SECOND IN A SERIES
I spend far longer than I had planned at the Lonoke County Museum in Lonoke on my trip from Little Rock to Memphis on U.S. Highway 70.
The museum is downtown in a building has housed everything from a doctor’s office to an automobile dealership through the years.
One of the more interesting exhibits concerns Eberts Training Field, which was established near Lonoke in 1917. It was among the biggest training centers in the country for World War I pilots. It was named for an early Arkansas aviator and West Point graduate named Melchior McEwan Eberts.
“Lonoke County outbid Pulaski County to get the aviation school to locate in Lonoke, which offered 960 rent-free acres and a new railroad spur connecting the field with the Rock Island Railroad tracks,” Johnnie Carolyn Bransford writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The U.S. government accepted the Lonoke offer on Nov. 19, 1917, and construction started Dec. 19. The first cadets and solders arrived in the spring of 1918.
“The Lonoke Cemetery was across the road from the airfield. The instructors used the cemetery as a grim reminder of where the cadets who made mistakes would end up. The training planes — the Curtis JN-4D or ‘Flying Jenny’ — were known as ‘flying coffins.’ Before the barracks were built, the enlisted men were housed in the Lonoke school gymnasium. Many of the officers were housed in the Frank Barton home, which still stands at 220 Park St. in Lonoke.
“From early March 1918 until March 1919, thousands of airplanes were used for training at Eberts Field. The Arkansas Gazette reported that it was not uncommon to see several hundred planes flying in formation over the field. Planes from training schools in adjoining states sometimes joined them. … The Eberts Field aviation school never had the opportunity to train pilots fully. World War I ended on Nov. 11, 1918, shortly before the first class graduated.”
A century later, there are few signs of the field.
Lonoke has produced its share of residents who have made a mark on Arkansas history.
Charles William Cunning writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “Lonoke has provided the state with two governors, James P. Eagle and Joe T. Robinson. Robinson also served as a congressman and U.S. senator and was the Democratic candidate for vice president in 1928, the state’s first candidate on a major-party ticket. Lonoke also produced William Claude Bradford, who served as assistant adjutant general of the Arkansas National Guard in World War I; William Heber McLaughlin, who served in France during World War I and became a member of the Arkansas General Assembly; and Maurice ‘Footsie’ Britt, who was decorated with the Medal of Honor in World War II and served as Arkansas’ lieutenant governor from 1967-71.
“Other natives of Lonoke include Eddie Hamm, who set an Olympic record in the broad jump in the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam; Jim Lee Howell, who served as head coach of the New York Giants from 1954-60, winning the NFL championship in 1956; and Elsijane Trimble Roy, who was named the state’s first female judge in 1966 and Arkansas’ first female federal judge in 1977.”
I’m in the heart of the Grand Prairie now as I head east toward Carlisle.
“The tall natural grasses of the state’s Grand Prairie and good soil and water drew farmers from other states to settle this area, including the founders of Carlisle, Samuel McCormick and his wife, L.J. McCormick,” Shirley McGraw writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “There are two stories pertaining to the naming of Carlisle. The first holds that Samuel McCormick had lived in Carlisle, Pa., and named the town after his former home. The second says McCormick named the town after a close friend who was a senator from another state. The McCormicks entered a bill of assurance and plat on Aug. 1, 1872, at the recorder’s office in Prairie County. Carlisle became an incorporated town on Aug. 28, 1878. In 1882, about 100 square miles of land, including the town of Carlisle, was annexed to Lonoke County from Prairie County.”
The Memphis & Little Rock Railroad was completed from DeValls Bluff to Little Rock in 1858. The tracks were destroyed during the Civil War but rebuilt following the conflict.
“The Memphis & Little Rock Railroad, later becoming the Rock Island, ran along Main Street, where the passenger and freight depots were located,” McGraw writes. “The railroad ensured a faster means to move products to markets. In 1879, the natural prairie grasses were shipped by rail to other states for feed. Carlisle Creamery and the Southern Creamery Co. condensed milk factory employed Carlisle residents in the early 1900s. They also shipped milk by rail and sold the byproducts to farmers for feed. … The railroad brought important people to town. President Teddy Roosevelt spoke to a large crowd from the train caboose in 1905 after his trip to Little Rock. On March 15, 1912, the town’s merchants organized a fundraiser to entertain former President William Howard Taft. Upon arrival, Taft made a short speech from the train. He took a tour by automobile to view the rice fields and creameries.”
