Archive for the ‘Mississippi’ Category

A Delta cultural stew

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016

It was mentioned in the previous post that the Mississippi Blues Trail has placed several markers outside of Mississippi in places where blues music was important.

Few places were more important to the evolution of the blues than Helena.

A Mississippi Blues Trail marker on Cherry Street, once the top commercial street in the Arkansas Delta, outlines some of that history.

It reads: “Helena has played a vital role in blues history for artists from both sides of the Mississippi River. Once known as a wide-open spot for music, gambling and nightlife, Helena was also the birthplace of ‘King Biscuit Time,’ the groundbreaking KFFA radio show that began broadcasting blues to the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta in 1941. The program had logged more than 15,000 broadcasts by 2009 and inspired Helena to launch its renowned King Biscuit Blues Festival in 1986.

“The town emerged as a major center of culture and commerce in the Delta during the steamboat era and maintained its freewheeling river port atmosphere well into the mid-20th century. Cafes, nightspots and good-time houses flourished, and musicians flocked here to entertain local field hands, sawmill workers and roustabouts who came off the boats ready for action. Many bluesmen ferried across the river from Mississippi or later motored across the Helena bridge. Others came from elsewhere in Arkansas, up from Louisiana or down from Memphis.

“Helena was at one time home to Mississippi-born blues legends Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson No 2 (Rice Miller), James Cotton, Honeyboy Edwards and Pinetop Perkins, as well as to Arkansas natives Roosevelt Sykes, Robert Nighthawk, Robert Lockwood Jr., Frank Frost, Jimmy McCracklin and George ‘Harmonica’ Smith, all of whom became influential figures in the blues. Williamson, Nighthawk and Lockwood were among the first bluesmen to play their instruments through amplifiers, paving the transitional path of blues from acoustic to electric music, a development often attributed to Muddy Waters in Chicago in the late 1940s.

“Soon after KFFA went on the air in 1941, Williamson’s broadcasts on ‘King Biscuit Time’ brought blues to an audience that had seldom if ever heard such music on the radio. Up-and-coming bluesmen B.B. King, Albert King, Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters all tuned in to the lunchtime broadcasts from the KFFA studios, or on occasion WROX in Clarksdale, advertising King Biscuit Flour and promoting their upcoming shows at local juke joints and house parties. The sponsor, Interstate Grocer Co., even introduced a Sonny Boy brand of cornmeal.

“During Williamson’s extended stays away from Helena, drummer James ‘Peck’ Curtis kept the program going with an assortment of band members. The show eventually switched to records instead of live music and continued with deejay Sonny Payne at the helm. Off the air only from 1980 until 1986, it still ranks as one of the longest-running programs in radio history. The Delta Cultural Center began hosting the broadcast in the 1990s.”

A separate Mississippi Blues Trail marker a block away on Biscuit Row in downtown Helena is devoted to Williamson.

It reads in part: “Williamson had played in Helena even before he began performing on ‘King Biscuit Time’ in 1941. He was joined by a succession of ‘King Biscuit Entertainers’ — James ‘Peck’ Curtis was a constant presence on the show, and others included Pinetop Perkins, Willie Love, Joe Willie Wilkins, Houston Stackhouse, Elmore James and W.C. Clay — all originally from Mississippi — as well as Robert Lockwood Jr. from Arkansas and Robert ‘Dudlow’ Taylor from Louisiana. The band performed in surrounding towns to advertise King Biscuit Flour and Sonny Boy Cornmeal, and they also played locally at theaters and nightspots.

“Venues in Helena included the Owl Café, Busy Bee, Kitty Cat Café, Mississippi Café, Dreamland Café and Silver Moon. But the best-remembered juke joint was the Hole in the Wall, operated by another native Mississippian, James Oscar Crawford. Williamson and various band members, along with Willie Johnson, Doctor Ross, Hacksaw Harney and Honeyboy Edwards, were among those recalled at the Hole in the Wall. Rumors even circulated that Robert Johnson — another associate of Sonny Boy’s — was murdered while playing here. But his death actually occurred in Greenwood, Miss., in 1938.

“During his extensive travels, Williams periodically revisited Helena and returned for the final time in 1965, telling Stackhouse, ‘I done come home to die now.’

“On May 25, Williamson failed to show for the KFFA broadcast and was found dead in the boardinghouse where he roomed at 427 1/2 Elm St. His sisters buried him in Tutwiler, Miss., where fans often leave harmonicas and whiskey bottles on his grave.”

Blues music is just one part of the rich cultural mix that makes the Delta so fascinating.

The combination of those who immigrated to the region when cotton was king — Italians, Irish, Chinese, Jews, Lebanese, Syrians, etc. — is central to making the Delta a unique region.

In the previous post, I wrote about attending the 100th birthday party for David Solomon of Helena.

“David and I are the last of the Jewish lawyers in the Arkansas Delta,” says my friend Raymond Abramson of Holly Grove. “The list at one time included Oscar Fendler of Blytheville and Kent Rubens of West Memphis, both deceased, along with Eddie Graumann, who was municipal judge for many years in Helena and who’s now retired in Memphis.”

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, a project of the Goldring-Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, the first Jew to settle in Arkansas was Abraham Block, who opened a store at Washington in southwest Arkansas in 1823.

“Block settled in Washington when there were no Jewish congregations or institutions in the Arkansas Territory,” the encyclopedia reports. “He was a charter member of the first Jewish synagogue in the region, Congregation Gates of Mercy in New Orleans, joining in 1828. Yet the lack of any organized Jewish life in Arkansas at the time took its toll on his family, and few of his children remained within the faith. Block’s life in Arkansas highlights the challenges that Jews have often faced in a state largely isolated from the centers of American Jewish life.

“The difficulties became a little easier as growing numbers of Jews from central Europe began to arrive in Arkansas in the years before the Civil War. These immigrants were part of the German wave of Jewish immigration, which settled primarily in the large cities of the Northeast and Midwest. But a significant minority of Jews from the German states and from Alsace-Lorraine settled in the rural South, including Arkansas.”

By the start of the Civil War, there were Jewish communities in Little Rock, Pine Bluff, Fort Smith, Van Buren, DeValls Bluff, Batesville and Jonesboro. Of the almost 300 Jews in Arkansas at the time of the war, at least 53 fought for the Confederacy.

Additional Jewish merchants were attracted to Arkansas in the years after the Civil War. They received their goods from Jewish wholesalers in the river cities of Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis and Memphis. According to the encyclopedia, 14 Arkansas communities were founded by Jews or named after early Jewish residents. These include Altheimer, Felsenthal and Levy.

