Thursday, June 27, 2024

Desha County

Whenver I'm in this part of the state I can't help bit think about my grandmother (who us grandkids called Memaw). She grew up in the Delta, in the small town of Watson in Desha County. It must not have been an easy time to grow up. She would have been around 11 when the Great Flood of 1927 occurred. Watson sat just a few miles away from both the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers, and Watson was flooded for over a month. They lived in a 2-story house, and had to live on the top floor while the rest of the house was under water. According to family legend, they even took in another family who floated by the house on driftwood.

Because the flood damage was so bad, Memaw was sent to North Little Rock so she could attend school. A few years later, while a high school student in NLR, she met my Papaw and they would get married in 1934. While Papaw was serving with the Navy in World War II (in Okinawa), she returned to Watson and  took a job at the Rohwer Relocation Center. After the war, they moved back to North Little Rock. They had a few kids, and then a few grandkids. When Memaw passed away in 2006, they had been married for 72 years.

This is a photo taken of Memaw, standing outside of the house in Watson. The house is gone now, it burned down sometime after the war. I tried to find the spot where it used to sit, but didn't have any luck.


The land here is flat, and mostly filled with farms and fields. Silos and other farm buildings loom tall over the landscape.





Two of the oldest towns in Arkansas used to be in this part of the Delta. In 1686, Arkansas Post was established by the French. It was the first permanent French settlement along the Mississippi River (older than St. Louis and New Orleans). It would become the capitol of the Arkansas Territory in 1819. But when Arkansas became a state, the capitol had been moved upriver to Little Rock. Arkansas Post was prone to flooding, and was under constant attack by mosquitoes. During the Civil War, the town was destroyed by Union troops. It was never rebuilt, and no buildings remain.

Nearby was the town of Napoleon, which was established in the 1830s at the confluence of the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers. It became the county seat of Desha County, and quickly became a prosperous river town. In the 1840s, Napoleon was chosen as the site of a Marine Hospital. But the town was short-lived. During the Civil War, a canal was cut along the Mississippi River so that Union ships could avoid Confederate guerillas. The change in the river brought the current of the Mississippi to Napoleon, and within a few years the river had claimed the city. Nothing is left now, but it is said that sometimes you can see some ruins of the town when the river is low.

The economy of the county has always revolved around farming, and it has struggled ever since modern farming techniques were implemented. The population of the county has steadily fallen, from a high of almost 30,000 in 1940 to just around 11,000 in 2020.






This old restaurant sat along Hwy. 65 near Dumas.


And this abandoned gas station was just down the road:






This neat old Methodist church was nearby, which is open and still in use.



And one last shot, before I head to head back home. This is an old cotton gin, now abandoned and rusting away.


Tuesday, June 25, 2024


The small community of Pickens sits deep in the Arkansas Delta. The town was built around an old plantation, which grew to contain over 14,000 acres in the 1890s. Although the plantation no longer exists, the area is still dedicated to agriculture. An old cotton gin here looks like it's still being used for something (I didn't want to bother anyone there to see what for).



The old plantation mercantile store still exists, and has been turned into a popular restaurant. I was in Pickens at lunch time and the parking lot was full. Across the street from the restaurant is the old Pickens House, which was built in the 1940s by the Pickens family to replace the original plantation house. It has been been left vacant for a few years, and is in a state of disrepair. Earlier this year, Preserve Arkansas listed it as one of the state's most endangered historic properties.


Just a short drive away is this old sharecroppers house. Mechanization ended the sharecropping system, and houses like this were left abandoned after there was no longer any need for people to live by the farmland. Nowadays you don't see too many of these houses left standing. This one looks like it had been used for storage.





Sunday, June 23, 2024


We pass by remnants of our past every day, some are visible and some are nearly hidden. It's easy to drive through Rohwer in southeast Arkansas and miss the sign leading down a dusty dirt road into a field of soybeans. It would be easy to not realize what happened here, eighty years ago.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US government established the War Relocation Authority for the purpose of "relocation, maintenance, and supervision" of the Japanese American population along the West Coast. This meant that thousands of people were uprooted from their homes and forced to live in "relocation centers." Ten locations were chosen by the WRA, with two of those being in Arkansas. One was in the small town of Jerome. And the other was in Rohwer, along Highway 1. 

The Rowher Relocation Center opened in 1942. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, it "eventually became 500 acres of tarpapered, A-framed buildings arranged into specifically numbered blocks. Each block was designed to accommodate around 300 people in ten to fourteen residential barracks, with each barrack (20’x120′) divided into four to six apartments for Japanese American families. Each block also consisted of a mess hall building, a recreational barrack, a laundry, and a communal latrine. The residential buildings were without plumbing or running water, and the buildings were heated during the winter months by wood or coal stoves. The camp also had an administrative section or block of buildings to handle camp operations, a military police section, a hospital section, a warehouse and factory section, a residential section of barracks for WRA personnel, barracks for schools, and auxiliary buildings for such things as canteens, motion pictures, gymnasiums, auditoriums, motor pools, and fire stations. The camp itself was surrounded by barbed wire or heavily wooded areas with guard towers situated at strategic areas and guarded by a small military contingent." At its peak, the camp had a population of 8,475 people. Among that number was George Takei of Star Trek fame, who lived there in 1942.

Driving through Rohwer now, you would never guess that there was once a massive camp here. The most prominent and well-preserved remnant of the relocation center is a small cemetery, which contains the graves of 24 people who died here. 



