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Archive for September, 2014

“Writing is making sense of life. You work your whole life and perhaps you’ve made sense of one small area.” (And my “one small area” seems to be the Arkansas Delta and surrounding sites in Southeast Arkansas.)
—Nadine Gordimer, Celebrity Cipher,
Tulsa World, 8/27/14

This final post in the series titled “Arkansas Delta Plantations and Other Post-Mortem Tidbits” was originally supposed to be one post.

However, after working with it for some time I came to realize that it was too long and needed to be divided into two posts. Then later I saw that it was still too long so I divided it into three posts, with this one being the third and final.

This one concludes the subject of Arkansas Delta plantations and examines some of the places that have special meaning to me in surrounding areas in Drew County, in which I was born, and Desha County, in which I grew up.

Final Look at Arkansas Delta Plantations

“Poor people in the Delta kiss the devil to survive.”
—Jeanie Branch, 82, of Watson, Arkansas, quoted in
“Delta people ‘kiss the devil to survive,’”
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, October 27, 1997

In my last post, “Arkansas Delta Plantations and Other Post-Mortem Tidbits, Part II,” I examined some of the slave/sharecropper/tenant farmer houses usually associated with cotton plantations. I especially featured three photos and a comment from Joe Dempsey on this subject.

Since then on September 8 Joe published another interesting post on the subject in his “Weekly Grist for the Eyes and Mind” blog. In that subsequent post, titled “The Lumber That Lasts,” Joe presented another example of an Arkansas Delta sharecropper shack complete with cotton fields, cotton bolls, cotton storage, etc.  To view that post, click here.

Sharecropper shack in a cotton field

Sharecropper shack in an Arkansas Delta cotton field (to magnify, click on the photo)

Here is what Joe had to say about that particular surviving relic of the past:

“Just looking at the structure, one almost expects Erskine Caldwell characters to emerge. The reality is it was likely home to more than a few hardworking families who worked hard and saw fit that there was food on the table and the kids went to school and everyone went to church on Sunday. There were probably chickens in the yard and a dog under the front porch.” 

“This is the archetypical early and mid-twentieth century Delta farmhouse. In their latter years, they were used more by farm hand families than the farm owners, but many started as a residence for the owner of the property. 

Front view of the sharecropper's shack in the Arkansas Delta

Front view of the sharecropper’s shack in the Arkansas Delta (to magnify, click on the photo)

“With two front doors, it appears that it might have started life as a dog-trot house, but a glimpse inside one of the windows makes me believe this is the original configuration. I have not been able to find out much about the history of the old house other than the fact that it is constructed of cypress. That is probably a contributing factor that, despite the harsh winds and weather of the Delta, the old structure is still standing. Few woods resist the nasty temper of weather better than cypress.”

Corner of an Arkansas Delta sharecropper's shack with a cotton field and a church in the background

Corner of an Arkansas Delta sharecropper’s shack with a cotton field and a church in the background (to magnify, click on the photo)

Since this post, I have received two photos of this year’s cotton crops beginning to bloom on two Arkansas Delta plantations: Lakeport and Pickens:

Cotton in bloom at Lakeport Plantation

Cotton in bloom at Lakeport Plantation (to magnify, click on the photo)

Cotton in bloom at Pickens Plantation

Cotton in bloom at Pickens Plantation (to magnify, click on the photo)

Other Post-Mortem Tidbits

“The past is all around us. We live our lives against a rich backdrop formed by historic buildings, . . . [as well as] the landscapes and other physical survivals of our past. . . . Historic buildings and artifacts can define a region’s localities and communities.”
—Alice Rogers-Johnson,
president of the Lakeport Cemetery Committee,
quoted in “Lakeport Plantation to host reunion celebration,”
McGehee [Arkansas] Times, July 1, 2009

In regard to the “historic buildings [that] define a region’s . . . communities,” the following announcement was sent out recently by Lakeport Plantation:

Taylor Plantation House

Taylor House at the Hollywood Plantation (to magnify, click on the photo)

“The University of Arkansas at Monticello is engaged in plans to create a Southeast Arkansas Heritage Trail anchored by its three historic properties: WWII Italian POW Camp near Monticello (Drew County), the law office of Arkansas Governor Xenophon Overton Pindall in Arkansas City (Desha County), and the ca. 1856 Taylor House at the Hollywood Plantation near Winchester (Drew County). Dr. John Kyle Day, associate professor of history, will discuss the university’s plans to save, preserve, and interpret these important sites for students and the public.”

