Archive for August, 2010

College football — Week 1

Monday, August 30th, 2010

Thank goodness it’s football season.

Like many of my fellow Southerners, I love this time of year.

I’ve mentioned the work of Clarksdale, Miss., native Wright Thompson before. As we approach the first full weekend of the college season, it’s worth returning to the ode to Southern football he wrote for

“The entire South is about ready to explode as summer ends and autumn begins,” Thompson wrote. “Football’s coming. The preseason magazines appear. Wallet-sized schedules materialize on gas station counters. Meals out are eaten over the soundtrack of folks predicting wins and losses — and not just sports fans with fantasy teams and chicken wing sauce on their chins. No, grandmothers in Chanel and pearls get worked up — I mean fired up, brother — about beating LSU.

“I love the hope of those preseason predictions. I love 0-0. I love talking about Archie liked he played yesterday, because the past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past. I love game day, the cars hurtling north from Jackson and Biloxi and Vicksburg and Meridian. I love Hermes ties paired with Widespread Panic hats.”

Yes, it’s that time.

More than 400 people showed up today at the Embassy Suites in Little Rock for the season’s first meeting of the Little Rock Touchdown Club. Former Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach was an entertaining speaker.

But I think the crowd would have been large for most anyone.

That’s because we’re hungry for some football.

“I love most everything about Southern football, but more than anything else, I love for it to begin,” Thompson wrote.

Amen and amen.

Winston Groom, the author of “Forest Gump” and an Alabama football fan, told Thompson this: “I do think that in the state of Alabama, anybody planning a wedding is gonna get out a schedule because the worst damn thing you can do is have your wedding on the Alabama-Auburn game or the Tennessee game because nobody will come to your wedding. They had one here like that, but they put up a big old huge TV at the place where they had the reception. One of those big giant things, about eight feet tall. As a matter of fact, in the state of Alabama, I wouldn’t even plan a funeral when Alabama is playing Auburn. You can die, but you’re gonna wait ’til Monday.”

It’s time. Let’s get to the picks:

Arkansas 62, Tennessee Tech 19 — You have to start with somebody, right? As I said, people are hungry for some football. That’s why the 72,000 seats will be filled in Fayetteville for the start of the game Saturday night. By the end of the third quarter, Interstate 540 southbound will be crowded with folks getting an early start home after a long day of tailgating. And those tailgaters will turn around and do it all over again a week later in Little Rock.

Auburn 48, Arkansas State 23 — Two years ago, the Red Wolves shocked Texas A&M in College Station to start the season. That was fun. Last year, Steve Roberts’ Arkansas State team gave Iowa all it wanted in Iowa City before falling to the Hawkeyes. This one won’t be as close. Auburn is my sleeper in the SEC this year. The Tigers are going to be very good.

UTEP 45, UAPB 20 — Mike Price must bring his team to Fayetteville on Nov. 13. But first UTEP must open the season against another school that’s part of the University of Arkansas system. Monte Coleman is a class act. I think his Golden Lions will be improved over the 5-5 squad of a year ago. But this isn’t the week to pull an upset. Just remember those famous words Price allegedly uttered down in Pensacola: “It’s rolling, baby, it’s rolling.”

UCA 41, Elizabeth City State 22 — The Bears get things rolling Thursday night at Estes Stadium in Conway against a Division II squad. Elizabeth City State opened its season last Saturday with a 45-27 victory over Johnson C. Smith (who’s he?). Actually, the visitors have some talent. Elizabeth City State finished 7-4 last year in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association. Founded in 1912, the CIAA is the oldest black athletic conference in the country with 13 historically black colleges and universities as members.

Ouachita 51, Texas College 8 — This Thursday night game in Arkadelphia will be the first college football game of the year to be broadcast on KABZ-FM, 103.7 The Buzz, in Little Rock. Join us at 7 p.m. Thursday for the broadcast. We’ll make it fun. Ouachita opened the season last year in Tyler, Texas, with a 52-6 win over Texas College. Expect about the same results this time around.

West Alabama 34, UAM 31 — The Boll Weevils open their season in Monticello on Thursday night against a fellow member of the Gulf South Conference, but this game does not count in the conference standings. This is the first game in the Gulf South Conference’s 2010 television package. West Alabama made the NCAA Division II playoffs last year, its first postseason appearance since 1975. West Alabama is ranked 10th nationally in this week’s American Football Coaches Association Division II poll after a 37-7 win over Shorter (not the one in North Little Rock; they don’t play football) this past Saturday. UAM should be explosive offensively with Scott Buisson in his senior year at quarterback. This just might turn out to be the most exciting game in the state this week.

Arkansas Tech 28, Lambuth 20 — In yet another Thursday night game, the Wonder Boys host an NAIA school in Russellville. But this isn’t just any NAIA school. Lambuth was coached last year by Hugh Freeze, now the offensive coordinator at Arkansas State. Freeze (who was portrayed by Little Rock’s Ray McKinnon in the movie “The Blind Side”)led Lambuth to an undefeated regular season in 2009 and the quarterfinals of the NAIA playoffs. Lambuth is now coached by Ron Dickerson. He was the head coach at Division I Temple from 1993-97 and at Alabama State of the SWAC in 1998-99. He was a combined 15-62 in those head coaching stints. Lambuth opened the season with a 60-6 rout of Shepherd College.

North Alabama 35, Henderson 27 — The Reddies must go to Florence, Ala., on Saturday to take on Terry Bowden’s Lions, ranked No. 4 nationally this week in the AFCA Division II poll. Henderson was the only Arkansas school to open the season last week. The Reddies were impressive in a 44-13 win over Southeastern Oklahoma in Arkadelphia on Thursday night. Henderson had 469 yards of offense in that game. Quarterback Nick Hardesty completed 32 of 46 passes for 355 yards and four touchdowns. Expect Scott Maxfield’s Reddies to give North Alabama all it wants. Both teams are in the Gulf South Conference, but this doesn’t count as a conference game.

Harding 17, Southern Arkansas 14 — This is another example of two GSC teams playing each other in a game that doesn’t count in the conference standings. I think I’ll drive to Searcy to see this one on Saturday night. You see, Saturday is also the first day of dove season, which is about as big for a lot of Southern males as the first day of college football season. I’m getting too old to hunt in Monroe on Saturday morning and then make it to Fayetteville for kickoff. So I’ll hunt in Monroe and see a game in Searcy. It should be a good one. Harding was 5-6 last season. Southern Arkansas was 3-7 in its first year under Bill Keopple. Both teams should be better in 2010.

Bringing back Browning’s

Monday, August 30th, 2010

A short update on an earlier post: The Facebook group Fans of Browning’s Mexican Grill (which had 1,225 members when I checked it this morning) is reporting that the Heights institution will reopen in late October.

Steve Davis posted this on the site last week: “Browning’s is officially coming back in late October — stronger than ever — with the best of the past and the goal of serving the best Mexican food and drink in Arkansas.”

As noted in our earlier post, we never really considered what was served at Browning’s as Mexican food.

It was Ark-Mex, but we often craved it.

At any rate, Davis came back on Saturday with a message that he’s trying to locate old photos of the Heights from the 1920s through the 1970s. He says these photos will be “professionally digitized, enlarged, framed and permanently featured on the walls of Browning’s at the reopening date in late October. Check with your family and friends and pick some neat photos you want to submit. All originals will be returned to the owners.”

Photos can be mailed to Steve Davis at 1001 W. Markham Street in Little Rock, 72201.

It will be interesting to see if the restaurant really does reopen in late October and what form this version of Browning’s will take.

If you have any additional information, please post it in the comments section.

