Archive for May, 2018

Hazen to Biscoe

Friday, May 11th, 2018


I leave Hazen on my trek east on U.S. Highway 70. Within a few minutes, I’m entering DeValls Bluff. This town on the banks of the White River, which had just 619 residents in the 2010 census, has always had a special allure.

I’m in Prairie County now. My mother was raised at Des Arc, one of the two county seats. My grandfather, who died in 1980 at age 96, owned the hardware store and the funeral home in town. He was active in politics, serving for a time as county judge in the 1930s. The time he spent in various countywide offices required frequent trips to DeValls Bluff, the other county seat.

Like so many counties in the eastern half of our state, Prairie County has been losing population for decades. Its population was 17,447 in the 1920 census. By the 2010 census, it was less than half that — 8,715 to be exact

“When Arkansas became a state, the area that is today Prairie County was first a part of Arkansas, Pulaski, Monroe, St. Francis and White counties,” Marilyn Hambrick Sickel writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “On Nov. 25, 1846, Arkansas Gov. Thomas S. Drew signed the legislative act creating Prairie County, so named for its dominant characteristic, the Grand Prairie. At the time, the boundaries extended into nearly all of present-day Lonoke County. Brownsville was designated as Prairie County’s first county seat in 1846. A wood-frame courthouse was erected, which lasted until a fire destroyed it on Sept. 16, 1852. However, the building was rebuilt, and the seat remained in Brownsville until 1868. In 1873, Lonoke County was carved from Prairie County.”

Jacob DeVall and his son Chappel found a place along the lower White River in the 1840s and established a mercantile store there. What would become DeValls Bluff has had fewer than 1,000 residents since the Civil War. It reached its post-war high-water mark with 924 residents in the 1910 census and was down to 619 people in the most recent census.

But Bill Sayger writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “Excluding Helena, no other town in eastern Arkansas held such strategic importance to the Union Army during the Civil War as did DeValls Bluff.”

DeValls Bluff has always punched above its weight, as they say over in the sports department. I like history, and I like food. DeValls Bluff has plenty of both.

“At the beginning of the Civil War, DeValls Bluff was home to a store, a dwelling house and a boat landing,” Sickel writes. “In the fall of 1863, Gen. Frederick Steele moved from Clarendon and occupied DeValls Bluff. From then until the close of the war, DeValls Bluff was a supply base for the Union Army. War materials were brought from Northern states down the Mississippi and then up the White River and stored in warehouses near the river.

“At DeValls Bluff, supplies could be shipped to Little Rock and other points west on the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad. … Large numbers of soldiers were stationed at DeValls Bluff, and many of them fell victim to the ‘Clarendon shakes’ (malaria), which was prevalent in the area. The county seat was in DeValls Bluff from 1868-75. In 1875, the county seat was moved to Des Arc. Then, in 1885, the county was divided into northern and southern districts with courthouses in both Des Arc and DeValls Bluff. This division was due to the frequent flooding along the White River, which divided the county and made it impossible for citizens in the southern half of the county to pay their taxes on time.

“Prairie County began rebuilding. The Memphis & Little Rock Railroad was completed through the Surrounded Hill area in 1871. That same year, a rail line was laid through what’s now Brasfield, which grew up around it. The railroad caused DeValls Bluff to lose its importance as a shipping center, and its population declined dramatically. Industries in the county after the war included fishing, timber, steamboat trade, railroading and farming. Eventually industries setting up shop in the county included button factories (using mussel shells from the White River), a boat oar factory, a cannery, stave mills, hay production, cotton gins, a flour mill, a nursery, an ice factory and dairies.”

DeValls Bluff is filled with historical markers these days, most of which outline the strategic role it played during the Civil War. I’ve read them all.

Sayger notes that when the water was low on the Arkansas River during the conflict, “many boats couldn’t reach the capital city. But they could navigate up the White River to DeValls Bluff. Men and material could be transferred to the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad’s trains to be transported to Little Rock. For that reason, DeValls Bluff’s port area was heavily fortified for the remainder of the war and was home to many soldiers — black and white — and refugees. … The troops stationed at DeValls Bluff patronized stores and saloons that rapidly sprang up, many operated by Northern men such as Daniel P. Upham of New York, who came to town in the closing days of the war to open a saloon in partnership with a man named Whitty.”

Sayger writes that some of the Union officers who had been stationed at DeValls Bluff stayed around during reconstruction.

“William S. McCullough, a lawyer, farmer and local Freedmen’s Bureau agent — lived there until the 1880s when he moved to Brinkley and established the Brinkley Hotel,” Sayger writes. “Joel M. McClintock was an early Prairie County sheriff, lawyer, abstractor and landowner. Logan Roots, for whom Fort Roots at North Little Rock is named, had farming operations there for a time and later became one of the state’s leading bankers. He gave the property for the town’s first Methodist church. … Dr. William W. Hipolite, surgeon for some of the African-American troops stationed there, settled in the town and operated a drug store for many years.”

