NINTH IN A SERIES
When I was asked to give an evening lecture last year at Williams Baptist University, I was told that I would spend the night at the Hotel Rhea in downtown Walnut Ridge.
Downtown Walnut Ridge?
I didn’t know you could spend the night downtown.
I had no idea what to expect, but I can tell you that it was delightful. I could hear the freight trains passing through town during the night, but I liked that. And it was just a short walk to breakfast the next morning at Moni’s Grill, where I was greeted by the city’s mayor, Charles Snapp.
We all know about the economic problems faced by towns in the Arkansas Delta. But a handful of those communities are revitalizing their downtowns and trying to buck the trend of population loss in the region.
Walnut Ridge belongs on that list.
With the Hotel Rhea at Walnut Ridge, the Lesmeister Guesthouse at Pocahontas and the Inn at Piggott, there are three towns in northeast Arkansas with old downtown properties that have been transformed into first-class overnight accommodations.
The first Hotel Rhea was constructed in phases from 1904-08. Once it was finished, it was considered to be among the finest hotels in the state. There was steam heat, running water and a bath in every room. The Rhea took up most of the 100 block of West Main Street before a fire on Nov. 16, 1914, destroyed part of the building.
The portion left standing was renovated in 1915-16 and became the home of Cooper Drugs. A dentist and doctor had their offices upstairs.
Those rooms later were used for apartments. The Snapp family bought the building in 2012 and created three suites upstairs and one suite downstairs. A separate area downstairs can be rented for private functions.
Unlike most Delta towns its size, Walnut Ridge isn’t bleeding population. The decrease in population from 2000 to 2010 was a small one — 4,925 to 4,890. The most recent population estimate for the city was 5,062.
Sales tax collections jumped considerably last year with the opening of additional businesses. Snapp told Talk Business & Politics: “It’s a larger variety of shopping opportunities. If our residents can buy what they need here, they don’t have to go to Jonesboro or Pocahontas or another town. We’re keeping our people here. Our sales have gone up and up. We plan for that to continue.”
The city’s annual Beatles at the Ridge festival in September had a record turnout, attracting almost 15,000 people. More than 100 vendors were in town for the two-day event, and there were two stages with live music. It was the eighth time for the festival to be held. It celebrates the fact that Walnut Ridge was the only Arkansas city visited by the Beatles.
Late on the evening of Sept. 18, 1964, Walnut Ridge businessman Jack Allison saw a large plane headed toward the city’s airport. He asked three teenage boys to go see who was on the plane. When the door opened, the members of the band stepped out. They had left a concert at Dallas and were on their way for some rest and relaxation at a dude ranch near Alton, Mo.
Their plane was too big to land at most airports in the area, but Walnut Ridge’s airport had long runways since it had been the Walnut Ridge Army Flying School during World War II.
“That year, the popularity of the Beatles was without rival,” Michael Bowman writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were mobbed by teenage fans at each public appearance. The Fab Four, as they were dubbed, had five singles in the top five slots on the Billboard charts. Their first film, ‘A Hard Day’s Night,’ appeared in 500 U.S. theaters. The group’s first appearance on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ drew an estimated 73 million viewers. In their legendary 1964 concert tour, they performed 32 shows in 34 days.”
After the concert in Dallas, the members of the group had boarded a plane operated by Reed Pigman, who owned American Flyers Airlines in Dallas. Pigman also owned the ranch near Alton that would serve as a place for rest and relaxation before the final concert of the year in New York.
“The Walnut Ridge airport provided the ideal spot for the group to change planes before heading to Missouri,” Bowman writes. “The runway was built as a training facility during World War II and could handle large aircraft. Also, the Beatles could avoid the crush of screaming fans by landing at a secluded airport at the edge of a small town.”
Pigman, who was also the pilot, would die on April 22, 1966, of a heart attack while at the controls of a Lockheed Electra coming into Ardmore, Okla. The crash that followed killed more than 80 members of the military who were being flown under a Department of Defense contract with Pigman’s company.
Nighttime landings were rare in Walnut Ridge in those days so a large plane circling at midnight created plenty of attention.
A smaller plane was already at the airport to take the band to Missouri. Word spread about the stop, and it was speculated that the Beatles would depart from Walnut Ridge on a Sunday.
