Archive for May, 2010

Great Scott!

Friday, May 28th, 2010

I really can’t think of a much better way to spend a hot day in late May than this: Sitting in a nice home in the middle of a cotton field, talking politics with intelligent people and eating great meatloaf, slaw, mashed potatoes, peas fresh from the field, sweet squash relish and cornbread.

That’s how I spent the lunch hour Thursday.

The shame was that I had to return to work in downtown Little Rock rather than spending the entire afternoon on the Baucum Plantation at the edge of North Little Rock near Scott.

The occasion was a luncheon hosted by Brenda Fulkerson, the epitome of a warm, witty Southern hostess.

I had attended one of Brenda’s luncheons several years ago. The co-host was Win Paul Rockefeller. The event could best be described as an “Arkansas salon” with interesting people freely discussing interesting topics over good food. These luncheons were, in a sense, an attempt to continue in a small way the storied tradition of the daily luncheons Mr. Witt Stephens would host in his downtown Little Rock office.

After Win Paul died at a tragically young age, Brenda halted the luncheons. Recently, she called me and said it was time to revive the Baucum Plantation events. She asked if I would invite six people to talk politics in this fascinating election year. I happily agreed to do so.

A major condition of these luncheons is that they’re “off the record,” as we used to say in the newspaper business. Therefore, I won’t name the six people who joined Brenda and me for lunch Thursday. And I won’t write about our discussion, as informative as that post would be. Suffice it to say that these were six of the top political minds in Arkansas. They understand our state, its people and its history. I wish the discussion could have continued all afternoon.

At any rate, I must say that a visit to Scott makes for a great outing even if you’re not fortunate enough to be invited to lunch on the Baucum Plantation.

On Saturday, following my youngest son’s baseball game, we drove out to Scott to make sure I could find the Baucum house. I didn’t want to appear lost on Thursday while driving a car filled with guests. After finding the house, we went to the original Cotham’s for lunch. The place was packed.

During the more than nine years I worked at the state Capitol, I was a regular at Cotham’s In The City on Third Street (originally a TGI Friday’s). It was easy to just walk down the hill. But it’s safe to say the Little Rock location just can’t match the charm of the original Cotham’s Mercantile, housed in a wooden store built in 1917.

The Cotham’s website outlines the history this way: “It has served as a general mercantile store in the Scott area for farmers and plantation owners since its beginning. It has also served as a military commissary and lockup for local law violators awaiting trial by a circuit-riding judge. In 1984, a small eating area was opened to serve lunch to area farmers. Soon discovered by prominent politicians, notably Bill Clinton and David Pryor, the restaurant suddenly became the place to eat and greet for distinguished Arkansans from all walks of life.”

Indeed, it was David Pryor who first told me about Cotham’s when I was living in Washington in the late 1980s and visiting his office each day in my role as a reporter. Last year, I wrote on this blog that if I had to pick one Arkansan with whom to have lunch once a week, it would be David Pryor. And Cotham’s would be a nice location for such gatherings.

Following lunch (I had a hubcap cheeseburger, much to my wife’s chagrin), I took Melissa and Evan to the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism’s Plantation Agriculture Museum. We were fortunate that the park’s longtime curator, Randy Noah, was there on this Saturday afternoon and willing to give us a tour. The museum does an outstanding job of explaining the role cotton and those who raised it played in the state’s history.

The main part of the museum is housed in a brick building that was built in 1912 by Conoway Scott Jr. to house a general store. In 1929, a wing was added to the building to house the Scott post office. In the 1960s, plantation owner and seed developer Robert L. Dortch bought the building and began turning it into a museum that would help visitors experience life on a cotton plantation. Dortch even began an excursion train service. I can remember my parents taking me to ride the train, which is now in Eureka Springs.

Dortch died in 1972, and the museum closed in 1978. A powerful member of the Arkansas Legislature from Lonoke County, Rep. Bill Foster, went to work to have the state take over the museum. Foster’s bill was approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Clinton in 1985. The state’s Plantation Agriculture Museum opened in 1989.

After Amendment 75 to the Arkansas Constitution (the one-eighth-of-a-cent sales tax) was approved by Arkansas voters in 1996, some of the proceeds from that tax were used to resurrect the Dortch cotton gin. The building was rebuilt, but the 1920s Munger cotton gin and press inside are the originals. I’m not sure there’s a finer example in the country of a historic cotton gin that’s open to the public.

The Parks and Tourism Department also has restored one of Dortch’s seed warehouses. Dortch gained a national reputation for the cotton and soybean seeds he developed.

For anyone who wants a better understanding of agriculture and its role in this state’s development, the Plantation Agriculture Museum is worth a visit of at least two hours. It’s open from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. each Tuesday through Saturday and from 1 p.m. until 5 p.m. each Sunday.

Here’s how the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture ( describes the early history of Scott: “William Scott emigrated from Kentucky at an unknown date to the area that would become the town of Scott. His son, Conoway Scott Sr., was born in 1815. By 1862, the Scott family owned 2,000 acres, 10 slaves and other property valued at $37,895. Conoway Scott Sr. died in 1866 just before the birth of his son, Conoway Jr.

“Conoway Scott Jr. eventually operated several successful ventures, including the family plantation and general store. Scott’s landholdings were eventually crossed by the St. Louis & Southwestern Railroad, also known as the Cotton Belt Line, and Scott’s Station or Scott’s Crossing became a regular stop. When damaged, the sign at Scott’s Station was shortened to Scott’s and then just Scott, giving the name to the town. By the turn of the 20th century, a thriving community dominated by cotton plantations was well established. As the cotton farms grew in size and number, merchants opened several general stores.”

While in Scott, it’s also worth your time to visit the Scott Plantation Settlement. A group of area residents formed an organization in 1995 known as Scott Connections Inc. The Scott Plantation Settlement covers just more than eight acres of the Illallee Plantation. Arthur Alexander and Otelia George Alexander had purchased the plantation in 1898. Their daughter Virginia later donated the eight acres.

An early owner of the land was U.S. Sen. Chester Ashley.

After the 1995 creation of Scott Connections Inc., 12 structures were moved to the site from neighboring farms. The relocation of those structures was underwritten by a grant from the Roy and Christene Sturgis Charitable Trust in 1999. There were three tenant houses, a blacksmith shop, a corn crib, a dogtrot house, a cotton pen, a smokehouse, a wash house, a medical clinic, an outhouse and the original Dortch ‘big house.’

An additional 13 structures have been added. The Cotton Belt depot was moved to the site following a $50,000 grant from the Stella Boyle Smith Trust. Other additions include a sorghum mill, a cook’s house and a one-room plantation school.

A visit to the Plantation Agriculture Museum, lunch at Cotham’s, a visit to the Scott Plantation Settlement — it makes for an interesting day.

If you’re really lucky, you might even be invited to a private lunch on the Baucum Plantation one of these days.

Death of a barbecue legend

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

On Thursday afternoon of last week, I drove along U.S. Highway 49 in the rain. I was on my way to an evening speaking engagement in Tunica, Miss.

