A Road Trip to the Upper Delta
March is a great time to plan a road trip with family and friends. One of my favorite trips is to explore the history and beauty of Randolph and Lawrence counties.
The seat of historic Randolph County is Pocahontas, one of Arkansas’s oldest communities. In fact, Pocahontas is known for its many “firsts.” Outside the town is Davidsonville Historic State Park. The park preserves the site of historic Davidsonville, established in 1815. Davidsonville included the Arkansas Territory's first post office, courthouse, and land office. Bypassed by the Southwest Trail, an overland route from St. Louis to the border of Mexico, the town faded by the 1830s. Little of Davidsonville’s existence is evident above ground – archaeological excavations at the park are still uncovering streets, foundations, and artifacts. The park includes historical markers, a walking trail at the old village, and two pioneer cemeteries. In recent years, the park added two “ghost structures,” open frameworks that outline the appearance of a two-story dogtrot-style dwelling and the two-story courthouse and a new visitors center.
Today, Pocahontas retains its historic downtown business square and beautifully restored 1872 Victorian Italianate courthouse. Downtown features a 17-block National Historic Commercial District comprised of structures that date between late 1800 and early 1900. Check out Futrell Pharmacy, the oldest pharmacy to stay in the same location, and the Sanitary Barber Shop, built in 1894, which has most of the original equipment and fixtures. Several Civil War sites are located around town including the Civil War River Walk Memorial Trail and the Pocahontas Confederate States of America headquarters site. During the war all Confederate troops west of the Mississippi (some 35,000) were stationed here. Local and regional history is preserved in the Randolph County Heritage Museum and the Eddie Mae Herron African-American Museum and Cultural Center. The Imperial Dinner Theatre offers live stage productions paired with an exquisite meal for a rich dinner theater experience.
And if you’re looking for some outdoor fun, Pocahontas and Randolph County are just the ticket. The area is a haven for fishing and floating, with five great rivers passing through the area. The Black, Current, Spring, Fourche and Eleven Point Rivers all offer top-notch canoeing and kayaking as well as plenty of opportunities to hook trout, bass, bream and crappie.
Just south of Pocahontas, you’ll find Walnut Ridge in Lawrence County. Walnut Ridge’s rich history includes very strong ties to transportation. During World War II, the community was chosen for an Army Air Forces Flying School. For two years, pilots were trained to fly BT-13s and over 4,500 students graduated from the school. In 1999, the Wings of Honor World War II Museum was formed to preserve the history of the airfield. Located on the grounds of the Walnut Ridge Airport, the museum traces the history of the school and houses collection of war-related books and videos. The museum also houses an extensive collection of World War II nose art (nose art appeared on or near the “nose” of military aircraft).
Two decades later, an airplane also played an important part in Walnut Ridge’s history. Four young men from Liverpool needed some rest and relaxation. It had been a stellar year for the guys – John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. But the “four” were exhausted and needed some down time. A ranch in Missouri was offered to the group and a small Arkansas town was chosen for the perfect stop to change planes because the airport had a large runway and there wouldn’t be a huge crowd waiting for them. Well, part of that was true. What no one realized at the time is that three teenagers saw the plane circling the Walnut Ridge Airport and drove out to see what was happening. They arrived just in time to see the Beatles depart from the airplane onto a smaller aircraft. Needless to say, word spread quickly around the small town. When four of the most recognized celebrities returned to Walnut Ridge that Sunday, nearly 300 people were waiting, to their surprise. And thus, Walnut Ridge became the only Arkansas community the Beatles visited, if only for a short time.
In recent years, Walnut Ridge has embraced the Beatles history. There is a life-size sculpture of the Beatles as they appear on the “Abbey Road” album. Nearby, the Guitar Walk, a 115-foot-long by 40-foot-wide guitar based on John Lennon’s Epiphone Casino, honors musicians that played along the historic Highway 67. Each September, the city hosts the Beatles at the Ridge festival. Businesses and storefronts throughout Walnut Ridge now sport Beatles signs, collages and caricatures year-round. Head to the Lawrence County Library and take in a portion of The Argenta Collection, a photographic exhibit containing 229 images of John, Paul, George and Ringo, that was donated to the city of Walnut Ridge in 2015. It is believed to be one of the largest collections in the world, and many of the images have never been presented in a public display. The photographs are on rotating display at the library throughout the year. The historic downtown offers a great variety of shops and restaurants.