Archive for July, 2016

David Solomon at 100

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016

The banner wishing David Solomon a happy 100th birthday stretched across the street that hot July Saturday near the banks of the Mississippi River in Helena.

Solomon long has been one of Arkansas’ most respected attorneys. He’s a Helena native and a stalwart of the Jewish community, which once thrived on both sides of the lower Mississppi River from St. Louis to New Orleans.

They came from across the Delta that Saturday. By late that afternoon, hundreds of people had made their way to the block of old buildings in downtown Helena known as Biscuit Row. Sam Elardo, who began restoring properties in the area in 1974, bought five buildings on what’s now Biscuit Row several years ago and began renovations. In a stuffy, crowded room, Solomon sat for more than two hours, greeting a steady stream of visitors.

Before we get to David Solomon, a bit more about Biscuit Row as downtown Helena tries to bounce back.

“The project started with the five historic buildings that I purchased from Morris Gist,” Elardo said in a 2013 interview with Melissa Martinez. “Back then, there were a number of things there ranging from juke joints and restaurants to liquor stores and gambling joints. … I used to be a merchant in the area so I understand the ins and outs of small businesses.”

In front of the buildings is a marker from the Mississippi Blues Trail celebrating the accomplishments of Sonny Boy Williamson.

That’s right: The Mississippi Blues Trail.

The trail was established in 2006 by the Mississippi Blues Commission. Interpretive markers were placed across the state. Later, those behind the trail’s establishment decided to reach out to surrounding states in places where the blues had been important — places such as Memphis and Helena.

The marker reads: “Helena was home to a flourishing blues scene that inspired Sonny Boy Williamson and other legendary musicians from Mississippi, including Robert Johnson, Pinetop Perkins, Houston Stackhouse, James “Peck” Curtis and Honeyboy Edwards, to take up residence here in the 1930s and 1940s. They and many others performed at a famous juke joint at this site called the Hole in the Wall. Williamson’s rise to fame began in Helena as the star of KFFA radio’s ‘King Biscuit Time.’

“Sonny Boy Williamson was born and laid to rest in Mississippi, and lived in Chicago, East St. Louis, Milwaukee, Detroit and numerous other locales. But Helena was the town he came to regard as home. He established himself as one of the premier blues performers in the Delta (on both the Arkansas and Mississippi sides) through his live appearances in cafes and clubs and his broadcasts on KFFA and other stations. His recordings, including the chart hits ‘Don’t Start Me Talkin’, ‘Keep It To Yourself’ and “Help Me’, brought him national recognition.

“In the 1960s, he played a key role in popularizing the blues in Europe and inspiring a host of British blues-rock musicians. In Europe, Williamson confounded eager fans and reporters who besieged him with questions about his life. As he told fellow bluesman Willie Dixon, ‘It ain’t none of their business. They don’t even know me.’

“Genealogical research and family sources point to a likely birthdate of Dec. 5, 1912, under the name Alex Miller. But he also called himself Rice Miller, Willie Miller, Little Boy Blue, Reverend Blue and Willie Williams, among other monikers, and he gave birthdates as early as 1893. When he eventually took his stage name from another popular bluesman, John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson, in the blues lexicon he became Sonny Boy No. 2.”

There are few, if any, towns in Arkansas with as colorful a past as Helena.

As we left the Solomon reception, I thought back to a far quieter day in July 2010. I spent the better part of a Friday at the home of Solomon and his wife, Miriam, who died the next year. It was a civilized affair with David mixing drinks before lunch and Miriam making sure everyone was comfortable. Lobster shipped in from Maine was served for lunch. Their Helena home was filled with books and art, symbols of a cultured life lived well.

The Solomons had been married 68 years at the time. They were born in Helena. Miriam was three years younger.

Jewish culture once thrived on either side of the river from St. Louis to New Orleans.

At the time of my visit, David Solomon would still put on a suit and tie each morning and head to his office on Cherry Street, which once had been among the busiest commercial streets in Arkansas. In recent decades, Cherry Street has seen its buildings empty out and begin to crumble. With Temple Beth El closed by the time of my 2010 visit, the area’s remaining Jews had begun gathering in the Solomon home for Friday night services.

Beth El was built in 1916. The building has its original organ, purchased for $4,000 by the congregation’s Ladies Benevolent Association. It was a regional congregation, serving Jews not only from Helena but also from smaller farm-oriented communities such as Marvell and Marianna. In 2006, with fewer than 20 members remaining, the synagogue closed and the temple was donated to the state’s Delta Cultural Center to be used as an assembly hall. The loss of thousands of sharecroppers due to the widespread mechanization of agriculture following World War II had led to the loss of the once ubiquitous Jewish merchants up and down the river.

“There are only about six or seven of us,” David Solomon said on that Friday in 2010 when I asked him about the Friday night services. “One lady drives over from Marvell. Another comes from Holly Grove. There was just no way to maintain the temple. There were too few of us left. And we certainly weren’t going to give it to another religion.”

He smiled at me as he said that. His wit is as much a part of his persona as his bow tie.

The Delta is like many parts of rural America, a place that in some ways never made the transition from the agricultural age to the industrial age, much less the technological era.

Those sharecroppers moved from the cotton fields of the South to the steel mills and automobile factories of the Upper Midwest. They deserted places like Helena on the Arkansas side of the river and Greenville on the Mississippi side in droves for the promise of better jobs in cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Gary.

It’s still common during the holidays each December to see visitors in rural east Arkansas whose automobiles sport license plates from Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. There are counties in Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana that had half or less the population in the 2010 census that they had in 1950.

The first Jews arrived in Helena in the 1840s. A Torah was borrowed from a congregation in Cincinnati in 1846 to use for the high holidays.

In 1867, 65 Jews formed Congregation Beth El. Now, almost 150 years later, the era of Jews living and thriving in the lower Mississippi River Delta is nearing its conclusion.

David Solomon, who received his bachelor’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis and his law degree from Harvard, expresses no longing for the past and no sadness at the decline of the Delta’s Jewish population. In his own stoic manner, he simply views it as things having come full circle. The Delta Jews, after all, met in private homes in the 1800s. By the 21st century, they were meeting in private homes once again.

“I relate everything back to economics,” Solomon once told me. “It’s not just the Jewish population that’s being affected in the Delta. All of the mainline Protestant religions are feeling the effect. It’s simple. People are going to go where the jobs are.”

The three Solomon sons, all highly successful, are a case in point. None of them stayed in Helena.

David P. Solomon went on to become the executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society in New York.

Rayman Solomon was the dean of the Rutgers Law School in Camden, N.J., for 16 years and now serves as dean emeritus.

Lafe Solomon is an attorney for the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C., and served as the NLRB’s acting general counsel from June 2010 until November 2013.

For the elder David Solomon, the equation was simple. Jews came to the Delta in the 1800s when cotton was king because there were jobs. They left in the late 1900s because those jobs had disappeared.

The Delta long was known for its diversity. Blacks came in bondage as slaves and stayed on as sharecroppers. The Irish, Italians, Chinese, Syrians, Greeks and Lebanese were other groups who came up the river from New Orleans or down the river from St. Louis, settling in communities along the way.

The Delta was perhaps the greatest American melting pot outside a major city.

In an effort to preserve the state’s Jewish heritage, David P. Solomon (the son) established the Tapestry Endowment for Arkansas Jewish History. The endowment helped create a home at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock for Carolyn Gray LeMaster’s extensive body of research on the history of Arkansas Jews. The fund’s name is taken from the title of LeMaster’s book, “A Corner of the Tapestry: A History of the Jewish Experience in Arkansas, 1820s-1900s.”

The Jewish Genealogy Library Collection calls the book “one of the most comprehensive studies ever done on a state’s Jewish community. … Data for the book have been collected in part from the American Jewish Archives, American Jewish Historical Society, the stones in Arkansas’ Jewish cemeteries, more than 1,500 articles and obituaries from journals and newspapers, personal letters from hundreds of present and former Jewish Arkansans, congressional histories, census and court records and some 400 oral interviews in more than 100 cities and towns in Arkansas.”

David Solomon’s grandfather arrived from Germany shortly before the Civil War and had eight children — six boys and two girls. That second generation later would own a department store, shoe store, wholesale dry goods operation and cotton farms.

Miriam Solomon’s father, Charles Rayman, operated Helena Wholesale Co.

David Solomon started the first grade at a Catholic School known as Sacred Heart, which was operated by the Sisters of Nazareth. The nuns quickly moved him from the first grade to the fourth grade due to his native intelligence. He likes to joke that his mother finally pulled him out of the Catholic school when he kept coming home with crucifixes and tiny vials of holy water.

After his graduation from Harvard Law School, he applied to be a tax lawyer at a large firm in Memphis. He wasn’t chosen and came home to Helena to practice law.

He married Miriam in September 1942, traveling back to Helena from Camp Carson in Colorado Springs where he was stationed in the U.S. Army. Miriam had been working as an occupational therapist at a Chicago hospital. The wedding was in Miriam’s family home.

In December 2009, the Jewish news service JTA distributed an article about a Friday night service at the Solomon home. Ben Harris wrote: “The plight of Helena’s Jews is mirrored in scores of communities across the Bible Belt, where Jews first migrated in the early 19th century, generally as peddlers. Those who stuck around opened small businesses, which for a long time provided an ample livelihood.”

Harris went on to write that Miriam and David Solomon’s “benign resignation” over the impending end of Jewish life in Phillips County derived “at least in part from the success they have had in winding down their affairs and ensuring the continued maintenance of their synagogue and cemetery, which dates to 1875. Their ritual objects have been donated to other communities, and a trust has been established to ensure the cemetery’s upkeep. And with the synagogue and its glass-domed ceiling turned over to the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the building will not only be preserved, it will be put to good use.”

At that lunch in 2010, Miriam Solomon told me: “I had made up my mind that we were not going to have the temple standing there with weeds growing out of the gutter. That wasn’t going to happen on my watch. In my mind, I gave it three years. If we hadn’t found a use for it by then, we were going to have it torn down.”

