Archive for April, 2010

That dang little rock

Friday, April 30th, 2010

Now comes word that the city of Little Rock has moved that tired ol’ stone that had languished all these years on the grounds of City Hall to a spot down by the river. It’s part of the excavation project that has been taking place off and on for months at the foot of the Junction Bridge.

In an incredible example of hyperbole, one can find this language in a “design narrative” on the Little Rock Parks and Recreation Department website: “It has been noted that the second most asked question from visitors to our city is, ‘Where is the little rock?’ . . . It is anticipated that La Petite Roche will have a huge tourist impact.”


The second most asked question? Really? What’s the first?

I’m reminded of the place (no longer in business) near the intersection of Markham and University that for years advertised the “second coldest beer in town.”

Let me put it this way: I moved back to Little Rock from Washington, D.C., in the fall of 1989. During the past two decades, I’ve hosted numerous visitors from across the country. I’ve proudly given them tours of the city.

But I’ve yet to have anyone ask, “Where’s the little rock?”

What about you?

Perhaps my visitors weren’t the norm. But I just don’t see this having that “huge tourist impact” described in the narrative. A “huge tourist impact” would be people booking rooms by the hundreds at the Peabody Little Rock just for the chance to walk out the door and see a rock.

So let’s put aside the silly hyperbole and try to rationally examine the situation.

The Roy and Christine Sturgis Foundation, which has done a tremendous amount of good work across this state, awarded a grant of $250,000 to help fund the La Petite Roche project. The Riverfest organization, which uses the funds raised from its annual festival to support improvements to Julius Breckling Riverfront Park, threw in another $100,000. The city refinanced its park bonds, and $100,000 of that money went for the project. The city then supplied staff and equipment for what would add up to about a $1 million effort.

Back to the breathless prose in that January 2009 narrative: “La Petite Roche project aims to create an interpretive and hands-on experience to showcase the significance and history of our city’s landmark and namesake. The historical magnitude of La Petite Roche has motivated an inspired effort to see that the little rock is appropriately featured and interpreted as part of the city’s cultural landscape. … The ultimate outcome of the project will raise La Petite Roche to a level that is equal to its significance as the landmark and namesake of the city of Little Rock.”

The narrative went on to gush: “A combination of vertical stone walls and slopes to terraced, leveled areas will provide for a variety of spatial experiences and settings. Within these spaces will be the interplay of light and shadow against native plant material and stone boulders. The rock itself will be exposed with the use of native grasses and shrubs to soften its edges.”

Excited yet? You think the kinfolks in Des Moines are booking their trip?

The best I can figure, city employees began the excavation of the hillside near the Junction Bridge and just didn’t find much in the way of a rock outcropping to expose. So they moved that 4,700-pound boulder over from City Hall, where it had been the past 78 years (ever since the Little Rock Civitan Club donated it). Most of the rock at the base of the railroad bridge had been blasted away in the late 1800s in order to build the bridge.

Now, it’s time for the city to declare victory and go home. Thus the La Petite Roche plaza will be dedicated May 26. We’re told that signs explaining the rock formation’s history and importance to the city will be installed. I love history, and I hope these signs will provide a nice history lesson for visitors.

But why can’t I shake the nagging feeling that this whole thing has been quite the boondoggle?

I know. Much of the project was funded by a private foundation. A private foundation can do whatever it wants with its money.

Yet how much better, at this point in our city’s development, would it have been if all of this money, time and effort could instead have been devoted to the completion of the Little Rock portion of the Arkansas River Trail?

I sit at Bill and Skeeter Dickey Field at the Junior Deputy baseball complex along Cantrell Road on these spring evenings to watch my youngest son play baseball. As I look toward Cantrell from the stands, I never cease to be amazed by the large number of bicycle enthusiasts making use of the trail.

A major boost to the Arkansas River Trail is about to occur. Work is finally set to begin on renovating the Rock Island Bridge adjacent to the Clinton Presidential Center. It’s now time for Little Rock to complete work on its part of the 14-mile trail. Frankly, far more people will make use of this amenity than will ever go look at a boulder down by the river.

A 14-mile loop will be anchored by the Big Dam Bridge to the west and the Rock Island Bridge to the east. An extension eventually will connect the 14-mile loop to Pinnacle Mountain State Park and the 225-mile Ouachita Wilderness Trail. This is truly a project that will receive national attention when completed, setting Little Rock and North Little Rock apart from most metropolitan areas.

For now, there a couple of things that should be done:

1. Come up with unified signage to mark the trail, track the mileage and describe spots along the way. The signs should look the same on the north side and the south side of the river. Little Rock and North Little Rock have tended to work separately of each other (with North Little Rock usually running far ahead of its larger neighbor to the south when it comes to providing recreational amenities for youth and adults), but a unified look is important.

2. Update the website. Keep it updated. Do a better job of publicizing what already exists. If you Google “Arkansas River Trail,” the first link that comes up is the website Try this: Go to the website and click on Events. The most recent one listed? November 2004. Your read that correctly — November 2004.

What already exists of the Arkansas River Trail is, to borrow a word Houston Nutt liked to use on a regular basis, “special.” It’s about to become better.

As far as La Petite Roche, let’s just say I hope people visit the site and enjoy it.

Clark Wetlands: Better late than never

Friday, April 30th, 2010

An announcement has been scheduled for noon Monday on the west side of the Rock Island Bridge in downtown Little Rock. At that time, we’re supposed to learn the construction timetable and final design plans for a long-awaited wetlands project along the Arkansas River.

For those who love downtown Little Rock, this announcement hopefully will answer questions that have lingered for more than two years.

You see, the wetlands project initially was unveiled on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2007. It was reported at the time that “construction will commence this winter.” That would have meant by at least March 2008. More than two years later, there’s no evidence of construction.

Former President Clinton was in town for the 2007 announcement that a wetlands park would be named for the late Little Rock contractor Bill Clark. I liked Bill Clark a lot. He told it like it was and didn’t mince words, traits this city could use in more of its leaders. He was just 63 when he died of cancer in May 2007.

Clinton said on that fall day in 2007 that the wetlands would be “just as important as the library.” For years, this land has been little more than a storm water drainage pool along the river.

The $2 million project (which was the initial cost announced in 2007) is to stretch from the Clinton Presidential Center to the Interstate 30 bridge. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported in October 2007 that the goal is to “transform a trash-strewn eyesore into a wildlife haven for blue herons, bats, bobcats, freshwater mussels and other animals.”

The 13-acre project, which will feature elevated walkways and boardwalks, was jump-started with a $400,000 grant from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Private donations were to pay for the rest. One can only guess (since there has not been much in the way of progress reports the past two years) that the Great Recession slowed the collection of those private donations.