For more information on this conference, titled “Lakeport Legacies: UAM’s Historic Properties and Tourism in Southeast Arkansas,” email Lakeport Plantation at: lakeport.ar@gmail.com or visit Lakeport’s Web site at: http://lakeport.astate.edu/

Another one of these historic buildings that define our past is the recently restored Selma Methodist Church in my birthplace of Selma, Arkansas, about which I have written in several earlier posts. In fact, it was the sole subject of the first post on my blog titled “My Bucket-List” Trip: The Selma Methodist Church.”

Selma Methodist Church

Selma Methodist Church (to magnify, click on the photo)

Recently, a friend sent me a photograph and a link to an article and video on Monticello Live about a fire in what is called locally the Selma Fish House, a rustic catfish restaurant located on Highway 278, just west of the 293 intersection. (See photo and map below. To read the article and view a video about the fire, click here.)

Selma Fish House

Selma Fish House (to magnify, click on the photo)

 

Drew County, Arkansas

Drew County, Arkansas (Selma is in the upper right hand corner, due west of Tillar and McGehee, to magnify, click on the map)

Again, there has been no word of any plans to restore the rustic relic.

One reason I am so concerned about the demise, destruction, or simple disappearance of such vestiges of the past is because (as noted in the opening quote above) they define not only our region and community but also our very lives: past, present, and future.

For example, for years there has been talk about the construction of a new interstate highway to run diagonally southwest across the United States from Canada to Mexico. Models show that interstate highway crossing the Mississippi River in Desha County, just above my hometown of McGehee, and then continuing west and passing right below Selma in Drew County.

As interested as I am in supporting any type of projects that will contribute to the restoration of the Delta and surrounding areas, I must admit that I am concerned about the effects of a huge interstate highway system passing within a mile of my beloved rural birthplace. (See map below.)

Desha County, Arkansas

Desha County (McGehee) with the Mississippi River on the right and the eastern part of Drew County (Selma) to the left, just west of Tillar and McGehee (to magnify, click on the map)

To learn more about the existing I-69, click here. To view a map of the proposed I-69 corridor from Canada to Mexico, click here. To learn about the proposed I-69 in Arkansas, click here.

Finally, although not historic buildings, I am also concerned about the continued preservation of two geographical and cultural sites in Desha and Drew Counties.

First is Bayou Bartholomew, “the longest bayou in the world,” which passes between McGehee and Selma on its twisting route from Southeast Arkansas into Northeast Louisiana. To learn more about this vital but endangered stream, see my earlier post titled “Bayou Bartholomew: Two Book Reviews.” To read about an award-winning documentary on Bayou Bartholomew, click here. To view a Blues music video by Marty Denton of McGehee titled “Delta Mud in Your Blood” featuring Bayou Bartholomew, cotton picking, Delta sharecropper shacks, juke joints, etc., click here.

Bayou Bartholomew

Bayou Bartholomew (to magnify, click on the photo)

Next is the Seven Devils Swamp, which is located just below Selma. Recently my longtime friend and McGehee High School classmate Pat Scavo sent me a link to a most interesting article on this subject titled: “Seven Devils: The Wildlife Paradise with the Ominous Name.”

Seven Devils Swamp

Seven Devils Swamp, south of Selma, Arkansas (to magnify, click on the photo)

To read this November 15, 2013, piece in Seark Today written by Patty Wooten, and featuring some interesting facts about the swamp’s history and nature, the derivation of its name, and several photos of its foreboding landscape so typical of Southern lowlands, click here.

As I say about this iconic symbol of my birth and childhood, “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.”

And that’s why I continue to write about and to champion the restoration and preservation of all the “iconic symbols” of not only my own life but the lives of all those who have been shaped forever by these endearing and enduring “places of the heart.”

Videos and Links to “Places in the Heart”

“You are a true Arkie if . . . you think the fall in Eden refers to autumn in Arkansas.” (Used by the Arkansas Times)
–Jimmy Peacock

To view a musical video of the official Arkansas state song with marvelous scenes from all over the state including the Arkansas Delta, click here.

To view a video of Wayland Holyfield’s Arkansas state song “Arkansas, You Run Deep in Me” with glorious scenes of autumn in Arkansas, click here.

To read about the best fall foliage tours in Arkansas, click here.

To view a three-minute video of native Arkansan Glenn Campbell and Carl Jackson playing a tune titled “Dueling Banjos” from the movie Deliverance and based on the Arkansas state folk tune “The Arkansas Traveler,” click here.