The Wells boat oar factory opened at DeValls Bluff in the 1880s. Jim O’Hara of Memphis opened a button factory there in 1896.

A courthouse built in 1910 was torn down in 1930. Using salvaged materials, workers with the Works Progress Administration built a new courthouse on the site in 1939. It still stands, though most county business is conducted in Des Arc these days. The public schools at DeValls Bluff were consolidated into the Hazen School District in the fall of 2006.

If I were forced to pick just one barbecue restaurant to visit in the state, it would be Craig’s Bar-B-Q at DeValls Bluff. Lawrence Craig, who had learned to cook on boats plying the Mississippi River, joined forces with other members of his family to open Craig Brothers Cafe in 1947. The restaurant has been going strong ever since. In 1997, Craig’s was one of the featured restaurants at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C.

On its Southern Barbecue Trail website, the Southern Foodways Alliance says of Craig’s: “Three generations have supplied many satisfied customers with a variety of smoked meats, most notably smoked and sliced pork sandwiches slathered with a sauce made with hints of apple and bell pepper. Their signature sauce was developed over the kitchen table of the Craig family home.”

Robert Craig, Lawrence’s son, said when asked about the sauce: “My mom was just in the kitchen one day, putting a little bit of this and putting a lit bit of that together. And my dad said, ‘Well yeah, it tastes all right.’ And so he obviously introduced it to the public, and it has been skyrocketing ever since.”

DeValls Bluff also was the home of Mary Thomas’ Pie Shop. Thomas, who’s no longer alive, sold pies across the highway from Craig’s for more than 30 years. In the 1990s, Lena Rice began selling her own pies at DeValls Bluff. She died in 2005, but Ms. Lena’s Pies is still in ¬†business, providing yet another reason for a trip to DeValls Bluff.

River towns can be tough places, and DeValls Bluff is no different. Bars have long been a fixture in the city’s small downtown. These days it’s a place called Grasshopper’s with bright green paint on the building and this motto on its sign: “Come grumpy, leave happy.”

DeValls Bluff has attracted duck hunters and fishermen since the 1800s. In the days before the Corps of Engineers built large impoundments across the state, the White River at DeValls Bluff attracted wealthy families from as far away as Little Rock and Memphis on weekends. They had fancy houseboats on the river and built expensive cabins along its banks. They hunted ducks in the winter while fishing on the White River and its oxbow lakes the rest of the year. A sporting goods store called The Bottoms operates in DeValls Bluff’s small downtown to serve those who still visit the area. There are still plenty of nearby hunting camps.

One of the old buildings in downtown DeValls Bluff once housed the Castleberry Hotel. The two-story structure, which was constructed in 1925, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

U.S. 70, of course, once was the main road between Little Rock and Memphis. Thousands of vehicles passed in front of the hotel each day. It was written in the nomination form for the building to be on the National Register: “As a road system developed across Arkansas in the beginning of the 20th century, DeValls Bluff ended up on the road designated Highway A-1, which connected Little Rock with Memphis to the east and Fort Smith to the west. The importance of the highway was also noted when the U.S. highway system was created in 1925, and it received the designation U.S. 70. … It was important to provide goods and services to travelers on U.S. 70 as it passed through DeValls Bluff, especially since the highway followed Main Street. In 1925, the Castleberry Hotel was constructed to provide services to travelers. It replaced another hotel and movie theater that were on the site. The building had the public spaces (lobby and restaurant) on the first floor and 24 rooms on the top floor. The hotel, which was built in the Craftsman style, also exhibited the latest in architectural style.

“After the Castleberry Hotel opened, it apparently became the place to stay in DeValls Bluff. Although two other hotels appear on the April 1924 Sanborn map, a hotel for African-Americans on Williams Street east of Main Street and the Central Hotel on Brinkley Street east of Main Street, both had gone out of business by 1950. The Castleberry Hotel’s location on Main Street, conveniently across the street from an auto repair shop and filling station and next door to another restaurant, meant that it was highly visible to travelers passing through.

“By 1950, the hotel had changed names and was called the Rogers Hotel. Although it is not known when the hotel closed, the construction of Interstate 40 in the area in the 1960s took much of the through traffic and its associated businesses off U.S. 70, likely causing the hotel to close. Prior to the arrival of the interstate highway system, locally run hotels such as the Castleberry were the lifeblood of many communities on U.S. and state highways. The Castleberry Hotel is a living reminder of the facilities that served travelers in the early and mid-20th century.”

