Going Prehistoric!

February 26, 2010

Big Piles of Dirt

Mound A is the tallest mound in Arkansas at approximately 49 ½ ft tall. That’s almost the size of a 5 story building. Mound B is 39 ½ ft tall and mound c is 10-12 ft. tall. It has been estimated that it would take approximately 753,280 baskets full of dirt to make mound A.

Mound A is the tallest mound in Arkansas at approximately 49 ½ ft tall. That’s almost the size of a 5 story building. Mound B is 39 ½ ft tall and mound c is 10-12 ft. tall. It has been estimated that it would take approximately 753,280 baskets full of dirt to make mound A.

An almost five story tall prehistoric mound sits before me. As I watch the sunset over the ceremonial grounds I stare in awe over the ingenuity of the people that once lived here.  Contemplating this huge mound, I start thinking about how visitors describe the mounds at first sight. “Those are some big piles of dirt.” Calling them big piles of dirt is an oversimplification.

Along with chard sticks baskets were used as a prehistoric mound building tool.

Along with chard sticks baskets were used as a prehistoric mound building tool.

First impressions we have about prehistoric American Indians is that they are primitive, simple really. Even in commercials you hear “So easy a caveman can do it.” This implies that a person who lived long ago could only do the simplest of things. I thought back on what “simple” things the people of prehistoric times would have done. Building a mound requires dirt to be built up in a pile. That is an easy concept. Making it flat or round on top, well that’s simple too. Sure the people long ago could do the simplest things. Instead of seeing these people as simple here at Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park you have to take a big step back and arrange the whole picture. The Plum Bayou People, over 900 years ago, were able to construct monumental and lasting earthworks that still stand today.

Solstices and Equinoxes

The Great Pyramids in Egypt, Stonehenge in England, Mayan Pyramids in Mexico…these are the outstanding places you think of when you hear solstice or equinox. The ancient peoples around the world built these amazing and mysterious wonders. Hundreds of visitors flock to these destinations every year to admire a piece of prehistory.

America is too young to have such great wonders of the world. Or is it? These mounds at Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park tell us the same thing.  They aren’t in shapes of little heads or tables but they tell the same stories. The prehistoric American Indians that lived here not only built these huge mounds, but they also put them in certain spots to create a way to tell about the solstices and Equinoxes. Our own trailblazers have been in your back yard this whole time.

Visitors enjoying the sunset behind Mound A to mark the Fall Equinox.

Visitors enjoying the sunset behind Mound A to mark the Fall Equinox.

Come out and see this for yourself. The park lets people come experience these actual events and see our own piece of prehistory.

After studying the mounds I concluded that a truer statement should be “So easy a modern man can do it.” Prehistoric American Indians simply did do it. Easy is a huge understatement. It would truly be easy for the modern man but let’s see modern man build these mounds the way they are without books, internet, and engineering tools…and have them last over 900 years!

Amy Griffin, Park Interpreter

Amy Griffin, Park Interpreter

Amy holds a bachelors degree in Parks and Recreation from Arkansas Tech University. Her career in Arkansas state parks started as a seasonal interpreterin 2006 at DeGray Lake State Park. She is currently a park interpreter at Toltec Mounds Archeological Park and has worked there since 2007. She is also a member of the National Association of Interpreters and a Certified Interpretive Guide.


The Park that was a Farm

February 22, 2010

Entering Crowley’s Ridge State Park, the first things you notice are the trees.  As you wander through the park you will see a wide variety of trees, shrubs, vines, and flowering plants.  Looking at all of the greenery it might be hard to picture the land as a farm, but that is exactly what it was before a determined group of people decided that it needed to become a park.

Crowley’s Grave – this monument was built in the Shiloh Cemetery to honor Benjamin Crowley, the first prominent settler on the ridge and the man for whom Crowley’s Ridge was named.

Crowley’s Grave – this monument was built in the Shiloh Cemetery to honor Benjamin Crowley, the first prominent settler on the ridge and the man for whom Crowley’s Ridge was named.

In the early 1800’s a man named Benjamin Crowley decided to settle in Northeast Arkansas.  He had originally been given a piece of land in Missouri as partial payment for his service in the War of 1812.  Unfortunately, when he arrived to settle his land he discovered that it had been covered with water due to the massive earthquakes that shook the area in 1811 and 1812, so he decided to keep searching for a good spot to set up his homestead.  Although he traveled through Davidsonville and stayed there for a little while he eventually made his way to what would later become a little town called Walcott and set up his homestead there.  He liked it so much that he encouraged his family and friends to move to the area.  On his land the first church service for the area was held, the first court session for Greene County was held, and one of the first cemeteries was established.

Mrs. Belle Hodges Wall’s perseverance played a large part in the creation of Crowley’s Ridge State Park.

Mrs. Belle Hodges Wall’s perseverance played a large part in the creation of Crowley’s Ridge State Park.