With the truck traffic even heavier than usual on Interstate 40 and the spray from those trucks covering my windshield, I had decided it would be more relaxing to exit the interstate at Biscoe. I would drive through the Delta farm country, cross the Mississippi River at Helena and then head north to Tunica on U.S. Highway 61 rather than crossing the river in late-afternoon traffic at Memphis and coming south to Tunica. At the time, I knew nothing of that day’s police shootings in West Memphis, which backed up traffic on the interstate for miles.

As I passed the venerable Shadden’s store west of Marvell, I noticed that one of my favorite places to eat barbecue in the Delta was closed. I remember hoping that nothing was wrong.

I had no way of knowing that last Thursday would be barbecue impresario Wayne Shadden’s final full day of life.

Mr. Shadden died the following day at age 77 at his home near Marvell.

The obituary in The Daily World at Helena simply said, “Wayne was a good cook and well-known for his barbecue. He was a Navy veteran, a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.”

What an understatement.

Well-known for his barbecue?

Wayne Shadden was much more than that. For true Delta barbecue aficionados, he was one of the masters. People heard about Shadden’s and came from across the country to try the barbecue. If you ate in the store, there was one table in the back you could share with others who were on their own barbecue pilgrimages.

I hope the store survives. Too many places like this don’t. An owner dies, and in small town after small town across the Delta, all we’re left with are convenience stores selling fried chicken under heat lamps.

Mr. Shadden is survived by his wife, Vivian, and a sister in Marvell. Unfortunately for those concerned about the long-term future of this sacred spot on the Delta barbecue trail, none of his kids live in Arkansas. One son lives in Washington state and the other lives in California. One daughter lives in Texas and the other lives in Virginia.

Business took me back to Helena today. I passed the store about 10 a.m. and noticed the wreath on the door.

Just down the road on the right side of the highway, I saw the green funeral awning in the Schaffhauser Cemetery. I figured it was for Mr. Shadden’s burial. I was right.

His funeral, as it turns out, had begun at 10 a.m. at the Bob Neal & Sons-Brickell Funeral Home in Marvell. I passed the funeral home a few minutes later and saw the cars packed into the parking lot.

The wooden building that houses Shadden’s is almost a century old. The walls are covered with newspaper clippings, photos and magazine stories. I’m told that Turkey Scratch native Levon Helm has Shadden’s barbecue sauce shipped by the case to his home in Woodstock, N.Y. Levon, incidentally, turned 70 today. Having grown up in the Arkansas Delta, he knows good barbecue sauce when he tastes it.

Several years ago, I took Gary Saunders of the food website and Jay Grelen of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on my Delta barbecue tour. Shadden’s was our final stop of the day.

Here’s what Gary wrote: “Reeking of smoke from head to toe, we pressed onward to Marvell and the legendary Shadden’s BBQ shack. Shadden’s, once a hangout of The Band’s Levon Helm, gets high marks for its atmosphere alone. Talk about days gone by. The joint looks like the quintessential country store/filling station. A black woman was seated on the front porch as we pulled into the gravel lot out front. She slowly rose to her feet and nodded at us before disappearing into the kitchen. Her break from work was over — if just for a while.

“A young white girl sporting a ball cap greeted us as we gazed around the well-aged interior of Shadden’s. Jars of giant dill pickles, picked sausage and floating pickled eggs rested atop a rattling metallic cooler. Yellowed pictures of smiling families and once-young enlisted men could be seen everywhere, making Shadden’s look like a cross between a roadside grocery and a museum.

“The black woman soon emerged from the barely lit kitchen with our sandwiches, each one swaddled in wax paper and pierced with a lone wooden toothpick. Remarkably, we still had the appetite and room in our bellies for this last salvo of savory smoked pig meat. Yet it was clearly the sheer character of Shadden’s that would make this stop one of the highlights of our day.

“As we exited the rickety old structure, the black women had taken a seat alongside a broken-down jukebox, and the young girl was back on her cell phone. Rex, Jay and myself exchanged some final pleasantries on the drive back to our original rendezvous point. We then shook greasy hands, folded ourselves back into the two vehicles and wheeled back on the lonesome, raindrop-speckled highway. But not before plans were suggested for another road trip. Today’s work was done, but more dining adventures were just down the road. So much swine, so little time.”

In a later story in the Jonesboro Occasions magazine, Marcel Hanzlik described it this way: “Mr. Wayne’s award-winning cooking and Miss Vivian’s award-winning sauce make for a simple menu. Regular or jumbo. Hot or mild. With or without slaw. That’s it. … The sauce is thick and rich and with a tomato, brown sugar and pepper base. Mild is spicy, hot is excruciating. I love it. However, I do tone it down with a scoop of slaw. The sauce is so uniquely flavored that you will want to pick up a bottle or two on your way out.”

I hope the tradition continues. Regardless, we’ll miss Wayne Shadden. He was one of those people who make the Arkansas Delta such a unique, colorful region.

Visiting Mr. McCormick in Greenville

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

I love independent bookstores.

I can get lost in them. I can spend hours upon hours in a good bookstore. Just ask my wife.

When I was a child growing up in Arkadelphia, we had Adams Bookstore on Main Street. Mr. Adams was more than willing to let a young boy roam the aisles of his store and stay as long as he wanted. That bookstore is long gone. It seems a shame that a town with two four-year universities isn’t the home of a great independent bookstore. I wish I had the funds to open one there. Alas, those funds don’t exist.

Mr. Adams’ story was remarkable. As a teenager, he was paralyzed in a high school football game while playing for the Arkadelphia Badgers. The community came together to support him and help him open a business. He paid the community back many times over by providing a quality bookstore for decades.

Speaking of independent bookstores, I wish I could get up to Blytheville more often than I do. The long drive from Little Rock is almost worth it simply to visit Mary Gay Shipley’s northeast Arkansas institution, That Bookstore In Blytheville.

Mary Gay started the store in 1976. It covers 2,400 square feet and has more than 25,000 books. There are rocking chairs to sit in. Good coffee is always available. It is, without a doubt, one of my favorite places in Arknasas.

During the four years I worked for the Delta Regional Authority, I was able to visit another favorite bookstore — McCormick Book Inn in Greenville, Miss. — on a regular basis. Business took me back down that way Friday, and I had a chance to drop in at 5 p.m.

Every town should be so lucky. McCormick Book Inn is an oasis.

Residents of southeast Arkansas (at least the ones who like to read) are familiar with this wonderful retreat and its highly opinionated owner, Hugh B. McCormick III. His wit and sense of humor are contagious. And he will tell you what he thinks. For instance, he believes that one of my favorite books, John Barry’s “Rising Tide” (an account of the Great Flood of 1927 with much of the story centered on Greenville), is an “atrocity.”

I love how the McCormick Book Inn website puts it: “Books may be 10 percent cheaper at one of those big fake friendly places, but you receive our genuine bookstore ambience and management’s rants/intelligent insults only at McCormick Book Inn.”

“Intelligent insults.”

What a great term.

The store at 825 S. Main. St. in Greenville was opened in 1965. Mr McCormick describes it this way: “Our floor squeaks under worn rugs and the wooden bookshelves sag a bit. The rocker by the fireplace is often occupied by a regular browser, and our ‘bookstore smell’ is authentic.”

