Archive for December, 2015

Tomb of Doom (now Boom)

Wednesday, December 30th, 2015

Sidney Shlenker descended on the city of Memphis like a character out of “The Music Man.”

He talked a big game, but he had the credentials to back up the talk.

He once owned the Denver Nuggets.

He once was the chief executive of the company that ran the Astrodome in Houston.

He was born in Monroe, La., in August 1936. Two years later, his family moved to Houston. Shlenker’s father became wealthy in the liquor business and real estate, eventually purchasing Houston National Bank.

Shlenker headed to Tulane University at New Orleans but had little interest in his studies. He returned to Houston without a degree and worked his way up the ladder at his father’s bank, moving from teller to the vice president in charge of installment loans.

He teamed up with an insurance salesman named Allen Becker in 1966 to convince a client to sponsor a boat show at a new facility known as the Astrodome. Becker and Shlenker earned about $9,000 each and decided to form a company known as Pace Management Corp. It produced events at the Astrodome that ranged from demolition derbies to motorcycle races.

By 1990, the renamed Pace Entertainment was producing multiple Broadway touring shows, hundreds of rock concerts, dozens of motorcycle races and even tractor pulls. The company invested in Broadway shows and owned several theaters.

Shlenker owned 45 percent of Pace until the early 1990s, but he let Becker run the day-to-day operations beginning in 1968. That allowed Shlenker to concentrate on sales and marketing of the Astrodome.

“He brought in heavyweight fights and other events to the world’s first domed stadium,” the Los Angeles Times reported after Shlenker died at age 66 in April 2003. “But his promotional piece de resistance may have been securing the rights to the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. The so-called Battle of the Sexes drew 33,000 paying customers to the Astrodome, one of the largest crowds ever to watch a tennis match.

“After the Astrodome’s builder, Judge Roy Hofheinz, suffered a stroke in 1975, Shlenker was made chief executive and president of Astrodomain Corp., the Astrodome’s parent organization. In so doing, he became president of the Houston Astros baseball club. In 1982, Shlenker became minority owner of the Houston Rockets basketball team. Three years later, he sold his share of the Rockets and purchased the Denver Nuggets for $20 million from fellow Texan Red McCombs, a friend and sometimes business partner. The deal was consummated during a 30-minute phone call. Four years later, Shlenker sold the Colorado basketball team for $65 million.”

Flush with money, he turned his eyes to Memphis and the idea of The Great American Pyramid, a 20,000-seat facility on the banks of the Mississippi River.

It was to include a Grammy music museum, the College Football Hall of Fame, a Hard Rock Café and an amusement park known as Rakapolis. Mud Island would be renamed Festival Island.

Shlenker told The New York Times: “It’s going to be a monument like the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower, a signature for the city. The difference is, this will have something inside it.”

Memphis magazine named Shlenker its Memphian of the Year for 1989 and put him on the cover.

The project, however, had problems from the start.

In the 1950s, Memphis artist Mark Hartz had come up with a plan for three pyramids to be built overlooking the Mississippi River. Years later, Hartz’ son resurrected the idea and convinced entrepreneur John Tigrett to take it on. It was Tigrett who brought Shlenker to town. Tigrett and Shlenker later would have a falling out and were no longer speaking by the time Shlenker left Memphis.

The groundbreaking ceremony was in September 1989, and The Pyramid opened in November 1991 without the amenities that had been promised by Shlenker. There was no music museum, no College Football Hall of Fame, no Hard Rock Café, no amusement park.

It was owned and operated by the city of Memphis and Shelby County. The county sold its share to the city in April 2009.

“Shlenker left town, leaving Memphians holding a bag full of past-due construction bills,” The Memphis Flyer later wrote. “In 1991, our former Memphian of the Year earned a Memphis magazine Kudzu Award (our version of Esquire’s Dubious Achievements) and was featured on the cover as a comical Humpty-Dumpty figure atop The Pyramid that had been his downfall.”

Things only got worse for Shlenker.

He moved to Los Angeles and found himself entangled in 1995 in the Heidi Fleiss affair. Shlenker, Mexican businessman Manuel Santos and actor Charlie Sheen testified in the Hollywood madam’s trial that they had written the checks produced in court by Fleiss’ prostitutes.

Three years later, Shlenker was involved in a highway accident that left him a paraplegic.

Back in Memphis, The Pyramid came to be known by locals as the Tomb of Doom.

On opening night, the arena floor flooded. The acoustics and sight lines left much to be desired. The surrounding Pinch neighborhood never fully developed into the tourist attraction that had been promised to Memphis taxpayers.

There were a few bright spots. Some good Memphis Tiger basketball teams played there. Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson boxed there in 2002. A huge concert marking the 25th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death occurred there in 2002. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament held first- second-round games there in 1995, 1997 and 2001.

When Memphis landed an NBA team, the new tenant declared that its stay at The Pyramid would only be temporary. The truly world-class FedEx Forum was built adjacent to Beale Street at a cost of more than $250 million and opened in 2004.

The Pyramid went dark.

So what would go there?

Some said it should be a casino.

Others proposed the nation’s largest aquarium.

An outlet mall?

An indoor theme park?

Enter Johnny Morris.

Morris had started his career selling fishing supplies in the back of a liquor store owned by this father in Springfield, Mo. Fishermen on the way to Branson would stop and buy supplies.

Bass Pro Shops was incorporated in 1971. Morris added a catalog business three years later.

Bass Tracker boats became part of the growing Morris empire in 1978.

In 1984, Morris began construction of a giant showroom in Springfield that would become one of the state’s top tourist attractions.

His Big Cedar Lodge on Table Rock Lake opened near the Arkansas border in 1988.

The first Bass Pro Shop outside Missouri opened at Atlanta in 1995.

The company Morris founded now has more than 20,000 employees and annual revenues of more than $4 billion.

Morris saw potential in the empty Pyramid and began talking to Memphis officials in 2005. In 2008, the city announced a tentative agreement with Bass Pro Shops. But negotiations bogged down, and it seemed the facility would forever be the Tomb of Doom.

Miracle of miracles, the city and Bass Pro announced in June 2010 that they had signed an agreement for Bass Pro to lease The Pyramid for 55 years and redevelop the structure. The city committed $105 million to help with seismic retrofitting and other improvements. Bass Pro invested another $30 million.

Finally, something was going right at The Pyramid.

The Tomb of Doom became the Tomb of Boom.

Almost 700 employees were hired. A replica of a cypress swamp was built between the retail displays. There are archery ranges, gun ranges, a Ducks Unlimited museum, a 30th-floor observation deck, aquariums, restaurants, a bowling alley and even a 103-room hotel.

The 500,000-square-foot facility opened in April, and the turnstile count reached 1 million by July. That’s far more people than visit Graceland.

Morris said the facility has been such a success that he’s considering adding a second hotel downtown and perhaps a zip line.

All of downtown has benefited.

The owner of The Majestic restaurant on Main Street said May was the best month in the nine years the restaurant has been in business.

“Bass Pro is not cheap,” restaurant owner Deni Reilly said. “People coming to see Bass Pro and experience Bass Pro are people with money to spend. They’re advertising The Pyramid in places like Washington, D.C.”

Morris told The Commercial Appeal: “We think we’ll continue to thrive as a regional destination and experience. Only time will tell, but our goal is to keep fueling the fire.”

Almost a quarter of a century after it opened, The Pyramid appears to have found (as the real estate folks like to say) its highest and best use.

From Crump to Liberty

Monday, December 28th, 2015

Clarence Saunders of Memphis, the founder of the Piggly Wiggly grocery store chain, owned a semiprofessional football team called the Saunders Tigers.

He proposed that a large football stadium be built at Memphis, thinking the city eventually could attract a National Football League team. What’s now the NFL had started in 1920 as the American Professional Football Association and changed its name to the NFL in 1922.

Saunders never achieved his football dream. He lost a fortune during the Great Depression, thus beginning decades of futility when it comes to the Bluff City and professional football.

The city did, however, get its new stadium.

In 1932, a group of business and civic leaders in Memphis presented the board of the Mid-South Fair Association with a plan to build a 25,000-seat stadium. The Memphis Park Commission gave its approval for a stadium at the fairgrounds that summer, but the plan was set aside in favor of a competing proposal at Central High School.

Construction of the stadium at the high school was completed by the WPA in 1934 with seating for 7,500 fans. The school board voted to name the stadium for former Mayor E.H. Crump, who continued to rule the city even after leaving the mayor’s office. He was known across the Mid-South simply as Boss Crump.

