Au­gusta’s Mal­lard Masters

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - Rex Nel­son Se­nior Ed­i­tor Rex Nel­son’s col­umn ap­pears reg­u­larly in the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette. He’s also the au­thor of the South­ern Fried blog at rexnel­son­south­ern­

Boyd Wright lives in Searcy, but his heart is in Au­gusta. Wright, the owner of the mas­sive White River Sup­ply com­plex on U.S. 64, is seated down­town in the of­fices of the Eldridge & Eldridge law firm. The back win­dows look out on the White River. It’s quiet down­town on this hu­mid Fri­day af­ter­noon, but Wright isn’t in a slow sum­mer mode. He talks ex­cit­edly.

He’s a man on a mis­sion, and his mis­sion is to slow pop­u­la­tion loss in Woodruff County.

Wright moved to Au­gusta in 1980 when his fa­ther took a job with the Tag­gart & Tag­gart Seed Co., which was founded in 1935 dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion by Glenn Tag­gart. Woodruff County had 22,682 res­i­dents in the 1930 cen­sus. Many of them were share­crop­pers and ten­ant farm­ers who tilled the rich soil in a county that in­cludes the White River, the Cache River and the Bayou DeView.

Other res­i­dents were mer­chants in what then were thriv­ing down­town busi­ness dis­tricts at Au­gusta, McCrory and Cot­ton Plant. The fa­mous blues­man Peatie Wheat­straw and the even more fa­mous gospel singer Sis­ter Rosetta Tharpe hailed from Cot­ton Plant. Au­gusta, mean­while, later pro­duced pro­fes­sional foot­ball star Billy Ray Smith. Leg­endary high school foot­ball coaches such as Cur­tis King at Au­gusta and Joe Hart at McCrory once called Woodruff County home.

By the 1940s, the farm­ers were los­ing their jobs due to wide­spread mech­a­niza­tion. They fled Woodruff County by the thou­sands for steel mills and au­to­mo­bile as­sem­bly plants far to the north in cities such as Detroit, Cleve­land and Chicago. By the 1960 cen­sus, the county’s pop­u­la­tion was 13,954. By the 2010 cen­sus, it was 7,260, less than a third of what it had been 80 years ear­lier. The Cen­sus Bureau es­ti­mates that an­other 519 peo­ple left the county be­tween 2010 and 2015.

We’re joined at the law of­fices by Chris Eldridge of the Eldridge Sup­ply Co., a busi­ness that has been in Au­gusta since 1933. There are Eldridges all over Woodruff County. I spend the first sev­eral min­utes of my visit com­par­ing notes with Eldridge on which of his cousins I know. My plans for the evening in­clude a visit to the Woodruff County com­mu­nity of Gre­gory to eat din­ner with Ge­orge Eldridge (who’s per­haps best known for open­ing the Lit­tle Rock ver­sion of Doe’s Eat Place in the late 1980s) at his ru­ral Ta­male Fac­tory restau­rant.

My mother hailed from Des Arc, a bit south down the White River from Au­gusta. I would spend parts of each sum­mer as a boy at my grand­par­ents’ big house on Er­win Street in Des Arc. I’ve long had a soft spot for the unique cul­ture of the lower White River re­gion. Wright, who’s quick to note that he played his last high school foot­ball game at Au­gusta, shares my love for this of­ten for­got­ten part of our state. Last year, Wright, Eldridge and other mem­bers of the Au­gusta Cham­ber of Com­merce be­gan an event known as the Mal­lard Masters Cham­pi­onship in an at­tempt to draw vis­i­tors. Au­gusta, Ga., might have its Masters golf tour­na­ment, but Au­gusta, Ark., now would have its Masters for duck hunters. Wright told an in­ter­viewer last De­cem­ber: “Au­gusta has been look­ing for an an­swer for years on how we stop the ero­sion. The re­al­ity of farm­ing has changed for­ever. You don’t need the same num­ber of peo­ple you used to back in the day. This was a farm­ing com­mu­nity. We’ve had three fac­to­ries that have sat empty in our county for 15 years.”

Wright says Mal­lard Masters was an at­tempt for Au­gusta to play to its strengths.

“Within a 10-mile ra­dius of this of­fice are more than 100,000 acres, 36 lakes and five streams suit­able for duck hunt­ing,” he says. “We were vis­it­ing on a reg­u­lar ba­sis about what we could do to help the com­mu­nity, and this grew out of those dis­cus­sions. Luck­ily for us, duck hunt­ing has be­come wildly pop­u­lar. We hold some the largest con­cen­tra­tions of mal­lards in North Amer­ica in this county each win­ter. Peo­ple from Lit­tle Rock, Mem­phis and even far­ther away are pay­ing a lot of money to lease land and build clubs here. It was not without its risks. We didn’t have much money in the cham­ber of com­merce ac­count when we started this.”

Chris Eldridge says the or­ga­niz­ers hoped to at­tract 400 peo­ple to down­town Au­gusta. On the Satur­day night of the De­cem­ber event, Ge­orge Eldridge fed more than 700 peo­ple un­der a tent for what was billed as the Tail­feath­ers and Ta­males Din­ner. That morn­ing, a points-based duck-hunt­ing com­pe­ti­tion was held. There were 52 teams of four peo­ple each, and even more teams are ex­pected this year since the prizes are more valu­able.

Event pro­ceeds are used to pro­vide Au­gusta High School se­niors who qual­ify for the Arkansas Aca­demic Chal­lenge Schol­ar­ship with ad­di­tional col­lege schol­ar­ship funds.

Wright says area busi­nesses “picked up their game” in ad­vance of Mal­lard Masters as they cleaned up, re­painted and stocked their shelves. Chris Eldridge says “morale is up and peo­ple are show­ing some pride” across the city.

“It’s about build­ing back the econ­omy,” says Wright, whose 120,000-square-foot com­plex on the high­way now in­cludes a hard­ware store, a lum­ber com­pany, a home cen­ter, an in­te­rior dec­o­rat­ing busi­ness, the White River Spar­tan lawn­mower deal­er­ship, the White River In­tim­ida­tor ATV deal­er­ship, and even a cus­tom boat-build­ing busi­ness.

Not all of the ac­tion is on the high­way. Down­town has un­der­gone a trans­for­ma­tion in re­cent years, thanks in part to the cor­po­rate of­fices of AR­care, which op­er­ates more than 30 med­i­cal clin­ics across the state.

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