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Dying days

By Keith Sutton/Contributing Writer

This article was published March 23, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.


This aerial view is of the White River, the Benzal bridge and the shantyboat town during high water in 1998. The same view today would show nothing but the river and a skeleton of the old railroad bridge.

During the nine days we lived on shantyboats on Arkansas’ lower White River, shooting photographs for a book I was writing, we did not realize we were documenting a way of life that was about to end. Had we known, we might have appreciated our adventure even more.

It began in 1998 when I signed a contract to write a book titled Fishing for Catfish. When we shook hands to seal the deal, publisher Don Oster told me I should choose a place for photographic work. His photographers — Mike Hehner, Dave Maas and David Tieszen — would meet me there, and we’d shoot photos of catfish and catfishing techniques to illustrate the book.

I knew immediately where we’d go: Three Rivers Country in southeast Arkansas. Here, in the span of just 20 miles, two of the country’s biggest rivers — the White and the Arkansas — converge with the mighty Mississippi to form one of the continent’s most productive fisheries for catfish. It was wild and remote then, but I knew an ideal place for our home base: a little shantyboat town on the lower White.

I fantasized about a shantyboat life as a kid in the 1960s. I fished with elder uncles then, catching crappie and catfish in oxbow lakes along the White and Mississippi. Every river community had a shantyboat town, a collection of floating homes inhabited mostly by a poor, independent lot who eked out their livings through commercial fishing, trapping and shelling. Sometimes we bought bait from shantytown folks, or food or gas or a few buffalofish to take home.

As I grew older, I got acquainted with river people whenever possible. The natural simplicity of their lifestyle fascinated me. While most of us lived in the chaos of a city or monotony of a suburb, river life without time clocks, noisy neighbors or rush-hour traffic seemed idyllic.

During the early 1990s, I spent many weekends on the lower White where river-rat friends Bill Peace, Ralph Griffin and Wallace Barber each owned a shantyboat for extended stays. It was here our photography team would live for nine days in July 1998.

In the 1930s, an estimated 500 people lived year-round along the lower White. Estimates for 1998 put that number at no more than five. This included 65-year-old Leo George who lived on a shantyboat with his wife Maxine upstream from the Mallard owned by Bill Peace, and Bobby Wade, a thirty-something commercial fisherman who lived with his wife Linda on a boat downstream from the Benzal railroad bridge.

The Benzal shantyboat town dated back to at least 1876 when Calvin Tichenor of Indiana plied the rivers in a floating store selling goods to river dwellers. Briefly, in 1929, the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries operated a buffalofish hatchery here designed to increase Arkansas’ “rather depleted supply” of commercial fish. By the time Hehner, Maas, Tieszen and I arrived in 1998, nothing remained but a dozen shantyboats, weekend hideaways for all the owners except the Wades and Georges.

We docked our flatbottom at Ralph’s shantyboat where we were greeted by Ralph, Bill, Wallace and their friend Claud Smith. Everyone got acquainted over a dinner of fried catfish, buffalo ribs and all the fixings.

“This is perfect,” Hehner told Ralph as we planned the days ahead. “We don’t have to launch a boat and take it out every time we shoot. Just throw the gear in and go.”

“Here’s another good thing,” Ralph said, grabbing the handle on a winch mounted to a deck post. He strained to turn it, raising a metal box submerged in the river. Water poured from holes in the box, and a loud thumping ensued.

“Open it,” Ralph said. Mike did so with trepidation, but smiled when he gazed inside at several catfish weighing more than 20 pounds apiece.

“Those should get you started,” Ralph said. “Hopefully, each day we’ll add some new ones we catch on trotlines. Maybe one of them will be that fabled 100 pounder.”

Most of our time was devoted to fishing for the rivers’ abundant catfish, then setting up photographs to show each bait and technique used to catch them. Ralph’s crew assisted, showing methods for catching cats on rod and reel, trotlines, limb lines and even jugs. We caught plenty of whiskerfish, but no 100 pounders. Tieszen, up to his neck in the river, modeled for noodling photos with our biggest catch: a 27-pound flathead.

Each day and night held something special. We caught high-jumping gar, and plentiful panfish we ate for dinner. We sat in the moonlight watching paddlewheelers steaming past and saw black bears ’round every bend.

During our final hours on the river, Tieszen provided a grand finale none of us would forget. Each day he had climbed the old Benzal bridge, more than 100 feet above the water, and tried to muster the courage to take the plunge. Each time he chickened out. Before leaving, however, we sat in boats and watched Dave climb again to the lofty railroad tracks, stand briefly at the edge, then jump and execute a perfect cannonball. When he surfaced, unscathed, cheers went up all around.

Little did we know that soon the shantyboats would be gone. For more than a century, people had lived and died in this corner of the world, asking nothing more than to be left alone. But the year after our adventure, the federal government gave notice to the final five people who lived year-round on the shantyboats they would have to go. All the boats owners, including Ralph, Bill and Wallace, were ordered to move their boats elsewhere.

“If it was something I should pay rent for, I would have paid rent,” Bobby Wade told me later. “But what would I be payin’ rent for? The free water that runs beneath my boat?”

Folks say Leo and Maxine lived their final days in a nursing home. Bobby, whose wife Linda had died in her sleep on their beloved shantyboat, moved his boat to a private backwater downriver.

Sadly, with the shantyboats went the wilderness. Where once the White River flowed freely into the Mississippi, there now is a massive $250 million lock and dam. The vast bottomland forest once home to countless bears, deer and other wildlife was cleared to make way for a highway. The landscape of Three Rivers Country is gut shot, and the once quiet rivers are noisy with incessant boat traffic. Gone are the rugged, independent people who comprised a unique American culture as much a part of the river ecosystems as the fish.

When the shantyboats had been moved, someone — no one in the river bottoms will say who — set the Benzal Bridge on fire in the middle of the night, a river-rat protest against everything new.

I wish I could have been there to watch it burn.


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