A 1936 game at Crump Stadium between Ole Miss and Tennessee drew a standing-room-only crowd of 11,000 fans, leading the city to remove the original wooden bleachers on the south side and replace them with concrete stands. That increased the capacity to 15,000. Control of the stadium was transferred from the school board to the Memphis Park Commission.

A release from the WPA said: “California has its Rose Bowl, Louisiana has its Sugar Bowl and now Memphis is to have its Cotton Bowl.”

Instead, a Texas oilman named J. Curtis Sanford funded the game out of his pocket, and the Cotton Bowl went to Dallas for its Jan. 1, 1937, inaugural.

Back in Memphis, 40 games (high school and college) were played at Crump Stadium in 1936. By 1939, the Crump Stadium capacity was 25,000.

The Delta Bowl was played there in 1948 and 1949. In 1947, the Arkansas-Texas game was played at Memphis. John Barnhill, the Arkansas athletic director at the time, moved the game to Memphis to make the point that a stadium with more seats was needed in Arkansas. When War Memorial Stadium opened the following year, the Crump Stadium manager (Allan Berry) was hired to run the new facility at Little Rock.

Ole Miss and Tennessee played each other at Crump Stadium until the 1960s. Mississippi State also was a regular visitor.

The city released plans in November 1962 to expand Crump Stadium to 45,000 seats, but that project fell by the wayside in favor of building a stadium at the fairgrounds to be known as Memphis Memorial Stadium.

Crump Stadium was transferred back to the school board when the new stadium opened in 1965. High school games were played there through 2004. The old stadium was torn down in 2006, and a new high school stadium that kept the Crump name opened in 2007 on the site. It retained the original outer brick wall, gates and entrances. The new stadium seats 7,000.

Other famous events in the history of Crump Stadium included a Billy Graham crusade in 1951 and an Elvis Presley performance in 1957.

Memphis Memorial Stadium was constructed at a cost of almost $4 million. It shared the Mid-South Fairgrounds with the Mid-South Coliseum and the Libertyland amusement park. The first regular-season game in the stadium was between Ole Miss and what’s now the University of Memphis.

Liberty Bowl founder Bud Dudley moved his game from Atlantic City to Memphis that year, where it has remained. The stadium was renamed Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in 1976.

In 1987, a renovation project increased the stadium’s capacity from 50,160 to 62,380. Another renovation project two years ago decreased capacity to 59,308. Changes since the last time the University of Arkansas played in the Liberty Bowl in 2009 include new lights, two new video boards, new elevators, new turf and extensive painting.

In addition to hosting the Liberty Bowl each year, the stadium has hosted the Southern Heritage Classic since its inception in 1990. Tennessee State and Jackson State draw about 50,000 fans for that game, ranking it in the top three in attendance among historically black college football classics.

The University of Memphis has played home games at the stadium since 1965 after having played 28 seasons at Crump Stadium.

And it seems as if almost every professional football league has called the Liberty Bowl home at one time or another.

During the 1974-75 seasons, the Memphis Southmen of the World Football League played there and drew good crowds. Owner John Bassett changed the name of the team to the Grizzlies and made a bid to join the NFL as a 1976 expansion team. More than 40,000 season tickets were sold in the Memphis area. The NFL refused to add Memphis. Bassett filed a lawsuit against the NFL that was dismissed.

The best Memphis could do from 1978-80 was a North American Soccer League team known as the Rogues. That team moved to Calgary after the 1980 season.

Bassett had hooked up to start the league with Gary Davidson, who helped start the American Basketball Association and the World Hockey Association, which later were absorbed by the NBA and the NHL. Bassett was a Canadian tennis prodigy who came from a wealthy family and went on to become a movie producer. He owned the WHA’s Toronto Toros, and his family owned the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, two Toronto newspapers and several television stations.

His WFL football team in Toronto would be called the Northmen. Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau announced that under the Canadian Football Act, no U.S.-based football league would be allowed into the country to compete with the Canadian Football League. So Bassett moved the team to Memphis.

The 1974 home opener against Detroit drew 30,122 fans. Elvis Presley was there to watch, and Arkansas native Charlie Rich sang the national anthem.

Rich sat down next to Presley at the start of the game, and Presley said: “That’s a tough song to sing, ain’t it?

Rich replied: “It ain’t no Behind Closed Doors.”

Memphis finished with the league’s best record at 17-3 but lost in the playoff semifinals to the Florida Blazers from Orlando.

Bassett received nationwide media attention when he signed Miami Dolphin stars Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield for the 1975 season. Memphis was 7-4 when the league folded in the middle of that 1975 campaign.

Professional football was back in Memphis in 1984 with the Showboats of the USFL. Pepper Rodgers spoke to seemingly every civic club in the Mid-South to promote the team, and attendance was decent by USFL standards.

New Orleans businessman David Dixon had been dreaming of a new professional league since the 1960s. His idea was to have teams play during the NFL offseason. Dixon, an antiques dealer, had helped bring the NFL Saints to New Orleans. During a news conference at the 21 Club in New York City, Dixon announced in May 1982 that the league would begin play in 1983. Chet Simmons left ESPN to become the first USFL commissioner, and the USFL soon had television contracts with ABC and ESPN.

The league expanded from 12 to 18 teams after the 1983 season, and Memphis was among the expansion cities. Logan Young Jr., one of the most colorful businessmen to ever grace the Bluff City, was awarded the Memphis franchise.

Young’s father had made a fortune on margarine during World War II, and the son inherited the family’s Osceola Foods Inc. in Osceola along with a Pepsi distributorship when the father died in 1971. Young Sr. was close friends with Alabama’s head football coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant. Bryant would spend vacations at the Young house in Palm Beach. Young Jr. was born in Arkansas, attended college at Vanderbilt and then moved to Memphis. But his football passions were with Alabama due to the family ties to Bryant.

Family friend Phillip Shanks once said of Young Jr. and Bryant: “Coach was fond of Logan and for good reason. Logan was somebody he could be himself with, let his hair down. And I think they just enjoyed each other’s company. There was a huge age disparity, but Logan just made Coach Bryant feel comfortable.”

“Coach loved to go to Palm Beach,” Young once said. “After the season, we would go down and hang out. He liked to hang out around the beach. Just the two of us. He would just come there, bring his golf clubs. Sometimes he would play, sometimes he wouldn’t.”

Like his father before him, Young helped steer high school players from the Memphis area to Alabama.

When Young was investigated for illegal recruiting in 2000, Alabama banned him from the campus, pulled his 24-seat private box and cut ties to a life insurance policy that would have paid $500,000 to the Bryant Museum on the Alabama campus upon Young’s death.

An assistant coach at Trezevant High School in Memphis claimed that Young paid Lynn Lang, the school’s head football coach, about $150,000 to get defensive lineman Albert Means to sign with Alabama. The school received a five-year probation, a two-year bowl ban and a reduced number of scholarships. Young was convicted in 2005 in federal court of conspiracy to commit racketeering, crossing state lines to commit racketeering and arranging bank withdrawals to cover up a crime.

On April 11, 2006, Young was found dead in a pool of blood by a housekeeper in his English Tudor-style home in an exclusive Memphis neighborhood. He had been sentenced to six months in prison but was free pending appeal. A heavy drinker for years, Young also was recovering from an October 2005 kidney transplant.

The police ruled that Young had tripped while carrying a salad and soft drink up a set of stairs, hitting his head on an iron railing. The police concluded that he had walked, while bleeding profusely, through several rooms of the house before ending up in his second-floor bedroom.

Many believed Young, who was known to carry large sums of cash, had been murdered. One newspaper writer called it “a Mid-South mystery better suited for a John Grisham book than a newspaper story.”

Back in 1984, Young was all about getting the Showboats to Memphis. He brought in the flamboyant Rodgers, a Georgia native who had played as the backup quarterback at Georgia Tech from 1951-53 and then served as head football coach at Kansas from 1967-70, UCLA from 1971-73 and Georgia Tech from 1974-79.

Before the start of the 1984 season, Young told the league that many of his assets were tied up in a trust that he couldn’t access. He was forced to take on partners, and the controlling interest soon passed to cotton magnate William “Billy” Dunavant. The family company, Dunavant Enterprises, had been taken over by Billy Dunavant following his father’s death. The younger Dunavant was just 29 at the time but turned the company into the world’s largest privately owned cotton marketer.

Dunavant helped the team capture the heart of many in the Memphis area with players such as future Pro Football Hall of Fame member Reggie White and future professional wrestler Lex Luger. The Showboats finished 7-11 in 1984 and missed the playoffs.

In 1985, Memphis won its division with an 11-7 record and advanced to the playoff semifinals before a loss to Oakland.

