Archive for January, 2020

The Delta’s ethnic mix

Thursday, January 16th, 2020


It’s fitting that my friend Joe Dan Yee is the mayor of Lake Village.

One of the things that makes the Delta unique is the mix of cultures that occurred as people immigrated to the region back when cotton was king. There were Italians, Irish, Chinese, Jews, Lebanese, Syrians. Their cultures mixed with the rich culture of the African-Americans who had been brought to this land in bondage.

When I penned a piece a few years ago about the ethnic stew that is the Delta, one Helena native wrote: “I was raised in Helena from 1938 until our family moved to Little Rock in 1955. There was no place in Arkansas that I could have been more exposed to various cultures. I remember going to temple services as part of the Methodist Youth Fellowship. I had friends who were either Greek, Jewish, Chinese, Italian, Lebanese or Sicilian. There’s nowhere else on this planet that I would have rather grown up than in the Delta. I still miss the sweet smell of kudzu, the scent of the soil and the balmy summer mornings.”

The Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss, which does a marvelous job documenting the food cultures of the South with its oral histories and much more, transcribed a series of interviews with Chinese-Americans in the Delta a few years ago. Yee, who at the time was still operating his family’s Yee’s Food Land, was one of the people interviewed.

The SFA wrote: “Chinese came to America in the late 19th century in search of the fabled Gam Sahn or Golden Mountain. When they arrived at the alluvial plains of the Mississippi Delta, all they found was backbreaking agricultural work. First introduced to the region as indentured servants by planters during Reconstruction, these early Chinese sojourners (mostly from the Guandong or Canton province) soon became disenchanted with working the fields. They moved off the plantations. Some left to go back home to China, but others stayed and opened small neighborhood grocery stores. Serving as an alternative to plantation commissaries and catering to the predominately African-American clientele, the Chinese-American grocer was a mainstay in many Delta neighborhoods well into the 20th century.

“Life in the grocery business was by no means an easy living. Early mornings and late nights were normal, as were the stresses of competition from large supermarket chains. Added to that were the stresses that they endured as immigrants navigating the complex socio-political structure of a region that historian James C. Cobb has called the most Southern place on earth. … Though the numbers of Chinese grocers diminish year by year, family stories tell an important history of immigration. They also speak to the formation of a unique food culture in the Mississippi and Arkansas Deltas.”

Joe Dan Yee was described at the time as someone who “bucked the trend of many second- and third-generation Delta Chinese by staying home, after his parents retired, to take over the family market.”

“Joe Dan and his siblings can speak Catonese, something his parents insisted they learn growing up,” the SFA wrote. “And twice a day you can find them all eating a hot, multicourse Chinese meal.”

Yee said: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in New York and San Francisco, and everywhere I go they would tell my sister: ‘Bring your brother back in here. We love the Arkansas accent that he has on a Chinese accent.’ So I get a big kick out of that.”

He said Chinese restaurant owners will come to his table to hear him speak, noting that “we never heard a Chinese with a Southern accent.”

The SFA wrote: “After graduating with a degree in marketing at the University of Arkansas, Joe Dan Yee could have gone to Dallas, maybe gotten a job with a big department store there. He had already interviewed for a job and been accepted, but in the end he gave all that up to go back home to Lake Village.”

His father found his way to Dumas in the 1940s and began working in a grocery store for a man named Eugene Lee. His father later moved to Lake Village.

“Back in the early 1960s, there were at least eight to 10 (Chinese) families that were in Lake Village, and there were probably six Chinese stores on Main Street back then,” Yee said.

Many of those stores would open at 4 a.m. and remain open until midnight to serve sharecroppers and tenant farmers who were coming to town to shop.

“Lake Village was so busy you couldn’t even walk down Main Street,” Yee said.

He remembers Chinese families having cases of Chinese food shipped from San Francisco.

“You would split it up between the families and then you would divide the costs between the families,” Yee said. “That’s how they did it.”

He said his family never had strong relationships with Chinese families on the Mississippi side of the river.

“A different culture, you know,” Yee said. “It’s just like they did their thing and we did our thing. … We never got together and partied that much or associated that much with the Chinese people in Mississippi.”

By the way, his favorite Southern meal is fried chicken with mashed potatoes and cornbread. His favorite Chinese meals are pepper steak and Peking Duck.

There also was a strong Jewish influence in the Delta. My friend Raymond Abramson of Holly Grove, who serves on the Arkansas Court of Appeals, refers to himself as the last of the practicing Jewish lawyers in the Arkansas Delta. That list once included men such as Oscar Fendler of Blytheville, Kent Rubens of West Memphis, Eddie Graumann of Helena and David Solomon of Helena.

A number of the Jewish immigrants came to the Delta as traveling peddlers. Many of their descendants went on to become wealthy merchants, cotton ginners and planters. Due to a wave of immigration from Eastern Europe, the Jewish population of Arkansas grew from 1,466 in 1878 to 8,850 by the time of the Great Flood of 1927.

There were 22 Jewish-owned businesses in Helena by 1909. Helena had a Jewish mayor, Aaron Meyers, from 1878-80. In 1867, Temple Beth El was founded at Helena and Congregation Anshe Emeth was founded at Pine Bluff. Later Delta congregations were formed at Jonesboro in 1897, Newport in 1905, Dermott in 1905, Eudora in 1912, Osceola in 1913, Forrest City in 1914, Wynne in 1915, Marianna in 1920, Blytheville in 1924 and McGehee in 1947.

