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The trip to Georgetown

I finally made it.

Yes, I made it to the Georgetown One Stop, that end-of-the-road citadel of fried catfish in the southeast corner of White County.

People would constantly ask me if I had partaken of the catfish at the One Stop. Until last Thursday, the answer was, “No.”

They wondered why. I had no real explanation. Now, I’ve remedied that.

Just as she has been doing for every customer for more than a decade, Joanna Taylor made sure I was full. The catfish was great. But the trip was even better.

Once I left U.S. Highway 67-167, it was like a step back into Arkansas’ past.

On that lazy journey down Arkansas Highway 36, you feel enveloped by the past. It happens as soon as you reach downtown Kensett. This was, after all, the home of the A.P. Mills General Store and the great Wilbur Mills. It was where Mr. Mills was born, and it was where he came home to die.

Wilbur Daigh Mills was born in Kensett on May 24, 1909, to Mississippi native Ardra Pickens Mills and Nebraska native Abbie Daigh Mills. The man who would go on to become known simply as Mr. Chairman on Capitol Hill was a champion debater at Hendrix College in Conway. He majored in history and graduated in 1930 as the salutatorian. His brains, combined with the fact that his family was wealthy by Depression-era Arkansas standards (in addition to owning the mercantile store, his father was the chairman of the Bank of Kensett), allowed Wilbur Mills to attend law school at Harvard.

In 1934, he was elected White County judge. At the time, he was the youngest county judge in the state. That same year, he married Melbourne native Gertrude Clarine “Polly” Billingsley. In 1936, he  was elected to a second two-year term as county judge. That same year, my grandfather, W.J. Caskey of Des Arc, was elected to the first of two terms as the county judge in neighboring Prairie County.

An aside: In 1986, John Robert Starr directed me to leave my job as assistant sports editor of the Arkansas Democrat and head to Washington as the newspaper’s D.C. correspondent. I was scared to death. The competition between the Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette had heated up considerably, and the Washington beat was a key one in the newspaper war. I suddenly went from having covered the Super Bowl (the Bears beat the Patriots in New Orleans that year) to covering Congress. To make things worse, the Gazette had a veteran correspondent named Carol Matlack. She had developed lots of reliable sources on Capitol Hill. And the big news in Congress that year was the debate over a sweeping tax reform act.

An obvious story angle would be to go down to K Street to visit with Mr. Mills, who by then was working for the prestigious Shea & Gould law firm after 17 years of having chaired the House Ways and Means Committee. After all, he had written most of the current tax code. There’s the story (likely apocryphal) of what the chairman told a group of prominent Democrats who were urging him to run for president against Richard Nixon in 1972: “Boys, why on earth would I want to be president and have to give up all of this power?”

After all, tax code changes had to start in the House. And Mr. Mills ruled the Ways and Means Committee, which for many years had no subcommittees, with the proverbial iron fist.

At any rate, Mr. Mills was cordial but not overly friendly when I went into his office to interview him. Then, I said this: “Mr. Chairman, I think you knew my grandfather.”

“Who was your grandfather?” he asked.

“W.J. Caskey of Des Arc,” I replied.

“Good Lord, son,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for the votes Will Caskey delivered me in Prairie County, I might not have been in Congress all those years.”

I didn’t have the nerve to ask just how those votes were “delivered.”

At any rate, Mr. Mills treated me like a long-lost grandson from that point on. I could always call him with questions about the tax bill. He didn’t want to be quoted on the record. But when I attributed those quotes to “a source familiar with the tax bill negotiations,” I meant it in a big way. It was, quite simply, the best source any reporter in the country could have on this issue.

I later would learn that Mr. Mills lived in the Crystal Towers at Crystal City, just across the river in Virginia, the same high-rise complex that was home to my girlfriend (and now wife of more than 20 years). Small world.

So passing through Kensett, an old lumber mill and railroad town that not only produced Mr. Mills but also baseball great Bill Dickey, I was thinking a lot about the past.