Southern Living, in turn, described it like this: “People come from all over the Delta to visit Greenville’s McCormick Book Inn, with its terrific collection of what they like to call deltalogy. Half the draw is owner Hugh McCormick, who not only recommends great books but also knows everything about everybody in the Delta. He also has a wicked sense of humor. ‘You know, Leland is the sticks,’ he tells us with a wry grin as a Leland customer pays for her books. The Mississippi Delta offers the ultimate Southern travel adventure — catfish and tamales, juke joints brimming with blues, colorful small towns and friendly locals who can’t wait to show you a good time.”

As you head east on U.S. 82, turn right on Main Street (away from the levee). McCormick Book Inn will be several blocks down on the right. If you reach the historic cemetery, you’ve gone too far.

In the back of the store is a small museum that Mr. McCormick has put together.

“My particular interest is the turn of the century of Greenville,” he says. “I’m also interested in the 1927 flood. I have a fairly large collection of Greenville photographs of the flood.”

As far as that term “deltalogy,” here’s how Mr. McCormick explains it on the store’s website: “As far as we know, we invented the term. … We needed a catchall word to describe the growing category of nonfiction and fiction books about the Mississippi Delta or by Deltans. Greenville’s own David Cohn wrote in his book ‘God Shakes Creation’ (1935): ‘The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.’ This flat, fertile, alluvial expanse extending 50 miles east from the Mighty Mississippi to the Yazoo River, running from its northern point along the bluffs of Memphis, 150 miles south to the hills of Vicksburg, is the land of the Delta. From ancient mound builders to blues culture, and the rise and fall of the rivers, and from agri-business to casino gaming, the Delta continues to capture the attention and imagination of folks around the world. The Delta is a place; a melting pot of people; a mythology and a reality. And we need a word for it all: deltalogy.”

The store has always been in the McCormick family. Hugh’s father, Hugh B. “Buster” McCormick Jr., retired from Chicago Mill and financed the store for his daughter, Mary, who had worked for a publisher in New York after graduating from college. The younger Hugh had to cut the weeds behind the old house before the store opened.

“I was in college, and that was my summer job that year,” he said in a 2005 magazine feature on the store. “The property goes all the way back to the cemetery, and I found all kind of stuff that had been dumped back there.”

“Buster” McCormick had the front of the house removed and replaced with windows. A local carpenter built the shelves and other interior fixtures. The two back rooms were added later. Young Hugh took over the store after graduating from college. He has now been running the place for almost 40 years.

“When it first opened, we were in the center of things between the residential and commercial areas, but now we’re sort of on the outskirts,” the current owner told the Mississippi Business Journal. “The commercial areas are all farther south now and we’re an island, sort of an oddity.”

The former house that’s now occupied by the store was built of cypress in the 1920s. Mr. McCormick told the business publication, “The old house reflects character, and I attempt to be a character. Folks from the big city find us charming. Yes, we’ve reached the stage of charming. We enjoy promoting Greenville as best we can. The literary history is positive and all the history of the area is rich. Greenville has produced a lot of writers, and people want to buy something associated with them.”

Long live McCormick Book Inn.

Long live other such independent bookstores.

What’s your favorite bookstore and why? Let’s start a list.

Graduation day in Helena

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Tonight at 7:00 on the campus of Phillips Community College in Helena-West Helena, the first class of seniors will graduate from what’s commonly known as the KIPP school.

If you closely examine how far these kids have come, you’ll realize just how remarkable this story is.

Gov. Mike Beebe will deliver the commencement address at what’s officially known as the KIPP Delta Collegiate High School. Mike Feinberg, one of the national founders of KIPP (which stands for Knowledge Is Power Program), will be there.

If there has been a more hopeful day than this one in the Arkansas Delta in recent years, I’m not sure what it is.

In 1994, Feinberg and a fellow teacher named Dave Levin began the first KIPP school in Houston after completing their Teach for America commitment. Since then, the KIPP network has grown to 82 schools (all public charter schools — these are not private schools) serving more than 20,000 students. The vast majority of the students come from low-income families.

Think about this statistic: Nationally, only about 20 percent of students from low-income families attend college. Of the KIPP alumni nationally, 86 percent have gone on to college.

The list of college acceptances for the class graduating tonight ranges from the U.S. Naval Academy to Vanderbilt to Notre Dame.

Scott Shirey showed up in east Arkansas eight years ago with a dream. With the strong support of a core group of civic and business leaders in Helena (as always, I’m going to dispense with that clunky hyphenated name in the hopes that Helena-West Helena will soon just become Helena), Shirey was convinced he could succeed where others had not in one of the nation’s poorest counties.

The KIPP school accepts all students on a space-available basis. Ninety-five percent of the students in Helena are black, and 85 percent of them qualify for the federal free and reduced-price school lunch program.

Major national supporters of the KIPP effort have included the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame and the Fisher family, which helped begin Gap Inc.

“Thanks to the support of the Fishers and the Waltons, our students are climbing the mountain to college,” Shirey says.

Since the partnership with the Fisher family begain in 2000, the KIPP network has grown from two schools to 82 schools in 19 states and the District of Columbia. John Fisher serves as the chairman of the KIPP national board and the Charter School Growth Fund.

A new member of the KIPP board is Carrie Walton Penner, a granddaughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. She’s a trustee of the Walton Family Foundation, which last year announced a $1.5 million grant to expand the KIPP program in the Delta.

“KIPP’s success here in Arkansas and across the country is a model for what’s possible in public education,” she says. “My goal is to ensure that KIPP can continue to thrive for many years to come.”

The first part of that Delta expansion will come this summer when a KIPP middle school is opened in Blytheville. The new school in Mississippi County will begin with a fifth-grade class and add a grade each year through the eighth grade. After that, it’s likely a KIPP high school will begin in Blytheville.

There are now three schools in Helena that are part of the KIPP program — an elementary school, a middle school and a high school. The plan is to have 12 schools in four Delta towns during the next decade. Pine Bluff and West Memphis could be the next places to receive KIPP schools after Helena and Blytheville.

“Many of KIPP Delta’s graduating seniors never considered higher education before they started at KIPP as fifth-graders,” says Richard Barth, the KIPP CEO. “But because of their hard work and perseverance, these KIPP alumni will not only graduate from high school but also go on to succeed in college and life. … KIPP Delta is setting a new standard for rural education in the Delta and across the country. With KIPP expanding outside of Helena, there is tremendous opportunity ahead for students in the Delta to reach excellence.”

The goal of the KIPP Delta organization is to double the number of college-ready seniors graduating from high-poverty districts in east Arkansas by 2019. The term “college-ready graduates” is defined as graduating seniors who score at least 19 on both the math and language sections of the ACT, thus exempting them from remedial classes should they continue to college. That also would make them eligible for lottery scholarships in Arkansas.

If KIPP achieves that goal, imagine what that will mean for that often neglected part of our state.

Here’s how the school’s literature explains the KIPP approach: “KIPP Delta takes a rigorous, no excuses approach to education. In addition to a mandatory summer session, students are in class during the week from 7:30 a.m. until 5 p.m., along with every other Saturday. KIPP students complete up to two hours of homework a night, and KIPP teachers are available on cell phones after hours for help and to answer questions from parents.

“KIPP is proving what is possible in public education for underserved students.  . . . KIPP forms a unique partnership where teachers have the freedom to innovate, parents are encouraged to be involved and students have the opportunity to learn. Students, parents and teachers sign a learning pledge — called the Commitment to Excellence — which outlines the hard work necessary for success.”

