Archive for July, 2013

Why the Travelers are still here

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

Earlier this summer, Forbes published an article on minor league baseball’s most valuable teams.

The article began this way: “On July 9, 2011, the Dayton Dragons drubbed the South Bend Silver Hawks, their Class A Midwest League rivals, by a score of 9-1. Though the game’s attendance number might not seem remarkable — at fewer than 9,000 fans it was a fraction of what even the MLB’s worst teams draw nightly — it marked the Dragons’ 815th consecutive sellout, a streak that stretched back to the team’s inaugural season in 2000 and, as of that July day, one that set a pro sports record.

“It’s a streak still going strong in 2013 at well over 900 games. That remarkable drawing power is just one example of the potential financial success that minor league baseball teams can generate even in smaller markets like Dayton.”

Forbes estimated that the Dragons are minor league baseball’s sixth-most valuable team at $31 million. Dayton is one of two teams on the list not in Class AAA, the highest level in the minor leagues. The other non-AAA team on the list is Frisco of the Class AA Texas League, which ranked No. 11 with an estimated value of $28 million.

Dayton and Frisco are owned by Mandalay Baseball Properties, a partnership of Mandalay Entertainment and a private equity fund known as Seaport Capital. Mandalay Entertainment founder Peter Guber has part ownership in the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Golden State Warriors.

Mandalay Baseball also owns Class AAA Oklahoma City, Class AA Erie and Class AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

Minor league baseball teams have become a hot commodity in recent years. It’s not the big leagues, but it is big business with teams regularly being sold for millions of dollars and often moving to other cities.

The five Mandalay Baseball properties, which will generate an estimated $40 million in revenue this year, have been for sale since April.

Thanks to a key decision a man named Ray Winder made 53 years ago, fans of the Arkansas Travelers don’t have to worry about their club being sold and moved outside of central Arkansas.

Winder had worked as a ticket taker for the then-Little Rock Travelers in 1915, eventually rising to the position of general manager. During his more than five decades with the team, Winder had to use extreme tactics from time to time to keep professional baseball in Arkansas.

In 1960, for instance, Winder had to take full advantage of his relationships with major league teams just to have enough players to field a club. He had formed Arkansas Travelers Baseball Inc. that year and led a public stock drive to buy the New Orleans franchise and move it to Little Rock. Each share of stock in the Arkansas Travelers was worth $5.

Potential investors beware: The price of that stock has never changed, and all dividends go back to the club.

There are more than 2,000 stockholders, and the Travelers don’t accept public requests for stock ownership. In other words, it would be almost impossible for any outside entity to buy the team.

Ol’ Ray Winder knew exactly what he was doing.

There’s a reason that the main concourse of Dickey-Stephens Park has a museum, something rarely found at other minor league parks. The fact is there aren’t many franchises with a history as rich as that of the Travelers. The Dickey-Stephens museum contains artifacts ranging from the team’s 1901 charter into the Southern Association to all team photos from the years as an affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals (1966-2000) and the Los Angeles Angels (2001-present).

Visitors to the Travelers museum can learn about team officials, players and fans such as Winder, Judge William Kavanaugh, Jim Elder, Ferguson Jenkins, Jim Bunning, Travis Jackson, R.C. Otey and even Walter “Hookslide” Bradshaw.

There are baseballs, game equipment, uniforms and photos of Kavanaugh Field and Ray Winder Field.

There are team photos from 1901, 1903, 1904 and 1905.

Through the years, people have donated items ranging from Western Union telegrams to player contracts, baseball cards and game tickets. Considering the instability that infects so many other professional sports teams, it’s amazing that for parts of three centuries this team has had just one nickname and played on only three fields.

When the team name was changed from the Little Rock Travelers to the Arkansas Travelers in 1957, the Travs became the first professional team to be named for a state.

The Travelers first played in the Southern League in 1895. Other league members were Atlanta, Chattanooga, Memphis, Nashville, Evansville, Montgomery and New Orelans. The Travs posted a 25-47 record in their inaugural season.

After the Southern League folded, professional baseball was absent in Little Rock for five years. But the Travelers returned in 1901 with the formation of the Southern Association and finished second, just one game behind Nashville. They were second again in 1902.

Enter W.M. Kavanaugh.

Kavanaugh, an Alabama native and the son of a minister, moved to Clarksville in Johnson County following his graduation in 1885 from the Kentucky Military Institute. He worked for a banker and merchant in Clarksville before moving to Little Rock in 1886 to work for the Arkansas Gazette.

Kavanaugh was the Gazette managing editor from 1890-96, the Pulaski County sheriff from 1896-1900 and the Pulaski County judge from 1900-04. In 1913, the Arkansas Legislature selected Kavanaugh to finish the term of deceased U.S. Sen. Jeff Davis. Kavanaugh was even a member of the Little Rock School Board for a dozen years.

In 1902, Kavanaugh was asked to become the Southern Association president. As a member of the National Association of Baseball Clubs, representing the Western and Southern leagues, Kavanaugh was called “the squarest man in baseball” by Capt. C.T. Crawford.

Poor attendance and financial difficulties caused the Travelers to drop out of the Southern Association as the 1910 season approached, but Kavanaugh continued to work as the league president. He never gave up hope that professional baseball would return to Arkansas’ capital city.

Kavanaugh announced the return of the Travelers on Feb. 20, 1915. He died the next day following an hourlong attack of acute indigestion. He was just 48.

West End Park, the Travelers’ home, immediately was renamed Kavanaugh Field. When the ballpark closed in 1931, the property was sold to Little Rock High School (now Little Rock Central). Quigley-Cox Stadium is now at that location.

In 1936, Kavanaugh Boulevard in Little Rock was named in honor of the man some had called “Arkansas’ foremost citizen.”

Kavanaugh hadn’t lived to see the Travelers’ first championship, which came in 1920. They finished that season with an 88-59 record.

