ABOVE PHOTO: Hemingway House
By Renée S. Gordon
“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” –Ernest Hemingway
The Arkansas Delta is an alluvial plain 250-miles long and from 12 to 91 miles wide and covers one-third of eastern Arkansas. It is best defined as the land around the waterways that empty into the Mississippi and encompasses 10 counties that abut the Mississippi. The rural, agricultural region, one of the most fertile in the world, is filled with driving, hiking and biking trails that meander through areas of pristine natural growth, farms, small towns, waterways and wildlife. The 73 mile Delta Trail has a special story uniquely told in the historic towns and villages and physical remains along the Delta roads. www.deltabyways.com
The first Europeans, Hernando de Soto and 600 men, three of which were black slaves, entered what is now Arkansas in June of 1541. More than 100 years later, in the early 1680s, Henri de Tonti was granted land to establish a trading post where the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers meet. An agreement with the area Quapaw Indians resulted in his building the first Arkansas Post in 1686 manned by fewer than 10 Frenchmen. In 1717 Louis XIV gave John Law’s Company of the West land and a charter and he established a settlement bringing in 2000 Germans and approximately 100 slaves.
The northernmost site on the Delta Trail is Parkin Archeological Park, located on the site of a former 17 acre native village between 900 AD and 1600. Situated on the St. Francis River, it is believed to have been the capitol of the chiefdom of Casqui and a place visited by Hernando de Soto in 1541. The town was fortified and remnants of the stockade, moat and a large platform mound, once the center of village life are visible. www.arkansasstateparks.com/parkinarcheological
In 1897 the Hampson family purchased a 5,000 acre farm and 30 years later Dr. James Kelly Hampson, M.D. discovered the remains of a 15 acre Late Mississippian agrarian village. The site, named Nodena, after the farm on which it is located, was populated from 1400 to 1650 AD. Hampson, a largely self-taught archeologist, taught his workers and together they excavated the site. His wife was the sole conservationist.
A number of unique characteristics make Nodena one of the country’s most important sites. A large number of artifacts were extracted intact and many of the items recovered are type-site specific, first documented at this site. There is some evidence of the people having succumbed to native disease but no evidence of there having been European contact. There is also a belief that the tribe members were assimilated into other tribes.
Hampson Archeological Museum displays bone and food artifacts and pottery, most notably Nodena Red and White Ceramics. A 1550 effigy head vessel is the focal point of the exhibitions. Aside from its beauty it is significant for the markings, an indication of elevated status, that are etched into it. There are only 137 such vessels in the world, 90 of them were unearthed in Arkansas. www.arkansasstateparks.com/hampsonmuseum
Old Davidsonville Historic State Park interprets the story of Davidsonville, a settlement that thrived from 1815-30. Ideally situated on the shore of the Black River at the juncture of the Black, Eleven Point and Spring Rivers. Arkansas’ first post office and brick courthouse were here. This was also the state’s first planned community with some streets 57 feet wide.
The 1/3 mile circular Historic Townsite Trail takes visitors through the town with 11 interpretive panels where structures once stood. The town began to decline in 1829 when the Lawrence County seat was relocated from Davidsonville. The town was designated a state park in 1957 and in 1979 archeological excavations began. To date tens of thousands of artifacts have been recovered. www.arkansasstateparks.com/olddavidsonville
The 1836 State Constitution legalized slavery but it grew slowly in the largely rural state everywhere except the Delta. The work assigned to slaves was labor intensive and the lifespan of Arkansas slaves tended to be shorter than average. The cost of slaves was high because there was no organized slave market in the state and these factors contributed to the state’s slave population, 111,115, ranking 12th of the 15 slave states in 1860. When the Civil War came 5,526 former slaves enlisted in the US Colored Troops and a substantial number of white males enlisted on the side of the Union.
In the 1850s Arkansas underwent an economic boom based on slavery and the cotton industry. The Civil War devastated the economy and the former plantation owners were left “land poor” and without free labor. A labor system emerged known as sharecropping or tenant farming. Landowners would lease land to an individual, black or white, provide all of the necessities for daily and working life and in turn collect a share of the crop and repayment of all costs for food, clothing, seed, etc. Many farmers never saw any cash because they were issued scrip, were perpetually in debt and were therefore tied to the land.
The first successful interracial, intergender, agricultural union was founded in Tyronza, Arkansas in 1934 to address the rights of the Delta’s tenant farmers. It was formed by 11 whites and seven blacks and grew to 40,000 and served as a template for later organizations. The Southern Tenant Farmers Museum
is housed inside the Mitchell-East Building, the former dry cleaner and service station of two of the original organizers. They functioned as headquarters until 1935 when the union relocated to Memphis.
On the exterior a huge mural of cotton pickers appears to spill beyond its borders with real cotton planted along the bottom. Interior tours are self-guided and include an orientation video and thematic galleries on farm labor in the South. One of the highlighted galleries focuses on John Handcox, an African American poet and songwriter who gave voice to the movement. Visitors have an opportunity to listen to some of the songs he wrote. www.stfm.astate.edu
John Handcox’s talent is responsible for the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum’s inclusion on the Delta Music Trail but it is Johnny Cash who is the probably the most celebrated musician whose story is interpreted on the trail.
