Archive for January, 2015

An oasis at Clarendon

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

It was a prime spot for a settlement.

It’s where the Cache River empties into the White River.

The hunting was good — bear, deer, wild turkey and more.

The trapping was good — mink, muskrat, beaver and more.

The fishing was good as the streams were filled with catfish, buffalo, bass, bream and crappie.

French hunters and trappers built cabins there in the late 1700s. When the Military Road was constructed between Little Rock and Memphis in the 1820s, the ferry crossing over the White River was at the place they called Clarendon. When Monroe County was carved out of parts of Phillips and Arkansas counties in 1829, Clarendon was chosen as the county seat.

“By the last half of the 1850s, Monroe County, along with the rest of the Arkansas Delta region, experienced unparalleled economic growth with slave-based, plantation-style farming,” W.R. Mayo writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Cotton was the focus of the transformation of subsistence farming to large-scale operations. The White River served as an important byway for the Union forces during the Civil War and was heavy with gunboat traffic with Clarendon serving as a skirmish point. Supplies for Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele’s federal army were brought to DeValls Bluff, north of Clarendon, by way of the White River and were shipped from there to Little Rock by rail. Various skirmishes and battles took place in and around Clarendon. … After the war, the town resumed its role as an important industrial port for cotton and other commodities. The Monroe County Sun, the town’s current newspaper, was established in 1877.”

Business further boomed in Clarendon when the Cotton Belt line built a railroad bridge over the White River in 1883. Automobiles continued to use the ferry until the U.S. 79 bridge was constructed in 1931.

“Industries and cultural development began with a stave and barrel factory in 1889, an oar factory in 1892 and an opera house in 1893,” Mayo writes. “Clarendon continued to develop new industries after the turn of the century, including lumber mills and a factory producing buttons made from mussel shells found in the river. Freshwater pearls were sold at the Clarendon Pearl Market. The Moss Brothers Bat Co., which produced baseball bats, was also established. The Monroe County Courthouse was designed by noted Arkansas architect Charles L. Thompson and constructed in 1911. It remains the town’s most significant landmark.”

Problems and hard times loomed, however.

There was the Great Flood of 1927, which devastated the town.

There was the drought of 1930-31.

There was another big flood in 1937.

Then, the rapid mechanization of agriculture after the end of World War II caused tens of thousands of former sharecroppers and tenant farmers to leave the Delta, never to return.

“During the mid-1950s, the town had a box factory and a thriving fish market, along with a bustling downtown with shops, including apparel and dry goods stores and a movie theater,” Mayo writes. “In addition, the town had a thriving public school system. However, along with much of the Arkansas Delta, the town has experienced an economic downturn from that heyday. As of 2010, with the exception of the local public library, a bank and two law offices, the remainder of the old downtown shop buildings are shuttered and closed, including the movie theater, and the town is without an industry presence.”

To get a sense of what has occurred in this part of the state, consider these census figures for Monroe County:

1940 — 21,133

1950 — 19,540

1960 — 17,327

1970 — 15,657

1980 — 14,052

1990 — 11,333

2000 — 10,254

2010 — 8,149

My mother was raised further north along the White River at Des Arc in Prairie County. My grandfather was a Prairie County judge and owned the hardware store and the funeral home at Des Arc. I’ve long been fascinated by the culture of the lower White River region. It’s a part of who I am.

So I was intrigued when I received an email last summer from a John Brown University student named Jeremiah Moore.

He wrote: “Along with my brother, I run a small family park and museum in Clarendon. I’ve read your blog for the past two years and have found your writing on Arkansas’s affairs of past and present to be incredibly enjoyable and insightful. Your forthright love for our state and its history bring a certain kindred feeling that leads me to invite you down to Monroe County for a tour and a catfish lunch on me. I would love the opportunity to meet you and show you our small yet charming park and museum. It’s called the John B. and Margaret Moore Jacobs Park and Museum. … The house is the second oldest in the city, dating back to 1870. I believe you might appreciate this as well as the multiple antebellum fixtures and artifacts from the late 19th century.”

Never having been a man who could resist an invitation to a catfish lunch, Paul Austin of the Arkansas Humanities Council agreed to join me for the trip to Clarendon.

After circling the Monroe County Courthouse, we found the Moore-Jacobs House on a residential section of Main Street in the town of about 1,600 residents.

Here’s how the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program describes the house and its history: “The Moore-Jacobs House represents the strong influence of the Greek Revival style of architecture in the state. The house was built in 1870 by John Wesley Moore, who had come to Clarendon from Sussex County in Virginia. The architectural influences of his Virginia upbringing are evident in the home he constructed for himself. The house was built on a lot that ran down to the river’s edge and gave a spectacular view of the heavy traffic on the White River until the construction of a levee following the 1927 flood.

