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Wiedower, Ruskey: New South Heroes

The folks at Southern Living magazine call it the Heroes of the New South awards.

I don’t like the term New South, which has been around for decades and doesn’t carry much meaning.

But I like a couple of the jurors who selected this year’s recipients, and I love the fact that two of the people mentioned in the March issue of the magazine are having a positive effect on the Arkansas Delta.

As for the jurors, Bill Ferris of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina (a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities) and John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi are among the region’s brightest minds.

I don’t know the other two jurors — Gerri Combs of South Arts in Atlanta and Jim Strickland of Historical Concepts in Atlanta (I’m always reminded of the old Lewis Grizzard line that “Atlanta is what we fought the war to prevent” when it comes to that city) — but I’m sure they’re equally capable.

Now to the two people who are having such a good influence on the Arkansas Delta.

In the architecture category, one of three honorable mentions is Beth Wiedower, 35, of the Arkansas Delta Rural Heritage Development Initiative.

The magazine describes Beth, a Little Rock native and Hendrix College graduate, as someone who “rehabilitates rural towns through restoration of significant structures, such as the Johnny Cash boyhood home (at Dyess).”

Through personal experience, I can tell you that she does more than that. She builds pride among Delta residents and educates outsiders on what the region has to offer.

Just Sunday, on what would have been Cash’s 80th birthday, some of his children, grandchildren, siblings and lots of fans gathered in Mississippi County to celebrate the start of restoration of the boyhood home.

“He should’ve lived to 80,” daughter Rosanne Cash told Rolling Stone. “It’s hard. But it’s so uplifting to celebrate it this way rather than going to a dark place about how sad it is he isn’t still around.”

In the eco-preservation category, one of the two runners-up is John Ruskey, 48, of Clarksdale, Miss., who also operates out of Helena (see the Southern Fried blog post from last week titled “Buck Island and the Mighty Mississippi”).

Ruskey, who owns the Quapaw Canoe Co., shared runner-up honors with Mike Clark of St. Louis, who operates Big Muddy Adventures. 

Southern Living wrote: “Floating down the Mississippi, surveying its untouched banks, John Ruskey and Mike Clark feel most at home. Owners of outfitting and tour companies on the Mississippi River, they volunteer together to protect the largest river system in North America, including leading large-scale cleanups and canoe-building sessions. In 2011, they launched to document and protect the river’s last untouched wilderness.”

Wiedower’s Rural Heritage Development Initiative is sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and began to take shape in 2005 with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

A 2007 story in the Arkansas Times described it this way: “While 10 of the participating Main Street communities flourished across the state in 2004, the remaining five, in the east Arkansas communities of Blytheville, Dumas, Helena, Osceola and West Memphis, struggled with redevelopment. That spring, Main Street Arkansas asked the National Trust to collaborate on an assessment of its Delta programs. The resulting report, on not just the five Main Street programs but the entire Arkansas Delta, was so voluminous and filled with such wide-ranging proposals that its authors saw fit to include, in the introduction, a credo from the famous urban planner and architect Daniel Burnham — ‘Make no small plans.’

“After using the report to get money from the Kellogg Foundation, the National Trust selected two regions to participate in a three-year pilot program: an eight-county swath of central Kentucky called the Knob region, and the impetus behind the program, the 15 counties that stretch along Arkansas’ eastern border and make up our Delta. The 15 Delta counties are Arkansas, Chicot, Clay, Craighead, Crittenden, Cross, Desha, Drew, Greene, Lee, Mississippi, Monroe, Phillips, Poinsett and St. Francis.”

Here’s how Wiedower explained her mission at the time: “We’re at the tail end of a 60-year out-migration. We’re what economists would call a very cold market — we’re not growing and we’re not building. In terms of preservation, that’s a good thing. If there’s no influx of money and there’s no growth, then typically there’s no money to tear down old buildings, and there’s no money to put up new buildings.

“We have a tremendous amount of our historic fabric still in the region. How do we use that and take our unique history and heritage and culture and use it for our economic gain? Certainly there is a place for a Toyota plant, but in addition, we need to be looking at our own regional flavor and what makes us as the Arkansas Delta unique and distinctive, not only for ourselves as residents but for potential heritage tourists and for potential businesses moving in who are looking at community and quality-of-life issues.”

