Archive for December, 2017

Arkadelphia: Athens of Arkansas

Friday, December 29th, 2017


We cross the Ouachita River at Arkadelphia as our trip north on Arkansas Highway 7 continues.

To our left, a larger bridge is being built to handle the log trucks that one day might head to the giant $1.3 billion pulp mill that a Chinese company hopes to build just south of Arkadelphia at Gum Springs.

We detour a couple of blocks off the highway so we can read the historic markers on the grounds of the 1899 Clark County Courthouse, which was designed by noted Arkansas architect Charles Thompson.

The courthouse was damaged in the March 1, 1997, tornado that destroyed all or parts of 60 city blocks in Arkadelphia. It was repaired over the objections of some county officials who wanted to build a new courthouse. Fortunately, the historic preservationists won this battle.

Clark County was one of five counties in existence when the Arkansas Territory began in 1819. Arkadelphia became the county seat in 1842, and a courthouse was built two years later. It would serve the county for the next 55 years.

“The 1844 building was torn down in 1899 in advance of construction of a new structure at the same location,” writes Ouachita Baptist University archivist Wendy Richter. “In May of that year, Arkadelphia’s Southern Standard newspaper noted that the old courthouse was ‘the best known landmark of this section, dear to the memory of all old citizens. There is now but a hole in the ground.’ But the construction process moved quickly, and by July, the cornerstone was laid for the ‘new, magnificent $40,000 courthouse.’ Officials began operating from the building before the end of 1899. The two-and-a-half-story structure at Fourth and Clay streets was built by R.S. O’Neal from a Charles Thompson design. At the time of its construction, the Clark County Courthouse was arguably the county’s most impressive structure. The large, brick, Romanesque-style building dominated the area surrounding it. A six-story conical clock tower gave the courthouse a distinctive appearance.”

Like Camden, Arkadelphia is an old river town oozing with history. There’s a key difference, however. Since 1960, Camden has lost about 3,600 residents. Arkadelphia has gained almost 2,600 residents during that same period. The difference is that Arkadelphia is a college town.

Arkadelphia has long promoted itself as a center of education, and college towns are poised to do better in the modern economy. For many years, in fact, the city billed itself as the Athens of Arkansas.

“With a newspaper, several churches and a saloon, Arkadelphia was one of the larger settlements along the Ouachita River in 1850,” writes David Sesser of Henderson State University. “Early efforts to open a school in the town began in 1843. That year, an election was held in Arkadelphia to select three trustees to create a school and sell part of the 16th section on the west side of the Ouachita River. Three trustees were elected, but one died before taking office, and little progress was made toward opening a school.

“A Baptist minister, Samuel Stevenson, arrived in Arkadelphia as a representative of the American Bible Society. Stevenson was a native of Philadelphia and a graduate of Georgetown College in Kentucky. Arriving in Clark County around 1848, he first operated a school at Oakland, eight miles from Arkadelphia. He constructed a two-story frame building with a cupola and opened the Arkadelphia Institute in 1850 with help from his nephew, James Gilkey. Gilkey served as the principal for male students, and Elizabeth Ann Webb took a similar role over the female students. By 1852, the school had an enrollment of 97. The school was known by a variety of names during its operations, including Arkadelphia Institute, Arkadelphia Male and Female Institute and Arkadelphia Female Seminary.”

The school closed during the Civil War. Stevenson reopened it after the war and sold it to Mary Connelly in 1869. She renamed the school Arkadelphia Female College.

“Classical language courses and art courses were popular offerings,” Sesser writes. “The students also held concerts at the local Baptist church to raise money to establish a library at the school. Enrollment numbers for the institution do not survive, but numerous girls from the local community attended the school. The organization of Arkadelphia High School by local Republicans as a free institution open to members of the community signaled the end of the private, tuition-driven school. Connelly closed what by then was known Arkadelphia Female Academy in June 1874. The building was later used to house Arkadelphia Female High School, which was organized along with Arkadelphia Male High School in 1875.”

During Reconstruction, Arkadelphia became a popular spot for freed slaves from surrounding plantations to live. A school for black children that had begun in 1882 was taken over in 1889 by the Presbyterian Board of Missions for Freedmen, an arm of the Northern Presbyterian Church. What became known as Arkadelphia Presbyterian Academy had 127 students by 1908. In 1910, a new building was constructed at a cost of $5,000, and attendance was nearing 300 students by 1913. In 1920, C.W. Black of Iowa gave the academy $25,000 to build another building that became known as Black Memorial Hall. Both Black Memorial Hall and the main building were destroyed by a fire in 1931.

“The Board of Missions felt it had only two choices — to close the school or move it,” Nancy Snell Griffith writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In 1933, they decided to merge it with another Presbyterian school, Cotton Plant Academy. The new, stronger institution in Cotton Plant was named the Arkadelphia-Cotton Plant Academy.”

Meanwhile, what was known as Arkansas Industrial College at 18th and Caddo streets in Arkadelphia was organized in August 1890. The school for black students changed its name to Arkadelphia Baptist Academy in 1892 and became associated with Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock. In 1893, there were 27 male and 60 female students. Fifteen of them were boarders. The American Baptist Home Mission Society, which was based in New York, helped support the school. The academy’s main building was destroyed by a fire in 1930, but the school continued to exist for several more years.

Arkadelphia also was the original home for what’s now the Arkansas School for the Blind at Little Rock.

“In 1859, the Arkansas General Assembly incorporated the Arkansas Institute for the Blind, which remained in Arkadelphia until 1868,” writes Ouachita Baptist University historian Ray Granade. “After the Legislature created the first statewide common school system in 1866, Arkadelphians designed a citywide segregated system, which became operational in 1871 and coexisted with private schools. Arkadelphia became an educational center between 1886 and 1896 with the opening of two colleges for white people (Ouachita Baptist College in 1886 and Arkadelphia Methodist College in 1890), two schools for African-Americans (Bethel AME College in 1891 and Colored Presbyterian Industrial School in 1896) and the first of a series of business colleges (Draughon’s in 1891).”

Bethel College was renamed in 1892 in honor of AME Bishop James A. Shorter and moved all operations to Argenta (now North Little Rock) in 1898. Draughon’s Business College moved to Little Rock.

Granade says that “Arkadelphia’s greatest asset” has been “an enduring commitment to education that began with general private and denominational efforts, as well as what’s now the Arkansas School for the Blind prior to the Civil War, and blossomed with public education, a business college and denominational colleges for black and white Arkansans in the 1880s and 1890s.”

The citizens of Arkadelphia put up 13 acres of land overlooking the Ouachita River, offered the building that had once housed the Arkansas Institute for the Blind and threw in $10,000 to land the state’s Baptist college in April 1886.

“Founding president John William Conger and his wife made up a third of the initial faculty,” Granade writes. “OBC began with instruction at all levels — primary, preparatory and collegiate — though primary disappeared by about 1900. Enrollment grew from the original 166 to averaging in the 300s under Conger, and the school maintained a low student-teacher ratio, 18-1 in 1907. Initially, women lived on campus while men boarded in town. Student life centered on literary clubs (two for females and two for males) while sports stirred deep passions. The hotly contested Battle of the Ravine with cross-street rival Henderson began in 1895, making it one of the nation’s oldest college football rivalries. The curriculum, standard for colleges of its day, contained a few surprises (like bookkeeping) and featured compulsory military training consistently until 1991.

“Continuing financial difficulties led Arkadelphia citizens to pay the institution’s debt in 1914 and again in 1936 in return for the promise to keep OBC in Arkadelphia permanently. Presidents and supporters began endowment drives several times, but the institution accumulated little until World War I. Since 1925, the institution has been a regular part of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention annual budget, which has helped stabilize its finances.”

Granade says the founding of the school “capped longstanding Arkansas Baptist interest in making higher learning more readily available to more people, in providing an educated ministry and educated lay leadership, in strengthening denominational loyalty and in extending denominational influence. It gained university status in 1965 and has been rated by U.S. News and World Report as the No. 1 Baccalaureate College in the South and included in its list of Great Schools, Great Prices.”

Four years after the founding of Ouachita, Arkansas Methodist College opened in Arkadelphia. It became the third Methodist college in the state along with Hendrix College in Conway and Galloway Female College in Searcy.

“Methodist citizens in Arkadelphia originally tried to secure Hendrix College for Arkadelphia when its location was moved in 1889 from Altus to Conway but were unsuccessful in their efforts,” Sesser writes. “With $30,000 and a location already pledged to the school, the citizens of Arkadelphia set out to create their own school. After receiving the blessing of the board of education of the Little Rock Conference of the Methodist Church, a 15-member board of trustees was selected and immediately set out to create a school. On April 19, 1890, a nine-acre campus, located north of Arkadelphia, was purchased from Harriet Barkman. The new campus was separated from Ouachita Baptist College by two ravines and several blocks. Architect Thomas Harding was contracted to build a structure to house the college. The first term was scheduled to begin the first Wednesday of September 1890.”

About 110 students showed up on that first day.

