FOURTH IN A SERIES
The community of Biscoe, which had just 363 residents in the 2010 census, is located on what passes for a high spot in east Arkansas. It’s known as Surrounded Hill.
“Surrounded Hill was surveyed by the federal government in 1849,” writes Steven Teske of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. “Edwin Burr was the first settler to claim title to the land, registering his deed in Batesville in 1853. The area remained relatively unpopulated through the Civil War but gained significance with construction of the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad, which was completed through the Surrounded Hill area in 1871. A depot was built on flat land near the hill, and a post office was established in 1872 with the name Fredonia. The name of the post office was changed to Surrounded Hill in 1875, renamed Fredonia in 1881, then renamed Surrounded Hill again later the same year, and finally named Biscoe in 1902. The name Biscoe appears to have been chosen to honor landowner John Biscoe. An African-American Baptist church was established in 1872. Eldridge Atkins acquired land in the area in 1874. Abraham Boyd acquired land a few years later, which he divided into lots and sold to prospective homeowners. Boyd referred to the development community as Fredonia.”
By 1890, according to Teske, there were two general stores, two grocery stores, two saloons, a post office, a hotel, a blacksmith shop, a steam-powered cotton gin and a gristmill. Almost 2,000 refugees headed to Biscoe during the Great Flood of 1927.
“By 1937, Biscoe had a community hall, two schools, five churches (all African-American), eight general stores, a drugstore, a barbershop, two bus stations, two blacksmith shops, two gins, three filling stations, a train depot and a post office,” Teske writes.
Now, the main business is Mack’s IGA, a classic country store that has been around in one form or another since 1926.
The next community toward the east is Brasfield. U.S. 70 crosses the Cache River here, dividing Prairie County from Monroe County. Crossing the Cache means entering a vast bottomland that includes not only the lower Cache but also the Bayou DeView, Robe Bayou, Hickson Lake, Gator Pond, Bowfin Overflow, Straight Lake, Apple Lake and other oxbow lakes and sloughs.
Much of the land is owned by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission as part of Dagmar Wildlife Management Area. It’s among the most important wintering areas for ducks in the country and also has cypress trees that are hundreds of years old, black bears, alligators and bald eagles.
One of my favorite places to eat catfish in Arkansas once was on the banks of the Cache River at Brasfield. W.O. and Patsy Prince ran the Riverfront Restaurant & Fish Market. It was quite the experience. When headed east, you would turn down the gravel road to your right just before crossing the Cache River. You would order your meal in the bait shop on the banks of the river. You would then walk down to the boat that floated on the Cache. They would bring the food down the hill to you when it was ready.
The restaurant eventually closed, and the floating portion was swept away in a flood. The Princes later reopened the restaurant in a building on land in 2011. When they retired, that building was transformed into housing.
The Cache River begins near the Arkansas-Missouri border and runs through east Arkansas before emptying into the White River near Clarendon. It runs almost parallel to the White River in parts of the Arkansas Delta.
“After the Civil War, the lowlands of the Cache River proved a major obstacle for the construction of the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In fact, the federal military government deemed the section between the Cache and the L’Anguille rivers too expensive and difficult to build. The gap in the line wasn’t completed until 1871. … Though the Cache River area was an important source of timber, the area was not as extensively cleared as were other parts of eastern Arkansas due to the river’s reputation for flooding. Major stands of native hardwood survived.
“Because the Cache moves at a slow speed due to its low amount of fall per mile and the fact that the contour of the flat land surrounding it does not lend itself to levee construction, the Cache River can overflow its banks after only a few inches of rainfall. Work on the river in northeast Arkansas in the 1920s and 1930s straightened the channel of the river, even splitting the river into two separate ditches between Bono and Egypt in Craighead County. That helped speed the flow of the river, but farming along it was still a risky endeavor.