Alas Marion never landed that Toyota plant for Crittenden County, but Wiedower has plugged along with heritage tourism, Delta-made and small business initiatives.

Building blocks include:

— The region’s rich music heritage

— The Mississippi River, agricultural and African-American heritages

— Two national scenic byways — the Great River Road and Crowley’s Ridge

— Historic sites such as Dyess, the Hemingway-Pfeiffer House at Piggott and the Lakeport Plantation at Lake Village

— Existing Main Street programs and other small towns that are trying to improve their historic commercial districts

Last year, former President Clinton’s Clinton Global Initiative committed to work with the Rural Heritage Development Initiative in helping entrepreneurs succeed in the Arkansas Delta.

As for Ruskey, he’s attempting to introduce people from across the country to the lower Mississippi River.

Writing for Adventure magazine, Kimberly Brown Seely described his mission this way: “For those of us raised on the great novels of Mark Twain, the Big River is a mythical thing, more imaginary than real. But here in this moment, the palms of my hands ache from gripping a wooden paddle; the river is bigger, faster and darker than I’d ever dreamed.

“It has been two days on the lower Mississippi and already the preconceptions I had — industrialized banks and polluted waters — have evaporated like a morning fog. Unlike the more northern reaches of the river, flanked by towns, cities and heavily developed farmlands, the lower Mississippi is still a wild sprawl: Forested islands and huge deserted sandbars rise out of eddies the size of several city blocks; a bend in the river can take 20 miles to hairpin back to almost the same spot.

“At the water’s edge a dense strip of deciduous forest harbors bears and coyotes, oppossums and beavers, and turtles and snakes. The 300 river miles between Memphis and Vicksburg are the most sparsely inhabited stretch of the entire river. And that’s the exact reason we’re paddling them.”

Ruskey’s Quapaw Canoe Co. bases its trips out of Clarksdale and Helena.

“John, in fact, is the Quapaw Canoe Co.: founder, outfitter, guide, canoe-carver, artist, musician and chef,” Seely wrote. “Should you be lucky enough to catch him on the phone one of the days he’s not paddling, he will, in no great hurry, get around to telling you that he can take you out on the river to explore by the day or the week — his only requirements being that you are willing to paddle and can deal with whatever nature dishes up.”

She went on to describe the lower Mississippi as a river that is “still hungry. The beast imprisoned within the Army Corps’ walls flexed its muscles once more in August 2005, breaching the levees and floodwalls outside New Orleans on the heels of Hurricane Katrina. The river is wild and random, we’re learning all too slowly; it never rests. Just like the Delta blues, the Mississippi moves — both languid and roiling at the same time.

“At the confluence of the Mississippi and the Arkansas rivers, you can see exactly where the two meet. The Mississippi flows brown on the left; the Arkansas flows green on the right. We paddle the seam, dragging a bare foot alternately on each side to test which is colder. The Arkansas is warmer and visibly cleaner than its muddy cousin. The two flow side by side for a long stretch, until the greenish Arkansas disappears altogether and the mud prevails.”

Such scenes are what John Ruskey has to offer visitors from across the country and around the world.

W. Hodding Carter, whose grandfather won the Pulitzer Prize when he owned the Delta Democrat Times at Greenville and whose father worked in the Carter administration, took a trip with Ruskey last spring during the Great Flood of 2011.

In an article he wrote for Outside magazine about the trip, Carter said: “Today the Delta is mostly a depleted, depressed region with a shrinking population. In Greenville, a painful number of businesses are boarded up downtown, and one-third of the population falls below the federal poverty level. Bad as these facts may sound, the river has fared even worse.

“As far back as I can remember, its definable features have been its muddied water and the irrepressible Mississippi funk, a suffocating melange of rotting mud, decaying fish, fertilizer and some unidentifiable industry byproduct that is probably best not dwelled upon, at least when you’re swimming in it.”

In a region that others have left for dead, Beth Wiedower and John Ruskey are building on existing assets and creating pride among Delta residents.

They’re both heroes in my book.

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