Category Archives: Local History

Fayetteville Legends

Ronnie Hawkins, 1959. From his official website, http://www.ronniehawkins.com Toronto, Ontario Ron Scribner Agency, courtesy of Toronto Hawk Records

“I remember running the red light there,” Hawkins said, referring to Leverett at the top of Garland hill. “I had the daughter of one of the biggest lawyers in Arkansas with me, underage of course. We ran that red light. She did.”

Robert Cochran, interviewing Ronnie Hawkins: “I think I’ve heard that story. That’s where you switch places with her, so you’d take the hit.”

“Yes, I’d take the hit,” Hawkins said. “Pearl Watts was the sheriff. He smoked those old rolled Bull Durham tobaccos. He always had one a fraction of an inch long in the corner of his mouth, [smoke] going right up into his eye while he was interrogating you. Judge Packet said I was a menace to the highway, and I’d better straighten up… They were sitting right behind Leverett school. When we were going over that hill, we were in a hurry to get out to the university farm. That’s where everybody parked.”[1]

Hawkins was indeed in the company of an underage girl, none other than Marcia Perkins, daughter of Rex Perkins. Even though technically too young to hold a driver’s license, she drove a brand new 1956 red-and -white Chevy Bel-Air, courtesy of Rex’s close professional relationships with Fayetteville car dealers.

From Rex Perkins – A Biography:

“By the time Marcia was fourteen in 1955, she had developed a secretive months-long relationship with twenty-one-year-old Ronnie Hawkins, a fledgling star in the music world. Older sister Carole had started college, but Marcia had her own ideas about her future. One night, Marcia attended a slumber party and ended up on the phone with Hawkins. Whether the slumber party had been a strategic maneuver to give her a means to meet him is unknown. But the upshot was that she slipped out of the slumber party to join Hawkins at the golf course where he and other members of his popular group “Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks” were hanging out and jamming in what turned out to be an all-nighter.

“One version of this story claims that Roy Orbison was in town for this jam session, which wasn’t completely unusual. The early form of rock and roll (later named ‘rockabilly’) blossomed around Huntsville-native Hawkins and his friend Levon Helm, along with other members of this group. Other music notables who came to Fayetteville to jam with Hawkins and/or to play at a favorite nightspot, the Rockwood Club, included Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Conway Twitty.

“An acquaintance of Hawkins remembered those early years. ‘Ronnie was a natural athlete and a ‘Greek god’ of a life guard at the Wilson Park swimming pool. He understandably received lots of attention from a wide range of women.’[1]

“It was assumed that Marcia and Hawkins were sleeping together, although whether they were intimate during the night in question is not known. One of her slumber party friends confessed the story of Marcia slipping out to her mother, Jane McDonald. Jane told Georgia, Georgia told Rex, and the proverbial mess hit the fan. Marcia was Rex’s baby, Daddy’s little girl, and like most fathers in similar circumstances, Rex wasn’t prepared for another man in Marcia’s young life.

Rex Perkins

“As the story goes, even though fourteen was the legal age of consent at that time in Arkansas, a fired-up Rex gave the young man a choice: leave town or suffer my wrath. The result was that Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks made a hasty departure from the region. The official version of Hawkins’ life story states he began touring Canada (date unspecified) and later made it his home (1958), and that he ventured there on advice from Conway Twitty.[2]

“Contacted regarding this biography, Hawkins confirmed that Rex made certain threats. ‘Rex was the biggest lawyer ever in Fayetteville at that time,’ Hawkins stated. ‘I would have married her but I was afraid somebody was gonna kill me.’”[3]

