25 October 2009

Halloween in Northwest Arkansas

Fall in Northwest Arkansas is absolutely beautiful! The colors, the cool air...football of course! But the epitome of the fall season in our corner of the state truly has to be Halloween.

Every year Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park offers Haunted Battlefield Tours through the park. Last night, my parents and I put on our warm jackets and tennis shoes and made the short drive to Prairie Grove. We were in Group 4 - the "Jayhawker" Group. We saw several hundred people come through while we were there. Kids and adults alike gathered around a bonfire, playing, talking, and listening to reenactors tell stories about the battlefield and sing songs.

After some free kettle corn and apple cider, we lined up and began our trek into the dark woods. Along the way, we got some ghost stories about the Battle of Prairie Grove and some scary surprises. We hiked along an eerily lit trail for 20 minutes. The night was complete with a hayride back up the hill.

We had SO MUCH FUN!! I love being scared, and I love history. A haunted battlefield tour is the perfect combination of my favorite things! If you're looking for something to do for for Halloween, check out some haunted houses - remember the Prairie Grove Haunted Battlefield Tours for next year!

06 September 2009

End of Summer Adventures!

Well, the end of the summer has officially arrived with the start of school and the passing of Labor Day! Even though I love being a student, I must admit that I am very sad about the sun setting sooner, the temperatures dropping ever so slightly, and my tan disappearing. My summer has been very busy, BUT I have had some awesome fun over the past few weeks!

On August 28 - an absolutely beautiful Friday night! - I went to the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks to attend the last concert of their outdoor concert series. And here's the real fun - it was a BLUEGRASS show! The Lonesome Road Band kept a pretty large crowd entertained on the Great Lawn with old spiritual hymns, traditional bluegrass songs, and some songs that AREN'T considered traditional bluegrass (Jimi Hendrix anyone?).

I had never been to the Botanical Gardens before, and I was truly amazed at how beautiful everything was - the colors, the flowers! They have paths that wind around 10 different gardens, including a Vegetable and Herb Garden (complete with tomatoes, peppers, and squash!), a Shade Garden, a Children's Garden, and a Japanese Garden. I can't wait to become a member! Throughout the fall, the Botanical Garden will offer events that you don't want to miss. I am quite excited about the Chefs in the Garden coming up on October 8!

In previous posts, I have mentioned that I have a Bucket List. Well, I completed one of my "smaller" Bucket List items! I learned to can, made squash relish, and entered it into the Washington County Fair! When I walked in to enter my relish, the place was PACKED with people. Hundreds of jars of jellies, relishes, and pickles lined the shelves in Thompson Hall at the Fairgrounds.

As excited as I was about entering my relish in the fair, the excitement did not come without its problems. After the judging, my relish got lost! I was so sad, thinking that I would never see my relish or ribbon, but the nice ladies at Thompson Hall found it! Thanks so much to all of them for their PATIENCE with my inexperience and confusion. I got second place!

The end of summer would not be complete with the annual Clothesline Fair at the Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park. Over 180 vendors from all over the state gathered at the park. People were packed in there! Sadly, I missed my favorite part of the Clothesline Fair this year...the square dancing! I ran into one of my old teachers from Fayetteville High School, Dr. Gilda Pierce. Dr. Pierce, along with her sister and mother, make and sell some truly fabulous purses!

As I watch the leaves begin to change colors, I feel excited about the coming months. Summer '09 has been great, and I look forward to more exciting trips in the fall!

28 June 2009

Herman Davis Memorial State Park - Manila, AR

We visit battlefields like Shiloh and Gettysburg. We watch “Valkyrie,” “Band of Brothers,” and “The Blue and the Gray.” The memorials and monuments of the Civil War and World War II hold our attention, but we are largely unfamiliar with The War that was supposed To End All Wars – The Great War – World War I. Why? Perhaps part of it was that there was not the allure or the romanticism of the Civil War – no brother fighting brother on our own soil. There were no radio sets or movie reels or John Wayne in the Pacific. World War I was largely covered by newspapers, which maybe (or maybe not...) reached the fifty percent of our population that was still living in rural areas.

4.3 million American troops fought in World War One. 126,000 died (half from the influenza epidemic of 1918) and another 235,000 were wounded. The Great War gave us poison gas and fighter planes. We sang the song “Over There” by George M. Cohan. The war gave us Alvin York – I know him as Gary Cooper portrayed him in Sergeant York (one of my favorite movies!). Our own Manila, Arkansas, gave us Herman Davis.


Herman Davis was born on January 3, 1888, at Big Lake Island (now Manila) in Mississippi County, and he grew up in the wooded swamp that is now part of the Big Lake National Wildlife Reserve. His father died when he was in the fourth grade - he had to drop out of school to help support his family. He became an expert outdoorsman and sharpshooter and made money as a hunting guide. When World War I started, Herman was drafted, even though he was only 5’3” and thirty years old. He trained at Camp Pike (in North Little Rock), then left for France on June 15, 1918.

