Archive for January, 2013

Jeremy Jacobs: Hall of Famer

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

This is the third in a series of profiles of the 2013 inductees into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

Southland Park Gaming and Racing, formerly known as Southland Greyhound Park, has been part of the Arkansas sports scene since 1956 when it became Arkansas’ only greyhound racetrack.

Originally owned by the Upton family and others, Southland has been owned for decades by the Delaware North Companies. The chairman and chief executive officer of Delaware North, Jeremy M. Jacobs, is best known nationally for his role as chairman of the board of governors of the National Hockey League. Jacobs, though, long has been an important part of the Arkansas sports scene.

The Jacobs family was the original concession operator when Southland opened. West Memphis had a tradition of greyhound racing. The Riverside Kennel Club once had been at the Arkansas end of the Mississippi River bridge.

On the evening of Friday, March 8, Jacobs will be inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

Jacobs was born in January 1940 at Buffalo, N.Y. When he was just 16, Southland expanded its business hundreds of miles to the southwest in Arkansas. The dog track at West Memphis was the only legal gambling operation in the Mid-South and drew patrons from Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Missouri.

When Delaware North bought the track outright in the early 1970s, it was one of the top dog racing operations in the country.

“Through the 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s, a typical Saturday night at Southland might see the parking lots full with 20,000 people in attendance,” Nancy Hendricks writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Annual wagers on the greyhound races at the time generally exceeded $200 million, and more than 600 people were employed at Southalnd.

“All that changed in 1992. To spur their local economy, residents of nearby Tunica County in Mississippi approved ‘riverboat’ gambling. They welcomed gaming establishments in the early 1990s as long as the casinos could show that they were at least in part physically housed on the Mississippi River. Large, nationally known resort casinos mushroomed around Tunica until it became the third-largest gambling venue in the country after Las Vegas and Atlantic City, drawing gamblers away from Southland.

“Southland fell on hard times with daily attendance ebbing to about 500. Its annual revenues dropped from more than $200 million in the 1980s to less than $35 million in the 1990s. More than half of its employees lost their jobs.”

In 2005, the Arkansas Legislature approved a bill allowing Southland and Oaklawn Park at Hot Springs to install video games known as “games of skill” as long as local voters approved. Local approval was granted in both Crittenden County and Garland County.

Under Jacobs’ leadership, Delaware North began a huge renovation effort at Southland costing more than $40 million. A gaming room, an events center, a lounge with live music, a buffet and other restaurants were added. Since then there have been additional expansions.

Delaware North’s reach extends around the globe. The company is a global leader in the hospitality and food service industries with more than 55,000 employees serving more than 500 million customers each year. Annual revenues exceed $2 billion. The company owns Boston’s TD Garden, which is recognized as one of the country’s finest entertainment venues.

Delaware North traces its beginning to 1915 in Buffalo, where its headquarters remain. That was the year that brothers Marvin, Charles and Louis Jacobs established a popcorn and peanut vending business. They worked in theaters during the fall, winter and spring and then turned their attention to ballparks during the hot summer months.

Jeremy Jacobs is the son of Louis Jacobs.

Jeremy Jacobs’ three sons — Jerry Jr., Lou and Charlie — now hold executive positions with the company.

By 1926, the family-owned company had contracts with minor league ballparks in Buffalo and Syracuse. Four years later, it moved into the major leagues when an agreement was signed to handle the food service for the Detroit Tigers.

In 1939, the Jacobs brothers expanded into the racing business with the purchase of a thoroughbred track. By 1941, Delaware North also had moved into the transportation arena following a contract to provide food service at Washington National Airport.

Following his father’s death in 1968, Jacobs took over the company at age 28. Major developments under his leadership include:

— The 1975 acquisition of the Boston Garden along with Jacobs’ purchase of the Boston Bruins, one of the six original NHL franchises

— The 1987 acquisition of Sky Chefs to increase Delaware North’s airport business

— The 1993 awarding of a contract to provide visitor services at Yosemite National Park, moving the company into the parks and resorts business

— A 1995 contract to run the visitors’ complex at the Kennedy Space Center

— A move into the hotel business in early 2002 with the purchase of resorts at the entrance to Yosemite and in British Columbia

— The 2006 entry into the European market with a contract at Wembley Stadium in London

Jacobs’ company now has:

— Contracts at more than 50 professional sports venues for teams such as the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Bears

— More than 10,000 video gaming machines at tracks across the country

— Contracts at tourist attractions ranging from the Grand Canyon to Niagara Falls

— Contracts with airports from Los Angeles to Detroit to Buffalo

Jacobs ranks 151st on the Forbes 400 with an estimated net worth of $2.7 billion. His Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011 following a 39-year drought.

Jacobs also was a pioneer in the regional television sports industry, transforming NESN into a model for regional sports networks nationwide.

Southland has donated millions of dollars to charity in Arkansas through the years. Recent donations include $1 million to Mid-South Community College at West Memphis for the Southland Greyhound Science Center, $1 million to Mid-South for its hospitality program and kitchen incubator project and $250,000 to Mid-South to start an athletic program.

Jacobs also has been a tireless advocate for tourism in the United States. He served four consecutive terms on the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Travel and Tourism Advisory Board. The board, appointed by the U.S. commerce secretary, created a national tourism strategy that has been championed by President Obama.

Jacobs received widespread national publicity during this season’s NHL lockout. At a news conference held when the lockout ended, he said: “I’m coming off winning a Stanley Cup. I’ve got a sold-out building. I have a financially sound business — no debt. I’ve owned the team for 37 years. I’m the last guy who wants to shut this down. … Unfortunately, I play in a league with 30 teams, and when I step back and look at what’s going on with the broadest sense of the league, I’ve got to play a role that is constructive.”