Press boxes and Pryors

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

I’ve attended two fun, uplifting events the past two days.

Yesterday, the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History at the University of Arkansas announced that it’s moving the KATV collection of videos to the Arkansas State Library.

The library is in the building on Capitol Avenue in downtown Little Rock that once housed the Dillard’s corporate headquarters. That building has been beautifully renovated for state offices, including those of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and the Arkansas Science and Technology Authority.

The gift from KATV to the Pryor Center was announced in May 2009. But the priceless video collection had remained in the damp KATV basement on Main Street, where conditions are not the best for the preservation of old tapes. Those tapes will now be stored in a climate-controlled environment where they can be preserved and digitized during the next several years.

Today, I stood outside War Memorial Stadium as the new $7.3 million press box was dedicated. It’s a thing of beauty, especially for those of us who once toiled as sportswriters in the old facility. And for those who continue to live in fear that the University of Arkansas will end its association with the stadium, it was nice to hear UA athletic director Jeff Long call Little Rock the “gateway to the south and east” for the state’s flagship institution.

I’ve long contended that Little Rock games, while producing less revenue than Fayetteville games, ultimately strengthen the university as a statewide entity.

Frank Broyles forgot that when he attempted to end the tradition of playing football games in Little Rock. Relationships were damaged with people with last names such as Stephens and Ford. To Long’s credit, he has worked hard to rebuild those relationships.

At the same time, though, the members of the War Memorial Stadium Commission had the obligation to continually upgrade the stadium. Thank goodness for Gary Smith. Appointed by then-Gov. Mike Huckabee to the commission in 2003, the tenacious Little Rock businessman took on the stadium as a personal crusade. New scoreboards, video screens, playing surfaces, seats, restrooms and concession stands have all come about under Smith’s watch.

Gov. Mike Beebe, remembering the Great Stadium Debate, said it’s nice to see northwest Arkansas and central Arkansas working together better than they have in past years. This project was an example of that improving relationship with Long and Smith working closely together throughout the planning and construction of the press box.

The 1948 stadium has never looked better. Little Rock attorney Kevin Crass, a member of the War Memorial Stadium Commission, called it Miracle on Markham III.

I was fortunate to be in the stands with my family when the Razorbacks defeated LSU in Miracle on Markham I in 2002.

I was fortunate to be in the stands again with my family when the Razorbacks defeated LSU in Miracle on Markham II in 2008.

And I’ve watched with interest as Smith has brought about Miracle on Markham III.

I’m ready for football season. I hope to head out to War Memorial Stadium after work on Monday and Tuesday nights for part of the 2010 Arkansas High School Kickoff Classic. I hope to be back out there on Friday night of next week for the Salt Bowl game between Benton and Bryant. Last year, that game set the record for the highest attendance for an Arkansas high school football game. If the weather stays like this, last year’s record could be broken.

I’m sure I’ll look around the stadium next week and marvel at all that has been accomplished.

So what do yesterday’s Pryor Center event and today’s War Memorial Stadium event have in common? Several things:

— Both events were opportunities to show off newly renovated facilities in the heart of Little Rock — the old Dillard’s corporate headquarters and the stadium. While there are obvious examples of neglect (the city’s refusal to save historic Ray Winder Field remains the sharpest burr in my saddle), my overall impression is that Little Rock remains progressive.

— Both events reflected well on the new leadership at the university’s Fayetteville campus. I’ve been impressed with the job Long has done as athletic director. They say you never want to be the guy who replaces the legend, but Long is making the kinds of moves that are necessary in a world that’s far different from the one athletic directors faced in the previous century. Meanwhile, I laughed until my eyes watered during the Pryor Center event as Chancellor David Gearhart spoke. I must tell you that Gearhart is rapidly becoming one of my favorite people in Arkansas. What a great decision it was to make the Fayetteville native the chancellor. Too often in this state, we feel obligated to do “nationwide searches” and bring in people from elsewhere with lots of titles — people without a sense of history or place when it comes to Arkansas. Sometimes the best choices for these leadership positions are right here if only we would realize it. Gearhart is an example of that. The longer he’s chancellor, the more marvelous things he will do for the university.

— Both events were attended by people I’ve known for years, reminding me how nice it is to live in a small state where you know people. And reminding me that whether it’s a David Gearhart from Fayetteville or a David Pryor from Camden, Arkansas produces some smart, articulate leaders.

Back to the KATV video collection and the Pryor Center: The KATV collection has been called the finest collection of tapes at any local television station in the country. I described it earlier as “priceless.” For those of us who love Arkansas history, even that is an understatement.

Hats off to former KATV general manager Dale Nicholson, former news director Jim Pitcock and current news director Randy Dixon for not allowing old tapes to be discarded, as was the case at so many stations. There are 24,000 hours of tapes.

That’s right — 24,000 hours.

Thanks also to David and Barbara Pryor for establishing this unique center for preserving Arkansas history.

“The sheer scale of this irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind archive of Arkansas visual history is unprecedented in our state,” said Kris Katrosh, the Pryor Center director.

Here’s how the university’s news release put it: “A decade ago, when David and Barbara Pryor learned that another local news affiliate had discarded its entire catalog of aging archival tapes in the city dump, they embarked on a campaign quite different from their usual political one. Their goal: To ensure the preservation of KATV’s more than 24,000 hours of videotape containing film and video footage of Arkansas history, the most comprehensive archive of its type in the state and one of the largest in the nation. To put the size of this collection into context, it would require almost three years of viewing around the clock simply to watch the entire KATV collection.”

The Pryors had made a significant donation in 1999 to establish the center. Since then, more than 500 interviews with Arkansans of all types have been recorded. Those efforts will continue.

Check out the website at and make an online donation while you’re at it.

The leadership of the Pryor Center describes its mission in these words: “It’s a great honor and huge responsibility to be entrusted with our state’s treasure: its history. It is our goal to collect and preserve the most diverse and compelling collection of Arkansas oral and visual history, and to share it with our state and the world. We’re off to a good start by using high-definition video cameras, building an extensive digital archive and placing the collection on our website.

“We are recording stories and documenting events all across the state of Arkansas. We talk to people about their childhood challenges, their family fortunes and misfortunes and the experiences that shaped their character. We step into the lives and times of the individuals we interview, and we leave with a deep appreciation of who they are and how they helped impact our state, our country and sometimes our world. These in-depth interviews help preserve our Arkansas heritage.”

I have too many outside interests. My wife begged me not to agree to serve on any additional boards. I told her I would learn to say “no.”

Two days later, David Pryor called to ask me to serve on the Pryor Center Board of Advisors.

I was honored.

And you just don’t say “no” to David or Barbara Pryor.

I said “yes,” of course.

I’m glad I did.

The most Southern city

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Errol Laborde is among my favorite New Orleans writers.

I have long subscribed to both New Orleans and Louisiana Life and enjoy reading Laborde’s work  in those magazines (he edits both). I’m also signed up to get his columns e-mailed to me each week (

Last week, Laborde made some interesting points about south Louisiana.

He notes that Time was planning a special issue about the South several years ago and invited readers across the region to send in brief essays about what the South means.

Laborde says he saw it as an opportunity to boost his writing career until “I sat and thought about the proposition. The South, I realized, is just not something I relate to. That was not meant to be a putdown but just an acknowledgment that New Orleans is a cultural experience in its own. I feel more New Orleanian than I do Southern. I could write volumes about what New Orleans means to me — but the South, to me, is a distant place.”

As an example, Laborde addresses kudzu and sweet tea.

“Throughout the woods in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, the vine covers fallen trees, abandoned Chevys and anything else that did not move fast enough to get out of the way,” he writes. “Yet in Louisiana, kudzu hardly grows at all, as though there is an invisible shield along the Pearl River stopping its spreading. Nature concedes that Louisiana is a place apart.

