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Sep/Oct 2013 Issue

River Soundtrack

Take a journey through the soul and soil of Arkansas’s Delta.
By Barbara Gibbs Ostmann

The Arkansas Delta is more than a geographical location; it’s a sense of place, of culture and heritage, a mix of soil and soul. The folks who live there are eager to share it with you. So, fill up the tank, get out a state map, and get ready to explore.

Rice

Above: Harvesting rice in the Delta. Arkansas Parks and Tourism photos

Below: Crowley’s Ridge is composed of sediment called loess.

Nature Center

The only challenge will be narrowing the options down to a manageable amount. It would take more than a tank to explore the entire Delta region, the area closest to the Mississippi River in eastern Arkansas.

A good way to break the Delta into trip-size segments is by looking at its two National Scenic Byways: The Great River Road and Crowley’s Ridge Parkway. Using these byways as the two major north-south routes, you can customize your visit by following side roads to get off the beaten path, depending on your interests.

With 11 state parks, dozens of museums and plenty of festivals, you’re sure to find what interests you, from agricultural heritage to bird watching; from music to outdoor sports, or good eating.

Two scenic byways

The Great River Road is part of a 10-state route that runs along the Mississippi River, from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Although the river is hidden from view behind the levees throughout much of the Arkansas portion, its impact is evident everywhere, from the rich alluvial soil that makes the Delta some of the most productive farmland in the world, to the swamps, bayous, bottomland forests, and oxbow lakes that break up the vast, mostly flat horizon.

In contrast to the flatness of most of the Arkansas Delta, Crowley’s Ridge, with its eponymous byway, is a geological formation that rises as much as 200 feet above the surrounding lowlands and extends for more than 200 miles, from Helena in southeastern Arkansas to the Missouri Bootheel. Five state parks are on or near the parkway.

Cultural themes

Two themes that recur along the byways are Native American heritage and blues music. For a fascinating look at the early Mississippian period, visit Parkin Archeological State Park, which is home to one of the country’s most important Native American village sites. Many scholars say this is where Spanish conquistador Hernando De Soto in 1541 met Native Americans from the Casqui village.

The Hampson Archeological Museum State Park in Wilson houses a remarkable collection of Mississippian-era artifacts, including pottery, tools, and weapons. The park exhibits a collection from the Nodena site, a Mississippian village and ceremonial complex.

At Village Creek State Park near Wynne, the Native American story continues with the Trail of Tears. The park includes a 2.25-mile segment of the old Military Road between Memphis, Tenn., and Little Rock, Ark., which is part of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.

The Delta Cultural Center in Helena tells the story of the state’s role in the history of blues music via interactive and audio exhibits at both the visitor center and the restored rail depot. The center is also the home of the “King Biscuit Time,” the nation’s longest-running daily blues radio show, founded in 1941. It can be heard at noon on station KFFA 1360.

Agricultural overtones

Agriculture is king in the Delta, where the major crops are cotton, rice, soybeans, wheat, milo, corn, and peaches. Arkansas is the nation’s top producer of rice. If you’ve never seen rice fields before, that alone can be a reason to make the trip. The fields are crisscrossed with low serpentine levees to hold water for the growing rice, which is a vivid green. At harvest time, rice turns a golden color. Likewise, if you’ve never seen a cotton field prior to harvest, white as snow, it’s a sight to behold.

For an eye-opening and thoughtful look at our agricultural past, pay a visit to the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza. It tells the story of the tenant farming system in Arkansas and the farm labor movement that made history in the 1930s by involving blacks and whites, men and women, in the same union.

Historical sites abound

More history can be explored near Brinkley at the Louisiana Purchase Historic State Park. This National Historic Landmark preserves the initial point from which all surveys of the property acquired through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 initiated.

The Arkansas Post National Memorial at Gillett recognizes the history of this settlement during the French and Spanish periods, as well as its later role as a trading post, and as the first capital (1819) of the Arkansas Territory. At the Arkansas Post Museum State Park, also in Gillett, you can learn about life in the Delta via five exhibit buildings.

Outdoor activities

The Delta Heritage Trail State Park is an ambitious project that is transforming 73 miles of former Union Pacific Corporation right-of-way into a rails-to-trails corridor that will run through some of the most remote and scenic areas of eastern Arkansas. The trail was the route of Missouri-Pacific Railroad’s Delta Eagle. Fourteen miles of the trail are finished, but work is underway to complete the route. The main access is at Walnut Corner, six miles west of Helena on Route 49.

Fishing, hiking, birding, biking, camping,– and hunting are popular and readily available in the Delta.

Fuel for the road

To fuel your Delta expeditions, search for popular eateries by driving through small towns at mealtime and looking for a full parking lot. Here are a few good, out-of-the-way finds:

  • Jones’ Bar-B-Q Diner in Marianna, which won the James Beard Award in 2012 under “American Classics” category
  • Elise’s Feed Lot in Caraway
  • Ray’s Dairy Maid in Barton, hailed by Alton Brown on the Food Network in 2007

Wherever your Delta rambles lead you, you’re sure to find a warm welcome; it’s part of the Delta’s soul.

Barbara Gibbs Ostmann is a contributor from Gerald, Mo., who was born and reared in Arkansas.

 

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BEFORE YOU GO

For more Information, contact Arkansas Parks and Tourism, (800) NATURAL (628-8725) or
www.Arkansas.com. Go to www.DeltaByways.com for detailed information about the Arkansas Delta Byways. For detailed driving routes for both Arkansas’s Great River Road and Crowley’s Ridge Parkway, visit www.byways.org.

To visit Arkansas’s Delta, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.

Order free information about Arkansas through the Free Travel Information Card found online.


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