Arkansas, America, and Art

Last week I told you about the great restaurant we found in the Ozarks, along the White River bank. But we did more than go to that restaurant. We kept my uncle going every day! It had been decades since we had been to northern Arkansas. When we last visited, there were so many ancient Ozark-style log cabins tucked into the woods on the side of the road that the flavor of the land was everywhere you looked. If you don’t know what those are, they are small slightly rectangular box cabins with a peaked roof and a front porch with roof (imagine a wooden rocking chair and Pa with a corncob pipe just about now). Typically, the cover to the porch is a different pitch than the main roof–and best yet, the roof is generally tin. There aren’t very many left, but the remains of the ones being slowly claimed by the forest can be seen. Also, some have been refurbished with aluminum siding. Some new houses are built in the same style, to reflect the traditional architecture.

The reason I don’t have photos for you is that most of my Arkansas photos are crap, having been taken through a car window. It was too hot and humid to keep rolling the window down–and the so-called highways (NO freeways at all) are winding and long. It’s way out in the country, y’all. Anyway, the gardener drove, and it exhausted him so I didn’t want to distract him by rolling the window up and down–or asking to stop where we could have been run over IF someone else had driven there just then (that’s a big IF).

This part of Arkansas must be well within the Bible Belt. In Mountain Home (population 12,448), the Wednesday newspaper had a listing of churches in the immediate area.

I counted FORTY-ONE Baptist churches. There are also a lot of other denominations, including LDS, Jehovah’s Witness, and even Bahai! There is no synagogue, and I don’t think there is a mosque. Also, there are only two Catholic churches–one in town and one in a nearby town. The one in town is my uncle’s church. You might wonder then how my uncle ended up in Arkansas. He was born and lived in Chicago. After a horrible crime touched his life (story coming tomorrow in he moved his family to rural Illinois–and eventually to Arkansas. He wasn’t alone–there is a whole “expat” group of Chicagoans who live there. They like being away from the hubbub–and a lot of them like to fish. That–and some Californians who have escaped the west coast–probably makes up the majority of people who attend the Catholic churches.

Let me mention that my favorite church names are the cowboy churches. Notice that this listing shows Bar None Cowboy Church. We flew into Tulsa, OK, and drove to Mountain Home. On the way, we saw other cowboy churches, like the Cowboy Gatherin’ Church in Inola, OK, and Crooked Creek Cowboy Church in Harrison. Apparently “cowboy churches” are a thing and are scattered across the country. Who knew? Well, I sure didn’t.

Speaking of Harrison. It’s only 48.4 miles from Mountain Home, but there’s a big difference. Mountain Home, as I said, has attracted people from Chicago and California and is close to reknowned trout fishing near the Bull Shoals dam which links Bull Shoals Lake with the White River. People think of pretty Ozark country when Mountain Home is mentioned. Harrison’s reputation comes from being known as the most racist city in the country. I got that from Wikipedia. So who knows the accuracy. Apparently, between 1905 and 1909 white citizens threw out all the African-Americans who lived there and established their city as a “sundown town.” That means just what it sounds like: no non-white people in town after dark. You think things have changed?

The city has been dubbed “the most racist city in America” because of its high presence of white supremacist organizations. Kingdom Identity Ministries, a white supremacist organization, was founded in 1982 in Harrison. Thomas Robb, national director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, maintains his office near Harrison in the outlying town of Zinc and uses a Harrison mailing address for the organization. Combined with the history of the 1905 and 1909 banishment of unemployed railroad workers and all other African-American residents, this incidental connection to the KKK has given the town a negative image.

The article goes on to say that there are people who are trying to combat that image by speaking up against racism. Of course, all this just made me want to visit. The writer in me, you know. But that’s an easy call as a white woman. As the white mother of Asians, I would not have suggested we visit if they were with us.

When we got to town, I saw the pretty historic theatre where events are still held.

Love the neon sign!

Harrison is quite a pretty small town, and there wasn’t much to hint at a dangerous undercurrent of racism. Then we stopped at an antique shop for the gardener.

My eye was drawn to certain things. I started to feel uncomfortable.

I realize people collect Mammy this and that. Raised in Kalamazoo by my northern relatives, I will never feel comfortable with this stuff. In fact, in Arkansas, I had to keep reminding myself it used to be a slave state. I’ve never lived in a state where slave-holding was legal.