“By 1909, the school was debt free, largely due to the work of prominent Arkadelphia citizens and, to a lesser extent, the Little Rock Conference of the Methodist Church,” Sesser writes. “In 1904, the name of the institution was changed for the first time. In honor of Captain Charles Christopher Henderson’s service on the board of trustees and his continued financial support of the college, the name of Arkadelphia Methodist College was changed to Henderson College at the annual commencement. In 1911, the name of Henderson College was expanded to Henderson-Brown College in honor of Walter William Brown, business partner of Henderson and a member of the board of trustees.”

A huge fire early on the morning of Feb. 3, 1914, destroyed the college’s main building. There were almost 300 students in school at the time, and all but seven decided to stay following a meeting in a nearby pine grove. Classes were held in tents and at Ouachita.

“By 1929, enrollment stood at 153, a drop of 50 from just the year before,” Sesser writes. “The Little Rock Conference decided after much debate to consolidate Henderson-Brown College and Hendrix College and create one co-educational institution of higher learning. … The student body of Henderson-Brown strongly opposed the merger, as did most of the administration and the public. After negotiations with state lawmakers, it was decided to turn control of Henderson-Brown over to the state rather than close its doors. Thus in 1929 the institution became known as Henderson State Teachers College.”

There was rapid growth once Henderson became a state school. Six major buildings were constructed during the Great Depression. By the end of World War II, enrollment had doubled from what it had been before the war with more than 500 students. The name was changed to Henderson State College in 1967 and Henderson State University in 1975.

It’s Battle of the Ravine week in Arkadelphia, so signs are covered at both schools to prevent vandalism by students in advance of Saturday’s big football game. My travel companions enjoy seeing that.

The football stadiums of the two schools are just across Highway 7 from each other. It’s the only college rivalry in the country for which the visiting team walks rather than flies or takes a bus to a road contest.

The first game in the series was played in 1895 with Ouachita winning 8-0 on Thanksgiving Day. The two schools began playing on an annual basis in 1907. Henderson controlled the series in the early years, winning six consecutive games from 1907-12. The 1914 Ouachita team, which earlier had defeated Arkansas at Fayetteville and Ole Miss in a game played at Memphis, could manage only a tie against the Reddies.

The series was interrupted by World War II and later was suspended from 1951-63 because of excessive vandalism by students at the neighboring schools. School officials began leaving the lights on at both stadiums the week of the game to discourage pranks.

As we drive between the campuses, we pass two of the most beautiful old homes in the state.

On one side of the highway, the Charles Christopher Henderson House is now home to a bed-and-breakfast inn operated by Henderson State University. Captain Henderson, a native of Scott County, made his fortune in banking, timber and railroads.

“On July 16, 1892, Henderson bought a lot at the corner of president-day 10th and Henderson streets, directly opposite the campus of Arkadelphia Methodist College,” Sesser writes. “Two small cottages built in 1876 on the property faced the campus. Henderson and his family lived in one of these homes before the family moved to Ruston, La., for several years. Returning to Arkadelphia in 1903, Henderson moved one cottage to a new location and began an extensive expansion project on the second cottage.”

On the other side of the highway is the home that James Barkman built in 1860. He was the son of early Clark County planter Jacob Barkman, who owned almost 22,000 acres by the time of his death in 1852, operated salt works on the Ouachita River and owned a steamboat known as the Dime. Henderson State purchased the home in 1968, and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

I point out the famous ravine, which is covered in kudzu.

The time has come to depart the Athens of Arkansas and head north to Hot Springs.

Camden to Arkadelphia

Thursday, December 28th, 2017


We cross the Ouachita River at Camden and continue our trek to the north on Arkansas Highway 7.

There will be no more rural four-lane stretches of Highway 7, as was the case between El Dorado and Camden. The road here is narrow as we enter the heavily forested bottomlands near the river. The hardwoods form a canopy over the highway with railroad tracks to our right and the river to our left.

This section of Highway 7 is sometimes closed due to flooding, though that’s not a problem in this dry autumn of 2017. Huge cypress trees have turned golden, and we comment on the number of cypress knees we can see as we peer through the woods, hoping to spot an alligator.

It’s beautiful here, in a Deep South sort of way.

The Ouachita River originates near the Oklahoma border in the Ouachita Mountains. It passes through the dams that form three lakes (Ouachita, Hamilton and Catherine), transitions from a mountain stream to a lowland stream at Rockport in Hot Spring County, flows into Louisiana and finally joins forces with the Tensas River near Jonesville, La., to form the Black River. The Black, in turn, joins the Red River near Simmesport, La., to form the Atchafalaya River.

I was raised just a few hundred yards from this river at Arkadelphia. I thus consider it my “home river.”

“The Ouachita is a river of diverse beauty,” writes Glenn Gore of the Ouachita River Foundation. “It begins as a small mountain stream at Eagleton in Polk County and flows eastward about 120 miles. It winds through lush mountain valleys, steadily building as its flows between huge boulders beneath mountain bluffs. It flows onward on its 600-mile course amid banks of moss-covered oaks and cypress trees in the swampy bottoms of Louisiana.

“The Ouachita is noted for its great fishing. … Wildlife is abundant along the banks of the river. Whitetail deer, turkeys and even an occasional bear can be seen in secluded areas. Alligators and bald eagles have also recently returned to the area after having been driven out in the early 1900s. The Ouachita is also a major flyway for ducks and geese feeding and resting in the river’s oak-laden backwater flats and cypress swamps as well as in the rice and soybean fields along its banks.”

Following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned inventor William Dunbar and scientist George Hunter to lead an expedition up the river by boat in 1804-05. The party covered almost 450 miles from the mouth of the Ouachita River to Hot Springs.

“In 1819, the first steamboat came up the Ouachita, making such a strange sound and presenting such a monstrous sight that it was described as ‘a puffing dragon,'” Gore writes. “After that frightful debut, steamboats began to play an integral part in the colorful history connected with the Ouachita. From 1819-1910, the Ouachita was the great highway of commerce and transportation for the entire river valley. Steamboats came from as far as New Orleans up the Ouachita River, reaching even Camden and Arkadelphia during times of high water.”

On this part of the drive, we’re still in Ouachita County, which was carved out of Union County in 1842.

“The county was already heavily settled by the time of the Louisiana Purchase,” Debbie Fenwick Ponder writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The French had traveled upriver from New Orleans and settled the community of Frenchport. In the late 1820s and early 1830s, the population of the area consisted of about 150 Choctaw along with white settlers and slaves. As more white settlers came to the area, the French left, returning to New Orleans or moving farther west.

“The Tates and Nunns were some of the first American settlers. They built homes and started farming and using the river for trade. By 1844, Camden was a substantial town with planned streets, lawyers and doctors, a courthouse, schools and churches. Records indicate that Dr. James H. Ponder was the first physician in the county. The first newspaper, the Ouachita Herald, was published in 1845 with Joshua Ruth as editor.”

Because this area north of Camden floods so easily, it has always been sparsely populated. Deer seemingly outnumber people along this stretch of Highway 7.

We reach the community of Amy and stop at Smith’s Liquor Store, not because we need to buy beer, wine or spirits; we don’t. We stop because it looks like the kind of place where one might meet a colorful character, and that’s the case. Hartwell Smith Jr. has run this store for more than four decades. He has seen it all.

With a dog to keep him company and no morning customers, Smith has plenty of time to tell us stories — stories such as the beer joint down the road that Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller obtained a liquor license for in the late 1960s once the owner had delivered him the black vote in Ouachita County. Back when Clark County was still dry, college students from Arkadelphia sometimes would make the drive to Amy to hang out in a small place they called the Tulip Country Club. Smith remembers those days fondly.

We finally tell Hartwell Smith goodbye and continue our trip north through the forest.

We enter Dallas County, a place where the timber industry is dominant. The population of Dallas County dropped from a high of 14,671 in the 1930 census to just 8,116 residents in the 2010 census.

“Very little settlement was in the area now known as Dallas County until 1840,” Michael Hodge writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Those settlers were mostly farmers and their slaves. While agriculture has always been the primary concern of the county’s citizens, industry such as sawmills, gristmills, flour mills, cotton gins, tanyards, blacksmith shops and pottery producers was also evident before the Civil War. … The first community to gain prominence in the area that is now Dallas County was Tulip. Previously named Brownville and then Smithville after prominent early settlers, Tulip was on the Chidester Stage route from Camden to Little Rock and boasted three collegiate schools and a literary magazine during its heyday. By the time the county was created in 1845, Tulip was well established, but it was never incorporated and was never the seat of the county’s government.”

Dallas County was carved from Clark and Bradley counties and named for George Mifflin Dallas, the 11th vice president of the United States.

“The town of Princeton was platted as the county seat of the newly formed county and by 1850 rivaled Tulip as the economic and cultural center of the county with its own academy and a prominent inn,” Hodge writes. “The first courthouse was a log structure built in 1846 on the east side of Princeton’s town square. Previous county business had been conducted in the home of a Mr. Watts, presumably Presley Watts, the first county clerk.

