As I'm about to speak to the annual meeting of the Dardanelle Area Chamber of Commerce, I think to myself what a unique place Yell County is. Dardanelle has produced nationally known figures ranging from golfer John Daly to U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton. In fact, Cotton's parents are sitting one table over.
Yell County even has two of the most unusual high school mascots in the country, the Dardanelle Sand Lizards and the Danville Little Johns. This is a distinctive place the natives like to refer to as the Free State of Yell. The county was formed in December 1840 from parts of Scott and Pope counties and named for Gov. Archibald Yell.
"Immigrants from Tennessee and North Carolina were prominent in its early development," Mildred Diane Gleason writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "By 1860, the population reached 6,333, of which 3.9 percent were slaves. Slavery was concentrated near Dardanelle in the bottomlands adjacent to the Arkansas River. Only three slave owners were certified as planters in 1860. Most slave owners were small farmers. The first cotton gin opened in 1838 in Riley Township near Belleville."
And what about the Free State of Yell?
Gleason explains: "Politics has always been serious business and a form of Yell County entertainment. The county's political mystique was enriched in 1915 during a circuit judgeship special election. The Yell County candidate, A.B. Priddy, carried the county and barely lost in the other two counties involved, and yet he won the election by 2,500 votes.
"It was reported that names taken from tombstones and bird dogs were recorded as voters in Yell County. Thus was born the phrase 'the Free State of Yell,' signifying a tendency of the county to act as an independent nation."
Each spring, the chamber in Dardanelle sponsors the Free State of Yell Fest. The 31st annual festival was held May 12-14.
The other big festival in the area is the Mount Nebo Chicken Fry, which will be held Aug. 20. The festival has been revitalized in recent years and is once again an event at which candidates and officeholders are expected to be seen.
I joined the staff of Gov. Mike Huckabee the day he took office in July 1996. On his first Saturday in office, we attended the Mount Nebo Chicken Fry.
Local legend Lloyd Reid George, who died in February 2012 at age 85, grabbed the new governor by the arm as soon as we exited the Arkansas State Police vehicle that had taken us to the top of the mountain. George spent the next two hours introducing Huckabee to everybody who passed by.
George's father was a cattleman and postmaster. George was born in October 1926 in his grandparents' house at Centerville. He grew up at Ola, where he starred in multiple sports. George went on to play basketball and track at Hendrix College in Conway.
George's obituary read: "Anyone who knew Lloyd as a young man would have no doubt the industrious small-town boy with the gift of gab and a love of people would accomplish a lot in his life. His passion for sports led him into a coaching and teaching career soon after college with positions at Fourche Valley, Ola, Morrilton and Gillett.
"When the teacher's salary was no longer enough to support Lloyd's growing family, he borrowed enough money from his father and grandmother to open a butane gas company in Danville, the place he would call home, raise his children and still participate in sports by playing on independent baseball and basketball teams throughout the 1950s."
In 1962, George was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives. He served in the Legislature from 1963-67 and 1973-97. On the final day of each legislative session, George wore overalls in the House chamber, noting that it was time to "return to the farm."
"Lloyd maintained the family farm and raised cattle as his father had taught him to do on land that had been passed down for generations," the obituary read. "In later years, Lloyd retired to his beloved farm."
I never go to Mount Nebo without thinking of George. Nebo rises 1,762 feet above the Arkansas River valley. Mount Nebo State Park, the second-oldest state park, covers more than 3,000 acres.
According to the state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism: "Called Magazine by the French because of its resemblance to a barn (but not to be confused with nearby Mount Magazine), the peak was a landmark for early navigation on the Arkansas River and was renamed Nebo sometime after the Civil War. Louis White of Dardanelle owned land around the springs on Bench Trail. According to local folklore, his wife named the mountain after the biblical Mount Nebo, from which Moses saw the Promised Land.
"Inhabited by white settlers since pre-Civil War years, the city of Mount Nebo was first laid out with streets and lots in the late 1800s. The mountain became a popular resort in 1889 when the Summit Park Hotel was established."
Wealthy visitors traveled by steamboat on the Arkansas River and then rode wagons to the top of the mountain. There were two large hotels and almost 5,000 summer residents at one point.
The Encyclopedia of Arkansas notes: "Today, about 50 private residences are used full time or seasonally on top of the mountain. Many owners are descendants of families who have lived on Mount Nebo since the late 1800s. In 1918, Mount Nebo's widely known reputation as a summer destination abruptly ended when the Summit Park Hotel burned to the ground. Costs incurred by remodeling had left the hotel with no money for insurance. It was never rebuilt."
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.