The Mellwood Grocery is a step back in time. In a building that's decades old (no one there could give me the exact year it was built), there's a remnant of the country stores that once dotted rural Arkansas. Such places are increasingly rare.
Mellwood is an unincorporated community in southern Phillips County. It's on Arkansas 44, which leaves Helena and winds south past the Mississippi River oxbow known as Old Town Lake and the communities of Lake View and Wabash.
With the Mississippi River levee just to the east, the road continues through Elaine, Mellwood, Lundell and Crumrod before ending at Snow Lake, the most isolated place in Arkansas.
The average Arkansan would guess that the most isolated community is in the Ozarks or Ouachitas, but instead it's in the Delta. This is the only highway into Snow Lake, which is in Desha County. To reach the Desha County seat of Arkansas City, it takes almost two hours of driving.
To the south of Snow Lake, the Arkansas and White rivers empty into the Mississippi. To the east, there's the Mighty Mississippi. To the west are the tangled remains of what once was known as the Big Woods, now part of the White River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). This is wild country.
If Snow Lake is the end of the world, you can at least see it from Mellwood. I'm here at the invitation of Hal Hunnicutt and Leo Crafton of Conway, who have hunted deer and duck in this area for years. Hunnicutt, a longtime lobbyist and governmental affairs expert, and Crafton, a dentist, became members at a young age of Whiskey Chute, one of the state's most historic hunting clubs.
In the back of the grocery store are three large tables where farmers and other area residents gather for lunch. Crafton immediately orders the sandwich named for him, the Leo's Special, which is grilled turkey and cheese. Hunnicutt has brought his own sweet potatoes in a paper sack so the cook can prepare us sweet potato fries. It's obvious these guys are regulars. A man and young boy wrestle on the floor next to us, providing entertainment during lunch.
Though the club is known as Whiskey Chute, its official name is Blytheville Hunting Club. Both Mellwood and Blytheville are in the Delta, but one is in the south and the other is in the north. They're 152 miles apart. To understand how this happened, one must understand the history of hunting in Arkansas.
During the first half of the 20th century, deer were rare in this state. The best place to find them in those days was in the thick bottomland hardwoods near where the Arkansas and White empty into the Mississippi. The area also had the last remaining native bear population in a state that once had so many of them it was known as the Bear State.
Blytheville was booming during that period. Cotton was king, and Mississippi County was said to grow more of it than any county in the country. Wealthy cotton growers and merchants from Blytheville had the time and money to make the long trip to hunt in southeast Arkansas.
At first, they pitched tents and camped. In 1948, they bought some land. The following year, convict labor (the club members had political connections) was used to build a clubhouse on stilts that still stands. The wooden floor came from barracks that were at a World War II base in Mississippi County.
The clubhouse once slept 30 people. Members these days spend the night in mobile homes that are scattered across the property. The clubhouse is still used for Saturday night meals. The photos on the wall tell a lot about the history of the place. Duck hunting spots have names like the Beaver Dam Hole and the Middle Hole.
Whiskey Chute (its real name is Cypress Bayou) runs next to the clubhouse. Most current club members hail from Conway, though the adjacent Lost Lake Club still has Blytheville members. The Blytheville Hunting Club owns 1,096 acres for deer and duck hunting. The crappie fishing is excellent on nearby oxbows, and the bear population thrives, meaning that garbage cans must be covered.
After leaving the club, we drive north along the White River levee and see deer, coyotes and other wildlife along the way. The only other people we spot are those fishing on oxbows just outside the levee. We're bordering the White River NWR, which covers more than 160,000 acres in Phillips, Desha, Monroe and Arkansas counties. The refuge is among the oldest in the country, having been created in 1935.
Minnesota is known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but this area of southeast Arkansas is also a land of lakes. White River NWR has 256 natural and man-made lakes covering a total of about 4,000 acres. It's best to go fishing with someone who knows the area since it's easy to get lost in the Big Woods, which has few roads.
The area to the east along Arkansas 44 has long since been cleared of hardwoods and now hosts the row-crop agriculture people now associate with the Delta.
"When Phillips County was established in 1820, its southern portion was dominated by swamplands and hardwood forests," writes Steven Teske of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. "Near Old Town Lake, an oxbow lake that had once been part of the Mississippi River, some small plantations were established, although they were less prosperous than the region's larger cotton plantations.
"After the Civil War, freed slaves continued to work on the plantations as tenant farmers. Levees and drainage projects improved farming prospects, but agriculture remained vulnerable due to weather and economic factors."
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.