“By 1850, the county had 256 slaveholders owning 2,542 slaves, mostly farming cotton and other crops. In 1852, the original log courthouse was replaced and paid for by a member of the Smith family. In 1855, Princeton was incorporated. By 1859, a map of Arkansas marked the communities of Tulip, Princeton, Fairview, Red Bird and Chappell in Dallas County. The communities of Holly Springs and Pine Grove, both settled around 1840, had been mentioned elsewhere. Roughly 500 farmsteads, houses, churches and schools dotted a Civil War map of Dallas County, most disappearing during or shortly after the war. Few structures were actually destroyed because of fighting during the Civil War. They were lost because of neglect. About a third of the population left the area for Texas and Louisiana to avoid the fighting during the war. Many never returned.”

The era of the timber industry and the railroads led to population growth after Reconstruction.

“During the 1920s, many county farms were sold to lumber companies,” Hodge writes. “Farming, aside from the timber industry, is mostly confined to the southwest area of the county in the 21st century. The railroads began to lose their significance in the 1920s as the versatility of gas-powered vehicles changed the way logging was done, eliminating the need to build tracks and maintain infrastructure to support them for logging. … In 1940, the last trainload of logs pulled into the Fordyce station, signaling the end of an era.”

We pass through the community of Ouachita and then come to Sparkman, a once-thriving lumber town whose population fell by more than half from 964 in 1950 to 427 in the 2010 census.

“Present-day Sparkman is about a quarter of a mile southwest of the original settlement, which local residents today refer to as Old Sparkman,” Mike Polston writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Lemil Pete Sparkman, who established a lumber mill near the 17-mile trunk line Ultima Thule, Arkadelphia & Mississippi Railway, founded the settlement in 1892. On Sept. 19, 1893, a post office was opened with Sparkman as the postmaster. By 1899, the town was home to about 150 citizens and had three blacksmiths, a cotton gin, two general stores, a sawmill, a church and a depot.

“Once all of the profitable timber was cut out about 1910, the railroad shut down, and Sparkman moved his operation. The town began a decline. Earlier, a few unsuccessful oil wells were sunk, resulting in some of the surrounding land being polluted by the brine that was brought to the surface. Some used these waters for medicinal purposes, but they were never successfully exploited.”

As for the interesting name of that railroad, it was designed to run west from Arkadelphia all the way to a logging community in Sevier County known as Ultima Thule. However, it only made it west as far as a Clark County logging community known as Daleville, and it only made it east as far as Sparkman.

The Malvern & Camden Railroad came to Sparkman in 1913.

“Anticipating growth, the Dallas Town Co., organized by the Moore & Martin Real Estate Co. in Prescott, began to market lots to promote a new town platted near these tracks on Aug. 1, 1913,” Polston writes. “The new Sparkman began to grow slowly, and by the end of the year had a population of about 30 and a business district that included a general store, mill, gin and blacksmith. The opening of the Rucker Lumber Co. and the Arkadelphia Milling Co. at about the same time sparked the settlement’s transformation into a trade center supported by area lumber operations and farmers.”

The year 1915 saw the opening of the Hotel Sparkman, the addition of an electric power plant and the founding of a newspaper.

“By 1916, the city included five general stores, a barber, a gin, a hotel, a bakery, a restaurant, a hardware store and the Merchant & Planters Bank,” Polston writes. “By 1920, the population was approaching 600. … The 1920s were rocky years for the town. By 1926, both the Arkadelphia Milling Co. and the Hardwood Lumber Co. had closed their operations. Much of that business loss was recouped by the opening of the Garland Gaston Lumber Co. in 1927.”

The Dixie Theater opened in 1933. Sparkman area residents often ate at the Big Elephant Cafe before or after shows at the Dixie. And Sparkman received national publicity from 1927-30 due to the national success of its women’s basketball team, the Sparkman Sparklers. Called the “Wonder Girls of Basketball,” the team was led by the likes of Quinnie Hamm, Irene Hamm, Cozie Fite and Majorie Leonard. Some writers proclaimed Quinnie Hamm to be the best player in the country. She made 53 field goals and three foul shots in one game for 109 points. People came from miles around to see her play.

One article about the team noted: “J.R. North, general manager of a Sparkman lumber company, discovered the girls and launched them on the road to national prominence. Through his own activity in collegiate athletics, North readily recognized ability in the girls as they administered a decisive trimming to another girls’ team on an outdoor court. He sought the coach, Maxie Brown, graduate of Henderson-Brown College, and suggested that the Sparklers be paraded against sterner competition.”

Most members of the team were offered basketball scholarships to Crescent College in Eureka Springs, which held classes in the Crescent Hotel.

Some of the final scores for the Sparklers were 164-9 over Malvern, 124-5 over Tomberlin, 106-5 over Cabot and 105-19 over El Dorado.

When former Sparkler Vyra Mae Mann died in 2007, Pryor Jordan wrote for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: “The Sparklers began playing on a dirt court outside the high school, but as the girls’ talent began to show, larger crowds began attending the games. Admission to Sparkman games was $2.50, about double the standard admission price for high school games in that era, but they sold out anyway, helping to finance the construction of an 800-seat gymnasium at Sparkman for the 1927-28 season. By 1929, the Sparklers had become a household name throughout most of the state and had attracted national publicity as the Arkansas Democrat and Arkansas Gazette chronicled the Sparklers’ season.”

Mann said in a 2003 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette interview: “With all the publicity, everyone in Arkansas heard of us. We used to get fan mail and telegrams from all over.”

In the national AAU tournament, the Sparklers were third in 1929 and second in 1930, losing 27-24 to the Sun Oilers of Dallas in the championship game.

In 1960, the boys’ basketball team at Sparkman Training School — the school for black students in the era of segregation — won the state championship for all-black teams, 51-43, over McGehee in a game played on the campus of what then was called Arkansas AM&N in Pine Bluff.

Along with basketball players, other famous residents of Sparkman were country music stars Jim Ed Brown and Bonnie Brown, who were born in the city.

We turn our vehicle toward the west for a couple of miles as we leave Sparkman before heading north again. We cross into Clark County at Dalark. This was our quail hunting zone when I was a boy, and I show my travel companions where the two country stores were at Dalark. My father and I would stop at those stores for bologna sandwiches for lunch when we were hunting. One served mostly whites; the other served mostly blacks. My father actually preferred the store for blacks, which was run by the overall-wearing “Sugar” Jones and later his son, Danny Jones.

A few miles from Dalark, we turn left onto Palmetto Road. This was another area where I once hunted. I want to show the others in our vehicle an area where the forest floor is covered with saw palmetto. It looks more like south Georgia or Florida here than it does Arkansas.

We then cross L’eau Frais Creek and Tupelo Creek east of Arkadelphia. The quail are gone now. The small cotton and soybean fields that once marked this area have been replaced by pine plantations.

We emerge from the pine forest and experience our first and only large row-crop fields of the trip several miles east of Arkadelphia. This land in the Ouachita River bottoms was cleared decades ago for rice and soybean fields. For a short distance, it’s like being in the Delta. We’ve pretty much followed the Ouachita River north from Camden. We cross the river for a second time this day and enter Arkadelphia.

Camden on the Ouachita

Wednesday, December 27th, 2017


Camden has the feel of an old river town, albeit one that has seen its better days.

When I was a boy, Camden seemed like a far bigger city than my hometown of Arkadelphia. After all, it had two high schools, Camden High School and Camden Fairview High School, against which Arkadelphia High School competed in sports.

It also had the smell of the giant paper mill that International Paper Co. had opened in the city in 1928.

The two school districts consolidated in 1991, and the paper mill closed for good a decade later. Camden has yet to recover. The city’s population peaked in 1960 at almost 16,000 residents. By the 2010 census, it was down to 12,183.

From the 1920s through the 1970s, however, Camden thrived. Oil was discovered in Ouachita County in the 1920s, and the paper mill opened. Money flowed, and beautiful homes were built.

A new Ouachita County Courthouse was constructed in 1933. A county hospital was constructed in 1952. Camden’s population increased from 3,238 in 1920 to 11,372 in 1950.

“The Camden Army Air field was one of three contract primary flying schools located in Arkansas during World War II,” Daniel Milam writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “It operated from 1942-44. Ouachita County secured a major economic boost with the construction of the Shumaker Naval Depot during the war on land adjoining Calhoun County. Although it closed in 1957, it was reopened as Highland Industrial Park in the 1960s for defense and conventional manufacturing. It became one of the largest industrial parks in a five-state area. … Educational opportunities were advanced in 1968 when Southwest Technical Institute opened in the industrial park. This institute evolved into a two-year technical college and became affiliated with Southern Arkansas University as SAU Tech in 1975, offering both technical and general educational programs.”

In 1955, Camden won an award for Outstanding Community Improvement in Arkansas, and a female attorney named Maud Crawford was selected to go to Little Rock and accept the award.