I’m glad I was there for David Solomon’s 100th birthday party. He’s one of the last of the Delta Jews.

Along U.S. Highway 67: Part 3

Monday, July 18th, 2016

As we headed southwest on U.S. Highway 67, Paul Austin commented just past Gum Springs that he was able to see parts of the old road to his right. It reminded him of a similar stretch of 67 between Newport and Walnut Ridge in northeast Arkansas where the old road is visible.

Indeed, we passed a former rest area between Gum Springs and Curtis that’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

At the bottom of a wooded embankment is a fieldstone retaining wall and a concrete bench. A plaque reads: “Built by National Youth Administration in cooperation with Arkansas State Highway Department 1936.”

Old Highway 67 was the main automobile route in this part of the state from the time of its paving in 1931 until the current highway as built adjacent to it in 1965.

Here’s how the official nomination form submitted for the National Register recounts the history of the road: “The route of U.S. 67 was a natural corridor through Arkansas due to the state’s geography, and its history goes back many centuries. Current U.S. 67 roughly divides Arkansas into two triangles with the Ozarks to the northwest and the Delta with its associated swampland to the southeast. The ease of travel in this corridor was first taken advantage of by the Native Americans, who picked out a route that avoided the hills and swamps, and crossed the many rivers at their easiest fording locations.

“At the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the Southwest Trail was developed along the route. It predated the Memphis to Little Rock Road of 1826 and was the earliest land route into Arkansas. The route entered Arkansas at Hix’s Ferry, a community northeast of Pocahontas in Randoph County, proceeded through Little Rock and ended at the Red River in Fulton in Arkansas’ southwest corner.

“The development of the Southwest Trail through Arkansas opened up settlement in the areas along its route. Pioneers came into the state from the northeast bringing their cattle, wagon trains and occasionally slaves with them. All along the route, the settlers selected tracts of bottomland and made clearings in the wilderness. The importance of the Southwest Trail was also recognized by Andrew Jackson, who signed an appropriations bill in 1831 that earmarked $15,000 for the improvement of the trail and also designated it a National Road. The importance of this military road also was proven during the war with Mexico in the 1840s.

“As the construction of railroad lines began in earnest in Arkansas after the Civil War, the railroad line also utilized the same approximate corridor that the military road had used in Clark County. Historic railroad maps of the area show that a railroad line was in the planning stages in 1864 and 1872. The railroad line, which would become the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern in 1874, was completed by 1873. The arrival of the railroad further increased settlement in that part of Clark County, and the towns of Curtis and Gum Springs came into existence by 1895.

“When the Arkansas State Highway System was formed in 1923, U.S. 67 was one of the original highways included. It was also one of the first nine Arkansas highways to become part of the U.S. highway system two years later in 1925. The creation of the state highway system was the most important aspect of the Harrelson Road Law of 1923, and it brought all construction and maintenance activities under the jurisdiction of the Highway Commission.

“However, the section of highway between Curtis and Gum Springs did not become a part of U.S. 67 until the paving was finished in 1931. Prior to 1931, it was designated Arkansas 51. The route of U.S. 67 went northwest through the town of Burtsell before turning northeast at Okolona, proceeding on to Arkadelphia. The old route of U.S. 67 through Okolona is now designated Arkansas 51.

“Rerouting U.S. 67 to proceed northeast through Curtis and Gum Springs once the paving of Arkansas 51 was completed made sense since the route was more direct and shorter in distance. By Dec. 31, 1932, the section of Arkansas 51 between Gurdon and Arkadelphia had been designated U.S. 67. In addition, the original route of U.S. 67, which went through Okolona, was designated Arkansas 51 and remains so today.

“Once this section of U.S. 67 was paved, it quickly became the main highway in that part of Clark County. Since U.S. 67 was a heavily traveled road, facilities were needed to provide goods and services to travelers on the highway. In 1936, the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department teamed up with the NYA to construct a small rest area for travelers. … The rest area had a well that provided water for travelers and their cars and a bench to rest on. A stone retaining wall completed the facility.

“The fact that this portion of U.S. 67 was the main route between Little Rock and Texarkana meant that it was also a highly traveled road for both automobile and truck traffic. As a result, this rest area was a popular place for travelers on U.S. 67 beginning in the 1930s. The amount of traffic using U.S. 67 ultimately led to the construction of the current U.S. 67 immediately to the east of the 1931 alignment in 1965. It is likely that once the current highway was built in 1965, the usage of the U.S. 67 rest area declined dramatically.”

After leaving Gurdon, we came upon another National Register property, the bridge over the Little Missouri River as we crossed from Clark County into Nevada County.

The bridge consists of three steel Parker pony truss spans. The Parker truss was developed by C.H. Parker through designs he submitted for patents from 1868-71. The bridge was built in 1931.

Here’s the history that was included in the National Register application: “The area that’s now Clark County became a part of the United States with the acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Hunters and trappers constituted the earliest white arrivals in the region, but because of their transient lifestyle it remained largely undeveloped. Farmers arrived, though, and the rich bottomlands of the Ouachita River became increasingly settled.

“One of the these early settlers was Adam Blakely, a blacksmith who arrived on the banks of the Ouachita in 1808. There he constructed his shop, and the town that sprang up around him soon became known as Blakelytown. A boat landing was constructed near the settlement, and an economic and industrial boom ensued. In the 1840s, the citizens of the growing town changed its name to Arkadelphia, and the county seat was moved there in 1842.

“The settlement that’s now Nevada County came as early as 1812. The settlement of the county was very slow until the Iron Mountain Railway came. … Nevada County was organized in accordance with an act of the Arkansas General Assembly, approved March 20, 1871. In 1877, the county seat was moved from Rosston to Prescott.

“Growth in the area increased as Arkadelphia transitioned from a river economy to a railroad economy. In 1873, the Cairo & Fulton Railroad was completed through Clark County. The emerging lumber industry benefited most from this development, and a number of lumber mills were constructed throughout the county. The relative success in the county’s agricultural and timber economies boosted Arkadelphia’s importance as a center of commerce.

“Arkadelphia’s continuing influence was seen when the state began to build highways. The city was a hub for a number of early roads. The first real efforts to develop tourism began in the 1930s. U.S. Highway 67 was reconstructed through Clark County in 1931. Since the highway crossed the Little Missouri River, a bridge had to be built. During the 1930s, this highway linked Davenport, Iowa, and Dallas, greatly increasing motor travel through Clark and Nevada counties. The bridge was built by the Vincennes Bridge Co. of Vincennes, Ind., and was a part of a large contract for six bridges along U.S. 67. It took 225 days to complete them, and they cost $153,415.22.”

The final stop before getting off Highway 67 was Prescott. It began as a railroad town and has seen its population fall from 4,103 residents in the 1980 census to 3,296 residents in the 2010 census.

Steve Teske describes the growth of Prescott for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “The Cairo & Fulton railroad line crossed the north end of Nevada County in 1873. Robert Burns moved from Little Rock to the town of Moscow in Nevada County, two miles south of the tracks, and he persuaded the railroad surveyors to plant a town on the line near Moscow. In August of that year, four surveyors, including W.H. Prescott, laid out 24 blocks on each side of the rails. Within two weeks, Burns had constructed a frame storehouse in the incipient city. A second store, a restaurant and a hotel followed. The railroad had established a depot in the city by November.

“On Nov. 24 of the same year, Prescott received a post office — Burns was named postmaster — and was said by later writers to resemble an oil boom town in the speed of its growth. Controversy exists surrounding the name of the town. Most historians assumed that it was named for the surveyor, but others note that railroad executives Thomas Allen and Henry Marquand had a friend of the same name for whom the city might have been named.”

The first church, a Cumberland Presbyterian church, was built in 1875. The first newspaper also was published that year. The first mayor was elected in 1876, and a school district was established in 1877. The first bank opened in 1880.

“Prescott continued to grow and thrive as the 20th century approached,” Teske writes. “Ozan Lumber was established in Prescott in 1891 to harvest the lumber of southwest Arkansas. The Reader Railroad was created to link lumber operations to the Cairo & Fulton line. Various crops, including peaches, were raised in the Prescott area. Icehouses in the city helped to preserve the fruit while it awaited shipping. Hines Trucking, an early transportation company, was established in Prescott in 1936. Because of the jobs in agriculture, timber and the railroads, many African-Americans lived in Prescott. Future congressman and governor Thomas McRae donated money to build schools for the city’s African-American community. Those schools continued to be used until desegregation took place in the second half of the 1960s.”

Potlatch Corp. acquired what had been Ozan Lumber and operated a mill until 2008. The closing of the mill was a major blow to the city.

When I was growing up in Arkadelphia, friends would make trips to Prescott to see the body of Old Mike, the traveling salesman who died there in 1911. No one knew his full name or where he was from. The body was embalmed and available for viewing for more than 60 years. No one ever claimed it.

David Sesser picks up the story for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Mike visited Prescott about once a month to sell pens, paper and thread to homes and businesses near the railroad tracks in the center of town. He would arrive on the southbound 3 p.m. train and stay overnight. The next day, he would board the 3 p.m. train and continue his journey. On April 11, 1911, Mike probably attended an outdoor revival in the city park. The next day, his body was found underneath a tree in the park, where he apparently had died of a heart attack or stroke.

“The body was taken to the Cornish Funeral Home, where it was embalmed. A search of Mike’s belongings did not turn up any identification. What was known about Mike was that he was 40 to 45 years old, spoke English with little accent, was probably Italian, had suffered some type of injury to his right arm and left leg (possibly the effects of a stroke) and had had very elaborate dental work done. The body was placed on display at the funeral home in hopes of someone identifying it. No one came forward to identify or claim the body.

“As the years passed, it became more and more unlikely that Mike would ever be identified. The body turned into somewhat of a tourist attraction, and people traveled from surrounding areas to view the remains. In 1975, the Arkansas Attorney General’s Office asked Cornish Funeral Home to bury the body. On May 12, 1975, a quiet ceremony was held at the DeAnn Cemetery, and Old Mike was put to rest.”

It was time to leave Highway 67 and travel south to Emerson.