Despite his age and small stature, Davis turned out to be quite the soldier. Shooting was as natural to him as breathing, as he proved on the battlefield. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions at Verdun, France, where he killed four German machine gunners. In other action, he killed fifteen enemy gunners in a machine gun nest, as well as eleven enemy soldiers climbing out of a dugout. France presented him with the Croix de Guerre with palm, the Croixe de Guerre with gilt star, and the French Medaille Militaire.

When Herman came back home from the war, he began work at a fishing and hunting club at Big Lake. His family and friends did not know of his heroism in the War until it was published in a newspaper. When General Pershing published his list of the top 100 heroes of World War I, Herman Davis was fourth. His friends, family, and neighbors were shocked – was this actually the Herman Davis they knew? When they asked to see his medals, he took them out of his fishing tackle box and reluctantly showed them. He very rarely wore them.

By 1922, Herman was suffering from tuberculosis caused by exposure to poison gas during the war. His friends from the Dud Cason American Legion in Blytheville took a destitute Herman to the hospital in Memphis, where he died in surgery on January 5, 1923, two days after he turned 35 years old.

A fund drive in Mississippi County, including a penny drive by school children, raised enough to build a life-sized statue of Herman. The city of Manila donated a one-acre site for the statue and a monument, dedicated on Memorial Day 1925, and his remains were buried there. The site became our 6th state park – and our smallest – in 1953 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

When you're driving through Manila on Highway 18, be sure to keep an eye out for Herman Davis Memorial State Park. How fitting a place for the monument to one of Arkansas’ finest heroes – one from The War to End All Wars.

14 June 2009

Big Lake NWR - Mississippi County

As an undergrad history major, my honors thesis was on Sans Souci Plantation in Mississippi County. Part of my thesis revolved around the Civil War in the county, and Big Lake was home to several skirmishes and bushwhacking activity. I had located Big Lake on a map and knew some of its history, but I had no idea what it really was.

The area now called "Big Lake" was once part of a free-flowing river system inhabited by local Native Americans, but during the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812, the Big Lake area was changed into a lake/swamp environment. During the Civil War, Confederate guerrilla forces inhabited its shallow swamps, which were the sites of many skirmishes between Union and Confederate troops as the Union continued its struggle to shut down the Confederacy.

In the late 1800s, timber in the area was rapidly disappearing because it was cut and used for a growing transportation system – fuel for the steamboats, then ties for the railroad tracks. As land was cleared, it was drained and planted in cotton. In 1915 an executive order by Woodrow Wilson established Big Lake to provide a habitat and protection for native birds.

Today, the Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge, just east of Manila on Highway 18, is 11,038 acres of wooded swamps and open water. It is shallow – the average depth is only 3 feet. Big Lake has numerous islands and is an oasis for wildlife and vegetation, with approximately 5,000 acres designated as a National Natural Landmark. It is one of eleven wilderness areas in Arkansas and is the only one in eastern Arkansas. The refuge is open to the public March 1-October 31, and controlled hunting and fishing are permitted.

Even though the last fish I caught was when I was 7, what Big Lake is and what it means for Northeast Arkansas can be appreciated by anybody, even those of us who don't consider ourselves hunters and fishermen. Arkansas is the "Natural State" for many very very BEAUTIFUL reasons - Big Lake is one of them!

02 June 2009

Gieseck, Arkansas - Cross County

Part of my love of Arkansas comes from my fabulous family. I was raised to have pride in my past, and family history and stories are very important to me. On a recent trip to Northeast Arkansas, my parents and I got off I-40 at the Parkin exit and drove through the countryside. One of the first places we came across was Gieseck in Cross County. I had no idea before Saturday, May 30, that I had a connection to an old house and gin that still stand there today.

My paternal grandmother's father was a “ginner” – a cotton gin operator. That’s what he did for a living, and his missing fingers proved it. William Thomas Jacks and his wife, Maggie Lou, were Mississippians, and their families had been born-and-bred Mississippi folks since before 1840. Sometime in 1922, they moved to the Arkansas delta in search of the jobs that Arkansas promised. They loaded their belongings on a flat railroad car and came to Arkansas with six of their ten children. My grandmother, Christine Jacks, was a young girl.

William Thomas found work, and they moved to several different places in Mississippi County (northeast Arkansas) before he got a job as a ginner at the cotton gin in Gieseck, Arkansas. Gieseck is a very small community in Cross County, Arkansas, about 5 miles south of the city of Parkin.

I can’t imagine that Gieseck looked much different then than it does now. Gieseck was a farm headquarters, and the people who lived around there were farming people. There was not a town, just the farm headquarters, houses, and country churches. Some of my favorite family pictures are from a family dinner at the house in Gieseck. My great-uncle W.T. Jacks is there in his Navy flier uniform, home on leave from World War II, surrounded by family members who were celebrating his presence with them. They are standing on the walk in front of the house, even my great-grandfather is smiling! The Jacks family wouldn’t have too many more family dinners with W.T. in attendance – he would die in the kamikaze attack on the U.S.S. Bunker Hill – but for this dinner, all was well with their world. My father was about two years old - there is another picture of W.T. holding my father in front of the house.