Among the things that would put Camden on the map in the 20th century were Camark Pottery, Grapette and the disappearance of Maud Crawford.

Let’s start with Camark Pottery.

“Founded in 1926, Camden Art Tile & Pottery Co. was the third and last producer of art pottery in Arkansas,” Dixie Covington Howard writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “By the end of its first year, its name had changed to Camark to include both the city of Camden and the state of Arkansas. Camark Pottery eventually became one of Camden’s best-known industries and was known nationwide. Samuel Jacob ‘Jack’ Carnes, a native of Zanesville, Ohio, with knowledge of the pottery business, wished to access the regional pottery market so he created the company with several Ohio associates, including businessmen and artists. They held a competition among 25 cities for its placement. Camden won in 1926.

“At the time, Camden was booming. An oil boom brought economic wealth to the area. Camden benefited from an available workforce and from the ability to ship products and materials along three railroads and on the then-navigable Ouachita River. The area was also home to a hydroelectric dam that supplied electricity for personal and industrial use. The Camden Chamber of Commerce donated a building and acreage to the company, which officially opened in May 1927.

“John B. Lessell, an acclaimed potter in Newark, Ohio, produced the first pieces from Arkansas clays. He shipped these pieces from Newark to Arkansas and provided the beginning stock of the company. The clays came from the clay mines of neighboring towns and were mixed by Carnes before shipping. Later in the history of the pottery, these clays were found to be inconsistent in quality and were mixed with clays from several neighboring states.”

Lessell died in December 1926, but his widow and daughter moved to Camden in February 1927 to continue the work. By the summer of 1927, 15 employees were producing 12 designs while using two gas-fired kilns.

By the fall, there were 25 employees and almost 500 pieces a day were being produced.

When the Lessells left, a German named Alfred Tetzschner took their place and created new lines in the late 1920s. In 1936, a gas-fueled circular continuous tunnel kiln was installed that could produce 2,400 pieces every 20 hours.

“The production began to shift from innovative designs to nondescript flower vases and novelty ware,” Howard writes. “The colors changed to single solid colors and to matte finishes. The height of pottery production occurred during World War II. … A thriving market existed for non-metal gift items. Camark Pottery shipped pieces to New York companies such as Macy’s. During this peak, the company employed more than 100 people.

“In the 1950s, Camark Pottery continued to mass produce pottery in bright pastel colors. Its business continued well into the 1960s with the extremely popular Climbing Cats, salt and pepper shakers and other novelty wares. Camark always operated primarily as a wholesaler, shipping a great majority of its products out of state.”

Carnes had moved to south Arkansas to go into the oil business. In May 1926, he married Gressie Umsted, the daughter of millionaire oilman Sidney Umsted. Carnes was an investment broker, raised the funds needed to build the Camden Hotel and donated the land for Carnes Park and the city’s first public swimming pool. He remained heavily involved in Camark Pottery through the years in addition to his work in the oil, investment banking and real estate sectors. He produced a play titled ‘Hocus Pocus” in Los Angeles in 1951, invented a fish caller, played the piano and organ, composed songs, owned thoroughbred horses and served on the state Racing Commission. This renaissance man died in 1958. His wife continued to operate Camark Pottery until 1963.

“Internal problems and decreasing profits eventually caused production to cease,” Howard writes. “The remaining stock pieces were sold through the retail store at the pottery until it closed its doors in December 1982.”

As for Grapette, the drink was developed in Camden in 1939 by Benjamin Tyndle Fooks.

“Fooks bought a soft-drink bottling plant in Camden in 1926 after leaving the lumber business,” David Rice writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “He bought a second plant in Arkadelphia in 1927 and added a third in Hope the following year, which he used as a warehouse. However, the Great Depression forced him to close and sell his operations in Arkadelphia and Hope. Fooks focused on developing unique flavors from his plant in Camden, selling Fooks Flavors to other bottling plants throughout Arkansas, Louisiana and east Texas. Fooks Flavors never attempted to match existing soft drinks, relying instead on unique tastes like blackberry punch.

“Fooks’ beverage sales continued to climb. Initially relying on his father and brother to assist with sales, Fooks added two friends to his sales force in 1932, and sales increased seven-fold. Sales reports showed that grape flavors were the most popular with customers so in 1938 Fooks began experimenting with the distinctive grape flavor that was to become Grapette. By 1939, he had developed the flavor he wanted. Searching for a name for the new soft drink, Fooks found that the owner of the Sunset Liquor Co., Rube Goldstein, had registered trademarks for the names Grapette, Lemonette and Orangette but had never used them. In 1939, Fooks purchased the copyrighted names for $500, and the following year, Grapette entered the market. Grapette was an immediate success.”

Six-ounce clear bottles were sold in 30-bottle cases rather than the conventional 24-bottle cases. Lemonette was added in 1946, and Orangette came along in 1947. Additional lines included Mr. Cola, Lymette, Cherryette and Strawberryette. By the 1980s, following a series of owners, the brand had almost disappeared from the American market. Grapette International is now based at Malvern and produces drinks for Walmart.

And what about Maud Crawford?

She was 65 years old and known across the state when she disappeared from her home on March 2, 1957, at age 65. Crawford was a lawyer with the Gaughan, McClellan & Laney firm in Camden. Since her former law partner was Sen. John L. McClellan, many people assumed that she had been kidnapped by the Mafia to intimidate the senator, who was leading a highly publicized investigation into mob ties with organized labor. Crawford’s disappearance received nationwide media publicity. Her body was never found, and the case was never solved.

Crawford had passed the bar exam in 1927 and specialized in abstract examination and title work for the oil industry. She served from 1940-48 on the Camden City Council and was a founder of Arkansas Girls State. In 1986, the Arkansas Gazette published an 18-part series on the front page about the Crawford disappearance. The series was written by filmmaker Beth Brickell, a Camden native. The stories implicated Henry Myar “Mike” Berg, a millionaire Camden businessman who served on the Arkansas State Police Commission from 1955 until his death in 1975.

Brickell later wrote: “After the first article was published linking Berg to Crawford’s disappearance, Berg’s widow, Helen Berg, threatened the newspaper with a lawsuit if it published subsequent articles. After examination of the reporter’s extensive records by the Gazette’s attorney, Phil Carroll of the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, Gazette publisher Carrick Patterson proceeded to print the complete series over a five-month period. A lawsuit against the newspaper was never brought by the Berg family.”

My father and I were frequent visitors to Camden in the 1960s and the 1970s to watch the Arkadelphia Badgers play the Camden Panthers and the Camden Fairview Cardinals in football and basketball. On the day of our trip up Highway 7, we pass the building that housed our favorite eating place in those days, a restaurant called the Duck Inn. It’s now a Mexican restaurant.

Just past the Duck Inn on Adams Avenue was a row of bars and juke joints that locals once called The Front. Most of them are long gone, replaced by vacant lots.

Near what once was the depot, the White House Cafe still operates. It’s the oldest restaurant in Arkansas, having been opened in 1907 by Greek immigrant Hristos Hodjopulas. It once served those aboard the many trains coming to the city when times were good in Camden. The founder sold the restaurant to a cousin named James Andritsos. Camden was so busy in those days that Andritsos made it a 24-hour diner. It now serves lunch and dinner.

Despite the economic setbacks of recent years, Camden remains filled with historic treasures.

Earlier in the year, I had one of my best meals of 2017 in a historic Camden home. It was 1:30 p.m. on a Tuesday when dinner was served. This was dinner in the old Southern style, early afternoon rather than evening.

We were seated in the grand dining room of the Graham-Gaughan-Betts House, which was constructed in 1858 by Joseph Graham at a time when Camden was a leading cotton port for the region. The home, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974, is known for its elaborate front porch and its interior woodwork.

I was with a group of fellow Arkansas history enthusiasts that day. We were retracing the route of the troops commanded by Union Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele during the Civil War’s Camden Expedition in 1864. Steele used this house as his headquarters during his short occupation of Camden that spring. We had fried chicken, greens, peas, mashed potatoes, creamed corn, biscuits and gravy as the current owner of the home, George Betts, urged us to get seconds.

I’m reminded of the summer midday meals of my youth. My father would come home from work, we would eat a big meal at 1 p.m. and then he would take a short nap on the couch before going back downtown. We called that dinner. Supper on summer evenings consisted mainly of leftovers.

Betts gave us a tour of the home after the meal. The application for the National Register that was filed by his parents in the 1970s notes: “When the Graham-Gaughan-Betts House was built for Maj. Graham in 1858, it was planned to be one of the best and most handsome of the period. Building on a lot acquired from his brother, Dr. Henry Graham, this two-story frame structure was planned as a residence for Maj. Graham’s large family. Maj. Graham and his wife, Mary, were natives of North Carolina, and the house they built in Camden was modeled after a North Carolina home that Mrs. Graham had admired as a girl.