As time went on most of the land was used for farmland until a small group of citizens decided that the area needed to be set aside due to its historical significance.  Led by a woman named Belle Hodges Wall, the group formed the Greene County Historical Society and began working to raise money to purchase land that could then be set aside as a park.  The first time they contacted the state government about including their land in the brand new state park system they were informed that the amount of land was not enough to declare it a state park and that the farm land and swamp areas would make a poor park.  Rather than giving up Mrs. Wall organized a letter writing campaign and hired W.R. Heagler to design a plan that would turn the farm into a park.  Eventually Mrs. Wall was successful and in 1933 the land was accepted as a state park.  W.R. Heagler was chosen as the first superintendent and oversaw the construction of the park facilities.

The beginnings of the park coincided with the beginnings of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal projects.  Five CCC companies over the course of five years, from 1933 to 1938, worked to transform the land into a place that the community would be proud to claim as their local state park.  They built facilities, put in culverts, cleared trails, and planted more than ten thousand trees and more than fifty thousand shrubs and vines.  Although, the trees create a wonderful view, some might argue that

The first company of Civilian Conservation Corps workers lived in tents while working on the park.  This picture shows the barren conditions that the area was in before the CCC planted numerous trees, vines, and shrubs.

The first company of Civilian Conservation Corps workers lived in tents while working on the park. This picture shows the barren conditions that the area was in before the CCC planted numerous trees, vines, and shrubs.

planting the shrubs and vines was actually more important.  The soil on Crowley’s Ridge is highly erodible and after being farmed for so long one of the big concerns was the soil simply blowing away.  The root systems of the shrubs and vines spread quickly, helping to hold the soil in place.

Today our visitors enjoy walks on our hiking trails that take them through the woods and past a wide variety of plants species.  Many species of wildlife have moved in and set up homes, including whitetail deer, turkey, red fox, and pileated woodpeckers.  Through the perseverance of a community and the hard work of a group of young men the farm has become a park that is a treasured part of the northeast Arkansas community and thanks to the Arkansas State Parks system and the citizens of Arkansas it will remain that way for many years to come.

The Wishing Well Flume near Lake Ponder is surrounded by greenery.

The Wishing Well Flume near Lake Ponder is surrounded by greenery.

Heather Runyan, Park Interpreter

Heather Runyan, Park Interpreter

Heather Runyan graduated from Henderson State University with a bachelor’s degree in Recreation and Park Administration and after college served two terms as an AmeriCorps member.   She began working for Arkansas State Parks in 2006 as the Park Interpreter at Crowley’s Ridge State Park.   Heather is a member of the National Association for Interpretation and a Certified Interpretive Guide.


Petit Jean State Park: A Place Where You Can Go Home Again

February 18, 2010

“Experiencing the changes in life over the years has meant more to me than simple aging.  It has meant watching the landscape and the world become more tame, drab, and developed.  Human life and wildlife are both losing their world.”   – Barbara Kerr

I have spent more than a few hours in January reviewing Ken Burns’ recent documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea and have learned a great deal from it, both factually and emotionally.  The documentary has helped me to piece together some scattered thoughts.

A map was drawn up by the National Park Service of Petit Jean.

A map was drawn up by the National Park Service of Petit Jean.

I found it interesting, even before I ever served as a park interpreter at Petit Jean, that this state park has ties, and some similarities, to national parks: We have a lodge named for the first Park Service Director, Stephen Mather, who visited here in the 1920s to help strengthen a new Conference of State Parks. Our country doctor/park founder, T.W. Hardison, originally had the national park idea in mind when he first met with Mather.  They would meet again, and Hardison would come to know Mather as a friend and fellow conservationist.  Petit Jean State Park has a set of archived park plans (on display at the visitor center) drawn up by the National Park Service during the time of the Civilian Conservation Corps – another tie.  The idea of setting this beautiful, rugged area aside to be conserved for future generations parallels the notion that began the national parks.  It follows the same pattern.  As our Executive Director of Arkansas Parks and Tourism, Richard Davies, noted in a talk back in December, “Our state parks are the ‘child’ of national parks.”  It’s a pretty accurate metaphor.

Though I believed I knew the answer, I have asked myself on several occasions recently, “Why do I like parks so much?”  And the more I think about it, the deeper the answers run.  There are volumes.

One reason might be summed up by the title of a Thomas Wolfe novel, You Can’t Go Home Again.  Wolfe’s title refers to change.  In time, change may alter any place – even home, or maybe especially home – to a point that it is no longer the same place.  It’s not home as you knew it anymore.  You can’t go there anymore.  The sentence/title strikes a chord with me because it is so true.  But parks are, by nature, change-resistant.  The idea is to let them remain “home” to the people who visit them generation after generation.  A person who made the hike to Cedar Falls fifty years ago can return today, make the hike, and little has changed.  Somewhere, deep down, that must be a source of inspiration and perhaps a source of great relief as well.

Hiking the trails at Petit Jean State Park is timeless.