Along U.S. Highway 67: Part 2

Wednesday, July 13th, 2016

There was no easy way to get to DeSoto Bluff in Arkadelphia the first time I took Paul Austin to the bluff, which was walking distance from the house in which I was raised.

We parked along U.S. Highway 67, risked tearing our pants as we crossed a fence and then walked through woods filled with ticks and chiggers in order to take in the beautiful view of the Ouachita River.

It’s an easy walk now, thanks in part to grants from the Arkansas Humanities Council (which Paul heads), the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and others.

There’s a paved parking lot and a paved trail to the top.

Most historians, by the way, will tell you that Hernando DeSoto never came near this spot.

Back in 2013, then-Arkadelphia city manager Jimmy Bolt told Wayne Bryan of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: “It has been a story that has been told around here for a long time. So the name stuck, and I won’t be the one who says it’s impossible.”

We do know that the expedition of George Hunter and William Dunbar made its way by here in 1804 as the explorers headed up the Ouachita River. When Trey Berry (now the president of Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia) lived in his hometown of Arkadelphia and worked as a history professor at Ouachita Baptist University, he became the expert on the Hunter-Dunbar expedition.

“The Hunter-Dunbar expedition was one of only four ventures into the Louisiana Purchase commissioned by Thomas Jefferson,” Berry writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Between 1804 and 1807, President Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark into the northern regions of the Louisiana Purchase; Zebulon Pike into the Rocky Mountains, the southwestern areas and two smaller forays; Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis along the Red River; and William Dunbar and Dr. George Hunter to explore ‘the Washita River’ and ‘the hot springs’ in what’s now Arkansas and Louisiana.

“While the Ouachita River expedition was not as vast as and did not provide the expanse of geographic and environmental information collected by Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, the exploration of Dunbar and Hunter remains significant for several reasons. It provided Americans with the first scientific study of the varied landscapes as well as the animal and plant life of southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana. In fact, the expedition resulted in arguably the most purely scientific collection of data among all of the Louisiana Purchase explorations.

“The explorers described an extremely active and vibrant interaction between the European and the Native American population. Hunter and Dunbar also reported many encounters with European trappers, hunters, planters and settlers as well as fellow river travelers plying the waters of the Red, Black and Ouachita rivers. Their copious notes also portray a region in which these European and Indian inhabitants harvested the abundant natural resources along the rivers and in the lands beyond.”

Dunbar was born to an aristocratic family in Scotland in 1749. He studied astronomy and mathematics in Glasgow and London. He traveled to Philadelphia at age 22 and later settled near Natchez, Miss. Jefferson heavily relied on Dunbar’s advice when issues arose that affected that area.

Hunter was also a Scottish immigrant. He was a chemist and druggist in Philadelphia who already had explored parts of Ohio and Indiana.

Congress appropriated $3,000 for the trip. Dunbar wrote to Jefferson in June 1804 to ask permission to make a trial run up a Red River tributary he called the “Washita.” He was most interested in visiting what were known as “the boiling springs,” now Hot Springs.

Jefferson agreed to the change in plans.

The expedition left St. Catherine’s Landing on the east bank of the Mississippi River on Oct. 16, 1804, and made it to what’s now Monroe by Nov. 6.

“Near the current site of Arkadelphia, they met a man of Dutch descent named Paltz,” Berry writes. “The Dutch hunter knew the area well, and he informed the explorers of a salt spring located nearby, as well as other natural features. Paltz told them that he had ‘resided 40 years on the Ouachita and before that on the Arkansas.’ Hunter, Paltz and a small team investigated a ‘salt pit’ and reported it to be of a substantial nature. The chemist conducted specific gravity experiments on the saline water and discovered it to be a high concentration of what he called ‘marine salt.’

“On Dec. 3, 1804, Dunbar and Hunter confronted the greatest potential obstacle to their journey. Near what is today Malvern or Rockport, an enormous series of rocky rapids, called ‘the Chutes’ by the two men, stretched almost a mile before them. Dunbar described the formations as looking like ‘ancient fortifications and castles.’ Through strenuous efforts of rocking the vessel from side to side and essentially dragging the flatboat between and over rocks, the team finally traversed the maze of boulders. Dunbar compared the roar made by ‘the Chutes’ to the sound of a hurricane he had experienced in New Orleans in 1779.”

By Dec. 7, the expedition had reached the point where Gulpha Creek runs into the Ouachita River.

“Several men immediately began a nine-mile walk to examine the site,” Berry writes of the springs. “They returned the next afternoon with vivid descriptions of their experiences, stating that they had discovered an empty cabin thought to be used by those coming to bathe in and drink from the waters of the springs. The following day, Dunbar and Hunter traveled to the springs and began an almost four-week study of the water properties and geological and biological features.”

Back to the bluff at Arkadelphia: A stone-and-wood barrier is now at the end of the trail.

Ouachita professor Mike Reynolds often brings his students there.

“The area has marvelous views of the Ouachita River, the pine woods of the Gulf Coastal Plain to the east and south and the Ouachita Mountains to the north and west,” he told Bryan. “It’s easily accessible yet you get the feeling of being in the woods.”

When Ouachita decided to build a new entrance to its campus from Highway 67, it needed part of Arkadelphia’s Central Park for the project. The city gave Ouachita that land in exchange for 26 acres along the bluff.

Dedication ceremonies for the trail were held in July 2013. Interpretive panels funded by the Arkansas Humanities Council provide information on the Caddo Indians who once called this area home. There’s also a panel on the Hunter-Dunbar expedition.

After Paul Austin and I walked the trail last month, we got back in the car and continued south on Highway 67. We got off the highway at Gum Springs so I could show Paul where Sun Paper from China plans to make one of the largest private investments in the history of the state — $1.3 billion — to build a paper mill.

The next stop was Gurdon.

Meriwether Lewis Randolph, a grandson of Thomas Jefferson, bought several thousand acres in this area before he died of malaria in 1837.

“The area next experienced a large influx of settlers in 1874 when the Cairo & Fulton Railroad was constructed,” David Sesser writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “On July 12, 1875, a post office was opened but closed that same year. On March 15, 1876, the post office at Tate was renamed Gurdon. A small depot was constructed, and by 1880 the town had been laid out. That year, 33 citizens petitioned the Clark County Quorum Court to incorporate the city of Gurdon, which was approved. Several theories exist for the name of the city, most notably that it’s in honor of Gurdon Cunningham, who surveyed the right of way for the railroad in the area.”

Gurdon became an important railroad and timber town.

“The city expanded as timber companies opened mills in the area,” Sesser writes. “The number of mills operating in the area reached a peak of 10 in the late 19th century. The combination of people passing through town on the railroad and the rough nature of the timber business brought many unsavory characters to Gurdon. When the first minister arrived in Gurdon in 1881, he found a community of 500 people with three saloons and no churches. The situation changed in 1887 when all saloons were banned from the town.”

Paul and I drove into downtown since he had never seen the headquarters of the Concatenated Order of the Hoo-Hoo or the marker next to the depot that commemorates the organization’s founding.

The Hoo-Hoo is the oldest industrial fraternal organization in the country. The organization of lumbermen once had more than 13,000 members. That’s now down to about 2,000.

Six men — Bolling Arthur Johnson of Chicago, George Washington Schwarz of St. Louis, William Starr Mitchell of Little Rock, William Eddy Barns of St. Louis, Ludolph O.D. Adalbert Strauss of Malvern and Southern Lumber Manufacturers Association secretary George Kimball Smith — formed the order on Jan. 21, 1892, in the Hotel Hall at Gurdon.

Its motto would be “Health, Happiness and Long Life.”

The board of directors would be called the Supreme Nine.

The president would be called the Snark of the Universe.

The chaplain would be called the Bojum.

The secretary would be called the Scrivenoter.

The sergeant at arms would be called the Gurdon.

The other board members would be the Senior Hoo-Hoo, Junior Hoo-Hoo, Custocacian, Arcanoper and Jabberwock.

“Some of these names were derived from Lewis Carroll’s ‘Hunting of the Snark,’ which one of the founders had recently read,” Rachel Bridges writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The name Hoo-Hoo also had a unique origin. In Kansas City about a month before the founding of the order, Johnson had used the term hoo-hoo to refer to an unusual tuft of hair on the head of Charles McCarer, who became the first Snark of the Universe and was given membership number one.”

The mascot would be a black cat with its tail curved in the number nine.

Membership originally was limited to 9,999 people.

That number later was changed to 99,999.

Meetings were to be held on the ninth day of the ninth month at nine minutes after the ninth hour.

Annual dues were $9.99.

The initiation fee was 99 cents.

The first chapter outside of the United States began in Canada in 1924. Soon, there were chapters all over the world.

“Though the Hoo-Hoo experienced a slump from 1929-38, when membership dropped to around 700, the order recovered and membership began to rise again,” Bridges writes. “Two U.S. presidents have had membership in Hoo-Hoo. Theodore Roosevelt was given the reserved membership number 999 for his work promoting the importance of forests. Warren G. Harding was member number 14,945.”

Bridges describes the Hoo-Hoo monument in Gurdon this way: “Several elements make up the present-day monument. The base of the monument is an ashlar-faced barre granite stone measuring 116 inches high, 107 inches wide and 44 inches deep. The second element of the monument — and that which makes it of historic significance — is a bronze plaque sculpted by noted artist George J. Zolnay. This plaque was completed in 1909, at which time it was affixed to a building then occupying the site of the Hotel Hall. When this building was demolished in 1927, the Zolnay plaque was moved to its present location, affixed to the granite base and rededicated. Zolnay sculpted the plaque with Egyptian Revival reliefs and engravings. The pediment is illustrated with the image of a two-headed bird.

“The second horizontal level of the monument contains a relief of the Hotel Hall. The third level contains an inscription recounting the founding of Hoo-Hoo. The names of all Hoo-Hoo presidents are engraved on the opposite side of the base and on two small granite monuments at each side. The monument was added to the National Register of Historic Places on Sept. 2, 1999.”

