The invitation was one I couldn't turn down. Becky Halsell Westbrook of Blytheville had written to say that her father, 88-year-old Buddy Halsell, had stories to tell about the rich history of Blytheville barbecue. She wanted someone to write down those stories.
I enjoy history and pork barbecue. Not only would it be a chance to hear some tales, it also would provide an opportunity to consume a pig sandwich at the Halsell family's Dixie Pig. That's well worth the three-hour drive from Little Rock to Blytheville.
Any visit to Blytheville requires a stop at the Dixie Pig, a direct descendant of the Rustic Inn, a restaurant in a log cabin where Buddy's father, Ernest Halsell, began selling barbecue in 1923.
"My dad came here from Pontotoc, Miss., in the early 1920s," Buddy says. "They were finding it hard to raise cotton in those red clay hills over there due to erosion, and they heard about this place in Arkansas that was growing rapidly as they cleared the forests and started farming. In 1923, he opened the Rustic Inn."
Those were indeed boom times in Blytheville. Arkansas historian Revis Edmonds writes: "Founded in 1879 by Methodist clergyman Henry T. Blythe, Blytheville grew quickly due to an abundance of timberland. The city was incorporated in 1889. The first era of growth came because of the massive harvesting of lumber to rebuild after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The lumber industry and its attendant businesses, such as the railroad, brought a proliferation of sawmills and, to put it mildly, a rowdy crowd."
At one point, Chicago Mill & Lumber Co. owned 70,000 acres of timberland in northeast Arkansas and operated a huge mill at Blytheville. The Delta hardwood forests weren't replanted. Instead, the land was drained and the production of cotton began dominating the economy. An Air Force base was established at Blytheville in 1942 and reactivated in the early 1950s. At its peak during the Cold War, the base employed almost 3,500 military personnel and 700 civilians. When the base closed in 1991, the Blytheville area lost thousands of residents with an estimated loss of $46 million in personal income.
Blytheville's population more than tripled from 6,447 residents in the 1920 census to 20,797 in 1960. Blytheville was to that era what cities in Washington and Benton counties are now--a place where it seemed as if the growth would go on forever. Ernest Halsell took advantage of the population increases. He left behind the log cabin with its sawdust floor for a larger stone building in 1930. A 1938 Rustic Inn menu on the wall of the Dixie Pig lists "barbecue pit pig" as "our best and most famous sandwich."
At other restaurants around Blytheville, from the Kream Kastle to Benny Bob's, the distinctive style of barbecue sandwich that sprang up in the city is known by customers as the pig sandwich. It features finely chopped pork, chopped cabbage in vinegar and an almost clear blend of vinegar and spices for the sauce. The 1938 Rustic Inn menu also listed chili, hot tamales and four brands of beer out of St. Louis--Budweiser, Falstaff, Cook's and Hyde Park. Fortune's Ice Cream was sold for dessert. The barbecued pig plate would set a customer back 40 cents.
Buddy was one of six children. All of them worked for their parents. Ernest would oversee the barbecue pit, and his wife Tina would be at the cash register. By age 5, Buddy already was working as a carhop.
"I did whatever Ernest told me to do," Buddy says. "We were covered up with business all the time. Sometimes I waited on the cars outside. Sometimes I washed dishes. We had tables inside and curb service outside. We rarely got out of there before 1 a.m. There was a jukebox in the back room, and folks were known to dance back there. My dad only had a sixth-grade education. He did a little bit of everything before he got into the restaurant business. He farmed and worked in a box factory down at Wilson."
Ernest Halsell sold the Rustic Inn in 1946 so he could return to farming. In 1950, he constructed a building on North Sixth Street in Blytheville and called his new restaurant the Dixie Pig. He brought the same style of sauce and the same way of smoking pork that had been used at the Rustic Inn. The Dixie Pig was an immediate hit.
During a ceremony at the Ritz Theater in 1932, Buddy was named the prettiest child in town. A large photo of him posing with a pet pig hangs in the restaurant. Buddy, a 1948 Blytheville High School graduate, finished military service in 1954 and has been at the restaurant ever since. Buddy's son Bob now mans the barbecue pit, the same one used since the restaurant was built. Bob says he smokes the meat at a temperature between 275 and 300 degrees. The pit can hold 14 pork butts. He averages smoking eight to 10 a day and only turns them once.
"We once used wood, but we now burn charcoal with some hickory in it," Buddy says.
The most reliable lunch customer is Buddy's lifelong friend John Ed Regenold, who's an inductee into the Arkansas Agriculture Hall of Fame. Regenold spent 10 years as a member of the Arkansas Highway Commission. Regenold joined his father's Armorel Planting Co. in 1953 and expanded it from 2,500 acres to more than 7,500 acres. At its peak, the company ginned more than 25,000 acres of cotton.
Regenold calls what's served at the Dixie Pig "the finest pork barbecue in the world. I've been coming here all of my life, and I don't plan to stop." As soon as he utters those words, he turns around and orders a second pig sandwich.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 12/30/2017