Archive for the ‘Building Arkansas’ Category

The little things

Friday, March 17th, 2023

Several hundred people gathered one afternoon last month at the Statehouse Convention Center as the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau released its first-ever citywide tourism master plan.

The plan’s unveiling had the feeling of a celebration and came at the end of a long process in which there were focus groups, hundreds of survey responses and 60 individual meetings.

As someone who understands the importance of quality-of-life amenities to the economic health of cities and states, I read every word of the master plan and LRCVB’s 2023 business plan. We must stop thinking of projects such as these as simply efforts to attract tourists.

In the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, the same things that attract tourists also attract smart, talented residents. Such efforts are just as important to economic development as industrial recruitment was in the 1950s and 1960s.

I liked some of the recommendations. But as I read through the slick publications, I couldn’t help but think that we must take care of the little things first.

For instance, I’ve been looking for a year now at graffiti on the back of the Robinson Center-DoubleTree Hotel-LRCVB parking complex as I take LaHarpe Boulevard into downtown Little Rock.

As far as I can tell, no one has lifted a finger to remove the graffiti even though thousands of cars pass it each day. I don’t get it.

I also don’t get why Little Rock city government won’t assign teams to remove graffiti and pick up trash along the city’s major thoroughfares. The failure to do so creates an impression among people across the state that this is a dangerous, out-of-control place. Perception becomes reality.

The little things, in other words. They matter.

That will be the subject of my column Saturday on the Voices page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. I hope you will check it out.

Food Hall of Fame: Take two

Tuesday, March 20th, 2018

Another Arkansas Food Hall of Fame induction ceremony is in the books.

Our state has a diverse food culture that always has been a bit in the shadow of surrounding states. Thankfully, the Department of Arkansas Heritage last year chose to start the Hall of Fame to recognize restaurants, proprietors and even food-themed events.

I’m honored to be on the selection committee and to have been the master of ceremonies for the annual event the past two years. There were 450 nominations submitted this year to our website in all categories. That’s 150 more than last year, a good sign that this effort is growing.

We will induct three restaurants each year into the Hall of Fame.

The choices in our inaugural year were Jones Bar-B-Que Diner of Marianna, the Lassis Inn of Little Rock and Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales of Lake Village. I don’t think anyone on the selection committee realized it at the time, but all three of those restaurants are owned by African-Americans. I thought that was justified since blacks have contributed so much to the Arkansas food culture through the years.

The three restaurants chosen this year were Franke’s Cafeteria of Little Rock, the Venesian Inn of Tontitown and McClard’s Bar-B-Q of Hot Springs.

In 1919, C.A. Franke opened a doughnut shop on Capitol Avenue in Little Rock. He built a large bakery on Third Street in 1922 and deployed a fleet of trucks nicknamed “wife-savers” that made home deliveries across the capital city. In 1924, he opened Franke’s Cafeteria near major downtown department stores. Franke’s later expanded to multiple locations across the state. There are two remaining locations, both in Little Rock. One is downtown in the Regions Bank Building and the other is on Rodney Parham Road.

The Venesian Inn is in a community that was settled by Italian immigrants who were escaping the mosquitoes and malaria of the Sunnyside Plantation in southeast Arkansas. Germano Gasparotto opened a restaurant in 1947 and later sold it to fellow Italian-Americans John and Mary Granata. The restaurant and its recipes stayed in the family through the years. The signature dish is fried chicken and spaghetti. I consider that a perfect combination of Arkansas and Italy. Visits to the Venesian Inn have been a tradition for decades of fans attending University of Arkansas football and basketball games in nearby Fayetteville. The restaurant still uses the original wooden tables installed by Gasparotto.

McClard’s history of fine barbecue dates back to 1928 when Alex and Alice McClard were running a motor court and gas station in Hot Springs. A man who had spent the night at the motor court was unable to pay his bill but offered to pay with what he claimed was the recipe for the world’s greatest barbecue sauce. The McClards had no choice but to take him up on his offer. They secured the recipe and began serving it on the goat they were selling to travelers. The goat is long gone, but the sauce is still there for beef and pork. So are fourth-generation family members.

There were nine other finalists this year. I predict that all of them will be inducted at some point. They were:

Bruno’s Little Italy of Little Rock: Italian immigrant brothers Nicola, Gennaro, Vincenzo and Giovanni Bruno all immigrated to this country from Naples through New York’s Ellis Island. They brought with them Italian recipes and cooking skills. Giovanni’s son Vince — who was known as Jimmy — was stationed at Camp Robinson during World War II and returned soon after the war ended to open his first restaurant in the Levy neighborhood of North Little Rock. He was known for spinning pizza dough in view of his customers while singing loudly. His sons Jay, Vince and Gio grew up watching their father work. There have been numerous locations through the decades, but the original recipes still are used at the current location on Main Street in downtown Little Rock.

DeVito’s of Eureka Springs: Since opening the restaurant in 1988, James DeVito has been attracting area residents and tourists with Italian cuisine, fresh trout and locally sourced ingredients. Those who go to Eureka Springs year after year tend to put DeVito’s on their list of must-visit restaurants. I know that’s the case in our family.

Dixie Pig of Blytheville: Since 1923, the Halsell family has been serving up pork barbecue with its famous “pig sandwiches” as they’re called in Blytheville. I’ve previously declared Blytheville as the barbecue capital of Arkansas, and the Dixie Pig is one of the reasons why. Ernest Halsell opened the Rustic Inn in 1923, and the Dixie Pig is a direct descendant of that restaurant. It draws barbecue enthusiasts from Arkansas, Tennessee and the Missouri Bootheel.

Doe’s Eat Place of Little Rock: George Eldridge was a pilot who frequently would fly business clients to Greenville, Miss., to eat at the original Doe’s Eat Place on Nelson Street. In 1988, he convinced the Signa family of Greenville to let him open a downtown Little Rock restaurant using the same name and concept. When Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign staff and the national media began hanging out in Eldridge’s restaurant during the 1992 campaign, the Little Rock location became more famous than the original. The private room behind the kitchen at Doe’s is the place to be for political fundraisers and meetings in the capital city.

Feltner’s Whatta-Burger of Russellville: Please don’t confuse this with that chain that’s based in Corpus Christi, Texas. Bob Feltner opened the doors of this restaurant on Thanksgiving Day in 1967. He earlier had operated other restaurants in the city, including one called the Wonder Burger. But the Whatta-Burger had staying power. Generations of Arkansas Tech University students, along with Razorback fans driving to and from Fayetteville, have kept the lines long at this classic.

Kream Kastle of Blytheville: In 1952, Steven Johns kept the menu simple. He sold hot dogs, hot dogs with chili and hot dogs with chili and onions. By 1955, however, he had added a barbecue pit and was soon serving his own “pig sandwiches.” In fact, it’s those sandwiches that put the restaurant on the map. The debate over which sandwich is better — the one at the Dixie Pig or the one at the Kream Kastle — has gone on for years. Steven’s daughter Suzanne and husband Jeff Wallace now operate the drive-in.

Neal’s Cafe of Springdale: Housed in a landmark pink building, Neal’s has become more than just a restaurant through the years. It’s a center of the community; a place that draws people together and engages them in conversation. The restaurant was opened by Toy and Bertha Neal in 1944, and the Neal family has owned the business through four generations. Local business owners meet for breakfast and discuss community issues there. At lunch and dinner, people drive from throughout northwest Arkansas for entrees such a chicken fried steak with gravy and chicken and dumplings.

Ed Walkers Drive In of Fort Smith: Anyone who grew up in Fort Smith can tell you about Ed Walker’s. It opened in 1946 and was soon thriving thanks to the car-crazy culture of the 1950s. Even the sign out front that advertises “French dipped sandwiches” is a classic. Visitors also can’t go wrong with burgers and pie in a place that harkens back to Fort Smith’s roots as a tough, blue-collar town where the food was simple and served in large portions.

White House Cafe of Camden: This is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the state. A Greek immigrant named Hristos Hodjopulas opened the White House near the railroad depot in 1907. Camden was booming in those days, and the restaurant was soon operating 24 hours a day. It just serves lunch and dinner these days. There’s everything on the menu from Southern classics to Tex-Mex food. Original furnishings remain. It’s like stepping back in time.

A new category this year was the Gone But Not Forgotten category.

The winner was Cotham’s Mercantile of Scott. Cotham’s long run ended when a fire broke out early on a Tuesday morning in May of last year. It destroyed the century-old building that hung out over Horseshoe Lake. The structure had once housed a general store that served farmers in a thriving area of cotton plantations and pecan orchards.

In 1984, the store began serving lunch and became a favorite of then-U.S. Sen. David Pryor. It was Pryor who first told me about Cotham’s in the late 1980s when I was covering Washington for the Arkansas Democrat. I made the trip to Scott for the famous hubcap burger on my next visit to Arkansas. I instantly was hooked by the place that used the motto “where the elite meet to eat.”

In 1999, Cotham’s in the City opened at the corner of Third and Victory streets near the state Capitol. The building once had housed the capital city’s first fern bar (yes, they were all the rage in the 1970s), a TGI Friday’s. During the years I spent working in the governor’s office, I made frequent walks down the hill for lunch at the Little Rock location. The menu was the same, but there’s nothing quite like sitting near farmers on the banks of an oxbow lake at Scott. There are no plans to rebuild the Scott location.

The other three finalists in the Gone But Not Forgotten category were Coy’s of Hot Springs, Jacques & Suzanne of Little Rock and Klappenbach Bakery of Fordyce.

As soon as I looked down from the podium and saw the tears in Coy Theobalt’s eyes, I knew this new category meant a great deal. Coy’s burned down in January 2009 on the eve of the thoroughbred race meet at Oaklawn Park. Theobalt grew up watching his parents operate the restaurant, which opened in 1945.

“It was seven days a week for them with no vacations,” he said. “It convinced me that I didn’t want to do it. It means a lot to our family to see that so many people have fond memories of the restaurant.”

Family members came from multiple states to see Coy’s honored. Growing up in Arkadelphia, Hot Springs was the place my family went to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and the like. My late father’s three favorite Hot Springs restaurants — Coy’s, Mrs. Miller’s and Mollie’s — are all gone.

I sometimes was allowed to tag along with my parents for anniversary dinners. When I think of Coy’s, I remember valet parking, Mountain Valley Water in big green bottles, booths with the names of certain families attached to them (I aspired to have a booth named after me one day, a goal I never achieved) and warm crackers dipped in house dressing. If it were during the Oaklawn race meet, you could expect a long wait before being seated in the restaurant at 300 Coy St., just off Grand Avenue.