Like other towns in the southern part of the state, Gurdon has struggled in recent decades. Its population fell from 2,707 in the 1980 census to 2,212 in the 2010 census.

Good news came in October 2014 when Georgia-Pacific announced that it would invest $37 million at its nearby lumber mill to expand the production capacity by 60 percent.

The huge investment being made by Sun Paper in Clark County will help even more.

It was time to leave Gurdon and continue to the southwest toward Prescott.

Along U.S. Highway 67

Tuesday, July 12th, 2016

Before the construction of Interstate 30, U.S. Highway 67 was the route from Arkansas to Texas, making it one of the most important roads in the state.

On a recent trip to south Arkansas, Paul Austin and I drove on the old highway from just outside Benton to Prescott, eschewing the interstate and experiencing the sights along Highway 67.

“The route of Highway 67 is the approximate border between the low Mississippi Delta and Gulf Coastal Plain to the south and east and the Ouachita and Ozark mountains to the north and west,” Steve Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “This boundary is such a natural path of travel that even spring and summer thunderstorms frequently move along the same route. Undoubtedly, native Americans traveled portions of this route.

“After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, as the U.S. government began improving travel through the territory, a military road was constructed from Missouri through Little Rock and south to Fulton on the Red River. This road became known as the Southwest Trail and was the first land route created in Arkansas. When the Cairo & Fulton Railroad began surveying a route to connect southern Illinois to the Red River across Missouri and Arkansas, the same route was used once again. The railroad became the Iron Mountain Railroad and was then acquired by the Missouri Pacific Railroad. The route is still used by the Union Pacific Railroad in the 21st century, although ties and rails have been repaired and replaced through the years.”

The roads that eventually would turn into Highway 67 in Arkansas were part of the original state highway system in 1923.

“Federal and state funding became available for highways early in the 1920s as automobile and truck traffic was beginning to take the place of railroad traffic,” Teske writes. “A joint commission of the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads and the American Association of State Highway Officials created the first national system of highways, with nine federal highways established in Arkansas, including Highway 67. Sections of the highway were gradually improved as funds became available. Much pavement was laid for the highway in 1928 through 1931. The highway was 18 feet wide at that time. More improvements were made by federal projects such as the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s.”

Teske notes that the construction of a large ordnance plant at Jacksonville in 1941 led to widening of the highway north of Little Rock.

“After the war, the United States entered a period of prosperity and growth that led to cultural changes,” he writes. “Many of the earliest rock ‘n’ roll performers — including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty and Sonny Burgess — performed in high schools, nightclubs and other venues along Highway 67 from Newport north to Pocahontas. In 2009, the Arkansas General Assembly named this part of the highway the Rock ‘n’ Roll Highway, with a portion also in Miller County in southwest Arkansas, as early rock ‘n’ roll performers played at the Arkansas Municipal Auditorium when they traveled through Texarkana on Highway 67.”

The history of the music scene along Highway 67 in northeast Arkansas is filled with colorful characters, but we’ve covered that in other posts on this blog. We’ll stick to southwest Arkansas in this post.

“During the 1950s, American views of highway travel began to change,” Teske writes. “Until this time, highways existed to connect cities and towns to one another. The beginning of the interstate highway system caused drivers to begin traveling directly between large cities, bypassing the smaller cities and towns. Interstate 30, from Little Rock south to Texarkana and then into Texas, was one of the original interstate highways planned for Arkansas. The new interstate highway made travel into Texas easier but took business away from many of the communities that had relied on travelers’ income to support stores, restaurants and gas stations. … Highway 67 continued to be used by Arkansans traveling shorter distances in the southwestern quarter of the state.”

As we left Haskell, we passed what had been the historic Saline County campus of the Arkansas State Hospital, which opened at this location in the 1930s.

The Legislature created the Arkansas Lunatic Asylum in 1873, but Reconstruction delayed the construction of a facility until 1881, when work began on an asylum at Little Rock. The name was changed to the Arkansas State Hospital for Nervous Diseases (my grandmother in Benton, who lived until age 98, always called it “the nervous hospital,” the same term used in the 1996 movie “Sling Blade”) and then was changed to the Arkansas State Hospital in 1933.

Speaking of “Sling Blade,” the filming of the psychiatric hospital portrayed in the movie starring southwest Arkansas native Billy Bob Thornton took place at the Saline County facility.

In 1881, the Legislature levied a one-mill tax on all property for two years to construct and outfit an asylum. It opened on March 1, 1883. By 1915, there were 12 buildings housing patients. A separate hospital farm was established at Baucum outside of North Little Rock in the 1930s. What was known as the Benton Farm Colony opened in 1936 with room for 2,000 people. Farm operations ceased there in 1957.

A federal grant of $291,950 was used in 1964 to upgrade the Saline County facilities. Several of the buildings are now empty.

These days the complex is known as the Arkansas Health Center. It’s a 310-bed nursing facility. In fact, it’s the only state-operated nursing facility.

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture states: “In 1961, the Arkansas Health Center was designated to receive all African-American psychiatric patients from its section of the state. In July 1962, all African-American phychiatric patients from Pulaski County, including those patients receiving treatment from the Arkansas State Hospital, were transferred to AHC. Although black and white patients were housed in separate buildings, AHC was one of the only facilities of its kind in Arkansas to accept such a large black population. In October 1965, AHC became racially integrated.”

We continued west past Glen Rose High School and then passed the Acme Brick Co. plant at Perla.

Fittingly, it was Brickfest weekend at Malvern. The festival started in 1981 and includes everything from a brick-throwing contest to concerts and arts and crafts displays.

There were dozens of brick plants in Arkansas during the early 1900s. Little Rock, Fort Smith, Clarksville, El Dorado, Hope, Jonesboro, Malvern, Pine Bluff, Mansfield, Pocahontas and Wynne were among the cities with brick-making operations. By the 1980s, there were only plants in the Malvern area, Jonesboro, Hope, Fort Smith and Clarksville. By 2009, there were just four plants in the state, and they all were owned by Acme.

Well-known names in the brick industry in Arkansas included:

— The Fort Smith Brick Co., which dated back to the 1840s and was acquired by Acme in 1923 along with a plant at Mansfield.

— The Hope Brick Works, which was part of the O’Neal-Gardner family’s 100-year tradition of brickmaking. The plant moved to Hope from Gurdon in the 1920s. Acme purchased and closed the facility in 2000.

— The Jonesboro Brick Co., which was operated by three generations of the Charles Stuck family before being closed in 1942. It reopened in 1946 as the Hall-Wheeler Brick Co. It was just the Wheeler Brick Co. from 1951-66, when a modern plant was built on the west site of town. Acme bought that plant in 2000.

— The Eureka Brick & Tile Co. of Clarksville, which began production in June 1946 and operated until it was sold to Acme in 1999.

“Malvern is by far the leading city in brick production in Arkansas and at one time claimed to be the Brick Capital of the World,” Randall Wheeler writes. “It has been the home of Acme Brick Co., Arkansas Brick & Tile, Atchison Brick Works, Clark Pressed Brick Co. (sold to Arkansas Brick & Tile in 1916) and Malvern Brick & Tile. Acme first purchased property at Malvern in 1919 and began negotiations to purchase Arkansas Brick & Tile.

“Malvern Brick & Tile was started in 1925 and, at one time, had a line of bricks in colors such as blue, green, pink and yellow. Other companies sprayed the color onto the face of the brick, but Malvern Brick used stains that colored the whole body of the brick. It is not likely that any other company produced bricks with through-the-body colors. Malvern Brick was purchased by Acme in the late 1970s.”

Acme began in Texas in 1891 and opened its first Arkansas plant in Hot Spring County in 1921. Illinois native George Bennett arrived in Dallas in 1876 and purchased 480 acres in Parker County for the first Acme plant. The headquarters was moved to Fort Worth in 1911, four years after Bennett died. By the 1970s, Acme was the largest American brick manufacturer. Land was purchased at Perla in 1919, and the first bricks were being made two years later.

The fully automated Perla East Gate Plant opened in 1967. Meanwhile, the original Malvern plant was replaced with what’s known as the Ouachita Plant in 1980.

It’s not nearly as big, of course, but I consider Keeney’s Grocery in Malvern to be as much of a Hot Spring County landmark as the brick plants. It’s where Paul and I had breakfast, including some of the best sausage I’ve ever eaten.

Charles and Maureen Keeney opened the grocery store 60 years ago at this same location, hidden from most traffic in a residential area.

Charles Keeney is 80 but is young at heart. He even drives a Corvette.

“She can get old if she wants to,” he says of his wife. “I’m not going to.”

A corner of the store has been turned into a small restaurant. Keeney’s serves breakfast and lunch every day but Sunday.

In 2000, with competition from Walmart and other big retailers hurting his business, Charles Keeney thought about retiring. But he decided that with only $45,000 in the bank he needed to keep working.

Here’s how Wayne Bryan told the story in a 2011 feature for the Tri-Lakes edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: “Rather than just carry on business as usual in a small grocery store that seems to fit more in the 1950s than the new millennium, Charles decided to latch onto what’s still the fastest-growing segment of the supermarket industry, cooking for customers (or, as it is called in the grocery business, home meal replacement). Starting in the late 1990s, many supermarket operators discovered that preparing and serving food in their stores was a good way to bring in new customers, gain greater loyalty from existing customers and increase checkout sales and profits. … Today, in-store restaurants aren’t unusual. Charles had the same idea for his small store on Mill Street in Malvern. The couple, along with several employees, prepare and serve breakfast and lunch six days a week at the back of their store.”

Charles Keeney told Bryan: “I just pushed some of the groceries back and put in a kitchen and some tables. I did it because I had to make a living. We stumbled through the menu for a while. But I was raised country so we fix things in the old home-style way.”

Keeney told us that he sells so much sausage at breakfast that he doesn’t have time to make it to sell by the pound in the grocery section of the store.

On Thursdays, he sells dozens of rib-eye steaks. People eat them in the restaurant for lunch while others come in during the afternoon to get steaks to take home for supper.

Charles and Maureen Keeney arrive at the store at 4:30 a.m. and begin serving breakfast at 6 a.m..