Arkansas had little opportunity for economic recovery after the late 1800s because of a series of events that made progress almost impossible. In 1927, the Mississippi River flooded and remained at flood stage for 153 days. In 1929, Arkansas banks began to fail and by 1933, 420 banks, 75 percent, were closed. A drought in 1930-31 affected 23 states and 74 of 75 Arkansas counties lacked food. Action was necessary and President Franklin D. Roosevelt began to address the problem by issuing Executive Order 7027 creating the new Deal’s Resettlement Administration in May 1, 1935. The goal of the RA was to relocate distressed families to planned communities. There were segregated African American colonies.
Dyess Colony, “Colonization Project Number 1,” was the sole agrarian colony in the nation. Dyess had 500 houses and a 16 x 24-ft. barn, each on 20 or 40-acres with three, four, or five rooms. All of the houses were white with colored trim. In order to qualify for a house families had to pass a health test, have a household head between the ages of 25-45, and have a maximum of six children. Owners were required to pay $3.00 per acre and a pro-rated share of the infrastructure. Once you qualified two government trucks arrived for the people and their belongings and one for their livestock. The 16,000-acre Dyess Colony was the largest in the country.
The colony was completed in 1939. Through the years government control lessened and in August of 2014 Arkansas State University opened the Historic Dyess Colony Museum. The site preserves the history and legacy of the colony through visits to three structures, he Administration Building, the theater and the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home. www.dyesscash.astate.edu
Visits begin in the 1936 Administration Building’s museum. There are three exhibition rooms and the development and lifestyle of the colony is featured in the first two rooms. Gallery three relates the story of the family of Johnny Cash and traces the life events that occurred here that served as inspiration for his music. Artifacts on display include a prom program, his yearbook and a pillow that belonged to his beloved deceased brother that he was known to treasure. The museum uses music, photographs and interactive stations throughout. The Dyess Theater is located next door. It is undergoing restoration and currently is only a façade.
Visitors must drive to the restored Cash home. The family of seven moved into the home in 1935 when Johnny was three and he lived there until 1950 when he left for the US Air Force. They purchased the five room home in 1938 for $2,183 and his parents, Ray and Carrie Cash, lived there until 1954. The home is furnished based on family recollections and interprets the years they lived there. The walls and floors are original as are some of the furnishings. Atop Johnny’s bed are two of his favorite childhood books and on the wall is a picture that he placed there. The Johnny Cash Music Fest contributes funding for the project. www.johnnycashmusicfest.com
Twist, Arkansas has two claims to a spot on the music trail. It was the home of Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett and the birthplace of the most famous blues guitar in the world, the legendary “Lucille.” Wolf moved to Twist to farm in 1933 and worked there between gigs until he entered the army in 1941.
B.B. King was playing at a juke joint on Hwy. 42 when a fight and then a fire broke out. King escaped but realizing that he left his guitar he rushed back inside to rescue it. Later he learned that a woman named Lucille triggered the fight. King named that guitar and every subsequent one Lucille to memorialize the incident. The club is no longer there but an interpretive marker indicates the location.
Pharmaceutical millionaire Paul Pfeiffer purchased 150-acres in Piggott, Arkansas in 1902. In 1913 he and his wife moved into their newly constructed home. Their daughter, Pauline, met Ernest Hemingway in Paris and began an affair. After his divorce he married Pauline in May of 1927. Hemingway first visited the Pfeiffer home the following year. The Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center interprets the life of Paul Pfeiffer as well as the writings and legacy of Ernest Hemingway.
Approximately 75 percent of the furnishings in the 2-level home are original. There are six rooms on the first floor and of special note are Mary Pfeiffer’s chapel, family photographs and the signed Stickley mission oak furniture. The fireplace was ordered from Sears and added after they moved in. The upper level has five rooms, four bedrooms, a storage room used to exhibit quilts and a bathroom added in 1920. Each room is furnished and the bed in Pauline’s room is the one she and Ernest shared when they visited.
Pfeiffer was known for his generosity to his workers and during the Depression he purchased quilts made by the local ladies and distributed them to those in need. The house was found to have 47 coats of paint, 41 from the Depression. He would hire jobless people who came along to paint his house.
The location on the grounds that draws people from all over the world is the Hemingway Barn, a loft he used as a studio from 1928. He penned “A Farewell to Arms” and several short stories here. The studio is decorated with a desk and trophies that are replicas of the type he brought back from a safari he and Pauline took. The $25,000 trip was financed by her family and would amount to $500,000 today. The pool table was Hemingway’s. www.hemingway.astate.edu
The 7,000-acre Village Creek State Park provides accommodations that are perfectly situated for touring the Delta or just communing with nature. The park offers fully equipped cabins, 96 campsites, two man-made lakes, 33-miles of trails and The Ridges, a 27-hole, Andy Dye signature course. The old Military Road runs through the park, it was part of the Trail of Tears. After dark wildlife tours can be scheduled. www.arkansasstateparks.com
No one need ever go hungry in the Delta because there are wonderful local independent restaurants. The family-owned Greg & Jim’s was once a grocery store. They continue to sell groceries but the real draw here is the country cooking. There are no vegetarian options or low calorie choices, just a good old southern breakfast and lunch. Colt, Arkansas.
MeMe’s Café in Caraway, AK is renowned for its home cooked menu. It is always filled with locals, a sign that it is a good bet the food is good. The fried chicken is outstanding.
Tyboogies Café serves traditional Delta dishes that are farm fresh. It is located in Tyronza and is simply the best food for miles around. www.tyboogies.com
Discover the Delta. www.arkansas.com
I wish you smooth travels!
*Dates, names and numbers vary greatly and I have attempted to include information from legitimate scholars.
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