“Following his death, the house went to his son, John Burton Moore, who had established himself as an attorney as well as the owner of extensive land holdings in Monroe County. He married Bessie Branch of Holly Grove in the early 1900s. Bessie was the daughter of William F. Branch, who established the Bank of Holly Grove, and Ella Walls Branch, whose family held large amounts of acreage in the county.

“Margaret Moore Jacobs, John Burton Moore’s eldest daughter, moved into the house in 1927 following her marriage to John B. ‘Jake’ Jacobs. Her parents by this time occupied a larger home next door. When it burned in 1931, the Moores decided they needed the lot upon which the small Greek Revival house stood. To save the house from destruction, Jacobs had it moved by mules over log rollers to a lot directly across the street. This new location had been the site of an early schoolhouse in Clarendon. Margaret Moore Jacobs was a freelance writer whose articles appeared in many of the top women’s periodicals of the period. As such, she was acutely aware of the preservation and restoration movement that was becoming popular as a result of the activities at Williamsburg, Va.

“Jacobs restored the house following the move, and her restoration was in keeping with the general concepts held at that time. She also landscaped the grounds, utilizing plantings mentioned in the Bible. In the 1940s and 1950s, Jacobs developed a large following based on inspirational writings that she produced. … The Moore-Jacobs House, in its dignified simplicity, reflects the tastes, lifestyle and background of its builder and the continued respect that his family holds for the heritage he provided them.”

Let’s quickly climb the family tree:

— John Burton Moore was the son of John Wesley Moore. John Wesley Moore had built the house in 1870.

— John B. Moore’s son, John B. Moore Jr., was the brother of Margaret Moore Jacobs. When Jacobs died in 1976 (her husband had died a dozen years earlier), the house and surroundings gardens were left in a trust with instructions that the property be turned into a park and museum. A 700-acre farm was also left to the trust to produce the income needed to operate the museum. John B. Moore Jr. was appointed as the trustee, but nothing was done with the house for years.

— John B. Moore III (who goes by Burton) later became the trustee and saw to it that the house and gardens were cleaned up.

— John B. Moore IV, who is Jeremiah’s older brother, moved back to Monroe County from Colorado two years ago with his wife and two children. He now oversees the museum and gardens. John IV is 26. Jeremiah is 20. They’re determined to do what they can to revitalize this part of east Arkansas, which has been bleeding population for years.

On Jan. 19, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette published a front-page story by Noel Oman that told of the brothers’ efforts to save the U.S. 79 bridge from demolition once a new bridge is completed.

Oman wrote: “Two young Monroe County brothers say their effort to save an 83-year-old bridge in their hometown from demolition will preserve a link to the impoverished Delta’s past and boost the region’s economic and cultural future. East Arkansas may face long odds in arresting continued economic decline, but John Moore IV and Jeremiah Moore insist they are optimistic in the face of even steeper odds in rescuing the aging bridge over the White River at Clarendon. The Moores have joined forces with city officials and others to stop the planned demolition of the historic bridge on U.S. 79 to provide time to raise money to maintain the bridge as a crossing for cyclists, hikers, bird watchers and other outdoor enthusiasts through one of the largest remaining tracts of contiguous bottomland hardwood forest on the North American continent.”

John IV told the newspaper: “This is one of our great shots at preserving history and rebuilding our future. It won’t be just for Clarendon. It will be for Marianna, Hughes and Roe.”

The brothers already are preserving history at what Margaret Moore Jacobs always described as the “Dear Little House.”

The website for the park and museum states that Margaret was born in 1900, the oldest daughter of John Burton Moore.

“As a teenager, she contracted tuberculosis and was confined to bed in a sanatorium in Denver with a view of the Rocky Mountains,” it notes. “Perhaps this is where she gained the inspiration for contemplation and her resulting writings. Perhaps this is the condition that also left her childless, a circumstance that shaped her life and played a role in her creation of the park and museum trust. When Margaret returned to Clarendon, she married Jake Jacobs, who was a partner in a newly established Ford dealership. They were given the former house of Margaret’s grandfather, John Wesley Moore.”

Margaret wrote for magazines ranging from Furniture World to the Presbyterian Observer. Her subjects ranged from spiritual matters to antiques to gardening. She also wrote books.

Here’s how the website describes the property: “The eyes fall upon what appears to be a scene from the 19th century. First there is the iron fence that originally surrounded a court square in Tennessee. This is one of the most intricate fences you will see outside of the corn fence in New Orleans. Next to the fence is a horsehead hitching post to which you can tie your carriage. Lining the inside of the fence and front brick walk are boxwood hedges. Boxwoods were a favorite in English gardens and were brought to America by the colonists, as can be seen in Colonial Williamsburg.

