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Brennan’s, Icon of New Orleans’ French Quarter, is ‘Restored and Reborn’ on November 25

Brennan’s, Icon of New Orleans’ French Quarter, is ‘Restored and Reborn’ on November 25


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Brennan's will reopen on November 25.

Brennan’s, the historic French Quarter restaurant which first opened its doors in 1956 with a “signature pink façade” which closed rather abruptly in the summer of 2013, “has been restored, reborn, and will reopen November 25,” the restaurant announced in a press release on Monday, November 17.

Over the course of the next several weeks, Brennan’s will celebrate its return beginning with breakfast and lunch service between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday.

Dinner service will be added on December 5, and finally, Brennan’s will be open in its entirety on December 16, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week.

The restaurant’s new owner, Ralph Brennan, has hired Slade Rushing as his executive chef, of whom Brennan said, “Rushing’s pedigree and experience will complement his long line of gastronomic forebears in the Brennan’s kitchen, but will present a distinctly lighter style that our modern-day guests are sure to appreciate.”

Brennan’s is accepting reservations as of Monday, November 17.

For the latest food and drink updates, visit our Food News page.

Karen Lo is an associate editor at The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter @appleplexy.


Brennan’s, Icon of New Orleans’ French Quarter, is ‘Restored and Reborn’ on November 25 - Recipes

Johnny Cash is a music icon. His name is known worldwide.

That begs the question: Why haven’t we done more as a state to cash in on the fact that he was from Arkansas?

He was born in Feburary 1932 at Kingsland in the pine woods of south Arkansas. Ray and Carrie Rivers Cash had seven children. In addition to the boy known as J.R., there were Roy, Louise, Jack, Reba, Joanne and Tommy.

The Cash family was one of several families from Cleveland County to be chosen to move to the federal government’s Dyess Colony in Mississippi County. So it was that Johnny Cash would leave the Gulf Coastal Plain at an age too young to remember and be raised instead in the Delta of northeast Arkansas.

“The tragic death of Jack Cash in a 1944 sawmill accident haunted young J.R. for the remainder of his life,” Eric Lensing writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “His mother introduced him to the guitar, and the local Church of God introduced him to music. He acquired a fascination for the guitar and a love for singing. Cash first sang on radio station KLCN in Blytheville while attending Dyess High School. Upon graduation in 1950, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after a brief search for work in Michigan.”

Though Arkansas hasn’t done a good job of claiming the Cash legacy, Johnny never forgot his roots.

In February 1968, he returned for a homecoming show at the Dyess High School gymnasium.

The following September, Paris (as in Logan County, not France) native Bob Wootton came out of the audience to play guitar during a Cash concert in Fayetteville. Wootton had long been a Cash fan, playing his songs religiously and perfecting the style of the band. Wootton’s chance to fill in came after a flight cancellation left only Cash and drummer W.S. Holland on the stage. Cash was stunned by Wootton’s perfect renditions.

When original lead guitarist Luther Perkins died in a house fire, Wootton was asked to join the Tennessee Three. Wootton performed with Cash until 1997.

One of Cash’s most famous concerts came in April 1969 when he peformed for the inmates at Cummins. In 1980, the Kingsland native became the youngest person ever elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

I recently attended a meeting during which a group of business and civic leaders heard updates on Arkansas State University’s plans to not only capitalize on the Cash name but also interpret the history of the Dyess Colony for visitors.

In March, John Milner Associates Inc. completed work on a redevelopment master plan for Dyess that was commissioned by ASU.

The introduction to the plan states, “The New Deal Works Progress Administration Rural Resettlement Program provided a sense of hope and renewal for farming families of the Arkansas Delta whose lives were devastated by the natural and economic disasters of the early 20th century. Springing forth from 16,000 acres of forested swamp bottomland drained and cut for the new town, an army of workers constructed the 28-block town with 500 small farms surrounding it. In town, historically referred to as Dyess Center, several residences were constructed along with a hospital, school, churches, commissary, canning plant and administration building. After a rigorous interview, selected families were each set up with a 10-acre farmstead complete with house, barn, smokehouse and mule. Built on the fundamental values of achievement through hard work . . . Dyess became an incubator for success and optimism.

“Since its incorporation in the 1960s as a small city independent of federal support and control, it is apparent that the town has seen some hard times. The city council has had to contend with a range of serious issues including depopulation, loss of businesses and tax base, needed upgrade of infrastructure and lax code enforcement. However, the tight-knit sense of community lives on.”

Arkansas State, which has an outstanding record of preserving historic Delta sites, can start the process of preserving that which is historic at Dyess. Eventually, though, it will need the support of the Cash estate, private foundations and others to turn Dyess into the kind of tourist attraction it should be.

The location is ideal — just off busy Interstate 55 between Memphis and St. Louis. Tourists visiting Graceland in Memphis will find it easy to drive up to Dyess.

When tourists stop there now, there’s little to see or do. The Cash home still stands, but it’s in private hands, it’s not in good condition and it isn’t open to the public.

“The Johnny Cash house is owned by the Stegall family and occupied by Willie Stegall and his son,” the redevelopment master plan states. “It has been the Stegall family home for over 40 years. Over those years, the family has made improvements and adjustments to the house just as many other families who lived in small frame houses did in the same decades. The house is currently in declining condition, in part because of the way many wood elements are exposed to water and other weather-related sources of deterioration. The house has some unpainted wood components, both in places where the paint has failed and in places where the wood was never painted. Like many old houses, it has an imperfect system for roof drainage. The conditions inside and out are less than ideal, but the Stegall family has sought different ways to improve the house at different times with totally different approaches.”

According to this assessment, the changes the family made to the home in the 1960s and 1970s were logical for the time. A modern kitchen was added. The living room was changed. But the assessment adds, “If the dwelling is to be restored to its original configuration and appearance, these changes will have to be removed. Also it is important that any remaining historic materials and architectural features be preserved.”

— The family sells the Cash home to ASU, a foundation or the Cash estate at a reasonable price. It’s restored to its original condition and it’s opened to tourists.

— The Dyess Colony commissary is reconstructed to appear as it once did and opened as a store so tourists will have a place to shop. The original structure was lost to a fire. Only the foundation remains.

— Arkansas State obtains the money needed to transform the Dyess Colony administration building into a visitors’ center.

— The facades of the historic Dyess Theater and the adjoining Pop Shop restaurant are restored. Eventually those facades are incorporated into a new building that will house a small auditorium and a restaurant. The 100-seat theater will show films of Johnny Cash performances and documentaries on his life. The 30-seat restaurant will be leased to a local entrepreneur. Let’s hope it serves catfish, barbecue and other Delta specialties.

— A major marketing campaign is implemented. Prominent signage is placed on Interstate 55.

— An annual Johnny Cash tribute concert is held to raise funds for continued restoration.

As I reported in an earlier post, Arkansas State University has received a grant from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council to begin restoring the exterior of the administration building and begin stabilizing the theater facade.

There’s much to be done. But at least it’s a start. At least smart people are beginning to understand that we can cash in on Cash while saving an important piece of Arkansas history, this Great Depression resettlement colony that Eleanor Roosevelt visited in 1936.

As the redevelopment master plan points out, “Established on natural swampland, it gave its first residents a fresh start but also replicated the American pioneer experience of taming the wilderness and creating new farms and livelihoods. Dyess also left an indelible mark on American music culture as the town that produced singer and songwriter Johnny Cash. Its influence is particularly evident in Cash’s music and lyrics, many of which reference his family’s experiences as cotton farmers in Dyess.”

The Southern Jewish experience

Researching the column I wrote for last Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about a visit to Temple Beth El in Helena ended up being a far more interesting task than I ever would have imagined.

One of the things that has always fascinated me about the Delta is the great diversity there — the Italians, the Chinese, the Lebanese and the Jews were among the groups that came up the Mississippi River from New Orleans and down the river from St. Louis to settle this colorful region.

If you traveled farther inland from the river into the hills of either Arkansas or Mississippi, you historically found far less diversity.

It’s the same reason I always was intrigued with Hot Springs when I was growing up in Arkadelphia. In Arkadelphia, the chances were great that you were either a white Baptist or a black Baptist. Compared to the towns that surrounded it, Hot Springs was an exotic place.

The Delta was like that, though six decades of population loss is changing the demographic picture.

David Solomon, the Helena lawyer who turns 94 next month and still goes to work each day at his office on Cherry Street, established the Tapestry Endowment for Arkansas Jewish History. The endowment created a permanent home at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock for Carolyn Gray LeMaster’s extensive body of research on the history of Jews in Arkansas.

The fund’s name is taken from the title of LeMaster’s book, “A Corner of the Tapestry: A History of the Jewish Experience in Arkansas, 1820s-1900s.”

The Jewish Genealogy Library Collection calls her book “one of the most comprehensive studies ever done on a state’s Jewish community. ‘A Corner of the Tapestry’ is the story of the Jews who helped settle Arkansas and who stayed and flourished to become a significant part of the state’s history and culture. Data for the book have been collected in part from the American Jewish Archives, American Jewish Historical Society, the stones in Arkansas’ Jewish cemeteries, more than 1,500 articles and obituaries from journals and newspapers, personal letters from hundreds of present and former Jewish Arkansans, congressional histories, census and court records and some 400 oral interviews in more than 100 cities and towns in Arkansas.”

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, a project of the Goldring-Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, the first Jew to settle in Arkansas was Abraham Block. He opened a store in the town of Washington in southwest Arkansas in 1823.

“Block settled in Washington when there were no Jewish congregations or institutions in the Arkansas Territory,” the encyclopedia reports. “He was a charter member of the first Jewish synagogue in the region, Congregation Gates of Mercy in New Orleans, joining in 1828. Yet the lack of any organized Jewish life in Arkansas at the time took its toll on his family, and few of his children remained within the faith. Block’s life in Arkansas highlights the challenges that Jews have often faced in a state largely isolated from the centers of American Jewish life.

“The difficulties became a little easier as growing numbers of Jews from central Europe began to arrive in Arkansas in the years before the Civil War. These immigrants were part of the German wave of Jewish immigration, which settled primarily in the large cities of the Northeast and Midwest. But a significant minority of Jews from the German states and from Alsace-Lorraine settled in the rural South, including Arkansas. At the time of the Civil War, they had established small but growing Jewish communities in Little Rock, Fort Smith, Pine Bluff, DeValls Bluff, Van Buren, Jonesboro and Batesville. Despite their relatively short time in the state, Jews felt closely tied to their new home. Of the approximately 300 Jews in Arkansas at the time of the war, 53 fought for the Confederacy.”

Jewish merchants were attracted to Arkansas in the years after the war. They received their goods from Jewish wholesalers in the river cities of Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Memphis. According to the encyclopedia, 14 towns or communities were founded by Jews in Arkansas or named after early Jewish residents. These included Altheimer, Felsenthal and Levy.

The state’s first Jewish congregation, B’nai Israel in Little Rock, was chartered in 1866. A year later, Temple Beth El was founded in Helena and Congregation Anshe Emeth was founded in Pine Bluff. Later congregations were founded in Camden in 1869, Hot Springs in 1878, Texarkana in 1884, Jonesboro in 1897, Newport in 1905, Dermott in 1905, Eudora in 1912, Osceola in 1913, Forrest City in 1914, Wynne in 1915, Marianna in 1920, Blytheville in 1924, El Dorado in 1926, McGehee in 1947, Fayetteville in 1981 and Bentonville in 2004.

Due to a wave of immigration from Eastern Europe, the Jewish population of Arkansas grew from 1,466 in 1878 to 8,850 by the time of the great flood of 1927. You’ll note that many of the congregations listed above were in areas of east and south Arkansas that have been declining economically in recent decades.

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, “Congregations in Helena, Blytheville and El Dorado closed, while others struggled to survive. The Jewish population has become concentrated in a few communities like Little Rock, Hot Springs, Fayetteville and Bentonville. In 1937, 13 cities in Arkansas had more than 50 Jews. In 2006, only four did. As of 2006, only congregations in Little Rock and Hot Springs had full-time rabbis.

“The only exception to this downward trend is Bentonville. In the 21st century, as Wal-Mart has encouraged major suppliers to open offices in its corporate hometown, Bentonville has seen its Jewish population skyrocket. In 2004, a group of 30 families founded Bentonville’s first Jewish congregation, Etz Chaim, which has quickly become the fastest-growing congregation in the state. Bentonville is the exception to the regional trend of small-town Jewish communities declining. Most of the founding members of Etz Chaim are not Arkansas natives. Unlike the peddlers and merchants who initially settled in Arkansas in the 19th century, these 21st century migrants are executives at large corporations. They represent the generation of Jewish professionals who have largely replaced the Jewish merchant class in the South’s metropolitan areas.”

Just as the population base of Arkansas has shifted from east to west during the past 60 years, many of the artifacts from Temple Beth El in Helena went to the northwest when the temple was closed in 2006. The building was donated to the state’s Delta Cultural Center. The artifacts are now used by Etz Chaim in Bentonville.

The remaining Jews in Phillips County now gather for services in homes, just as the early Jews of east Arkansas did before Congregation Beth El was established in 1867.

Last December, the Jewish news service JTA distributed an article about a Friday night service in the home of David and Miriam Solomon at Helena.

“We’re just going back to the cycle,” Miriam Solomon said. “We’ve come full circle.”

Ben Harris wrote in the article, “The plight of Helena’s Jews is mirrored in scores of communities across the Bible Belt, where Jews first migrated in the early 19th century, generally as peddlers. Those who stuck around opened small businesses, which for a long time provided an ample livelihood.”

“I relate everything to economics. People are going where they can make a living,” David Solomon said. “That’s it.”

Harris wrote that David Solomon is “something of a legend in eastern Arkansas. He has held countless civic offices, and all the downtown storekeepers know when he’s around. One of them ticked off the list of legal matters with which he had helped her, including a divorce and real estate issues.”

After reading Saturday’s newspaper column, a Little Rock man e-mailed me about a visit earlier this year to David Solomon’s office: “I was told to ‘hurry down to his office as he goes out for lunch.’ They added that he is into his 90s but you wouldn’t know it. I arrived at his office, and he looked better than I did though I am 35 to 40 years younger. He had on a pinstripe shirt, cuff links, bow tie and he knew who I was immediately though I had only met him once. He was friendly and quietly gave me attention but pointed to a boardroom and said, ‘I am so sorry. I have a room full of clients.”’

He’s 93 and going strong, carrying on the legacy of Delta Jews.

As the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities points out, “Despite the fact that they were always less than one-half of 1 percent of Arkansas’ population, Jews have played an important role in the social and economic development of the state. The Kempner, Blass and Pfeifer families all owned leading department stores. Howard Eichenbaum was a celebrated architect who designed many significant buildings in Little Rock. Jacob Trieber of Helena was the first Jew in America ever appointed as a federal judge, serving the Eastern District of Arkansas from 1900 to 1927. Julian Waterman was the first dean of the University of Arkansas Law School. Rabbi Ira Sanders, who served Little Rock Congregation B’nai Israel from 1926-63, became an outspoken supporter of racial equality during the turbulent era of civil rights. Cyrus Adler, who was born in Van Buren, became one of the most prominent Jewish leaders in America during the early 20th century, serving as president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Historical Society.”

All three of Miriam and David Solomon’s sons ended up on the East Coast. All have been highly successful in their careers. Just last week, President Obama announced that Lafe Solomon will serve as the acting general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board.

Those careers, though, have taken place somewhere other than the Delta.

Harris wrote that Miriam and David Solomon have a “benign resignation” over the impending end of Jewish life in Helena that derives “at least in part from the success they have had in winding down their affairs and ensuring the continued maintenance of their synagogue and cemetery, which dates to 1875. Their ritual objects have been donated to other communities, and a trust has been established to ensure the cemetery’s upkeep. And with the synagogue and its glass-domed ceiling turned over to the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the building will not only be preserved, it will be put to good use.”

Missing oysters and the Redneck Riviera

Like millions of other Americans, I’ve watched the television stories and read the published accounts as the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico continues to unfold.

BP’s chief executive officer was on Capitol Hill yesterday, saying how sorry he was that this has happened.

The apology didn’t make me feel any better.

I suspect it will be many years before we have a handle on the ramifications of the oil spill.

As is the case with so many other people in the South, annual visits to the Redneck Riviera are a cherished family tradition. We skipped last summer because I had just begun a new job June 1, money was tight and the timing wasn’t right for a vacation.

But in January, looking to warm up from what was a brutally cold winter by Arkansas standards, we went on the Internet and found a house we liked at Orange Beach in Alabama. We then found a week in late July that worked for everyone and made our reservations.

I almost felt guilty when we made the decision a few weeks ago to cancel those reservations. The folks on the coast are begging us to come down, eat in the restaurants, play golf, etc. Frankly, though, it’s too much money to spend for a possible view of work crews in orange vests scouring the beach, complete with loud trucks, early in the morning. That’s not a relaxing thought.

Hopefully, by next summer, things will be better and we can head to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida to celebrate our oldest son’s graduation from high school.

For now, I’ll miss the long walks, I’ll miss cooking on the grill as the sun sets, I’ll miss sitting on the deck and finally taking the time to read a book.

And I’ll miss the fresh seafood, especially the oysters.

I love oysters — raw, fried, steamed, baked, you name it.

Years ago, I convinced my mother-in-law to always make oyster dressing rather than just regular dressing for the holidays.

Things really hit home last week when the news came that P&J Oyster Co., which has been operating in New Orleans for 134 years, has stopped shucking oysters.

“My son — who is delivering oysters right now — he asked me yesterday, ‘Should I go apply for food stamps?”’ said Al Sunseri, the company’s president. “I started here when I was 21, and I remember how I wanted to carry on the tradition of our business, and I remember the feeling of not only the pressures of trying to carry on this long-standing business but also the opportunity that I had to do it.”

Two-thirds of the nation’s oysters come from the Gulf of Mexico. There were almost 13 million pounds of oysters worth about $40 million in sales at the dock harvested in Louisiana alone in 2008.

Sunseri said his oyster shuckers could make from $16 to $24 an hour, depending on their skill levels. Sunseri believes many of the oyster beds will never reopen.

Here’s how the situation was described in a story at www.money.cnn.com: “Restaurants that depend on P&J Oysters have had to scramble. Dickie Brennan is the owner of Bourbon House, a restaurant in New Orleans’ French Quarter. His family owns a handful of restaurants that depend on P&J Oyster Co.

“Many of the restaurants that P&J Oyster works with have been customers for generations and want to continue to support the family-owned distributor. ‘I own and operate three restaurants. We are pretty good volume for these guys,’ Brennan said.

“The Bourbon House buys both shucked oysters — for sauteing, frying and poaching — and whole oysters — for the traditional oyster on the half shell. Brennan said he has been able to get oysters from distributors that draw from outside of the areas shut down by the spill. He hopes P&J Oyster will get back on its feet eventually.

“‘We are like family — New Orleans is a small city,’ Brennan said. “I talk to Sal or Al five times a day, and we are trying to come up wth different strategies. But the goal is that P&J can get back to normal.'”

P&J’s roots go back to Croatia, where fishing in the Adriatic Sea has been a way of life for centuries. During the 1800s, many Croatian fishermen began to migrate to south Louisiana. One of them was John Popich, who wound up near New Orleans. He became an oysterman. The French Quarter company he began in 1876 is the oldest continually operating dealer of oysters in the country.

Some of the most famous dishes in New Orleans — including the oysters Rockefeller invented at Antoine’s by the Alciatore family — traditionally have used oysters from P&J Oyster Co.

The Sunseri brothers plan to bring in oysters from the Atlantic Coast and the Pacific Coast for customers. But they won’t be Gulf oysters shucked in the French Quarter.

“It is like trying to sell oranges instead of apples in an apple market,” Al Sunseri said. “Those oranges that people aren’t accustomed to eating instead of those apples, they are having to pay three times the price.”

It takes oysters between 18 months and 24 months to grow to full size.

How long will it take the oyster industry in the Gulf to recover once the oil is stopped?

“There is a lot of unknown, and it has everything to do with so much that we have never seen happen before,” Al Sunseri said.

Kevin McGill of The Associated Press began his story this way in a dispatch last week: “An early morning workday ritual — the shucking of small mountains of oysters for New Orleans restaurants — fell victim to the BP offshore oil spill at a 134-year-old French Quarter oyster house where neighbors treated the news like a death in the family. Amid the din of nearly a dozen men and women hammering and prying at the last piles of craggy oyster shells at P&J Oyster Co., Jerry Amato wandered in bearing comfort food: aluminum trays full of scrambled eggs, fried ham, grits and biscuits.

”’That’s what we do in New Orleans. After the funeral, we bring food,’ said Amato, proprietor of Mother’s Restaurant.

“P&J isn’t quite dead yet but, barring an unforeseen reopening of the oyster beds that supply the business, Thursday was to be the final day of shucking at the family owned business.”

Al Sunseri, 52, nodded toward the shuckers on that last day and told McGill: “These ladies here, those guys — I grew up with them. We were in our 20s when we started.”

To the west in Franklin, La., Ameripure Oyster Co. (the oysters they serve at the Back Porch in Destin, a restaurant familiar to Arkansans, come from there), company owner John Tesvich said, “The same thing happening over at P&J is happening over here also. … They’re on the point of depletion now.”

Wilbert Collins, 73, is a third-generation oyster farmer. He told McGill that it could take three years to replenish the stock on some of his leases. Two of Collins’ three boats are idle, and the third is helping clean up the spill.

The oystermen of Louisiana truly seem to be in a no-win situation.

“Oyster growers and harvesters are facing a double threat,” McGill wrote. “On the one hand, oil gushing from the blown-out well off Louisiana could contaminate the beds, killing the oysters or rendering them unsafe to eat. On the other hand, a method of fighting the encroaching oil by opening inland water diversion gates in hopes of pushing the oil back also could kill oysters. The fresh inland water dilutes saltier waters oysters need to thrive. Complicating the problem: It’s spawning season for young oysters.”

Here’s how McGill ended his story: “At P&J, longtime employee Wayne Gordon, 42, said his emotions ran the gamut from pain at the prospect of losing a job he’s held since he was 18 to anger at what he sees as the incompetence that caused the unending underwater gusher. ‘Twenty-four years,’ Gordon said as he took a break in the room where freshly shucked oysters were being packed into plastic cartons. ‘I cannot imagine not being here.”’

Tom Fitzmorris, a veteran New Orleans food writer and radio host who sends out The New Orleans Menu Daily online (I’ve subscribed for years and love it) summed up my feelings when he wrote: “This is very bad news. Sal Sunseri has been one of the most positive and active people in the seafood business in New Orleans. His product has been good enough that many restaurants around town specify on their menus that they serve P&J oysters. For him to lay off his staff and shut his doors indefinitely does not bode well for our favorite local seafood. It is not an act designed to just get attention, that’s for sure.

“The oil spill . . . is still putting fresh oil into the water. It’s meeting with what’s there already to create a really abysmal glop that is flowing into all the best areas for oystering. And there’s not going to be an easy fix for this. Some are saying (although I don’t believe this myself) that it will be many years before we have oysters again from the prime beds in Barataria Bay and on the East Bank of the river.

“Unlike many inside and outside of the media, I don’t pretend to know the solution. That’s really the worst part of this: Questions are everywhere, answers are nowhere. It’s scary when even the best people don’t know what to do. (There’s a difference between saying you know and actually knowing.) Nor do I think the orgy of blame assignment, lawsuits and shoulda woulda coulda scenarios is adding anything to this horrible turn of events.

“I just want to cry. And then I want to wait and see, with crossed fingers. They said it would be years before we’d have oysters again after Katrina. It proved to be only weeks. I know this is different, but. . . well, I’m waiting and watching. What else can one do other than help those affected directly?”

Like Tom, I don’t pretend to know the solution.

Like Tom, I just want to cry.

I’ve written before about how my parents sometimes would take my sister and me to Biloxi and Gulfport in the summer. As noted in earlier posts, we didn’t even know the prettier blue water and the whiter sand was just to the east of us in the Florida Panhandle. The Mississippi coast was the first one we hit heading south from Arkansas, and that was as far as my father cared to drive.

But we loved it. To this day, I find myself enjoying each part of the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida.

I tasted my first raw oyster at a place on the Mississippi coast called the Friendship House. Unlike most kids, I immediately fell in love with fresh, salty raw oysters.

Years later, my wife and I honeymooned in New Orleans just so we could eat in various restaurants there for a week. I told her I thought I could get my name on the wall at the Acme along with the other people who had eaten large numbers of raw oysters. She wouldn’t let me try.

I now feel that same sense of loss I felt from afar in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

We’ll go another summer without making it to the Gulf Coast. I’ll look out the window and daydream about walking around one of my favorite towns — Pass Christian in Mississippi, Fairhope in Alabama, Apalachicola in Florida.


Brennan’s, Icon of New Orleans’ French Quarter, is ‘Restored and Reborn’ on November 25 - Recipes

Johnny Cash is a music icon. His name is known worldwide.

That begs the question: Why haven’t we done more as a state to cash in on the fact that he was from Arkansas?

He was born in Feburary 1932 at Kingsland in the pine woods of south Arkansas. Ray and Carrie Rivers Cash had seven children. In addition to the boy known as J.R., there were Roy, Louise, Jack, Reba, Joanne and Tommy.

The Cash family was one of several families from Cleveland County to be chosen to move to the federal government’s Dyess Colony in Mississippi County. So it was that Johnny Cash would leave the Gulf Coastal Plain at an age too young to remember and be raised instead in the Delta of northeast Arkansas.

“The tragic death of Jack Cash in a 1944 sawmill accident haunted young J.R. for the remainder of his life,” Eric Lensing writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “His mother introduced him to the guitar, and the local Church of God introduced him to music. He acquired a fascination for the guitar and a love for singing. Cash first sang on radio station KLCN in Blytheville while attending Dyess High School. Upon graduation in 1950, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after a brief search for work in Michigan.”

Though Arkansas hasn’t done a good job of claiming the Cash legacy, Johnny never forgot his roots.

In February 1968, he returned for a homecoming show at the Dyess High School gymnasium.

The following September, Paris (as in Logan County, not France) native Bob Wootton came out of the audience to play guitar during a Cash concert in Fayetteville. Wootton had long been a Cash fan, playing his songs religiously and perfecting the style of the band. Wootton’s chance to fill in came after a flight cancellation left only Cash and drummer W.S. Holland on the stage. Cash was stunned by Wootton’s perfect renditions.

When original lead guitarist Luther Perkins died in a house fire, Wootton was asked to join the Tennessee Three. Wootton performed with Cash until 1997.

One of Cash’s most famous concerts came in April 1969 when he peformed for the inmates at Cummins. In 1980, the Kingsland native became the youngest person ever elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

I recently attended a meeting during which a group of business and civic leaders heard updates on Arkansas State University’s plans to not only capitalize on the Cash name but also interpret the history of the Dyess Colony for visitors.

In March, John Milner Associates Inc. completed work on a redevelopment master plan for Dyess that was commissioned by ASU.

The introduction to the plan states, “The New Deal Works Progress Administration Rural Resettlement Program provided a sense of hope and renewal for farming families of the Arkansas Delta whose lives were devastated by the natural and economic disasters of the early 20th century. Springing forth from 16,000 acres of forested swamp bottomland drained and cut for the new town, an army of workers constructed the 28-block town with 500 small farms surrounding it. In town, historically referred to as Dyess Center, several residences were constructed along with a hospital, school, churches, commissary, canning plant and administration building. After a rigorous interview, selected families were each set up with a 10-acre farmstead complete with house, barn, smokehouse and mule. Built on the fundamental values of achievement through hard work . . . Dyess became an incubator for success and optimism.

“Since its incorporation in the 1960s as a small city independent of federal support and control, it is apparent that the town has seen some hard times. The city council has had to contend with a range of serious issues including depopulation, loss of businesses and tax base, needed upgrade of infrastructure and lax code enforcement. However, the tight-knit sense of community lives on.”

Arkansas State, which has an outstanding record of preserving historic Delta sites, can start the process of preserving that which is historic at Dyess. Eventually, though, it will need the support of the Cash estate, private foundations and others to turn Dyess into the kind of tourist attraction it should be.

The location is ideal — just off busy Interstate 55 between Memphis and St. Louis. Tourists visiting Graceland in Memphis will find it easy to drive up to Dyess.

When tourists stop there now, there’s little to see or do. The Cash home still stands, but it’s in private hands, it’s not in good condition and it isn’t open to the public.

“The Johnny Cash house is owned by the Stegall family and occupied by Willie Stegall and his son,” the redevelopment master plan states. “It has been the Stegall family home for over 40 years. Over those years, the family has made improvements and adjustments to the house just as many other families who lived in small frame houses did in the same decades. The house is currently in declining condition, in part because of the way many wood elements are exposed to water and other weather-related sources of deterioration. The house has some unpainted wood components, both in places where the paint has failed and in places where the wood was never painted. Like many old houses, it has an imperfect system for roof drainage. The conditions inside and out are less than ideal, but the Stegall family has sought different ways to improve the house at different times with totally different approaches.”

According to this assessment, the changes the family made to the home in the 1960s and 1970s were logical for the time. A modern kitchen was added. The living room was changed. But the assessment adds, “If the dwelling is to be restored to its original configuration and appearance, these changes will have to be removed. Also it is important that any remaining historic materials and architectural features be preserved.”

— The family sells the Cash home to ASU, a foundation or the Cash estate at a reasonable price. It’s restored to its original condition and it’s opened to tourists.

— The Dyess Colony commissary is reconstructed to appear as it once did and opened as a store so tourists will have a place to shop. The original structure was lost to a fire. Only the foundation remains.