During their years in middle school, the students who are graduating tonight moved from the 29th to the 91st percentile in math on achievement tests and from the 29th to the 84th percentile in language. The consistent focus on measuring and reporting achievement results continued through high school.

Here’s how Kane Webb put it in a Wall Street Journal column several years ago: “In a state under court order to fix its public schools, there aren’t many examples of educational excellence. But because KIPP schools are charter schools, they operate free of the bureaucratic baloney that chokes the creativity out of so many traditional public schools and their teachers. And Delta College Prep is a different kind of charter school. You notice it right off. World map-sized posters of students’ test scores decorate the hallways — the way you would see a ‘Go Team!’ banner at a public high school. … There’s a dress code and detailed instructions about how to behave in class, right down to when to raise your hand.”

Congratulations, seniors.

You’ve blazed the trail. Hopefully, your success will mark the beginning of something even bigger in the Arkansas Delta.

Living on Keiser time

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

Each year, the 11-member board of the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council meets to decide how to spend the money that comes from the state’s real estate transfer tax.

The program has been a good one for the state ever since the council was created by the Legislature in 1987. Grants are used to maintain and enhance state-owned natural areas, historic sites and outdoor attractions. It’s funding that might not come otherwise for such facilities in an era of tight state budgets.

During a meeting earlier this month, the commission awarded grants for everything from improvements to the Garvan Woodland Gardens at Hot Springs to the planned Trout Nature Center at Mountain Home to the Arkansas Forestry Commission’s Poison Springs State Forest in Nevada and Ouachita counties.

One particular grant caught my eye. Arkansas State University will receive $337,888 for restoration work at the site of the Dyess Colony in Mississippi County.

I’ve long believed we’ve not done nearly enough as a state to promote the history of this resettlement colony for impoverished farmers. We should cash in on the fact that Johnny Cash lived there as a boy. The folks at Arkansas State and a group of dedicated volunteers are out to correct that oversight.

“While the Roaring ’20s had a euphoric effect on much of the nation, the agricultural economy of Arkansas did not share in the prosperity,” Nancy Hendricks writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “By the end of the 1920s, one disaster after another devastated the small independent farmers of the state. The flood of 1927 was followed by drought. The stock market crash of 1929 was followed by bank failure. By the end of 1930, approximately two-thirds of Arkansas’ independent farmers lost their farms and fell into tenancy.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president in 1932 and established the Works Progress Administration as one of a bevy of agencies designed to fight the Great Depression. The first WPA administrator for Arkansas was William Reynolds Dyess, who was part of a group of politically powerful plantation owners from Mississippi County. He made a suggestion to the Roosevelt administration: Have the Federal Emergency Relief Administration purchase 16,000 acres of bottomland hardwoods in Mississippi County. Pump $3 million of federal money into the area so families could move there and clear about 20 acres each for cultivation.

The resettlement colony was established in May 1934. Federal officials searched the state’s relief rolls and then brought almost 1,300 men to Mississippi County to begin building roads and homes.

“The colony was laid out in a wagon-wheel design, with a community center at the hub and farms stretching out in the middle,” Hendricks writes. “The roads leading out were simply numbered rather than named, as in Road 14. The men dug ditches to drain the land, and they built 500 small farmhouses. Each house had five rooms with an adjacent barn, privy and chicken coop. The houses were whitewashed clapboard, each having two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen and a dining room, plus a front and back porch. Apart from these improvements to the land, the colonists were expected to do the rest themselves. Like all New Deal housing projects, it was intended for white people only.”

As the houses were finished, interviewers fanned out across the state to begin the application process. The first of about 500 families arrived in the fall of 1934 and began clearing the land in order to plant corn and cotton. In early 1936, a month after Dyess was killed in an airplane crash, what had been known as Colonization Project No. 1 officially became the Dyess Colony. The national media focused on the unique project and the nation’s first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, paid a visit in June 1936.

By then, there were almost 2,500 residents. Ray Cash and Carrie Rivers Cash headed one of the five families selected to move to Dyess Colony from Cleveland County in 1936. Their son John was identified as “J.R.” in the Dyess High School yearbook when he graduated as the class vice president in 1950.

Dyess was incorporated in 1964. Each summer, a reunion is held for former residents of the resettlement colony and their descendants. Cash’s song “Five Feet High And Rising” is based on a January 1937 flood that forced the colony to be evacuated.

In his song “Dyess, Arkansas,” Buddy Jewell sings: “I know there’s bigger cities, but there ain’t no better town.”

I’m fascinated by Mississippi County and its plantation culture. Situated in a corner of the state, it’s in many ways a place apart.

I have a friend with Mississippi County roots. He had family members who once lived at Keiser and would refer to “living on Keiser time,” reinforcing that notion of a place that’s different from the rest of Arkansas.

You’ve heard of company towns, right? Well, in some respects, Mississippi County was a “company county” thanks to Robert Edward Lee Wilson, who built what at one time was considered the largest cotton plantation in the South at 65,000 acres.

The man who later would be known as “Boss Lee” had been born in 1865 on a 2,300-acre plantation that his father carved from the swamps of Mississipppi County. Wilson’s father died in 1870, leaving his young son 400 acres. Wilson lived with his mother in Memphis while a brother-in-law served as guardian of the property. Wilson went to court in 1882 to be declared “of age” so he could manage the property. He married Elizabeth Beall in December 1884 and began to build in empire after going into partnership with his father-in-law, Socrates Beall, and creating the Wilson & Beall Lumber Co.

Valuable lumber was shipped out by rail to St. Louis and Chicago. The land left behind then was drained and placed into agricultural production. Wilson incorporated Lee Wilson & Co. in 1904.

“He appointed managers of his various units and required them to report to the head office located at Wilson,” University of Arkansas historian Jeannie Whayne has written. “He founded several towns. He established a bank in 1908, which opened new credit and capital opportunities to him and helped sustain his enterprises through a series of challenges including floods, droughts and the Great Depression.”

Wilson died in September 1933. But the company still remains in the family. It’s one of the top agri-business operations in the region.

According to an article in the Special Collections section of the University of Arkansas library, Boss Lee had done things differently from the start.

“Most lumbering companies sold their freshly cut timberlands,” the article states. “Not Boss Lee. He chose to clear and drain his properties. Over many centuries, constant floods had laid down some of the richest alluvial soil in the world. It was in these deep black, rich lands that Wilson began to plant cotton. The arrival of the Kansas City, Fort Scott & Memphis Railway proved to be a tremendous boon to Lee Wilson & Co., allowing them to market their timber more quickly and far more cheaply than before.

“The early years of the company demonstrate the tenuous nature of agriculture in the Delta counties. Breaks in the levee caused tremendous April floods in 1912 and 1913. Yet Wilson’s tenacity was unmatched. He built several small railroads to facilitate the transportation of goods and timber. Wilson’s first line spanned the distance from Wilson to Marie, to Keiser and on to Victoria. Later the company bought the Jonesboro, Lake City & Eastern Railway, running from Jonesboro to Lake City. A spur route, branching off at Dell, ran down to Wilson.”

The massive timber operations and the draining of the swampy areas made Mississippi County the state’s most heavily agricultural county. At one time, it grew more cotton than any county in the country.

