Archive for the ‘Louisiana’ Category

On a barge at Rosedale

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

In a recent newspaper column, I harkened back to the much-publicized signing of a pact between the governors of Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. The ceremony took place in the spring of 1988 on a barge anchored in the Mississippi River at Rosedale, Miss.

I was listening to former President Clinton speak to a meeting of the Delta Grassroots Caucus in Little Rock a few weeks ago when I began thinking about that day on the barge.

Here’s how James Saggus of The Associated Press previewed the event in a story on May 12, 1988: “The governors of Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana will join forces aboard a Mississippi River barge Friday for a fight against the Delta region’s depressed economy. Govs. Ray Mabus of Mississippi, Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Louisiana’s Buddy Roemer will sign an agreement to address chronic problems of unemployment, illiteracy and poverty in fertile farmlands along the river. … Mabus said he hoped the ceremony would mark ‘the start of a regional economic development effort, one that will signal a new focus on our region of the country and attract international investments and national attention to the three-state region.’ Statistics show the Arkansas and Mississippi counties and Louisiana parishes in the Delta region — the flatlands on both sides of the river from Memphis to Natchez — are among the nation’s poorest, many with poverty levels above 50 percent.”

All three states had young governors with national political ambitions. It was often suggested in the late 1980s that one of them might become president.

“If we are successful, the country succeeds,” Mabus said that day in Rosedale. “We cannot have a truly vibrant country if we have pockets of despair, if there are places that do not fully share in the American dream.”

So here we are a quarter of a century later.

Clinton, of course, spent eight years in the White House.

I spent almost four years working on Delta issues in the administration of his successor. I was appointed by President Bush to serve on the Delta Regional Authority, which had been created in the final months of the Clinton administration.

Now it’s the spring of 2013, and Clinton is speaking on a Thursday night about the problems of the Delta. I’m sitting there taking notes, just as I would always do 25 years ago when I would cover Clinton in my job as Washington bureau chief of the Arkansas Democrat. It doesn’t seem much has changed in 25 years.

Are the problems of the Delta that intractable?

Will we still be talking about the same problems 25 years from now?

I learned a lot about the Delta by working full time on its issues and traveling its highways day after day. It was quite an education. I studied its history and came to the conclusion that, at least in my lifetime, most true Delta counties will never have the population bases they had 60 or 70 years ago.

The tens of thousands of sharecroppers who were once required to grow big crops of cotton are long gone from the region. Their children and grandchildren are never coming back. People go where the jobs are.

For too long our approach to economic development has been based on the idea that “bigger is better.” The goal was to find that manufacturing plant that would suddenly bring 300 or 400 jobs to town. Those kinds of industrial successes are going to become increasingly rare.

I came to the conclusion that Delta communities would have to get away from the idea that “bigger is better” and adopt the motto that “better is better.”

Concede the fact that the population of your town will never be as big as it once was while at the same time vowing that the community will work to ensure that the public schools are better, the hospital is more advanced, the streets are cleaner, race relations are improved, etc.

See what I mean?

Better is better.

Looking to the future, Clinton pointed to the good news: The Delta still has some of the world’s richest land. As the world’s population increases and the United States takes on more responsibility for feeding people, that land will become ever more valuable.

As land increases in value, the tax base improves.

Consider these facts just about Arkansas:

— The state is in the top 25 nationally in the production of 24 agricultural commodities, accounting for more than $16 billion of value added to the state each year.

— Arkansas continues to rank first nationally in rice production, growing about 48 percent of all U.S. rice. Rice is the state’s top agricultural export and is grown on more than 1.3 million acres of land.

— The value of rice exports from Arkansas is $918 million annually. Soybeans are next at $807 million. Rice and soybean prices have been high the past few years.

— The overall value of rice production is valued at almost $2 billion annually. Records were broken last year as rice growers in the state produced 7,340 pounds per acre, up 8 percent from 2011.

— Arkansas ranks third nationally in the production of cotton (with an export value of $473 million) and sixth in the production of grain sorghum.

— The state ranks second in overall aquaculture production and leads the nation in baitfish production, raising more than 80 percent of all U.S. baitfish. Arkansas also leads the nation in the production of largemouth bass for stocker fish, hybrid striped bass fry and Chinese carp.

Danny Kennedy of Riceland Foods does the math: “Today’s world population of 6.8 billion people is expected to grow to 9.1 billion by the year 2050. About half the earth’s population consumes rice as a primary component of their diets. World rice consumption will continue to increase in order to feed the expanding population.”

The world population growth also bodes well for the state’s soybean industry — soybeans are grown in more than 50 of the state’s 75 counties — and its expanding corn sector.

There’s also increased agricultural diversification in the Arkansas Delta. For instance, the state’s peanut crop grew from 600 acres in 2009 to 18,000 acres in 2012. Sweet potato acreage also is increasing.

Yes, the Delta will have fewer people. But the land will be worth more than ever. How do we leverage that to help those still living in the region?

There are two economic keys for the Arkansas Delta as we look out 10 to 20 years:

— Increased trade opportunities and public investment in the infrastructure (navigable rivers, ports, intermodel facilities, etc.) that enhance foreign trade. As far back as 1996, the Federal Highway Administration was noting in a report: “The most significant changes for the Delta economy have been improved access  to intermodal transportation terminals, combined with the increased capacity of those terminals. This has greatly strengthened the region’s commercial linkage to the rest of the nation and to important international markets around the world.”

— More value-added processing for agricultural products. Rather than simply shipping out commodities, the Delta must find additional ways to refine and process those commodities for consumers.

The most frustrating thing in my time with the DRA was the idea on the part of so-called local leaders that a small government agency could somehow change the economic trajectory of the past 50 years.

In his visit to Little Rock earlier this month, Clinton said: “There’s never going to be enough government money to take a poor region of America out of the dumps all by itself. You’ve got to have private-sector growth. And in order to have private-sector growth, you’ve got to have good government policy.”