— Arkansas State obtains the money needed to transform the Dyess Colony administration building into a visitors’ center.

— The facades of the historic Dyess Theater and the adjoining Pop Shop restaurant are restored. Eventually those facades are incorporated into a new building that will house a small auditorium and a restaurant. The 100-seat theater will show films of Johnny Cash performances and documentaries on his life. The 30-seat restaurant will be leased to a local entrepreneur. Let’s hope it serves catfish, barbecue and other Delta specialties.

— A major marketing campaign is implemented. Prominent signage is placed on Interstate 55.

— An annual Johnny Cash tribute concert is held to raise funds for continued restoration.

As I reported in an earlier post, Arkansas State University has received a grant from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council to begin restoring the exterior of the administration building and begin stabilizing the theater facade.

There’s much to be done. But at least it’s a start. At least smart people are beginning to understand that we can cash in on Cash while saving an important piece of Arkansas history, this Great Depression resettlement colony that Eleanor Roosevelt visited in 1936.

As the redevelopment master plan points out, “Established on natural swampland, it gave its first residents a fresh start but also replicated the American pioneer experience of taming the wilderness and creating new farms and livelihoods. Dyess also left an indelible mark on American music culture as the town that produced singer and songwriter Johnny Cash. Its influence is particularly evident in Cash’s music and lyrics, many of which reference his family’s experiences as cotton farmers in Dyess.”

The Southern Jewish experience

Researching the column I wrote for last Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about a visit to Temple Beth El in Helena ended up being a far more interesting task than I ever would have imagined.

One of the things that has always fascinated me about the Delta is the great diversity there — the Italians, the Chinese, the Lebanese and the Jews were among the groups that came up the Mississippi River from New Orleans and down the river from St. Louis to settle this colorful region.

If you traveled farther inland from the river into the hills of either Arkansas or Mississippi, you historically found far less diversity.

It’s the same reason I always was intrigued with Hot Springs when I was growing up in Arkadelphia. In Arkadelphia, the chances were great that you were either a white Baptist or a black Baptist. Compared to the towns that surrounded it, Hot Springs was an exotic place.

The Delta was like that, though six decades of population loss is changing the demographic picture.

David Solomon, the Helena lawyer who turns 94 next month and still goes to work each day at his office on Cherry Street, established the Tapestry Endowment for Arkansas Jewish History. The endowment created a permanent home at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock for Carolyn Gray LeMaster’s extensive body of research on the history of Jews in Arkansas.

The fund’s name is taken from the title of LeMaster’s book, “A Corner of the Tapestry: A History of the Jewish Experience in Arkansas, 1820s-1900s.”

The Jewish Genealogy Library Collection calls her book “one of the most comprehensive studies ever done on a state’s Jewish community. ‘A Corner of the Tapestry’ is the story of the Jews who helped settle Arkansas and who stayed and flourished to become a significant part of the state’s history and culture. Data for the book have been collected in part from the American Jewish Archives, American Jewish Historical Society, the stones in Arkansas’ Jewish cemeteries, more than 1,500 articles and obituaries from journals and newspapers, personal letters from hundreds of present and former Jewish Arkansans, congressional histories, census and court records and some 400 oral interviews in more than 100 cities and towns in Arkansas.”

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, a project of the Goldring-Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, the first Jew to settle in Arkansas was Abraham Block. He opened a store in the town of Washington in southwest Arkansas in 1823.

“Block settled in Washington when there were no Jewish congregations or institutions in the Arkansas Territory,” the encyclopedia reports. “He was a charter member of the first Jewish synagogue in the region, Congregation Gates of Mercy in New Orleans, joining in 1828. Yet the lack of any organized Jewish life in Arkansas at the time took its toll on his family, and few of his children remained within the faith. Block’s life in Arkansas highlights the challenges that Jews have often faced in a state largely isolated from the centers of American Jewish life.

“The difficulties became a little easier as growing numbers of Jews from central Europe began to arrive in Arkansas in the years before the Civil War. These immigrants were part of the German wave of Jewish immigration, which settled primarily in the large cities of the Northeast and Midwest. But a significant minority of Jews from the German states and from Alsace-Lorraine settled in the rural South, including Arkansas. At the time of the Civil War, they had established small but growing Jewish communities in Little Rock, Fort Smith, Pine Bluff, DeValls Bluff, Van Buren, Jonesboro and Batesville. Despite their relatively short time in the state, Jews felt closely tied to their new home. Of the approximately 300 Jews in Arkansas at the time of the war, 53 fought for the Confederacy.”

Jewish merchants were attracted to Arkansas in the years after the war. They received their goods from Jewish wholesalers in the river cities of Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Memphis. According to the encyclopedia, 14 towns or communities were founded by Jews in Arkansas or named after early Jewish residents. These included Altheimer, Felsenthal and Levy.

The state’s first Jewish congregation, B’nai Israel in Little Rock, was chartered in 1866. A year later, Temple Beth El was founded in Helena and Congregation Anshe Emeth was founded in Pine Bluff. Later congregations were founded in Camden in 1869, Hot Springs in 1878, Texarkana in 1884, Jonesboro in 1897, Newport in 1905, Dermott in 1905, Eudora in 1912, Osceola in 1913, Forrest City in 1914, Wynne in 1915, Marianna in 1920, Blytheville in 1924, El Dorado in 1926, McGehee in 1947, Fayetteville in 1981 and Bentonville in 2004.

Due to a wave of immigration from Eastern Europe, the Jewish population of Arkansas grew from 1,466 in 1878 to 8,850 by the time of the great flood of 1927. You’ll note that many of the congregations listed above were in areas of east and south Arkansas that have been declining economically in recent decades.

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, “Congregations in Helena, Blytheville and El Dorado closed, while others struggled to survive. The Jewish population has become concentrated in a few communities like Little Rock, Hot Springs, Fayetteville and Bentonville. In 1937, 13 cities in Arkansas had more than 50 Jews. In 2006, only four did. As of 2006, only congregations in Little Rock and Hot Springs had full-time rabbis.

“The only exception to this downward trend is Bentonville. In the 21st century, as Wal-Mart has encouraged major suppliers to open offices in its corporate hometown, Bentonville has seen its Jewish population skyrocket. In 2004, a group of 30 families founded Bentonville’s first Jewish congregation, Etz Chaim, which has quickly become the fastest-growing congregation in the state. Bentonville is the exception to the regional trend of small-town Jewish communities declining. Most of the founding members of Etz Chaim are not Arkansas natives. Unlike the peddlers and merchants who initially settled in Arkansas in the 19th century, these 21st century migrants are executives at large corporations. They represent the generation of Jewish professionals who have largely replaced the Jewish merchant class in the South’s metropolitan areas.”

Just as the population base of Arkansas has shifted from east to west during the past 60 years, many of the artifacts from Temple Beth El in Helena went to the northwest when the temple was closed in 2006. The building was donated to the state’s Delta Cultural Center. The artifacts are now used by Etz Chaim in Bentonville.

The remaining Jews in Phillips County now gather for services in homes, just as the early Jews of east Arkansas did before Congregation Beth El was established in 1867.

Last December, the Jewish news service JTA distributed an article about a Friday night service in the home of David and Miriam Solomon at Helena.

“We’re just going back to the cycle,” Miriam Solomon said. “We’ve come full circle.”

Ben Harris wrote in the article, “The plight of Helena’s Jews is mirrored in scores of communities across the Bible Belt, where Jews first migrated in the early 19th century, generally as peddlers. Those who stuck around opened small businesses, which for a long time provided an ample livelihood.”

“I relate everything to economics. People are going where they can make a living,” David Solomon said. “That’s it.”

Harris wrote that David Solomon is “something of a legend in eastern Arkansas. He has held countless civic offices, and all the downtown storekeepers know when he’s around. One of them ticked off the list of legal matters with which he had helped her, including a divorce and real estate issues.”

After reading Saturday’s newspaper column, a Little Rock man e-mailed me about a visit earlier this year to David Solomon’s office: “I was told to ‘hurry down to his office as he goes out for lunch.’ They added that he is into his 90s but you wouldn’t know it. I arrived at his office, and he looked better than I did though I am 35 to 40 years younger. He had on a pinstripe shirt, cuff links, bow tie and he knew who I was immediately though I had only met him once. He was friendly and quietly gave me attention but pointed to a boardroom and said, ‘I am so sorry. I have a room full of clients.”’

He’s 93 and going strong, carrying on the legacy of Delta Jews.

As the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities points out, “Despite the fact that they were always less than one-half of 1 percent of Arkansas’ population, Jews have played an important role in the social and economic development of the state. The Kempner, Blass and Pfeifer families all owned leading department stores. Howard Eichenbaum was a celebrated architect who designed many significant buildings in Little Rock. Jacob Trieber of Helena was the first Jew in America ever appointed as a federal judge, serving the Eastern District of Arkansas from 1900 to 1927. Julian Waterman was the first dean of the University of Arkansas Law School. Rabbi Ira Sanders, who served Little Rock Congregation B’nai Israel from 1926-63, became an outspoken supporter of racial equality during the turbulent era of civil rights. Cyrus Adler, who was born in Van Buren, became one of the most prominent Jewish leaders in America during the early 20th century, serving as president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Historical Society.”

All three of Miriam and David Solomon’s sons ended up on the East Coast. All have been highly successful in their careers. Just last week, President Obama announced that Lafe Solomon will serve as the acting general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board.

Those careers, though, have taken place somewhere other than the Delta.

Harris wrote that Miriam and David Solomon have a “benign resignation” over the impending end of Jewish life in Helena that derives “at least in part from the success they have had in winding down their affairs and ensuring the continued maintenance of their synagogue and cemetery, which dates to 1875. Their ritual objects have been donated to other communities, and a trust has been established to ensure the cemetery’s upkeep. And with the synagogue and its glass-domed ceiling turned over to the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the building will not only be preserved, it will be put to good use.”

Missing oysters and the Redneck Riviera

Like millions of other Americans, I’ve watched the television stories and read the published accounts as the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico continues to unfold.

BP’s chief executive officer was on Capitol Hill yesterday, saying how sorry he was that this has happened.

The apology didn’t make me feel any better.

I suspect it will be many years before we have a handle on the ramifications of the oil spill.

As is the case with so many other people in the South, annual visits to the Redneck Riviera are a cherished family tradition. We skipped last summer because I had just begun a new job June 1, money was tight and the timing wasn’t right for a vacation.

But in January, looking to warm up from what was a brutally cold winter by Arkansas standards, we went on the Internet and found a house we liked at Orange Beach in Alabama. We then found a week in late July that worked for everyone and made our reservations.

I almost felt guilty when we made the decision a few weeks ago to cancel those reservations. The folks on the coast are begging us to come down, eat in the restaurants, play golf, etc. Frankly, though, it’s too much money to spend for a possible view of work crews in orange vests scouring the beach, complete with loud trucks, early in the morning. That’s not a relaxing thought.

Hopefully, by next summer, things will be better and we can head to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida to celebrate our oldest son’s graduation from high school.

For now, I’ll miss the long walks, I’ll miss cooking on the grill as the sun sets, I’ll miss sitting on the deck and finally taking the time to read a book.

And I’ll miss the fresh seafood, especially the oysters.

I love oysters — raw, fried, steamed, baked, you name it.

Years ago, I convinced my mother-in-law to always make oyster dressing rather than just regular dressing for the holidays.

Things really hit home last week when the news came that P&J Oyster Co., which has been operating in New Orleans for 134 years, has stopped shucking oysters.

“My son — who is delivering oysters right now — he asked me yesterday, ‘Should I go apply for food stamps?”’ said Al Sunseri, the company’s president. “I started here when I was 21, and I remember how I wanted to carry on the tradition of our business, and I remember the feeling of not only the pressures of trying to carry on this long-standing business but also the opportunity that I had to do it.”

Two-thirds of the nation’s oysters come from the Gulf of Mexico. There were almost 13 million pounds of oysters worth about $40 million in sales at the dock harvested in Louisiana alone in 2008.

Sunseri said his oyster shuckers could make from $16 to $24 an hour, depending on their skill levels. Sunseri believes many of the oyster beds will never reopen.

Here’s how the situation was described in a story at www.money.cnn.com: “Restaurants that depend on P&J Oysters have had to scramble. Dickie Brennan is the owner of Bourbon House, a restaurant in New Orleans’ French Quarter. His family owns a handful of restaurants that depend on P&J Oyster Co.

“Many of the restaurants that P&J Oyster works with have been customers for generations and want to continue to support the family-owned distributor. ‘I own and operate three restaurants. We are pretty good volume for these guys,’ Brennan said.

“The Bourbon House buys both shucked oysters — for sauteing, frying and poaching — and whole oysters — for the traditional oyster on the half shell. Brennan said he has been able to get oysters from distributors that draw from outside of the areas shut down by the spill. He hopes P&J Oyster will get back on its feet eventually.

“‘We are like family — New Orleans is a small city,’ Brennan said. “I talk to Sal or Al five times a day, and we are trying to come up wth different strategies. But the goal is that P&J can get back to normal.'”

P&J’s roots go back to Croatia, where fishing in the Adriatic Sea has been a way of life for centuries. During the 1800s, many Croatian fishermen began to migrate to south Louisiana. One of them was John Popich, who wound up near New Orleans. He became an oysterman. The French Quarter company he began in 1876 is the oldest continually operating dealer of oysters in the country.

Some of the most famous dishes in New Orleans — including the oysters Rockefeller invented at Antoine’s by the Alciatore family — traditionally have used oysters from P&J Oyster Co.

The Sunseri brothers plan to bring in oysters from the Atlantic Coast and the Pacific Coast for customers. But they won’t be Gulf oysters shucked in the French Quarter.

“It is like trying to sell oranges instead of apples in an apple market,” Al Sunseri said. “Those oranges that people aren’t accustomed to eating instead of those apples, they are having to pay three times the price.”

It takes oysters between 18 months and 24 months to grow to full size.

How long will it take the oyster industry in the Gulf to recover once the oil is stopped?

“There is a lot of unknown, and it has everything to do with so much that we have never seen happen before,” Al Sunseri said.

Kevin McGill of The Associated Press began his story this way in a dispatch last week: “An early morning workday ritual — the shucking of small mountains of oysters for New Orleans restaurants — fell victim to the BP offshore oil spill at a 134-year-old French Quarter oyster house where neighbors treated the news like a death in the family. Amid the din of nearly a dozen men and women hammering and prying at the last piles of craggy oyster shells at P&J Oyster Co., Jerry Amato wandered in bearing comfort food: aluminum trays full of scrambled eggs, fried ham, grits and biscuits.

”’That’s what we do in New Orleans. After the funeral, we bring food,’ said Amato, proprietor of Mother’s Restaurant.

“P&J isn’t quite dead yet but, barring an unforeseen reopening of the oyster beds that supply the business, Thursday was to be the final day of shucking at the family owned business.”

Al Sunseri, 52, nodded toward the shuckers on that last day and told McGill: “These ladies here, those guys — I grew up with them. We were in our 20s when we started.”

To the west in Franklin, La., Ameripure Oyster Co. (the oysters they serve at the Back Porch in Destin, a restaurant familiar to Arkansans, come from there), company owner John Tesvich said, “The same thing happening over at P&J is happening over here also. … They’re on the point of depletion now.”

Wilbert Collins, 73, is a third-generation oyster farmer. He told McGill that it could take three years to replenish the stock on some of his leases. Two of Collins’ three boats are idle, and the third is helping clean up the spill.

The oystermen of Louisiana truly seem to be in a no-win situation.

“Oyster growers and harvesters are facing a double threat,” McGill wrote. “On the one hand, oil gushing from the blown-out well off Louisiana could contaminate the beds, killing the oysters or rendering them unsafe to eat. On the other hand, a method of fighting the encroaching oil by opening inland water diversion gates in hopes of pushing the oil back also could kill oysters. The fresh inland water dilutes saltier waters oysters need to thrive. Complicating the problem: It’s spawning season for young oysters.”

Here’s how McGill ended his story: “At P&J, longtime employee Wayne Gordon, 42, said his emotions ran the gamut from pain at the prospect of losing a job he’s held since he was 18 to anger at what he sees as the incompetence that caused the unending underwater gusher. ‘Twenty-four years,’ Gordon said as he took a break in the room where freshly shucked oysters were being packed into plastic cartons. ‘I cannot imagine not being here.”’

Tom Fitzmorris, a veteran New Orleans food writer and radio host who sends out The New Orleans Menu Daily online (I’ve subscribed for years and love it) summed up my feelings when he wrote: “This is very bad news. Sal Sunseri has been one of the most positive and active people in the seafood business in New Orleans. His product has been good enough that many restaurants around town specify on their menus that they serve P&J oysters. For him to lay off his staff and shut his doors indefinitely does not bode well for our favorite local seafood. It is not an act designed to just get attention, that’s for sure.

“The oil spill . . . is still putting fresh oil into the water. It’s meeting with what’s there already to create a really abysmal glop that is flowing into all the best areas for oystering. And there’s not going to be an easy fix for this. Some are saying (although I don’t believe this myself) that it will be many years before we have oysters again from the prime beds in Barataria Bay and on the East Bank of the river.

“Unlike many inside and outside of the media, I don’t pretend to know the solution. That’s really the worst part of this: Questions are everywhere, answers are nowhere. It’s scary when even the best people don’t know what to do. (There’s a difference between saying you know and actually knowing.) Nor do I think the orgy of blame assignment, lawsuits and shoulda woulda coulda scenarios is adding anything to this horrible turn of events.

“I just want to cry. And then I want to wait and see, with crossed fingers. They said it would be years before we’d have oysters again after Katrina. It proved to be only weeks. I know this is different, but. . . well, I’m waiting and watching. What else can one do other than help those affected directly?”

Like Tom, I don’t pretend to know the solution.

Like Tom, I just want to cry.

I’ve written before about how my parents sometimes would take my sister and me to Biloxi and Gulfport in the summer. As noted in earlier posts, we didn’t even know the prettier blue water and the whiter sand was just to the east of us in the Florida Panhandle. The Mississippi coast was the first one we hit heading south from Arkansas, and that was as far as my father cared to drive.

But we loved it. To this day, I find myself enjoying each part of the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida.

I tasted my first raw oyster at a place on the Mississippi coast called the Friendship House. Unlike most kids, I immediately fell in love with fresh, salty raw oysters.

Years later, my wife and I honeymooned in New Orleans just so we could eat in various restaurants there for a week. I told her I thought I could get my name on the wall at the Acme along with the other people who had eaten large numbers of raw oysters. She wouldn’t let me try.

I now feel that same sense of loss I felt from afar in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

We’ll go another summer without making it to the Gulf Coast. I’ll look out the window and daydream about walking around one of my favorite towns — Pass Christian in Mississippi, Fairhope in Alabama, Apalachicola in Florida.


Brennan’s, Icon of New Orleans’ French Quarter, is ‘Restored and Reborn’ on November 25 - Recipes

Johnny Cash is a music icon. His name is known worldwide.

That begs the question: Why haven’t we done more as a state to cash in on the fact that he was from Arkansas?

He was born in Feburary 1932 at Kingsland in the pine woods of south Arkansas. Ray and Carrie Rivers Cash had seven children. In addition to the boy known as J.R., there were Roy, Louise, Jack, Reba, Joanne and Tommy.

The Cash family was one of several families from Cleveland County to be chosen to move to the federal government’s Dyess Colony in Mississippi County. So it was that Johnny Cash would leave the Gulf Coastal Plain at an age too young to remember and be raised instead in the Delta of northeast Arkansas.

“The tragic death of Jack Cash in a 1944 sawmill accident haunted young J.R. for the remainder of his life,” Eric Lensing writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “His mother introduced him to the guitar, and the local Church of God introduced him to music. He acquired a fascination for the guitar and a love for singing. Cash first sang on radio station KLCN in Blytheville while attending Dyess High School. Upon graduation in 1950, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after a brief search for work in Michigan.”

Though Arkansas hasn’t done a good job of claiming the Cash legacy, Johnny never forgot his roots.

In February 1968, he returned for a homecoming show at the Dyess High School gymnasium.

The following September, Paris (as in Logan County, not France) native Bob Wootton came out of the audience to play guitar during a Cash concert in Fayetteville. Wootton had long been a Cash fan, playing his songs religiously and perfecting the style of the band. Wootton’s chance to fill in came after a flight cancellation left only Cash and drummer W.S. Holland on the stage. Cash was stunned by Wootton’s perfect renditions.

When original lead guitarist Luther Perkins died in a house fire, Wootton was asked to join the Tennessee Three. Wootton performed with Cash until 1997.

One of Cash’s most famous concerts came in April 1969 when he peformed for the inmates at Cummins. In 1980, the Kingsland native became the youngest person ever elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

I recently attended a meeting during which a group of business and civic leaders heard updates on Arkansas State University’s plans to not only capitalize on the Cash name but also interpret the history of the Dyess Colony for visitors.

In March, John Milner Associates Inc. completed work on a redevelopment master plan for Dyess that was commissioned by ASU.

The introduction to the plan states, “The New Deal Works Progress Administration Rural Resettlement Program provided a sense of hope and renewal for farming families of the Arkansas Delta whose lives were devastated by the natural and economic disasters of the early 20th century. Springing forth from 16,000 acres of forested swamp bottomland drained and cut for the new town, an army of workers constructed the 28-block town with 500 small farms surrounding it. In town, historically referred to as Dyess Center, several residences were constructed along with a hospital, school, churches, commissary, canning plant and administration building. After a rigorous interview, selected families were each set up with a 10-acre farmstead complete with house, barn, smokehouse and mule. Built on the fundamental values of achievement through hard work . . . Dyess became an incubator for success and optimism.

“Since its incorporation in the 1960s as a small city independent of federal support and control, it is apparent that the town has seen some hard times. The city council has had to contend with a range of serious issues including depopulation, loss of businesses and tax base, needed upgrade of infrastructure and lax code enforcement. However, the tight-knit sense of community lives on.”

Arkansas State, which has an outstanding record of preserving historic Delta sites, can start the process of preserving that which is historic at Dyess. Eventually, though, it will need the support of the Cash estate, private foundations and others to turn Dyess into the kind of tourist attraction it should be.

The location is ideal — just off busy Interstate 55 between Memphis and St. Louis. Tourists visiting Graceland in Memphis will find it easy to drive up to Dyess.

When tourists stop there now, there’s little to see or do. The Cash home still stands, but it’s in private hands, it’s not in good condition and it isn’t open to the public.

“The Johnny Cash house is owned by the Stegall family and occupied by Willie Stegall and his son,” the redevelopment master plan states. “It has been the Stegall family home for over 40 years. Over those years, the family has made improvements and adjustments to the house just as many other families who lived in small frame houses did in the same decades. The house is currently in declining condition, in part because of the way many wood elements are exposed to water and other weather-related sources of deterioration. The house has some unpainted wood components, both in places where the paint has failed and in places where the wood was never painted. Like many old houses, it has an imperfect system for roof drainage. The conditions inside and out are less than ideal, but the Stegall family has sought different ways to improve the house at different times with totally different approaches.”

According to this assessment, the changes the family made to the home in the 1960s and 1970s were logical for the time. A modern kitchen was added. The living room was changed. But the assessment adds, “If the dwelling is to be restored to its original configuration and appearance, these changes will have to be removed. Also it is important that any remaining historic materials and architectural features be preserved.”

— The family sells the Cash home to ASU, a foundation or the Cash estate at a reasonable price. It’s restored to its original condition and it’s opened to tourists.

— The Dyess Colony commissary is reconstructed to appear as it once did and opened as a store so tourists will have a place to shop. The original structure was lost to a fire. Only the foundation remains.

— Arkansas State obtains the money needed to transform the Dyess Colony administration building into a visitors’ center.

— The facades of the historic Dyess Theater and the adjoining Pop Shop restaurant are restored. Eventually those facades are incorporated into a new building that will house a small auditorium and a restaurant. The 100-seat theater will show films of Johnny Cash performances and documentaries on his life. The 30-seat restaurant will be leased to a local entrepreneur. Let’s hope it serves catfish, barbecue and other Delta specialties.

— A major marketing campaign is implemented. Prominent signage is placed on Interstate 55.

— An annual Johnny Cash tribute concert is held to raise funds for continued restoration.

As I reported in an earlier post, Arkansas State University has received a grant from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council to begin restoring the exterior of the administration building and begin stabilizing the theater facade.

There’s much to be done. But at least it’s a start. At least smart people are beginning to understand that we can cash in on Cash while saving an important piece of Arkansas history, this Great Depression resettlement colony that Eleanor Roosevelt visited in 1936.

As the redevelopment master plan points out, “Established on natural swampland, it gave its first residents a fresh start but also replicated the American pioneer experience of taming the wilderness and creating new farms and livelihoods. Dyess also left an indelible mark on American music culture as the town that produced singer and songwriter Johnny Cash. Its influence is particularly evident in Cash’s music and lyrics, many of which reference his family’s experiences as cotton farmers in Dyess.”

The Southern Jewish experience

Researching the column I wrote for last Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about a visit to Temple Beth El in Helena ended up being a far more interesting task than I ever would have imagined.

One of the things that has always fascinated me about the Delta is the great diversity there — the Italians, the Chinese, the Lebanese and the Jews were among the groups that came up the Mississippi River from New Orleans and down the river from St. Louis to settle this colorful region.

If you traveled farther inland from the river into the hills of either Arkansas or Mississippi, you historically found far less diversity.

It’s the same reason I always was intrigued with Hot Springs when I was growing up in Arkadelphia. In Arkadelphia, the chances were great that you were either a white Baptist or a black Baptist. Compared to the towns that surrounded it, Hot Springs was an exotic place.

The Delta was like that, though six decades of population loss is changing the demographic picture.

David Solomon, the Helena lawyer who turns 94 next month and still goes to work each day at his office on Cherry Street, established the Tapestry Endowment for Arkansas Jewish History. The endowment created a permanent home at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock for Carolyn Gray LeMaster’s extensive body of research on the history of Jews in Arkansas.

The fund’s name is taken from the title of LeMaster’s book, “A Corner of the Tapestry: A History of the Jewish Experience in Arkansas, 1820s-1900s.”

The Jewish Genealogy Library Collection calls her book “one of the most comprehensive studies ever done on a state’s Jewish community. ‘A Corner of the Tapestry’ is the story of the Jews who helped settle Arkansas and who stayed and flourished to become a significant part of the state’s history and culture. Data for the book have been collected in part from the American Jewish Archives, American Jewish Historical Society, the stones in Arkansas’ Jewish cemeteries, more than 1,500 articles and obituaries from journals and newspapers, personal letters from hundreds of present and former Jewish Arkansans, congressional histories, census and court records and some 400 oral interviews in more than 100 cities and towns in Arkansas.”

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, a project of the Goldring-Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, the first Jew to settle in Arkansas was Abraham Block. He opened a store in the town of Washington in southwest Arkansas in 1823.

“Block settled in Washington when there were no Jewish congregations or institutions in the Arkansas Territory,” the encyclopedia reports. “He was a charter member of the first Jewish synagogue in the region, Congregation Gates of Mercy in New Orleans, joining in 1828. Yet the lack of any organized Jewish life in Arkansas at the time took its toll on his family, and few of his children remained within the faith. Block’s life in Arkansas highlights the challenges that Jews have often faced in a state largely isolated from the centers of American Jewish life.

“The difficulties became a little easier as growing numbers of Jews from central Europe began to arrive in Arkansas in the years before the Civil War. These immigrants were part of the German wave of Jewish immigration, which settled primarily in the large cities of the Northeast and Midwest. But a significant minority of Jews from the German states and from Alsace-Lorraine settled in the rural South, including Arkansas. At the time of the Civil War, they had established small but growing Jewish communities in Little Rock, Fort Smith, Pine Bluff, DeValls Bluff, Van Buren, Jonesboro and Batesville. Despite their relatively short time in the state, Jews felt closely tied to their new home. Of the approximately 300 Jews in Arkansas at the time of the war, 53 fought for the Confederacy.”

Jewish merchants were attracted to Arkansas in the years after the war. They received their goods from Jewish wholesalers in the river cities of Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Memphis. According to the encyclopedia, 14 towns or communities were founded by Jews in Arkansas or named after early Jewish residents. These included Altheimer, Felsenthal and Levy.

The state’s first Jewish congregation, B’nai Israel in Little Rock, was chartered in 1866. A year later, Temple Beth El was founded in Helena and Congregation Anshe Emeth was founded in Pine Bluff. Later congregations were founded in Camden in 1869, Hot Springs in 1878, Texarkana in 1884, Jonesboro in 1897, Newport in 1905, Dermott in 1905, Eudora in 1912, Osceola in 1913, Forrest City in 1914, Wynne in 1915, Marianna in 1920, Blytheville in 1924, El Dorado in 1926, McGehee in 1947, Fayetteville in 1981 and Bentonville in 2004.

Due to a wave of immigration from Eastern Europe, the Jewish population of Arkansas grew from 1,466 in 1878 to 8,850 by the time of the great flood of 1927. You’ll note that many of the congregations listed above were in areas of east and south Arkansas that have been declining economically in recent decades.

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, “Congregations in Helena, Blytheville and El Dorado closed, while others struggled to survive. The Jewish population has become concentrated in a few communities like Little Rock, Hot Springs, Fayetteville and Bentonville. In 1937, 13 cities in Arkansas had more than 50 Jews. In 2006, only four did. As of 2006, only congregations in Little Rock and Hot Springs had full-time rabbis.