Jacobs has been playing constructive roles for decades now, including on the Arkansas sports scene. He’s a natural for induction into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

John Outlaw: Hall of Famer

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

This is the second in a series of profiles of the 2013 inductees into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame:

John Outlaw became an icon at an early age.

He was only 25 years old in the spring of 1979 when the Arkadelphia School Board hired him as the head football coach at Arkadelphia High School. Twice before during the decade of the 1970s, Arkadelphia had made it to state championship games. Favored Arkadelphia teams were upset by Stuttgart in 1970 and Mena in 1976.

It would take a wiry, intense Ozark native to get the school its first state championship. Outlaw did it in his first year as a head coach.

Outlaw went on to compile a record of 84-20-1 in his nine seasons at Arkadelphia, winning state titles in 1979 and 1987. He then moved to Texas, where he compiled records of 57-21-1 at Sherman and 162-46-1 at Lufkin, giving him a 303-87-3 record as a high school coach. Outlaw achieved his 300th victory on Oct. 6, 2011, against The Woodlands in a game telecast regionally by Fox Sports Southwest.

Outlaw died unexpectedly on the morning of Friday, Dec. 23, 2011, at his home in Lufkin following his morning run. On Friday, March 8, Outlaw will be inducted posthumously into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

“If I’ve done anything right in my life, I’ve used the gift God gave me, and that is to serve others,” Outlaw once said.

His players considered him a mentor. His first team at Arkadelphia lost early in the season to Ashdown and didn’t lose again. A victory over a highly ranked Camden High School team (the school no longer exists) convinced Outlaw’s players that they could do something special.

Arkadelphia shut out Alma in the state championship game, 19-0.

The quarterback on that 1979 team was Kerry Garnett. His father, Don Garnett, said after Outlaw’s death: “As a parent, I watched John challenge a group of talented young men to overcome an early loss and go on to win the state championship. John had the ability to bring out the best in young men without breaking their spirit. During the years I have lived in Lubbock, I was always pleased when Texas Tech signed a young man from Lufkin because I knew that John had influenced him.”

Kerry Garnett, who now lives in California, said: “I was 17 when I met Coach Outlaw. He was 25. He introduced himself to me at the Goza Junior High gym, where we worked out during the offseason. From the very first conversation I had with Coach Outlaw, I could tell he was a special person. He had this wry smile, a look from the side as if he knew great things were going to happen, even if you didn’t.

“It’s not easy to describe what makes a great leader. We had never won a state championship in football. Coach Outlaw led our football team to a championship by showing us how. I’ll always remember the incredible bounce in his step. He would step us through each running or passing play. Then we would run the plays over and over again at practice. Each snap would be completed. Each handoff would be crisp. Each route would be run with perfect timing. By the time we got to the game, we could execute our plays in our sleep. Coach Outlaw understood and taught us the difference between being good and being champions.”

Kerry Garnett clearly remembers the loss to Ashdown in the second game of the 1979 season and the day after that game: “I had one of my poorest games as a quarterback. I missed two extra points as our placekicker, and we lost by one point. Anyone who has known me will tell you that I’m intensely competitive. I was bitterly disappointed in myself after that game. I felt responsible for the loss, and I knew that I let my teammates down. I also knew I let Coach Outlaw down.

“Coach Outlaw made certain that our team learned from the loss. We had a practice the next morning that was a direct challenge to our team. Coach Outlaw and the rest of our amazing coaches explained that we were going to run 100-yard sprints. We lined up and ran. We continued to run, and the coaches asked who was going to quit. Nobody quit. We didn’t quit on ourselves, we didn’t quit on our teammates, we didn’t quit on our school and we didn’t quit on our coach.

“After that Saturday, our team bonded more closely than ever before. It wasn’t just from running up and down our practice field for hours on a Saturday morning. It was from the belief in us that Coach Outlaw and the rest of our coaches communicated. We grew up as young men. We went out and won the rest of our games. Words cannot adequately express my love and appreciation for Coach Outlaw. There are a few people you meet in a lifetime who make a profound difference in your life and the type of person you become. Coach Outlaw was one of those people. He loved his players. We loved him. We will never forget what he taught us.”

As a player, Outlaw had been a safety at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, where he played from 1973-75 for Coach Ken Stephens. Outlaw was a graduate assistant for one season at UCA, and then Stephens hired him as a full-time assistant.

“He was a heck of a coach,” Stephens said. “All he did was win.”

Outlaw’s defensive coordinator on that 1979 state championship team was John Thompson, now the defensive coordinator at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.

“He touched so many lives,” Thompson said. “The old boy was unique in so many ways, but he had a magic. He had a dadgum magic about him. Players loved him. He just had a way with those guys, and they turned into good people. That’s just the way he was. He could get to those guys and get them to believe.”

Outlaw never had a losing season at Arkadelphia. His 1987 team went 14-0 and was the first team from a lower classification to be ranked first overall in all of the state’s high school football polls. Arkadelphia also was the first Arkansas team to be ranked in the USA Today Super 25. The Badgers finished the season ranked No. 22 nationally.

The desire to see if he could win at the highest levels in Texas led Outlaw to Sherman for the 1988 season. After seven seasons there, Outlaw moved to Lufkin in 1995 and became the winningest coach in school history. In 2001, the Panthers won a state championship in 5A, the largest classification in Texas. Lufkin, led by quarterback Reggie McNeal, finished 15-1 that season. Outlaw’s final Lufkin team in 2011 won a district championship and finished 9-2. Dez Bryant, a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, was among those who played for Outlaw at Lufkin.

Doug Rice was one of the best high school linemen in the country when he played for Outlaw at Arkadelphia. Rice, who went on to play college football at SMU and now lives in Texas, said of his former coach: “I gave everything I had for him because he gave everything he had for us. I would have run through a brick wall for him. He was selfless. I always felt that his only agenda was helping all of us learn how to compete and prepare to win on and off the field.