If Marcia’s girlfriend hadn’t spilled the beans, Rex would have found out anyway. Pearl Watts knew Marcia’s car and would have made sure Rex knew that his daughter had been found in the company of that rock-and-roller Hawkins, flying through that stoplight.

~~~

[1] “Long on Nerve: An Interview with Ronnie Hawkins,” Robert Cochran and Ronnie Hawkins. The Arkansas Historical Quarterly Vol 65, No. 2 (Summer 2006) pp. 99-115.

[1] Scott Lunsford interview, by email June 26, 2014. Author’s notes.

[2] From there, the story of Hawkins’ group is well known to music buffs. After 1964, fellow-Arkansan Helm and other band members regrouped to form ‘The Band,” toured with Bob Dylan in 1965-66, and went on to fame and fortune. Hawkins continued his musical career to become a mentor to other musicians as well as an award-winning performer.

[3] Scott Lunsford interview, his email relating phone conversation with Ronnie Hawkins August 15, 2014. Author’s notes.

~~~

Rex Perkins: A Biography, by Denele Campbell. Available in ebook or paperback,

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Worlds Collide in One Man’s Heritage

One wonderful result of writing books is hearing from people who read them. Recently I heard from Jim Terry who was reading my collection of stories about 19th century murders in Washington County, Arkansas – Murder in the County. He wanted to know why a murder involving one of his ancestors wasn’t in the book. Once he gave me more information, it became clear that the murder involved members of the Cherokee tribe. That’s why it wasn’t in my book.

During those early years of Washington County, a steady traffic of bad actors flowed back and forth across the Arkansas-Indian Territory border. Cherokee lawmen attempting to make arrests in Indian Territory had no jurisdiction if the outlaw stood on the Arkansas side of the line. Similarly, federal marshals authorized out of Fort Smith were the only whites who had any jurisdiction in Indian Territory. Local lawmen like the Washington County sheriff couldn’t arrest anyone on Indian land. This made Evansville, Cane Hill, and other Washington County border towns hot spots for outlaw activity.

Jim’s ancestry includes a Cherokee outlaw named Isaac Gann, brother to a woman in Jim’s direct lineage. Not only that, Jim is directly descended from Susannah Harnage, an adopted child of the Harnage family, one of Washington County’s earliest settlers who was subsequently murdered. There’s an irony here and an interesting little story.

The earliest days of our county were fraught with the crisis of the Cherokee people, a powerful detached tribe of the Iroquoian family, formerly holding the whole mountain region of the south Alleghenies, in southwest Virginia, western North Carolina and South Carolina, north Georgia, east Tennessee, and northeast Alabama, and claiming even to the Ohio River. By the turn of the 19th century, increasing pressure by white settlers led to efforts by the federal government to force their move. Despite winning a case in the U. S. Supreme Court confirming they held an inalienable right to their lands, the Cherokee were forced to leave by President Andrew Jackson.

Previous to their removal, Cherokee had adopted much of the cultural amenities of the whites and intermarried with European settlers. This was the case of Ambrose Harnage, later a Washington County resident in the area near Cane Hill. Harnage, an ambitious, educated Englishman with clear leadership skills, married a Cherokee woman and built a large dwelling that served as a residence, public inn, and tavern. Located on the north Georgia federal road, the inn was built around 1805 and was designated a federal post office in 1819, earning the location its name of Harnageville.

After the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Harnage and others faced increasing pressure to abandon their property. He and other white men who had intermarried with Cherokee women negotiated for the best possible terms and made the move to new land in what is now Oklahoma. Upon their departure, Georgia passed a law to establish Cherokee County where Harnage’s tavern was chosen as a meeting place to conduct the business of court and county government.

In 1815, another white man, William H. Hendricks, had built his homestead near the Harnage home and married a full-blood Cherokee woman named Sokinny. She and her brother Youngdeer were orphaned at an early age and Sokinny was later adopted by the Harnage family where she was given the name Susannah Harnage. Whether this is the same Harnage family as Ambrose is not proven.

In 1832, William and Susannah/Sokinny Hendricks and the Ambrose Harnage family moved west, part of the first wave of Cherokee accepting the government’s offer to relocate in exchange for logistical and financial assistance for the move. Typically, extended families and neighbors moved to new territories as a group suggesting a close connection between the Ambrose Harnage family and Susannah/Sokinny.  After 1836, the Cherokee who had initially refused the removal order (Indian Removal Act of 1830) were forced west on the so-called Trail of Tears.