“The only exception to this downward trend is Bentonville. In the 21st century, as Wal-Mart has encouraged major suppliers to open offices in its corporate hometown, Bentonville has seen its Jewish population skyrocket. In 2004, a group of 30 families founded Bentonville’s first Jewish congregation, Etz Chaim, which has quickly become the fastest-growing congregation in the state. Bentonville is the exception to the regional trend of small-town Jewish communities declining. Most of the founding members of Etz Chaim are not Arkansas natives. Unlike the peddlers and merchants who initially settled in Arkansas in the 19th century, these 21st century migrants are executives at large corporations. They represent the generation of Jewish professionals who have largely replaced the Jewish merchant class in the South’s metropolitan areas.”

Just as the population base of Arkansas has shifted from east to west during the past 60 years, many of the artifacts from Temple Beth El in Helena went to the northwest when the temple was closed in 2006. The building was donated to the state’s Delta Cultural Center. The artifacts are now used by Etz Chaim in Bentonville.

The remaining Jews in Phillips County now gather for services in homes, just as the early Jews of east Arkansas did before Congregation Beth El was established in 1867.

Last December, the Jewish news service JTA distributed an article about a Friday night service in the home of David and Miriam Solomon at Helena.

“We’re just going back to the cycle,” Miriam Solomon said. “We’ve come full circle.”

Ben Harris wrote in the article, “The plight of Helena’s Jews is mirrored in scores of communities across the Bible Belt, where Jews first migrated in the early 19th century, generally as peddlers. Those who stuck around opened small businesses, which for a long time provided an ample livelihood.”

“I relate everything to economics. People are going where they can make a living,” David Solomon said. “That’s it.”

Harris wrote that David Solomon is “something of a legend in eastern Arkansas. He has held countless civic offices, and all the downtown storekeepers know when he’s around. One of them ticked off the list of legal matters with which he had helped her, including a divorce and real estate issues.”

After reading Saturday’s newspaper column, a Little Rock man e-mailed me about a visit earlier this year to David Solomon’s office: “I was told to ‘hurry down to his office as he goes out for lunch.’ They added that he is into his 90s but you wouldn’t know it. I arrived at his office, and he looked better than I did though I am 35 to 40 years younger. He had on a pinstripe shirt, cuff links, bow tie and he knew who I was immediately though I had only met him once. He was friendly and quietly gave me attention but pointed to a boardroom and said, ‘I am so sorry. I have a room full of clients.”’

He’s 93 and going strong, carrying on the legacy of Delta Jews.

As the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities points out, “Despite the fact that they were always less than one-half of 1 percent of Arkansas’ population, Jews have played an important role in the social and economic development of the state. The Kempner, Blass and Pfeifer families all owned leading department stores. Howard Eichenbaum was a celebrated architect who designed many significant buildings in Little Rock. Jacob Trieber of Helena was the first Jew in America ever appointed as a federal judge, serving the Eastern District of Arkansas from 1900 to 1927. Julian Waterman was the first dean of the University of Arkansas Law School. Rabbi Ira Sanders, who served Little Rock Congregation B’nai Israel from 1926-63, became an outspoken supporter of racial equality during the turbulent era of civil rights. Cyrus Adler, who was born in Van Buren, became one of the most prominent Jewish leaders in America during the early 20th century, serving as president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Historical Society.”

All three of Miriam and David Solomon’s sons ended up on the East Coast. All have been highly successful in their careers. Just last week, President Obama announced that Lafe Solomon will serve as the acting general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board.

Those careers, though, have taken place somewhere other than the Delta.

Harris wrote that Miriam and David Solomon have a “benign resignation” over the impending end of Jewish life in Helena that derives “at least in part from the success they have had in winding down their affairs and ensuring the continued maintenance of their synagogue and cemetery, which dates to 1875. Their ritual objects have been donated to other communities, and a trust has been established to ensure the cemetery’s upkeep. And with the synagogue and its glass-domed ceiling turned over to the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the building will not only be preserved, it will be put to good use.”

Missing oysters and the Redneck Riviera

Like millions of other Americans, I’ve watched the television stories and read the published accounts as the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico continues to unfold.

BP’s chief executive officer was on Capitol Hill yesterday, saying how sorry he was that this has happened.

The apology didn’t make me feel any better.

I suspect it will be many years before we have a handle on the ramifications of the oil spill.

As is the case with so many other people in the South, annual visits to the Redneck Riviera are a cherished family tradition. We skipped last summer because I had just begun a new job June 1, money was tight and the timing wasn’t right for a vacation.

But in January, looking to warm up from what was a brutally cold winter by Arkansas standards, we went on the Internet and found a house we liked at Orange Beach in Alabama. We then found a week in late July that worked for everyone and made our reservations.

I almost felt guilty when we made the decision a few weeks ago to cancel those reservations. The folks on the coast are begging us to come down, eat in the restaurants, play golf, etc. Frankly, though, it’s too much money to spend for a possible view of work crews in orange vests scouring the beach, complete with loud trucks, early in the morning. That’s not a relaxing thought.

Hopefully, by next summer, things will be better and we can head to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida to celebrate our oldest son’s graduation from high school.

For now, I’ll miss the long walks, I’ll miss cooking on the grill as the sun sets, I’ll miss sitting on the deck and finally taking the time to read a book.

And I’ll miss the fresh seafood, especially the oysters.

I love oysters — raw, fried, steamed, baked, you name it.

Years ago, I convinced my mother-in-law to always make oyster dressing rather than just regular dressing for the holidays.

Things really hit home last week when the news came that P&J Oyster Co., which has been operating in New Orleans for 134 years, has stopped shucking oysters.

“My son — who is delivering oysters right now — he asked me yesterday, ‘Should I go apply for food stamps?”’ said Al Sunseri, the company’s president. “I started here when I was 21, and I remember how I wanted to carry on the tradition of our business, and I remember the feeling of not only the pressures of trying to carry on this long-standing business but also the opportunity that I had to do it.”

Two-thirds of the nation’s oysters come from the Gulf of Mexico. There were almost 13 million pounds of oysters worth about $40 million in sales at the dock harvested in Louisiana alone in 2008.

Sunseri said his oyster shuckers could make from $16 to $24 an hour, depending on their skill levels. Sunseri believes many of the oyster beds will never reopen.

Here’s how the situation was described in a story at www.money.cnn.com: “Restaurants that depend on P&J Oysters have had to scramble. Dickie Brennan is the owner of Bourbon House, a restaurant in New Orleans’ French Quarter. His family owns a handful of restaurants that depend on P&J Oyster Co.

“Many of the restaurants that P&J Oyster works with have been customers for generations and want to continue to support the family-owned distributor. ‘I own and operate three restaurants. We are pretty good volume for these guys,’ Brennan said.

“The Bourbon House buys both shucked oysters — for sauteing, frying and poaching — and whole oysters — for the traditional oyster on the half shell. Brennan said he has been able to get oysters from distributors that draw from outside of the areas shut down by the spill. He hopes P&J Oyster will get back on its feet eventually.

“‘We are like family — New Orleans is a small city,’ Brennan said. “I talk to Sal or Al five times a day, and we are trying to come up wth different strategies. But the goal is that P&J can get back to normal.'”

P&J’s roots go back to Croatia, where fishing in the Adriatic Sea has been a way of life for centuries. During the 1800s, many Croatian fishermen began to migrate to south Louisiana. One of them was John Popich, who wound up near New Orleans. He became an oysterman. The French Quarter company he began in 1876 is the oldest continually operating dealer of oysters in the country.

Some of the most famous dishes in New Orleans — including the oysters Rockefeller invented at Antoine’s by the Alciatore family — traditionally have used oysters from P&J Oyster Co.

The Sunseri brothers plan to bring in oysters from the Atlantic Coast and the Pacific Coast for customers. But they won’t be Gulf oysters shucked in the French Quarter.

“It is like trying to sell oranges instead of apples in an apple market,” Al Sunseri said. “Those oranges that people aren’t accustomed to eating instead of those apples, they are having to pay three times the price.”

It takes oysters between 18 months and 24 months to grow to full size.

How long will it take the oyster industry in the Gulf to recover once the oil is stopped?

“There is a lot of unknown, and it has everything to do with so much that we have never seen happen before,” Al Sunseri said.

Kevin McGill of The Associated Press began his story this way in a dispatch last week: “An early morning workday ritual — the shucking of small mountains of oysters for New Orleans restaurants — fell victim to the BP offshore oil spill at a 134-year-old French Quarter oyster house where neighbors treated the news like a death in the family. Amid the din of nearly a dozen men and women hammering and prying at the last piles of craggy oyster shells at P&J Oyster Co., Jerry Amato wandered in bearing comfort food: aluminum trays full of scrambled eggs, fried ham, grits and biscuits.

”’That’s what we do in New Orleans. After the funeral, we bring food,’ said Amato, proprietor of Mother’s Restaurant.

“P&J isn’t quite dead yet but, barring an unforeseen reopening of the oyster beds that supply the business, Thursday was to be the final day of shucking at the family owned business.”

Al Sunseri, 52, nodded toward the shuckers on that last day and told McGill: “These ladies here, those guys — I grew up with them. We were in our 20s when we started.”

To the west in Franklin, La., Ameripure Oyster Co. (the oysters they serve at the Back Porch in Destin, a restaurant familiar to Arkansans, come from there), company owner John Tesvich said, “The same thing happening over at P&J is happening over here also. … They’re on the point of depletion now.”

Wilbert Collins, 73, is a third-generation oyster farmer. He told McGill that it could take three years to replenish the stock on some of his leases. Two of Collins’ three boats are idle, and the third is helping clean up the spill.

The oystermen of Louisiana truly seem to be in a no-win situation.

“Oyster growers and harvesters are facing a double threat,” McGill wrote. “On the one hand, oil gushing from the blown-out well off Louisiana could contaminate the beds, killing the oysters or rendering them unsafe to eat. On the other hand, a method of fighting the encroaching oil by opening inland water diversion gates in hopes of pushing the oil back also could kill oysters. The fresh inland water dilutes saltier waters oysters need to thrive. Complicating the problem: It’s spawning season for young oysters.”

Here’s how McGill ended his story: “At P&J, longtime employee Wayne Gordon, 42, said his emotions ran the gamut from pain at the prospect of losing a job he’s held since he was 18 to anger at what he sees as the incompetence that caused the unending underwater gusher. ‘Twenty-four years,’ Gordon said as he took a break in the room where freshly shucked oysters were being packed into plastic cartons. ‘I cannot imagine not being here.”’

Tom Fitzmorris, a veteran New Orleans food writer and radio host who sends out The New Orleans Menu Daily online (I’ve subscribed for years and love it) summed up my feelings when he wrote: “This is very bad news. Sal Sunseri has been one of the most positive and active people in the seafood business in New Orleans. His product has been good enough that many restaurants around town specify on their menus that they serve P&J oysters. For him to lay off his staff and shut his doors indefinitely does not bode well for our favorite local seafood. It is not an act designed to just get attention, that’s for sure.

“The oil spill . . . is still putting fresh oil into the water. It’s meeting with what’s there already to create a really abysmal glop that is flowing into all the best areas for oystering. And there’s not going to be an easy fix for this. Some are saying (although I don’t believe this myself) that it will be many years before we have oysters again from the prime beds in Barataria Bay and on the East Bank of the river.

“Unlike many inside and outside of the media, I don’t pretend to know the solution. That’s really the worst part of this: Questions are everywhere, answers are nowhere. It’s scary when even the best people don’t know what to do. (There’s a difference between saying you know and actually knowing.) Nor do I think the orgy of blame assignment, lawsuits and shoulda woulda coulda scenarios is adding anything to this horrible turn of events.

“I just want to cry. And then I want to wait and see, with crossed fingers. They said it would be years before we’d have oysters again after Katrina. It proved to be only weeks. I know this is different, but. . . well, I’m waiting and watching. What else can one do other than help those affected directly?”

Like Tom, I don’t pretend to know the solution.

Like Tom, I just want to cry.

I’ve written before about how my parents sometimes would take my sister and me to Biloxi and Gulfport in the summer. As noted in earlier posts, we didn’t even know the prettier blue water and the whiter sand was just to the east of us in the Florida Panhandle. The Mississippi coast was the first one we hit heading south from Arkansas, and that was as far as my father cared to drive.

But we loved it. To this day, I find myself enjoying each part of the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida.

I tasted my first raw oyster at a place on the Mississippi coast called the Friendship House. Unlike most kids, I immediately fell in love with fresh, salty raw oysters.

Years later, my wife and I honeymooned in New Orleans just so we could eat in various restaurants there for a week. I told her I thought I could get my name on the wall at the Acme along with the other people who had eaten large numbers of raw oysters. She wouldn’t let me try.

I now feel that same sense of loss I felt from afar in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

We’ll go another summer without making it to the Gulf Coast. I’ll look out the window and daydream about walking around one of my favorite towns — Pass Christian in Mississippi, Fairhope in Alabama, Apalachicola in Florida.


Brennan’s, Icon of New Orleans’ French Quarter, is ‘Restored and Reborn’ on November 25 - Recipes

Johnny Cash is a music icon. His name is known worldwide.

That begs the question: Why haven’t we done more as a state to cash in on the fact that he was from Arkansas?

He was born in Feburary 1932 at Kingsland in the pine woods of south Arkansas. Ray and Carrie Rivers Cash had seven children. In addition to the boy known as J.R., there were Roy, Louise, Jack, Reba, Joanne and Tommy.

The Cash family was one of several families from Cleveland County to be chosen to move to the federal government’s Dyess Colony in Mississippi County. So it was that Johnny Cash would leave the Gulf Coastal Plain at an age too young to remember and be raised instead in the Delta of northeast Arkansas.

“The tragic death of Jack Cash in a 1944 sawmill accident haunted young J.R. for the remainder of his life,” Eric Lensing writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “His mother introduced him to the guitar, and the local Church of God introduced him to music. He acquired a fascination for the guitar and a love for singing. Cash first sang on radio station KLCN in Blytheville while attending Dyess High School. Upon graduation in 1950, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after a brief search for work in Michigan.”

Though Arkansas hasn’t done a good job of claiming the Cash legacy, Johnny never forgot his roots.

In February 1968, he returned for a homecoming show at the Dyess High School gymnasium.

The following September, Paris (as in Logan County, not France) native Bob Wootton came out of the audience to play guitar during a Cash concert in Fayetteville. Wootton had long been a Cash fan, playing his songs religiously and perfecting the style of the band. Wootton’s chance to fill in came after a flight cancellation left only Cash and drummer W.S. Holland on the stage. Cash was stunned by Wootton’s perfect renditions.

When original lead guitarist Luther Perkins died in a house fire, Wootton was asked to join the Tennessee Three. Wootton performed with Cash until 1997.

One of Cash’s most famous concerts came in April 1969 when he peformed for the inmates at Cummins. In 1980, the Kingsland native became the youngest person ever elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

I recently attended a meeting during which a group of business and civic leaders heard updates on Arkansas State University’s plans to not only capitalize on the Cash name but also interpret the history of the Dyess Colony for visitors.

In March, John Milner Associates Inc. completed work on a redevelopment master plan for Dyess that was commissioned by ASU.

The introduction to the plan states, “The New Deal Works Progress Administration Rural Resettlement Program provided a sense of hope and renewal for farming families of the Arkansas Delta whose lives were devastated by the natural and economic disasters of the early 20th century. Springing forth from 16,000 acres of forested swamp bottomland drained and cut for the new town, an army of workers constructed the 28-block town with 500 small farms surrounding it. In town, historically referred to as Dyess Center, several residences were constructed along with a hospital, school, churches, commissary, canning plant and administration building. After a rigorous interview, selected families were each set up with a 10-acre farmstead complete with house, barn, smokehouse and mule. Built on the fundamental values of achievement through hard work . . . Dyess became an incubator for success and optimism.

“Since its incorporation in the 1960s as a small city independent of federal support and control, it is apparent that the town has seen some hard times. The city council has had to contend with a range of serious issues including depopulation, loss of businesses and tax base, needed upgrade of infrastructure and lax code enforcement. However, the tight-knit sense of community lives on.”

Arkansas State, which has an outstanding record of preserving historic Delta sites, can start the process of preserving that which is historic at Dyess. Eventually, though, it will need the support of the Cash estate, private foundations and others to turn Dyess into the kind of tourist attraction it should be.

The location is ideal — just off busy Interstate 55 between Memphis and St. Louis. Tourists visiting Graceland in Memphis will find it easy to drive up to Dyess.

When tourists stop there now, there’s little to see or do. The Cash home still stands, but it’s in private hands, it’s not in good condition and it isn’t open to the public.

“The Johnny Cash house is owned by the Stegall family and occupied by Willie Stegall and his son,” the redevelopment master plan states. “It has been the Stegall family home for over 40 years. Over those years, the family has made improvements and adjustments to the house just as many other families who lived in small frame houses did in the same decades. The house is currently in declining condition, in part because of the way many wood elements are exposed to water and other weather-related sources of deterioration. The house has some unpainted wood components, both in places where the paint has failed and in places where the wood was never painted. Like many old houses, it has an imperfect system for roof drainage. The conditions inside and out are less than ideal, but the Stegall family has sought different ways to improve the house at different times with totally different approaches.”

According to this assessment, the changes the family made to the home in the 1960s and 1970s were logical for the time. A modern kitchen was added. The living room was changed. But the assessment adds, “If the dwelling is to be restored to its original configuration and appearance, these changes will have to be removed. Also it is important that any remaining historic materials and architectural features be preserved.”

— The family sells the Cash home to ASU, a foundation or the Cash estate at a reasonable price. It’s restored to its original condition and it’s opened to tourists.

— The Dyess Colony commissary is reconstructed to appear as it once did and opened as a store so tourists will have a place to shop. The original structure was lost to a fire. Only the foundation remains.

— Arkansas State obtains the money needed to transform the Dyess Colony administration building into a visitors’ center.

— The facades of the historic Dyess Theater and the adjoining Pop Shop restaurant are restored. Eventually those facades are incorporated into a new building that will house a small auditorium and a restaurant. The 100-seat theater will show films of Johnny Cash performances and documentaries on his life. The 30-seat restaurant will be leased to a local entrepreneur. Let’s hope it serves catfish, barbecue and other Delta specialties.

— A major marketing campaign is implemented. Prominent signage is placed on Interstate 55.

— An annual Johnny Cash tribute concert is held to raise funds for continued restoration.

As I reported in an earlier post, Arkansas State University has received a grant from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council to begin restoring the exterior of the administration building and begin stabilizing the theater facade.

There’s much to be done. But at least it’s a start. At least smart people are beginning to understand that we can cash in on Cash while saving an important piece of Arkansas history, this Great Depression resettlement colony that Eleanor Roosevelt visited in 1936.

As the redevelopment master plan points out, “Established on natural swampland, it gave its first residents a fresh start but also replicated the American pioneer experience of taming the wilderness and creating new farms and livelihoods. Dyess also left an indelible mark on American music culture as the town that produced singer and songwriter Johnny Cash. Its influence is particularly evident in Cash’s music and lyrics, many of which reference his family’s experiences as cotton farmers in Dyess.”

The Southern Jewish experience

Researching the column I wrote for last Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about a visit to Temple Beth El in Helena ended up being a far more interesting task than I ever would have imagined.

One of the things that has always fascinated me about the Delta is the great diversity there — the Italians, the Chinese, the Lebanese and the Jews were among the groups that came up the Mississippi River from New Orleans and down the river from St. Louis to settle this colorful region.

If you traveled farther inland from the river into the hills of either Arkansas or Mississippi, you historically found far less diversity.

It’s the same reason I always was intrigued with Hot Springs when I was growing up in Arkadelphia. In Arkadelphia, the chances were great that you were either a white Baptist or a black Baptist. Compared to the towns that surrounded it, Hot Springs was an exotic place.

The Delta was like that, though six decades of population loss is changing the demographic picture.

David Solomon, the Helena lawyer who turns 94 next month and still goes to work each day at his office on Cherry Street, established the Tapestry Endowment for Arkansas Jewish History. The endowment created a permanent home at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock for Carolyn Gray LeMaster’s extensive body of research on the history of Jews in Arkansas.

The fund’s name is taken from the title of LeMaster’s book, “A Corner of the Tapestry: A History of the Jewish Experience in Arkansas, 1820s-1900s.”

The Jewish Genealogy Library Collection calls her book “one of the most comprehensive studies ever done on a state’s Jewish community. ‘A Corner of the Tapestry’ is the story of the Jews who helped settle Arkansas and who stayed and flourished to become a significant part of the state’s history and culture. Data for the book have been collected in part from the American Jewish Archives, American Jewish Historical Society, the stones in Arkansas’ Jewish cemeteries, more than 1,500 articles and obituaries from journals and newspapers, personal letters from hundreds of present and former Jewish Arkansans, congressional histories, census and court records and some 400 oral interviews in more than 100 cities and towns in Arkansas.”

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, a project of the Goldring-Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, the first Jew to settle in Arkansas was Abraham Block. He opened a store in the town of Washington in southwest Arkansas in 1823.

“Block settled in Washington when there were no Jewish congregations or institutions in the Arkansas Territory,” the encyclopedia reports. “He was a charter member of the first Jewish synagogue in the region, Congregation Gates of Mercy in New Orleans, joining in 1828. Yet the lack of any organized Jewish life in Arkansas at the time took its toll on his family, and few of his children remained within the faith. Block’s life in Arkansas highlights the challenges that Jews have often faced in a state largely isolated from the centers of American Jewish life.

“The difficulties became a little easier as growing numbers of Jews from central Europe began to arrive in Arkansas in the years before the Civil War. These immigrants were part of the German wave of Jewish immigration, which settled primarily in the large cities of the Northeast and Midwest. But a significant minority of Jews from the German states and from Alsace-Lorraine settled in the rural South, including Arkansas. At the time of the Civil War, they had established small but growing Jewish communities in Little Rock, Fort Smith, Pine Bluff, DeValls Bluff, Van Buren, Jonesboro and Batesville. Despite their relatively short time in the state, Jews felt closely tied to their new home. Of the approximately 300 Jews in Arkansas at the time of the war, 53 fought for the Confederacy.”

Jewish merchants were attracted to Arkansas in the years after the war. They received their goods from Jewish wholesalers in the river cities of Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Memphis. According to the encyclopedia, 14 towns or communities were founded by Jews in Arkansas or named after early Jewish residents. These included Altheimer, Felsenthal and Levy.

The state’s first Jewish congregation, B’nai Israel in Little Rock, was chartered in 1866. A year later, Temple Beth El was founded in Helena and Congregation Anshe Emeth was founded in Pine Bluff. Later congregations were founded in Camden in 1869, Hot Springs in 1878, Texarkana in 1884, Jonesboro in 1897, Newport in 1905, Dermott in 1905, Eudora in 1912, Osceola in 1913, Forrest City in 1914, Wynne in 1915, Marianna in 1920, Blytheville in 1924, El Dorado in 1926, McGehee in 1947, Fayetteville in 1981 and Bentonville in 2004.

Due to a wave of immigration from Eastern Europe, the Jewish population of Arkansas grew from 1,466 in 1878 to 8,850 by the time of the great flood of 1927. You’ll note that many of the congregations listed above were in areas of east and south Arkansas that have been declining economically in recent decades.

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, “Congregations in Helena, Blytheville and El Dorado closed, while others struggled to survive. The Jewish population has become concentrated in a few communities like Little Rock, Hot Springs, Fayetteville and Bentonville. In 1937, 13 cities in Arkansas had more than 50 Jews. In 2006, only four did. As of 2006, only congregations in Little Rock and Hot Springs had full-time rabbis.

“The only exception to this downward trend is Bentonville. In the 21st century, as Wal-Mart has encouraged major suppliers to open offices in its corporate hometown, Bentonville has seen its Jewish population skyrocket. In 2004, a group of 30 families founded Bentonville’s first Jewish congregation, Etz Chaim, which has quickly become the fastest-growing congregation in the state. Bentonville is the exception to the regional trend of small-town Jewish communities declining. Most of the founding members of Etz Chaim are not Arkansas natives. Unlike the peddlers and merchants who initially settled in Arkansas in the 19th century, these 21st century migrants are executives at large corporations. They represent the generation of Jewish professionals who have largely replaced the Jewish merchant class in the South’s metropolitan areas.”

Just as the population base of Arkansas has shifted from east to west during the past 60 years, many of the artifacts from Temple Beth El in Helena went to the northwest when the temple was closed in 2006. The building was donated to the state’s Delta Cultural Center. The artifacts are now used by Etz Chaim in Bentonville.

The remaining Jews in Phillips County now gather for services in homes, just as the early Jews of east Arkansas did before Congregation Beth El was established in 1867.

Last December, the Jewish news service JTA distributed an article about a Friday night service in the home of David and Miriam Solomon at Helena.

“We’re just going back to the cycle,” Miriam Solomon said. “We’ve come full circle.”

Ben Harris wrote in the article, “The plight of Helena’s Jews is mirrored in scores of communities across the Bible Belt, where Jews first migrated in the early 19th century, generally as peddlers. Those who stuck around opened small businesses, which for a long time provided an ample livelihood.”

“I relate everything to economics. People are going where they can make a living,” David Solomon said. “That’s it.”

Harris wrote that David Solomon is “something of a legend in eastern Arkansas. He has held countless civic offices, and all the downtown storekeepers know when he’s around. One of them ticked off the list of legal matters with which he had helped her, including a divorce and real estate issues.”

After reading Saturday’s newspaper column, a Little Rock man e-mailed me about a visit earlier this year to David Solomon’s office: “I was told to ‘hurry down to his office as he goes out for lunch.’ They added that he is into his 90s but you wouldn’t know it. I arrived at his office, and he looked better than I did though I am 35 to 40 years younger. He had on a pinstripe shirt, cuff links, bow tie and he knew who I was immediately though I had only met him once. He was friendly and quietly gave me attention but pointed to a boardroom and said, ‘I am so sorry. I have a room full of clients.”’

He’s 93 and going strong, carrying on the legacy of Delta Jews.

As the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities points out, “Despite the fact that they were always less than one-half of 1 percent of Arkansas’ population, Jews have played an important role in the social and economic development of the state. The Kempner, Blass and Pfeifer families all owned leading department stores. Howard Eichenbaum was a celebrated architect who designed many significant buildings in Little Rock. Jacob Trieber of Helena was the first Jew in America ever appointed as a federal judge, serving the Eastern District of Arkansas from 1900 to 1927. Julian Waterman was the first dean of the University of Arkansas Law School. Rabbi Ira Sanders, who served Little Rock Congregation B’nai Israel from 1926-63, became an outspoken supporter of racial equality during the turbulent era of civil rights. Cyrus Adler, who was born in Van Buren, became one of the most prominent Jewish leaders in America during the early 20th century, serving as president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Historical Society.”

All three of Miriam and David Solomon’s sons ended up on the East Coast. All have been highly successful in their careers. Just last week, President Obama announced that Lafe Solomon will serve as the acting general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board.

Those careers, though, have taken place somewhere other than the Delta.

Harris wrote that Miriam and David Solomon have a “benign resignation” over the impending end of Jewish life in Helena that derives “at least in part from the success they have had in winding down their affairs and ensuring the continued maintenance of their synagogue and cemetery, which dates to 1875. Their ritual objects have been donated to other communities, and a trust has been established to ensure the cemetery’s upkeep. And with the synagogue and its glass-domed ceiling turned over to the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the building will not only be preserved, it will be put to good use.”

Missing oysters and the Redneck Riviera

Like millions of other Americans, I’ve watched the television stories and read the published accounts as the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico continues to unfold.

BP’s chief executive officer was on Capitol Hill yesterday, saying how sorry he was that this has happened.

The apology didn’t make me feel any better.

I suspect it will be many years before we have a handle on the ramifications of the oil spill.

As is the case with so many other people in the South, annual visits to the Redneck Riviera are a cherished family tradition. We skipped last summer because I had just begun a new job June 1, money was tight and the timing wasn’t right for a vacation.

But in January, looking to warm up from what was a brutally cold winter by Arkansas standards, we went on the Internet and found a house we liked at Orange Beach in Alabama. We then found a week in late July that worked for everyone and made our reservations.

I almost felt guilty when we made the decision a few weeks ago to cancel those reservations. The folks on the coast are begging us to come down, eat in the restaurants, play golf, etc. Frankly, though, it’s too much money to spend for a possible view of work crews in orange vests scouring the beach, complete with loud trucks, early in the morning. That’s not a relaxing thought.

Hopefully, by next summer, things will be better and we can head to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida to celebrate our oldest son’s graduation from high school.

For now, I’ll miss the long walks, I’ll miss cooking on the grill as the sun sets, I’ll miss sitting on the deck and finally taking the time to read a book.

And I’ll miss the fresh seafood, especially the oysters.

I love oysters — raw, fried, steamed, baked, you name it.

Years ago, I convinced my mother-in-law to always make oyster dressing rather than just regular dressing for the holidays.

Things really hit home last week when the news came that P&J Oyster Co., which has been operating in New Orleans for 134 years, has stopped shucking oysters.

“My son — who is delivering oysters right now — he asked me yesterday, ‘Should I go apply for food stamps?”’ said Al Sunseri, the company’s president. “I started here when I was 21, and I remember how I wanted to carry on the tradition of our business, and I remember the feeling of not only the pressures of trying to carry on this long-standing business but also the opportunity that I had to do it.”

Two-thirds of the nation’s oysters come from the Gulf of Mexico. There were almost 13 million pounds of oysters worth about $40 million in sales at the dock harvested in Louisiana alone in 2008.

Sunseri said his oyster shuckers could make from $16 to $24 an hour, depending on their skill levels. Sunseri believes many of the oyster beds will never reopen.

Here’s how the situation was described in a story at www.money.cnn.com: “Restaurants that depend on P&J Oysters have had to scramble. Dickie Brennan is the owner of Bourbon House, a restaurant in New Orleans’ French Quarter. His family owns a handful of restaurants that depend on P&J Oyster Co.

