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It was fitting that my trip across south Arkansas on U.S. 82--the subject of today's Perspective section cover story--begins in Greenville, Miss. It almost seems like part of Arkansas because southeast Arkansas residents have flocked to Greenville for decades.

For those who love history, Greenville on the east side of the Mississippi River and Lake Village on the west side are worth a visit despite the loss of economic vitality and population in recent years.

In Greenville, one can visit the writers' exhibit inside the William Alexander Percy Memorial Library at 341 Main St. More than 100 published writers called Greenville home at one time or another during the 20th century. The exhibit celebrates the work of William Alexander Percy, Walker Percy, Hodding Carter, Shelby Foote and other writers.

It's just a short walk to the First National Bank Building, constructed in 1903, with marble and stained glass imported from Italy. There's also the building at the corner of Main and Walnut where Carter penned editorials for the Delta Democrat Times that advocated racial tolerance. Those editorials won him a Pulitzer Prize.

There's the Hebrew Union Temple at 504 Main St., which was erected in 1906 and boasts some of the most beautiful stained-glass windows anywhere. The temple houses the Goldstein Nelken Solomon Century of History Museum for those interested in the story of the Delta Jews. The city's first elected mayor, Leopold Wilzinski, was Jewish.

There's St. Joseph Catholic Church at 412 Main St., built in 1907. It was designed and financed by a Dutch nobleman who served as the parish priest for 33 years. William Alexander Percy wrote about him in his memoir "Lanterns on the Levee." The windows are from the Munich studio of Emil Frei.

And there's the original Doe's Eat Place. Dominick "Big Doe" Signa and his wife Mamie started it in 1941. Doe's father had moved to Greenville in 1903 and opened a grocery store in the building that now houses the restaurant. The family lived in a house behind the store. The grocery did well until the Great Flood of 1927 devastated the economy. Big Doe went into bootlegging to make ends meet. In about 1940, his wife received a recipe for tamales and began selling them at the store.

Here's how the restaurant's website tells the rest of the story: "At first, Big Doe ran a honky-tonk in the front part of the store. It was strictly for Blacks. He had things like buffalo fish and chili. Ironically, the carriage trade arrived by the back door, like segregation in reverse. One of the local doctors began coming in for a meal between calls. Big Doe would cook him up a steak and feed him in the back. Pretty soon the doctor brought another doctor, then a lawyer, and before he knew it, Doe had a regular restaurant in the back. After calling in family and in-laws to help with his thriving restaurant, he eventually closed the honky-tonk and focused on the eat place."

Big Doe retired in 1974. His sons, Charles and Little Doe, took over. Big Doe died in 1987; the family tradition lives on along Nelson Street in Greenville.

Well-known food writer Michael Stern once said of the restaurant: "There's a special magic about the original Doe's. Located ... in the back rooms of a dilapidated grocery store, it doesn't look like a restaurant, much less a great restaurant. Many of the dining tables are in fact located in the kitchen, spread helter-skelter among stoves and counters where the staff dresses salads and fries potatoes in big iron skillets. Plates, flatware and tablecloths are all mismatched. It is noisy and inelegant, and service--while perfectly polite--is rough and tumble.

"Doe's fans, ourselves included, love it just the way it is. The ambience, which is at least a few degrees this side of casual, is part of what makes it such a kick. Mississippians have eaten here since the 1940s; for the regular patrons the eccentricity makes the experience as comfortable as an old shoe. Newcomers may be shocked by the ramshackle surroundings, but Doe's is easy to like once the food starts coming."

After heading across the Mississippi River bridge into Arkansas, our first stop is the Lakeport Plantation. The house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Eight years later, it was designated by the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation as part of the Save America's Treasures program. Using grants from Save America's Treasures, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council, the home was restored by Arkansas State University and opened to the public.

Just after crossing the bridge, turn off U.S. 82 onto Arkansas 142 and go two miles. You'll see the house on your left.

Lakeport once was the name of a steamboat landing on the Mississippi River from which thousands of bales of cotton were shipped each year down the river to New Orleans. The house, given to ASU by the Sam Epstein Angel family, is the only remaining plantation home in Arkansas that's on the Mississippi River. The surrounding farm has remained in continuous cotton production since the 1830s when slaves cleared the bottomland hardwood forests.

Joel Johnson came from Kentucky and established the plantation. The house was built in 1859 for Joel's son, Lycurgus, and his wife, Lydia Taylor Johnson. Their descendants lived there until it was sold in 1927.

Arkansas historian Tom DeBlack writes: "Lycurgus Johnson died on Aug. 1, 1876. The plantation remained in the family until Lycurgus Johnson's son Victor sold Lakeport to Sam Epstein for $30,000. Born in Russia in 1875, Epstein was one of a sizable number of poor east European Jews who migrated to the United States and sought their fortune in the Delta. Epstein started out peddling clothes and eventually opened a small store and made good investments, overcoming poverty and religious bigotry to acquire a fortune and become one of Chicot County's most respected citizens.

"Upon Epstein's death in 1944, his son-in-law Ben Angel served as trustee of the estate, managed the family's operations and carried on his father-in-law's tradition of civic service. Ben Angel's son Sam Epstein Angel currently runs the Epstein Land Co., encompassing some 13,000 acres of land and a large cotton-ginning operation, and serves as the senior civilian member of the Mississippi River Commission."

For years, bright young people from across the country have come to the Delta areas of Arkansas and Mississippi to work in public schools as part of the Teach for America program. Attracted to Lake Chicot (the largest oxbow lake in North America) and restaurants near the lake, these students sometimes refer to Lake Village as the Hamptons of the Delta. Don't laugh. People have been known to drive for hours (or even take private planes) to buy tamales at Rhoda's Famous Hot Tamales, have dinner at The Cow Pen (now known as Table 82 at The Cow Pen) and shop at Paul Michael Co.

To quote a Teach for America participant from Wisconsin who talked about her family coming to visit Lake Village: "They love the sunshine, the weather, the beautiful sunsets, the slow pace and the extremely friendly people. They would definitely say the people of Arkansas are the most hospitable they've come across."

Long before huge reservoirs built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers covered much of this state, Lake Chicot was a prime attraction for visitors from across Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. The Lake Chicot Water Festival even hosted the national championship hydroplane races at one time. Those days are gone, but the area still has its charms.


Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Print Headline: History and tamales


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