I cross the White River on a modern bridge, thinking back to the old drawbridge that used to be the crossing on U.S. 70. It always would scare my wife to cross that narrow span, which was built in 1924. It was a toll bridge originally and was the brainchild of a Stuttgart entrepreneur named Harry Bovay.

I found a 1988 document from the Arkansas Historic Bridge Recording Project that provided background on U.S. 70 and its old bridge.

“The first mail route established between Little Rock and Memphis commenced operation in 1824 over practically the exact route of the present U.S. Highway 70,” the document states. “This route was used in moving the Cherokee Indians from their lands east of the Mississippi to those in the west. U.S. Highway 70, part of which formed the historic link between Memphis and Little Rock, was developed in the early decades of the 20th century as one of the most important routes in Arkansas. Its informal title, the Broadway of America, recognized its national importance. Highway 70 between Little Rock and Memphis formed a part of the route from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and its historic development characterized it as one of the most interesting overland routes in the state.

“The earliest development of the route between Little Rock and Memphis took place in 1821 when, by an act of Congress passed that year, ‘a road from Memphis to Fort Smith via Little Rock was authorized.’ Its development was further stimulated by its establishment as a mail route in 1824. It was the railroad, however, that first contributed to the real improvement of the route. This improvement was stimulated further by the increasing importance of Little Rock. The Memphis & Little Rock Railroad Co., incorporated on Jan. 10, 1853, and later absorbed into the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad Co., was the first to develop the overland route between the cities. The last spike on the completed route was not driven until April 11, 1871. Its development faced the same two problems that characterized the development of Highway 70 — the river crossings at Madison over the St. Francis River and at DeValls Bluff over the White River.”

The rail route was completed in 1871 when the railroad bridge at DeValls Bluff opened. It was the only bridge crossing the river there until the toll bridge was completed at the end of 1924.

“The extent of the river, extending some 600 feet, meant that a ferry crossing was the most simple means of passage,” the 1988 document states. “The disadvantage was that the route was impassable during the winter and spring floods. While it was clear that a bridge allowing permanent crossing of the river was required, the capital investment needed was a major difficulty. It remained to the visionary Harry E. Bovay to organize the finance and to construct the bridge. The story of the White River bridge at DeValls Bluff began with the single-minded vision of Bovay.”

A 1925 article in the Grand Prairie Herald noted: “A peculiar feature about this structure is that it was built by a man who, without funds, devised, schemed and manipulated what at first seemed a vision, but who by concerted effort and the willpower to succeed, turned the vision into a reality.”

The bridge was constructed by the Missouri Valley Bridge & Iron Co. of Leavenworth, Kan., the same company that had built the Broadway Bridge at Little Rock. The bridge opened on Jan. 1, 1925. The final cost of construction was $302,111. The Grand Prairie Herald reported: “The draw is operated by gasoline motor but if necessary it can be operated by hand. A total rise of 50 feet gives a clearance of 55 feet above extreme high water. Only two to three minutes time is required to raise the draw.”

The bridge was purchased by the state on Nov. 1, 1930, for a sum of $1 and bond debt of $430,000.

I next pass through Biscoe, which had just 363 residents in the most recent census. During the four years I worked for the Delta Regional Authority and drove weekly to the DRA headquarters in Clarksdale, Miss., my favorite fruit and vegetable stand each summer was here. I would take the Biscoe exit off Interstate 30 and stop at the stand at the intersection of U.S. 70 and Arkansas Highway 33.

In the early days of this blog back in July 2009, I wrote: “Many of the tomatoes are picked within walking distance of the stand. After just a couple of days of ripening in my kitchen window at home, they ended up being the best tomatoes I’ve had this summer. Sorry, Paul Greenberg, but they were even better than the Bradley County pinks I had bought. … The cantaloupes are also some of the best I’ve had. Just be warned that during this hot period, your car will smell like a cantaloupe for several more days. So be sure you like the smell.”

Morning commutes in those DRA days always meant a stop for a sausage biscuit and coffee at Martin’s IGA (now Mack’s), a classic country store that has been around since 1926. It’s about the only business at Biscoe these days.


Lonoke to Hazen

Thursday, May 10th, 2018


I spend far longer than I had planned at the Lonoke County Museum in Lonoke on my trip from Little Rock to Memphis on U.S. Highway 70.

The museum is downtown in a building has housed everything from a doctor’s office to an automobile dealership through the years.

One of the more interesting exhibits concerns Eberts Training Field, which was established near Lonoke in 1917. It was among the biggest training centers in the country for World War I pilots. It was named for an early Arkansas aviator and West Point graduate named Melchior McEwan Eberts.