“Coach Outlaw had tremendous energy and passion and instilled that same work ethic and comitment in all of us through his words and actions. He was a great teacher. He was direct, sometimes pointedly, and shared his keen insights into the good and bad in people and situations around us. He had a terrific sense of humor. We shared a lot of laughs together.”

Bob Gentry, who played quarterback for Outlaw at Arkadelphia, says some of the lessons he learned from Outlaw were:

— “This is not just about winning football, it’s about preparing you for life as good people.”

— “Preparation is the most important thing. For football, that means being in better shape than the other team, and it means playing mistake free through careful and thorough preparation.”

— “Good luck is not a horseshoe or a four-leaf clover. It is being prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to you and not providing those opportunities to the other team.”

— “Fairness to and respect for your coaches, teammates and on-field opponents is not negotiable.”

— “When the hay is in the barn, it’s time to stop worrying and play with confidence and joy in your heart. The scoreboard will take care of itself.”

“John Outlaw had the gift of molding young men with potential into a championship team,” said former Arkadelphia banker Ed Snider. “He was fair but demanding. He gave all-out effort, and he expected the same from his players and students. It was our pleasure to have two sons who learned some valuable life lessons under the shrill whistle that hung from his neck. Few of his followers were ever anything but achievers. They were winners. His example made the entire town swell with pride, and we all benefited.”

Stacy Lewis: Hall of Famer

Friday, January 25th, 2013

This is the first in a series of profiles of the 2013 inductees into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame:

For those who follow women’s professional golf closely, it wasn’t a surprise in December when former University of Arkansas golfer Stacy Lewis was named the 2012 Player of the Year by the Golf Writers Association of America.

Lewis is the best story in women’s golf right now, having become the first American since Beth Daniel in 1994 to be the Rolex Player of the Year and the first American since Juli Inkster in 1999 to be the Golf Writers Association of America Player of the Year.

Lewis is only 27 and already her list of accomplishments is long.

She won 12 tournaments in college while putting the Arkansas women’s golf program on the map. She was the 2007 NCAA champion and the top amateur player in the country for more than two years before turning pro. Her story is even more interesting because of what she has overcome physically. She was only age 11 when she was diagnosed with scoliosis. Lewis wore a back brace for more than seven years and had a spinal fusion when she was in high school.

On the evening of Friday, March 8, Lewis will become one of the youngest inductees in the history of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

Lewis grew up at The Woodlands in Texas, a wealthy suburb of Houston. She was a four-time all-district selection and an all-state selection as she led her team to three consecutive state titles. Her best round in high school — a two-under 65 — came in November 2001. She had a pair of 69s and two 70s as a high school senior. Due to her surgery, Lewis redshirted the 2003-04 freshman season at Arkansas.

Her career then took off:

— As a redshirt freshman in 2004-05, Lewis posted five finishes in the top five, including three wins in 10 tournaments. She captured the 2005 Southeastern Conference individual title with a school- and course-record 67 on the final day. Her three-day total of 214 was also a school record. Lewis earned SEC Freshman of the Year honors and made the All-SEC first team. She also became the first women’s golfer in school history to earn All-America honors. She finished the year ranked fourth in the SEC and 15th in the country for stroke average.

— As a sophomore in 2005-06, Lewis finished ninth at the NCAA championship and earned All-America honors for a second consecutive year. She posted a course-record 66 in her final round at the NCAA championship with five consecutive birdies on holes 12-16. She was again on the All-SEC first team and had five top 10 finishes during the season.

— As a junior in 2006-07, Lewis won the NCAA title with a final-round 66 to finish six under par at Daytona Beach, Fla. Back problems had kept Lewis out of the SEC championship. She finished tied for third at the NCAA Central Championship and then struck gold in Florida. Lewis earned her third consecutive All-America honor, won the Dinah Shore Trophy and made ESPN’s Academic All-America team.

— As a senior in 2007-08, Lewis earned All-America and All-SEC honors for a fourth consecutive season. She won the SEC title for a second time and was named both the SEC Golfer of the Year and the SEC Golf Scholar-Athlete of the Year. During the regular season, she won three consecutive events. Lewis tied for eighth at the NCAA championship.

Lewis also stayed busy on the amateur circuit each summer. After winning the NCAA championship her junior year, she won the 92nd women’s Southern Amateur title. She was the 2007 Golf Digest Amateur of the Year, winning the LPGA Northwest Arkansas championship as an amateur in September of that year.

Lewis graduated from Arkansas in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in finance and accounting. As a member of the U.S. Curtis Cup team that year, she became the first player to go 5-0 in the 76-year history of the event. The competition on the Old Course at St. Andrew’s in Scotland was her last as an amateur as the United States posted a sixth consecutive Curtis Cup victory over Great Britain and Ireland.

Lewis competed in seven events on the LPGA Tour in 2008 and had two finishes in the top 10, earning more than $247,000 in the process.

Her first professional victory came at the 2011 Kraft Nabisco Championship as she held off the then-No. 1 player in the world, Yani Tseng, down the stretch to win by three strokes.

Lewis won four tournaments last year — the Mobile Bay LPGA Classic in April, the ShopRite LPGA Classic in June, the Navistar LPGA Classic in September and the Mizuno Classic in November.

“What she has overcome physically has been amazing, yet she’s the first to say it all seems a bit distant now,” writes ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel. “She’s still a spokeswoman and fundraiser for scoliosis, but it’s not just her past that makes her an especially compelling sports story. Rather, it’s her present and future.”

Lewis tells ESPN: “People play their best golf at different ages. For me, I know I haven’t played my best golf yet. That’s what excites me about the next few years and makes me want to work even harder. Our tour in general has needed American players to step up. The only thing I could do was just play better golf and move up the rankings and get that exposure.”