“Camden’s best craftsman was hired to make the interior of the house as handsome as possible. … Mrs. Graham was intensely Southern in her sympathies and did much to alleviate the discomfort and suffering of Confederate soldiers as they retreated from Camden before the Federal troops under Gen. Frederick Steele in April 1864. Mrs. Graham could also adjust to strained situations. When Gen. Steele made his headquarters at her home during the brief Federal occupation of Camden, she managed to discover that they had mutual friends in New York.”

Like so many Southerners, the Grahams experienced serious financial difficulties following the war. They took in boarders in an attempt to make ends meet. Maj. Graham died in 1871, and his widow continued to live in the house until her death in 1888.

The house was purchased by Thomas Gaughan in 1899 and remained in his family for decades. When the Betts family bought the home in the early 1970s, an extensive renovation project began. The house is just down Washington Street from Camden’s most famous structure, the McCollum-Chidester House, built in 1847 by local merchant Peter McCollum. It was the headquarters of the Chidester Stage Line in the late 1850s, was a military headquarters during the Civil War and has been used in the filming of television shows.

Camden was among the state’s leading cities at the time of the Civil War.

Milam writes: “During the 1850s, Camden served as the supply center for several counties and was the mercantile center for a radius of 100 miles. During this time, as many as 40,000 bales of cotton were shipped from its wharfs in a single year. As a steamboat river port, Camden had accommodations and transportation to service the planter provisioning trade to New Orleans. … After the Civil War, cotton production remained important to Camden. Much of it was accomplished by sharecropping. Steamboats continued to navigate the river, but railroads were coming. Trains opened up markets for Ouachita County’s pine and hardwood forests. Though they were challenged by the railroads, the steamboats continued to serve Camden until the 1930s.”

The oil boom and the timber industry kept Camden hopping for years. These are harder times economically, but the city still oozes history and Southern charm.

El Dorado to Camden

Tuesday, December 26th, 2017


A few oil wells are visible as we make our way north out of El Dorado on Arkansas Highway 7.

By 1925, there were almost 3,500 wells in Union County pumping 69 million barrels of oil. Production declined significantly by the late 1930s.

We’re on a divided, four-lane portion of the highway. It’s easy to speed on this stretch, which passes near Norphlet and touches the outskirts of Smackover.

There are small, rolling hills and millions of pine trees.

“The forested hills of Union County were thinly populated until after the Civil War and Reconstruction,” Steven Teske writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The railroad industry, combined with the timber industry, brought new life to the area. The St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway built a line running from Gurdon through El Dorado that was completed in January 1891. Norphlet was one of several depots created along the railway. The timber industry was prominent in the settlement of Norphlet for the first 30 years of its existence.

“The town was reportedly named for Nauphlet Goodwin, but the name Nauphlet was misspelled as Norphlet by the Postal Department when the town’s post office was created in 1891. Norphlet was actually the third name selected for the small settlement. Its post office was first designated Haymos and then Jess before becoming Norphlet, all in the same year.”

The oil boom changed everything.

Employees of Oil Operators Trust struck a pocket of natural gas on May 14, 1922. The gas began to escape at a rate of 65 million to 75 million cubic feet per day.

“Efforts to cap the hole were ineffective, and on the morning of May 16, the gas ignited, shooting flames more than 300 feet into the air and creating a crater at least 450 feet across and 75 feet deep,” Teske writes. “The explosion and fire, which demolished the oil derrick, sent fragments of shale up to 10 miles away from Norphlet. A second well, drilled a few weeks later in an effort to reduce the fuel supply of the fire, also caught fire and created a second crater. But the oil industry continued to thrive in Union County as the Smackover Field was successfully tapped in other locations.

“Many oil workers came to Norphlet and the other communities of the area, and hotels, taverns and other businesses quickly arose. Prostitution and gambling were prevalent, and law enforcement only gradually began to establish order in the region. … The population fluctuated at first but became more stable when the MacMillan Oil Refinery was established in the city. The oil refinery closed in 1987. The property was bought by Nor-Ark Industrial Corp. but was abandoned in 1991. Oil had contaminated surrounding waters, leading the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the site through its national Superfund program. The cleanup was completed in 1997.”

And what about that crater from 1922?

It’s filled with water and surrounded by a fence. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.

Norphlet’s population fell from 1,063 residents in the 1930 census to 459 in 1960. It was back up to 844 by 2010 with many residents driving into El Dorado for work.

Nearby Smackover, meanwhile, fell from 2,544 residents in the 1930 census to 1,865 in the 2010 census.

The Smackover Field, which covers 68 square miles, led the nation in oil output in 1925.

“The name Smackover is possibly derived from chemin couvert (meaning covered way), though later histories attribute the name to an 18th-century French description of the north and south-central areas of Union and Ouachita counties dubbed sumac couvert, meaning covered with sumac,” writes local historian Don Lambert.

Prior to the discovery of oil, the economy in this area of the state was dominated by cotton farming and a timber industry that moved in to clear the virgin forests.

A post office designated as Smackover opened in 1879 about five miles from the town’s current location. An unincorporated town named Henderson City sprung up along the railroad that ran from Camden to Alexandria, La. The Smackover post office moved there, and the community became known as Smackover.

“By 1908, Sidney Albert Umsted operated a large sawmill and logging venture two miles north of town,” Lambert writes. “He believed that oil lay beneath the earth’s surface in the region. Few paid attention, but Umsted quietly went about buying land and leasing what was not for sale. An economic blockbuster was about to alter the destiny of a town and its people. In July 1922, Umsted’s wildcat well reached a depth of 2,066 feet. Abruptly, a rumble came from deep beneath the earth’s surface. The crew stepped away, listening. Suddenly, a thick black column of oil burst forth and spurted high above the earth.

“Within six months, 1,000 wells had been drilled with a success rate of 92 percent. The little town had increased from a mere 90 people to 25,000, and its uncommon name would quickly attain national attention. Smackover was officially incorporated on Nov. 3, 1922. Lawlessness was so rampant that, among the 25 petitioners on the incorporation document, none was willing to hold public office. Later that month, the town saw a multi-day riot of unbridled violence. The town’s population steadily declined as oil companies and their employees moved away when more lucrative oil discoveries were made in Texas and Oklahoma. About 100 independent oil companies replaced the 12 major petroleum corporations in this period.”

The population dropped from 25,000 to 2,500, and an environmental disaster was left behind.

Exploration and drilling increased again during World War II due to heavy demand. The oil industry is still active here, though most operators are small.

Umsted, known as the “Father of the Smackover Oil Field,” had been born in Texas in 1876. His father abandoned the family, and his mother moved her children back to her native Chidester in Ouachita County when Sid Umsted was a boy. She remarried when her son was 8, and the family headed to north Louisiana and settled on a farm near Bernice. Umsted worked in sawmills across north Louiana as a teenager. He owned a sawmill near Homer by the time he was 22 and later moved his operations to Junction City on the Arkansas-Louisiana line. He moved farther north to the Smackover area in 1905.

“His mill served as the primary source of employment in an otherwise undeveloped economic area,” Don Lambert and John Ragsdale write for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “He immediately purchased and leased several hundred acres of land north into Ouachita County with the bulk of it situated in what’s now recognized as the Standard-Umsted/Snow Hill locale. In 1919, oil was discovered in northern Louisiana. Umsted was familiar with the area and recognized that his Arkansas land embodied surface characteristics similar to the acreage that spawned the prolific Homer oil field. By 1921, successful oil discoveries were made in the El Dorado region only 12 miles south of Smackover. Umsted quickly organized an exploration venture that included four partners from Camden — W.W. Brown, T.J. Gaughan, J.D. Reynolds and J.C. Usery, who shared a half-interest with the V.K.F. Oil Co. of Shreveport, which agreed to drill one well for a small share.”

The July 1922 gusher and subsequent discoveries made Umsted and his partners wealthy.

The area around Umsted’s sawmill was purchased in 1923 by the Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey. A small community still goes by the unusual name of Standard-Umsted. Now a millionaire, Umsted built a mansion in Camden in 1924 that still stands. In October 1925, a train on which Umsted was riding derailed in Mississippi. He died Nov. 3, 1925, in a Memphis hospital at the age of just 49.

As we drive along Highway 7 talking about the area’s fascinating history, I want to know more about that November 1922 Smackover riot.

Nancy Snell Griffith writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “A hooded and robed cleanup committee — possibly members of the Ku Klux Klan or some related group — rode through the Smackover oil fields in order to drive away ‘undesirable’ people such as saloon owners and gamblers. The vigilantes killed at least one person, shot at others and destroyed buildings. There were widespread reports of floggings and even cases of people being tarred and feathered.

“This multi-day riot mirrored other vigilante actions in the newly established oil fields in Arkansas. The previous February, the citizens of El Dorado had formed a Law Enforcement League for the same purpose. … On Nov. 27, more than 200 masked and robed men drove through Smackover in cars, carrying signs that warned ‘gamblers and others of the lawless element’ to leave the area within 24 hours.”

The incident received nationwide attention. The New York Times reported that the Nov. 24 murder of a worker named Ed Cox had led to the events. The Arkansas Gazette reported that there also was a murder the next night of a driller named Cotton Parsons outside a bar in the Smackover Field settlement of Patagonia.