In a tribute to Clark on the city of Little Rock website, it is written that the hard-driving contractor “always loved the outdoors and devoted much of his time to preserving and enjoying it. An avid hunter and fisherman, Bill spent many sunrises and sunsets overlooking the Arkansas River and wetlands, enjoying nature. Bill Clark was respected and beloved throughout Arkansas for his leadership, generosity, candor, humor and ability to make things happen. Throughout his career, he transformed many landscapes, and the transformation of the wetlands is a tribute to him personally. It is also a major, environmentally sensitive addition to the riverfront of Little Rock.”

The wetlands project will serve as a nice complement to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s Central Arkansas Nature Center just to the west.

“He loved building things and loved leaving Mother Nature alone,” Clinton said of Clark in 2007. “Last year, I saw a fox on our wetlands site. … We couldn’t have done anything that would have made Bill Clark happier.”

Some of the aspects of the project outlined at the initial announcement were:

— A sandbar habitat restoration and demonstration area

— Channel development

— Bat boxes

— Wildlife viewing areas

— Concrete walks with railings, boardwalks, overlooks and the planting of native trees

— A storm water filter and trash collection demonstration project

Word that there’s about to be progress on the Clark Wetlands comes just a couple of weeks after it was announced that the federal Economic Development Administration has come through with $2 million to help the Clinton Foundation finally complete the conversion of the Rock Island Bridge.

Talk about better late than never. The Clinton Foundation had promised way back in 2001 to renovate the bridge. For several years, there has been a website ( devoted to the issue.

In addition to the $2 million from the Obama administration, the bridge project will utilize almost $1 million from the city of Little Rock, $4 million from the Clinton Foundation, $2.5 million from the state, $750,000 from the city of North Little Rock and $250,000 from donors.

We’re being told that construction on the bridge project could begin as early as this summer and is expected to take 18 months.

So hopefully we’re about to see progress on both fronts — the Rock Island Bridge and the Clark Wetlands. They indeed will be nice amenities, adding to the critical mass that has developed along both sides of the river during the past decade. I’m still drawn back, though, to the description of Bill Clark as someone known for “candor” and his “ability to make things happen.”

One lesson here is to be realistic with timetables when projects are made public and then communicate frequently (and, yes, candidly) with the public when it becomes evident that those timetables simply aren’t achievable. We at least owe that much to the memory of a man known for bringing construction projects to conclusion on budget and on time.

George’s Majestic Lounge

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

Roby Brock has just come out with another edition of his excellent magazine, Talk Business Quarterly, which covers business and politics in Arkansas.

For four consecutive issues, I’ve written the “Arkansas Institutions” feature for the magazine.

For the first installment of “Arkansas Institutions,” we featured the Sno-White Grill in Pine Bluff, which has been serving up great food since the 1930s.

For the second installment, we focused on the “King Biscuit Time” radio show in Helena-West Helena.

For the third installment, the subject was Oaklawn Park at Hot Springs.

For this issue, I paid a visit to George’s Majestic Lounge on Fayetteville’s famed Dickson Street. I know. It was a tough assignment. But somebody had to do it.

On the day I visited in March, owner Brian Crowne was sitting at the bar with two employees when I walked in, planning for what he hoped would be a big night. Most of the other bars and restaurants along Dickson Street would end up having a slow night on this particular Friday. It was, after all, the start of spring break at the University of Arkansas. Students were flooding out of town.

George’s, however, is much more than a college bar. Sure, it was selected as one of the top 100 college bars in the country by Playboy back in 1997. But there’s a tradition at George’s called Friday Happy Hour that attracts a much older demographic. It starts at 6 p.m. and runs until 8 p.m. each Friday. The bands tend to play classic rock or rhythm and blues. And even though the college students were fleeing Fayetteville, Crowne was expecting a crowd of at least 400 people to show up for Friday Happy Hour to hear a 10-piece band called Fullhouse. He said most of those in attendance would be between the ages of 40 and 70. In other words, my age group.

So much for being just a college bar.

George’s will turn 83 years old this fall. Crowne, who purchased the Dickson Street institution along with a business partner in January 2004, had first fallen in love with the place when he was a young musician playing in Fayetteville in 1989. The Fort Smith native played the saxophone, and his band was booked for Friday Happy Hour.

“There were almost 300 people here, and it was an eclectic group,” he told me. “There were professors. There were students. There were hippies. There were business executives. The diversity is what struck me. I liked that. You could see everybody from an aging hippie to a business leader like Don Tyson. I had no clue if I could ever afford it, but I knew then and there that I would like to own this place one day.”

George’s had opened along the railroad tracks crossing Dickson Street in 1927. George Pappas and a cousin named Theodore Kantas owned the place. Pappas’ brother was the chef. Around Fayetteville, they simply were known as “the Greeks.”

Pappas had spent the previous 25 years running a restaurant in Fort Smith known as the Manhattan Cafe. After 20 years in business on Dickson Street, Pappas sold the business to Joe and Mary Hinton. The Hintons didn’t change the name.

Mary Hinton would become a Fayetteville legend in her own right, owning the business until it was sold to Bill and Betty Harrison in 1987.

The Harrisons had their first date at George’s in the 1950s when they were in college. It was a special place to them, and they would hold onto it until selling the business to Crowne and business partner Suzie Stephens.

“I consider myself the curator of George’s more than the owner,” Crowne told me. “If I do my job, it will be here long after I’m gone.”

George’s has a number of claims to fame.

It was the first bar in Northwest Arkansas to integrate in the late 1950s.

It was the first bar in Fayetteville to have a color television.

It was the first place in Northwest Arkansas to offer pizza delivery.

Legend has it that the first band to play at George’s was a group known as Ray Thornton and the Seldom Fed Seven in 1955.

Yes, that Ray Thornton.

Thornton, a former congressman and justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court, said that rather than being an actual band, the group was intended to drum up support for his campaign for student body president at the university.

Live music began being heard at George’s on a regular basis, though, in the early 1970s. Musicians ranging from Robert Cray to Leon Russell to Delbert McClinton have played there through the years. Crowne books most of the bands himself and offers live music as often as six nights a week. It’s a mix of local and traveling acts with cover charges ranging from $5 to $30.

A more recent attraction is the Italian food that’s served for lunch each Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Crowne’s father-in-law and mother-in-law, Bob and Sarah Yazzetti, moved from New York to Arkansas in the late 1980s. In September 2007, they teamed up with their son, Jessie, to begin serving wonderful Italian lunches of spaghetti, ravioli, homemade meatballs, Italian sausage and more at George’s.

I ate until I could barely walk. I can tell you how good it is.

Shots of George’s sometimes are seen on national television when football and basketball games are being telecast from Fayetteville. History just seems to seep from the walls. Crowne says former UA students tell him great stories, such as the one when Mary Hinton would shine a flashlight up in the trees around the beer garden and tell certain Razorback football players to come down.

