All Hail the Queen
Here’s a question for Arkansas-oriented trivia lovers. What do Martin Scorsese, Grapette sodas, Hernando de Soto and Camark Pottery have in common? The answer? Camden.
That’s right, Camden — the Queen City of the Ouachita River and the county seat of Ouachita County. This captivating community in LA (Lower Arkansas) is chock-full of surprises.
Let’s start with Martin Scorsese, among the most influential talents in the history of Hollywood with nine Academy Award nominations for Best Director. Scorsese showed up in Camden in 1971 at the tender age of 28 to direct his second film, Boxcar Bertha. Arriving days ahead of the cast, Scorsese scouted locations in and around town, personally drew some 500 storyboards for the film, and then tacked them to the walls of his motel room. That advance preparation allowed him to complete shooting within 24 days and work within his $600,000 budget. Starring Barbara Hershey and David Carradine and released in 1972, the movie is not generally considered one of Scorsese’s best works. But it got the attention of film critic Roger Ebert, the renowned reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times, who gave it three out of four stars. “Boxcar Bertha is a weirdly interesting movie,” Ebert wrote, and described Scorsese as “one of the bright young hopes of American movies,” perhaps one of the most prophetic comments you’ll ever read.
Now, on to Grapette — and Benjamin Tyndle Fooks. Fooks, a graduate of Camden High School, started in the lumber industry but changed careers in 1926 when he purchased a soft-drink bottling plant in Camden. The Great Depression waylaid plans for expanding his bottling empire, so he began selling his unique “Fooks Flavors” to other bottlers, at one time offering 150 different varieties. Noticing that customers favored grape-based concoctions, Fooks set his sights on developing the world’s best grape flavor. A year or two later, after perfecting the distinctive taste, he found the ideal name: Grapette. Unfortunately, a Chicago businessman owned the copyright. Undeterred, Fooks traveled to the Windy City by train, bought the trademarked name, and began producing Grapette in Camden in 1940. An immediate success, the drink was soon available across most of the country, with more than 300 bottlers in 38 states supplying the tasty beverage. By the 1990s, competition, consolidation and declining market share nearly brought an end to Grapette. But in 2005, Walmart began selling Grapette nationwide through an exclusive arrangement, bringing joy to thousands of fans (although it’s no longer bottled in Camden). For those interested in a personal pilgrimage to Fooks’ grave, he’s buried in Camden’s Greenwood Cemetery.
As for Hernando de Soto and Camden, there are a couple of schools of thought. Given that his journey occurred nearly half a millennium ago and records are — at best — spotty, nobody knows for sure exactly where he went. According to the United States De Soto Expedition Commission, the famed explorer and his band of men stopped here as they traveled down the Ouachita River, maybe even spending the winter of 1541 on the bluff now occupied by Camden. Many contemporary archeologists and anthropologists aren’t quite so sure, still debating the actual route taken by the Spanish explorer, although there’s a general consensus that, at the least, de Soto spent some time in the vicinity of Camden.
Now, on to Camark (CAMden, ARKansas). During the same year, 1926, when Benjamin Tyndle Fooks entered the beverage business, Camden saw the founding of Camark Pottery. It beat out two dozen other cities in a national competition organized by a group of Ohio entrepreneurs looking to establish a regional pottery operation. Using locally mined clays (later to be combined with clays from other states), the plant initially created lamp bases and vases. With larger and more efficient kilns, the company was soon marketing a multitude of pieces incorporating a wide range of pastels and glazes (one glaze, a light green with variegated colors, was called Sasnakra, or Arkansas spelled backwards). At its peak, Camark employed more than 100 people and included such prominent retailers as Macy’s among its clients.
Camark went out of business in the early 1980s, but its wares are eagerly collected today. A recent search on eBay, for instance, revealed nearly 500 pieces of Camark pottery up for bid.
Camden, to be sure, is an interesting community. Just take a look at some of the names the town has contributed to Arkansas politics. Three of the state’s governors — George Washington Hayes, Benjamin Travis Laney and David Pryor — hailed from Camden. Likewise, the city has given the state a trio of U.S. senators: John McClellan, David Pryor and Mark Pryor. Elsewhere, the newly elected Alabama senator, Tommy Tuberville, is also from Camden.