In their final season at Kavanaugh Field in 1931, the Travelers attracted 113,758 fans, the second-highest attendance since that 1920 title.

Land near the state hospital was given to the Travelers by the city in 1932, and Travelers Field became the team’s second home. The stadium was renamed for Ray Winder in 1966.

After attracting fewer than 68,000 fans during a 77-game home schedule in 1958, the Travelers were moved to Shreveport for the 1959 season. But just as had been the case with Kavanaugh decades earlier, Winder never lost the faith that baseball would return. Thanks to Winder, the team returned to the Southern Association in 1960 following the purchase of the New Orleans Pelicans.

The Southern Association was on its last legs, however, and Winder again had to scramble. As in 1959, there was no professional baseball in Little Rock in 1962.

The Travelers were scheduled to play in the Class AAA American Association in 1963, but that league folded prior to the beginning of the season. They played instead in the Class AAA International League in 1963.

In 1964-65, Arkansas was in the Class AAA Pacific Coast League as a Philadelphia Phillies affiliate, making trips to places such as Salt Lake City and Portland.

There has been remarkable stability since the Travelers joined the Class AA Texas League in 1966. They were a Cardinals affiliate until 2001, when the current affiliation with the Angels was signed. The move to Dickey-Stephens Park, only the third home of Travelers baseball in more than a century, came in 2007.

Because of Ray Winder’s foresight in 1960, it’s likely that the ballpark on the banks of the Arkansas River in North Little Rock will be the home of a professional baseball team called the Travelers for decades to come.

Downtown Fort Smith — vibrant is the word

Thursday, July 18th, 2013

I devoted my Wednesday newspaper column to downtown Fort Smith this week and heard from everyone from the mayor on down it seemed.

They were pleased to see something other than a business section story about a manufacturing plant either laying off some of its workers or closing completely.

Fort Smith long has been our state’s manufacturing center. With the decline in American manufacturing in recent years, there has been a steady stream of such stories coming out of Sebastian County.

Living in central Arkansas, I can see how people who don’t travel much can stereotype other parts of our state. The average Little Rock resident probably would tell you that Benton and Washington counties are booming while Sebastian County is losing population.

The fact is that Sebastian County had an almost 6 percent population increase from the 2000 census to the 2010 census. That doesn’t come close to the growth in the northwest corner of the state, but you can see that the Fort Smith area isn’t losing population.

All of this brings us to downtown Fort Smith.

Following a lunch meeting in Siloam Springs last Friday, I decided to weave my way down U.S. 59 through the Ozark National Forest to Van Buren. I needed a change of pace from the usual route down Interstate 540.

Because of construction on Interstate 540 into Fort Smith, I took Interstate 40 west out of Van Buren to the Dora exit on the Oklahoma state line. I like that entrance into downtown Fort Smith. You drive through the corn and winter wheat fields along the Arkansas River for a few miles after leaving the interstate and then cross the Garrison Avenue Bridge into Fort Smith.

What immediately struck me was how busy things were along Garrison Avenue late on a Friday afternoon.

Go into the downtowns of most Arkansas cities on a slow Friday afternoon in the middle of the summer and you will see few people on the streets.

That wasn’t the case along Garrison Avenue. The parking spots were full, and there was bumper-to-bumper traffic.

That’s when the thought struck me: The folks trying to revitalize Main Street in Little Rock could learn a lesson or two from business and civic leaders in our state’s second-largest city.

It was just after 11 p.m. on a Sunday — April 21, 1996, to be exact — when a strong F2 tornado took dead aim at downtown Fort Smith. That tornado caused $300 million of damage.

A lot of downtowns across Arkansas would not have recovered from such a blow. But the leadership of Fort Smith — pushed by a visionary developer named Richard Griffin — decided not only to rebuild the buildings that had been destroyed but also to renovate historic properties that long had been neglected.

The city’s Central Business Improvement District became much more aggressive in marketing downtown, updating design guidelines and trying to attract downtown residents with projects such as the West End Lofts.

Traditional retailers such as Newton’s Jewelers — which has been around since 1914 — were encouraged to stay downtown while new restaurants and entertainment venues such as the Varsity Sports Grill & Adelaide Ballroom, Rolando’s Nuevo Latino Restaurante, R. Landry’s New Orleans Cafe, Doe’s Eat Place, 21 West End and Neumeier’s Rib Room ensured there was life along Garrison Avenue and adjoining streets at night and on weekends.

Down by the Garrison Avenue Bridge, the Park at West End was opened, featuring a 1950s Ferris wheel and an Italian carousel.

Riverfront Amphitheater was built to accommodate more than 1,100 people for outdoor concerts and other events.

Ross Pendergraft Park opened adjacent to the Fort Smith National Historic Site in 2001, offering visitors restrooms, parking, benches and a pavilion. A statue of famed U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves was recently erected in the park.

Further east at North 10th Street and Garrison Avenue, Cisterna Park — named after Cisterna, Italy, which is Fort Smith’s sister city — opened with a fountain, nature area and picnic tables.

Visitors to the Fort Smith National Historic Site now can spend an entire day downtown if they choose to do so. There’s the excellent Fort Smith Museum of History in the 1907 Atkinson-Williams Warehouse Building adjacent to the National Park Service site. There’s the Fort Smith Trolley Museum. There are plenty of restaurants and shops within walking distance.

Sixteen new businesses opened downtown last year, including two antique stores in the 700 block of Garrison Avenue.

Fort Smith received an unexpected boost when True West magazine rated the city No. 1 on its list of “Top True Western Towns” for 2013.

Already, more of what’s known in the business as “cultural heritage tourists” had been attracted to Fort Smith by the remake of the movie “True Grit.”

And how many cities have a former bordello as a visitors’ center? To further enhance the visitor experience, a series of historical plaques was placed in downtown Fort Smith last year.