“Many of the restaurants that P&J Oyster works with have been customers for generations and want to continue to support the family-owned distributor. ‘I own and operate three restaurants. We are pretty good volume for these guys,’ Brennan said.

“The Bourbon House buys both shucked oysters — for sauteing, frying and poaching — and whole oysters — for the traditional oyster on the half shell. Brennan said he has been able to get oysters from distributors that draw from outside of the areas shut down by the spill. He hopes P&J Oyster will get back on its feet eventually.

“‘We are like family — New Orleans is a small city,’ Brennan said. “I talk to Sal or Al five times a day, and we are trying to come up wth different strategies. But the goal is that P&J can get back to normal.'”

P&J’s roots go back to Croatia, where fishing in the Adriatic Sea has been a way of life for centuries. During the 1800s, many Croatian fishermen began to migrate to south Louisiana. One of them was John Popich, who wound up near New Orleans. He became an oysterman. The French Quarter company he began in 1876 is the oldest continually operating dealer of oysters in the country.

Some of the most famous dishes in New Orleans — including the oysters Rockefeller invented at Antoine’s by the Alciatore family — traditionally have used oysters from P&J Oyster Co.

The Sunseri brothers plan to bring in oysters from the Atlantic Coast and the Pacific Coast for customers. But they won’t be Gulf oysters shucked in the French Quarter.

“It is like trying to sell oranges instead of apples in an apple market,” Al Sunseri said. “Those oranges that people aren’t accustomed to eating instead of those apples, they are having to pay three times the price.”

It takes oysters between 18 months and 24 months to grow to full size.

How long will it take the oyster industry in the Gulf to recover once the oil is stopped?

“There is a lot of unknown, and it has everything to do with so much that we have never seen happen before,” Al Sunseri said.

Kevin McGill of The Associated Press began his story this way in a dispatch last week: “An early morning workday ritual — the shucking of small mountains of oysters for New Orleans restaurants — fell victim to the BP offshore oil spill at a 134-year-old French Quarter oyster house where neighbors treated the news like a death in the family. Amid the din of nearly a dozen men and women hammering and prying at the last piles of craggy oyster shells at P&J Oyster Co., Jerry Amato wandered in bearing comfort food: aluminum trays full of scrambled eggs, fried ham, grits and biscuits.

”’That’s what we do in New Orleans. After the funeral, we bring food,’ said Amato, proprietor of Mother’s Restaurant.

“P&J isn’t quite dead yet but, barring an unforeseen reopening of the oyster beds that supply the business, Thursday was to be the final day of shucking at the family owned business.”

Al Sunseri, 52, nodded toward the shuckers on that last day and told McGill: “These ladies here, those guys — I grew up with them. We were in our 20s when we started.”

To the west in Franklin, La., Ameripure Oyster Co. (the oysters they serve at the Back Porch in Destin, a restaurant familiar to Arkansans, come from there), company owner John Tesvich said, “The same thing happening over at P&J is happening over here also. … They’re on the point of depletion now.”

Wilbert Collins, 73, is a third-generation oyster farmer. He told McGill that it could take three years to replenish the stock on some of his leases. Two of Collins’ three boats are idle, and the third is helping clean up the spill.

The oystermen of Louisiana truly seem to be in a no-win situation.

“Oyster growers and harvesters are facing a double threat,” McGill wrote. “On the one hand, oil gushing from the blown-out well off Louisiana could contaminate the beds, killing the oysters or rendering them unsafe to eat. On the other hand, a method of fighting the encroaching oil by opening inland water diversion gates in hopes of pushing the oil back also could kill oysters. The fresh inland water dilutes saltier waters oysters need to thrive. Complicating the problem: It’s spawning season for young oysters.”

Here’s how McGill ended his story: “At P&J, longtime employee Wayne Gordon, 42, said his emotions ran the gamut from pain at the prospect of losing a job he’s held since he was 18 to anger at what he sees as the incompetence that caused the unending underwater gusher. ‘Twenty-four years,’ Gordon said as he took a break in the room where freshly shucked oysters were being packed into plastic cartons. ‘I cannot imagine not being here.”’

Tom Fitzmorris, a veteran New Orleans food writer and radio host who sends out The New Orleans Menu Daily online (I’ve subscribed for years and love it) summed up my feelings when he wrote: “This is very bad news. Sal Sunseri has been one of the most positive and active people in the seafood business in New Orleans. His product has been good enough that many restaurants around town specify on their menus that they serve P&J oysters. For him to lay off his staff and shut his doors indefinitely does not bode well for our favorite local seafood. It is not an act designed to just get attention, that’s for sure.

“The oil spill . . . is still putting fresh oil into the water. It’s meeting with what’s there already to create a really abysmal glop that is flowing into all the best areas for oystering. And there’s not going to be an easy fix for this. Some are saying (although I don’t believe this myself) that it will be many years before we have oysters again from the prime beds in Barataria Bay and on the East Bank of the river.

“Unlike many inside and outside of the media, I don’t pretend to know the solution. That’s really the worst part of this: Questions are everywhere, answers are nowhere. It’s scary when even the best people don’t know what to do. (There’s a difference between saying you know and actually knowing.) Nor do I think the orgy of blame assignment, lawsuits and shoulda woulda coulda scenarios is adding anything to this horrible turn of events.

“I just want to cry. And then I want to wait and see, with crossed fingers. They said it would be years before we’d have oysters again after Katrina. It proved to be only weeks. I know this is different, but. . . well, I’m waiting and watching. What else can one do other than help those affected directly?”

Like Tom, I don’t pretend to know the solution.

Like Tom, I just want to cry.

I’ve written before about how my parents sometimes would take my sister and me to Biloxi and Gulfport in the summer. As noted in earlier posts, we didn’t even know the prettier blue water and the whiter sand was just to the east of us in the Florida Panhandle. The Mississippi coast was the first one we hit heading south from Arkansas, and that was as far as my father cared to drive.

But we loved it. To this day, I find myself enjoying each part of the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida.

I tasted my first raw oyster at a place on the Mississippi coast called the Friendship House. Unlike most kids, I immediately fell in love with fresh, salty raw oysters.

Years later, my wife and I honeymooned in New Orleans just so we could eat in various restaurants there for a week. I told her I thought I could get my name on the wall at the Acme along with the other people who had eaten large numbers of raw oysters. She wouldn’t let me try.

I now feel that same sense of loss I felt from afar in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

We’ll go another summer without making it to the Gulf Coast. I’ll look out the window and daydream about walking around one of my favorite towns — Pass Christian in Mississippi, Fairhope in Alabama, Apalachicola in Florida.


Brennan’s, Icon of New Orleans’ French Quarter, is ‘Restored and Reborn’ on November 25 - Recipes

Johnny Cash is a music icon. His name is known worldwide.

That begs the question: Why haven’t we done more as a state to cash in on the fact that he was from Arkansas?

He was born in Feburary 1932 at Kingsland in the pine woods of south Arkansas. Ray and Carrie Rivers Cash had seven children. In addition to the boy known as J.R., there were Roy, Louise, Jack, Reba, Joanne and Tommy.

The Cash family was one of several families from Cleveland County to be chosen to move to the federal government’s Dyess Colony in Mississippi County. So it was that Johnny Cash would leave the Gulf Coastal Plain at an age too young to remember and be raised instead in the Delta of northeast Arkansas.

“The tragic death of Jack Cash in a 1944 sawmill accident haunted young J.R. for the remainder of his life,” Eric Lensing writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “His mother introduced him to the guitar, and the local Church of God introduced him to music. He acquired a fascination for the guitar and a love for singing. Cash first sang on radio station KLCN in Blytheville while attending Dyess High School. Upon graduation in 1950, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after a brief search for work in Michigan.”

Though Arkansas hasn’t done a good job of claiming the Cash legacy, Johnny never forgot his roots.

In February 1968, he returned for a homecoming show at the Dyess High School gymnasium.

The following September, Paris (as in Logan County, not France) native Bob Wootton came out of the audience to play guitar during a Cash concert in Fayetteville. Wootton had long been a Cash fan, playing his songs religiously and perfecting the style of the band. Wootton’s chance to fill in came after a flight cancellation left only Cash and drummer W.S. Holland on the stage. Cash was stunned by Wootton’s perfect renditions.

When original lead guitarist Luther Perkins died in a house fire, Wootton was asked to join the Tennessee Three. Wootton performed with Cash until 1997.

One of Cash’s most famous concerts came in April 1969 when he peformed for the inmates at Cummins. In 1980, the Kingsland native became the youngest person ever elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

I recently attended a meeting during which a group of business and civic leaders heard updates on Arkansas State University’s plans to not only capitalize on the Cash name but also interpret the history of the Dyess Colony for visitors.

In March, John Milner Associates Inc. completed work on a redevelopment master plan for Dyess that was commissioned by ASU.

The introduction to the plan states, “The New Deal Works Progress Administration Rural Resettlement Program provided a sense of hope and renewal for farming families of the Arkansas Delta whose lives were devastated by the natural and economic disasters of the early 20th century. Springing forth from 16,000 acres of forested swamp bottomland drained and cut for the new town, an army of workers constructed the 28-block town with 500 small farms surrounding it. In town, historically referred to as Dyess Center, several residences were constructed along with a hospital, school, churches, commissary, canning plant and administration building. After a rigorous interview, selected families were each set up with a 10-acre farmstead complete with house, barn, smokehouse and mule. Built on the fundamental values of achievement through hard work . . . Dyess became an incubator for success and optimism.

“Since its incorporation in the 1960s as a small city independent of federal support and control, it is apparent that the town has seen some hard times. The city council has had to contend with a range of serious issues including depopulation, loss of businesses and tax base, needed upgrade of infrastructure and lax code enforcement. However, the tight-knit sense of community lives on.”

Arkansas State, which has an outstanding record of preserving historic Delta sites, can start the process of preserving that which is historic at Dyess. Eventually, though, it will need the support of the Cash estate, private foundations and others to turn Dyess into the kind of tourist attraction it should be.

The location is ideal — just off busy Interstate 55 between Memphis and St. Louis. Tourists visiting Graceland in Memphis will find it easy to drive up to Dyess.

When tourists stop there now, there’s little to see or do. The Cash home still stands, but it’s in private hands, it’s not in good condition and it isn’t open to the public.

“The Johnny Cash house is owned by the Stegall family and occupied by Willie Stegall and his son,” the redevelopment master plan states. “It has been the Stegall family home for over 40 years. Over those years, the family has made improvements and adjustments to the house just as many other families who lived in small frame houses did in the same decades. The house is currently in declining condition, in part because of the way many wood elements are exposed to water and other weather-related sources of deterioration. The house has some unpainted wood components, both in places where the paint has failed and in places where the wood was never painted. Like many old houses, it has an imperfect system for roof drainage. The conditions inside and out are less than ideal, but the Stegall family has sought different ways to improve the house at different times with totally different approaches.”

According to this assessment, the changes the family made to the home in the 1960s and 1970s were logical for the time. A modern kitchen was added. The living room was changed. But the assessment adds, “If the dwelling is to be restored to its original configuration and appearance, these changes will have to be removed. Also it is important that any remaining historic materials and architectural features be preserved.”

— The family sells the Cash home to ASU, a foundation or the Cash estate at a reasonable price. It’s restored to its original condition and it’s opened to tourists.

— The Dyess Colony commissary is reconstructed to appear as it once did and opened as a store so tourists will have a place to shop. The original structure was lost to a fire. Only the foundation remains.

— Arkansas State obtains the money needed to transform the Dyess Colony administration building into a visitors’ center.

— The facades of the historic Dyess Theater and the adjoining Pop Shop restaurant are restored. Eventually those facades are incorporated into a new building that will house a small auditorium and a restaurant. The 100-seat theater will show films of Johnny Cash performances and documentaries on his life. The 30-seat restaurant will be leased to a local entrepreneur. Let’s hope it serves catfish, barbecue and other Delta specialties.

— A major marketing campaign is implemented. Prominent signage is placed on Interstate 55.

— An annual Johnny Cash tribute concert is held to raise funds for continued restoration.

As I reported in an earlier post, Arkansas State University has received a grant from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council to begin restoring the exterior of the administration building and begin stabilizing the theater facade.

There’s much to be done. But at least it’s a start. At least smart people are beginning to understand that we can cash in on Cash while saving an important piece of Arkansas history, this Great Depression resettlement colony that Eleanor Roosevelt visited in 1936.

As the redevelopment master plan points out, “Established on natural swampland, it gave its first residents a fresh start but also replicated the American pioneer experience of taming the wilderness and creating new farms and livelihoods. Dyess also left an indelible mark on American music culture as the town that produced singer and songwriter Johnny Cash. Its influence is particularly evident in Cash’s music and lyrics, many of which reference his family’s experiences as cotton farmers in Dyess.”

The Southern Jewish experience

Researching the column I wrote for last Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about a visit to Temple Beth El in Helena ended up being a far more interesting task than I ever would have imagined.

One of the things that has always fascinated me about the Delta is the great diversity there — the Italians, the Chinese, the Lebanese and the Jews were among the groups that came up the Mississippi River from New Orleans and down the river from St. Louis to settle this colorful region.

If you traveled farther inland from the river into the hills of either Arkansas or Mississippi, you historically found far less diversity.

It’s the same reason I always was intrigued with Hot Springs when I was growing up in Arkadelphia. In Arkadelphia, the chances were great that you were either a white Baptist or a black Baptist. Compared to the towns that surrounded it, Hot Springs was an exotic place.

The Delta was like that, though six decades of population loss is changing the demographic picture.

David Solomon, the Helena lawyer who turns 94 next month and still goes to work each day at his office on Cherry Street, established the Tapestry Endowment for Arkansas Jewish History. The endowment created a permanent home at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock for Carolyn Gray LeMaster’s extensive body of research on the history of Jews in Arkansas.

The fund’s name is taken from the title of LeMaster’s book, “A Corner of the Tapestry: A History of the Jewish Experience in Arkansas, 1820s-1900s.”

The Jewish Genealogy Library Collection calls her book “one of the most comprehensive studies ever done on a state’s Jewish community. ‘A Corner of the Tapestry’ is the story of the Jews who helped settle Arkansas and who stayed and flourished to become a significant part of the state’s history and culture. Data for the book have been collected in part from the American Jewish Archives, American Jewish Historical Society, the stones in Arkansas’ Jewish cemeteries, more than 1,500 articles and obituaries from journals and newspapers, personal letters from hundreds of present and former Jewish Arkansans, congressional histories, census and court records and some 400 oral interviews in more than 100 cities and towns in Arkansas.”

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, a project of the Goldring-Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, the first Jew to settle in Arkansas was Abraham Block. He opened a store in the town of Washington in southwest Arkansas in 1823.

“Block settled in Washington when there were no Jewish congregations or institutions in the Arkansas Territory,” the encyclopedia reports. “He was a charter member of the first Jewish synagogue in the region, Congregation Gates of Mercy in New Orleans, joining in 1828. Yet the lack of any organized Jewish life in Arkansas at the time took its toll on his family, and few of his children remained within the faith. Block’s life in Arkansas highlights the challenges that Jews have often faced in a state largely isolated from the centers of American Jewish life.

“The difficulties became a little easier as growing numbers of Jews from central Europe began to arrive in Arkansas in the years before the Civil War. These immigrants were part of the German wave of Jewish immigration, which settled primarily in the large cities of the Northeast and Midwest. But a significant minority of Jews from the German states and from Alsace-Lorraine settled in the rural South, including Arkansas. At the time of the Civil War, they had established small but growing Jewish communities in Little Rock, Fort Smith, Pine Bluff, DeValls Bluff, Van Buren, Jonesboro and Batesville. Despite their relatively short time in the state, Jews felt closely tied to their new home. Of the approximately 300 Jews in Arkansas at the time of the war, 53 fought for the Confederacy.”

Jewish merchants were attracted to Arkansas in the years after the war. They received their goods from Jewish wholesalers in the river cities of Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Memphis. According to the encyclopedia, 14 towns or communities were founded by Jews in Arkansas or named after early Jewish residents. These included Altheimer, Felsenthal and Levy.

The state’s first Jewish congregation, B’nai Israel in Little Rock, was chartered in 1866. A year later, Temple Beth El was founded in Helena and Congregation Anshe Emeth was founded in Pine Bluff. Later congregations were founded in Camden in 1869, Hot Springs in 1878, Texarkana in 1884, Jonesboro in 1897, Newport in 1905, Dermott in 1905, Eudora in 1912, Osceola in 1913, Forrest City in 1914, Wynne in 1915, Marianna in 1920, Blytheville in 1924, El Dorado in 1926, McGehee in 1947, Fayetteville in 1981 and Bentonville in 2004.

Due to a wave of immigration from Eastern Europe, the Jewish population of Arkansas grew from 1,466 in 1878 to 8,850 by the time of the great flood of 1927. You’ll note that many of the congregations listed above were in areas of east and south Arkansas that have been declining economically in recent decades.

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, “Congregations in Helena, Blytheville and El Dorado closed, while others struggled to survive. The Jewish population has become concentrated in a few communities like Little Rock, Hot Springs, Fayetteville and Bentonville. In 1937, 13 cities in Arkansas had more than 50 Jews. In 2006, only four did. As of 2006, only congregations in Little Rock and Hot Springs had full-time rabbis.

“The only exception to this downward trend is Bentonville. In the 21st century, as Wal-Mart has encouraged major suppliers to open offices in its corporate hometown, Bentonville has seen its Jewish population skyrocket. In 2004, a group of 30 families founded Bentonville’s first Jewish congregation, Etz Chaim, which has quickly become the fastest-growing congregation in the state. Bentonville is the exception to the regional trend of small-town Jewish communities declining. Most of the founding members of Etz Chaim are not Arkansas natives. Unlike the peddlers and merchants who initially settled in Arkansas in the 19th century, these 21st century migrants are executives at large corporations. They represent the generation of Jewish professionals who have largely replaced the Jewish merchant class in the South’s metropolitan areas.”

Just as the population base of Arkansas has shifted from east to west during the past 60 years, many of the artifacts from Temple Beth El in Helena went to the northwest when the temple was closed in 2006. The building was donated to the state’s Delta Cultural Center. The artifacts are now used by Etz Chaim in Bentonville.

The remaining Jews in Phillips County now gather for services in homes, just as the early Jews of east Arkansas did before Congregation Beth El was established in 1867.

Last December, the Jewish news service JTA distributed an article about a Friday night service in the home of David and Miriam Solomon at Helena.

“We’re just going back to the cycle,” Miriam Solomon said. “We’ve come full circle.”

Ben Harris wrote in the article, “The plight of Helena’s Jews is mirrored in scores of communities across the Bible Belt, where Jews first migrated in the early 19th century, generally as peddlers. Those who stuck around opened small businesses, which for a long time provided an ample livelihood.”

“I relate everything to economics. People are going where they can make a living,” David Solomon said. “That’s it.”

Harris wrote that David Solomon is “something of a legend in eastern Arkansas. He has held countless civic offices, and all the downtown storekeepers know when he’s around. One of them ticked off the list of legal matters with which he had helped her, including a divorce and real estate issues.”

After reading Saturday’s newspaper column, a Little Rock man e-mailed me about a visit earlier this year to David Solomon’s office: “I was told to ‘hurry down to his office as he goes out for lunch.’ They added that he is into his 90s but you wouldn’t know it. I arrived at his office, and he looked better than I did though I am 35 to 40 years younger. He had on a pinstripe shirt, cuff links, bow tie and he knew who I was immediately though I had only met him once. He was friendly and quietly gave me attention but pointed to a boardroom and said, ‘I am so sorry. I have a room full of clients.”’

He’s 93 and going strong, carrying on the legacy of Delta Jews.

As the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities points out, “Despite the fact that they were always less than one-half of 1 percent of Arkansas’ population, Jews have played an important role in the social and economic development of the state. The Kempner, Blass and Pfeifer families all owned leading department stores. Howard Eichenbaum was a celebrated architect who designed many significant buildings in Little Rock. Jacob Trieber of Helena was the first Jew in America ever appointed as a federal judge, serving the Eastern District of Arkansas from 1900 to 1927. Julian Waterman was the first dean of the University of Arkansas Law School. Rabbi Ira Sanders, who served Little Rock Congregation B’nai Israel from 1926-63, became an outspoken supporter of racial equality during the turbulent era of civil rights. Cyrus Adler, who was born in Van Buren, became one of the most prominent Jewish leaders in America during the early 20th century, serving as president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Historical Society.”

All three of Miriam and David Solomon’s sons ended up on the East Coast. All have been highly successful in their careers. Just last week, President Obama announced that Lafe Solomon will serve as the acting general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board.

Those careers, though, have taken place somewhere other than the Delta.

Harris wrote that Miriam and David Solomon have a “benign resignation” over the impending end of Jewish life in Helena that derives “at least in part from the success they have had in winding down their affairs and ensuring the continued maintenance of their synagogue and cemetery, which dates to 1875. Their ritual objects have been donated to other communities, and a trust has been established to ensure the cemetery’s upkeep. And with the synagogue and its glass-domed ceiling turned over to the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the building will not only be preserved, it will be put to good use.”

Missing oysters and the Redneck Riviera

Like millions of other Americans, I’ve watched the television stories and read the published accounts as the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico continues to unfold.

BP’s chief executive officer was on Capitol Hill yesterday, saying how sorry he was that this has happened.

The apology didn’t make me feel any better.

I suspect it will be many years before we have a handle on the ramifications of the oil spill.

As is the case with so many other people in the South, annual visits to the Redneck Riviera are a cherished family tradition. We skipped last summer because I had just begun a new job June 1, money was tight and the timing wasn’t right for a vacation.

But in January, looking to warm up from what was a brutally cold winter by Arkansas standards, we went on the Internet and found a house we liked at Orange Beach in Alabama. We then found a week in late July that worked for everyone and made our reservations.

I almost felt guilty when we made the decision a few weeks ago to cancel those reservations. The folks on the coast are begging us to come down, eat in the restaurants, play golf, etc. Frankly, though, it’s too much money to spend for a possible view of work crews in orange vests scouring the beach, complete with loud trucks, early in the morning. That’s not a relaxing thought.

Hopefully, by next summer, things will be better and we can head to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida to celebrate our oldest son’s graduation from high school.

For now, I’ll miss the long walks, I’ll miss cooking on the grill as the sun sets, I’ll miss sitting on the deck and finally taking the time to read a book.

And I’ll miss the fresh seafood, especially the oysters.

I love oysters — raw, fried, steamed, baked, you name it.

Years ago, I convinced my mother-in-law to always make oyster dressing rather than just regular dressing for the holidays.

Things really hit home last week when the news came that P&J Oyster Co., which has been operating in New Orleans for 134 years, has stopped shucking oysters.

“My son — who is delivering oysters right now — he asked me yesterday, ‘Should I go apply for food stamps?”’ said Al Sunseri, the company’s president. “I started here when I was 21, and I remember how I wanted to carry on the tradition of our business, and I remember the feeling of not only the pressures of trying to carry on this long-standing business but also the opportunity that I had to do it.”

Two-thirds of the nation’s oysters come from the Gulf of Mexico. There were almost 13 million pounds of oysters worth about $40 million in sales at the dock harvested in Louisiana alone in 2008.

Sunseri said his oyster shuckers could make from $16 to $24 an hour, depending on their skill levels. Sunseri believes many of the oyster beds will never reopen.

Here’s how the situation was described in a story at www.money.cnn.com: “Restaurants that depend on P&J Oysters have had to scramble. Dickie Brennan is the owner of Bourbon House, a restaurant in New Orleans’ French Quarter. His family owns a handful of restaurants that depend on P&J Oyster Co.

“Many of the restaurants that P&J Oyster works with have been customers for generations and want to continue to support the family-owned distributor. ‘I own and operate three restaurants. We are pretty good volume for these guys,’ Brennan said.

“The Bourbon House buys both shucked oysters — for sauteing, frying and poaching — and whole oysters — for the traditional oyster on the half shell. Brennan said he has been able to get oysters from distributors that draw from outside of the areas shut down by the spill. He hopes P&J Oyster will get back on its feet eventually.

“‘We are like family — New Orleans is a small city,’ Brennan said. “I talk to Sal or Al five times a day, and we are trying to come up wth different strategies. But the goal is that P&J can get back to normal.'”

P&J’s roots go back to Croatia, where fishing in the Adriatic Sea has been a way of life for centuries. During the 1800s, many Croatian fishermen began to migrate to south Louisiana. One of them was John Popich, who wound up near New Orleans. He became an oysterman. The French Quarter company he began in 1876 is the oldest continually operating dealer of oysters in the country.

Some of the most famous dishes in New Orleans — including the oysters Rockefeller invented at Antoine’s by the Alciatore family — traditionally have used oysters from P&J Oyster Co.

The Sunseri brothers plan to bring in oysters from the Atlantic Coast and the Pacific Coast for customers. But they won’t be Gulf oysters shucked in the French Quarter.

“It is like trying to sell oranges instead of apples in an apple market,” Al Sunseri said. “Those oranges that people aren’t accustomed to eating instead of those apples, they are having to pay three times the price.”

It takes oysters between 18 months and 24 months to grow to full size.

How long will it take the oyster industry in the Gulf to recover once the oil is stopped?

“There is a lot of unknown, and it has everything to do with so much that we have never seen happen before,” Al Sunseri said.

Kevin McGill of The Associated Press began his story this way in a dispatch last week: “An early morning workday ritual — the shucking of small mountains of oysters for New Orleans restaurants — fell victim to the BP offshore oil spill at a 134-year-old French Quarter oyster house where neighbors treated the news like a death in the family. Amid the din of nearly a dozen men and women hammering and prying at the last piles of craggy oyster shells at P&J Oyster Co., Jerry Amato wandered in bearing comfort food: aluminum trays full of scrambled eggs, fried ham, grits and biscuits.

”’That’s what we do in New Orleans. After the funeral, we bring food,’ said Amato, proprietor of Mother’s Restaurant.

“P&J isn’t quite dead yet but, barring an unforeseen reopening of the oyster beds that supply the business, Thursday was to be the final day of shucking at the family owned business.”

Al Sunseri, 52, nodded toward the shuckers on that last day and told McGill: “These ladies here, those guys — I grew up with them. We were in our 20s when we started.”

To the west in Franklin, La., Ameripure Oyster Co. (the oysters they serve at the Back Porch in Destin, a restaurant familiar to Arkansans, come from there), company owner John Tesvich said, “The same thing happening over at P&J is happening over here also. … They’re on the point of depletion now.”

Wilbert Collins, 73, is a third-generation oyster farmer. He told McGill that it could take three years to replenish the stock on some of his leases. Two of Collins’ three boats are idle, and the third is helping clean up the spill.

The oystermen of Louisiana truly seem to be in a no-win situation.

“Oyster growers and harvesters are facing a double threat,” McGill wrote. “On the one hand, oil gushing from the blown-out well off Louisiana could contaminate the beds, killing the oysters or rendering them unsafe to eat. On the other hand, a method of fighting the encroaching oil by opening inland water diversion gates in hopes of pushing the oil back also could kill oysters. The fresh inland water dilutes saltier waters oysters need to thrive. Complicating the problem: It’s spawning season for young oysters.”

Here’s how McGill ended his story: “At P&J, longtime employee Wayne Gordon, 42, said his emotions ran the gamut from pain at the prospect of losing a job he’s held since he was 18 to anger at what he sees as the incompetence that caused the unending underwater gusher. ‘Twenty-four years,’ Gordon said as he took a break in the room where freshly shucked oysters were being packed into plastic cartons. ‘I cannot imagine not being here.”’

Tom Fitzmorris, a veteran New Orleans food writer and radio host who sends out The New Orleans Menu Daily online (I’ve subscribed for years and love it) summed up my feelings when he wrote: “This is very bad news. Sal Sunseri has been one of the most positive and active people in the seafood business in New Orleans. His product has been good enough that many restaurants around town specify on their menus that they serve P&J oysters. For him to lay off his staff and shut his doors indefinitely does not bode well for our favorite local seafood. It is not an act designed to just get attention, that’s for sure.

“The oil spill . . . is still putting fresh oil into the water. It’s meeting with what’s there already to create a really abysmal glop that is flowing into all the best areas for oystering. And there’s not going to be an easy fix for this. Some are saying (although I don’t believe this myself) that it will be many years before we have oysters again from the prime beds in Barataria Bay and on the East Bank of the river.

“Unlike many inside and outside of the media, I don’t pretend to know the solution. That’s really the worst part of this: Questions are everywhere, answers are nowhere. It’s scary when even the best people don’t know what to do. (There’s a difference between saying you know and actually knowing.) Nor do I think the orgy of blame assignment, lawsuits and shoulda woulda coulda scenarios is adding anything to this horrible turn of events.

“I just want to cry. And then I want to wait and see, with crossed fingers. They said it would be years before we’d have oysters again after Katrina. It proved to be only weeks. I know this is different, but. . . well, I’m waiting and watching. What else can one do other than help those affected directly?”

Like Tom, I don’t pretend to know the solution.

Like Tom, I just want to cry.

I’ve written before about how my parents sometimes would take my sister and me to Biloxi and Gulfport in the summer. As noted in earlier posts, we didn’t even know the prettier blue water and the whiter sand was just to the east of us in the Florida Panhandle. The Mississippi coast was the first one we hit heading south from Arkansas, and that was as far as my father cared to drive.

But we loved it. To this day, I find myself enjoying each part of the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida.

I tasted my first raw oyster at a place on the Mississippi coast called the Friendship House. Unlike most kids, I immediately fell in love with fresh, salty raw oysters.