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities: “Congregations in Helena, Blytheville and El Dorado closed, while others struggled to survive. The Jewish population has become concentrated in a few communities like Little Rock, Hot Springs, Fayetteville and Bentonville. In 1937, 13 cities in Arkansas had more than 50 Jews. By 2006, only four did. … The only exception to this downward trend is Bentonville. In the 21st century, as Walmart has encouraged major suppliers to open offices in its corporate hometown, Bentonville has seen its Jewish population skyrocket. In 2004, a group of 30 families founded Bentonville’s first Jewish congregation.”

The Delta Jewish merchants of the late 1800s and early 1900s received their goods from wholesalers in the river cities of Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Memphis.

And then there were the Italians.

In an earlier installment in this series, I wrote about the strong Italian influence in this area of southeast Arkansas. Those interested in the subject of the Delta Italians might be interested in a couple of books written by Paul Canonici, who was born of Italian immigrant parents in Shaw, Miss. The books are titled simply Volumes I and II of “The Delta Italians.”

After being educated in the public schools at Shaw, Canonici headed to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain to study with Benedictine monks at St. Joseph Seminary in Covington, La. He obtained a master’s degree from Notre Dame and a doctorate in sociology from Mississippi State. Canonici was ordained to the priesthood in 1957 and was superintendent of Catholic schools in the state of Mississippi from 1970-83.

Groups of Italian immigrants showed up to work on the Sunnyside Plantation near Lake Village in 1895 and 1897.

Canonici says the books are “based on the premise that Italians who went to the Sunnyside Plantation, and subsequently to other plantations in the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta, had similar characteristics and experiences. … Italians who settled on Delta plantations were mostly from central Italy, with a few from the northern provinces. Most were experienced farmers in a well-structured farming system called mezzadria.”

Under this system, extended families lived under one roof on land that belonged to the man known as the padrone. They shared the harvest with the owner of the land.

“They worked hard and lived simply, but generally there was sufficient food to sustain the family,” Canonici writes. “There was a saying that one might work himself to death but he did not starve to death. Their reason for leaving their native soil was to search for a better life. Many crossed the Atlantic with the intention of returning and would have returned if they had had the means.”

Canonici notes that unlike some cultures, where the men came first for several years, Italians immigrated as family units.

“Once in the Delta, the extended family maintained close ties but no longer lived and worked under the same roof,” he writes. “Most had become indebted to Delta planters before they arrived because they had been forwarded travel and living expenses. They began as tenant farmers, and although disillusioned by the living conditions they encountered, they continued to work hard.

“Italian settlers in the Delta had large families, an advantage for farmers who wanted to save money and improve their lifestyle. They formed their own social and religious communities, retained their Italian language through the first generation in America and remained faithful to their Catholic faith. They married among themselves, and there was minimal divorce.

“Once in the Delta, the Italians struggled to free themselves from debt. Those who were unable to pay off their debts sometimes escaped in the dark of night to avoid foreclosure. Families made numerous moves in search of the better life. Eventually many saved sufficient money to free themselves from tenant living. Some established themselves on their own farms, some found work in cities, a few returned to Italy. Most did eventually find the better life they sought, although not in the exact model of their dreams.”

Canonici recounts a visit to the historic Hyner Cemetery near Lake Village. It was his first visit to the cemetery, which is about six miles north of the bridge that connects Arkansas and Mississippi.

Here’s how Canonici describes the scene: “Soybean fields border the front and west sides of the cemetery. Fifty yards to the front are the road and the power lines that seem to follow the river. … Across the road, cotton fields are almost ready for picking, a reminder of the early days when these rugged, precious Italians were introduced to the crop that would be their livelihood for posterity. Occasionally a car or truck speeds by, breaking the silence of this holy place that contains the dust and bones of our brave ancestors.

“The sinking sun is surrounded by light clouds, forming a bright, flaming horizon. I am totally imbued by the spirit of Sunnyside as I brush my feet against the sandy loam dust just outside the cemetery gate and gaze on that eternal flame over the horizon. The spirit of the settlers of 1895 cries out to me from every side: ‘Come and see, come and see.’ So I walk past the historic marker, down a cotton row. The cotton stalks brush against my armpits and healthy cotton bolls slap against my legs. I think to myself, “What would they say about this crop?’ Then, as the sun sinks completely over the cotton fields of Sunnyside, I hear those voices again. Now they say, ‘Write on, write on, Paul.'”

So Canonici began writing about those who settled the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta.

“Our original settlers are dead,” he writes. “I do have some taped interviews, begun in the 1970s, of people who were children at the turn of the last century. This task should have been accomplished 30 or 40 years ago when the old-timers were still alive. Nevertheless, there will be no better time than today to start. So I begin my account this evening, standing on the dust of those courageous people who paved for us the way to that better life they sought. How sad that most of them never lived to experience the better life.”

It must be noted that Canonici was on a list of 37 Catholic priests, deacons and other ministers in Mississippi that the Diocese of Jackson identified last year as having been “credibly accused” of sexual abuse of minors.