“Why kudzu stops at the border is a mystery — another mystery is sweet tea. Travel east of New Orleans and order iced tea at a restaurant, and the waiter will invariably ask if you want the tea sweetened or unsweetened. Real Southerners, I suspect, always get their tea presweetened without flinching. Louisianians traveling through the South, however, are more likely to ask for unsweetened, just because that’s what they are used to, as they reach for the pink or blue packets next to the real sugar.”

Though Laborde refers to Louisiana as a whole, I think he’s really talking about south Louisiana, which indeed is a world apart.

North Louisiana is just like southwest Arkansas, where I grew up. In fact, I always figured that southwest Arkansas, east Texas and northwest Louisiana should be its own state with the capital at Shreveport or Texarkana.

Each state provides stark contrasts.

East Texas towns such as Tyler and Longview are without a doubt Southern (remember that Lady Bird Johnson Southern accent? She was from east Texas). But the South ends somewhere between Dallas and Fort Worth as you head west.

We’ve debated where the South ends in Arkansas on this blog. Little Rock is without a doubt a Southern city. Fayetteville maintains a few Southern tendencies. But Rogers and Bentonville are the Midwest.

In Louisiana, I used to think about how things changed when I would cross the O.K. Allen Bridge over the Red River between Pineville and Alexandria. To the north were pine forests. To the south were fields of sugar cane and cotton. To the north were rolling hills and red clay. To the south were cypress swamps and rich, black soil. To the north were lots of Baptists. To the south were lots of Catholics. To the north were barbecue and fried catfish. To the south were gumbo and boiled shrimp. To the north it was, yes, sweet tea. To the south it was Dixie and Jax.

Laborde says a prominent Southern writer once told him that the sweet tea areas of the country were those areas filled with Baptists.

“He explained that since Baptists do not drink liquor, they have more of a fondness for sweetened drinks,” Laborde writes. “There was a sense of discovery at the dinner table as it was noted that the presweetened tea states tend to have larger Baptist populations than does Louisiana, where the Catholic culture sees wine as a sacrament, not a sin. In Louisiana it is perfectly normal to sell bourbon at a drugstore; in Mississippi it is a crime. The South is identified with mint juleps sipped on a veranda or at the racetrack, but for poor folks after those sweltering Southern days of working the red dirt soil, a chilled sweetened tea was their champagne.”

I’ve never made a secret of the fact that New Orleans is one of my favorite cities in the world. But Southern port cities like New Orleans are a world apart from the inland South. I also love Savannah and Charleston. All of those cities exhibit some Caribbean and even Mediterranean characteristics. Like I said, port cities are different.

So let’s put them in their own category.

And then let’s decide what’s the most Southern inland city of any size.

Little Rock? Birmingham? Jackson? Nashville? Montgomery? Lexington? Columbia? Richmond?

All are Southern.


No way.

Remember the words of the late, great Lewis Grizzard, who said Atlanta is what we fought the war to prevent.

My vote goes to Memphis.

Despite the crime, the history of crooked politicians and the pothole-filled streets, you have to love Memphis if you love the South.

Another of my favorite writers is Greenville, Miss., native Julia Reed. She recently published a piece at about her frequent trips to Memphis as a child.

“The Delta probably doesn’t officially begin at the Peabody’s address on Union Street, but there is no mistake that Memphis was the Delta’s spiritual capital and the Peabody its clubhouse,” Reed writes. “Jackson, our actual state capital, was two hours south of my hometown of Greenville, and therefore an hour closer, but we never even thought of going there. Like the bluesmen before us, we headed north toward home, following the river on old Highway 1, before cutting over to the blues highway, U.S. 61, that takes you almost directly downtown.

“To us, the difference between the two cities could be summed up with a line from Peter Taylor’s excellent novel ‘A Summons to Memphis,’ with Jackson standing in for Nashville: ‘Nashville … is a city of schools and churches and Memphis is — well, Memphis is something else again. Memphis is a place of steamboats and cotton gins, of card playing and hotel society.’

“We knew exactly where we’d rather be, and we made the three-hour trek to Memphis with astonishing regularity. We went for school clothes and allergy shots, the Ice Capades and trips to the zoo. We saw movies, got our hair cut, ate barbecue. When we felt especially festive, we’d go just for dinner at the late lamented Justine’s, a justifiably famous Frenchish restaurant in a gorgeous old mansion, where we’d eat lump crabmeat swathed in hollandaise sauce and run into everybody we knew.”

Wasn’t it the late Willie Morris who said the two most important cities in Mississippi are Memphis and New Orleans?

If I can’t be eating dinner at Arnaud’s, Antoine’s or Tujague’s in New Orleans, then just place me in the Peabody lobby at Memphis.

Reed describes the Peabody as a “legendary hotel where my great-grandfather stayed when he came to town to get hot-towel shaves and meet his cotton broker — and where he once dropped a pint of contraband liquor (this was when Tennessee was still, supposedly, dry) on the marble floor of the grand lobby. The doorman swept up the glass so fast no one was the wiser, and the current staff remains now as attentive.”

So my vote for the most Southern city goes to Memphis.

How do you vote and why?

Back to Grady (and other Arkansas favorites)

Friday, August 20th, 2010

At the first of every year, I mark the annual Grady Lions Club Catfish Supper on my calendar.

It’s always the third Thursday in August. Always.

It’s always in the Ned Hardin pecan grove.

And it’s almost always hot.

Commonly known as the Grady Fish Fry, it’s among my favorite annual events. I’ve written about it before.

In an election year, the politicians flock to Grady. Among congressional and statewide officeholders and candidates, I saw Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Sen. Mark Pryor, Rep. John Boozman, Jim Keet, Shane Broadway, Mark Darr and Beth Anne Rankin there last night.

There likely were others who left before I arrived or maybe I just just missed seeing them. The event begins at 4 p.m. and ends at 8 p.m. As I said in a post at this time last year, the Grady Fish Fry marks the unofficial end of summer for me. Bring on football season.

I also mentioned last year (but must mention again) what is perhaps the most fascinating contraption in the state — the famed Grady hushpuppy machine, constructed decades ago from pieces of equipment found on area farms. One after another, the huspuppies come out of the machine and are put into the hot grease. If they ever stop using it, it should be donated to the Smithsonian as an example of American ingenuity.

I had a great visit last night with Sherwood Haisty, 85, a Lions Club member who has been a part of 40 of the 55 fish fries. He told me how the members of the Lions Club once worked for days in the hot sun setting up tables, bringing in the products, etc.

Then somebody had the bright idea of asking the Arkansas Department of Correction for help. For years now, it has been a mutually beneficial relationship.

For the Lions Club members, there’s a captive workforce, if you will.

For those who work at the nearby state prisons, there’s a carrot they can dangle in front of inmates — in exchange for good behavior, you can get out for one night and receive a great meal in the process.

Those men from around Arkansas in their white prison garb who are handing out slices of watermelon, filling glasses of iced tea and cleaning off the tables are now just as much a part of the event as the giant pecan trees in the Hardin grove. And the prison band sounded better than ever last night. The lead vocalist has true talent.

Think about it. There are politicians shaking hands. Inmates wearing white and guards wearing blue. A pecan orchard. People cooling themselves with the funeral home-style fans handed out by the politicians. Catfish. Hushpuppies. Watermelon. It just doesn’t get more Southern. It’s like something out of a movie.

Sadly, as the population of rural southeast Arkansas grows older and smaller, we lose members of the Lions Club each year. Rev. Clyde Venable passed away in 2009. Earlier this year, charter members Bill Blankenship and R.C. Johnson died.