George’s was one of the five nominees for the Nightclub of the Year award this year from the Academy of Country Music. Now that’s quite a feat — to be considered one of the best country nightclubs in America and one of the best college bars in America at the same time. It’s that sometimes schizophrenic nature that makes George’s so special.

Several years ago, there was a survey that asked University of Arkansas alumni to vote on their top 20 Fayetteville memories. You won’t be surprised to learn that trips to George’s Majestic Lounge made the list.

A few questions that I hope you will answer below:

1. If you went to school at the University of Arkansas, what’s your favorite George’s memory?

2. What are your favorite live music venues in the state?

3. Speaking of Italian food, what are your favorite Italian restaurants in Arkansas and why?

4. What Arkansas institutions would you like to see us profile in future issues?

Pick up a copy of TBQ. There’s some insightful political writing by Roby and John Brummett, TBQ political poll results and a profile by Werner Trieschmann of one of our state’s treasures, the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.

The duck lands of White County

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

In the previous post, I described a delightful trip down Arkansas Highway 36 last week from Searcy to where the road ends at Georgetown in White County.

As the second-largest county in the state as far as the landmass (1,034 square miles), White County is incredibly diverse.

In the western part of the county, they raise beef and dairy cattle. Increasingly, they drill for gas in the Fayetteville Shale, an activity that has made Searcy a bit of a boomtown these days.

In the east, the hills give way to the bottomlands, and row-crop agriculture takes over.

The online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture (my gosh, what a gift that product is to our state) describes the county this way: “It is a microcosm of the state as a whole. The southeastern part of the county is alluvial land that today is mostly used for farming and timber production. … The north-central and northeast parts of the county contain the eastern terminus of the Ozark Escarpment.”

In other words, Rose Bud, Romance and El Paso in the west have very little in common with Georgetown and Griffithville in the east.

I’ve come east in White County on this day. I’m driving through a part of the county that has become a mecca for hunters and fishermen. As the trees give way to huge fields just east of West Point, something dawns on me. Watching the large tractors bust up the soil on a sunny April afternoon, it appears that this area represents a good example of a place where agriculture done on a large scale can exist in harmony with the government protection of wetlands.

In the 1970s, as soybean prices soared, thousands upon thousands of acres of Arkansas wetlands were cleared for crop production. As I’ve written before, it became apparent in the years that followed that much of this poorly drained soil should be returned to bottomland hardwoods.

A large percentage of Arkansans fail to understand just how big a role agriculture plays in our state’s economy. Agriculture represents 16 percent of the state’s total labor income. With about 46,500 farms on 14.3 million acres statewide, Arkansas ranks 11th nationally in total farm receipts.

We’re the country’s largest producer of rice, and we rank second in cotton production, fifth in grain sorghum production and 10th in soybean production. In fact, Arkansas ranks 21st or higher in the production of 19 commodities.

According to the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture: “Arkansas agriculture contributes a larger share to the state’s gross domestic product than does agriculture in neighboring states and the U.S. economy. Agricultural production, processing and retail account for 11.6 percent of the gross domestic product. This compares to about 7 percent for the Southeast United State and 5.2 percent nationwide.”

The farmers of east Arkansas are some of the best in the world at producing food and fiber. Just as the overall state economy needs Wal-Mart and Tyson Foods to be strong, people in all parts of this state have a vested interest in row-crop agriculture remaining strong. We must constantly search for new markets, greater efficiencies and more value-added products.

At the same time, however, we must protect the natural elements that make this state unique. There’s a balance that must be achieved, and it’s not often an easy balancing act. But it seems to me that Arkansas has made great progress during the past 20 to 25 years in better achieving that balance.

To the north of me as I head southeast toward Georgetown is the Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge, a 14,800-acre tract along the Little Red River that attracts large numbers of migrating waterfowl each winter. The refuge was acquired by the federal government in 1993 as part of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. Much of the land had been part of a corporate farming operation owned by the John Hancock Insurance Co. Parts of the refuge have since been reforested and returned to wetland conditions.

Through a cooperative farming agreement, some areas are still farmed. Up to 25 percent of the crop is left unharvested to feed the migratory birds and other wildlife.

Also to the north of me is the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s Henry Gray Hurricane Lake Wildlife Management Area. The land once was owned by the company that made Singer sewing machines. It later was sold to the Fisher Body Corp. in the 1930s. Part of it became a game refuge in 1941, and the wildlife management area was created in 1958 to protect the bottomland hardwoods that were rapidly disappearing across east Arkansas. During the next 12 years, the Game and Fish Commission continued to make land purchases in order to increase the size of the management area and protect even more bottomland forests.

The 17,000-acre refuge is along both the White River and the Little Red River. Glaise Creek runs through the area, and there are numerous oxbow lakes with great names like Honey Lake, Mallard Pond, Big Brushy, Big Hurricane, Little Hurricane, Big Bell, Little Bell and Whirl Lake.

Water-control structures are closed early each fall to hold runoff water and make the area more attractive for ducks. Almost 8,000 acres are flooded each year at Hurricane Lake WMA, the third-largest wildlife management area operated by the state.

To the south of me as I head toward Georgetown is the Steve N. Wilson Raft Creek Wildlife Management Area, which was a parcel of bottomland hardwoods before it was cleared for farming in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 2000, Morrison Farms was enrolled in the Westland Reserve Program. Later that year, the state acquired the 4,063-acre farm.

During the past decade, the state has worked hard to restore native vegetation in the area. There are almost 11 miles of restored channels along Raft Creek and its tributaries. Cypress and oak trees have been planted along those restored channels. In other areas, pecan and ash trees have been planted along with oaks. Some fields have even been seeded in native prairie plants.

With a national wildlife refuge and two state wildlife management areas, one can see why hunters and fishermen flock to this area of White County.

And, yes, I’ll give yet another plug to the catfish at the Georgetown One Stop, where the road ends. After all, that was my ultimate destination.

I know that makes two posts in a row in which I’ve talked about the Georgetown One Stop, but it’s one of those remote places that make rural Arkansas so special. The walls are covered with photos of some of the thousands of people who have visited there during the past dozen years.

“I wouldn’t want to spend any money on decorating,” owner Joanna Taylor once told The Daily Citizen at Searcy. “That would take away from what we’re doing here. It’s all about the catfish.”

Here’s how Tim Bousquet described it in The Daily Citizen: “This is, without doubt, the finest catfish in the land. Light as a cloud, not too fishy and fresh, newly fallen dew fish. No need to gussy up this catfish. Taylor serves it plainly, maybe a hushpuppy or two on the plate with a side of sliced onion, tarter sauce, lemon and a pickle. Have as much as you want, Taylor will keep it coming until you tell her to stop, which might be a good long time.

