I'm having lunch at Dermott on this Thursday in September because I can't say "no" to Frank Henry.
Henry is 96 now and has been calling me on the phone since I joined the staff of Gov. Mike Huckabee in July 1996. He was a regular caller during the more than nine years I worked in the governor's office, looking for state grants for Dermott. When I joined the Delta Regional Authority in 2005, Henry quickly obtained my new phone number and was back on the line asking for federal grants. I'm speaking to a luncheon meeting of the Dermott Chamber of Commerce at his invitation.
This corner of southeast Arkansas is bleeding population. Chicot County, where Dermott is located, had 9,234 residents in the 1860 census, many of them slaves. It was one of the state's most populous counties at the time.
"Chicot County was widely considered to be the richest county in the state and one of the richest in the country," Scott Cashion wrote for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "This is due in part to the amount of cotton production as well as the number of slaves there. In 1850, 145 white families owned 3,984 slaves. The slave-to-white ratio was higher than any other county in the state.
"Union County is the only county in Arkansas that had more slaves than Chicot. By 1860, Chicot County was producing 40,948 bales of cotton at its highest price in years at 12.4 cents per pound."
In the decades after the Civil War, sharecropping and tenant farming replaced slavery. Cotton remained king and still required thousands of laborers since people chopped cotton by hand in the summer and picked it by hand in the fall. The county's population peaked at 27,452 in the 1940 census.
After World War II, the rapid mechanization of agriculture changed this area forever. Mechanical cotton pickers, improved seed varieties, insecticides and herbicides meant farm owners could achieve record yields while using far fewer people.
Former tenant farmers and sharecroppers streamed out of the Delta, heading north to factories in Illinois, Michigan and Ohio for work. The county's population numbers tell the story:
The population decline was 13.5 percent in just the past decade. Still, agriculture remains a big business here. It simply takes far fewer people to grow a crop than it once did. I enjoy harvest season in the Delta. There's still cotton but there are also soybeans, rice and corn.
After lunch, I drive south on U.S. 165, heading toward the Louisiana border through Jerome, Boydell, Montrose, Portland, Parkdale and Wilmot to see fields being harvested.
This rich Delta farmland is worth more than it has ever been worth, but communities are drying up since so little labor is needed. In my travels across Arkansas, I meet a lot of people whose work I respect. Among my heroes are those like Henry, the ones who have stayed behind in the small towns, continuing their efforts to improve life for their neighbors.
I'm heartened to see younger people attending the chamber meeting and talking about upcoming projects. Community service lives on in rural Arkansas, even in struggling Delta communities.
After the meeting, I walk by the empty buildings downtown and stop to read the historic marker, pushing back an overgrown bush in order to see the words. The marker notes that Dermott was an important railroad town beginning in the 1880s. It had started decades before as a settlement along Bayou Bartholomew, the world's longest bayou and a major transportation route before railroads were constructed.
"Settlers chose the heavily timbered land along the bayou," wrote Delta historian Rebecca DeArmond-Huskey. "John Smith and his wife Sarah Bowden arrived in 1811 and opened the first settlement in the vicinity. The town was named after Dr. Charles McDermott, who first visited in 1834. He bought land and established a plantation after moving there in 1844."
The community struggled after the Civil War but began thriving with the coming of the railroads.
"The first railroad to reach town was the Mississippi, Ouachita & Red River line in 1872," DeArmond-Huskey writes. "It stretched westward from Gaines Landing on the Mississippi River. In 1887, the north-south line of the Houston, Central Arkansas & Northern line intersected with the Iron Mountain (formerly Mississippi, Ouachita & Red River), and Dermott prospered."
In addition to the cotton plantations, the timber industry also thrived. The French Oak Stave Co. opened in 1891 with more than 150 employees. Shingle mills were established by William Henry Lephiew Jr. in the early 1900s.
"The Leavitt Land & Lumber Co. installed a mill in 1908 and cut more than 28,000 acres of timber west of the city limits," DeArmond-Huskey wrote. "Around 1907, Schneider Stave Co. built a barrel stave mill that could produce 45,000 staves a day. The Bimel-Ashcroft Manufacturing Co. was in existence by 1910 and produced oak and hickory products for plows, tool handles, yokes and spokes. In 1912, W.B. Bynum established Bynum Cooperage, which made whiskey barrel staves. The Burleigh family of Scotland owned a handle mill. Two other mills produced hardwood flooring."
Dermott's population soared from 467 to 1900 to 4,731 in 1980. The city has been losing population since then, like Chicot County as a whole. Through it all, Henry and those like him persevere. It's why I never say "no" to the man they call Mr. Frank.
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.