The Special Collections narrative goes on to state that Wilson “played crucial roles in the organization of the county’s drainage districts despite serious and often dangerous opposition of many of the county’s tax-weary, cash-strapped landowners, men who did not see the long-term economic advantages of drainage.”

The next time you’re headed up Interstate 55 toward St. Louis, take the Wilson exit and spend some time in this fascinating small town. The Wilson family made sure the downtown commercial district was constructed in the Tudor style (R.E.L. Wilson Jr. and his wife got the idea on a wedding trip to England) and that its streets were lined with cottonwood trees. The Wilson family wanted this to be a model town that would attract favorable national attention.

Among other benefits, residents of Wilson had access to health care from company doctors in the 1930s at a time when most rural Arkansans never saw a doctor. Lawn maintenance was included in the rental price for homes.

Indeed, Mississippi County stands apart from other counties with its unique history and culture.

Election Night

Monday, May 17th, 2010

I’ve always loved Election Night.

I capitalize “Election Night” because it’s an “event” for a political junkie like me — kind of like the Super Bowl or the Final Four.

On Tuesday evening, at the end of one of the most interesting primary seasons in years , I’ll be on KUAR-FM, 89.1, the NPR affiliate in Little Rock.

KUAR does an outstanding job covering Arkansas news. I’m honored to be a part of the station’s Election Night team. Ron Breeding, John Brummett and I will go live at 8 p.m. Tuesday and stay on the air as long as necessary. I hope you have a chance to tune in.

I’m glad I received the invitation to be in the KUAR studios. Frankly, I’m not sure what I would do if I had to sit at home on an Election Night. It has been a long time since I wasn’t busy on an Election Night.

My father wasn’t a political animal. Far from it. He always voted, but his interests were his business, his family, sports, hunting and fishing. I, however, had been bitten by the political bug. When I was a boy, he would answer my pleas and take me down to the Clark County Courthouse to listen to Mr. Jim Gooch, the chairman of the Clark County Democratic Central Committee, read the box-by-box returns.

“Amity Box A. . .

“Whelen Springs. . .

“Curtis. . .”

It was exciting, those Democratic primary nights. All of the action, of course, was in the Democratic primary. I only knew one Republican in Clark County when I was a boy. There were no local races in November.

The local races were where the action was. And there were some great names running for office in those days — Jack Daniels, Shine Duce, Edgar Ball.

Once in the courtroom of the 1899 courthouse, I would look up at the judge’s chair and see John Riggle sitting there, anchoring the live coverage on KVRC-AM, 1240. I remember thinking how much I would love to do that one of these days — sit in that big chair, knowing that people all over the county — from Gurdon to Alpine — were listening to your voice. That was the media big time, my friend.

By the spring of 1978, my senior year in high school, I was working at KVRC. I anchored Election Night coverage from the studio (which was situated in a pasture just south of town), and Mr. Riggle still handled things from the big chair down at the courthouse. That was the year of the titanic Democratic Senate primary that saw our governor (David Pryor) and two of the state’s four members of the U.S. House of Representatives (Ray Thornton in the 4th District and Jim Guy Tucker in the 2nd District) all going for the late John L. McClellan’s seat.

All the county returns were in on primary night, and Mr. Riggle had left the courthouse for home.

I, however, kept the station on the air as we waited to determine who would be in the Senate runoff against Gov. Pryor. We normally signed off at 11 p.m. but could stay on the air when necessary.

I dipped in and out of the coverage being supplied by the Arkansas Radio Network while also reading stories off The Associated Press wire.

Well after midnight, the phone in the studio rang.

It was Mr. Riggle.

“Why are you still on the air?” he asked.

“I was waiting to see whether it would be Thornton or Tucker in the runoff,” I answered.

“Go ahead and sign that mother goose off and get some sleep,” he ordered.

I did as I was told, signing off with these words: “Based on the latest returns I have available, it looks like it will be Pryor vs. Thornton in the runoff.”

I woke up the next morning to discover it was Pryor vs. Tucker.

Thirty-two years later, I serve on boards with both Sen. Pryor and Gov. Tucker. Yes, Arkansas is a small world.

By November 1978, I was a college freshman at Ouachita. My favorite course that first semester of college was taught by Jim Ranchino, who at the time was the state’s most noted political pollster and analyst in addition to being a political science professor. Those of us who were true political junkies would hang out in his office after class. As always, he would be spending Election Night on KATV, Channel 7, in Little Rock with Steve Barnes. But Ranchino also had a private plane leased to take him after KATV had completed its coverage to what he said would be a victory party for an out-of-state campaign on which he was working.

“How do you know it will be a victory?” I asked him that morning.

“I’m working for them, aren’t I?” he replied with a smile.

I was back in the KVRC studio that Election Night when a bulletin printed out early in the evening on the AP wire. It read that Jim Ranchino had died of a massive heart attack while walking onto the set at KATV.

I didn’t want to believe it. I wanted to think the AP had made a huge mistake.

I called the KATV newsroom to confirm the report. The person who answered the phone said it was true.

I slowly hung up the phone. I turned on my microphone and, through my tears, read the sad news on KVRC, the station in the town that Jim Ranchino called home. The rest of that evening — the night Bill Clinton was first elected governor — was a bit of a blur.

In 1980, my childhood wish was granted. Mr. Riggle informed me that he had grown weary of anchoring the box-by-box returns from the courthouse. He asked me to handle the task. So during the primary and the general elections, someone other than John Riggle got to sit in the judge’s chair. It was me. And it was a thrill for a 20-year-old who had grown up spending election nights in that courtroom.

In November of that year, as the county results rolled in, we kept hearing that Clinton was in trouble. He wasn’t in trouble in reliably Democratic Clark County, of course. But statewide, it was a different story.

Surely this Republican named Frank White couldn’t beat Clinton.

Surely not.

It has been fun being back on the radio for Election Night in recent years. Live radio is great fun.

During the 2008 and 2006 elections, I was in the KARN studios as an Election Night analyst.

For the elections of 1996-2004, when I was on the staff of Gov. Mike Huckabee, I was wherever the governor was on Election Night. If he were on the ballot, it meant being at the site of his election night party. In November 1998, when I was his campaign manager, that was the Embassy Suites in west Little Rock. In 2002, it was the Clear Channel Metroplex.

Even though we knew we were going to win in 1998, Election Night was particularly maddening since I had served as the campaign manager. As campaign manager, you worry about everything. I had devoted eight months of my life to the project and was determined that we receive an overwhelming percentage of the vote. As it turns out, we finished with almost 60 percent, the highest percentage ever received by a Republican gubernatorial nominee in Arkansas.

Huckabee wasn’t on the ballot in 2000 or 2004 but was in high demand for media interviews on those presidential election nights.

In November 2000, we operated from a suite at what was then the Excelsior Hotel (now the Peabody) since the Bush-Cheney party was downstairs. I answered the phone at one point, and it was Karl Rove. He was calling from Austin and asking for the governor. The television networks, skittish after having had to pull back on their initial projections that Al Gore had won Florida, would not yet call Arkansas. Huckabee assured Rove that Arkansas was firmly in the Bush camp. Without Arkansas’ six electoral votes, of course, Florida wouldn’t have mattered. Al Gore would have been elected president by carrying either Bill Clinton’s Arkansas or Gore’s home state of Tennessee. He carried neither.