“Lonoke County outbid Pulaski County to get the aviation school to locate in Lonoke, which offered 960 rent-free acres and a new railroad spur connecting the field with the Rock Island Railroad tracks,” Johnnie Carolyn Bransford writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The U.S. government accepted the Lonoke offer on Nov. 19, 1917, and construction started Dec. 19. The first cadets and solders arrived in the spring of 1918.

“The Lonoke Cemetery was across the road from the airfield. The instructors used the cemetery as a grim reminder of where the cadets who made mistakes would end up. The training planes — the Curtis JN-4D or ‘Flying Jenny’ — were known as ‘flying coffins.’ Before the barracks were built, the enlisted men were housed in the Lonoke school gymnasium. Many of the officers were housed in the Frank Barton home, which still stands at 220 Park St. in Lonoke.

“From early March 1918 until March 1919, thousands of airplanes were used for training at Eberts Field. The Arkansas Gazette reported that it was not uncommon to see several hundred planes flying in formation over the field. Planes from training schools in adjoining states sometimes joined them. … The Eberts Field aviation school never had the opportunity to train pilots fully. World War I ended on Nov. 11, 1918, shortly before the first class graduated.”

A century later, there are few signs of the field.

Lonoke has produced its share of residents who have made a mark on Arkansas history.

Charles William Cunning writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “Lonoke has provided the state with two governors, James P. Eagle and Joe T. Robinson. Robinson also served as a congressman and U.S. senator and was the Democratic candidate for vice president in 1928, the state’s first candidate on a major-party ticket. Lonoke also produced William Claude Bradford, who served as assistant adjutant general of the Arkansas National Guard in World War I; William Heber McLaughlin, who served in France during World War I and became a member of the Arkansas General Assembly; and Maurice ‘Footsie’ Britt, who was decorated with the Medal of Honor in World War II and served as Arkansas’ lieutenant governor from 1967-71.

“Other natives of Lonoke include Eddie Hamm, who set an Olympic record in the broad jump in the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam; Jim Lee Howell, who served as head coach of the New York Giants from 1954-60, winning the NFL championship in 1956; and Elsijane Trimble Roy, who was named the state’s first female judge in 1966 and Arkansas’ first female federal judge in 1977.”

I’m in the heart of the Grand Prairie now as I head east toward Carlisle.

“The tall natural grasses of the state’s Grand Prairie and good soil and water drew farmers from other states to settle this area, including the founders of Carlisle, Samuel McCormick and his wife, L.J. McCormick,” Shirley McGraw writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “There are two stories pertaining to the naming of Carlisle. The first holds that Samuel McCormick had lived in Carlisle, Pa., and named the town after his former home. The second says McCormick named the town after a close friend who was a senator from another state. The McCormicks entered a bill of assurance and plat on Aug. 1, 1872, at the recorder’s office in Prairie County. Carlisle became an incorporated town on Aug. 28, 1878. In 1882, about 100 square miles of land, including the town of Carlisle, was annexed to Lonoke County from Prairie County.”

The Memphis & Little Rock Railroad was completed from DeValls Bluff to Little Rock in 1858. The tracks were destroyed during the Civil War but rebuilt following the conflict.

“The Memphis & Little Rock Railroad, later becoming the Rock Island, ran along Main Street, where the passenger and freight depots were located,” McGraw writes. “The railroad ensured a faster means to move products to markets. In 1879, the natural prairie grasses were shipped by rail to other states for feed. Carlisle Creamery and the Southern Creamery Co. condensed milk factory employed Carlisle residents in the early 1900s. They also shipped milk by rail and sold the byproducts to farmers for feed. … The railroad brought important people to town. President Teddy Roosevelt spoke to a large crowd from the train caboose in 1905 after his trip to Little Rock. On March 15, 1912, the town’s merchants organized a fundraiser to entertain former President William Howard Taft. Upon arrival, Taft made a short speech from the train. He took a tour by automobile to view the rice fields and creameries.”

In January 1909, a charter was issued for the Carlisle Rice Mill. The mill was purchased by the Arkansas State Rice Milling Co. in 1917 and became Riviana Foods in 1965, making among other things the crisped rice for the Nestle Crunch candy bar. Kraft operated a food plant in Carlisle from 1928-49.

W.H. Fuller, who had first seen rice being grown in south Louisiana, decided to experiment with the crop near Carlisle. His first crop failed when he had problems with his wells. In 1904, he produced a rice crop that yielded 5,225 bushels from 70 acres. Rice growing soon dominated the Grand Prairie economy, replacing cotton as king. Arkansas now produces half of the nation’s rice.

Just before reaching Hazen, I pass my favorite spot for fried catfish in the state, Murry’s Restaurant.

Murry’s was in DeValls Bluff for many years and was a favorite road trip when I would visit my grandparents in Des Arc. Mike Trimble — a gifted storyteller who once wrote for the Arkansas Gazette, the Arkansas Times and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette — described the original Murry’s as a place that “appears at first glance to be a minor train derailment.”

