The state of Arkansas as a whole has not always been blessed with growth over its history. That was the message from Arkansas Democrat-Gazette senior editor Rex Nelson to the Paragould Regional Chamber of Commerce at its Sept. 21 annual banquet.
He explained that some years back, he was tasked to explain the history of the state to a meeting of members of the Federal Reserve. But since most of them were not native Arkansans, Nelson learned he had about 25 minutes to do so.
“So I came up with a speech named ‘A State of Disaster,’” he said. “Now don’t get mad ... but I looked at about 200 years of our history.”
Nelson said the history of the state was largely defined by disasters, both natural and manmade. First, of course, was the series of earthquakes in 1811-12. “Now there was one great big one,” he said, “where the Mississippi River supposedly ran backwards, and church bells rang as far away as Boston.”
Noting that Arkansas was already a difficult place to enter, with its swamps and impenetrable hardwood forests, during the United States’ westward expansion, Nelson said the earthquakes made things even worse. “It created the St. Francis Sunken Lands,” he said, adding that thousands of acres of trees in those hardwood forests were knocked down, adding to the impassability of the area.
Nelson went on to say that to date, both Missouri and Louisiana have had much larger populations than Arkansas. “And I think a lot of that is due to the fact that during the westward expansion it was much easier to go north through Missouri or south through Louisiana,” he said.
Nelson said the damage done by the earthquakes could be seen as partly responsible. “You really had to want to be in Arkansas,” he said.
A major manmade disaster, Nelson said, was the decision by the state to secede from the Union in 1861. But he pointed out that the state was in no rush to do so. “That was not a foregone conclusion,” he said, “because large parts of this state are covered by mountains.” Such areas were totally unsuitable to growing cotton picked by slaves and thus, the people there held no slaves. “They really didn’t see the need to fight, to preserve slavery,” he said. “But the power base of Arkansas at the time was southeast Arkansas, with the [cotton] planters there,” Nelson said. “And they were slaveholders [with] the political power [and] the economic power.”
So with secession came the ravages of both the Civil War and subsequent Reconstruction. “How much better off would we have been if we had stayed in the Union?” Nelson asked.
Postwar Arkansas, he said, was hungry for capital, so the state “practically gave away” large amounts of land in the public domain, to railroad owners – “in Paragould, you’re named after two railroad magnates” – but also to timber companies.
Nelson noted that both the railroads and the timber companies were in northern states. ‘[The timber companies] came in and cleared out all our virgin timberland in Arkansas,” he said, “during the period of Arkansas history called ‘the big cut’ [from] the 1880s to the 1920s.”
The effect, Nelson said, was to reduce Arkansas to the status of “a third-world colony.” He noted like a colony, the state got little in return. “We got erosion,” he said, “and we sent out resources, but we didn’t get much capital coming back. We were desperately poor.”
Cotton remained the chief driver of the state’s economy, but more disasters loomed to impact that crop directly, including the “Great Flood” of 1927.
“Arkansas had more land under water and more people displaced than Mississippi and Louisiana combined,” Nelson said. He added the flood had washed out bridges as far away from the Mississippi as Little Rock, and that most of the eastern part of the state remained under water for months. “We were by far the most adversely affected state by the Great Flood of 1927,” he said. “Not only did the Mississippi flood but all of its tributaries flooded.”
Just two years later came the Great Depression, “and of course, states like Arkansas get even poorer.”
In 1930-31 came The Great Drought. “So people start to get the heck out of Arkansas,” he said. “’Either it’s raining or there’s no rain at all.’”
Nelson said that while John Steinbeck made Okies famous in The Grapes of Wrath, “there were just as many Arkies as there were Okies,” he said.
Then came the Great Flood of ‘37. “And you can see why people are getting the heck out of Arkansas,” he said.
After World War II (1941-45) came the rapid mechanization of agriculture, which he said saw the loss of 90 percent of farming jobs in the state. So more people left the state seeking employment elsewhere, like Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Gary, Ind. “Arkansas lost a higher percentage of its population than any [other] state from 1940-1960,” he said. “We went from seven seats in the House to four.”
Then in 1957 came the Little Rock school desegregation crisis, “the biggest news story in the world” at the time. “All of our economic activity stopped because of all the negative publicity,” Nelson said. “Arkansas was at a low ebb when I was born in 1959.”