“Guarding the front walk on either side is a pair of great iron dogs. On the north side of the yard is a large, tiered iron fountain. Closer to the house itself is a magnolia with a round iron bench surrounding its trunk. Under its spreading boughs next to the north-perimeter boxwoods and slightly behind an iron bench stands a life-size doe deer hiding in the shadows. At her feet is an iron rabbit. On the outside corner of the south front yard in an antique lamp from Fifth Avenue in New York City.”

The narrative goes on from there, but you get the point.

Best of luck to the Moore brothers. It inspires me to see two Arkansans in their 20s doing so much to preserve the rich history and culture of a region that too many others have forgotten.

The preservationists

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

Earlier this month, people from across the state gathered in Little Rock as the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas presented its annual Arkansas Preservation Awards.

These are my kind of people: Architects, academicians, lawyers, you name it. What they have in common is a love for this state, an appreciation of its history and a determination to preserve those things that have made us who we are as Arkansans.

For decades, Arkansas did a poor job of preserving its past. There’s no need to pretend otherwise.

When you’re one of the poorest states in the country, historic preservation becomes a luxury rather than a necessity.

During the past couple of decades, as the state has become wealthier, Arkansans have done a better job protecting and celebrating their colorful heritage.

The highlight of the awards ceremony each year is the presentation of the Parker Westbrook Award for Lifetime Achievement, named after the alliance’s founding president. No one loves Arkansas and its history more than Parker Westbrook, who has devoted much of his life to preserving the community of Washington in Hempstead County.

Past winners of the award include such well-known Arkansas figures as Richard Mason, David Pryor, Jane Ross, Dorothy Moore and her son Robert Moore Jr., Charles and Becky Witsell, Theodosia Murphy Nolan, Bobby Roberts and Bill Worthen.

This year’s honoree was my friend Ruth Hawkins of Arkansas State University, who has done more to preserve important sites in the Arkansas Delta than anyone I know.

Here’s how the event’s program described Ruth: “For Dr. Ruth A. Hawkins, historic sites are the key to the future of the Arkansas Delta. The list of historic landmarks and preservation projects in which Ruth has played a significant role in the Arkansas Delta is unparalleled.

“Ruth knows that distinctive history draws people and dollars. Years ago she began working to protect and preserve the natural beauty of the east Arkansas landscape through the National Scenic Byways program. Under the federal byways designation received in 1998, Crowley’s Ridge Parkway became eligible for interpretive markers and other improvements. A segment of the Great River Road in Arkansas was also designated a National Scenic Byway in 2002 through Ruth’s efforts.

“ASU’s Arkansas Heritage Sites program was developed beginning in 1999. Under Ruth’s leadership, the program has grown to encompass seven historic sites that illustrate many facets of Arkansas’s rich history and culture, including the Hemingway-Pfeiffer House in Piggott, the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza, the Arkansas State University Museum and the historic V.C. Kays House in Jonesboro, Lakeport Plantation in Lake Village, the Rohwer Japanese-American Relocation Center near McGehee and the historic Dyess Colony and boyhood home of Johnny Cash in Dyess. Ruth also serves as the executive director for Arkansas Delta Byways, the regional tourism promotion association for the 15-county Delta region. Dr. Hawkins and the Arkansas Heritage Sites program gained national recognition in 2008 with an honor award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.”

Ruth worked closely with the Sam Epstein Angel family of Lake Village and secured the 1859 Lakeport Plantation home as a gift to ASU. Six years and more than $9 million later, the state’s only remaining antebellum plantation home on the banks of the Mississippi River was opened to the public.

Ruth wasn’t finished, though.

“Everyone thought that the Lakeport project would be Ruth’s crowning achievement, but it’s the Johnny Cash boyhood home and the Dyess Colony that now take the cake,” the program said. “The Cash home and the Dyess Colony administration building opened to the public in August. Dyess city offices are now in the administration building, the center of a redevelopment plan for the town of Dyess.

“Ruth sees preservation as not just a tool through which to teach history but as an economic development catalyst as well. Since 1999, the Hemingway-Pfeiffer House in Piggott has served not just as a museum but as a draw to the community. Piggott has seen nearly a 75 percent increase in state tax revenues from travel and tourism expenditures. Similar growth is projected for Dyess. The Cash boyhood home is expected to bring 50,000 visitors annually who spend about $10 million in the region and create more than 100 tourism-related jobs.”

Ruth is not shy about approaching famous people for help.

She brought in George Takei, who was interned in Arkansas as a child, to record the audio tours for Rohwer.