To view a Blues music video titled “Whistle Blowin'” with scenes of the Arkansas Delta written and sung by Marty Denton of McGehee, click here.

To visit a Kat Robinson Tie Dye Travels blog post titled “Conceptions People Have about Arkansas That Are Wrong,” click here and then scroll down to the September 19 entry by that title.

Sources

The photos of the Arkansas Delta sharecropper’s shack were taken from Joe Dempsey’s Weekly Grist for the Eyes and Mind published on September 8, 2014, at:
http://corndancer.com/joephoto/photo360379/photo364.html

The photos of cotton in bloom at Lakeport Plantation and Pickens Plantation were provided by Pat Scavo.

The photo of the Selma Methodist Church was taken from:
https://myokexilelit.wordpress.com/2011/05/25/my-bucket-list-trip/

The photo, article, and video from Monticello Alive about the fire at the Selma Fish House were taken from:
http://www.monticellolive.com/selma-fish-house-burns/

The entry on the existing I-69 was taken from:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interstate_69

The map of the proposed I-69 corridor from Canada to Mexico, was taken from:
http://blog.lordsutch.com/local/nafta-presentation-cnl.pdf

The entry on the proposed I-69 in Arkansas was taken from:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interstate_69_in_Arkansas

The information about the two books on Bayou Bartholomew was taken from:
https://myokexilelit.wordpress.com/2011/09/28/bayou-bartholomew-two-book-reviews/

The photo of Bayou Bartholomew and the Seark Today article about the award-winning documentary on it were taken from:
http://searktoday.com/bayou-bartholomew-documentary-wins-aurora-gold-award/

The photo and information from Seark Today about the Seven Devils Swamp were taken from:
http://searktoday.com/seven-devils-wildlife-paradise-with-the-foreboding-name/

The link to the musical video of the official state song of Arkansas was taken from the Arkansas Parks and Tourism Department at:

The video of Wayland Holyfield singing “Arkansas, You Run Deep in Me” was taken from:

The link to the best fall foliage tours in Arkansas was taken from:
http://www.arkansas.com/fall/fall-color-locations.aspx

The video of Glenn Campbell and Carl Jackson playing “The Dueling Banjos” was taken from:

The announcement of the Southeast Arkansas Heritage Trail was taken from an email from Lakeport Plantation dated September 15, 2014, in regard to a conference titled “Lakeport Legacies: UAM’s Historic Properties and Tourism in Southeast Arkansas” held on September 25.

The Blues music video by Marty Denton titled ‘Whistle Blowin'” was taken from:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnRaB5V95HU

The post titled “Conceptions People Have about Arkansas That Are Wrong” by Kat Robinson was taken from her Tie Dye Travels Web site at: http://www.tiedyetravels.com/

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 “I was born in the delta region of Arkansas, . . . . But Delta, in this case, means more than typography. It is also a landscape of the mind, formed by the culture that blossomed out of that rich soil as surely as the cotton on which that culture was based.”
—Margaret Jones Bolsterli, Born in the Delta

In my preceding post on Arkansas Delta plantations I began a discussion of this subject as presented in an AETN public television program titled “Plantation Homes of Arkansas.” In that post I examined some of these historic homes individually and introduced some lesser-known Arkansas Delta plantations and their misfortunes due to fire.

On a more positive note, one of the earliest Arkansas Delta plantation homes is still standing and is currently being excavated to locate the original cellar and outdoor kitchen. The Taylor Plantation is located on Highway 138 in Drew County near Winchester, Arkansas, a few miles north of McGehee.

According to an online source titled Arkansas Preservation.com, the dig is being co-sponsored by the University of Arkansas at Monticello (the seat of Drew County in which I was born) and the Drew County Historical Society which notes:

Taylor Plantation House

Taylor Plantation House

The Taylor House, a two-story, log dogtrot built in 1846 on the west bank of Bayou Bartholomew by Dr. John M. Taylor and his wife, Mary E. Robertson Taylor, was the epicenter of the 11,000-acre Hollywood Plantation and in 2012 was donated to the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

For additional information and photos at the Taylor House dig from Arkansas Online, click here and here.

Another important Arkansas Delta plantation was located in Mississippi County, at one time reputed to be the largest cotton-producing county in the country. The Robert E. Lee Wilson Plantation covered some 65,000 acres and was said to be the largest cotton plantation in the world. (To read an entry from the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture about Lee Wilson and Company, the parent company of this agricultural giant, click here.)