But then in the 1960s things began turning around, he continued. “In 1966, Winthrop Rockefeller is elected,” Nelson said, noting that Rockefeller is his “favorite 20th Century figure in Arkansas history.”
Nelson said the story of Rockefeller is of “him helping save our state, and us saving his life.”
Nelson described Rockefeller as “the playboy son” of the family, and that a World War II comrade, Frank Newell, had advised him to get as far from the Manhattan social scene as possible. So Rockefeller came to Arkansas in 1953. “And he falls in love with the place,” Nelson said. “How could you not, right?”
Rockefeller ran against Democrat Orval Faubus for governor in 1964, and lost. “But Faubus could see the handwriting on the wall,” Nelson said, “and he decides six two-year terms is enough.”
So Rockefeller ran again in 1966, beating segregationist Justice Jim Johnson, and won again in 1968 against another member of the segregationist “old guard” of the Democratic Party, Marion Crump.
Nelson said two consecutive Republican victories for governor persuaded the Democrats to make changes. “He forced them to modernize,” he said. “And he really made possible a Dale Bumpers, a David Pryor and a Bill Clinton.”
Nelson noted that although President Clinton’s policies were quite liberal, those of Gov. Clinton were substantially more centrist. “We’ve had nine governors since Rockefeller,” he said, “five Democrats and four Republicans, and all of them have been pragmatists. They’ve governed from the middle, and I think that’s a good thing.”
Nelson explained that, for example, Mike Huckabee when he speaks on the national stage, “speaks further to the right” than he governed in the state. “Mike Beebe governed a lot like Republican Mike Huckabee had,” he said, “and Asa Hutchinson governs a lot like Mike Beebe did.”
Nelson also said the state had benefited from a strong Congressional delegation, including House Ways and Means committee chair Wilbur Mills, Senate Appropriations Committee chair John McClellan and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair J. William Fulbright. “So if you wanted to get anything done in Congress,” Nelson said, “you had to go through these three guys from Arkansas.”
He added, among other things the three were able to bring about the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, which made that river navigable to ships as far inland from the Mississippi River as the state’s capital city.
Arkansas’ private sector has benefited from homegrown entrepreneurs, like Sam Walton, a friend of Nelson’s father who went from managing a Ben Franklin variety store in Newport to found what became the Wal-mart mega-chain of stores. “J.B. Hunt also started over here hauling rice in Stuttgart on the eastern part of the state,” he said, “and went to northwest Arkansas [to found one of] the most successful trucking companies in the world.”
The list goes on, Nelson said, including poultry giant Tyson, the Dillard’s department store chain founded by Phil Dillard, Murphy Oil, and Stephens, Inc., founded by Jack and Witt Stephens. “They formed what at one time was the largest investment bank in the country that’s not on Wall Street, based in Arkansas,” he said. “So we had all these homegrown guys that built some of the greatest companies in the world, based here in Arkansas.”
The combination of good governors, strong legislators, homegrown entrepreneurs have made the state an appealing place into which people could locate. “And since 2010 we’ve gained population and Mississippi has lost,” he said.
Nonetheless, Nelson acknowledged, the state’s growth has been very uneven. “But I have to tell you I am bullish on Arkansas,” he said.
The band Lindley Creek will perform at the next KASU-FM Bluegrass Monday concert.
The show will be Monday, Sept. 27, at 7 p.m. at the Collins Theatre, 120 West Emerson Street, in downtown Paragould.
From the Ozark Hills of Missouri, Lindley Creek is a family musical group that performs a mixture of bluegrass, acoustic, Americana and gospel music. Mom Kathie Greer plays guitar and sings, dad John Greer plays bass, daughter Katie Greer sings and plays mandolin, and son Jase Greer sings and plays fiddle.
The Greer family began playing music together as a pastime when their children were young. Soon thereafter, they began to receive invitations to perform at area churches and bluegrass events. After performing music on a part-time basis for several years, in 2009 John and Kathie quit their full-time jobs to take the family on the road as full-time bluegrass musicians. Ever since then, the family has traveled across the country, appearing at hundreds of bluegrass events.
Through the years, Lindley Creek recorded numerous self-produced bluegrass albums.
