THIRD IN A SERIES
I leave Hazen on my trek east on U.S. Highway 70. Within a few minutes, I’m entering DeValls Bluff. This town on the banks of the White River, which had just 619 residents in the 2010 census, has always had a special allure.
I’m in Prairie County now. My mother was raised at Des Arc, one of the two county seats. My grandfather, who died in 1980 at age 96, owned the hardware store and the funeral home in town. He was active in politics, serving for a time as county judge in the 1930s. The time he spent in various countywide offices required frequent trips to DeValls Bluff, the other county seat.
Like so many counties in the eastern half of our state, Prairie County has been losing population for decades. Its population was 17,447 in the 1920 census. By the 2010 census, it was less than half that — 8,715 to be exact
“When Arkansas became a state, the area that is today Prairie County was first a part of Arkansas, Pulaski, Monroe, St. Francis and White counties,” Marilyn Hambrick Sickel writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “On Nov. 25, 1846, Arkansas Gov. Thomas S. Drew signed the legislative act creating Prairie County, so named for its dominant characteristic, the Grand Prairie. At the time, the boundaries extended into nearly all of present-day Lonoke County. Brownsville was designated as Prairie County’s first county seat in 1846. A wood-frame courthouse was erected, which lasted until a fire destroyed it on Sept. 16, 1852. However, the building was rebuilt, and the seat remained in Brownsville until 1868. In 1873, Lonoke County was carved from Prairie County.”
Jacob DeVall and his son Chappel found a place along the lower White River in the 1840s and established a mercantile store there. What would become DeValls Bluff has had fewer than 1,000 residents since the Civil War. It reached its post-war high-water mark with 924 residents in the 1910 census and was down to 619 people in the most recent census.
But Bill Sayger writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “Excluding Helena, no other town in eastern Arkansas held such strategic importance to the Union Army during the Civil War as did DeValls Bluff.”
DeValls Bluff has always punched above its weight, as they say over in the sports department. I like history, and I like food. DeValls Bluff has plenty of both.
“At the beginning of the Civil War, DeValls Bluff was home to a store, a dwelling house and a boat landing,” Sickel writes. “In the fall of 1863, Gen. Frederick Steele moved from Clarendon and occupied DeValls Bluff. From then until the close of the war, DeValls Bluff was a supply base for the Union Army. War materials were brought from Northern states down the Mississippi and then up the White River and stored in warehouses near the river.
“At DeValls Bluff, supplies could be shipped to Little Rock and other points west on the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad. … Large numbers of soldiers were stationed at DeValls Bluff, and many of them fell victim to the ‘Clarendon shakes’ (malaria), which was prevalent in the area. The county seat was in DeValls Bluff from 1868-75. In 1875, the county seat was moved to Des Arc. Then, in 1885, the county was divided into northern and southern districts with courthouses in both Des Arc and DeValls Bluff. This division was due to the frequent flooding along the White River, which divided the county and made it impossible for citizens in the southern half of the county to pay their taxes on time.
“Prairie County began rebuilding. The Memphis & Little Rock Railroad was completed through the Surrounded Hill area in 1871. That same year, a rail line was laid through what’s now Brasfield, which grew up around it. The railroad caused DeValls Bluff to lose its importance as a shipping center, and its population declined dramatically. Industries in the county after the war included fishing, timber, steamboat trade, railroading and farming. Eventually industries setting up shop in the county included button factories (using mussel shells from the White River), a boat oar factory, a cannery, stave mills, hay production, cotton gins, a flour mill, a nursery, an ice factory and dairies.”
DeValls Bluff is filled with historical markers these days, most of which outline the strategic role it played during the Civil War. I’ve read them all.
Sayger notes that when the water was low on the Arkansas River during the conflict, “many boats couldn’t reach the capital city. But they could navigate up the White River to DeValls Bluff. Men and material could be transferred to the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad’s trains to be transported to Little Rock. For that reason, DeValls Bluff’s port area was heavily fortified for the remainder of the war and was home to many soldiers — black and white — and refugees. … The troops stationed at DeValls Bluff patronized stores and saloons that rapidly sprang up, many operated by Northern men such as Daniel P. Upham of New York, who came to town in the closing days of the war to open a saloon in partnership with a man named Whitty.”
Sayger writes that some of the Union officers who had been stationed at DeValls Bluff stayed around during reconstruction.