Foreign players had dominated the LPGA Tour the previous few years. From 1995 through 2011, player-of-the-year awards went to Annika Sorenstam of Sweden eight times, Lorena Ochoa of Mexico four times, Yani Tseng of Taiwan twice, Karrie Webb of Australia twice and Laura Davies of England once. Shanshan Feng won the LPGA Championship last June to become the first LPGA Tour winner from mainland China.

Lewis earned more than $1.8 million last year while seeking advice from LPGA legends such as Daniel, Betsy King and Nancy Lopez.

“I’ve gotten to know them pretty well, and they’ve helped me a lot,” Lewis tells ESPN. “Especially this year on what they say about managing my schedule, how much I’m playing, traveling and doing extra events. It usually ends up with me going back to them and saying, ‘You were right.’ They often tell me I’m too busy and doing too much.

“And Beth has been great about telling me about handling the player of the year and the pressure that goes with that. It has just been really nice to have them to fall back on and talk to somebody who has been through what I’m doing.”

In more ways than one, Lewis is becoming the face of the LPGA.

“It’s easy to look at three of the four new sponsors on the LPGA’s 2013 schedule and draw a direct line to Lewis, last year’s Rolex Player of the Year,” a recent story at noted. “Marathon takes over this year as title sponsor of a Toledo, Ohio, event that was known for decades as the Jamie Farr. In addition to Marathon, Pure Silk — another company that sponsors Lewis — will title sponsor a new event in the Bahamas. There will also be a new tournament held in Lewis’ home state of Texas.”

The story described Lewis as “an American star who can rally fans and sway corporate sponsors to back domestic events.”

It said that Lewis’ “elevated status means she’ll be in demand each week on tour. She often has said that her main goal is to leave the tour better than she found it.”

When asked if this year’s new sponsorships could be tied in part to Lewis’ success, LPGA commissioner Mike Whan gave a frank answer: “If you didn’t, it wouldn’t be fair to her.”

From Little Siberia to Natchez and back

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

It was a magical weekend that combined some of my favorite things — Southern history and culture, the Delta, duck hunting, historic hunting clubs, fried crappie, crawfish, tamales, frog legs, beautiful homes, fascinating people, good friends and intelligent conversation.

It began Friday afternoon when Randy Ensminger of Little Rock picked me up for a trip to southeast Arkansas. To be specific, we headed for one of those famous Arkansas duck clubs I had long heard about but never visited.

It’s called Little Siberia, and its membership consists of some of Arkansas’ most successful businessmen.

The lodge sits on the banks of a reservoir near DeWitt, adjacent to the Bayou Meto. The reservoir was constructed in part by German prisoners of war in 1943-44. The current lodge was built in 1983, and significant renovations were made last year.

It was warm for late January, and two of the members had spent part of the afternoon fishing for crappie on the reservoir. They had filled an ice chest with large slab crappie, many of which weighed almost two pounds. Dinner that night consisted of fried crappie, hushpuppies and the best slaw I’ve ever had.

It had cooled off enough after dark for a roaring fire in the lodge’s large fireplace. The members regaled me with stories of days gone by in a part of the state filled with duck clubs and the colorful characters who inhabit them late each fall and early each winter.

I pulled from a shelf a copy of Ohio native Keith Russell’s book “The Duck Huntingest Gentleman.” First published in 1977, this collection of waterfowling stories contains a chapter on a Thanksgiving trip Russell once made to Stuttgart. The hunting was slow from a pit blind in a flooded field the first morning in Arkansas. The hunting was even slower on the second morning in the pin oak flats.

When the late Dr. Rex Hancock of Stuttgart heard Russell complain during a bull session in the back of Buerkle Drug on Main Street, he promised to take his visitor to “where the ducks are.”

That place was the reservoir at Little Siberia.

Hancock, a dentist who died in 1986, was among the South’s foremost conservationists. He was best known for his lengthy battle to keep the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from turning the Cache River into a drainage ditch. Shortly after his death, the federal government earmarked more than $33 million from the federal duck stamp program for the establishment of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge.

There wouldn’t be time for Randy and me to hunt the next morning, though I could hear shots from my bedroom as the Saturday sun rose. We left Little Siberia at 7:30 a.m., bound for Natchez and a meeting of the board of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.

Randy has been on the board for several years. This would be my first board meeting. Headed by New Orleans resident Liz Williams, the organization that’s often referred to simply as SoFAB operates a museum in New Orleans that celebrates the food culture of the South. It’s the only museum of its kind in the country.

In addition to museum exhibits, there’s a culinary library, extensive archives and regular programs. There also are big plans for the future. SoFAB will leave the Riverwalk (the long, narrow shopping mall adjacent to the convention center, which is being turned into a collection of outlet stores) and move into the Uptown location once used by the Dryades Street Market. That market opened in 1849.

Writing about the neighborhood in a 2001 article, Keith Weldon Medley said: “Located in the Central City historic district of New Orleans, Dryades Street has always been one of the Crescent City’s most intriguing thoroughfares. … Now named Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in honor of one of the city’s premier civil rights workers, this old street has witnessed the bustling panorama of the New Orleans experience — the lively and the melancholy, prosperity and economic hard times. Bold entrepreneurs of different religions, races and classes found their fortunes along Dryades Street.”

SoFAB also plans to partner with the New Orleans Public Library for a new branch. There will be more than 9,000 volumes of cookbooks, menus, recipes and other literature pertaining to Southern foodways in the branch.

A well-known New Orleans chef by the name of Ryan Hughes will operate a restaurant named Purloo as part of the SoFAB complex, and there may even be a working brewery. It’s an exciting effort to be a part of, especially since there will be exhibits on every Southern state, including Arkansas.

The board was meeting in Natchez rather than New Orleans because of an invitation from board member Regina Trosclair Charboneau. Seven generations of her family have lived in Natchez. Regina returned to the city in 2000 to raise her two sons and be close to her mother. She and her husband later purchased Twin Oaks, which they operate as a bed and breakfast inn.