The state’s first Jewish congregation, B’nai Israel in Little Rock, was chartered in 1866. A year later, Temple Beth El was founded in Helena and Congregation Anshe Emeth was founded in Pine Bluff. Later congregations were formed in Camden in 1869, Hot Springs in 1878, Texarkana in 1884, Jonesboro in 1897, Newport in 1905, Dermott in 1905, Eudora in 1912, Osceola in 1913, Forrest City in 1914, Wynne in 1915, Marianna in 1920, Blytheville in 1924, El Dorado in 1926, McGehee in 1947, Fayetteville in 1981 and Bentonville in 2004.

In Helena, the 1870 census showed that a majority of the city’s Jews had been born in Prussia and other parts of what would become Germany. By the start of the 20th century, Jews dominated the retail trade there. There were 22 Jewish-owned businesses by 1909. Helena had a Jewish mayor, Aaron Meyers, from 1878-80.

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

Jacob Trieber, whose family settled in Helena in 1868, became the first Jewish federal judge when President William McKinley appointed him to the bench in 1900. Trieber, who had been born in Prussia in 1853, served as a federal judge until 1927.

Last year, Congress passed legislation to rename the federal building at Helena in Trieber’s honor. A dedication ceremony was held earlier this year.

“We owe this honor to Judge Trieber, who was a well-respected leader in Phillips County,” said Sen. John Boozman. “This is a great tribute that symbolizes the important work he did for the community and in pursuit of justice as the nation’s first Jewish federal judge.”

Congressman Rick Crawford said: “Driven by his unmatched dedication to justice and equality for all people, Judge Trieber took it upon himself to fight against all types of injustices, including institutionalized racism, which he opposed for six decades before finally being vindicated by the Supreme Court and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Trieber was born in Prussia in 1853 and moved with his family to St. Louis in 1866. Two years later, the family moved to Helena to open a store.

Carolyn Gray LeMaster writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “In 1873, Trieber began studying law in the evenings under former Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Marshall L. Stephenson He was admitted to the state bar in 1876 and formed a partnership with Stephenson’s brother, L.C. Stephenson, and later with Marshall Stephenson. As his adopted home, Arkansas became dear to him, although the blatant racism he saw had a lifelong effect on his life and work. He sought to communicate — through his own life and deeds and his commitment to equal justice — that racism was detrimental to the people of Arkansas and that only until the state’s race relations problem was solved could the state’s potential be achieved. He attacked Arkansas’ election laws, saying they disenfranchised black voters. … He spoke out for women’s suffrage.

“Trieber’s interest in civil rights stemmed from what he had seen in Europe as a youth. He later recalled his childhood days in Prussia, remembering how the discrimination against Jews consumed the country. He said he ‘feared any country’s future that would allow such discrimination against its citizens,’ and he hoped Arkansas could steer a different course.

“He became a member of the Republican Party in 1874, believing its policies of that day — a strong union, primacy of the U.S. Constitution, pro-business policies, greater opportunities for African-Americans and a high protective tariff — were best for the nation. He was elected to Helena’s city council in 1882, named superintendent of the state census in 1890 and elected Phillips County treasurer in 1892. In 1897, he was appointed U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas and moved to Little Rock. In 1900, President William McKinley appointed him federal judge for the Eastern District of Arkansas.

“Trieber’s civic legacy in Arkansas was far-reaching. He was at the forefront of varying campaigns, such as saving the Old State House from destruction, establishing the Arkansas State Tuberculosis Sanatorium in 1909 and, during World War I, serving on the Arkansas State Council of Defense and representing the state on the American Red Cross national board.”

Just as the population base of Arkansas has shifted from east to west since Trieber’s time, a lot of the artifacts from Temple Beth El at Helena went northwest when the temple was closed in 2006. The artifacts are now used by the Etz Chaim congregation in Bentonville.

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

“Bentonville is the exception to the regional trend of small-town Jewish communities declining. Most of the founding members of Etz Chaim are not Arkansas natives. Unlike the peddlers and merchants who initially settled in Arkansas in the 19th century, these 21st-century migrants are executives at large corporations. They represent the generation of Jewish professionals who have largely replaced the Jewish merchant class in the South’s metropolitan areas.”

One of the few things to remain constant in the Delta as the population has steadily declined since the 1950s is the “King Biscuit Time” radio show, which first aired on a November day in 1941 just before the United States entered World War II. Sonny Payne became a part of the show in 1951 and is still at it.

Presqu’ile: Almost an island

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

Presqu’ile is a Creole word meaning “almost an island.”

For decades, it was the name of a gathering spot for the Murphy family of El Dorado at Henderson’s Point on the Mississippi Gulf Coast near Pass Christian.

Hurricane Katrina hit in late August 2005 and wiped Henderson’s Point clean.

In honor of that part of their family heritage, the Murphy family named a winery in the Santa Maria Valley of California after the Gulf Coast compound.

Many of those who attend the Nov. 21 Arkansas food and wine gala at the Capital Hotel in downtown Little Rock will be sampling Presqu’ile wines for the first time. The event will raise money for the new Arkansas exhibit at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. Tickets are $125 each. Those desiring more information should call (501) 661-9911 or email

A bit of background on the Murphy family and Henderson’s Point is in order.

First, the Murphy family.

Charles Murphy Sr. already had extensive timber and banking interests in south Arkansas when oil was discovered in 1907 in the Caddo Field north of Shreveport.

“Murphy decided that his timber company should purchase land on a scattered, noncontiguous pattern to provide more exposure to any oil development,” John Ragsdale wrote in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “When the large Smackover Field in Ouachita and Union counties was discovered in 1922, Murphy had oil royalty interests in it. He and joint operators owned about 100,000 acres in the Union County area. In 1936, Phillips Petroleum discovered a small oil field at Snow Hill in Ouachita County, but the area’s extent was limited. Murphy preferred to spread drilling and production risks. He did not have an extensive operating company but rather owned interests in different operations.

“In 1937, an abandoned Phillips Petroleum well in western Union County, where some Murphy acreage was located, was re-entered by the Lion Oil Refining Co., which discovered deeper multiple zones between 5,000 and 8,000 feet below the surface in the Shuler Field. This included the Smackover limestone, which led to development of fields in the Smackover limestone throughout south Arkansas. Then, in 1944, Murphy land was included in the development of Louisiana’s Delhi Field, a major oil producer. This was the largest field for Murphy.”

