Augusta’s Mallard Masters
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.