“William S. McCullough, a lawyer, farmer and local Freedmen’s Bureau agent — lived there until the 1880s when he moved to Brinkley and established the Brinkley Hotel,” Sayger writes. “Joel M. McClintock was an early Prairie County sheriff, lawyer, abstractor and landowner. Logan Roots, for whom Fort Roots at North Little Rock is named, had farming operations there for a time and later became one of the state’s leading bankers. He gave the property for the town’s first Methodist church. … Dr. William W. Hipolite, surgeon for some of the African-American troops stationed there, settled in the town and operated a drug store for many years.”
The Wells boat oar factory opened at DeValls Bluff in the 1880s. Jim O’Hara of Memphis opened a button factory there in 1896.
A courthouse built in 1910 was torn down in 1930. Using salvaged materials, workers with the Works Progress Administration built a new courthouse on the site in 1939. It still stands, though most county business is conducted in Des Arc these days. The public schools at DeValls Bluff were consolidated into the Hazen School District in the fall of 2006.
If I were forced to pick just one barbecue restaurant to visit in the state, it would be Craig’s Bar-B-Q at DeValls Bluff. Lawrence Craig, who had learned to cook on boats plying the Mississippi River, joined forces with other members of his family to open Craig Brothers Cafe in 1947. The restaurant has been going strong ever since. In 1997, Craig’s was one of the featured restaurants at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C.
On its Southern Barbecue Trail website, the Southern Foodways Alliance says of Craig’s: “Three generations have supplied many satisfied customers with a variety of smoked meats, most notably smoked and sliced pork sandwiches slathered with a sauce made with hints of apple and bell pepper. Their signature sauce was developed over the kitchen table of the Craig family home.”
Robert Craig, Lawrence’s son, said when asked about the sauce: “My mom was just in the kitchen one day, putting a little bit of this and putting a lit bit of that together. And my dad said, ‘Well yeah, it tastes all right.’ And so he obviously introduced it to the public, and it has been skyrocketing ever since.”
DeValls Bluff also was the home of Mary Thomas’ Pie Shop. Thomas, who’s no longer alive, sold pies across the highway from Craig’s for more than 30 years. In the 1990s, Lena Rice began selling her own pies at DeValls Bluff. She died in 2005, but Ms. Lena’s Pies is still in business, providing yet another reason for a trip to DeValls Bluff.
River towns can be tough places, and DeValls Bluff is no different. Bars have long been a fixture in the city’s small downtown. These days it’s a place called Grasshopper’s with bright green paint on the building and this motto on its sign: “Come grumpy, leave happy.”
DeValls Bluff has attracted duck hunters and fishermen since the 1800s. In the days before the Corps of Engineers built large impoundments across the state, the White River at DeValls Bluff attracted wealthy families from as far away as Little Rock and Memphis on weekends. They had fancy houseboats on the river and built expensive cabins along its banks. They hunted ducks in the winter while fishing on the White River and its oxbow lakes the rest of the year. A sporting goods store called The Bottoms operates in DeValls Bluff’s small downtown to serve those who still visit the area. There are still plenty of nearby hunting camps.
One of the old buildings in downtown DeValls Bluff once housed the Castleberry Hotel. The two-story structure, which was constructed in 1925, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
U.S. 70, of course, once was the main road between Little Rock and Memphis. Thousands of vehicles passed in front of the hotel each day. It was written in the nomination form for the building to be on the National Register: “As a road system developed across Arkansas in the beginning of the 20th century, DeValls Bluff ended up on the road designated Highway A-1, which connected Little Rock with Memphis to the east and Fort Smith to the west. The importance of the highway was also noted when the U.S. highway system was created in 1925, and it received the designation U.S. 70. … It was important to provide goods and services to travelers on U.S. 70 as it passed through DeValls Bluff, especially since the highway followed Main Street. In 1925, the Castleberry Hotel was constructed to provide services to travelers. It replaced another hotel and movie theater that were on the site. The building had the public spaces (lobby and restaurant) on the first floor and 24 rooms on the top floor. The hotel, which was built in the Craftsman style, also exhibited the latest in architectural style.
“After the Castleberry Hotel opened, it apparently became the place to stay in DeValls Bluff. Although two other hotels appear on the April 1924 Sanborn map, a hotel for African-Americans on Williams Street east of Main Street and the Central Hotel on Brinkley Street east of Main Street, both had gone out of business by 1950. The Castleberry Hotel’s location on Main Street, conveniently across the street from an auto repair shop and filling station and next door to another restaurant, meant that it was highly visible to travelers passing through.