Charles Murphy Sr. had moved to El Dorado in 1904 to operate a bank. By 1907, he owned 13 banks. He built a sawmill at Cargile in Union County and later established a railroad to supply the mill with timber from north Louisiana and south Arkansas.

Charles Murphy Jr. took over the family businesses in 1941 at the age of just 21 after his father suffered a stroke. Murphy Jr. had attended Gulf Coast Military Academy at Gulfport, Miss., at age 16 and had learned to love yachting. Much later in life, he would write two books on the sport, “Yachting Smart” and “Yachting Far.” He received expert tutoring, especially in French. Murphy Jr. graduated from El Dorado High School in 1938 and got married in October of that year.

Murphy Jr. spent three years in the Army during World War II. In 1946, he and his three sisters — Caroline Keller, Bertie Deming and Theodosia Nolan — pooled their interests to form C.H. Murphy & Co. In 1950, that company was transformed into the Murphy Corp., with Murphy Jr. as its president. He would serve as president until 1972 and as chairman of the board until 1994.

Murphy Corp., which had gone public in 1956, became Murphy Oil Corp. in 1964. The first foreign exploration for the company occurred in Venezuela in 1957. That was followed by production in Iran in 1966, the North Sea and Libya in 1969, Spain in 1979, Ecuador in 1987 and the Gulf of Mexico in 1988. Deltic Farm & Timber Co. was spun off from Murphy Oil Corp. in 1996 to form Deltic Timber Corp. Deltic is the developer of the Chenal neighborhood in west Little Rock and has timber holdings in Arkansas and Louisiana. Earlier this year, the Murphy USA subsidiary was spun off to form a company that focuses on retail sales, primarily at stores associated with Walmart.

Murphy Jr., an erudite man, served on the state Board of Higher Education and on the boards of Hendrix College at Conway and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.. He established the Murphy Institute of Political Economy at Tulane University in New Orleans. He died at his home in El Dorado in March 2002.

Murphy Jr.’s son Madison would go on to become chairman of the powerful Arkansas Highway Commission.

Next, Pass Christian and Henderson’s Point.

Henderson’s Point on the Gulf Coast was named for John Henderson Sr., a U.S. senator from Mississippi from 1839-45. Along with several partners, Henderson acquired 15,000 acres and developed the coastal community of Pass Christian. He died in 1857. In 1903, descendants of Henderson formed the Mexican Gulf Land Co. to promote Henderson’s Point as a planned community. It was advertised to wealthy New Orleans residents as the only remaining undeveloped tract between New Orleans and Mobile with easy access to rail transportation. There would be parks, big lots and a streetcar line to Gulfport and Biloxi. Located at the western tip of the Pass Christian peninsula, Henderson’s Point had homeowners who were known for fighting annexation to Pass Christian, and the area thus remained unincorporated.

U.S. Highway 90 west of Pass Christian now separates Henderson Point from the Pass Christian Iles, a 1,400-acre development that began in 1926. Seven miles of canals and lagoons were dug while the marsh areas were filled with the dredged material. The Isles are totally residential while Henderson’s Point has a small commercial district.

The Murphy family compound consisted of 14 acres that stretched in the shape of an isthmus.

The family bought almost 200 acres in California in 2007 to establish the Presqu’ile Winery. The first estate grapes were planted in 2008. A San Francisco architectural firm was hired to design the winery and tasting room, which are connected by a cave that was built into a hillside.

“That the Murphy family’s new Santa Maria property is shaped a lot like an isthmus smacks of serendipity,” Gabe Saglie wrote last year in the Santa Barbara News-Press. “‘We were looking for a great piece of pinot noir-growing land with a little bit of soul,’ says vinter Matt Murphy with a distinct Southern inflection. His family find off East Clark Avenue in 2007, which came after a year’s worth of hunting through pinot hot spots like Carneros and Lompoc’s Santa Rita Hills, fit the bill for clear viticultural reasons. The plot’s pervasive sand-like soil drains extremely well, and its proximity to the Pacific Ocean (the Murphy’s property is the second western-most vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley) creates ideal maritime growing conditions.”

Matt Murphy, the son of Madison and Suzanne Murphy of El Dorado, says of the Mississippi compound: “It was home to us. And it will never be the same.”

The family compound in Mississippi was given its name by Charles Murphy Jr., who loved to use his French. It’s pronounced “press-keel” with the emphasis on the second syllable.

“Presqu’ile is led by president Matt Murphy, and features his wife, Amanda; his brother, Jonathan, and his wife, Lindsey; his sister Anna; and their parents, who still reside in Arkansas,” Laurie Jervis wrote in the Santa Maria Times. “Matt Murphy and winemaker Dieter Cronje, a native of South Africa, lead the winemaking and are vocal believers in the potential of the Santa Maria Valley to lead the West Coast in terroir-driven wines.”

The new tasting room opened in June.

In addition to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and now the California Pacific Coast, the Murphy family long has had close ties to New Orleans.

“New Orleans is, in essence, our second home,” Madison Murphy said recently. “This place is special to us.”

So it’s natural that the Murphy family — and its winery — is playing a leading role in the Nov. 21 Little Rock event to fund an Arkansas exhibit at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.

Matt Murphy moved to California to learn the wine business.

“During the wine grape harvest of 2006, Matt found himself working at Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Barbara wine country,” Saglie wrote. “He’d already spent previous vintages in Napa, learning the business of growing grapes and selling wine. This was the year he’d get to know an increasingly renowned region called Santa Maria.

“The 2006 harvest had also brought Dieter Cronje to Bien Nacido. He’d already been trying his hand at winemaking for four years in his native South Africa and had developed a zeal for pinot noir. ‘I love to make it because it’s tough to make,’ he says with a Southern accent of a totally different kind. To stretch his wings, ‘it was either Burgundy or the United States for me, and since I knew my lack of French would make Burgundy tough, I came to the United States,’ he says with a laugh. The weather helped set his sights on Central California instead of Oregon.

“When Matt and Dieter met at the height of the grape-picking season, the unlikely duo quickly realized they shared a passion. And not just for pinot noir. The two will tell you they are fiercely focused on making wines that are balanced, not just big.”

The land purchased by the Murphy family in 2007 previously was being used to grow gladiolas.

Saglie wrote: “The promise for growing great grapes was palpable. And the fact it looked a heck of a lot like an isthmus was good fortune at least. They named their new property, for purely sentimental reasons, Presqu’ile.”

