When I was asked to give an evening lecture last year at Williams Baptist University, I was told that I would spend the night at the Hotel Rhea in downtown Walnut Ridge. I didn't know what to expect, but I can tell you that it was delightful. I could hear freight trains passing through town, but I liked that. It was a short walk to breakfast the next morning at Moni's Grill, where I was greeted by the city's mayor, Charles Snapp.
During the past year, I've devoted several columns to communities in the Arkansas Delta that are revitalizing their downtowns and trying to buck the trend of population loss in the region. Walnut Ridge belongs on that list. With the Hotel Rhea at Walnut Ridge, the Lesmeister Guesthouse at Pocahontas and the Inn at Piggott, there are three towns in northeast Arkansas with old downtown properties that have been transformed into first-class overnight accommodations.
The first Rhea was constructed from 1904-08. Once it was finished, it was considered to be among the finest hotels in the state. There was steam heat, running water, and a bath in every room. The Rhea took up most of the 100 block of West Main Street before a fire on Nov. 16, 1914, destroyed part of the building. The portion left standing was renovated in 1915-16 and became the home of Cooper Drugs. A dentist and doctor had their offices upstairs. Those rooms later were used for apartments. The Snapp family bought the building in 2012 and created three suites upstairs and one suite downstairs. A separate area downstairs can be rented for private functions.
Unlike most Delta towns its size, Walnut Ridge isn't bleeding population. The decrease in population from the 2000 to the 2010 census--4,925 to 4,890--was a small one. The most recent population estimate for the city was 5,062.
Sales tax collections jumped considerably last year with the opening of additional businesses. Snapp told Talk Business & Politics: "It's a larger variety of shopping opportunities. If our residents can buy what they need here, they don't have to go to Jonesboro or Pocahontas or another town. We're keeping our people here. Our sales have gone up and up. We plan for that to continue."
The city's annual Beatles at the Ridge festival in September had a record turnout, attracting almost 15,000 people. More than 100 vendors were in town for the two-day event, and there were two stages with live music. It was the eighth time for the festival to be held. The festival celebrates the fact that Walnut Ridge was the only Arkansas city visited by the Beatles.
Late on the evening of Sept. 18, 1964, Walnut Ridge businessman Jack Allison saw a large plane headed toward the city's airport. He asked three teenage boys to go see who was on the plane. When the door opened, the members of the band stepped out. They had left a concert at Dallas and were on their way for some rest and relaxation at a dude ranch near Alton, Mo. Their plane was too big to land at most airports in the area, but Walnut Ridge's airport had long runways since it had been the Walnut Ridge Army Flying School during World War II.
A smaller plane was at the airport to take the band to Missouri. Word spread about the stop, and dozens of teenagers were there to watch the Beatles depart on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 20. A small downtown park with a Beatles statue was created to commemorate the short visit. There's also a nearby guitar-shaped plaza that honors musicians who once traveled up and down U.S. 67 to play at clubs in the area. In 2009, the Legislature designated a 111-mile stretch of the highway through Jackson, Lawrence, Randolph and Clay counties as Rock 'n' Roll Highway 67.
"The term rockabilly--a portmanteau of rock 'n' roll and hillbilly--is defined as a mixture of blues, country and western, and rhythm and blues music that saw its biggest popularity beginning in the post-World War II era and lasting until around the time of the so-called British Invasion of the early 1960s," Keith Merckx writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "Original rockabilly artists included Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis along with Arkansans Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Sonny Burgess and Billy Lee Riley. These same musicians are cited as influences by later musical legends ranging from the Beatles to Bob Dylan who credit rockabilly as an inspiration for their own distinctive styles of music.
"Establishments on U.S. 67 that hosted these acts included Bob King's King of Clubs in Swifton, the Silver Moon Club in Newport and the rooftop of the Skylark Drive-In Theater in Pocahontas. ... The idea to honor the road originated in 2005 with noted Pocahontas musician Gary Gazaway (who has performed and recorded with the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Steve Winwood, Joe Cocker and Phish). As a lifelong resident of the area, Gazaway had long recognized the significance of the highway as a musical artery."
Gazaway wanted the road called the Rockabilly Highway. A committee was formed, and some members feared the term rockabilly would hearken back to the stereotype of Arkansas hillbillies. The committee voted 8-5 in favor of using Rock 'n' Roll Highway 67. Gazaway was among those in the minority.
"The hillbilly culture is what made the music," he said. "To call it anything else is to go against the historical aspect of it."
Regardless of what it's called, Walnut Ridge has done more than any other town along the route to capitalize on the designation.
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 01/05/2019
Print Headline: REX NELSON: Rockin' in Walnut Ridge