“The trick, she says, is simple: She gets her fish direct from commercial fishermen working the White River, and she serves it fresh, never frozen. She’s meticulous with her product, working through the fillets, serving up fish as fat-free as possible, changing her oil daily — the kind of care long lost to the inland chain restaurants.”

Southeastern White County — a fascinating slice of a state whose rural areas never fail to surprise and amaze me.

The trip to Georgetown

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

I finally made it.

Yes, I made it to the Georgetown One Stop, that end-of-the-road citadel of fried catfish in the southeast corner of White County.

People would constantly ask me if I had partaken of the catfish at the One Stop. Until last Thursday, the answer was, “No.”

They wondered why. I had no real explanation. Now, I’ve remedied that.

Just as she has been doing for every customer for more than a decade, Joanna Taylor made sure I was full. The catfish was great. But the trip was even better.

Once I left U.S. Highway 67-167, it was like a step back into Arkansas’ past.

On that lazy journey down Arkansas Highway 36, you feel enveloped by the past. It happens as soon as you reach downtown Kensett. This was, after all, the home of the A.P. Mills General Store and the great Wilbur Mills. It was where Mr. Mills was born, and it was where he came home to die.

Wilbur Daigh Mills was born in Kensett on May 24, 1909, to Mississippi native Ardra Pickens Mills and Nebraska native Abbie Daigh Mills. The man who would go on to become known simply as Mr. Chairman on Capitol Hill was a champion debater at Hendrix College in Conway. He majored in history and graduated in 1930 as the salutatorian. His brains, combined with the fact that his family was wealthy by Depression-era Arkansas standards (in addition to owning the mercantile store, his father was the chairman of the Bank of Kensett), allowed Wilbur Mills to attend law school at Harvard.

In 1934, he was elected White County judge. At the time, he was the youngest county judge in the state. That same year, he married Melbourne native Gertrude Clarine “Polly” Billingsley. In 1936, he  was elected to a second two-year term as county judge. That same year, my grandfather, W.J. Caskey of Des Arc, was elected to the first of two terms as the county judge in neighboring Prairie County.

An aside: In 1986, John Robert Starr directed me to leave my job as assistant sports editor of the Arkansas Democrat and head to Washington as the newspaper’s D.C. correspondent. I was scared to death. The competition between the Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette had heated up considerably, and the Washington beat was a key one in the newspaper war. I suddenly went from having covered the Super Bowl (the Bears beat the Patriots in New Orleans that year) to covering Congress. To make things worse, the Gazette had a veteran correspondent named Carol Matlack. She had developed lots of reliable sources on Capitol Hill. And the big news in Congress that year was the debate over a sweeping tax reform act.

An obvious story angle would be to go down to K Street to visit with Mr. Mills, who by then was working for the prestigious Shea & Gould law firm after 17 years of having chaired the House Ways and Means Committee. After all, he had written most of the current tax code. There’s the story (likely apocryphal) of what the chairman told a group of prominent Democrats who were urging him to run for president against Richard Nixon in 1972: “Boys, why on earth would I want to be president and have to give up all of this power?”

After all, tax code changes had to start in the House. And Mr. Mills ruled the Ways and Means Committee, which for many years had no subcommittees, with the proverbial iron fist.

At any rate, Mr. Mills was cordial but not overly friendly when I went into his office to interview him. Then, I said this: “Mr. Chairman, I think you knew my grandfather.”

“Who was your grandfather?” he asked.

“W.J. Caskey of Des Arc,” I replied.

“Good Lord, son,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for the votes Will Caskey delivered me in Prairie County, I might not have been in Congress all those years.”

I didn’t have the nerve to ask just how those votes were “delivered.”

At any rate, Mr. Mills treated me like a long-lost grandson from that point on. I could always call him with questions about the tax bill. He didn’t want to be quoted on the record. But when I attributed those quotes to “a source familiar with the tax bill negotiations,” I meant it in a big way. It was, quite simply, the best source any reporter in the country could have on this issue.

I later would learn that Mr. Mills lived in the Crystal Towers at Crystal City, just across the river in Virginia, the same high-rise complex that was home to my girlfriend (and now wife of more than 20 years). Small world.

So passing through Kensett, an old lumber mill and railroad town that not only produced Mr. Mills but also baseball great Bill Dickey, I was thinking a lot about the past.

Heading southeast on Arkansas 36, I soon was driving on a shaded country highway with the Little Red River on my left. The community of West Point, which was incorporated before the Civil War and was once a steamboat stop, had one truck parked at the boat ramp on the Little Red. The old, stately West Point Cemetery provided a great place to park for a few minutes, return phone calls and answer e-mails on my BlackBerry. I was using modern technology, but I felt I had stepped back in time under the massive cedars.

I passed a sign that said, “Road Ends In 12 Miles.”

I literally was headed to the end of the road — remote Georgetown on the White River.

Many historians believe it was the second settlement established in the state by European explorers, surpassed only by Arkansas Post. That would make it the oldest existing town in the state since Arkansas Post is now a National Park Service site, not an active community. French explorer Francis Francure received a land grant of 1,361 acres from the Spanish king in 1789 and settled in the area.

“Although listed as a farmer, historical evidence suggests that he was more likely a trapper,” Adam Miller writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Other information regarding Francure is scant, though it seems he had little to do with his neighbors and lived a hermit’s existence for close to 50 years. Some early Georgetown settlers relied on rumors of Francure as an outlaw or a polygamist to supplement gaps missing in their established knowledge about the man.”

Georgetown got its current name in 1909 in honor of three men from Clarendon with the last name of George. They had purchased, sold and developed land there. The stop along the river previously had been known as Francure Township or Negro Hill (or Nigger Hill by some, to be honest). That’s because the first slaves in the area had been offloaded from boats there. Runaway slaves from Louisiana later established a community on a hill near the river.

The Missouri & North Arkansas Railroad built a bridge spanning the White River in 1908. The great flood of 1927 damaged the Georgetown bridge, and it was never properly repaired. The railroad ceased operations to Georgetown in 1946.

Local historian Polly Cleaver told Miller: “Georgetown used to have four stores, a hotel, a movie house, three fish docks, a handle mill that made ax and hammer handles, a mattress factory, a school, a drugstore, a barber shop, a doctor’s office, a dentist’s office and two churches.”

The town’s population, however, began to fall after World War II. The Georgetown schools were consolidated with West Point in 1953.

The 2000 census showed only 126 residents of Georgetown.