Sharecropper house at Wilson Plantation in 1935

Sharecropper and children in front of company house at the Wilson (Mississippi County) cotton plantation, 1935 (courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, Lee Wilson and Company entry)

As for those shacks of slaves, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers so often associated with images of Southern plantations (see photo above), my longtime friend and Ouachita Baptist College classmate Joe Dempsey recently featured one of these few remaining humble dwellings in his Weekly Grist for the Eyes and Mind.

Here is that photo along with Joe’s comment on such disappearing vestiges of Southern plantation life:

Sharecropper shack in cotton field

Sharecropper shack in cotton field

Back in the day, the Delta was liberally sprinkled with domiciles of this genre. The DNA markers inevitably were tar-paper siding and a “tin” roof (aka “roofin’ arn”). As machinery replaced sweat to plant, nurture, and harvest the life-blood crops of the Delta, folks left and no replacement population was forthcoming. Once the technology ratchet was engaged there was no looking back. If one were to plot the curves of advancing agricultural modernization with declining population, I’m betting on a hard correlation.

The old homes were left to face the elements with no maintenance, a sure course to collapse. In a few cases, we find these classic structures still standing and I’m guessing it is not by accident. Someone cares and though the maintenance they do is sparse, it is enough to ward off the inevitable. We should be grateful to these individuals for keeping our past in front of us. Though living in these conditions was hardscrabble at best, few will deny that it “built character.” (italics mine)

To read Joe’s entire Weekly Grist for the Eyes and Mind for June 29, 2014, click here. To view another of Joe’s Weekly Grist posts on an old abandoned Delta farmhouse, click here. To view Joe’s Weekly Grist post on a restored dogtrot house, click here.

Joe Dempsey photo of a Delta shack

Joe Dempsey photo of a neglected Delta shack

A restored dogtrot house

A restored dogtrot house featured on Joe Dempsey’s Weekly Grist for the Eyes and Mind

Slavery on Arkansas Delta Plantations

“The past is our definition. We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it.”
—Wendell Berry

For a glimpse into the lives of those who occupied Delta plantation shacks, like those pictured above, here is a recent announcement from Lakeport Plantation of a conference on slavery held on August 28.

Lakeport Legacies:
Slave Life in Chicot County: Toil and Resistance on the River
presented by
Kelly Jones, University of Arkansas (Ph.D. Candidate) 
Thursday, August 28, 2014

Lakeport Slavery

(Note: To magnify the ad for the runaway slave, click on the photo.)

Wealthy planters, like Chicot County’s Elisha Worthington with 543 slaves on four plantations, benefited from the work of their slaves. However, slaves like, Toney, who in 1836 escaped twice from Chicot County plantations, sought ways to act in their own interests and not their masters. Photo courtesy of Annie Paden; Runaway Slave Ad, Arkansas Gazette, June 3, 1836.

In the antebellum period Chicot County’s economy was dominated by slavery and cotton. The labor of slaves, who cleared vast forests and cultivated cotton, helped make Chicot County one of the wealthiest places in the United States. Slave life in the peculiar institution was complex; while not free, slaves developed their own culture, married, worshiped and, at times, sought the freedoms they were denied. Kelly Jones, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Arkansas, will explore the world of slaves and slavery in Chicot County through court records, the census, newspapers and WPA narratives.

For more information about plantation life in the Arkansas Delta visit Lakeport’s Web site at: http://www.lakeport.astate.edu/

Sources

The photo and quote about the Taylor Plantation were taken from the Arkansas Preservation site at:
http://www.arkansaspreservation.com/tours-events-workshops/walk-through-schedule/default.aspx

The additional sites from Arkansas Online with photos and information on the Taylor House dig were taken from:
http://www.arkansasonline.com/galleries/18210/album/578458/?page=2#displaySnap

http://media.arkansasonline.com/img/photos/2014/04/03/resized_99261-taylor-house_1_32-18210_t1000.JPG?cc6fa094ad523b984325c7879220d3883a443e7f

The photo and information about the Wilson Plantation from The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture were taken from:
http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=4437

The photos of the sharecropper house, the abandoned farmhouse, and the restored shotgun house were taken from Joe Dempsey’s Weekly Crist for the Eyes and Mind posts at:
http://corndancer.com/joephoto/photo340359/photo354.html
http://weeklygrist.wordpress.com/2009/08/03/this-old-old-house/
http://corndancer.com/joephoto/photo360379/photo360.html

The announcement of the conference on slavery in Chicot County, Arkansas, was taken from an email sent out by Lakeport Plantation on August 14, 2014.

 

 

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