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The phone rang early one morning. On the other end of the line was state Rep. Michael John Gray of Augusta, the chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party. Even though we're in an election year, the subject wasn't politics.

No, the conversation was about far more important subjects--traveling Arkansas and eating at quality restaurants. Many of those who follow Arkansas politics were surprised in the spring of 2017 when Gray was selected to succeed Vince Insalaco as the Democratic Party chairman. With rural Arkansans increasingly voting Republican since the 2010 elections, the conventional wisdom was that Democrats would find their chairman in a liberal enclave such as Little Rock or Fayetteville. In Gray, the party chose the kind of rural Southern Democrat that was commonplace for most of the 20th century. Gray is a farmer with a law degree, a founding member of the Arkansas Peanut Growers Association, a member of the Woodruff County Farm Bureau and a proud member of the First United Methodist Church of Augusta.

Gray had read my essay on the cover of this newspaper's Sunday Perspective section, which was about taking U.S. 70 rather than truck-heavy Interstate 40 between Little Rock and Memphis.

"You should have mentioned taking Highway 64 from Bald Knob over to Marion," he said. "It's only about 10 miles farther than taking the interstate when you come up Highway 67 and get off at Bald Knob. It's more peaceful, and it's strawberry shortcake season at the Bulldog."

I admitted that even though the U.S. 70 story made for interesting research, the Bald Knob-to-Marion route is indeed my preferred way to get to Memphis. Even when it's not strawberry shortcake season, there's always something good to eat at the Bulldog, which has been around long enough now to be considered an Arkansas classic. Food and travel writer Kat Robinson notes that the restaurant "was opened in 1978 by Bob Miller, who raised the money for his fledgling enterprise by working summers during high school and college on a pipeline. He spent his first two years after college working on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Other restaurants had operated in the building. They had all failed, but Miller was determined to succeed. He even took on the name of the last restaurant that tried to make it there. The Bulldog, after all, refers to the Bald Knob High School mascot."

Miller began using his grandmother's recipe to make the shortcake, and word spread across the state. There also are homemade pies.

Gray also mentioned two places near U.S. 64, the Tamale Factory at Gregory and Uncle John's at Crawfordsville.

The Tamale Factory was opened several miles south of Augusta on Arkansas 33 in November 2012 by George Eldridge, the famed proprietor of Doe's Eat Place in downtown Little Rock. Eldridge converted part of a horse barn into a restaurant. The Eldridge family home is on one side, and the family cemetery is on the other. People come from as far away as Little Rock and Memphis to eat tamales, shrimp and steaks (the menu is much like that at Doe's) on Friday and Saturday nights. If you look closely on the wall back by the men's room, you'll even see a framed copy of a column I wrote about the Tamale Factory.

I've always found dinners at the Tamale Factory to be like a big east Arkansas family reunion. Eldridge walks from table to table, visiting with the regulars. His stories are as much of an attraction as the food. During duck season, groups from the hunting clubs that are common in the area fill the room. The restaurant's website describes the scene this way: "Wear your favorite faded jeans or your hunting camouflage. Dress up a bit if the mood suits you. Anything pretty much goes along with the ambiance here."

Uncle John's, which is in an old building in downtown Crawfordsville, was founded by John and Lucille Marconi. The Marconis had seven children. When John Marconi died in 1994, his youngest son, Michael, took over the restaurant. Area farmers come for lunch, and people drive from miles around for dinner.

Robinson describes it this way: "A lone storefront with a field on one side and the hull of a long-dead business on the other. The door is metal and heavy, but inside you'll find the vestiges of many older restaurants--concrete floor, mismatched chairs and a host of local articles framed on the walls. ... John started out farming, but when business went sour in the 1990s, he turned to cooking for friends and family. The Marconis bought the restaurant from Lucille's sister, who was about to close it down. They started serving the family's Italian recipes along with hamburgers and cold sandwiches (and, on Fridays, catfish). Now, John didn't believe in advertising. He thought that if the food was good, people would come and share the word. He was right."

The only drawbacks I can think of on this route to Marion are the notorious speed traps at Parkin (which columnist Mike Masterson has been writing about) and Earle.

If time allows, stop at Parkin Archeological State Park, which preserves and interprets a Native American village that was along the banks of the St. Francis River from about A.D. 1000 to 1550. It's believed that Hernando de Soto's expedition stopped here in 1541, based on the European-made items recovered at the park and written descriptions of the village. Studies have revealed that a wooden palisade once surrounded the village. A large earthen mound still overlooks the river at one of the best preserved sites of its type in this part of the country.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 05/26/2018

Print Headline: Along Highway 64

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