Trailers were strung together as dining rooms. It was a brown-bag establishment in the tradition of a lot of the old restaurants in Delta areas of Arkansas and Mississippi. People in Little Rock would rent buses to take them to DeValls Bluff for feasts of fried catfish (Olden Murry might throw in fried crappie for special friends), turnip greens and black-eyed peas.

Murry opened the restaurant in the 1960s after an injury forced him to end his career on a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers snagboat. In his 1987 book “Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History,” John Egerton described the restaurant as “a rambling catacomb of interconnected coaches, trailers and prefabricated rooms.”

He called Murry the “Rembrandt of the kitchen.”

I happen to think that his son-in law, Stanley Young, is turning out even better food at the current location. And there’s no better hostess than Stanley’s wife Becky.

When I was much younger, I would load up my car with friends for a road trip to DeValls Bluff. We would eat a barbecue sandwich at Craig’s (medium sauce; I can’t handle the hot sauce there) for an appetizer and then make the short drive over to Murry’s for catfish. I miss that rabbit warren of trailers, though I always feared that a grease fire in the kitchen would incinerate us all.

After a visit to Murry’s current location several years ago, Max Brantley wrote on the Arkansas Blog: “The crowd wasn’t as big as the throng a few miles west at Nick’s in Carlisle, but I don’t know why. Boss Stanley Young has been frying catfish for 41 years, following in a half century of Olden Murry’s footsteps.”

Though Murry’s is known for fish, Brantley wrote on the blog that Stanley has the best chicken fried steak in the state and some of the best steaks. I’ve had both. And they live up to their billing. I always start with the onion rings. Brantley wrote that they come out “crisp and stay crisp, with fat hunks of sweet, moist onion inside the crackly coat.”

Egerton’s book, which was published by Alfred A Knopf in 1987, is considered a classic.¬†He wrote at the time: “Olden Murry has been frying fish for the faithful for about 20 years, before which he was a riverboat cook on the Mississippi. On the wall inside the place is a photograph of U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers. It is autographed to Olden Murry, ‘the best cook in Arkansas.’ With generous allowances for political overstatement, Bumpers may have been right on target.

“Here is a man with 45 years of cooking experience whose reputation is secure, not only for the catfish he prepares but for the steaks, chicken, quail, frog legs, barbecue, shrimp, oysters and veal. He makes his own meal-based and flour-based batters and breading to dredge his seafoods and meats in, and he keeps the formulas to himself. He buys catfish both from fishermen on the nearby White River and from commercial processors. He completely empties and refills his deep-fat fryers with fresh cooking oil at least twice a week — a sure sign of devotion to quality — and he cooks his fish quickly at high temperatures, the better to seal in flavor and produce a crisp, crunchy crust. ‘I go by looking at the fish and listening to the grease to tell when it’s done,’ Murry said. ‘Every batch is different, so you have to pay attention.’ No automatic timers or fixed temperature controls for him.

“There is no sign of any kind outside Murry’s Cafe, and there are none out on the highway, but it is not at all unusual for 200 or more people to show up there on any given night, many of them having driven 70 miles from Little Rock. Most of the people who work at Murry’s are members of his family, including a majority of his seven children. Murry’s is a home-folks kind of place — the same staff serving consistently fine food to mostly regular customers in plain and unpretentious surroundings. It seems to be an invincible combination.

“The day Ann and I stopped there, it was four o’clock in the afternoon, and Olden Murry was just about to open for business. A fisherman who called himself Catfish John was there with 100 pounds of dressed fresh White River catfish, and soon he and Murry consummated a deal for them. Then the veteran chef heated his fresh oil to just the right temperature, rolled some of Catfish John’s finest fillets in the secret batter and fried them for us. The plates he brought to our table were like advertising pictures — the crisp golden fish, long slivers of french fries, a mound of creamy coleslaw, a ring of fresh onion, a length of dill pickle, a pepperoncini pepper, a wedge of lemon, a smoking-hot corn cake that looked and tasted like a hushpuppy’s rich first cousin. Everything was artistically arranged, prepared to perfection and delicious. Olden Murry, a Rembrandt of the kitchen, had just completed another masterpiece.”

In a more recent story for Arkansas Life magazine, Wyndham Wyeth wrote: “A man pokes his head in the back door of the kitchen wearing a hunter-orange trucker hat and camouflage coveralls, because of course. I don’t quite catch his exchange with Stanley, but he says something to the effect of ‘you wanna see what I’ve got out here?’ and something else about a deer stand, and I get the impression he’s showing off a buck he’s just bagged. … As a former server and bartender, I’m trying to recall a scenario even remotely like the one I’m witnessing now. As a writer, I’m doing a happy dance in my mind and trying my best to commit this whole scene to memory before the images fade, because you really can’t make this stuff up.”