Hopefully, there’s some young blood in the area to keep this landmark event going.

A lot of people help out. Hardin Farms supplies the watermelons. Simmons First supplies the plates. St. Michaels Farms supplies catfish. I could go on and on.

Money raised from this annual event (it’s $12 each for all you can eat) allows the Grady Lions Club to provide college scholarships, pay for eye exams and pay for glasses for those who could not otherwise afford them.

The fact that I’ve attended the Grady Fish Fry for almost 20 consecutive years got me to thinking about favorite places and activities in our state, many of which I’ve written about on this blog before. Here, in no particular order, is a list of some of my favorite places to visit and things to do:

— Spending Saturday afternoons at A.U. Williams Field in Arkadelphia watching the Ouachita Tigers play football. This is what I grew up doing, and I frankly can think of few things more important to me than those college football Saturdays spent in my hometown.

— Eating oysters at the oyster bar at Oaklawn Park before returning to my seat for the feature race.

— Walking slowly down Central Avenue in Hot Springs after a big breakfast at either The Pancake Shop or the Colonial.

— Wading in the Caddo River at Caddo Gap.

— Walking around the vibrant downtown squares in Magnolia and El Dorado.

— Counting the deer while driving at night from Monticello to Arkadelphia via Warren, New Edinburg, Fordyce, Princeton, Manning and Dalark.

— Crossing the Mississippi River at Greenville just in time for supper at The Cow Pen or the LakeShore Cafe near Lake Village.

— Having lunch on a summer day at the R.A. Pickens & Son Co. (which has been around since 1881) commissary at Pickens.

— Eating a cheeseburger and visiting with Bobby Garner at the Sno-White Grill in Pine Bluff.

— Standing next to the levee in downtown Helena visiting with Bubba Sullivan before going over to the Delta Cultural Center to say hello to Sonny Payne.

— Watching the sun come up and the mallards come in on a cold morning at the Piney Creek Duck Club near Monroe.

— Crossing the White River bridge at Des Arc and remembering days spent at my grandparents’ house there when I was a child.

— Driving from Searcy to Georgetown just to have fish at the Georgetown One Stop.

— Ordering the strawberry shortcake in May at the Bulldog in Bald Knob.

— Eating a steak at Josie’s in Waldenburg on a late fall Saturday night when the duck hunters are in town.

— Having fried squirrel during the Sunday night wild game dinner at Gene’s in Brinkley.

— Stopping at Craig’s in DeValls Bluff for a sliced pork plate and medium sauce. Walking across the highway to buy a pie.

— Pulling into Murry’s between Hazen and Carlisle just as the sun is setting with fried catfish on my mind.

— Drinking a cup of coffee and browsing at That Bookstore In Blytheville.

— Sitting on the end zone deck as the athletic director’s guest and watching an Arkansas State football game once the Ouachita season has ended.

— Floating the Eleven Point River or the South Fork of the Spring River with Dennis Whiteside while catching smallmouth bass.

— Watching a Travelers game at Dickey-Stephens Park on a Sunday afternoon in the spring when the temperature is still nice.

— Driving from Mountain View up to Calico Rock on a fall morning when the leaves are changing colors.

— Having a picnic at Tyler Bend on the Buffalo River.

— Walking through the Gov. Rockefeller exhibits while reading everything at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute on Petit Jean Mountain. Stopping afterward to buy honey at the unmanned roadside stand where they trust you to leave the correct amount of cash.

— Having Sunday brunch at the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs.

— Sitting on the front porch of Carnall Hall on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville.

— Driving through the Pea Ridge National Military Park on a winter afternoon.

— Standing in the parking lot of St. Mary’s Church at Altus just to enjoy the view.

— Watching the mountain climbers while sitting on a friend’s deck near Mount Sherman in Newton County.

— Finally getting inside the Slovak Oyster Supper after a cold wait outside.

— Driving by the state Capitol on Christmas Eve to see the lights.

— Walking across Markham Street with the happy crowd after a Razorback victory inside War Memorial Stadium.

— Having breakfast in downtown Kingston after admiring the old bank building next door.

— Buying cookies and bread at Klappenbach’s in Fordyce.

— Buying tomatoes in the summer at the produce stand in Biscoe.

— Sitting on the fourth-floor deck of the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs.

— Letting Lee Richardson cook for my wife and me at Ashley’s at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock.

— Walking down the boardwalk to see the Louisiana Purchase monument.

— Watching the Golden Gloves boxing matches with my son at the North Little Rock Community Center.

— Attending lectures at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock.

— Walking under the giant pecan trees along the Ouachita River near by boyhood home at Arkadelphia.

There are more. Many more.

What’s on your list?

Bobby Thomson and Red Nelson

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

Bobby Thomson died Monday night.

He was at his home in Savannah, Ga. Thomson was 86 years old and had been in failing health for several years. He had moved to the South about five years ago to be closer to one of his daughters.

Those of us who love the game of baseball never really tire of hearing Russ Hodges’ call of The Shot Heard Round the World.

“The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”

Yes, he said it four times. It was October 1951.

Thomson’s three-run home run off Ralph Branca in the bottom of the ninth inning secured the pennant for the Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers at the Polo Grounds. It will forever be one of the most famous moments in baseball history.

“I never thought it was going to be that big,” Branca told The Associated Press. “Hell no. When we went into the next season, I thought it would be forgotten. I’ll miss him. I mellowed over the years, and we became good friends. I enjoyed being around him.”

There’s an outstanding book by Joshua Prager titled “The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World.”

Prager, a former Wall Street Journal writer and a 2011 Nieman Fellow at Harvard, says he made literally thousands of phone calls while researching and writing that book.

As it turns out, one of those calls was to my parents’ house in Arkadelphia.

Here’s the story:

My father joined the Army Air Forces as it was known at the time in 1943 following his freshman year of college at Ouachita. He was sent for training to Saint John’s University, an all-male Catholic school in central Minnesota that’s surrounded by thousands of acres of forests, prairies and lakes. It was not unusual for college campuses to be used for training during World War II. George Wallace, for instance, received his training on the Ouachita campus in Arkadelphia long before becoming the governor of Alabama and a presidential candidate.

It was quite a change of scenery for my dad, a poor boy from Benton whose family had no money to travel during the Great Depression.

He occasionally would mention how beautiful it was there. He saw more snow than he had ever seen. Unable to return home for Christmas, he accompanied a fellow recruit to the family home in South Dakota for the holidays. He remembers more snow, seeing pheasants for the first time and staying at the house to watch young children while his friend and the other adults attended midnight mass (my dad is Baptist).

Beyond that, however, Dad never talked much about that time and certainly would never have dreamed of bragging about any personal accomplishments. As I’ve written on this blog before, he truly is part of the Greatest Generation, one of those silent men who did their duty during World War II and then returned home to raise families and build businesses.

By the time the call from Josh Prager came, my dad’s hearing was such that he was unable to carry on a telephone conversation.

Here’s what my mother remembered: A nice man called from New York, said he was working on a book about a famous baseball player and wanted to confirm that this was the home of the Red Nelson who had spent time at Saint John’s in Minnesota during World War II.

Mom confirmed that he indeed had the right Red Nelson but told him my dad was unable to do a telephone interview.

Prager, in turn, told her that he initially had been under the impression that Thomson had been voted “most athletic” among that group of Air Force recruits. In interviewing someone who was there, however, he was told that the “most athletic” was not Bobby Thomson. It was a guy named Red Nelson from Arkansas.

