Geocaching Adventure Introduces New Locations to Life-long Arkansas Delta Resident
Kimberly J. Williams, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism
Geocaching Arkansas’s Great River Road: Day One
As a life-long resident of the Arkansas Delta (other than that year and six days I lived and worked in a different part of The Natural State), I have traveled at least part of Arkansas’s Great River Road almost daily. My hometown of Marianna lies along the Arkansas Delta’s two national scenic byways – the Great River Road National Scenic Byway and Crowley’s Ridge Parkway National Scenic Byway.
In honor of the 70th anniversary of the 10-state route, the Great River Road Geocaching Project was created. The original purpose of the project was to encourage travelers to journey along the celebrated roadway. The geocaches were placed at historically significant locations along the Great River Road. In Arkansas, we placed caches at museums, historic sites, and recreational areas in the 10 counties within the Delta.
I recently traveled the Arkansas section of the Great River Road with the perfect tour guide – Nancy Clark, assistant tourism director for Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism and director of the Arkansas portion of the historic route. Nancy and I have been working on a geocaching trail throughout the 10 counties of the Arkansas Delta situated along the Great River Road for almost 18 months. Finding caches along the route has become so popular that it was decided to place at least 10more of the “treasures” in the Arkansas Delta.
Nancy and I met on the first day of our adventure in Forrest City and headed to the northern section of the Arkansas Delta. We had discussed options for cache placement over the past few weeks and one of the locations she mentioned was at the arch in Blytheville. I assumed she was referring to the arch located in Blytheville’s charming downtown. As we headed northwest, I kept wondering… exactly how are we getting to the downtown on this route! Finally, I just had to ask, “Nancy, where are we going?” I soon got my first lesson in “Kim, you don’t know everything about the Arkansas Delta!” I was about to visit an historical location I’d never seen before. Nancy was referring to the Blytheville Arch, located at the Arkansas-Missouri border on U.S. 61. The arch is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and commemorates the completion of the paving of the first stretch of highway through Mississippi County. The impressive structure is the only known remaining concrete arch spanning a federal highway. The curved monument was the perfect location for a geocache. Within minutes of arriving, the first of the new caches had been placed.
Before leaving Blytheville, we decided to get a quick bite to eat. After weighing our options, we chose to visit Sharecroppers Restaurant in the city’s downtown. Located at 211 W. Ash St., Sharecroppers is known for their Southern cuisine. I ordered the cheeseburger and fries and Nancy chose the Asian chicken salad. We were both extremely pleased. Then our waitress mentioned their variety of award-winning desserts. I’m not a huge sweet eater but I decided to give the lemon icebox pie a try. Nancy went with the egg custard. Words cannot describe the absolute bliss felt after the first bite! That day, there were nine homemade desserts listed on the menu board. Yes, NINE!! The food was very good…but the dessert defied description. Next time I’ll skip the burger and order at least three desserts! I can’t stress this enough…if you are within a 75-mile radius of Blytheville at any given time, make a point to visit Sharecroppers for a piece of their heavenly confections!
We hit the Great River Road once again, heading southeast to Osceola. Nancy had the perfect idea for the placement of this cache…Sans Souci Landing. Located south of Osceola, San Souci offers an amazing view of Old Man River. It’s a favored spot along the river due to the public boat ramp offering access to the Mississippi. It’s a wonderful spot to plop down a lawn chair and watch the boats and barges float along the mighty waterway. The Mississippi River is a vital component in the culture of the Arkansas Delta. The river has been both friend and foe to the people of the area…we’ve lived with it and despite it. It has defined the history of the region. It is also one of the most beautiful parts of the landscape of the Arkansas Delta. After spending a few moments gazing upon the Father of Waters, I got busy and planted the cache, hoping those who come to find the geocache will enjoy the view as much as I have.
As we reluctantly leave the banks of the Mississippi River and head to our next cache location, we pass through Wilson, Ark. The town is named for Robert Edward Lee Wilson (known as Lee), who was born in Mississippi County in 1865 shortly before the end of the Civil War. His father had been a successful planter in the area and Lee inherited 400 acres upon his father’s death in 1870. At 17, Wilson became legally recognized as an adult and began building what would eventually become an empire encompassing 65,000 acres, a lumber company, and cotton gins. By the time of his death in 1933, Wilson owned and operated the largest cotton plantation in the South. The nearby towns of Victoria and Marie are named after his daughters and the city name of Armorel is formed from Arkansas, Missouri, and Robert E. Lee. Wilson built a home for his wife in the Tudor style and as the town of Wilson began growing, the structures followed the same design.
