ANTHONYVILLE TO HUGHES/HORSESHOE LAKE
I have to take a moment to journey back to last night,
as we left out the latter part of our evening following the visit with Mr. Solon. Emily Scarbrough From the West Memphis Chamber of Commerce had made arrangements for us to stay just downriver at the Snowden House on Horseshoe Lake. We were told to get in touch with Martha McKey in advance to plan our stay—well I soon learned that “in advance” should have meant DAYS in advance rather than HOURS in advance. Fail #1. When I did speak to Martha the afternoon of our Anthonyville, Arkansas journey, she said to try to arrive before sundown, as it gets hard to find in the dark—even with GPS.
Well, we tried. Obviously not hard enough. We took a side trip back into Memphis, Tennessee to the Local on the Square for a few beers and some fish and chips, but mainly to get some wifi and write a few stories to push out on-line. I was working that internet hard to publish the Anthonyville story, carrying us just past dusk before we got in the car to head to Snowden. We plugged the address into GPS and simultaneously attempted to follow Martha’s detailed directions. Dusk fell, and with the darkness all around us, we soon got quite turned around in our attempts to find the very tucked away Snowden residence. After much hemming and hawing, and turning back and forth, we finally found ourselves in front of a large mansion-like home in the middle of what seemed like nowhere. I thought and hoped this must be it. Martha had asked me to text her when we’d arrived, but the signal here was all but nonexistent. I tried, nevertheless, as well as approaching the door and knocking. Turns out, we had indeed arrived at the Snowden House! What luck!
Martha was in the middle of her dinner, so we just hurried ourselves inside and settled into our room. We were so tuckered out that we just crashed and saved the story of the house for morning. The next day we woke at Snowden House on Horseshoe lake to the bright light of morning, the birds chirping and the greatness of nature greeting us with another day. We didn’t get to experience the beautiful view of the lake yesterday when arriving in the dead of night, but now in the glow of the morning, we could see the great positioning of the property. Our host, Martha, made sure we knew where to find the coffee machine and we settled in to get some work done before breakfast.
Did I say breakfast? Martha made the most incredible breakfast—a scramble with green onions and cheese and other vegetables and oh yes, there was bacon of course, and biscuits with a strawberry jam, not to mention roasted tomatoes on the side. Could I eat it all, no way, but did I try, totally! As we have entered the delta, IF I had stepped on a scale, the measuring stick would surely be teetering up and up and up! No matter how many miles I’m running each day! …and now not only did Martha make us a delicious breakfast, she also shared with us a bit about the history of the house and her family, as well as her own story of inheriting the opportunity to refurbish the place and bring it back to good condition. She’s now looking to sell it once again, hoping for someone to see it as a real investment, not just a lake home, but it’s hard to shift perspectives in this part of the Arkansas Delta.
After breakfast and goodbyes that morning, the run started from Anthonyville and went down Highway 79 and then over to Highway 50 and on into Hughes, Arkansas. We fought a headwind that day but thankfully the terrain was flat. We’re in Mississippi River bottom land, with agricultural fields stretching into the distance. The grasshoppers are growing larger and more active now. The soybeans are dry and ready for harvest. The corn has been harvested already and much of the cotton is ready to be picked.
After we arrived in Hughes, Arkansas, we drove back down to Horseshoe Lake, Arkansas to meet up with Ginger Coates, Bob Pouncey, Pat and Nancy Bonds, David and Sherry Dodd, and many others to welcome us. We drove up to Bond’s Grocery right at noon. We walked through the convenient store to the restaurant somewhat hidden in back. Tons of people were milling about and talking in a back room, and the waitress asked us if we were here for the party… We looked at each other and with a bit of uncertainty, said maybe? We really weren’t sure if this was our group—it was so large!
Turns out it was , and what a delightful bunch all gathered together to greet us and also to hear a presentation by David Dodd, formerly a district director with the Army Corps of Engineers in this area. After a slew of introductions, ordering lunch, and settling in, David got up to share some knowledge about the levee system in this part of the Arkansas Delta. Not only did he have a few official maps with highlighted segments, David had also prepared a hand drawn map that emphasized the Little River Drainage District, the St. Francis River, Crowley’s Ridge, the route of the levees themselves, several unique lake formations, and of course the Mississippi River. Hearing this information from a man who has been on the river, worked on the river for so many years carried such a deeper connection with the place than just reading about it online or in a book or reviewing a map on our own. David is a passionate man, who now struggles with Scoliosis Stenosis, and has had to shift gears in terms of his formerly active life—but his love of his community, his region, the river, and seemingly—two complete strangers!—shines through his physical strain.