More on Twin Oaks in a moment.

As the frost burned off Saturday morning, Randy and I made our way down U.S. Highway 165, slowing down as vehicles pulled into Arkansas Post Museum State Park for an event marking the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Arkansas Post. That January 1863 battle was a Union victory.

We crossed the Arkansas River and intersected with U.S. Highway 65 at Dumas. From there it was a journey due south through the flat farming lands just west of the Mississippi River in southeast Arkansas and northeast Louisiana.

It was too early in the day to buy tamales from Miss Rhoda as we drove through Lake Village and passed its iconic “Home of Good Fishing” sign.

It was too early to buy a shrimp, crawfish or oyster poor boy at The Dock on the banks of Lake Providence.

The morning sun was beautiful as it reflected off the waters of Lake Chicot in Arkansas and Lake Providence in Louisiana, those two giant oxbows that have been magnets for hunters, fishermen and boaters in this part of the Delta for decades.

The Delta has its own brand of stark winter beauty as the giant pecan trees in the orchards on either side of U.S. 65 form silhouettes. Ducks could be seen on flooded fields, and pickup trucks crowded the parking areas of the hunting camps we passed. I’ve long been interested in the history and traditions of Southern hunting clubs. Though I resisted the temptation, I wanted to knock on the doors, ask how the morning’s hunt had gone, inquire how old each club was and see what was being served for breakfast.

We rolled south through East Carroll Parish, Madison Parish, Tensas Parish and Concordia Parish. We saw the landmarks that thousands of Arkansans remember from their summer treks to the Redneck Riviera — the Panola pepper sign, the bat on the water tank at Transylvania, the Christmas lights that stay in the middle of the bayou at Tallulah 12 months a year.

We crossed into Tensas Parish. Suddenly the woodland floor was covered with saw palmettos, a sure sign we were getting further south. We passed through Waterproof and Ferriday, though we didn’t have time to stop at Ferriday’s Delta Music Museum. Ferriday is the home of Mickey Gilley and Jerry Lee Lewis.

We then turned toward the east, driving into Vidalia and seeing the church steeples of Natchez on the hills across the river. We crossed the Mississippi River bridge, having reached our destination.

I’ve always been fascinated by Natchez, dating back to trips I took there as a boy with my parents. My mother loved touring the city’s elegant old homes, and she enjoyed having lunch at the Carriage House Restaurant on the grounds of Stanton Hall.

The ladies of the Pilgrimage Garden Club have been serving food at the Carriage House since 1946. My mother, now 87, always would order the fried chicken. In her honor, I had fried chicken, rice and gravy and those silver dollar-sized biscuits. That’s not to mention the fact that Randy and I had started with an appetizer known as the “Southern sampler” that featured everything from deviled eggs to pimiento cheese to fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade on top (I hope my wife isn’t reading about how much I ate).

Randy, who has a massive collection of cookbooks, bought a cookbook in the gift shop next door after lunch.

From there, it was off to Twin Oaks. The original cottage, which is now the back kitchen and den, was built in 1806 for the area’s first territorial sheriff. There were a series of ownership changes during the next several decades. In 1832, the widow of Dr. Josiah Morris (who had been the victim of yellow fever) sold the house to a Philadelphia, Pa., couple, Pierce and Cornelia Connelly.

The couple had moved to Natchez so Pierce could serve as the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church. The Connellys added the Greek Revival portion of the structure. In 1835, Cornelia Connelly named the house White Cottage.

The story takes a bizarre twist at this point. Pierce Connelly decided to leave the Episcopal Church and convert to Roman Catholicism. The couple left for Rome and put their four children in orphanages. Pierce became a priest, and Cornelia became a nun. Cornelia later founded an order of nuns known as the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, which was dedicated to teaching young girls.

An 1840 tornado did a great deal of damage to the home. By 1852, Charles Dubuisson had completed the reconstruction of the Greek Revival home that visitors to Natchez see today. Dubuisson served as president of Jefferson College and later became a judge and state representative.

In an incident that sounds like something from a Southern gothic novel, Dubuisson’s 3-year-old daughter drowned in a cistern on the property and his wife died of yellow fever soon after that. Dubuisson fell into a deep depression and began spending most of his time at his plantation in Yazoo County.

Following a succession of owners, Homer and Elizabeth Whittington bought the house in 1940 and restored it. Since the house was not white at the time and was considered too grand to be named a cottage, they renamed it Twin Oaks in honor of the two huge live oaks out front.

Regina and her husband, Doug, bought the home in 2002 and have since added their own touches. Regina has conducted numerous cooking classes at the home during the past decade and fed guests ranging from Lily Tomlin to Anderson Cooper.

Following the SoFAB board meeting that afternoon, Regina gave three of us a driving tour of the area, complete with stories that sounded like something from “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”

I’ll have more on Natchez and the rivalry between the city’s two garden clubs in a later post.

The dinner Regina served our board Saturday night included beef tenderloin, frog legs fried in duck fat and shrimp and grits.

Following breakfast across the street at The Castle (which is part of Dunleith, another of the famous Natchez mansions), Randy and I headed north toward Little Siberia.

Our only stop was at The Dock in Lake Providence to buy 10 pounds of crawfish for that night’s dinner at the duck club. While we headed north with crawfish, a friend headed south out of Little Rock with several dozen tamales from Doe’s and a pork loin.

We arrived at Little Siberia in time for Randy to give me a Sunday afternoon boat tour of the reservoir. We scared up hundreds of ducks as Randy pointed out the various blinds and told the kinds of stories one can only get at a club with a long history.

The lodge at Little Siberia faces west. We were back from our boat trip in time for a glorious sunset. We sat by the fire pit and watched hundreds of ducks funnel into the flooded timber in the minutes just before darkness descended over southeast Arkansas.