USFL officials announced that they would move their games to the fall in 1986 rather than playing during the NFL offseason. Arizona, Baltimore, Birmingham, Jacksonville, Memphis, New Jersey, Orlando and Tampa Bay were scheduled to play an 18-game fall schedule. The league filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. The USFL later was awarded a judgment of just $1. The USFL owners had been banking on a big settlement to finance the 1986 season. On Aug. 4, 1986 — just four days after the verdict was announced — the owners voted to suspend football operations.

Dunavant, though, tried to keep professional football in Memphis alive. He was an investor in the proposed Memphis Hound Dogs, which sought an NFL expansion team. Steve Ehrhart — who now runs the Liberty Bowl — had come to town from the USFL offices in New York at Dunavant’s behest to run the Showboats. His office on Ridgeway Loop near Poplar and Interstate 240 is still filled with Showboats’ paraphernalia. Rodgers and Ehrhart remained on board to try attract the NFL, but the league decided to expand to Charlotte and Jacksonville instead.

As part of the attempt to lure the NFL, Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium underwent a $12 million facelift and 12,000 seats were added.

The next professional team to play in the stadium was part of the Canadian Football League. Ehrhart managed the Memphis Mad Dogs in 1995, and Rodgers was the coach. The CFL season runs from July to November. Due to the dimensions of the stadium, the Canadian game in Memphis was basically a hybrid being played on a U.S. field. Crowds late in the CFL season — when Memphis fans were going instead to watch college games — fell below 10,000.

One season was all the CFL would last in Memphis.

The NFL finally arrived in 1997, but it was just for a single season. The Houston Oilers announced that the team would play two seasons in Memphis while a new stadium was being built in Nashville. The players would live and practice in Nashville and commute to Memphis on Sundays for home games.

Memphis residents, bitter that the NFL had chosen Nashville over their city, stayed away. And folks from Nashville refused to make the three-hour drive to Memphis, especially since construction on Interstate 40 meant that drive sometimes took four to five hours. None of the Oilers’ first seven home games attracted more than 27,000 people, ranking them among the smallest NFL crowds since the 1950s.

Rather than playing in 1998 at Memphis as first planned, team owner Bud Adams decided to play the home games at Vanderbilt’s 40,000-seat stadium in Nashville.

The next professional team to show up at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium was a team in Vince McMahon’s XFL, the Memphis Maniax. The league folded after its inaugural season in 2001.

So the WFL, USFL, CFL, NFL and XFL all have had a presence at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium through the years.

Who’s next?

We’ll wait and see as the long saga of Memphis and professional football continues.

Give me Liberty (Bowl)

Monday, December 28th, 2015

Bud Dudley had a dream.

At a time when there were far fewer bowl games than there are now, the former athletic director at Villanova wanted a bowl in Philadelphia. Its name would be the Liberty Bowl, and its logo would be the Liberty Bell.

Dudley was the only person in college football history to create and then become the sole owner of a bowl game. Dudley, a Notre Dame graduate and a World War II veteran, died in June 2008 at age 88.

The game was marred by poor attendance during its five seasons in Philadelphia. The first game in 1959 drew 36,211 fans as Penn State defeated Alabama by a final score of 7-0. The crowds got smaller in each of the next four years.

“Spectators were lashed by icy winds as they huddled in Municipal Stadium for the inaugural Liberty Bowl,” Frank Fitzpatrick later wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Piles of snow impeded their trips to concession stands. And several swore their coffee froze before they could return to their seats.”

Penn State graduate Bill Jaffe told the newspaper, “That was the coldest I’ve ever been at a football game.”

“Overhead, an airplane, tilting in the heavy gusts as it dragged an ad for General Copper & Brass, provided shivering spectators with perhaps the afternoon’s most entertaining moment,” Fitzpatrick wrote. “Wind tore away the sign’s second S, an act of alchemy that instantly transformed metal to lingerie.

“On the field below — far, far below in a stadium notorious for its poor sight lines — the football played by Penn State and Alabama never really thawed out either, the teams combining for just seven points. But had those frostbitten Penn State players and fans been aware, they might have been warmed by the knowledge that what that first Liberty Bowl lacked in amenities, it made up for in history. Until that 7-0 loss to Penn State, Alabama had never faced an integrated opponent in its 67-year football history.

“The first of 24 consecutive Alabama teams that Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant would take to bowl games was all white. The Nittany Lions’ roster included a handful of blacks, including tackle Charlie Janerette, a Philadelphian. Janerette would be shot to death during a 1984 confrontation with a Philadelphia policeman. A jury later found police to be negligent and awarded the ex-player’s family $188,000.”

When Alabama accepted the bowl invitation, the chairman of the Tuscaloosa Citizens Council wrote to Frank Rose, the Alabama president: “We strongly oppose our boys playing an integrated team. The Tide belongs to all Alabama, and Alabamians favor continued segregation.”

Bryant, however, ignored the segregationists back home.

Dudley would say years later, “Every year the weather would be fine until the day of the game. I was looking for a way to merge patriotism and football. And I still think it could have worked in Philadelphia if only it weren’t for the cold.”

The other eights bowls at the time — Cotton, Sugar, Rose, Orange, Gator, Tangerine, Sun and Bluebonnet — were all played in warmer locations.

The 1959 game’s only score came on a trick play. Alabama finished 7-2-2, and Penn State finished 9-2. The teams passed for a combined 68 yards on the windy day.

Dudley had scheduled a dinner for the players that night at a downtown hotel. Longtime Philadelphia Daily News writer Stan Hochman, who covered the game from an unheated press box, said Dudley “was working on a shoestring, a tattered shoestring. They ran out of food early in the buffet line.”

Hochman’s future wife was doing public relations work for the downtown hotel. She ran to the kitchen and convinced the staff to cook some hot dogs for the players. Dudley, meanwhile, had talked his friend Ed McMahon into bringing a relatively unknown comedian named Johnny Carson to perform after dinner.

By 1963, Mississippi State’s game against North Carolina State drew just 8,309 fans in Philadelphia.

Tourism promoters in nearby Atlantic City, looking for a way to bring people to town during what normally was a slow period in December, convinced Dudley to move the 1964 contest to Convention Hall (long the home of the Miss America pageant) for the first bowl game to be played indoors. Two inches of burlap was placed on top of the concrete floor, and sod was laid on top of that. Utah defeated West Virginia, 32-6. There were 6,059 people at the game.

Dudley decided the indoor venue would no longer work. He also decided that Philadelphia was too far north. He looked south, and Memphis greeted him with open arms.

Memphis had spent $4 million to build a stadium in 1965 to replace aging Crump Stadium. The original seating capacity was 50,160, and what’s now the University of Memphis would play its home games there. It was to be known as Memphis Memorial Stadium and would be at the Mid-South Fairgrounds along with the Mid-South Coliseum and the Libertyland amusement park.

The mayor of Memphis had a sports committee charged with finding other events for the new stadium. The committee’s chairman, Early Maxwell, learned that Dudley wanted to move the Liberty Bowl. Maxwell sent Memphis businessman Bill McElroy Jr. to Chicago in the summer of 1965 to meet with Dudley during the annual convention of the College Sports Information Directors of America. McElroy invited Dudley to attend the first regular-season game in the stadium between Ole Miss and Memphis. Dudley agreed to attend the game, and he was treated like a king by a who’s who of Memphis business and civic leaders.

Just a few months later, the 1965 Liberty Bowl was played in the new stadium. Ole Miss beat Auburn, 13-7.

Dudley’s intention was to move the bowl game every year or two to a city that didn’t have a bowl.

“After I got to Memphis, I never got to the other cities,” he said.

Coaches who have taken teams to the Liberty Bowl through the years include the likes of Lou Holtz, Steve Spurrier and Tom Osborne.

Four Heisman Trophy winners — Ernie Davis, Terry Baker, Doug Flutie and Bo Jackson — have played in the game.

Archie Manning played in the Liberty Bowl in December 1968, leading his Ole Miss Rebels to a 34-17 victory over Virginia Tech. Manning would lead the Rebels to a win over Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl the following year.

Holtz brought his North Carolina State Wolfpack to Memphis in 1973 and saw his team beat Kansas, 31-18.

Three years later, Bryant was back with the Crimson Tide, which posted a 36-6 victory over Terry Donahue’s UCLA Bruins.

Tom Osborne brought his Nebraska Cornhuskers to Memphis in 1977, and the Huskers beat North Carolina, 21-17.

In 1979, Joe Paterno brought his Penn State team and it edged Tulane, 9-6, in the only game in Liberty Bowl history in which a touchdown wasn’t scored.