Charles was 20 and Maureen was 17 when they bought the store in 1956.

They’re a special couple, deeply loved in the Malvern area.

A crew from KTHV-TV, Channel 11 in Little Rock showed up last year to visit the store.

Charles Keeney told them: “We went broke like the rest of them little ones. Times changed on us. When I turned 65, we started cooking. We had $45,000 to retire on, so we went to town and borrowed $45,000 more and spent it back there on the kitchen.”

Keeney’s is open from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 6 a.m. until 3 p.m. each Saturday. It’s worth the road trip.

We continued toward Arkadelphia, crossing the old viaduct over the railroad tracks at Donaldson, crossing the Ouachita River, passing Ouachita High School, passing through Friendship, crossing DeRoche Creek into Clark County, getting through the Caddo Valley commercial corridor and then crossing the Caddo River.



Eating our way west on U.S. 82

Friday, July 8th, 2016

Having departed Burge’s in Lewisville, Paul Austin and I crossed the Red River bridge on U.S. Highway 82 and found ourselves in Miller County — the community of Garland to be exact.

Garland had a population of only 242 residents in the 2010 census, but that population more than doubles on Friday and Saturday nights because this is the Catfish Capital of Southwest Arkansas.

More on that later.

“The first and most famous resident of the area was William Wynn, who arrived at the banks of the Red River and established a farm around 1835,” Steve Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “At that time, confusion about the border between Arkansas and Texas and uncertainty about the size of Miller County resulted in many records placing Wynn’s land in Lafayette County. Wynn bought many acres of land, on which he grew cotton and other crops. By 1850, according to census records, he owned 96 slaves.

“Early in the 1850s, surveyors for the Mississippi, Ouachita & Red River Railroad planned a crossing of the Red River at Wynn’s plantation. Tracks had not yet been completed that far west when Wynn died in 1857, and the Civil War then delayed construction of the railroad. Finally, by 1881, the St Louis Southwestern Railway (often called the Cotton Belt) built the proposed track, including a bridge, across the Red River. A post office was established at the depot next to the bridge in 1883. It is not known why the name Garland was designated.”

The 1800s indeed were confusing times in this area where four states — Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas — now come together.

Arkansas’ territorial legislature established Miller County in 1820.

“At the time, it included most of present-day Miller County and parts of Bowie, Cass, Delta, Fannin, Franklin, Hopkins, Hunt, Lamar, Morris, Red River and Titus counties in Texas,” writes Beverly Rowe of Texarkana College. “Miller County was part of the disputed Horse’s Head area of northeast Texas and southwest Arkansas, too far north for Mexico to control well and too far west for the United States to control well. While it was technically under Mexican jurisdiction, it truly was not under any country’s control.

“The county was named for territorial Gov. James Miller, a native of Temple, N.H. The first county seat was in the John Hall house in the Gilliland settlement. The county’s establishment was problematic because Mexico claimed much of east Texas. Texas declared its independence from Mexico in 1836, and the first Miller County was abolished two years later. Gov. James Conway said the easiest solution would be to abolish the county and remove its records to a ‘more patriotic area’ — that is, in the United States.

“Until 1874, area settlers found themselves included in Lafayette County. The first Miller County had five post offices by 1835 — Jonesborough, McKinneyville, Mill Creek, Spanish Bluffs and Sulphur Fork. The southeastern United States provided the largest number of settlers to the area during this time as disheartened citizens of the old Confederacy moved west after the Civil War.”

The Arkansas Legislature re-established Miller County in 1874 with Texarkana as the county seat.

“From 1874 to 1900, the county’s population boomed, mainly in response to the railroad and the influx of immigrants,” Rowe writes. “By 1900, the population was 17,558, but it remained a predominantly rural county. It had 1,967 farms in 1900.”

In Garland, farm workers and railroad workers began moving in from the rural areas. Garland was incorporated in 1904.

“In the 1920s, the state of Arkansas began to plan highways for motor traffic to link the various parts of the state,” Teske writes. “Arkansas Highway 2 was developed to run parallel to the border of Arkansas and Louisiana, connecting Texarkana with Lake Village. A bridge across the Red River was built in Garland a short distance north of the railroad bridge. Originally a gravel road, Highway 2 was paved by 1932. The next year, it was designated U.S. Highway 82.

“Garland was guided through the Great Depression in part by local businesswoman Charline Person, who had managed a nearby 5,000-acre plantation since her husband’s death in 1911. In 1926, she was featured at the Women’s National Exposition in St. Louis. During the economic collapse, she took charge of soliciting and distributing goods as needed, as well as helping to raise funds to build the Garland Community Church.

“After World War II, improvements to the highway resulted in new stretches of pavement for Highway 82, although the same bridge crossing was used. A portion of the older highway, three-quarters of a mile in length, has been preserved near Garland and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.”

Garland is the home of Doc’s Fish & Steak House.

It’s also the home of West Shore.

Both restaurants pack them in on Friday and Saturday nights.

“It’s hard to imagine that that many people will support two places,” Kim “Doc” Mills told the Arkansas Times back in 2010.

Ramie Ham, Mills’ grandmother, opened Ham’s in 1969. That restaurant was co-owned by West Shore owner Ralph West and his father. Mills bought out the West family in the early 1970s.

Ham’s burned down in 1992.

Mills told the Times: “I had a little ol’ portable building, and I just whittled and hammered and drilled holes and redid stuff in that thing until I finally made a little kitchen out of it. By the time I finished it, Ham’s had burned. I thought, well, maybe I’ll cook up a little fish plate, and it just snowballed from there.”

He used scrap wood to add a dining room. Through the years, Mills kept adding rooms.

Here’s how Gerard Matthews described it in the Times: “All told, the dining area has been expanded eight times, the kitchen three. Where there was once a small cook shack now stands a sprawling maze of ramshackle rooms that seats 150 people comfortably. The walls are adorned with old neon beer signs, a 115-pound stuffed catfish, a two-headed calf and rusted farm tools so old even the most skilled harvester in Miller County wouldn’t know what to do with them.

“West Shore has that same rustic charm, although you can tell it was all built more recently and all at once, not just pieced together over the years. The bar is covered with Razorback memorabilia, and the three dining rooms, which seat about 125 people combined, each have a theme. There’s a deer room, a duck room and a fish room. Both places serve up all-you-can-eat fillets, or whole fish, with the traditional sides.”

West Shore was devastated by a flood last year but reopened earlier this year. People from southwest Arkansas, east Texas, north Louisiana and even southeast Oklahoma pour into Garland for catfish. Both restaurants were full the night we were there.

Leaving Garland, the vast fields of the Red River bottoms almost make you feel as if you’re in the Delta of east Arkansas. In fact, seeing the rolling, tree-covered hills of the Gulf Coastal Plain in the distance as you travel west gives the same impression as traveling through the Delta and seeing Crowley’s Ridge rise from the lowlands.

I never travel through here without thinking of Lynn Lowe, who died in August 2010 at age 74. Lowe, who farmed these Red River bottoms, was a Republican long before it was cool to be a Republican in Arkansas.

Lowe graduated from Garland High School, attended what’s now Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia for two years and them graduated in 1959 with a degree in agricultural engineering from the University of Arkansas. He spent the rest of his life farming near the Red River.

Lowe ran as a Republican for the U.S. House in 1966 after Democratic incumbent Oren Harris of El Dorado resigned to accept a Johnson administration appointment to the federal bench. David Pryor won the Democratic primary and then carried all 20 counties in the district against Lowe, finishing with 65 percent of the vote.

A dozen years later, Lowe was again the loyal party soldier. As state GOP chairman, he was unable to find a candidate to run for governor and decided to run himself. He got 36.6 percent of the vote against Bill Clinton and carried six of the state’s 75 counties — Sebastian, Crawford, Boone, Polk, Van Buren and Miller.

After three terms as state party chairman, Lowe served from 1980-88 as the GOP national committeeman from Arkansas.

We were too full to eat anything else that day, but no account of traveling west from Magnolia to Texarkana on U.S. 82 would be complete without putting in a plug for Texarkana’s two classic restaurants, Bryce’s Cafeteria and the Cattleman’s Steak House.

When asked during one of his presidential campaigns to name his favorite restaurant in the world, Ross Perot (who could afford dine to anywhere) listed Bryce’s. Perot grew up at Texarkana.

Bryce’s has been around since 1931, when it was founded by Bryce Lawrence. Sons Bryce Jr. and Richard later took over the cafeteria, which was downtown for decades before moving to a location on the Texas side of the line adjacent to Interstate 30.

Texarkana College’s Rowe explained the change in the city: “Since 1968, downtown buildings in Texarkana have deteriorated and businesses have closed. The most vibrant businesses are the law offices and bail bondsmen’s shops. Smaller towns such as Doddridge, Fouke, Garland, Genoa and Spring Bank have continued to shrink while Texarkana’s city limits are pushing out on all sides. … Interstate 30 negatively affected passenger railroad traffic. In past decades, as many as nine railway companies served the area, using Texarkana’s Union Depot as the main station. Today, freight trains provide most of the railroad traffic.”

This time of year, Bryce’s may be best known for its peach pie made with peaches from near Nashville in Howard County.

A Chicago Tribune feature story once stated: “Bryce’s Cafeteria may have better food for the money than anyplace on earth.”

Meanwhile, Roy Oliver opened the Cattleman’s in 1964 when State Line Avenue was a two-lane road. His son, Joe Neal Oliver, later took over the restaurant and became famous for going from table to table in his red apron to check on patrons.

I’ve always loved the atmosphere at the Cattleman’s. It’s a bit of a “Mad Men” feel, like stepping onto a 1960s movie set. Its private rooms have hosted more political fundraising events for candidates from Arkansas and Texas than can be counted. The numerous politicians and other movers and shakers who hung out here once were termed by the Texarkana Gazette as “the steakhouse gang.”

Not only that, as I’ve noted on this blog before, it’s the only restaurant in Arkansas where I can get calf fries and rooster fries as an appetizer. If you don’t know what those are, look it up.