If you’re interested in the rich cultural mix that is the Arkansas Delta, simply talk to some of those of Chinese, Jewish, Italian and Lebanese descent who have remained. They’re proud of their heritage and most are willing to regale you with family stories.

It’s time to head west. We’ll soon exit the Delta and be in the Gulf Coastal Plain for the rest of this trip across south Arkansas on Highway 82.

The village on the lake

Thursday, January 9th, 2020


For years, bright young people from across the country have come to the Delta areas of Arkansas and Mississippi to work in public schools as part of the Teach for America program. Attracted to Lake Chicot (the largest oxbow lake in North America) and restaurants near the lake, these students sometimes refer to Lake Village as the Hamptons of the Delta.

As I’ve written more than once, don’t laugh.

Lake Chicot, which runs 22 miles in a curve and covers almost 5,000 acres, was the place where Charles Lindbergh conducted his first night flight in 1923. Long before the huge reservoirs built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers covered much of the state, Lake Chicot was a prime attraction for visitors from across Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. The Lake Chicot Water Festival once hosted the national championship hydroplane races.

People have been known to drive for hours (or even take private planes) to buy tamales at Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales, have dinner at The Cow Pen (now known as Table 82 at The Cow Pen) and shop at the Paul Michael Co.

To quote one Teach for America participant from Wisconsin who talked about her family coming to visit: “They love the sunshine, the weather, the beautiful sunsets, the slow pace and the extremely friendly people. They would definitely say the people of Arkansas are the most hospitable they’ve come across.”

Miss Rhoda’s fame has even spread as far away as Jackson, Miss.

A feature story in that city’s Clarion-Ledger began this way: “The lunch rush is over and it is quiet inside Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales, but the air is steamy and filled with the rich smell of cumin and chili powder. At one of the Formica-topped tables, Rhoda Adams takes a break to reflect on her years making what some believe to be the best example of the Delta’s most curious culinary treats. She said she was not sold on the idea of getting into the hot tamales business at first.”

Adams explained: “My husband’s auntie asked me about us doing it, but I never wanted to do any hot tamales. We started doing about 25 dozen a day. I kind of liked it, but I didn’t like it without a machine.”

Her husband bought her a machine, and Adams went to work. She’s the mother of 15 children, only 11 of whom survived to adulthood. She has told me she has almost 60 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, adding: “Some of them I ain’t never seen.”

The Jackson paper noted that Adams’ “tamale family is many times larger. Lovers of the meat and cornmeal treats travel from far and wide to find their holy grail served on a Styrofoam plate for a buck apiece. How far would someone come for Rhoda’s famous tamales? ‘Man, what are you talking about?’ she said with mock gall. ‘Oklahoma, New York, Florida. Honest to God. And I have people here every day from Little Rock.'”

Her pies and plate lunches are as good as her tamales.

Famous food writer Michael Stern noted: “The name of Rhoda Adams’ cafe is no lie. The tamales are delicious and well deserving of the fame they have earned up and down the Mississippi Delta. She makes them with a combination of beef and chicken; the meats combined with steamed cornmeal are wrapped in husks that when unfolded emanate an irresistibly appetizing aroma and are a joy to eat as a snack or meal any time of the day.

“Beyond tamales, the menu at James and Rhoda Adams’ little eat place by the side of the road is a full roster of great, soulful regional specialties. For fried chicken or pig’s feet, barbecue or a catfish dinner, you won’t do better for miles around. Early one morning, Rhoda made us breakfast of bacon and eggs with biscuits on the side. Even this simple meal tasted especially wonderful. Rhoda is one of those gifted cooks who makes everything she touches something special.”

Of her pies, Stern wrote: “We’ve always considered Arkansas one of America’s top seven pie states (along with Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Virginia, Texas and Maine). Rhoda’s pies are proof. She makes small individual ones. … Her sweet potato pie and pecan pie are world class.”

Near the Mississippi River bridge, The Cow Pen has been a Delta dining tradition since 1967. That’s when Floyd Owens converted an old cattle inspection station into a restaurant. Gene and Juanita Grassi bought The Cow Pen in 1977. After 30 years of running the restaurant, they decided to retire. That’s when the Faulk family, who operated the now defunct LakeShore Cafe just down the highway, stepped up and decided to operate a second restaurant.

Just six months after the Faulks took charge, The Cow Pen burned in November 2007. The Faulks, however, were determined to rebuild. The new Cow Pen opened on Nov. 26, 2008. That restaurant eventually closed. It was sold at auction last year and reopened as Table 82 at The Cow Pen. The menu features steaks, shrimp, salmon and fried chicken. The restaurant is open from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Sunday.

It’s a good place to eat after time spent at the Paul Michael Co., which opened its first location in Lake Village in 1994, offering furniture, rugs and high-end decorative accessories. The business later added locations in Louisiana and Texas.

According to the company website: “Paul Michael is from the third generation of his family to be born and raised in this rural, Delta town. His grandfather was one of the first merchants in the area; he traveled to levee camps with a mule and sold pots, pans, thread and other necessities to the levee workers. His dedication to the community led to the opening of Lake Village’s first department store, Mansour’s, which remained for more than 80 years.