With the opening of Jacques & Suzanne in 1975 atop what’s now the Regions Bank Building in downtown Little Rock, the Continental Cuisine team of Paul Bash, Ed Moore, Louis Petit and Denis Seyer set the stage for other quality restaurants such as Graffiti’s, Restaurant 1620, the Purple Cow and Alouette’s. Their former employees opened additional establishments such as Andre’s and Cafe St. Moritz.

It’s fair to say that Jacques & Suzanne took dining out in Arkansas to a new level. Arkansans accustomed to pork barbecue and fried catfish learned about escargot, caviar and souffles. The dishes were prepared by classically trained chefs, and the kitchen served as a sort of graduate school for those working there. It wasn’t an accident that Bash, Moore, Petit and Seyer won the Proprietor of the Year award during the first Arkansas Food Hall of Fame induction ceremony last year. Jacques & Suzanne closed in 1986, but its influence remains strong more than three decades later.

Often when a place that I consider an Arkansas classic closes, it’s because the owners are tired. As Theobalt noted, it’s a tough business. Klappenbach Bakery is an example of that. The bakery and restaurant, which for 36 years graced the downtown of the Dallas County seat, closed in September 2011. After iconic college football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, it was one of the best-known things to come out of Fordyce.

There are certain places that come to define a town. Klappenbach was one of those places. Norman Klappenbach was 80 and his wife Lee was 77 at the time of the closure. Son Paul, who was 47 at the time, grew up in the business and spent the seven years prior to the closure working full time there. He came in at 3 a.m. and said the 65-hour workweeks had depleted his energy. He had been unable to find an assistant baker.

When the hard-working owners of such establishments die or retire, there’s often no one to take their place. The children have no interest in long hours and limited revenues. Buyers can be hard to find, especially in rural areas that are losing population. Once they’re gone, they’re gone for good.

The remarkable Roaf family

Friday, September 15th, 2017

Dr. Clifton Roaf of Pine Bluff died last week.

If you’re a sports fan, you probably know more about his son than you know about Dr. Roaf. After all, Willie Roaf was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2012 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 2014.

I can tell you this: Dr. Roaf was one of the most inspiring men I’ve ever met. I came to know him when I worked as the director of corporate communications for Simmons Bank. He served on the bank’s board and also on the board of the Simmons Foundation.

His prayers before foundation board luncheons at the Simmons Building in downtown Pine Bluff were legendary, as were the pep talks he would give when things weren’t going as well as he thought they should be going in southeast Arkansas.

No one ever loved Pine Bluff more than Dr. Roaf. In a town where race relations have long been an issue, he was the consistent voice of reason.

He was just one part of the amazing Roaf family.

His wife, the late Andree Layton Roaf, became the first black woman to serve on the Arkansas Supreme Court when she was appointed by Gov. Jim Guy Tucker to succeed retiring Justice Steele Hays in January 1995. She wasn’t eligible to run for a full term on the high court but was appointed by Gov. Mike Huckabee to the Arkansas Court of Appeals, where she served for almost a decade. Andree Roaf died in 2009.

Sports Illustrated has had a number of talented writers through the years, and Gary Smith rates near the top of that list. In 1993, Smith wrote about the Roaf family.

“She carries a book with her,” Smith wrote of Andree Roaf. “She always does. Tonight it’s ‘The Fountainhead’ by Ayn Rand. She walks to the framed photographs that cover the top of the piano. Heads. Suits. Ties. Smiles. They are the prologue to her tale. They must be revealed first.

“She points to her grandfather, who won a scholarship to Yale in the early 1900s, graduated and became a teacher and the executive director of the Norfolk, Va., YMCA. Then to her other grandfather, a college graduate, superintendent of a school for orphans and wayward children.

“There’s her mother, Phoebe. Top five in her high school class, scholarship to Talladega College, honors graduate, master’s degree from Michigan State.

“And her father, William. Master’s degree from Fisk, director of equal employment opportunity for the Federal Reserve System, local executive director in the Urban League, poet, thespian, community leader.

“Here’s her sister, Mary. Honor student, master’s degree from New York University, former assistant postmaster general, now director of communications for the Child Welfare League of America. Next, her late sister, Serena. Honor student, Michigan State grad, clarinet player, advertising copywriter.

“Over here is Andree’s husband, Cliff, co-valedictorian of his high school class, degree in dentistry from Howard, member of the school board in Pine Bluff for 21 years. … Next to him there’s Andree herself. Honor student, Michigan State grad, law review, second in her law class at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with a 3.78 grade point average. … Look, there’s Andree’s oldest child, Phoebe. Presidential scholar, cum laude graduate of Harvard, master’s degree from Princeton, research officer for a nonprofit organization designing programs for disadvantaged youths. And Andree’s second child, Mary. Honor student, winner of two state oratory contests, graduate of Georgetown, seventh-grade teacher at an inner-city school in Washington, D.C.”

And then there was Willie, one of the greatest offensive tackles to ever play the game.

Willie has often told reporters that his mother would have preferred that he become a doctor or an attorney. He was attracting so little interest from college recruiters as a football player at Pine Bluff High School that he considered switching to basketball.

Finally, Willie decided to play football at Louisiana Tech University. He was 6-4, 220 pounds when he went to Tech, small for a college offensive lineman. By his sophomore season, he was 6-5, 300 pounds.

Louisiana Tech played Alabama, Baylor, South Carolina, Ole Miss and West Virginia, allowing professional scouts plenty of opportunities to watch him by his senior season. Willie was picked in the first round of the 1993 NFL draft by the New Orleans Saints. He was the eighth selection overall and the first offensive lineman to be drafted that year. Willie spent the first nine years of a 13-year NFL career with the Saints. He started 131 games for New Orleans and helped the franchise to its first playoff win, a 2000 victory over the defending Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams.

A torn ligament in his right knee forced Willie to miss the second half of the 2001 season. He was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs, where he made the Pro Bowl in each of his four seasons. Roaf was voted to the Pro Bowl 11 times in 13 seasons. He earned a spot on the NFL All-Decade teams for the 1990s and 2000s.

Clifton Roaf was one of nine children who grew up in a four-room house at Pine Bluff. Smith described Dr. Roaf’s father as a man who “loaded railroad freight, worked fields, sawed wood and pushed mops to survive.”

Pine Bluff was among the most segregated cities in the South in those days. Dr. Roaf would later say that one could “look at an address and tell whether the person was white or black.”

“Sure he had been his high school’s co-valedictorian, but sports had always been his true love,” Smith wrote. “He had spent Friday nights playing football and Saturday mornings picking cotton, and he had become an all-state defensive lineman talented enough to do what was virtually unheard of for a black teenager in Arkansas in the 1950s — win a scholarship to a Big Ten school. But here he was (at Michigan State), hobbling through his senior year on a kneeful of mush, teaching freshman lineman how to pass rush, no longer even on the roster.”

Dr. Roaf had attended all-black Merrill High School at Pine Bluff.

In 1958, one of the city’s largest employers, International Paper Co., paid a Michigan State education professor named Raymond Hatch to evaluate the city’s schools. Dr. Roaf told the Pine Bluff Commercial years later: “What he found, of course, was a big discrepancy between the educational facilities at Pine Bluff High School and those at Merrill. They told him that they perhaps had someone who could go from this small segregated school in Pine Bluff and matriculate through a major white university, and that someone was I. Dr. Hatch was instrumental in me getting the scholarship to go there.”

Dr. Roaf boarded a train in 1959 and vowed that he would never return to the South. He had his train ticket, a copy of his financial aid agreement with Michigan State, a bag of clothes and $30.

Clifton Roaf was the first of several dozen black players from the South who were recruited during the tenure of legendary Coach Duffy Daugherty. Football success eluded Dr. Roaf at Michigan State, though.

“When I got hurt again in the Green and White game my second year, it ended for all practical purposes my athletic career,” he told the Commercial.

He met Andree, however.

She had been born in Nashville, Tenn., in a family where academics were stressed.

“To think how innocent it all seemed,” Smith wrote. “How benignly it began. A lovely spring Saturday in 1961 at Michigan State. A blind date for Cliff Roaf and Andree Layton, arranged by the girlfriend of Cliff’s teammate, Herb Adderly. Andree, a knockout — that was the scouting report. A little quirky perhaps. Rarely went to parties. Never had a boyfriend. Burned a hole clean through her sheet and mattress pad at age 11 with a hot light bulb while reading under the blanket at midnight so her parents wouldn’t know.

“A knockout bookworm, a wonderful anomaly. Cliff was intrigued. Never mind his right knee, which burned like dripping candle wax from his collision with another player that afternoon in the annual Green-White intrasquad game. Never mind the assistant coach’s order that Cliff, a sophomore backup defensive lineman for the Spartans, go to the campus hospital that night. A knockout bookworm. Besides, if they said the knee needed surgery, it would mean weeks of missed classes, certain failure in physics and chemistry, no college degree for a young man whose family had no money, none, to pay for an extra semester once his four-year academic-athletic scholarship ran out. Cliff was going to get a college degree. He found a cane. He hobbled through the date with Andree. They talked ideas. They talked books. His eyes kept growing bigger. So did his knee. It was a mango in the morning.

“The knee would never recover. Duffy Daugherty made the pain worse, burying Cliff in the depth chart for insubordination. All in one day Cliff lost a football career and gained a wife.

“‘They went into my living room at home and read — that’s how they dated,’ recalls Andree’s father, William Layton, a Renaissance man who loved writing and reading and acting and dancing and singing.”

Though she was born in Nashville, Andree later grew up in Ohio and Michigan. She wanted to pursue a career in biological sciences and graduated in 1962 with a bachelor’s degree in zoology. Cliff and Andree were married in July 1963. She was a bacteriologist for the Michigan Department of Health in Lansing from 1963-65. Andree then worked as a research biologist for the U.S. Food & Drug Administration in Washington, D.C., while her husband was training at Howard to be a dentist.

The couple moved to Pine Bluff in 1969 so Dr. Roaf could begin his practice. Andree was a staff assistant for the Pine Bluff Urban Renewal Agency from 1971-75 and then worked as a biologist with the National Center for Toxicological Research. She began driving to Little Rock for law school in 1975 and graduated in 1978. She taught at the law school for a year before joining the Pine Bluff firm Walker Roaf Campbell Ivory & Dunklin in 1979.

“I had to get another degree of some kind,” Andree Roaf said of her decision to attend law school. “In my family, if you only have a B.A., you feel like a dropout.”

In addition to being in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame, Willie Roaf was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2007, the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.

“It’s amazing to think a kid like me from Pine Bluff, barely recruited to college and signing with a program just entering NCAA Division I, could end up one of the best to play the game at my position,” he said. “It shows young football players from Arkansas that with a lot of hard work and great character you can achieve anything. I had great coaches and teammates along the way to help guide me. I always competed hard and strived to be the best.”