Along U.S. Highway 82

Thursday, July 7th, 2016

The primary mission on the last Saturday in June was to make it to the Purple Hull Pea Festival and World Championship Rotary Tiller Race in Emerson so Paul Austin and I would have plenty to talk about on our next segment of “Chewing The Fat With Rex And Paul” on 88.3 FM in Little Rock.

Mission accomplished.

Of course, Paul and I couldn’t be satisfied with just that.

Paul had never been to the original Burge’s in Lewisville (an establishment I frequented years ago when I was the sports editor of the Arkadelphia newspaper and would make regular trips south to Louisiana Downs), and neither of us had ever had dinner in Garland (some call it Garland City), the Catfish Capital of Southwest Arkansas.

We headed west on U.S. Highway 82 from Magnolia to Texarkana.

I like this area deep in south Arkansas, having grown up in Arkadelphia while making frequent trips to Magnolia for athletic events at either Magnolia High School or what’s now Southern Arkansas University. Arkadelphia’s Badgers and Magnolia’s Panthers were in the same district. SAU was in the old Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference with Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University. So we would drive to Magnolia often for football and basketball games, always stopping just off the downtown square for a meal at the Chatterbox and a warm greeting from the owner, Mr. Duke.

“Relative isolation and transportation difficulties have long been a problem for Columbia County,” my friend Mike McNeill writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Columbia is the only one of Arkansas’ 75 counties not situated on a river. The county’s creeks and bayous were more of an impediment than an aid to early travelers because they were too narrow and shallow to support water traffic. The swampy conditions of the upper Dorcheat Bayou in Columbia County did not allow for practical use by boats. Rain made travel conditions worse. Only the arrival of railroads made it possible for Columbia County residents to enjoy a dependable year-round transportation option.”

The first railroad to enter the county was the St. Louis, Arkansas & Texas Railroad in the fall of 1882. That railroad led to the creation of the towns of McNeil and Waldo.

“Cut off from the planned railroad, civic leaders in Magnolia resolved to have a spur line built to the city,” McNeill writes. “They pledged $6,000 in cash and property during a single meeting in 1881 and eventually raised more than $20,000 toward this goal. The branch was completed in 1883. Growth of railroads was also responsible for the creation of two Columbia County communities that remain incorporated today, Emerson and Taylor. The Louisiana & North West Railroad was built between Magnolia and points in Louisiana in 1899. The town of Emerson in the southeastern part of the county was created and later incorporated in 1905. There was a post office in Taylor years before the Louisiana & Arkansas Railroad was built through the southwestern portion of the county in the 1880s. The town was incorporated in 1913.”

Cotton and corn were the cash crops in the county. A group of businessmen formed the Magnolia Cotton Mill in 1928, and it was the county’s largest manufacturer for many years. True prosperity, however, came with the discovery of oil and gas fields in the late 1930s.

McNeill notes that the “employment situation had changed so drastically by 1942 that County Judge J.B. McClurkin issued a proclamation saying that all able-bodied men who did not have jobs would be arrested for vagrancy. … Magnolia grew steadily after World War II with the city’s population more than doubling between 1940 and 1960. Housing construction filled in the two miles between downtown Magnolia and the SAU campus to the north. This period also witnessed the construction of Magnolia’s two tallest buildings, the five-story McAlester Building and the five-story Magnolia Inn.”

There was even airline passenger service from 1953-62 from Trans-Texas Airways before production from the oil and gas wells began to decline and population growth slowed.

“While the importance of oil and gas drilling declined, a new natural resources industry arrived in the mid-1960s as chemical companies discovered the high bromine content of brine located thousands of feet beneath the earth’s surface,” McNeill writes. “Bromine is an element used in numerous chemical and manufacturing processes. On Jan. 18, 1966, Dow Chemical Co. broke ground for a bromine plant four miles west of Magnolia. A second plant soon followed (a joint venture of Ethyl Chemical Corp. and Great Lakes Chemical). Both plants were consolidated under the ownership of Albemarle Corp., which owns dozens of brine wells and pipelines that crisscross Columbia and Union counties.”

The timber industry also remains important in the area. We passed Deltic’s sawmill just south of Waldo on U.S. 82 before crossing the Dorcheat Bayou and heading into Lafayette County.

Lafayette is one of the state’s smallest counties from a population standpoint, having fallen from 16,934 residents in the 1930 census to 7,645 residents in the 2010 census. Cotton had once been king here, but pine trees now cover most of the county. Many residents live in either Stamps (1,693) or Lewisville (1,280).

Stamps, the childhood home of Maya Angelou, was a lumber town. Early settlers built a sawmill there soon after the Civil War that later was acquired by the Bodcaw Lumber Co.

“The area did not begin to flourish, though, until the St. Louis Southwestern Railway — commonly known as the Cotton Belt — extended a line across Lafayette County in 1882,” writes Steve Teske for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Hardy James Stamps came to Lafayette County from Georgia in 1880 to operate the lumber mill. When a post office was established at the settlement surrounding the mill in 1888, it was named for Stamps. The first postmistress at that location was Ella Crowell, Stamps’ daughter. The Louisiana & Arkansas Railroad was incorporated in March 1898 by William Buchanan of the Bodcaw Lumber Co. The town was initially home to the principal shops of the railway. Crossing the Cotton Belt, it extended south to Springhill, La. In 1902, the line was built north to Hope.”

The Bodcaw Lumber Co.’s sawmill was among the largest mills for yellow pine in the world. Its mill pond, Lake June, covered almost 80 acres. There was a company store. The Bodcaw Bank opened in 1903, and a newspaper began in 1905.

“The lumber business played out, and Stamps’ businesses began to relocate,” Teske writes.

When the lumber mill closed, Lake June was donated to the city of Stamps. Surface rights were then leased to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, which has long managed the lake.

The Game and Fish Commission announced that a substantial renovation of the lake will begin this month. Lake June will be drained in an effort to restore spillway structures, shoreline and fishing habitat. The spillway has been undermined to the point that the lake doesn’t stay full during dry periods. While the lake is empty, biologists will eliminate the aquatic vegetation that has choked the shallow areas of the lake for years.

“This lake has provided great fishing opportunities for the citizens of Lafayette County for 100 years, and we intend to make it even better for the next 100 years,” says Andy Young, the commission’s fisheries biologist supervisor.

A brief boost for the area came when a successful oil well was drilled near Stamps in 1952. That same year, Arkansas Power & Light Co. (now Entergy Arkansas) spent $6 million to add a 135,000-kilowatt generator to its gas-fired electrical generation facility.

Nearby Lewisville was incorporated in 1850. A courthouse had been built there nine years earlier. Cotton was doing well in the area at the time, so much so that black slaves outnumbered free whites in the county in the 1850 and 1860 census.

A new courthouse was built at Lewisville in 1890. Later courthouses were constructed in 1904 and 1940. Lewisville has some beautiful old brick buildings, several of which are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Lafayette County was carved out of  Hempstead County in 1827 with original borders being the Ouachita River on the east, Louisiana to the south, Hempstead County to the north and Texas on the west.

“The post-slavery era resulted in the dissolution of several huge plantations into small-acreage tracts owned and farmed by families,” Glynn McCalman writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “A few former slaves were included among the new landowners, though their share of the land was relatively small. … Land title abstracts of the era demonstrate the efforts of the large planters to retain their holdings with diminishing success. Families eagerly purchased, often with mortgages, small portions of the former plantations and sustained themselves with diversified production. Though cotton was the main cash crop, they also produced edible grains, hay for livestock, cane for sweetening and vegetable gardens.”

McCalman notes that farmers during most of the 1800s had “tried to rely on the Red River for heavy hauling, but they were hampered by the extensive and persistent logjam called the Great Raft. From time to time during the second half of the century, the raft was declared cleared, especially after the work of snagboat engineer Capt. Henry Shreve. But it continued to be a nemesis until the river was mostly replaced as a means of transportation by the railroad. Although the Cotton Belt rail system reduced the need from some retail stores in the county’s towns, better transportation increased the profitability of farming and timber harvesting. It also dramatically reduced travel time to Shreveport, Texarkana and elsewhere. Cotton was brought from the gins to the rails, and impressive sawmills rose by the tracks at Stamps, Frostville, Canfield, Arkana and other communities.”

Despite the county’s population losses, Burge’s in Lewisville is still going strong.

Alden Burge moved to Lewisville from Shreveport in 1953 to work in the oil business. He smoked turkeys in a backyard smokehouse on the weekends. On Friday nights in the fall when there were home football games, he would sell barbecued chickens, baked beans and slaw.

In 1962, Burge purchased a dairy bar near where Arkansas Highway 29 intersects with U.S. Highway 82. Barbecue, burgers and ice cream were on the menu. Barbecued goat, peppermint ice cream and even fireworks were sold for the Fourth of July.

In the 1970s, a Burge’s location was opened in the Heights neighborhood of Little Rock. It’s no longer owned by the Burge family but remains popular.

Here’s how Arkansas food writer Kat Robinson describes the offerings at Burge’s: “That smoked turkey is something that cannot be compared. The brine, the smoke, everything about the preparation of a Burge’s smoked turkey is meticulous — and the meat comes out so flavorful, it bears a resemblance to ham. Indeed many people I know — and I am one of them, imagine that — take their post-Thanksgiving or post-Christmas turkey carcass and utilize it for the seasoning in New Year’s Day peas. Salty, sweet, it’s addictive. … Turkey may be the overwhelming product Burge’s has given us (the website is after all), but there’s so much more on the menu.

“I think the Lewisville location does the better burger, but that comes more from its dairyette roots. Likewise, I think the better ice cream is served in Lewisville. But the Little Rock location does have pimento cheese in its cooler and almost always has fried pies in the heated case.”

In the next installment, we’ll head west into Miller County.

Cotton country: Part 3

Tuesday, July 5th, 2016

It was an invitation I couldn’t turn down.

Judge Raymond Abramson of Holly Grove had invited me to join him for a lecture at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock.

The lecturer: Sven Beckert, the author of “Empire of Cotton: A Global History.”

