Luck is a fickle mistress. Just ask the folks who live in the towns of the Arkansas Delta. Most of them are struggling, trying to adapt to a changing world in which the things that once made them valid no longer exist.
It wasn’t always that way. These places once hummed with activity. Saturdays were particularly busy as families put on their best finery and “went to town.” Young girls sported their second-best dresses, and the faces of young boys fairly shone from repeated scrubbings. Old men sat on benches and talked, even sometimes telling the truth. Families “window-shopped.” There may have even been music going on.
One of those towns is pictured below. It is Hazen, Arkansas, still a fine place. The photograph features the various elements that made the town viable. Well almost … most of the train tracks were taken up years ago and the land converted to a linear park that runs the entire east-west length of the city. One part of the park is named, I hear, for T.A. Cowan, who served as the town’s “administrator” for years. He was a retired Army Command Sergeant Major, and in case you don’t know, that’s as high an honor as an enlisted man can reach. Young lieutenants tremble when a CSM walks by.
And Mr. Cowan was one of the many fine people of the Delta it has been my privilege to call a friend. He died in 2009.
Another function of the town, shown in the photo, was the retail base. It largely moved away in modern times as well. Family businesses in the Delta succumbed to the success of mega-retail outlets owned by outsiders. The few remaining family stores hold on and struggle.
Then there is the church steeple visible in the photo. The church used to be a social magnet for a community before the automobile generated the mega-churches that draw crowds from far beyond the community.
Finally, there are the rice-driers, a ubiquitous site in Delta towns. They represent the main draw of rural communities, support of farming. Even this has evaporated as modern techniques and corporate farms reduced both material and labor needs.
There are three other communities lined up with Hazen on “Old Seventy-The Highway of Dreams.” They are almost equally spaced from one another and I have often wondered if the spacing related to the distance a wagon and team could travel back and forth in a day. It would be an interesting thing to research.
So, these days fortune smiles on other parts of the state and country and not on the Delta. The towns on Old Seventy fare better than some, for they sit along Interstate 40—sometimes called “America’s Main Street.” The railroads historically determined the birth and success of many American towns. In modern times, the interstate system played that role. Who knows what the next determinant will be?
If it is the desire for nice communities with interesting people and land for growing food, the towns in the Delta may flourish again.