“Paul worked in his grandfather’s department store as a young adult. It became evident that he possessed a natural gift in the art of buying, selling and trading. During the 1970s, Paul fostered this gift, buying antiques and selling them to theme restaurants. During this stage in Paul’s life, he fell in love with First Monday Trade Days in Canton, Texas. Always able to foresee future trends, he shifted his focus toward Indian jewelry and diamonds, ultimately becoming one of the first wholesale distributors of sterling silver jewelry to major department stores across the United States. Paul’s ventures into the jewelry trade led him abroad, where he first saw potential in the home decorative accessories market.”

Another area attraction is Lake Chicot State Park. In the first part of this series, we noted how Lake Chicot filled up with silt after work began on the Mississippi River levee in the 1920s. The problems became worse through the years as bottomland hardwoods were cleared and the land was used for row-crop farming. In 1940, the state’s first study of recreational needs was conducted by the state Parks Commission, the state Planning Board and the National Park Service. It recommended that Lake Chicot “be given prime consideration for an addition to the state park system.”

A dam constructed by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission in 1948 resulted in the upper one-fourth of the lake becoming much clearer than the rest of Lake Chicot. Area residents dedicated land for a state park on the lake’s northwest shore in 1957.

After Arkansas voters passed a constitutional amendment in 1996 that provided millions of dollars a year for state park improvements, massive renovations took place. There’s a visitors’ center along with cabins, campsites, a store, a marina, fishing piers, a swimming pool, picnic areas, pavilions and hiking trails.

Though Lake Village wasn’t incorporated as a town until 1898, the first white settlers began to live in the area in the 1820s.

“Agriculture was the mainstay of Lake Village,” Scott Cashion writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Throughout much of the 19th century, this meant plantation agriculture dominated by King Cotton and slavery. Lake Village was home to several of the largest slaveholders in Arkansas and the South. By 1850, there were 145 white families in Chicot County owning 3,984 slaves. The majority of these slaves lived in and around Lake Village.¬†Elisha Worthington became one of the wealthiest men in the South due in large part to plantations that he owned in and around Lake Village. At the height of his power, Worthington owned more than 12,000 acres as well as some 540 slaves.”

After the Civil War, there were several prominent black leaders who called Lake Village home. James Mason, the son of Elisha Worthington and one of his slaves, was elected Chicot County sheriff in 1872 and later was elected to the Arkansas Senate. Blacks held many of the offices in the county until the end of Reconstruction.

Chicot County had been carved out of Arkansas County by the Arkansas Territorial Legislature in 1823. The first county seat was at a community called Villemont, which was named for one of the commanders at Arkansas Post, Don Carlos de Villemont. He had been given a land grant in 1795 called Island del Chicot. Villemont died in 1823. The town of Villemont had almost 500 residents in the 1840s, but the Mississippi River began eating at its banks, and the settlement slowly fell into the river.

“After this, the county seat was moved to the settlement of Columbia until it was relocated inland to Masona on Bayou Macon,” Cashion writes. “Masona was 15 miles inland, however, and thus too far away from the river traffic. The people of the county decided in 1857 to move the county seat to Lake Village. Columbia suffered the same fate as Villemont. The town thrived for a few years until 1885 when Columbia’s courthouse fell into the river and was swept away.

“When it was first established, the county’s borders encompassed much more land than in modern times, extending to the Saline and Ouachita rivers in the west and to within 10 miles of the Arkansas River in the north. This included the present-day counties of Desha, Drew and Ashley counties as well as present-day Chicot County. In the years leading up to the Civil War, Chicot County was widely considered to be the richest county in the state and one of the richest in the country. This was due in part to the amount of cotton production in the county as well as the sheer number of slaves there during this period.”

Chicot County also was blessed with important ports on the Mississippi River.

Cashion writes: “One of these was Gaines Landing, named for Ben P. Gaines, R.M. Gaines and William H. Gaines, who had settled the area. This was one of the chief ports on the lower Mississippi from 1830-80. Another important landing was on Grand Lake near Eudora. This landing served as a docking point for a number of riverboats in the years leading up to the Civil War. The boats came in with freight and mail and left with cotton, fur and other products that were used throughout the region. The landing on Grand Lake was later known as Carriola Landing. From the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the 20th century, this landing was one of the largest shipping points on the Mississippi River south of Helena.”

The population of the county almost doubled from 11,419 in the 1890 census to 21,987 in the 1910 census. The Memphis, Helena & Louisiana Railroad made its way into the county in 1903. This allowed the virgin hardwood timber to be shipped out. That land was then drained and used to raise cotton. The new cotton farms required thousands of sharecroppers and tenant farmers, leading to the population surge.

“The economic growth was cut short by the Great Flood of 1927, which put nearly 13 percent of the state under water,” Cashion writes. “Since most people in the county were farmers, they were hurt most by the flood. The dams, spillways and natural streams that carried water to the farmland were virtually destroyed. Lake Chicot, normally a clear lake, became a settling basin for muddy water all the way from Pine Bluff.”

Population growth slowed. It reached its high point of 27,452 residents in the 1940 census. The widespread mechanization of agriculture significantly reduced the need for sharecroppers and tenant farmers. Chicot County’s population has dropped in each census since 1940. By the 2010 census, it was down to 11,800, the smallest since 1890.