It didn’t hurt a bit to have Clifton Roaf and Andree Layton Roaf as parents.

They were a remarkable Arkansas couple.

Coach Broyles

Monday, August 14th, 2017

Frank Broyles wasn’t born and raised in Arkansas.

He hailed from Decatur, Ga., and his rich Southern accent was never replaced by an Arkansas twang. Yet he was one of us. Indeed, he was the best of us.

He moved to Fayetteville following just one season as the head coach at the University of Missouri.

Orville Henry wrote in the Arkansas Gazette the day after Broyles’ Dec. 7, 1957, hiring at the University of Arkansas: “Frank Broyles is the fastest walking, thinking, talking Southern boy I’ve ever run across, in or out of football. He charms the uninitiated with his complete candor and confidence and the rippling softness of his Dixie accent. And he possesses the pigskin technicians with the inside-outside mastery of his subject matter, which is basic football in general and the T formation attack in the specific. As of this hour, he embodies every answer to John Barnhill’s prayer.”

Barnhill, the Arkansas athletic director at the time, told Henry: “Frank is the only man from the outside who could come in and pull us all together toward what we’re after. We’ve lost no ground in the last three years, and we’re in good shape. Within a month I believe we’ll be a lot better than we were.”

Barnhill added: “Broyles convinced me that he wants to come to Arkansas and stay.”

Stay he did, for the next six decades.

National news had been dominated in that fall of 1957 by the Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis. That didn’t deter Broyles, who always would refer to the Arkansas coaching position as his dream job.

The desegregation crisis made Arkansas the subject of derision in other parts of the country. Arkansans had both a strong pride in the place they called home and a glaring inferiority complex.

Though Broyles wasn’t from here, he understood us.

He pledged his allegiance to Arkansas and never left.

It didn’t take Broyles long to build a football powerhouse. John Barnhill’s instincts had been correct.

As least among college football fans, Gov. Orval Faubus wasn’t the only well-known personality in Arkansas. We had Broyles, his shirttail flapping as he paced the sidelines on those glorious fall afternoons.

College Football News once ranked the top college football programs for the 1960s. The ranking was based on Associated Press polls. Alabama (coached by a native Arkansan, Paul “Bear” Bryant) was first in that decade. Arkansas and Texas were tied for second.

I was born in September 1959. Frank Broyles was the only Razorback football coach I knew until high school. Arkansas won several versions of the national championship in 1964, but that was the year my 9-year-old brother was killed in an accident. So the few memories I have of that year are of family tragedy, not college football.

The next year was different. I clearly remember that at the end of the 1965 season, as the Razorback winning streak reached 22 games, my parents announced that they would take my older sister and me to Dallas to see Arkansas tangle with LSU in the Cotton Bowl.

I remember the trip down U.S. Highway 67 from our Arkadelphia home to Dallas. I remember the stop at The Alps restaurant in Mt. Pleasant, Texas, for lunch. I remember staying in downtown Dallas at the Baker Hotel.

And I remember wanting to see Frank Broyles in person, which I finally did.

I got into trouble with my father on that trip when I refused to shake the hand of the LSU head coach, Charlie McClendon. McClendon was from south Arkansas (Lewisville to be exact) and knew my father. McClendon’s brother, Bill, and my dad hunted quail together.

But to a 6-year-old, he was the enemy because he coached the hated purple-and-gold Tigers.

LSU upset Arkansas on Jan. 1, 1966, ending the 22-game winning streak. I cried in the cab on the way from Fair Park back to the Baker Hotel.

With victory having proved elusive, the highlight of the trip for me was having seen Broyles at the hotel.

You could tell by looking at him that he had once been a great athlete. He was a star quarterback at Georgia Tech, where he played for Bobby Dodd and led the Yellowjackets to three bowl games. He started his coaching career as an assistant at Baylor in 1947, but Dodd soon brought him back to Atlanta where Broyles served as the head coach’s right-hand man for a decade. Many Southern football fans felt that Broyles would hang around until Dodd retired and then become the Georgia Tech head coach.

Broyles was restless, however. He wanted to lead his own program and try out his own ideas. He took the Missouri job.

Arkansas, though, was the place where he really saw potential. His vision, in fact, went beyond the football field. He once told me that the smartest move the university made in his early years there was when it offered broadcasts of Razorback games free to any radio station in the state that wanted them. Prior to that, a number of people in west Arkansas followed Oklahoma football, a number of people in south Arkansas followed LSU football and a number of people in east Arkansas followed Ole Miss football. Having one of the largest radio networks in the country united the state.

Broyles continued to make us proud on the national stage after retiring from coaching following the 1975 season. Broyles and play-by-play man Keith Jackson of ABC Sports became the best college football crew on television.

Broyles also proved to be as savvy as an athletic director as he had been as a football coach, raising millions of dollars to improve athletic facilities for multiple sports and moving Arkansas from the Southwest Conference to the Southeastern Conference in the early 1990s.

No wonder the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette named him Arkansas’ most influential sports figure of the 20th century.

No wonder David Bazzel created the Broyles Award to honor the top college assistant coach in the country. Think of those who played and/or coached under Broyles — Barry Switzer, Jimmy Johnson, Joe Gibbs, Johnny Majors and on and on.

Still, Broyles’ most important accomplishment was that he made us proud to be from Arkansas at a time when we most needed it.

Finally Winthrop Rockefeller became governor in January 1967 after 12 years of Faubus.

Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell hit it big on the national stage.

And Frank Broyles’ Razorbacks kept winning football games — lots of them.

Even though the end result was an excruciating 15-14 loss to the hated Longhorns, we were proud that what was known as the Game of the Century was played on Arkansas soil in 1969. I was 10 years old and still recall that gray December afternoon.

As a state at that time, we were just more than decade removed from the embarrassment of 1957. Arkansas also had lost the highest percentage of population of any state from 1940-60.

Frank Broyles helped us to believe in ourselves again.

I didn’t fully understand that at age 10.

I do now.

He was a giant in his field. Yes, he was born in Georgia. But he became one of us and was never ashamed to be known as an Arkansan.

Thank you, Coach Broyles. You were the right man at the right time for Arkansas.

Grady Manning and Southwest Hotels Inc.

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

Monday’s sale of the Arlington Hotel at Hot Springs marked the end of hotel ownership for Southwest Hotels Inc., which once had a large portfolio of famous hotels in this region of the country.

The company, founded by H. Grady Manning, once owned the Arlington Hotel and the Majestic Hotel in Hot Springs; the Marion, Grady Manning, Albert Pike and Lafayette in downtown Little Rock; and hotels in Memphis, Vicksburg and Kansas City.

Grady Manning was born in March 1892 in rural Scott County, attended a business college in Fort Smith and began working in the dining room of a Fort Smith hotel to help pay the cost of his education.

“Discovering he enjoyed working in the hotel business, he moved to Hot Springs, where he took a job at the Eastman Hotel,” Nancy Hendricks writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “With the town’s thermal waters said to offer medical benefits, Hot Springs became known as the Spa City and was one of the premier resort destinations in the country during the early 20th century. Many of its visitors were affluent travelers who had taken the waters at the leading spas of Europe and expected superior service at lodgings in Hot Springs.

“Manning traveled to Niagara Falls, Canada, where he was employed as a clerk at the Queen Royal Hotel, which was said to be one of Canada’s most exclusive. Manning became renowned for his outstanding service and courtesy, a reputation that followed him when he returned to his home state of Arkansas.

“In 1917, he became assistant manager of the Marion Hotel in Little Rock. The hotel was named for the wife of its founder, Herman Kahn, who built the Marion in 1905. At eight stories high, it was the tallest building in Arkansas until 1911. In 1919, Manning became manager of the Basin Park Hotel in Eureka Springs, a popular summer resort. His success there led to his being named manager of the Goldman Hotel in Fort Smith. In the prosperity of the 1920s, Manning formed Southwest Hotels Inc, which then sought ownership of a number of landmark hotels. Manning married Ruth Seaman around this same time.”

Herman Kahn, the Marion Hotel founder, had moved to Little Rock from Frankfurt, Germany, in 1870. Kahn’s great-grandson, Jimmy Moses, has been the driving force behind many of the developments in downtown Little Rock in recent decades. Kahn and his sons, Sidney L. Kahn Sr. and Alfred G Kahn, were heavily involved in banking and real estate development. Sidney Kahn developed the Prospect Terrace neighborhood of Little Rock.

The 500-room Marion Hotel, designed by architect George Mann, had green carpets, bellboys in green uniforms and a marble fish pond in the lobby. The Marion billed itself as the Meeting Place of Arkansas. Indeed many of the state’s top organizations held their conventions at the Marion. Its bar was named the Gar Hole and featured a huge, mounted alligator gar. Well-known visitors to the Marion through the years included Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Douglas MacArthur, Helen Keller and Will Rogers. The Marion sometimes was referred to as the real state Capitol since legislators congregated there during legislative sessions, cutting after-hour deals and forging compromises.

Writer Richard Ford, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his 1996 novel “Independence Day,” once lived in Room 600 of the Marion. Ford was born in Jackson, Miss., in 1944. Beginning in 1952, Ford spent summers in Little Rock with his maternal grandparents. Ford’s grandfather, Ben Shelley, was the hotel manager.

“It created for me a nice sense of comfort because I knew everybody,” Ford said in a 2013 interview with the Arkansas Times. “Everybody was family — all the bellmen, all the telephone operators, all the front-office people, all the cooks, all the waitresses, all the waiters. And yet all around that little island of home-like experience, there were all these people coming and going, day in and day out, people I would never see again. I could lie in my bed, and I could hear the buses coming and going from the Trailways bus station. Down behind the hotel, I could hear the Missouri Pacific switch cars. I could hear voices out on the street. I could hear sirens. I never thought of it as lonely.”

Southwest Hotels owned the Marion in its final decades. The hotel closed in early 1980 and was demolished along with the Grady Manning Hotel (also owned by Southwest Hotels at the time) on Feb. 17, 1980, to make way for the Excelsior Hotel (which later became the Peabody and then the Marriott) and the Statehouse Convention Center. Little Rock television stations provided live coverage of the implosion of the two hotels on a cold Sunday morning.

The Grady Manning Hotel had opened in 1930 as the Ben McGehee Hotel. It was designed by architect Julian Bunn Davidson and originally was owned by Benjamin Collins McGehee.

The Lafayette Hotel in downtown Little Rock opened in 1925 and closed in 1973. Now known as the Lafayette Building, it houses offices and condominiums.

Little Rock was experiencing solid growth during the 1920s, and an entity known as the Little Rock Hotel Co. decided to capitalize on that growth with a new hotel. A.D. Gates of St. Louis was the company president, and John Boyle of Little Rock was the vice president. The 10-story structure, which has a full basement, was designed by St. Louis architect George Barnett.