Years later, my wife and I honeymooned in New Orleans just so we could eat in various restaurants there for a week. I told her I thought I could get my name on the wall at the Acme along with the other people who had eaten large numbers of raw oysters. She wouldn’t let me try.

I now feel that same sense of loss I felt from afar in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

We’ll go another summer without making it to the Gulf Coast. I’ll look out the window and daydream about walking around one of my favorite towns — Pass Christian in Mississippi, Fairhope in Alabama, Apalachicola in Florida.


Brennan’s, Icon of New Orleans’ French Quarter, is ‘Restored and Reborn’ on November 25 - Recipes

Johnny Cash is a music icon. His name is known worldwide.

That begs the question: Why haven’t we done more as a state to cash in on the fact that he was from Arkansas?

He was born in Feburary 1932 at Kingsland in the pine woods of south Arkansas. Ray and Carrie Rivers Cash had seven children. In addition to the boy known as J.R., there were Roy, Louise, Jack, Reba, Joanne and Tommy.

The Cash family was one of several families from Cleveland County to be chosen to move to the federal government’s Dyess Colony in Mississippi County. So it was that Johnny Cash would leave the Gulf Coastal Plain at an age too young to remember and be raised instead in the Delta of northeast Arkansas.

“The tragic death of Jack Cash in a 1944 sawmill accident haunted young J.R. for the remainder of his life,” Eric Lensing writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “His mother introduced him to the guitar, and the local Church of God introduced him to music. He acquired a fascination for the guitar and a love for singing. Cash first sang on radio station KLCN in Blytheville while attending Dyess High School. Upon graduation in 1950, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after a brief search for work in Michigan.”

Though Arkansas hasn’t done a good job of claiming the Cash legacy, Johnny never forgot his roots.

In February 1968, he returned for a homecoming show at the Dyess High School gymnasium.

The following September, Paris (as in Logan County, not France) native Bob Wootton came out of the audience to play guitar during a Cash concert in Fayetteville. Wootton had long been a Cash fan, playing his songs religiously and perfecting the style of the band. Wootton’s chance to fill in came after a flight cancellation left only Cash and drummer W.S. Holland on the stage. Cash was stunned by Wootton’s perfect renditions.

When original lead guitarist Luther Perkins died in a house fire, Wootton was asked to join the Tennessee Three. Wootton performed with Cash until 1997.

One of Cash’s most famous concerts came in April 1969 when he peformed for the inmates at Cummins. In 1980, the Kingsland native became the youngest person ever elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

I recently attended a meeting during which a group of business and civic leaders heard updates on Arkansas State University’s plans to not only capitalize on the Cash name but also interpret the history of the Dyess Colony for visitors.

In March, John Milner Associates Inc. completed work on a redevelopment master plan for Dyess that was commissioned by ASU.

The introduction to the plan states, “The New Deal Works Progress Administration Rural Resettlement Program provided a sense of hope and renewal for farming families of the Arkansas Delta whose lives were devastated by the natural and economic disasters of the early 20th century. Springing forth from 16,000 acres of forested swamp bottomland drained and cut for the new town, an army of workers constructed the 28-block town with 500 small farms surrounding it. In town, historically referred to as Dyess Center, several residences were constructed along with a hospital, school, churches, commissary, canning plant and administration building. After a rigorous interview, selected families were each set up with a 10-acre farmstead complete with house, barn, smokehouse and mule. Built on the fundamental values of achievement through hard work . . . Dyess became an incubator for success and optimism.

“Since its incorporation in the 1960s as a small city independent of federal support and control, it is apparent that the town has seen some hard times. The city council has had to contend with a range of serious issues including depopulation, loss of businesses and tax base, needed upgrade of infrastructure and lax code enforcement. However, the tight-knit sense of community lives on.”

Arkansas State, which has an outstanding record of preserving historic Delta sites, can start the process of preserving that which is historic at Dyess. Eventually, though, it will need the support of the Cash estate, private foundations and others to turn Dyess into the kind of tourist attraction it should be.

The location is ideal — just off busy Interstate 55 between Memphis and St. Louis. Tourists visiting Graceland in Memphis will find it easy to drive up to Dyess.

When tourists stop there now, there’s little to see or do. The Cash home still stands, but it’s in private hands, it’s not in good condition and it isn’t open to the public.

“The Johnny Cash house is owned by the Stegall family and occupied by Willie Stegall and his son,” the redevelopment master plan states. “It has been the Stegall family home for over 40 years. Over those years, the family has made improvements and adjustments to the house just as many other families who lived in small frame houses did in the same decades. The house is currently in declining condition, in part because of the way many wood elements are exposed to water and other weather-related sources of deterioration. The house has some unpainted wood components, both in places where the paint has failed and in places where the wood was never painted. Like many old houses, it has an imperfect system for roof drainage. The conditions inside and out are less than ideal, but the Stegall family has sought different ways to improve the house at different times with totally different approaches.”

According to this assessment, the changes the family made to the home in the 1960s and 1970s were logical for the time. A modern kitchen was added. The living room was changed. But the assessment adds, “If the dwelling is to be restored to its original configuration and appearance, these changes will have to be removed. Also it is important that any remaining historic materials and architectural features be preserved.”

— The family sells the Cash home to ASU, a foundation or the Cash estate at a reasonable price. It’s restored to its original condition and it’s opened to tourists.

— The Dyess Colony commissary is reconstructed to appear as it once did and opened as a store so tourists will have a place to shop. The original structure was lost to a fire. Only the foundation remains.

— Arkansas State obtains the money needed to transform the Dyess Colony administration building into a visitors’ center.

— The facades of the historic Dyess Theater and the adjoining Pop Shop restaurant are restored. Eventually those facades are incorporated into a new building that will house a small auditorium and a restaurant. The 100-seat theater will show films of Johnny Cash performances and documentaries on his life. The 30-seat restaurant will be leased to a local entrepreneur. Let’s hope it serves catfish, barbecue and other Delta specialties.

— A major marketing campaign is implemented. Prominent signage is placed on Interstate 55.

— An annual Johnny Cash tribute concert is held to raise funds for continued restoration.

As I reported in an earlier post, Arkansas State University has received a grant from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council to begin restoring the exterior of the administration building and begin stabilizing the theater facade.

There’s much to be done. But at least it’s a start. At least smart people are beginning to understand that we can cash in on Cash while saving an important piece of Arkansas history, this Great Depression resettlement colony that Eleanor Roosevelt visited in 1936.

As the redevelopment master plan points out, “Established on natural swampland, it gave its first residents a fresh start but also replicated the American pioneer experience of taming the wilderness and creating new farms and livelihoods. Dyess also left an indelible mark on American music culture as the town that produced singer and songwriter Johnny Cash. Its influence is particularly evident in Cash’s music and lyrics, many of which reference his family’s experiences as cotton farmers in Dyess.”

The Southern Jewish experience

Researching the column I wrote for last Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about a visit to Temple Beth El in Helena ended up being a far more interesting task than I ever would have imagined.

One of the things that has always fascinated me about the Delta is the great diversity there — the Italians, the Chinese, the Lebanese and the Jews were among the groups that came up the Mississippi River from New Orleans and down the river from St. Louis to settle this colorful region.

If you traveled farther inland from the river into the hills of either Arkansas or Mississippi, you historically found far less diversity.

It’s the same reason I always was intrigued with Hot Springs when I was growing up in Arkadelphia. In Arkadelphia, the chances were great that you were either a white Baptist or a black Baptist. Compared to the towns that surrounded it, Hot Springs was an exotic place.

The Delta was like that, though six decades of population loss is changing the demographic picture.

David Solomon, the Helena lawyer who turns 94 next month and still goes to work each day at his office on Cherry Street, established the Tapestry Endowment for Arkansas Jewish History. The endowment created a permanent home at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock for Carolyn Gray LeMaster’s extensive body of research on the history of Jews in Arkansas.

The fund’s name is taken from the title of LeMaster’s book, “A Corner of the Tapestry: A History of the Jewish Experience in Arkansas, 1820s-1900s.”

The Jewish Genealogy Library Collection calls her book “one of the most comprehensive studies ever done on a state’s Jewish community. ‘A Corner of the Tapestry’ is the story of the Jews who helped settle Arkansas and who stayed and flourished to become a significant part of the state’s history and culture. Data for the book have been collected in part from the American Jewish Archives, American Jewish Historical Society, the stones in Arkansas’ Jewish cemeteries, more than 1,500 articles and obituaries from journals and newspapers, personal letters from hundreds of present and former Jewish Arkansans, congressional histories, census and court records and some 400 oral interviews in more than 100 cities and towns in Arkansas.”

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, a project of the Goldring-Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, the first Jew to settle in Arkansas was Abraham Block. He opened a store in the town of Washington in southwest Arkansas in 1823.

“Block settled in Washington when there were no Jewish congregations or institutions in the Arkansas Territory,” the encyclopedia reports. “He was a charter member of the first Jewish synagogue in the region, Congregation Gates of Mercy in New Orleans, joining in 1828. Yet the lack of any organized Jewish life in Arkansas at the time took its toll on his family, and few of his children remained within the faith. Block’s life in Arkansas highlights the challenges that Jews have often faced in a state largely isolated from the centers of American Jewish life.

“The difficulties became a little easier as growing numbers of Jews from central Europe began to arrive in Arkansas in the years before the Civil War. These immigrants were part of the German wave of Jewish immigration, which settled primarily in the large cities of the Northeast and Midwest. But a significant minority of Jews from the German states and from Alsace-Lorraine settled in the rural South, including Arkansas. At the time of the Civil War, they had established small but growing Jewish communities in Little Rock, Fort Smith, Pine Bluff, DeValls Bluff, Van Buren, Jonesboro and Batesville. Despite their relatively short time in the state, Jews felt closely tied to their new home. Of the approximately 300 Jews in Arkansas at the time of the war, 53 fought for the Confederacy.”

Jewish merchants were attracted to Arkansas in the years after the war. They received their goods from Jewish wholesalers in the river cities of Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Memphis. According to the encyclopedia, 14 towns or communities were founded by Jews in Arkansas or named after early Jewish residents. These included Altheimer, Felsenthal and Levy.

The state’s first Jewish congregation, B’nai Israel in Little Rock, was chartered in 1866. A year later, Temple Beth El was founded in Helena and Congregation Anshe Emeth was founded in Pine Bluff. Later congregations were founded in Camden in 1869, Hot Springs in 1878, Texarkana in 1884, Jonesboro in 1897, Newport in 1905, Dermott in 1905, Eudora in 1912, Osceola in 1913, Forrest City in 1914, Wynne in 1915, Marianna in 1920, Blytheville in 1924, El Dorado in 1926, McGehee in 1947, Fayetteville in 1981 and Bentonville in 2004.

Due to a wave of immigration from Eastern Europe, the Jewish population of Arkansas grew from 1,466 in 1878 to 8,850 by the time of the great flood of 1927. You’ll note that many of the congregations listed above were in areas of east and south Arkansas that have been declining economically in recent decades.

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, “Congregations in Helena, Blytheville and El Dorado closed, while others struggled to survive. The Jewish population has become concentrated in a few communities like Little Rock, Hot Springs, Fayetteville and Bentonville. In 1937, 13 cities in Arkansas had more than 50 Jews. In 2006, only four did. As of 2006, only congregations in Little Rock and Hot Springs had full-time rabbis.

“The only exception to this downward trend is Bentonville. In the 21st century, as Wal-Mart has encouraged major suppliers to open offices in its corporate hometown, Bentonville has seen its Jewish population skyrocket. In 2004, a group of 30 families founded Bentonville’s first Jewish congregation, Etz Chaim, which has quickly become the fastest-growing congregation in the state. Bentonville is the exception to the regional trend of small-town Jewish communities declining. Most of the founding members of Etz Chaim are not Arkansas natives. Unlike the peddlers and merchants who initially settled in Arkansas in the 19th century, these 21st century migrants are executives at large corporations. They represent the generation of Jewish professionals who have largely replaced the Jewish merchant class in the South’s metropolitan areas.”

Just as the population base of Arkansas has shifted from east to west during the past 60 years, many of the artifacts from Temple Beth El in Helena went to the northwest when the temple was closed in 2006. The building was donated to the state’s Delta Cultural Center. The artifacts are now used by Etz Chaim in Bentonville.

The remaining Jews in Phillips County now gather for services in homes, just as the early Jews of east Arkansas did before Congregation Beth El was established in 1867.

Last December, the Jewish news service JTA distributed an article about a Friday night service in the home of David and Miriam Solomon at Helena.

“We’re just going back to the cycle,” Miriam Solomon said. “We’ve come full circle.”

Ben Harris wrote in the article, “The plight of Helena’s Jews is mirrored in scores of communities across the Bible Belt, where Jews first migrated in the early 19th century, generally as peddlers. Those who stuck around opened small businesses, which for a long time provided an ample livelihood.”

“I relate everything to economics. People are going where they can make a living,” David Solomon said. “That’s it.”

Harris wrote that David Solomon is “something of a legend in eastern Arkansas. He has held countless civic offices, and all the downtown storekeepers know when he’s around. One of them ticked off the list of legal matters with which he had helped her, including a divorce and real estate issues.”

After reading Saturday’s newspaper column, a Little Rock man e-mailed me about a visit earlier this year to David Solomon’s office: “I was told to ‘hurry down to his office as he goes out for lunch.’ They added that he is into his 90s but you wouldn’t know it. I arrived at his office, and he looked better than I did though I am 35 to 40 years younger. He had on a pinstripe shirt, cuff links, bow tie and he knew who I was immediately though I had only met him once. He was friendly and quietly gave me attention but pointed to a boardroom and said, ‘I am so sorry. I have a room full of clients.”’

He’s 93 and going strong, carrying on the legacy of Delta Jews.

As the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities points out, “Despite the fact that they were always less than one-half of 1 percent of Arkansas’ population, Jews have played an important role in the social and economic development of the state. The Kempner, Blass and Pfeifer families all owned leading department stores. Howard Eichenbaum was a celebrated architect who designed many significant buildings in Little Rock. Jacob Trieber of Helena was the first Jew in America ever appointed as a federal judge, serving the Eastern District of Arkansas from 1900 to 1927. Julian Waterman was the first dean of the University of Arkansas Law School. Rabbi Ira Sanders, who served Little Rock Congregation B’nai Israel from 1926-63, became an outspoken supporter of racial equality during the turbulent era of civil rights. Cyrus Adler, who was born in Van Buren, became one of the most prominent Jewish leaders in America during the early 20th century, serving as president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Historical Society.”

All three of Miriam and David Solomon’s sons ended up on the East Coast. All have been highly successful in their careers. Just last week, President Obama announced that Lafe Solomon will serve as the acting general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board.

Those careers, though, have taken place somewhere other than the Delta.

Harris wrote that Miriam and David Solomon have a “benign resignation” over the impending end of Jewish life in Helena that derives “at least in part from the success they have had in winding down their affairs and ensuring the continued maintenance of their synagogue and cemetery, which dates to 1875. Their ritual objects have been donated to other communities, and a trust has been established to ensure the cemetery’s upkeep. And with the synagogue and its glass-domed ceiling turned over to the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the building will not only be preserved, it will be put to good use.”

Missing oysters and the Redneck Riviera

Like millions of other Americans, I’ve watched the television stories and read the published accounts as the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico continues to unfold.

BP’s chief executive officer was on Capitol Hill yesterday, saying how sorry he was that this has happened.

The apology didn’t make me feel any better.

I suspect it will be many years before we have a handle on the ramifications of the oil spill.

As is the case with so many other people in the South, annual visits to the Redneck Riviera are a cherished family tradition. We skipped last summer because I had just begun a new job June 1, money was tight and the timing wasn’t right for a vacation.

But in January, looking to warm up from what was a brutally cold winter by Arkansas standards, we went on the Internet and found a house we liked at Orange Beach in Alabama. We then found a week in late July that worked for everyone and made our reservations.

I almost felt guilty when we made the decision a few weeks ago to cancel those reservations. The folks on the coast are begging us to come down, eat in the restaurants, play golf, etc. Frankly, though, it’s too much money to spend for a possible view of work crews in orange vests scouring the beach, complete with loud trucks, early in the morning. That’s not a relaxing thought.

Hopefully, by next summer, things will be better and we can head to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida to celebrate our oldest son’s graduation from high school.

For now, I’ll miss the long walks, I’ll miss cooking on the grill as the sun sets, I’ll miss sitting on the deck and finally taking the time to read a book.

And I’ll miss the fresh seafood, especially the oysters.

I love oysters — raw, fried, steamed, baked, you name it.

Years ago, I convinced my mother-in-law to always make oyster dressing rather than just regular dressing for the holidays.

Things really hit home last week when the news came that P&J Oyster Co., which has been operating in New Orleans for 134 years, has stopped shucking oysters.

“My son — who is delivering oysters right now — he asked me yesterday, ‘Should I go apply for food stamps?”’ said Al Sunseri, the company’s president. “I started here when I was 21, and I remember how I wanted to carry on the tradition of our business, and I remember the feeling of not only the pressures of trying to carry on this long-standing business but also the opportunity that I had to do it.”

Two-thirds of the nation’s oysters come from the Gulf of Mexico. There were almost 13 million pounds of oysters worth about $40 million in sales at the dock harvested in Louisiana alone in 2008.

Sunseri said his oyster shuckers could make from $16 to $24 an hour, depending on their skill levels. Sunseri believes many of the oyster beds will never reopen.

Here’s how the situation was described in a story at www.money.cnn.com: “Restaurants that depend on P&J Oysters have had to scramble. Dickie Brennan is the owner of Bourbon House, a restaurant in New Orleans’ French Quarter. His family owns a handful of restaurants that depend on P&J Oyster Co.

“Many of the restaurants that P&J Oyster works with have been customers for generations and want to continue to support the family-owned distributor. ‘I own and operate three restaurants. We are pretty good volume for these guys,’ Brennan said.

“The Bourbon House buys both shucked oysters — for sauteing, frying and poaching — and whole oysters — for the traditional oyster on the half shell. Brennan said he has been able to get oysters from distributors that draw from outside of the areas shut down by the spill. He hopes P&J Oyster will get back on its feet eventually.

“‘We are like family — New Orleans is a small city,’ Brennan said. “I talk to Sal or Al five times a day, and we are trying to come up wth different strategies. But the goal is that P&J can get back to normal.'”

P&J’s roots go back to Croatia, where fishing in the Adriatic Sea has been a way of life for centuries. During the 1800s, many Croatian fishermen began to migrate to south Louisiana. One of them was John Popich, who wound up near New Orleans. He became an oysterman. The French Quarter company he began in 1876 is the oldest continually operating dealer of oysters in the country.

Some of the most famous dishes in New Orleans — including the oysters Rockefeller invented at Antoine’s by the Alciatore family — traditionally have used oysters from P&J Oyster Co.

The Sunseri brothers plan to bring in oysters from the Atlantic Coast and the Pacific Coast for customers. But they won’t be Gulf oysters shucked in the French Quarter.

“It is like trying to sell oranges instead of apples in an apple market,” Al Sunseri said. “Those oranges that people aren’t accustomed to eating instead of those apples, they are having to pay three times the price.”

It takes oysters between 18 months and 24 months to grow to full size.

How long will it take the oyster industry in the Gulf to recover once the oil is stopped?

“There is a lot of unknown, and it has everything to do with so much that we have never seen happen before,” Al Sunseri said.

Kevin McGill of The Associated Press began his story this way in a dispatch last week: “An early morning workday ritual — the shucking of small mountains of oysters for New Orleans restaurants — fell victim to the BP offshore oil spill at a 134-year-old French Quarter oyster house where neighbors treated the news like a death in the family. Amid the din of nearly a dozen men and women hammering and prying at the last piles of craggy oyster shells at P&J Oyster Co., Jerry Amato wandered in bearing comfort food: aluminum trays full of scrambled eggs, fried ham, grits and biscuits.

”’That’s what we do in New Orleans. After the funeral, we bring food,’ said Amato, proprietor of Mother’s Restaurant.

“P&J isn’t quite dead yet but, barring an unforeseen reopening of the oyster beds that supply the business, Thursday was to be the final day of shucking at the family owned business.”

Al Sunseri, 52, nodded toward the shuckers on that last day and told McGill: “These ladies here, those guys — I grew up with them. We were in our 20s when we started.”

To the west in Franklin, La., Ameripure Oyster Co. (the oysters they serve at the Back Porch in Destin, a restaurant familiar to Arkansans, come from there), company owner John Tesvich said, “The same thing happening over at P&J is happening over here also. … They’re on the point of depletion now.”

Wilbert Collins, 73, is a third-generation oyster farmer. He told McGill that it could take three years to replenish the stock on some of his leases. Two of Collins’ three boats are idle, and the third is helping clean up the spill.

The oystermen of Louisiana truly seem to be in a no-win situation.

“Oyster growers and harvesters are facing a double threat,” McGill wrote. “On the one hand, oil gushing from the blown-out well off Louisiana could contaminate the beds, killing the oysters or rendering them unsafe to eat. On the other hand, a method of fighting the encroaching oil by opening inland water diversion gates in hopes of pushing the oil back also could kill oysters. The fresh inland water dilutes saltier waters oysters need to thrive. Complicating the problem: It’s spawning season for young oysters.”

Here’s how McGill ended his story: “At P&J, longtime employee Wayne Gordon, 42, said his emotions ran the gamut from pain at the prospect of losing a job he’s held since he was 18 to anger at what he sees as the incompetence that caused the unending underwater gusher. ‘Twenty-four years,’ Gordon said as he took a break in the room where freshly shucked oysters were being packed into plastic cartons. ‘I cannot imagine not being here.”’

Tom Fitzmorris, a veteran New Orleans food writer and radio host who sends out The New Orleans Menu Daily online (I’ve subscribed for years and love it) summed up my feelings when he wrote: “This is very bad news. Sal Sunseri has been one of the most positive and active people in the seafood business in New Orleans. His product has been good enough that many restaurants around town specify on their menus that they serve P&J oysters. For him to lay off his staff and shut his doors indefinitely does not bode well for our favorite local seafood. It is not an act designed to just get attention, that’s for sure.

“The oil spill . . . is still putting fresh oil into the water. It’s meeting with what’s there already to create a really abysmal glop that is flowing into all the best areas for oystering. And there’s not going to be an easy fix for this. Some are saying (although I don’t believe this myself) that it will be many years before we have oysters again from the prime beds in Barataria Bay and on the East Bank of the river.

“Unlike many inside and outside of the media, I don’t pretend to know the solution. That’s really the worst part of this: Questions are everywhere, answers are nowhere. It’s scary when even the best people don’t know what to do. (There’s a difference between saying you know and actually knowing.) Nor do I think the orgy of blame assignment, lawsuits and shoulda woulda coulda scenarios is adding anything to this horrible turn of events.

“I just want to cry. And then I want to wait and see, with crossed fingers. They said it would be years before we’d have oysters again after Katrina. It proved to be only weeks. I know this is different, but. . . well, I’m waiting and watching. What else can one do other than help those affected directly?”

Like Tom, I don’t pretend to know the solution.

Like Tom, I just want to cry.

I’ve written before about how my parents sometimes would take my sister and me to Biloxi and Gulfport in the summer. As noted in earlier posts, we didn’t even know the prettier blue water and the whiter sand was just to the east of us in the Florida Panhandle. The Mississippi coast was the first one we hit heading south from Arkansas, and that was as far as my father cared to drive.

But we loved it. To this day, I find myself enjoying each part of the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida.

I tasted my first raw oyster at a place on the Mississippi coast called the Friendship House. Unlike most kids, I immediately fell in love with fresh, salty raw oysters.

Years later, my wife and I honeymooned in New Orleans just so we could eat in various restaurants there for a week. I told her I thought I could get my name on the wall at the Acme along with the other people who had eaten large numbers of raw oysters. She wouldn’t let me try.

I now feel that same sense of loss I felt from afar in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

We’ll go another summer without making it to the Gulf Coast. I’ll look out the window and daydream about walking around one of my favorite towns — Pass Christian in Mississippi, Fairhope in Alabama, Apalachicola in Florida.


Brennan’s, Icon of New Orleans’ French Quarter, is ‘Restored and Reborn’ on November 25 - Recipes

Johnny Cash is a music icon. His name is known worldwide.

That begs the question: Why haven’t we done more as a state to cash in on the fact that he was from Arkansas?

He was born in Feburary 1932 at Kingsland in the pine woods of south Arkansas. Ray and Carrie Rivers Cash had seven children. In addition to the boy known as J.R., there were Roy, Louise, Jack, Reba, Joanne and Tommy.

The Cash family was one of several families from Cleveland County to be chosen to move to the federal government’s Dyess Colony in Mississippi County. So it was that Johnny Cash would leave the Gulf Coastal Plain at an age too young to remember and be raised instead in the Delta of northeast Arkansas.

“The tragic death of Jack Cash in a 1944 sawmill accident haunted young J.R. for the remainder of his life,” Eric Lensing writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “His mother introduced him to the guitar, and the local Church of God introduced him to music. He acquired a fascination for the guitar and a love for singing. Cash first sang on radio station KLCN in Blytheville while attending Dyess High School. Upon graduation in 1950, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after a brief search for work in Michigan.”

Though Arkansas hasn’t done a good job of claiming the Cash legacy, Johnny never forgot his roots.

In February 1968, he returned for a homecoming show at the Dyess High School gymnasium.

The following September, Paris (as in Logan County, not France) native Bob Wootton came out of the audience to play guitar during a Cash concert in Fayetteville. Wootton had long been a Cash fan, playing his songs religiously and perfecting the style of the band. Wootton’s chance to fill in came after a flight cancellation left only Cash and drummer W.S. Holland on the stage. Cash was stunned by Wootton’s perfect renditions.

When original lead guitarist Luther Perkins died in a house fire, Wootton was asked to join the Tennessee Three. Wootton performed with Cash until 1997.

One of Cash’s most famous concerts came in April 1969 when he peformed for the inmates at Cummins. In 1980, the Kingsland native became the youngest person ever elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

I recently attended a meeting during which a group of business and civic leaders heard updates on Arkansas State University’s plans to not only capitalize on the Cash name but also interpret the history of the Dyess Colony for visitors.

In March, John Milner Associates Inc. completed work on a redevelopment master plan for Dyess that was commissioned by ASU.

The introduction to the plan states, “The New Deal Works Progress Administration Rural Resettlement Program provided a sense of hope and renewal for farming families of the Arkansas Delta whose lives were devastated by the natural and economic disasters of the early 20th century. Springing forth from 16,000 acres of forested swamp bottomland drained and cut for the new town, an army of workers constructed the 28-block town with 500 small farms surrounding it. In town, historically referred to as Dyess Center, several residences were constructed along with a hospital, school, churches, commissary, canning plant and administration building. After a rigorous interview, selected families were each set up with a 10-acre farmstead complete with house, barn, smokehouse and mule. Built on the fundamental values of achievement through hard work . . . Dyess became an incubator for success and optimism.

“Since its incorporation in the 1960s as a small city independent of federal support and control, it is apparent that the town has seen some hard times. The city council has had to contend with a range of serious issues including depopulation, loss of businesses and tax base, needed upgrade of infrastructure and lax code enforcement. However, the tight-knit sense of community lives on.”

Arkansas State, which has an outstanding record of preserving historic Delta sites, can start the process of preserving that which is historic at Dyess. Eventually, though, it will need the support of the Cash estate, private foundations and others to turn Dyess into the kind of tourist attraction it should be.

The location is ideal — just off busy Interstate 55 between Memphis and St. Louis. Tourists visiting Graceland in Memphis will find it easy to drive up to Dyess.

When tourists stop there now, there’s little to see or do. The Cash home still stands, but it’s in private hands, it’s not in good condition and it isn’t open to the public.

“The Johnny Cash house is owned by the Stegall family and occupied by Willie Stegall and his son,” the redevelopment master plan states. “It has been the Stegall family home for over 40 years. Over those years, the family has made improvements and adjustments to the house just as many other families who lived in small frame houses did in the same decades. The house is currently in declining condition, in part because of the way many wood elements are exposed to water and other weather-related sources of deterioration. The house has some unpainted wood components, both in places where the paint has failed and in places where the wood was never painted. Like many old houses, it has an imperfect system for roof drainage. The conditions inside and out are less than ideal, but the Stegall family has sought different ways to improve the house at different times with totally different approaches.”

According to this assessment, the changes the family made to the home in the 1960s and 1970s were logical for the time. A modern kitchen was added. The living room was changed. But the assessment adds, “If the dwelling is to be restored to its original configuration and appearance, these changes will have to be removed. Also it is important that any remaining historic materials and architectural features be preserved.”

— The family sells the Cash home to ASU, a foundation or the Cash estate at a reasonable price. It’s restored to its original condition and it’s opened to tourists.

— The Dyess Colony commissary is reconstructed to appear as it once did and opened as a store so tourists will have a place to shop. The original structure was lost to a fire. Only the foundation remains.

— Arkansas State obtains the money needed to transform the Dyess Colony administration building into a visitors’ center.

— The facades of the historic Dyess Theater and the adjoining Pop Shop restaurant are restored. Eventually those facades are incorporated into a new building that will house a small auditorium and a restaurant. The 100-seat theater will show films of Johnny Cash performances and documentaries on his life. The 30-seat restaurant will be leased to a local entrepreneur. Let’s hope it serves catfish, barbecue and other Delta specialties.

— A major marketing campaign is implemented. Prominent signage is placed on Interstate 55.

— An annual Johnny Cash tribute concert is held to raise funds for continued restoration.