In the Delta, much of the private-sector growth will be driven by agriculture. So when we talk about good government policy, we’re talking about farm policy, free-trade agreements, port investments and the like.

Clinton, who has always been an optimist at heart, said his “instinct is that the country is due for a pretty good recovery. There is going to be a revival of economic fortunes in rural America. The real questions should be: How do you speed it up? How do you make it sustainable?”

The Arkansas Delta was built first through the harvest of hardwood timber (virgin timber was shipped north to build homes and businesses in places such as St. Louis and Chicago) and later by cotton.

With more and more mouths to feed in the decades ahead, it appears the region’s salvation now will be rice, soybeans, corn, wheat and grain sorghum.

“There’s nothing wrong with people who live in the Delta,” Clinton said. “I just want you all to know that I do believe, after all of these decades, that you’re going to get rewarded if you just stay with it.”

Perhaps the barge that served as a political stage 25 years ago can in the future play a role in hauling grain to hungry people in India and China.

Paul McIlhenny: The king of Tabasco

Monday, February 25th, 2013

Back when I covered Oaklawn Park on a regular basis three decades ago, sports columnist Randy Galloway (then with The Dallas Morning News) would come to Hot Springs for the final week of the race meet.

In his briefcase, Galloway carried a large bottle of Tabasco sauce.

“You can make anything taste good with Tabasco,” he would say.

At Dallas Cowboys home games, I would again notice him pulling that big Tabasco bottle out of his briefcase.

On Saturday, Tabasco lost its leader when Paul McIlhenny died from a heart attack at his home in New Orleans. He was 68.

McIlhenny, who had headed the family company since 1998, once was dubbed by The New York Times as “the scion of spice.”

He was the sixth member of the McIlhenny family to be the company’s president. He gave up the presidency to cousin Tony Simmons last year but still held the titles of chairman and chief executive officer.

Here’s how the Times began its story on McIlhenny’s death: “Paul C.P. McIlhenny took joy in escorting visitors to his company’s warehouse, where wooden whiskey barrels filled with the aging pepper mash that is the main ingredient in Tabasco sauce were stacked six-high to the ceiling.

“With a flourish, he would ask an employee to crack open a couple of barrels. After the stinging smell of the peppers was noted, he asked guests to dab the mash with a finger and gingerly lick it. Tears flowed, air was gasped for and, at the host’s invitation, spit flew to clear tongues.

“Mr. McIlhenny had no doubt played the culinary instigator countless times in his 45 years at the McIlhenny Co., the makers of Tabasco pepper sauce, perhaps Louisiana’s best-known product. But he still chuckled as he gave his guests small spoons that earned them entry into the Not So Ancient Order of the Not So Silver Spoon.”

McIlhenny was an icon of the Southern food world, a man also dedicated to the region’s natural and cultural heritage. He was a major contributor to organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited. He also was a master business leader who saw the company’s sales soar with the introduction of new sauce flavors such as chipotle, Buffalo wing-style and sweet and spicy.

The Tabasco catalog included numerous items containing the company’s distinctive logo, and McIlhenny entered into licensing deals with everbody from the makers of Spam to the makers of A1 steak sauce.

He truly made Tabasco an international brand.

The family history is fascinating. Edmund McIlhenny was born in Maryland and moved to Louisiana in 1840. He first produced Tabasco sauce in 1868, putting it in discarded cologne bottles for family members and friends.

When Edumund McIlhenny died in 1890, oldest son John Avery McIlhenny took over the company and quickly expanded its operations. He resigned to join Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and was replaced by brother Edward Avery McIlhenny. Edward was a naturalist who had just returned from an adventure to the Arctic. He would run the company from 1898 until his death in 1949.

Walter McIlhenny became the next family member to run the company, serving as president from 1949 until his death in 1985.

All the peppers used to make Tabasco sauce once were grown on Avery Island (an ancient salt dome) in the Cajun country of southwest Louisiana. Now, the peppers grown on the island are used to produce seeds that, in turn, are shipped to growers in Central America and South America.

Peppers are picked by hand. Each worker carries le petit baton rouge (the little red stick) to make sure that only peppers matching the color of the stick are harvested. The peppers are ground into mash, and the mash is shipped to Avery Island for aging.

Paul McIlhenny attended Woodberry Forest, an elite prep school in Virginia, and graduated with a degree in political science from the University of the South at Sewanee. He joined the family business in 1967 and was groomed by Walter, a cousin.

Paul did everything from loading cases of sauce onto railcars to processing the mash.

In 2010, Paul McIlhenny was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America.

As New Orleans tried in early 2006 to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, McIlhenny reigned as Rex, the King of Carnival.

The adjective often used to describe Paul was “ebullient.”

“He worked aggressively to expand the number of items to which the familiar Tabasco logo could be affixed,” John Pope wrote in The Times-Picayune at New Orleans. “They include T-shirts, aprons, neckties, teddy bears and computer screensavers, as well as seven varieties of hot sauce.

“In 2009, Queen Elizabeth II granted the company a royal warrant, which entitles it to advertise that it supplies the pepper sauce to the British royal family. In honor of the queen’s diamond Jubilee last year, the company turned out a Tabasco-sauce box for its British market emblazoned with drawings of dozens of diamonds. In the United States, the company provides hot sauce for Air Force One.”

Paul McIlhenny and his twin sister were born at Houston because their mother was staying there with relatives while the children’s father was in the armed services during World War II. McIlhenny spent his childhood in New Orleans and at Avery Island.

“Because of his interest in the wetlands around Avery Island, his passion for hunting and his mother’s membership on a committee concerned with coastal-zone management, Mr. McIlhenny became aware years ago of Louisiana’s increasingly fragile coastline,” Pope wrote. “Gov. Mike Foster appointed him to the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Coastal Restoration, Protection and Conservation, and he was a vice chairman and board member of the America’s Wetland Foundation, whose logo appears on every box of Tabasco sauce sold in the United States.