On that wild night, I couldn’t pull myself away from the television. I finally left the hotel at 3:30 a.m. to make the short drive home, where I continued to watch the vote count in Florida until time to go to work. I never went to bed that evening.

Four years later, we had a suite at the Holiday Inn Presidential in downtown Little Rock. I stayed there watching network coverage of the George Bush win over John Kerry until 4 a.m.

In 1992, 1994 and for the primary in 1996, I was tied to my desk at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, writing the lead story in my job as political editor for the next day’s editions. Clinton’s election in November 1992, of course, remains the most memorable of those Election Nights.

Knowing that the next day’s front page would be one of the most famous newspaper front pages in Arkansas history, I decided to take the approach that The New York Times had taken when man first landed on the moon in 1969. The event was so momentous that there would be no need to embellish the lead paragraph.

John Noble Wilford began his July 21, 1969, story this way: “Men have landed and walked on the moon.”

The story about the first Arkansan to ever be elected president should get straight to the point, I decided. Our executive editor agreed.

Thus the lead paragraph in the lead story of the Nov. 4, 1992, edition read: “Gov. Bill Clinton was elected president of the United States on Tuesday.”

More than 17 years after the fact, I still think it was the correct lead sentence.

In 1984 and 1990, I had worked on campaigns (both losing campaigns, as it turned out), so Election Night found me doing the ol’ “still waiting on more results” routine during radio and television interviews.

In 1988, as Washington correspondent for the Arkansas Democrat, I made the trip to Houston to be at George H.W. Bush’s headquarters on the night he was elected president. Two years earlier, I had stayed in Washington, gathering comments on the 1986 midterm elections from both the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee.

I’ve gone on too long. It’s just that the Election Night memories always come flooding back.

Please share your favorite Election Night memories.

And remember to vote Tuesday. Then, join Ron, John and me on 89.1 FM at 8 p.m. as the returns start coming in. We’ll have fun.

Lunch at the dairy bar

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

We tackled the subject of dairy bars last July.

Well, it’s almost the middle of May, it’s getting hot and I needed a trip to a classic dairy bar.

Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of them left in our state.

For lunch today, I drove from my downtown Little Rock office to the Dairyland Drive-In. You cross the Arkansas River bridge on Interstate 30 and then head east toward Lonoke on Interstate 40. Take the Prothro Junction exit. Turn right onto Highway 161 at what’s without a doubt one of the tackiest interstate exits in Arkansas. Leave the cut-rate motels and and fast-food joints behind.

Look to your left. You’ll see Dairyland sitting there, like some vestige from the 1960s (which it is, having opened in 1963).

The lunch special — a hamburger, a bunch of the finest fries in Arkansas and a drink — will set you back all of $3.95 plus tax.

I sat at one of the four picnic tables on this sunny day and enjoyed my lunch as a solid line of loud trucks snaked down the road behind me. And because I felt like splurging, I ordered a medium vanilla milkshake for dessert.

The fast-food chains have cost us many of our independent dairy bars around Arkansas. I’m old enough to remember when there weren’t many chains outside of Dairy Queen. Growing up in Arkadelphia, an exotic road trip was to go to the Kmart in Hot Springs and then eat next door at the Burger Chef. It was a fast-food hamburger chain and, yes, that was indeed something worth driving to see.

My dairy bar of choice in Arkadelphia was a Dairy Queen that became the Daisy Queen when the owners presumably tired of paying franchise fees. It’s long gone.

These days, I make the short trip east to Dairyland for my dairy bar fix.

When we discussed this issue last summer:

— Dennis Byrd said the Fros-T-Treat at 1020 E. Grand Ave. in Hot Springs is worth a road trip. I’m hoping they still have the milkshake flavor of the month. If you’re in Hot Springs, please let us know what the flavor for May is.

— Kay Brockwell sang the praises of the Shake Shack in Marion, which has homemade pimento cheese (my mouth waters) along with excellent catfish on Fridays.

— State Sen. Shane Broadway put in a vote from the Kream Kastle Drive Inn between Benton and Hot Springs on U.S. Highway 70. Paul Johnson seconded the motion. And it gets my vote, having stopped there recently. Once things get even warmer, note that it’s near a great creek swimming hole. How can you visit a old-fashioned swimming hole without going to a dairy bar afterward?

— Searcy’s Frozen Delite received a couple of votes.

— I also put in a vote for the Salem Dairy Bar in Saline County. Dennis Byrd chimed in that they have a fudge fried pie at Salem along with fried pickles that make folks flock there.

There’s also a pretty good dairy bar in Marshall. It’s on the right as you head north on U.S. Highway 65.

And we can’t end this post without pointing out that my favorite dessert in Arkansas is now in season — the strawberry shortcake at the Bulldog in Bald Knob. I made the stop there several weeks ago on my way to Jonesboro for the annual meeting of the Arkansas Historical Association.

What favorite dairy bars of yours are we leaving out?

Bring back The Gar Hole

Tuesday, May 11th, 2010

I’ve written recently about fishing for gar and a wonderful new book from the University of Arkansas press that covers that topic.

I’ve also written about the short list of old Little Rock restaurants that still live on — Browning’s, Bruno’s, Franke’s, Lassis Inn.

With continued downtown revitalization in Little Rock, the time has come.

It’s time to bring back The Gar Hole.

The name itself is just so Arkansas. If done correctly, it could be a place to celebrate Arkansas culture.

The Gar Hole was the famous bar in the Marion Hotel, which closed in April 1970. For decades, it was one of the top gathering spots in the state for politicians, businessmen and media types.

We need to resurrect the name. This time, though, it will be more than a bar. It will be a restaurant (with, of course, a large mounted alligator gar over the bar).

Some thoughts:

1. Remember when I wrote about state Rep. Robert Moore, the incoming House speaker from Arkansas City? The last time I checked, Robert owned the old Gar Hole sign and had it stored down in Arkansas City. I’m sure Robert would be delighted to see it put to use.

2. The walls inside the new Gar Hole should be covered by caricatures of leading Arkansas political, sports, media and business figures — much like the caricatures on the walls of Sardi’s in Manhattan. People love to go to a spot where they’re featured on the wall.

3. Regulars would get their names on the bar with small brass plaques like they do at the Court of Two Sisters in New Orleans.

4. The restaurant also would rent personal wine bins to patrons like is done at the steakhouses in The Capital Grille chain.

5. The restaurant would feature Arkansas food — barbecue, fried chicken, catfish, chicken fried steaks. But it also would have excellent steaks and seafood. The menu could include photos of famous Arkansas restaurants — Craig’s in DeValls Bluff, Fred’s in Newport, Jerry’s in Trumann, etc. It would, in essence, be a place to celebrate Arkansas food and its history.

6. The atmosphere wouldn’t be stuffy, but it would be nice. It would be the kind of place where men would almost feel obligated to wear a blazer after dark (my friends already accuse me of wearing my navy blazer on the beach, so the rest of you might as well join me). The waiting area would have that day’s editions of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times to add a touch of class.

7. The men’s room would have an attendant and a shoeshine man, retro touches that I think would be a hit in downtown Little Rock.

