FIFTH IN A SERIES
If you want to understand this part of the state, the Central Delta Depot Museum at Brinkley is a good place to start.
The Central Delta Historical Society was organized in the 1990s to celebrate the history of Monroe County along with parts of Prairie, Lee, Phillips, Arkansas, St. Francis and Woodruff counties. Louise Mitchell, who had been a teacher at Brinkley High School, began a letter-writing campaign in 1999 to save the historic depot at Brinkley.
In February 2001, Union Pacific Railroad deeded the station to the city of Brinkley. The city, in turn, signed a long-term lease with the Central Delta Historical Society. Renovation work began in 2001, and work was completed in 2003. The museum opened in May 2003.
The size of the depot gives one an idea of what an important railroad town Brinkley once was.
“Brinkley was ideally situated at the crossing of the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad (the state’s first rail line that was completed in 1871; it later became the Rock Island) and the Texas & St. Louis Railroad (later the Cotton Belt), which was laid through the city in 1882,” Bill Sayger writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “With two other rail lines coming in from the north and south, the city rapidly became the regional shipping center for cotton and timber products and a major point of transfer for rail passengers in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
“The brick train station originally opened on Sept. 16, 1912, and was constructed at a cost of $25,000. Its wing design and size, with freight rooms at each end of the building, made it the most striking of the Rock Island stations between Memphis and Little Rock. Passenger service ceased on the Cotton Belt in 1959 and the Rock Island in 1967. Because of the bankruptcy of the Rock Island, the train station was closed in 1980. Union Pacific took over operations of the Cotton Belt line and that part of the Rock Island between Memphis and Little Rock.”
A Missouri Pacific line connected Brinkley to Helena.
The White & Black River Railroad (later owned by the Rock Island) provided service from Brinkley to Jacksonport.
Headed east on U.S. Highway 70 out of Brinkley, I cross from Monroe County into St. Francis County.
St. Francis County has seen its population fall from a high of 36,841 in the 1950 census to about 25,000 people today. The territorial legislature carved St. Francis County from neighboring Phillips County in October 1827.
“A temporary county seat was set up at the home of William Strong until a permanent one was established at Franklin,” Guy Lancaster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “However, in 1840, the county seat was moved to Madison. In 1855, the seat was moved again to Mount Vernon. But the courthouse burned the following year, and Madison regained its role. By 1860, there were 2,621 slaves in the county, constituting roughly 30 percent of the total population. Cotton and corn were the mainstays of the county’s economy at the time.”
The county seat was moved to Forrest City in 1874 following a vote by St. Francis County residents. People in Madison refused to release county records. A group from Forrest City went to Madison one night and stole the safe containing the records. A few months later, the framed building that served as the courthouse at Forrest City was burned.
The Memphis & Little Rock Railroad built a depot at what’s now Wheatley. The community originally was known as Britton. It was named Wheatley in 1872 in honor of a resident named Wheatley Dennis. Wheatley was in Monroe County at the time, but the county boundary was changed the next year.
The Wheatley Rice Milling Co. was established in 1909 as rice cultivation took off on the west side of Crowley’s Ridge. The rice dryer there became part of the Riceland Foods cooperative in 1945. That continues to be the most notable landmark in a community that had 355 residents in the 2010 census.
The next stop is Palestine, which represents a bright spot in the Delta.
While I was watching one of the state championship high school basketball games at Hot Springs in March, someone in the row behind me asked if I could visit for a few minutes. It was Jon Estes, the superintendent of the Palestine-Wheatley School District. Estes grew up in far south Arkansas at Bradley in Lafayette County. He was the superintendent of the Drew Central School District near Monticello when he accepted the Palestine-Wheatley job a decade ago. Estes didn’t know much about the Delta, but he understands rural Arkansas. He knows that for a small community to succeed, its public schools must improve.
The school districts at Palestine and Wheatley consolidated in the 1980s. The Palestine Red Devils and the Wheatley Pirates had been athletic rivals, but students soon learned to play together as Palestine-Wheatley Patriots.
Like most Delta communities, Palestine has struggled to maintain its population base. Palestine had a population of 681 in the 2010 census, down from a high of 976 in 1980.
Estes knew that I’m always looking for success stories in the Delta. He thought I might be interested in seeing what’s happening at Palestine, a place he likes to call the Holy City. I made good on my promise to pay him a visit.
Palestine was named in 1870 when the first post office opened. Some say the community got its name from a sawmill employee who was killed in an accident. Others say the first postmaster selected the name from the Bible. Palestine was incorporated in 1889 as businesses moved in along the busy railroad line. By 1905, there were five general stores, two grocery stores and a drugstore.
“The school, like others in the Delta, was facing declining enrollment, poor test scores and a declining annual fund balance when I got there,” Estes says. “With the help of what I consider the best teaching staff in the state, and under the direction of the best school board, the district turned all of that around. We now bill our district as the Diamond in the Delta.”
The Palestine-Wheatley School District has grown from about 535 students when Estes arrived to more than 800. All of the schools are now in Palestine, a move Estes says Wheatley residents bought into. To handle the influx of new students, Estes bought metal buildings in Yazoo City, Miss., that had been used to house evacuees following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The district has purchased 60 acres along Highway 70 on the west side of town, and construction will soon begin on a $20 million high school. A new elementary school opened in 2013.
People like to live where there are quality schools. That’s why it didn’t surprise me when Estes said there’s a subdivision being planned near the new high school. He even showed me where the concrete has been poured for a skating rink. When’s the last time you heard of a skating rink being built anywhere?
