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Woodruff County

The phone rang early one morning back in 2018. On the other end of the line was the man who at the time was chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party, Michael John Gray of Augusta.

Even though it was an election year, the subject wasn't politics. Gray wanted to discuss far more important things such as eating at quality restaurants and traveling this unique place called Arkansas.

Those of us who follow Arkansas politics were surprised in the spring of 2017 when Gray was selected to succeed Vince Insalaco as Democratic Party chairman. With rural Arkansans increasingly voting Republican since 2010, conventional wisdom was that Democrats would find their chairman in a liberal enclave such as Little Rock or Fayetteville.

The party instead chose the kind of rural Southern Democrat who was commonplace in the 20th century. Gray is a farmer with a law degree, a founding member of the Arkansas Peanut Growers Association, a member of the Woodruff County Farm Bureau and a member of First United Methodist Church of Augusta.

He had read my essay on the cover of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's Sunday Perspective section, which was about taking U.S. 70 rather than truck-heavy Interstate 40 between Little Rock and Memphis.

"You should have mentioned taking U.S. 64 from Bald Knob over to Marion," he said that morning. "It's only about 10 miles farther than taking the interstate when you come up U.S. 67 from North Little Rock and get off at Bald Knob. And it's much more peaceful."

I admitted that even though the U.S. 70 story made for interesting research, the Bald Knob-to-Marion route is indeed my preferred way to get to Memphis these days.

Gray invited me to join him one Friday or Saturday night at the Tamale Factory in Gregory, which is several miles south of Augusta on Arkansas 33.

The Tamale Factory was opened in November 2012 by George Eldridge, the founder of the downtown Little Rock location of Doe's Eat Place.

Eldridge, who grew up in Woodruff County, converted part of a horse barn into a restaurant. He used the barn for his quarter horse operation. The Eldridge family home is on one side, and the family cemetery is on the other.

People drive from as far away as Little Rock and Memphis to eat tamales, shrimp and steaks on Friday and Saturday nights in this rural setting. If you look closely on the wall back by the men's room, you'll see a framed copy of a Democrat-Gazette column I wrote about the Tamale Factory.

Dinners at the Tamale Factory resemble a big east Arkansas family reunion. Eldridge often walks from table to table, visiting with the regulars. His colorful stories are as much of an attraction as the food. This is a man who calls some of the nation's most famous politicians and musicians personal friends.

In the more than five years since that phone call from Gray, things have changed. Gray left the Legislature and is no longer party chairman. He's back home full time, serving as Woodruff County judge.

Eldridge, meanwhile, decided he was tired of running the restaurant and decided to close it. Gray visited with him, told him how important it was to the county and begged him to keep it open.

"If you want it open, then you can run it," Eldridge said.

Gray agreed. So it was that I found myself sharing a table with Gray and Eldridge late on a Friday afternoon, talking about Woodruff County's future and its past.

Having served for four years as a presidential appointee to the Delta Regional Authority, I've long been fascinated by historic Delta counties like this one. Figuring out how they survive in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century isn't an easy task.

Woodruff County had a population of 16,304 people in the 1900 census. Many of its residents were sharecroppers and tenant farmers who tilled the rich soil in a county that includes the White River, Cache River and Bayou DeView.

By 1940, the population had reached 22,133 residents as more of the bottomland hardwoods were cleared for cotton cultivation. Merchants were thriving in towns such as Augusta, McCrory and Cotton Plant.

Bluesman Peetie Wheatstraw and gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe hailed from Cotton Plant. Augusta later produced professional football star Bill Ray Smith Sr. Legendary high school football coaches such as Curtis King at Augusta and Joe Hart at McCrory once called Woodruff County home.

By the late 1940s, sharecroppers and tenant farmers were losing their jobs due to agricultural mechanization. They fled Woodruff County by the thousands for steel mills and automobile assembly plants in cities such as Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago.

By the 1960 census, the county's population had dropped to 13,954 residents.

By the 2020 census, it was 6,269, fewer than the 6,891 people who called Woodruff County home in 1870.

My essay for this Sunday's Democrat-Gazette Perspective cover will be on Woodruff County. So will my column on the editorial page.

I hope you can find time to read them.

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