Also among Jim Terry’s ancestors was a woman named Ruth Gambold Gann, sister to Isaac Gann and two other siblings. Thanks to Jim’s research into his heritage, the rest of this odd irony comes to light.

In June 1847, twenty-year-old Isaac Ferguson Gann mustered in as private to Captain Enyart’s Company, Arkansas Mounted Infantry, at Fort Smith.  Military service provided a small monthly stipend as well as regular meals, and was the fallback option for many young men without other opportunities. His military records include one from January 12, 1848, that states “deserted from camp near Mier, Mexico, taking holsters and pistols belonging to the government.” Also, the muster roll for June 23, 1848, at Camargo, Mexico, lists him as “deserted.”

Thereafter, Isaac became an outlaw, partnering with a man named Ellis “Creek” Starr. They were active in the Cherokee Nation and Washington County, Arkansas.

Creek was among several members of the Starr clan, a Cherokee family notorious for whiskey, cattle, and horse thievery in the Indian Territory. If the “Starr” name sounds familiar, it’s because by the late 1800s, the family name had become famous for its association with Belle Starr, originally Maybelle Shirley.

In 1880 [after the death of her first husband Jim Reed], she [married] a Cherokee man named Sam Starr and settled with the Starr family in the Indian Territory. There, she learned ways of organizing, planning and fencing for the rustlers, horse thieves and bootleggers, as well as harboring them from the law. Belle’s illegal enterprises proved lucrative enough for her to employ bribery to free her cohorts from the law whenever they were caught.

In 1883, Belle and Sam were arrested by Bass Reeves, charged with horse theft and tried before “The Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker’s Federal District Court in Fort Smith, Arkansas; the prosecutor was United States Attorney W. H. H. Clayton. She was found guilty and served nine months at the Detroit House of Corrections in Detroit, Michigan. Belle proved to be a model prisoner and during her time in jail she won the respect of the prison matron, while Sam was more incorrigible and was assigned to hard labor.

In 1886, she escaped conviction on another theft charge, but on December 17, Sam Starr was involved in a gunfight with Officer Frank West. Both men were killed, while Belle’s life as an outlaw queen—and what had been the happiest relationship of her life—abruptly ended with her husband’s death.[1]

Jim Reed and Belle at their marriage 1866

Belle’s first husband Jim Reed was killed in Texas in the aftermath of the Civil War. Reed was friends with the Starrs which was how Belle became acquainted with them. After Belle’s murder in 1889, her daughter Rosie “Pearl” Reed-Starr built a tidy little home at Winslow where she sojourned in between stints at operating her houses of ill repute in Van Buren and Fort Smith.

Long before the heyday of Belle or Pearl Starr, Ellis “Creek” Starr alongside Isaac Gann pursued their own outlaw ways. An 1848 write-up in the Cherokee Advocate, Tahlequah, provides more insight into the efforts of the Cherokee Nation to address such criminal gangs:

We learn that a meeting composed of the persons engaged in the recent killing in Flint District, and a numbers of others, was held at the Court House of said district, some days since, for the purpose of adopting certain measures in relation to that affair.

A series of resolutions, commendatory of what has already been done, and urging the importance of freeing the country of the following persons, to wit: — Thos. Starr, Jas. Starr, Creek Starr, Wm. Starr, Ezekiel Rider, Shadrach Cordery, Isaac Gann, and Tre-gi-ske and Ult-tees-kee, were passed.

Writs have been taken out for the above-named persons. Several companies were organized to cooperate with the whites. These companies are actively engaged in scouting the country. We learn that a deputation was sent down, on last Tuesday, to advise the Executive upon the late proceedings, also with a reply to his protest. A second meeting has been held since this interview with the Executive, and we learn that the whole matter will soon be laid before the public.