Matt and Amanda built a home on the property.

“Presqu’ile’s new, state-of-the-art winery and hospitality building — connected by a unique cave system — and the nearby residences could easily grace the pages of Architectural Digest,” Wendy Thies Sell wrote in the Santa Maria Sun. “The award-winning, San Francisco-based architectural firm Taylor Lombardo Architects designed the project. The design aesthetic is contemporary, sleek and elegant, incorporating stone, wood, concrete, glass and metal. Interesting modern art adorns the walls. They paid attention to every detail — just as Presqu’ile does in winemaking. Many of the building materials are sustainable and sourced from the West Coast. The sandstone used for the exterior and interior of the winery complex were harvested from a quarry in Lompoc. A local artisan labored for seven months hand-cutting and laying each stone.”

The newspaper describe Cronje as “a wine rock star — literally. Cronje not only handcrafts vibrant, complex wines, but he actually has a rock band, The Tepusquet Tornadoes, made up of wine industry friends.”

“We really do want it to be an easy rapport and a place where people can interact,” Madison Murphy said of the winery. “As they say on the Gulf Coast, ‘pass a good time.”’

From the pine woods and the oil patch of south Arkansas and north Louisiana to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to New Orleans and now to the Pacific Coast, the Murphy family of El Dorado has made its mark.

It all comes together on the evening of Nov. 21 at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock.

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.

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.

Redneck Riviera redux

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

In his book “The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera,” Harvey H. Jackson III writes with obvious feeling about how “people from the lower South created a coastal playground, a place where they and their families could get away from constraints and restraints of home and job and school and responsibility but without going too far — physically or culturally — from where they were.

“It is the story of how those who were already there, and those who came later, turned ‘fishing villages’ and ‘bathing beaches’ into tourist destinations for millions, places where parties were pitched, dreams were dreamed and fortunes were made and lost. And it is the story of how people keep coming, searching for something new, something old, something upscale and something sleazy.”

If you click on the Redneck Riviera category over on the right side of this blog, you’ll find several previous posts on the subject. More than two years ago, an excerpt from what was to become Jackson’s book ran in the quarterly “Southern Cultures,” and I wrote about it.

Later that year, I wrote a post about how I felt guilty for having been among the masses who canceled their reservations in the wake of the BP disaster. We had been scheduled to go to Orange Beach in Alabama that summer. Instead, we went to Eureka Springs.

Last summer, I wrote about our Redneck Riviera excursion to Seagrove Beach in Florida.

Seagrove Beach is where Jackson wrote the introduction to his book last summer. He has a 1950s-built family vacation cottage there named Poutin’ House South.

Jackson, a well-known historian, teaches at Jacksonville State University in the hills of north Alabama. Yes, that’s the school the Arkansas Razorbacks will play to start the football season in a couple of weeks, the place where Jack Crowe landed after being fired by Frank Broyles as the head Hog following that infamous loss to the Citadel on the Saturday before Labor Day in 1992.

Jacksonville is also in the part of Alabama that produced one of my favorite writers, Rick Bragg.

Bragg also has been known to write lovingly about the Redneck Riviera.

Bragg, who has a home at Fairhope, Ala., on the east side of Mobile Bay, wrote a piece about that area three years ago for Smithsonian magazine.

“I grew up in the Alabama foothills, landlocked by red dirt,” he wrote. “My ancestors cussed their lives away in that soil, following a one-crop mule. My mother dragged a cotton sack across it, and my kin slaved in mills made of bricks dug and fired from the same clay. My people fought across it with roofing knives and tire irons, and cut roads through it, chain gang shackles around their feet. My grandfather made liquor 30 years in its caves and hollows to feed his babies, and lawmen swore he could fly, since he never left a clear trail in that dirt. It has always reminded me of struggle, somehow, and I will sleep in it, with the rest of my kind. But between now and then, I would like to walk in some sand.

“I went to the Alabama coast, to the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, to find a more forgiving soil, a shiftless kind that tides and waves just push around.”

Like Bragg, I grew up far from the coast, in the pine woods of southwest Arkansas. My sister and I would beg our father to take us to the Gulf Coast, and he would oblige by heading south, but only as far as Biloxi.

We never knew the whiter sand and bluer water was a bit to the east in Alabama and Mississippi. For a second consecutive summer, we shared a house with my sister and her husband at Seagrove Beach, reliving those warm Biloxi memories.

To this day, I like to spend a night or two in Biloxi on the way to Florida. We’ve been stopping with our boys — now 19 and 15 — since they were babies. Again this year, we made sure our first meal on the coast was at Mary Mahoney’s Old French House and made it a point to speak to Bobby Mahoney on the way out the door. It’s a family tradition.

We were thrilled to learn that just weeks before another family favorite, McElroy’s, had finally reopened at the Biloxi Small Craft Harbor, almost seven years after having been wiped out by Hurricane Katrina (known in those parts simply as The Storm). We ate there the second night in Biloxi.

In between, we had lunch at the White Cap, another old favorite that came back bigger and better after Katrina.

We stayed on the Gulf Coast side of U.S. Highway 90 at South Beach, which was built as a condominium project but is now a suites hotel. Our accommodations couldn’t have been better — a corner suite on the top floor with floor-to-ceiling windows that allowed us to look out on the Gulf and down the beach.

In his book, Jackson (a south Alabama native) concentrates on the Alabama coast and the Florida Panhandle, though there’s no doubt that the Mississippi coast is part of the Redneck Riviera (how can it not be if none other than Jimmy Buffett just opened a casino there?).

Jackson writes that the desire “to make money off tourists forced Gulf Coast folks to reconsider their attitude toward local government and the authority, bureaucracy and taxes that came with it. Ultimately they would give up their freedom from civic oversight in exchange for better roads, better tasting water, a dependable sewage system, fire protection and law enforcement.

“Many would not like what they got in return, but the deal was made nonetheless. Woven into this are accounts of the pioneers who found ways to cater to the desires and urges of visitors and investors and in the process reshaped the land and the landscape. They turned tourist courts into condominiums and bulldozed palmetto and scrub to make way for houses and communities that some would herald as the future of urban design and others would criticize for their clawing conformity.”

Indeed, there are few places in the South more upscale than the beaches of south Walton County in Florida. We always make it a point to escape what we call “the beautiful people” for what we refer to as our “redneck day” in Panama City Beach — ice cream and miniature golf, capped off by an early dinner (it has to be early to beat the crowds) at Capt. Anderson’s, a place that claims to sell more seafood than any other restaurant in Florida. I order the grilled pompano, and it has never been better than it was this year.