Hiking the trails at Petit Jean State Park is timeless.

When I was eight years old, a clever second-grader, I made one of my first organized hikes – a very special one.  It was not in a park, but it was in a place very much like a park – a natural area with an expansive reach and an interesting history.  Four generations of my family had just come back from a service at a small country church.  My grandmother provided music at the church’s piano.  There were my younger sister and myself, our parents, my father’s parents, and my father’s mother’s parents.  From my great-grandparents’ old country house, we all made an afternoon walk up our home stream, the North Fork of Ozan Creek.  This old creek sliced through the Gulf Coastal Plain of southwest Arkansas, revealing colorful rounded stones washed away from conglomerate outcrops and mounds of slate-blue clay the local people called “Indian soap.”  The creek’s water was clear and churned down riffles into long pools that again became lively riffles.  Caddo burial mounds dotted the countryside along the creek, and artifacts from that culture turned up everywhere.

We hiked for several miles that afternoon, on a pretty well-established trail, and for the first time I got to see places that would become an embedded part of my early life.  There was one spring, in particular, that flowed down a clay embankment, leaving multi-hued mineral patterns on a cusp that faced a small pool which emptied into the creek.  My buddies and I would later dub it “Buffalo Spring” because of its brown colors.  The trail builders, whoever they may have been, created bench paths that cut midway along the sides of the bluffs some thirty feet up over the creek.  Hardwood and pine canopied the creek corridor, and down along the creek bed were springs and more springs, feeder streams, canebrakes, and openings into fields.  Our final destination that day was a waterfall, about five feet high and twenty feet across, with a darn good swimming hole washed out beneath it.  And I found my eight-year-old self in love with a place.

Late that afternoon, I settled in warm by the fireplace at my great-grandparents’ house, thinking about it all.  I hoped that we would all do the hike again next week.  But it didn’t happen.  Then I wished that we would do the hike together again later on.  But time passed, and changes came.  My great-grandparents and grandparents grew older, my parents grew busier, and that group of eight would never make the hike to the waterfall again.  For the four generations, it turned out to be a one-time experience.  Later in my childhood, though, I became as intimately familiar with the Ozan and its surroundings as I was with each of those members of my own family.  Three other boy companions lived just down the road.  We kept the Ozan Creek company for years and, looking back, were pretty good caretakers.

We witnessed the dynamics of the stream, knew the scents and sounds and responses to seasons.  Spring rains brought the big, swift, brown water out of the banks.  When the creek settled down, expansive new rock bars appeared, newly washed out swimming holes were discovered, while other pools were filled in with stone and gravel.  One swimming hole, the flood-scoured floor newly-cleared to reveal a large deposit of blue clay, became known to local people as the “Blue Hole” or “Clay Bottom.”  I was baptized in that swimming hole one summer Sunday afternoon.  Afterwards, my buddies threw me off the diving bank and “re-baptized” me.  Summer droughts brought shallow pools laced with algae; riffles turned to dry rock.  Long-ear sunfish made nests in shallows and dutifully defended them.  Small chain pickerel darted beneath grassy banks.  There were cottonmouths all along the creek, a species that I would later learn defines a healthy watershed – but if you want to stay healthy, don’t let them get their fangs into you.

As we grew older, our territory expanded.  A few miles downstream, the Ozan ran into a wetland.  There was a beaver dam the length of a football field, and we learned of old natural caves that had been slowly eroded into the sandstone hills not far from the beaver pond.  Waterfowl flew in by hundreds.  One year, on my best friend’s birthday, we were set free to hike across the bottoms.  His mother picked us up at a pre-determined spot late that afternoon.  It was an unforgettable day.

By the time I was a senior in high school, “progress” was afoot, and there were plans for the North Fork of Ozan Creek.  Change was on its way.  The USDA Soil Conservation Service was in the final stages of building “watershed dams” on many of the streams that flowed into the rich farmland miles downstream – this theoretically to control flooding and to save crops.  I vividly remember hiking upstream one spring day and being wide-eyed to find dozers and earth movers beginning the process of building a huge earthen dam across the Ozan – a quarter-mile of dirt, dust and noise.  Once the dam was completed, the entirety of water in the creek was funneled down a chamber and fed through a pipe about three and one-half feet in diameter.  Only the heated top-water of the new reservoir made it to the other side of the dam.  On a summer day, the water that fed from the dam into the old creek bed was as warm as bathwater to the touch.  And, as several years passed, the living, changing creek that I had known for so long all but vanished.  Only a withered remnant remained, slowly filling with soil and fallen trees.  The Ozan had become a mere, winding overgrown ditch.

A wealthy rancher from the west bought the wetland area.  Before long there were more dozers and chainsaws busy clearing and draining the bottomland.  A new channel was cut for the stream to run through, a straight drainage ditch.  Being paranoid that someone would become injured or trapped in one of the old sandstone caverns, the landowner even had the bull dozers cave in and seal off the entrances.  In time, and to the amazement of some of the local residents, the wetland became a cow pasture.