And then there was this little section.

Don’t you love the juxtaposition of items? The Rise and Fall swastika, desperation, a book called Rifles and Shotguns, Rhett Butler, and the fragility of that ruffled porcelain atop the stack. I figured we’d been in town long enough. Time to go!

Next day we visited my cousin’s home in the mountains. He is an orchid farmer by trade, and they live way out in the middle of nowhere (yup, it’s probably even called that). He always loved cacti and orchids, and it’s kind of cool that he’s made a living all these years doing what he loves.

He’s got such cute grandchildren, too. So much fun playing with them!

One day we visited Mystic Caverns. I guess northern Arkansas has a lot of underground caves. Many have probably not even been discovered yet.

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Close to Mountain Home is a tiny town called Norfork. There you can find the Jacob Wolf House Historic Site.

The site includes the main house, which was the territorial courthouse, built 1825, as well as some outbuildings. Seeing how the men “roughed” it even inside the courthouse really made me think of what the settlers went through. During the day, court was in session, and at night, the men spread out their bedrolls where they had been sitting in court earlier.

As we left Arkansas, the gardener and I stopped at the Osage Clayworks because the area has been known for pottery for quite some time. They had some good buys on “seconds,” and I bought my daughter a garlic thingie to use for her rings on her dresser.


The Photography of Justin Hamm

If you like seeing small towns and the fading past of America, you need to check out the photography of poet and photographer Justin Hamm. He’s also the editor of the museum of americana. I love Justin’s photos. Rustic images of old cars, barns, that kind of thing. Gorgeous. Click here for his Instagram. Here are the photos on his website. Look at this photograph of an old Ozark barn, care of Justin. He’s been in the Ozarks recently so I am watching for all those shots I imagined but couldn’t pull off.


The Art of Len Cowgill

On the subject of beautiful American art, I want to tell you a little update on the work of Len Cowgill.

Many, many years ago, when Len, the gardener, and I were all very young, Len gave us a series of three pieces as a gift. This was before he knew about archival materials, and over the years in the hot sun of California, the drawings faded. Here is one of them–see HOW faded.

Upon hearing about the fading, Len kindly offered to repair all these drawings. Look out great they turned out! In the first one, he changed the static brick wall to Allen Ginsberg’s poem “America” and then followed the theme for the rest of them.

I’m so blessed to have such thought-provoking and breathtaking art in my life. Thanks to Len and thanks to Justin both for sticking with your passions and making the world more beautiful.


Filed under #AmWriting, #amwriting, #writerlife, #writerslife, Art and Music, Flora, Garden, and Landscape, History, Nonfiction, Photographs, Sightseeing & Travel, travel, Writing

49 responses to “Arkansas, America, and Art

  1. I’ve never been to Arkansas and it’s not high on my list to visit. You did justice to it highlighting both the good and bad. I’m not sure how someone would pick that state to retreat to but I bet it’s very affordable.

    • Thank you for saying that about the good and bad. It’s been a wonderful place for my uncle and aunt to live all these years. Their lives in Chicago were not so good. And, yes, it’s very affordable, plus the drive to other places in the middle of the country, including Illinois, is not bad.

  2. What an intriguing post, Luanne! I could easily spend all day researching more on what you reported here. Cowboy Churches-I’ve never even heard of them! I have been researching sundown towns for a piece I’m writing. It’s good to travel this country, the things you learn. Thanks for passing on your experience to me, as I’m not sure when/if I’ll make it to Arkansas. Although, I think we may have had a brief moment of being lost in Texarkana, Arkansas when we were exploring Texas many years ago. I’m looking up the artists you mentioned now…

    • Here is more about Len:
      Wow, I can’t wait to read your piece that includes sundown towns. What a screwy “invention” that is. Northern Arkansas is quite beautiful, but I couldn’t do it justice because of driving all the time and not being able to take photos as we’re whizzing by through the glass :(. I would have liked to hike in the national forest there, but my uncle wouldn’t have been up that, although he does REMARKABLY well for being almost 90.