Beckert, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., is the Laird Bell Professor of American History at Harvard University. His book, published in 2014, chronicles the rise and fall of cotton and the central role it once played in the world economy.

“This fluffy white fiber is at the center of this book,” Beckert writes. “The plant itself does not make history, but if we listen carefully, it will tell us of people all over the world who spent their lives with cotton: Indian weavers, slaves in Alabama, Greek merchants in the Nile Delta towns, highly organized craft workers in Lancashire. The empire of cotton was built with their labor, imagination and skills. By 1900 about 1.5 percent of the human population — millions of men, women and children — were engaged in the industry, either growing, transporting or manufacturing cotton.

“Edward Atkinson, a mid-19th century Massachusetts cotton manufacturer, was essentially correct when he pointed out that ‘there is no other product that has had so potent and malign an influence in the past upon the history and institutions of the land; and perhaps no other on which its future material welfare may more depend.’ Atkinson was speaking of the United States and its history of slavery, but his argument could be applied to the world as a whole.”

The Abramson family has a long history in the cotton culture of Arkansas. Rue and Venda Abramsom, who in 1921 built the house at Holly Grove were I spent a delightful evening last summer, were Holly Grove natives. Their parents had been among the first people to settle in the area after the Civil War. Raymond Abramson is a grandson of Rue Abramson and part of a rich tradition of Jewish farmers and merchants in the Delta, a tradition that’s rapidly disappearing.

In addition to farming, Rue Abramson operated a bank and several businesses. He opened the town’s first modern garage and service station in 1927. The official listing of the Abramson house on the National Register of Historic Places states: “The Abramsons were active in the commercial life of Holly Grove as merchants, ginners and plantation owners. By 1922, they also founded the First National Bank of Holly Grove. They were active in civic affairs. They were leaders in such organizations as the Crowley’s Ridge Council of the Boy Scouts of America, the Monroe County Fair Association, the Sahara Temple of Pine Bluff, the American Red Cross, B’nai B’rith, Temple Beth El of Helena and various other Jewish organizations.”

Rue Abramson selected a well-known Memphis architect, Estes Mann, to design his home. Mann had a remarkable career, designing more than 1,800 residences across the Mid-South, including some of the finest houses in Memphis. Mann was a Marianna native.

In the city’s commercial district a few blocks away from the Abramson home, Rue Abramson’s R. Abramson Co. owned four buildings. Rue’s son, Ralph, later took over the family’s businesses. Ralph’s wife, Rosemary, was a Memphis native who married Ralph in 1946 and spent the rest of her life in Holly Grove. Rosemary (Raymond’s mother) died in January 2013 at age 93.

Raymond Abramson received his undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia in 1973 and his law degree from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in 1976. He and his wife Mockie, a Virginia native, split their time between Little Rock and Holly Grove but maintain deep ties to Monroe County. I enjoyed sitting with them at the lecture and then talking about the Arkansas cotton culture at dinner later that evening.

I’ll say it again: You can’t understand the history of Arkansas if you don’t understand the history of cotton cultivation in the state.

Beckert wrote this about the spread of cotton into the American South: “Planters brought with them thousands of slaves. In the 1790s, the slave population of the state of Georgia nearly doubled, to 60,000. In South Carolina, the number of slaves in the upcountry cotton-growing districts grew from 21,000 in 1790 to 70,000 two decades later, including 15,000 slaves newly brought from Africa. As cotton plantations spread, the proportion of slaves in four typical South Carolina upcountry counties increased from 18.4 percent in 1790 to 39.5 percent in 1820 and to 61.1 percent in 1860. All the way to the Civil War, cotton and slavery would expand in lockstep, as Great Britain and the United States had become the twin hubs of the emerging empire of cotton.

“The only substantial problem was the land, as the same patch could not be used for more than a few years without either planting legumes on it or applying expensive guano to it. As one Putnam County, Ga., planter lamented, ‘We appear to have but one rule — that is to make as much cotton as we can, and wear out as much land as we can … lands that once produced 1,000 pounds of cotton to the acre will not now bring more than 400 pounds.’

“Yet even soil exhaustion did not slow the cotton barons; they simply moved farther west and farther south. Newly emptied lands, portable slave labor and the new ginning technology allowed cotton to be easily transferred to new territories. After 1815, cotton planters moved westward into the rich lands of upland South Carolina and Georgia. Their migration to Alabama and Louisiana, and eventually to Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas, was choreographed to the movement of cotton prices.

“While the price of cotton gradually declined over the first half of the 19th century, sharp price upswings — such as in the first half of the 1810s, between 1832 and 1837, and again after the mid-1840s — produced expansionist bursts. In 1811, one-sixteenth of all cotton grown in the United States came from states and territories west of South Carolina and Georgia. By 1820, that share had reached one-third, and in 1860 three-fourths. New cotton fields sprouted in the sediment-rich lands along the banks of the Mississippi, the upcountry of Alabama and the black prairie of Arkansas. So rapid was this move westward that by the end of the 1830s, Mississippi already produced more cotton than any other Southern state.”

Beckert points out that “the entry of the United States into the empire of cotton was so forceful that cotton cultivation in the American South quickly began to reshape the global cotton markets.

Consider these facts:

— In 1790, three years before Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, the United States produced 1.5 millions pounds of cotton.

— By 1800, the United States produced 36.5 million pounds of cotton.

— By 1820, the United States produced 167.5 million pounds of cotton.

— By 1802, the United States had become the most important supplier of cotton to the British market.

— By 1857, the United States was producing almost as much cotton as China.

“American upland cotton, which Whitney’s gin worked up so efficiently, was exceedingly well suited to the requirements of British manufacturers,” Beckert writes. “While the gin damaged the fiber, the cotton remained suitable for the production of cheaper, coarser yarns and fabrics in high demand among the lower classes in Europe and elsewhere. But for American supplies, the miracle of mass production of yarn and cloth, and the ability of new consumers to buy these cheap goods, would have foundered on old realities of the traditional cotton market. The much-vaunted consumer revolution in textiles stemmed from a dramatic transformation in the structure of plantation slavery.”

You will notice that Beckert mentioned blackland prairies when talking about Arkansas. He was referring to lands in southwest Arkansas that were the center of cotton production in the state before the Civil War, making Washington in Hempstead County a key trading center.

It wasn’t until well after the Civil War that most of the swamps were drained and the timber was cut from the vast bottomland hardwood forests of east Arkansas. Once that occurred, the Arkansas Delta became an integral part of the empire of cotton. At one point in the early 1900s, the Wilson Plantation in northeast Arkansas was one of the largest cotton plantations in the country and Mississippi County claimed to grow more cotton than any other U.S. county.

Beckert explains the westward expansion of the empire of cotton this way: “In the United States, the expansion of land under cotton occurred in two distinct ways. Cotton production expanded into the remoter hinterlands of older American cotton states such as Georgia and the Carolinas, now made accessible by railroads, where white upcountry farmers began growing much larger quantities. In the South Atlantic states, annual production, for example, increased by a factor of 3.1 between 1860 and 1920.

“In Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, by contrast, annual cotton production stayed level until the end of the century and declined by about 25 percent in 1920 due to the exhaustion of cotton soils and the emergence of more productive cotton-growing areas farther west. Yes even despite the tired soil, cotton production dramatically expanded in some areas, such as in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, where large numbers of African-Americans cultivated cotton, enabled by new railroads, canals and levees. As a result, by 1900, one of the most highly specialized cotton-producing areas in the world emerged.

“The most dramatic expansion of cotton agriculture, however, occurred farther to the west. In Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas, the production of cotton exploded from 1,576,594 bales in 1860 to 7,283,000 bales in 1920 — a factor of 4.6 in the half century after the Civil War. By far, the most important expansion took place in Texas, a state whose farmers had only produced 431,463 bales of cotton in 1860 but produced 10 times as many — 4,345,000 bales — in 1920. Indeed, the cotton growth of 1920 in Texas alone equaled about 80 percent of that of the entire South in 1860. And by the late 1910s and early 1920s, vast investments in irrigation infrastructure by the federal government enabled a further extension of cotton agriculture in the arid lands of Arizona and California.”

The evils of segregation and the loss of work due to the mechanization of cotton farming made Arkansas a participant in the Great Migration of blacks from the rural South to cities in the upper Midwest.

Drought and low cotton prices also drove a lot of whites from the state. John Steinbeck made the Okies famous in “The Grapes of Wrath,” but there were just as many white Arkies headed west. That trend continued for years.

Between the whites (and some blacks) heading west and the blacks heading north, Arkansas lost a larger percentage of its population between 1940 and 1960 than any other state.

Nationally, about 6 million blacks fled the South from 1915-70.

In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” Isabel Wilkerson writes: “The Great Migration ran along three main tributaries and emptied into reservoirs all over the North and West. One stream carried people from the coastal states of Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia up the Eastern seaboard to Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston and their satellites. A second current traced the central spine of the continent, paralleling the Father of Waters, from Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas to the industrial cities of Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh. A third and later stream carried people from Louisiana and Texas to the entire West Coast, with some black Southerners traveling farther than many modern-day immigrants.”

Wilkerson notes that by the mid-1930s, some grade-school classrooms for blacks in Milwaukee had almost “every child from Mississippi, Tennessee or Arkansas.”

The outmigration continues to this day in a number of Arkansas Delta counties.

Raymond Abramson’s native Monroe County lost a larger percentage of its residents — more than 20 percent — between the 2000 census and the 2010 census than any other Arkansas county.

The irony is that the land in these Delta counties is more valuable than ever, producing bumper crops most years of soybeans, rice, cotton, corn, wheat and grain sorghum. Arkansas farmers are among the best in the world at what they do. They’re so efficient that they need few employees. Land that once required hundreds of sharecroppers to chop and pick cotton can now be farmed with just a handful of laborers.

Left behind in the Arkansas Delta are the landowners — whose wives may drive Mercedes and BMWs and whose kids may attend Ivy League schools — and the poorest of the poor, those who couldn’t escape.

