant in 1795 called Island del Chicot. Villemont died in 1823. The town of Villemont had almost 500 residents in the 1840s, but the Mississippi River began eating at its banks, and the settlement slowly fell into the river.

“After this, the county seat was moved to the settlement of Columbia until it was relocated inland to Masona on Bayou Macon,” Cashion writes. “Masona was 15 miles inland, however, and thus too far away from the river traffic. The people of the county decided in 1857 to move the county seat to Lake Village. Columbia suffered the same fate as Villemont. The town thrived for a few years until 1885 when Columbia’s courthouse fell into the river and was swept away.

“When it was first established, the county’s borders encompassed much more land than in modern times, extending to the Saline and Ouachita rivers in the west and to within 10 miles of the Arkansas River in the north. This included the present-day counties of Desha, Drew and Ashley counties as well as present-day Chicot County. In the years leading up to the Civil War, Chicot County was widely considered to be the richest county in the state and one of the richest in the country. This was due in part to the amount of cotton production in the county as well as the sheer number of slaves there during this period.”

Chicot County also was blessed with important ports on the Mississippi River.

Cashion writes: “One of these was Gaines Landing, named for Ben P. Gaines, R.M. Gaines and William H. Gaines, who had settled the area. This was one of the chief ports on the lower Mississippi from 1830-80. Another important landing was on Grand Lake near Eudora. This landing served as a docking point for a number of riverboats in the years leading up to the Civil War. The boats came in with freight and mail and left with cotton, fur and other products that were used throughout the region. The landing on Grand Lake was later known as Carriola Landing. From the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the 20th century, this landing was one of the largest shipping points on the Mississippi River south of Helena.”

The population of the county almost doubled from 11,419 in the 1890 census to 21,987 in the 1910 census. The Memphis, Helena & Louisiana Railroad made its way into the county in 1903. This allowed the virgin hardwood timber to be shipped out. That land was then drained and used to raise cotton. The new cotton farms required thousands of sharecroppers and tenant farmers, leading to the population surge.

“The economic growth was cut short by the Great Flood of 1927, which put nearly 13 percent of the state under water,” Cashion writes. “Since most people in the county were farmers, they were hurt most by the flood. The dams, spillways and natural streams that carried water to the farmland were virtually destroyed. Lake Chicot, normally a clear lake, became a settling basin for muddy water all the way from Pine Bluff.”

Population growth slowed. It reached its high point of 27,452 residents in the 1940 census. The widespread mechanization of agriculture significantly reduced the need for sharecroppers and tenant farmers. Chicot County’s population has dropped in each census since 1940. By the 2010 census, it was down to 11,800, the smallest since 1890.

A small prisoner of war camp for Germans was established at Lake Village in 1944. It was a branch of the main camp at Dermott. Nearby Jerome in Chicot County was the site of one of the two Japanese-American internment camps in the state. The other was at Rohwer in Desha County.

The current Chicot County Courthouse at Lake Village was built in 1956. Desegregation came more than a decade later when Larry Potts became the first black student to graduate from Lakeside High School in 1969.

The Italian influence remains strong in Lake Village. This dates back to the 1890s when the Sunnyside Plantation was the home of the largest colony of Catholic immigrants in Arkansas. A New York businessman named Austin Corbin bought more than 10,000 acres in Chicot County and established the plantation.

“Under the auspices of the Sunnyside Co., Corbin consolidated several plantations and named the property after an area plantation that dated back to the 1830s,” Jamie Metrailer writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “When difficulties arose in finding laborers to work these cotton fields, including a stint with convict labor, Corbin made an arrangement with Prince Ruspoli, the mayor of Rome, for Italian immigrants to farm the property. Ruspoli and Corbin arranged for the immigration of 100 Italian families annually for five consecutive years.

“Corbin provided these Italian immigrants with 12 and 1/2 acres of land per family with housing. The land and houses were ‘payable over 21 years at an annual interest rate of 5 percent of the unpaid balance.’ These terms were appealing to potential immigrants. Italy’s economy was then doing poorly, in part from the government’s rush to industrialize rural sectors of the country. The first party of more than 500 Italian Catholics reached Sunnyside Plantation in December 1895, and a similar number reached Chicot County in January 1897. Though the colony was able to build a school, church and railroad connecting the various portions of the plantation, the Italian immigrants experienced many problems.”

Most of these immigrants knew nothing about farming. And since they came from different parts of Italy, they didn’t work together well. Malaria was rampant.

Corbin died in 1896. By 1898, O.B. Crittenden & Co. had taken over the plantation. Many of the immigrants followed Father Pietro Bandini to northwest Arkansas, where he founded the community of Tontitown.

Bandini had been born in 1852 in the Romagna region of Italy. He studied in Monaco beginning in 1869 and began teaching in September 1874 at a Jesuit seminary at Aix en Provence in France. He was ordained as a priest in September 1877. In 1882, he was sent to the Jesuits’ Rocky Mountain Mission in the Montana Territory.

According to the Tontitown Historical Museum: “He studied English and Indian languages there. A year later, he was stationed at the St. Ignatius Mission in Montana, where he built a church and school and traveled into Indian villages instructing both the Crow and Kootenai in the Catholic faith. He later successfully started a mission for the Cheyenne tribe. Bandini returned to Europe in March 1889, where he was appointed vice rector of St. Thomas Aquinas College in Cuneo, Italy. He remained in this position for one year, after which he returned to the United States and established St. Raphael’s Italian Benevolent Society, the purpose of which was to assist Italian immigrants at the Port of New York.”

Bandini helped thousands of Italian immigrants who were entering the country. After five years, he requested to be assigned to Corbin’s plantation in Arkansas. Bandini arrived at Sunnyside in January 1897. He was greeted by contaminated water, mosquitoes and poor sanitation. Bandini felt that the owners who had replaced Corbin cared nothing about the Italians.

Bandini had traveled through the Ozarks and found the land there to be like much of Italy. He headed to northwest Arkansas in January 1898 and found 800 acres for sale. Forty families from Sunnyside soon arrived, and Tontitown was established.

Bandini returned to Italy for a short time in 1911 and received a medal from the Italian government for his work. He died in Little Rock in January 1917 at St. Vincent Infirmary.

About 35 immigrant families remained at Sunnyside during the 1890s.

According to Metrailer: “One account states that the Italians present on the plantation in 1898 ‘did so well under the new regime that they not only remained themselves but of their own volition sent to Italy for their families and friends.’ However, in 1907, the U.S. government issued a report charging O.B. Crittenden & Co. with breaking debt peonage laws, though nothing came of the report. Almost all Italian workers left the plantation by 1910 after the company changed policies and placed the Italian Catholics in a sharecropping arrangement. After World War II, the Sunnyside Plantation was divided and sold as smaller farms.”

The Italian influence at Lake Village remained strong. A major annual event on the first Sunday of each March is the Our Lady of the Lake spaghetti dinner. This year will mark the 109th such event. All the food is homemade. About 3,600 meatballs are made each year. Recipes have been handed down through the generations.

According to a story in the Arkansas Catholic: “There’s bread baking day in January. Over Presidents Day weekend, 100 volunteers spend two days producing 300 pounds of yolk-yellow pasta that air dries overnight on rows of tables. In late February, the Pierini family leads production of 3,600 meatballs that will stew in caldrons of sauce overseen by the most experienced men in the parish. Homemade desserts arrive by the carload as do diners who will line up as early at 7 a.m. for takeout orders.”

Homemade pasta can be purchased throughout the year, meanwhile, at Regina’s Pasta Shop on the shores of Lake Chicot.

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