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  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Local Histories, Pictures & Event Archives

article number 290
article date 11-21-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Head East from Little Rock, Arkansas and “You are Going South”, 1947
by Marguerite Lyon
   

From the 1949 book, Hurrah for Arkansas.

HEAD east from Little Rock—and you are going south. It seems strange perhaps, but every roll of the tires is taking you deeper and deeper into the Land of Cotton. More colored people are seen along the highways! Some are walking along, dressed in spick-and-span clothes, headed for church or prayer meeting if it is a Sunday, or to town if it is Saturday.

Some are riding in wagons, with chairs in the back for Morn and Aunt Jane. Some are driving rattletrap cars. And some are fishing, sitting so close to the road they can undoubtedly feel the rush of air from each passing car.

Along the highway that leads from North Little Rock to West Memphis, I have always been fascinated by the long, shallow lake. Part of the charm came from seeing people fishing so close to the highway, part from the tall cypress trees growing in the muddy water, with gnarled knees sticking up in the air, and the rest from the fact that water just naturally has an enormous attraction for me!

The Arkansas Traveler who is driving south by going east finds this lake lying at the right, so close to the pavement that one may toss a cigarette into it—and, buddy, if you are in the habit of tossing out lighted cigarettes along the road, I hope you wait until you get to that body of water!

On the left of the lake lie broad lawns, studded with magnolias and other trees and shrubbery such as only the South can produce. Back of the lawns stand beautiful homes with deep, shaded porches.

Many times I have wished that a woman would suddenly come out of one of those houses, run swiftly down to the gate and call, “Oh, Marge, won’t you come in a minute?” Nobody ever has, although I have often driven very, very slowly along, in order to give any would be hostess plenty of time to stop me.

   

One spring morning I decided to take matters into my own hands. I would stop at one of the houses, I said to myself. I chose it carefully, passing up those that smacked of newness or too-too ostentation. I found one simply perfect. It was long and white, with lawns just a bit greener, magnolias just a bit taller, and porches just a bit more spacious and shaded, than those of any other dwelling.

As at most Southern homes, a colored girl answered the doorbell. She said her mistress was “around in back.” There I found Gertrude Young overseeing the gardening efforts of a tall muscular man whom she called Harrison. Pansies, violets and spring beauties carpeted the moist, rich, dark earth beneath the tall shrubs. Harrison’s touch with the hoe was as gentle as a mother’s hands.

I watched them as I crossed the lawn, the slender graying woman giving her soft-voiced directions and the smiling gardener easing the dirt about each tiny plant. The spring sunshine lighted up the white-blossoming pearl bush and the feathery boughs of spiraea, and deepened the shadows among the glossy foliage of magnolias and holly bush.

Here was the South, and even if I got kicked out, I would always remember this back yard!

Yes, this was the South, but when the mistress of the house greeted me there was no trace of its accent in her voice. Gertrude was a city girl from Kansas when she met a young man from the South at Ludington, Michigan, and became his bride.

Mrs. Young was delightfully hospitable. She changed her shoes at the back door, leaving the muddy ones on the porch, and then took me through her home, with its beautiful breakfast room, wide living room, generous halls and the Cove ceilings with bas-relief decorations.

Each bedroom had both its own bath and its own sleeping porch—the positive height of comfort for Southern living. The antiques were enough to make one’s mouth water—drum tables, mirrors and all the beautiful furnishings that develop a rich glowing patina through years of faithful, loving care.

This time when the war was mentioned, it was not the War between the States, but World War II. With it sorrow came to that gracious home along the shallow lake.

One of the two Sons of the Youngs was killed in Air Corps service. Photographs of his smiling face in every room brought home even to the most casual visitor, the heartbreak of his death. As we talked, it was difficult for Mrs. Young to speak of Billy in the past tense.

