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The man from Arkansas City

I’ve always been fascinated by Arkansas City.

Fascinated by a remote community — literally a place at the end of the road — that serves as a county seat even though it had only 589 residents in the 2000 census and likely will have even fewer people when this year’s census is completed.

Fascinated by the fact that this was a major trade and cultural center — an important port on the Mississippi River — before the Great Flood of 1927 left it isolated from the river.

Fascinated by the tastefully renovated Desha County Courthouse and the collection of historical photos that cover its inside walls.

Fascinated by the haunting beauty of the abandoned business buildings along the levee.

Fascinated by the colorful characters who have come from Arkansas City.

“In 1879, it became the county seat for Desha County,” Paula Reaves writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Arkansas City blossomed into a thriving river town during the next 40 years. It had a natural steamboat port and two railroads, as well as 14 saloons and three sawmills. … Some of the finest cotton in the United States came from this area. … An opera house existed in Arkansas City by 1891, and opera companies were hired to come to Arkansas City. The building was also used as an unofficial town hall; at other times, it became a dance hall, and citizens danced to music from Memphis bands. The opera house was also the location for boxing and wrestling exhibitions, including an exhibition by John L. Sullivan on March 8, 1891. Jack Dempsey also held a boxing exhibition there in 1924. These exhibitions were under the auspices of the Arkansas City Sporting Club.”

As for the 1927 flood, Reaves writes: “More than 2,000 people had to be rescued. The floodwaters were up to the second floor of some homes, and the citizens of the area camped in tents on top of the levee. When the floodwaters receded, the river channel, which was just across the levee, had moved about a mile to the east. This brought an end to the port at Arkansas City and made the railroads useless. The town never fully recovered from this tragedy. Arkansas City became a quiet little town in the years following the flood. There have been attempts to have the county seat moved to one of the larger cities in the county, but these attempts have been unsuccessful.”

Recently, the members of the Arkansas House of Representatives selected Rep. Robert Moore Jr. from Arkansas City to be the House speaker in 2011-12.

As a lover of Arkansas history, I think it’s nice to have a speaker from Arkansas City. It seems more like something that would have happened in 1910 rather than 2010 when the economic and political power in this state has moved far to the north and west of that historic community.

Having Moore as the speaker will be good for the entire Delta. He will help make sure that east Arkansas isn’t forgotten at the state Capitol.

When he first ran for the House in 2006, Moore said: “I consider myself blessed coming from a small town in the Delta. My wife and I really enjoy traveling, but coming back home to the farm is the best part of every trip we take. … I love southeast Arkansas.”

Moore, 65, has deeper roots in the region than most. His father, Robert Sr., was the Desha County sheriff. His mother, Dorothy was… Well, let’s just say she was a southeast Arkansas legend. Known across the state as Miss Dorothy, she was something special.

Matt Dellinger began a 2005 story in the Oxford American this way: “It’s never been good luck to be the seat of justice of Desha County. Behold today’s Arkansas City — beat-up, broken-down, devoid of the trappings every county seat deserves. No four-lane road. No Chinese restaurant. No muffler shop. No Wal-Mart. There is a newly renovated county courthouse (if county courthouses are your thing) and, for the well-guided visitor with a generous imagination, the shabby remnants of great things long gone.”

One of my favorite county judges is Mark McElroy of Desha County. McElroy, a part-time actor and world-class storyteller, was mistakenly called “Mike McElroy” in the Oxford American story. But his quote about Arkansas City is still a good one: “They had gambling houses and hotels. This was sin city, man. That old jail there, Miss Dorothy said on Sunday you went to church, you could hear the drunks: ‘Uuuuurgh.’ They’d fill it up, too.”

Former legislator and newspaper publisher Charlotte Schexnayder of Dumas followed up by saying in the 2005 article: “That would be Dorothy Moore. She’s 94 and really one of the anchors of this county. Dorothy received her high school diploma from a rowboat, if you can believe it. They rowed her up to the second floor of the building, and the superintendent handed her diploma through the window.”

Dellinger went on to write: “The flood, which inundated large portions of Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana, devastated the agricultural economy, encouraged the migration of black workers to Northern cities and altered permanently the politics and culture of the South. In the decades since the Depression, more subtle events — the consolidation and mechanization of farming, the decline of railroads, the gradual urbanization of America — have also taken their toll. Desha County may have recovered from the flood per se, but its population today is three-quarters what it was in 1926, the year before the flood. A still more terrible fact, not mentioned on the sign but alluded to by the boarded-up windows and trailer homes and junked cars nearby, is that Arkansas City, the county seat, never recovered at all: When the levee broke upstream, the deluge cut a channel that changed the course of the river, and by the time the waters finally receded that summer, the Mississippi lay two miles to the east, and the once rollicking river town found itself landlocked. On the other side of the levee today sit the cypress trees and swampy wetlands of an oxbow lake named Kate Adams, in honor of a popular paddleboat from Memphis that used to dock there, back when ‘there’ was the river.”

During a recent meeting of the Delta Grassroots Caucus at the Clinton Center in Little Rock, Moore introduced Gov. Mike Beebe.

“Robert Moore is obnoxiously insistent that we not forget the Delta,” Beebe said with a smile.

We need more like him. Eighty-three years after the Great Flood left it high and dry as far as access to the Mississippi River, Arkansas City has produced a House speaker.

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