“Although Mr. McIlhenny was serious about coastal restoration and the preservation of Louisiana’s wetlands, he generally was a merry man — one friend described him as ‘Falstaffian’ — who strove to inject humor wherever possible. A few days before he reigned as Rex in 2006, Mr. McIlhenny quipped that if, during the ceremonial toast to the mayor at Gallier Hall, the subject of hot sauce came up, ‘I’ll say that’s one form of global warming I’m totally in favor of. We’re defending the world against bland food.”’

There were many people who believed the Carnival parades in New Orleans should be called off in 2006. McIlhenny, who loved Louisiana and all of its traditions, wouldn’t hear of it.

He said at the time: “If there was any time when we needed distraction, digression, diversion from the grind, it’s Mardi Gras. And if there was any time we ever needed it, it’s here. We need to let it all hang out and, in the sense of pre-Lenten revelry, make sure we relax and recreate.”

McIlhenny’s hunting club in Vermilion Parish was famous among those who hunt waterfowl in the South.

“Paul continued the tradition of running the Tabasco organization, which has put New Iberia, south Louisiana and Louisiana food on the map worldwide,” said Lafayette attorney Ed Abell, a family friend. “It’s a great tradition for the state and our Acadiana area.”

Tabasco sauce now can be purchased in 165 countries.

On the day of the Super Bowl earlier this month, the Times ran a feature story on the ties between Tabasco sauce and the sports world.

Ken Benson wrote: “Walter Stauffer McIlhenny, the fourth chief executive of the McIlhenny Co., was a farsighted risk taker. The son of one of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, he was an expert marksman who was wounded at Guadalcanal in 1942. He did not have the bullet in his leg removed until the next year so he could keep fighting.

“After the war, he helped turn Tabasco into a global brand. A prominent businessman in New Orleans, he bought a slice of the Saints before their first season in the NFL in 1967. That savvy investment included 50-yard-line seats to Saints home games and the Super Bowl when it was played in New Orleans. But when Uncle Walter, as he was known to his extended family, died a bachelor in 1985, none of his cousins took his stake in the Saints. So the stake was sold and with it access to those seats.”

Paul McIlhenny told the newspaper: “They were wonderful. You could pound on the metal deck at Tulane Stadium and make a lot of noise. Shame on us for not keeping them.”

The company and the family, however, kept their ties to sports. Hugh McIlhenny was a running back for the 49ers in the 1950s. Paul McIlhenny considered buying the naming rights to the Superdome before it was determined it was just too expensive. Tabasco sauce is a staple at football parties nationwide.

“The Tabasco factory has been working overtime to keep up with the seasonal jump in demand,” Benson wrote. “For three-quarters of the year, production lines operate in two 10-hour shifts four to five days a week, producing 750,000 bottles daily. In November, as the holidays and the NFL playoffs approach, the company adds an extra day of production.”

“The Super Bowl is the single biggest month for hot sauce,” Paul told the newspaper. “It’s huge.”

Do you remember the television ad the company ran during the Super Bowl back in 1998? A man was pouring large amounts of Tabasco sauce on his pizza while sitting outside. A mosquito landed on his leg and began sucking blood. When the mosquito flew off, it exploded.

“It was the only time we spent that much on a single ad, but we got a lot of mileage out of that one,” Paul said.

John Madden, it seems, is like my friend Randy Galloway.

“I’ve had thousands of meals with him, and there’s not a food out there that he doesn’t use Tabasco on,” Madden agent Sandy Montag told the Times. “He puts it on food from the time he wakes up. For him, it’s like toothpaste.”

Paul once presented Madden with a personalized bottle of Tabasco. For this year’s Super Bowl, the company released a commemorative bottle with Mardi Gras colors and a football on the label.

Tabasco sauce and the McIlhenny Co. will continue to move forward, but all who have an interest in Southern food, the region’s natural attributes and its culture will miss Paul McIlhenny.

He was indeed ebullient and Falstaffian, a man seemingly made to promote hot sauce and the Louisiana way of life.


From Little Siberia to Natchez and back

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

It was a magical weekend that combined some of my favorite things — Southern history and culture, the Delta, duck hunting, historic hunting clubs, fried crappie, crawfish, tamales, frog legs, beautiful homes, fascinating people, good friends and intelligent conversation.

It began Friday afternoon when Randy Ensminger of Little Rock picked me up for a trip to southeast Arkansas. To be specific, we headed for one of those famous Arkansas duck clubs I had long heard about but never visited.

It’s called Little Siberia, and its membership consists of some of Arkansas’ most successful businessmen.

The lodge sits on the banks of a reservoir near DeWitt, adjacent to the Bayou Meto. The reservoir was constructed in part by German prisoners of war in 1943-44. The current lodge was built in 1983, and significant renovations were made last year.

It was warm for late January, and two of the members had spent part of the afternoon fishing for crappie on the reservoir. They had filled an ice chest with large slab crappie, many of which weighed almost two pounds. Dinner that night consisted of fried crappie, hushpuppies and the best slaw I’ve ever had.

It had cooled off enough after dark for a roaring fire in the lodge’s large fireplace. The members regaled me with stories of days gone by in a part of the state filled with duck clubs and the colorful characters who inhabit them late each fall and early each winter.

I pulled from a shelf a copy of Ohio native Keith Russell’s book “The Duck Huntingest Gentleman.” First published in 1977, this collection of waterfowling stories contains a chapter on a Thanksgiving trip Russell once made to Stuttgart. The hunting was slow from a pit blind in a flooded field the first morning in Arkansas. The hunting was even slower on the second morning in the pin oak flats.

When the late Dr. Rex Hancock of Stuttgart heard Russell complain during a bull session in the back of Buerkle Drug on Main Street, he promised to take his visitor to “where the ducks are.”

That place was the reservoir at Little Siberia.