The massive advertising campaigns paid for by BP the past two years seem to be working. I knew that instinctively as I waited more than an hour in traffic just to get through the tunnel at Mobile.

This was a banner summer.

“Area business leaders see strengthening economy” read the headline on the front page of the Sun Herald at Biloxi.

A headline eight days later in the Press-Register at Mobile read: “Beach rentals may set records.”

“The beach is back,” the story said. “July rental bookings are hotter than the record-setting July 2007 numbers, according to leasing agents.”

Here’s a sample of what folks on the Alabama coast told the newspaper:

Emily Gonzalez of Kaiser Realty in Gulf Shores: “We haven’t seen these numbers in five years. Our biggest issue now is availability. We have a lot of weekly rentals, but people want weekend rentals and we are basically sold out.”

Bill Bender of Bender Realty in Gulf Shores: “It’s the best summer we’ve ever had. We’re booked solid for the rest of July. We’ve already doubled our projected growth revenue for August.”

Former Gulf Shores Mayor David Bodenhamer: “Traffic is a good problem to have. I’d rather worry about the traffic than the oil spill.”

The newspaper reported that “the traffic congestion on the beach roads to and from the Gulf, the two-hour waits at local restaurants and the occasional rain have not dampened spirits of the crowds.”

Even the spring was good. Over to the east in Walton County, tax revenues this March were up 33 percent from March 2011, up 58 percent from March 2010 and were 31 percent higher than the previous record set in 2008. The economic impact of tourism in Walton County was an estimated $1 billion in fiscal 2011. Bed-tax revenues have experienced double-digit increases every month for more than a year.

School started this week here in Arkansas, and the annual migration south to the Redneck Riviera has ended for all but those couples without school-age children or grandchildren.

We already dream of next summer’s visit.

In the meantime, Jackson’s book, which was published earlier this year by the University of Georgia Press, is well worth the time you’ll spend reading it if you’re fascinated by the region.

“At the end of this story, mice and men, turtles and tourists, rednecks and real estate tycoons have found themselves facing the same situation,” he writes. “When the BP/Deepwater Horizon well blew and oil spewed into the Gulf, everything that walked, crawled, swam or soared became threatened. Optimism, already dampened by recession, disappeared.

“As the extent of the disaster became known, a few people along the Redneck Riviera began to wonder if the compromises made to find the petroleum that fueled the cars and planes that brought people to the motels and condos were worth the danger offshore drilling posed to their way of life. However, most, in true coastal fashion, avoided alternatives that might involve sacrifice and restraint. Instead they began to press the governments they so often held in contempt — local, state and federal — to make a company once praised as a fine example of free-market capitalism clean up the mess and reimburse coastal interests for what they lost.

“Though it was a time for serious soul-searching, the fact that so little of that was done may be one of the clearest indications of how attitudes that shaped the coast at the beginning of this story still shape it.”

Wiedower, Ruskey: New South Heroes

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

The folks at Southern Living magazine call it the Heroes of the New South awards.

I don’t like the term New South, which has been around for decades and doesn’t carry much meaning.

But I like a couple of the jurors who selected this year’s recipients, and I love the fact that two of the people mentioned in the March issue of the magazine are having a positive effect on the Arkansas Delta.

As for the jurors, Bill Ferris of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina (a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities) and John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi are among the region’s brightest minds.

I don’t know the other two jurors — Gerri Combs of South Arts in Atlanta and Jim Strickland of Historical Concepts in Atlanta (I’m always reminded of the old Lewis Grizzard line that “Atlanta is what we fought the war to prevent” when it comes to that city) — but I’m sure they’re equally capable.

Now to the two people who are having such a good influence on the Arkansas Delta.

In the architecture category, one of three honorable mentions is Beth Wiedower, 35, of the Arkansas Delta Rural Heritage Development Initiative.

The magazine describes Beth, a Little Rock native and Hendrix College graduate, as someone who “rehabilitates rural towns through restoration of significant structures, such as the Johnny Cash boyhood home (at Dyess).”

Through personal experience, I can tell you that she does more than that. She builds pride among Delta residents and educates outsiders on what the region has to offer.

Just Sunday, on what would have been Cash’s 80th birthday, some of his children, grandchildren, siblings and lots of fans gathered in Mississippi County to celebrate the start of restoration of the boyhood home.

“He should’ve lived to 80,” daughter Rosanne Cash told Rolling Stone. “It’s hard. But it’s so uplifting to celebrate it this way rather than going to a dark place about how sad it is he isn’t still around.”

In the eco-preservation category, one of the two runners-up is John Ruskey, 48, of Clarksdale, Miss., who also operates out of Helena (see the Southern Fried blog post from last week titled “Buck Island and the Mighty Mississippi”).

Ruskey, who owns the Quapaw Canoe Co., shared runner-up honors with Mike Clark of St. Louis, who operates Big Muddy Adventures. 

Southern Living wrote: “Floating down the Mississippi, surveying its untouched banks, John Ruskey and Mike Clark feel most at home. Owners of outfitting and tour companies on the Mississippi River, they volunteer together to protect the largest river system in North America, including leading large-scale cleanups and canoe-building sessions. In 2011, they launched to document and protect the river’s last untouched wilderness.”

Wiedower’s Rural Heritage Development Initiative is sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and began to take shape in 2005 with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

A 2007 story in the Arkansas Times described it this way: “While 10 of the participating Main Street communities flourished across the state in 2004, the remaining five, in the east Arkansas communities of Blytheville, Dumas, Helena, Osceola and West Memphis, struggled with redevelopment. That spring, Main Street Arkansas asked the National Trust to collaborate on an assessment of its Delta programs. The resulting report, on not just the five Main Street programs but the entire Arkansas Delta, was so voluminous and filled with such wide-ranging proposals that its authors saw fit to include, in the introduction, a credo from the famous urban planner and architect Daniel Burnham — ‘Make no small plans.’

“After using the report to get money from the Kellogg Foundation, the National Trust selected two regions to participate in a three-year pilot program: an eight-county swath of central Kentucky called the Knob region, and the impetus behind the program, the 15 counties that stretch along Arkansas’ eastern border and make up our Delta. The 15 Delta counties are Arkansas, Chicot, Clay, Craighead, Crittenden, Cross, Desha, Drew, Greene, Lee, Mississippi, Monroe, Phillips, Poinsett and St. Francis.”