She mentioned “the boys” as though Billy were still able to come in after a date, take a noisy, bubbling shower in the “boys’ bathroom” and then stretch his long lean frame in one of the snowy beds on the big sleeping porch. Somehow, she seemed to grow smaller and frailer when she remembered to say, “Billy used to . . . !”

   

At the back of the house, Mr. Young had an office with a separate entrance, for the 3,000-acre Young estate was a “going dairy business” as well as cotton plantation. Two thousand of the acres were devoted to cotton. On the remaining thousand acres, forty milk cows and 250 beef cattle grazed and throve.

In a little cottage back of the garden, Lucy, the cook, and her husband, the Harrison of the garden, lived a happy life. Mrs. Young proved that she was “of the South,” even if not from the South, by her outspoken love and respect for her colored help. “I’m very fortunate indeed to have such good help,” she said. She was proud, too, that they approved of her. She told of a time when she was showing Harrison how to plant seeds in a flower bed. She seized the hoe and vigorously prepared the seed bed.

Harrison watched her for a moment, and then said, “Yore pappy shore larnt you how to handle a hoe!”

The lake in front of the house? Why, that was Hill Lake, popularly supposed to be the old bed of the Arkansas River. Time and floods have changed the river to a course miles away, but there was the shallow bed, lined with willows and cypress trees, and filled with water that had a tendency toward mud.

Croppies, catfish and bass lived and multiplied in it. It might have become a popular fishing spot, but the families whose homes face on the lake waterway had it posted, and only their help were allowed to fish in it.

We walked through the gracious rooms, lovely with exquisite furnishings which showed the good taste of the girl from Kansas. The talk turned to housekeeping, as it will when two housewives get together, and Mrs. Young told another story of Billy, the young pilot who never came back.

“One day,” she said, “when Billy was just a small boy, I returned from town and found him in my clothes closet, looking over all my clothes. I asked what on earth he was doing. I can still hear his reply. ‘Why, Mother,’ he said, ‘I just happened to think that if you were to die, I wouldn’t know where anything was!’”

I went back to my car, lingering under the holly and magnolias and drinking in the beauty of the redbud and spiraea as long as I dared. The beauty and heartbreak that seemed the lot of the South in earlier times still persist.

   

* * *

One day at the Statehouse in Little Rock, I asked if Arkansas had a really big cotton plantation. That was just like asking someone along the Mississippi if he knew where there were fish.

I was promptly told a story that seemed fantastic. Just north of West Memphis a man had built up a plantation so huge that he owned a town. It was named for him . . . Wilson! That I had to see!

Go right on up, I was told. Ask to see Jim Cram, manager of the Wilson estate, and he will tell you all about it. Oh, yeah! My guardian angel was attending to other business that day.

After many weary miles of driving I arrived at Wilson, the town owned by the R. E. Lee Wilson heirs. It started out like any other town: nice houses, wide streets, then a jog in the road, and I was cheek by jowl with a beautiful rose garden.

Beyond the rose garden and other handsome landscaping was a long, l-o-n-g building, containing drugstore, bank, grocery store and a few other commercial places, all sheltered by a porch.

   

Another row of stores and shops stood at right angles to the long building, and among them I found a quiet little restaurant where I could eat a belated breakfast.

As I ate, I reached for a Memphis newspaper lying alongside the pepper, the salt and the paper napkins. Lazily I read the news of the day: politicians announcing their candidacy, or denying they would be candidates . . . complaints against the OPA . . . Margaret Truman’s desire to be an opera singer.

Then I saw a headline that brought me up standing: The heirs of the R. E. Lee Wilson plantation and Mr. Cram were having a serious altercation. And there was I in Wilson to interview Jim Cram!

If Mr. Cram would see a roving reporter on that day I would be much surprised. In fact, I wasn’t sorry when the office girl said Mr. Cram was “out of town.” As the day wore on, I was less sorry. I met Mrs. Dora Merrell, known as “Aunt Dora” or “Mayor of Wilson.”