The next major step forward for downtown Fort Smith will be completion of the $50 million U.S. Marshals Museum. If the current fundraising effort succeeds, that museum will open along the banks of the Arkansas River in the fall of 2016.

Groundbreaking for the 52,260-square-foot museum will be Sept. 24, 2014, to coincide with the release by the U.S. Mint of a commemorative coin marking the 225th anniversary of the Marshals Service. There’s still about $27.5 million left to be raised.

While the nationwide fundraising effort for the Marshals Museum continues, Griffin Properties is moving forward with projects elsewhere downtown. Last year, the company completed an upscale market and cafe at the northwest corner of Garrison Avenue and North Fifth Street on an open lot where the KWHN radio studios once stood. The store, designed to provide groceries and other services to downtown residents, is in front of St. Charles Place, an office building developed by Griffin Properties.

Richard Griffin has said there are three keys to getting more people to live downtown:

— Buildings must be modernized

— Quality accommodations must then be added inside those buildings

— Things like grocery and fuel must be available in the neighborhood

In April, Griffin Properties announced that it will spend at least $3 million to renovate six buildings in the 400 block of Garrison Avenue. There will be retail space and 12 apartments once the project, known as Garrison Pointe West, is completed.

In May, it was announced that Fort Smith-based Propak Logistics will renovate the 1911 Friedman-Mincer Building — known by locals as the old OTASCO building — for its headquarters. The company will spend about $2 million to convert the three-story, 24,000-square-foot bulding into offices for 40 employees.

The company’s owner, Steve Clark, told Michael Tilley of The City Wire: “With each building we see removed in that area, it removes some of the heart of our history. So I see this as a preservation of a truly iconic building on a historic corner.”

Clark said he will use a Fayetteville-based architect with Fort Smith ties to “create a buzz in northwest Arkansas about what’s going on in Fort Smith.”

Clark took a trip with architects to Cincinnati to visit that city’s national historic districts.

Fort Smith native Ben Boulden, an expert on the city’s history, told Tilley: “It’s a real special building on the avenue. It has that triangular, mini-Flatiron appearance. … This is good news because we don’t need to lose any more historic architectural assets on the avenue.”

There also are preliminary plans to light and repaint the Garrison Avenue Bridge. Add to that efforts to relocate a railroad maintenance facility behind the vistors’ center, build a pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks there, install a splash pad for children and add green space.

You know the old saying: Perception is reality.

But if you perceive Fort Smith as nothing but a declining industrial town, take a walk down Garrison Avenue. Your perception will change.

Once the Marshals Museum is completed, that perception will change for thousands of other people in the region.

The Marshals Museum should mean to downtown Fort Smith what the Clinton Presidential Center has meant to downtown Little Rock and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has meant to downtown Bentonville.

Don Munro: Gentleman and scholar

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

This story originally was published in the July issue of Celebrate Arkansas magazine:

Arkansas was a far different place in 1959 than it is today.

The state’s image was tied to the 1957 desegregation crisis at Little Rock Central High School, Orval Faubus was in the governor’s office and thousands of Arkansas homes were still without electricity.

A young New Hampshire native named Don Munro moved to this rural state in 1959 to establish Lake Catherine Footwear, a division of the New Hampshire-based shoe manufacturer that employed him.

In early 1953, another East Coast native — Winthrop Rockefeller — had moved to Arkansas to escape a failed marriage and the prying New York media.

In 1955, Faubus — who was in the first of six two-year terms — decided to capitalize on Rockefeller’s famous name. He appointed Rockefeller to head the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission.

Rockefeller took the assignment seriously during his nine years in the job, bringing almost 600 new industrial plants to the state. Industrial employment grew by 47.5 percent and manufacturing wages grew by 88 percent in Arkansas during that era.

“Sears Roebuck & Co. was our biggest customer,” says Don Munro, now 85. “I always suspected that Winthrop Rockefeller was friendly with someone on the Sears board and that’s how the shoe company got to Arkansas from New Hampshire.”

The two partners in the shoe manufacturing company traveled to Arkansas to scout locations with AIDC (now the Arkansas Economic Development Commission) representatives. They visited small towns such as Lepanto and DeWitt during the day. They came back to Hot Springs each night.

Gambling was technically illegal but wide open in the Spa City in those days. There were nice hotels, good restaurants and live entertainment. The AIDC representatives undoubtedly felt that Hot Springs would be the best place to impress the visitors from New England at night.

Eventually, those visitors also decided Hot Springs would be the best place for a plant.

“It was either out here on Lake Catherine or over by the airport,” Don says of the two locations that were the finalists for the manufacturing facility. “This location has a lake, and the other location didn’t. So we ended up here. It has been a good spot for us.”

Back home in New Hampshire, Don and his wife Barbara had four children — daughter Lindy, son Bruce, son Neil and daughter Mollie. Another daughter, Christine, later would be born in Arkansas.

It would no doubt be a culture shock for this New England family.

“Most of the people we knew in New England had never even heard of Arkansas,” Don says. “It was a foreign land to them. They were a bit shocked we would move the family here.”

To prepare for his move to the South, Don read W.J. Cash’s exploration of the region, “The Mind of the South.” The book originally was published by Alfred Knopf in 1941 and was widely acclaimed for the way it explored Southern culture.

Cash wrote in the book’s concluding paragraph: “Proud, brave, honorable by its lights, courteous, personally generous, loyal, swift to act, often too swift, but signally effective … such was the South at its best.”

Don Munro sometimes is described as the ultimate Southern gentleman who just happens to hail from New England.

Through the decades, he has earned the reputation of being one of the state’s leading businessmen and philanthropists.

Through it all, he has never forgotten his obligations to his family.

“I had some advantages growing up that my children didn’t have,” Don says. “By that I mean that there were a lot of relatives around. We moved to Arkansas and my kids didn’t have all of those relatives. Family time was always important to me.”