Here’s how Wiedower explained her mission at the time: “We’re at the tail end of a 60-year out-migration. We’re what economists would call a very cold market — we’re not growing and we’re not building. In terms of preservation, that’s a good thing. If there’s no influx of money and there’s no growth, then typically there’s no money to tear down old buildings, and there’s no money to put up new buildings.

“We have a tremendous amount of our historic fabric still in the region. How do we use that and take our unique history and heritage and culture and use it for our economic gain? Certainly there is a place for a Toyota plant, but in addition, we need to be looking at our own regional flavor and what makes us as the Arkansas Delta unique and distinctive, not only for ourselves as residents but for potential heritage tourists and for potential businesses moving in who are looking at community and quality-of-life issues.”

Alas Marion never landed that Toyota plant for Crittenden County, but Wiedower has plugged along with heritage tourism, Delta-made and small business initiatives.

Building blocks include:

— The region’s rich music heritage

— The Mississippi River, agricultural and African-American heritages

— Two national scenic byways — the Great River Road and Crowley’s Ridge

— Historic sites such as Dyess, the Hemingway-Pfeiffer House at Piggott and the Lakeport Plantation at Lake Village

— Existing Main Street programs and other small towns that are trying to improve their historic commercial districts

Last year, former President Clinton’s Clinton Global Initiative committed to work with the Rural Heritage Development Initiative in helping entrepreneurs succeed in the Arkansas Delta.

As for Ruskey, he’s attempting to introduce people from across the country to the lower Mississippi River.

Writing for Adventure magazine, Kimberly Brown Seely described his mission this way: “For those of us raised on the great novels of Mark Twain, the Big River is a mythical thing, more imaginary than real. But here in this moment, the palms of my hands ache from gripping a wooden paddle; the river is bigger, faster and darker than I’d ever dreamed.

“It has been two days on the lower Mississippi and already the preconceptions I had — industrialized banks and polluted waters — have evaporated like a morning fog. Unlike the more northern reaches of the river, flanked by towns, cities and heavily developed farmlands, the lower Mississippi is still a wild sprawl: Forested islands and huge deserted sandbars rise out of eddies the size of several city blocks; a bend in the river can take 20 miles to hairpin back to almost the same spot.

“At the water’s edge a dense strip of deciduous forest harbors bears and coyotes, oppossums and beavers, and turtles and snakes. The 300 river miles between Memphis and Vicksburg are the most sparsely inhabited stretch of the entire river. And that’s the exact reason we’re paddling them.”

Ruskey’s Quapaw Canoe Co. bases its trips out of Clarksdale and Helena.

“John, in fact, is the Quapaw Canoe Co.: founder, outfitter, guide, canoe-carver, artist, musician and chef,” Seely wrote. “Should you be lucky enough to catch him on the phone one of the days he’s not paddling, he will, in no great hurry, get around to telling you that he can take you out on the river to explore by the day or the week — his only requirements being that you are willing to paddle and can deal with whatever nature dishes up.”

She went on to describe the lower Mississippi as a river that is “still hungry. The beast imprisoned within the Army Corps’ walls flexed its muscles once more in August 2005, breaching the levees and floodwalls outside New Orleans on the heels of Hurricane Katrina. The river is wild and random, we’re learning all too slowly; it never rests. Just like the Delta blues, the Mississippi moves — both languid and roiling at the same time.

“At the confluence of the Mississippi and the Arkansas rivers, you can see exactly where the two meet. The Mississippi flows brown on the left; the Arkansas flows green on the right. We paddle the seam, dragging a bare foot alternately on each side to test which is colder. The Arkansas is warmer and visibly cleaner than its muddy cousin. The two flow side by side for a long stretch, until the greenish Arkansas disappears altogether and the mud prevails.”

Such scenes are what John Ruskey has to offer visitors from across the country and around the world.

W. Hodding Carter, whose grandfather won the Pulitzer Prize when he owned the Delta Democrat Times at Greenville and whose father worked in the Carter administration, took a trip with Ruskey last spring during the Great Flood of 2011.

In an article he wrote for Outside magazine about the trip, Carter said: “Today the Delta is mostly a depleted, depressed region with a shrinking population. In Greenville, a painful number of businesses are boarded up downtown, and one-third of the population falls below the federal poverty level. Bad as these facts may sound, the river has fared even worse.

“As far back as I can remember, its definable features have been its muddied water and the irrepressible Mississippi funk, a suffocating melange of rotting mud, decaying fish, fertilizer and some unidentifiable industry byproduct that is probably best not dwelled upon, at least when you’re swimming in it.”

In a region that others have left for dead, Beth Wiedower and John Ruskey are building on existing assets and creating pride among Delta residents.

They’re both heroes in my book.

Buck Island and the Mighty Mississippi

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

You likely missed the story back in late October, but it was a significant development for the Arkansas Delta.

On Oct. 26, there was a dedication ceremony at Helena that capped a six-year effort to protect Buck Island, a 1,500-acre island in the Mississippi River.

The American Land Conservancy, the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission worked together to protect a valuable part of the Delta while also opening up the island for recreational uses.

Buck Island will be an anchor for the Lower Mississippi Water Trail. Ultimately, this trail could bring thousands of new outdoors enthusiasts to the Delta on an annual basis.

George Dunklin Jr., who chairs the Game & Fish Commission and is one of the South’s top conservationists, put it this way: “Buck Island provides an excellent and user-friendly way to enjoy the riches of the river like never before. We strive to engage more people in protecting and using our state’s natural resources. Buck Island and the new water trail give people exciting new ways to do so.

“For advanced paddlers and boaters, the 106 river-mile trip from Buck Island to … Choctaw Island Wildlife Management Area … is now possible, and this river trail should soon gain national recognition.”

It seems strange to refer to the nation’s largest river as “hidden,” but in a sense the Mighty Mississippi long has been hidden in plain sight from recreational users behind the massive levee system.

It took a guy named John Ruskey to start changing attitudes in the area.

Ruskey graduated in 1982 from a prestigious prep school in Connecticut, Choate Rosemary Hall. Founded in 1890, Choate now has about 820 students from grades 9-12 and costs more than $46,000 annually for boarders.

Most graduates head to colleges on the East Coast — Georgetown, Yale, Columbia, Boston College, Penn, Harvard, Tufts and the like.

Ruskey, now 48, took a far different path.

He built a 12-by-24-foot raft out of scrap wood and 55-gallon drums with the goal of floating the length of the Mississippi River with a friend.