A small prisoner of war camp for Germans was established at Lake Village in 1944. It was a branch of the main camp at Dermott. Nearby Jerome in Chicot County was the site of one of the two Japanese-American internment camps in the state. The other was at Rohwer in Desha County.

The current Chicot County Courthouse at Lake Village was built in 1956. Desegregation came more than a decade later when Larry Potts became the first black student to graduate from Lakeside High School in 1969.

The Italian influence remains strong in Lake Village. This dates back to the 1890s when the Sunnyside Plantation was the home of the largest colony of Catholic immigrants in Arkansas. A New York businessman named Austin Corbin bought more than 10,000 acres in Chicot County and established the plantation.

“Under the auspices of the Sunnyside Co., Corbin consolidated several plantations and named the property after an area plantation that dated back to the 1830s,” Jamie Metrailer writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “When difficulties arose in finding laborers to work these cotton fields, including a stint with convict labor, Corbin made an arrangement with Prince Ruspoli, the mayor of Rome, for Italian immigrants to farm the property. Ruspoli and Corbin arranged for the immigration of 100 Italian families annually for five consecutive years.

“Corbin provided these Italian immigrants with 12 and 1/2 acres of land per family with housing. The land and houses were ‘payable over 21 years at an annual interest rate of 5 percent of the unpaid balance.’ These terms were appealing to potential immigrants. Italy’s economy was then doing poorly, in part from the government’s rush to industrialize rural sectors of the country. The first party of more than 500 Italian Catholics reached Sunnyside Plantation in December 1895, and a similar number reached Chicot County in January 1897. Though the colony was able to build a school, church and railroad connecting the various portions of the plantation, the Italian immigrants experienced many problems.”

Most of these immigrants knew nothing about farming. And since they came from different parts of Italy, they didn’t work together well. Malaria was rampant.

Corbin died in 1896. By 1898, O.B. Crittenden & Co. had taken over the plantation. Many of the immigrants followed Father Pietro Bandini to northwest Arkansas, where he founded the community of Tontitown.

Bandini had been born in 1852 in the Romagna region of Italy. He studied in Monaco beginning in 1869 and began teaching in September 1874 at a Jesuit seminary at Aix en Provence in France. He was ordained as a priest in September 1877. In 1882, he was sent to the Jesuits’ Rocky Mountain Mission in the Montana Territory.

According to the Tontitown Historical Museum: “He studied English and Indian languages there. A year later, he was stationed at the St. Ignatius Mission in Montana, where he built a church and school and traveled into Indian villages instructing both the Crow and Kootenai in the Catholic faith. He later successfully started a mission for the Cheyenne tribe. Bandini returned to Europe in March 1889, where he was appointed vice rector of St. Thomas Aquinas College in Cuneo, Italy. He remained in this position for one year, after which he returned to the United States and established St. Raphael’s Italian Benevolent Society, the purpose of which was to assist Italian immigrants at the Port of New York.”

Bandini helped thousands of Italian immigrants who were entering the country. After five years, he requested to be assigned to Corbin’s plantation in Arkansas. Bandini arrived at Sunnyside in January 1897. He was greeted by contaminated water, mosquitoes and poor sanitation. Bandini felt that the owners who had replaced Corbin cared nothing about the Italians.

Bandini had traveled through the Ozarks and found the land there to be like much of Italy. He headed to northwest Arkansas in January 1898 and found 800 acres for sale. Forty families from Sunnyside soon arrived, and Tontitown was established.

Bandini returned to Italy for a short time in 1911 and received a medal from the Italian government for his work. He died in Little Rock in January 1917 at St. Vincent Infirmary.

About 35 immigrant families remained at Sunnyside during the 1890s.

According to Metrailer: “One account states that the Italians present on the plantation in 1898 ‘did so well under the new regime that they not only remained themselves but of their own volition sent to Italy for their families and friends.’ However, in 1907, the U.S. government issued a report charging O.B. Crittenden & Co. with breaking debt peonage laws, though nothing came of the report. Almost all Italian workers left the plantation by 1910 after the company changed policies and placed the Italian Catholics in a sharecropping arrangement. After World War II, the Sunnyside Plantation was divided and sold as smaller farms.”

The Italian influence at Lake Village remained strong. A major annual event on the first Sunday of each March is the Our Lady of the Lake spaghetti dinner. This year will mark the 109th such event. All the food is homemade. About 3,600 meatballs are made each year. Recipes have been handed down through the generations.

According to a story in the Arkansas Catholic: “There’s bread baking day in January. Over Presidents Day weekend, 100 volunteers spend two days producing 300 pounds of yolk-yellow pasta that air dries overnight on rows of tables. In late February, the Pierini family leads production of 3,600 meatballs that will stew in caldrons of sauce overseen by the most experienced men in the parish. Homemade desserts arrive by the carload as do diners who will line up as early at 7 a.m. for takeout orders.”

Homemade pasta can be purchased throughout the year, meanwhile, at Regina’s Pasta Shop on the shores of Lake Chicot.

Crossing into Arkansas

Tuesday, January 7th, 2020


Although the bridge opened a decade ago in 2010, folks in southeast Arkansas still refer to it as the “new Greenville bridge.”

The old bridge, which was demolished, had opened in 1940.