Aunt Dora, sister of the late Mrs. R. E. Lee Wilson, still occupies the Wilson home. I went to call on her. “She is gone to the cemetery,” I was told by the girl who answered the doorbell. “Yas’m. She said she’d be back by noon if it didn’t rain. If it did rain, why, she’d be back as soon as she could git here.”

I found the cemetery five miles away and parked my car at the entrance. A week’s rain in the delta had taught me that a person couldn’t bog down in the mud if he spread his toes wide. But a car didn’t have toes. I walked through the cemetery to a lot where a woman in shabby black dress, a tired sweater and a funny little hat was directing the activities of a half-dozen workmen. With rakes, spades and lawn mower they were pulling weeds and otherwise straightening the flower rows in the big family lot.

I turned to and began pulling weeds, while Mrs. Merrell told of the difficulties of keeping up a cemetery. So many people gone . . . and look what happens to the graves they leave behind them! Such nice people buried there! Fine old families! And now, grass all over the graves. Somebody had to show that the world hadn’t forgotten the good they had done, and it looked as if it were up to her.

So there, on her seventy-third birthday, Aunt Dora was doing what she could. She left the family lot and moved along the roadway to another plot. Suddenly she threw up her hands in horror and shouted for the boys to come.

“Oh, land sakes alive, what is this place coming to!” she exclaimed. “Look! Wild onions!” The boys came hastily with hoes and spades and soon the offending critters had been uprooted.

Many of the stones marked graves of Confederate soldiers. Aunt Dora went among them, reverently clipping weeds or fixing rose vines. The lad who was being trained as her handy man was praised and complimented when he trailed along and found bits of work to do.

Then a shower came up in dead earnest and we all scurried for town. Later at the Wilson home we sat in a cool room and chatted of the Wilson family.

R. E. Lee Wilson, head of the $8,000,000 enterprise until his death, had been an orphan at fifteen. While still in his teens, he bought a small farm, and the taste of land ownership whetted his appetite for more.

He bought a sawmill and cleared a quarter section of timbered land. Part of this was sold, and with the money he bought something over 2,000 acres of swampland. The swamp, however, had fine big trees on it.

He cleared the land and drained the swamp water, which gave him thousands of acres of rich black soil—just what was needed for raising cotton.

   

The Wilson home had the grandeur of elegant dwellings built and furnished at the turn of the century. The heavy carpets and furniture dated the upswing in the finances of the Lee Wilson family.

A few modem touches seemed to stand out with startling vividness. One was a magnificent tapestry brought to Aunt Dora by her nephew Joe Wilson Nelson, pilot in the Army. Another was a photograph of the late President Roosevelt, smiling at a handsome little boy and a beautiful young woman. I learned the lad was little Nicholas Craw, great-grandson of the Wilsons, and the picture was taken when the President gave him the medals won by his young father who was killed in Africa.

“I just keep the house going for Joe Wilson and the girls,” said Aunt Dora. “It was such a gay place in the old days. The young folks had much company, and there were many people here to see Mr. Wilson. Mrs. Wilson was an invalid for years before her death, and I helped run the household and take care of the children.”

We got into Aunt Dora’s little sedan and started out to look at some of the Wilson interests. The seventy-year-old spinster drove with the gay abandon of a high-school boy. She laughed as she commented on her driving and added, “People get out of the way.” It was a relief to know that. I could settle back in my seat.

The countryside was dotted with the green-painted, red-roofed tenant houses with which the Wilson interests supplied their workers. In the town most of the houses were Wilson-owned, although all of them did not wear the Wilson colors. Aunt Dora pointed them out to me. Some gave her cause for great concern.

“Look at those yards,” she said. “I’ll have to come over some of these evenings and mow them.”

“What about the people who live there?” I asked. “Can’t they mow their own lawns?”

“Could, but won’t!” returned Aunt Dora. “I’ll do it myself.”

I could understand why Aunt Dora was called the mayor.