Kimberly Brown Seely picks up the story from there in Adventure magazine: “The first day they caused a barge to run aground. The second day they had to pull out a crowbar and tear down the homemade shack they’d hammered together atop the raft (they realized it was acting as a sail, with the wind blowing them upstream).

“But eventually they got the hang of the rudimentary sweep oars they’d rigged and, flat broke, managed to run the entire river in five months, subsisting almost entirely on peanut butter.

“After his voyage, John majored in philosophy and mathematics at St. John’s College in New Mexico. By the time he reached 26 he was back in Mississippi, a blues nut who landed in Clarksdale carrying a guitar, an accordion and one backpack. He camped out on the banks of the river until he got a day job driving a tractor for a Mennonite farmer.

“John studied with master blues guitarist Johnny Billington, played the juke joints, taught guitar riffs to schoolkids and was hired as the first curator of the Delta Blues Museum. By then he’d begun making hand-carved canoes and paddling the river. And because in the South locals tend to avoid the river like an evil spirit, he had it all to himself.”

Years later, Ruskey would say this about the Mississippi River: “It sure has hit me in the heart. I followed the river downstream just like a lot of other people who have ended up here. I found out in 1982 when you get the mud between your toes, you’re not going to be able to kick it out.”

Ruskey also has extensive canoeing and kayaking experience on the other rivers of the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta — the Arkansas, the White, the St. Francis, the Yazoo, the Sunflower, the Black. It’s safe to say he’s the most knowledgeable guide in the Delta.

In 1998, Ruskey left the Delta Blues Museum and began the Quapaw Canoe Co. at Clarksdale, the first wilderness outfitting business along the lower Mississippi River.

From 2002-06, Ruskey oversaw the construction of three dugout canoes for the Lewis & Clark bicentennial reenactment and helped take those canoes up the Missouri, Yellowstone, Clearwater, Snake and Columbia rivers.

In 2007, Chinook elder George Lagergren asked Ruskey to renovate two traditional Chinook dugouts that now are housed at the tribal headquarters in Wilapa Bay, Wash.

This renaissance man is also a painter, writer and musician. In June 2008, he opened a new outpost at Helena., just beside the levee on Ohio Street.

“Our whole mission with Quapaw Canoe Co. is to get you out on the river and experience that awesome wilderness in the heart of our country,” Ruskey said at the time of the Helena opening.

One of the people who was most excited that summer day in 2008 was Tim Richardson of the American Land Conservancy. ALC had worked for years to establish the Lower Mississippi River Water Trail, a series of publicly owned islands and landings that would allow boaters, canoeists and kayakers to work their way down the river.

Richardson, with whom I dealt when I worked for the Delta Regional Authority, pointed to a similar trail along the Mississippi River between St. Louis and Cairo, Ill., with more than 25,000 acres of islands and shoreline under public ownership.

ALC purchased Buck Island in 2005. In 2010, ALC negotiated a conservation easement with the federal government to protect the native forests on the island. A year later, ALC completed a public access and conservation easement with the Game & Fish Commission to ensure the island would be available for public use.

“This has been a dream of ours for many years,” Ron Nassar of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said last year. “The Mississippi River Delta is a … forested wetland, but much of it is behind levees. Truly, a treasure hidden in plain sight, Buck Island and the Lower Mississippi River Water Trail finally let the public begin to see the Mississippi they’ve been missing.”

Buck Island has 880 acres of forests and 620 acres of sand beaches. There are five miles of hiking trails on the island and a three-mile side channel.

The island is only a three-minute boat trip from the Game & Fish Commission ramp in Helena’s harbor.

Now, the Lower Mississippi River Water Trail has its anchor.

“As a local business owner, I can tell you firsthand that Buck Island is an unparalled resource for Helena,” Ruskey said. “People come from all over the world to experience the Mighty Mississippi. It has a very powerful draw, but people need a way to access it. With Buck Island and the river trail, they get to see the beauty of this place as never before.”

The NRCS used funds from the federal stimulus bill to conserve the island.

“Buck Island’s 880 acres of native trees are a critical part of its conservation value, and in time it will become an old-growth forest,” said Reed Cripps of the NRCS. “Migratory birds, deer, turkey, beaver, opossum, bats and many other wildlife find food and shelter here, and the trees provide refuge during major floods.”

The Game and Fish Commission’s Choctaw Island is 106 miles downstream. The mouths of the Arkansas and White rivers are in between.

Choctaw Island is not a true island, but it’s bounded on the west by the Mississippi River levee and connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus. Choctaw Bar Island, meanwhile, is a true island in the Mississippi River that makes up about 2,000 acres of the state’s wildlife management area.

The Game & Fish Commission purchased Choctaw Island near Arkansas City in October 2001 for $4.5 million from Price Services Inc. of Monticello, a lumber company. It was the largest state land purchase since Arkansas voters had approved the one-eighth of a cent conservation sales tax in 1996. Also at the time, it was the only public land inside the Mississippi River levee in Arkansas.

Price agreed to sell the land for about half its appraised value. Since Price is a lumber company, the area had a history of timber harvest and management, though about 70 percent was bottomland hardwood or a pine-hardwood mix.

In September 2010, nine miles of nature trails, a paved parking area and an access road were dedicated. The trails are a birdwatchers’ paradise with bay-breasted warblers, golden-winged warblers, Philadelphia vireos, black-billed cuckoos and other migratory song birds all found on Choctaw Island. Least bitterns, king rails, common moorhens, roseate spoonbills, wood storks and black-bellied whistling ducks also can be found.

Bald eagles, ducks and geese flood into the area in the winter.

The Arkansas House speaker, Robert Moore, lives at Arkansas City and was instrumental in securing funds for the project. It’s safe to say that few people love the Delta more than Moore.

He’s also a big fan of what has happened upstream at Buck Island.

“The Mississippi is the lifeblood of the Delta, its people and its economy, but for too long people have been cut off from it,” Moore said. “With Buck Island and the water trail, people have a new way to see what this magnificent river and our beautiful state have to offer. It’s nothing less than a national treasure.”

John Ruskey learned that back in 1982. He discovered what even the natives had missed, the fact that there’s a lot to see and experience inside those levees.

Death of a bookstore

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

The message was posted to this blog back on Nov. 11.

It was a busy time for me, and frankly I missed the message when it first appeared.

It was from Mary Dayle McCormick in Greenville, Miss., and it contained sad news.