The most notable game in Liberty Bowl history came on Dec. 29, 1982, because it marked Bear Bryant’s final game as a coach. Alabama came from behind in the second half to defeat Illinois, 21-15. Less than a month later, the most famous former Fordyce Red Bug was dead.

Arkansas lost in its first three visits to the Liberty Bowl — 14-13 to Tennessee in 1971, 21-15 to Auburn in 1984 and 20-17 to Georgia in 1987. In the game against Auburn, Bo Jackson ran for two touchdowns, including a 39-yard scamper late in the fourth quarter.

Arkansas finally got a Liberty Bowl win on Jan. 2, 2010. A field goal in overtime gave Bobby Petrino’s Hogs a 20-17 victory over East Carolina as the second-largest crowd in Liberty Bowl history — 62,742 — looked on in frigid weather.

With this being its fifth Liberty Bowl, Arkansas will now have more Liberty Bowl appearances than any other school. Ole Miss, Louisville, Mississippi State, Air Force, Alabama and East Carolina have been four times each.

The Liberty Bowl affiliated with Conference USA in 1996. The opponent in 1996 and 1997 was from the Big East. Beginning in 1998, the Liberty Bowl had second choice behind the Cotton Bowl between the WAC champion and a Southeastern Conference team. From 1999 to 2005, the Conference USA champion played the Mountain West champion all but two times. From 2006-13, the Conference USA championship game winner was contracted to play an SEC team. The game now features an SEC team against a Big 12 team. That contract, which began last year, runs through 2019. In the first game under the arrangement, Texas A&M defeated West Virginia, 45-37.

In February 2014, AutoZone extended its title sponsorship agreement through the 2019 season.

Were he still around, Bud Dudley would be smiling. With an SEC team, a Big 12 team, a presenting sponsor, an ESPN television contract and an ESPN radio contract, the Liberty Bowl has never been stronger.

It has come a long way since that cold afternoon of Dec. 19, 1959, in Philadelphia.


The Most Southern City on Earth

Thursday, December 24th, 2015

In 1992, historian James Cobb’s book on the Mississippi Delta came out.

The title: “The Most Southern Place on Earth.”

Having spent four years as one of the two presidential appointees to the Delta Regional Authority, I have no doubt that Cobb got it right.

The city at the heart of the Delta — the place that serves as a regional hub for east Arkansas, north Mississippi, west Tennessee and the Missouri Bootheel — is Memphis.

That must make Memphis the Most Southern City on Earth.

Thousands of Arkansans will descend on Memphis next week to watch the University of Arkansas football team play Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl. Many of them — especially those from the northwest part of our state — will have no idea of the strong ties between the Bluff City and eastern Arkansas.

For decades, those who lived in the eastern half of the state read Memphis newspapers.

They listened to Memphis radio stations.

They watched Memphis television stations.

They went to Memphis to eat out and have a good time.

They went to Memphis to visit the doctor.

They went to Memphis to do their Christmas shopping.

A friend who grew up in the Arkansas Delta was fond of saying, “We thought that when you died, you went to Memphis.”

The connections between east Arkansas and Memphis have frayed some in recent decades.

As the newspaper war between the Arkansas Gazette and the Arkansas Democrat heated up in the 1980s, people who once had subscribed to The Commercial Appeal from Memphis began getting one of the Little Rock newspapers since subscription prices were steeply discounted.

Cable television opened up new worlds.

The perception became that Memphis was a dangerous, crime-ridden place. People in small towns in the northeast quadrant of Arkansas who once had driven to Memphis to go to the doctor and shop now went to Jonesboro to do those things. As a result, Jonesboro prospered as a regional center.

The late Willie Morris, who’s among my favorite writers, joked that the two most important cities in Mississippi are Memphis and New Orleans.

In some ways, despite the growth of Jonesboro, Memphis remains the most important city for east Arkansas.

It was 1935 when writer David Cohn from Greenville, Miss., penned these words: “The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg. The Peabody is the Paris Ritz, the Cairo Shepheard’s, the London Savoy of this section. If you stand near its fountain in the middle of the lobby … ultimately you will see everybody who is anybody in the Delta.”

Those words still ring true. I can’t count the number of famous people I’ve seen in the Peabody lobby through the years.

Razorback fans will hang out there in force next week, turning that ornate lobby into an Arkansas family reunion.

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

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

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

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

The first Peabody Hotel was built by Robert Campbell Brinkley in 1869. He named it in honor of philanthropist George Peabody. The two men had met several years earlier on a ship bound for England. Brinkley’s reason for going to England was to find financing for a railroad linking Little Rock and Memphis. Brinkley later gave the hotel to his daughter, Anna Overton Brinkley, and her fiancé, Robert Snowden, as a wedding gift.

The Snowden family would have a connection to the hotel for the next 96 years (in addition to developing the Horseshoe Plantation across the river in Arkansas and building a home on Horseshoe Lake).

“The hotel was magnificent,” a history of the Peabody states at “It had 75 gas-lit rooms with private bathrooms, a first-class dining room, shops, entertainment, a large and beautiful lobby and a grand ballroom, where lavish balls were held. It was the place to see and been seen. The hotel was highly successful. Guests paid $3 to $4 for a room with meals included in the price. … After the turn of the century, the Peabody constructed a $350,000 addition at the back. It was an all-steel structure, the first of its kind in Memphis. But it wasn’t enough. In 1923, hotel management decided it was time for a new and larger building and closed the Main Street Peabody. They had negotiated with Lowenstein’s, who wanted to take over the corner and build a grand new department store.

“A block away at Second and Union, a new, bigger and better Peabody was scheduled to open within two years. Construction began on the new Peabody within a month after the old Peabody on Main closed. The new hotel was designed by Chicago architect Walter W. Ahlschlager with a plan for 625 rooms with baths. … The cost in 1925 was $5 million. For the 1925 opening of the Peabody, 1,200 preview party invitations were sent to the who’s who of the South. Everyone who was anyone wanted to be seen at Second and Union during the event. Once again the hotel established a reputation as the center of social life for the entire region. The grand new Peabody saw a steady stream of the wealthy and prominent congregate to dine and dance. It was the largest and most elegant hotel in the South.”

The story then picks up in the early 1950s: “During the 1950s, a nationwide move to the suburbs began. Memphians were no longer shopping regularly on Main Street, and downtown Memphis began to feel the pain. The Peabody was no exception. The hotel had many vacancies, and the restaurants were almost empty. The building was beginning to be in need of repairs, and by 1953 it was known that the Peabody was for sale. There were two bidders. … The hotel went to the Alsonett Hotel Group.

“It soon became obvious that the hotel would never be the same. Alsonett set aside tradition in favor of economy. Cost-cutting practices were evident everywhere. Downgrading was the name of the game. And any profits were used to upgrade Alsonett properties elsewhere. The profitable convention business completely disappeared. The hotel faced huge debts and was unable to get financing. In 1965, the grand old Peabody was forced into foreclosure.

“The auction began in December 1965. Robert B. Snowden placed the winning bid. Within 48 hours, he sold the Peabody to the Sheraton chain. … Snowden knew that Sheraton was going to improve the hotel. And Sheraton assured Memphis that all Peabody traditions would remain the same and set about restoring the old building. But they neglected to mention there would be a name change. For the next nine years, the hotel would be called the Sheraton-Peabody. Memphians felt this was better than nothing.

“Sheraton really tried. Unfortunately the steady decline of downtown Memphis continued, at a much faster pace after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In December 1973, Sheraton-Peabody closed the doors and posted a for-sale sign. … The Peabody had a short reprieve in 1974 when a group of Alabama investors reopened the hotel. But it was doomed to failure and by April 1, 1975, this group was forced to declare bankruptcy, and the Peabody was put up for public auction by the county.”

Belz Enterprises bought the hotel for $400,000 in July 1975. Six years and $25 million later, it reopened and has been going strong ever since.

A number of those Razorback fans next week will leave the Peabody lobby, cross the street and walk down the ally to Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous for ribs. Though it has become fashionable for foodies to turn their noses up at the Rendezvous for being too touristy, it remains a Memphis landmark.

Vergos cleaned up a basement below his diner in 1948, discovered a coal chute and decided that it would give him a vent, allowing him to smoke ribs in addition to serving sandwiches. Vergos was a major force in the revival of downtown Memphis. When he died, the city’s mayor described him as an “icon for saving downtown.” His three children continue to run the restaurant.

The famous Peabody ducks even have an Arkansas connection.

Frank Schutt, the hotel’s general manager from 1925-56, and one of his friends had been duck hunting in east Arkansas one day in 1932. They had too much to drink that evening at the hotel and put their live decoys (which were allowed in those days) in the lobby fountain.