In a 1999 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette feature story, Heber Taylor wrote: “The mussel shell industry was important. The shells were found at the bottom of the White River. Sand-colored ones were said to be the prettiest and most valuable. … The shells were used to make buttons. The late Pearl Johnson, who was born in 1901, told a reporter in 1985 that her father, Tom Akers, dug shells in the river with a hand rig. She said he found a pearl worth $40 in a shell. He sold the pearl and bought 80 acres of land with the $40. Johnson said she was named after that pearl. In the same interview, she mentioned the long rollings her family had when the timber was being cleared off the land. Men worked in pairs and used poles about eight feet long to put under and carry the logs.”

Now, the Georgetown One Stop is the town’s main attraction — along with the boat ramp on the White River, which had almost a dozen trucks parked there on this particular Thursday.

Joanna Taylor came to Georgetown in 1997, fleeing Little Rock and a divorce. Her sister, Jeannie, had bought the gas station and convenience store, and Joanna went to work for her. She began serving lunch and later breakfast to local farmers. Dinner was added when word got out about the quality of the catfish she purchased from commercial fishermen on the White River.

There was a time when restaurants all over Arkansas advertised “White River catfish.” Now, most catfish served in restaurants comes from commercial farming operations. In that sense, among others, the Georgetown One Stop is a rarity.

Tim Bousquet put it this way in a 2004 feature in The Daily Citizen at Searcy: “Just before the pavement ends at the Georgetown boat ramp, there on the left sits what looks like an abandoned filling station. There’s no sign, and a sketchy patch of gravel may once have been a parking lot. A concrete slab serves as front stoop, and a rickety wooden door is entrance to an ancient metal shell of a building, the Georgetown One Stop. You have arrived. Have a seat and a pleasant woman — that’d be Joanna Taylor — will drop by with some iced tea. No need for a menu — the only choice here is sweetened or unsweetened tea, and it’s just assumed everyone wants catfish.”

Nothing has changed since that story was written except the price. It’s all you can eat for $9.

It’s worth the price. It’s worth the drive — a good meal and a trip deep into Arkansas’ past on historic Highway 36.

The exodus continues

Monday, April 26th, 2010

Once the 2010 census is completed, it will be evident that a trend that has been developing for decades in Arkansas continues unabated. I’m talking about the general shift of population from south and east to north and west.

When congressional redistricting takes place, the 4th Congressional District of south Arkansas will pick up even more counties.

The 1st Congressional District, once confined to Delta counties in east Arkansas, will pick up additional mountain counties.

The 2nd Congressional District of central Arkansas will shrink in size.

The 3rd  Congressional District of northwest Arkansas also will shrink geographically.

And so it goes.

This demographic pattern of people leaving south Arkansas and east Arkansas (though there are pockets of prosperity in each area), while central Arkansas and northwest Arkansas grow, has been occurring since the 1950s and has really picked up steam since 1980. I don’t see it changing in the lifetimes of anyone reading this post.

Within east and south Arkansas, certain places will continue to do well. Jonesboro, for instance, is booming. More and more people who work in downtown Memphis will move to Marion.

But it’s safe to assume that dozens of communities will continue to lose population. While fewer people will live in these areas, many Arkansans and out-of-state residents will visit rural east Arkansas and south Arkansas in order to hunt, fish, hike, etc. Given the migration patterns, one of the most important things state government can do is to wisely invest the proceeds from the eighth-of-a-cent sales tax imposed by Amendment 75 to the Arkansas Constitution.

When it comes to highway dollars, I’ve decided that we must do a better job than in the past of making sure the money follows the traffic counts.

When it comes to public education, much more widespread school consolidation is necessary in areas of the state that are losing population. This will ensure that schools have the critical mass necessary to provide the quality of education needed for kids to compete in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century.

When it comes to the proceeds from the so-called conservation tax, however, a significant investment in the rural areas of east and south Arkansas makes sense.

Of the money raised by the eighth-of-a-cent sales tax, 45 percent goes to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, 45 percent goes to the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism for state parks improvements, 9 percent goes to the Department of Arkansas Heritage and the remaining 1 percent goes to the Keep Arkansas Beautiful Commission.

The Game and Fish Commission would be wise to invest much of the almost $25 million a year it receives from the tax in improving existing wildlife management areas in these areas of the state while buying additional land. When soybean prices soared in the 1970s, thousands upon thousands of acres of bottomland hardwoods were cleared for farming. In the decades that followed, many farmers came to the conclusion that these poorly drained soils really aren’t suited for row-crop agriculture.

Prime opportunities will continue to exist for the Game and Fish Commission to buy marginal farmland and restore the hardwoods. The Choctaw Island Wildlife Management Area near Arkansas City is a great example of a quality wildlife habitat that went from private control to Game and Fish Commission control thanks to forward-thinking timber executives in the region.

Meanwhile, the Heritage Department should continue expanding the Delta Cultural Center in downtown Helena. Cherry Street is a movie set, but many of its buildings remain empty and crumbling. With continued investment that focuses on the area’s musical and agricultural heritage, the Delta Cultural Center could attract increasing numbers of tourists who are making day trips from the casinos at Tunica.

The Parks and Tourism Department has several projects in the works in east and south Arkansas that hold potential.

Back on May 1, 2009, the state took over the management of the 253-acre Bear Creek Recreation Area in the St. Francis National Forest. This was the first step in creating the long-awaited Mississippi River State Park in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service. This 550-acre state park will be a major improvement over the Forest Service recreation areas since the Forest Service (much like U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ recreation sites in the state) has had to contend with persistent budget cuts through the years.

Additional improvements will occur at the Storm Creek Lake Recreation Area and at the mouth of the St. Francis River. The St. Francis National Forest is the only national forest in the state that touches the Mississippi River. It would be nice to see the Parks and Tourism Department eventually develop a lodge in the park since the other state park lodges (Petit Jean, DeGray, Mount Magazine and Queen Wilhelmina) are all in the western half of the state.

Another state park being built in that area of the state is the Delta Heritage Trail. It’s a rails-to-trails conversion that’s being developed along a 73-mile route that strestches from one mile south of Lexa to Cypress Bend near McGehee. The first 14 miles of the trail have been completed from U.S. Highway 49 near Barton to Lake View. The state should make it a priority to finish the other 59 miles of this trail and give the Delta a major new tourist attraction in the process. When it comes to state park capital improvements, the Delta Heritage Trail deserves to move to the front of the line.

Down in far south Arkansas, the Parks and Tourism Department has completed construction of five cabins at Moro Bay State Park. Each 1,100-square-foot cabin includes a great room with a kitchen and dining area, two bedrooms, two bathrooms with spa tubs and a screened porch facing Moro Bay on the Ouachita River. There are even high-definition satellite televisions and wireless Internet access.

The $1.59 million project was a welcome addition to the park, which is 29 miles southwest of Warren and 23 miles northeast of El Dorado.