Some newspapers ran sensational reports that couldn’t be verified.

The Seattle Star said that “2,000 bootleggers, dive keepers and gamblers are aligned against the vigilantes in a skirmish, which first flared last night and raged for hours.”

The Washington Times┬áreported that a mob of 200 “white-robed and masked men” had taken on gamblers and oil workers in “one of the most spectacular engagements ever noted in this section.”

Some newspapers reported incorrectly that as many as 75 people had been killed or wounded. The New York Times later reported that one man had been killed with four injured and five tarred and feathered.

One thing is clear. Large numbers of the so-called undesirables began leaving the area after these events.

“By Nov. 30, about 1,100 had departed by train from nearby Camden,” Griffith writes. “Although there were rumors that they were gathering in Union County to seek their revenge, Ouachita County authorities assured residents that there would be no more trouble. On Dec. 1, the Arkansas Gazette reported that Sheriff Ed Harper had returned to Camden after touring the oil fields. He found no sign of further trouble and reported that ‘the undesirable element seems to have been thoroughly cleaned out.’

“Smackover constable Hampton Lewis and local bank cashier O.B. Gordon ‘deplored the publicity given the raids, merely a repetition of events which had occurred in all new oil fields.'”

The Arkansas Gazette finally reported that the only death that could be attributed to the vigilantes was that of E.J. Wood at a settlement known as Ouachita City.

Griffith writes: “Unmasked members of the vigilance committee approached what they believed to be a gambling house, supposedly owned by Wood and Slim Sanders. Upon their arrival, Wood ran out the door. Committee members told him to halt, and he was shot when he refused. Wood was initially reported tarred and feathered, but this was later proven false. The house itself was burned down by the committee. According to recently elected sheriff J.B. Newton, all reports of a pitched battle, tarring and feathering and burned buildings were highly exaggerated; most of the gunshots had been fired into the air, and Sanders’ building had been torn down.”

The New York Times said that at least 400 of the reported 2,000 vigilantes were on the payroll of oil companies. Other sources said the size of the vigilante group was only about 200.

Griffith writes: “No one was ever arrested for the murder of E.J. Wood. The coroner’s jury met and found that he had died at the hands of persons unknown.”

Our trip along Highway 7 takes us right by one of the best places to learn more about this colorful period in south Arkansas history, the Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources. In 1975, area civic leaders and legislators began campaigning for a museum. In 1977, the Arkansas Legislature levied a tax on oil production in Arkansas to fund construction of a museum. Two years later, the Legislature levied a tax on brine, from which bromine is extracted. Bromine is used for making pesticides, flame retardants, medicines and other products.

The project gained additional momentum in 1980 when Jack Turner of El Dorado donated 19 acres near Smackover for the museum. The Arkansas Oil and Brine Museum opened in May 1986. It was renamed the Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources in 1997.

The museum is operated by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism, which describes it this way: “The 25,000-square-foot exhibition center includes vintage photographs; an auditorium that features two videos; a Center of the Earth exhibit that visitors enter through a circular corridor depicting rock strata in the earth; a geologic time scale and fossil exhibit explaining how oil is formed; metal-cast and life-size roughnecks working an oil derrick; exhibits on family life in the oil fields; dozens of vintage automobile gasoline pumps and petroleum company signs; exhibits on life in the area before the boom; and exhibits on modern drilling techniques.

“A high-tech elevator takes visitors through time from a Jurassic period sea floor to the Industrial Revolution. An adjoining exhibit focuses on the evolution of oil consumption from 1922 through modern times. From this exhibit, visitors can peer from a replica of the Rogerson Hotel’s second-floor veranda overlooking a re-created, boom-era street scene in Smackover. The scene, which can also be explored on the first floor, includes numerous storefronts, a jail, a newspaper office, mannequins in period dress and vintage automobiles.

“Outside, the center’s Oilfield Park features operating examples of the oil-producing technology employed from the 1920s through today. The park contains a 112-foot wooden derrick similar to the one at the original Busey No. 1 Well in El Dorado. For those wanting to see an active oil field, the museum’s staff has prepared maps for either six- or 15-mile driving tours of the Smackover Field that reveal remnants of early production such as salt flats. The field is located just north of the museum.”

As we drive north, we cross into Ouachita County, passing through the community of Elliott on our way to Camden on the Ouachita River.

The Louisiana line to El Dorado

Friday, December 22nd, 2017


The first thing I notice is that somebody shot the pelican.

We’re standing on the edge of Arkansas Highway 7 on the Arkansas-Louisiana line near Lockhart, La., early on a cloudy Tuesday morning. The sign that welcomes visitors to Louisiana features the state bird, and some good ol’ boy has filled the pelican’s belly with buckshot. We speculate that the crime was committed by a disgruntled Arkansas Razorback fan following a football loss to LSU.

On this weekday morning, it’s quiet on the state line.

We pull into the driveway of a house and get out of the car. If people are in the home, they don’t bother to come out and check on us. Chickens roam free in the yard, and a rooster crows out back.

This is pine timber country. Having grown up in the Gulf Coastal Plain region of southwest Arkansas, I’ve long thought that the southwest and south-central parts of our state should have joined up long ago with north Louisiana and east Texas to form a state with Shreveport or Texarkana as the capital. There’s not much difference — culturally, economically, socially — in southwest Arkansas, east Texas and north Louisiana.

I was raised at Arkadelphia, just a few blocks from Highway 7. The highway is an iconic route that runs from this point south of El Dorado and east of Junction City all the way to the shores of Bull Shoals Lake near the Missouri border at Diamond City in Boone County.

At one time or another, I’ve traversed every mile of this highway. But I’ve never done it all on consecutive days. That’s the goal for David Stricklin of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Paul Austin of the Arkansas Humanities Council and me. In two days, we’ll drive through four of the state’s six distinct geographical areas — the Gulf Coastal Plain, the Ouachita Mountains, the Arkansas River Valley and the Ozark Mountains; everything but the Delta and Crowley’s Ridge.

We’ll see more deer than we can count, several elk and a coyote along the way.

We’ll tell stories, we’ll eat well, we’ll see the autumn leaves changing colors and we’ll meet interesting people.

We’ll come to appreciate both the beauty and the variety of Arkansas.

The excursion had begun the previous evening over dinner at the swank new Griffin Restaurant in downtown El Dorado’s Murphy Arts District. Known simply as MAD, the arts and entertainment district is part of a broader effort to stem population loss in a county that has 15,000 fewer people now than it had in the 1930s.

Covering more than 1,000 square miles, Union County is the state’s largest county geographically. About 90 percent of the county is forested, and almost a fourth of its residents live below the poverty line.

Like most of Arkansas, cotton was once king in Union County. There are no longer row crops here. They grow pine trees, chickens and cattle instead.

The oil and gas industry remains important, though it’s not nearly the driver of the south Arkansas economy that it was in the 1920s after Dr. Samuel Busey’s well erupted on Jan. 10, 1921, near El Dorado.

Historian Ben Johnson of Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia, with whom we had shared dinner at the Griffin, writes that there was “a thick column of oil that soiled clothes on wash lines a mile away. The rural market center was unprepared to become a boomtown. Hotels and rooming houses overflowed, and tent-covered cot spaces, restaurants and shops went up along South Washington Street.

“A newspaper reporter noted that a person walking along what became known as Hamburger Row could ‘purchase almost anything from a pair of shoes to an auto, an interest in a drilling tract or have your fortune told.'”

Nearby Smackover also became a boomtown when oil was discovered there in July 1922. By 1925, there were 3,500 wells in the county pumping 69 million barrels of oil. Production declined considerably by the late 1930s.

Just across Cedar Street from the 1929 Rialto Theater in downtown El Dorado is a small park with displays chronicling the oil boom. One marker describes the cold afternoon when Busey, a physician and oil speculator, struck oil.

“The town would never be the same,” the marker reads. “Church bells rang, the sawmill whistle sounded and people streamed out of town to see the oil spewing up through the 75-foot wooden derrick.”

By 1925, El Dorado’s population had grown from about 3,800 residents to almost 25,000.

Writing for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, Kenneth Bridges describes the transformation of El Dorado: “The discovery well touched off a wave of speculators into the area seeking fame and fortune from oil. The state Legislature immediately sent an exploratory train from Little Rock for legislators to inspect the find. Oil production increased exponentially in a matter of months. In March 1921, Arkansas produced 28,000 barrels of oil to sell on the open market, which increased to 908,000 barrels by June. By 1922, 900 wells were in operation in the state. … El Dorado became the epicenter of the oil boom. It changed from an isolated agricultural city to the oil capital of Arkansas. Twenty-two trains each day ran in and out of El Dorado to Little Rock and Shreveport.”

It’s as if a second oil boom is taking place in El Dorado these days. But this has nothing to do with the oil and gas industry, which has been depressed in recent years. Instead, it’s about music, theater, art and even fine food and wine.