The guests loved it.

Schutt decided to train mallards to walk into the fountain each morning and exit the lobby each evening. The daily tradition continues.

Have fun in Memphis next week, Hog fans.

The Most Southern City on Earth has a knack for welcoming visitors from Arkansas.

Mincemeat pie (and other Christmas treats)

Monday, December 21st, 2015

My father always insisted on a mincemeat pie for Christmas.

My wife, a south Texas native, had never heard of mincemeat until she met me.

Maybe it’s the English roots on my father’s side of the family that caused us to like mincemeat so much.

My wife is Hispanic, and tamales were the food item in her family that told you that Christmas was approaching. The first time I asked her to buy a mincemeat pie for Christmas, I was met with a blank stare.

“If you didn’t grow up with mincemeat, chances are you’re totally confused about what this food actually is,” Julie Thomson wrote for The Huffington Post. “From the sound of it, one would assume the meat was the main ingredient, but that would be entirely wrong. Well, almost entirely wrong.

“Mincemeat is (more often than not) just a mixture of chopped, boozy, spiced fruit that is widely popular in the United Kingdom. It is traditionally served around Christmas, often baked into pies. In order to understand how this spiced fruit recipe came to be called mincemeat, we have to take a look at history. Mincemeat was first created as a way of preserving meat — usually mutton — without having to salt or smoke it. It became a Christmas staple when the Crusaders returned home in the 12th century with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. The three spices used in this recipe were symbolic of the gifts given to the baby Jesus by the Magi, therefore linking this recipe to Christmas. The spices contain antimicrobial properties that helped keep the meat through winter (and also probably masked any flavors of old meat). The meat used was normally finely chopped — also known as minced in cooking lingo — and that’s where this pastry got its name.

“By the 20th century, beef suet replaced the meat in most mincemeat, and the fruits (such as apples, dried raisins and candied citrus) took center stage — always with booze like brandy. These days sometimes even the suet is taken out and replaced with butter.”

Translated to modern English, here’s a recipe from the 16th century: “Pie filling of mutton or beef must be finely minced and seasoned with pepper and salt and a little saffron to color it. Add a good quantity of suet or marrow, a little vinegar, prunes, raisins and dates. Put in the fattest of the broth of salted beef. And if you want royal pastry, take butter and egg yolks and combine them with flour to make the paste.”

King Henry V of England served mincemeat pie at his coronation in 1413. Oliver Cromwell considered Christmas a pagan holiday, and traditional mincemeat pie was banned for a time. King Charles II restored Christmas as a holiday when he ascended the throne in 1660, and mincemeat pie returned to England.

Mincemeat remains popular in a number of former parts of the British empire such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

“Roasted leg of lamb tastes like Easter, turkey and dressing tastes like Thanksgiving and mincemeat pie tastes like Christmas, not just rich in flavor but in Christian tradition, Americana and history,” writes Lauren Fink. “This old world pie needs a revival in America, to the delight of our taste buds and historic sensibilities.”

I agree.

This will be my first Christmas without either of my parents (Dad died in the spring of 2011, but my mother continued to be a part of our Christmas celebrations; she died the week of Thanksgiving this year). My sister will be making a mincemeat pie for this Friday as we continue a family tradition.

As noted in an earlier Southern Fried blog post, a large fruitcake shipped from the Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas, also will be on the table at our home. These cakes have been a Christmas tradition in our family for as long as I can remember.

Though it’s not a part of our family’s holiday menu, no Christmas ever approaches without me thinking of the Helena oyster loaf. That’s because I was a fan of Richard Allin, the Helena native who wrote columns for the Arkansas Gazette and later the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Allin, who died in October 2007 at age 77, would extol the virtues of the oyster loaf in print each December.

This was his recipe for an authentic Helena oyster loaf: “Slice the top from a long pullman loaf. Remove all the crumb from the loaf, leaving only a boat made of the crust. Brush melted butter generously over the inside of the loaf and on the inside of the top, and toast under the oven broiler until pleasantly browned. Roll oysters in cornmeal and fry until golden brown and crispy. Assemble lemon wedges, green olives with pits, tomato ketchup and mustard pickle.

“After the loaf is toasted and the oysters fried, place a layer of oysters in the bottom of the loaf. Put in two or three lemon wedges and as many olives. Repeat the process, adding from time to time some of the ketchup and the mustard pickle. Continue until the loaf is filled, and top the oysters off with more lemon wedges, olives, ketchup and mustard pickle. Add the latter two items with care. If you wish, you may add them after the loaf is sliced and served. But if you do, you are not making the Helena version of the oyster loaf.

“After the loaf is assembled, cap it with the buttered and toasted top and put it back in the oven to heat for a while. When ready to serve, slice it across in about two-inch-wide sections. A chilled white wine goes well. So does beer. This is a Christmas eve dish. If you eat it at any other time, you do so at your own risk.”

Mustard pickles are no longer easy to find. The recipe consists of cucumbers and onions pickled in a mustard sauce along with turmeric and celery seed.

“The tradition of eating the oyster loaf on Christmas eve got started, in my family at least, many years ago when my grandfather would stop by an old Helena restaurant-delicatessen and pick up a couple of these specialties,” Allin wrote. “In those days, that particular restaurant made its own bread, a type of which was the long pullman loaf, named, I suppose, because it had the same dimensions as the railroad car. By the time I was invited into the family, it had become the practice to make the oyster loaf at home, although still using the restaurant’s singular bread. It was more economical, and the homemade loaf was more generously treated. So many good traditions have passed. The restaurant no longer makes either oyster loaves or bread. About the best we can do in Helena these days is … well, never mind.

“The tradition of the oyster loaf perhaps came up the river from New Orleans. It is known there as the mediatrice, so named because it was frequently brought home by wayward husbands who wanted to make peace with their angry wives. In Helena, it was simply a seasonal food item. Other methods were used to restore family tranquility. By the time the oyster loaf had arrived in Helena from New Orleans, there had been a few changes in its structure. The New Orleans mediatrice was simply a hollowed-out, buttered and toasted loaf of French bread into which mealed and fried oysters were piled. The top was put back on, and the delicacy was then sliced into serving portions.”

I’m drawn to these six words written by Allin: “So many good traditions have passed.”

I’m a traditionalist, especially at Christmas.

That’s why there will be a mincemeat pie and a Corsicana fruitcake at our home Friday.


Fruitcake lovers unite

Friday, December 18th, 2015

There will be a large fruitcake at our table on Christmas day.

Yes, a fruitcake.

Enough already with the fruitcake jokes.

The fruitcakes shipped from the Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas, have been a Christmas tradition in our family for as long as I can remember.

The recipe for this fruitcake was brought to Texas from Wiesbaden, Germany, by a baker named Gus Weidmann in 1896. Weidmann and a business partner, Tom McElwee, built a thriving bakery in Corsicana.

The Collin Street Bakery website tells their story this way: “The shy, perfectionist Gus Weidmann ran his little kitchen in this newly formed Collin Street Bakery and made ready for the busy Christmas seasons. At the same time, Tom McElwee was sending out letters, making sales trips and lining up an ever-growing list of bakery customers. They made a nice team and enjoyed such success that their once anonymous Texas fruitcake and pecan cake became a delicacy to be sought after by folks from every corner of the globe.

“In 1906, after outgrowing the original Collin Street Bakery in its 10th year, Tom and Gus put up a structure of such ambitious size that Tom was able to make its whole second floor into an elite private hotel. Only a flamboyant patron of the Corsicana Opera House could have pulled it off; one like Tom, who was accustomed to attracting the nation’s best performers to this oil and rail center, home of the first two oil strikes west of the Mississippi.

“Interestingly, Mobil and Texaco were both founded here in Corsicana. Tom formed instant friendships with the visiting celebrities and made sure that every guest who boarded the outbound train had an extra cake in his travel trunk. Folks who worked at the bakery back then remembered getting glimpses of Will Rogers, Enrico Caruso, Terrible-Tempered John McGraw and Gentleman Jim Corbett. They remembered the great John Ringling and told of the afternoon when Ringling’s whole circus traipsed over and ordered Christmas cakes for circus friends in every corner of the world. It brought a few nostalgic sighs when Tom McElwee’s glamorous digs were transformed, room by room, into an area of executives and clerks and jangling phones. But prosperity clears its own path. The Collin Street Bakery was getting waist deep in a new and thriving mail-order business.

“Though Tom McElwee and Gus Weidmann died less than a year apart, the management of the Collin Street Bakery passed smoothly into experienced hands. Nothing fundamental in its operation has changed. Cakes are still baked to order and shipped directly from Corsicana.”