Dinner followed.

Crawfish and tamales for appetizers. Pork loin for the main course. The AFC championship game on the big screen.

It doesn’t get much better than that. And a morning of hunting still awaited us on Monday.

Arkansas food notes

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

There’s a lot going on with the Arkansas food scene right now.

Here are some notes on developments that might be of interest:

— I’m anxious to try The Tamale Factory in Woodruff County, a creation of George Eldridge, the man who put the Little Rock location of Doe’s Eat Place on the map.

The Tamale Factory is in George’s old horse barn at Gregory, which is 10 miles south of Augusta on Arkansas Highway 33. It’s only open on Friday and Saturday nights, from 5 p.m. until 10 p.m.

You order just like you would at Doe’s — bring a big group, come hungry, get tamales and shrimp for appetizers and then have steaks for the main course.

Though there are now Doe’s restaurants in several locations, George was the first to come up with the idea of using the name and concept of the original restaurant on Nelson Street in Greenville, Miss. The Little Rock outpost of Doe’s became even more famous than the original when staffers for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign began hanging out there.

Once the weather warms a bit in March, a Friday or Saturday night road trip to Gregory sounds in order.

— An even shorter Friday night road trip (and one I plan to make) is to Big K’s Fish Barn, which I understand is in a farm equipment shed (my kind of place).

Traveling east on U.S. Highway 70 out of  Carlisle, you should turn north just past Murry’s restaurant onto Anderson Road. After crossing over Interstate 40, Big K’s is the first farm shop on the right.

I’ve heard the catfish is something special there.

— Two of the best meals I had in 2012 — one in the spring and one in the fall — were at the Bohemia on Park Avenue in Hot Springs.

Founded more than half a century ago by Mr. and Mrs. O.E. Duchac, the Bohemia was operated for years by Adolf Thum. I loved his German and Hungarian food, and I enjoyed hearing his heavy accent when he would come over to check on us.

I was saddened when Thum closed his restaurant in 2007. We’ve already lost too many of the Hot Springs classics I grew up enjoying — Coy’s, Mrs. Miller’s and Mollie’s to name three.

In late 2009, the Bohemia was given new life by Fermin Martinez, who was born in Mexico City and raised in Brooklyn. He later worked in France and Italy.

You would never guess from the outside that this is a fine dining establishment. It looks more like a beer joint as you drive down Park Avenue. Don’t let that fool you. Inside is one of the best restaurants in Arkansas.

— My top Arkansas dining “find” of 2012 was in the former Crain Motor Co. building in downtown Siloam Springs. The building, which had housed a restaurant called Emelia’s, underwent extensive renovations after Shelley and Todd Simmons of Siloam Springs joined forces with Chef Miles James.

An open kitchen was installed, the dropped ceiling was removed to expose the beams and historic photos of Siloam Springs were added.

James, known for what he calls Ozark plateau cuisine, created a menu featuring locally sourced foods. The restaurant is named 28 Springs. It opened in May, and I ate there in the fall.

James still operates James at the Mill in Johnson, long recognized as one of the region’s best restaurants.

James, a Fayetteville native, earned a degree from the New England Culinary Institute and then worked at these restaurants: American Seasons in Nantucket; Park Avenue and the Tribeca Grill in New York City; The Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe; Guy Savoy in Paris (not the one in Logan County); and The River Cafe in London (not the one in Pope County).

He was on the list of the “rising star chefs of the 21st century” that was released by the James Beard Foundation. His cookbook “Cuisine of the Creative” received a James Beard nomination back in 1999 for Best Cookbook of the Year.

Southern Living once described James at the Mill as “an architectural and culinary marvel … the peak of fine Ozark dining.”

For those who like James at the Mill, it’s well worth the drive over to Siloam Springs the next time you’re in northwest Arkansas so you can give 28 Springs a try.

— The hiring of Joel Antunes as the executive chef at Ashley’s and the Capital Bar & Grill in Little Rock’s Capital Hotel was a positive sign. It showed that the Stephens family remains committed to world-class dining in the state’s largest city.

Antunes was awarded the James Beard Best Chef of the Southeast Award in 2005 for his work at the restaurant named for him (Joel) in Atlanta.

Citing his disdain for the celebrity chef syndrome, Antunes once told an interviewer: “I don’t wear a tie and walk around talking. I am a cook. Discipline. I learned that in France. I am in the kitchen every day cooking.”

Joel — the restaurant — opened in 2001 and was named one of Esquire’s best new restaurants in the country.

As a youngster, Antunes went to live with his grandparents in the south of France while his father was serving in the military. He learned to cook from his grandmother and discovered it was something he enjoyed.

Antunes began an apprenticeship at the age of 14 at Belle Meuniere in the city of Royat in France, a Michelin two-star restaurant. He went on to work in Michelin-starred restaurants such as Leyoden in Paris, Duquesnoy in Paris and Hotel Negreso in Nice.

Antunes trained under famous chefs such as Paul Bocuse in Lyons and Michel Troisgos in Roanne.

He headed to Bangkok in 1987 at the age of 26 to work at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. In 1991, he became a partner and the executive chef at Les Saveurs on Curzon Street in London. That restaurant earned a Michelin star in 1994, but Antunes’ investors pulled the plug three years later.

The Ritz-Carlton Buckhead in Atlanta was looking for a chef after Guenter Seeger left to open his own restaurant. The likes of Daniel Boulud and Alain Ducasse recommended Antunes for the job. He spent several years at the Ritz-Carlton before opening Joel.

A short stay at the venerable Oak Room in the Plaza Hotel in New York was followed by a return to London and stints at the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge Hotel and the Embassy Mayfair Hotel.

— Near the top of the list of the tastiest things I ate in 2012 were the sausages at the 83rd annual Louie Mancini Sausage Supper, a Knights of Columbus event in Little Rock that drew hundreds of people to the Cathedral of St. Andrew on Dec. 4.