From the evidence before us, we are under the necessity of disapproving, heartily, a part of the proceedings of our fellow citizens. Ellis Starr, Wash Starr, and John Rider, it is true, were once engaged openly in the most fiendish deeds that ever characterized any set of men, but by the treaty of 1846, though out-laws, they were pardoned—and by that act were again placed upon an equality with other citizens. And if they have since been guilty of misdemeanor, the law should be pushed against them, — and if, after the most ample opportunity has been afforded to test its efficacy, it should prove inadequate, then, though extremely humiliating to a regularly organized Government, the people may take upon themselves the management of affairs.

We learn that one of the companies above named surprised Creek Starr and Isaac Gann, the supposed murderers of the woman who was killed near Evansville [Washington County, Arkansas] on the 27th ult., at a dance in Washington Cove [probably a misprint of Washington County], Ark., some days since. Gann was killed in the attempt to arrest him. Creek Starr was made prisoner. On the return of the party with him, to the Nation, he made his escape—was fired upon, but supposed, only slightly wounded.[2]

Another source, the Van Buren newspaper Arkansas Intelligencer, reports on this murder in their June 12, 1848, edition.

Foul Murder – Creek Starr and Isaac Gann, half-blood Cherokees, killed a Cherokee woman near Evansville, on the 27th. Gann is a deserter from Capt. Enyart’s company of volunteers, now in Mexico.

This was the murder not included in my book.

This is where the murder of Ambrose Harnage joins the story.  Evidently with a history of seeing himself as a liaison between the Cherokee nation and whites, Harnage gave incriminating evidence against men accused of participating in the notorious 1839 Wright family murders at Cane Hill where a nighttime assault killed the father and several children and burned the family cabin to the ground. Initially, these murders were blamed on Indians. But Harnage overheard conversations between white neighbors that he reported to a committee investigating the murders. Several white men some believed innocent were subsequently hanged.

Whether Harnage’s report led to his murder is not known. No one saw his murder and all “evidence” was based on supposition leading to the accusation of a Cherokee named John Work for the crime. Many loose ends about Work’s supposed guilt for Harnage’s murder remain unresolved.

Harnage was also a close friend to Major John Ridge, a Cherokee leader who had signed the federal agreement to remove to new lands in Indian Territory, thereby earning the enmity of those in the tribe who didn’t agree with the removal act. In June 1839, Ridge spent the night at Harnage’s home before traveling south along the Line Road. En route, Ridge was assassinated.

Harnage’s friendship and influence on Ridge may have earned him a death warrant among the Cherokee. In the investigation of Harnage’s murder, which occurred in 1841, one line of inquiry yielded possible evidence of Gann’s involvement.

[John] Work wished to kill Dr. F. and John [George Ambrose] Harnage and leave the country. In watching the movements of Dr. F., he learned that he fed a lot of hogs near a thicket once every day about the same hour. He told Jake to steal the doctor’s fine mare and a bridle and saddle and to bring them to him a certain night, that he would kill the Dr. the next day and leave the country, leaving Harnage to Mat Feating or Isaac Gann.[3]

Major John Ridge

Whether it was Gann or the man ultimately arrested for the offense, John Work, who killed Harnage, the point is the peculiar heritage of Jim Terry. In his person, he juxtaposes the lineages of Gann and the adopted daughter of Harnage.

Was Ambrose Harnage’s murder a result of his close involvement with the Cherokee chief John Ridge or revenge for the Wright family murder hangings? Was Gann his killer?