  3. Thanks, Luanne, for this Monday journey through Arkansas, a state I’ve yet to visit, and for info on artists new to me. We have a “cowboy church” here in Santa Fe and the same people who go to the Santa Fe Rodeo every summer probably go to it. At any rate, it’s been around for years and apparently has quite a following. I still have a “Mammy” doll (her name was Gladiola, and I loved her pigtails and pinafore) – the heighth of political incorrectness. She’s tucked away in a foot locker of memorabilia – in my garage. I don’t think I’ll be bringing her out any time soon. This is a difficult week for me, as my boyfriend Michael died very suddenly (cardiac arrest) and the memorial is Saturday. Wishing you a good Monday!

    • Elaine, I wasn’t able to respond earlier, but wanted to make sure to write to you before the end of the day. I am so very sorry to hear about Michael. You must be in shock to have this happen so suddenly. I trust you have your lovely friends around you, supporting you. Please know I am sending you hugs through the distance and have been thinking of you most of the day. xo

  4. Such an interesting post, Luanne!
    I’ve actually been in Arkansas, but only when I was a child, and only in Hot Springs with my family. I always wonder if they ran into the Clintons. 🙂
    How nice that you were able to visit your uncle. My cousin was just here, and we got some of the family together to see/meet him.
    I don’t think I’ll visit Harrison, but you’re right that the sign is beautiful. I don’t think most people understand what it was like to travel to a court, when it had to be done by horseback or wagon over a distance. Colonies and later states had Court Days that were like festival days.
    Thank you for featuring the art. I love the writing in the background of Len Cowgill’s pieces.

    • When I think of Hot Springs I think of FDR! I read a biography of him as a kid and it is so vivid in my mind to this day. There were certain biographies that were like that for me. I remember reading them, where I was at the time, how I felt, etc.
      It was so interesting to imagine what it was like–thanks for saying court days were like festival days. What a great way to put it! The writing really adds another dimension to the drawings!

  5. Lovely post, Luanne. The deep south always made me nervous. Those drawings are terrific. Was nice they could be restored and made better.

    • That’s a good way to put it: the deep south making you nervous. That’s how I have always felt, too. There’s so much to love about the culture, but I distrust it too because I’ve just heard and read too much. Thanks re Len’s drawings. They really turned out fabulously! I had no idea he would be able to do that.

  6. Wow, you really packed a lot into this post: cowboy churches, sundown towns, photography, drawings, family history! Years ago I worked with a young woman who was originally from Arkansas and made frequent treks from Tallahassee to there to visit family. She would say it’s the prettiest place on earth. Well, I could love the country but not the culture, not if people are still harboring their fond memories of Jim Crow. Anyway, if you like photographs of old things, you might be interested in this artists as well: Walter Arnold ( He photographs abandoned buildings and such. He had a booth of his work set up in Asheville, NC, when we passed through a few years ago. We couldn’t afford his prints, but we did buy a calendar and got to enjoy that for several months.

    • It really is a pretty place. There isn’t enough “going on” for me to live there, but it’s restful. But I wouldn’t go near Harrison again unless they really rout the racists.
      The work of Walter Arnold is just gorgeous, Marie. Thank you so much for sharing it. He creates work I really love. My subjects, etc. I think I will pin some of his work to Pinterest ;).

  7. Since I’m not a fan of big cities, I love to visit small towns. How fortunate your cousin is to be doing what he loves for a living…not many of us can say that.

    • I love visiting small towns and rural areas and that is why I love Justin Hamm’s photos so much. But it does make me sad that so many of the small towns are dying in this country. So many ghost and near ghost towns. That’s true about my cousin. He’s always danced to his own inner music.

  8. Very interesting post, Luanne. I had no idea about that area at all.

  9. That was so interesting to read Luanne. I have no interest at all in travelling to the Bible Belt – but this post widened my view a little. Arkansas has such opposites hidden in it’s folds doesn’t it – those beautiful crystal caves – how I’d love to see those! And ugly white supremacists – how glad I am I don’t have to see those! We don’t have a lot of operational churches per capita any more in this country, let alone cowboy churches. (I so wonder what their services are like- maybe I’ll find one on You Tube to check out 🙂 ) no KKK either thank heaven – and that vignette from the second hand store simply chilled me! All it needed was a bible on top to really sum up the reputation of that town. I think there are ignorant and uncultured people everywhere in the world – but somehow the USA seems to just have ’em bigger’n’better!
    Moving on from the ridiculous to the sublime your Len Cowgill art is fabulous!! I remember the first post you wrote about these pieces……… What a wonderful gesture from such a wonderful talent. You are indeed most fortunate.