He says the move to Arkansas proved easier than expected. He spent $24,000 on a lakefront home but only on the condition that the previous owners throw in their wooden Chris Craft boat. Munro family members brought a love of the water with them from New Hampshire.

“Reading ‘The Mind of the South’ was helpful,” Don says. “It made everything more understandable. But from the first, people here were very accommodating. And the terrain was much like that in New Hampshire. It wasn’t as big of an adjustment as you might think.”

Bruce Munro says of his father: “The first thing you recognize in him is his respect for other people. He looks at everyone the same. He has that innate respect for each individual.”

Indeed, Don Munro became famous for knowing hundreds of employees on a first-name basis along with remembering the names of their spouses and children.

“It wasn’t something that just came naturally,” Bruce says. “He worked hard at it. His respect for people is one thing that makes us different as a company.”

Don replies matter of factly: “People like to be called by their names.”

He says learning his employees’ names was part of “the bigger picture” during those early years in Arkansas.

“I was the only person who had ever made a shoe when we started,” Don says. “I had to be intimately involved in every part of the process. You get to know people when you’re working by them.”

More than a third of Munro & Co. employees have been with the company for at least 20 years.

There have been plenty of honors that have come Don Munro’s way through the years. All of them were well-deserved. In 2005, he was inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame. At a time when his competitors were moving their operations to other countries, he remained determined to make shoes in this country.

He purchased the Southern division of his longtime employer, Connors & Hoffmann Footwear Co., in 1972, establishing Munro & Co. That family company grew into the country’s largest shoe manufacturer and maintains operations at Hot Springs, Mount Ida and Clarksville.

Neil Munro bought the Wynne plant and now has his own company, NMF.

Bruce is the president and chief executive officer of Munro & Co.

Mollie is the company’s executive vice president and marketing mastermind.

At age 85, Don puts on a tie each morning and comes to work.

“He gets here at 6:45 a.m. and doesn’t leave until 5:15 p.m.,” Bruce says.

He then smiles and adds, “Don is starting to slack off a bit, though. He leaves by noon on Saturday. I’ve never known him not to wear a tie, but he was never formal and proper in a stuffy sort of way. He always had a sense of adventure. He was always taking us on trips.”

Don Munro is remarkably fit for his age. He has earned his good health. For years, he would swim at least a mile a day in area lakes. When swimming at night, he would wear a strobe light on his wrist to ensure he wasn’t hit by a boat.

“He has never slowed down,” Bruce says. “He’s our hardest worker.”

His father replies: “I pretend to work, and they pretend to pay me.”

The Munro American brand comes in 75 size and width combinations. The typical shoe producer makes only 17 sizes per style. Many of the shoes made by the company are women’s professional footwear, and Nordstrom is the biggest customer these days.

Mollie has worked to develop a modern website for the company, and both she and Bruce travel extensively so they’ll better understand customer wants and needs.

All the while, Don is there to offer advice and insight.

Despite his exercise habits, Don claims that his wife Barbara is the real “health nut” in the family. At age 83, she often kayaks on area lakes for two to three hours at a time. She also walks three to four miles each day.

“We never had what I would describe as goodies around the house when we were children,” Bruce says. “But here’s a secret: Don has a sweet tooth. He usually would keep some candy stashed away.”

Don had left college at Yale to serve in the Army and was sent to Japan soon after the end of World War II. He was the news editor of the Pacific Stars & Stripes and thought he might become a journalist. He wrote a story that displeased at least one general, and his journalism career came to an early end.

He returned to Yale to finish his degree and then went to work in the shoe manufacturing business.

“I used to think that writing would be my creative outlet,” Don says. “I later discovered you also could be creative in the world of business.”

After opening the Lake Catherine Footwear facility at Hot Springs for his employer in 1960, Don added the Addison Shoe Co. in Wynne and Mount Ida Footwear in 1967. Munro & Co. continued to operate those three plants following its establishment in 1972.

In 1979, DeWitt Footwear and Clarendon Footwear were added to produce children’s shoes.

Clear Lake Footwear was started at England in Lonoke County in 1975 to produce work boots for men. That plant closed in 1995.

In 1960, more than 90 percent of the shoes sold in the United States were made in this country. It’s now less than 1 percent.

As other shoe companies moved production out of the country, the Munro family knew changes would have to be made at Munro & Co.

“American companies were paying their workers $4 to $5 an hour for a 40-hour week, and Chinese workers were paid $10 a month for a 56-hour week,” Theresa Sullivan Barger wrote in the Saturday Evening Post in 2009. “Munro & Co. faced pressure to lower it prices or lose business. Munro founder Don Munro did not want to go overseas. He believed in buying American, insisting on purchasing American cars and TVs. He did not want to close factories, lay off workers and move jobs out of the counry.”

Many major retailers were no longer willing to pay what it cost to buy shoes from domestic manufacturers.

Mollie says her father once told her: “There are two reasons to own a business. One is to make money, and one is to be in business. I always chose the latter. My decisions have been predicated on staying in business.”

Don says: “We had hundreds of people working for us and depending on us for their living. I always wanted to be fair to those people and their families. I didn’t want to desert them.”

“Around here, ASAP means ‘After Sears and After Penney’s,'” Bruce says. “As the business changed, Don recognized in the early 1980s that we were going to have to get into the branding business. We have been able to establish an extremely loyal customer base. It’s probably unique in the shoe business. The first things to really go south on people as they age are their feet. We recognize that and thus work to provide superior support, comfort and fit. That’s what we’re known for.”

Rather than making shoes that were later sold under store brands, the company began establishing in-house brands.

The women’s brand now known as Munro American was started in 1984.

Two years later, the Child Life brand was acquired. In 1991, Jumping Jack Shoes was purchased.

The major niche is now women with thin, wide, small or long feet.

The company’s workforce did, however, shrink from more than 2,200 people in the early 1980s to fewer than 1,000 today. In the 1970s, there were more than 1,000 U.S. shoe factories. There now are fewer than 50.