The Lafayette opened on Sept. 2, 1925, with 300 fireproof guest rooms. The rooms, which featured private baths with running water, rented for $2.5o per night. The building’s exterior featured elements of the Renaissance Revival style of architecture with its decorative terra cotta detailing, arched windows on the top floor and a projecting copper cornice. The interior public spaces were designed by decorator Paul Martin Heerwagen.

The Great Depression hurt the hotel industry, and the Lafayette closed in 1933. The building remained vacant until a housing shortage due to an influx of soldiers at Camp Robinson increased the demand for hotel rooms and apartments. The Lafayette was purchased by Southwest Hotels and reopened on Aug. 23, 1941. Southwest reduced the number of guest rooms from 300 to 260. A coffee bar and lunch counter were added with an entrance off Sixth Street.

An Arkansas Gazette article the day after the opening said: “Guest rooms, suites and efficiency apartments are the newest, freshest and most livable rooms in the city, high above the street, light and airy.” The newspaper described the coffee bar as “truly the most beautifully decorated and artistically designed coffee bar in the state.”

The interior of the hotel was completely repainted. The lobby ceiling was stenciled and painted by John Oehrlie, a Swiss mural painter. Oehrlie and his crew redecorated the hotel in eight months, spending three months of that period working on the lobby ceiling. Oehrlie had been Heerwagen’s foreman in 1925 so he was familiar with the hotel.

After the renovation by Southwest Hotels, the Optimist Club, Lions Club, Kiwanis Club and Civitan Club all began having meetings at the hotel. The Missouri Pacific and Rock Island railroads had ticket offices in the lobby. There also was a telephone answering service, a coin shop and a beauty parlor. The Gaslite Club opened in the basement and remained in business until the 1960s.

There was yet another remodeling effort in 1953 as the hotel’s owners tried to keep up with the growing number of motels and tourist courts on the highways leading in and out of Little Rock. Mechanical, electrical and plumbing updates were made. The interior decor was changed to incorporate a red-and-white color scheme. The Lafayette closed as a hotel on Nov. 23, 1973. The Gazette described it as the “victim of more modern competition, one-way streets and no parking facilities.”

The Albert Pike, meanwhile, operated as a hotel from 1929-71 when Little Rock’s Second Baptist Church bought it for $740,000 and transformed it into a residence hotel. The block on which the hotel was built once had been occupied by a house constructed in 1827 for Robert Crittenden, the secretary of the Arkansas Territory. The Crittenden House was among the first brick residences built in Little Rock. Facing financial problems, Crittenden attempted to trade the house for 10 sections of undeveloped land, hoping the brick home would become the site of the territorial capitol. Foreclosure followed Crittenden’s death in 1834, and the house was sold to Judge Benjamin Johnson, whose heirs later sold it to Dr. E.V. Dewell. Dewell, in turn, sold it to Gov. James P. Eagle, and it was the official governor’s residence from 1889-93. The Crittenden House was razed in 1920.

The 175-room Albert Pike was constructed at a cost of almost $1 million. The hotel was built in the Italian-Spanish Revival style, which was popular in California at the time. It featured tiled roofs, exposed beams, decorative inside tile, iron work and stained-glass windows. The hotel is among Little Rock’s last remaining major examples of this type of architecture.

At the time the Farrell Hotel Co. opened it, the Albert Pike was considered to be one of the finest hotels in the South. Architect Eugene John Stern designed two main wings of eight stories each that extended toward Scott Street and were connected across the back by a 10-story section. Above the entries were terra-cotta medallions with heraldic shields and the initials “AP.” The two-story main lobby was overlooked by a mezzanine that featured a custom-made Hazelton Brothers grand piano designed to match the building’s interior features. Officials of the Farrell Hotel Co. decided to name the hotel after Albert Pike, a prominent lawyer who died in 1891. Pike, a central figure in the development of Freemasonry in the state, was a poet, writer and Confederate commander in the Indian Territory during the Civil War.

In Hot Springs, railroad executive Samuel Fordyce joined forces with Samuel Stitt and William Gaines to build the first Arlington Hotel as the area around the springs gained in popularity.

“The original hotel was located across Fountain Street from the current Arlington, a site that’s now a public park,” Michael Hodge writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The first location was unique in that it was the only hotel property on the original Hot Springs National Reservation land. In 1893, to keep up with other nearby hotels such as the Eastman, Majestic and Park, the Arlington was razed and rebuilt on the same site with a more elegant design, a larger guest capacity and updated amenities.

“On April 5, 1923, an employee of the hotel noticed smoke coming from an electrical panel. Authorities were notified as a fire slowly began to spread. William Pinkerton, the founder of the famous security service and a guest at the hotel at the time, was so certain that the fire would be controlled that he sat on the veranda and smoked a cigar rather than retrieve his belongings, all of which he eventually lost to the fire that leveled the building.

“The owners had been discussing building an addition across Fountain Street. The plans for this now became plans for rebuilding the entire hotel on that site, thus removing it from reservation property. On Nov. 28, 1924, the third and current version of the Arlington Hotel was completed. Designed by George R. Mann, primary architect of the state Capitol, the building’s entrance faces the southeast corner of the intersection of Fountain Street and Central Avenue and includes two massive towers like its predecessor but designed in a Mediterranean rather than Spanish Revival style.”

Southwest Hotels purchased the Arlington in 1954.

What became the Majestic was built in 1882 on the site of the old Hiram Whittington House. It was known as the Avenue Hotel at the time. The name was changed to the Majestic in 1888. A yellow-brick building was added in 1892. The original hotel was razed in 1902 and a brick building with 150 rooms was added. A new restaurant known as The Dutch Treat was also added with a replica of a windmill over the door.

“In the prosperity of the 1920s, greater numbers of average Americans could visit the Majestic Hotel,” Hendricks writes. “In addition, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Boston Red Sox stayed at the hotel for spring training and fitness programs. … During this era, the legendary Babe Ruth frequented the Majestic. The in-house thermal baths at the Majestic also appealed to notorious 1920s underworld figures who did not have to leave the hotel for their spa therapy.

“The year 1926 saw the addition of the eight-story annex (a red-brick building to the west of the yellow-brick building), which later housed the Grady Manning Dining Room. … Southwest Hotels purchased the Majestic in 1929. … In the 1940s, the U.S. Army used the Majestic to house World War II-era soldiers. On Dec. 15, 1945, the hotel reopened to civilians. It attracted celebrities such as actor Alan Ladd, comedian Phyllis Diller and orchestra leader Guy Lombardo.

“After Hawaii became a state in 1959, all things Hawaiian became popular. The Majestic opened the Lanai Tower in 1963. The Lanai suites were said to boast the first modern sliding-glass doors. The suites surrounded a waterfall and tropical-themed pool. With the completion of the Lanai Tower, the Majestic became an eclectic mix of architectural styles — traditional red brick, the yellow-brick building and the tropical-themed Lanai suites. As was the case with most of downtown Hot Springs, business at the Majestic steadily declined through the 1980s due to a combination of highway rerouting, medical advances that made spa bathing outdated and the cessation of illegal gambling in the city.”

Southwest Hotels closed the Majestic in 2006. The yellow-brick building burned in a huge fire in February 2014. The remainder of the hotel, which was boarded up and deteriorating badly, was torn down last year.

H. Grady Manning was only 47 when he died in Hot Springs on Sept. 4, 1939. He reportedly drowned. The Little Rock City Council passed a resolution saying that Manning would “always be remembered as a man of the highest integrity and devotion toward the welfare of his community, the state and the nation.”

His widow continued to operate Southwest Hotels before passing the company on to the couple’s only child, Joy Manning Scott, who died in June 2014. She grew up in her family’s hotels and later married Morin Scott, living in Austin, Texas. The couple was married for 55 years.

Control of the company passed to Monty Scott, the son of Joy and Morin Scott.

Monty Scott, who was born at Austin in 1949, worked for a time at the investment firm Goldman Sachs and in the oil and gas industry before joining Southwest Hotels. He died unexpectedly in January 2016. Soon afterward the Scott family began entertaining offers for the Arlington, the last hotel under the auspices of a company that once had owned 10 hotels.



The Arlington: Relief and anxiety

Tuesday, July 11th, 2017

My initial reaction, like that of a lot of Arkansans, was relief when I heard Monday that the sale of the Arlington Hotel had been finalized.

The Arlington is the most iconic privately owned structure in our state. For decades, those of us who love this Southern grande dame watched with sadness as she became a shell of her former self.

We dreamed of a day when a new owner would step in and restore her.

We dreamed of a day when those in surrounding states once more would flock to the hotel, knowing that it was THE place to stay in Arkansas.

We dreamed of a day when those of us close enough to make day trips to Hot Springs would go to the Arlington just for the food.

We dreamed of a day when statewide associations again would make it the headquarters hotel for their conventions.

We dreamed of a day when its bathhouse would rival any spa in America.

We dreamed of a day when the place to see and be seen in Arkansas would be the lobby of the renovated Arlington Hotel.

We dreamed of a day when the Arlington veranda would be described as Arkansas’ front porch, a civilized place to sit in a comfortable chair under a spinning ceiling fan while having a well-made drink.

So we cheered when we heard that the last remaining hotel in the once formidable Southwest Hotels portfolio had been sold. Perhaps the day we had dreamed of wasn’t far away.

Soon, however, relief turned to anxiety.

We worried that so little is known about the new owner, Al Rajabi of San Antonio. He recently renovated what had been the Clarion (and the Hilton before that) into the Four Points by Sheraton on South University Avenue in Little Rock. But this isn’t a chain hotel catering to folks with relatives in nearby hospitals. This is the Arlington, a hotel that should be mentioned in the same breath as other old Southern resorts such as the Greenbrier in West Virginia and the Homestead in Virginia.

We worried when we were told that Rajabi had owned 30 hotels through the years. That’s because no list of those hotels was provided.

We worried that an announcement that had been in the works for weeks gave no details whatsoever about renovation plans.

We worried that Rajabi would not answer questions from the media, directing people instead to a news release that contained precious few details.

We worried that the company that bought the hotel, Sky Capital Group LP, was only formed in April.

We worried that the news release said Sky Capital was the owner and operator of the Four Points in Little Rock even though the owner of record is Windsor Capital LLP, of which Rajabi is a partner.

For all we know, these questions will be answered in the days to come.

Please forgive us for having doubts, Mr. Rajabi, but we’ve been fooled so many times through the years in Hot Springs.

Southwest allowed the Majestic Hotel to deteriorate as the Arlington has done. Two subsequent owners made promises but did nothing. That old gal finally burned.