Later still, when I was in my mid-twenties, I made a scouting walk up the Ozan.  I had a new son and had it in mind to make some of my childhood treks with him once he became old enough.  By then, a new housing development was beginning to spring up in the fields above the bluffs.  There were brand new, large homes being built for the upwardly mobile of the nearest town.  Once I came upon Buffalo Spring, I was dismayed to find, in the pool beneath the cusp, a large wooden cable spool, dumped along with lesser bits and pieces of leftover construction material.  Developers and new residents were using the creek as a garbage dump.  Further on, I found barbed wire strung all the way to the creek banks.  The old walking trail was gone.  The bench paths along the bluffs were eroded away.  As more time went by, the wealthy occupants of the Ozan estates began to use the creek for riding popular, new all-terrain-vehicles, scarring the creek bed and its banks with deep, muddy ruts as well as leaving litter.  It was a whole new change and not necessarily for the better.

Scenarios similar to mine have happened in many places during the past several decades.  I hear it from like-minded people all over the world: “I once knew this lovely place.  It’s changed now.”

Why do I like parks so much?  One reason is I can’t go home again.  Only in distant memory can I walk along the path that my family’s four generations took one Sunday afternoon long ago.  As I grow older, I look on and see, in real terms, what happens if an inspiring, natural place is not protected in some way.  There is certainty that it will be degraded or vanish entirely, especially with new populations, changing values, and a drive, by some, to turn natural resources into more wealth.

One of the most comforting thoughts that I can imagine is that when my granddaughter is grown and tall, and a force to be reckoned with, that there will still be a Boy Scout Trail at Petit Jean State Park.  I hope that she will be out on it with a daypack strapped to her back, testing strong legs against stone, sunrays still heating up the walls of the ancient slot canyons in the Seven Hollows.  And I hope I’m there, trying to keep up.  Parks such as Petit Jean, for us and even for those who exist out in the distant future, give special places and the people who know them a chance to endure.

“The legacy of Arkansas State Parks is to preserve our state’s diverse beauty and history, so that all Arkansans and visitors may find emotional and intellectual connections to their heritage.” - Theme Statement of Arkansas State Parks

“The legacy of Arkansas State Parks is to preserve our state’s diverse beauty and history, so that all Arkansans and visitors may find emotional and intellectual connections to their heritage.”

BT Jones, Park Interpreter

BT Jones, Park Interpreter

BT Jones is a park interpreter at Petit Jean State Park and has worked there since 2005.  He holds a master’s degree in education from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.  BT is a member of the National Association for Interpretation (NAI) and holds a Certified Interpretive Guide credential.  He is also a Leave No Trace (LNT) master educator and works as an advocate for Arkansas wilderness.  BT’s pasttimes are nature and wildlife photography, hiking and backpacking, and helping to preserve Arkansas’s wilderness and natural areas.  He most enjoys hiking with park visitors and presenting programs on Petit Jean’s natural and historical features.


It’s About the People

February 15, 2010

The elderly visitor stood at the first marker on the Knapp Trail, gazing out across the plaza area, a wide expanse of open grass. The wind carried the scent of many wildflowers straight toward his uplifted face.  He had rather long, dark hair shot through with streaks of gray. It was stirring in the breeze. His distinct facial features quietly spoke of his Native American heritage.  He was leaning on a walking staff. A feather hanging on a leather thong at the top of the staff danced in the breeze. A small, very old and weathered-looking, brown leather medicine bag hung around his neck.   His dark brown eyes focused on Mound A, the tallest Indian mound in Arkansas.  As an interpreter at Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park, I usually stop and speak with visitors, but something told me I should leave this gentleman undisturbed for a while. It was easy to tell by the expression on his weathered face that he was deep in contemplation.  I walked past him and continued out to check on some unusual wildflowers I had seen blooming near the small lake that people from Scott, Arkansas know as Mound Pond.

Visitors enjoy the diverse eco-system of Mound Lake.

Visitors enjoy the diverse eco-system of Mound Lake.

I stayed a while on the boardwalk looking across the water. What a beautiful, breezy spring day! I turned and looked at the huge mound on the edge of the water. I imagined people, long ago, trudging up the side of that structure carrying basket loads of dirt, each one adding to the now silent testimony of the immense pile of soil that stood before me. 

The great earthen monument sang its silent song to me again. I could visualize Indian children playing happily here at its foot. It was easy to hear them laughing as they picked flowers, fished or caught frogs. 

My mind drifted forward in time to a fun morning I’d enjoyed with a group from the School for the Deaf that visited Toltec Mounds. I recalled their delight at discovering the green tree frogs on the boardwalk. How timeless this place is!  It has always meant something to someone.

I love interacting with our visitors and bringing the site and the people that built this place alive for them. People come here for different reasons. Sometimes the signs on the Interstate bring them in. It is simple curiosity. They are on vacation, touring, looking for something interesting to see and do. 