Because Gann and Starr’s murder of the Cherokee woman fell under tribal jurisdiction, the records never appear in Washington County archives. No one can say how many other similar murders there might have been. This is just one of many stories whose tangled details have forever vanished with the passage of time. My thanks to Jim Terry for bringing this particular episode to light.

~~~

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belle_Starr

[2] Cherokee Advocate, June 19, 1848.

[3] “A Man Named John Work,” Murder in the County. Denele Campbell 2017. 77

Award Winning Article!

I am pleased to announce that I have been awarded the 2018 Walter J. Lemke prize by the Washington County Historical Society for my article on Jesse Gilstrap. The article will appear in the Fall edition of Flashback, the Society’s quarterly journal.

In 1852, Jesse Mumford Gilstrap settled in Washington County, Arkansas, with his wife and three children. He had ventured to the county earlier; his first child was born here in 1848. An adventurous and passionate young man, in 1850 Gilstrap had trekked westward to join the gold rush while his wife awaited him at her family home near Carthage, Missouri. Back from his adventure and a few dollars richer, he returned to Washington County where he immediately invested some of his earnings in a partnership in one of the county’s earliest mills. In 1856, took full ownership. Then as the winds of war heightened, Jesse spoke out on behalf the Union cause. In 1862, he gathered a company of fellow patriots to form the first company of the 1st Arkansas Cavalry. Jesse went on to serve in the state senate before his untimely death in 1869.

Jesse’s story tumbled out of my research for my new release, The West Fork Valley: Environs and Settlement Before 1900. As I studied early settlers, then the first mills, then the Civil War, Jesse’s name kept popping up. It was a pleasure to connect with a descendant who provided photographs and more details about this man and his family.

I consider Jesse the real winner of this award. I am only the messenger.

West Fork Valley — New Release!

Riverside Park, West Fork. Perfect display of how the river has shaped the land, creating high bluffs and rich bottom land.

I moved into the West Fork Valley in 1973. I had no previous experience here except, as a child, one train ride from Fort Smith to Fayetteville circa 1952 and then passing back and forth from Fort Smith to Fayetteville during the 1950s in our 1949 Chevy (and later our 1954 Chevy). Driving Highway 71 in those days provoked high tension whether we had to pull over to wait out a driving rainstorm or creep along due to impenetrable fog or shudder as big trucks zoomed past.

Mount Gayler provoked an outcry from me and my younger sister—could we stop and have pie at Burns Gables? Could we ride the train? Only one time that I remember did the journey involve stopping for a train ride, a thrilling dash along the tracks circling the pond, wind in my hair, grinning as the high-pitched whistle blew. Another time we sat around a table at Burns Gables to savor a slab of delicious pecan pie.

The landscape of high mountains and sheer cliffs made its mark in my memory. For years my amateur drawings portrayed hills of the same height marching off into the distance in ever faded color. I never understood why it seemed mountains should look that way until, as an adult, I took another look at the profile of the Boston Mountains framing the West Fork valley.

Passing through West Fork on our way north marked the last hurdle before finally reaching Fayetteville, but the only thing that lodged in my memory about the place was the rock “tourist court” along the highway. Then the green-and-white rotating light flashed through the sky at the Fayetteville airport, a magical sight in fog or rain. In those days on that two-lane narrow highway, the trip took nearly three hours.

Imagine my surprise when, in middle age, I discovered that I had ancestors buried at Brentwood and Woolsey! After the Civil War, my dad’s grandfather, Charles McDonald Pitts, moved from Johnson County, Arkansas, to the Brentwood area along with his mother Elizabeth and several brothers and their families. Charles’ mother and his first wife Easter (Parker) and newborn daughter Tennessee are buried at Brentwood as well as a young niece Eliza. Two brothers and some of their children are buried at Woolsey. Charles would remarry there, a local girl named Linnie Mae Rose who became my great-grandmother. The Pitts family moved away by 1900 to take up residence in the western part of the county.

Now, after nearly fifty years of living here, I can almost claim to be an old timer. But fifty years is nothing compared to the two hundred years of family heritage a few of the valley’s residents can claim. I wanted to know who came here first, who built these towns, what it was like to carve out a living in this rugged land. So I started digging.

The West Fork Valley, my new release, is what I found, a history of the watershed of the West Fork of White River, its natural wonders, its past, its people through 1900. It’s my great pleasure to announce this book to the world!

Visit the book page on this site for more information and purchase link.

REAL ID

Some of you may remember several days back when I ranted about expiring refrigerators and driver’s license issues. Turns out the driver’s license pursuit was a much bigger problem than I had imagined.

In years past, the impending expiration of a driver’s license triggered a notice from the state advising a person to go get a new one. No longer. You’re on your own now. Apparently, you’re supposed to just “know” when the four years or eight years are up on the current license. I’ll put that on my calendar for 2026.

In years past, one received notice, went to the local DMV, turned in the old license, grimaced through yet another horrible photo, and waited a bit to be handed the new one.

Well, I’ve got news for you.

When I went to DMV and took number 68, I heard them call number 6. Without hope, I glanced around the packed room and decided to follow the advice posted prominently by the stand dispensing numbers. There, a sign stated that a person could simply go online to renew a driver’s license. How genius!