Corsicana is 58 miles southeast of Dallas at the junction of Interstate 45, U.S. Highway 75 and U.S. Highway 287. It was established in 1848 to serve as the county seat of Navarro County, a new county named after Texas Revolution hero Jose Antonio Navarro. He suggested that the county seat be named after the island of Corsica, where his parents had been born.

In November 1871, the Houston & Texas Central Railroad came to Corsicana. The Handbook of Texas reports: “The coming of the railroad brought numerous settlers and new merchants, among them the Sanger brothers, the Padgitts and others who established stores near the new depot on East Collin Street. The construction of the Texas & St. Louis Railway (later the Cotton Belt) in 1880 prompted further commercial development, and by the mid-1880s Corsicana had become the leading trading and shipping center for a large area of the northern blacklands.”

Yet another boost to growth came in the 1890s.

“By the early 1890s, the rapidly expanding city had outgrown its water supply, and the following year civic leaders formed the Corsicana Water Development Co. with the aim of tapping a shallow artesian well in the area,” according to The Handbook of Texas. “Drilling began in the spring of 1894, but instead of water, the company hit a large pocket of oil and gas. The find — the first significant discovery of oil west of the Mississippi River — led to Texas’ first oil boom. Within a short time, nearly every lot in the town and in the surrounding area was under lease, and wells were being drilled within the city limits.”

The first oil refinery in the state was built at Corsicana in 1897.

By 1898, there were 287 wells in the Corsicana Field.

J.S. Cullinan founded the Cullinan Oil Co. That became the Magnolia Oil Co. which, in turn, became Mobil.

Another local company, the Texas Co., later became Texaco.

When Gus Weidmann showed up in 1896, he was coming to one of Texas’ wealthiest cities. In fact, Corsicana was among the first cities in Texas to use natural gas for lighting and fuel.

The Collin Street Bakery fruitcakes aren’t the only well-known food product to have started in Corsicana. Lyman T. Davis began selling his chili from a wagon downtown in 1895. He started canning the chili in 1921 and called it Wolf Brand in honor of his pet wolf. The name of the wolf was Kaiser Bill.

In 1923, a second oil deposit known as the Powell Field was discovered, and a new boom period began. The Handbook of Texas notes: “Within a few months, Corsicana’s population swelled to unprecedented heights. Some estimates placed the number of residents as high as 28,000 during the peak months of the oil frenzy. Construction transformed the face of the city, and stoplights were installed for the first time to control the increased traffic. During the height of the Powell Field boom, 550 wells in and around the city produced an estimated 354,000 barrels per day.”

Corsicana now has about 24,000 residents.

With all due respect to the sales ability of Tom McElwee, John Ringling must get much of the credit for making the fruitcakes from Corsicana popular across the country. Born in 1866 in Iowa as the son of a German immigrant who made harnesses, Ringling was one of seven brothers (there was one sister). Five of the brothers formed a traveling show in 1884. In 1889, they moved from animal-drawn wagons to railroad cars, becoming the first circus to truly travel the country. By 1925, John Ringling’s wealth was estimated at $200 million. He was one of the investors in the original Madison Square Garden in New York.

He loved the Corsicana fruitcakes and wanted his friends to experience them.

Fruitcakes have been around since the Roman times, when preserved fruits, honey and spices were mixed with barley mash. They soon spread across Europe and later became popular in the American colonies. In England, fruitcakes usually are known as plum cakes.

Collin Street Bakery relied on the local availability of pecans, leading to the term “nutty as a fruitcake,” which was coined in the 1930s.

Johnny Carson often would joke that there was only one fruitcake in world, passed from one family to another each Christmas.

But you can bet that the Corsicana fruitcake from the Collin Street Bakery, still using Gus Weidmann’s recipe, will be on our table once again this Christmas.

The Louisiana Purchase survey

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

Little Rock attorney John P. Gill has spent years trying to bring attention to one of the most important surveys in the history of Western civilization.

And it began right here in Arkansas, though the vast majority of Arkansans couldn’t tell you anything about it.

Gill worked with former Arkansas Secretary of State Sharon Priest and longtime state employee Ron Maxwell to raise money for a public sculpture that will be installed in 2016 in front of the Statehouse Convention Center in downtown Little Rock.

Michael Warrick, a professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and Louisiana sculptor Aaron Hussey were commissioned to create a worked titled “Straight Lines on a Round World.” At a height of 20 feet, it will be among the largest freestanding glass sculptures in the world.

Gill wrote the entry about the Louisiana Purchase survey for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. He began it this way: “The purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803 practically doubled the size of the United States, yet little of it was marked off by the American land survey method, which divides land into square tracts, an orderly prerequisite for land ownership in the 19th century. The survey of this vast, new American West began in what would later become the state of Arkansas and is commemorated at Louisiana Purchase State Park on U.S. Highway 49 between Brinkley and Helena. Since Arkansas was first, the survey enabled early sale of land that contributed to Arkansas being the third state admitted into the union west of the Mississippi River (after Louisiana and Missouri).

“The survey of the Louisiana Purchase, ordered during the administration of President James Madison, began shortly after the end of the War of 1812, in part as a means for the federal government to pay its veterans with land. The nation’s greatest asset was land west of the Mississippi River, and it was necessary to survey that land so that it might be apportioned fairly to veterans and sold to settlers and other investors who were already streaming into the trans-Mississippi West.”

In October 1815, surveyors Prospect Robbins and Joseph Brown set out from the Mississippi River.

Robbins began at the mouth of the Arkansas River and headed due north.

Brown began at the mouth of the St. Francis River and headed due west.

“Brown’s survey line is called the baseline, and Robbins’ line is called the fifth principal meridian because it was the fifth north-south line surveyed in the United States,” Gill wrote. “During this period, surveying land was exceptionally difficult work. Using only a compass and a chain, surveyors made their way through the wilderness, stopping every half mile to mark or ‘blaze’ a tree. They carried all of their provisions with them for a task that lasted several months. In the wilderness of the Arkansas Delta where Robbins and Brown worked, the only signs of life were scattered Indian and animal trails.

“On Nov. 10, 1815, Robbins crossed the baseline that had been set by Brown, who already had proceeded to the west of that point. Robbins sent for Brown, who returned to mark this intersection of their surveys as the initial point of the first survey of the American West. From this initial point, which is located in a headwater swamp at the northwest corner of Phillips County, the lands in Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, North Dakota and part of Minnesota and South Dakota are measured. This initial point is located in the Louisiana Purchase State Park. Brown’s survey line today marks the northern boundary of Phillips County. He continued west to the Arkansas River on Dec. 4, 1815, while another surveyor continued the baseline across what is now known as Baseline Road in Little Rock.

“Robbins traversed the western boundary of Phillips County and continued north, reaching the present-day Missouri border later that month and continuing onward to the Missouri River, where other surveyors continued the meridian to the Canadian border. Several other surveyors followed Robbins and Brown, marking the corners of each square mile using the initial point as their reference. The process took many years, and some surveys were still not complete when Arkansas joined the union in 1836.”

During a recent lunch meeting in downtown Little Rock, Gill told me: “This survey was a key to the growth of the United States. We read all the time about the Lewis and Clark expedition, but Robbins and Brown ought to get recognition. I’m hopeful that the sculpture will at least make people in Arkansas more aware of their history. People will see it and want to read more about the survey. It has taken us years to get to the point of actually commissioning the sculpture, but we finally concentrated and got it done.”

In November 2002, Gill joined 12 other Arkansans in retracing the initial baseline of the Louisiana Purchase on a three-day hike through east Arkansas. He later edited a journal about the expedition that was published in 2004 by the Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial Committee of Arkansas.

“A nation that only recognizes part of its history is not a whole nation,” Gill wrote in the preface to the journal. “A nation that celebrates with selective memory does not practice equal treatment of all its citizens because all of them have their own history. A marker outside Marianna in Lee County locates the home site and grave of John Patterson, Arkansas’ first native-born white child. … The unique history of this Arkansas resident and others similarly situated is not recognized by most Americans and is lost in history.

“Twenty miles southwest of Patterson’s grave is another monument, one that locates the initial point for the first survey of the new West — the Louisiana Purchase. Although the survey enabled the settling of some of the land that doubled the size of the United States, this unique history of Arkansas is not recognized by most Americans and is lost in history. One hundred fifteen miles west of the initial point marker is another monument, one that marks the trail of explorers William Dunbar and George Hunter at Hot Springs, where their ascent of the Ouachita River culminated. Although these explorers made the first report to Thomas Jefferson of exploration of the Louisiana Purchase (even complete with biological specimens), this unique history of Arkansas is not recognized by most Americans and is lost in history.