Some, like the Batun family who are of Mayan heritage, are attracted by the name Toltec. Senor Batun is working on his master’s degree in anthropology at Florida State University.  He and his family were on their way out west to see the Grand Canyon, when they noticed the signs and took a detour to see Toltec Mounds.  Some folks are interested in the archeology here.  They may come to volunteer on Arkansas Archeological Society lab days this summer.  Many come to learn about ancient life by participating in workshops or summer camps.  Boy Scouts, with the aid of the Quapaw Council, may come to work on their Native American Heritage badges. 

For some, like the man at the first trail marker, it is a spiritual thing. Often people come purposefully seeking that spiritual connection.  Others make connections at Toltec Mounds that they did not expect.  This place has that effect on folks.  They may come here saying, “So what?”  Yet, they go away saying “Wow!  I had no idea what was here.  This is amazing!”

A National Historic Landmark, the Toltec Mounds site comprises one of the largest and most impressive archeological sites in the Lower Mississippi River Valley.

A National Historic Landmark, the Toltec Mounds site comprises one of the largest and most impressive archeological sites in the Lower Mississippi River Valley.

As I left the boardwalk and rounded the base of Mound A to head back to the visitor center I noticed something.  The man at the first marker was still standing in the same spot I’d seen him about twenty minutes ago.  His hair was still lifting and dancing on the breeze.  I went near him again, and could see that his eyes were closed now.  A single tear sparkled in the sun on his left cheek. 

As I approached, he opened his eyes and our gazes locked.  He seemed a bit embarrassed at first and hurriedly wiped the tear away.  I just smiled knowingly and nodded.  He smiled back and said, “I can hear them…I can hear the drums.”  Now, many folks might think his remark a bit odd.  Not this interpreter.  I smiled and replied, “Me too!”   That was all we said to each other. It was all that was needed.

 

Rhonda Clay, Seasonal Park Interpreter

Rhonda Clay, Seasonal Park Interpreter

Rhonda Clay is a seasonal interpreter at Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park.  Educated at Louisiana Tech University, Rhonda has a Bachelor of Arts degree with emphasis on Wildlife Management and Public Relations.  She also holds associate degrees in Forestry Wildlife and Wildlife Conservation Biology.  Prior to this, she worked for the Caddo Parish Department of Parks in Louisiana as a park naturalist, and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a Refuge Operations Specialist, Environmental Educator, and Native American liaison to the Caddo Indian Nation. She is a Certified Interpretive Guide and active member of the National Association for Interpretation. 


The Rich Musical History in the Arkansas Delta

February 11, 2010
Kids get hands on history lessons at Parkin Archelological State Park.

Kids get hands on history lessons at Parkin Archeological State Park.

In honor of Black History Month, I decided to go a different way with this week’s blog. Here in Arkansas we have so much to celebrate, yet so few of us know about our rich, colorful history.  This has bothered me for years. Some time ago I asked my grandmother why I had to search so hard to find Arkansas history- why we didn’t have all the historical markers and buildings that other states around us had.  She had one simple reply, “Honey, we come from poor stock.”

This is definitely true.  Though we have some of the most scenic waterways, mountains, hills and hollers, the best farmland, the coolest attitudes, and wouldn’t think twice about helping out our neighbors, for some reason, many thought that the very spirit that built Arkansas was something to be ashamed of.  That humble beginnings in log cabins, clearing land, working hard and raising children was simply something that no one would care about.

The Birthplace of Arkansas Delta Blues

Sadly, a lot of Arkansas history has gotten buried because of that very reason.  Perhaps the best untold story Arkansas has is its ownership of the only pure American form of music.  This is the story of creation.  This is the story of the Arkansas Delta Blues.

Scorching sun, biblical floods, despair, yet faith- the Arkansas Delta was built on extremes. Few lived in the Arkansas Delta before the Civil War.  Some of America’s most fertile soil, left by centuries of the Mississippi’s mighty floods, lay hidden beneath a dense blanket of forest and swamp- a wilderness ruled by bear and panther.  After the war, the Delta became a magnet for former slaves and others down on their luck, looking for a place where through hard work they could fulfill their dreams.

Getting one’s own land took time, dedication, and savings.  In the meantime, most came to work for others, large landowners who would take on sharecroppers.  Sharecroppers went to work with the desire to work a few years and save up enough money to get out.

The restored 1910 Northern Ohio School House interprets the life of timber workers children.

The restored 1910 Northern Ohio School House interprets the life of timber workers children.

At that time, people said their days lasted “from can to can’t.”  That meant that they worked as long as there was enough daylight to see what they were doing. Though they came into sharecropping full of hope, many begin to see that instead sharecropping was like plowing quicksand. Each spring, landowners charged tenants for animals, seed, room, board, supplies, and equipment.  Come fall, high interest rates kept many farmers deeper in debt than they were the year before.