   

Second only to the Wilson home in the estimation of Aunt Dora is the women’s clubhouse, standing in the midst of a beautiful flower garden. It is a big building with high-ceilinged rooms and was once a school. When a new school was built, Aunt Dora begged that the old one might be given to the women’s club. For more than twenty years, it had been her pride and joy. Everything in and around the building reflected her loving touch.

Some of the finest antiques of eastern Arkansas can be found in this clubhouse . . . a pink luster punch bowl worth a fortune, along with other beautiful china and glass. Then there are many items with historical backgrounds. One is a big iron pot that came from the home of President James K. Polk. A slave sold by the Poiks brought it with her. “I’d like to have a dollar for every mess of greens cooked in that pot,” said Aunt Dora.

Another treasure is a magnificent desk which President Wilson used on the ship that carried him to Europe. Still another is an inlaid bowl, in which George Washington is said to have washed his feet. Older than these, but less ornate, are the Indian pots found under the building when the plumbers’ helpers were digging drains.

In the hail stands a little trunk in which a woman carried food when she went to visit her wounded Confederate husband. It is stained with water, the marks of the floods through which the horses and carriage floundered on a perilous journey.

“Such a beautiful place!” I said, and meant it. “Do you allow other parties besides those given by the women’s clubs?”

“Yes,” she said, “we have been having other parties! But I don’t know if we can allow it any longer. The last time the young folks had a party here, I had to carry out a bushel basket full of bottles.”

Let the Wilson heirs divide the plantation as they see fit! I don’t care a whoop who gets what. But if Aunt Dora is going to be given away, I want to put in my bid for her right now.

* * *

Staying in tourist camps—pardon me, tourist courts—is one of the ways by which travel becomes broadening. The things one learns—tsk, tsk! Each tourist court has its own personality. Some are staid, quiet, middle-aged affairs, like, perhaps, the court at Gurdon, Arkansas.

Others are young, vibrant, full of pulsating life, like, one might say, the Alamo Plaza courts at Little Rock. Some are hopelessly sad and dreary, reminding me of the forlorn old woman who lived at the statue in Lincoln Park one summer during the depression, or the one who used to go around Madison and HaLsted, dusting the mailboxes. Then for a tourist court with a touch of the Latin Quarter and North Clark Street, I’ll nominate the tourist courts in West Memphis.

   

My guardian angel was right on the job when I planned to stop in West Memphis. I had the good sense to ask Bessie McRee, of the Chamber of Commerce of Helena, to phone the West Memphis C. of C. to get a cabin for me. In a moment the phone call came back. I was to register at the 20th Century Court, situated on the highway between West Memphis and Memphis.

It was a pleasing place, with good bath and nice furnishings. However, the garage which should have gone with the cabin had been fitted into a bedroom for the son of the proprietor, just home from the Navy.

All was well, until a rainstorm threatened! Then I remembered the stalling proclivities of my car. I went to the proprietor and told her my tale of woe. I had the choice then of moving into No. 6, which had a garage, or staying in No. 1, into which I had unloaded my typewriter and luggage, and putting my car in the garage that went with No. 6. Naturally I let the car do the moving, and I stayed in No. 1.

When a tenant showed up for No.6, and rain was pouring, the howl that went up about “no garage could have been heard to high heaven. Since No. 1 was alongside the office, I heard it all, but I just bent my head over my typewriter and pretended to be busily writing.

The next morning I wanted to be off early to make a long trip and return before dark. I went blithely out to get my car! Ah, the occupant of No. 6 had his revenge! He had parked his car so that I could barely get out without nicking my fenders. How to maneuver it, get it turned and headed from the court was the problem of the week for me.

I went forward three inches, turned the wheel, backed four inches, went forward again, then turned and backed! Far into the hour when I should have been on my way, I was still backing and turning. Had No. 6’s car been drawn forward a foot, it would have helped, but of course I had no way of knowing whether or not its owner was up!