Hancock, a dentist who died in 1986, was among the South’s foremost conservationists. He was best known for his lengthy battle to keep the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from turning the Cache River into a drainage ditch. Shortly after his death, the federal government earmarked more than $33 million from the federal duck stamp program for the establishment of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge.

There wouldn’t be time for Randy and me to hunt the next morning, though I could hear shots from my bedroom as the Saturday sun rose. We left Little Siberia at 7:30 a.m., bound for Natchez and a meeting of the board of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.

Randy has been on the board for several years. This would be my first board meeting. Headed by New Orleans resident Liz Williams, the organization that’s often referred to simply as SoFAB operates a museum in New Orleans that celebrates the food culture of the South. It’s the only museum of its kind in the country.

In addition to museum exhibits, there’s a culinary library, extensive archives and regular programs. There also are big plans for the future. SoFAB will leave the Riverwalk (the long, narrow shopping mall adjacent to the convention center, which is being turned into a collection of outlet stores) and move into the Uptown location once used by the Dryades Street Market. That market opened in 1849.

Writing about the neighborhood in a 2001 article, Keith Weldon Medley said: “Located in the Central City historic district of New Orleans, Dryades Street has always been one of the Crescent City’s most intriguing thoroughfares. … Now named Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in honor of one of the city’s premier civil rights workers, this old street has witnessed the bustling panorama of the New Orleans experience — the lively and the melancholy, prosperity and economic hard times. Bold entrepreneurs of different religions, races and classes found their fortunes along Dryades Street.”

SoFAB also plans to partner with the New Orleans Public Library for a new branch. There will be more than 9,000 volumes of cookbooks, menus, recipes and other literature pertaining to Southern foodways in the branch.

A well-known New Orleans chef by the name of Ryan Hughes will operate a restaurant named Purloo as part of the SoFAB complex, and there may even be a working brewery. It’s an exciting effort to be a part of, especially since there will be exhibits on every Southern state, including Arkansas.

The board was meeting in Natchez rather than New Orleans because of an invitation from board member Regina Trosclair Charboneau. Seven generations of her family have lived in Natchez. Regina returned to the city in 2000 to raise her two sons and be close to her mother. She and her husband later purchased Twin Oaks, which they operate as a bed and breakfast inn.

More on Twin Oaks in a moment.

As the frost burned off Saturday morning, Randy and I made our way down U.S. Highway 165, slowing down as vehicles pulled into Arkansas Post Museum State Park for an event marking the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Arkansas Post. That January 1863 battle was a Union victory.

We crossed the Arkansas River and intersected with U.S. Highway 65 at Dumas. From there it was a journey due south through the flat farming lands just west of the Mississippi River in southeast Arkansas and northeast Louisiana.

It was too early in the day to buy tamales from Miss Rhoda as we drove through Lake Village and passed its iconic “Home of Good Fishing” sign.

It was too early to buy a shrimp, crawfish or oyster poor boy at The Dock on the banks of Lake Providence.

The morning sun was beautiful as it reflected off the waters of Lake Chicot in Arkansas and Lake Providence in Louisiana, those two giant oxbows that have been magnets for hunters, fishermen and boaters in this part of the Delta for decades.

The Delta has its own brand of stark winter beauty as the giant pecan trees in the orchards on either side of U.S. 65 form silhouettes. Ducks could be seen on flooded fields, and pickup trucks crowded the parking areas of the hunting camps we passed. I’ve long been interested in the history and traditions of Southern hunting clubs. Though I resisted the temptation, I wanted to knock on the doors, ask how the morning’s hunt had gone, inquire how old each club was and see what was being served for breakfast.

We rolled south through East Carroll Parish, Madison Parish, Tensas Parish and Concordia Parish. We saw the landmarks that thousands of Arkansans remember from their summer treks to the Redneck Riviera — the Panola pepper sign, the bat on the water tank at Transylvania, the Christmas lights that stay in the middle of the bayou at Tallulah 12 months a year.

We crossed into Tensas Parish. Suddenly the woodland floor was covered with saw palmettos, a sure sign we were getting further south. We passed through Waterproof and Ferriday, though we didn’t have time to stop at Ferriday’s Delta Music Museum. Ferriday is the home of Mickey Gilley and Jerry Lee Lewis.

We then turned toward the east, driving into Vidalia and seeing the church steeples of Natchez on the hills across the river. We crossed the Mississippi River bridge, having reached our destination.

I’ve always been fascinated by Natchez, dating back to trips I took there as a boy with my parents. My mother loved touring the city’s elegant old homes, and she enjoyed having lunch at the Carriage House Restaurant on the grounds of Stanton Hall.

The ladies of the Pilgrimage Garden Club have been serving food at the Carriage House since 1946. My mother, now 87, always would order the fried chicken. In her honor, I had fried chicken, rice and gravy and those silver dollar-sized biscuits. That’s not to mention the fact that Randy and I had started with an appetizer known as the “Southern sampler” that featured everything from deviled eggs to pimiento cheese to fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade on top (I hope my wife isn’t reading about how much I ate).

Randy, who has a massive collection of cookbooks, bought a cookbook in the gift shop next door after lunch.

From there, it was off to Twin Oaks. The original cottage, which is now the back kitchen and den, was built in 1806 for the area’s first territorial sheriff. There were a series of ownership changes during the next several decades. In 1832, the widow of Dr. Josiah Morris (who had been the victim of yellow fever) sold the house to a Philadelphia, Pa., couple, Pierce and Cornelia Connelly.

The couple had moved to Natchez so Pierce could serve as the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church. The Connellys added the Greek Revival portion of the structure. In 1835, Cornelia Connelly named the house White Cottage.

The story takes a bizarre twist at this point. Pierce Connelly decided to leave the Episcopal Church and convert to Roman Catholicism. The couple left for Rome and put their four children in orphanages. Pierce became a priest, and Cornelia became a nun. Cornelia later founded an order of nuns known as the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, which was dedicated to teaching young girls.