“Rex: It has been a little more than a year since we traded notes,” she wrote. “I have some news that I’m afraid you won’t like. After 46 years of business, McCormick Book Inn is closing. Our last day of business will be Nov. 30, 2011. Hugh is retiring, and there’s not another Hugh in the family. So if you want to visit one more time, come quick. And yes, the place is for sale.”

Dang it.

I missed it. I would have made a special trip in November had I known.

I would have lingered in the store, visiting with Hugh McCormick, Mary Dayle’s husband. I then would have gone to the historic cemetery next door and wandered around (pausing, as always, at the Percy family plot) before finishing with dinner at Doe’s.

Great independent bookstores are becoming a rarity, especially in small towns in the rural South.

When I was growing up in Arkadelphia, we had Adams Bookstore on Main Street, where I would spend hours at a time. It’s long gone.

Now, McCormick Book Inn — that Delta treasure — is a memory.

Hugh McCormick once described it this way: “Our floor squeaks under worn rugs and the wooden bookshelves sag a bit. The rocker by the fireplace is often occupied by a regular browser, and our ‘bookstore smell’ is authentic.”

And Southern Living once described the place like this: “People come from all over the Delta to visit Greenville’s McCormick Book Inn, with its terrific collection of what they like to call deltalogy. Half the draw is owner Hugh McCormick, who not only recommends great books but also knows everything about everybody in the Delta. He also has a wicked sense of humor.”

The store’s website noted that “books may be 10 percent cheaper at one of those big fake friendly places, but you receive our genuine bookstore ambience and management’s rants/intelligent insults only at McCormick Book Inn.”

You have to love a place that promises “intelligent insults.”

I first wrote about McCormick Book Inn on this blog back in May 2010.

Mary Dayle wrote back: “We love hometown folks, but it’s a particular thrill when y’all come in from all over the place with news of the outside world, despite bringing in y’all’s otherwise ignorance of the Truth As Mr. Hugh Sees It. Come back. The coffee is still on, the chairs haven’t fallen apart and we look and smell about the same. Hugh might even let you buy a book after his lecture.”

The back of the bookstore was a museum devoted to Greenville and its rich literary heritage.

I miss it already.

Here’s how The Associated Press led off its story in November: “A neighborhood gathering place, the only spot in Greenville to get a Sunday New York Times, a stop for visiting writers and tourists and a Greenville Main Street landmark since 1965 is shutting its doors.”

It was indeed a neighborhood gathering spot. I didn’t know their names, but there were always regulars who would be sitting in the chairs when I would stop in, usually late in the afternoon during the years I was working for the Delta Regional Authority and killing time until a dinner meeting at Doe’s.

This is part of what Wally Northway wrote about the store’s closing on the Mississippi Business Journal blog: “Once hailed as one of the nation’s great centers for literature, Greenville’s cultural heritage has sustained yet another big blow with the announcement that McCormick Book Inn will shut its doors. … The privately owned bookstore has been a gathering place for both writers and readers since 1965. Now, an important bridge between Old Greenville and New Greenville will be no more.

“I grew up right down Main Street from McCormick’s in the 1960s. A quick bike ride, and I was immersed in literature and history. I just loved everything about the place. I never had more than a quarter in my pocket, but the McCormicks were so gracious and kind. I was always encouraged to come again. And I did. I wanted to learn more about these prominent local writers and artists and their work. Bern and Franke Keating? Ellen Douglas? Shelby Foote? The Carters? Who were these people?”

Northway said it was “painful to see” the hurt in Hugh McCormick’s eyes when he said that if things didn’t change, the store wouldn’t survive.

Northway went on to write: “One of Greenville’s most dubious decisions was rejecting Delta State University. City leaders said they didn’t want the college riffraff. The city of Cleveland was more forward thinking, and it should come as little surprise that its public school children surpass the rest of the Delta academically. They have a great repository of knowledge and culture right down the street, just a quick bike ride away. Meanwhile, Greenville cannot even keep a little private bookstore open. It is, I feel, a barometer. The city is going nowhere but backward.

“I remain an avid reader today. I also have a deep, abiding love for my hometown. A lot of the credit for that goes to the McCormicks and their store. Thank you Hugh and Mary Dayle McCormick for your passion and commitment to seeing Greenville move ahead while honoring its past.”

Sadly, you can knock Greenville off the list of stops for my Great Mid-South Bookstore Tour.

Here’s how you now do it:

1. Start here in Little Rock with the excellent breakfast at the Red Door at 8 a.m. Head up Cantrell Hill for the 9 a.m. opening of WordsWorth Books & Co. and spend an hour in the store.

2. Drive to Blytheville for a late lunch at Dixie Pig and then spend an hour or two in the afternoon at Mary Gay Shipley’s Arkansas landmark, That Bookstore In Blytheville, which has been downtown since 1976.

3. Head to Memphis. Spend the night out on Mud Island at The River Inn at Harbor Town and have dinner there at Paulette’s. Have breakfast the next morning at The Arcade on south Main Street (an old Elvis hangout). The Arcade has been around since 1919 when it was opened by Greek immigrant Speros Zepatos. After breakfast, go over to Burke’s Book Store, which opened in 1875. That’s right — 1875, not 1975. The store is now in the funky, artsy Cooper-Young neighborhood.

4. Drive to Oxford, Miss., and have lunch at the Ajax Diner on the square, Eli Manning’s favorite spot to eat. Spend a large part of the afternoon at Square Books, which was opened in September 1979 by Richard and Lisa Howorth.

5. Go to Greenwood, Miss., from Oxford and spend your second night on the road at The Alluvian in downtown Greenwood. It’s one of the top hotels in the South. Have dinner at Lusco’s (make sure to get the pompano). After breakfast the next morning at the hotel, spend time just down Howard Street at Turnrow Book Co. Have lunch at The Crystal Grill before leaving Greenwood.

6. Head to Vicksburg and check into Anchuca, a classy bed and breakfast inn. Go over to Cedar Grove for dinner for this third night on the road. After breakfast the next morning at Anchuca, spend your morning at Lorelei Books on Washington Street. Have fried chicken for lunch at Walnut Hills before driving home.

If you love independent bookstores, fine food and the South, make this four-day trip.

We mourn the passing of McCormick Book Inn while wishing Hugh and Mary Dayle the best in retirement.

Long live WordsWorth, That Bookstore In Blytheville, Burke’s Book Store, Square Books, Turnrow, Lorelei and all the independent bookstores like them.

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.

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.