I anxiously waited for the book to come out so I could buy my father a copy. His name wasn’t mentioned. After all, there was no reason for Prager to mention any awards Thomson didn’t win. Still, Dad enjoyed reading the book, and our family had a great story to tell.

Dad had remembered a Bobby Thomson. He said he had just never made the connection that it was that Bobby Thomson.

I asked him why he had never mentioned being “most athletic.” He said he saw no reason to mention it.

The more I’ve read about Bobby Thomson since his death Monday, the more I’ve become convinced that he and my dad were a lot alike.

Prager wrote this earlier today at, the website for The New Republic: “Bobby Thomson did not recognize his own renown. No matter that the home run he had hit in a Harlem horseshoe on Oct. 3, 1951, remained 49 years later the unsurpassable high point of a national pastime, a life marker for a generation of Americans who remembered where they were when the Giants won the pennant (the Giants won the pennant!) as vividly as they did the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the assassination of Kennedy. And so, after we agreed over the phone to meet at his New Jersey church, he was sure to tell me, lest I not recognize him, what he looked like.”

Prager said Thomson told him, “I’m tall and thin and I wear glasses.”

Thomson’s late wife had once said of him, “He’s sensitive and humble to a fault with a tendency to play himself down.”

Thomson was a three-time All-Star who hit .270 with 264 career home runs and 1,026 RBIs in a career that spanned from 1946 until 1960. He often would call himself “the accidental hero.”

It later was revealed that the Giants had a system that season for stealing signals from opposing catchers. Thomson always insisted he did not know what pitch was coming when he hit The Shot Heard Round the World.

Prager, who has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize four times, says Thomson later admitted that he had made use of stolen signs in his first three at-bats that day but not the last.

Thomson had been born in Glasgow, Scotland, and named after an uncle who died in World War I. He came to this country in 1926 when he was just 3 as his family settled in Staten Island. He signed a contract with the Giants in 1942 but ended up spending three years in the military.

Prager writes that Thomson’s father, a cabinetmaker, “ingrained in Bobby and his five older siblings the importance of reserve.”

“We were brought up to be seen and not heard,” he told Prager.

After his famous hit, Thomson told the Daily News of New York: “It was a pitch that Musial or any other good hitter would have taken. It was high and inside. I didn’t deserve to do a thing like that.”

My father will turn 86 on Oct. 14, which incidentally will be my 21st wedding anniversary.

The dementia is such now that I can’t really carry on a conversation with him. If I could, though, I’m sure he would continue to maintain that he never knew it was the famous Bobby Thomson he beat out for “most athletic” all those years ago in the woods of Minnesota.

And even had he known, he wouldn’t have felt it was anything worth mentioning to his son.

Yes, they raised them differently back in those days.

The Arkansas wine country

Monday, August 16th, 2010

Researching the column that ran in last Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I found myself intrigued by the rich history of the Arkansas wine country.

I also found myself looking at how much other states have capitalized on the allure of their wineries, attracting prosperous baby boomer couples in the process.

I asked these questions:

1. Why do we not more actively promote an Arkansas Wine Trail that winds from Altus to Paris?

2. Why don’t we have large brown signs (the kind you would see for a state park) with perhaps a bunch of purple grapes on them at the Altus exit on Interstate 40 to better promote this unique part of our state?

3. Why hasn’t some investor built a small but upscale boutique hotel near Altus to take advantage of the Arkansas wine country?

Far too often, we take fascinating parts of our Arkansas heritage for granted.

“It has always been here,” we tell each other about this or that attraction. “Why should we go out of our way to promote it?”

Sometimes, it takes outsiders to tell us that the things we take for granted are truly special.

Returning from a speaking engagement in Fort Smith last Thursday, I stopped at the beautiful tasting room for Chateau Aux Arc near Altus. It’s the newest of the area’s wineries, born in 1998 when young Audrey House bought 20 acres from Al Wiederkehr, and it has the nicest tasting room, a 5,400-square-foot facility built in 2005. I listened as a couple on their way from Oklahoma back to their home along the Mississippi Gulf coast in Jackson County raved about the beauty of the area.

If they knew its history, they would be even more enchanted. And if that boutique hotel existed, they might have even spent the night.

Altus was incorporated as a city in August 1888. Railroad officials had named their railhead Altus, the Latin word for high, since this was the highest point on the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad.

A Frenchman named Jean Baptiste Dardenne had first claimed the area in June 1814. Five years later, the U.S. government ordered white settlers out of the region so the Cherokee tribe could have title to the land. An 1828 treaty, however, removed members of the tribe from Arkansas to what’s now Oklahoma. Franklin County was carved out of Crawford County in 1837, and the courthouse was placed at Ozark.

“The Altus area, like the rest of the state, was devastated by the Civil War, especially the depredations of guerilla warfare,” Lola Shropshire writes on the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “It took years for the population to overcome the hunger and poverty. Farming was not productive enough to keep families wholly fed and clothed. When large-scale coal mining began in the area in 1873, the mine owners found many willing workers in the Altus area. The major coal-producing mines were not within the Altus city limits but were important to the economy of the area.”

So coal mining began in a big way in 1873. A year later, the original Altus passenger train depot was built. Between railroad jobs and jobs in the mines, there was plenty of work. That demand for labor, in turn, attracted Swiss and German immigrants.

Jacob Post, a German who first had tried to grow grapes in Illinois, showed up in Arkansas in 1880.

That same year, Johann Andreas Wiederkehr came from Switzerland and carved a wine cellar from a hillside.

Post and Wiederkehr found an outlet for their wine — the Swiss and German immigrants who were were accustomed to having wine with their meals. They sold the wine to these coal miners, railroad workers and other immigrants.

Things would change in the 20th century. The last passenger train departed Altus in May 1936. In 1940, the last major coal mine closed. There are no longer railroad and mining jobs. But the descendants of Jacob Post and Johann Andreas Wiederkehr continue to produce wine. And therein lies the present and hopefully an even brighter future for this slice of Arkansas.

Heritage tourists tend to spend more than other tourists, which is why we need to exploit the Swiss-German heritage and give these visitors a reason to stay in Altus a night or two. The bank in Altus was even known as the German American Bank in the early 1900s before anti-German sentiment during World War I forced the name to be changed to the Bank of Altus. The building that housed the bank is now a museum.

In 1927-28, Chicago millionaire J.H. Jacobson bought seven farms on Pond Creek Mountain to build cabins that he hoped would attract other wealthy Chicago residents each summer. The Great Depression, however, put an end to those efforts.

Altus received some nationwide publicity in 2001 when Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie showed up to film the reality television show “The Simple Life.” But rather than a charming wine-growing region with a Swiss-German heritage, the area was pretty much portrayed as backwoods Arkansas on that show.

As I stated in the newspaper column, I thought House’s arrival in 1998 following her graduation from the University of Oklahoma was far more significant than the short stay of the spoiled rich girls, Hilton and Ritchie. The three existing wineries in 1998 — Wiederkehr Wine Cellars, Post Familie Vineyards & Winery and Mount Bethel Winery — have tradition on their side. House, though, brought new blood, new energy and some new ways of doing things.

The website tells this story: “Along the way, Audrey met and worked closely with members of the other local wineries. One of those people was Thomas Post, who runs the farm and vineyards for Post Familie and who offered Audrey invaluable advice as she learned the ins and outs of vineyard cultivation. It soon became apparent that Audrey and Thomas shared more than just an interest in grapes when their respect and admiration for one another bloomed into a romance and then ultimately into their November 2002 marriage.

