Des Arc redux Rex Nelson
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?