Estes shows me C.R. Smalls, the abandoned parts house that Cindy and Roger Smallwood transformed into a restaurant that attracts customers from Forrest City the east and Brinkley to the west. There’s a new Dollar General Store nearby. Estes says the parking lot is full at all hours. Triple G Excavating Inc. has expanded at Palestine in recent years.
Just down Highway 70, Burt Swiney is known by the locals as Barbecue Burt. He transformed his food trailer into a small restaurant.
“His food is so good that people would sit outside and eat it on cold days when there was nothing to cut the wind,” Estes says. “So he built a structure to seat those loyal patrons.”
Estes also mentions the growth of Standridge Heat, Air & Electric Inc.
“Max Standridge bought an old metal shop and moved his operations to Palestine,” Estes says. “He’s somewhat of a hero around the school because he air conditioned the weight room for our football players.”
There’s also the once-abandoned gas station that has been reopened as a modern Valero convenience store. I’m used to seeing empty buildings in the Delta. You don’t see much of that at Palestine.
We head downtown for the highlight of the tour. The Hurd family operates a Forrest City construction company. They’ve now bought most of the downtown area.
Josh and Brandy Hurd and Josh’s parents (Randy and Ladonna Hurd) are involved in the operation. They took an empty service station at Palestine and renovated it for their Crazy Donkey Grill, which serves everything from steaks to pizzas to Mexican food. They then reopened an adjoining car wash.
That’s not to mention Boondocks Down South or their adjacent furniture store.
“Boondocks is the kind of place where you can dress yourself for duck hunting, for a college football game or for Easter Sunday services,” Estes says. “They have everything from hunting equipment to fragrance candles. The Hurds also renovated a grocery store that had been closed for almost 20 years. They sell reclaimed furniture out of there. This is top-of-the-line stuff that’s shipped all over the country.”
Across from the furniture store, Littlefield’s Grocery is still going strong in downtown Palestine.
“It’s a country store that has stood the test of time,” Estes says. “You can buy anything from a chain for your bathtub stopper to a choice steak to Arkansas watermelons in the summer. And they still deliver groceries to people’s homes.”
Ladonna Hurd tells me about the hundreds of people who now converge on downtown for holiday parades and other special events.
Brandy Hurd says the Crazy Donkey was named for Domino, a donkey on their ranch who can always be counted on to “add a little extra crazy to our day.”
Their enthusiasm for what’s going on here is contagious. There’s a sense of promise, something missing in too many rural towns.
Palestine got it right. Instead of chasing industries, its leaders focused on improving the public schools and revitalizing downtown. If those things are done correctly, the rest follows.
Just to the east of Palestine, the traveler on Highway 70 crosses the L’Anguille River. Several creeks come together to form the river west of Harrisburg. It then flows to the south to almost Marianna, cuts across Crowley’s Ridge and empties into the St. Francis River.
“In the 18th century, French trappers operated along the river, naming it after the French word for eel,” Lancaster writes. “Friedrich Gerstacker described the river basin as consisting of ‘swamps and thorns, creepers, wild vines, fallen trees, half or entirely rotted, deep and muddy water-courses, bushes so thick that you could hardly stick a knife into them and, to complete the enjoyment, clouds of mosquitoes and gnats, not to mention snakes lying about on the edges of the water-courses.”
The L’Anguille bottoms later proved to be a major obstacle to the completion of the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad.
“As with much of northeastern Arkansas, the L’Anguille River basin was the site of enormous timber harvests in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” Lancaster writes. “After the land was cleared, the area became home to large agricultural enterprises, especially the rice farming that was emerging west of Crowley’s Ridge. … Many of the channels feeding into the river have been straightened for agricultural use, which has increased soil erosion. This runoff, combined with the presence of fecal coliform bacteria, resulted in portions of the river being listed by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality as ‘not supporting aquatic life’ in 1998.”
Numerous initiatives to improve water quality haven taken place since then.
Heading east into Forrest City, I begin to climb that geological oddity known as Crowley’s Ridge.
It begins in southern Missouri and ends at Helena.
“It is made up of a continuous series of rolling hills except for a slight break at Marianna,” Hubert Stroud writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “This break was created by the L’Anguille River as it flowed across the ridge. The ridge received its name from Benjamin Crowley, the first white settler to reach the area near present-day Paragould, sometime around 1820. … Crowley’s Ridge is an unusual geological formation that rises above the Mississippi Alluvial Plain. The ridge contrasts sharply with the surrounding flatlands of the Delta. In terms of formation, the ridge is generally thought to have once been an island between the Mississippi River and the Ohio River. It became a long and narrow hilly ridge after the rivers changed courses millions of years ago.”
Stroud notes that the ridge is capped by a deep layer of wind-deposited soils created millions of years ago when glaciers moved across the continent. He says that “rivers and streams that continued to meander across the plain washed away the loessial material. On Crowley’s Ridge, however, the loess continued to collect, up to 50 feet in depth in some locations. Since loess is very easily eroded, steep slopes and deep valleys characterize much of Crowley’s Ridge. One of the unique features of Crowley’s Ridge is its natural vegetation. Interestingly, many of the trees that make up the forest on Crowley’s Ridge are similar to those found in the west Appalachian Mountains. The ridge is covered with a lush mixed forest, including oak and hickory and uncommon hardwood trees such as American beech, sugar maple and the tuliptree or yellow poplar.
“Crowley’s Ridge also has extensive areas of pasture. Although the soil is relatively fertile, row crops such as soybeans and wheat are limited almost entirely to small floodplains along and near streams that flow out of the region onto the Mississippi Alluvial Plain. This is due to the highly erosive nature of the wind-blown soils of Crowley’s Ridge. The soils need a protective vegetative cover of some type such as pasture grasses or forests to combat severe soil erosion.”