“Audrey’s personal and professional growth has continued on a steady course since that day. Once wed, she turned the building that served as her house into a new tasting room with space for a gift shop and began gaining notoriety for being the youngest vintner in the country as well as the newest winemaker in Altus. In 2004, two more significant changes occurred: the first, the birth of Thomas and Audrey’s first child, Trinity, in June, followed by the September groundbreaking of a new, more spacial tasting room at Dragonfly Ranch.

“One year later, Audrey unveiled her current tasting room — a European-style building, accented by stacked rock columns, fit to be called by the name chateau. A dry moat, stone walkways and flowerbeds galore surround the impressive structure on the edge of Dragonfly Ranch’s manicured vineyards. Picnic tables scattered throughout the grounds complement the experience, beckoning visitors to soak in the atmosphere.”

Chateau Aux Arc even markets the facility for weddings.

Another part of the website tells the story this way: “Born in 1976, Audrey is the oldest daughter of Byron House III. She is one of the youngest winery owners in the United States, as well as the only female winemaker in Arkansas. Dividing her childhood between Arkansas and Oklahoma, Audrey came to appreciate the scenic beauty of Northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas River Valley. Audrey is part Tom Sawyer. Who else could convince their friends that it would be fun living in tents in the middle of a vineyard during the summer of 1998.”

We should be glad they did just that.

Just west of Paris, meanwhile, Robert Cowie and his children carry on the tradition at Cowie Wine Cellars, which originally was bonded in 1967. It’s also the home of the Arkansas Historic Wine Museum, which contains a number of winemaking artifacts. There’s also a two-unit bed and breakfast facility with rates of $90 for the Cynthiana Suite and $125 for Robert’s Port Suite.

Cynthiana, also known as Norton, is a native American grapevine that is more disease resistant and adaptable to the climate in the Ozarks than many of the imported grapevines.

And if you’re wondering about Robert’s Port, it’s the port wine that is one of the items for which Cowie Wine Cellars is known.

The Cowie website at states: “Arkansas has a rich heritge of winemaking dating from the time of the earliest settlers. Though the present, there have been 150 wineries bonded in Arkansas by the federal government since the repeal of Prohibition and more than 1,000 Arkansas permits issued for winemaking.”

Can’t we do more to attract visitors to the scenic, historic Arkansas wine country and its five commercial wineries?

From “Coin” Harvey to Anita Bryant

Friday, August 13th, 2010

It has been fun researching the colorful characters attracted to the Arkansas Ozarks through the years.

What is it about the hills of north Arkansas that attract the Norman Bakers and the Gerald L.K. Smiths of the world?

William Hope “Coin” Harvey has always been one of my favorite characters from Arkansas’ past. Harvey, the 1932 presidential nominee for something called the Liberty Party, was born in Virginia in 1851 and admitted to the bar at age 19. He practiced law in West Virginia, Ohio and Illinois before heading to Colorado in 1884, where he operated a silver mine that made him a wealthy man.

Gaye Bland picks up the story in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “When the price of silver fell, Harvey abandoned mining and in 1888 moved his family to Pueblo, Colo., where he practiced law, sold real estate and helped develop the Mineral Palace, an ornate exposition hall. By 1891, the family moved to Ogden, Utah, where Harvey led the organization of an extravagant carnival that ended in financial failure.

“In the early 1890s, as the nation entered a period of deflation, bank failures, bankruptcies and farm foreclosures, Harvey turned his attention to the free silver issue. Like other Western business leaders, he believed that abandoning the gold standard and returning to the free coinage of silver would restore prosperity. In 1893, Harvey moved his family to Chicago to devote his time to the cause. He began writing and lecturing, arguing that the U.S. treasury should buy all silver offered at a set price and issue silver certificates backed by the deposits.”

Harvey wrote an extremely successful book called “Coin’s Financial School” in 1894. That book gave him his nickname. Harvey campaigned hard in the 1896 presidential race for William Jennings Bryan. That campaign brought him to the Arkansas Ozarks. In 1900, Harvey began purchasing land southeast of Rogers and announced that he would build a major resort. He named the area Monte Ne, which he said were Spanish and Native American words for “mountain” and “water.”

The Hotel Monte Ne opened in 1901. The state’s first indoor swimming pool, a tennis court and two additional hotels were added in the years that followed.

“In 1913, Harvey formed the Ozark Trails Association,” Bland writes. “Although the association’s stated purpose was the promotion of better roads, Harvey’s goal was the promotion of Monte Ne. The OTA marked routes, published route books and erected obelisks that were lettered with the distance and direction to Monte Ne at major junctions. Despite the efforts, the association did little to increase business at the resort. Like many resorts, Monte Ne suffered with the growth of automobile travel and in the 1920s most of the resort was closed or foreclosed.”

Harvey continued to write books and became convinced that the end of civilization was near. He decided to build a 130-foot pyramid before civilization ended. The project was never completed. Its ruins are now under the waters of Beaver Lake and can be seen when water levels are low. Harvey began the Liberty Party in 1931 as an alternative to the two major parties. He was 80 years old when the party’s delegates came to Monte Ne and nominated him for president.

“The party platform was based on Harvey’s writing and called for government ownership of utilities and industry, limits on land holdings and personal wealth and, of course, free silver,” Bland writes. “When the votes were tallied, he was in sixth place.”

Harvey received only about 53,000 votes nationwide. Arkansas produced 1,049 of those votes.

Harvey died at Monte Ne in February 1936. He was buried beside his son in a concrete tomb, which had to be moved up the hill before Beaver Lake was filled.

A sidelight: Though most of Harvey’s former resort is under water, the name Monte Ne lives on in a small community by the lake that’s home to one of my favorite restaurants. At the Monte Ne Inn on Arkansas Highway 94, the family-style menu consists of bean soup, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, green beans, fried chicken and homemade bread with apple butter. There’s no menu. If you go, this is what you’ll get. And it’s all you can eat.

Decades after the death of “Coin” Harvey, Anita Bryant found her way to Eureka Springs. Bryant, now 70, became an entertainment sensation in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Her song “Paper Roses” reached No. 5 on the Billboard charts.

Bryant was named Miss Oklahoma in 1958 and was the second runner-up in the Miss America pageant. After her singing career took off, she was voted for three consecutive years by the readers of Good Housekeeping magazine as the most admired woman in America. Florida citrus growers hired her in 1968 as their spokesman, a job she would hold for a dozen years. Those of us of a certain age remember the television ads in which she proclaimed, “Breakfast without orange juice is like a day without sunshine.”

In 1973, Bryant even sang at Lyndon Johnson’s funeral. She also appeared in ads for Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, Holiday Inn and Tupperware. Her success led Florida Gov. Reubin Askew to quip, “People connect orange juice, Florida and Anita Bryant so much that it becomes difficult to decide which to visit, which to listen to and which to squeeze.”

Her career faltered, however, after she became a spokesman for anti-gay rights efforts in the late 1970s. Her citrus contract was not renewed, she divorced her husband Bob Green and then she moved from Florida back to Oklahoma.

In 1990, Bryant married Charlie Hobson Dry, a former test crewman for NASA. She moved to the Arkansas Ozarks in the early 1990s and opened her Eureka Springs theater. In 1997, however, Bryant and Dry filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in Arkansas. There were more than $172,000 in unpaid state and federal taxes at the time. She also performed during the 1990s in Branson, where government liens were filed claiming more than $116,000 in unpaid taxes.

A 2002 story in the St. Petersburg Times described her as someone who spent her later years in “small entertainment capitals across the Bible Belt, gamely attempting a comeback but leaving backruptcy and ill will in her wake.”

By 1998, Bryant and her husband had made their way to Pigeon Forge, Tenn., where they bought the 2,040-seat Music Mansion.