Though times were tough, spirits remained high.  Strong communities like SawDust Hill in Parkin sprang up and offered each other support. African-American churches, river baptisms, and box lunch socials became the center of the Delta folks’ lives. Places like the Northern Ohio School (now a part of Parkin Archeological State Park) offered students and parents hope that one day, their family could break the cycle of sharecropping. But life here in the Delta wasn’t all work and no play, and everyone wanted to get out a little on Saturday nights.

Musicians like Elvis, B.B. King, Carl Perkins and Howlin' Wolf spent their early years playing in places like Parkin, Arkansas.

Musicians like Elvis, B.B. King, Carl Perkins and Howlin' Wolf spent their early years playing in places like Parkin, Arkansas.

The Beatles, U2, The Rolling Stones were all influenced by the music of the Delta

Beale Street in Parkin was the place to be.  With acts like Elvis, B.B. King, Carl Perkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Sunny Boy Williamson, and many more, where else would you want to be? Here in our fields, on our street corners, and in our juke joints on Saturday nights, African-Americans invented a new kind of music. They called it the Blues.  Juke joints sprang up all over the Delta, and some of the most famous were right around Parkin- West Memphis and Helena also had many famous acts come and play, but perhaps the most famous little juke joint around was the on the Parkin side of Twist, Arkansas.

This particular juke joint in Twist was rural, fun, spirited, and definitely unruly.  On one infamous winter night in 1949, a young B.B King was slated to be the entertainment, but he would soon be upstaged by another kind of show.  As local lore has it, punches began to fly between two men fighting over a woman named Lucille.  After the punches, came the chairs, and after the chairs, well, a kerosene lamp was knocked over and set the whole place ablaze.  Everyone, including B.B., quickly fled outside to safety.  It was about this time though, that B.B. realized in all the commotion he left his guitar onstage.  He rushed back into the burning building to retrieve his guitar, and luckily he made it out with only some minor burns.  He named his guitar “Lucille” that night to remind himself how much trouble a little lady can get you into.

The Blues didn’t just stay here in the Arkansas Delta- they immediately radiated out, all over the South, revolutionizing popular music and becoming America’s only true music form.  Though Blues joints can be found all over the U.S. and even overseas, some of the purest forms can only be found here in Arkansas.

Take an Arkansas Delta Blues retreat weekend- head over to Parkin Archeological State Park and visit the historic Northern Ohio School.  While you get to see one of the last remaining African-American one-room schoolhouses in eastern Arkansas, Park Interpreters can help your kids write their very own 12 bar blues song. Swing over to the Delta Cultural Center in Helena, and enjoy great exhibits on blues superstars, and don’t forget to be on the longest running blues radio show in America- aired live from the museum studio.  Drive down to Lakeport Plantation, the only remaining Arkansas plantation home on the Mississippi River, and if you’re lucky, Lake Chicot State Park will be holding Gospel Fest while you’re down there. And last but not least, don’t forget to swing out to Twist, and have your picture taken in front of the sign marking the place where Lucille got her name.

Experience Arkansas history dating back to 1000 A.D. and right up into the 1950's at Parkin Archeological State Park.

Experience Arkansas history dating back to 1000 A.D. and right up into the 1950's at Parkin Archeological State Park.

Welcome to my Arkansas- the Arkansas Delta, home of the Blues.  If you’re in the neighborhood, come on by.

 

Mary Anne Parker, Park Interpreter & Friend

Mary Anne Parker, Park Interpreter & Friend

~Mary Anne Parker has been with Arkansas State Parks since 2005, and as Interpreter at Parkin Archeological State Park since 2006.  Mary Anne’s primary focus at Parkin has been on the African-American Experience in the Delta, and she is extremely proud of the growth in community support the park has experienced with the renovation and opening of the Northern Ohio School in 2006. Her other interests and activities include running the Parker Homestead, which she owns and operates with her husband and his parents, and writing grants to further educational opportunities for students attending Arkansas Delta public schools.


Modern Adventures

February 8, 2010

Geocaching is like a game of Hide-n-Seek taken to a new level.

Geocaching is like a game of Hide-n-Seek taken to a new level.

Taking Hide and Seek to New Levels

Do you remember playing hide and seek as a child?  I never understood why it took my mom 15 minutes to find me hiding under my bed.   I remember thinking she is not very good at this game.  Now, as the parent of a rambunctious little two-year old boy whose volume is always on full blast, I get it.  Lets just say we play hide and seek at my house a lot.  Personally, I prefer to play outdoors.  My kids are the same way.  I think I’m fortunate because it seems like many of the kids of today would rather be indoors.  They love social networking online, portable digital media and instant access to information. Chances are they are not interested in it if it doesn’t have keys to push or a touch screen to navigate.   Sometimes it’s hard to get them to just slow down and to appreciate or even acknowledge their surroundings.

A Gadget That Gets You Outside

Geocaching creates a connection of the outdoors and technology.

Geocaching creates a connection to the outdoors for young and old.