I was honored to be the featured speaker at an event with such a long history. From 1929-78, Council 812 of the Knights of Columbus held the annual supper to raise funds for the Saint Joseph Orphanage in North Little Rock. In the orphanage cafeteria, the orphans would sing Christmas carols while the diners enjoyed the sausage supper.

Saint Joseph’s closed in 1978, but the supper continued, raising money for needy children and their families. It was named for Louie Mancini in 2005 in honor of his decades of support. He helped his father prepare food each year for the supper, followed his father into the Knights of Columbus and continued to devote countless hours each December to the event.

Finally, a few of my dining wishes for 2013:

— That the weather is unseasonably warm on Jan. 25 when I’m standing in the long line waiting to get into the annual Slovak Oyster Supper.

— That the weather is unseasonably cool on Aug. 15 when I’m in the Ned Hardin pecan grove for the annual Grady Fish Fry.

— That the Little Rock restaurant Matt Bell is opening in conjunction with the Oxford American in the old Juanita’s location — South on Main — is as good as I think it’s going to be.

— That the former Capital Hotel chef Lee Richardson opens his own place in Little Rock.

— That someone will use the name The Gar Hole, which was the name of the bar at the Marion Hotel, for a good restaurant in downtown Little Rock.

— That the new restaurant Cache in the River Market District — named after the Cache River in east Arkansas — is a rousing success.

— That chef Matt McClure’s new restaurant in the 21c Hotel at Bentonville, known as The Hive, draws national attention.

— That the new owners of what was The Peabody Hotel in downtown Little Rock will bring in a well-known chef along the lines of Antunes. Since we’re losing the iconic Peabody brand and having it replaced by the boring Marriott brand, they at least owe us that much.

The beauty of Big Lake

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

The invitation was intriguing.

I was having lunch in Arkadelphia a couple of days before Thanksgiving with banker and philanthropist Ross Whipple, the chairman of Summit Bank.

He began telling me about the Big Lake Hunting Club, formed in 1886 by a group of Little Rock businessmen with prominent last names such as Worthen, Penick and Kavanaugh.

“One of the great things about Big Lake is you can almost see it from downtown Little Rock,” Whipple told me. “I would love for you to come duck hunting with me.”

Having lived in Little Rock since I moved back to my native Arkansas from Washington, D.C., in 1989, how could I have never heard of Big Lake?

It appears I have plenty of company since most other Arkansans have never heard of this natural treasure in southern Pulaski County, which covers almost 1,100 acres. There are areas of open water, but much of the lake is thick with cypress and tupelo.

The Big Lake Hunting Club — also known in various documents through the years as the Big Lake Club, the Big Lake Sportsman’s Club and the Big Lake Sportsmen’s Club — had 41 original members who paid $100 each and then were charged annual dues.

On the walls of the lodge that Whipple built overlooking the lake in 2004 are maps of the club and photos of the individual members from the late 1880s. In those photos, each man holds a shotgun and is accompanied by a dog. They hunted ducks and geese on Big Lake in those days while hunting deer in the woods surrounding the lake.

A wooden clubhouse was built on the spot where Whipple now has his lodge.

They also fished. The shallow lake, which now has maximum depths ranging from six to eight feet, is the home to mostly rough fish. There still are some crappie and bass.

“It was a place for them to get away,” Whipple says of those early Big Lake Hunting Club members.

The club gave free memberships to governors, members of the state’s congressional delegation, judges, legislators, county officials and others. Those memberships proved especially popular during Prohibition. I’ll let you speculate why.

Members could ride the train south from Little Rock and get off the train close to the clubhouse at what was known as Rottaken Station.

In 1943, the club disbanded after 57 years of operation. It seems that someone was putting arsenic in the sugar, and no one could determine the culprit. The members voted to dissolve the partnership.

World War II was in progress. Many males were away at war, and money was tight. There just wasn’t much time or money for hunting, fishing and playing cards in the country.

In 1946, the land was purchased by south Arkansas timber magnate Hugh Ross, who would take the train each Wednesday from Arkadelphia to Little Rock for an evening poker game at the Marion Hotel. That poker game included a number of the state’s top businessmen. Financier W.R. “Witt” Stephens, a Prattsville native, told Ross that there was property in Pulaski County he might want to buy.

Ross made the purchase, though he didn’t use Big Lake as a hunting club.

As an Arkadelphia native, I’ve always been fascinated by the history of the Ross and Clark families. J.G. Clark began buying timberland in Clark and surrounding counties in the 1880s. Ross married J.G. Clark’s daughter, Esther.

Jane Ross, the daughter of Hugh and Esther Clark Ross, was born in Arkadelphia in December 1920. She would go on to become one of the state’s best-known philanthropists. Jane Ross graduated from what’s now Henderson State University in 1942 and then worked as a Navy photographer in Washington. She joined the Women’s Army Corps in 1944 and had assignments in Delaware and New Hampshire.

Jane Ross studied color photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology after the war and then came home to open a studio, Photos by Ross.

In a large scrapbook, Whipple has a collection of photos taken by Ross after her father hired a group of men from south Louisiana to use pirogues to harvest cypress trees from Big Lake.

When Hugh Ross died in 1955, Jane Ross gave up her photography studio in order to manage the family timber operations.

Christin Northern picks up the story from there in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “In 1966, Ross established the Ross Foundation, a philanthropic organization, with her mother. The foundation’s financial backing came from Esther Ross’ timber holdings. Jane Ross became the executive director of the Ross Foundation after her mother’s death in 1967, while still operating the timber business. She remained chairman of the board of the Ross Foundation until her death in 1999. However, in 1979, she relinquished some control over daily operations of the Ross Foundation to her relative, Ross Whipple. The Ross Foundation, which continues to operate, focuses on education.”