After David’s talk, many people stayed back and joined Tom and I at our table to share personal stories, recollections of life in the Delta. Thankfully we knew we’d see many of these folks again later in the evening at a potluck event organized at the Methodist Church in Hughes. As people took their leave, we had just a moment to take a breath before Bill Bernard met up with us at Bond’s. Bill lives on Horseshoe Lake and farms about 7,000 acres, mostly bottomland behind the levee. Before we made it out to his land, though, he pulled off to the right of the fork around Horseshoe so we could see some cotton being picked—or rather, not just see the picking, but get in on the action ourselves! We pulled off the highway on the left side of the road, apparently not a problem, and there we saw the enormous cotton picker plucking up the white fuzz and plopping it out back in big round bales wrapped in bright yellow cellophane. These John Deere Cotton Pickers conquer six or seven rows of cotton at a time with enormous ease, simplifying a process that used to involve great toil and labor, very literal man hours, which has continued to contribute to the shift in farming economy and its impact on surrounding communities as a result of mechanization and technology.
We each got a turn to ride in the cotton picker with Bobby Cupples, the man who owns this particular machine and rents out this land. He’s been driving a cotton picker since he was 16 years old, and now by my guess he’s in his fifties… You work a long day, sitting in that cab, riding back and forth, because once the cotton has popped, you’ve got to pick it before it gets wet—wet cotton is no good. These days with all the technology, planes come by and spray a chemical that prompts the cotton bloom to pop open, then they do a second spray to defoliate the plant, removing the leaves so you don’t get a stained fiber when it’s picked and pressed.
Bobby loves cotton—he wouldn’t really farm anything else. He’s a Christian man, and the purity of that white bloom appeals to him, seeing the sea of white each year. He’s committed to his local community and wouldn’t really change a thing about it—everybody knows everybody he says. His two daughters have moved away, one to work for a congressman in DC and the other teaching at a school for children with disabilities in Memphis. Bobby knows neither of them will never come back to make a home in Hughes, but he does fly them back to visit every year so they can ride the cotton picker like they did when they were young. Home will always be home.
After our cotton lesson, we went out to one of Bill’s soybean fields, and he threw us both into the cab of a combine together—me on Tom’s lap!—along with Leon who was in charge of the machine of course. We rode the combine with Leon for several passes up and down the field, watching the sharp teeth of the combine at work, wondering where in the body of the machine the leaves and pods all get disposed of in order to leave behind just the soy bean itself in the big hopper behind us. Leon’s only been driving the combine for a year now, but he’s been working on a farm for nearly 15 years or so.
He said he fell in love with tractors when he was a kid, but now that love has rather faded. While his job lists as 40 hours a week, that can vary depending if it’s harvest season or not. At $9/hour with no benefits whether you’re driving the combine or raking the fields, the position doesn’t offer a lot of upward mobility or opportunity to build retirement, but Leon says he prefers farming work to other things. He did spend a few years away in Alabama and while there worked a security job, but in the end he decided to move home near family, and get back to farming work in the end. He’s just connected to the small, rural community and the land—it’s how he was raised and how he wants to live.
Bill gave us quite an experience of farming in the Arkansas Delta, and we enjoyed hearing his own story of investing in this land and building up his agricultural business. When we left Bill, we drove back over to Bond’s for to get a little work done before our journey to Hughes for the evening potluck. If we were impressed by the crowd at lunch, we were floored by the assembly at the Methodist Church on this Wednesday evening. Not only the people, but what a beautiful spread laid out on the table including a couple of creamy corn dishes and a gorgeous centerpiece of fresh flowers.
The main attraction of the evening wasn’t really us—thus explaining the crowd! Dr. Cliff Jones, Blues expert, was also in attendance in order to make a great presentation about the history of Delta Blues in St. Francis County. Together with his colleague Greg, they definitely held the room with a series of slides and musical interludes that accompanied Cliff’s engaging lecture. Like us, Cliff was not just in town to share his knowledge, but also to seek new stories. He asked the group gathered if they knew anything of the blues and music in the Hughes area to add to his growing research, and a few people shouted out some things.
Everybody got a plate after Cliff’s presentation, and I found a moment to share some stories with the group as well. Eventually after all was said and done, someone stood up and mentioned it being my birthday the next day! The room rang out with singing, and a cake was passed round to celebrate! What a warm welcome indeed. So thoughtful.
It was time to say goodnight. Bob graciously led us out to Sam and Carol Dillahunty’s guest house because it was dark and the driveway was difficult to see. Wind and lightning started up as we left the church, and we were unsure about our prospects for the morning. As foretold by Ginger, a black cat sat on the porch of the guest house when we drove up—we knew it must be the right place. We settled in to this very comfortable setting, with occasion to thank Ginger one more time as she dropped off the Wifi password, and soon after sunk into the bed for one more day’s rest.
Follow-up: Sadly, long after this blog was written, we were informed that Martha Snowden was murdered at her home on Horseseshoe Lake and the home burned beyond repair. This article in the Memphis Flyer reports on the tragedy.