Heading southeast on Arkansas 36, I soon was driving on a shaded country highway with the Little Red River on my left. The community of West Point, which was incorporated before the Civil War and was once a steamboat stop, had one truck parked at the boat ramp on the Little Red. The old, stately West Point Cemetery provided a great place to park for a few minutes, return phone calls and answer e-mails on my BlackBerry. I was using modern technology, but I felt I had stepped back in time under the massive cedars.

I passed a sign that said, “Road Ends In 12 Miles.”

I literally was headed to the end of the road — remote Georgetown on the White River.

Many historians believe it was the second settlement established in the state by European explorers, surpassed only by Arkansas Post. That would make it the oldest existing town in the state since Arkansas Post is now a National Park Service site, not an active community. French explorer Francis Francure received a land grant of 1,361 acres from the Spanish king in 1789 and settled in the area.

“Although listed as a farmer, historical evidence suggests that he was more likely a trapper,” Adam Miller writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Other information regarding Francure is scant, though it seems he had little to do with his neighbors and lived a hermit’s existence for close to 50 years. Some early Georgetown settlers relied on rumors of Francure as an outlaw or a polygamist to supplement gaps missing in their established knowledge about the man.”

Georgetown got its current name in 1909 in honor of three men from Clarendon with the last name of George. They had purchased, sold and developed land there. The stop along the river previously had been known as Francure Township or Negro Hill (or Nigger Hill by some, to be honest). That’s because the first slaves in the area had been offloaded from boats there. Runaway slaves from Louisiana later established a community on a hill near the river.

The Missouri & North Arkansas Railroad built a bridge spanning the White River in 1908. The great flood of 1927 damaged the Georgetown bridge, and it was never properly repaired. The railroad ceased operations to Georgetown in 1946.

Local historian Polly Cleaver told Miller: “Georgetown used to have four stores, a hotel, a movie house, three fish docks, a handle mill that made ax and hammer handles, a mattress factory, a school, a drugstore, a barber shop, a doctor’s office, a dentist’s office and two churches.”

The town’s population, however, began to fall after World War II. The Georgetown schools were consolidated with West Point in 1953.

The 2000 census showed only 126 residents of Georgetown.

In a 1999 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette feature story, Heber Taylor wrote: “The mussel shell industry was important. The shells were found at the bottom of the White River. Sand-colored ones were said to be the prettiest and most valuable. … The shells were used to make buttons. The late Pearl Johnson, who was born in 1901, told a reporter in 1985 that her father, Tom Akers, dug shells in the river with a hand rig. She said he found a pearl worth $40 in a shell. He sold the pearl and bought 80 acres of land with the $40. Johnson said she was named after that pearl. In the same interview, she mentioned the long rollings her family had when the timber was being cleared off the land. Men worked in pairs and used poles about eight feet long to put under and carry the logs.”

Now, the Georgetown One Stop is the town’s main attraction — along with the boat ramp on the White River, which had almost a dozen trucks parked there on this particular Thursday.

Joanna Taylor came to Georgetown in 1997, fleeing Little Rock and a divorce. Her sister, Jeannie, had bought the gas station and convenience store, and Joanna went to work for her. She began serving lunch and later breakfast to local farmers. Dinner was added when word got out about the quality of the catfish she purchased from commercial fishermen on the White River.

There was a time when restaurants all over Arkansas advertised “White River catfish.” Now, most catfish served in restaurants comes from commercial farming operations. In that sense, among others, the Georgetown One Stop is a rarity.

Tim Bousquet put it this way in a 2004 feature in The Daily Citizen at Searcy: “Just before the pavement ends at the Georgetown boat ramp, there on the left sits what looks like an abandoned filling station. There’s no sign, and a sketchy patch of gravel may once have been a parking lot. A concrete slab serves as front stoop, and a rickety wooden door is entrance to an ancient metal shell of a building, the Georgetown One Stop. You have arrived. Have a seat and a pleasant woman — that’d be Joanna Taylor — will drop by with some iced tea. No need for a menu — the only choice here is sweetened or unsweetened tea, and it’s just assumed everyone wants catfish.”

Nothing has changed since that story was written except the price. It’s all you can eat for $9.

It’s worth the price. It’s worth the drive — a good meal and a trip deep into Arkansas’ past on historic Highway 36.

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