“During the Flood of 1937, the Cache River was one of a number of eastern Arkansas rivers that spilled across agricultural land. Planters, landowners and businessmen long advocated for some form of flood control along the Cache, which had no well-developed system of levees. The Flood Control Act of 1950 authorized the Cache River-Bayou DeView Project, which was a plan to dredge, clear and realign 140 miles of the Cache upstream from Clarendon, 15 miles of the upper tributaries and 77 miles of Bayou DeView. Initial funds for the project, projected to cost $60 million, were not approved until 1969.”
That set off one of the great environmental battles in Arkansas history. U.S. Rep. Bill Alexander of Osceola joined forces with farmers in the area so the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could move the project forward.
“On May 5, 1972, U.S. District Judge J. Smith Henley in Little Rock ruled in favor of the Corps,” Lancaster writes. “The plaintiffs soon appealed the decision. In July 1972, while the project was still under litigation, the Corps, in a controversial move, began the initial clearing and dredging in the Clarendon area. On Dec. 15, 1972, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis remanded the case to Henley, ruling that the Corps had not met the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act in preparing its environmental impact statement.
“In March 1973, the court ordered construction halted until the impact statement was revised. Three years later, the statement was finally approved. But the battle over the project had become a political contest, and funding for it was stalemated in Congress in 1977. Opponents of the project moved to create a national wildlife refuge along the river, partly to block the project but also to protect the river from rampant development then going on. In 1986, the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge was established, stretching south from Grubbs in Jackson County to Clarendon and incorporating a large swatch of Bayou DeView.”
William Faulkner was among those who wrote about the Big Woods of the Delta.
The Big Woods once stretched down both sides of the Mississippi River in parts of Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri. When Hernando DeSoto explored the region in the 1500s, the Big Woods made up the largest expanse of forested wetlands in North America. There were 24 million acres of forests in the Big Woods at that time.
There are now fewer than 5 million forested acres remaining.
Most of the acreage that made up the Big Woods was cleared of trees, drained and converted to row-crop agriculture during the past 100 years. Of the remaining forested land in the Delta, almost 1 million of those acres are in Arkansas.
The Big Woods of Arkansas are an international treasure. In 1989, these remaining bottomland forests in east Arkansas were recognized by the 49 countries of the United Nations’ Ramsar Convention as a “Wetland of International Importance.”
A stretch of 550,000 forested acres in east Arkansas is the largest corridor of bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the region north of the Atchafalaya River in south Louisiana.
For five decades, the ivory-billed woodpecker was thought to be extinct. That’s why people became so excited in the early 2000s when there were reported sightings in the Big Woods of Arkansas.
Frank Gill, a senior ornithologist at the National Audubon Society, called the discovery “huge, just huge. It’s kind of like finding Elvis.”
John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, said in April 2005: “Through the 20th century, it has been every birder’s fantasy to catch a glimpse of this bird, however remote the possibility. This really is the holy grail.”
Eight independent sightings were reported in 2004-05 as ornithologists converged on east Arkansas. The reports all came within two miles of each other. Fitzpatrick headed a team that assessed the sightings and published his findings in the journal Science.
National Geographic stated in 2005: “Among the world’s largest woodpeckers, the ivory-bill is one of six North American bird species suspected or known to have gone extinct since 1880. The last conclusive sighting of the woodpecker was in Louisiana in 1944. The black-and-white bird’s disappearance followed extensive logging in the southeastern United States, which decimated the woodpecker’s habitat of mature virgin forests. Since then this charismatic species has become the Elvis of the bird world, with whisperings over the years that it might still be alive in some secret hideaway. Experts remained highly skeptical. That is, until now.”
On Feb. 11, 2004, amateur naturalist Gene Sparling of Hot Springs reportedly encountered an ivory-billed woodpecker while kayaking on Bayou DeView.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology conducted research in the area during the next 14 months and announced on April 28, 2005, during a news conference in Washington that the bird had been rediscovered. Ongoing research resumed on Nov. 1, 2005, but there was never anything more definitive.
Was it really an ivory-bill or just a large pileated woodpecker?
Was there only one male left and it died?
National Geographic wrote that Fitzpatrick viewed the ivory-bill as “a powerful symbol of the forests of the Deep South.”
“The lure of the wild and the lure of the beauty of birds and the lure of the mysterious-and-possibly-gone is enveloped in the idea of this bird,” he said.