Over on Crowley’s Ridge, Village Creek State Park has an 18-hole Andy Dye golf course that has received good reviews. Let’s hope that the state can one day finish a planned lodge at the park. If the western half of the state has four state park lodges, it only seems fair that the eastern half of the state should have at least two — one at Village Creek State Park and one at the Mississippi River State Park.

While state government can do little to halt long-term demographic trends, we can use the proceeds from Amendment 75 to protect and enhance culturally and ecologically significant rural areas of south and east Arkansas.

“Season of the Gar”

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

The University of Arkansas Press released a book earlier this year titled “Season of the Gar.”

I had written in an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette column last summer about my fascination with alligator gar. That fascination dates back to long summer days spent at my grandparents’ home in Des Arc on the White River. I enjoyed walking a block from their house on Erwin Street to the fish market on Main Street to watch the commercial fishermen bring in the day’s catch.

When I was a boy, commercial fishing seemed like an exciting, exotic occupation. I didn’t comprehend just how hard these men worked for very little money.

While hanging out in the fish market, I would become almost mesmerized by the black-and-white photos on the wall of the alligator gar that had been pulled out of the White River through the years.

“Season of the Gar” was written by Mark Spitzer, who teaches writing at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway and is the managing editor of the Exquisite Corpse Annual, one of two award-winning literary publications (the other being the Oxford American) housed on the UCA campus.

“They are a true mystery fish, whose histories have been confused by sloppy scholarship, unchecked science, prejudicial journalism and generations of fishermen who think they know the facts,” Spitzer writes in his preface to the book. “Another message in this book is that gar aren’t as destructive to other fish as they’ve been made out to be, and that they serve a valuable function in providing ecological balance. Plus, contrary to popular belief, gar do not destroy gamefish populations or eat their own weight (or twice their own weight) in other fish per day. As studies have shown, gar cut down on populations of carp, shad, drum, buffalo and other fish that can be destructive to nesting habitats, therefore leaving the smaller members of the minnow family for bass, pike, catfish, trout, crappie, etc.”

The book contains some wonderful old photographs. The first is of a White River gar that weighed 230 pounds and was 7 feet, 8 inches in length. The photo by Johnnie Gray appeared on postcards in the late 1950s, and it began Spitzer’s own lifelong fascination with the fish.

“It was those pictures in fish books I saw as a kid,” he writes. “Particularly that one of two guys in Arkansas, posing beside a ferocious, steely alligator gar longer than themselves. According to Maynard Reece’s “Fish and Fishing” (1963), their hook was rigged to a piano string; but according to my imagination, what they used for bait was a whole chicken. So that’s why I wanted to get a gar.”

Other vintage alligator gar photos include one taken in Little Rock in 1928 and one taken on Moon Lake in Mississippi (just across the river from Helena) in 1910. It’s pointed out in the caption to the 1910 photo that some experts challenge the legitimacy of the 10-foot Moon Lake gar because the stomach seems more slack than usual and the fins and tail are unnaturally flared.

At any rate, the photo made me anxious to do something I’ve long enjoyed on my trips to the Delta — make an afternoon drive along Moon Lake followed by one of those superb seafood dinners at Uncle Henry’s Place in the old Moon Lake Club (a place Tennessee Williams included in some of his work).

Spitzer addresses the rod-and-reel style of fishing for alligator gar that was popular in Arkansas in the 1940s and 1950s.

“Back then, various publications touted the state as a gator gar mecca, where anglers from around the world could use deep-sea tackle to catch furious, leaping goliath-fish weighing well over 100 pounds,” he writes. “Such publicity was effective, especially on the lower White, Cache, Mississippi, Arkansas, Red, L’Anguille, Ouachita and St. Francis rivers, where word-of-mouth as well as newspaper and magazine articles brought steady business to local guides.

“Most of these alligator gar were caught on piano wires and finished off with bullets, shotgun slugs and arrows through the skull. The big ones were plentiful for a while, and landing seven-footers was much more common than it is today.”

I’m also fascinated by several other fish that can be found in Arkansas waters.

I had mentioned in an earlier post paddlefish (often called spoonbill catfish by Arkansans), and how the eggs of this fish are harvested for freshwater caviar. I can remember taking a photographer into George’s Fish Market at Marvell one day to watch the eggs being removed from paddlefish.

“Get yourself a plastic spoon and have some,” one man said.

I thus sampled the freshwater caviar from a huge spoonbill that had been swimming in an Arkansas river only hours before. It was wonderful.

According to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s guide to Arkansas fish, paddlefish belong to the Polyodontidae family. Amazingly, the other other living member of this family is the Chinese sturgeon of the Yangtze River in eastern Asia.

Yet another native Arkansas fish that fascinates me is the chain pickerel. That’s because chain pickerel would scare me to death when they would hit our topwater lures on a tupelo-gum slough in the Ouachita River bottoms where my father and I often fished. That slough also held a sizable alligator population.

My father would always return the pickerel (which he called “pike”) to the slough. According to him, they weren’t good to eat. The bass and crappie we caught were for the table. But those pickerel sure were fun to catch.

According the Game and Fish Commission guide, “Only one other pike, the grass pickerel, is native to Arkansas. Muskellunge and northern pike (and tiger muskies, a hybrid of the two), have been introduced.”

A visit yesterday to the remote White County community of Georgetown on the White River (there’s one way in and one way out as Arkansas Highway 36 comes to an end there) had me thinking about Arkansas fish such as alligator gar, paddlefish and chain pickerel. Just the drive to Georgetown was like a step back in time.

At the boat ramp on the White River, there were a number of trucks and trailers. People were out there fishing on a perfect spring day. I wished I could join them.

What a wild, wonderful state we call home.


Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

In his wonderful new book “Arkansas/Arkansaw,” Brooks Blevins quotes from one of my favorite “Saturday Night Live” skits.

It was one of the series of skits the program aired in 1992 to lampoon the presidential debates between Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot.

Kevin Nealon played the role of debate moderator Sam Donaldson of ABC News.

And here’s what the moderator had to say: “Gov. Clinton, let’s be frank. You’re running for president, yet the main streets of your capital city, Little Rock, are something out of ‘Lil’ Abner,’ with buxom underage girls in cut-off denims prancing around in front of Jethro and Billy Bob while corncob-pipe-smoking, shotgun-toting grannies fire indiscriminately at runaway hogs.”

Next, the Perot character played by the talented Dana Carvey calls the Clinton character “cracker boy” and adds this: “Why are we talking about Arkansas? Hell, everybody knows all they got down there is a bunch of ignorant, inbred crackers, peckerwoods, catch me? Now, can we talk about the deficit? While we have been here jabbering, the deficit has increased by half a million dollars. That’s enough to buy a still and a new outhouse for every family in Little Rock.”

I thought the skit was funny at the time. I still think it’s funny.

