Des Arc re­dux Rex Nel­son

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - 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.

It’s rain­ing hard out­side and turn­ing cold. There’s a crowd in­side at T.J.’s Koun­try Kitchen on Main Street in Des Arc. The old build­ing that houses the restau­rant is ad­ja­cent to the struc­ture my grand­fa­ther built a cen­tury ago to house his hard­ware store and fu­neral home. The lunch spe­cial is a pork chop with pinto beans, cab­bage and corn­bread. I can’t re­sist.

I had writ­ten ear­lier in the year about a walk around my mother’s home­town. I’m back in Des Arc at the in­vi­ta­tion of long­time friend Har­vey Joe San­ner. He con­tacted me the day the col­umn was pub­lished and in­vited me to come hear about the good things hap­pen­ing there. I’ve writ­ten a se­ries of columns about small towns in the Arkansas Delta that are buck­ing the trend and do­ing well eco­nom­i­cally even though the com­mu­ni­ties around them are bleed­ing pop­u­la­tion. Pales­tine and Manila are two such places. I know Des

Arc much bet­ter since my grand­par­ents lived into their 90s and had a house just a block off Main Street. I spent lots of time in the White River town.

I visit with a group of lo­cal res­i­dents dur­ing lunch and think about how the towns along the lower White River in east Arkansas seem to pro­duce more than their share of col­or­ful char­ac­ters. San­ner is just such a char­ac­ter, hav­ing once served as the na­tional pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Agri­cul­ture Move­ment. AAM grew out of the pop­ulist agrar­ian protests of the 1970s. It was formed in 1977 in Campo, Colo., by a group of men who at­tempted to or­ga­nize a na­tional strike in which farm­ers would cease buy­ing and sell­ing prod­ucts. The farm­ers de­manded that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment es­tab­lish higher prices for crops.

On Dec. 10, 1977, about 5,000 farm­ers held a rally in Ne­braska. They were joined by the state’s gover­nor, James Exon. Farm­ers drove their trac­tors from across the state to the rally at Lin­coln. In the months that fol­lowed, trac­tor ral­lies were held through­out the coun­try. In 1979, farm­ers from Arkansas and other farm states drove trac­tors to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., cre­at­ing mas­sive traf­fic jams and re­ceiv­ing wide­spread me­dia cov­er­age. They parked their trac­tors on the Na­tional Mall and marched through the U.S. Capi­tol. One of the trac­tors that was driven to Wash­ing­ton is now part of the Smithsonian In­sti­tu­tion’s per­ma­nent col­lec­tion.

In 1981, San­ner and sev­eral other Arkansas farm­ers erected a build­ing on the edge of Des Arc for AAM of­fices and ac­tiv­i­ties. That build­ing now houses a startup com­pany, Cheeterz Firearm Ac­ces­sories. The com­pany’s first prod­uct is what’s known as as­sisted load am­mu­ni­tion. It’s de­signed to as­sist shoot­ers who dread load­ing mag­a­zines. Am­mu­ni­tion is bun­dled into a patented dis­pos­able de­vice named the Cheeter.

“A cheater is a term com­monly used in in­dus­try for a tool that makes a task eas­ier, such as cheater bar or cheater pipe,” the com­pany’s web­site states. “The chee­tah is the fastest land an­i­mal. We com­bined these to high­light that our prod­ucts make load­ing both eas­ier and faster. We added a Z at the end to make our brand unique and to prevent un­wanted re­sults from a search en­gine.”

Richard Roe, the com­pany’s founder, grad­u­ated from the Univer­sity of Arkansas at Fayetteville in 1991 with an en­gi­neer­ing de­gree and then spent the next 27 years as a project man­ager for the en­ergy gi­ant now known as Cono­coPhillips. He has patents pend­ing for ad­di­tional prod­ucts.

“I’ve had these de­signs in my head for a long time, and they’re fi­nally be­com­ing a re­al­ity,” Roe says. “We’re go­ing to in­tro­duce ad­di­tional prod­ucts, but we’re tak­ing our time. The mar­ket will de­ter­mine how quickly we roll out prod­ucts and add to our staff. If the mar­ket re­sponds fa­vor­ably, we’ll con­tinue to move the com­pany to the next level. We’ll start with just three prod­ucts and then in­tro­duce an­other seven in the next three to five years.”

In last Satur­day’s col­umn, I wrote about the Paul Guess en­ter­prises that now call Des Arc home. What Guess and Roe are do­ing adds to a sense of mo­men­tum in Des Arc. That op­ti­mism has also been fu­eled by the city’s new li­brary in the his­toric struc­ture that once housed a Pres­by­te­rian church (I want to come back on a day when the sun is shin­ing through the beau­ti­ful stained glass win­dows), new busi­nesses down­town and a grow­ing Des Arc School District. In the 2010 cen­sus, Prairie County had 8,715 res­i­dents. That’s half the size it was in 1920 when there were 17,447 res­i­dents. While Des Arc has not grown sig­nif­i­cantly (1,307 res­i­dents in 1920 and 1,717 res­i­dents in 2010), it has at least held its own. That would be con­sid­ered a vic­tory these days in east Arkansas.

More than any­thing, though, the his­tory and quotable char­ac­ters keep draw­ing me back to Des Arc. Back in the 1970s when Mike Trim­ble (among the finest writ­ers to ever work at an Arkansas news­pa­per) was the “Arkansas Trav­eler” colum­nist for the Arkansas Gazette, he de­voted sev­eral columns to Des Arc and a White River house­boat res­i­dent named Ray Dor­thy.

“The car had barely come to a stop on the dusty bank of the White River when the door to the beached house­boat opened to dis­gorge five dogs, three cats, a gray goose and Ray Dor­thy, who has lived on or near the river for most of her life, mak­ing her liv­ing as best she can and shar­ing her quar­ters with a long line of hus­bands and aban­doned an­i­mals,” Trim­ble wrote. ‘I shoulda’ been wrote up a long time ago,’ she said, ‘but I never was. Got my pic­ture in the White River Jour­nal a cou­ple of times, but that was al­ways with a big fish.’”

How can you not like a place that pro­duces such char­ac­ters?

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