Road trip to Helena

By giftshop  |  July 5, 2017  | 

Road trip to Helena
Written by Boyce Upholt
Photography by Austin Britt
  In the 1880s in his book Life in the Mississippi, Mark Twain called Helena “one of the prettiest situations” on the river. Helena had grown from rough beginnings in the 1820s as a tiny cotton-and-timber town—known as a rough-and-tumble den of gamblers and thieves—into a fine river port, a key stopover for the steamboats that Twain so loved. By 1861, when Arkansas seceded from the Union, Helena boasted about 1,500 residents, making it the state’s largest riverside town.

That fact made it a tempting target for Union forces, who seized the city the following year. The Union Army built a fortification, called Fort Curtis, taking advantage of the protection of nearby Crowley’s ridge. A summer later, on July 4,1863, the Confederates decided to attack the fortress, a supply depot for General Grant’s campaign against Vicksburg, which was under siege on the very same day. The Battle of Helena was a desperate bid, and suffered from lackluster reconnaissance. The Confederates managed to take one of the fort’s four batteries, but were quickly repulsed when they moved on the main grounds.

Helena, like much of the South, rattled through its ups and downs after the Civil War but just as the Delta on the river’s east side eventually flourished, Helena did, too.

The city’s most famous legacy began in 1941. When a local businessman launched a radio station, bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson suggested he include a blues show. The owner agreed to the idea—so long as Williamson could find a sponsor. After Williamson hooked up with a local grocery company, history was made.

The King Biscuit Radio Hour, named for a local brand of flour, was an immediate hit. In fact sales of the flour increased so much at the time they inspired a second brand: “Sonny Boy Cornmeal,” whose logo depicted the bluesman sitting atop an ear of corn. The daily broadcast could be heard eighty miles away, deep into the Mississippi Delta. B.B. King has said he would tune in each day on his plantation lunch break; drummer Levon Helm, who lived nearby, would sometimes rush through lunch so he could watch Williamson and his band in the original studio. The show continues today—making it the longest-running daily radio show in the country—and it is still hosted by legendary host Sonny “Sunshine” Payne, who rose from radio station janitor to take over the show in 1951.

The show is broadcast from the Visitor’s Center of the Delta Cultural Center. This collection of buildings includes a grocery store built in 1905, the historic train depot and new construction, which though ninety years younger fits right into historic Cherry Street, the lifeline of the city. And this is indicative of the latest iteration of Helena history: new energy is returning.

A quick pass through downtown underscores the progress underway. Refurbished buildings, thriving shops and restaurants, attractive outdoors spaces, and hip downtown apartments line the streets. Arts and education are also flourishing. KIPP Delta, a charter school network that consistently ranks as one of the best school districts in Arkansas, was founded in 1992 and now serves 1,500 students and includes six schools in the area. Up the block from their offices is Thrive, a unique nonprofit design firm founded by Will Staley and Terrance Clark. Though they are really much more than a design firm: they have helped launch a business incubator, and sponsor the monthly downtown Cherry Street fair. Now Thrive is bringing artists-in-residence in to work with local schools and summer programs, helping students with projects such as painting murals downtown which are brightening this quickly revitalizing district.

So nearly two-hundred years after its founding, as new businesses fill its historic storefronts, tourists explore Civil War landmarks, and festivals draw thousands of music enthusiasts, it seems this little riverside outpost still offers a “pretty situation”, just as Twain once wrote.

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