It didn’t bother me as I sat watching in my den in Little Rock. I’ve tried my best through the years to escape our inherent Arkansas inferiority complex. During the four years I lived in Washington, D.C. (prior to Clinton becoming president), I learned an important lesson.

We spend far too much time as Arkansans worrying about what others think about us. We’re afraid people are looking down on us. Here’s what I learned: They aren’t looking down on us. They aren’t looking up at us, either. They just aren’t looking at us at all. We’re a state that rarely registers on the national consciousness.

And that’s just fine with me.

Blevins, who once worked at Lyon College in Batesville, is now the endowed associate professor of Ozark studies at Missouri State University in Springfield. He has done the best job yet examining the image of Arkansas and our aforementioned inferiority complex.

In the introduction to the book, published by the University of Arkansas Press, he writes: “Time and time again the Arkansawyer has been portrayed as a backwoods buffoon or a rugged individualist or some combination thereof. … In an overly simplistic yet useful dichotomy, these perspectives might be described as romantic versus progressive, with the former often cherishing the very Arkansaw characteristics condemned by the latter.

“It is my contention that the portrayals of the Arkansawyer, romantic or fantastic they may be, have been positive ones as often as not. For many a romantic or radical observer, as we shall see, Arkansaw has provided an antithesis to a variety of American illusions: the idea of American exceptionalism, the blind faith in ‘progress,’ America’s starring role in some cosmic, providential plan. In this rendering of the Arkansaw image, the Arkansawyer becomes a nonconformist who consciously or unconsciously rejects the tenets of an American narrative found in the Puritan-through-Progressive continuum.”

Blevins uses the spelling “Arkansaw” when referring to the state’s image and “when invoking the mythical place conjured by the various stereotypes and caricatures. This is not to suggest that Arkansaw represents some bizarro-world mirror image, an antithesis to the real Arkansas, but that Arkansaw stands for the complex mixture of fact, legend and stereotype that is summoned from the depths of the American consciousness at the mention of the word Arkansas.”

I remember vividly when the national media picked up on the fact that Gov. Mike Huckabee and his family would be moving into what the industry likes to call a manufactured home (still known by most Arkansans as a mobile home or a house trailer) while the Governor’s Mansion was being renovated.

It was the summer of 2000, and we were at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. I was Huckabee’s communications director at the time and was suddenly inundated by media calls.

For the following week, we booked appearances on all three of the major network morning shows along with a taped interview by Jay Leno for NBC’s “Tonight Show.”

The move into the mobile home was an effort to save the taxpayers money. It might also have been a way for the governor to thumb his nose at some snooty Little Rock residents.

I still smile at the thought of the liberal doyennes (including some in the Governor’s Mansion neighborhood who had put huge “Bill Bristow For Governor” signs in their yards two years earlier) who got their panties in a wad over this supposed blow to our state’s image. Not to be sexist. There were plenty of males expressing their righteous indignation. You don’t think it had anything to do with Huckabee being a Republican, do you? Surely not.

They had always considered the Huckabees to be redneck interlopers from Hope who wouldn’t drink with them at CCLR, didn’t eat with them at whatever was the “in” restaurant that year and didn’t attend an Episcopal  or some other church that “proper people” attended.

Goodness folks, our state’s national image had been pretty well determined prior to this.

At any rate, here’s what the governor told Leno: “One of the things we want to do is to show that people in Arkansas aren’t all that sensitive about people making light of us. We know who we are.”

At a news conference later in the week, he said: “Let the people laugh. I think the difference between an Arkansan and some uptight, wound-up Northerner is that … we’re laughing with you because we like the way we live.”

Blevins writes: “Huckabee knew full well that there were a good many Arkansans who took exception to their state’s reoccurring role as the butt of national jokes and that more than a few resented his decision to knowingly invite derision with his triplewide plan. Finally, Huckabee’s ultimate decision to subject his state to stereotyping and mirth-making in order to save taxpayers a few dollars reflected the old spirit of nonconformity that had inspired admiration for the natural Arkie.”

No, I don’t worry too much these days about what some fellow in Iowa, New Jersey or Idaho thinks of Arkansas. It used to bother me more. Now, I rather spend my time enjoying all this state has to offer.

What about you?

How concerned are you about the “Arkansas image?”

What do you think accounts for our collective inferiority complex?

I would love to know what you think.

The baseball men

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

The Arkansas Travelers have their first home game tonight.

I won’t be at Dickey-Stephens Park. I’ll be out of town, attending the annual meeting of the Arkansas Historical Association.

But I didn’t want to let opening day in North Little Rock pass without noting the fact that Bert Parke is stepping down after three decades as the president of the Travelers. Parke, 80, announced his intentions last week during a Travelers board meeting that I attended. The Travelers made it official yesterday with a news release.

Thank you, Mr. Parke.

I serve on the board of the Travelers, but most of us don’t do much. The club actually is run by a five-person executive committee that consists of Parke, Ben Scroggin (who has been on the board even longer than Parke), Charles Logan, Frank Thomas and Russ Meeks.

Working hand in hand for many years with former Travelers general manager Bill Valentine, these men are largely responsible for keeping professional baseball in Central Arkansas.

Valentine, Parke, Scroggin, Logan, Thomas and Meeks — if you like Texas League baseball, you have these six men to thank (along with Warren Stephens and the less than 51 percent of North Little Rock voters who approved the tax needed to build Dickey-Stephens Park).

Meeks, a Little Rock attorney, has replaced Parke as only the fifth team president since the Travelers became a fan-owned entity 50 years ago. Parke will remain on the executive committee with the title of president emeritus.

“I love the Travelers and the game of baseball more than I can express,” Parke said. “I’m proud to have helped accomplish the goal of keeping professional baseball here in Central Arkansas during my tenure.”

It hasn’t been easy. As Ray Winder Field aged, professional baseball officials outside the state placed more and more pressure on the Travelers to build a new facility. At one time, I was one of the biggest advocates for simply fixing up Ray Winder, our Arkansas version of Fenway Park. Meeks, however, convinced me that there simply wasn’t enough room at Ray Winder to do all of the things the professional baseball powers that be were demanding.

Without a new ballpark, we eventually would have lost our professional affiliation. At best, the Travelers would have played in an independent league. It was that simple.

I’m still sick that the city of Little Rock made no effort whatsoever to save historic Ray Winder for amateur baseball. That says a lot about the priorities (or lack thereof) of those at City Hall. Those priorities never seem to include the youth of this community. But that’s another post for another day.

Our Travs remain in the Texas League, where they’ve been since 1966. It’s a league with a raft of new ballparks — including the beautiful Arvest Park in Springdale — that’s as strong as any league in professional baseball. The Travelers have now been an Angels affiliate since 2001, so that relationship seems solid.

