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OPINION | REX NELSON: The Helena blues

by Rex Nelson | July 17, 2022 at 9:38 a.m.

Walter Morris Jr. remembers the boom days at Helena-West Helena. His father, who died in October 2017 at age 96, returned home after serving in the Navy during World War II. He went to work for the family business, Twin City Transit, which operated buses and taxis in what were then the bustling cities of Helena and West Helena.

Morris Sr. soon diversified the company from buses and taxis to leasing cars and trucks. That business became known as Hornor-Morris Transportation. In 1961, Morris Sr. and two cousins, Lawson and John Hornor, bought Askew-Jones Lumber Co. and renamed it H&M Lumber Co., expanding the business to concrete, concrete block manufacturing and subdivision development.

"I've made an investment in just about everything you could except a jetliner," Morris Sr. once said. "I've had a railroad car, a barge, even a Greyhound bus and a cow or two. Some worked out OK, and some didn't."

Morris Sr. exemplified the type of leaders who made this one of the state's most economically viable areas during much of the 20th century. He was a founding board member of the community college in Phillips County and served on its board for more than half a century. He also served on the board of Helena's hospital from 1946-2000 and was on the steering committee that planned the bridge over the Mississippi River that opened in 1961.

In the spring of 2020, just after the pandemic began, Morris Jr. sold H&M Lumber to Central Network Retail Group, which operates more than 100 hardware stores, home centers and lumber yards in 15 states.

On this day, I'm with Morris Jr. at the Helena Museum of Phillips County, which is among the state's best local museums. Morris knows my love of Arkansas history and the many visitors I bring to this historic old river port to visit Civil War sites. He wants to show me the improvements that have been made to the museum since my last visit.

"I'm told we now have a 99 percent virus-free environment in the building," he says. "We received a $168,000 grant from the Helena Health Foundation and raised another $25,000 for a state-of-the-art air filtration system that was installed at the end of January."

The Helena Health Foundation was created with proceeds from the sale of the hospital. In 2006, when I was passing through Helena on a weekly basis in my job with the Delta Regional Authority, the foundation completed construction of a $4.2 million, 31,000-square-foot wellness center. Three years later, an outdoor walking track, exercise stations, a pavilion and a children's playground were added.

As Phillips County has bled population--from 46,254 residents in the 1950 census to just 16,568 in 2020--business and civic leaders such as Morris and organizations such as the Helena Health Foundation have remained behind to make the best of a bad situation. Beautiful churches, for instance, have few members these days, making it difficult to maintain buildings that were constructed when the population was almost triple what it is now.

Another result of population loss is that the talent pool has diminished for those who run for public office. For now, the city is blessed to have a fine mayor in Kevin Smith, and Phillips County has a good county judge in Clark Hall. I've known both men for years and am well aware of their dedication to improving life in the Arkansas Delta.

But to say the Helena-West Helena City Council and the Helena-West Helena School Board are dysfunctional would be an understatement. Smith must deal with one council member who spends up to an hour of each meeting spouting inanities. I read the Helena World each week and continue to be shocked at what goes on at council and school board meetings. The school board's actions are enough to make World readers pray for an FBI sting operation.

A local radio station owner, Elijah Mondy, went before the council last month to urge members to get down to business. According to the World: "Mondy said he had observed the ongoing fighting between the mayor and council, saying the conflict had been going on too long and was destructive."

The World editorialized: "The logjam has to be broken because we deserve a functioning government that delivers the basic services municipalities are supposed to provide."

Just when I'm ready to give up hope for this area of our state, I spend a day with someone like Morris. And I also rediscover the rich history of the city--its museums, old homes and cemeteries.

After graduating from the University of Arkansas, where he was a Sigma Chi like his father, Morris returned to Phillips County. He followed in his father's footsteps as a member of the board of visitors for Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas. He was president of the Rotary Club and treasurer of St. John's Episcopal Church.

In addition to volunteering at the museum, Morris is part of a group that provides upkeep for the city's cemeteries.

Due to its location along the Mississippi River, Helena was among the South's most cultured cities in the late 1800s. The city had an opera house and literary clubs. In February 1888, members of a literary society known as the Pacaha Club met at the home of Sally Sanders to address the recently closed city library on Perry Street. The 40 women in attendance decided to organize the Women's Library Association.

By the following month, they had taken control of the former library's books and were operating a reading room on the second floor of the Grand Opera House on Porter Street. In September 1891, the Women's Library Association opened Library Hall. The library and an events hall were on the first floor. There was a theater on the second floor.

Nine groups--the Royal Arcanum, American Legion of Honor, B'Nai B'Rith, the Masons, Golden Rule, Knights of Honor, Knights and Ladies of Honor, Knights of Pythias and Ancient Order of United Workmen--rented the theater for meetings. The women in the association continued to raise funds on a weekly basis with concerts, poetry readings, cake walks and other events.

By 1916, the Helena Public Library Board had taken over the facility from the Women's Library Association. The board realized there needed to be a dedicated space to display artifacts that had been collected since that first meeting in 1888. In February 1930, an addition was completed to house the Phillips County Museum. No expense was spared with Andrew Coolidge hired as building architect and John Highberger serving as landscape architect.

In 1948, the Helena Library founded the Phillips County Library with branches at West Helena, Lexa, Marvell, Lake View and Elaine. In 2010, the Phillips County Library moved into a more modern building on Columbia Street with the museum now filling the former library space.

Combined with the state's Delta Cultural Center, the Helena Museum makes for a fascinating day downtown. The Delta Cultural Center was created by the Arkansas Legislature in 1989 to interpret the agricultural, ethnic and cultural history of the Delta. The city's 1912 railroad depot was restored at one end of Cherry Street to house permanent and temporary exhibits. A block away on Cherry Street, the visitors' center focuses on Delta music--blues, gospel, country and rockabilly.

"The Delta Sounds room is the broadcast home for the country's longest-running daily blues radio show, King Biscuit Time," Gary Jones writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "King Biscuit Time was first broadcast by KFFA-AM on Nov. 21, 1941. Each weekday at 12:15 p.m., there's a live broadcast of the show."

The state has also invested in other properties across the city. Beth El, once the city's synagogue, is now a meeting hall and Jewish heritage center. The Moore-Hornor House was built in 1859 and features Greek Revival and Italianate architecture. The Cherry Street Pavilion is an outdoor performance stage on Cherry Street.

Despite the poverty, population loss and political infighting, Helena keeps drawing me back.

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


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