Once home, I looked up the DMV website. I searched diligently, but nowhere on that site was there information about how to renew a license online. So I called. The guy said, no, no way to renew online. He thought I’d probably misread.

So okay. I explored further on the website and discovered that in Washington County, a person might visit satellite DMV offices at various places around the county. Woohoo! Aside from West Fork, the one nearest me, DMV operates at Springdale, Lowell, and Lincoln. How lovely!

Additional exploration of the website revealed that a stack of documentation would be required to renew a license. It seems Arkansas has embraced new federal rules, effective August 8, 2018, for identification cards and drivers’ licenses. As per the website: “The State of Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration will begin issuing new Driver’s License and Identification Cards in the summer of 2018. The new cards provide more security features.” and “The card with a GOLD STAR on the top right corner is an Arkansas REAL ID Driver’s License or State Identification card in compliance with Federal Real ID Act of 2005.”

Also, “Arkansas is taking part in the federal nationwide initiative to improve the security of state-issued driver’s licenses and identification cards, which will help fight terrorism and reduce identity fraud. On October 1, 2020, anyone who boards a domestic flight or enters a federal building will either need an Arkansas REAL ID driver’s license (DL) or Identification Card (ID), or will need to provide a regular identification and additional accepted forms of identification.”

The requirements for the new card are outlined at https://www.dfa.arkansas.gov/images/uploads/driverServicesOffice/

Req_Doc_for_VES_color_version.pdf. A total of five documents are required, six if your name has ever changed (as in marriage): state-issued birth certificate including raised seal, secondary proof of identity, proof of name change (if any) such as a marriage license,  proof of social security number, and two proofs of residency.

So I dug around in my files, collected the documents, and next morning breezed down to the address given, 222 Webber Street, West Fork. It’s the community center. Locked up tighter than a drum, no lights on. No signs on either door about DMV.

Steamed, I left early the next morning for the Fayetteville office. It was pouring rain, so surely only a few people would be there. Wrong. The place was packed. I took a number, waited a half hour, then asked someone why they advertised a West Fork office if it wasn’t open. She said, “Oh, they’re only open on Wednesday.”

Oh, is this secret insider knowledge? I didn’t even bother to ask why there wasn’t a sign on the door at West Fork stating that information. I didn’t ask why the Fayetteville office had a sign posted saying that driver’s licenses could be renewed online when they absolutely could not. I double checked the sign, just to make sure. Yes, there it was in plain English.

On Wednesday, I went to West Fork, waited for the three people ahead of me, and then went into the office where a very nice attendant explained that the new REAL ID cards were only issued at the Fayetteville office. He said he just needed my driver’s license. He asked if I wanted to renew for four or eight years. I renewed for eight.

All through the next eight years, I won’t have a REAL driver’s license. I have no idea if this means I’ll be turned away from the airport if I should decide to go somewhere, but at this point, I don’t care.

I did go back and look at the website about satellite offices. There, one line up from the bottom, appeared the information on hours. Office Hours: W 8:00a – 4:30p

I guess it was too much trouble to write WEDNESDAY only instead of just “W.”

I feel so much safer now.

Cowardly Arkansas

Nearly two years ago, Arkansas voters passed a constitutional amendment that granted sick and dying people legal access to marijuana. Soon after, the Arkansas legislature waded in to introduce a flurry of bills whose sole intention was to throw every possible obstacle into the path of this amendment’s implementation.

Worse, even after the legislature settled back and allowed the amendment to move forward, tangled amateurish administrative and regulatory processes resulted in lawsuits, further delaying legal medical use.

The outcome has been a circus of not-so-funny setbacks for over 5,000 patients already qualified for this medicine. Now the earliest estimated date for the availability of medical marijuana is summer 2019. Even more egregious, the amendment does not allow for the use of clones from already growing plants, meaning months will elapse between the planting of seeds and any harvestable crop.

This outrageous delay and its collateral damage rests at the feet of every elected official now holding the power to jumpstart this program. Even though the amendment requires that marijuana for medical use be produced in this state, the time has come for the governor and/or legislators to introduce an emergency measure to import marijuana from any of the other 29 legal medical marijuana states in order to provide for credentialed patients until such time Arkansas can scrape its sorry act together.

Research continues to show that cannabis is effective for seizures, spasms, nausea, PTSD, and pain. A New Mexico study found that 84% of patients who received access to medical cannabis reduced their opioid prescriptions. Israeli researchers discovered that smoking cannabis improved many of the symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease. Another study found that cannabis substituted for prescription medications in 63% of patients. [1] There’s no shortage of proof that marijuana provides relief for a variety of chronic and acute medical conditions.

What is the point of forcing Arkansas people to continue suffering?

Who among our elected leaders has the courage to provide for Arkansas people as this amendment intended?

Governor Hutchinson, do you not care about the people you pledged to protect and serve?

