Part Two: The Arkansas Delta
“Muddy Mississippi River water leaves a stain on the soul that is virtually impossible to get out—assuming any fool would try.”
In last week’s blog I described the first part of my recent “bucket-list trip” to my native and beloved Southeast Arkansas. In that part, I attended the combined reunion and fundraiser for the damaged historic 1872 Selma Methodist Church in my birthplace.
It so happens that Selma is located on the easternmost edge of the West Gulf Coastal Plain in Arkansas, about a mile from the edge of the Mississippi River Delta. As I am fond of saying, “For all my love of the Delta and my constant talk and endless writing about it, I am the only one in my immediate family who was not actually born in the Delta. But I was born on the bank of it!” That is true since the house I was born in back in 1938 is exactly one mile from where the Delta begins. It is also not far from a Southern lowlands area called the Seven Devils Swamp. In one of my endless self-quotes I say, “I was born on the edge of the Seven Devils Swamp. God saw fit to cast me out of the Seven Devils, but unlike Mary Magdalene He has never seen fit to cast the Seven Devils out of me.”
Another of my endless self-quotes is: “At age ten, when my parents forcefully moved me against my will from my rural birthplace in the Gulf Coastal Plain (Selma) to the Mississippi River Delta (McGehee), neither they nor I had any idea how it would mark me for the rest of my life—and for the next one as well.”
So after our “bucket-list” visit to the Selma Methodist Church and the Mount Tabor Methodist Church and Cemetery, where we will one day be buried with our ancestors, Mari and I turned back east toward the flatlands of the Arkansas Delta.
The Delta Rivers Nature Center
“One of these days when I die,
I’m going to that Big Delta in the sky!”
We had actually driven through the Delta earlier on our trip “down home” from Oklahoma, stopping in Pine Bluff, which like Selma is also located “on the bank of the Delta,” to visit the Gov. Mike Huckabee Delta Rivers Nature Center, one of four such nature centers in the state. The center, which features “the Delta and its rivers [as] the star attractions,” has exhibits that describe “how meandering waterways have changed this land and why swamps are incredibly valuable ecosystems.” It shows how oxbow lakes are formed, presents a simulated crop duster flight over Delta fields, and screens a short film on Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto’s visit to the area in the 1500s. There are also hiking trails and a hands-on laboratory. It also has exhibits of many of the fish, reptiles, and plants of the Delta, including a live alligator that lives in a pool beneath the center. To learn more about the center, click here.
My one question about the center was the absence of a panel on “King Cotton” (despite the presence of an actual cotton bale) to accompany those on other current Delta crops: rice, soybeans, and wheat. The reason was provided in an email to my query from the director of the center, Eric Maynard:
While Cotton was once “king” in this area, cotton acreage has greatly reduced over the years. The vast majority of the Delta is in food crops, now starting to include some corn. The facility is run by the Game and Fish Commission and those panels were put up to help explain some of the ways wildlife use or benefit from agriculture in the area. Cotton fields do not provide much in the way of wildlife food.
The virtual demise of “King Cotton” in the Delta was one of the first things that Mari and I noticed. The once vast fields of “white gold” have now been replaced by fields of the other crops mentioned by Mr. Maynard, including milo maize. We also noticed the disappearance of the once ubiquitous cotton gins, many of the remaining being only rusting shells of their former glory. There were only a few that seemed to still be in operation. My friend Joe Dempsey, who designed this blog, reports that while there were once many cotton gins in Pine Bluff where he lives, now there are none. Also almost gone, for better or worse, are the traditional Southern-style “shotgun” houses once inhabited by the thousands of sharecroppers in the Delta.
Arkansas City and the Mississippi River
“Heaven better look a lot like home or I’m comin’ back to haunt th’ Delta Queen!”
So after leaving Selma and the Selma Methodist Church fundraiser, Mari and I drove back to the Delta. In so doing we passed through McGehee where we laid a Memorial Day wreath on the graves of my parents, and headed twelve miles east to the old river port of Arkansas City, seat of Desha County, which was mentioned by Mark Twain in his Life on the Mississippi.
There we were not allowed to drive up on the levee, but we did walk up on it and viewed the flood waters in two places: right in Arkansas City and a little way down the river at Kate Adams Landing where that old riverboat used to tie up. In my files there is a photo of the Kate Adams docked at Arkansas City during the flood of 1927, the year that my parents were married. At some time they took a ride on the Kate Adams. To view a video on Arkansas City and old steamboats like the Kate Adams, click here.