Here’s what we have in Central Arkansas:

1. One of the finest minor league ballparks in the country in Dickey-Stephens Park and a quality, full-service restaurant, Ump’s, that’s actually located in the stadium.

2. A talented new team president in Meeks, who served 16 years as vice president and has donated literally thousands of hours of legal work to the club through the decades just because he loves baseball.

3. The great mind of Frank Thomas, who not only works for Warren Stephens at Stephens Inc. but also serves as the chairman of the River Cities Sports Commission.

4. Oldtimers such as Parke, Scroggin and Logan still around to offer sage advice.

5. One of the best young general managers in baseball in Pete Laven.

6. One of the best baseball play-by-play men in Phil Elson and a strong radio home at KARN-AM, 920.

7. Perhaps most important, the fact that the Travelers are the Green Bay Packers of minor league baseball. In other words, the club is owned by the fans. That prevents some millionaire owner from courting other cities and moving the club. Had the club been owned by an individual, I frankly think we would have lost it long ago.

Games tonight and Friday begin at 7:10 p.m. Saturday’s game begins at 6 p.m. Sunday’s game begins at 4 p.m. I plan to be there Sunday.

If you run into one of “the baseball men,” tell them thanks for keeping professional baseball alive in Central Arkansas.

Meanwhile, please let me know:

1. Your favorite minor league ballparks and why.

2. Your favorite major league ballparks and why.

Thanks goodness it’s April. Thank goodness it’s baseball season.

Play ball.

The man from Arkansas City

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

I’ve always been fascinated by Arkansas City.

Fascinated by a remote community — literally a place at the end of the road — that serves as a county seat even though it had only 589 residents in the 2000 census and likely will have even fewer people when this year’s census is completed.

Fascinated by the fact that this was a major trade and cultural center — an important port on the Mississippi River — before the Great Flood of 1927 left it isolated from the river.

Fascinated by the tastefully renovated Desha County Courthouse and the collection of historical photos that cover its inside walls.

Fascinated by the haunting beauty of the abandoned business buildings along the levee.

Fascinated by the colorful characters who have come from Arkansas City.

“In 1879, it became the county seat for Desha County,” Paula Reaves writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Arkansas City blossomed into a thriving river town during the next 40 years. It had a natural steamboat port and two railroads, as well as 14 saloons and three sawmills. … Some of the finest cotton in the United States came from this area. … An opera house existed in Arkansas City by 1891, and opera companies were hired to come to Arkansas City. The building was also used as an unofficial town hall; at other times, it became a dance hall, and citizens danced to music from Memphis bands. The opera house was also the location for boxing and wrestling exhibitions, including an exhibition by John L. Sullivan on March 8, 1891. Jack Dempsey also held a boxing exhibition there in 1924. These exhibitions were under the auspices of the Arkansas City Sporting Club.”

As for the 1927 flood, Reaves writes: “More than 2,000 people had to be rescued. The floodwaters were up to the second floor of some homes, and the citizens of the area camped in tents on top of the levee. When the floodwaters receded, the river channel, which was just across the levee, had moved about a mile to the east. This brought an end to the port at Arkansas City and made the railroads useless. The town never fully recovered from this tragedy. Arkansas City became a quiet little town in the years following the flood. There have been attempts to have the county seat moved to one of the larger cities in the county, but these attempts have been unsuccessful.”

Recently, the members of the Arkansas House of Representatives selected Rep. Robert Moore Jr. from Arkansas City to be the House speaker in 2011-12.

As a lover of Arkansas history, I think it’s nice to have a speaker from Arkansas City. It seems more like something that would have happened in 1910 rather than 2010 when the economic and political power in this state has moved far to the north and west of that historic community.

Having Moore as the speaker will be good for the entire Delta. He will help make sure that east Arkansas isn’t forgotten at the state Capitol.

When he first ran for the House in 2006, Moore said: “I consider myself blessed coming from a small town in the Delta. My wife and I really enjoy traveling, but coming back home to the farm is the best part of every trip we take. … I love southeast Arkansas.”

Moore, 65, has deeper roots in the region than most. His father, Robert Sr., was the Desha County sheriff. His mother, Dorothy was… Well, let’s just say she was a southeast Arkansas legend. Known across the state as Miss Dorothy, she was something special.

Matt Dellinger began a 2005 story in the Oxford American this way: “It’s never been good luck to be the seat of justice of Desha County. Behold today’s Arkansas City — beat-up, broken-down, devoid of the trappings every county seat deserves. No four-lane road. No Chinese restaurant. No muffler shop. No Wal-Mart. There is a newly renovated county courthouse (if county courthouses are your thing) and, for the well-guided visitor with a generous imagination, the shabby remnants of great things long gone.”

One of my favorite county judges is Mark McElroy of Desha County. McElroy, a part-time actor and world-class storyteller, was mistakenly called “Mike McElroy” in the Oxford American story. But his quote about Arkansas City is still a good one: “They had gambling houses and hotels. This was sin city, man. That old jail there, Miss Dorothy said on Sunday you went to church, you could hear the drunks: ‘Uuuuurgh.’ They’d fill it up, too.”

Former legislator and newspaper publisher Charlotte Schexnayder of Dumas followed up by saying in the 2005 article: “That would be Dorothy Moore. She’s 94 and really one of the anchors of this county. Dorothy received her high school diploma from a rowboat, if you can believe it. They rowed her up to the second floor of the building, and the superintendent handed her diploma through the window.”

Dellinger went on to write: “The flood, which inundated large portions of Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana, devastated the agricultural economy, encouraged the migration of black workers to Northern cities and altered permanently the politics and culture of the South. In the decades since the Depression, more subtle events — the consolidation and mechanization of farming, the decline of railroads, the gradual urbanization of America — have also taken their toll. Desha County may have recovered from the flood per se, but its population today is three-quarters what it was in 1926, the year before the flood. A still more terrible fact, not mentioned on the sign but alluded to by the boarded-up windows and trailer homes and junked cars nearby, is that Arkansas City, the county seat, never recovered at all: When the levee broke upstream, the deluge cut a channel that changed the course of the river, and by the time the waters finally receded that summer, the Mississippi lay two miles to the east, and the once rollicking river town found itself landlocked. On the other side of the levee today sit the cypress trees and swampy wetlands of an oxbow lake named Kate Adams, in honor of a popular paddleboat from Memphis that used to dock there, back when ‘there’ was the river.”

During a recent meeting of the Delta Grassroots Caucus at the Clinton Center in Little Rock, Moore introduced Gov. Mike Beebe.

“Robert Moore is obnoxiously insistent that we not forget the Delta,” Beebe said with a smile.

We need more like him. Eighty-three years after the Great Flood left it high and dry as far as access to the Mississippi River, Arkansas City has produced a House speaker.