When soybean prices soared in the early 1970s, tens of thousands of acres were drained and cleared in east Arkansas. Fortunately, much of that land is now being replanted in hardwoods
The Nature Conservancy describes the situation this way: “The rivers of the Mississippi River Delta and the Big Woods are vital to the health of their surrounding hardwood forests. Without naturally functioning rivers, the ecosystem changes dramatically. The forests are no longer wetlands.
“Dams, levees and irrigation projects … have virtually eliminated floods along the Mississippi River’s main stream, and tributary flooding has been reduced by 90 percent. Unable to disperse among the forests, water runs faster and stronger in straightened river channels, thus accelerating erosion. As riverbanks erode, forest vegetation loses its foothold and is swallowed by the river.”
Monroe County, which lost the highest percentage of population of any Arkansas county from the 2000 census to the 2010 census, contains a large part of the Big Woods. Those population losses have continued. The people of this county have known plenty of troubles through the decades.
“Two natural disasters devastated large sections of the county,” Louise Mitchell writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “First was a massive tornado on March 8, 1909, that destroyed everything in its path from about five miles southwest of Brinkley to about 10 miles northeast of it. Thirty-five people were killed, and about 200 were injured. Nearly every building in the city was destroyed or damaged. Second was the Flood of 1927 along the White River, which soon covered most settlements in the lower section of the county. On April 20, 1927, the levee system protecting Clarendon failed. Soon, the town stood in 20 feet of water.”
Brinkley, once a significant railroad town, has been bleeding population for decades, falling from 5,275 residents in the 1970 census to about 3,000 people now.
Robert Campbell Brinkley of Memphis was one of the promoters of the Little Rock & Memphis Railroad, which was given a land grant by the state of Arkansas in 1852 to run through the northern part of the county.
The town of Brinkley, which was named for the railroad promoter, was platted in 1869-70 and incorporated in 1872.
“Situated at the highest point between Crowley’s Ridge and the west side of the White River at DeValls Bluff, the community grew from a campsite called Lick Skillet that was used by the railroad’s construction workers,” Jane Dennis writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Legend has it that when the day’s work was completed, the railroad crew cooked dinner over a campfire and retired for the evening only when the last skillet was licked.
“Construction of the rail lines between Memphis and Little Rock brought the city of Brinkley into being, but the accomplishment wasn’t without challenges. In 1862, when the railway advertised the opening of the route, 17 miles between DeValls Bluff and Brinkley had to be negotiated by boat or stage via Clarendon — 16 miles by stage when possible and 35 miles by boat, a trip of five to six hours depending upon weather. But after the completion of the bridge across the White River in 1871, the two portions of the line were connected, making the Little Rock & Memphis Railroad the first completed in Arkansas.”
Memphis investors William Black and John Gunn established a large sawmill south of town in the late 1870s. They later started a company to construct parts for the rail line. They completed a line to the north that became part of the Rock Island Railroad. They built a line to the south that became part of the Arkansas Midland Railroad. The wholesale business John Gunn Grocery Co. also became one of the largest businesses in east Arkansas.
Taking advantage of the railroad traffic moving through the town, the Cotton Belt Hotel was constructed in 1883 and the first electric plant was established in 1896.
“The railroads facilitated the rapid export of lumber and lumber products from area sawmills, stave mills and related industries,” Dennis writes. “Brinkley developed as a pivotal crossroads in east Arkansas, halfway between Memphis and Little Rock with railroads leading in all directions. The town increased in size from 325 people in 1880 to 1,648 in 1900. … By the 1890s, Brinkley’s business district included several mills, factories and shops. Land surrounding Brinkley was used for farming. As the densely wooded land was cleared, cotton cultivation began. Cotton gins and compresses were established. Besides cotton, rice cultivation became a major economic factor in the early 1900s. In the early 1890s, the business district was rebuilt after fire destroyed it.
It was rebuilt again following the 1909 tornado. The mechanization of agriculture after World War II eventually did what floods and tornadoes couldn’t do — cause massive population losses.