It’s an audacious effort by the city’s business leaders to reverse a decades-long pattern of population decline. The goal is to turn El Dorado into the arts and entertainment capital of a region that includes south Arkansas, north Louisiana, east Texas and even parts of west Mississippi.

Many consider it to be El Dorado’s last, best chance to break out of the economic doldrums infecting so much of south Arkansas. El Dorado Festivals & Events Inc. is the organization charged with giving life to the vision of business leaders such as Madison Murphy and Claiborne Deming. Murphy, Deming and others have raised more than $60 million already for a first phase of construction. By the time the second phase is completed, more than $100 million will have been invested downtown.

The Griffin Building, constructed during the oil boom in 1928-29 to house a Ford dealership and a gas station, has been transformed into a fine-dining venue with an adjacent indoor performance hall that will hold more than 2,000 seated patrons.

An amphitheater next to the building will hold 8,000 people for outdoor concerts. Adjacent to it will be a two-acre children’s playground and splash pad that will be open at no cost to the public.

The second phase of the project will transform the Rialto into an 850-seat hall for film festivals, touring productions and performances by the South Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. A new lobby will connect the Rialto to the 1928 McWilliams Building, a former furniture store that will become an art gallery and host traveling exhibitions from around the world.

The three publicly traded companies headquartered in El Dorado — Murphy Oil Corp., Deltic Timber Corp. (which recently announced a merger with Potlatch Corp.) and Murphy USA Inc. — must compete for talent against firms with headquarters in Houston and other large metropolitan areas.

Deming served from 1994-2008 as the president and chief executive officer of Murphy Oil. He has been the company’s chairman since 2008. In January 2007, it was announced that Murphy Oil had made a $50 million commitment to create what’s known as the El Dorado Promise. That program allows graduates of El Dorado High School to have their college tuition and fees paid.

I ask Deming, an erudite Tulane University graduate who began working as an attorney for Murphy Oil in 1979, if he’s surprised that the El Dorado Promise, which is recognized as one of the best scholarship programs of its kind in the country, didn’t do more to stop population loss.

“The fact that it didn’t shows just how daunting the situation is in south Arkansas,” he says. “Almost all of the Arkansas counties south of Interstate 40 are facing similar challenges.”

Murphy quickly interjects: “I would hate to think where we would be now without the El Dorado Promise. It takes more than one thing to change long-term trends, however. You have to have a confluence of events.”

Murphy is a former chairman of the Arkansas Highway Commission and was the head of the Murphy Commission, which from 1996-99 studied ways to make Arkansas state government more efficient and accountable to the taxpayers. His interest in public policy was inherited from his father, the late Charles Murphy, who’s considered to be among the state’s greatest business and civic leaders of the 20th century.

Charles Murphy died in March 2002 at age 82.

“We started this effort five years ago with some ideas about how we could turn the economic situation around,” Madison Murphy says. “What you see now is far different from our original concept. I don’t know what it’s going to look like five years from now, but this could be a catalyst for things we haven’t even thought about yet.”

Murphy would like to see more people living in downtown El Dorado. He’s also convinced that the arts district will be enough to make a high-quality downtown boutique hotel — something along the lines of the Alluvian Hotel at Greenwood, Miss. — feasible.

“I regret that the hotel is not already open,” Murphy says. “But I believe it will happen.”

Asked why arts and entertainment was the sector the business leaders decided to focus on, Murphy says bluntly: “Because we’re not going to get the next Toyota plant.”

He goes on to explain: “I see four drivers when it comes to attracting jobs. Those are education, infrastructure, tax rates and quality of life. Quality of life was our weakest link.”

El Dorado’s population decreased from 25,292 residents in the 1960 census to 18,884 in the 2010 census. Since that 2010 census, the city has taken additional steps to stop the bleeding. A $43 million high school was constructed and numerous advanced placement courses were added to the high school curriculum. A conference center also was built downtown.

“We have a lot of white-collar jobs here because the three public companies are headquartered in El Dorado, and we have high-paying blue-collar jobs,” Deming says. “So we have jobs. We also have the El Dorado Promise. And we’re still losing population. So what do we do? We address those quality-of-life issues.”

Murphy quotes Daniel Burnham, one of the country’s most famous architects and urban planners in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Speaking about the design for the city of Chicago, Burnham said: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans, aim high.”

“This is not a small plan,” Murphy says of the effort to transform El Dorado into a four-state arts and entertainment magnet. “It’s blood stirring.”

Deming believes the attention the Murphy Arts District will bring to El Dorado could put it on the radar of everyone from young families to retired couples.

“The most appealing lifestyle in the country these days is the lifestyle of the small-town South,” he says. “People here are friendly. It’s easy to get around. This lifestyle is contagious. What we must do is be able to grow without losing that small-town feel. This is already a wonderful place to live. We now have the opportunity to make it even better while attracting the attention of people across the country.”

Murphy says those behind the Murphy Arts District aren’t oblivious to the challenges they still face.

“We’re not on an interstate highway,” he says. “We don’t have adequate air service. At least people in this region are willing to drive some distance for events.”

Murphy says he and Deming are “like heat-seeking missiles on a fundraising mission.”

There are still millions of dollars to be raised for the second phase. Almost $9.5 million has come from a 1 percent city sales tax that was approved by voters in 2007 for economic development projects. Historic preservation tax credits also have helped. Gov. Asa Hutchinson committed $5 million in state funds.

The focus is on what the visionaries behind MAD hope will be future growth. But they haven’t forgotten the past. The state’s oldest pool hall — Hill’s Recreation Parlor, which has been in business since the oil boom days of the 1920s — will continue to operate right in the middle of the district. And a 110-foot oil derrick has been placed next to the Griffin Building, paying homage to the boom that first put El Dorado on the nation’s radar screen.

Once more, El Dorado seeks to draw the nation’s attention.

“The team we’ve assembled here makes me proud,” Murphy says. “These folks are living it, breathing it, walking it, talking it, making it happen. We’re going to succeed.”

David, Paul and I cover the short distance from the state line to El Dorado quickly. I think about Union County’s history — the boom, the bust and the current attempts to spur growth.

“With the onset of World War II, Union County’s industrial base attracted the attention of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” Ben Johnson writes. “Entering a unique partnership with Lion Oil, the Corps supplied $28 million for construction of the Ozark Ordnance Plant to produce ammonium nitrate. The private company oversaw the operation of the plant and acquired it for a fraction of the construction costs at the end of the war. In 1983, the enterprise became El Dorado Chemical, which continued to make explosives as well as fertilizer.

“World War II encouraged dramatic growth in manufacturing, and state lawmakers authorized local communities to provide financial incentives to attract industry. Union County established one of the first industrial development organizations, enticing Jess Merkle to build a large-scale poultry processing plant that became the largest employer in El Dorado. Beginning in 1965, Great Lakes Corp. processed the underground brine into a variety of brominated products, including flame retardants.

“Despite the manufacturing expansion, Union County’s population declined steadily after the war. Yet in the face of the loss of manufacturing jobs throughout the state in the 1990s, that sector held its own in the county. New glossy brochures and websites integrated tourism into the campaign to jolt the economy. These new advertisements highlighted the refurbishment in the 1990s of El Dorado’s downtown square into a historic district.

“Beginning early in the 20th century, the Army Corps of Engineers built and maintained a lock and dam system designed to boost navigation on the Ouachita River. Although the shipped tonnage failed to match local economic boosters’ expectations, water-level management aided boating, hunting and fishing. The navigation project sustained the Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge, the world’s largest green-tree reservoir. The pools at the dams on the river provided an alternative water source in the early 21st century to the underground Sparta Aquifer, depleted by decades of industrial consumption.”

We reach El Dorado and detour a few blocks off the highway to get a cup of coffee at PJ’s Coffee on the square.

It’s time to head north on Highway 7 to Camden.

Maxwell Blade’s Malco

Friday, December 15th, 2017

Maxwell Blade knew he would come back one day.

Blade, who has starred in a magic show in downtown Hot Springs since 1996, called the Malco Theatre home from that first Spa City performance until 2008 when the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival decided to go it alone in the building at 817 Central Ave.

Blade moved north to 121 Central Ave. and leased a former antiques store from the Wheatley family. He then transformed the space into a 100-seat theater. Now he’s back at the Malco following a major renovation.

A recent tour of the theater brought back memories of the time I spent watching movies there when I was a student at Arkadelphia High School and Ouachita Baptist University. One of the best things about getting a driver’s license was being able to visit Hot Springs for movies downtown at the Malco and Central theaters.

Nancy Hendricks writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture that the Malco is “on a site that has housed vaudeville shows, silent movies, modern films and specialty productions. … The economy of Hot Springs depended on lodging, dining and entertainment to support its burgeoning tourism industry. In the late 1800s, Hot Springs attracted visitors from across the country to ‘take the waters.’ After their therapeutic bathing, visitors sought amusements and recreation. At first, this was limited to hunting, fishing and horseback riding, activities they usually did closer to home as well. But the demand increased for diversions such as gambling and entertainment. In 1882, the Opera House on Hot Springs’ Central Avenue was opened to present theatrical productions, including hosting traveling companies from New York.

