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.