Munro & Co. always had the advantage of not having to answer to shareholders. Don Munro and his family could do it their way. They take pride in being responsive to retailers. If a retailer calls early in the morning to place an order, the order is shipped that day.

“We use what we learned from Don to focus on consumers and get them on the Munro team,” says Bruce, who joined the company at age 25.

Looking at his son, Don says: “He always wanted to introduce more sizes and more widths. That’s what led to Nordstrom being our main customer.”

It’s obvious that Don Munro is proud of his children.

“Each one is unique and each one brings different skills to the table,” he says. “They have all been successful in their own way and seem to be happy. That’s the most you can ask for.”

On a sunny late-spring morning on the shores of Lake Catherine, it’s evident that this isn’t just a business story.

It’s a story about family — Don Munro’s immediate family and his extended family of hundreds of employees.

“Don has set the standard here since the start,” Bruce says. “And he continues to do that every day.”

JFK and the Greers Ferry water garden

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

Raised by his grandparents, Jerry Holmes grew up in rural Cleburne County, just north of Quitman.

It’s a scenic part of our state, and quite a draw for visitors from Memphis and Little Rock since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a dam on the Little Red River and created Greers Ferry Lake.

Discussions in Washington about building a series of dams along the White River and Little Red River for flood-control purposes began after the Great Flood of 1927. A year after another huge flood in 1937, Congress passed the Flood Control Act and began to move forward with plans for dams along tributaries of the Mississippi River.

American involvement in World War II delayed work on those dams.

In 1960 — following nine years of extensive planning — the first concrete was poured for Greers Ferry Dam on the Little Red River near Heber Springs. The dam contains 856,000 cubic yards of concrete and weighs 3.4668 billion pounds.

Two men lost their lives working on the project. Ed Phillips died on April 4, 1960, and Bill Killian was killed on March 10, 1961.

On Oct. 3, 1963, President John F. Kennedy came to Cleburne County for the dedication of Greers Ferry Dam.

Holmes was a young boy then and was probably not thinking much about the impact the project would have on the area where he lived.

Consider these facts: Cleburne County saw its population increase from 9,059 in 1960 to 10,349 in 1970; 16,909 in 1980; 19,411 in 1990; 24,046 in 2000 and 25,970 in 2010.

Heber Springs, the county seat, saw its population increase from 2,265 in 1960 to 7,165 in 2010.

Holmes, who owns a cattle ranch and a cattle auction operation, has started six businesses through the years. He realizes the importance of tourism to the Cleburne County economy. He was the county sheriff from 1985-91 and is in his first term as county judge.

Several months ago, Holmes put together a working group to discuss how to increase tourism in the region. Though Greers Ferry remains popular, Holmes says the summer weekend crowds aren’t as big as they once were. Greers Ferry, it seems, has lost a bit of its cachet among the Memphis crowd.

It was during one of the working group sessions that Billy Lindsey mentioned to Holmes that there had once been a plan for an ornate water garden on federal land just below Greers Ferry Dam.

In fact, Lindsey had color drawings from the 1960s of the proposed water garden. They had been under the front seat of his truck for years. He gave them to Holmes.

Lindsey, as you might know, is a legend in the world of Arkansas tourism. In the spring of 1965, Lindsey moved with his parents from Orange, Texas, to Heber Springs. His parents knew there were plans to stock trout in the cold water below Greers Ferry Dam, and they decided to build a trout fishing resort. Their initial land purchase was just more than eight acres. The resort now encompasses 62 acres.

“My dad had a vision,” Billy Lindsey told the Three Rivers edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2010. “He could stand on that hill and see what’s here today. Mom was questioning his sanity. We had a trout dock and a couple of cabins. We went two years with a trout-fishing business with no trout.

“Dad and Jim Collins, a trout biologist for the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, went to the Spring River to harvest moss. They brought it home in a flatbed truck and sprigged it up and down the river like sprig grass in a yard.”

The needed aquatic vegetation took hold, and the river was fully stocked with trout in 1967. A state record rainbow trout was caught the next year, and business began to take off.

That bit of history takes us to the man whose idea it was to build a water garden, the late Herbert L. Thomas Sr. I’ve written about Thomas on this blog before. He was among the top Arkansas business leaders of the 20th century.

Born in rural Ashley County in 1899, Thomas had started an insurance company by the age of 24. Within a year, there were more than 10,000 policyholders, many of whom lived in rural Arkansas.

Thomas later incorporated the First Pyramid Life Insurance Co. of America and set up shop in 1937 in the Southern Trust Building in downtown Little Rock. He renamed it the Pyramid Life Building. The building is now known as Pyramid Place.

Thomas and his wife Ruby loved to travel to Europe and had become entranced by the Villa d’Este at Tivoli, Italy. The elaborate water gardens there had been built by monks in the 1500s. In addition to loving Europe, Herbert and Ruby Thomas loved the Ozark foothills near Heber Springs.

With plans for Greers Ferry moving forward, Thomas decided to build a resort and a housing development unlike anything Arkansas had seen before.

The resort would become the Red Apple Inn.

The housing development would become Eden Isle.

In 1961, two years before the dam was dedicated, Thomas purchased 500 acres. No one was supposed to know exactly what the water level of the lake would be. That would prevent profiteering by those buying up lakefront property. Thomas, a close friend of Sen. J. William Fulbright (he was also friendly with Sen. John L. McClellan and Congressman Wilbur D. Mills), had inside connections. He was able to find out what the level would be long before the water started to rise.

With that piece of information in hand, Thomas bought an area known as Estes Hill. He knew that islands in Corps of Engineers’ lakes cannot be privately owned. So, before the lake filled, he built a causeway that would be above the water level. What would become Eden Isle no longer could be called an island.

Once the lake filled, 400 of Thomas’ 500 acres were above water. The lodge and restaurant opened for business in 1963, burned in 1964 following a kitchen fire and reopened in 1965.