“Ninety miles southwest of the Dunbar-Hunter marker is the place near Texarkana where the Spanish army stopped the Freeman-Custis exploration of the Red and Arkansas rivers that was the Southern counterpart to Lewis and Clark. Although Thomas Jefferson’s instructions to both the Lewis and Clark and Freeman and Custis expeditions were nearly identical, and the U.S. Congress initially appropriated more money for Freeman and Custis than for Lewis and Clark, their expedition is not recognized by most Americans and is lost in history.

“In an effort to help this nation recognize its whole history and give equal treatment to Arkansas’ central role in the exploration and settlement of the Louisiana Purchase, 13 Arkansawyers sought to examine just one of these events lost in history and set out to retrace the initial baseline of the Louisiana Purchase on the eve of its bicentennial.”

The long hike took place from Nov. 7-9, 2002.

Of the spot where the three-day expedition began, Gill wrote: “The place where the St. Francis River and Mississippi River join forces is called the mouth of the St. Francis, but that geographic term does not do justice to the beautiful place where the St. Francis meets the father of waters. Reached by Forest Service road through a huge native pecan orchard, a 13-foot circumference native pecan sentry permits entry to this fairyland. The quiet calm of this land belies the power of 484,000 cubic feet of water passing this place each second of every minute of every day. The willow and cottonwood trees reaching from the loess soil and sand blend in perfect harmony with the water, and one standing in this place understands and feels peace.

“It has not always been so. Violent floods have moved the river like the tail of the panther crouching for its prey. This mouth is now one mile downriver from where it lay on Oct. 27, 1815, when Joseph Brown set out on his epic journey to make Thomas Jefferson’s dream of private land ownership come true. At that time the St. Francis made a fishhook to the east and then flowed north to meet the Mississippi; therefore, when Brown set out heading west, he left the mouth, traveled just over two and a half miles and hit the St. Francis again. So he crossed and continued from the west bank. This spot, under a 10-foot circumference American elm, became the starting point for the 2002 expedition on Nov. 7.”

Gill wrote that Crowley’s Ridge “stands in stark contrast to the flat Mississippi Alluvial Plain known as the Delta. Unlike most mountains created by violent upheavals, volcanoes or earthquakes, Crowley’s Ridge is the remains of fine, windblown soil accumulated from ancient time and then eroded by the Delta’s many rivers. The dust-like soil created when ice age glaciers pulverized rocks is called loess. Its susceptibility to erosion created deep ravines with near vertical cliffs as though sliced with a knife. Even an experienced hiker or woodsman is not prepared for the arduous task of crossing the ridge. Most of the journey is a steady climb punctuated by a steep slide and another climb. And another slide. And another. And another in endless succession. The loess soil is extremely loose, making footing difficult.

“Sinkholes beneath the soil can, and did, twist knees and legs when the soil gave way. Fall rains made matters worse. But at least the 2002 expedition did not have to contend with large brass compasses, mules, chains and provisions. In the first half mile from the low road, the baseline traverses six steep elevations; the first as high as a 16-story building. Little is known about Joseph Brown, but he must have been a rather rugged individual for he described Crowley’s Ridge as just ‘very hilly oak land.’

“As much as the terrain is unforgiving, the scenery gives breathtaking beauty. It is much more than oak land, for just the first hill contains a smorgasbord of trees spread among trout lilies; yellow poplar, red buckeye, hornbeam, water oak, cedar, sugar maple, sassafras, cherry bark oak and surprisingly beech, which is at its southern growth range on Crowley’s Ridge. The autumn rainbow of colors set against a blue bird sky lingers in one’s memory.”

In an essay in the journal, naturalist John Morrow wrote: “Our journey drew attention to a gorgeous part of the Natural State, but one not often closely examined. All too often stereotyped as a boring, monotonous region, the trip proved to me that sometimes you just have to slow down to appreciate some things. I have found that any disdain for the Delta comes from people who drive across it at 70 miles per hour, staring at it through tinted glass.”

Though it is one of our smallest state parks, Louisiana Purchase Historic State Park is among my favorite spots in the state parks system. While surveying the boundary between Lee and Phillips counties in 1921, surveyors Tom Jacks and Eldridge Douglas from Helena found witness trees that had been marked by Robbins’ party more than a century earlier. The L’Anguille chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Marianna held a ceremony on Oct. 27, 1926, to place a stone marker on the site. The Arkansas Legislature authorized a state park there in 1961, but no money was appropriated. In fact, development did not begin until 1977. Today visitors can walk down a boardwalk through the swamp to the 1926 monument, reading interpretive panels about the Louisiana Purchase, the survey and the Delta. In the modern visitors’ center of the Mississippi River State Park near Marianna, a video features Gill talking about the survey.

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture notes that Louisiana Purchase Historic State Park “conserves a rare headwater swamp, located on Little Cypress Creek, and a granite monument standing in the swamp’s interior. … On April 19, 1993, the National Park Service designated the point a National Historic Landmark. … The park’s complex plant community includes species normally associated with swamps such as swamp tupelo, bald cypress, black willow and buttonbush, in proximity with upland species such as sweet gum, mulberry, Nuttall oak and sassafras. Many bird species — such as the prothonotary warbler, the belted kingfisher, the pileated woodpecker and the barred owl — can be observed in the surrounding swamp area.”

Thanks John Gill, Sharon Priest, Ron Maxwell and Arkansas State Parks for not letting us forget the survey that changed America.

Pine Bluff’s turning point

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015

The headline on the front page of the Arkansas section of Monday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette cried out: “Collapsed-building cleanup in downtown PB on slow track.”

Sometimes it seems as if the news coming out of Pine Bluff is always bad news.

“Contrary to earlier reports by Pine Bluff leaders, it will be well into 2016 before Main Street reopens between Fourth and Fifth avenues downtown,” John Worthen wrote. “The street was blocked off in February after the former Band Museum building and a former VFW post collapsed. The roadway partially reopened in the spring but was closed again in July after city engineers determined that two other nearby vacant buildings were in the early stages of collapse. The buildings were vacant, and no one was injured.”

Yes, parts of downtown Pine Bluff are falling in.

Even the Pine Bluff entry for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture has been updated to note: “Pine Bluff’s decaying downtown captured the spotlight after several buildings collapsed along the Main Street corridor, starting in 2014. On Feb. 20, 2014, the former J.C. Penney building, more than a century old, partially collapsed and had to be demolished. By March 2015, four buildings (including the former home of the Band Museum at Fifth and Main) had collapsed wholly or partially, and in July 2015, the city closed off part of Main Street out of concern that the Kahn Building might also collapse. Many buildings in the downtown area stand empty and in need of repair. One of the most prominent of these derelict buildings is the Hotel Pines on Main Street, which was among the finest hotels in Arkansas when it opened in 1913.”

Then there are the crime stories.

And the stores about schools in academic distress.

And the stories about infighting on the city council.

And on and on.

There are plenty of positive things happening in Pine Bluff. You just rarely hear about them, and it’s going to take far more than a marketing campaign to change that.

The leadership of Pine Bluff has had enough.

On the Monday before Thanksgiving, the city’s leading citizens gathered in a Simmons First National Bank conference room and announced the launch of an effort to turn things around.

I’m proud to now work for Simmons, and I’m proud to be able to play a small role in this effort.

All Arkansans should be rooting for Pine Bluff. As I explained when I spoke at lunch Tuesday in North Little Rock to the staff of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, Pine Bluff is the most important city in southeast Arkansas, the regional center of that quadrant of our state. As goes Pine Bluff, so goes southeast Arkansas.

“I was born in Pine Bluff 59 years ago at Davis Hospital, which was located on what’s now a vacant lot,” said George Makris, the Simmons chairman and CEO. “At that time, the area around the hospital was a vibrant hub of Pine Bluff. Things change. … After years of ignoring change, Pine Bluff must recognize the changes that have occurred and begin to manage them for the future of the city and its citizens.

“Simmons is the only publicly traded company with its headquarters in Pine Bluff. Simmons was founded here in 1903. We’re proud of our historical partnership with Pine Bluff. We think it has served both entities well. We’ve been lucky during the past few years to grow our company. We now have more than 2,000 associates in four states, and we expect that growth to continue. Pine Bluff will have to compete for jobs we create, not only with the cities in Arkansas where we have a presence, but with other dynamic cities like Nashville, Knoxville, Springfield, Wichita, St. Louis and Kansas City.