“While most people attended Sunday morning church services, 200 to 300 people descended on the Walnut Ridge airport in anticipation of the Beatles’ return,” Bowman writes. “The plane that had carried the group across the United States sat on the runway waiting for their return from Missouri. Parents snapped photographs of their children next to the plane. Home movie cameras captured the crowd’s excitement. The sounds of teenagers singing Beatles songs could be heard across the runway.
“There were many false alarms that morning. Teenagers mobbed a local crop-duster mistaken for the Beatles plane. Little did they know that McCartney and Harrison had arrived at the airport an hour early and watched the spectacle from an old truck parked across the runway. Suddenly, a small commuter aircraft with Lennon and Starr landed and taxied up the runway. The two left the plane, walking through a gauntlet of polite but excited spectators. As Lennon and Starr ascended the steps to the larger plane, the old truck that held Harrison and McCartney pulled up next to it. All four Beatles quickly boarded and left for their last U.S. concert of the year. For many of the Walnut Ridge teenagers, it was their only chance to see the Beatles in person.”
In September 2011, civic leaders unveiled a monument in downtown Walnut Ridge designed to look like the cover of the album “Abbey Road.”
The next year, the town built the guitar-shaped plaza downtown. That plaza mainly honors the musicians who once traveled up and down U.S. Highway 67 to play at clubs in the area.
In 2009, the Arkansas Legislature designated a 111-mile stretch of the highway through Jackson, Lawrence, Randolph and Clay counties as Rock ‘n’ Roll Highway 67. A portion of the road in Miller County in southwest Arkansas later received the designation.
“The term rockabilly is defined as a mixture of blues, country and western and rhythm and blues music that saw its biggest popularity beginning in the post-World War II era and lasted until around the time of the so-called British Invasion of the early 1960s,” Keith Merckx writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Original rockabilly artists included Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis along with noted Arkansans Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Sonny Burgess and Billy Lee Riley. These same musicians are cited as influences by later musical legends –ranging from the Beatles to Bob Dylan — who credit rockabilly as an inspiration for their own distinctive styles of music.
“Establishments on U.S. 67 that hosted these acts included Bob King’s King of Clubs in Swifton, the Silver Moon Club in Newport and the rooftop of the Skylark Drive-In Theater in Pocahontas. … The idea to honor the road originated in 2005 with noted Pocahontas musician Gary Gazaway (who has performed and recorded with the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Steve Winwood, Joe Cocker and Phish). As a lifelong resident of the area, Gazaway had long recognized the significance of the highway as a musical artery. He suggested the idea to Michael Luster, the director of the Arkansas Folklife Program at Arkansas State University, and music historian Stephen Koch, co-founder and host of the radio program ‘Arkansongs.'”
The three men wanted the highway to be known as the Rockabilly Highway.
A committee was formed, and some members feared the term rockabilly would harken back to the stereotype of Arkansas hillbillies. The committee voted 8-5 in favor of using Rock ‘n’ Roll Highway 67. Gazaway was among those in the minority.
“This hillbilly culture is what made the music,” he said. “To call it anything else is to go against the historical aspect of it.”
Arkansas author and music historian Marvin Schwartz notes that the height of the rockabilly era was the late 1950s.
“Many Arkansas rockabilly groups such as Sonny Burgess & the Pacers and Billy Lee Riley & the Little Green Men had recorded for Sun Records and were rising to national attention,” he writes. “Dale Hawkins, a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, specialized in creating a sound (called Swamp Rock by some) that went on to help shape rock ‘n’ roll music. Bobby Brown of Olyphant in Jackson County was a popular rockabilly performer of the 1950s and 1960s, often playing at the Cotton Club in Trumann. On May 13, 1957, the Little Rock CBS television affiliate began broadcasting ‘Steve’s Show,’ hosted by Steve Stephens and featuring local teenagers who danced to hit records as rockabilly artists and other performers lip-synched the words.
“Sonny Burgess’ ‘Sadie’s Back in Town,’ released by Sun Records on Dec. 31, 1959, could be considered the last rockabilly hit of the era. The popular music industry was shifting to a softer format and more banal subject matter than rockabilly’s fast cars, rowdy women and rebellious partying. Arkansas rockabilly artists either modified their styles or retired from the music business. A rockabilly revival in the 1970s brought renewed attention to the genre, while European audiences have maintained a nearly cult-like devotion to the original sound. Arkansans such as Jason D. Williams of El Dorado continue to perform in a traditional rockabilly mode.”
