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Secrets of Crowley’s Ridge

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

“Crowley’s Ridge?” my Arkansas friend exclaimed when I told her our destination. “There’s
nothing on Crowley’s Ridge. Why would you go there?” And indeed, after driving through the
splendor of the Arkansas Ozarks in full autumn color, we asked ourselves that very question
as we arrived at the northern end of this national scenic byway that runs along the eastern
side of the state. It was late October. The skies were gray and drizzled a chilly rain.
Even though it was only 2:30 in the afternoon as we pulled into Crowley’s Ridge State Park,
just west of Paragould, darkness was descending. Settling in with a cup of tea, we got out
all of our information on the 200-mile-long ridge that actually starts just below Cape
Girardeau, Missouri, and runs in a crescent shape down to Helena, Arkansas. The Crowley’s
Ridge Parkway Brochure, from the Arkansas Department of Tourism, has a very good map of the
historic route and lists the major sights along the way. (The state parks and attractions
mentioned in this article have these brochures available.) Crowley’s Ridge, named for
Benjamin F. Crowley, a Civil War soldier and early settler, rises 100 to 200 feet above the
rich Mississippi River delta flood plain. Only 12 miles across at its widest point, its
rolling hills and hardwood forests make it distinctly different from the flat lands of the
surrounding delta. Its unique formation has been the source of centuries-old Native
American lore. Making a list of the high points we wanted to see, we regained our
enthusiasm for the trip. We had chosen Crowley’s Ridge State Park for our first few nights,
figuring we could cover the northern end of the ridge in our dinghy from there. It was a
good choice. Open year-round, the camp’s interpretive programs and guided hikes provide
plenty to do. There is a small lake for swimming, and a 31-acre fishing lake offers a
chance to catch largemouth bass or catfish. Catfish is a big deal in Arkansas, and you
definitely want to try it while you are there. Reservations are accepted for campsites.
Crowley’s Ridge State Park has outstanding camping facilities, complete with water and
electricity at each campsite and a central dump, as do most of the state parks. A Golden
Age Pass brings deep discounts on an already good price of approximately $14 per night.
Visitor centers at the parks offer plenty of information on the surrounding regions.
Morning brought bright sunshine, so with cameras and plenty of film we set out to see if we
could discover just what is so special about Crowley’s Ridge. Though the national byways
map of the ridge shows a series of federal, state and county roads traversing it from north
to south, we also enjoyed taking the little side roads that branch from the main trunk.
Each turn took us past something tantalizing – old barns, homesteads and tiny towns with
picturesque old storefronts. We saw vast areas, softly mounded in ghostly forms, as kudzu
spread along the roadsides, covering trees and shrubs and, in some cases, old buildings
that stood in its way. We heard much about the fight to eradicate the kudzu, but also heard
another angle on it. Some folks think it should be kept as something unique to the area,
and also for the medicinal and cooking possibilities that are being explored. We thought it
was beautiful. We first drove north on U.S. Highway 49 through rice and cotton fields to
Chalk Bluff, on the west side of St. Francis, a tiny town on the St. Francis River right on
the border of Arkansas and Missouri. This is where the Arkansas portion of Crowley’s Ridge
begins. The golden yellow of autumn glowed through the hardwood forest as we walked the
short trail over the bluff to the river. Plaques along the way told of the battle between
Confederate and Union forces as Confederate Brigadier General John S. Marmaduke attempted
to cross the river into Missouri. Leaving Chalk Bluff, we turned west on County Road 341
and made the short jog over to Pumpkin Hollow, where an imaginative row of scarecrows
welcomed us to a large pumpkin patch. People of all ages strolled through the vast piles of
pumpkins and gourds and explored the haunted barn, where a fanciful Wizard of Oz display
enchanted viewers. Owners Darrell and Ellen Dalton provide all kinds of fun on their
300-acre farm, from cornfield mazes to pig races to hayrides. Returning to the historic
town of Piggott on U.S. 49, we stopped at the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum, the family home of
Earnest Hemingway’s second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer. Lovingly restored, this house reflects
the life of the Pfeiffers, a 1930s upper-class rural family, during the time Hemingway
spent there, writing a portion of Farewell to Arms in the barn that had been converted to a
studio for his use. It is open daily except Sundays; a donation is requested. Heading back
to our campsite at the state park, we drove through the old railroad town of Rector and
then through Paragould to see the 1888 Beaux Arts-style courthouse and the historic homes,
built in a variety of architectural styles. The next day, we traversed the region just
south of our campsite, first taking the time to photograph a wonderfully interesting
section of kudzu growing along State Route 228 to the west of the park. In Jonesboro, the