“We indicated a few weeks ago our willingness to establish pools of funds and programs designed to help the redevelopment of Pine Bluff and therefore its competitive position. We’re still committed to doing so and are confident others will join in that effort. However, those funds need to be targeted to enable a plan for redevelopment, not just indiscriminately disbursed throughout the city.”

George Makris is nothing if not a realist.

“We have a lot to overcome,” he said. “We have three school districts within the city of Pine Bluff. Only one has a permanent superintendent, and all three struggle financially and academically. We must address public education in Pine Bluff, including consolidation of the three Pine Bluff districts.

“Many businesses have relocated, leaving vast unoccupied areas, including much of downtown. We must redefine many areas in Pine Bluff, some of which may necessitate demolition to repurpose the area. The good news is that areas surrounding Pine Bluff have done well so the region is stable. But Pine Bluff is the center of commerce. Pine Bluff has excellent infrastructure, which we cannot take advantage of without addressing these other issues.

“Tough decisions will be required. Elected officials will need to be committed and willing to stay on course as they allocate resources. There will be pain before gain. We can do it. The question is will we do it. I don’t know the answer to that question. But I’m hopeful that a great plan will be developed and that we as a community will have the discipline to implement the plan.”

Consolidating school districts.

Tearing down buildings.

Makris is addressing the tough issues that have been ignored for too long.

The Go Forward Pine Bluff effort is being funded by the bank through a donation to the Simmons First Foundation.

The year 2016 will be used to come up with recommendations. The Institute for Economic Advancement at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, led by Jim Youngquist, will assist with that process.

The recommendations hopefully will be implemented in 2017-18.

“It’s time for a comprehensive strategic plan that will guide this city into the next decade,” said Mary Pringos, the chairman of the Go Forward Pine Bluff task force and a member of the Simmons First Foundation board. “For the plan to be successful, all sectors of the community must be involved in the planning process. What we don’t want is a report that will sit on a shelf and gather dust. The objective is to produce a plan that the community buys into, one that establishes clear, measurable goals and has concrete steps for achieving those goals.”

Tommy May, the Arkansas icon who long was the Simmons Bank chairman and now heads the Simmons First Foundation, said the planning group will measure its success in four ways.

“The first will be our ability to recruit a fully inclusive planning team that has the capacity and the desire to spend many hours during the next 12 months making recommendations that likely will result in significant change,” he said. “Second will be our ability to embrace the successes that came from the 20/20 effort and then focus our full attention on the difficult tasks that must be done to attract and retain jobs and families in Pine Bluff. Third will be our ability to pass the torch from the planning group to the appropriate organizations that will implement the plan in 2017 and 2018. Finally will be our ability to identify resources that will fund the execution of the plan.”

In addition to Pringos and May, task force members will be Irene Holcomb, George Stepps, Byron Tate, Dr. Laurence Alexander, the Rev. Glenn Barnes, Chuck Morgan, Lou Ann Nisbett and Catherine Smart.

Under the task force will be four steering committees.

Nick Makris will lead the economic development steering committee.

Scott Pittillo will lead the education steering committee.

Rosalind Mouser will lead the infrastructure and government steering committee.

Dr. Kaleybra Morehead will lead the quality of life steering committee.

“By growing the tax base, we will ensure that we can better fund city services and put an end to population loss,” Pringos said. “We’re at a turning point in this city, and development of the plan will get us moving in the right direction. We hope to be able to point to visible results. The bottom line is that the city must decide where it wants to go and then start down that path. The plan will be our road map for the future. Our ultimate goal is to make Pine Bluff a city that people want to call home.”

It once was a natural spot for a town to thrive, this place called Pine Bluff. The Arkansas River provided a transportation route connecting the interior of Arkansas to the Mississippi River and thus to cities such as New Orleans and St. Louis.

On one side of the city were vast Southern pine forests that could fuel a lucrative timber industry.

On the other side of the city were lowlands filled with bottomland hardwoods. Those hardwoods were harvested, the land was drained and the rich soil proved ideal for growing cotton.

“In the autumn of 1819, Joseph Bonne, making his way upstream from Arkansas Post, built a crude cabin for his Quapaw wife and family on a high bluff covered with pine trees on the river’s south bank,” Russell Bearden wrote for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “A few years later, James Scull, also from Arkansas Post, arrived and set up an encampment on the north bank across from the future site of Pine Bluff. The encampment soon became a tavern and small inn. On March 3, 1819, President James Monroe named Robert Crittenden territorial secretary. Crittenden quickly set about exploiting the remaining Quapaw in southeast Arkansas to relinquish their last tracks of land.”

With the Quapaw gone and steamboats beginning to ply the Arkansas, the area started attracting settlers such as French-born Antoine Barraque, for whom a Pine Bluff street is named. Jefferson County was established in 1829, and Pine Bluff became the county seat in 1832.

The railroad arrived in the 1880s, connecting Pine Bluff to Little Rock. The town grew from 460 residents in 1850 to 9,952 residents in 1890, making it the third-largest city in the state. The Cotton Belt located its main engine maintenance shops in Pine Bluff in 1894. The railroad was the largest industrial employer in the county until the Pine Bluff Arsenal was built during World War II.

Between the railroad operations, the cotton industry, the timber industry and the arsenal (the arsenal alone employed almost 10,000 people during World War II), Pine Bluff boomed. The population almost tripled from 21,290 in 1940 to 57,389 in 1970. International Paper Co. decided to locate a large paper mail at Pine Bluff in 1957. By 1962, the mill employed 1,400 people.

Of the Pine Bluff Arsenal, Bearden wrote: “Construction costs were estimated at about $60 million. At the height of the war, the plant expanded from making magnesium and thermite incendiary munitions to a chemical warfare manufacturing facility as well, producing lethal gases and chemical compounds installed in artillery shells and specifically designed bombs. Fifteen civilian workers died in work-related accidents. The facility grew with its expanded mission. More than 900 buildings and production facilities would consume 3.3 million square feet of space, 43 miles of roads and 14 miles of track for diesel-electric locomotives pulling boxcars and flat cars of munitions. In February 1942, the arsenal also became one of the nation’s storage depots for its expanding chemical stockpile munitions. These binary projectiles (lethal agents mixed after discharge of the projectile) were isolated in igloos near the northwest section of the facility.”

President Nixon banned the production and use of biological weapons in 1969. Part of the complex was renamed the National Center for Toxicological Research and is now a branch of the federal Food & Drug Administration. On-site incineration of toxic nerve agents began in 2005 and was completed in 2010. The arsenal’s mission changed to making smoke, incendiary and pyrotechnic devices.

In a story for Talk Business & Politics on the Go Forward Pine Bluff effort, Wesley Brown described Pine Bluff as “the former jewel of south Arkansas.”

Now, a large number of Pine Bluff residents have stepped forward to polish that jewel.

As George Makris noted, there’s infrastructure in place.

There’s Interstate 530, which recently has undergone millions of dollars of improvements between Pine Bluff and Little Rock.

There’s the Port of Pine Bluff and an adjoining industrial district.

There still are major railroad operations in the city.

There are two institutions of higher education, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and Southeast Arkansas College.

There’s a strong manufacturing base.

“The county has almost 30 manufacturers, including Evergreen Packaging and Tyson Foods,” Steve Brawner wrote for Talk Business & Politics. “Evergreen’s Pine Bluff and East Coast locations produce paper products, including most of the old-fashioned gable-top milk cartons used by consumers today. Tyson’s third-largest complex is in the area. Another company, Kiswire, makes steel tire cord. It recently was acquired by a South Korean company and is expanding with state and local incentives. Southwind Milling recently built a $35 million rice mill operation in the Harbor Industrial District next to the Arkansas River. Highland Pellets has acquired more than 150 acres to make wood pellets that it will export to the United Kingdom.”

Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth has made code enforcement a priority. Asked by Brawner about the situation downtown, she said: “Once this 400 block is cleaned up, we’re going to have a fantastic area for somebody to come in and buy and be able to start revitalizing our downtown area. But you had to get it started, and that was the toughest part.”

Prior to the Go Forward Pine Bluff announcement, Brawner wrote: “Makris has seen the city grow, reach its height and then shrink. He said Simmons would like to expand locally. He agrees with Hollingsworth’s concept of starting small. Long-term the community must decide what it wants to become and where it wants to go. Simmons Bank officials have started a philosophical discussion with city and community leaders about Pine Bluff’s direction. At some point, that discussion will need to be more serious and organized.”

Well, it’s now serious and organized.

An entire state will watch to see if Pine Bluff’s government, civic and business leaders can put aside personal interests and pull together to turn around an important Arkansas city.