“By 1950, the hotel had changed names and was called the Rogers Hotel. Although it is not known when the hotel closed, the construction of Interstate 40 in the area in the 1960s took much of the through traffic and its associated businesses off U.S. 70, likely causing the hotel to close. Prior to the arrival of the interstate highway system, locally run hotels such as the Castleberry were the lifeblood of many communities on U.S. and state highways. The Castleberry Hotel is a living reminder of the facilities that served travelers in the early and mid-20th century.”
I cross the White River on a modern bridge, thinking back to the old drawbridge that used to be the crossing on U.S. 70. It always would scare my wife to cross that narrow span, which was built in 1924. It was a toll bridge originally and was the brainchild of a Stuttgart entrepreneur named Harry Bovay.
I found a 1988 document from the Arkansas Historic Bridge Recording Project that provided background on U.S. 70 and its old bridge.
“The first mail route established between Little Rock and Memphis commenced operation in 1824 over practically the exact route of the present U.S. Highway 70,” the document states. “This route was used in moving the Cherokee Indians from their lands east of the Mississippi to those in the west. U.S. Highway 70, part of which formed the historic link between Memphis and Little Rock, was developed in the early decades of the 20th century as one of the most important routes in Arkansas. Its informal title, the Broadway of America, recognized its national importance. Highway 70 between Little Rock and Memphis formed a part of the route from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and its historic development characterized it as one of the most interesting overland routes in the state.
“The earliest development of the route between Little Rock and Memphis took place in 1821 when, by an act of Congress passed that year, ‘a road from Memphis to Fort Smith via Little Rock was authorized.’ Its development was further stimulated by its establishment as a mail route in 1824. It was the railroad, however, that first contributed to the real improvement of the route. This improvement was stimulated further by the increasing importance of Little Rock. The Memphis & Little Rock Railroad Co., incorporated on Jan. 10, 1853, and later absorbed into the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad Co., was the first to develop the overland route between the cities. The last spike on the completed route was not driven until April 11, 1871. Its development faced the same two problems that characterized the development of Highway 70 — the river crossings at Madison over the St. Francis River and at DeValls Bluff over the White River.”
The rail route was completed in 1871 when the railroad bridge at DeValls Bluff opened. It was the only bridge crossing the river there until the toll bridge was completed at the end of 1924.
“The extent of the river, extending some 600 feet, meant that a ferry crossing was the most simple means of passage,” the 1988 document states. “The disadvantage was that the route was impassable during the winter and spring floods. While it was clear that a bridge allowing permanent crossing of the river was required, the capital investment needed was a major difficulty. It remained to the visionary Harry E. Bovay to organize the finance and to construct the bridge. The story of the White River bridge at DeValls Bluff began with the single-minded vision of Bovay.”
A 1925 article in the Grand Prairie Herald noted: “A peculiar feature about this structure is that it was built by a man who, without funds, devised, schemed and manipulated what at first seemed a vision, but who by concerted effort and the willpower to succeed, turned the vision into a reality.”
The bridge was constructed by the Missouri Valley Bridge & Iron Co. of Leavenworth, Kan., the same company that had built the Broadway Bridge at Little Rock. The bridge opened on Jan. 1, 1925. The final cost of construction was $302,111. The Grand Prairie Herald reported: “The draw is operated by gasoline motor but if necessary it can be operated by hand. A total rise of 50 feet gives a clearance of 55 feet above extreme high water. Only two to three minutes time is required to raise the draw.”
The bridge was purchased by the state on Nov. 1, 1930, for a sum of $1 and bond debt of $430,000.
I next pass through Biscoe, which had just 363 residents in the most recent census. During the four years I worked for the Delta Regional Authority and drove weekly to the DRA headquarters in Clarksdale, Miss., my favorite fruit and vegetable stand each summer was here. I would take the Biscoe exit off Interstate 30 and stop at the stand at the intersection of U.S. 70 and Arkansas Highway 33.
In the early days of this blog back in July 2009, I wrote: “Many of the tomatoes are picked within walking distance of the stand. After just a couple of days of ripening in my kitchen window at home, they ended up being the best tomatoes I’ve had this summer. Sorry, Paul Greenberg, but they were even better than the Bradley County pinks I had bought. … The cantaloupes are also some of the best I’ve had. Just be warned that during this hot period, your car will smell like a cantaloupe for several more days. So be sure you like the smell.”
Morning commutes in those DRA days always meant a stop for a sausage biscuit and coffee at Martin’s IGA (now Mack’s), a classic country store that has been around since 1926. It’s about the only business at Biscoe these days.