After leaving Wilson, we turn toward the west and make our way toward Tyronza, Ark. Continuing west along Ark. 118, we happened upon Whitton Farms, a place neither Nancy nor I had ever had a chance to visit. Owned and operated by Jill and Keith Forrester, Whitton Farms is comprised of 25 acres of land used to grow heirloom vegetables, native plants, shitake mushrooms, and herbs. You can find out more about Whitton Farms and their use of organic and sustainable farming methods by visiting www.WhittonFarms.com.
Our next stop is Tyronza, home of the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum. The museum tells the story of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU), which was formed in Tyronza in 1934 in an effort to secure higher wages and better living conditions for farm laborers. The museum exhibits focus on the story of tenant farming and sharecropping and the movement to remove abuses from the widely used system. The museum is located in the building that housed H.L. Mitchell’s dry cleaner and the service station owned by Clay East, two of the original organizers of the Union. The building also served as the unofficial headquarters of the STFU. Visit http://STFM.astate.edu to learn more about the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum.
We headed to West Memphis. We felt the perfect location for our new cache in Crittenden County would be the recently dedicated Arkansas Delta Music Trail historical marker commemorating the Plantation Inn. The Plantation Inn opened in West Memphis in 1943 and boasted the largest dance floor in the South. The club provided a musical jump-start for performers such as Isaac Hayes, Floyd Newman, and Willie Mitchell. The sign honoring the historic club is located in the Pancho’s Mexican Restaurant parking lot (the original location of the Plantation Inn) at 3600 E. Broadway St. in West Memphis, Ark. Pancho’s has been one of my favorite restaurants in the Arkansas Delta since I was a kid. The cheese and onion enchiladas and the Mexican rice are two of my absolute favorite things on the menu! But, we decided that we wanted a restaurant we’d never eaten at before, so Nancy and I agreed to try Sicily’s, an Italian restaurant that received rave reviews from several of my friends. Located at 108 Glen Bailey Dr., Sicily’s offers a wide selection of Italian favorites, including ravioli, lasagna, pizza, and salads. The house vinaigrette was perfect…not too oily and just the exact amount of perfect spices. I’m a big fan of handmade ravioli, especially the toasted variety! My choice was beef, cheese, or a combination of the two. When in doubt…go for the combination. She warned me…the cheese ravioli was a little spicy! And true to her word, it was, but not overwhelmingly so. Just a smooth, spicy hit on the taste buds. The bread was soft and garlicky, the salad was cool, crisp, and tasty. The ravioli was sheer perfection. Nancy chose the lasagna, which included layer upon layer of handmade pasta, herbed ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, and a fragrant marinara sauce. Nancy was quite pleased. I’ve also heard that the pizzas and sandwiches are exceptional and I have NO doubt that they are. By the end of the meal, I couldn’t think of dessert. But there is always a next time!!
Geocaching Arkansas’s Great River Road: Day Two
Day two we headed south. Following Ark. 1, we wound our way through the southern section of the Arkansas Delta, which doesn’t have the “roll” of the northern Delta since Crowley’s Ridge ends in Helena-West Helena. During this time of the year, the things you immediately notice are the crops. Agriculture is still the major economic stimulus in the Arkansas Delta. Soybeans, milo, corn, cotton, and rice line the landscape of the region, which offers some of the most fertile soil in the country. With each passing mile, the crops became more and more beautiful.
Our first stop was Turner Cemetery south of Marvell. The small country church cemetery is the final resting place of Lily Peter, who served as Arkansas’s poet laureate from 1971 to 1991. Miss Lily, as she was known, was born near Marvell and spent most of her adult life in Phillips County. In addition to being a teacher, philanthropist, farmer, conservationist and musician, Peter wrote and published several works, including The Great Riding: The Story of de Soto in America and The Green Linen of Summer. A geocache was placed near Miss Lily’s burial location in honor of her impact on the Arkansas Delta.
The next stop was Dumas and Miller’s Mud Mill pottery shop, where we placed the next cache. Almost 30 years ago, Gail Miller decided to try pottery as a hobby. The hobby has become a business and Miller has built a reputation on her one-of-a-kind, wheel-turned pieces. When entering the shop, I was amazed at the colors of the different pieces, ranging from subtle and understated to brilliant and incandescent. Miller travels throughout the region to arts and crafts shows and her works are favored works by collectors far and wide. To see some of Miller’s work, visit www.MillersMudMill.com.