largest city along the ridge, we stopped at Arkansas State University Museum, a designated
visitor center for Crowley’s Ridge. Great historical displays gave us a better appreciation
of the region, and we highly recommend this museum, even though it is a bit of a struggle
to find parking on campus. We enjoyed driving through the downtown historical district,
exploring art galleries, then finding a little catfish joint for lunch. Continuing south
from Jonesboro on State Route 163, we encountered major patches of kudzu planted by the
Civilian Conservation Corps in 1936 in an unsuccessful attempt to stop soil erosion along
the roads. Our last stop for the day was the Parkin Archaeological State Park, eight miles
east of Route 163 on U.S. Highway 64. This interesting site is designated as a national
historic landmark and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Historians
believe this was the Native American village of Casqui, which was visited by Hernandez de
Soto in 1541. We took the boardwalk out among the mounds where the village once stood.
Plaques along the way made it easy to picture life as it was for this ancient Mississippian
culture. Inside the visitor center, interesting artifacts from the site, including the
pottery that was so unique to the region, are on display. It is open daily; a small fee is
charged. For the next leg of our journey, we drove down the ridge to Village Creek State
Park, just south of Wynne. This is another exceptionally nice park with water and
electrical hookups. Adjoining two lakes, fishing is a big attraction here. The first
Saturday in May is “Pickin’ Time,” when the park fills up with folks who sit around the
large grassy area, playing stringed instruments and singing. We spent several days there,
exploring Crowley’s Ridge from Wynne to Helena, where the ridge ends at the Mississippi
River. This is the delta country, and the era of the Old South seems like yesterday.
Remnants of peach orchards lie along county roads, and broad cotton fields stretch along
the highways. The machines that crawled through the fields, picking cotton and forming it
into giant bales, fascinated us. Fields that once relied on a multitude of slaves to spend
days picking that thorny stuff by hand were harvested in a matter of hours. Forrest City,
on State Route 1, has an interesting downtown. You won’t want to miss the St. Francis
County Museum located there; it houses some of the most significant prehistoric artifacts
that have been discovered along the ridge. Continuing south on Route 1, we drove alongside
huge fields and tufts of cotton swirled in the wind. Brick buildings, old and new, fill
most of the delta towns. Newer sections line major highways, but the parkway drive goes
through the interesting historic areas. At Marianna, we turned west on U.S. Highway 79 and
drove over to Louisiana Purchase State Park, where a monument marks the initial point for
surveys of the historic 1803 purchase. Unfortunately, the park was closed for the
construction of a new barrierfree boardwalk when we visited. Just outside the park, we
enjoyed photographing an old plantation house where restoration was just beginning. South
of Marianna, the ridge route takes State Route 44 through the St. Francis National Forest,
finally reaching the end of Crowley’s Ridge at the old town of Helena. This is a narrow
gravel road and, though you can travel the rest of the parkway with your motorhome, you
will not want to take it over this section. If you decide to drive your coach into Helena,
take State Route 1 instead. Once the major hub for trade along the Mississippi, Helena is
nearly a ghost town now. Situated on the shore of the river, it began as a cotton and
riverboat town. Gracious old mansions, many of them restored, fill the historic district.
We stopped to photograph the Pillow-Thompson home, one of the finest examples of Queen Anne
architecture in the South. The downtown area was nearly deserted as we walked along the
quiet streets, admiring the picturesque storefronts, most of which were vacant. A few have
been restored as gift and antique shops, and many are in the National Register of Historic
Places. The Delta Cultural Center, housed in an old train depot, contains photographs
depicting the history of pre-Civil War Helena. During the famed International King Biscuit
Blues Festival, sleepy little Helena swells to tens of thousands of people the October
weekend before Columbus Day. Then, every room is filled and people camp out in the park to
enjoy that fabulous music. As we walked out on the levee and watched barges lumbering up
the Mississippi, it was easy to imagine Helena as a thriving hub for trade along the river.
The streets would have been bustling with Southern gentleman in their top hats and ladies
in hoop skirts and bonnets. Riverboats, with their paddle wheels churning, would have been
pulling into the docks as workers toiled along the shoreline with cargo containers. Our
trip down Crowley’s Ridge was like a treasure hunt. The culture, the landscape and the
vivid contrasts were fascinating. There were no crowds; in fact, we were often the only
visitors at many of the sites we explored. These treasured landmarks seem to be secrets
even to many native Arkansas residents. Of course, we’ve only scratched the surface of the
many secrets along Crowley’s Ridge.

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