~~~

[1] Citations at https://www.leafly.com/news/health/the-top-medical-cannabis-studies-of-2017

Works of Man and Nature

A few days ago I headed out to explore a road I’d never been down before. It’s less than fifteen minutes from where I live and in my current work-in-progress on the history of the West Fork valley, the road is mentioned often. I thought I should see it.

I was not prepared for what I found there.

Winn Creek Road. Named after the creek and Zadock Winn, a man who drowned there back in the early days of settlement. Other Winns established homesteads up that valley, too, and maybe the road took that name before Zadock drowned back in 1852. The road veers off southwest from Woolsey Road south of West Fork amid wide flat pastures framed on either side by steep, thickly-wooded hillsides.

You know you’re getting to the good part when you see the “Pavement Ends” sign. The road narrows. You slow down as tires hit the gravel and a cloud of dust rises behind you. The valley attenuates to its essential elements and tree canopy encloses the roadway in welcome shade.

To the right, the hillside rises sharply, its massive rock outcroppings mostly hidden in dense undergrowth and hardwood forest. I imagine how it must have looked to the first man to blaze this path, hacking his way through brambles and vines. I imagine how he eagerly awaited the next curve of the creek as it curled through the 30-foot deep ravine to the left, perhaps thirsty, perhaps eager to splash water on his sweaty neck.

Creeks were the roads before roads, paths cleared by regular torrents where in times of low water, man or beast could walk without fear of ambush by tick or cougar. Infinite generations of rocks large and small line the creek bottom. Pale brown, gray, occasionally black where the roaring water has undercut shale, limestone and sandstone claim the greater share of the lithic congregation. I pass a few houses, some buried on deeply wooded hillsides with “No Trespassing” signs at the driveway, others laid out alongside barns and white graveled drives.