She has attracted the likes of Rosanne Cash, Loretta Lynn, Kris Kristofferson, George Jones, Reba McEntire and Willie Nelson to the annual Johnny Cash Music Festival in Jonesboro.

She teaches courses in ASU’s doctoral program for heritage studies and is the author of one of the best Hemingway books out there, “Unbelievable Happiness and Final Sorrow: The Hemingway Pfeiffer Marriage.”

Throw in her work for the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Arkansas History Commission, and you get a sense of how busy she is.

Among this year’s other honorees were:

— The William F. Laman Public Library System of North Little Rock, which received the Excellence in Preservation through Rehabilitation Award in the public sector for its work to restore the vacant post office on Main Street in downtown North Little Rock. The 1931 Georgian Revival structure was designed by noted Arkansas architect Charles Thompson.

— Paula Dempsey and the folks at Dempsey Bakery in downtown Little Rock, who received the Excellence in Preservation through Rehabilitation Award in the private sector for turning a building built in 1948 as an automobile dealership into a modern bakery.

— The Delta Cultural Center at Helena, which received the Excellence in Preservation through Restoration Award for turning Helena’s Temple Beth El into a public events center. The Delta has a strong Jewish heritage, though the number of Jews in the region has declined significantly. Temple Beth El was constructed in 1915 with an imposing stained class dome. The building was designed by Mann & Stern, the same architectural partnership that designed the state Capitol, Little Rock Central High School, the Arlington Hotel, the Fordyce Bath House and other buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. The congregation deconsecrated the temple in 2005 and donated the building to the Delta Cultural Center for public use.

— Charles Witsell and Gordon Wittenberg, who received the Ned Shank Award for Outstanding Preservation Publication for their book “Architects of Little Rock: 1833-1950.” This book from the University of Arkansas Press provides biographical sketches of the architects at work in Little Rock during that period. The authors, both noted architects, profile 35 architects including such key figures in Arkansas architectural history as George Mann, Thomas Harding, Charles Thompson, Max Mayer, Edwin Cromwell, George Wittenberg and Lawson Delony.

— ASU emeritus professor Scott Darwin, who received the Outstanding Achievement in Preservation Advocacy Award for his work to save the V.C. Kays House on the ASU campus. The Tudor-style home was built in 1936 by the school’s founding father and one of its most influential presidents. After Kays’ presidency ended in 1943, he continued working as the school’s business manager. The home faced demolition before Darwin got involved.

— Visit Hot Springs and all of those involved in the creation of the Hot Springs Baseball Trail. They received the Outstanding Achievement in Preservation Education Award for creating a trail of historic markers to celebrate the fact that Hot Springs is the birthplace of spring training for professional baseball. Players ranging from Babe Ruth to Jackie Robinson trained in Hot Springs.

— Jennifer Carman and Donna Thomas of Little Rock, who received the Outstanding Service in Neighborhood Preservation Award for their work restoring homes in the Central High School Neighborhood Historic District. Since 2010, they have completed more than 10 rehabilitation projects and have encouraged others to do the same. In the words of Carman: “If you had asked me 10 years ago why I thought these sorts of preservation projects were important, I might have waxed poetic about architectural styles and beautification and cultural heritage. Today, however, I will tell you that my dedication stems from seeing firsthand the positive changes that rehabilitation can spark within a city or a neighborhood, or even a single residential block. Ultimately, I’ve learned that preservation isn’t really about improving buildings. It’s about improving lives and nurturing communities.”

— Clancy McMahon, who received the Outstanding Work by a Craftsperson Award for his efforts to restore the A.R. Carroll Drugstore in the Washington County community of Canehill. The building was constructed in 1900 and is the last remaining example of the stone buildings that once made up Canehill’s commercial district. McMahon was able to re-create the composition and form of historic soft mortar in the building, which will serve as a community center.

Honorable mentions in various categories went to:

— CareLink, the architectural firm Polk Stanley Wilcox and East Harding Inc. for taking an abandoned building along Pike Avenue in North Little Rock, which had once been a Safeway grocery store, and turning it into a headquarters for the nonprofit organization.

— The state of Arkansas, the architectural firm Hight-Jackson Associates and Baldwin & Shell Construction Co. for their work restoring the inside of the dome at the state Capitol.

— The University of Arkansas at Little Rock, WER Architects/Planners and Kinco Constructors for their work restoring the cemetery at the Rohwer Relocation Camp in Desha County.

— Keith Newton for his craftsmanship in the restoration of the Frank Gibb House in Little Rock. Gibb was an architect, and the home was constructed in the 1890s.

In a state that needs more preservationists and more of a preservation ethos, these people, companies and other entities are all heroes in my eyes.