A few years ago, I discovered a way to incorporate their love of gadgets with my love of the great outdoors.  It is called geocaching; a version of hide-and-seek designed for anyone to play.  In a nutshell, it is a high-tech treasure hunt using GPS receivers.  Players, aptly called “geocachers,” have hidden almost a million caches all over the world for you to find.  Basically, the game plays as follows.  You go to www.geocaching.com and conduct a search of the area you wish to hunt.  Once armed with the description and coordinates of the hidden cache, you begin your quest.  You might be looking for an ammo box, Tupperware container, or maybe a film canister; depending on the type of cache you are hunting.  After locating the geocache, you log your discovery in the cache logbook, trade trinkets by leaving something behind for the next player to find, and then return home to share your experiences online.  It’s fun and requires little to get started.  In today’s economy, we can all use a way to have inexpensive fun with the kids.  The only cost involved is purchasing a GPS unit.  Geocaching can be as difficult or simple as you want it, since you decide which geocaches you seek.

Anyone Can Play, Young and Old

Kids love today's technology and geocaching provides a whole new way to enjoy the outdoors.

Kids love today's technology and geocaching provides a whole new way to enjoy the outdoors.

Again, what’s great is the game is not age specific.  My 9-year old absolutely loves it.  Geocaching combines technology with the excitement of a treasure hunt.   For her, it’s all about the discovery and swapping trade items.  She likes to make her own trade trinkets to leave behind – she’s fascinated with Shrinky Dinks.  I loved making them as a kid, so it’s fun to share my experience and knowledge of that magic plastic material with my daughter.  She thinks it is so cool to look through the oven door and see her artwork shrink right before her eyes.  If you go geocaching in one of Arkansas’s State Parks, keep an eye out for one of her creations.

The ParkCache Challenge and Other Park Geocaches

Arkansas State Parks are great places to search for geocaches.  Lake Ouachita State Park has 9 geocaches and there are over 250 within a 10 mile radius of the park.  The ones in the state park are located along hiking trails, near scenic views of the lake and near historic Three Sisters Springs.  The park interpreters offer programs year-round on geocaching and hold a special event each summer dedicated to the game.  In fact, I’m sure you could stop by the visitor center and ask for additional help if necessary.  This winter, my kids and I have been hunting caches in other state parks.  They are able to see some of my favorite places in the state and we are creating many lasting memories.  Sometimes, we will hunt geocaches on the way to the parks.  It breaks up the driving time and gives them a chance to get out a run around during long rides.  Now, when the kids say, “Are we there yet?” I can say, “You tell me.  How far to the next geocache?”The Arkansas State Parks ParkCache Challenge (editor’s note: Find out more about geocaching in Arkansas State Parks on our geocaching Web page. Learn about placing caches, the ParkCache Challenge and where to get more information. You can also find out a lot more from the Arkansas Geocachers Association.)

Susan Tigert, Park Interpreter

Susan Tigert, Park Interpreter

Susan has Bachelor of Science in Psychology.  She grew up in Hot Springs and spent lots of time camping on the area lakes.  Susan wants her children to have those same great memories she has from her childhood.


The Mary Woods No. 2 – Life on the River

February 4, 2010
Boats help tell the story of Arkansas Rivers.

Boats help tell the story of Arkansas Rivers.

Yes, it’s true:  The rise and fall of the timeless Black and White Rivers shape life and history at Jacksonport State Park. It’s been a stressful and sad week here, and it’s only Tuesday as I write this. We began this week learning that, by alleged vandals or turn of fate, the beautiful Mary Woods No. 2 had sunk.

This wasn’t her first experience with disaster. Back in 1984, in another frozen winter, old water intake lines froze and cracked. She took on water and slowly, gently listed to starboard finally resting at an angle on the river bottom with 250 tons of White River water in her gut. Considerable damage was done, but she was righted and restored to continue her reign as the only sternwheeler on the White River.

The Tornado

Then in March 1997, an even more disastrous event struck: That day the clouds were black, the wind howled and rain flew sideways as a tornado took a diagonal path through the community of Jacksonport. Crossing the White River, it first slammed into the Mary Woods. She was severely damaged. Her stacks were blown down. Windows were smashed out. The pilot house roof was gone. But, the Mary Woods was afloat. She’d amazingly survived a direct hit.

Can't you just imagine yourself standing n the pilot house guiding the Mary Woods No. 2 up the White River?

Can't you just imagine yourself standing in the pilot house guiding the Mary Woods No. 2 up the White River?

Recognizing the value of the Mary Woods No. 2 and the values she represents, Arkansas State Parks returned her to life again. With emergency funds from the Governor’s office, FEMA funds and more, Arkansas State Parks entered into one of the most detailed, historical architectural investigations ever undertaken. This included document research, construction drawings and oral histories from those who piloted the boat during her glory days of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s when she worked the bends, shallows and bars of the White River. As a result, the original Mary Woods No. 2 and the stories she could tell were brought to life.