Several  developers promised to redevelop the Velda Rose. It still sits empty today.

South down Central Avenue, we were told that the Royale Vista Inn finally would be redeveloped. Scaffolding went up, but nothing was ever completed.

What has been the trademark of Hot Springs in recent decades? More than hot baths and thoroughbred racing, unfortunately, it has been landlords who have allowed their properties to deteriorate, milking every dime out of them and putting little back in.

You will excuse us, Mr. Rajabi, for being skeptical. You see, we’ve seen too many people fail to deliver on their promises in our beloved Spa City.

Your online biography says you graduated from UCLA in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, so maybe you can understand the anxiety on the part of this societal segment known as Arkansans.

Prove us wrong, Mr. Rajabi.

Please prove us wrong.

Renovate the rooms, reducing the number while increasing the size.

After refreshing the beautiful Venetian Dining Room (so much potential there), bring in a big-name chef who will be an attraction in his/her own right.

Mixology is all the rage these days, so hire some hip, young bartenders who will have millennials driving all the way from Little Rock for a drink.

Transform the bathhouse into a spa that people as far away as Dallas will want to visit.

Fill the veranda with furniture in Dorothy Draper pastels and add an outside bar.

Fill your basement with high-end boutiques.

Transform the neighboring Wade Building into a place for high-dollar suites.

Mr. Rajabi, as I stated at the outset, the Arlington isn’t just another hotel, at least for those of us born and raised in this state. I’ll say it again: It’s the most iconic privately owned building in Arkansas.

With this purchase comes certain obligations to the 3 million people of Arkansas.

We wish you well, Mr. Rajabi.

Please don’t disappoint us.


The great disasters

Thursday, July 6th, 2017

You really can’t understand Arkansas without understanding the effect the Great Flood of 1927, the Great Drought of 1930-31 and the Great Flood of 1937 had on this state.

Those events combined to create an image of Arkansas as a place you wanted to move away from rather than move to.

That exodus lasted long past these three landmark natural disasters. In fact, Arkansas lost a higher percentage of its population from 1940-60 than any other state.

This has without a doubt been a bad year as far as flooding in east Arkansas. April rains were common in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, and that water flowed south, inundating almost 980,000 acres of farmland at an estimated cost of $175 million.

Extension agents reported damage to row crops in 21 of the state’s 75 counties.

The counties impacted the most in terms of acres flooded were Poinsett (194,900), Greene (138,000), Prairie (125,000), Lawrence (80,000) and Randolph (60,000).

As bad as this year’s spring floods were, they pale in comparison to what occurred in 1927 and 1937.

Those events changed our state forever. Combined with the 1930-31 drought, the mechanization of agriculture and the Great Migration of black sharecroppers and tenant farmers, we’ve seen the inexorable decline of the Arkansas Delta, which once was the richest area of the state with the most powerful political players.

The 1927 flood covered almost 6,600 square miles in Arkansas with 36 of 75 counties affected.

Nancy Hendricks writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “In Arkansas, more people were affected by the floodwaters (more than 350,000), more farmland inundated (more than 2 million acres), more Red Cross camps were needed (80 of 154 total) and more families received relief (41,243) than any other state. In Arkansas, almost 100 people died, more than any state except Mississippi. In monetary terms, the losses in Arkansas surpassed all other affected states.”

The September 1927 issue of National Geographic described the scene in Arkansas City. The streets were dry at noon one day. By 2 p.m., according to the magazine, “mules were drowning on Main Street faster than people could unhitch them from wagons.”

Hendricks describes what was going on across east Arkansas this way: “Water poured in and had nowhere to go. Homes and stores stood for months in six to 30 feet of murky water. Dead animals floated everywhere. Rich Arkansas farmland was covered with sand, coated in mud or simply washed away, still bearing shoots from spring planting.”

She contends that the 1927 flood had its origins in both nature and man. She explains: “In the late 1920s, technological advances kept pace with the growing economy. Heavy machinery enabled the construction of a vast system of levees to hold back rivers that tended to overrun their banks. Drainage projects opened up new, low-lying lands that had once been forests but had been left bare by the timber industry.

“Feeling protected from flooding by the levees, farmers borrowed money with easy credit from banks booming with the record levels of the stock market. They expanded their fields to low-lying areas on their own property or moved to new lands that were fertile from centuries of seasonal flooding. They felt safe behind the levees and secure in selling their crops to new markets, now accessible by railroad, truck, automobiles and even international shipping. The buy-now-pay-later mindset of the 1920s encouraged people, including farmers of modest means, to purchase washing machines and other labor-saving devices on installment plans. Even nature seemed to be cooperating as the summer of 1926 brought rain instead of drought.

“The spring of 1927, however, saw warm weather and early snow melts in Canada, causing the upper Mississippi to swell. Rain fell in the upper Midwest, sending its full rivers gushing into the already swollen Mississippi. Its destination, the Gulf of Mexico, acted as a stopper when it too became full. Then, in the South, it began to rain.”

The Mississippi backed up into the Arkansas, St. Francis and White rivers.

The White backed up into the Cache, the Little Red and the Black.

The St. Francis backed up into the L’Anguille.

Near its confluence with the Mighty Mississippi in southeast Arkansas, the White even ran backward at one point as Mississippi River water poured in.

“Levees could not hold, with every one between Fort Smith and Little Rock failing under the enormous surge of water,” Hendricks writes.

Almost twice as much farmland was under water in Arkansas as in Louisiana and Mississippi combined.

“Radios broadcast warnings,” Hendricks writes. “Airplanes helped locate survivors clinging to rooftops or tree limbs. Motorboats aided the evacuation, and trains carried people to shelters on high ground. The American Red Cross, as well as fellow citizens, responded quickly with emergency workers arriving by trains, trucks and automobiles. In Arkansas, 50 refugee camps, using Army tents and cots, were hastily built by the Red Cross, with one in Forrest City holding more than 15,000 of the homeless. But victims kept arriving from all around Arkansas — cold, sick and hungry. Some found shelter in public buildings or other makeshift locations. Nearly all found themselves without food, water or dry clothing. The segregated tent cities on high ground could barely hold them all. Disease ran rampant in overcrowded camps. Conditions then worsened.

“With the floodwater having nowhere to go, much of Arkansas remained under water through the spring and summer and into September 1927. Farmers could not plant crops. The carcasses of thousands of dead animals lay rotting in stagnant pools. Mosquitoes found perfect conditions to breed that summer, carrying malaria and typhoid to refugee camps already burdened with dysentery and the threat of smallpox. Emergency workers at the camps were also shocked at the extent of pellagra, a vitamin deficiency disease brought on by lack of protein.”

John Barry notes in his classic work of nonfiction “Rising Tide” that a struggle that began as man against nature changed to one of “man against man. Honor and money collided. White and black collided. Regional and national power structures collided. The collisions shook America.”

Hendricks says that some of those man-against-man collisions occurred in Arkansas: “Planters feared that their sharecroppers, both black and white and mostly in debt, might not return home from the Red Cross camps, leaving them without enough labor to put crops in the fields when the land dried out. This led to a controversial mandate in which sharecroppers, particularly black sharecroppers, were admitted to and released from the camps only under the supervision of their planters. African-Americans needed a pass to enter or leave the Red Cross camps. Some were forced at gunpoint by law enforcement officials to survive on the levees indefinitely in makeshift tents as water rose around them while would-be rescue boats left empty. They were forced by the National Guard with fixed bayonets to work on the levees.”

She says the flood “spurred a mass migration of black sharecroppers who had tired of farming, poverty and debt. Thousands left the plantation as soon as they could, heading north to look for jobs in cities such as Detroit and Chicago. Mechanization and corporate farming replaced their labor.”

The misery in Arkansas didn’t end when 1927 ended.

Far from it.

Just as the state was starting to recover from the Great Flood of 1927, the Great Depression began in 1929.

The problems were compounded by the state’s worst drought of the 20th century in 1930-31. That drought affected 23 states. Just as had been the case with the Great Flood, Arkansas bore the brunt of the damage. Rainfall in June and July of 1930 was the lowest on record for those months. Temperatures reached as high as 107 degrees in July and soared as high as 113 degrees in August.

By Aug. 2, 1930, Little Rock had gone 71 days without rain.

Arkansas’ leading cash crop was cotton in all but five counties (Benton, Carroll, Madison, Newton and Washington), and average yield fell from six to two bales per 20 acres. T. Roy Reid of the Agricultural Extension Service noted that of the state’s 75 counties, only Benton County would have “sufficient food for its farm population and livestock feed to tide it over the winter.”

Indeed, there was a food riot in England on Jan 3, 1931, as more than 500 people demanded rations outside a Red Cross office.

Though the drought eased in 1931, it remained serious.

Historian Ben Johnson of Southern Arkansas University writes: “Drought-stricken Arkansas became a metaphor for anxieties spawned by the Depression.

“Without crops to sell or gardens to live off of, family food supplies dwindled, with tenant farmers often hit hardest, depending on fishing, hunting and the few surviving garden plants,” John Spurgeon writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Arkansas’ U.S. senators, Joe T. Robinson and Thaddeus Caraway, outlined a relief program using both state and federal money. Robinson described the drought as having brought ‘almost complete crop failure.’ Between 30 and 50 percent of Arkansas crops were lost. … Delta plantation owners did not want free food given to their tenants, fearing it would disrupt their labor force and destabilize already reduced wages.”

In 1937, there was another huge flood in Arkansas. It inundated 1,037,500 acres of farmland and 756,800 acres of other land. An estimated 40,916 families were affected, and 75 relief camps had to be established in the state. An additional 14 camps were set up at Memphis to serve refugees from Arkansas.

“Arkansas’ floodwaters came from tributary streams no longer able to drain effectively due to the cresting Mississippi River,” Spurgeon writes. “Bayou de View as well as the Black, Cache, L’Anguille, Little Red, Spring, Strawberry, St. Francis, Tyronza and White rivers spilled across agricultural terrain mostly bare of crops that time of year. While the Arkansas River was at flood stage at Van Buren for only one day, the White River exceeded flood stages below Calico Rock, and the St. Francis River had considerable flooding from January into March. The largely rural, agricultural Delta saw the spread of the floodwaters into tenants’ and sharecroppers’ homes and communities already struggling from the effects of drought, the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.”

R. S. Hayden, a Methodist preacher at Forrest City, wrote in early February that the city housed “15,000 refugees with more coming, plus 20,000 mules, cows, dogs, cats and chickens.”

“The U.S. Army, Arkansas National Guard and volunteers prepared twice-daily meals for the displaced,” Spurgeon writes. “As floodwaters receded and families returned home, baskets of food were distributed. Law and order were the responsibility of the local authorities supplemented by the National Guard. A principal warehouse at Forrest City was established to collect and move materials to other sites. Recreation programs were instituted for adults and children at camps and centers. The Works Progress Administration’s Federal Theater Project had a mobile unit that offered a variety show touring Arkansas.”