“In the early 1900s, motion pictures became a leading form of entertainment across the country. Frank Head, manager of the Hot Springs Opera House, commissioned the construction of the Princess Theatre in 1910 for viewing silent movies as well as attending vaudeville shows. It was built where Bridge Street connects Broadway to Central Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare. Hot Springs resident Sidney Nutt Sr. bought the Princess Theatre in 1927, converting it to sound in 1929 as talking pictures began to replace silent films.

“Hot Springs’ downtown business district along Central Avenue suffered a number of catastrophic fires in the early 1900s. The Princess Theatre survived until Christmas Eve in 1935 when a blaze destroyed all but its foundation and its masonry entrance on Broadway Street. Those elements would become the cornerstone of the Malco Theatre.”

Nutt worked with the architectural firm Brueggeman & Swaim to utilize the shell of the Princess for a new building that would face Central Avenue. He sold his interest in the Princess to M.A. Lightman, who had founded the Malco Theatre Group and owned theaters across the South. The Great Depression and then World War II delayed the many improvements that Lightman wanted to make.

A November 1939 story in The Sentinel-Record at Hot Springs noted: “Definite announcement that Malco Theatres Inc. will proceed with construction of a modern new theater and music hall on the former site of the Princess, which was destroyed by fire several years ago, was made yesterday by M.S. McCord of North Little Rock, secretary and treasurer of the amusement company, which also operates the Paramount, Central, Spa and Roxy theaters in Hot Springs. Preliminary work on the first three units comprising the project was begun several week ago, but Malco officials made no announcement of their plans at that time. They revealed two years ago that a handsome new theater was planned to replace the Princess, but construction had been delayed pending improved business conditions.

“The new amusement enterprise will be known as the Malco Music Hall. Cost of the project was not announced, but Malco officials have indicated that expenses will not be spared in providing Hot Springs an amusement house with all equipment and accommodations to meet the needs of the city for many years to come. The first unit will be built on the Central Avenue frontage and will be three stories high with a basement. … The front of the building will be of modernistic design. It will be constructed of white marble with panels of black and red terrazzo, glass and stainless steel extending the height of the building. Over the entrance lobby will be a triangular marquee of artistic design. The entire front will be beautifully illuminated.

“Construction of the second unit, which will be the auditorium proper, will start immediately after completion of the Central Avenue unit. The auditorium will seat 1,400 people and will have stage facilities for vaudeville or road productions. The stage will be on the south side of the building instead of on the east or Broadway side where the stage of the old Princess was located.”

World War II delayed complete renovation of the building for several more years.

When the fully renovated Malco Music Hall opened in February 1946, it declared itself to be the “Showplace of the South.” It had 1,140 seats and the most advanced projection and sound equipment in the region. There was an entrance on Central Avenue along with two separate entrances on Broadway for blacks and whites. Blacks were relegated to the balcony until the 1960s.

Hendricks writes: “The Broadway entrance allowed African-Americans to enter the building and go directly to their segregated seating area in the balcony. With advances in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, segregation of entrances and seating arrangements ended. The Arkansas Historic Preservation Program has stated that the Broadway entrance to the theater may be one of only two such formerly segregated entrances still in existence in the United States. … Management of the building mandated its preservation as a reminder of America’s civil rights victories.”

The theater was remodeled again in 1962 and was divided into twin theaters in the 1980s before finally closing. Downtown Hot Springs declined as development moved south toward Lake Hamilton.

The official 2010 nomination form for the Malco to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places noted: “As the film industry was soundly established, its cultural influence developed a new appearance for the buildings that housed them. The theaters would become larger as bright marquees advertised to the street and enough seating was installed to house thousands of audience members. They would not only entertain audiences but also inform them on current events through newsreels. The theaters became the place to be.

“Sidney Nutt, the owner of the former Princess site, ordered the construction of the Malco Theatre in 1935. Brueggeman & Swaim, the contracted architects, designed the building to utilize the remains of the Princess. The completed structure consisted of a single, large auditorium with a balcony, a lobby and a structure for offices that faced Central Avenue. The front facade was in the spirit of the modern movement with its Art Deco features. Vertical stucco piers framed windows and multicolored tiles, and a bright marquee attracted customers from the street. It had an occupational limit of 1,000 seats, which helped to continue the recreational value of Hot Springs tourism.”

When the current revitalization of downtown Hot Springs began to take off, developer Rick Williams of Summit Properties bought several buildings, including the Malco. Blade shared Williams’ vision for the theater.

Blade and a group of dedicated preservationists spent the next 15 months working on the building. During a recent visit to Hot Springs, he proudly showed me the lobby mural that was painted in the 1940s by John Antonio, who was a Hot Springs High School student at the time. The mural was discovered when wallpaper was removed adjacent to the spiral staircase that leads to the balcony. The mural was sealed to protect it from additional damage.

“We had to install new air conditioning and heating systems, and we put in carpets that I found in Las Vegas,” Blade says. “We would spend 15 hours here some days working on this place. I wanted to make sure that everything from the restrooms to the dressing rooms was perfect. We took the wall out that had divided this into two theaters. Now it looks much like it did in the 1940s.”

Blade’s choice of carpeting, lights and furniture indeed gives the Malco a 1940s feel. He reduced the number of seats downstairs to 310 so there would be more room for people to spread out. A small bar has been added to sell beer and wine. When there are no magic shows scheduled, Blade hopes to offer the Malco for musical performances, comedy shows and the like. Blade often had several shows a day at the smaller theater. Because he now has three times the number of seats, he will perform just one show a day at the Malco.

“The pace of development in downtown Hot Springs right now is unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Blade says. “I wanted to be a part of that. I was determined to make the Malco a gem again, and I think I’ve achieved that. I spent more than $100,000 just on the lighting and the sound systems. When this project was finished, I went home and slept for 20 hours straight one Saturday.”

Blade was born in January 1962 at Fort Smith.

“As a child in the 1970s, he became interested in magic after watching magician and comedian Mark Wilson’s ‘Funny Face Magic Show’ and ‘Magic Circus’ on television,” Cody Lynn Berry writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “He began learning and practicing simple magic tricks as a hobby in addition to teaching himself to play drums and piano. When he was eight years old, he began playing music at a local church. He graduated from Greenwood High School in 1980. When he was 21, he auditioned for a rock band called Exit Five, which later changed its name to Shark Avenue. The group recorded an album and toured for several years.

“Blade began a career as a full-time magician in 1991. Drawing inspiration from Mark Wilson, Harry Houdini and David Copperfield, he performed in clubs in northwest Arkansas and as an opening act for local bands under the direction of his manager at the time, Dick Renko. On Aug. 4, 1994, Blade’s first large-scale production debuted at the King Opera House in Van Buren. That show was dedicated to his mother; she died from Lou Gehrig’s disease on Aug. 11. The King Opera House show was followed by a two-year tour.”

“I was a rocker in the 1980s,” Blade says. “I later decided to do magic shows instead.”

In 1995, Blade and his family came to Hot Springs on vacation and fell in love with the place. He decided that people visiting downtown Hot Springs needed additional entertainment options.

“This building was in bad shape, but I decided to clean it up,” Blade says of the Malco. “I did that first show on Aug. 28, 1996. For the longest, it seemed as if I couldn’t sell more than 33 tickets a night. I was a painting contractor during the day to pay the bills. I did whatever I had to do to sustain the show. The show finally became popular, and it remains so.”

In 2015, Blade added the Maxwell Blade Museum of Curiosities.

Berry writes that Blade wanted a place to “house his large collection of magic-related artifacts and medical curiosities. Local antiques dealer Davis Tillman also put artifacts on display there. Among the many items on display was a model ship built by prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars; the ship’s rigging is said to be made completely out of human hair. Other pieces included a mummified cat named Felix, medical tools, a child-sized coffin, an electric chair, wooden dolls, Houdini handcuffs and promotional posters, circus photographs and a re-creation of a mortuary drive-through viewing window.”

Blade plans to move the museum from the 100 block of Central Avenue into a space adjacent to the Malco.

While the current renovation was taking place, Kathryn Phillips Sanders contacted those at the Malco to say she remembered the 1946 opening since her boyfriend, Billy Ray Sanders, was working at the theater. He later became her husband.

“He was about 17, and I think he was the doorman,” Sanders recently told writer Deborah Carroll of Hot Springs. “He had been ushering at various movie theaters since he was about 10. … A little later he got the title of assistant manager, which just meant he had to be there seven days a week from opening to closing.”

Last month, Blade gave Sanders a tour of the theater. It was her first time to be in the theater since 1980.

Eric Manuel of Bryant has produced a 24-minute documentary titled “The Malco, A Personal Journey.” It was screened during the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in October. It’s a fitting tribute to one of the state’s most famous theaters, which has now been fully restored.

The revitalization of downtown Hot Springs rolls on.