An 1840 tornado did a great deal of damage to the home. By 1852, Charles Dubuisson had completed the reconstruction of the Greek Revival home that visitors to Natchez see today. Dubuisson served as president of Jefferson College and later became a judge and state representative.

In an incident that sounds like something from a Southern gothic novel, Dubuisson’s 3-year-old daughter drowned in a cistern on the property and his wife died of yellow fever soon after that. Dubuisson fell into a deep depression and began spending most of his time at his plantation in Yazoo County.

Following a succession of owners, Homer and Elizabeth Whittington bought the house in 1940 and restored it. Since the house was not white at the time and was considered too grand to be named a cottage, they renamed it Twin Oaks in honor of the two huge live oaks out front.

Regina and her husband, Doug, bought the home in 2002 and have since added their own touches. Regina has conducted numerous cooking classes at the home during the past decade and fed guests ranging from Lily Tomlin to Anderson Cooper.

Following the SoFAB board meeting that afternoon, Regina gave three of us a driving tour of the area, complete with stories that sounded like something from “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”

I’ll have more on Natchez and the rivalry between the city’s two garden clubs in a later post.

The dinner Regina served our board Saturday night included beef tenderloin, frog legs fried in duck fat and shrimp and grits.

Following breakfast across the street at The Castle (which is part of Dunleith, another of the famous Natchez mansions), Randy and I headed north toward Little Siberia.

Our only stop was at The Dock in Lake Providence to buy 10 pounds of crawfish for that night’s dinner at the duck club. While we headed north with crawfish, a friend headed south out of Little Rock with several dozen tamales from Doe’s and a pork loin.

We arrived at Little Siberia in time for Randy to give me a Sunday afternoon boat tour of the reservoir. We scared up hundreds of ducks as Randy pointed out the various blinds and told the kinds of stories one can only get at a club with a long history.

The lodge at Little Siberia faces west. We were back from our boat trip in time for a glorious sunset. We sat by the fire pit and watched hundreds of ducks funnel into the flooded timber in the minutes just before darkness descended over southeast Arkansas.

Dinner followed.

Crawfish and tamales for appetizers. Pork loin for the main course. The AFC championship game on the big screen.

It doesn’t get much better than that. And a morning of hunting still awaited us on Monday.

The Delta, cotton and the Great Migration

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

In an earlier post, I discussed Gene Dattel’s recent visit to Little Rock to talk about his book “Cotton and Race in the Making of America: The Human Costs of Economic Power.”

In that book, Dattel touches on one of the most significant events in the history of the Delta regions of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi — the Great Migration of blacks from these cotton-growing regions to the factories of the Upper Midwest and other parts of the country.

There were two phases of the Great Migration.

The first phase occurred from 1910-30 when about 1.6 million blacks left the South.

The more drastic phase was from 1940-70 when the mechanization of agriculture, combined with the evils of segregation, led to almost 5 million blacks abandoning the region.

By 1970, American blacks had gone from being a largely rural population to an overwhelmingly urban population. Almost 80 percent of them lived in cities.

For many Delta counties and parishes, there has been a steady population decline since the 1950 census. In the 1950s and 1960s, those leaving were mostly black. Since widespread school integration began in the 1970s, those leaving have been mostly white.

The one constant has been that the population is getting smaller. Arkansas counties such as Phillips and Mississippi counties now have about half the population they had 60 years ago.

The Great Migration is generally considered to have ended in 1970, but much of the Delta continues to bleed population as whites move out in search of better jobs and schools.

I’ve written before that Arkansas is rapidly becoming two states within a state. One “state within a state” in the central, west and northwest is gaining population and doing relatively well economically. The other “state within a state” in the south and east is losing population and doing poorly economically.

Consider the information provided by the 2010 census: Arkansas had 39 counties that gained population in the previous decade and 36 counties that lost population.

Monroe County in the Delta lost 20.5 percent of its population.

Benton County in the Ozarks gained 44.3 percent in the same decade.

I see nothing to suggest that these demographic changes, which have had such a huge effect on Arkansas as the center of political and economic power shifts, will end anytime soon.

Much of it began with the Great Migration.

“Just as a labor shortage had created the need for slaves and later for free blacks in the cotton fields, so the 20th century migration of blacks was economically induced by a demand for labor,” Dattel writes. “Yet racial overtones persisted. Cotton, disenfranchisement and de jure segregation may have been absent in the North, but repression and de facto segregation were not. The Great Migration would force white America to confront race yet again, but this time in a Northern context. It would introduce black Southerners to the reality of white ‘Northern racism, the business cycle and class relations.'”

Frederick Douglass had posed this rhetorical question in 1865: “What shall we do with the Negro?”

Dattel writes: “White America’s answer was simple and resounding: Keep him in the South to cultivate cotton. … Before the introduction of mechanization to the cotton fields in the 1930s, and its full impact in the 1950s, the Great Migration surrounding World War I represented a real threat to the structure of Southern cotton production. Until the 1930s, the methods and technology of cotton farming were remarkably similar to those of post-Civil War America.”

Dattel notes that the need for cotton laborers in the South meant that “the presence of blacks was tolerated. And while they were needed, Southern state governments and individuals tried to prevent black cotton workers from moving north during the Great Migration. Only when mechanization arrived would white Southerners abandon their interest in black workers.”

In other words, mechanization changed everything.

Much of the nation began to prosper in the years following World War II. Thanks to congressional approval of the GI Bill, thousands of veterans became the first members of their families to attend college.

Following college, those veterans married, bought homes and purchased automobiles. American manufacturing made the switch from producing products for the armed services to meeting consumer demand. The automobile and steel industries flourished.

Men and women who once had worked as sharecroppers on cotton plantations in the Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana Delta now found themselves in steel mills and automobile factories in Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Gary and other Northern cities. Some of the best Southern cooking was now found on the south side of Chicago.