In 1927, political and economic power in Arkansas were centered in the Delta. The poorest counties were in the Ozarks, where rocky land proved unsuitable for growing cotton. Companies such as Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt were still far in the future.

The shift began with the Great Flood of 1927 and continued with the Great Drought of 1930-31 and the Great Flood of 1937.

The mechanization of agriculture and the resulting loss of tens of thousands of Delta residents followed.

Now counties that were among the richest in 1927 are among the poorest, and those that were the poorest are the richest.

Civil discourse on Petit Jean

Tuesday, June 27th, 2017

I can understand why the late Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller loved it so here.

It’s a Tuesday morning, and I’m the only person at Stout’s Point, the easternmost tip of Petit Jean Mountain. It’s quiet. I listen to the oak leaves rustling in the wind and a couple of crows who insist on making their presence known.

This also once was known as Nelson Point. Daniel Nelson (who’s not an ancestor as far as I can tell) built his home here in the early 1890s and planted apple orchards. Those orchards later failed, and the Nelson land was sold. The name Stout’s Point honors William Cummings Stout, who in 1849 had become the first ordained Episcopal priest in the state. There was a hotel here — the Hotel Petit Jean — at one time. It became part of a YMCA camp in 1920. That camp ceased operations in the 1940s, and the land was purchased by the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas, which now operates Camp Mitchell atop Petit Jean and lets the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism use Stout’s Point as a park.

“Petit Jean claimed 100 family farms by 1900,” Donald Higgins writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “For perhaps 75 years, small farm agriculture and orchards flourished on Petit Jean Mountain. By the late 1920s, however, a crash in cotton prices, droughts, blight and insect infestations, combined with poor soil management practices, took a toll on family farms. Petit Jean’s population decreased, making land available for other uses.

“Petit Jean’s Dr. T.W. Hardison had bigger ideas and in 1921 influenced Congressman Henderson Madison Jacoway to introduce House Resolution 9086 in the U.S. House of Representatives, creating Petit Jean National Park with the mountain’s rugged Seven Hollows area as its foundation. The action failed, but shortly thereafter, in 1923, Hardison led an effort by a group of local businessmen to donate land in Cedar Creek Canyon to become Arkansas’ first state park by Act 276 of the Legislature.

“Depopulation during the Great Depression and World War II struck hard at the mountain community, but as farming diminished, new residents and recreation enthusiasts took up the slack. The Civilian Conservation Corps-constructed park infrastructure drew increasing numbers of visitors, and various commercial enterprises blossomed.”

In 1953, Rockefeller began purchasing what essentially was worn-out scrubland that once had been used to raise cotton. Locals found jobs that paid far better than what they could get elsewhere in Conway County. It was unusual for working-class whites to take orders from a black man in the early 1950s, but Rockefeller foreman Jimmy Hudson quickly earned the respect of those who worked for him.

Land was cleared, grass was planted, fences were erected and an irrigation system was installed. Rockefeller brought the famed Santa Gertrudis breed of cattle to Arkansas. The tropical beef breed had been developed in south Texas. The breed was named for the Spanish land grant in south Texas where Richard King established the King Ranch. When the breed was recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1940, it became the first beef breed to have been developed in the United States.

In his 2004 book “Winthrop Rockefeller, Philanthropist,” former aide John Ward wrote: “Winrock Farms was on the world stage as far as cattle breeding and research were concerned, and this was just what Rockefeller intended. From its inception, Winrock served to provide education, expertise and guidance to the many people who came in contact with it. Rockefeller was especially proud of the quality of the operation, from the scientific to the utterly practical, and the farm’s contributions to development of better beef cattle was widely known and appreciated.

“His annual cattle sale at the farm attracted buyers and interested participants from throughout the world who needed fine Santa Gertrudis breeding stock. … Representatives of the King Ranch were regular buyers at the sale, as was Rockefeller at their sales in Texas. To some degree, Rockefeller buying King Ranch stock at high prices and King Ranch doing the same at the Winrock cattle sale was a bit of public relations, but it was a source of amazement to those who watched prices of $40,000 to $50,000 being paid for outstanding bulls.

“Winrock had intern programs for youth and other opportunities for young and old alike to gain knowledge and experience, and it pleased him to see the acceptance and continuing development of the livestock and science surrounding it he so carefully husbanded at the farm.

“From that operation evolved the Winrock International Livestock Research and Training Center, established in response to Rockefeller’s request in his will that trustees of his estate be venturesome and innovative in creating and supporting institutions that would help people help themselves. A decade later, a larger entity was created from combining with Winrock two other organizations also rooted in the philanthropic tradition of the Rockefeller family. One was the Agricultural Development Council, which grew from an organization founded by Winthrop’s eldest brother, John. It was designed to stimulate and support economic training related to human welfare in rural Asia. The other was the International Agricultural Development Service, created with initial support from the Rockefeller Foundation. Its aim was to provide services to developing countries that wanted to strengthen their agricultural research and development programs. Together they became the Winrock International Institute for Agricultural Development. The Winthrop Rockefeller Trust put more than $85 million into it during its first decade of existence.”

Marion Burton, who has long helped manage the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust, said the late governor viewed Arkansas “as a place where he could make a difference. I think he was frustrated with where he had been living. I think he simply got tired of the routines.”

More than anything, Rockefeller wanted his ranch atop Petit Jean Mountain to be a place where people would come, discuss ideas and have time for contemplation in a relaxing setting away from their offices.

Former journalist and Rockefeller friend Dorthy Stuck said Rockefeller “found a certain amount of peace right here on this mountain. The big task now is to keep his legacy alive.”

That job has fallen to the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, which the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust and the University of Arkansas joined forces to create when Winrock International moved its offices from Petit Jean to Little Rock’s Riverdale neighborhood. More than $20 million was spent to create a world-class conference center atop the mountain. A gallery and interactive theater tell the story of the Rockefeller years in Arkansas. The gallery is titled “Winthrop Rockefeller: A Sphere of Power and Influence Dropped Into a River of Need.”

Those involved in the institute’s creation have shared with me from time to time their frustration in finding a focus. In its early years, WRI tried to be all things to all people and met with limited success. In 2011, the chief operating officer of the Paley Center for Media in New York City, Christy Carpenter, was hired and tasked with increasing WRI’s national profile. Carpenter brought along her husband, actor Robert Walden, a New York native best known for his role as Joe Rossi on the television series “Lou Grant.”

Carpenter’s parents were two Washington-based journalists, Les and Liz Carpenter of the Carpenter News Bureau. Liz Carpenter went to work for Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson and was with LBJ on that November day in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. It was Liz Carpenter who wrote the short statement Johnson released after being sworn in as president aboard Air Force One at Love Field.

Christy Carpenter seemed to have the pedigree needed to advance WRI. But by the spring of 2013, Carpenter — a city girl at heart — had tired of the remoteness of Petit Jean Mountain. Back at square one, the WRI trustees decided this time to go with an Arkansan who might stay around awhile. In December 2013, it was announced that Marta Loyd of Greenwood, the vice chancellor for university advancement at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, had been hired as WRI’s executive director.

Loyd worked at UAFS for 17 years. A dozen of those years were as vice chancellor. She had headed the school’s foundation since 2002 and helped raised the money needed to transform Westark Community College into UAFS.

During a luncheon speech last year, Loyd said: “I put very little serious thought into my future when I was young. I wanted to be a dental hygienist because I could work part time, make a good wage and be a wife and mother. I accomplished all of that by the age of 26.”

In a story about the WRI executive director, Jeff LeMaster wrote: “Her opportunity to step into higher education came when Westark was hiring a part-time continuing education program coordinator. The job requirements were a bachelor’s degree and organizational experience. Citing her organizational experience from church committees and the school PTA, Marta got the job. Not too long after, she was approached about helping to start a dental hygiene school at the college. She took that on for no extra pay but proved herself and made connections with key people in the college’s administration.

“Along the way, the university earned her loyalty by giving her an opportunity to stay home and care for her son after he was involved in an accident that almost claimed one of his eyes. Marta had to take off two weeks to care for him, and the timing couldn’t have been worse. It fell right when she was supposed to finish and submit an application for the new dental hygiene school, and her taking off the two weeks meant a six-month delay in the project. But the college’s president at the time, Joel Stubblefield, didn’t hesitate in telling Marta to take the time off. … She has never forgotten that. In her own words, Marta determined then ‘that if I ever became a leader, I would do all I could to make sure people didn’t have to choose between work and family.’

“After returning to work and successfully starting the dental hygiene school, Marta was hired to work in development. The vice chancellor for university advancement at the time, Dr. Carolyn Moore, brought Marta under her wing, promising her she would teach her everything she knew about development and that someday Marta could take her job. Moore also encouraged Marta to pursue advanced degrees, first her master’s in educational leadership and then her doctorate in educational leadership and policy analysis.”

Loyd has proved to be a good fit at WRI, where she has raised staff morale and found ways to use the mountaintop property to its highest potential. She also has ensured that the Winthrop Rockefeller legacy is never forgotten.

“It’s ingrained in the culture here,” LeMaster, WRI’s director of communications and marketing, says. “There’s nothing we do that doesn’t recognize the impact he had on this state. We’re always mindful of his legacy.”

Janet Harris, WRI’s director of programs, puts it this way: “You can feel Gov. Rockefeller’s presence here. He chose Arkansas as his home and believed so strongly in the potential of this state. We want people to come here and see the possibilities for what Arkansas can be.”

Rockefeller loved it when national and world leaders would visit his ranch and say, “I had no idea there was anything like this in Arkansas.”

Loyd says she now smiles when she hears WRI visitors express amazement at how nice the facility is.

LeMaster says that one of the best things about Rockefeller is that he built the Republican Party in Arkansas while at the same time forcing the Democratic Party to modernize. Because of that, both Republicans and Democrats claim his legacy.

Loyd, LeMaster and Harris say Petit Jean is a place where people can unwind and think. It’s a place where partisan Republicans and Democrats can get together, debate issues in a thoughtful manner and decide on a path forward for the state.

“It’s quiet here,” Harris says. “It forces people to get to know each other.”

I wrote a post on this blog back in May 2010 that closed this way: “Arkansas needs a place such as the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, a secluded spot where we can gather to examine our past, debate our current problems and design our future. I can’t help but believe WR would be proud of what has become of the ranch he called home for almost two decades.”

There have been bumps in the road in the more than seven years since that was written. But I still believe WR would be proud, especially now that the institute that bears his name has found its focus.


Pine Bluff proud

Friday, June 16th, 2017

I’m proud of the people of Pine Bluff.