In 1945, two concrete markers were also built by the cemetery. The first is dedicated to all who died while they were at the camp. The monument "consists of a square base with decorative carving and urns at the four corners. The base supports a tall obelisk with a globe and eagle on top. The base has inscribed floral patterns, and a star and circle alternately at the four corners. Decorative carvings and inscriptions in Japanese and English adorn the obelisk on all four sides. Of particular beauty are the egret and the peacock on the south face, which stand beneath a tree branch and a stylized rising sun. The American eagle beneath the star on the east face stands as a silent testimonial to the patriotism of Japanese Americans." 


The other monument was also built in 1945, and is shaped like a tank. It honors the camp residents who volunteered, and died, to fight for the US Army in France and Italy during the war. Thirty-one soldiers from Rowher died in battle, and their names are listed on the memorial.




There isn't much left of the camp now. The camp closed in 1945, and all of the buildings were torn down - the barracks, the mess hall, the school, the guard towers. The land was reverted back into agricultural use, the locations of the former buildings were lost under the rows of cotton and soybeans.


I've been wanting to go back and visit this spot for several years. My grandmother grew up in the nearby town of Watson, and actually worked at the Rohwer camp during the war. Like a lot of places in the Delta, the area was hit hard by the Great Flood in 1927, followed by the Great Depression and the War. The two camps were one of the few places that were hiring people, and she needed a way to support herself while my Grandfather was stationed overseas with the Navy. She told a few stories about what it was like working there, but I can't remember the details. She passed away in 2006, at the age of 90. 

While working on this post last night I did a Google search and ended up finding a document that was scanned by a library in California. It includes a bunch of personal narratives of people employed by the War Relocation Center, including one written by my grandmother in 1945. She wrote that she started working at Rohwer in February of 1945, and was a File Clerk. The office handled the incoming and outgoing mail, along with telegrams and teletypes. After a few months she was promoted to Office Manager. In the office they had some of the Japanese internees working with them, who at the time were called "evacuees." 

In the narrative, she wrote: "One evacuee girl operated the teletype, one operated the telegraph machine and the other helped with the sorting, reading and routing of all incoming mail, also coding and filing copies of all outgoing mail. All three girls acted as interpreters when needed." Later she wrote "My work at the center has been little different from what it would have been with any other government agency except for the fact that evacuee help was used. The evacuee workers who assisted me were very cooperative and efficient. My relations with them were always friendly." 

The narrative ends with her writing: "I have enjoyed my work with the WRA and had planned to work until the closing of the center, but due to the fact that my husband has returned from overseas and is receiving a discharge from the Navy, I am leaving government employment for the time being."

The only other remnant of the camp that still remains is this smokestack, which was once part of the hospital. It seems to be forgotten, lost amid overgrown brush and vines. 


Friday, June 21, 2024

Yancopin Bridge

There are many bridges that cross the Arkansas River as it makes its way from Colorado to the Mississippi River, ranging from the Royal Gorge Bridge to the Big Dam Bridge. But the very last bridge that the Arkansas flows beneath is the Yancopin Bridge, located in a swath of thick forest about 15 miles upstream from the Mississippi River.


The Yancopin Bridge was built in 1903, and is a single-track truss railroad bridge. It has two different movable spans, one that lifts and the other that would spin out to make room for passing boats. Of course, the bridge hasn't been used for rail service since the 1990s and was left abandoned for several decades. But it's now under rennovation by the state of Arkansas, which is converting it into a pedestrian and biking bridge.


It's now part of the Delta Heritage Trail State Park, which is taking the old rail right-of-way and converting it into a trail. There were workers on the bridge when I went by the other day (who were kind enough to show me around), and the renovation should be completed later this year. It will be cool to be able to walk across it when it's completed.


Thursday, June 13, 2024

Weathered And Rusty

It was warm and muggy as I headed out towards the Delta, driving down some lonely country roads that passed through fields of soybeans. I was trying to find a few places I had spotted on Google Maps that I thought might be some interesting abandoned churches. But alas, it just turns out they were regular churches that were still open. But along the way, I did drive by this neat old abandoned house.


I tried to get a few pictures of the weathered boards on the front porch but was nervous to get too close. There were dozens of wasp nests on the porch with lots of annoyed wasps buzzing around them.



On my way back home I passed by this old cotton gin, rusting away in the June humidity.



I wonder what the bell was used for?


And before heading home I made one last stop at this old abandoned house. I also didn't want to get too close, since it looked like it was protected by a thick moat of poison ivy and poison oak.



Tuesday, June 11, 2024

New Camera!

I guess it's time for a little retirement party. I just got a new camera, which means my old Canon 6D can now take a rest. It's been a trusty and reliable camera, and has travelled with me to the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Bryce Canyon, and Zion. It's taken photos of dozens of waterfalls, and countless old abandoned buildings. But it was showing some definite wear and tear. And it was nine years old, which for digital cameras is ancient and geriatric.

So I ordered a new camera, and eagerly waited for it to be delivered. But somewhere between here and Memphis there was something that caused a mysterious delay. When I went to sign for it when it finally arrived, the FedEx driver handed me a crushed box covered with tape. "This is how I got it this morning," he said. "I hope it's not important." I opened the package and was dismayed to see the camera box inside was also smashed.


But thankfully the camera looked to be OK. The worst damage on the box was on one side, which was where the camera strap and battery were packed.


And it worked! The only issue is that the new camera is much fancier than my old one, and had lots of bells and whistles that I'm not used to. It took awhile to figure out the new settings.


I went out the next day for a few more shots in downtown Little Rock to see how it would do:




I also had my old infrared camera with me, so here's a quick picture with that one:




It was a relief that it's working, since I didn't want to have to fight FedEx to get it replaced or fixed. And we're going on a big road trip in a few weeks so it would be nice to have the new camera with us.