In later years the riverboats Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen used to stop in Arkansas City on their regularly scheduled river cruises. Neither of the boats now cruise the river. At last account the Mississippi Queen has been dismantled and sold for scrap, and the Delta Queen is moored at Chattanooga, Tennessee, where it serves as a hotel. On the wall of my office hangs a large 2 X 2½-foot poster with images of Mark Twain, a Southern Belle with parasol and elegant dress standing outside an antebellum plantation house, two scenes of carriage rides and New Orleans Jazz musicians, brown pelicans, and the Mississippi Queen “rollin’ on the River.” The poster is appropriately titled: “Steamboatin’: The Last Great American Adventure.” Like cotton and cotton gins, the boats represent another disappearing Delta symbol and tradition. I had always wanted to take a cruise on the Delta Queen or the Mississippi Queen. Now they are gone, as are so many other things in my own rapidly disappearing world.
To see a video on the Mississippi River made at the very spot where Mari and I and our Arkansas City friends Cullen and Mary once caught half of a five-gallon bucket of crawdads, click here. That video and its message and music, like the Mississippi River it represents, expresses the central theme of all of my life and writings: A River Runs Through It.
In a later post I will share an article I wrote and sent to Charles Allbright, a fellow McGeheean and then the Arkansas Traveler columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. It was written on Memorial Day weekend in 1994 about a visit I made to Arkansas City to meet Cullen and go over on the River at the time of the fortieth anniversary of my father’s death in McGehee in 1954. As you will see, the Mississippi River still runs through all my life and writings.
While we were “down home” in the Delta we learned from the local newspaper that due to the floodwaters alligators were a common sight, and that there were lots of snakes. Mari and I can attest that there were also lots and lots of gnats—and especially mosquitoes. But even so the Delta will always be the Holy Land to us.
McGehee, Lakeport Plantation, and the New Greenville Bridge
“If there is a River of Life in heaven, then it has to have a Delta—and I want my Tara to be on the Arkansas side of it.”
After leaving Arkansas City, we traveled back to McGehee where we visited the McGehee Veterans Memorial. While there we took pictures of the commorative stones and bricks with the names of veterans from the McGehee area, including one with the name of Mari’s father on it. In World War II Grover Williams served in the U.S. Army in the South Pacific, not seeing his three-year-old daughter Marion until his return in 1945. A later entry in this blog will be a tribute to him and his life of service to his country, community, church, and family. As part of the Veterans Memorial there is a Japanese garden dedicated to the memory of the thousands of Japanese-Americans confined to a relocation center in Rohwer, not far from McGehee, one of only two such camps in the South, both in SEARK. We also walked over to the old restored Missouri-Pacific railroad depot to take photos of other bricks dedicated to the loyal service of railroad workers, which also included Mari’s father who retired after thirty-eight years of service. As part of that depot restoration a small museum of artifacts from the Japanese relocation camp will be on display.
Later we traveled South out of Desha County into Chicot County where Mari and our older son Sean were born in the neighboring town of Dermott. About twenty-two miles or so south of McGehee is Lake Village, which as its name suggests sits on the edge of a lake. Lake Chicot is an oxbow lake formed when the Mississippi River took a new turn and left behind a long curve of water. It is said to be the largest oxbow lake in the country. It was named by the French explorers for the “teeth” in it, actually the cypress “knees” that stick up out of the water around those huge Southern lowland specimens.
A few miles south of Lake Village are located two of the other Delta landmarks we wanted to visit on our “bucket-list trip.”
First is the recently restored 1859 Lakeport Plantation, the last remaining antebellum plantation house in Arkansas facing the River. Although it was after hours so we were not able to take a tour of the building and grounds as planned, we were able to take several photos. To learn more about Lakeport and its restoration and preservation, a project of Arkansas State University in Jonesboro where I taught back in the 1970s, click here. To read the regular blog on Lakeport published and updated regularly by Dr. Blake Wintory, assistant director, click here.
In the background of some of the photos of Lakeport on its Web site and blog you may be able to see the second and latest Arkansas Delta landmark: the new Greenville Bridge across the Mississippi River.
It is indeed an architectural marvel, its towers and cables rising up over the flat Delta landscape like the rigging of a gigantic white sailing ship. It replaces the old 1940 bridge a short distance upriver that was such a part of our lives while growing up in the Delta. We traveled back and forth over it countless times in our younger years—especially during our dating times in the early sixties when we did much of our courting on or behind the levee and in frequent trips over to Greenville, Mississippi. Now the old bridge we knew so long and loved (and feared) so greatly is being torn down so that the entire center section is gone forever, as the entire outdated and outmoded structure will soon be—another in the seemingly unending relics of our past lives that are now fast disappearing, except in our memories and in places like this blog.
That’s what this blog is for—to try to capture and hold, if only for a fleeting moment, the quickly fading images and icons of “the world we knew” and “the way we were.”