HELENA-WEST HELENA - The Delta is an economically forlorn region of 21st-century Arkansas. That plight is visible in the empty storefronts along Cherry Street in downtown Helena, providing sad testimony to the ingrained woes locally.
But there’s a bright spark of life at the south end of the street, where the Delta Cultural Center fills two buildings with enlightening glimpses of the region’s rich history and traditions.
An entire gallery in the visitor center is devoted to music of the Delta. That’s fitting for the town that each autumn hosts the King Biscuit Blues Festival. Earphones in the exhibit let visitors tune in to the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Nighthawk, Louis Jordan, Johnny Cash and Levon Helm.
Mondays through Fridays from 12:15 to 12:45 p.m., the gallery hosts the nation’s longest running daily blues radio show. Visitors become the audience for King Biscuit Time, aired since 1941 and hosted full time since 1950 by the venerable “Sunshine” Sonny Payne.
Through the end of this month, an adjoining gallery is displaying a stellar photography exhibition “Come Day, Go Day, Days Since Gone Away.” Taken by Craig Baird, the images also carry a musical theme. Many were taken on Oct. 18, 1986, at the first King Biscuit Blues Festival.
Another temporary exhibit has a grimmer theme. “We Must Stand or Fall Alone - The Civil War in Arkansas,” on display through June 28, aims to depict what the conflict “really looked and felt like” through women’s journals, slave narratives, letters from soldiers, uniforms and weapons.
A block north, the second floor of a former railroad depot houses the center’s permanent Civil War exhibit featuring the Battle of Helena, won by Union forces on July 4, 1863. That was the same day Northern troops captured Vicksburg and the day after the vital Union victory at Gettysburg.
The war’s dreadful human toll is evoked by a surgeon’s kit made in Paris. Like those used by doctors on both sides, it contains some 65 instruments employed for “amputation, resection, trepanation, eye surgery, dental extraction, cautery, tracheotomy, etc.”
Most of the depot’s first floor is devoted to Delta history under the title “A Heritage of Determination,” going back to the Quapaw Indians, who lived here before Europeans arrived.
One section, “Struggle in a Bountiful Land,” includes a photograph of a farm couple labeled with a quotation from the late historian Donald Holley: “The Delta has always meant rich land and poor people.”
The ongoing decline in Delta population since World War II, driven in large part by agricultural mechanization, is noted in one posted comparison: In 1945, there were 99,000 Delta farms averaging 78 acres in size. In 1987, there were 15,000 farms averaging 530 acres.
Somehow, the presentation manages an upbeat tone as the story is told “about the land itself - a land once swampy and forested until it was cleared and cultivated. … A land whose sometimes sleepy appearance disguises the dynamic changes it has undergone at the hands of nature and people.”
In telling the story “about the women and men of the Arkansas Delta, their triumphs and tragedies, past and present,” the center does a splendid job. As for the future of the benighted region, the exhibits have little to say.
Admission is free to the Delta Cultural Center, 141 Cherry St., Helena-West Helena. The center is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, along with Mondays that are national holidays. Call (870) 338-4350 or (800) 358-0972. or visit deltaculturalcenter.com.
El Rio Lindo, at 101 Missouri St. across from the center’s Depot building, serves reliable Tex-Mex fare. For details, call (870) 753-9466. Pasquale’s Tamales, a local tradition, operates Fridays and Saturdays from a food truck along U.S. 49. For hours and exact location, call (870) 338-3991.
Weekend, Pages 40 on 01/16/2014
Print Headline: Museum exhibits detail music, life, war in Delta