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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Reflections on Arkansas

I’m writing this from Arkansas, on the long screened porch of my sister’s cabin on the Arkansas River. It is miles away from anywhere, and so very quiet and dark at night that it’s easy to pretend that you are a Cherokee who lived here two hundred years ago. In fact, the area probably was busier in 1814 than it is now in 2014.

My brother-in-law’s ancestors, the Corbetts and the Sweedens, moved here soon after the Cherokee were forced upriver, to the Indian Territory of Oklahoma, in the 1830s. The infamous Trail of Tears runs through the town where I grew up, right past the 1858 Potts Inn. You can google it; it remains a gorgeous building, but in need of repainting. Send money.

The inn is four or five miles from the river, and as I said, the river is much less the center of life now than then. Cemeteries testify to that. There are at least two nearby on the river road, long neglected and overgrown with rampant foliage. My sister and I first walked through them many decades ago, and so we know that one rock declares that the person buried there died in the 1790s. The river is deep enough and wide enough that ships could go from the Mississippi River up the Arkansas to Oklahoma, and this area had stores and other commerce. It was called Galla Rock, but you won’t find that on any map now.

You may be able to find Sweeden Island because of the campground by that name – but the camp isn’t on the island. I can see that bit of land in the middle of the river from where I’m sitting, and we know that the Sweeden family ran a ferry across the river and grew vegetables on the island. We assume that they came from Sweden, but that family isn’t interested in their history in the way that mine is, and my sister is waiting until she retires (perhaps next year) to research it. The Corbetts definitely came from Ireland and remain proud of that heritage. Yet although my sister’s mother-in-law decided to be buried in a Catholic cemetery, she did not follow that faith in her lifetime nor have other descendants of a large family. And the Sweedens probably never practiced Lutheranism, the state religion of Sweden.


I can say this because I know who the local Lutherans are. My parents moved from Minnesota to Arkansas by using the Lutheran Annual: They had decided to move during a trip the previous year, and aware of the scarcity of Lutheran churches in the South, they checked out properties for sale that were within driving distance of one. We joined a small congregation in Russellville, where most members were descendants of Germans who had settled even smaller towns, Lutherville and Augsburg. Those towns, which also have almost disappeared, were in the Ozark Mountains near the high cliffs that overlook the Arkansas River further north. Like all rivers, it begins on higher ground and widens as it flows south.

And as elsewhere all over the continent, the Arkansas River lost its importance as the railroad displaced it. The engineers who laid out train tracks, of course, wanted to avoid the flooding that most rivers experience every spring, when snow melts and rivers rise as a result. As the regularity of railroads displaced weather-connected river transportation, Galla Rock lost its commerce to Pottsville, where the train tracks basically followed the Trail of Tears. Except that for a couple of decades between water routes and railroads, the stagecoach offered a land alternative to rivers -- and that was the reason for Potts Inn. It was an overnight stop for the Butterfield Stagecoach Company between Fort Smith (and Indian Territory) and what always has been the center of Arkansas, Little Rock.

Kirkbride Potts, whose slaves hewed the massive beams to build the inn, was a Pennsylvanian who had struck it rich in California’s gold rush. His wife, Pamela Logan, also was a member of a pioneer family; Arkansas’ Logan County is named for them. She endured appreciable suffering during the Civil War – at least according to my high school English teacher, “Miz” Faye Potts. She showed my friends and me the spot where Yankee soldiers burned Pamela’s feet trying to get her to tell them where the family silver was buried.

That may or may not have been true, as such stories are part of family lore throughout the South. If it was true, the chances are good that it was disaffected Confederate soldiers instead of rogue Yankees and that it was after the war, not during it. Arkansas had its own civil war for years after the big war was over, with two competing governments in the delta country and in the Ozark Mountains. The mountaineers generally were Republicans, while the slave-owning class that dominated the delta were Democrats. Anarchy prevailed through the 1870s, and the federal government did not send troops here to support a Reconstruction government as it did further east -- even in Florida.

That geographical division still is evident in today’s politics, although – ironically -- the ranks of Democrats now are swelled by the descendants of slaves. Right now there’s a close election going on for the US Senate between incumbent Democrat Mark Pryor and Republican Tom Cotton, whose family lives across the river from where I sit, in the town of Dardanelle. At least the polls and my knowledgeable sister say that it is close, but I wonder. I’ve seen more signs and bumper stickers for Pryor, the Democrat, than for Cotton, whose base should be right here. We’ll see soon.


So as a Lutheran with a Minnesota accent, I felt out of place during my first years in Arkansas. It was good for me, though, as the experience gave me a lifelong feel for what it is like to be an outsider, to be a minority. Although I no longer practice it, I’m grateful for that and other aspects of Lutheranism, especially the rigorous theological education required of teenagers. I remember many things from the Saturday catechism classes that were mandatory for confirmation: words like “omniscient” and “omnipotent,” the concepts conveyed by “scapegoat” and “sacrificial lamb,” the difference between predestination and free will.

I wonder as I drive by Free Will Baptist churches today how many of their members understand that meaning. I think probably relatively few. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that most people – especially Protestants -- choose their place of worship less because of its creed than because it’s convenient or has good music or an active youth group or the friendliness of the congregation or (especially) the charisma of the pastor. Perhaps people always have in America, once they were free of a state religion with assigned clergy.

Thinking about things I learned as a teenager compels me to say a few more words about Miz Faye Potts. Long before educational theory emphasized individual differences, she practiced that. She understood the differences between our family backgrounds and between the personal potentials of her students, and she asked more of some than of others. She required me (and a few other classmates) to memorize 100 lines of poetry each semester, and I still can recite some of those poems.

She was at Pottsville High School for many years, but never rose above the teaching level. In fact, during my last years there, the all-male school board – most of whom had never darkened the door of a college – passed over her to hire a young man who didn’t even have his bachelor’s degree as superintendent. So although it took me a decade or more to understand it, another thing that Miz Faye taught me was the profound and unthoughtful nature of sexism.

But although her name was Potts, she was not of the Potts family; she was merely the widow of a Potts man. Her sister-in-law, whose married name was not Potts, never let Miz Faye forget that. We called her “Miss Mary” on those rare occasions when there was reason to speak of her. Until Miss Mary moved to Little Rock and modern assisted living, they shared the mansion’s big rooms – or so to speak. Miz Faye lived on the side of its wide hall that held the original living room and kitchen on the first floor, with two big bedrooms on the second floor. Miss Mary had the inn’s office and dining room, as well as her two upstairs bedrooms. They shared the tiny bathroom under the stairs, an addition after latrines passed from the scene. They seldom spoke, although I suppose they must have done so when Potts Inn was deeded to the county a few decades back.

Miss Mary probably thought of her sister-in-law as low class because Miz Faye came from Carden Bottoms, another no longer extant community on the river. It used to be prime ground for growing cotton, but we Americans don’t do that anymore, especially not in river bottoms that flood annually. Once again, though, the federal government has come to our rescue and that area now is the Holla Bend Wildlife Refuge. Federal environmentalists planted it with things that attract migrating birds, and that is another reason why I love my sister’s cabin. We can’t really get a good look at Holla Bend from here, though, because the feds also prohibit the cutting of trees. And that, I know, is a good thing.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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