To truly comprehend the scope of the Great Migration, drive through the Delta during the Christmas holidays and look at the automobiles in the driveways with license plates from Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and even California. The owners of these vehicles have Delta roots, but their grandparents and parents fled the region years before in search of a better life.

Too often, those left behind were the poorest of the poor. Too often, the education their children received was below par and health care was almost nonexistent. It led to a downward economic spiral that continues to this day in many Delta counties and parishes.

Federal, state and local government agencies have spent huge amounts of money in the region. Having spent four years working for the Delta Regional Authority, I can attest to the fact that there are a lot of smart people doing good work in the region. I can also tell you there’s too often a lack of planning and therefore a lack of a clear investment strategy. Funds are spread thinly rather than strategically, serving simply to sustain misery in some of the tiny crossroads communities that have been dying since the end of the sharecropping era.

Pete Johnson, the original federal co-chairman of the DRA, once compared the Delta to a “giant Indian reservation, separate from mainstream society in the region’s larger cities — out of sight, out of mind unless it’s a weekend gambling excursion.”

The decline of manufacturing in Northern cities, family ties and improved race relations have brought some blacks back South. But the 2010 census figures show the speed with which whites have now abandoned a number of Delta counties and parishes.

It comes down to economics. Prior to mechanization, a large landowner might have needed 400 laborers to cultivate his thousands of acres of cotton. By the late 1950s, he was doing the same amount of work with 40 people. Now, it’s just four or five people doing the work.

I suspect that when the 2020 census figures are released, dozens of Delta counties and parishes will be even smaller overall than they were in 2010 while the percentge of black residents will be higher.

“The Delta is truly the quintessential intersection between cotton and race,” Dattel writes. “Cotton dominated the economy; blacks dominated the population. It was in the Mississippi Delta that cotton and culture combined to produce the musical genre of the blues, which has earned the region a reputation as a ‘primary taproot of black culture and history in America.’ It has been referred to as the greatest single subregional contributor to the stream of black migrants to the urban North. As one of the spokesmen for the Delta Chamber of Commerce noted in 1938, more than 40 percent of all cotton produced in America bloomed within 200 miles in any direction of the Mississippi Delta.”

Speculators and railroad developers brought in immigrants to fuel the boom. Chinese and European labor supplemented the existing black labor. Vicksburg grew from 4,591 people in 1860 to 12,443 in 1870.

“Times changed quickly,” Dattel writes. “No longer were cotton farms filled with black sharecroppers and their shacks. Mules and the farm equipment of a bygone era disappeared. Sheds for tractors and mechanical cotton pickers replaced barns and mule stables. The many black churches that dotted the farm landscape were abandoned as blacks moved to Southern towns and cities and to cities in the North. High unemployment resulting from the displacement of unskilled farm laborers remains an enduring feature of the cotton plantation landscape. The coincidence of the advent of technology, the civil rights movement and the end of legal segregation has left blacks in the plantation world groping for an economic identity.”

Dattel concludes that in the 80 years from 1861 to 1941, cotton descended from “an indispensable product to a surplus commodity. It was replaced by oil as the eventual strategic resource in the post-World War II global arena. In many ways, cotton had been the oil of the 19th century.”

So you want to understand what’s happening in the Delta today?

Go back and study the cotton economy.

Go back and study the Great Migration.

Then study the 2010 census figures.

You’ll have a much clearer idea how we got to where we are and a much more pragmatic grasp of what the future holds.

Louisiana oysters, Cajuns and the flood

Friday, May 13th, 2011

Man tries his best to assert control.

In the end, though, nature triumphs.

We learn that lesson anew as the Great Flood of 2011 continues to roll south.

If we watch, listen and study, there’s much we can learn during and after a historic flood such as this one.

Take Louisiana oysters, for instance, without a doubt one of my favorite things to consume (how I wish I was sitting at the oyster bar at Pascal’s Manale — circa 1913 — in uptown New Orleans on this spring Friday).

Bob Marshall of New Orleans is among the nation’s finest outdoors writers. In 1997, Marshall was a member of a three-person team at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans that won a Pulitzer Prize for a series that examined the plight of the world’s fisheries.

Marshall’s 2005 investigations into the Corps of Engineers’ work on New Orleans levees and floodwalls was part of a package that won the newspaper yet another Pulitzer Prize.

Marshall also is an expert on Louisiana’s coastal erosion crisis.

In an article in Thursday’s Times-Picayune, Marshall outlined the effect on Louisiana oysters from the opening of the Morganza Floodway (which will begin Saturday) and the Bonnet Carre Spillway.

“When the planet acts in ways that prompt humans to claim natural disaster, ecologists calmly point out there are no disasters in nature, only events,” Marshall wrote. “Louisiana’s oyster industry is about to be the next example.

“Opening spillways to divert the rising floods of the Mississippi River away from cities and across local wetlands will almost certainly kill a significant portion of the nation’s richest oyster grounds, bringing immediate financial disaster to fishing families from Lake Borgne to Vermilion Bay still recovering from the BP oil spill, state biologists said.

“But the event is also good long-term news for the oysters, beginning as early as this fall.”

Here’s what Patrick Banks, the biologist in charge of the oyster program for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, told Marshall: “This will be a terrible blow to the industry, to the fishermen, no question. But we know from records that these large freshwater events usually result in greatly improved conditions for production in the future.

“You have to remember that floods of water from the rivers originally were part of the natural cycle that helped Louisiana develop the incredible oyster resource it has. The impact of every opening is different and depends largely on the length of the opening and the (stage of an oyster’s life cycle) that they occur. Judging from these other events, we could see 100 percent mortality in some of these oysters.”

In other words, it’s going to be hard to find Louisiana oysters this summer, just as was the case last summer following the BP spill. The 2010 Louisiana oyster harvest was down 50 percent from 2009.

Marshall, however, supplies the rest of the story: “Louisiana’s oyster resource evolved not only to handle these frequent river floods but to prosper from them, thanks to a two-tiered population of estuary reefs, which grow inside the bays, and intertidal reefs, which grow along and just inside the coast.