“The bridge was intimidating and fascinating to me,” Dr Clyde Brown of Memphis wrote in 2002. “I always thought of it as a powerful steel horse perched in the Delta sky. When I got my driver’s license, my parents trusted me enough to drive them across the bridge to Lake Village. I must say that this experience was as unnerving as landing an F-16 on an aircraft carrier at night.”

In 1951, a jet from the nearby Greenville Air Force Base struck the bridge and exploded. The pilot was killed, and there was a large fire. The crash caused $175,000 in damage, a huge amount at the time, but the bridge was reopened to traffic by the next day.

Greenville, known as the Queen City of the Delta, was a booming place in the 1930s. Cotton was king, and Greenville is where the area planters went to do business and have fun. Mayor Milton C. Smith knew, however, that there needed to be a bridge to Arkansas rather than just a ferry if the good times were to continue. He joined forces with John Fox, the secretary of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce. The two men spent weeks at a time in Washington during the 1930s, lobbying for federal funding. Smith’s barrel hoop business went bankrupt due to his continued absences.

Eventually, Congressman Wade Kitchens of Arkansas introduced a bill to get things moving on the bridge. Sen. Joe T. Robinson of Arkansas had earlier joined forces with Sen. Pat Harrison of Mississippi to promote the bridge. Arkansas Gov. Carl Bailey was another key ally.

Fox met with civic leaders from Birmingham in the east to Lubbock in the west, explaining what the bridge could mean for the South. He urged people across the region to send telegrams to members of Congress. The bill authorizing bridge construction was approved in August 1937 and signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

A consultant from Kansas City determined that Warfield Landing, the site used by the Greenville ferry, wouldn’t be a suitable site for a bridge. The recommendation was to build the bridge below Lake Chicot on the Arkansas side in a straight stretch of the river with stable banks. The new location meant long and expensive approaches would have to be built. The estimated cost was $4.25 million.

In September 1938, the Greenville mayor and his city attorney, S.B. Thomas, went to Washington seek money from the federal Works Progress Administration. They successfully made the case that construction of a bridge would create jobs for hundreds of men who otherwise would be unemployed. On Sept. 21, 1938, Smith and Thomas sent a telegram to Greenville stating that the trip had been a success and that “we can now look forward to the actual materialization of our fondest dream, the construction of the mammoth bridge.”

The Delta Democrat Times at Greenville reported: “And so it was that exactly at 11:30 a.m. on that day, Greenville received the joyful news with the blasting of every steam whistle in the city, a prearranged signal.”

The bridge was opened for traffic on Oct. 2, 1940, and named for former Congressman Benjamin Humphreys of Greenville, a co-author of the Ransdell-Humphreys Flood Control Act of 1917, which established a national flood-control program along the Mississippi River. His granddaughter, Mildred “Maury” McGee, had cut the ribbon during the earlier dedication ceremony in September.

Humphreys, who first was elected to Congress in 1902, was determined to make the folks in Washington aware of the flood problems along the lower Mississippi River. A paper he wrote in 1914 advanced the notion that the river was, in essence, the drainage canal for the nation and thus a federal responsibility. That paper helped sway public opinion. Members of the new House Flood Control Committee toured the region in 1916 so they could see the problems for themselves. The act passed the following year, giving the federal government the responsibility of flood control along the Mississippi Rover.

The Delta Democrat Times would later write of the bridge: “It seems appropriate that the massive structure of steel and concrete which links two sides on the great river he loved should be dedicated to his memory. His life work had been the conquest of that river beside which he now sleeps.”

At the time the bridge opened, it was the longest span for a highway bridge anywhere on the Mississippi River. Dubuque, Iowa, would break that record three years later.

The new bridge that opened in 2010 cost $110 million. The four-lane, cable-stayed structure has become an architectural landmark for the area during the past decade. The approach on the Arkansas side — over the Mississippi River levee and floodplain — cost almost $66 million. The approach on the Mississippi side — over the east side levee and floodplain — cost about $86 million.

It’s fitting that this trip across south Arkansas on U.S. Highway 82 begins in Greenville, which almost seems like a part of Arkansas since it has been a town to which southeast Arkansas residents have flocked for decades. For those of who love history, Greenville is a delight despite the loss of population and economic vitality in recent years.

There’s the Hebrew Union Temple at 504 Main St., which was erected in 1906 and boasts some of the most beautiful stained-glass windows anywhere. The temple houses the Goldstein Nelken Solomon Century of History Museum for those interested in the history of the Delta Jews. The city’s first elected mayor, Leopold Wilzinski, was Jewish.

There’s also the Greenville Writers’ Exhibit in the William Alexander Percy Memorial Library at 341 Main St. More than 100 published writers called Greenville home at one time or another during the 20th century. The exhibit celebrates the work of William Alexander Percy, Walker Percy, Hodding Carter, Shelby Foote and other well-known writers.

There’s the First National Bank Building, built in 1903, with marble and stained-glass windows imported from Italy.

There’s St. Joseph Catholic Church at 412 Main St., which was erected in 1907. It was designed and financed by a Dutch nobleman who served as the parish priest for 33 years. William Alexander Percy wrote about him in his memoir “Lanterns on the Levee.” The stained-glass windows in the church were obtained from the Munich studio of Emil Frei.