While developing Eden Isle, Thomas began trying to convince the federal government to build the water garden just below Greers Ferry dam. He figured such an attraction would draw tens of thousands of additional visitors to Cleburne County each year.

Thomas arranged for a group of architecture students at the University of Arkansas to come up with plans. When the drawings were complete, Thomas sent them to Fulbright and urged the senator to make the project happen.

Jerol Garrison picked up the story from there in a 1964 article in the Arkansas Gazette: “Last fall, when President Kennedy accepted an invitation to speak at the dedication of Greers Ferry Dam on Oct. 3, Fulbright decided it would be a good time to broach the subject of the water garden to him.

“The two men sat together in the president’s airplane on the trip to Arkansas, and Fulbright showed Mr. Kennedy the drawings the UA students had made. The president expressed an interest and suggested that Fulbright talk to the Army Engineers about it.

“Fulbright replied that he had and that the Engineers had turned him down on the ground that a water garden was outside the scope of their authority.

“At that point a general in the Army Engineers who was participating in the conversation told Fulbright, ‘You are now talking to the man (the president) that could reopen it.’

“Mr. Kennedy then told the general to have the Army Engineers prepare a preliminary plan and cost estimate.

“After speaking at the dedication of the dam, Mr. Kennedy and his party left in a fleet of five helicopters for Little Rock. As his helicopter took off, the president arranged for it to separate from the others and fly over the site of the proposed water garden so he could get a better look at it.”

In a letter sent 11 days after the Greers Ferry dedication to Kenneth O’Donnell, a key White House aide, Fulbright wrote: “I am sure I need not tell you that matters of aesthetics, especially a new idea in this field, rather startle the Engineers, and they will probably have to be reminded from time to time in order to get this project under way. The more I think of it, the more exciting I believe this project is, as it could have application in many places in the country if we could prove its value by a pilot project.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the trip to Arkansas. I have heard many favorable reports from many constituents, and I feel the president should consider the energy and time spent as thoroughly justified by the results.”

Then came the fateful November trip to Texas.

Despite Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas the following month, neither Thomas nor Fulbright gave up.

In a Dec. 26, 1963, letter to McClellan, Thomas wrote: “I have recently seen the Engineers’ rendering of this proposed project. It was excellent, and I found their attitude entirely changed. They are now strongly for it. It is now back in the Engineers’ Washington office, and I am confident Bill Fulbright will be working with President Johnson on it, as Bill agrees with me that it is not only a cultural spectacular but an economic one.

“It would bring to Heber Springs many people other than just fishermen and sightseers. It would raise the economic level of the visitors to the community. Both Bill and I have visited the Gardens of Tivoli out of Rome, which are on the same order, and we personally know that they draw visitors from all over the world. Personally, I would consider this more valuable to the town and to Eden Isle, as well as to the property all around Heber Springs, than any other one accomplishment that has been mentioned since the construction of the dam.

“If you would get with Bill, and then bring Wilbur Mills in on it, I haven’t the least doubt but that you could get it done. Ed Stone’s firm in New York has offered to work on it with us without compensation. He likewise has seen the Gardens of Tivoli and knows their value, and said if he could see this accomplished in his own state of Arkansas he would consider that ample compensation for whatever he was called upon to do. This and good roads around the lake are all we need to make it one of the most talked-about places in America. I hope by now you have absorbed some of my enthusiasm for it.”

The Ed Stone mentioned is, of course, Edward Durell Stone, one of the most famous architects of the 20th century. Stone was born in Fayetteville in 1902 and attended the University of Arkansas from 1920-23 before moving to Boston, where his brother was an architect.

Stone was later a visiting professor at the UA’s architecture school. He helped the school obtain accreditation and employed a number of UA students in his New York office.

After Stone agreed to work on the water garden project, Fulbright wrote to him: “I am delighted about your reaction as this is a pet project of mine. I have been kicking it around for nearly a year with Herbert and others.”

In 1965, the project was assigned by the Johnson administration to the National Park Service. True to the promise he had made to Fulbright and Thomas, Stone submitted plans for the Greers Ferry water garden to the Park Service on June 13, 1966.

In 1972, the Park Service declared that the project was outside its jurisdiction. That likely would have been the end of the story had Billy Lindsey not said something to Jerry Holmes four decades later.

The new Cleburne County judge took on the project as a personal mission, contacting the governor and members of the Arkansas congressional delegation.

Chris Caldwell, a talented and enthusiastic aide to Sen. John Boozman, went to work on Holmes’ behalf and somehow found the Stone plans. For decades, they had been gathering dust at a Park Service storage facility in Colorado.

Those plans now sit on Holmes’ desk in downtown Heber Springs. They’re titled “Greers Ferry National Garden Park.”

Holmes is convinced that had Kennedy lived, the project would have been completed and been a “Crystal Bridges-type attraction” for Arkansas long before Crystal Bridges.

He says, “You could find the money in the Interior Department budget to do this if we could get the right people pushing for it in Washington.”

Holmes wants to name the water garden the President John F. Kennedy Memorial Water Garden.

In a letter to the late president’s daughter, Caroline, the county judge wrote: “I am determined, 50 years later, to see this project through and let the people of Arkansas and the United States have a moment to relive a part of a president’s dream.”

The pig sandwich

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

I determined long ago that the quickest way to the heart of an Arkansan is directly through the stomach.

Invariably, when I write about food, I get more comments than about any other subject.

Such was the case recently when I delved into the history of the Kream Kastle at Blytheville. The comments poured in.

Earlier on this blog I had declared Blytheville as the barbecue capital of Arkansas. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: For quality smoked pork per capita, no other Arkansas city comes close.

What’s your favorite Blytheville barbecue joint?

The venerable Dixie Pig?

The Kream Kastle?


Or is it one of the other barbecue places around town such as Yank’s?