“Estuary reefs killed by the fresh water open their shells, which become ideal attachment points for the next crop of spawn — which is provided by those intertidal reefs that are not affected by the flood.”

Banks put it this way: “The experience has been reefs that suffer mortality from these openings come back stronger than ever. The impact on the fishermen is not good, but the long-term impact for the animals is actually a positive.”

The Corps will open the Morganza Floodway north of Baton Rouge this weekend for the first time since 1973, relieving pressure on Baton Rouge and New Orleans but flooding large parts of the Cajun country of south Louisiana.

“Some 25,000 people in an area known for small farms, fish camps, crawfish and a drawling French dialect are hurriedly packing their things and worrying that their homes and way of life might soon be drowned. … Opening the gates for the first time in 38 years will unleash the Mississippi on a wild ride south to the Gulf of Mexico through the Atchafalaya River and divert floodwater from the river into the basin’s swamplands, backwater lakes and bayous,” The Associated Press reported today. “Several thousand homes will be at risk of flooding. … No one seems to doubt that a major flood is bound for Butte LaRose, Krotz Springs, the oil-and-seafood hub of Morgan City and other swampland communities in the Atchafalaya Basin.”

The story described a public meeting Thursday at the volunteer fire department at Butte LaRose.

Col. Ed Fleming, the head of the Corps’ New Orleans District, warned of a wall of water 15 feet high.

“From the ground?” one resident asked incredulously.

“From the ground,” Fleming immediately replied.

In “Rising Tide,” the classic account of the Great Flood of 1927, John Barry described the fight to save a levee on the east bank of the Atchafalaya at McCrea, a town that no longer exists.

“Now 2,500 men worked at McCrea in shifts,” he wrote. “They used every technique, shielding the levee with lumber, backing it up with sandbags, revetting it with rocks. Repeatedly, some small part of the levee crumbled into the river, but each time hundreds of men rushed to the spot with timber, rocks and sandbags.

“‘They are soldiers, every one, heroes, too,’ Herbert Hoover said of them. But at 3:30 in the morning of May 24, muddy water suddenly appeared behind the levee. A few moments later a stretch of levee 700 feet long crashed into the river. The river had just ripped open the last crevasse of the 1927 flood.

“The current near the crevasse roared past at 30 miles an hour. An Associated Press report said: ‘A wall of water 40 feet high and almost 20 miles wide tonight was … cutting a path of desolation across the length of Louisiana. … Immediately behind the advancing waters scores of residents of the lower Atchafalya were being rescued by tiny boats, which ploughed precariously through the raging current to remove them from housetops. … Further back, along the Bayou des Glaises sector, only the swishing of the water could be heard.’

“The image of a 20-mile-wide, 40-foot-high wall of water was hyperbole, but the Atchafalaya had breached levees on both its banks and was spreading still another sea across central Louisiana. The flood rose to 42 feet above sea level, while the land through which it flowed had an elevation of less than 10 feet. Another 150,000 people became refugees.”

Fast forward to 2011.

Today’s AP story described how a man named Maxim Doucet in Butte LaRose has deployed a team to erect a six-foot levee around his home on the banks of the Atchafalaya. Doucet owns a construction company called Monster Heavy Haulers.

“I figured I’d give Mother Nature a run for her money,” he said.

Down the street, Russell Calais sipped on a beer as his children loaded his possessions into trucks.

“I made up my mind I wasn’t going to leave,” he said. “After I sat down and drank about 10 or 12 Coors, I said, ‘Well, it’s time.'”

The AP story noted, “Water may drive these families out of their homes, but it’s also what will bring them back to repair and rebuild. Five generations of Pamela Guidry’s family have called Butte LaRose home. Her father was a commercial fisherman. Her brothers catch crawfish for money. She worked at a seafood-packing business.

“‘I didn’t want my kids growing up in a city. I wanted them to learn how to live the hard way,’ she said. ‘They had to learn how to survive on their own down here. Once you’re out of Butte LaRose, you’re out in society, out of our own little world.’

“Guidry said her family weathered the 1973 floods and the Great Flood of 1927 without any thought of leaving town for good.

“‘The water receded. They cleaned up. Their lives went on,’ she said.”

Indeed, in the summer that lies ahead, the waters from the Great Flood of 2011 will recede.

People from Illinois to Missouri to Tennessee to Arkansas to Mississippi to Louisiana will rebuild.

Yes, even the oysters will come back strong.

The Corps will make repairs.

And then we’ll wait. We’ll wait for the next great Mississippi River flood that inevitably will come in our lifetime, our children’s lifetimes or our grandchildren’s lifetimes.

The rampage of the mighty Mississippi

Monday, May 9th, 2011

The Delta Council in Mississippi is a venerable (and powerful) institution.

Wealthy Delta planters organized the group in 1935 with a focus on three areas — agriculture, flood control and transportation.

During the years I worked for the Delta Regional Authority, I attended the annual meeting of the Delta Council each spring on the campus of Delta State University at Cleveland, Miss.

If you want to see a lot of people wearing seersucker suits, I direct you to two places — the downstairs dining room of Galatoire’s in New Orleans on a summer Friday and the annual Delta Council meeting in Cleveland.

Jim Barksdale, the Mississippi-born businessman who rose to the top of Netscape prior to its merger with AOL, was scheduled to speak Friday at the Delta Council annual meeting.

At the 1947 Delta Council meeting, Dean Acheson unveiled the outline for the Marshall Plan.

In 1952, William Faulkner spoke.

Other speakers through the years have included David Rockefeller, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Werner von Braun.

Changing the speaker for the annual meeting at the last minute isn’t something the tradition-bound Delta Council does lightly.

But that’s just what happened last week for the 76th annual meeting. The day still ended, as it always does, with a catfish fry outside, but Barksdale was asked to come back another year. That’s so a flood update could be given by officials of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The rare change in plans is a testament to the historic nature of the Great Flood of 2011.