The old Gieseck Cotton Gin is still standing, though just barely. The house is still standing and has been painted recently. Someone is living there and is taking really good care of it! Driving through places like Gieseck makes me feel good...like all the pieces of my puzzle can fit together.

28 May 2009

Lake Fort Smith State Park

As I mentioned in a previous blog, one of the items on my Bucket List is to go to every state park in Arkansas. SO, on May 25 - Memorial Day! - I visited the new Lake Fort Smith State Park. I had made MANY trips to the old Lake Fort Smith, and I was excited to get the chance to visit the new park. Before I tell you what I did there, how about a bit of history...?

The original Lake Fort Smith park was built by the City of Fort Smith and Crawford County in the 1930's, and its facilities were built as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal Works Progress Administration. The pool became famous because it was filled every day by lake water, but the health department closed the pool in 1963 because of the health concerns caused by the unfiltered lake water. In 1967, Arkansas State Parks took the park over and built a new Olympic-sized pool, remodeled the bathhouse and concession stand, and built a playground and campground. Lake Fort Smith became Arkansas' 23rd state park!

In 2002, Lake Fort Smith State Park was officially closed to expand the municipal water capabilities of the lake, and in 2008, the new Lake Fort Smith State Park opened on the oposite side of the dam. The new facilities are reminiscent of the old ones, with massive stone and wood buildings. There are 30 camp sites, a group lodge that can accommodate up to 32 people, picnic sites, a pavilion, swimming and wading pools, a marina with boat rentals, a boat launch ramp, hiking trails, and a playground. The visitor center has a meeting room, an outdoor patio with fireplace, and hands-on exhibits. The park offers many special events and programs, one of which drew me to Lake Fort Smith on Monday...

Even though it rains every Memorial Day weekend in Northwest Arkansas, Memorial Day is about being outside. So, I went on a lake cruise! Park Interpreter Sarah Hammond gave visitors a lake tour on one of the park's pontoon boats. My family and I had a great time - the 1½ hour trip showed us beautiful scenery, numerous waterfalls, wildlife (even some snakes!), and an old homestead of Frog Bayou.

If you love nature, camping, or being on the lake, make the short drive to Lake Fort Smith State Park! The park offers programs every day during the summer, including lake tours, hikes, and other special events. If your family is unable to take a vacation during the summer, go camping! Rent a canoe for a day! If you're in Northwest Arkansas, take old Highway 71 down to Lake Fort Smith State Park - it is GORGEOUS!

I normally post pictures of my mini-adventures, but the ones from the lake cruise got deleted before I could save them to my computer! The next posts will have some GREAT pictures from my recent jaunt across Northeast Arkansas.

10 May 2009

Chester, Arkansas - Crawford County

When you’re driving south on I-540 from Fayetteville, you pass by the community of Chester (population 99) in Crawford County. If you look off to the right at exit 34, you can see the main part of Chester. The community catered to and thrived because of the Frisco railroad - its population peaked in the 1890’s when a railroad turnaround station was built there.

If you are driving by around lunchtime, you should definitely stop in Chester!! The Chester Café has a plate lunch every day, as well as a sandwich menu. I am a plate lunch junkie, and I cannot say enough about how AWESOME the food at the Chester Café is! I’ve also heard that they have a pretty fantastic hamburger and fries…The café is owned by the mayor of Chester, Shannon Smith. Mayor Smith’s mother, Dorothy Payne, owns the Chester Sawmill, which you can see from I-540.

Pictured Below: Mayor Shannon Smith (owner), Marina Seratt, and Carolyn Brewer at the Chester Cafe.

Driving down the main drag, and before you get to the Chester Café, you’ll come across the Chester Mercantile. This place is an old-fashioned convenience store before the days of convenience stores. You can get just about anything you need in there – from sandwiches made from Petit Jean meats to hardware goods and everything in between. The Mercantile is a gathering place of sorts, with wooden floors, a dining area, and a pool table. Ronnie and Terri Cluck own the Mercantile, and it truly is a great treasure!

Since today was Mother’s Day, my mama decided she wanted a sandwich from the Chester Mercantile…so we went! We got our bologna and cheese sandwiches and cokes and went to the park down on the river. The West Fork of the White River goes through Chester, and the old Chester School (built by the WPA in 1942) sits by it. The school is home to a church now. If you look closely, you can find an old set of steps that used to be the entrance to a swinging bridge that stretched across the river long ago.

One of the most recent additions to the community is the Chester House Inn, owned by Don and Tina Shores. The Chester House was built in 1887 and is on the National Register of Historic Sites. The Shores opened an antique store in the old building first and have now opened a bed-and-breakfast. The Shores’ Main Street Café – located in the Chester House – is another great place to eat!

Some of my favorite places in Arkansas are the small, welcoming, and polite towns where the people are always willing to chat with you. Chester is one of those places. Driving through the town makes you want to pull up a chair and drink iced tea on a porch and visit for a while. If you’re driving down I-540, stop by Chester for a quick sandwich or a great plate lunch!