The Ross Foundation manages more than 60,000 acres of timberland with the proceeds from that land going for charitable purposes. The initial endowment consisted of about 18,000 acres that had been part of the J.G. Clark estate. Smaller tracts were added through the years.

In 1993, the Ross Foundation acquired a major tract of land from International Paper Co. in Hot Spring and Garland counties. Following Jane Ross’ death in 1999, the foundation received additional acres from her estate.

The foundation has opened part of its land to the public. For example, much of the land in Clark County is operated in partnership with the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission. Hiking trails are maintained in Hot Spring County.

Ross Whipple has followed in the footsteps of the Ross family, becoming one of Arkansas’ most noted conservationists.

In an interview with the Arkadelphia Regional Economic Development Alliance, Whipple laid out his activities: “I serve as chairman of the Ross Foundation, chairman of the board of Summit Bank and run a timber management company, Horizon Timber Services Inc. I am also the managing general partner of the Whipple Family Limited Partnership. This is a separate set of lands that are considered to be a charitable asset. We manage these lands like a mini-national forest. Since 1970, we’ve grown from 18,000 acres to about 65,000 acres through acquisitions. … I cut my teeth in the woods. Those trees don’t talk back to you.”

Big Lake isn’t open to the public, but the fact it is owned by Whipple is good news since that means that this natural wonder on Little Rock’s doorstep will remain pristine rather than ever being drained for row-crop agriculture or developed into a housing project.

Whipple established Horizon Bank. After selling it, he founded Summit Bank in 2000. The bank now has more than $1 billion in assets and has moved into the  Benton, Bryant, Conway, Hope, Hot Springs, Little Rock, Magnolia and Malvern markets in addition to Arkadelphia.

Whipple bought Big Lake from Jane Ross in 1996. He now owns almost 5,000 acres in the area. Hugh Ross tore down the original clubhouse in 1951, using part of the cypress timber to build a house on Lake Hamilton at Hot Springs.

When Whipple decided to build his hunting lodge, he determined the best location was the one that had been used by the founders.

If you were to search the corporation records in the Arkansas secretary of state’s office, you would find a nonprofit corporation with the interesting name of Clark’s Squirrel Head Hunting and Fishing Club. The club dates back to 1911, and the orginal bylaws allow 17 members. In its more than a century of existence, the club has included a number of well-known southwest Arkansas business figures. Arkadelphia attorney Ed McCorkle keeps the club’s records, but Whipple now hosts its meetings at Big Lake.

Several years ago, a man named David Gatzke contacted Whipple and said he had a box filled with Big Lake Hunting Club records. A descendent of J.W. Mons — an early officer in the club — knew that Gatzke hunted in the area and gave him the records.

Gatzke learned that Whipple owned Big Lake and turned the records over to him. Those records have since been preserved in scrapbooks and in frames on the walls of Whipple’s lodge, making it as much a museum as it is a hunting club.

A map from the 1880s showed that parts of Big Lake had names — the Frog Hole, the Pike Hole, the Big Opening, Holly Island.

The modern club also has names — the Grinnel Hole, the Round Pond, the Ash Hole, the Island Blind and the Beaver Pond Blind.

Whipple has a bound copy of the orginal articles of incorporation and club rules, done in beautiful calligraphy. Guest charges were $1 a visit for males age 10 and older, $1 a visit for females age 18 and older and 50 cents a visit for females from age 10 to 18. No females were allowed at the club from Sept. 1 until April 1 each year in the late 1800s.

The letterheads are fascinating. A few of the ones I looked at were:

— L. Muller & Co., which sold “liquors, cigars and tobacco.”

— The W.M. Kavanaugh Co. in the Southern Trust Building.

— The Little Rock Cooperage Co. with offices at the corner of Main and Markham in downtown Little Rock and a factory in Argenta. It listed its products as “oak barrels, whisky barrels and white oak staves.”

— Parker & Worthen Bankers, Brokers and General Real Estate Agents.

— Geyer & Adams Co., wholesale grocers and cotton factors.

— The American Delinter Co.

— F.B. Wells, the maker of the “Page” brand of boat oars with offices in Camden and DeValls Bluff.

— Cockrill & Cockrill Lawyers.

— Missouri Pacific Railroad Co.

 — The Little Rock Street Fair and Mardi Gras Celebration.

— Arkansas Rock Asphalt Co.

— Fones Brothers Hardware Co.

— St. Louis Cotton Compress Co. of Pine Bluff.

The club members made a concerted — and ultimately unsuccessful — attempt to raise wild rice in the lake to attract more ducks. There are numerous letters to a supplier of seeds in Wisconsin and to the U.S. Department of Agriculture concerning wild rice.

There also are letters to members of the Arkansas congressional delegation and to various federal agencies asking that crappie be stocked in Big Lake.

Many of the letters are signed by Mons, who headed the Little Rock operations of the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Co.

Among the most interesting things in Whipple’s collection of papers are the thank-you notes from politicians for their complimentary memberships. The roster represents a who’s who of leading Arkansas politicians from the late 1800s and early 1900s.

There are letters from Joe T. Robinson both when he was a governor (he only served for a short time in early 1913 before resigning on March 10, 1913, to enter the Senate) and when he was a U.S. senator.

There are letters from Jeff Davis both when he was a governor and a U.S. senator.

There are letters from Gov. George Donaghey and Gov. X.O. Pindall (the Arkansas City lawyer who became governor in 1907 after Gov. John S. Little resigned for health reasons).

Carl Bailey, who would serve as governor from 1937-41, was an early member of the Big Lake Hunting Club.

There’s even a letter from the Garland County judge asking that a constituent be allowed to trap on Big Lake (with promises that he would not hunt or fish).

For those who love Arkansas history, what Whipple has is a treasure trove. He’s preserving both the natural beauty of Big Lake and the history of the Big Lake Hunting Club.