On Tuesday, they went to the polls and approved by more than a 2-to-1 margin a sales tax initiative designed to stem the loss of population in southeast Arkansas’ largest city.

Nothing is ever easy in Pine Bluff with its us vs. them, rich vs. poor, black vs. white style of politics.

Loud-mouthed demagogues have too often held sway in that city through the years. Indeed, there was organized opposition to this initiative and people (including at least one member of the Pine Bluff City Council) made outrageous claims.

This time, though, a majority of those who voted said “enough.”

Enough of the race baiting.

Enough of the scare tactics.

Enough of the politics of division.

They realized that this was the last chance to truly turn Pine Bluff around before it was in a death spiral.

During 2016, about 100 Pine Bluff residents participated in a planning process funded by the Simmons First Foundation. The effort is known as Go Forward Pine Bluff. In January, members of the Go Forward Pine Bluff task force unveiled a 27-point plan for revitalization covering everything from education to infrastructure.

How to fund the implementation of those recommendations?

The five-eighths of a cent sales tax approved last week is expected to produce about $4 million annually for the next seven years.

Go Forward Pine Bluff officials have said that they will raise another $20 million in private funds to give the city a pot of almost $48 million to implement the recommendations.

There were plenty of business leaders across the state who were prepared to write Pine Bluff off for good had the initiative failed.

Now, there’s hope.

But it’s going to take a lot more than $48 million to revitalize Pine Bluff, which has been bleeding population in recent years. Additional private capital is needed.

A Yankee just might be what this bastion of the Old South needs.

Meet Tom Reilley.

Reilley is the entrepreneur who brought a wood pellet plant to Pine Bluff.

He lives in New Hampshire and began his career with the investment firm Bear Stearns. He was transferred to London by the company in 2002 to establish a wealth management division. Reilley left the company in 2007 to form a private equity company known as Kalan Capital.

While searching for the ideal place to locate the Highland Pellets facility, Reilley fell in love with the people of Pine Bluff.

He also came to appreciate the potential of the old building downtown that once housed the Hotel Pines.

More on that in a moment. First, a bit more about Highland Pellets.

There’s a growing demand in Europe for wood pellets, which are used as fuel for power plants. The United Kingdom and countries in the European Union are trying to phase out coal-fired plants.

In a statement last year, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said: “I believe that this renewable resource can help play a role in the global shift toward clean and more sustainable energy sources. … As governor of Arkansas, I aim to maintain both the vitality of Arkansas’ forests as well as the wood energy trade between Arkansas and nations within the EU.”

EU member states are assigned national renewable energy targets.

Plans for the $229 million Pine Bluff wood pellet plant were first announced in August 2014. The initial employment is 68 people, and the facility is expected to create hundreds of indirect jobs in south Arkansas as it helps revitalize the timber industry in that part of the state. The facility will use about 1.4 million tons of wood annually, most Southern yellow pine. Pellets will be transported by Union Pacific to the Port of Baton Rouge in railcars and then loaded onto ships in order to make the trip to Europe.

The Arkansas Economic Development Commission estimates the financial impact of the facility will be more than $86 million annually.

The Pine Bluff plant delivered its first pellets in April. It’s expected to be fully operational by the third quarter of this year.

According to the Highland website: “All fiber supplied to these sites will be sustainable with a significant proportion coming from residual waste wood (shavings and sawdust) from local sawmills.”

Highland Pellets is a privately held company with veterans from the wood pellet, finance and energy markets involved.

At the groundbreaking ceremony for the plant last fall, Hutchinson said: “Highland Pellets’ leadership is passionate about this new facility and the impact it will have on Jefferson County’s economy. They are determined to have a lasting effect, not only on their employees but also also on the entire community.”

Arkansas has more than 18.8 million acres of forestland, providing plenty of raw materials for the plant. Reilley also took into consideration competitive utility rates and a good transportation infrastructure.

He didn’t count on becoming obsessed with rebuilding Pine Bluff.

Reilley was instrumental in the formation of a grassroots group known as Pine Bluff Rising that works to complement the efforts of Go Forward Pine Bluff. In January, Pine Bluff Rising purchased the Hotel Pines for $1 from previous owner Elvin Moon.

At the time of the purchase, Reilley said: “Pine Bluff Rising is undertaking a thorough investigation of the structure as well as the challenges and opportunities that may exist.”

He told me in January that he didn’t know if the building could be saved but was willing to spend whatever was necessary to find out.

“The Hotel Pines was conceived and built to attract more business to the section of Main Street that lies to the south of the city’s railroad tracks,” states the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “As such, it provides a glimpse at one effort to alter a city’s main business and shopping area in the early 20th century. This classically designed hotel was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on Aug. 10, 1979.

“Since the area north of the tracks was a thriving commercial district, the city’s Main Street property owners believed that the presence of a modern hotel would lure business south of the tracks. Many of Jefferson County’s leading citizens became stockholders in the new enterprise. Architect George Mann, who designed the state Capitol and the Marion Hotel in Little Rock, was selected to plan the new facility. Paul Heerwagen of Fayetteville was hired to decorate the interior. Heerwagen’s experience included work on hotels such as the Piedmont in Atlanta. Gov. George Washington Hays delivered the principal address at the Nov. 6, 1913, opening.

“When it opened, the Hotel Pines was regarded as one of the finest hotels in Arkansas. Located near Union Station, the hotel offered porter service to carry baggage to and from the station. It also was the location of society balls and dances, banquets and business and civic meetings. … Hotel Pines operated continuously for 57 years. When passenger rail service to Pine Bluff ended in 1968, the hotel lost its primary clientele, closing in the spring of 1970.”

What once had been a symbol of Pine Bluff prosperity came to symbolize Pine Bluff’s decline.

Reilley knows that symbolism is important. He understands that a revived Hotel Pines will send a message statewide that Pine Bluff has reclaimed its status as the regional capital for the southeast quadrant of Arkansas.

Reilley thinks it will take at least $35 million to renovate the building. He plans to utilize a combination of state and federal historic renovation tax credits, New Market tax credits, charitable contributions and private capital to get the job done. He brought in WER Architects/Planners of Little Rock, East Harding Construction of Little Rock and interior designer Kaki Hockersmith to come up with a plan to show potential investors.

Writing in The Pine Bluff Commercial, Knowles Adkisson related what has gone on with the building the past few decades: “The property has changed hands many times over the years, usually with promises from the buyer to restore the hotel to its former glory. None have yet comes to pass, and it has presented a conundrum: Too expensive to rebuild yet too expensive to tear down. The city first inspected the hotel during the 1970s with plans to renovate it, according to Luther Drye, a former building inspector for the city. However, the city was never able to come up with the funds, he said. By the 1980s, it had fallen into disrepair.”

Drye told the newspaper: “It was substandard. The city has codes covering existing buildings. It was dilapidated, windows falling out, hitting the sidewalk below, stuff like that. There was a bad roof in the northwest corner. … The basement stayed full of water. That didn’t help.”

A nonprofit organization called Citizens United to Save the Pines purchased the property but couldn’t come up with the funds to restore it. Moon, a Los Angeles resident who grew up in Pine Bluff, bought the hotel in 2008 but also failed to find funds for renovations.

Pine Bluff Rising announced in early June that it will move forward with renovation efforts. The group released a statement that said: “Some have asked why we are doing this. The answer to us is clear: We wish to help rebuild the economic, social and cultural heart of downtown Pine Bluff through an asset the community can … point to with pride.”

I sometimes compare Pine Bluff to an old boxer who has been knocked down many times but is trying to make a comeback. I find that people across the state are now rooting for Pine Bluff rather than making jokes about Crime Bluff.

Reilley wants a building that will have people coming and going at all hours since it will include doctors’ offices, dentists’ offices, floral shops, beauty shops and the like in addition to hotel rooms. He dreams of restaurants, craft breweries and live music venues up and down the street. He wants to see the day when people from places like Dumas, McGehee and Warren will no longer need to drive all the way to Little Rock for a night out.

Reilley has been especially impressed by the city’s new mayor, Shirley Washington, a former educator.

“Think of her as a no-nonsense principal,” he says. “That’s exactly what Pine Bluff needs.”

He’s an optimist in a town where it had become hard to be optimistic.

Reilley, who bought a home in Pine Bluff, explains his efforts this way: “I’ve never been to a place with such a deep sense of community. People who could have left Pine Bluff long ago refused to do so because they love the place so much. And I fell in love with those people. Last year, even though I was extremely busy lining up financing and hiring a Highland management team, I started asking questions that people had a hard time answering. I wanted to know how a place with such a storied history — a place filled with people who love it — could have gotten into the shape Pine Bluff is in now.”


Spring at Couchwood

Thursday, April 20th, 2017

It’s time for lunch, but Elizabeth Dober is in no hurry to eat.

She’s pointing to framed black-and-white photos on the walls of the main lodge at Couchwood, the retreat built by Arkansas Power & Light Co. founder Harvey Couch on the shores of Lake Catherine.

Dober is particularly fascinated by a photo of Herbert Hoover that was taken in September 1927 when Couchwood was new.

The Great Flood of 1927 was ongoing, and Arkansas was one of the states hit the hardest. Hoover had run unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920. President Warren G. Harding later appointed him commerce secretary, and President Calvin Coolidge asked him to lead the federal response to the 1927 flood.

“In 1927, the Mississippi reclaimed three-quarters of its flood plain, devastating Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana,” writes historian John Barry. “The statistics recounting the damage are staggering. At its widest, the river created a vast inland sea more than 75 miles across. One could travel the normally dry 70 miles from Vicksburg to Monroe, La., by boat. Not counting the flooding of parts of cities as large as Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, just along the lower river alone, the homes of more than 920,000 people were damaged. The nation’s population at the time was only 120 million.

“Roughly 1 percent — perhaps more — of the entire population of the country was flooded out of their homes; 330,000 were rescued by boat from rooftops, trees, levee crowns and second stories. Hundreds of thousands of homes and commercial buildings were destroyed. No one knows the death toll — the Red Cross claimed it was only 246 but the Weather Bureau said 500, while a professional disaster expert estimated the dead in Mississippi alone at 1,000.

“But the biggest impact of the flood was less on individual communities that were inundated than on America itself. Far more than any other natural disaster, the 1927 Mississippi River flood altered the course of American history. It did this in four chief ways: It revised environmental management, propelled a dark horse to the presidency, altered the political landscape for African-Americans and expanded the role of government in crises.”