This is life in rural Arkansas at its best.

Stanley tells the writer, “I’m not licensed to sell wild game in the restaurant, but I like to keep some on hand for my regulars and friends when they come in.”

That’s why I’m glad Stanley is my friend. I’ve had duck, crappie and even frog legs that Stanley gigged (not the ones on the regular menu).

Hazen is the next town up as I continue toward the east on U.S. 70.

Hazen, which had a population of 1,468 people in the 2010 census, is named for Dr. William Cogswell Hazen. He moved to the area from Covington, Tenn., in 1854 and brought his family and 21 slaves with him.

“Hazen persuaded a family friend, the Rev. John W. Hudson, to come with them,” Chris Weems writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Hudson settled three miles west of the Hazens with his two small children. The Hazens likely settled on the border of the Grand Prairie because of the small hills, eight to 12 feet in elevation, that prevent the flooding that’s evident farther south. The Hazens built cabins for the family and the slaves, clearing land and planting crops. The cotton was harvested and sent by boat from DeValls Bluff to Memphis where it was sold. … Hazen died in 1872, a year after a cotton gin was brought to the Hazen area and 11 months before the first post office bore his name. The town was surveyed in 1873, and Hazen’s widow deeded the first tract of land for the city of Hazen, which was incorporated in 1884.”

By the 1880s, prairie hay was being bailed and shipped to Little Rock and Memphis. Eventually, those fields of prairie hay were replaced by rice.

Hazen doubled in size from 819 residents in the 1940 census to 1,605 residents in the 1970 census. The highway to Des Arc was paved in 1946, and indoor plumbing had reached all the homes in town by 1955.

“In the 1950s, Hazen had Young’s Department Store, a John Deere agency, Chevrolet and Ford dealerships, two dress shops, two or three grocery stores, a newspaper publishing company, two hardware stores, two or three farm-related stores, two lumber companies, two or three crop duster airports, a rice dryer, two drug stores, two appliance stores, the Rieke CPA office and many other small, privately owned businesses,” Weems writes. “The building of Interstate 40 in the 1960s and the widening of U.S. Highway 70 allowed easier access to larger cities, causing many of the businesses to move or close.”

There are still some classic buildings downtown. There’s the structure that housed the hardware store that John Kocourek founded in 1892. And there’s the old Rock Island depot. Weems writes that a mayor named Kathryn Orlicek was “instrumental in restoring the depot and, with the help of some of the women’s clubs in town, raised money for the project. Of the Rock Island Railroad depots originally in Arkansas, the Hazen depot is the only stucco-and-brick building with a slate roof.”

We roll through Hazen and continue east toward the historic river town of DeValls Bluff.



North Little Rock to Lonoke

Thursday, May 3rd, 2018


All you have to do is mention the drive from Little Rock to Memphis on Interstate 40, and the tales of woe start coming.

One person will tell you of the time he was in his car on the interstate without moving for hours following a wreck on the busy stretch.

The next person might talk about an important appointment she missed in Memphis due to a backup in a construction zone.

There are the stories of being hemmed in by big trucks on three sides and a concrete wall on the fourth side.

There are the rumors that West Memphis will name the orange construction barrel as its official symbol.

There are the sections of interstate that seem to have been under constant construction since I was a child.

More Arkansans are choosing to take the old road — U.S. Highway 70 to be exact. If you have time to spare, it’s relaxing and gives a traveler a sense of real life in east Arkansas. The added benefit is that the highway passes two of the oldest and best barbecue joints in the state. It’s not a problem to fill a full day with activities along the route.

I set out from the foot of the new Broadway Bridge in North Little Rock and head east past Verizon Arena. After crossing under Interstate 30, there are the usual convenience stores and chain restaurants found at interstate exits. Within a few blocks, however, I’m in a part of North Little Rock the tourists don’t visit. This is the land of tire shops, discount furniture stores, pawn shops and cheap motels.

I pass the building that once housed Roy Fisher’s Steak House, a place known for its bountiful breakfasts and hearty plate lunches. With Fisher’s long gone — the building now houses an appliance store — the men in suits and ties who work in the downtown Little Rock towers no longer have a reason to come to this stretch of East Broadway Avenue.

I was part of a breakfast group that would gather on a regular basis at Fisher’s. Waitress Mary Daniell, who died in February 2011 at age 71, would trade good-natured insults with a group that included Skip Rutherford of the Clinton School of Public Service, state Sen. Bill Gwatney, Little Rock businessman Gene Fortson and longtime North Little Rock businessman Walter “Bubba” Lloyd Jr. We would tease Gwatney because of his family money, especially when he would order a staple of the Fisher’s menu known as “the working man’s breakfast.”

