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Texarkana: Twice as nice

I wrote a newspaper column recently about one of the state’s famous former high school football coaches — Robert E. “Swede” Lee of Arkansas High at Texarkana — and it got me to thinking about that city on the Arkansas-Texas border. You know, the place where the big water tank along Interstate 30 proclaims that it’s “twice as nice.”

Writing that column made me hungry for lunch at Bryce’s Cafeteria.

And it made me hungry for supper at the Cattleman’s Steak House on State Line Avenue.

I grew up at Arkadelphia, about halfway between Little Rock and Texarkana. Our trips for shopping, dinner and sports events generally were to Little Rock or Hot Springs. But just for a change of pace, my parents occasionally would take us to Texarkana, where we would eat at the former Bryce’s location downtown.

Years later, Texarkana played a role in our oldest son getting potty trained. Smart, high-strung boys can be slow to get potty trained. Our son loved trains, and my mother came up with a plan.

She told her grandson that if he would “take care of business” on his end, she would take him for a ride on a real train.

It worked.

We dropped our son off in Arkadelphia, and my mother later reported that he had a difficult time going to sleep the night prior to the train trip. You can hear the Union Pacific trains crossing the Ouachita River at night from our family home. Each time Austin would hear a train, he would pop up and ask his grandmother: “Is that ours? Did we miss it.”

My mother and Austin boarded the Amtrak train the next day at Arkadelphia and took it only as far as Texarkana. My father raced down Interstate 30 in his Oldsmobile so he would be at the station to meet them. He picked them up, and the three of them went to Bryce’s to eat. Austin fell asleep within minutes of leaving the Bryce’s parking lot and slept all the way back to Arkadelphia.

Downtown Texarkana was a booming place when I was a child. Those were the days before restaurants and retailers moved out to Interstate 30. Shoppers from southwest Arkansas, east Texas, northwest Louisiana and southeast Oklahoma flocked to Texarkana and places such as the Belk-Jones and Dillard’s department stores.

The first Belk store was opened in 1888 by William Henry Belk in Monroe, N.C. By 1908, the company had moved its headquarters to Charlotte and built its flagship store downtown. In 1921, the Belk family began forming partnerships in various markets. This resulted in hyphenated store names and more than 300 legal entities. Earl Jones Sr., who had been born in North Carolina in 1916, moved to Texarkana in October 1947 to open the Belk-Jones store. He later developed motels such as the Kings Row Inn and The Town House. His son, Earl Jones Jr., is a former state representative who went on to become one of the best-known lobbyists at the state Capitol.

Meanwhile, William T. Dillard (who had been born in 1914 at Mineral Springs) had opened his first store at Nashville in February 1938 under the name T.J. Dillard’s, the same name as his father’s store at Mineral Springs. He sold the Nashville store in 1948 and moved his family to Texarkana after purchasing a 45 percent interest in Wooten’s Department Store. In 1949, less than two years after Earl Jones Sr. had opened Belk-Jones, Dillard purchased the remaining 60 percent of Wooten’s. He expanded to Magnolia in 1955, Tyler in 1957 and Tulsa in 1960.

Dillard’s move into Little Rock retailing followed with the purchase of Pfeifer’s in 1963 and Blass in 1964. The Dillard family, which had moved from Texarkana to Tulsa in 1960, moved to Little Rock to stay in 1964.

The late 1940s and the 1950s were times of steady growth for Texarkana.

“In the early 20th century, the population of the Texas side outpaced the Arkansas side, though both parts of the city grew and prospered until the Great Depression of the 1930s,” Nancy Hendricks writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The city’s economy rebounded with the coming of World War II in the 1940s, primarily because of the creation of the Red River Army Depot and the Lone Star Ammunition Plant. Along with being an important junction of railroad lines, Texarkana built a strong economy based on timber and minerals along with rockwool (a substance used for insulation and filtering), sand and gravel and crops such as corn, cotton, pecans, rice and soybeans. … By 1952, the population was 40,490 with the Arkansas side reporting almost 16,000. By 1960, the Arkansas side had reached almost 20,000 and the total population of the city was just over 50,000.”

The city has continued to experience consistent, if not spectacular, growth. The Arkansas side had a population of 29,919 in the 2010 census. The Texas side population was 37,103 in the 2010 census.

“The State Line Post Office and Federal Building at 500 State Line Ave. is the only U.S. post office situated in two states, and Texarkana boasts that it is the most photographed courthouse in the country after the Supreme Court in Washington,” Hendricks writes. “The building, constructed in 1932-33, features walls of Arkansas limestone and a base of Texas pink granite. It houses separate ZIP codes. A photographer’s island allows people to take pictures of subjects straddling the two states.”

The area received widespread publicity during the 1992 presidential campaign because Ross Perot was a Texarkana native and Bill Clinton was a native of nearby Hope.

The year after that election, Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa described the Texarkana area this way in the “Almanac of American Politics”: “Texarkana doesn’t look like the political center of anywhere. It is an old city, with a population of 50,000 and a rural and small town hinterland somewhat larger. Its neat grid streets are noteworthy chiefly because the city, as its name suggests, crosses the Texas-Arkansas state line; the downtown post office straddles the boundary, with the west wing serving Texarkana, Texas, and the east wing serving Texarkana, Ark. Yet this small city and its surroundings produced not one but two presidential candidates in 1992. … Did the particular atmosphere of the Texarkana area have an effect on these men’s politics? One can guess that it did. For both, by their own accounts, were taught to believe that they had obligations to those less fortunate, even while they were obliged themselves to work hard and achieve in school to get ahead.

“Texarkana was populist country then, a place where farmers producing cotton and crops felt themselves at the mercy of Dallas cotton brokers, Wall Street financiers and railroad magnates who were grabbing all the gains of their hard work. Outside Texarkana, in a landscape littered with small houses and lazily winding rivers, there was little protection from the sun and wind, and precious little ornament; the reservoirs and motels and shopping centers one sees there now are signs of an affluence still only beginning to penetrate what was a zone of subsistence if not poverty. … The culture here was always traditional: This is an area of heavy churchgoing and proud patriotism. Traces of that can be seen in Perot’s military bearing and Clinton’s religious cadences.”

During his presidential campaign, the billionaire Perot was asked his favorite restaurant in the world.

“Bryce’s in Texarkana,” he replied.

Bryce’s was founded in 1931 by Bryce Lawrence and has been family owned and operated since then. The Chicago Tribune once declared that Bryce’s “has better food for the money than any place on earth.”

Another Texarkana dining tradition is the Cattleman’s Steak House on the Arkansas side of State Line Avenue, which was opened by Roy Oliver in August 1964 when State Line was still a two-lane road and wooded land surrounded the restaurant. The Cattleman’s is still owned by the Oliver family and has an old-school menu that even includes calf fries and turkey fries among the appetizers (if you have to ask, don’t order them. I’m reminded of what it says next to “mountain oysters” on the menu of the Big Texan at Amarillo: “If you think this is seafood, you would prefer the shrimp.”)

That appetizer menu also has shrimp cocktails, escargot, crab claws, oysters on the half shell and something called dragon fries, which are jalapeno peppers stuffed with crabmeat. In addition to the steaks, there are fried chicken livers and fried quail. Like I said, old school.

If I could spend a day in Texarkana with lunch at Bryce’s and dinner at the Cattleman’s, I would indeed be a happy man.

As I said at the outset, it’s twice as nice.

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