Barry writes that the 1927 flood “made Herbert Hoover president of the United States. An enormously wealthy engineer, Hoover developed and owned mines and oilfields in America, Russia, China, Australia, South America and Africa. But for all his wealth, he had no political base. How could he? Hoover had left the United States after graduating Stanford and did not return until the United States entered World War I. He had not even voted in a presidential election until 1920. Nonetheless he wanted to be president. A logistical genius, he had organized American food production and distribution during World War I and fed much of Europe in the immediate aftermath of the war. John Maynard Keynes said he was ‘the only man who emerged from the ordeal (of the peace conference) with an enhanced reputation.’

“He became known as the Great Humanitarian. Using his own wealth, he sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1920. His campaign was mocked, and he received no support. But President Warren G. Harding named him secretary of commerce, and in 1927, President Calvin Coolidge put him in charge of the response to the flood.

“The flood was the biggest story of the year and it lasted for weeks, through several crests, the rescue of populations and recovery planning. Hoover and his staff worked diligently to exploit the coverage; no newspaper was too small. Hoover personally communicated with weekly papers from Arizona and Texas to Washington state, Nebraska and Indiana. In evaluating his strategy, the present-day political commentator James Carville concluded that ‘Hoover had a better press operation than any politician I know today.’ Routinely, the press hailed Hoover as a hero and a savior; a California paper proclaimed, ‘He is the ablest and most efficient American in public life. … In personal fitness for the presidency there is no other American, even remotely, in Mr. Hoover’s class.’

“Coverage like that prompted Hoover to confide to a friend, ‘I shall be the nominee, probably. It is practically inevitable.'”

Hoover indeed captured the presidency in 1928.

Those who are familiar with Arkansas history won’t be surprised to learn that Harvey Couch was among Hoover’s confidants.

Born in 1877 near the Arkansas-Louisiana border in the Columbia County community of Calhoun, Couch took a job at age 21 as a mail clerk for the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway and quickly moved up the ladder.

Writing for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, Patricia Laster described Couch as the man who “helped bring Arkansas from an agricultural economy in the early 20th century to more of a balance between agriculture and industry. His persuasiveness with investors from New York and his ingenuity, initiative and energy had a positive effect on Arkansas’ national reputation among businessmen. He ultimately owned several railroad lines and a telephone company and was responsible for what became the state’s largest utility, AP&L.”

Laster wrote that Couch’s first job away from the family farm was “to fire the boiler of a local cotton gin’s gas steam engine and bring it up to the required pressure. He earned 50 cents a day. While waiting to hear about his application to the Railway Mail Service, he became a drugstore clerk. His hard work and honesty prompted his boss to assign him the additional task of collecting overdue accounts.

“At age 21, he was hired as a mail clerk on the St. Louis-Texarkana route of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railway and was soon transferred to head clerk on the St. Louis Southwestern Railway. At a water stop, Couch noticed a construction crew raising a pole — not for the telegraph line but as part of a long-distance telephone system. After questioning the linemen, he saw a chance to help bring phone service to places like Magnolia. He paid a colleague $50 to exchange routes so he could clerk the Magnolia-north Louisiana route. Enlisting his brother Pete as crew leader to move and set up poles and a postmaster in Louisiana to become a partner, Couch began the North Louisiana Telephone Co. The line expanded, and Couch bought his partner’s share of the business.

“Couch’s expanding telephone system took him to Athens, La., where he met Jessie Johnson. They married on Oct. 4, 1904. The couple had five children. In 1911, Couch sold NLTC, which had 1,500 miles of line and 50 exchanges in four states, to Southwestern Bell for more than $1 million. Too young to retire, he was determined to build another company. In 1914, at the age of 35, he bought from Jack Wilson the only electric transmission line in the state, which ran 22 miles between Malvern and Arkadelphia. The system ran only at night.

“Sixteen years later, bolstered by hydroelectric dams on the Ouachita River, the company that Couch named Arkansas Power & Light had 3,000 miles of line serving cities and towns in 63 of the state’s 75 counties as well as 3,000 farmers. The company, now called Entergy, serves 2.4 million customers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.”

Couch went on to create Louisiana Power & Light Co. and Mississippi Power & Light Co. He built the country’s first modern gas-fueled power plant near Monroe, La.

On the Ouachita River, he built Remmel and Carpenter dams, forming Lake Hamilton and Lake Catherine (which was named after his only daughter).

His main home and business offices were in Pine Bluff. Laster wrote that the only luxury he allowed himself was Couchwood.

The famous humorist Will Rogers was among those who visited Couchwood. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dropped by in 1936 while he was in Arkansas to help the state celebrate its centennial.

The compound covers 170 acres and remains in the Couch family. Elizabeth Dober is the granddaughter of Harvey Couch. Her father was Harvey Jr., who went by Don. She lives in Little Rock and has helped manage Couchwood for the past couple of decades.

Dober’s mother was from a prominent old south Louisiana sugar-growing family, the Levert family. The Levert Cos., established in 1915, still own a planation mansion near St. Martinville, La., known as the St. John House. The house, constructed of Louisiana cypress and surrounded by giant live oak trees, was built about 1828 by a wealthy planter named Alexandre DeClouet. Jean Batiste Levert and Louis Bush of New Orleans acquired the plantation and the home in July 1885. In February 1887, Bush sold his interest to Levert. The plantation has been owned by the Levert interests since that date.

After graduating from Virginia Military Institute and the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, Don Couch went to work for a bank in New Orleans and met his wife in the Crescent City.

In a 2014 story in the Levert family newsletter, Dober said: “I sometimes do feel I am married to Couchwood. … I arrange for repairmen such as plumbers and electricians, but a caretaker nearby meets with them. … I pay all the bills, fill out tax forms and get the paperwork ready for the CPA. I really enjoy the work at Couchwood because I feel like I am helping to preserve it.”

When Arkansas Business devoted much of a 2013 issue to Entergy’s 100th birthday, Dober told the publication: “Electric lights, bridges and promoting Arkansas were among grandfather’s favorite things.”

Dober refers to her grandfather as Daddy Couch, though she doesn’t remember him. Couch died of heart disease in 1941 — two years before Dober was born — in a house named Little Pine Bluff at Couchwood. Following funeral services in the city of Pine Bluff, a special train took his body to Magnolia to be buried adjacent to his parents. Couch’s private train car — named Magnolia — is now on the Couchwood grounds.

Hoover was meeting with Couch in 1927 because Gov. John Martineau had appointed Couch as the flood relief director for Arkansas. The Great Flood of 1927 was followed by the drought of 1930-31. Couch was appointed state relief chairman for that event and worked in Washington to help Arkansas obtain more than $20 million in federal loans for farmers.

“Hoover appointed Couch to the seven-member board for the president’s newly formed Reconstruction Finance Corp., which operated from 1931-56,” Laster wrote. “The RFC was the president’s way of getting the government involved. The new program’s mission was to strengthen confidence, facilitate exports, protect and aid agriculture, make temporary advances to industries and stimulate employment. Couch was one of seven directors of the RFC, and he moved to Washington, D.C., for three years. He served as supervisor of the public works section, overseeing budgets and encouraging the building of water and sewage systems, bridges and electric lines. He and Jesse Jones were the only Hoover appointees to stay on after Roosevelt was elected.”

“Look at Hoover with that tie on,” Dober says while admiring the 1927 photo. “They say he would go fishing in a coat and tie. Daddy Couch offered to take him fishing when he was here, but it was a Sunday and Hoover said, ‘The Hoovers don’t fish on Sundays.'”

There also are framed photos in the main lodge at Couchwood of well-known figures who have visited the compound in the decades since Couch’s death, including former U.S. Sens. Dale Bumpers and David Pryor.

During the 1930s, Harvey Couch would host what he called the Annual Round-Up, bringing together business and government leaders from across the region. A framed program from the March 1938 event gives these directions: “When you come in the big gate, forget all your troubles. Be sure to sign the register. Couchwood is proud of its guests. Go to bed when you like and arise when you please. At meals, take as many helpings as you desire. If you don’t see what you want, ask for it. Stay as long as you like and return soon. Everything is off the record.”

The main lodge has eight rooms and can sleep more than 20 people. A second house named Calhoun was built soon afterward. Its claim to fame is that visitors can fish off the porch. Little Pine Bluff was the next to be constructed, and Remmelwood (Couch’s only daughter, Catherine, married Pratt Remmel) was built after that.

The other four Couch children were boys — Johnson Olin Couch, Don Couch, Kirke Couch and Bill Couch. Catherine Couch Remmel died in January 2006 at age 87, the last of her generation. A fifth generation of the Couch family now enjoys Couchwood with the largest crowds traditionally turning up for the Fourth of July.

When Harvey Couch was presiding over the compound, rumors would spread about the identities of important figures visiting Couchwood. Time magazine reported one year that two visitors had arrived in a plane that landed on Lake Catherine.

The main lodge was designed by John Parks Almand of Little Rock, who was part of the team that designed Little Rock Central High School. Following the school’s completion in 1927, the American Institute of Architects described it as “the most beautiful high school in America.” Almand also designed the Medical Arts Building in downtown Hot Springs, which was the tallest building in the state for almost 30 years after opening in 1930.

“Almand worked in a variety of architectural styles during his 50-year career, including Arts and Crafts, Art Deco, Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival, Gothic Revival and California Mission,” the Encyclopedia of Arkansas said of the architect. “A stickler for detail, Almand recommended the finest materials to his clients and required a high level of workmanship from builders. On more than one occasion, he told a contractor to tear out and replace work that he deemed inferior.”

At Couchwood, Almand used red cedar logs shipped in by train from Oregon.

Harvey Couch later hired sculptor Dionicio Rodriguez to design planters, outdoor seating and even a drink cooler disguised as a tree stump. Rodriguez, a Mexican native, is probably best known for his work on the Old Mill in North Little Rock. Developer Justin Matthews brought Rodriguez to Arkansas in 1932 to work in Matthews’ Lakewood housing development.

“Couchwood offers the best collection of his work in the domestic sculpture category,” said the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Helpers built concrete footings for his sculptures, and the underpinnings were made with reinforcing bars, rods, mesh screen wire and rubble, held together with a rough coat of concrete. Metal materials were bound together with wire, not welded. Working outdoors, the sculptor himself applied the surface coat of smooth concrete or ‘neat’ cement, a term for pure Portland cement. To imitate nature, varied textures were created using his hands, forks, spoons or handmade tools. Secretive about his methodology, the nomadic Rodriguez made no preliminary sketches or drawings and did not record the ingredients of the chemical washes used to tint his sculptures.”

Dober delights in showing off Couchwood and talking about “Daddy Couch.”

On display are Indian artifacts uncovered when Lake Catherine was constructed in the 1920s, a wall devoted to AP&L history and even the plaque presented on Harvey Couch Day in Pine Bluff in 1923.

Massachusetts may have the Kennedy compound on Cape Cod, but Arkansas has Couchwood on Lake Catherine.