The valley and its waterway curl under the dominating rise of these northern slopes of the Boston Mountains. Here and there ancient landslides or silted bends form little meadows suitable for a house, a garden, even pasture. I drive along watching the land slowly rise as I pass further south. I think of pioneers who claimed these places as their own, the long process of clearing fields to plant their wheat, corn, oats, cotton, and tobacco. I think of their log cabins, the children they raised, perhaps descendants living here still.

I’m immersed in the past when travel through places that required heavy wagons pulled by mules or a faithful horse to pick its way across the rugged land. I think of the millennia before white men, when Natives crept through the underbrush watching buffalo herds graze. I think of the millions of years it has taken this tiny place on our planet to form, primeval seas that covered the land then receded, the rush of glacial melt carving its way through countless layers of primordial continent with its fossils of all that came before.

Finally the road and creek bed approach the same level. I could stop, walk past a broken down fence line, and wade. I could sit and watch the water sparkle in sunlight as it rushes along its path.

I round a last curve and stop mid-breath. My heart leaps into my throat.

A surreal scene spreads across the narrow valley. My mouth falls open in shock. I’m instantly transported to a science fiction world. It’s almost more than I can take in.

There, straddling the stream and rising so high I must lean forward to see the top, are massive square steel pillars that hold up Interstate 49. The juxtaposition of the interstate and its structural supports against the backdrop of this venerable wild landscape is almost too much to absorb.

I stop, take pictures, try to come to terms with this bizarre reality. I examine the way the highway engineers planned to use the upper canyon wall as a launching pad for the roadway to fly across this valley. I study the exposed layers of earth and stone cut over countless eons by this now-trivial stream, laid bare as if pages of a book waiting to be read.

Not so trivial, even now, it seems. Evidence of raging flood mark the edge of the roadway, grass twisted and brown with silt, knots of weed tangled in fences. I think of Zadock Winn who believed he could cross even though the water foamed and seethed in its torrent. I thought of how, in all things, Nature will always win.

She will win here, too. For now, traffic clatters and roars far above my head, the steady drumming of tires, the regular lub-dub lub-dub as one after another vehicle crosses each section. Some bracing rattles more loudly than others, perhaps already loosening from its original moorings. There is no peace in this valley.

I drive on. Another quarter mile up the road, the creek takes a ninety-degree bend, providing me the fullest view of its intrinsic beauty.

I peer down from the road where it hugs the hillside forty feet above the water. This is the widest point of its course, ornamented in sparkling ridges as layer upon layer of rock gradually step down through the curve. I can almost hear children laughing as they splash and play in the shallow cool water.

Ahead, if I ventured another three miles or so, I’d arrive at Highway 74 where a left turn would take me to Winslow or a right turn would drop me into the wonderland of Devil’s Den State Park. I turn around and go back the way I came.

I drive home slowly, jarred from my normal frame of mind. The experience of that creek and its valley remains an arresting memory I won’t soon forget. It compares with the best stories I’ve seen or read where astonishing realities intersect with the commonplace. The interstate and its undergirding simply do not belong in that landscape.

Yet I’m twenty plus years past any of this being new. Surely the people who lived here during construction grew familiar with the mind-boggling scale of the interstate’s design. Surely the workers laboring day after day through the pouring of concrete and operation of massive cranes to erect these towers saw their labor as being rooted in the ground. It is rooted in the ground. No doubt the foundations for these support towers are driven deep into the strata far below the creek bed.

I wonder how long it will stand, this high-flying roadway built to accommodate a life lived too fast for contemplation of creek bottoms and tumbled rocks. How many decades will these pillars remain? I imagine a future time when only the towers still stand, the path for vehicles long since rusted and crumbled by the forces of weather, traffic, and time. How much of the concrete will fall to this scenic valley? What will it look like here in a hundred years, a mere blink in geologic time?

I’m disappointed in my words and even the photographs to adequately describe my visceral experience of this location. It’s worth the drive to put yourself there, to stand staring up at the work of man while surrounded by the work of Nature. Questions of time, space, and existence arise spontaneously. Of our place in the continuum, of what the future might hold.