There’s the building at the corner of Main and Walnut streets where Hodding Carter penned editorials for the Delta Democrat Times that advocated racial tolerance and won him a Pulitzer Price. There’s a historic marker out front.

And, of course, there’s the original Doe’s Eat Place.

Well-known food writer Michael Stern once said of this restaurant: “There is a special magic about the original Doe’s in Greenville. Located on the wrong side of town in the back rooms of a dilapidated grocery store, it does not look like a restaurant, much less a great restaurant. Many of the dining tables are in fact located in the kitchen, spread helter-skelter among stoves and counters where the staff dresses salads and fries potatoes in big iron skillets. Plates, flatware and tablecloths are all mismatched. It is noisy and inelegant, and service — while perfectly polite — is rough and tumble.

“Doe’s fans, ourselves included, love it just the way it is. The ambience, which is at least a few degrees this side of casual, is part of what makes it such a kick. Mississippians have eaten here since the 1940s; for the regular patrons the eccentricity makes the experience as comfortable as an old shoe. Newcomers may be shocked by the ramshackle surroundings, but Doe’s is easy to like once the food starts coming.”

Dominick “Big Doe” Signa and his wife Mamie started the place in 1941. Doe’s father had moved to Greenville in 1903 and opened a grocery store in the building that now houses the restaurant. The family lived in a house behind the store. The grocery did well until the Great Flood of 1927 devastated the area economy. Big Doe went into bootlegging to make ends meet. In about 1940, his wife received a good recipe for tamales and began selling them at the store.

Here’s how the restaurant’s website tells the rest of the story: “At first, Big Doe ran a honky-tonk in the front part of the store. It was strictly for blacks. He had things like buffalo fish and chili. Ironically, the carriage trade arrived by the back door, like segregation in reverse. One of the local doctors began coming for a meal between calls. Big Doe would cook him up a steak and feed him in the back. Pretty soon the doctor brought another doctor, then a lawyer and before he knew it, Doe had a regular restaurant in the back. After calling in family and in-laws to help with his thriving restaurant, he eventually closed the honky-tonk and focused on the eat place.”

Big Doe retired in 1974. His sons, Charles and Little Doe, took over. Big Doe died in 1987, but the family tradition lives on along Nelson Street.

As you head west into Arkansas, your first stop should be the Lakeport Plantation. The house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Eight years later, it was designated by the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation as part of the Save America’s Treasures program. Using grants from Save America’s Treasures, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council, the home was restored by Arkansas State University and opened to the public.

Turn off U.S. 82 onto Arkansas Highway 142 and go two miles. You’ll later see the house on your left.

Lakeport once was used as the name of a steamboat landing on the Mississippi River from which thousands of bales of cotton were shipped each year down the river to New Orleans. The house, which was given to ASU by the Sam Epstein Angel family, is the only remaining plantation home in Arkansas that’s on the Mississippi River. The surrounding plantation has remained in continuous cotton production since the 1830s when slaves cleared out the bottomland hardwood forests.

Joel Johnson came from Kentucky and established the plantation in the early 1830s. The house was built in 1859 for Joel’s son, Lycurgus, and his wife, Lydia Taylor Johnson. Their descendants remained there until it was sold to Sam Epstein in 1927.

Arkansas historian Tom DeBlack writes: “Lycurgus Johnson died on Aug. 1, 1876. The plantation remained in the family until 1927 when Lycurgus Johnson’s son Victor sold Lakeport to Sam Epstein for $30,000. Born in Russia in 1875, Epstein was one of a sizable number of poor East European Jews who migrated to the United States and sought their fortune in the Delta. Epstein started out peddling clothes and eventually opened a small store and made some good investments, overcoming poverty and religious bigotry to acquire a fortune and become one of Chicot County’s most respected citizens.

“Upon Epstein’s death in 1944, his son-in-law, Ben Angel, served as trustee of the estate, managed the family’s operations and carried on his father-in-law’s tradition of civic service. Ben Angel’s son, Sam Epstein Angel, currently runs the Epstein Land Co., encompassing some 13,000 acres of land and a large cotton-ginning operation, and serves as the senior civilian member of the Mississippi River Commission.”

DeBlack describes Joel Johnson as “the scion of a large and prestigious Kentucky family. Johnson sold his house and gristmill in Scott County, Ky., and set off for Chicot County. He purchased a tract of land southeast of Old River Lake (present day Lake Chicot) just above a large curve in the river called American Bend. … For the next 15 years, Johnson expanded his holdings in land and slaves and brought more land under cultivation. The soil produced abundantly, and slave-based plantation agriculture became firmly entrenched in Chicot County. By the time of his death in June 1846, Joel Johnson owned more than 3,700 acres of rich Delta land, as well as 95 slaves.”

Lycurgus Johnson was 28 when his father died. He had been born in 1818 in Kentucky and joined his father in Arkansas in the 1830s. He and Lydia Taylor had 12 children, four of whom died before reaching age three. By 1860, Lycurgus Johnson owned about 4,400 acres and 155 slaves.