The 2002 St. Petersburg Times story told of “dozens” who “labored, often for weeks or months without pay, to produce Bryant’s jaunty, top-tapping show, ‘Anita With Love.'”

“They were always telling us God’s going to come through,” one former dancer said. “They would attach his name to everything and if we didn’t believe them, we didn’t have faith. It didn’t have anything to do with God. We knew their track record.”

The newspaper reported in 2002, “Among the jilted employees is a woman who appears on Bryant’s website as the president of her fan club. She is owed about $3,000. The Music Mansion — once the gem of the folksy Pigeon Forge theater scene — was auctioned off this month. Only eight years old, its facade is showing wear from poor maintenance. The landscaped islands on its vast, empty parking lot are overrun with dandelions.”

Bryant’s official biography on the website for Anita Bryant Ministries International (the biography appears to have last been updated in 2006) notes: “Anita is now sharing an office in the historic Oklahoma City’s Bricktown with Charlie. The offices house the new Anita Bryant Ministries International Inc. along with Charlie’s Space Camps and other business ventures. Anita is excited about being back home in Oklahoma and believes her latter days will be greater than in the beginning.”

Just like “Coin” Harvey, her road show made its way at one point to the Arkansas Ozarks.

More eccentrics of the Ozarks — Gerald L.K. Smith

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

Glen Jeansonne, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee since 1978, begins a profile on Gerald L.K. Smith for the Wisconsin Magazine of History this way: “In August 1936, Gerald L.K. Smith addressed a packed Cleveland stadium at the convention of Father Charles E. Coughlin’s National Union of Social Justice. The afternoon was hot, and the audience sweltered. Smith, sweating profusely, stripped off his coat and tie and gulped directly from a pitcher of water without bothering to use a glass.

“The theme of his speech was the iniquity of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Smith claimed that the policies of FDR’s administration represented ‘the most historic and contemptible betrayal ever put over on the American people. … Our people were starving and they burned the wheat, hungry and they killed the pigs, led by Mr. Henry Wallace, secretary of the Swine Assassination and by a slimy group of men culled from the pink campuses of America with friendly gaze fixed on Russia.’ The audience roared.”

Yes, Gerald L.K. Smith.

The same Gerald L.K. Smith who built the seven-story Christ of the Ozarks in Eureka Springs back in the 1960s (why do I always think of George Fisher’s classic editorial cartoon of Frank Broyles — Frank of the Ozarks?).

Jeansonne goes on to write that during the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, Smith “addressed more and bigger live audiences than any speaker of his generation. They rarely left disappointed. With his beak-shaped nose and piercing blue eyes, standing 6 feet tall and weighing over 200 pounds, he was a dynamo, an extraordinary demagogue who swayed thousands and infuriated millions. His crisp voice, his spontaneous gestures, his transparent zealotry fixated audiences. Routinely, Smith was mesmerizing, though often vacuous. His oratory impressed crowds, raised emotions, thrilled the masses.”

William Bradford Huie wrote this about Smith: “The man has the passion of Billy Sunday. He has the fire of Adolf Hitler. … He is the stuff of which Fuehrers are made.”

Huey P. Long called him “the only man I ever saw who is a better rabble-rouser than I am.”

H.L. Mencken wrote: “Gerald L.K. Smith is the greatest orator of them all, not the greatest by an inch or a foot or a yard or a mile, but the greatest by at least two light years. He begins where the best leaves off.”

It was little wonder that Smith was asked to deliver Long’s funeral oration in Baton Rouge before a crowd of more than 150,000 people in September 1935 following Long’s assassination.

“This tragedy fires the souls of us who adored him,” Smith said that day. “He has been the wounded victim of the green goddess; to use the figure, he was the Stradivarius whose notes rose in competition with jealous drums, envious tomtoms. He was the unfinished symphony.”

Smith, who was just 37 at the time of Long’s death, first had come Louisiana as the pastor of the Kings Highway Disciples of Christ Church in Shreveport in 1929. Smith resigned from the church after seven months and hooked up with Long, eventually becoming a key national organizer for Long’s Share-Our-Wealth Society. That wealth redistribution group was to have been the launching pad for Long’s planned 1936 presidential campaign.

After Long’s assassination, Smith hooked up with retired physician Francis Townsend and Father Coughlin to create the Union Party. Smith later would run unsuccessfully several times for the U.S. Senate and the presidency. His final bid for the presidency was in 1956 as the Christian Nationalist Party candidate. By then, Smith was primarily supported by those on the far right extreme of the political spectrum — anti-Semitic and fascist activists.

Back in 1933, Smith had written the following to a man named Hugo Fack, who had journeyed to Germany and met with Nazi leaders: “I am anxious to get in touch with his Honor, Adolf Hitler, but knowing that you are recently removed from Germany, before doing so I desire your opinion on conditions in that country. They look good to me. Can you give me a code for getting in touch with Herr Hitler or one of his representatives in America?”

Soon after quitting his job as a pastor in Shreveport, Smith also had been attracted to American Nazi William Dudley Pelley and his paramilitary Silver Shirts. Many years later, Smith would settle in Detroit and become friends with Henry Ford, who financed a series of Smith’s radio broadcasts. Smith began a monthly publication called The Cross and the Flag in 1942 and continued to publish it until his death in 1976.

In the early 1960s, the Arkansas Ozarks remained mired in poverty. Eureka Springs was a mere shadow of the grand resort it had been in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Anyone looking to invest money was welcome. It was this world that Smith entered in 1964.

“Smith came to Arkansas and bought Penn Castle, a Victorian mansion in Eureka Springs, an Ozark Mountain spa town that had lapsed into economic stagnation,” Jeansonne wrote for the University of Arkansas Press. “He remodeled it lavishly, turning it into his retirement home. Two years later, he built the first of his Sacred Projects, a seven-story statue of Jesus, the Christ of the Ozarks, on Magnetic Mountain. Smith proclaimed that it was more beautiful than Michelangelo’s art. Disagreeing, an art critic likened it to a milk carton with a tennis ball stuffed on its top.

“Soon Smith added the Christ Only Art Gallery, a Bible museum and a passion play staged in an outdoor amphitheater. The play was performed on a 400-foot reproduction of a street in old Jerusalem and included live animals. By 1975, the theater was expanded from 3,000 seats to 6,000 seats, and more than 188,000 had watched the play, making it the largest outdoor pageant in the United States. Jews denounced the play as anti-Semitic, but Smith called it ‘the only presentation of its kind in the world which has not diluted its content to flatter the Christ-hating Jews.’ The Sacred Projects helped revitalize the Eureka Springs area.”

The first performance of what was known as The Great Passion Play was on July 15, 1968. That first season attracted 28,000 people.

Smith announced that he would build a $100 million replica of the Holy Land, including a model of the River Jordan in which people could be baptized. Before that project could be completed, he died of pneumonia in April 1976 at his winter home in California.

“The Sacred Projects gave Smith some respectability but could not obscure the anti-Semitism and hatred for which he was most known,” Jeansonne writes. “He maintained that Jesus was a Gentile whom Jews crucified; that Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower were Jews; that Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler was a Bolshevik and a Jewish foil; that Jews invented communism; and that Jews prodded African-Americans to begin the civil rights movement to jolt a tranquil American society. Smith lamented that he was castigated only becuase he was emboldened to air such issues.”

The play he started in Eureka Springs continues, though it now markets itself as The New Great Passion Play. The nonprofit organization that produces the play, now governed by a board of directors, says the efforts to build a model of the Holy Land are ongoing.