In addition to capitalizing on its music traditions, Walnut Ridge has done an excellent job of putting interpretive signage downtown to give the history of the city’s old buildings. Walnut Ridge is home, however, to one of the newer courthouses in the state. The Lawrence County Courthouse was completed in 1966. Still, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2015 because of its New Formalism style.
In 1870, the Legislature split Lawrence County into two judicial districts. Walnut Ridge served the eastern half of the county, and Powhatan served the western half.
A two-story courthouse built at Walnut Ridge in 1897 lasted until only 1900. In 1901, county offices moved into a building constructed by the Steward Brothers Co. of Newport and designed by noted Arkansas architect Charles Thompson.
“Powhatan’s courthouse suffered after decades of population depletion in the town, weakened commerce and neglect,” Jared Craig writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Lawrence County officials attempted to consolidate the county seats to Walnut Ridge three times, but voters turned down each measure. Meanwhile, Walnut Ridge’s courthouse deteriorated. County officials warned that both courthouses probably should be condemned. In 1963, county residents finally voted to consolidate the county seats to Walnut Ridge and approved the construction of a new courthouse.
“A record turnout voted in the special election, which was likely due to a $500 prize the Lawrence County Development Council awarded in a drawing to a participating voter. Additionally, Walnut Ridge merchants contributed money for another drawing, signaling the business community’s support. County officials alleviated residents’ concern of funding with an extension of a two-mill hospital tax and a hefty grant from the federal government that U.S. Rep. Wilbur Mills advocated. The courthouse cost $450,000.”
We leave Walnut Ridge and continue the trek east on U.S. Highway 412, soon crossing into Greene County. The Cache River forms the county line.
The Cache begins near the Arkansas-Missouri border and flows through northeast Arkansas until it empties into the White River near Clarendon.
“With the arrival of American settlers, steamboats began plying the waters of the Cache River, and towns were established in its vicinity,” writes Arkansas historian Guy Lancaster. “The town of Maberry in Woodruff County, founded in 1842, was a notable shipping point for cotton and locally harvested timber. So was Patterson in Woodruff County. However, the towns established along the White River, which runs nearly parallel to the Cache from Newport on south, grew larger given the White River’s greater reach and use as a transportation corridor.”
The lowlands between the Cache and L’Anguille rivers served as a major obstacle to the completion of the Little Rock & Memphis Railroad. The line linking the two cities wasn’t completed until 1871.
“Though the Cache River area was an important source of timber, the area was not as extensively cleared as were other parts of eastern Arkansas due to the river’s reputation for flooding,” Lancaster writes. “Major stands of native hardwood survived. Because the Cache moves at a slow speed due to its low amount of fall per mile — and the fact that the contour of the flat land surrounding it does not lend itself to levee construction — the Cache River can overflow its banks after only a few inches of rainfall. Work on the river in northeast Arkansas in the 1920s and 1930s straightened the channel, even splitting the river into two separate ditches between Bono and Egypt in Craighead County. That helped speed the flow of the river, but farming along it was still a risky endeavor.
“During the flood of 1937, the Cache River was one of a number of east Arkansas rivers that spilled across agricultural land. Planters and businessmen long advocated for some form of flood control along the Cache, which had no well-developed system of levees. The Flood Control Act of 1950 authorized the Cache River-Bayou DeView Project, which was a plan to dredge, clear and realign 140 miles of the Cache upstream from Clarendon along with 15 miles of the upper tributaries and 77 miles of Bayou DeView. Initial funds for the project, projected to cost $60 million, weren’t approved until 1969.”
A lengthy environmental battle ensued.
Indebted to east Arkansas planters, U.S. Rep. Bill Alexander pushed hard for the project. It was opposed by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, the Arkansas Wildlife Federation and a large number of other organizations. A federal lawsuit was filed to stop the project. U.S. District Judge J. Smith Henley ruled in favor of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in May 1972, and his verdict was appealed. In July 1972, the Corps began clearing and dredging in the Clarendon area.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the case to Henley in December 1972, noting that the Corps had not met the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act. In March 1973, the court ordered that work be halted. The Corps’ environmental impact statement finally was approved three years later, but by then Congress had backed off funding such a controversial project.
“Opponents of the project worked to create a national wildlife refuge along the river, partly to block the project but also to protect the river from rampant development,” Lancaster writes. “In 1986, the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge was established, stretching south from Grubbs in Jackson County to Clarendon and incorporating a large swath of Bayou DeView. North of Grubbs, the Cache River exists as little more than a ditch or series of ditches.”