Nancy and I decided it was time for some nourishment…and we were just in time for lunch at Pickens Restaurant and Commissary. Located off ¼ mile west of U.S. 65 in Pickens, the restaurant is located in the original commissary for the town. On weekdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., you can stop by for some Southern staples that you would swear came from your grandmother’s kitchen. They’re known for their baked chicken which features cook Finley’s secret spice mixture, fried catfish, and a variety of veggies ranging from fried potatoes to greens to okra to squash. This trip marked my third lunch at Pickens and I have never been disappointed. Nancy had the foresight to order a piece of homemade chocolate pie…pie that was still warm when it reached the table. Pickens Restaurant and Commissary is the perfect place to have an incredible lunch and grab a t-shirt or a pair of wading boots while you’re there! And make sure and try to find the geocache before you leave!
We continued our trek south on U.S. 65 heading to McGehee. We had the ideal place for a geocache in the town’s lovely square. Obviously we weren’t the only ones that thought it would be the perfect location…there was already a cache making it’s home in the park (caches must be at least 528 feet away from each other). So we grabbed our GPS and headed on further downtown, finding another idyllic spot outside Periwinkle Place. Periwinkle Place is located at 310 N. 2nd St. in McGehee’s downtown and offers a wonderful selection of gift ideas, ranging from decorative flags and outdoor decorations to luxurious bath items and candles to jewelry and holiday items.
After a little shopping, it was time to head toward our last two destinations, Arkansas City and Rohwer. Arkansas City is located along the Mississippi River and has a history tied to the Big Muddy. Once a vibrant river town of over 10,000 residents, it was virtually destroyed during the Flood of 1927. Arkansas City is home to the John H. Johnson Museum. The inspirational story of John H. Johnson is one of my personal favorites. John Harold Johnson was born in Arkansas City on January 19, 1918. Johnson did not have an easy childhood – his father died in a sawmill accident in 1924 and, during the Flood of 1927, Johnson and his mother had to live on the Mississippi River levee for six weeks before they were able to return home. In 1933, the Johnson family left Arkansas City and moved to Chicago, where he began to build a future and an empire that would eventually include Jet and Ebony magazines. His story is one of determination. He was the first African-American businessman to be named to the Forbes list of 400 wealthiest Americans. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by fellow Arkansan President Bill Clinton in 1996. He served as special ambassador for President Kennedy and President Johnson. He has been inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame, the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame, the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, the National Business Hall of Fame and the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame. In May 2005, the John H. Johnson Cultural and Educational Museum opened its doors in Arkansas City. The museum tells the story of Johnson’s life, from his childhood in Arkansas City to the beginning of his career in Chicago to his overwhelming success as the head of Johnson Publishing Company. John H. Johnson died in August 2005, less than three months after attending the dedication of the museum in Arkansas City. Over his amazing life, Johnson achieved overwhelming success. He was often quoted as saying, “Failure is a word I don’t accept.” The John H. Johnson Museum is open by appointment. For more information, contact the office of the Desha County Judge at 870-877-8486.
Arkansas City’s downtown area is home to several significant buildings and commemorative markers. The restored courthouse has become the shining gem of the historic community. The town offers a great variety of outdoor recreation activities, such as fishing, boating, hunting, and bird watching. Nearby Choctaw Island has been recognized by the Audubon Society as an “Important Birding Area.”
Winding our way along Ark. 4 to Ark. 1, our next destination was Rohwer, the site of one of the two Japanese-American relocation camps located in the Arkansas Delta during World War II. The Rohwer Internment Camp was located in the town from 1941-1945. The site has several commemorative markers dedicated to the internees who died in the camp and those who left the camp to fight oversees and gave the ultimate sacrifice. There is also a small cemetery. The site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been designated a National Historic Landmark. During the original geocaching project, a cache was placed at Jerome Internment Camp. Many people recorded log comments saying they were so glad to have been able to visit the location. It became evident early that we needed to bring people to Rohwer as well. The location is about a mile off Ark. 1. Visitors comment that there is a calmness that surrounds the grounds. Each time I visit Rohwer, I realize that our freedom is definitely not free!
After placing our tenth cache in two days, we headed our separate ways. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to leave the embracing arms of my beloved Arkansas Delta. I realized one very important thing on this trip – however well you think you know the Arkansas Delta, there’s always something new to find! So head on over…you’re always welcome!
Since this trip, a new cache was placed in Eudora at the town’s beautiful park. This brings the number of caches in Arkansas for the 70th anniversary Great River Road Geocaching Project to 25. For more information on the ongoing geocaching event, visit www.experiencemississippiriver.com/geocaching.cfm.