The impetus for my newspaper column was a 34-page paper written by Revis Edmonds, an adjunct history professor at Arkansas State University-Newport who’s pursuing a doctorate in heritage studies on ASU’s Jonesboro campus. The title of the paper is “The Kream Kastle and its Place in Blytheville’s Barbecue Mecca.”

I revealed in the column that Paul Austin, the director of the Arkansas Humanities Council, and I had made a barbecue pilgrimage to Blytheville earlier this year and eaten lunch three times that day.

In Blytheville, the distinctive barbecue — finely chopped with a vinegar-based sauce (and the sandwiches automatically come with slaw unless you say otherwise) — is the basis for what’s known as the pig sandwich.

Our first pig sandwich that day was at the Kream Kastle, a drive-in restaurant. We ate in the car.

The second stop was the Dixie Pig, where we ate inside.

The third stop was the drive-through window at Penn’s. Again, we ate in the car.

Three pig sandwiches. All jumbo.

I have to share with you what one of Paul’s boyhood friends, who lived for a time in Dell, wrote.

“It was then that I was first introduced to the Kream Kastle pig sandwich,” he said of his family’s move to Dell. “In the mid-1960s to early 1970s, it was called a white pig because only the light-colored meat went into the sandwich. Then, as now, the only sauce was the seasoned vinegar they still use.

“Those sandwiches were the nearest thing to heaven on earth to me and caused me to embark on my lifelong quest to find a better pulled pork. Everywhere I go, without fail, I search out locals to point me to the best in town.

“I’ve sampled ‘the best’ from every section of this country, from large cities to crossroads, and of every regional variety. I’ve tasted whatever appeared similar in several European countries and in South America. Some of the samples were outstanding, many were pretty darn good, but I swear nothing has ever touched the Kream Kastle.

“There was a lapse of nearly two decades in which distance deprived me of contact with the pinnacle of pulled pork. Then, several years ago after a relative’s funeral at Manila, I traveled to Blytheville just to see if my brain’s record of that tender, smoky burst of flavorful sinew could possibly still exist.

“The waitress came to my car window. I asked for the white pig. I knew better than to try to custom order. You take it as it is prepared. I waited expectantly but tentatively.

“I was astounded as the first chunk of beautiful white pork fell onto my tongue. That succulence that I remembered flooded my taste buds and opened the gates of grateful salivary glands.

“Stop. I can’t go on. I have work to do and am very nearly abandoning it in favor of an absent afternoon en route to the Kream Kastle.

“Having gone on like this, it’s only fair that I also opine about the other establishments you recently visited, the Dixie Pig and Penn’s. Both were flourishing during my experiences in and around Blytheville. Both produced, and I hope still do, wonderful pulled pork. So wonderful, in fact, that the creations of either likely surpass the best I’ve tasted elsewhere. But my personal ranking back then was Kream Kastle with Dixie Pig and Penn’s in a dead-heat second.

“Can any other location on earth surpass Blytheville for the tastiest, tenderest, smokiest, most succulent pulled pork? I doubt it, though I’ve not been everywhere. Blytheville residents, as do most locals, take their treasure for granted. It’s all they’ve ever known so the idea of being the world’s best doesn’t cross their consciousness. But they are missing a marketing gold mine and a place in porcine history.

“I hope you will forgive the superlatives, but as you can see, I’m a true believer.”

It seems there are a lot of true believers when it comes to the Blytheville pig sandwich.

In his paper, Edmonds delves into the history of Blytheville and its barbecue traditions. Ernest Halsell opened the Rustic Inn in a log cabin in 1923. He later moved the restaurant to a rock building and later to Sixth Street in the 1950s.

“The forerunner of the iconic Dixie Pig, it symbolized the economic and social pinnacle of Blytheville’s history in the 1960s when the community boasted a growing population, a major Air Force base, a seemingly solid industrial base led by Bush Brothers & Co., a booming retail sector and an agricultural industry that still clothed and fed the world,” Edmonds writes. “Founded in 1879 by Methodist clergyman Henry T. Blythe, Blytheville grew quickly due to an abundance of timberland. The city was incorporated in 1889. The first era of growth came because of the massive harvesting of lumber to rebuild after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The lumber industry and its attendant businesses, such as the railroad, brough a proliferation of sawmills and, to put it mildly, a rowdy crowd.”

At one point, Chicago Mill & Lumber Co. owned 70,000 acres of timberland in northeast Arkansas and operated a huge mill at Blytheville. The Delta hardwood forests weren’t replanted, however. Instead, the land was drained and the production of cotton began to dominate the economy.

An Air Force base was established at Blytheville in 1942 and reactivated in the early 1950s. At its peak during the Cold War, the base employed almost 3,500 military personnel and 700 civilians. When the base closed in 1991, the Blytheville area lost thousands of residents with an estimated loss of $46 million in personal income.

The population of Mississippi County decreased 3.7 percent between 1970 and 1980, decreased another 3.9 percent during the 1980s, decreased a depressing 20.2 percent during the 1990s and then decreased another 14.5 percent during the first decade of this century.

“There’s no denying that the decline, when it came, hit retail concerns like the food service industry hard,” Edmonds writes. “When the Kream Kastle was established in 1952, Blytheville had come off a 1950 census that reflected a 52.4 percent increase in population over the 1940 census. This would remain relatively stable for most of the first two decades of the business’ existence.”

Like other Delta communities, Blytheville had a rich ethnic mix.

Huddy Cohen, who was Jewish, recalled that “middle and upper-class whites belonged to the Blytheville Country Club, where women golfers lunched on chicken salad-stuffed tomatoes and deviled eggs and couples gathered on Saturday nights to enjoy seafood Newburg and broiled steaks. There were black-owned soul food restaurants like the Dew Drop Inn on Ash Street, which paralleled the white Main Street in Blytheville, but we never ate there. Their world was divided from ours by the legacy of Jim Crow.”

Blacks and whites alike learned to enjoy the Blytheville style of barbecue. Despite the population decline, the barbecue joints hang on.

