I'm driving through the thick pine forests of Grant County, dreaming of the fried catfish at The Whippet in Prattsville and thinking about the interesting characters that this south Arkansas county has produced through the decades.
Grant County is celebrating its 150th birthday this year, and those wanting to learn more about the place can visit one of the best local museums in the state, the Grant County Museum at Sheridan.
"U.S. Sen. John L. McClellan was a native of Grant County," Bill Lancaster writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "Edward Frederick McDonald Sr. of Sheridan served as Arkansas' secretary of state from 1931-37. Ray Thornton, who grew up in Sheridan, served as state attorney general, U.S. representative from both the 4th District and the 2nd District and president of the Arkansas State University System and the University of Arkansas System. He also served on the Arkansas Supreme Court. Perhaps the county's most celebrated residents were brothers W.R. 'Witt' Stephens and Jackson T. Stephens. Born in Prattsville, they made hundreds of millions of dollars in the natural gas business and started one of the country's largest off-Wall Street investment firms. They gave millions of dollars to charity. The community center in Prattsville and the main building of the Grant County Museum are named for them.
"The county has had many literary and artistic talents. Thomas B. Morton served in the Legislature, edited newspapers and wrote poetry and a novel. Col. Charles William Blyth, who lived in Sheridan for a time, wrote the Marine's Prayer. The Lancaster family of Sheridan has produced a few writers such as Bob Lancaster, a novelist and columnist."
Bill Lancaster is part of that writing Lancaster family. Like brother Bob, he has written novels. Bill, who was the chief of staff for the Arkansas Senate during the decade I worked in the governor's office, is known by his friends as "Scoop" due to his long newspaper career. Scoop, who was born in 1946 at Sheridan, attended what's now the University of Arkansas at Monticello on a baseball scholarship, then wrote sports for the Pine Bluff Commercial. He later became the sports editor of the Northwest Arkansas Times at Fayetteville and covered south Arkansas for the Arkansas Gazette.
Scoop transitioned to politics when he worked on Thornton's unsuccessful race for the U.S. Senate, which David Pryor won in 1978. He later worked as the information officer for the Arkansas House of Representatives and then as the Senate chief of staff for almost 25 years. After returning home to Grant County, he was the director of the Grant County Museum.
Some of us remember Scoop best for his dead-on impersonations of Tommy Robinson at the Farkleberry Follies, the satirical musical once put on by the Arkansas chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Another of the writing Lancaster brothers is former state Rep. Jim Lancaster, whose collection of stories about the people of Grant County is titled Remembering.
"It's appropriate that within the W.R. 'Witt' Stephens Building at the Grant County Museum, there's a natural gas museum, often called the Arkla Room," Jim writes. "It contains the history and artifacts of Arkansas Louisiana Gas Co., which Stephens bought, built and was chairman, president and CEO of for years. At the entrance of the building are two huge gaslights that were the creation of Mr. Witt in the days of his marketing genius. Among the treasure of gas equipment and records in the Arkla Room, there's a portrait that came from the board room of the Arkla building in Little Rock."
There are gas air conditioners, refrigerators and grills on display along with a HandiWagon, the name Stephens gave the small pickup that he invented.
Grant County was carved from parts of Hot Spring, Saline and Jefferson counties during Reconstruction.
"Because some visits to the courthouses of these counties could involve a two-day trip, state Rep. John W. Harrison and state Sen. Enoch H. Vance Sr. put forward a bill to create a centrally located county in the area," Bill Lancaster writes. "Gov. Powell Clayton signed a bill creating Grant County on Feb. 4, 1869. Those behind the creation of the county had been supporters of the Union so they named the county after Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and the county seat after Gen. Philip H. Sheridan. Residents tried several times to change the names but failed."
The first courthouse was completed in 1870 and burned in 1877. A second courthouse was completed in 1880.
This is timber country. J.H. Hamlen & Son was among the first large companies to set up operations in the county. That happened in the 1880s during the period of Arkansas history known as the Big Cut.
"These companies floated logs down the Saline and Ouachita rivers, but the railroads that were built in the county around the turn of the century changed that," Bill Lancaster writes. "Sheridan, Poyen, Leola, Belfast, Fenter and Prague had depots. In 1899-1900, a line was constructed linking Sheridan to Pine Bluff to transport logs to sawmills there. ... During the Great Depression, timber interests bought up large swaths of land at cheap prices as their original owners lost them due to nonpayment of taxes. Soon, much of the timber was exhausted and many companies moved away. Some companies did begin to engage in forest restoration. By 1941, C.E. Baxter of Long-Bell Lumber Co. had developed a section of previously cutover land into a 70,000-acre forest."
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 08/10/2019