In January 1909, a charter was issued for the Carlisle Rice Mill. The mill was purchased by the Arkansas State Rice Milling Co. in 1917 and became Riviana Foods in 1965, making among other things the crisped rice for the Nestle Crunch candy bar. Kraft operated a food plant in Carlisle from 1928-49.
W.H. Fuller, who had first seen rice being grown in south Louisiana, decided to experiment with the crop near Carlisle. His first crop failed when he had problems with his wells. In 1904, he produced a rice crop that yielded 5,225 bushels from 70 acres. Rice growing soon dominated the Grand Prairie economy, replacing cotton as king. Arkansas now produces half of the nation’s rice.
Just before reaching Hazen, I pass my favorite spot for fried catfish in the state, Murry’s Restaurant.
Murry’s was in DeValls Bluff for many years and was a favorite road trip when I would visit my grandparents in Des Arc. Mike Trimble — a gifted storyteller who once wrote for the Arkansas Gazette, the Arkansas Times and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette — described the original Murry’s as a place that “appears at first glance to be a minor train derailment.”
Trailers were strung together as dining rooms. It was a brown-bag establishment in the tradition of a lot of the old restaurants in Delta areas of Arkansas and Mississippi. People in Little Rock would rent buses to take them to DeValls Bluff for feasts of fried catfish (Olden Murry might throw in fried crappie for special friends), turnip greens and black-eyed peas.
Murry opened the restaurant in the 1960s after an injury forced him to end his career on a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers snagboat. In his 1987 book “Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History,” John Egerton described the restaurant as “a rambling catacomb of interconnected coaches, trailers and prefabricated rooms.”
He called Murry the “Rembrandt of the kitchen.”
I happen to think that his son-in law, Stanley Young, is turning out even better food at the current location. And there’s no better hostess than Stanley’s wife Becky.
When I was much younger, I would load up my car with friends for a road trip to DeValls Bluff. We would eat a barbecue sandwich at Craig’s (medium sauce; I can’t handle the hot sauce there) for an appetizer and then make the short drive over to Murry’s for catfish. I miss that rabbit warren of trailers, though I always feared that a grease fire in the kitchen would incinerate us all.
After a visit to Murry’s current location several years ago, Max Brantley wrote on the Arkansas Blog: “The crowd wasn’t as big as the throng a few miles west at Nick’s in Carlisle, but I don’t know why. Boss Stanley Young has been frying catfish for 41 years, following in a half century of Olden Murry’s footsteps.”
Though Murry’s is known for fish, Brantley wrote on the blog that Stanley has the best chicken fried steak in the state and some of the best steaks. I’ve had both. And they live up to their billing. I always start with the onion rings. Brantley wrote that they come out “crisp and stay crisp, with fat hunks of sweet, moist onion inside the crackly coat.”
Egerton’s book, which was published by Alfred A Knopf in 1987, is considered a classic. He wrote at the time: “Olden Murry has been frying fish for the faithful for about 20 years, before which he was a riverboat cook on the Mississippi. On the wall inside the place is a photograph of U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers. It is autographed to Olden Murry, ‘the best cook in Arkansas.’ With generous allowances for political overstatement, Bumpers may have been right on target.
“Here is a man with 45 years of cooking experience whose reputation is secure, not only for the catfish he prepares but for the steaks, chicken, quail, frog legs, barbecue, shrimp, oysters and veal. He makes his own meal-based and flour-based batters and breading to dredge his seafoods and meats in, and he keeps the formulas to himself. He buys catfish both from fishermen on the nearby White River and from commercial processors. He completely empties and refills his deep-fat fryers with fresh cooking oil at least twice a week — a sure sign of devotion to quality — and he cooks his fish quickly at high temperatures, the better to seal in flavor and produce a crisp, crunchy crust. ‘I go by looking at the fish and listening to the grease to tell when it’s done,’ Murry said. ‘Every batch is different, so you have to pay attention.’ No automatic timers or fixed temperature controls for him.
“There is no sign of any kind outside Murry’s Cafe, and there are none out on the highway, but it is not at all unusual for 200 or more people to show up there on any given night, many of them having driven 70 miles from Little Rock. Most of the people who work at Murry’s are members of his family, including a majority of his seven children. Murry’s is a home-folks kind of place — the same staff serving consistently fine food to mostly regular customers in plain and unpretentious surroundings. It seems to be an invincible combination.