The Delta Council president, Cass Pennington, said: “At a time when so many of our citizens and businesses are facing the greatest flood threat of their lifetime and their property and safety are compromised, it is imperative that we allow all members of the public to hear a thorough briefing from the Corps of Engineers and the emergency management agencies.”

Do you need another example of just how massive this flood is?

Consider this fact: Later this week, the Corps likely will open the Morganza Spillway in Louisiana for the first time since 1973, diverting huge amounts of water from the Mississippi River into the Atchafalaya Basin.

The Morganza Spillway is north of Baton Rouge.

Today, the Corps began opening the Bonnet Carre Spillway just north of New Orleans for the first time in three years.

Louisiana officials are even planning to move inmates from the famous Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

Here’s how Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal put it today: “If you got wet in 1973, you’ll get wet this time. If you nearly got wet in 1973, you’ll probably get wet this time.”

The governor has declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard to assist people from Vidalia south to the mouth of the Atchafalaya near Morgan City.

Once the floodway is opened, large parts of Pointe Coupee, St. Landry, St. Martin, Iberia, Iberville, St. Mary and Terrebonne parishes will be covered with water. Five to even 25 feet of water will rush into some areas.

This flood leaves the Corps with little choice. If the spillway isn’t opened, the river could top the floodwalls that protect New Orleans and immense pressure could cause levees to break, resulting in a repeat of the floods we saw following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

I spent part of the weekend reading a lengthy (almost 50,000 words) piece that Pulitzer Prize-winning writer John McPhee wrote for The New Yorker back in February 1987.

That story — which led to a 1989 McPhee book titled “The Control of Nature” — chronicled the Corps’ efforts to keep the Atchafalaya from capturing the flow of the Mississippi.

“By the 1950s, the Mississippi River had advanced so far past New Orleans and out into the gulf that it was about to shift again, and its offspring Atchafalaya was ready to receive it,” McPhee wrote. “By the route of the Atchafalaya, the distance across the delta plain was 145 miles — well under half the length of the route of the master stream.

“For the Mississippi to make such a change was completely natural, but in the interval since the last shift Europeans had settled beside the river, a nation had developed, and the nation could not afford nature. The consequences of the Atchafalaya’s conquest of the Mississsippi would include but not be limited to the demise of Baton Rouge and the virtual destruction of New Orleans. With its fresh water gone, its harbor a silt bar, its economy disconnected from inland commerce, New Orleans would turn into New Gomorrah.”

The Corps’ efforts to prevent this from happening are centered at Old River near Simmesport. The Corps dammed Old River back in 1963 to limit the flow of water from the Mississippi into the Atchafalaya.

“The Corps would have to build something that could give the Atchafalaya a portion of the Mississippi and at the same time prevent it from taking all,” McPhee wrote. “In effect, the Corps would have to build a Fort Laramie: a place where the natives could buy flour and firearms but where the gates could be closed if they attacked.”

The Atchafalaya had already captured the Red River, which had once flowed into the Mississippi, in the 1940s.

Would the Big Muddy be next?

There remain those who believe the day will come when despite all of the federal government’s efforts, the Mississippi will have its way during a flood such as this one and change course.

Bonnet Carre (pronounced Bonny Carey in south Louisiana) was the first of the major spillways constructed after the Great Flood of 1927. It was completed in 1931 and designed to divert water into Lake Pontchartrain.

What’s known as the Old River Control Structure upstream is constantly in operation to allow 30 percent of the Mississippi’s flow into the Atchafalaya.

The Morganza Spillway, completed in 1954, extends for 20 miles  and is designed to be used far less frequently than the Bonnet Carre. The Morganza is for extreme emergencies. And this appears to be an extreme emergency.

Here’s how the news release put out by the Corps on Friday night stated it: “As floodwaters progress through the Morganza Floodway to the Gulf of Mexico, the height of the water could reach between 5 and upwards of 25 feet above ground elevation, causing widespread flooding and inundation.”

The head of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries said residents should expect to see bears, deer, wild hogs and other wildlife fleeing the dense Atchafalaya swamps.

“It’s like hurricane season,” Jindal said. “You hope for the best, prepare for the worst. We haven’t seen flooding like this in quite awhile. The water will be higher and the duration will be longer.”

John Barry, the author of “Rising Tide,” an account of the Great Flood of 1927, is now the vice president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority.

In a piece last month for The Wall Street Journal, Barry wrote: “If recent events in Japan were not enough, the news of the past week has reminded us that nature can make our efforts to control it seem like nothing more than hubris. A historic swath of tornadoes has ripped across the South, and now a potentially major Mississippi River flood is gathering. The tornadoes have done their damage already. The rising waters of the Mississippi are about to test human judgment and engineering anew.”

Barry wrote his essay just before the Corps chose to blow up a levee at Birds Point, Mo., and flood much of the Bootheel in order to protect residents on the other side of the river at Cairo, Ill.

Barry called plans to dynamite the levee “one small piece of a carefully thought-out and engineered plan to control the immense forces of the Mississippi. The river drains 31 states and stretches from Olean, N.Y., to the Rockies, from North Carolina to Taos, N.M.”

This water from much of the nation eventually finds its way to Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

“A great flood can easily fill the entire 35,000-square-mile area with water,” Barry wrote. “The last time the Mississippi did so was in 1927. … The problem of protecting against river floods is complex. It requires a broad view of the river system as a whole, a narrow focus on local protection and constant maintenance and monitoring down to almost infinitesimal detail.

“Nature is perfect; engineers are not. As recent experience in Japan demonstrates, if humans make a mistake against nature, nature will find and exploit it.”

It’s evident that the Mississippi desperately wants a shorter route to the Gulf of Mexico — the Atchafalaya.

Will the works of man keep the Old River Control Structure in place and thus keep the river flowing past Baton Rouge and New Orleans?

A major test lies ahead.