As I reported in an earlier post, Arkansas State University has received a grant from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council to begin restoring the exterior of the administration building and begin stabilizing the theater facade.

There’s much to be done. But at least it’s a start. At least smart people are beginning to understand that we can cash in on Cash while saving an important piece of Arkansas history, this Great Depression resettlement colony that Eleanor Roosevelt visited in 1936.

As the redevelopment master plan points out, “Established on natural swampland, it gave its first residents a fresh start but also replicated the American pioneer experience of taming the wilderness and creating new farms and livelihoods. Dyess also left an indelible mark on American music culture as the town that produced singer and songwriter Johnny Cash. Its influence is particularly evident in Cash’s music and lyrics, many of which reference his family’s experiences as cotton farmers in Dyess.”

The Southern Jewish experience

Researching the column I wrote for last Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about a visit to Temple Beth El in Helena ended up being a far more interesting task than I ever would have imagined.

One of the things that has always fascinated me about the Delta is the great diversity there — the Italians, the Chinese, the Lebanese and the Jews were among the groups that came up the Mississippi River from New Orleans and down the river from St. Louis to settle this colorful region.

If you traveled farther inland from the river into the hills of either Arkansas or Mississippi, you historically found far less diversity.

It’s the same reason I always was intrigued with Hot Springs when I was growing up in Arkadelphia. In Arkadelphia, the chances were great that you were either a white Baptist or a black Baptist. Compared to the towns that surrounded it, Hot Springs was an exotic place.

The Delta was like that, though six decades of population loss is changing the demographic picture.

David Solomon, the Helena lawyer who turns 94 next month and still goes to work each day at his office on Cherry Street, established the Tapestry Endowment for Arkansas Jewish History. The endowment created a permanent home at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock for Carolyn Gray LeMaster’s extensive body of research on the history of Jews in Arkansas.

The fund’s name is taken from the title of LeMaster’s book, “A Corner of the Tapestry: A History of the Jewish Experience in Arkansas, 1820s-1900s.”

The Jewish Genealogy Library Collection calls her book “one of the most comprehensive studies ever done on a state’s Jewish community. ‘A Corner of the Tapestry’ is the story of the Jews who helped settle Arkansas and who stayed and flourished to become a significant part of the state’s history and culture. Data for the book have been collected in part from the American Jewish Archives, American Jewish Historical Society, the stones in Arkansas’ Jewish cemeteries, more than 1,500 articles and obituaries from journals and newspapers, personal letters from hundreds of present and former Jewish Arkansans, congressional histories, census and court records and some 400 oral interviews in more than 100 cities and towns in Arkansas.”

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, a project of the Goldring-Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, the first Jew to settle in Arkansas was Abraham Block. He opened a store in the town of Washington in southwest Arkansas in 1823.

“Block settled in Washington when there were no Jewish congregations or institutions in the Arkansas Territory,” the encyclopedia reports. “He was a charter member of the first Jewish synagogue in the region, Congregation Gates of Mercy in New Orleans, joining in 1828. Yet the lack of any organized Jewish life in Arkansas at the time took its toll on his family, and few of his children remained within the faith. Block’s life in Arkansas highlights the challenges that Jews have often faced in a state largely isolated from the centers of American Jewish life.

“The difficulties became a little easier as growing numbers of Jews from central Europe began to arrive in Arkansas in the years before the Civil War. These immigrants were part of the German wave of Jewish immigration, which settled primarily in the large cities of the Northeast and Midwest. But a significant minority of Jews from the German states and from Alsace-Lorraine settled in the rural South, including Arkansas. At the time of the Civil War, they had established small but growing Jewish communities in Little Rock, Fort Smith, Pine Bluff, DeValls Bluff, Van Buren, Jonesboro and Batesville. Despite their relatively short time in the state, Jews felt closely tied to their new home. Of the approximately 300 Jews in Arkansas at the time of the war, 53 fought for the Confederacy.”

Jewish merchants were attracted to Arkansas in the years after the war. They received their goods from Jewish wholesalers in the river cities of Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Memphis. According to the encyclopedia, 14 towns or communities were founded by Jews in Arkansas or named after early Jewish residents. These included Altheimer, Felsenthal and Levy.

The state’s first Jewish congregation, B’nai Israel in Little Rock, was chartered in 1866. A year later, Temple Beth El was founded in Helena and Congregation Anshe Emeth was founded in Pine Bluff. Later congregations were founded in Camden in 1869, Hot Springs in 1878, Texarkana in 1884, Jonesboro in 1897, Newport in 1905, Dermott in 1905, Eudora in 1912, Osceola in 1913, Forrest City in 1914, Wynne in 1915, Marianna in 1920, Blytheville in 1924, El Dorado in 1926, McGehee in 1947, Fayetteville in 1981 and Bentonville in 2004.

Due to a wave of immigration from Eastern Europe, the Jewish population of Arkansas grew from 1,466 in 1878 to 8,850 by the time of the great flood of 1927. You’ll note that many of the congregations listed above were in areas of east and south Arkansas that have been declining economically in recent decades.

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, “Congregations in Helena, Blytheville and El Dorado closed, while others struggled to survive. The Jewish population has become concentrated in a few communities like Little Rock, Hot Springs, Fayetteville and Bentonville. In 1937, 13 cities in Arkansas had more than 50 Jews. In 2006, only four did. As of 2006, only congregations in Little Rock and Hot Springs had full-time rabbis.

“The only exception to this downward trend is Bentonville. In the 21st century, as Wal-Mart has encouraged major suppliers to open offices in its corporate hometown, Bentonville has seen its Jewish population skyrocket. In 2004, a group of 30 families founded Bentonville’s first Jewish congregation, Etz Chaim, which has quickly become the fastest-growing congregation in the state. Bentonville is the exception to the regional trend of small-town Jewish communities declining. Most of the founding members of Etz Chaim are not Arkansas natives. Unlike the peddlers and merchants who initially settled in Arkansas in the 19th century, these 21st century migrants are executives at large corporations. They represent the generation of Jewish professionals who have largely replaced the Jewish merchant class in the South’s metropolitan areas.”

Just as the population base of Arkansas has shifted from east to west during the past 60 years, many of the artifacts from Temple Beth El in Helena went to the northwest when the temple was closed in 2006. The building was donated to the state’s Delta Cultural Center. The artifacts are now used by Etz Chaim in Bentonville.

The remaining Jews in Phillips County now gather for services in homes, just as the early Jews of east Arkansas did before Congregation Beth El was established in 1867.

Last December, the Jewish news service JTA distributed an article about a Friday night service in the home of David and Miriam Solomon at Helena.

“We’re just going back to the cycle,” Miriam Solomon said. “We’ve come full circle.”

Ben Harris wrote in the article, “The plight of Helena’s Jews is mirrored in scores of communities across the Bible Belt, where Jews first migrated in the early 19th century, generally as peddlers. Those who stuck around opened small businesses, which for a long time provided an ample livelihood.”

“I relate everything to economics. People are going where they can make a living,” David Solomon said. “That’s it.”

Harris wrote that David Solomon is “something of a legend in eastern Arkansas. He has held countless civic offices, and all the downtown storekeepers know when he’s around. One of them ticked off the list of legal matters with which he had helped her, including a divorce and real estate issues.”

After reading Saturday’s newspaper column, a Little Rock man e-mailed me about a visit earlier this year to David Solomon’s office: “I was told to ‘hurry down to his office as he goes out for lunch.’ They added that he is into his 90s but you wouldn’t know it. I arrived at his office, and he looked better than I did though I am 35 to 40 years younger. He had on a pinstripe shirt, cuff links, bow tie and he knew who I was immediately though I had only met him once. He was friendly and quietly gave me attention but pointed to a boardroom and said, ‘I am so sorry. I have a room full of clients.”’

He’s 93 and going strong, carrying on the legacy of Delta Jews.

As the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities points out, “Despite the fact that they were always less than one-half of 1 percent of Arkansas’ population, Jews have played an important role in the social and economic development of the state. The Kempner, Blass and Pfeifer families all owned leading department stores. Howard Eichenbaum was a celebrated architect who designed many significant buildings in Little Rock. Jacob Trieber of Helena was the first Jew in America ever appointed as a federal judge, serving the Eastern District of Arkansas from 1900 to 1927. Julian Waterman was the first dean of the University of Arkansas Law School. Rabbi Ira Sanders, who served Little Rock Congregation B’nai Israel from 1926-63, became an outspoken supporter of racial equality during the turbulent era of civil rights. Cyrus Adler, who was born in Van Buren, became one of the most prominent Jewish leaders in America during the early 20th century, serving as president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Historical Society.”

All three of Miriam and David Solomon’s sons ended up on the East Coast. All have been highly successful in their careers. Just last week, President Obama announced that Lafe Solomon will serve as the acting general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board.

Those careers, though, have taken place somewhere other than the Delta.

Harris wrote that Miriam and David Solomon have a “benign resignation” over the impending end of Jewish life in Helena that derives “at least in part from the success they have had in winding down their affairs and ensuring the continued maintenance of their synagogue and cemetery, which dates to 1875. Their ritual objects have been donated to other communities, and a trust has been established to ensure the cemetery’s upkeep. And with the synagogue and its glass-domed ceiling turned over to the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the building will not only be preserved, it will be put to good use.”

Missing oysters and the Redneck Riviera

Like millions of other Americans, I’ve watched the television stories and read the published accounts as the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico continues to unfold.

BP’s chief executive officer was on Capitol Hill yesterday, saying how sorry he was that this has happened.

The apology didn’t make me feel any better.

I suspect it will be many years before we have a handle on the ramifications of the oil spill.

As is the case with so many other people in the South, annual visits to the Redneck Riviera are a cherished family tradition. We skipped last summer because I had just begun a new job June 1, money was tight and the timing wasn’t right for a vacation.

But in January, looking to warm up from what was a brutally cold winter by Arkansas standards, we went on the Internet and found a house we liked at Orange Beach in Alabama. We then found a week in late July that worked for everyone and made our reservations.

I almost felt guilty when we made the decision a few weeks ago to cancel those reservations. The folks on the coast are begging us to come down, eat in the restaurants, play golf, etc. Frankly, though, it’s too much money to spend for a possible view of work crews in orange vests scouring the beach, complete with loud trucks, early in the morning. That’s not a relaxing thought.

Hopefully, by next summer, things will be better and we can head to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida to celebrate our oldest son’s graduation from high school.

For now, I’ll miss the long walks, I’ll miss cooking on the grill as the sun sets, I’ll miss sitting on the deck and finally taking the time to read a book.

And I’ll miss the fresh seafood, especially the oysters.

I love oysters — raw, fried, steamed, baked, you name it.

Years ago, I convinced my mother-in-law to always make oyster dressing rather than just regular dressing for the holidays.

Things really hit home last week when the news came that P&J Oyster Co., which has been operating in New Orleans for 134 years, has stopped shucking oysters.

“My son — who is delivering oysters right now — he asked me yesterday, ‘Should I go apply for food stamps?”’ said Al Sunseri, the company’s president. “I started here when I was 21, and I remember how I wanted to carry on the tradition of our business, and I remember the feeling of not only the pressures of trying to carry on this long-standing business but also the opportunity that I had to do it.”

Two-thirds of the nation’s oysters come from the Gulf of Mexico. There were almost 13 million pounds of oysters worth about $40 million in sales at the dock harvested in Louisiana alone in 2008.

Sunseri said his oyster shuckers could make from $16 to $24 an hour, depending on their skill levels. Sunseri believes many of the oyster beds will never reopen.

Here’s how the situation was described in a story at www.money.cnn.com: “Restaurants that depend on P&J Oysters have had to scramble. Dickie Brennan is the owner of Bourbon House, a restaurant in New Orleans’ French Quarter. His family owns a handful of restaurants that depend on P&J Oyster Co.

“Many of the restaurants that P&J Oyster works with have been customers for generations and want to continue to support the family-owned distributor. ‘I own and operate three restaurants. We are pretty good volume for these guys,’ Brennan said.

“The Bourbon House buys both shucked oysters — for sauteing, frying and poaching — and whole oysters — for the traditional oyster on the half shell. Brennan said he has been able to get oysters from distributors that draw from outside of the areas shut down by the spill. He hopes P&J Oyster will get back on its feet eventually.

“‘We are like family — New Orleans is a small city,’ Brennan said. “I talk to Sal or Al five times a day, and we are trying to come up wth different strategies. But the goal is that P&J can get back to normal.'”

P&J’s roots go back to Croatia, where fishing in the Adriatic Sea has been a way of life for centuries. During the 1800s, many Croatian fishermen began to migrate to south Louisiana. One of them was John Popich, who wound up near New Orleans. He became an oysterman. The French Quarter company he began in 1876 is the oldest continually operating dealer of oysters in the country.

Some of the most famous dishes in New Orleans — including the oysters Rockefeller invented at Antoine’s by the Alciatore family — traditionally have used oysters from P&J Oyster Co.

The Sunseri brothers plan to bring in oysters from the Atlantic Coast and the Pacific Coast for customers. But they won’t be Gulf oysters shucked in the French Quarter.

“It is like trying to sell oranges instead of apples in an apple market,” Al Sunseri said. “Those oranges that people aren’t accustomed to eating instead of those apples, they are having to pay three times the price.”

It takes oysters between 18 months and 24 months to grow to full size.

How long will it take the oyster industry in the Gulf to recover once the oil is stopped?

“There is a lot of unknown, and it has everything to do with so much that we have never seen happen before,” Al Sunseri said.

Kevin McGill of The Associated Press began his story this way in a dispatch last week: “An early morning workday ritual — the shucking of small mountains of oysters for New Orleans restaurants — fell victim to the BP offshore oil spill at a 134-year-old French Quarter oyster house where neighbors treated the news like a death in the family. Amid the din of nearly a dozen men and women hammering and prying at the last piles of craggy oyster shells at P&J Oyster Co., Jerry Amato wandered in bearing comfort food: aluminum trays full of scrambled eggs, fried ham, grits and biscuits.

”’That’s what we do in New Orleans. After the funeral, we bring food,’ said Amato, proprietor of Mother’s Restaurant.

“P&J isn’t quite dead yet but, barring an unforeseen reopening of the oyster beds that supply the business, Thursday was to be the final day of shucking at the family owned business.”

Al Sunseri, 52, nodded toward the shuckers on that last day and told McGill: “These ladies here, those guys — I grew up with them. We were in our 20s when we started.”

To the west in Franklin, La., Ameripure Oyster Co. (the oysters they serve at the Back Porch in Destin, a restaurant familiar to Arkansans, come from there), company owner John Tesvich said, “The same thing happening over at P&J is happening over here also. … They’re on the point of depletion now.”

Wilbert Collins, 73, is a third-generation oyster farmer. He told McGill that it could take three years to replenish the stock on some of his leases. Two of Collins’ three boats are idle, and the third is helping clean up the spill.

The oystermen of Louisiana truly seem to be in a no-win situation.

“Oyster growers and harvesters are facing a double threat,” McGill wrote. “On the one hand, oil gushing from the blown-out well off Louisiana could contaminate the beds, killing the oysters or rendering them unsafe to eat. On the other hand, a method of fighting the encroaching oil by opening inland water diversion gates in hopes of pushing the oil back also could kill oysters. The fresh inland water dilutes saltier waters oysters need to thrive. Complicating the problem: It’s spawning season for young oysters.”

Here’s how McGill ended his story: “At P&J, longtime employee Wayne Gordon, 42, said his emotions ran the gamut from pain at the prospect of losing a job he’s held since he was 18 to anger at what he sees as the incompetence that caused the unending underwater gusher. ‘Twenty-four years,’ Gordon said as he took a break in the room where freshly shucked oysters were being packed into plastic cartons. ‘I cannot imagine not being here.”’

Tom Fitzmorris, a veteran New Orleans food writer and radio host who sends out The New Orleans Menu Daily online (I’ve subscribed for years and love it) summed up my feelings when he wrote: “This is very bad news. Sal Sunseri has been one of the most positive and active people in the seafood business in New Orleans. His product has been good enough that many restaurants around town specify on their menus that they serve P&J oysters. For him to lay off his staff and shut his doors indefinitely does not bode well for our favorite local seafood. It is not an act designed to just get attention, that’s for sure.

“The oil spill . . . is still putting fresh oil into the water. It’s meeting with what’s there already to create a really abysmal glop that is flowing into all the best areas for oystering. And there’s not going to be an easy fix for this. Some are saying (although I don’t believe this myself) that it will be many years before we have oysters again from the prime beds in Barataria Bay and on the East Bank of the river.

“Unlike many inside and outside of the media, I don’t pretend to know the solution. That’s really the worst part of this: Questions are everywhere, answers are nowhere. It’s scary when even the best people don’t know what to do. (There’s a difference between saying you know and actually knowing.) Nor do I think the orgy of blame assignment, lawsuits and shoulda woulda coulda scenarios is adding anything to this horrible turn of events.

“I just want to cry. And then I want to wait and see, with crossed fingers. They said it would be years before we’d have oysters again after Katrina. It proved to be only weeks. I know this is different, but. . . well, I’m waiting and watching. What else can one do other than help those affected directly?”

Like Tom, I don’t pretend to know the solution.

Like Tom, I just want to cry.

I’ve written before about how my parents sometimes would take my sister and me to Biloxi and Gulfport in the summer. As noted in earlier posts, we didn’t even know the prettier blue water and the whiter sand was just to the east of us in the Florida Panhandle. The Mississippi coast was the first one we hit heading south from Arkansas, and that was as far as my father cared to drive.

But we loved it. To this day, I find myself enjoying each part of the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida.

I tasted my first raw oyster at a place on the Mississippi coast called the Friendship House. Unlike most kids, I immediately fell in love with fresh, salty raw oysters.

Years later, my wife and I honeymooned in New Orleans just so we could eat in various restaurants there for a week. I told her I thought I could get my name on the wall at the Acme along with the other people who had eaten large numbers of raw oysters. She wouldn’t let me try.

I now feel that same sense of loss I felt from afar in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

We’ll go another summer without making it to the Gulf Coast. I’ll look out the window and daydream about walking around one of my favorite towns — Pass Christian in Mississippi, Fairhope in Alabama, Apalachicola in Florida.


Brennan’s, Icon of New Orleans’ French Quarter, is ‘Restored and Reborn’ on November 25 - Recipes

Johnny Cash is a music icon. His name is known worldwide.

That begs the question: Why haven’t we done more as a state to cash in on the fact that he was from Arkansas?

He was born in Feburary 1932 at Kingsland in the pine woods of south Arkansas. Ray and Carrie Rivers Cash had seven children. In addition to the boy known as J.R., there were Roy, Louise, Jack, Reba, Joanne and Tommy.

The Cash family was one of several families from Cleveland County to be chosen to move to the federal government’s Dyess Colony in Mississippi County. So it was that Johnny Cash would leave the Gulf Coastal Plain at an age too young to remember and be raised instead in the Delta of northeast Arkansas.

“The tragic death of Jack Cash in a 1944 sawmill accident haunted young J.R. for the remainder of his life,” Eric Lensing writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “His mother introduced him to the guitar, and the local Church of God introduced him to music. He acquired a fascination for the guitar and a love for singing. Cash first sang on radio station KLCN in Blytheville while attending Dyess High School. Upon graduation in 1950, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after a brief search for work in Michigan.”

Though Arkansas hasn’t done a good job of claiming the Cash legacy, Johnny never forgot his roots.

In February 1968, he returned for a homecoming show at the Dyess High School gymnasium.

The following September, Paris (as in Logan County, not France) native Bob Wootton came out of the audience to play guitar during a Cash concert in Fayetteville. Wootton had long been a Cash fan, playing his songs religiously and perfecting the style of the band. Wootton’s chance to fill in came after a flight cancellation left only Cash and drummer W.S. Holland on the stage. Cash was stunned by Wootton’s perfect renditions.

When original lead guitarist Luther Perkins died in a house fire, Wootton was asked to join the Tennessee Three. Wootton performed with Cash until 1997.

One of Cash’s most famous concerts came in April 1969 when he peformed for the inmates at Cummins. In 1980, the Kingsland native became the youngest person ever elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

I recently attended a meeting during which a group of business and civic leaders heard updates on Arkansas State University’s plans to not only capitalize on the Cash name but also interpret the history of the Dyess Colony for visitors.

In March, John Milner Associates Inc. completed work on a redevelopment master plan for Dyess that was commissioned by ASU.

The introduction to the plan states, “The New Deal Works Progress Administration Rural Resettlement Program provided a sense of hope and renewal for farming families of the Arkansas Delta whose lives were devastated by the natural and economic disasters of the early 20th century. Springing forth from 16,000 acres of forested swamp bottomland drained and cut for the new town, an army of workers constructed the 28-block town with 500 small farms surrounding it. In town, historically referred to as Dyess Center, several residences were constructed along with a hospital, school, churches, commissary, canning plant and administration building. After a rigorous interview, selected families were each set up with a 10-acre farmstead complete with house, barn, smokehouse and mule. Built on the fundamental values of achievement through hard work . . . Dyess became an incubator for success and optimism.

“Since its incorporation in the 1960s as a small city independent of federal support and control, it is apparent that the town has seen some hard times. The city council has had to contend with a range of serious issues including depopulation, loss of businesses and tax base, needed upgrade of infrastructure and lax code enforcement. However, the tight-knit sense of community lives on.”

Arkansas State, which has an outstanding record of preserving historic Delta sites, can start the process of preserving that which is historic at Dyess. Eventually, though, it will need the support of the Cash estate, private foundations and others to turn Dyess into the kind of tourist attraction it should be.

The location is ideal — just off busy Interstate 55 between Memphis and St. Louis. Tourists visiting Graceland in Memphis will find it easy to drive up to Dyess.

When tourists stop there now, there’s little to see or do. The Cash home still stands, but it’s in private hands, it’s not in good condition and it isn’t open to the public.

“The Johnny Cash house is owned by the Stegall family and occupied by Willie Stegall and his son,” the redevelopment master plan states. “It has been the Stegall family home for over 40 years. Over those years, the family has made improvements and adjustments to the house just as many other families who lived in small frame houses did in the same decades. The house is currently in declining condition, in part because of the way many wood elements are exposed to water and other weather-related sources of deterioration. The house has some unpainted wood components, both in places where the paint has failed and in places where the wood was never painted. Like many old houses, it has an imperfect system for roof drainage. The conditions inside and out are less than ideal, but the Stegall family has sought different ways to improve the house at different times with totally different approaches.”

According to this assessment, the changes the family made to the home in the 1960s and 1970s were logical for the time. A modern kitchen was added. The living room was changed. But the assessment adds, “If the dwelling is to be restored to its original configuration and appearance, these changes will have to be removed. Also it is important that any remaining historic materials and architectural features be preserved.”

— The family sells the Cash home to ASU, a foundation or the Cash estate at a reasonable price. It’s restored to its original condition and it’s opened to tourists.

— The Dyess Colony commissary is reconstructed to appear as it once did and opened as a store so tourists will have a place to shop. The original structure was lost to a fire. Only the foundation remains.

— Arkansas State obtains the money needed to transform the Dyess Colony administration building into a visitors’ center.

— The facades of the historic Dyess Theater and the adjoining Pop Shop restaurant are restored. Eventually those facades are incorporated into a new building that will house a small auditorium and a restaurant. The 100-seat theater will show films of Johnny Cash performances and documentaries on his life. The 30-seat restaurant will be leased to a local entrepreneur. Let’s hope it serves catfish, barbecue and other Delta specialties.

— A major marketing campaign is implemented. Prominent signage is placed on Interstate 55.

— An annual Johnny Cash tribute concert is held to raise funds for continued restoration.

As I reported in an earlier post, Arkansas State University has received a grant from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council to begin restoring the exterior of the administration building and begin stabilizing the theater facade.

There’s much to be done. But at least it’s a start. At least smart people are beginning to understand that we can cash in on Cash while saving an important piece of Arkansas history, this Great Depression resettlement colony that Eleanor Roosevelt visited in 1936.

As the redevelopment master plan points out, “Established on natural swampland, it gave its first residents a fresh start but also replicated the American pioneer experience of taming the wilderness and creating new farms and livelihoods. Dyess also left an indelible mark on American music culture as the town that produced singer and songwriter Johnny Cash. Its influence is particularly evident in Cash’s music and lyrics, many of which reference his family’s experiences as cotton farmers in Dyess.”

The Southern Jewish experience

Researching the column I wrote for last Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about a visit to Temple Beth El in Helena ended up being a far more interesting task than I ever would have imagined.

One of the things that has always fascinated me about the Delta is the great diversity there — the Italians, the Chinese, the Lebanese and the Jews were among the groups that came up the Mississippi River from New Orleans and down the river from St. Louis to settle this colorful region.

If you traveled farther inland from the river into the hills of either Arkansas or Mississippi, you historically found far less diversity.

It’s the same reason I always was intrigued with Hot Springs when I was growing up in Arkadelphia. In Arkadelphia, the chances were great that you were either a white Baptist or a black Baptist. Compared to the towns that surrounded it, Hot Springs was an exotic place.

The Delta was like that, though six decades of population loss is changing the demographic picture.

David Solomon, the Helena lawyer who turns 94 next month and still goes to work each day at his office on Cherry Street, established the Tapestry Endowment for Arkansas Jewish History. The endowment created a permanent home at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock for Carolyn Gray LeMaster’s extensive body of research on the history of Jews in Arkansas.

The fund’s name is taken from the title of LeMaster’s book, “A Corner of the Tapestry: A History of the Jewish Experience in Arkansas, 1820s-1900s.”

The Jewish Genealogy Library Collection calls her book “one of the most comprehensive studies ever done on a state’s Jewish community. ‘A Corner of the Tapestry’ is the story of the Jews who helped settle Arkansas and who stayed and flourished to become a significant part of the state’s history and culture. Data for the book have been collected in part from the American Jewish Archives, American Jewish Historical Society, the stones in Arkansas’ Jewish cemeteries, more than 1,500 articles and obituaries from journals and newspapers, personal letters from hundreds of present and former Jewish Arkansans, congressional histories, census and court records and some 400 oral interviews in more than 100 cities and towns in Arkansas.”

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, a project of the Goldring-Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, the first Jew to settle in Arkansas was Abraham Block. He opened a store in the town of Washington in southwest Arkansas in 1823.

“Block settled in Washington when there were no Jewish congregations or institutions in the Arkansas Territory,” the encyclopedia reports. “He was a charter member of the first Jewish synagogue in the region, Congregation Gates of Mercy in New Orleans, joining in 1828. Yet the lack of any organized Jewish life in Arkansas at the time took its toll on his family, and few of his children remained within the faith. Block’s life in Arkansas highlights the challenges that Jews have often faced in a state largely isolated from the centers of American Jewish life.

“The difficulties became a little easier as growing numbers of Jews from central Europe began to arrive in Arkansas in the years before the Civil War. These immigrants were part of the German wave of Jewish immigration, which settled primarily in the large cities of the Northeast and Midwest. But a significant minority of Jews from the German states and from Alsace-Lorraine settled in the rural South, including Arkansas. At the time of the Civil War, they had established small but growing Jewish communities in Little Rock, Fort Smith, Pine Bluff, DeValls Bluff, Van Buren, Jonesboro and Batesville. Despite their relatively short time in the state, Jews felt closely tied to their new home. Of the approximately 300 Jews in Arkansas at the time of the war, 53 fought for the Confederacy.”

Jewish merchants were attracted to Arkansas in the years after the war. They received their goods from Jewish wholesalers in the river cities of Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Memphis. According to the encyclopedia, 14 towns or communities were founded by Jews in Arkansas or named after early Jewish residents. These included Altheimer, Felsenthal and Levy.

The state’s first Jewish congregation, B’nai Israel in Little Rock, was chartered in 1866. A year later, Temple Beth El was founded in Helena and Congregation Anshe Emeth was founded in Pine Bluff. Later congregations were founded in Camden in 1869, Hot Springs in 1878, Texarkana in 1884, Jonesboro in 1897, Newport in 1905, Dermott in 1905, Eudora in 1912, Osceola in 1913, Forrest City in 1914, Wynne in 1915, Marianna in 1920, Blytheville in 1924, El Dorado in 1926, McGehee in 1947, Fayetteville in 1981 and Bentonville in 2004.

Due to a wave of immigration from Eastern Europe, the Jewish population of Arkansas grew from 1,466 in 1878 to 8,850 by the time of the great flood of 1927. You’ll note that many of the congregations listed above were in areas of east and south Arkansas that have been declining economically in recent decades.

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, “Congregations in Helena, Blytheville and El Dorado closed, while others struggled to survive. The Jewish population has become concentrated in a few communities like Little Rock, Hot Springs, Fayetteville and Bentonville. In 1937, 13 cities in Arkansas had more than 50 Jews. In 2006, only four did. As of 2006, only congregations in Little Rock and Hot Springs had full-time rabbis.

“The only exception to this downward trend is Bentonville. In the 21st century, as Wal-Mart has encouraged major suppliers to open offices in its corporate hometown, Bentonville has seen its Jewish population skyrocket. In 2004, a group of 30 families founded Bentonville’s first Jewish congregation, Etz Chaim, which has quickly become the fastest-growing congregation in the state. Bentonville is the exception to the regional trend of small-town Jewish communities declining. Most of the founding members of Etz Chaim are not Arkansas natives. Unlike the peddlers and merchants who initially settled in Arkansas in the 19th century, these 21st century migrants are executives at large corporations. They represent the generation of Jewish professionals who have largely replaced the Jewish merchant class in the South’s metropolitan areas.”

Just as the population base of Arkansas has shifted from east to west during the past 60 years, many of the artifacts from Temple Beth El in Helena went to the northwest when the temple was closed in 2006. The building was donated to the state’s Delta Cultural Center. The artifacts are now used by Etz Chaim in Bentonville.