Certainly I couldn’t awaken a stranger, much less one who was mad at me. I continued to pull and haul on the wheel until I was dripping with perspiration— and before breakfast, too.

At last, I had the car free of the door and was ready to take off. I pulled up at the filling station a hundred feet from fatal No. 6 to get gas. Just by chance I looked back toward its door. The occupant was just coming out, with hat, coat and brief case! He got into his car, and drove briskly away!

The son-of-a-gun had been sitting in his cottage, ready to leave, but getting a big bang out of seeing me work so hard at dodging his car. If looks were daggers, he would be wearing one between his shoulder blades. And here, help me pull this one out of my back!

During the course of my five-day stay at this tourist court, my landlady brought in a nice-looking young woman whom she introduced as “another writer.” The girl had been one of those WAVES who had interesting writing jobs in England during the war, getting out a beautiful propaganda magazine such as had never been seen over here.

On her return to the States, the girl had teamed up with another young woman, also a WAVE, from Kentucky. They had talked the mother of the Kentucky girl into lending them her automobile for three months, and were touring the country, getting material for a book.

The girls and I struck up what amounted to a pleasant companionship. Then suddenly they moved. They came back to tell me why. Four dollars per night at the 20th Century was a dollar more than their budget allowed. They had to go over on another highway and find a modest place that could be rented for three dollars per night.

“My goodness!” said my landlady, when I explained why my new friends had suddenly “left out.” “I hope they don’t get into one of those courts that rent cottages by the hour.”

   

She was well informed about other tourist courts. She knew of one on the other side of Memphis that had a night watchman named Mortimer who checked couples in and out like a receptionist admitting perspiring would-be broadcasters for an audition.

I was glad chance had brought me to the 20th Century Court.

Along in the small hours of that night, my Boston terrier suddenly jumped to her feet and ran to the door. Any movement of hers in the night always brings me wide-awake, for Judy is not an alarmist. She needed to go outside, but fast! I jumped out of bed and opened the door! No one would be driving up to the office at this hour, I thought, and the little dog could walk safely across the concrete drive in front of my cabin.

I was looking down at her when I opened the door, and I saw the hackles rise along her neck. I glanced up. In the bright light from the neon sigh I saw a tall, handsome, well-dressed man, of middle age, standing as close to my door as the screen would allow.

Probably he heard my gasp of surprise, or possibly he wasn’t expecting a lady in a pink nightgown to answer his light knock on what he must have thought the office door! He backed up a step. Then he whispered across the intervening space, “Where’s Mortimer?”

I told him, feeling very much like a handmaid of Aphrodite.

My stay at West Memphis ended in a robbery. On the morning I intended to leave, my landlady and her son answered a frantic call from the maid who was doing up the cabins. The bedspreads from the twin beds of No. 4 had disappeared. Who had been in No.4? The proprietor and her son put their heads together and recalled that the occupants were a fine-looking young couple with good clothes and a good car.

“Now why will people like that steal ?“ moaned the landlady. Then she shrieked, “My good spreads! I paid thirty-five dollars apiece for them, and now one can’t get any, at any price!”

The young man had given their address as some town in Texas, and Texas is both far away and a big state. The landlady and her son began to wonder if either the young man or his wife had dropped any clue to their travels for the next few days.

Suddenly the son remembered hearing a long-distance call. The husband had called his father, and asked him to meet them at a livestock auction in Memphis the next day. It took only a few minutes to check the call and get the old gentleman’s name. Then the landlady and her son drove off toward Memphis. I delayed my start until they returned.

   

When they came up they reported that the robber and his wife had not shown up at Memphis. They had found the father, however, and delivered an ultimatum to him. He must persuade his son to send back the purloined bedspreads or the 20th Century proprietor would get a lawyer who would put him in jail in Texas, Arkansas or any other state in which he preferred to be locked up.

To this date I have not gone back to find out about the bedspreads. It is like missing the last installment of a murder mystery.

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