“That’s as close as you’ll ever come to being a working man,” Daniell would tell the automobile dealer.

Gwatney was the chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party in the summer of 2008 when he was murdered at state party headquarters by a lone gunman, who was killed later in the day during a shootout with the police. No reason for the murder was ever discovered.

I miss Bill. I think of him as I drive by the old Fisher’s location.

I also miss the restaurant. In the spring of 2010, the lights were on at night again for one special moment. Fisher’s was used as the location for the movie “The Last Ride,” which portrayed the final days of Hank Williams Sr. The film was set in late 1952, leading up to Williams’ death on Jan. 1, 1953.

“It’s not hard to see why Fisher’s was chosen to represent that time period,” Jeff LeMaster wrote at the time for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “The restaurant opened its first location in 1947 on the south side of Broadway. It moved across the street in 1958 to the building that still stands today. Sitting in a booth at the now-closed diner is like stepping back in time . … Director Harry Thomason grew up in southwest Arkansas around the time Fisher’s opened, and he remembers well traveling to Little Rock with his parents and making a point to stop in at Fisher’s.”

Thomason told the newspaper: “Folks loved Fisher’s Steak House. When we were looking for a diner, I said, ‘Guys, is Fisher’s still around?’ It looks just like I think I remember it.”

Roy Fisher Sr. opened the restaurant. It was later run by his son, Roy Fisher Jr., and Roy Jr.’s wife Chee Chee, who was famous for her pies. This was the main highway to Memphis in the early years. Elvis Presley would stop at Fisher’s on the way from Memphis to Shreveport to perform on the Louisiana Hayride. The Fishers sold the restaurant in 2005, and it closed for good in 2008.

Fisher’s, known for its homemade salad dressing, had the best fried chicken livers I’ve ever eaten. If you didn’t get there by 11 a.m. for lunch, you were going to wait for a seat. It was usually full from 11 a.m. until almost 2 p.m.

Heading east, I enter Rose City, a neighborhood that has produced the likes of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and former Congressman Tommy Robinson through the years. I also drive past the reason I still come to this area of North Little Rock, the White Pig Inn. The venerable establishment has been serving barbecue since 1920, though the original building has been gone for decades. The sign is such a classic that a photo of it is featured atop this blog.

Just past the White Pig are remnants of a building that once housed a strip joint. There are scrap metal and auto salvage yards. It’s like having gone back in time to, say, the 1960s.

I’m brought back into the modern world by the sight of the multimillion-dollar headquarters of Ben E. Keith’s Mid-South Division. The food services company moved into the 420,000-square-foot facility last year. The Mid-South Division once was the Dillaha Fruit Co., founded by Theo Dillaha Sr. in 1929 and headquartered in downtown Little Rock for almost 45 years. Ben E. Keith purchased the company in 1973 and began construction of a facility near the Port of Little Rock the following year. The Mid-South Division now serves all of Arkansas and parts of Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Tennessee.

I cross under Interstate 440 and go back in time again. I’m transported this time from an urban area to an almost stereotypical version of the agriculturally dominated Old South. On the right is Hills Lake, an oxbow filled with large cypress trees. There are historic homes and huge pecan trees along the route. The perceptive traveler realizes that the Mississippi Alluvial Plain — commonly known as the Delta — extends to the North Little Rock city limits.

Soybean fields give way to ponds as I near the headquarters of the world’s largest minnow farm. I.F. Anderson dug and stocked his first farm ponds in 1949. The farm is now capable of producing more than a billion minnows per year.

The Anderson complex has an 11,000-square-foot hatchery, almost 200 miles of levees and about 6,000 acres of ponds. Anderson received a loan in the late 1940s to buy a bulldozer that he used to build ponds. When he noticed wild minnows appearing in those ponds, he began to explore the idea of raising minnows to supply fishermen with bait. The business took off from there.

Just before entering Lonoke, I pass the turn to the Joe Hogan State Fish Hatchery, among the oldest and largest state-operated hatcheries in the country. In 1928, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission instructed its secretary, Guy Amsler, to find land for a hatchery. Amsler settled on two adjacent rice farms, and the state purchased 266 acres.

The first superintendent was Dell Brown, who had supervised the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries’ Mammoth Spring National Hatchery. The federal hatchery in far north Arkansas had been established in 1903. Joe Hogan, who had worked with Brown at Mammoth Spring, came with his boss to Lonoke. Hogan took over as superintendent soon after the hatchery was completed.

