Deep In The Delta

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Helena, Arkansas, is a classic Mississippi River town. But it doesn’t exactly reflect the richly ornamented world of Showboat . Spend a day or two there and you can watch Helena being put back together, against great odds and in a time when every preservation dollar is likely to be deemed “pork.” Some of the pieces are in place; others are missing, gap-toothed evidence of the struggle to bring the kind of life to a town that will support locals and draw tourists. Today’s Helena, off the main tourist trail, drowsy, a bit frayed along the edges, was once a busy port, a lumber and railroad center, and Arkansas’s main depot for shipping cotton.

The place did have a lot going for it, which is why the first white settlers of Arkansas Territory chose, in 1797, to stay near here, not far from where Hernando de Soto had crossed the Mississippi in 1541. In 1820 three of them platted out Helena, named for the daughter of one of the men, making it the only settlement of any size in eastern Arkansas. Helena’s founding fathers were attracted, of course, by the great river highway flowing past their first crude streets. And there was the benefit of high ground: Crowley’s Ridge rose inland and west of the river and, at an elevation of two hundred feet, was thought to provide safety against the malaria that lurked in the swampy lowlands. Also, the land of the Mississippi Delta, surrounding Helena, offered fine, rich soil for planting and hardwood forests thick with cypress, gum, and oak —trees that thrived despite the standing and seasonal water that regularly plagued settlements along the river.

It was the wealth promoted by agriculture and the river and the constant visits by fleets of lacy steamboats that shaped Helena’s best days and gave rise to a whole Delta culture, and in a way it was a present-day steamboat that set me on my path there last summer. I’d previously known of the town as a onetime center of the blues, a stop on the Mississippi, Memphis, and Chicago music trail from the 1920s into the 1940s. (And I couldn’t help recalling an article on the blues guitarist Robert Johnson published in this magazine several years ago that found Helena to be rundown and shabby.) So it wasn’t until I learned last year that the Delta Queen Steamboat Company had launched a new itinerary for all three of its vessels featuring Little Rock, Pine Bluff, and Helena that I thought it was time for a visit. After all, I reasoned, they wouldn’t have decided to include Helena if there weren’t something worth seeing there.

Arkansas’s tourism people were only too happy to set up an itinerary last June. Everyone warned me (at least it sounded like a warning, perhaps it was merely a description) that the Delta was “very flat.” But on the approach, a two-hour drive east from Little Rock, it wasn’t flatness or the dullness this implies that met my eye but richly green, contoured fields of rice and soybean. Flocks of red-winged blackbirds dive-bombed the young plants, while their mechanical brothers, the primitive-looking crop-dusters, swooped daringly low over the same fields. Beyond the side of the road, where Queen Anne’s lace grew high, magnolia trees held plate-size blossoms, and cattails sprouted from waterlogged ditches. On a drier shoulder of the road 1 spotted the slow journey of what appeared to be an ancient fortification on feet but was in fact an armadillo. Two harmonious, brick Georgian houses stood side by side in the middle of nowhere. Signs for towns that bore names like Stuttgart, Slovak, and England spoke of the first settlers to this remote, daunting region.

I stopped for barbecue at Armstrong’s, a simple structure on what passes for the motel and fast-food strip just where Helena meets West Helena. The unprepossessing but cheerfully crowded spot offers a down-home cuisine entirely unknown to me. But I’d head back to Armstrong’s anytime for that sliced pork sandwich. Here I met up with Pat Wheeler, Helena’s community affairs director, and “Miss Virginia” Sträub, a columnist for the local paper. I suppose it’s a holdover from plantation days, with all that implies, but the “Miss” designation, conferred seemingly randomly on various Helena women, both charmed and puzzled me. It’s not limited to maiden ladies, I noticed, nor does it seem to indicate a certain age. It’s a respect thing and a Southern thing, and no one could satisfactorily explain it to this outsider.

Helena and all of Arkansas saw terrible times in the 1930s. One estimate is that nearly a third of the state’s people were starving. Miss Virginia, it turned out, although a Helena native, had spent some years in New York City, living in its most exclusive area and working at Harper’s Bazaar . How did she get there, I wanted to know. Her response held all one needed to know of hard times. “I was visiting relatives in New York,” she said, “and I heard from my mother: ‘Your father lost his job, you had better find work there.’”