    • I did read that at least one of those cowboy churches is Baptist!
      You are right about the Bible being missing ;).
      Arkansas is definitely worth visiting. It’s a beautiful place and there are many lovely people there, as evidenced by my family :)! But it’s wise to be cautious, too, and to remember that not everyone one meets is someone you want to be friends with heh. I am so blessed, I know that. Len’s art is so spectacular!

  10. Wasn’t Bill Clinton governor there?

  11. While Arkansas is my birth state (by a fluke), it isn’t someplace I’ve seen much of. We did visit one of the Mississippi River towns last December, which was interesting. Friendly people all around.
    It is sad that there is still such intense racism in parts of this country.
    Thanks for lots of interesting tidbits about Arkansas!

    • It’s funny that as long as we were in Arkansas we really didn’t meet too many people. I think it was because we were with my uncle and taking him out to keep him busy and all. And then there weren’t a lot of people around. So I can’t say whether they were unusually friendly or not.
      Yeah, I was sad to read that about Harrison. Really creeped me out, actually.

  12. Well written and illustrated post. I have never understood the link between so-called Christianity and racism

    • I can’t say for sure that it’s a fact in this case, but it does seem odd that a whole town 100 years ago would decide to be a sundown town when that town probably has a lot of churches . . . . Happened all the time, I know, but strange. And during slaveholding days there were churches that preached FOR slavery. In fact, the other day I read a blog post that featured an old newspaper clipping from the 1920s of a Methodist church selling their building to the KKK. That really rattled me because the Methodist church today is quite open and tolerant.

  13. This was fascinating Luanne, such a range of interesting, beautiful and troubling places. I also love your cousin’s job, what a great way to make a living.

    • He’s passionate about it, but because he’s not part of a big company with distribution as just a division, he has to drive them in a climate-controlled van all over the southeast U.S. so it’s not free of stress. But his customers love him.

  14. I loved every bit of this, Luanne!

  15. Pingback: Here is the Sequel to Yesterday’s Blog Post | Luanne Castle's Writer Site

  16. You know I loved this post, Luanne. You had quite the “southern” experience with your Arkansas trip. I have, unfortunately, seen the same items for sale in stores in small towns in Texas, too.
    One of the most painful discoveries in my ancestry is, as I think I already told you, the number of slave holders in my family. I cannot wrap my brain around that…it makes me so sad.
    I loved the pictures in your post and always love what you have to say and the way you say it.

  17. I cannot get over the art at the bottom. I love it. Like, truly, deeply love it. It’s wonderful.
    Racism in the south is THICK. I lived there for those seven years, and if I hadn’t been on a military base with great diversity, I may not have made it.
    The color on Lyric theatre really does it right 🙂
    Great post, Luanne.

    • I’m in love with Len’s art, too. What he did to bring those drawings back to life AND add to them is spectacular.
      I don’t know how you did it because once you live the base or the big city you might find a lovely place to look at with friendly people, but can you trust the people you meet? That’s what makes me know I couldn’t do it.

  18. As a liberal Canadian, it never ceases to amaze me that in many areas of the U.S., you have this bizarre juxtaposition of ultra-Christianity on the one hand, and racist beliefs & behaviour on the other. Pro-life, but gimme my guns, and oh yeah, death to convicted murderers; plus “conversion therapy” for LGBTQ people. Trump country. I wouldn’t even want to travel through there. Luanne, if you ever want sanctuary, come to Canada. <3

    • Ellie, it might surprise you, but I still love my country. I have some friends who want to move to Canada, that’s true. But I want the U.S. to work through its problems. We’re really good about airing our dirty linen in public (even before this present “age” of presidential tweets), but there has been a lot good accomplished here, too. So I’m in for the long haul even though things seem really bleak recently.

      • Luanne, I completely understand. I realize that the U.S.A. is *more* than just any one politician – it has over two hundred years and plenty of great stuff to show for it. Of course you love it. I would feel as you do, I’m sure.

  19. Very interesting. No, I could never live down south.

  20. Ah, the poet’s mind on the juxtaposition of found objects. Wonderful!

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