According to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s history of the facility: “Pond construction for the hatchery took place in the fall of 1928. Due to the lack of mechanized machinery, the early ponds were dug by mules pulling dirt slips and by laborers using shovels to load dirt onto wagons by hand. The soil had enough clay material to make pond levees that could hold water. Another crucial factor was that the water table was about 60 feet, and the alluvial water in the subterranean sand formation provided plenty of water for filling the ponds. During the initial phase of construction, 32 ponds covering 40 acres were built. They ranged in size from three-fourths of an acre to two and a half acres.

“In the spring of 1929, only a few of the ponds were complete to the point that they were usable. Wild stocks of largemouth bass and bluegill bream were captured from the White River and stocked in the available ponds. The first crop of fish was produced that same year. The commission continued to build rearing ponds after World War II and into the 1950s until the hatchery encompassed 56 ponds covering 214 acres of water. Because of its location near the town of Lonoke, the hatchery was first known as the Lonoke Fish Hatchery. In 1956, it was renamed the Joe Hogan State Fish Hatchery.

“The standard fish reared at the hatchery are warm-water species that include largemouth bass, bluegill bream, redear bream, crappie, channel catfish, blue catfish and white amur. Through the years, the hatchery has experimented with raising species such as smallmouth bass, walleye, saugeye, striped bass, striped bass hybrids, hybrid bream, Israeli carp, buffalo and paddlefish. The hatchery produces about three to four million fish annually for Arkansas’ public lakes and streams. In addition to stocking public waters, the hatchery provides some species of fry and fingerling fish for the other warm-water state fish hatcheries and for other state conservation agencies. The hatchery also provides more than 250,000 eight-inch catfish to the Pot Shoals Net Pens on Bull Shoals Lake and the Jim Collins Net Pens on Lake Ouachita, which are also owned and operated by the AGFC. These facilities grow the catfish to a larger size to stock area lakes.

“The hatchery has made great strides in the advancement of fish culture work. In the beginning, the hatchery simply collected adult fish from the wild and placed them in hatchery ponds for spawning. The fish were hauled to lakes and streams in 10-gallon milk cans and in wooden barrels in the back of a Model A truck. In the 1940s, larger tanks made of cypress lumber were built and used to transport fish. The hatchery now uses modern transport trucks with custom-made fish hauling tanks that are insulated to maintain a constant temperature. Liquid oxygen is used to provide optimum conditions for the fish.

“In the early days of the AGFC, the hatchery indiscriminately stocked fish wherever it thought they might be needed without much scientific research or evaluation of the fish populations of that particular lake or stream. In the 1950s, the commission for the first time hired five fisheries biologists and stationed them in various regions around the state in order to manage the fish populations on the lakes in their respective regions.”

Hogan managed the facility until 1960. Lee Brady took over in 1961 and served until 1972, when he was replaced by Berry Beavers.

I pass through Lonoke, which had a population of 4,245 people in the 2010 census. I spend about an hour at the Lonoke County Museum, which is along the highway downtown. Lonoke is the only county seat in the state that shares its name with the county.

“In 1858, the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad was building its tracks through Brownsville, then the county seat of Prairie County, located three miles north of the future town of Lonoke,” Charles William Cunning writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Five years later, during the Civil War, the tracks were destroyed during a skirmish at Brownsville. After the war, the company decided to take a more direct route and bypass Brownsville, resulting in its eventual demise and the birth of the town of Lonoke.”

The city was named by two men who were doing work for the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad.

“They suggested naming the town for a massive lone red oak tree that stood isolated on the prairie,” Cunning writes. “Isaac C. Hicks and Hamilton Reynolds surveyed the site and completed the town lot plan in 1869. The first business in Lonoke was the general store W.K. Hocker & Co., which moved from Hick’s Station to the new town site in 1868 before it was laid out. In 1869, T.C. Beard and William Goodrum opened a general store.

“Lonoke was incorporated as a town on Jan. 22, 1872, and elected its first officials, headed by Mayor Isaac C. Hicks. On April 16, 1873, Lonoke County was created from portions of Prairie and Pulaski counties with Lonoke as the county seat. Within three years the population had grown to almost 500 people as most of the citizens of Brownsville moved south with the railroad. By 1910, the population had grown to 1,547.

“The first courthouse was the building formerly used as the Prairie County Courthouse in Brownsville that was dismantled, moved to Lonoke and reassembled. In 1928, the town built a three-story brick courthouse with the county jail on the top floor. This building still serves as the courthouse, though the jail has moved to another site.”

This is the western edge of the Grand Prairie and was once mostly used to raise cattle along with hay, corn and cotton.

Then came rice.

“In the spring of 1897, W.H. Fuller planted the first rice crop in Lonoke County,” Cunning writes. “The flat land with its abundance of water was ideal for this new crop. Soon, rice rivaled cotton as the area’s most profitable harvest. Around 1940, soybeans joined the agricultural mix.”