8. The restaurant would host a show several evenings each week from one of the Little Rock radio stations. The show would focus on this state — its politics, food, music, history, culture and sports. Kane Webb and I are ready and willing to host such a show. The radio show would help create the impression that The Gar Hole is the place to see and be seen.

9. Target audiences would be political types and the lobbyists who hang out with them, media types and the advertising agency folks who like to hang out with them, business leaders, sports celebrities and those who simply want to be associated with these people.

For atmosphere, I’m thinking of something along the lines of the old Toots Shor’s in New York. Our celebrities wouldn’t be nearly as famous as the ones in New York, but you get the point.

In a 2007 Wall Street Journal column, Allen Barra (the author of the best of the Bear Bryant biographies) said Toots “gained the friendship of heavyweight champions, movie stars, Nobel Prize-winning authors, Supreme Court justices and five U.S. presidents. … The saloon was a place where a salesman from Iowa could rub elbows with the most famous athletes in America, from Joe DiMaggio to Frank Gifford to Sugar Ray Robinson, and bump into Frank Sinatra or Ernest Hemingway on the way to the restroom — and maybe have to step over Jackie Gleason to get there. It was also a place the famous went to meet each other. When Toots introduced Hemingway to Yogi Berra as ‘an important writer,’ Yogi said, ‘Good to meet you. What paper are you with, Ernie?”’

Shor once outdrank Gleason and then left him on the floor. Gleason, in turn, sent a spray of roses to go on Shor’s coffin with a card that read, “Save a table for two.”

In the 1957 movie “Sweet Smell of Success,” a publicist played by Tony Curtis wants to visit with a U.S. senator and a gossip columnist played by Burt Lancaster. Where does he go? Toots Shor’s, of course.

“The atmosphere was so congenial that one remarkable evening, Frank Costello, the head of the New York mob, smiled across the dining room, nodded and tipped a glass to Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, who smiled and tipped his glass in return,” Barra wrote.

The late David Halberstam wrote this about Shor in his book “Summer of ’49”: “If he insulted someone, that person was welcome. He was particularly skillful at using the technique with some of his most serious celebrities. It allowed them to shed some of the burden of their fame and relax — while being treated as VIPs. Shor was surprisingly nimble, indeed, most delicate in knowing how far to go and when to stop.”

Barra wrote: “He suffered no man’s insolence, no matter how famous or powerful. When Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer complained about having to wait for a table and huffed, ‘I trust the food will be worth all the waiting,’ Toots shot back, ‘It’ll be better than some of your crummy pictures I stood in line to see.”’

Another way of looking at it would be to make The Gar Hole the Little Rock version of New York’s 21 Club, the restaurant and former speakeasy at 21 West 52nd St. It originally was a speakeasy known as the Red Head when it opened in Greewich Village in 1922. It became the Fronton in 1925, the Puncheon Club in 1926 and finally Jack and Charlie’s 21 when it moved to its current location in 1929.

For those familiar with Washington, a model there would be the Jockey Club on Embassy Row at the Fairfax Hotel.

Al Gore Jr. spent his childhood years in Suite 909 at the Fairfax while his father served in the U.S. Senate. There’s a famous story of how the young Gore would dribble a basketball incessantly on the hardwood floors, much to the dismay of Sen. John L. McClellan of Arkansas in Suite 809 down below.

The Jockey Club in the Fairfax had a masculine look with equestrian accents — dark wood, red leather banquettes and red-and-white tableclothes like the ones at 21.

“The place had panache,” one article on the Jockey Club said. “The service was impeccable. The maitre d’ knew how to seat the crowds who lined up at the entrance daily. There were those diners who wanted to see and be seen. There were others who required a discreet quiet corner to solve the nation’s latest crisis. The clientele from the neighborhood’s embassies could have learned advanced studies in diplomacy from the staff at the Jockey Club. Everyone who experienced the restaurant was buoyed by the extraordinary service that was always gracious and personalized.”

So there you have it. You’ve seen my vision for the 21st century version of The Gar Hole.

Where’s the right downtown location? And where are the investors?

Lunch at Franke’s (and Bryce’s)

Monday, May 10th, 2010

On the trays, it reads: “Arkansas Food, Arkansas People. Franke’s. Arkansas’ Oldest Restaurant. Family Owned and Operated Since 1919.”

Actually, the Lassis Inn — the dive down on East 27th Street in Little Rock, near where Interstate 30 crosses Roosevelt Road, is older. We’ve written before about the Lassis Inn, that haven for fried catfish, buffalo ribs and R&B on the jukebox. But it has changed hands through the years.

Franke’s, which began as a bakery, has remained in the same family through the decades.

My office is in the high-rise Regions Building downtown. And on days like today, when I find it’s easier not to leave the building, Franke’s more than satisfies my hankering for the kind of food I was raised on.

I was having lunch recently (not at Franke’s) with downtown developers Rett Tucker and Jimmy Moses when we began discussing the old-line restaurants in the capital city. Unlike Rett and Jimmy, I wasn’t raised in Little Rock. But we came here often when I was a child. I can clearly remember being mesmerized by the live lobsters in the lobby tank at Hank’s Dog House on Roosevelt (I guess it didn’t take much to impress a boy from Arkadelphia).

At any rate, Rett, Jimmy and I decided about the only old Little Rock restaurants that live on are Franke’s, the Lassis Inn, Bruno’s and Browning’s. Are we missing any restaurants that date at least back to the 1950s?

As for Franke’s, I always enjoy experiencing the difference between the downtown location and the one in west Little Rock at the Market Place on Rodney Parham.

The downtown location is open Monday through Friday for lunch only. You’ll see lots of lawyers, bankers, insurance executives and the like.

The west Little Rock location, which is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week, tends to attract an older clientele, though we’ve introduced my two teenage sons to the joys of Franke’s. It’s the type of place my mother would visit when she would come to Little Rock to shop or go to the doctor. Indeed, there were too many times to count when she would have lunch at the old University Mall location of Franke’s. Why on earth would anyone have gone to the out-of-state chain invader Luby’s that used to be at Park Plaza when they could cross Markham Street and visit an Arkansas institution?

My sons don’t crave the eggplant casserole and egg custard pie like I do (I have friend who refers to Franke’s simply as the Eggplant Emporium), but they do always find something they like. And, yes, I’ve raised them to be huge fans of turnip greens and black-eyed peas.

I also like the fact that the Franke’s menu refers to it as “Karo nut pie” rather than “pecan pie,” just like my father and grandparents always did.

I generally avoid chain cafeterias. I used to say: “I ate lunch in a cafeteria from the first grade through college, so I don’t have to now.”

But the independents are different. The older I get, the more I find myself craving two cafeterias — Franke’s in Little Rock and Bryce’s in Texarkana.

I now time my drives to and from Dallas so I’ll be passing through Texarkana at lunch or dinner. Bryce’s is where I stop. It hasn’t been around quite as long as Franke’s, but Bryce’s is no spring chicken. The cafeteria was established in 1931.

Growing up in Arkadelphia, we were about the same distance from Little Rock and Texarkana. Arkadelphia folks occasionally would go to Texarkana rather than Little Rock for a change of pace, and the old Bryce’s location downtown was a regular stop.

