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It's a summer Friday, and the parking lot at Advada's Diner in Carlisle is packed with pickups. The lunch buffet is open from 10:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. each Monday through Friday. The first and last days of the workweek feature fried chicken, and that dish pulls them in.

"Of course, Wednesday is also pretty good since that's both pork chops and spaghetti," one man tells me.

I'm sitting with three generations of the Moery family--Robert "Sonny" Moery, Kyle Moery and young Robert Moery. Sonny and his son Kyle farm rice and soybeans (they added corn to the mix this year for the first time) in southern Lonoke County on a farm that has been in the family since 1909. The Moery family home in Carlisle was built in 1919.

Young Robert, who served last year as Gov. Asa Hutchinson's campaign manager, got away to Little Rock. He maintains close ties to east Arkansas, though, with a consulting firm whose clients include Riceland Foods and the White River Irrigation District. Farming remains in his blood, as does a love of Carlisle.

The people of Carlisle, a town once known for the quality of its high school football teams, are still in shock following the July death from heat stroke of 32-year-old Mitch Petrus. He died at a North Little Rock hospital after working outside all day at his family's shop near Carlisle. The heat index was above 100 degrees.

Petrus played tight end in high school before becoming an offensive lineman at the University of Arkansas. His three-year NFL career included a Super Bowl win with the New York Giants.

Petrus was one of those people who never met a stranger. He was known for his loud voice, hearty appetite and storytelling ability. He regularly held court at Advada's and knew all the regulars. In his honor, the restaurant has added the Mitch Petrus omelet, a giant omelet that also comes with grilled chicken.

It resembles a family reunion on this Friday as customers walk between tables and visit with each other. I've always liked Lonoke, Carlisle and Hazen--the three towns spread out along Interstate 40 and U.S. 70 between Little Rock and Memphis. They're part of the Grand Prairie, a subregion of the Mississippi Alluvial Plain (commonly called the Delta).

The Grand Prairie covers parts of Arkansas, Prairie, Lonoke and Monroe counties. It once was easy to recognize the Grand Prairie. It consisted of native grasslands surrounded by Delta swamps and bottomland hardwood forests. Once the forests were cut and the swamps were drained during the period known as the Big Cut (which ran from 1880 until 1930), it was hard to distinguish the Grand Prairie from surrounding row-crop areas.

The people here still consider themselves Grand Prairie residents. My mother, who was born at Des Arc in 1925, would have never said she was from the Delta. No, she was a proud native of the Grand Prairie. The term "Delta" wasn't as widely used in Arkansas in those days. Back then, it generally referred to areas east of Crowley's Ridge rather than almost the entire eastern half of the state.

In his book Journal of Travels into the Arkansas Territory during the Year 1819, Thomas Nuttall described the Grand Prairie as having the potential for "truly inexhaustible" pastures for livestock.

"Before it was settled, the Grand Prairie contained an estimated 900,000 acres of prairie," Guy Lancaster writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "Among the grass species common in the area were big bluestem, little bluestem and Indiangrass. Some settlers pastured their cattle there or cut the tallgrass to use or sell as hay, which was shipped as far away as Chicago. Other settlers plowed the prairie to plant cotton, corn or wheat. Because the land was not ideal for cash crops such as cotton--and with the 19th century Arkansas economy focused largely on lumber and cotton--the region lagged behind the rest of the state. However, this did not deter settlers.

"The Grand Prairie proved attractive to European immigrants who were living in other parts of the United States. Stuttgart was founded as a colony of German immigrants in 1878. In its early days, the residents primarily raised cattle and cut hay. In the 1890s, a group of Slovak immigrants established a colony at what's now the town of Slovak in Prairie County. These settlers, too, mostly cut hay until the advent of large-scale rice cultivation."

W.H. Fuller introduced rice to the Grand Prairie on a farm near Carlisle in 1897.

Carlisle's founders were Samuel McCormick and his wife L.J. Some claimed that they had once lived at Carlisle, Pa. Others said the town was named after a McCormick friend named Carlisle. The McCormicks bought land in August 1872, and Carlisle was incorporated in August 1878.

In 1882, Carlisle was part of about 100 square miles that were annexed to Lonoke County from Prairie County. The Memphis & Little Rock Railroad, which had been completed from Little Rock to DeValls Bluff in 1858, was rebuilt following the Civil War. It later became the Rock Island and ran through downtown Carlisle.

In the early 1900s, Carlisle Creamery and the Southern Creamery Co.'s condensed-milk factory shipped milk by rail and sold byproducts to farmers for feed. Carlisle's population almost tripled from 516 in the 1910 census to 1,514 in the 1960 census. The city's population has declined slightly from the 2,304 residents in the 2000 census. While Lonoke County has had explosive growth, that growth--fueled by white flight from Pulaski County--has been mostly in the Cabot area.

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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 08/21/2019

Print Headline: REX NELSON: A tight-knit town

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