WEST MEMPHIS TO ANTHONYVILLE
We gathered up our things and checked out of the Holiday Inn Express, accommodations generously provided by The City of West Memphis. Our run today started at the Skippy’s gas station where I left off on Sunday. Tom took off on foot, planning to run until the sidewalk ran out on Broadway out past the ASU Mid South campus. I took a detour over to Fred Leonard’s State Farm Agency to pick up a special package being sent for me. His receptionist knew exactly who I was and had it ready. Thanks again, Fred!
I caught up with Tom at the exchange, and we shifted gears to bike the next ten miles toward Anthonyville—down US 70 then a left onto AR 147. At the turn, after a hairy bit of riding in the lane due to some road construction, I see Tom pulled over at Lehi, a corner gathering of gas stations where the highways meet. I pulled over as well to stop in for a bathroom break only to find Tom chatting it up with the cashier. She lived just up the road, and besides getting a bit of her story, Tom had told her most of ours. She and another patron of the store were wishing us safety and speed as we traveled on as I walked out, now refreshed, in my helmet, gloves, and sunglasses.
Now on AR 147, pedaling the last 6 miles or so until the exchange, the road was fairly flat, but a headwind erupted and slowed my pace. After passing Edmondson, then Proctor, I finally reached Tom pulled off on the side of the road, ready to load up my bike and set me off on foot for the final 5K into Anthonyville, Arkansas. I crossed the highway and got going, then passing the sign saying Anthonyville, Population 161, as well as fields of cotton and soybean, a few houses, a church or two, and not much else.
The levee was on our left the whole way, we are not but a mile or so from the floodplain and Mississippi River. We’ll later learn today, that this area of farmland was once very undesirable because of all the flooding, even after the levee was put in—with many breaks and floods overtopping the system. Tom pulled up to the Anthonyville Fire Station, and there stood Chief Charles Eason and Rev. Leroy Wright. He walked up to greet them, and told them that I’d be just around the corner soon. Just as he spoke, I came up the street, with Charles commenting, “She’s got a pretty good stride going there!” Turns out Charles is quite the athlete himself, showing us his Apple Watch activity stats after I landed, revealing runs between 6-9 miles every day of the week save Sunday. He even asked my pace, a little competitive spirit in the air, and I offered up my 7:27 min/mile, making excuses for being a late in life athlete and late in life as it were. He laughed. We soon learned that Charles is 65 and has only been running these past 20 years off and on, so he’s got me beat with late in life on all accounts. Something to strive for. He’s currently training for his first half marathon, running in St. Jude’s in Memphis in December. Sounds like he’s hoping to beat more than just his age group the way he talks!
Now after a quick change in the van, we all went inside the side door of the Fire Dept building. Shirley Craig, City Recorder and Treasurer, was there, ready to serve lunch—should we eat first? Talk first? Or eat and talk at the same time? Tom and I went in for simultaneously eating and talking to keep things informal. We circled back to Charles to learn about why he started running in the first place. Seems he was having trouble with his knees due to some extra pounds. It’s hard to imagine Charles with extra pounds—He’s a string bean of a man, toned and strong for all accounts and purposes, very suited for his work fighting fires and running races. Nevertheless, he said the doctors wanted to do surgery, and he did not, so he started running with a friend. Thanks to this routine, he’s been able to keep the doctors at bay, no surgery, for these last 20 years.
Charles grew up in Anthonyville, he and Rev. Wright graduating from High School in the same class, but about the same time he started running, Charles was making several life changes—he got divorced and married someone new. They moved out to Marion, Arkansas, starting over. However, all these years, he’s still commuted down to Anthonyville as Fire Chief, just like his father Pops was, and stayed committed to his home community. Home for Charles is wherever he is. He relates to people well.
Rev. Wright is originally from Hughes, Arkansas, just down the road, but he moved to Anthonyville for the opportunity to buy some land and make it his own. He was the first Mayor of Anthonyville when they incorporated in ???? And except for a brief spell where someone else took the role, he’s been mayor ever since. He’s the pastor of a missionary baptist church across the street from the fire station—not the one Charles belongs to, though. That’s another missionary baptist church in town. The two men joked that their friends, but not THAT close… The Reverend Mayor (as I like to call him) wishes more people were concerned about the development of the community. He thinks they could use some stores or businesses, see the community building for the future. Ideally he’d like a Mom and Pop general store to open up in town, where you could get some milk, salt and pepper, or most importantly some fat back (!) without having to go into West Memphis, Arkansas. Hughes, Arkansas has a Dollar Store but that’s not really what they want here, something more mom and pop.
Side note: there was a bit of chatter about whether Tom and I even knew what “fat back” is, and while we had to admit we weren’t entirely sure, we had guessed a relationship to bacon or pork belly, and the Rev Mayor confirmed that it was indeed a pork product that fried up nice like bacon and that the fat remaining in the pan could be used to make the most amazing soap to wash the floors with! That’s just how things were done back then, he said.