In 2020, Lindley Creek was signed to the prestigious bluegrass label Pinecastle Records, and the group released their first major-label album titled Freedom, Love and the Open Road. That album included songs that were featured on bluegrass radio stations across the country including the Sirius XM satellite radio Bluegrass Junction channel. With radio airplay, songs from that album made the top ten of the Bluegrass Today radio airplay charts.
Following the success of their most-recent album, Lindley Creek was recognized with two nominations for the 2021 International Bluegrass Music Association’s Momentum Awards. These awards are presented to rising stars in the bluegrass music industry who are expected to have significant success in contemporary bluegrass music. Lindley Creek is nominated in the Band of the Year category and the Vocalist of the Year category (for Katie Greer). Those awards will be presented at a ceremony at the annual International Bluegrass Music Association convention which will occur at the end of this month.
More information about the group is available at www.lindleycreek.com.
The admission fee is $10 per person, payable by cash at the door the night of the concert. Everyone aged 18 and under will be admitted free. Advance tickets can be purchased at www.kasu.org/tickets.
Bluegrass Monday concerts are held on the fourth Monday night of each month. KASU is the public media service of Arkansas State University in Jonesboro broadcasting at 91.9 FM and streaming online.
By his own admission, Rex Nelson loves Chamber banquets, but as the senior editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette told the event in Paragould this week, sometimes he feels he has to “lie like hell” at Chamber banquets to give a positive address.
“But I don’t have to do that here,” he said. “Paragould’s got it going on.”
Nelson noted the state only has three real growth areas, Northwest Arkansas, the Little Rock metropolitan area, and the Jonesboro-Paragould corridor.
“You have become the growth area for the entire eastern half of the state,” Nelson said. “You’ve had great growth. So keep up the great work.”
The 18-month COVID-19 pandemic, he said, has fundamentally changed the outlook of many people. “I think that more and more people are going to want to tap into what we have here,” he said, including its friendliness, lack of traffic jams, lack of crime in most places, and abundant outdoor activities.
Nelson noted that in the 1950s through the 1970s, Chambers of Commerce used to seek factories to relocate to their areas. “Smokestack-chasing and stuff,” he said. “Now they chase talent.”
That is, they seek talented people. And to attract such people, Nelson said, cities in the state need to make the right decisions going forward. “And when we get broadband,” he said, “people on the crowded coasts and the crowded metropolitan areas will look to Arkansas and say, ‘Arkansas is to middle America what Colorado is to the West.’”
Making the right decisions, Nelson said, involved electing the right people to public office and focusing on public-private partnerships. “I think our best days are still ahead,” he said. “I think the pandemic has changed something fundamental in this country that is going to play to our benefit for many years to come.”
Nelson concluded by noting that Paragould is a growing town. “You are an example of how to do it right,” he said.
As cities, towns and other metropolitan areas in Arkansas continue to grow, the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture is working to help developers and planners keep water quality in mind.
The Cooperative Extension Service, part of the Division of Agriculture, will produce a free webinar focused on low-impact development for water quality and communities. The webinar is scheduled to stream Sept. 28, from 1:30-2:30 p.m., CDT.
The program is funded by a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Arkansas Natural Resources Division, part of the Arkansas Department of Agriculture. The grant is aimed at expanding green infrastructure.
John Pennington, extension water quality educator for the Division of Agriculture, said low-impact development is key to both maintaining natural resources and making structures as durable as possible as cities continue to grow.
“Low-impact development, or LID, is a building and development technique that is used to slow down, spread out, and soak in stormwater on site,” Pennington said. “The technique attempts to maintain pre-development water movement patterns in post-development conditions.”
According to the EPA, the mid-20th century approach to stormwater management – the channeling of stormwater using engineered systems of curbs, gutters, pipes and so on – has resulted in significant damage to water quality.
“Damage to public and personal property associated with flooding is also an all-too-common outcome,” Pennington said.
“Incorporating LID into communities can reduce the amount of stormwater leaving an area, slow it down, prevent flooding and protect the quality of water in receiving streams,” he said. “This webinar will help citizens, municipal staff and decision-makers better understand the benefits of using LID in their communities, and how to modify city codes to allow or encourage LID in their community.”
The webinar will also provide local examples of LID applications located in communities throughout the state of Arkansas.
There is no cost to participate in the webinar, but registration is required. To register, visit bit.ly/LIDWaterQuality.