DeBlack describes the house, which was built in the Greek Revival style, as “an imposing two-story, L-shaped structure containing 17 rooms and about 8,000 square feet. Constructed largely of cypress from the surrounding region and situated amidst cotton fields, the mansion faced east toward the river. The house was a showplace of the state’s cotton aristocracy. The exterior of the house was painted the color of straw, and blue-green shutters adorned the windows. The front of the structure, along with the base of the L, was graced by a two-story portico with a triangular pediment gable and centered rose windows. Tapered white columns supported both levels of the portico. An ornate, wrought-iron and lacework grill, in an oak leaf and acorn design, surrounded a first-floor porch on the northeastern corner of the house.

“The house was built on a slight elevation in the terrain, and the first floor was set four feet above the grade as protection against flooding. The entry had 11-foot-high wood-paneled doors flanked by glass sidelights and a large central entry hall measuring more than 26 feet long and almost 16 feet wide. A chandelier hung from an elaborate ceiling rosette on the 14-foot ceiling, and a decorative painted cloth covered the floor. The hallway was large enough to accommodate parties and dancing.”

Union soldiers descended on Lakeport during the Civil War and took all of the horses, mules and cattle.

“Wealthy planters like Lycurgus Johnson were severely affected by the war,” DeBlack writes. “Johnson’s loss in slaves alone was well over $100,000, to say nothing of his losses in crops and livestock. But while many of his neighbors sank into economic ruin and despair, Johnson survived and even prospered. He was able to negotiate successfully for the services of many of the freedmen who had been his slaves before the war, and he quickly developed a reputation as a fair and honest employer.

“The local Freedmen’s Bureau agent, a man not generally favorably disposed toward the planters, wrote that Johnson was a ‘model man of Chicot County.’ The 600 bales of cotton that Lakeport produced in 1870 made Johnson the largest cotton producer in Chicot County, though it was considerably less than the 1,300 bales the plantation produced in 1860.”

Continuing toward Lake Village on U.S. 82, we drive along the western shore of Lake Chicot, the largest oxbow lake in North America. The lake runs for almost 22 miles and covers 5,000 acres. Charles Lindbergh conducted his first night flight over the lake in 1923.

“Geologists estimate that Lake Chicot likely separated from the Mississippi River several centuries ago when the river cut a shorter pathway to the east,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The expedition of Hernando de Soto likely touched upon the site of the lake. After his death and burial near Lake Village, his body was exhumed and thrown into the Mississippi River. Many historians today believe that part of the river became Lake Chicot. The lake was given its name by later French explorers, being derived from a French word meaning ‘stump,’ in reference to the many cypress knees that dot the lakeshore.

“White settlement of the area began in the late 1820s. Before the Civil War, slave-driven agriculture flourished in the vicinity of Lake Chicot, originally called by American settlers Old River Lake. Most of the slaves worked on plantations situated in the vicinity of Lake Chicot, where they worked primarily on cotton. Sunnyside Plantation, to give one example, was founded in the 1830s on the inside of the C-shaped curve of the lake.”

In the 1860 census, there was a population of 9,234 people in Chicot County. Of those residents, 7,512 were slaves.

“Until the 1920s, water from Lake Chicot was considered pure enough that the city of Lake Village used it untreated,” Lancaster writes. “However, that changed later in the decade as local work on the Mississippi River levee began. To prevent flooding behind the levee, Cypress Creek Gap, through which flowed drainage north of Lake Chicot to the Mississippi, was closed. A new system of ditches and canals diverted drainage waters southward. In 1926-27, the local drainage district extended Connerly Bayou on the lake’s northern end to connect Lake Chicot with nearby Macon Lake, with drainage extended through Ditch Bayou on the lake’s southern end.”

The Great Flood of 1927 caused the dam on Connerly Bayou to break. Silt poured into Lake Chicot, and water levels dropped.

“Pressured by the state attorney general, the local drainage district built a dam on Ditch Bayou in 1932 in an attempt to restore the lake to its normal level, but the dam washed out the following year,” Lancaster writes. “Beginning in the 1940s, increased clearing and cultivation of the surrounding watershed, combined with the growing use of pesticides on farmland, left the lower three-quarters of the lake (south of where Connerly Bayou entered it) a polluted and sediment-laden waste, its muddy brown water in dramatic contrast with the bright blue of the upper part of the lake, which was isolated by an earthen dam constructed by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission in 1948 to protect that portion of the lake.”

A concrete dam was built across Ditch Bayou in 1956, but mud and silt continued to enter the lake. What had once been one of the South’s great spots for bass fishing almost saw the end of recreational fishing with the exception of the northern part of the lake.

The Game & Fish Commission joined forces with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Chicot County Rural Development Authority beginning in 1968 on what was known as the Lake Chicot Project. A dam was built on Connerly Bayou with gates that could open or close depending on the quality of the water. Dirty water was diverted to a pumping plant that sent it to the Mississippi River via Rowdy Bend.

“Obtaining the necessary funding for the project took some time, and the pumping plant was installed in 1985,” Lancaster writes. “That year, the Corps of Engineers drew down the lake to compact the sediment on the bottom and seeded the lake with plants that would provide a food base for fish populations. Game fish were restocked. Within a few years, the lake had largely recovered.”

I believe it to be one of the most important government projects ever done in the Arkansas Delta. Arkansas’ largest natural lake had been restored. Lake Chicot was beautiful again.