Shirley is originally from West Memphis but her family moved to Anthonyville when she was in Jr. High School. Her father liked the country living, and after a time of adjusting to gravel roads and outdoor plumbing(!), Shirley has also fallen in love with country living (needless to say the plumbing has upgraded in the last several years as well!)…When asked why this is home to her, Shirley talks about leaving her doors unlocked for an entire weekend while away. She just feels safe here. She knows everyone and trusts everyone. She goes to West Memphis only for shopping, shielding herself, because doesn’t want to be a victim of the crime there. Anthonyville is her home.
After lunch, Shirley graciously cleared the dishes and then we all walked into the garage to see their latest acquisition—a new fire truck that holds more water than ever before. Now the city is much better prepared to fight fires. We posed for a photo together in front of the truck and then walked outside where the Mayor gave us a tour of the park along with its serpentine path that had just been completed. The paved path is about a .25 mile in length, but some 10 yards had laid unfinished for several years until Mayor Wright got volunteers from the community to come donate and pour the final yards of concrete. It still needs a little finishing work, but the path is now complete and able to be enjoyed by the community. All those who helped and donated have inscribed their names in the path where it culminates. Mayor Wright walked me along the entire path and noted each name, each contributor and what they gave, including Mr. Solon Anthony, who would be our next “voice” to visit that day just down the street.
After saying our goodbyes, we did a quick driving tour of Anthonyville. This didn’t take too long because the town is truly just a few acres. We would soon learn from Solon Anthony about how all these houses came to occupy this plot of land right in the middle of thousands of acres of farmland. Solon Anthony is many things, but just on this day we learned something new about him—he is a self-proclaimed bicycle king. This is a part of his story that we just learned today, and neither his son nor his grandson had shared this important fact with us the day we met them in West Memphis! Solon was very proud of how he would ride the levee, ride to Hughes, ride all the way back where the Highways meet. Quite the distance cyclist, and I imagine he didn’t have twenty-one speeds.
But back to the story of the land and Anthonyville proper. Solon’s granddaddy bought the land years ago. It was bottomland, heavily wooded, and he cleared a bit every year converting it farmland—soy, alfalfa, corn, cotton. The alfalfa was for the mules, and they also raised hogs to mainly feed the family, although sometimes they sold them for some cash. They had a garden for growing vegetables and canned everything. Solon remembers keeping eggs under the bed in a shoebox insulated with cotton to keep from freezing in the winter. He says they didn’t go the store in town but once a week, maybe on Saturday before a big meal, because they already had everything they needed from the farm.
Solon himself farmed until he was 24 years old, but farming wasn’t in his longterm future. He was meant to be an educated man. Solon even tried to go to school at 5 years old and was turned back because you had to be 6 years old to attend school. Back in those days, because of the farming season, kids only went to school 5 months out of the year for elementary, then 7 months out of the year for say jr. high. By the time he was ready to high school he was self-admittedly behind—“green as a mistletoe.” He didn’t say how old he was exactly, but he said he was four years behind when he chose to go to a private high school in Little Rock. There was plenty of bullying in those days, too, he says, but he was bigger than the regular high school kids, and could take any of them in a fight. Solon said it would really take three or four of them to get him down if they wanted to pick on him. When people challenged him on his age, he told them he had been in the army, that’s why he was late to school. But then when they would ask why he wasn’t on the GI bill, he backpedaled and said he went AWOL!
Solon met his wife while in Little Rock. He says he saw her get off a street bus one day and started to pay attention to her—he wanted to protect her. He had never seen her before, and didn’t know where she lived, nothing. When they finally met, she asked what his “classification” was, and he said “freshman”—letting her assume that meant “college freshman.” A few weeks later, she realized that she was never seeing him in classes and asked him, wait a second, I thought you said you were a college freshman!? He admitted the truth, but they were too far in. 74 years later they are still together, and dotingly Solon acknowledges she’s always been smarter than he is.
The couple worked their way through college—you could teach in secondary school after achieving 30 credit hours. Then they continued to earn their full 120 hours needed for graduation while they taught. Solon ended up with credentials to be a jr. high social studies teacher, and his wife a high school guidance counselor. They moved back to Anthonyville, bought out his brother’s funeral home business, continued teaching while they grew the business, raised a family, and became staples of the regional community in Eastern Arkansas. There’s a lot to say about Mr. Solon Anthony, but the biggest takeaway is his joy, his exuberance—that in the face of being beat down time and again for his race or his ability or his age, he rallied and smiled and persevered. He sort of seems like a man with super powers in that regard, but perhaps we can strive to be like him and remember that he is real. That smile is real. That laughter is infectious.
A black farmer bought some land, raised a family while farming it. When the cotton industry changed and people were no longer needed to pick the crop, that farmer gave those people, his workers, parcels of that to build homes on rather than dislocating them away from the place they had come to know as their own. This is how Anthonyville came to be. This is the super power, the infectious joy, the possibility of a very small community in the middle of thousands of acres of farmland. This is the community of Shirley, and Charles, and Rev. Wright, and Mr. Solon, and some 157 others.