Bryce’s is now on the Texas side of the state line, just off Interstate 30 near the mall. And the food is as good as it ever was. A Chicago Tribune writer once said: “Bryce’s Cafeteria may have better food for the money than any place on earth.”

Ross Perot, a Texarkana native, has called it his favorite place to eat.

A quick story: Like a lot of headstrong, active boys, my oldest son was slow to potty train. He was a train nut as a young boy. So my mother promised him that if he would get potty trained, she would allow him to ride a “real train.”

It worked. And his grandmother was true to her word. They boarded an Amtrak train at the Arkadelphia depot with tickets only as far as Texarkana. My father raced down Interstate 30 in his car to beat the train and pick them up. They ate at Bryce’s. My son then slept all the way back to Arkadelphia in my dad’s big Oldsmobile following one of the most exciting, memorable days of his young life.

The entrees at Bryce’s can range from fried chicken to deviled crab to country fried steak to stuffed bell peppers. The sides include everything from sweet potatoes to cheese grits to creamed corn. They even have a Karo coconut pie at Bryce’s.

At Franke’s, meanwhile, baked chicken, baked ham and roast beef are always on the menu. The entrees on the other days range from country fried steak on Monday to fried chicken on Tuesday to turkey and dressing on Wednesday to chicken and dumplings on Thursday to fried catfish on Friday. I could go on and on.

There are too many salads to mention. The vegetables you can always count on are mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese (I love being in Arkansas, where macaroni and cheese is a vegetable), candied sweet potatoes, green beans, greens, baked potatoes and new potatoes. There are other daily specials — rice on Monday, steamed whole okra on Tuesday, etc.

There are too many desserts to list. The egg custard pie is considered a tradition.

There are a few Arkansas mementos on the wall of the downtown location. There’s a black-and-white photo of Capitol Avenue looking west toward the state Capitol. You can see the Franke’s sign on the left, and the sign for the Capitol Theater on the right.

There’s also the framed gavel that was used by Lee Cazort when he was the Arkansas House speaker in 1917, the Arkansas Senate president in 1921 and the state’s lieutenant governor from 1929-31 and 1933-37. Above the framed gavel is a framed campaign poster urging Arkansans to vote for Cazort in the Aug. 14 Democratic primary.

On the Franke’s Facebook page, there’s the image of an old post card that featured the cafeteria. On the back is what’s said to be a “voluntary testimonial” that was in a “letter pertaining to a Southern tour that was sent to an Ohio newspaper.”

This is how it read: “We always like to stop at Little Rock awhile, as it is the prettiest city west of the Mississippi. Be sure and take a meal at Franke’s Cafeteria on Fifth Street near Main, as the eats are the finest to be had anywhere and priced the lowest. They feed over 4,000 hungry people daily.”

So let’s start the debate. Which do you prefer, Franke’s or Bryce’s, and why?

Am I missing any other good Arkansas cafeterias out there that are still in business?

What cafeterias are no longer around that you miss? For me, it’s Homer’s in Arkadelphia.

Rockefeller Institute: An Arkansas gem

Friday, May 7th, 2010

As I wrote in a previous post, I can see the old Hotel Sam Peck from my office window here in downtown Little Rock. It’s the place that the man friends called Win and aides called WR first called home after coming to Arkansas in 1953.

It didn’t take long, however, for Petit Jean Mountain to become Winthrop Rockefeller’s real home. It was atop this mountain that Rockefeller built his model ranch, a place that the introductory film shown during the Winthrop Rockefeller Legacy Weekend called “a model for progress, an inspiration for change.”

Rockefeller obviously had resources that other Arkansans didn’t have. But he wanted to use those resources wisely to show the types of things that could happen in what was primarily a rural, impoverished state. He also wanted to give Arkansans a sense of pride in the process.

I think most Arkansans were proud that a Rockefeller had chosen to leave New York and live among us.

He brought the famed Santa Gertrudis breed of beef cattle to Petit Jean. The tropical beef breed had been established in far south Texas in my wife’s hometown of Kingsville. The cattle were named for the Spanish land grant where Captain Richard King originally established the King Ranch. When the breed was officially recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1940, it became the first beef breed developed in the United States.

Rockefeller’s annual cattles sales atop the mountain attracted people from across the country.

Winrock Farms, however, would become more than a cattle ranch. Much more.

There were row-crop farming operations in the Arkansas River Valley below and a branch of the farm in east Arkansas.

More than anything, though, Rockefeller wanted the mountain to be a place where people would come, discuss ideas and have time for contemplation in a relaxing setting away from their homes.

“I do think he found a certain amount of peace right here on this mountain,” former journalist and Rockefeller friend Dorothy Stuck said last Saturday. “The big task now is to keep his legacy alive.”

It was fitting that I was on the ranch last Saturday, May 1. It was his birthday. Had he lived, WR would have been 98.

Rockefeller died of pancreatic cancer on Feb. 22, 1973, in Palm Springs, where he had gone to escape the cold weather. His ashes were brought back to his beloved Petit Jean.

The year of Rockefeller’s death, Winrock International was established on 188 acres that had served as the heart of the ranch. For three decades, the global development organization called Petit Jean Mountain home before making a decision to build a new headquarters in the Riverdale area of Little Rock. With the organization’s move off the ranch, the property reverted to the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust.

The board of the trust had a decision to make. It made a wise one.

The board decided to team with the University of Arkansas System and create a world-class conference center and educational institute. Using funds from the trust, almost 30,000 square feet of existing space was remodeled. New lodging facilities were constructed. Extensive landscaping was done. More than $20 million has been spent in recent years to create a place that now hosts everything from art exhibitions to culinary classes to native tree identification workshops.

You can also stay at the institute just as you would a resort. Registered guests have access to a fitness center, indoor tennis and basketball courts, paddle boats, fishing opportunities, bicycles, jogging trails and walking trails. The River Rock Grill is open each Thursday, Friday and Saturday for lunch and dinner.

There’s a well-done gallery that tells the Rockefeller story and an interactive theater. The permanent exhibit in the gallery is titled “Winthrop Rockefeller: A Sphere of Power and Influence Dropped Into a River of Need.” More than 300 restored and enlarged photographs are incorporated into 180 murals and interpretive panels broken into these areas: The Man, His Heritage, The Mountain, His Influence and His Legacy. 

The institute’s website ( describes it this way: “During his 20 years in Arkansas, Rockefeller hosted more than 200 conferences and meetings at his home at Winrock Farms. Many of these conferences, attended by state and national leaders, hammered out solutions for Arkansas’ most difficult crises.

“Rockefeller addressed issues such as water quality, rural economic development and education. He explored how to build Arkansas and improve race relations. He also held training for farmers. Rockefeller’s conferences provided a necessary spark to improve public and private-sector policymaking. Rockefeller’s legacy continues to shape events at the Rockefeller Institute. … By integrating the resources and expertise of a statewide university system with the legacy and ideas of Gov. Rockefeller, this educational institute and conference center creates an atmosphere where collaboration and change can thrive.”

Areas of emphasis include economic development, archeology (in cooperation with the Arkansas Archeological Survey), the arts, the culinary arts, the environment, health and wellness and public affairs.

Arkansas needs a place such as the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, a secluded spot where we can gather to examine our past, debate our current problems and design our future. I can’t help but believe WR would be proud of what has become of the ranch he called home for almost two decades.