At the website, it’s noted that the “New Holy Land Tour includes one of the world’s only complete life-size reproductions of Moses’ Tabernacle in the Wilderness, as well as 37 other authentic exhibits. In 1976, the Smith Memorial Chapel was built in honor of Gerald L.K. and Elna M Smith. Many other unique attractions, such as the Sacred Arts Center, a piece of the Berlin Wall, performances of the Parable of the Potter and more have been added throughout the years. Be sure and visit the Bible Museum and its remarkable collection of historical Bibles and documents.”

Following Smith’s death in 1976, the Arkansas Gazette editorialized: “To have the power to touch men’s hearts with glory or with bigotry, and to choose the latter, is a saddening thing.”

Eccentrics of the Ozarks

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

It’s good that the Crescent Hotel & Spa at Eureka Springs recalls the tainted legacy of that old con man Norman Baker by naming its fourth-floor restaurant and lounge after him.

After all, it wouldn’t be the Ozarks without the eccentrics and the con men.

Baker, a charlatan if ever there were one, operated a “hospital” out of the Crescent Hotel during the final years of the Great Depression.

There were plenty of other colorful characters who later were lured into the Arkansas Ozarks.

Jew hater Gerald L.K. Smith showed up in Eureka Springs in 1964 to begin building what he referred to as his Sacred Projects.

And even Anita Bryant — she of orange juice and anti-gay fame — made an appearance in the 1990s to operate a music theater that was bankrupt by 1997 while owning thousands of dollars in back taxes.

Of course, just down the road in Benton County, William H. “Coin” Harvey developed Monte Ne (complete with a gondola from Italy to ferry tourists across a spring-fed lagoon from a depot to the hotel he had built). Harvey announced plans in the 1920s to build a 130-foot-tall pyramid. He never completed that project, but he did build an amphitheater that was to have been the pyramid’s foyer. Most of Monte Ne is now below the waters of Beaver Lake.

As for Norman Baker, he was a fixture on the vaudeville circuit in the early 1900s. He later built a radio station in Iowa in 1925 with the call letters KTNT. Those letters stood for Know The Naked Truth. He also published something called TNT Magazine. Baker used the radio station and the magazine to attack established medical procedures and the American Medical Association.

President Hoover helped launch Baker’s tabloid newspaper in 1930 by participating in a publicity stunt in which the president pushed a “golden key” from Washington to “start” Baker’s printing press in Iowa.

Baker had no formal education but called himself Dr. Baker. He opened a hospital in Iowa where he claimed he could cure cancer. When the federal government shut down his radio station, Baker headed to Mexico to operate a station known as XENT just across the U.S. border.

Baker finally was convicted of federal mail fraud in 1940 three years after buying the Crescent Hotel. His promises to cure cancer had been sent through the mail, and that constituted mail fraud. He died in 1958 in Miami.

The website describes the Baker years in Arkansas this way: “When the popularity of bathing in mineral springs faded, hard times came to the beautiful hotel. It fell into disrepair during the years of the Great Depression and ultimately fell into the hands of an eccentric character named Norman Baker. … A radio station owner and former manager of a mind reading show, Baker came to Eureka Springs from his home in Iowa to promote his secret cancer cure. Converting the Crescent Hotel, which he called his Castle in the Air, into a dubious medical facility, he brought in patients and, for the right price, subjected them to a variety of strange procedures.

“Attracted by Baker’s claims of a cancer cure, desperate patients flocked to the facility. In fact, federal investigators later determined that he made more than $4 million peddling his fake cure during the darkest days of the Great Depression.”

Baker was the youngest of 10 children. He quit high school at age 16 in 1898 to take a job as a machinist. Baker decided to change professions one night after watching a magic show featuring a performer who went by the name of Professor Flint.

Baker had his own performance troupe by 1904. The show starred a mind reader called Madame Pearl Tangley. Madame Tangley quit the show in 1909 and was replaced by Theresa Pinder, who married Baker a year later.

During the summer of 1914, Baker was tinkering in his brother’s machine shop in Iowa when he came up with an organ that played with air rather than steam. He called it the Air Calliaphone and sold the first one for $500. He quickly sold two more and soon was wealthy. By 1915, Baker had closed his vaudeville show, divorced his wife and become a full-time manufacturer of organs. He was making more than $200,000 a year. In 1920, he opened an art correspondence school that earned him more than $75,000 in three years.

KTNT went on the air on Thanksgiving Day 1925. In 1928, the station received permission to broadcast at 10,000 watts rather than its original 500 watts. KTNT soon became one of the most popular radio stations in the Midwest.

In his well-researched history called “Pure Hoax: The Norman Baker Story,” Stephen Spence writes: “On weekends and holidays thousands would gather at the station to hear Norman’s broadcasts. Baker welcomed the crowds with live entertainment as well as souvenirs, food and cheap gasoline. All for a fair price, of course. As KTNT’s popularity grew, Norman’s attacks on his usual targets became more vitriolic and personal. He made baseless personal attacks on prominent men he considered enemies, accusing them over the airwaves of everything from adultery to drunkenness. This behavior began to turn people against him and there was a backlash of complaints against KTNT.”

Baker opened his first cancer center, the Baker Institute of Muscatine, Iowa, in 1930. He used his radio station to promote his so-called miracle treatments.

Spence tells this sad story: “In the spring of 1930, John Tunis’ wife Lula was dying of cancer. In his private moments, he must have alternately begged God not to take his wife and cursed him for letting her suffer such a cruel end. By the end of May, Lula was running out of time. John placed her and their dwindling hopes in the hands of a man named Norman Baker. They prayed he could provide the cure that the medical establishment could not.

“And by all appearances they had reason to hope. Norman Baker was the founder of the Baker Institute in Muscatine, Iowa. He was a flamboyant medical maverick with a new cure for cancer. Always dressed in a white suit and a lavender tie, he owned a radio station in Muscatine with the call letters KTNT. … He took to the airwaves and declared war on big business and the American Medical Association. He believed that organized medicine was corrupt and chose profits over patients. He preached the gospel of alternative medicine. He was the self-proclaimed champion of the common man against the ownership class. He was on the Tunis’ side, and he had a cure.

“It is doubtful that John and Lula could have known much about the background of their ostensible savior. That he was a former vaudeville magician, turned inventor, turned millionaire businessman, turned populist radio host, turned cancer doctor without a day of medical training in his life. They couldn’t have known that Norman’s magic elixir was nothing more than a useless mix of watermelon seed, brown corn silk, alcohol and carbolic acid. They clearly didn’t know that all Norman Baker had to offer was an excruciating, pseudo-treatment and a betrayal of their last hope.”

John Tunis would later testify in a trial against Baker that his wife “took the needle treatments. She told me it was awful, that five or seven needles a day were stuck into her and they would hold them there until the medicine ran out. She said it didn’t do much good; said she wanted to go home; that she was getting worse.”

The American Medical Association led the fight against Baker, and the government refused to renew his radio license in May 1931. An arrest warrant was filed for practicing medicine without a license, and Baker fled to Nuevo Larado, where he remained until 1937, operating his Mexican radio station there at 100,000 watts. He returned to Muscatine in 1937, pled guilty to the old charge and served a one-day sentence. That’s when he moved to Eureka Springs, bought the Crescent and took up where he had left off in Iowa.

Baker was arrested in 1939. His trial was held in January 1940 in Little Rock, and he was found guilty on all seven counts. His appeal was denied, and Baker was sent to Leavenworth in Kansas to serve out his term. He was released from prison in July 1944, moving to Florida and living comfortably until his death in 1958.

Spence writes: “What made Norman Baker’s cancer cure charade so despicable is the human cost of his fraud. Hundreds of people who might have lived if they received legitimate medical care died because they put their trust in his cure. The common grifter swindles people out of their money. But only a monster would do so at the cost of their last chance of survival.”