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To Helena and back

Even though the structure was in terrible shape, I had always enjoyed driving by the old Coca-Cola bottling plant in downtown Helena. There was something about the building that harkened back to the days when this port city was among the most vibrant, important places in the state.

I’ve long been intrigued by the Mississippi River cities and towns (large and small) in our region — St. Louis, Cape Girardeau, Memphis, Helena, Rosedale, Arkansas City, Greenville, Vicksburg, Natchez, Baton Rouge, New Orleans and others.

I like their history. I like the feeling of continuity and place one gets from walking their downtown streets.

Most of these places have had their economic struggles in recent decades. But there remains a haunting beauty to these river towns — the hint of a glorious past, sadness at the current situation and the potential for a better future.

So it is with Helena.

I was back in the city last week with Trey Berry, a deputy director of the Department of Arkansas Heritage. Trey and I grew up together in Arkadelphia. I could not have guessed at the time that Trey would turn out to be one of the top historians in the South. Trey, of course, could not have guessed that I would be writing about barbecued bologna at age 50.

We drove past the old bottling plant. It’s now a pile of rubble.

“It just fell in,” Trey said.

Among the rubble, men worked to pull out red bricks to use elsewhere.

Perhaps the fate of the bottling plant can serve as a clarion call for those who have an interest in saving crumbling downtown structures in other historic river cities — not just those along the Mississippi but also those along the White, Arkansas and Ouachita rivers. We’re talking about places like Newport, Des Arc, Clarendon, Pine Bluff and Camden.

As for Helena, don’t get the impression there’s nothing going on there. Actually, I had accompanied Trey to Helena because there’s a lot going on.

In my Saturday column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I’ll detail the city’s efforts to capitalize on its Civil War heritage. Civil War fanatics tend to be high-demographic tourists. They don’t mind spending money to stay in nice bed-and-breakfast inns and eat in good restaurants. Fortunately for all of those with an interest in the Arkansas Delta, the leaders of Helena are putting a plan in place that hopefully will convince some of the tens of thousands of people who visit Shiloh and Vicksburg each year to spend an extra day in Arkansas.

Trey drove slowly through the gates marked “Maple Hill Cemetery 1861” on a hot Wednesday morning.

Helena and Phillips County can claim seven Confederate generals — Charles Adams, Patrick Cleburne, Archibald Dobbins, Thomas Hindman, Daniel Govan, Lucius Polk and James Tappan. Tappan and Hindman are buried at Maple Hill Cemetery.

Just up the hill in the adjoining Confederate Cemetery is Cleburne’s impressive gravesite. In front of the marker on this day was a wreath that was left recently. A ribbon on the wreath had these words: “Battle of Richmond.”

“There’s a cult following that has developed around Cleburne,” Trey said. “People come from all over, even Ireland, to visit his grave.”

It was quiet at Confederate Cemetery, which was established in 1869 when members of the Phillips County Memorial Association began relocating the remains of the Confederate dead who had been buried in scattered graves across the county. As recently as March 2005, the remains of six men called the Fagan Six, which were found at the Union artillery emplacement known as Battery D, were reinterred at Confederate Cemetery.

Cleburne, the son of a doctor, was born in County Cork in Ireland in March 1828. His father died when he was 15. Cleburne’s family expected him to follow in his father’s footsteps. He apprenticed for two years with plans to enroll in Apothecary Hall in Dublin. He failed the entrance exam in February 1843. Too embarrassed to return home, Cleburne enlisted in the British Army.

Cleburne decided to move with a sister and two brothers to the United States in 1849. The four siblings landed in New Orleans on Christmas Day that year and began working their way up the Mississippi River in search of work. Cleburne was hired in April 1850 as a druggist at Nash & Grant’s in Helena. He passed the Arkansas bar exam in 1856 after becoming a naturalized citizen and later became Hindman’s law partenr.

As tensions grew just before the Civil War, plantation and business owners in Phillips County began a militia company known as the Yell Rifles (named for Gov. Archibald Yell). Cleburne was elected captain of the company, and he immediately began teaching the men the skills he had learned in the British Army.

When Arkansas seceded from the Union, the Yell Rifles became part of the First Arkansas Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and Cleburne was elected colonel. He was promoted to brigadier general in March 1962 and participated in the Battle of Shiloh the following month.

At the Battle of Richmond in Kentucky in Auguust of that year, Cleburne was struck in the face by shrapnel. He stayed with his men, however, and was promoted to major general that December. In 1863, he participated in battles at Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge and Ringgold Gap in Georgia.

Cleburne was killed while leading a charge on Nov. 30, 1864, in Franklin, Tenn. He was buried in the cemetery adjacent to St. John’s Church in Columbia, Tenn. In 1870, his remains were reinterred at Helena. He’s remembered as the highest-ranking Irish-born officer in American military history.

With no promotion and little signage, the fact that people still come from all over to visit Cleburne’s grave is testament to the potential for Civil War-related tourism in Helena. The places I’ve mentioned — Confederate Cemetery, Maple Hill Cemetery, Battery D — are just three of 27 interpretive sites beings planned. A replica of a Union fort — Fort Curtis — will be built. A park to celebrate the contribution of freed slaves — Freedom Park — will be established.

According to the interpretive plan: “No two locations will be interpreted in exactly the same way. Some exhibits will consist, at least initially, of a single freestanding wayside or kiosk. Others will be enhanced with art, reproduction artifacts and architectural details. Plans call for Fort Curtis and Battery C to be reconstructed in part. Other locations will be interpreted with stations designed to evoke the emotions connected with a particular event or a place that no longer exists. All have the same objective — to make Helena’s complete Civil War history accessible, meaningful and relevant to the community and its visitors.”

For those who visit Helena, there’s more good news. In the past year, the Edwardian Inn has reopened under the ownership of a couple of former educators who moved from North Little Rock. Also, two restaurants downtown — The Blue Tulip in the beautifully restored space that once housed River Road and El Rio Lindo in the historic building that previously housed Oliver’s — have opened in the past year.

I had lunch at The Blue Tulip (try the squash casserole) with Trey, Delta Cultural Center director Katie Harrington and Cathy Cunningham of Southern Bancorp Capital Partners. Their excitment was palpable.

A number of funding sources have been tapped for this project. But more are needed. For example, one of the city’s oldest and most beautiful landmarks, Estevan Hall, needs to be developed into a visitors’ center as part of the greenbelt that’s planned for Biscoe Street on the route into downtown Helena from the Mississippi River bridge.

Downtown, some old buildings are indeed still falling in. But elsewhere around Helena, people are planning for the future. That future can be made brighter by tapping into Helena’s colorful past. That’s the irony — people interested in long-dead Confederate and Union soldiers could help keep an Arkansas town from dying.

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