I’m reminded of how Sven Beckert closes “Empire of Cotton”: “A world that seems stable and permanent in one moment can be radically transformed in the next. The capitalist revolution, after all, perpetually re-creates our world, just as the world’s looms perpetually manufacture new materials.”

Cotton country: Part 2

Friday, July 1st, 2016

The Southern Cotton Ginners Association is holding its summer meeting in Little Rock next month, and I’ve been invited to speak.

That invitation has given me a reason to research the fascinating history of cotton cultivation in the South, a subject that already interested me. As I stated in the previous post, you can’t really understand the history of Arkansas without fully understanding the history of cotton cultivation in the state.

Cotton is still grown in Arkansas, though the acreage is a fraction of what it once was.

In an article last fall, the Delta Farm Press focused on the harvest season at the Rabbit Ridge Gin near Lepanto.

David Bennett wrote: “As tufts of cottonseed debris swirl in the late October air, Tri Watkins walks across the Rabbit Ridge Gin yard warmly greeting employees. This is northeast Arkansas — Lepanto is a few miles west of here and Dyess, where Johnny Cash was raised, is a few miles south — and the gin is one of a shrinking number. Watkins — who is the incoming president of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association — is in business with his cousin, Ernest Portis. The pair are distant cousins of acclaimed Arkansas writer Charles Portis, author of ‘True Grit’ and ‘The Dog of the South.'”

Watkins explained: “Ernest’s father and my grandfather were brothers, and their father actually began the business in 1911.”

Watkins’ great-grandfather had worked for northeast Arkansas cotton king R.E.L. Wilson.

Of his own involvement in ginning, Watkins told Bennett: “We ginned together in Lepanto at two small gins for years. In the early 1970s, after Ernest graduated from college, he and his brother came out here and built the gin. Meanwhile, my side of the family continued to run the gins in town. By the early 1990s, they had become too old and difficult to maintain. So at that time we bought back in with Ernest. He had already been out here for 20 years and was looking for a partner.”

Watkins explained that Rabbit Ridge is “the local name. Around here, a ridge can be two feet high running through a field.”

When running 24 hours a day, Rabbit Ridge can gin 30 bales per hour. The record year was 36,000 bales ginned. Last year, fewer than 10,000 bales were ginned.

Watkins came back to northeast Arkansas to farm with his grandfather after graduation from law school in 1986.

He told Delta Farm Press: “At the time, we had basically a land-only operation, a couple of gins, a farm store — now shut down — and a small bank. I came back and got involved with all of those facets of the business and still am to some degree. I knew I would be back when I was in law school. I graduated college and wasn’t quite ready to come home. My father said, ‘Go to law school. Even if you never practice, you’ll at least have that to fall back on if you decide agriculture isn’t for you. If you do like it, though, given our banking interests, a law degree would be very useful.’

“Our primary business at Portis Mercantile Co. is managing and renting out land. My family has 20,000 acres, and Ernest has about 10,000 acres that he and his son, Bradsher, own and manage. Some of that is in timber. This year, we grew about 1,500 acres of cotton with Ernest growing about the same. The most cotton we’ve grown on Portis Mercantile ground was about 6,500 acres. Obviously price is critical to cotton remaining viable. You’ve got to have a good price for lint. You’ve also got to have a good price for cottonseed. The price of cottonseed is what’s helping keep gins open. We have two seed houses. One has a capacity of 2,000 tons, and the other is just under that.”

Much of the cottonseed is sold to the dairy market, where it’s blended with rations to increase milk’s butterfat content.

Nearby Lepanto is where the made-for-television movie “A Painted House,” based on John Grisham’s best-selling novel of the same name, was filmed in 2002. The 2001 book is a fictionalized account of Grisham’s early days on a cotton farm. The farmhouse used in the filming is still there.

The movie was first screened in April 2003 on the Arkansas State University campus at Jonesboro at an event that raised $170,000 for ASU’s nationally recognized program in heritage studies. Grisham and his novel were presented the Arkansiana Award by the Arkansas Library Association. That award recognizes authors and books that make a significant contribution to Arkansas heritage and culture.

Grisham was born at Jonesboro in February 1955. His parents were helping relatives on a cotton farm at Black Oak in Craighead County at the time (there’s also a Black Oak farther south that’s roughly on the Crittenden County-Poinsett County line). His family left the area when Grisham was four as his father worked in various construction jobs. The family eventually settled in Southaven, Miss., but Grisham spent large parts of each summer on the Black Oak farm with his grandparents.

People began settling in the Lepanto area after the Civil War. It was in the northeast Arkansas Sunken Lands, and most of the area consisted of swamps and thick bottomland hardwood forests. Growth began in the early 1900s as lumber companies started harvesting the virgin timber in the area. Tree stumps then were burned, swamps were drained and the land was plowed for cotton.

Cotton: The common theme in the region’s history.

“In 1902, Steve Ralph and Henry S. Portis built a cotton gin in Lepanto so that harvested cotton would not have to be shipped downriver to Memphis,” Steve Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The next year, Chris Bryan Greenwood, who had recently moved into the area from Harrisburg, commissioned four engineers to plat the city. The five main streets of the city were named for Greenwood and the engineers. William C. Dawson built the city’s first sawmill in 1905, and a new logging camp was built between Lepanto and Marked Tree.

“The city grew rapidly. Improved drainage was completed by 1907, and the city was officially incorporated in 1909. A bank and a telephone company were established in 1910 and a railroad depot was built in 1912. … Houses and stores were also being built, and a new school building was erected in 1913. The Portis Mercantile building was constructed in 1915, and a volunteer fire department was organized by 1919.”

As the timber was cut, cotton became king.

Tenant farmers and sharecroppers would pack communities such as Lepanto and Marked Tree as they came to town on Saturdays to shop and seek entertainment.

Van Hawkins explains the system this way for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “The most common lease arrangement in Arkansas called for crop rent, requiring a tenant to pay usually 25 percent to 50 percent of the crops harvested. These percentages vary from year to year, farm to farm and crop to crop. To guarantee crop loan repayment, lenders and sometimes suppliers took a first lien on the tenant’s share of crops and equipment used to produce them. Such liens meant that holders had a legal right to crop proceeds until loans were paid in full. Should proceeds not be sufficient to pay off the lender, a foreclosure could occur with collateral (the equipment and any other asset used to secure the loan) seized and sold to pay off the debt.

“Crop rent came from crops at harvest, and cotton or grain hauled to gins and elevators was split according to contract percentages. Tenants and landowners each received their respective shares of the crop. If a lien existed on the tenant share, checks for crop sale proceeds usually had both the lienholder’s and the farmer’s name so neither could cash the check without both endorsements. By this means, lenders helped enforce their legal rights and protected themselves from conversion of crop proceeds.”

Hawkins notes that many of the plantations “required sharecroppers to purchase business and personal supplies from commissary stores as a condition to farm the land. Farmers received doodlum books (vouchers) for credit at the company store. Prices there sometimes were well in excess of those charged at town stores. The March 1935 edition of Today magazine reported markups in the 25 percent range at Southern plantation commissaries. For example, company stories priced potatoes at $2.25 when they were $1.75 in town. Abusive practices such as these generated ongoing tensions between Arkansas tenants and landowners since many tenants never got out of debt. Some farmers sought to organize better treatment, forming groups such as the Agricultural Wheel for this purpose. An organizational meeting of one union was at the center of violence that erupted in Elaine in 1919.”

Grif Stockley, the author of the 2001 book “Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919,” called what happened in the Elaine area “by far the deadliest racial confrontation in Arkansas history and possibly the bloodiest racial conflict in the history of the United States. While its deepest roots lay in the state’s commitment to white supremacy, the events in Elaine stemmed from tense race relations and growing concerns about labor unions. A shooting incident that occurred at a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America escalated into mob violence on the part of the white people in Elaine and surrounding areas. Although the exact number is unknown, estimates of the number of African-Americans killed by whites range into the hundreds. Five white people lost their lives.”

The union meeting, attended by almost 100 black sharecroppers, occurred on the evening of Sept. 30, 1919, at a church in Hoop Spur, a small settlement three miles north of Elaine. The sharecroppers were seeking better prices for their cotton crops. A shootout in front of the church resulted in the death of a white security officer for the Missouri-Pacific Railroad and the wounding of a white deputy from the Phillips County Sheriff’s Office.

Stockley writes: “The next morning, the Phillips County sheriff sent out a posse to arrest those suspected of being involved in the shooting. Although the posse encountered minimal resistance from the black residents of the area around Elaine, the fear of African-Americans, who outnumbered whites in this area of Phillips County by a ratio of 10 to 1, led an estimated 500 to 1,000 armed white people — mostly from surrounding Arkansas counties but also from across the river in Mississippi — to travel to Elaine to put down what was characterized by them as an insurrection.”

More than 500 federal troops from Camp Pike arrived in Elaine on Oct. 2, 1919, and hundreds of blacks were placed in makeshift stockades.

An Arkansas Gazette employee named Sharpe Dunaway later would allege that the solders “committed one murder after another with all the calm deliberation in the world, either too heartless to realize the enormity of their crimes or too drunk on moonshine to give a continental darn.”

The commander of the troops at Elaine reported that only two blacks were killed by his troops.

As I said, you can’t understand the history of Arkansas without understanding the history of cotton.

“Tenant difficulties increased in the early 1930s when the Great Depression decimated agriculture along with the rest of the economy,” Hawkins writes. “Arkansas farmers faced nickel cotton (a market price of five cents per lint pound, which was the low end of its historic market range) and the locked doors of banks that become insolvent. Unable to borrow money to make crops, many tenant farmers joined the exodus made famous by John Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath.’

“The administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt created federal programs to help prop up cotton prices, including a plan to compensate farmers who agreed to forego planting acreage in exchange for parity payments from the federal government. Though the program stipulated that landowners share parity payments with tenants, some owners kept all of the money, and U.S. Department of Agriculture compliance efforts proved ineffectual. Additionally, owners evicted tenants since acreage reduction made them unnecessary, another violation of regulations. … The USDA financial assistance, developed initially as a temporary fix for Depression-era problems, became ingrained in agricultural economics and grew into a major source of income for state farmers.”