New Life

The painstaking restoration that took five years was completed in 2002 and brought the paddleboat as close to her actual operating appearance as possible. No details were overlooked in the exhibits telling the story of this work

Life on a working riverboat is reflected in the interior restoration.

Life on a working riverboat is reflected in the interior restoration.

boat.  Inside, shelves were filled with canned goods representing the era, bread was rising on the sideboard, and the captain’s table set for diner. The voice of captains past could be heard telling their stories of life on the Mary Woods No. 2. It was as if she was ready to back away from the bank and head upstream. Representatives of a nationally-known exhibit firm toured the steamboat and commented on her excellent condition and interpretation.

What Happens Now?

Her next renovation may be an especially challenging one. She sank in deep water and rolled completely starboard, leaving but a rim of her port exposed. Water has filled every niche, swallowed every exhibit, and shaken every rafter. Plans are underway to right her again and discover what damage was done. We’ll see what the next life is for the Mary Woods No. 2.

She Tells the Story of Jacksonport

The rise and fall of the timeless Black and White Rivers continue to shape the life and history at Jacksonport State Park. Rivers made Jacksonport. In the 1800s steamboats provided the fastest and most dependable transportation in this state blessed with many rivers. Steamboat pilot Thomas Todd Tunstall piloted the first steamboat up the White River in 1831, and soon established Jacksonport as his home and a shipping point.

Life, prosperity, failure and growth ebbed and flowed with river travel and trade. Residents had access to all the finery of Boston and Philadelphia, London and Paris by way of the river. Steamboat excursions headed upriver to Ozark places like Batesville and Calico Rock, and steamboats carried passengers downriver to Memphis, St. Louis and New Orleans. Jacksonport was such a lively place that it almost became the capital of the state. Then, when trade turned from graceful steamboats to the iron horse or the railroad, Jacksonport slowly slipped into the past.

The Mary Woods No. 2 in her working days.

The Mary Woods No. 2 in her working days.

Those of you who have walked the decks of the Mary Woods No. 2 know that she is an icon of the White and nearby Black rivers, and of river life across North America. She is the visible connection between Jacksonport’s stately but landlocked 1872 courthouse, and the river that made Jacksonport the county seat and the courthouse possible. She is the tangible connection to our intangible past of danger, expectation, courage, promise, and hope.

The Mary Woods really isn’t an old boat. We often think of steamboats during their heyday in the late the 1800s, but steamboats and sternwheelers were commonplace into the 1960s. The Mary Woods No. 2 was built in 1931 by the Nashville Bridge Company in Nashville, Tennessee.

Designed for river travel, her flat hull draws less than four feet of water, making her able to work shallow water passing sand bars and operate close to riverbanks. She is 136 feet long and weights 157 tons. A powerful sternwheeler, her two, 300 horsepower steam engines allowed her to confidently work the Mississippi, White, Black, Cache and other rivers moving logs from cuts to mills. The Mary Woods No. 2 worked with two barges which could each carry 85,000 board feet of logs.

In 1949, the Mary Woods No. 2 went from oil-burning to diesel engines.

In 1949, the Mary Woods No. 2 went from oil-burning to diesel engines.

Originally a coal-burning steamboat, the Mary Woods No. 2 was converted to a fuel burning steam vessel in 1937. She burned Bunker C fuel, which, was described by Captain Claude Ashmore as “crude oil with everything taken out that could be used for something else.” In 1949 the Mary Woods No. 2 was once again transformed, this time from oil-burning steam power to diesel engines.

In 1967, the Mary Woods No. 2 was donated to the Arkansas state park system and was moored at Jacksonport State Park. Forty-three years have passed since that day when she came around the bend heading to her new home on the White River at Jacksonport.

Today, we wait with anticipation, and a sense of urgency, to see what will happen next.

 

**UPDATE** Unfortunately, the Mary Woods II is no more. Due to the amount of damage sustained to the wooden superstructure of the boat the Mary Woods II is beyond repair. Any attempt to reconstruct here would be a fabrication of the historic vessel. The ships bell and pilot wheel were saved for future exhibits in a new visitor center for the park that is being planned.

 

Jay Miller, Chief Interpreter

Jay Miller, Chief Interpreter

–Jay Miller is chief of interpretation for Arkansas State Parks, based in Little Rock but working statewide. He began his career with the department in 1976 and has seen the Mary Woods No. 2 in several stages of disrepair and restoration. It is one of the unique resources entrusted to the care of Arkansas State Parks. Under jay’s direction, the Arkansas State Park interpretation program has received awards for excellence in exhibits, publications, and interpretation.  In 2006 Jay was named NAI’s National Interpretation Manager of the Year, and in 2008 he received the Region 6 Lifetime Achievement award. Jay has been a consultant to parks here and overseas and leads workshops on interpretation training, planning, and exhibit design. He holds a Masters Degree from Utah State University and is a Certified Interpretive Planner and Trainer.