The remaining Jews in Phillips County now gather for services in homes, just as the early Jews of east Arkansas did before Congregation Beth El was established in 1867.

Last December, the Jewish news service JTA distributed an article about a Friday night service in the home of David and Miriam Solomon at Helena.

“We’re just going back to the cycle,” Miriam Solomon said. “We’ve come full circle.”

Ben Harris wrote in the article, “The plight of Helena’s Jews is mirrored in scores of communities across the Bible Belt, where Jews first migrated in the early 19th century, generally as peddlers. Those who stuck around opened small businesses, which for a long time provided an ample livelihood.”

“I relate everything to economics. People are going where they can make a living,” David Solomon said. “That’s it.”

Harris wrote that David Solomon is “something of a legend in eastern Arkansas. He has held countless civic offices, and all the downtown storekeepers know when he’s around. One of them ticked off the list of legal matters with which he had helped her, including a divorce and real estate issues.”

After reading Saturday’s newspaper column, a Little Rock man e-mailed me about a visit earlier this year to David Solomon’s office: “I was told to ‘hurry down to his office as he goes out for lunch.’ They added that he is into his 90s but you wouldn’t know it. I arrived at his office, and he looked better than I did though I am 35 to 40 years younger. He had on a pinstripe shirt, cuff links, bow tie and he knew who I was immediately though I had only met him once. He was friendly and quietly gave me attention but pointed to a boardroom and said, ‘I am so sorry. I have a room full of clients.”’

He’s 93 and going strong, carrying on the legacy of Delta Jews.

As the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities points out, “Despite the fact that they were always less than one-half of 1 percent of Arkansas’ population, Jews have played an important role in the social and economic development of the state. The Kempner, Blass and Pfeifer families all owned leading department stores. Howard Eichenbaum was a celebrated architect who designed many significant buildings in Little Rock. Jacob Trieber of Helena was the first Jew in America ever appointed as a federal judge, serving the Eastern District of Arkansas from 1900 to 1927. Julian Waterman was the first dean of the University of Arkansas Law School. Rabbi Ira Sanders, who served Little Rock Congregation B’nai Israel from 1926-63, became an outspoken supporter of racial equality during the turbulent era of civil rights. Cyrus Adler, who was born in Van Buren, became one of the most prominent Jewish leaders in America during the early 20th century, serving as president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Historical Society.”

All three of Miriam and David Solomon’s sons ended up on the East Coast. All have been highly successful in their careers. Just last week, President Obama announced that Lafe Solomon will serve as the acting general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board.

Those careers, though, have taken place somewhere other than the Delta.

Harris wrote that Miriam and David Solomon have a “benign resignation” over the impending end of Jewish life in Helena that derives “at least in part from the success they have had in winding down their affairs and ensuring the continued maintenance of their synagogue and cemetery, which dates to 1875. Their ritual objects have been donated to other communities, and a trust has been established to ensure the cemetery’s upkeep. And with the synagogue and its glass-domed ceiling turned over to the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the building will not only be preserved, it will be put to good use.”

Missing oysters and the Redneck Riviera

Like millions of other Americans, I’ve watched the television stories and read the published accounts as the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico continues to unfold.

BP’s chief executive officer was on Capitol Hill yesterday, saying how sorry he was that this has happened.

The apology didn’t make me feel any better.

I suspect it will be many years before we have a handle on the ramifications of the oil spill.

As is the case with so many other people in the South, annual visits to the Redneck Riviera are a cherished family tradition. We skipped last summer because I had just begun a new job June 1, money was tight and the timing wasn’t right for a vacation.

But in January, looking to warm up from what was a brutally cold winter by Arkansas standards, we went on the Internet and found a house we liked at Orange Beach in Alabama. We then found a week in late July that worked for everyone and made our reservations.

I almost felt guilty when we made the decision a few weeks ago to cancel those reservations. The folks on the coast are begging us to come down, eat in the restaurants, play golf, etc. Frankly, though, it’s too much money to spend for a possible view of work crews in orange vests scouring the beach, complete with loud trucks, early in the morning. That’s not a relaxing thought.

Hopefully, by next summer, things will be better and we can head to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida to celebrate our oldest son’s graduation from high school.

For now, I’ll miss the long walks, I’ll miss cooking on the grill as the sun sets, I’ll miss sitting on the deck and finally taking the time to read a book.

And I’ll miss the fresh seafood, especially the oysters.

I love oysters — raw, fried, steamed, baked, you name it.

Years ago, I convinced my mother-in-law to always make oyster dressing rather than just regular dressing for the holidays.

Things really hit home last week when the news came that P&J Oyster Co., which has been operating in New Orleans for 134 years, has stopped shucking oysters.

“My son — who is delivering oysters right now — he asked me yesterday, ‘Should I go apply for food stamps?”’ said Al Sunseri, the company’s president. “I started here when I was 21, and I remember how I wanted to carry on the tradition of our business, and I remember the feeling of not only the pressures of trying to carry on this long-standing business but also the opportunity that I had to do it.”

Two-thirds of the nation’s oysters come from the Gulf of Mexico. There were almost 13 million pounds of oysters worth about $40 million in sales at the dock harvested in Louisiana alone in 2008.

Sunseri said his oyster shuckers could make from $16 to $24 an hour, depending on their skill levels. Sunseri believes many of the oyster beds will never reopen.

Here’s how the situation was described in a story at www.money.cnn.com: “Restaurants that depend on P&J Oysters have had to scramble. Dickie Brennan is the owner of Bourbon House, a restaurant in New Orleans’ French Quarter. His family owns a handful of restaurants that depend on P&J Oyster Co.

“Many of the restaurants that P&J Oyster works with have been customers for generations and want to continue to support the family-owned distributor. ‘I own and operate three restaurants. We are pretty good volume for these guys,’ Brennan said.

“The Bourbon House buys both shucked oysters — for sauteing, frying and poaching — and whole oysters — for the traditional oyster on the half shell. Brennan said he has been able to get oysters from distributors that draw from outside of the areas shut down by the spill. He hopes P&J Oyster will get back on its feet eventually.

“‘We are like family — New Orleans is a small city,’ Brennan said. “I talk to Sal or Al five times a day, and we are trying to come up wth different strategies. But the goal is that P&J can get back to normal.'”

P&J’s roots go back to Croatia, where fishing in the Adriatic Sea has been a way of life for centuries. During the 1800s, many Croatian fishermen began to migrate to south Louisiana. One of them was John Popich, who wound up near New Orleans. He became an oysterman. The French Quarter company he began in 1876 is the oldest continually operating dealer of oysters in the country.

Some of the most famous dishes in New Orleans — including the oysters Rockefeller invented at Antoine’s by the Alciatore family — traditionally have used oysters from P&J Oyster Co.

The Sunseri brothers plan to bring in oysters from the Atlantic Coast and the Pacific Coast for customers. But they won’t be Gulf oysters shucked in the French Quarter.

“It is like trying to sell oranges instead of apples in an apple market,” Al Sunseri said. “Those oranges that people aren’t accustomed to eating instead of those apples, they are having to pay three times the price.”

It takes oysters between 18 months and 24 months to grow to full size.

How long will it take the oyster industry in the Gulf to recover once the oil is stopped?

“There is a lot of unknown, and it has everything to do with so much that we have never seen happen before,” Al Sunseri said.

Kevin McGill of The Associated Press began his story this way in a dispatch last week: “An early morning workday ritual — the shucking of small mountains of oysters for New Orleans restaurants — fell victim to the BP offshore oil spill at a 134-year-old French Quarter oyster house where neighbors treated the news like a death in the family. Amid the din of nearly a dozen men and women hammering and prying at the last piles of craggy oyster shells at P&J Oyster Co., Jerry Amato wandered in bearing comfort food: aluminum trays full of scrambled eggs, fried ham, grits and biscuits.

”’That’s what we do in New Orleans. After the funeral, we bring food,’ said Amato, proprietor of Mother’s Restaurant.

“P&J isn’t quite dead yet but, barring an unforeseen reopening of the oyster beds that supply the business, Thursday was to be the final day of shucking at the family owned business.”

Al Sunseri, 52, nodded toward the shuckers on that last day and told McGill: “These ladies here, those guys — I grew up with them. We were in our 20s when we started.”

To the west in Franklin, La., Ameripure Oyster Co. (the oysters they serve at the Back Porch in Destin, a restaurant familiar to Arkansans, come from there), company owner John Tesvich said, “The same thing happening over at P&J is happening over here also. … They’re on the point of depletion now.”

Wilbert Collins, 73, is a third-generation oyster farmer. He told McGill that it could take three years to replenish the stock on some of his leases. Two of Collins’ three boats are idle, and the third is helping clean up the spill.

The oystermen of Louisiana truly seem to be in a no-win situation.

“Oyster growers and harvesters are facing a double threat,” McGill wrote. “On the one hand, oil gushing from the blown-out well off Louisiana could contaminate the beds, killing the oysters or rendering them unsafe to eat. On the other hand, a method of fighting the encroaching oil by opening inland water diversion gates in hopes of pushing the oil back also could kill oysters. The fresh inland water dilutes saltier waters oysters need to thrive. Complicating the problem: It’s spawning season for young oysters.”

Here’s how McGill ended his story: “At P&J, longtime employee Wayne Gordon, 42, said his emotions ran the gamut from pain at the prospect of losing a job he’s held since he was 18 to anger at what he sees as the incompetence that caused the unending underwater gusher. ‘Twenty-four years,’ Gordon said as he took a break in the room where freshly shucked oysters were being packed into plastic cartons. ‘I cannot imagine not being here.”’

Tom Fitzmorris, a veteran New Orleans food writer and radio host who sends out The New Orleans Menu Daily online (I’ve subscribed for years and love it) summed up my feelings when he wrote: “This is very bad news. Sal Sunseri has been one of the most positive and active people in the seafood business in New Orleans. His product has been good enough that many restaurants around town specify on their menus that they serve P&J oysters. For him to lay off his staff and shut his doors indefinitely does not bode well for our favorite local seafood. It is not an act designed to just get attention, that’s for sure.

“The oil spill . . . is still putting fresh oil into the water. It’s meeting with what’s there already to create a really abysmal glop that is flowing into all the best areas for oystering. And there’s not going to be an easy fix for this. Some are saying (although I don’t believe this myself) that it will be many years before we have oysters again from the prime beds in Barataria Bay and on the East Bank of the river.

“Unlike many inside and outside of the media, I don’t pretend to know the solution. That’s really the worst part of this: Questions are everywhere, answers are nowhere. It’s scary when even the best people don’t know what to do. (There’s a difference between saying you know and actually knowing.) Nor do I think the orgy of blame assignment, lawsuits and shoulda woulda coulda scenarios is adding anything to this horrible turn of events.

“I just want to cry. And then I want to wait and see, with crossed fingers. They said it would be years before we’d have oysters again after Katrina. It proved to be only weeks. I know this is different, but. . . well, I’m waiting and watching. What else can one do other than help those affected directly?”

Like Tom, I don’t pretend to know the solution.

Like Tom, I just want to cry.

I’ve written before about how my parents sometimes would take my sister and me to Biloxi and Gulfport in the summer. As noted in earlier posts, we didn’t even know the prettier blue water and the whiter sand was just to the east of us in the Florida Panhandle. The Mississippi coast was the first one we hit heading south from Arkansas, and that was as far as my father cared to drive.

But we loved it. To this day, I find myself enjoying each part of the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida.

I tasted my first raw oyster at a place on the Mississippi coast called the Friendship House. Unlike most kids, I immediately fell in love with fresh, salty raw oysters.

Years later, my wife and I honeymooned in New Orleans just so we could eat in various restaurants there for a week. I told her I thought I could get my name on the wall at the Acme along with the other people who had eaten large numbers of raw oysters. She wouldn’t let me try.

I now feel that same sense of loss I felt from afar in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

We’ll go another summer without making it to the Gulf Coast. I’ll look out the window and daydream about walking around one of my favorite towns — Pass Christian in Mississippi, Fairhope in Alabama, Apalachicola in Florida.


Brennan’s, Icon of New Orleans’ French Quarter, is ‘Restored and Reborn’ on November 25 - Recipes

Johnny Cash is a music icon. His name is known worldwide.

That begs the question: Why haven’t we done more as a state to cash in on the fact that he was from Arkansas?

He was born in Feburary 1932 at Kingsland in the pine woods of south Arkansas. Ray and Carrie Rivers Cash had seven children. In addition to the boy known as J.R., there were Roy, Louise, Jack, Reba, Joanne and Tommy.

The Cash family was one of several families from Cleveland County to be chosen to move to the federal government’s Dyess Colony in Mississippi County. So it was that Johnny Cash would leave the Gulf Coastal Plain at an age too young to remember and be raised instead in the Delta of northeast Arkansas.

“The tragic death of Jack Cash in a 1944 sawmill accident haunted young J.R. for the remainder of his life,” Eric Lensing writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “His mother introduced him to the guitar, and the local Church of God introduced him to music. He acquired a fascination for the guitar and a love for singing. Cash first sang on radio station KLCN in Blytheville while attending Dyess High School. Upon graduation in 1950, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after a brief search for work in Michigan.”

Though Arkansas hasn’t done a good job of claiming the Cash legacy, Johnny never forgot his roots.

In February 1968, he returned for a homecoming show at the Dyess High School gymnasium.

The following September, Paris (as in Logan County, not France) native Bob Wootton came out of the audience to play guitar during a Cash concert in Fayetteville. Wootton had long been a Cash fan, playing his songs religiously and perfecting the style of the band. Wootton’s chance to fill in came after a flight cancellation left only Cash and drummer W.S. Holland on the stage. Cash was stunned by Wootton’s perfect renditions.

When original lead guitarist Luther Perkins died in a house fire, Wootton was asked to join the Tennessee Three. Wootton performed with Cash until 1997.

One of Cash’s most famous concerts came in April 1969 when he peformed for the inmates at Cummins. In 1980, the Kingsland native became the youngest person ever elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

I recently attended a meeting during which a group of business and civic leaders heard updates on Arkansas State University’s plans to not only capitalize on the Cash name but also interpret the history of the Dyess Colony for visitors.

In March, John Milner Associates Inc. completed work on a redevelopment master plan for Dyess that was commissioned by ASU.

The introduction to the plan states, “The New Deal Works Progress Administration Rural Resettlement Program provided a sense of hope and renewal for farming families of the Arkansas Delta whose lives were devastated by the natural and economic disasters of the early 20th century. Springing forth from 16,000 acres of forested swamp bottomland drained and cut for the new town, an army of workers constructed the 28-block town with 500 small farms surrounding it. In town, historically referred to as Dyess Center, several residences were constructed along with a hospital, school, churches, commissary, canning plant and administration building. After a rigorous interview, selected families were each set up with a 10-acre farmstead complete with house, barn, smokehouse and mule. Built on the fundamental values of achievement through hard work . . . Dyess became an incubator for success and optimism.

“Since its incorporation in the 1960s as a small city independent of federal support and control, it is apparent that the town has seen some hard times. The city council has had to contend with a range of serious issues including depopulation, loss of businesses and tax base, needed upgrade of infrastructure and lax code enforcement. However, the tight-knit sense of community lives on.”

Arkansas State, which has an outstanding record of preserving historic Delta sites, can start the process of preserving that which is historic at Dyess. Eventually, though, it will need the support of the Cash estate, private foundations and others to turn Dyess into the kind of tourist attraction it should be.

The location is ideal — just off busy Interstate 55 between Memphis and St. Louis. Tourists visiting Graceland in Memphis will find it easy to drive up to Dyess.

When tourists stop there now, there’s little to see or do. The Cash home still stands, but it’s in private hands, it’s not in good condition and it isn’t open to the public.

“The Johnny Cash house is owned by the Stegall family and occupied by Willie Stegall and his son,” the redevelopment master plan states. “It has been the Stegall family home for over 40 years. Over those years, the family has made improvements and adjustments to the house just as many other families who lived in small frame houses did in the same decades. The house is currently in declining condition, in part because of the way many wood elements are exposed to water and other weather-related sources of deterioration. The house has some unpainted wood components, both in places where the paint has failed and in places where the wood was never painted. Like many old houses, it has an imperfect system for roof drainage. The conditions inside and out are less than ideal, but the Stegall family has sought different ways to improve the house at different times with totally different approaches.”

According to this assessment, the changes the family made to the home in the 1960s and 1970s were logical for the time. A modern kitchen was added. The living room was changed. But the assessment adds, “If the dwelling is to be restored to its original configuration and appearance, these changes will have to be removed. Also it is important that any remaining historic materials and architectural features be preserved.”

— The family sells the Cash home to ASU, a foundation or the Cash estate at a reasonable price. It’s restored to its original condition and it’s opened to tourists.

— The Dyess Colony commissary is reconstructed to appear as it once did and opened as a store so tourists will have a place to shop. The original structure was lost to a fire. Only the foundation remains.

— Arkansas State obtains the money needed to transform the Dyess Colony administration building into a visitors’ center.

— The facades of the historic Dyess Theater and the adjoining Pop Shop restaurant are restored. Eventually those facades are incorporated into a new building that will house a small auditorium and a restaurant. The 100-seat theater will show films of Johnny Cash performances and documentaries on his life. The 30-seat restaurant will be leased to a local entrepreneur. Let’s hope it serves catfish, barbecue and other Delta specialties.

— A major marketing campaign is implemented. Prominent signage is placed on Interstate 55.

— An annual Johnny Cash tribute concert is held to raise funds for continued restoration.

As I reported in an earlier post, Arkansas State University has received a grant from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council to begin restoring the exterior of the administration building and begin stabilizing the theater facade.

There’s much to be done. But at least it’s a start. At least smart people are beginning to understand that we can cash in on Cash while saving an important piece of Arkansas history, this Great Depression resettlement colony that Eleanor Roosevelt visited in 1936.

As the redevelopment master plan points out, “Established on natural swampland, it gave its first residents a fresh start but also replicated the American pioneer experience of taming the wilderness and creating new farms and livelihoods. Dyess also left an indelible mark on American music culture as the town that produced singer and songwriter Johnny Cash. Its influence is particularly evident in Cash’s music and lyrics, many of which reference his family’s experiences as cotton farmers in Dyess.”

The Southern Jewish experience

Researching the column I wrote for last Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about a visit to Temple Beth El in Helena ended up being a far more interesting task than I ever would have imagined.

One of the things that has always fascinated me about the Delta is the great diversity there — the Italians, the Chinese, the Lebanese and the Jews were among the groups that came up the Mississippi River from New Orleans and down the river from St. Louis to settle this colorful region.

If you traveled farther inland from the river into the hills of either Arkansas or Mississippi, you historically found far less diversity.

It’s the same reason I always was intrigued with Hot Springs when I was growing up in Arkadelphia. In Arkadelphia, the chances were great that you were either a white Baptist or a black Baptist. Compared to the towns that surrounded it, Hot Springs was an exotic place.

The Delta was like that, though six decades of population loss is changing the demographic picture.

David Solomon, the Helena lawyer who turns 94 next month and still goes to work each day at his office on Cherry Street, established the Tapestry Endowment for Arkansas Jewish History. The endowment created a permanent home at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock for Carolyn Gray LeMaster’s extensive body of research on the history of Jews in Arkansas.

The fund’s name is taken from the title of LeMaster’s book, “A Corner of the Tapestry: A History of the Jewish Experience in Arkansas, 1820s-1900s.”

The Jewish Genealogy Library Collection calls her book “one of the most comprehensive studies ever done on a state’s Jewish community. ‘A Corner of the Tapestry’ is the story of the Jews who helped settle Arkansas and who stayed and flourished to become a significant part of the state’s history and culture. Data for the book have been collected in part from the American Jewish Archives, American Jewish Historical Society, the stones in Arkansas’ Jewish cemeteries, more than 1,500 articles and obituaries from journals and newspapers, personal letters from hundreds of present and former Jewish Arkansans, congressional histories, census and court records and some 400 oral interviews in more than 100 cities and towns in Arkansas.”

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, a project of the Goldring-Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, the first Jew to settle in Arkansas was Abraham Block. He opened a store in the town of Washington in southwest Arkansas in 1823.

“Block settled in Washington when there were no Jewish congregations or institutions in the Arkansas Territory,” the encyclopedia reports. “He was a charter member of the first Jewish synagogue in the region, Congregation Gates of Mercy in New Orleans, joining in 1828. Yet the lack of any organized Jewish life in Arkansas at the time took its toll on his family, and few of his children remained within the faith. Block’s life in Arkansas highlights the challenges that Jews have often faced in a state largely isolated from the centers of American Jewish life.

“The difficulties became a little easier as growing numbers of Jews from central Europe began to arrive in Arkansas in the years before the Civil War. These immigrants were part of the German wave of Jewish immigration, which settled primarily in the large cities of the Northeast and Midwest. But a significant minority of Jews from the German states and from Alsace-Lorraine settled in the rural South, including Arkansas. At the time of the Civil War, they had established small but growing Jewish communities in Little Rock, Fort Smith, Pine Bluff, DeValls Bluff, Van Buren, Jonesboro and Batesville. Despite their relatively short time in the state, Jews felt closely tied to their new home. Of the approximately 300 Jews in Arkansas at the time of the war, 53 fought for the Confederacy.”

Jewish merchants were attracted to Arkansas in the years after the war. They received their goods from Jewish wholesalers in the river cities of Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Memphis. According to the encyclopedia, 14 towns or communities were founded by Jews in Arkansas or named after early Jewish residents. These included Altheimer, Felsenthal and Levy.

The state’s first Jewish congregation, B’nai Israel in Little Rock, was chartered in 1866. A year later, Temple Beth El was founded in Helena and Congregation Anshe Emeth was founded in Pine Bluff. Later congregations were founded in Camden in 1869, Hot Springs in 1878, Texarkana in 1884, Jonesboro in 1897, Newport in 1905, Dermott in 1905, Eudora in 1912, Osceola in 1913, Forrest City in 1914, Wynne in 1915, Marianna in 1920, Blytheville in 1924, El Dorado in 1926, McGehee in 1947, Fayetteville in 1981 and Bentonville in 2004.

Due to a wave of immigration from Eastern Europe, the Jewish population of Arkansas grew from 1,466 in 1878 to 8,850 by the time of the great flood of 1927. You’ll note that many of the congregations listed above were in areas of east and south Arkansas that have been declining economically in recent decades.

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, “Congregations in Helena, Blytheville and El Dorado closed, while others struggled to survive. The Jewish population has become concentrated in a few communities like Little Rock, Hot Springs, Fayetteville and Bentonville. In 1937, 13 cities in Arkansas had more than 50 Jews. In 2006, only four did. As of 2006, only congregations in Little Rock and Hot Springs had full-time rabbis.

“The only exception to this downward trend is Bentonville. In the 21st century, as Wal-Mart has encouraged major suppliers to open offices in its corporate hometown, Bentonville has seen its Jewish population skyrocket. In 2004, a group of 30 families founded Bentonville’s first Jewish congregation, Etz Chaim, which has quickly become the fastest-growing congregation in the state. Bentonville is the exception to the regional trend of small-town Jewish communities declining. Most of the founding members of Etz Chaim are not Arkansas natives. Unlike the peddlers and merchants who initially settled in Arkansas in the 19th century, these 21st century migrants are executives at large corporations. They represent the generation of Jewish professionals who have largely replaced the Jewish merchant class in the South’s metropolitan areas.”

Just as the population base of Arkansas has shifted from east to west during the past 60 years, many of the artifacts from Temple Beth El in Helena went to the northwest when the temple was closed in 2006. The building was donated to the state’s Delta Cultural Center. The artifacts are now used by Etz Chaim in Bentonville.

The remaining Jews in Phillips County now gather for services in homes, just as the early Jews of east Arkansas did before Congregation Beth El was established in 1867.

Last December, the Jewish news service JTA distributed an article about a Friday night service in the home of David and Miriam Solomon at Helena.

“We’re just going back to the cycle,” Miriam Solomon said. “We’ve come full circle.”

Ben Harris wrote in the article, “The plight of Helena’s Jews is mirrored in scores of communities across the Bible Belt, where Jews first migrated in the early 19th century, generally as peddlers. Those who stuck around opened small businesses, which for a long time provided an ample livelihood.”

“I relate everything to economics. People are going where they can make a living,” David Solomon said. “That’s it.”

Harris wrote that David Solomon is “something of a legend in eastern Arkansas. He has held countless civic offices, and all the downtown storekeepers know when he’s around. One of them ticked off the list of legal matters with which he had helped her, including a divorce and real estate issues.”

After reading Saturday’s newspaper column, a Little Rock man e-mailed me about a visit earlier this year to David Solomon’s office: “I was told to ‘hurry down to his office as he goes out for lunch.’ They added that he is into his 90s but you wouldn’t know it. I arrived at his office, and he looked better than I did though I am 35 to 40 years younger. He had on a pinstripe shirt, cuff links, bow tie and he knew who I was immediately though I had only met him once. He was friendly and quietly gave me attention but pointed to a boardroom and said, ‘I am so sorry. I have a room full of clients.”’

He’s 93 and going strong, carrying on the legacy of Delta Jews.

As the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities points out, “Despite the fact that they were always less than one-half of 1 percent of Arkansas’ population, Jews have played an important role in the social and economic development of the state. The Kempner, Blass and Pfeifer families all owned leading department stores. Howard Eichenbaum was a celebrated architect who designed many significant buildings in Little Rock. Jacob Trieber of Helena was the first Jew in America ever appointed as a federal judge, serving the Eastern District of Arkansas from 1900 to 1927. Julian Waterman was the first dean of the University of Arkansas Law School. Rabbi Ira Sanders, who served Little Rock Congregation B’nai Israel from 1926-63, became an outspoken supporter of racial equality during the turbulent era of civil rights. Cyrus Adler, who was born in Van Buren, became one of the most prominent Jewish leaders in America during the early 20th century, serving as president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Historical Society.”

All three of Miriam and David Solomon’s sons ended up on the East Coast. All have been highly successful in their careers. Just last week, President Obama announced that Lafe Solomon will serve as the acting general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board.

Those careers, though, have taken place somewhere other than the Delta.

Harris wrote that Miriam and David Solomon have a “benign resignation” over the impending end of Jewish life in Helena that derives “at least in part from the success they have had in winding down their affairs and ensuring the continued maintenance of their synagogue and cemetery, which dates to 1875. Their ritual objects have been donated to other communities, and a trust has been established to ensure the cemetery’s upkeep. And with the synagogue and its glass-domed ceiling turned over to the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the building will not only be preserved, it will be put to good use.”

Missing oysters and the Redneck Riviera

Like millions of other Americans, I’ve watched the television stories and read the published accounts as the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico continues to unfold.

BP’s chief executive officer was on Capitol Hill yesterday, saying how sorry he was that this has happened.

The apology didn’t make me feel any better.

I suspect it will be many years before we have a handle on the ramifications of the oil spill.

As is the case with so many other people in the South, annual visits to the Redneck Riviera are a cherished family tradition. We skipped last summer because I had just begun a new job June 1, money was tight and the timing wasn’t right for a vacation.

But in January, looking to warm up from what was a brutally cold winter by Arkansas standards, we went on the Internet and found a house we liked at Orange Beach in Alabama. We then found a week in late July that worked for everyone and made our reservations.

I almost felt guilty when we made the decision a few weeks ago to cancel those reservations. The folks on the coast are begging us to come down, eat in the restaurants, play golf, etc. Frankly, though, it’s too much money to spend for a possible view of work crews in orange vests scouring the beach, complete with loud trucks, early in the morning. That’s not a relaxing thought.

Hopefully, by next summer, things will be better and we can head to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida to celebrate our oldest son’s graduation from high school.

For now, I’ll miss the long walks, I’ll miss cooking on the grill as the sun sets, I’ll miss sitting on the deck and finally taking the time to read a book.

And I’ll miss the fresh seafood, especially the oysters.

I love oysters — raw, fried, steamed, baked, you name it.

Years ago, I convinced my mother-in-law to always make oyster dressing rather than just regular dressing for the holidays.

Things really hit home last week when the news came that P&J Oyster Co., which has been operating in New Orleans for 134 years, has stopped shucking oysters.

“My son — who is delivering oysters right now — he asked me yesterday, ‘Should I go apply for food stamps?”’ said Al Sunseri, the company’s president. “I started here when I was 21, and I remember how I wanted to carry on the tradition of our business, and I remember the feeling of not only the pressures of trying to carry on this long-standing business but also the opportunity that I had to do it.”

Two-thirds of the nation’s oysters come from the Gulf of Mexico. There were almost 13 million pounds of oysters worth about $40 million in sales at the dock harvested in Louisiana alone in 2008.

Sunseri said his oyster shuckers could make from $16 to $24 an hour, depending on their skill levels. Sunseri believes many of the oyster beds will never reopen.

Here’s how the situation was described in a story at www.money.cnn.com: “Restaurants that depend on P&J Oysters have had to scramble. Dickie Brennan is the owner of Bourbon House, a restaurant in New Orleans’ French Quarter. His family owns a handful of restaurants that depend on P&J Oyster Co.

“Many of the restaurants that P&J Oyster works with have been customers for generations and want to continue to support the family-owned distributor. ‘I own and operate three restaurants. We are pretty good volume for these guys,’ Brennan said.

“The Bourbon House buys both shucked oysters — for sauteing, frying and poaching — and whole oysters — for the traditional oyster on the half shell. Brennan said he has been able to get oysters from distributors that draw from outside of the areas shut down by the spill. He hopes P&J Oyster will get back on its feet eventually.