“The day Ann and I stopped there, it was four o’clock in the afternoon, and Olden Murry was just about to open for business. A fisherman who called himself Catfish John was there with 100 pounds of dressed fresh White River catfish, and soon he and Murry consummated a deal for them. Then the veteran chef heated his fresh oil to just the right temperature, rolled some of Catfish John’s finest fillets in the secret batter and fried them for us. The plates he brought to our table were like advertising pictures — the crisp golden fish, long slivers of french fries, a mound of creamy coleslaw, a ring of fresh onion, a length of dill pickle, a pepperoncini pepper, a wedge of lemon, a smoking-hot corn cake that looked and tasted like a hushpuppy’s rich first cousin. Everything was artistically arranged, prepared to perfection and delicious. Olden Murry, a Rembrandt of the kitchen, had just completed another masterpiece.”
In a more recent story for Arkansas Life magazine, Wyndham Wyeth wrote: “A man pokes his head in the back door of the kitchen wearing a hunter-orange trucker hat and camouflage coveralls, because of course. I don’t quite catch his exchange with Stanley, but he says something to the effect of ‘you wanna see what I’ve got out here?’ and something else about a deer stand, and I get the impression he’s showing off a buck he’s just bagged. … As a former server and bartender, I’m trying to recall a scenario even remotely like the one I’m witnessing now. As a writer, I’m doing a happy dance in my mind and trying my best to commit this whole scene to memory before the images fade, because you really can’t make this stuff up.”
This is life in rural Arkansas at its best.
Stanley tells the writer, “I’m not licensed to sell wild game in the restaurant, but I like to keep some on hand for my regulars and friends when they come in.”
That’s why I’m glad Stanley is my friend. I’ve had duck, crappie and even frog legs that Stanley gigged (not the ones on the regular menu).
Hazen is the next town up as I continue toward the east on U.S. 70.
Hazen, which had a population of 1,468 people in the 2010 census, is named for Dr. William Cogswell Hazen. He moved to the area from Covington, Tenn., in 1854 and brought his family and 21 slaves with him.
“Hazen persuaded a family friend, the Rev. John W. Hudson, to come with them,” Chris Weems writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Hudson settled three miles west of the Hazens with his two small children. The Hazens likely settled on the border of the Grand Prairie because of the small hills, eight to 12 feet in elevation, that prevent the flooding that’s evident farther south. The Hazens built cabins for the family and the slaves, clearing land and planting crops. The cotton was harvested and sent by boat from DeValls Bluff to Memphis where it was sold. … Hazen died in 1872, a year after a cotton gin was brought to the Hazen area and 11 months before the first post office bore his name. The town was surveyed in 1873, and Hazen’s widow deeded the first tract of land for the city of Hazen, which was incorporated in 1884.”
By the 1880s, prairie hay was being bailed and shipped to Little Rock and Memphis. Eventually, those fields of prairie hay were replaced by rice.
Hazen doubled in size from 819 residents in the 1940 census to 1,605 residents in the 1970 census. The highway to Des Arc was paved in 1946, and indoor plumbing had reached all the homes in town by 1955.
“In the 1950s, Hazen had Young’s Department Store, a John Deere agency, Chevrolet and Ford dealerships, two dress shops, two or three grocery stores, a newspaper publishing company, two hardware stores, two or three farm-related stores, two lumber companies, two or three crop duster airports, a rice dryer, two drug stores, two appliance stores, the Rieke CPA office and many other small, privately owned businesses,” Weems writes. “The building of Interstate 40 in the 1960s and the widening of U.S. Highway 70 allowed easier access to larger cities, causing many of the businesses to move or close.”
There are still some classic buildings downtown. There’s the structure that housed the hardware store that John Kocourek founded in 1892. And there’s the old Rock Island depot. Weems writes that a mayor named Kathryn Orlicek was “instrumental in restoring the depot and, with the help of some of the women’s clubs in town, raised money for the project. Of the Rock Island Railroad depots originally in Arkansas, the Hazen depot is the only stucco-and-brick building with a slate roof.”
We roll through Hazen and continue east toward the historic river town of DeValls Bluff.