Edmonds describes the people of Blytheville this way: “Far from a place whose people wallow in despair and who lament that Blytheville’s as well as Mississippi County’s best days are in the past, they mostly share the sentiments of Jeff Wallace when he simply stated that ‘Blytheville will come back. It has before.’ Outsiders do not have to understand what makes this community and its hangouts persevere. All it takes is the loyalty and faith of its own people, come what may.”

Long live the Blytheville pig sandwich.

The decline and fall of Brennan’s

Monday, July 1st, 2013

My love of New Orleans is such that I had determined at a young age that if I ever got married, the honeymoon would be in the Crescent City.

Fortunately, I was able to convince Melissa of just such a honeymoon in the fall of 1989.

We ate our way across the city for a week. While the restaurant is viewed by some as a place for tourists, the famous breakfast at Brennan’s was de rigueur.

Through the years, I would take Gov. Mike Huckabee and other friends to their first breakfasts at Brennan’s. Melissa and I took our two sons there following Sunday morning mass at St. Louis Cathedral. Hurricane Katrina hit just two weeks later.

It’s hard for me to believe that the restaurant closed last week as a long-running family feud continues to play out.

“The thing that gets me most about it is that when the brothers took over from their aunts and uncles in 1973, Brennan’s was the most profitable restaurant in the world,” Tom Fitzmorris writes in his online New Orleans Menu Daily. “It has never done badly. A waiter told me that the place had a thousand people on the reservation books for this past weekend. At its lofty prices (the highest in town, except perhaps for tasting menus at places like Stella!), open seven days a week from morning through night, Brennan’s was a money machine. What the hell happened?”

The current management of the restaurant was evicted from the Royal Street property at 2:15 p.m. last Thursday by the corporation that had purchased the building at auction in May. The most recent manager of the restaurant was Owen “Pip” Brennan Jr., the son of founder Owen Brennan Sr.

It was learned Friday that one of Pip’s cousins, Ralph Brennan, is a partner in the company that now owns the property.

Ralph Brennan said in a statement: “The closure of Brennan’s restaurant is regrettable and sad but could have been averted many times over the past two years. For the last two years, I have been in repeated contact with my cousins in an effort to help avert the financial crisis that Brennan’s Inc. finds itself in today. Several offers to inject capital into the company were made and rejected.”

Ralph Brennan said that he and business partner Terry White “look forward to bringing the building back into commerce soon.”

Employees weren’t informed of the impending closure. Some arrived late Thursday in uniform to find the doors locked and everything turned off, even the gas light out front.

The restaurant’s roots date back to 1943 when Owen Brennan Sr. bought the Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street. He opened Owen Brennan’s Vieux Carre three years later. The elder Brennan died suddenly at age 45. Following his death, the family moved the restaurant to 417 Royal St. in the 1950s and renamed it Brennan’s.

Owen Brennan Sr.’s sons — Ted, Pip and Jimmy — would run the restaurant. Jimmy Brennan died in 2010.

In early June, Pip overthrew Ted as manager in a contentious shareholder vote. Ted and daughter Bridget Brennan Tyrrell had run the restaurant since 2006, when they had ousted Pip.

Are you following all of this? It’s, at best, byzantine.

On Friday evening, Ted Brennan issued a statement saying that if he and Bridget had not been ousted, they might have been able to avoid eviction.

“Despite the defamatory statements made by others about my family’s management, we have built this restaurant from the ground up since Katrina, only for their encroachment eight years later,” Ted Brennan said. “Times have been tough, but we always put our employees first. We are sick that the staff was not told of the eviction notice Pip and his sons received. Our efforts to communicate with our employees the past three weeks have been prohibited by Pip and his agents.”

An April 26 board meeting at the restaurant, orchestrated by Pip Brennan to unseat his brother and niece, ended when the police were called.

The shareholder meeting last month at which Pip and his sons — Blake and Clark — took over was held in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan. The late Jimmy Brennan’s daughters and Pip Brennan combined their votes to unseat Ted Brennan as Brennan Inc.’s board president and restaurant manager.

The Brennan family tree is a large one.

“In the years before all of this legal action, the Brennan brothers were suing their cousin Dickie Brennan over whether he had the right to use his name on his steakhouse,” Fitzmorris writes. “It was another eruption of the long-running feud between the Brennans on Royal Street and the Brennans of all the other restaurants (including, confusingly enough, Brennan’s in Houston).

“The expense of litigating that matter was not insubstantial and that may have triggered the cash issues at Brennan’s. It’s one of many ironies that have come to light.”

And what about cousin Ralph Brennan, who already owns five restaurants in the New Orleans area?

“Ralph’s presence in this mix give a good idea of where all this is headed,” Fitzmorris writes. “Ralph is not only an astute restaurateur but a well-trained businessman. He was a CPA before joining the family’s restaurant business. And unless more surprises come out, there shortly will be a new restaurant in the superb location that has been Brennan’s since 1955.

“In order to go on, Pip and Ted Brennan will now have to find a new location pronto or somehow make a deal with the building’s owners. They also have to come to an understanding between themselves. None of this will be easy.”

Fitzmorris, who does a three-hour daily radio show on food (only in New Orleans would that much radio time be devoted to food), says this could be the restaurant story of the decade in New Orleans.

Greg Beuerman, a spokesman for Ralph Brennan, was asked by The Times-Picayune if Ralph planned to reopen Brennan’s.

The spokesman answered: “Not the same restaurant. But it’s safe to say that a new restaurant is high on the list of possibilities.”

He said the eviction gives “the new ownership a clean opportunity to create a profitable, productive enterprise that continues to do justice to that iconic location.”

I head to New Orleans early next month. I had hoped to dine in the famous pink building on Royal Street one morning, enjoying oysters Benedict and bananas Foster.

The courts aren’t known for acting quickly. I have a feeling that breakfast will have to be eaten elsewhere.