“‘We are like family — New Orleans is a small city,’ Brennan said. “I talk to Sal or Al five times a day, and we are trying to come up wth different strategies. But the goal is that P&J can get back to normal.'”

P&J’s roots go back to Croatia, where fishing in the Adriatic Sea has been a way of life for centuries. During the 1800s, many Croatian fishermen began to migrate to south Louisiana. One of them was John Popich, who wound up near New Orleans. He became an oysterman. The French Quarter company he began in 1876 is the oldest continually operating dealer of oysters in the country.

Some of the most famous dishes in New Orleans — including the oysters Rockefeller invented at Antoine’s by the Alciatore family — traditionally have used oysters from P&J Oyster Co.

The Sunseri brothers plan to bring in oysters from the Atlantic Coast and the Pacific Coast for customers. But they won’t be Gulf oysters shucked in the French Quarter.

“It is like trying to sell oranges instead of apples in an apple market,” Al Sunseri said. “Those oranges that people aren’t accustomed to eating instead of those apples, they are having to pay three times the price.”

It takes oysters between 18 months and 24 months to grow to full size.

How long will it take the oyster industry in the Gulf to recover once the oil is stopped?

“There is a lot of unknown, and it has everything to do with so much that we have never seen happen before,” Al Sunseri said.

Kevin McGill of The Associated Press began his story this way in a dispatch last week: “An early morning workday ritual — the shucking of small mountains of oysters for New Orleans restaurants — fell victim to the BP offshore oil spill at a 134-year-old French Quarter oyster house where neighbors treated the news like a death in the family. Amid the din of nearly a dozen men and women hammering and prying at the last piles of craggy oyster shells at P&J Oyster Co., Jerry Amato wandered in bearing comfort food: aluminum trays full of scrambled eggs, fried ham, grits and biscuits.

”’That’s what we do in New Orleans. After the funeral, we bring food,’ said Amato, proprietor of Mother’s Restaurant.

“P&J isn’t quite dead yet but, barring an unforeseen reopening of the oyster beds that supply the business, Thursday was to be the final day of shucking at the family owned business.”

Al Sunseri, 52, nodded toward the shuckers on that last day and told McGill: “These ladies here, those guys — I grew up with them. We were in our 20s when we started.”

To the west in Franklin, La., Ameripure Oyster Co. (the oysters they serve at the Back Porch in Destin, a restaurant familiar to Arkansans, come from there), company owner John Tesvich said, “The same thing happening over at P&J is happening over here also. … They’re on the point of depletion now.”

Wilbert Collins, 73, is a third-generation oyster farmer. He told McGill that it could take three years to replenish the stock on some of his leases. Two of Collins’ three boats are idle, and the third is helping clean up the spill.

The oystermen of Louisiana truly seem to be in a no-win situation.

“Oyster growers and harvesters are facing a double threat,” McGill wrote. “On the one hand, oil gushing from the blown-out well off Louisiana could contaminate the beds, killing the oysters or rendering them unsafe to eat. On the other hand, a method of fighting the encroaching oil by opening inland water diversion gates in hopes of pushing the oil back also could kill oysters. The fresh inland water dilutes saltier waters oysters need to thrive. Complicating the problem: It’s spawning season for young oysters.”

Here’s how McGill ended his story: “At P&J, longtime employee Wayne Gordon, 42, said his emotions ran the gamut from pain at the prospect of losing a job he’s held since he was 18 to anger at what he sees as the incompetence that caused the unending underwater gusher. ‘Twenty-four years,’ Gordon said as he took a break in the room where freshly shucked oysters were being packed into plastic cartons. ‘I cannot imagine not being here.”’

Tom Fitzmorris, a veteran New Orleans food writer and radio host who sends out The New Orleans Menu Daily online (I’ve subscribed for years and love it) summed up my feelings when he wrote: “This is very bad news. Sal Sunseri has been one of the most positive and active people in the seafood business in New Orleans. His product has been good enough that many restaurants around town specify on their menus that they serve P&J oysters. For him to lay off his staff and shut his doors indefinitely does not bode well for our favorite local seafood. It is not an act designed to just get attention, that’s for sure.

“The oil spill . . . is still putting fresh oil into the water. It’s meeting with what’s there already to create a really abysmal glop that is flowing into all the best areas for oystering. And there’s not going to be an easy fix for this. Some are saying (although I don’t believe this myself) that it will be many years before we have oysters again from the prime beds in Barataria Bay and on the East Bank of the river.

“Unlike many inside and outside of the media, I don’t pretend to know the solution. That’s really the worst part of this: Questions are everywhere, answers are nowhere. It’s scary when even the best people don’t know what to do. (There’s a difference between saying you know and actually knowing.) Nor do I think the orgy of blame assignment, lawsuits and shoulda woulda coulda scenarios is adding anything to this horrible turn of events.

“I just want to cry. And then I want to wait and see, with crossed fingers. They said it would be years before we’d have oysters again after Katrina. It proved to be only weeks. I know this is different, but. . . well, I’m waiting and watching. What else can one do other than help those affected directly?”

Like Tom, I don’t pretend to know the solution.

Like Tom, I just want to cry.

I’ve written before about how my parents sometimes would take my sister and me to Biloxi and Gulfport in the summer. As noted in earlier posts, we didn’t even know the prettier blue water and the whiter sand was just to the east of us in the Florida Panhandle. The Mississippi coast was the first one we hit heading south from Arkansas, and that was as far as my father cared to drive.

But we loved it. To this day, I find myself enjoying each part of the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida.

I tasted my first raw oyster at a place on the Mississippi coast called the Friendship House. Unlike most kids, I immediately fell in love with fresh, salty raw oysters.

Years later, my wife and I honeymooned in New Orleans just so we could eat in various restaurants there for a week. I told her I thought I could get my name on the wall at the Acme along with the other people who had eaten large numbers of raw oysters. She wouldn’t let me try.

I now feel that same sense of loss I felt from afar in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

We’ll go another summer without making it to the Gulf Coast. I’ll look out the window and daydream about walking around one of my favorite towns — Pass Christian in Mississippi, Fairhope in Alabama, Apalachicola in Florida.


Brennan’s, Icon of New Orleans’ French Quarter, is ‘Restored and Reborn’ on November 25 - Recipes

Johnny Cash is a music icon. His name is known worldwide.

That begs the question: Why haven’t we done more as a state to cash in on the fact that he was from Arkansas?

He was born in Feburary 1932 at Kingsland in the pine woods of south Arkansas. Ray and Carrie Rivers Cash had seven children. In addition to the boy known as J.R., there were Roy, Louise, Jack, Reba, Joanne and Tommy.

The Cash family was one of several families from Cleveland County to be chosen to move to the federal government’s Dyess Colony in Mississippi County. So it was that Johnny Cash would leave the Gulf Coastal Plain at an age too young to remember and be raised instead in the Delta of northeast Arkansas.

“The tragic death of Jack Cash in a 1944 sawmill accident haunted young J.R. for the remainder of his life,” Eric Lensing writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “His mother introduced him to the guitar, and the local Church of God introduced him to music. He acquired a fascination for the guitar and a love for singing. Cash first sang on radio station KLCN in Blytheville while attending Dyess High School. Upon graduation in 1950, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after a brief search for work in Michigan.”

Though Arkansas hasn’t done a good job of claiming the Cash legacy, Johnny never forgot his roots.

In February 1968, he returned for a homecoming show at the Dyess High School gymnasium.

The following September, Paris (as in Logan County, not France) native Bob Wootton came out of the audience to play guitar during a Cash concert in Fayetteville. Wootton had long been a Cash fan, playing his songs religiously and perfecting the style of the band. Wootton’s chance to fill in came after a flight cancellation left only Cash and drummer W.S. Holland on the stage. Cash was stunned by Wootton’s perfect renditions.

When original lead guitarist Luther Perkins died in a house fire, Wootton was asked to join the Tennessee Three. Wootton performed with Cash until 1997.

One of Cash’s most famous concerts came in April 1969 when he peformed for the inmates at Cummins. In 1980, the Kingsland native became the youngest person ever elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

I recently attended a meeting during which a group of business and civic leaders heard updates on Arkansas State University’s plans to not only capitalize on the Cash name but also interpret the history of the Dyess Colony for visitors.

In March, John Milner Associates Inc. completed work on a redevelopment master plan for Dyess that was commissioned by ASU.

The introduction to the plan states, “The New Deal Works Progress Administration Rural Resettlement Program provided a sense of hope and renewal for farming families of the Arkansas Delta whose lives were devastated by the natural and economic disasters of the early 20th century. Springing forth from 16,000 acres of forested swamp bottomland drained and cut for the new town, an army of workers constructed the 28-block town with 500 small farms surrounding it. In town, historically referred to as Dyess Center, several residences were constructed along with a hospital, school, churches, commissary, canning plant and administration building. After a rigorous interview, selected families were each set up with a 10-acre farmstead complete with house, barn, smokehouse and mule. Built on the fundamental values of achievement through hard work . . . Dyess became an incubator for success and optimism.

“Since its incorporation in the 1960s as a small city independent of federal support and control, it is apparent that the town has seen some hard times. The city council has had to contend with a range of serious issues including depopulation, loss of businesses and tax base, needed upgrade of infrastructure and lax code enforcement. However, the tight-knit sense of community lives on.”

Arkansas State, which has an outstanding record of preserving historic Delta sites, can start the process of preserving that which is historic at Dyess. Eventually, though, it will need the support of the Cash estate, private foundations and others to turn Dyess into the kind of tourist attraction it should be.

The location is ideal — just off busy Interstate 55 between Memphis and St. Louis. Tourists visiting Graceland in Memphis will find it easy to drive up to Dyess.

When tourists stop there now, there’s little to see or do. The Cash home still stands, but it’s in private hands, it’s not in good condition and it isn’t open to the public.

“The Johnny Cash house is owned by the Stegall family and occupied by Willie Stegall and his son,” the redevelopment master plan states. “It has been the Stegall family home for over 40 years. Over those years, the family has made improvements and adjustments to the house just as many other families who lived in small frame houses did in the same decades. The house is currently in declining condition, in part because of the way many wood elements are exposed to water and other weather-related sources of deterioration. The house has some unpainted wood components, both in places where the paint has failed and in places where the wood was never painted. Like many old houses, it has an imperfect system for roof drainage. The conditions inside and out are less than ideal, but the Stegall family has sought different ways to improve the house at different times with totally different approaches.”

According to this assessment, the changes the family made to the home in the 1960s and 1970s were logical for the time. A modern kitchen was added. The living room was changed. But the assessment adds, “If the dwelling is to be restored to its original configuration and appearance, these changes will have to be removed. Also it is important that any remaining historic materials and architectural features be preserved.”

— The family sells the Cash home to ASU, a foundation or the Cash estate at a reasonable price. It’s restored to its original condition and it’s opened to tourists.

— The Dyess Colony commissary is reconstructed to appear as it once did and opened as a store so tourists will have a place to shop. The original structure was lost to a fire. Only the foundation remains.

— Arkansas State obtains the money needed to transform the Dyess Colony administration building into a visitors’ center.

— The facades of the historic Dyess Theater and the adjoining Pop Shop restaurant are restored. Eventually those facades are incorporated into a new building that will house a small auditorium and a restaurant. The 100-seat theater will show films of Johnny Cash performances and documentaries on his life. The 30-seat restaurant will be leased to a local entrepreneur. Let’s hope it serves catfish, barbecue and other Delta specialties.

— A major marketing campaign is implemented. Prominent signage is placed on Interstate 55.

— An annual Johnny Cash tribute concert is held to raise funds for continued restoration.

As I reported in an earlier post, Arkansas State University has received a grant from the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council to begin restoring the exterior of the administration building and begin stabilizing the theater facade.

There’s much to be done. But at least it’s a start. At least smart people are beginning to understand that we can cash in on Cash while saving an important piece of Arkansas history, this Great Depression resettlement colony that Eleanor Roosevelt visited in 1936.

As the redevelopment master plan points out, “Established on natural swampland, it gave its first residents a fresh start but also replicated the American pioneer experience of taming the wilderness and creating new farms and livelihoods. Dyess also left an indelible mark on American music culture as the town that produced singer and songwriter Johnny Cash. Its influence is particularly evident in Cash’s music and lyrics, many of which reference his family’s experiences as cotton farmers in Dyess.”

The Southern Jewish experience

Researching the column I wrote for last Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about a visit to Temple Beth El in Helena ended up being a far more interesting task than I ever would have imagined.

One of the things that has always fascinated me about the Delta is the great diversity there — the Italians, the Chinese, the Lebanese and the Jews were among the groups that came up the Mississippi River from New Orleans and down the river from St. Louis to settle this colorful region.

If you traveled farther inland from the river into the hills of either Arkansas or Mississippi, you historically found far less diversity.

It’s the same reason I always was intrigued with Hot Springs when I was growing up in Arkadelphia. In Arkadelphia, the chances were great that you were either a white Baptist or a black Baptist. Compared to the towns that surrounded it, Hot Springs was an exotic place.

The Delta was like that, though six decades of population loss is changing the demographic picture.

David Solomon, the Helena lawyer who turns 94 next month and still goes to work each day at his office on Cherry Street, established the Tapestry Endowment for Arkansas Jewish History. The endowment created a permanent home at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock for Carolyn Gray LeMaster’s extensive body of research on the history of Jews in Arkansas.

The fund’s name is taken from the title of LeMaster’s book, “A Corner of the Tapestry: A History of the Jewish Experience in Arkansas, 1820s-1900s.”

The Jewish Genealogy Library Collection calls her book “one of the most comprehensive studies ever done on a state’s Jewish community. ‘A Corner of the Tapestry’ is the story of the Jews who helped settle Arkansas and who stayed and flourished to become a significant part of the state’s history and culture. Data for the book have been collected in part from the American Jewish Archives, American Jewish Historical Society, the stones in Arkansas’ Jewish cemeteries, more than 1,500 articles and obituaries from journals and newspapers, personal letters from hundreds of present and former Jewish Arkansans, congressional histories, census and court records and some 400 oral interviews in more than 100 cities and towns in Arkansas.”

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, a project of the Goldring-Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, the first Jew to settle in Arkansas was Abraham Block. He opened a store in the town of Washington in southwest Arkansas in 1823.

“Block settled in Washington when there were no Jewish congregations or institutions in the Arkansas Territory,” the encyclopedia reports. “He was a charter member of the first Jewish synagogue in the region, Congregation Gates of Mercy in New Orleans, joining in 1828. Yet the lack of any organized Jewish life in Arkansas at the time took its toll on his family, and few of his children remained within the faith. Block’s life in Arkansas highlights the challenges that Jews have often faced in a state largely isolated from the centers of American Jewish life.

“The difficulties became a little easier as growing numbers of Jews from central Europe began to arrive in Arkansas in the years before the Civil War. These immigrants were part of the German wave of Jewish immigration, which settled primarily in the large cities of the Northeast and Midwest. But a significant minority of Jews from the German states and from Alsace-Lorraine settled in the rural South, including Arkansas. At the time of the Civil War, they had established small but growing Jewish communities in Little Rock, Fort Smith, Pine Bluff, DeValls Bluff, Van Buren, Jonesboro and Batesville. Despite their relatively short time in the state, Jews felt closely tied to their new home. Of the approximately 300 Jews in Arkansas at the time of the war, 53 fought for the Confederacy.”

Jewish merchants were attracted to Arkansas in the years after the war. They received their goods from Jewish wholesalers in the river cities of Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Memphis. According to the encyclopedia, 14 towns or communities were founded by Jews in Arkansas or named after early Jewish residents. These included Altheimer, Felsenthal and Levy.

The state’s first Jewish congregation, B’nai Israel in Little Rock, was chartered in 1866. A year later, Temple Beth El was founded in Helena and Congregation Anshe Emeth was founded in Pine Bluff. Later congregations were founded in Camden in 1869, Hot Springs in 1878, Texarkana in 1884, Jonesboro in 1897, Newport in 1905, Dermott in 1905, Eudora in 1912, Osceola in 1913, Forrest City in 1914, Wynne in 1915, Marianna in 1920, Blytheville in 1924, El Dorado in 1926, McGehee in 1947, Fayetteville in 1981 and Bentonville in 2004.

Due to a wave of immigration from Eastern Europe, the Jewish population of Arkansas grew from 1,466 in 1878 to 8,850 by the time of the great flood of 1927. You’ll note that many of the congregations listed above were in areas of east and south Arkansas that have been declining economically in recent decades.

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, “Congregations in Helena, Blytheville and El Dorado closed, while others struggled to survive. The Jewish population has become concentrated in a few communities like Little Rock, Hot Springs, Fayetteville and Bentonville. In 1937, 13 cities in Arkansas had more than 50 Jews. In 2006, only four did. As of 2006, only congregations in Little Rock and Hot Springs had full-time rabbis.

“The only exception to this downward trend is Bentonville. In the 21st century, as Wal-Mart has encouraged major suppliers to open offices in its corporate hometown, Bentonville has seen its Jewish population skyrocket. In 2004, a group of 30 families founded Bentonville’s first Jewish congregation, Etz Chaim, which has quickly become the fastest-growing congregation in the state. Bentonville is the exception to the regional trend of small-town Jewish communities declining. Most of the founding members of Etz Chaim are not Arkansas natives. Unlike the peddlers and merchants who initially settled in Arkansas in the 19th century, these 21st century migrants are executives at large corporations. They represent the generation of Jewish professionals who have largely replaced the Jewish merchant class in the South’s metropolitan areas.”

Just as the population base of Arkansas has shifted from east to west during the past 60 years, many of the artifacts from Temple Beth El in Helena went to the northwest when the temple was closed in 2006. The building was donated to the state’s Delta Cultural Center. The artifacts are now used by Etz Chaim in Bentonville.

The remaining Jews in Phillips County now gather for services in homes, just as the early Jews of east Arkansas did before Congregation Beth El was established in 1867.

Last December, the Jewish news service JTA distributed an article about a Friday night service in the home of David and Miriam Solomon at Helena.

“We’re just going back to the cycle,” Miriam Solomon said. “We’ve come full circle.”

Ben Harris wrote in the article, “The plight of Helena’s Jews is mirrored in scores of communities across the Bible Belt, where Jews first migrated in the early 19th century, generally as peddlers. Those who stuck around opened small businesses, which for a long time provided an ample livelihood.”

“I relate everything to economics. People are going where they can make a living,” David Solomon said. “That’s it.”

Harris wrote that David Solomon is “something of a legend in eastern Arkansas. He has held countless civic offices, and all the downtown storekeepers know when he’s around. One of them ticked off the list of legal matters with which he had helped her, including a divorce and real estate issues.”

After reading Saturday’s newspaper column, a Little Rock man e-mailed me about a visit earlier this year to David Solomon’s office: “I was told to ‘hurry down to his office as he goes out for lunch.’ They added that he is into his 90s but you wouldn’t know it. I arrived at his office, and he looked better than I did though I am 35 to 40 years younger. He had on a pinstripe shirt, cuff links, bow tie and he knew who I was immediately though I had only met him once. He was friendly and quietly gave me attention but pointed to a boardroom and said, ‘I am so sorry. I have a room full of clients.”’

He’s 93 and going strong, carrying on the legacy of Delta Jews.

As the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities points out, “Despite the fact that they were always less than one-half of 1 percent of Arkansas’ population, Jews have played an important role in the social and economic development of the state. The Kempner, Blass and Pfeifer families all owned leading department stores. Howard Eichenbaum was a celebrated architect who designed many significant buildings in Little Rock. Jacob Trieber of Helena was the first Jew in America ever appointed as a federal judge, serving the Eastern District of Arkansas from 1900 to 1927. Julian Waterman was the first dean of the University of Arkansas Law School. Rabbi Ira Sanders, who served Little Rock Congregation B’nai Israel from 1926-63, became an outspoken supporter of racial equality during the turbulent era of civil rights. Cyrus Adler, who was born in Van Buren, became one of the most prominent Jewish leaders in America during the early 20th century, serving as president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Historical Society.”

All three of Miriam and David Solomon’s sons ended up on the East Coast. All have been highly successful in their careers. Just last week, President Obama announced that Lafe Solomon will serve as the acting general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board.

Those careers, though, have taken place somewhere other than the Delta.

Harris wrote that Miriam and David Solomon have a “benign resignation” over the impending end of Jewish life in Helena that derives “at least in part from the success they have had in winding down their affairs and ensuring the continued maintenance of their synagogue and cemetery, which dates to 1875. Their ritual objects have been donated to other communities, and a trust has been established to ensure the cemetery’s upkeep. And with the synagogue and its glass-domed ceiling turned over to the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the building will not only be preserved, it will be put to good use.”

Missing oysters and the Redneck Riviera

Like millions of other Americans, I’ve watched the television stories and read the published accounts as the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico continues to unfold.

BP’s chief executive officer was on Capitol Hill yesterday, saying how sorry he was that this has happened.

The apology didn’t make me feel any better.

I suspect it will be many years before we have a handle on the ramifications of the oil spill.

As is the case with so many other people in the South, annual visits to the Redneck Riviera are a cherished family tradition. We skipped last summer because I had just begun a new job June 1, money was tight and the timing wasn’t right for a vacation.

But in January, looking to warm up from what was a brutally cold winter by Arkansas standards, we went on the Internet and found a house we liked at Orange Beach in Alabama. We then found a week in late July that worked for everyone and made our reservations.

I almost felt guilty when we made the decision a few weeks ago to cancel those reservations. The folks on the coast are begging us to come down, eat in the restaurants, play golf, etc. Frankly, though, it’s too much money to spend for a possible view of work crews in orange vests scouring the beach, complete with loud trucks, early in the morning. That’s not a relaxing thought.

Hopefully, by next summer, things will be better and we can head to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida to celebrate our oldest son’s graduation from high school.

For now, I’ll miss the long walks, I’ll miss cooking on the grill as the sun sets, I’ll miss sitting on the deck and finally taking the time to read a book.

And I’ll miss the fresh seafood, especially the oysters.

I love oysters — raw, fried, steamed, baked, you name it.

Years ago, I convinced my mother-in-law to always make oyster dressing rather than just regular dressing for the holidays.

Things really hit home last week when the news came that P&J Oyster Co., which has been operating in New Orleans for 134 years, has stopped shucking oysters.

“My son — who is delivering oysters right now — he asked me yesterday, ‘Should I go apply for food stamps?”’ said Al Sunseri, the company’s president. “I started here when I was 21, and I remember how I wanted to carry on the tradition of our business, and I remember the feeling of not only the pressures of trying to carry on this long-standing business but also the opportunity that I had to do it.”

Two-thirds of the nation’s oysters come from the Gulf of Mexico. There were almost 13 million pounds of oysters worth about $40 million in sales at the dock harvested in Louisiana alone in 2008.

Sunseri said his oyster shuckers could make from $16 to $24 an hour, depending on their skill levels. Sunseri believes many of the oyster beds will never reopen.

Here’s how the situation was described in a story at www.money.cnn.com: “Restaurants that depend on P&J Oysters have had to scramble. Dickie Brennan is the owner of Bourbon House, a restaurant in New Orleans’ French Quarter. His family owns a handful of restaurants that depend on P&J Oyster Co.

“Many of the restaurants that P&J Oyster works with have been customers for generations and want to continue to support the family-owned distributor. ‘I own and operate three restaurants. We are pretty good volume for these guys,’ Brennan said.

“The Bourbon House buys both shucked oysters — for sauteing, frying and poaching — and whole oysters — for the traditional oyster on the half shell. Brennan said he has been able to get oysters from distributors that draw from outside of the areas shut down by the spill. He hopes P&J Oyster will get back on its feet eventually.

“‘We are like family — New Orleans is a small city,’ Brennan said. “I talk to Sal or Al five times a day, and we are trying to come up wth different strategies. But the goal is that P&J can get back to normal.'”

P&J’s roots go back to Croatia, where fishing in the Adriatic Sea has been a way of life for centuries. During the 1800s, many Croatian fishermen began to migrate to south Louisiana. One of them was John Popich, who wound up near New Orleans. He became an oysterman. The French Quarter company he began in 1876 is the oldest continually operating dealer of oysters in the country.

Some of the most famous dishes in New Orleans — including the oysters Rockefeller invented at Antoine’s by the Alciatore family — traditionally have used oysters from P&J Oyster Co.

The Sunseri brothers plan to bring in oysters from the Atlantic Coast and the Pacific Coast for customers. But they won’t be Gulf oysters shucked in the French Quarter.

“It is like trying to sell oranges instead of apples in an apple market,” Al Sunseri said. “Those oranges that people aren’t accustomed to eating instead of those apples, they are having to pay three times the price.”

It takes oysters between 18 months and 24 months to grow to full size.

How long will it take the oyster industry in the Gulf to recover once the oil is stopped?

“There is a lot of unknown, and it has everything to do with so much that we have never seen happen before,” Al Sunseri said.

Kevin McGill of The Associated Press began his story this way in a dispatch last week: “An early morning workday ritual — the shucking of small mountains of oysters for New Orleans restaurants — fell victim to the BP offshore oil spill at a 134-year-old French Quarter oyster house where neighbors treated the news like a death in the family. Amid the din of nearly a dozen men and women hammering and prying at the last piles of craggy oyster shells at P&J Oyster Co., Jerry Amato wandered in bearing comfort food: aluminum trays full of scrambled eggs, fried ham, grits and biscuits.

”’That’s what we do in New Orleans. After the funeral, we bring food,’ said Amato, proprietor of Mother’s Restaurant.

“P&J isn’t quite dead yet but, barring an unforeseen reopening of the oyster beds that supply the business, Thursday was to be the final day of shucking at the family owned business.”

Al Sunseri, 52, nodded toward the shuckers on that last day and told McGill: “These ladies here, those guys — I grew up with them. We were in our 20s when we started.”

To the west in Franklin, La., Ameripure Oyster Co. (the oysters they serve at the Back Porch in Destin, a restaurant familiar to Arkansans, come from there), company owner John Tesvich said, “The same thing happening over at P&J is happening over here also. … They’re on the point of depletion now.”

Wilbert Collins, 73, is a third-generation oyster farmer. He told McGill that it could take three years to replenish the stock on some of his leases. Two of Collins’ three boats are idle, and the third is helping clean up the spill.

The oystermen of Louisiana truly seem to be in a no-win situation.

“Oyster growers and harvesters are facing a double threat,” McGill wrote. “On the one hand, oil gushing from the blown-out well off Louisiana could contaminate the beds, killing the oysters or rendering them unsafe to eat. On the other hand, a method of fighting the encroaching oil by opening inland water diversion gates in hopes of pushing the oil back also could kill oysters. The fresh inland water dilutes saltier waters oysters need to thrive. Complicating the problem: It’s spawning season for young oysters.”

Here’s how McGill ended his story: “At P&J, longtime employee Wayne Gordon, 42, said his emotions ran the gamut from pain at the prospect of losing a job he’s held since he was 18 to anger at what he sees as the incompetence that caused the unending underwater gusher. ‘Twenty-four years,’ Gordon said as he took a break in the room where freshly shucked oysters were being packed into plastic cartons. ‘I cannot imagine not being here.”’

Tom Fitzmorris, a veteran New Orleans food writer and radio host who sends out The New Orleans Menu Daily online (I’ve subscribed for years and love it) summed up my feelings when he wrote: “This is very bad news. Sal Sunseri has been one of the most positive and active people in the seafood business in New Orleans. His product has been good enough that many restaurants around town specify on their menus that they serve P&J oysters. For him to lay off his staff and shut his doors indefinitely does not bode well for our favorite local seafood. It is not an act designed to just get attention, that’s for sure.

“The oil spill . . . is still putting fresh oil into the water. It’s meeting with what’s there already to create a really abysmal glop that is flowing into all the best areas for oystering. And there’s not going to be an easy fix for this. Some are saying (although I don’t believe this myself) that it will be many years before we have oysters again from the prime beds in Barataria Bay and on the East Bank of the river.

“Unlike many inside and outside of the media, I don’t pretend to know the solution. That’s really the worst part of this: Questions are everywhere, answers are nowhere. It’s scary when even the best people don’t know what to do. (There’s a difference between saying you know and actually knowing.) Nor do I think the orgy of blame assignment, lawsuits and shoulda woulda coulda scenarios is adding anything to this horrible turn of events.

“I just want to cry. And then I want to wait and see, with crossed fingers. They said it would be years before we’d have oysters again after Katrina. It proved to be only weeks. I know this is different, but. . . well, I’m waiting and watching. What else can one do other than help those affected directly?”

Like Tom, I don’t pretend to know the solution.

Like Tom, I just want to cry.

I’ve written before about how my parents sometimes would take my sister and me to Biloxi and Gulfport in the summer. As noted in earlier posts, we didn’t even know the prettier blue water and the whiter sand was just to the east of us in the Florida Panhandle. The Mississippi coast was the first one we hit heading south from Arkansas, and that was as far as my father cared to drive.

But we loved it. To this day, I find myself enjoying each part of the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida.

I tasted my first raw oyster at a place on the Mississippi coast called the Friendship House. Unlike most kids, I immediately fell in love with fresh, salty raw oysters.

Years later, my wife and I honeymooned in New Orleans just so we could eat in various restaurants there for a week. I told her I thought I could get my name on the wall at the Acme along with the other people who had eaten large numbers of raw oysters. She wouldn’t let me try.

I now feel that same sense of loss I felt from afar in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

We’ll go another summer without making it to the Gulf Coast. I’ll look out the window and daydream about walking around one of my favorite towns — Pass Christian in Mississippi, Fairhope in Alabama, Apalachicola in Florida.


Watch the video: TOP FOODS TO EAT IN NEW ORLEANS LOUISIANA. FOOD GUIDE (May 2022).


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