From across the country, bright young people come to the Delta areas of Arkansas and Mississippi to work in public schools as part of the Teach for America program. Attracted to Lake Chicot, the largest oxbow lake in North America, and the restaurants near the lake, these students sometimes refer to Lake Village as the Hamptons of the Delta.
Lake Chicot, which runs 22 miles in a curve and covers almost 5,000 acres, was the place where Charles Lindbergh conducted his first night flight in 1923. Long before the huge reservoirs created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers covered much of Arkansas, Lake Chicot was a prime attraction. The Lake Chicot Water Festival once hosted the national championship hydroplane races. Now, it seems, Lake Village is experiencing somewhat of a renaissance.
People have been known to drive for hours to buy tamales from Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales, have dinner at The Cow Pen or the LakeShore Cafe, shop at the Paul Michael Co. or browse at Nonie’s Antiques.
I found the term “Hamptons of the Delta” in a short piece that ran last July on the website www.inarkansas.com. The piece was about Brianne Connelly, a Wisconsin native who came to Lake Village in 2007 with the Teach for America program.
“The sunsets over Lake Chicot are the prettiest I have ever seen,” she said.
She added this about her family members who came to visit Chicot County: “They love the sunshine, the weather, the beautiful sunsets, the slow pace and the extremely friendly people. They would definitely say the people of Arkansas are the most hospitable they’ve come across.”
I headed to Lake Village the week after Christmas with Tom DeBlack of Arkansas Tech University, the eminent Arkansas historian who’s writing a book about the Lakeport Plantation.
The plantation was established in the early 1830s by Joel Johnson, who came from a prestigious Kentucky family. By the time of his death in June 1846, Johnson owned more than 3,700 acres and 95 slaves.
His oldest son, Lycurgus Leonidas Johnson, received the biggest share of his estate. By 1860, Lycurgus Johnson owned more than 4,400 acres and 155 slaves.
In 1858-59, he began construction of a plantation home that faced east toward the Mississippi River. The plantation remained in the Johnson family until 1927 when it was sold to Sam Epstein for $30,000. Epstein, who had been born in Russia in 1875, was part of a large number of European Jews who came to the Delta.
When Epstein died in 1944, son-in-law Ben Angel took over the family operations. Ben Angel’s son, Sam Epstein Angel, now operates the Epstein Land Co. and its 13,000 acres. Sam Angel has long served as a member of the Mississippi River Commission. His son, also named Sam, formerly served in the Arkansas Legislature.
The Lakeport Plantation house was donated by the Angel family in 2001 to Arkansas State University. Following extensive renovations, the house opened to the public in September 2007.
On a bright winter afternoon, I was given the grand tour by Blake Wintory. Tours are given at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. each Monday through Friday. The home is 2.5 miles south of The Cow Pen (which is on U.S. 82 just before you cross the new bridge over the Mississippi River).
Turn right off U.S. 82 onto Arkansas Highway 142. You will see the home sitting in the middle of a cotton field next to the levee.
The website is lakeport.astate.edu.
If you wish to call ahead, the phone number is (870) 265-6031.
My suggestion for a fun day in the area:
– Take the 10 a.m. tour at Lakeport
– Have lunch with Miss Rhoda
– Visit Paul Michael, Nonie’s and other shops at Lake Village
– Cross the new bridge, drive into Greenville and browse at McCormick Book Inn. Walk through the adjacent cemetery afterward and find the Percy family plot
– Cross back into Arkansas and have dinner at The Cow Pen
Lake Chicot is one of this state’s most prominent natural features.
“Geologists estimate that Lake Chicot likely separated from the Mississippi River several centuries ago when the river cut a shorter pathway to the east,” Guy Lancaster writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The expedition of Hernando de Soto likely touched upon the site of the lake; after his death and burial near Lake Village, his body was exhumed and thrown into the Mississippi River. Many historians today believe that part of the river became Lake Chicot. … The lake was given its name by later French explorers, being derived from a French word meaning ‘stump,’ in reference to the many cypress knees that dot the shore.
“White settlement of the area began in the late 1820s. Before the Civil War, slave-driven agriculture flourished in the vicinity of Lake Chicot, originally called by American settlers Old River Lake. Most of the slaves worked on plantations situated in the vicinity of Lake Chicot, where they worked primarily on cotton.
“Sunnyside Plantation, to give one example, was founded in the 1830s on the inside of the C-shaped curve of the lake; in the 1890s, the plantation was the site of a large Italian immigrant community.
“In 1860, just before the Civil War, Chicot County slaves accounted for 7,512 of the total population of 9,234, or about 81 percent of the population. On June 6, 1864, Union and Confederate forces fought along the south shore of Lake Chicot in the Engagement at Old River Lake (also known as the Engagement at Ditch Bayou), the largest Civil War engagement to occur in the county and the last of any real significance in the state. Union forces succeeded in driving the Confederates away from the Mississippi River, thus making travel on the river relatively safe.”
The Great Flood of 1927 broke a dam on Connerly Bayou, which had prevented silt from washing into the lake. The lake began to fill up, and the water was no longer clear.
Bowing to pressure from the state’s attorney general, the local drainage district built a dam on Ditch Bayou in 1932 in an attempt to restore the lake to its previous condition. But increased clearing of the surrounding land for row-crop agriculture made problems worse.
Lancaster writes that the lower three-quarters of the lake, south of where Connerly Bayou enters, became “a polluted and sediment-laden waste, its muddy brown water in dramatic contrast with the bright blue of the upper part of the lake, which was isolated by an earthen dam constructed by the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission in 1948 precisely to protect that portion of the lake.
“In 1956, a concrete dam was constructed across Ditch Bayou in order to maintain the lake’s water level, but there were continuing problems with mud and silt entering the lake. The lake’s bass population died out as a result. However, the waters on the protected northern quarter proved a regional attraction, resulting in the creation of Lake Chicot State Park on the northern shore in 1957.”
In 1985, a pumping plant was completed to divert runoff around the lake. The Corps of Engineers drew down the lake that year to compact the sediment at the bottom and then seeded the lake with plants that would provide food for fish. The lake was restocked with game fish.
It was an amazing rebirth.
Lake Chicot is clear again and filled with bass, bream, catfish and crappie. That old sign at the entrance to downtown Lake Village — “The Home of Good Fishing,” it proclaims – once more rings true.
Lake Village has been the Chicot County seat since 1857. The city’s rich ethnic mix has come from the migration of Jews, Italians, Chinese and other groups to the Delta through the decades.
Austin Corbin, a New York businessman, bought the Sunnyside Plantation in 1886. In 1895, he made an agreement with the mayor of Rome to bring 100 Italian families to work on the plantation. A number of those families later moved to Tontitown in Washington County. Some stayed, though, and it’s still easy to find Italian surnames in the Lake Village phone directory.
The Hamptons of the Delta.
I like that nickname for this unique Arkansas town.
I like it a lot.
Rex Nelson, president of Arkansas’ Independent Colleges and Universities in Little Rock, regular columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and owner and operator of Rex Nelson’s Southern Fried.