And it’s produced several of the most intriguing women in the state’s history, among them Susan Hampton Newton Pryor. Although better known as the mother of David Pryor and the grandmother of Mark Pryor, she made history herself when she ran for Ouachita County circuit clerk in 1926. Her campaign occurred shortly after passage of the 19th Amendment (giving women the right to vote), making her the first woman in Arkansas to run for public office. She lost in a close race to a World War I veteran but won elections to the Camden School Board in later years.
Another notable woman from Camden is Maud Robinson Crawford. A highly regarded attorney with Senator McClellan’s law firm, Crawford disappeared from her home on March 2, 1957. McClellan chaired a prominent Senate investigation on the Mafia at the time, and fears were that Crawford had been abducted to frighten the senator. But the absence of a ransom note eliminated that theory. Weeks and then months of police work turned up no clues. Then in 1986, some 29 years later, the Arkansas Gazette ran an 18-piece investigative series on the unsolved case by Beth Brickell. During her research, Brickell found that an Arkansas State Police detective had been removed from the case and his files confiscated when his probe began pointing to Mike Berg, a powerful Arkansas State Police commissioner. “There’s too much money involved,” he was told. Brickell also learned that shortly before her disappearance, Crawford had privately accused Berg of stealing the assets of one of her clients, land and oil holdings worth more than $20 million in those days. Brickell’s newspaper articles resulted in the reopening of the case. The prosecuting attorney got a subpoena to interview Mike Berg’s bodyguard, a suspect in Crawford’s disappearance, who was seriously ill with cancer. When he arrived to interview the bodyguard, the dying man was surrounded by family and the local sheriff. Berg’s bodyguard passed away hours later before telling any secrets. To this day, the fate of Crawford remains one of Arkansas’ most notorious mysteries.
Folks interested in the built environment will discover that Camden is chock-full of fascinating structures. The Greening and Clifton Streets Historic District showcases an early residential area of the community, displaying fine examples of Queen Anne, Colonial Revival and Craftsman-style homes. Likewise, the Washington Street Historic District reflects over a century of Camden’s residential and architectural history. A highlight is the McCollum-Chidester House, a museum operated by the Ouachita County Historical Society. One of the finest and best-preserved examples of antebellum architecture in Arkansas, it was occupied during the Civil War first by Confederate Gen. Sterling Price and later by Union Gen. Frederick Steele. Bullet holes from that conflict can still be seen in the walls.
A map for a driving tour of historic sites in and around Camden can be obtained from the Camden Chamber of Commerce. With more than two dozen listings on the National Register of Historic Places, plan on spending a couple of hours checking out these notable locations.
One of the city’s historic structures, the Old Camden Post Office, now houses the Postmasters Grill, among the town’s favorite eateries. The building itself dates from 1895, while the restaurant opened on Valentine’s Day 2012. Owner Emily Robertson’s philosophy is simple: “Keep it fresh; keep it local; do everything possible from scratch.” There’s a definite touch of New Orleans to the menu (try the Creole pasta), and the bread pudding is first rate. And the draft beers are 100 percent brewed in Arkansas.
Opening in 1907, the White House Café has about 100 years on the Postmasters Grill. In fact, it’s the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the entire state. Known for its friendly staff, plate lunches and tasty burgers, this classic diner is definitely worth a visit.
So is Woods Place, especially if you’ve got a hankering for award-winning fried catfish. Just make sure to save room for one of the homemade fried pies (apple, chocolate and peach).
Catherine’s Bistro offers an eclectic menu: soups, salads, wraps, quesadillas, plate lunches and a “burger of the week.” Owner Christy Glaze specializes in custom-made desserts.
Meanwhile, her son, Bobby Glaze, and his wife, Lauren, are opening south Arkansas’ first microbrewery, Native Dog Brewing. A pharmacist by trade, Glaze parlayed his interest in chemistry and his wish to contribute to Camden’s growth into the downtown’s first new building in more than half a century. The 2,400-square-foot structure, overlooking the Ouachita River, has a friendly industrial feel, using tin, bricks from the old Rialto Theatre, antique doors from the original Grapette factory and lumber manufactured in Ouachita County. Plans call for Native Dog to begin with eight to 12 beers on tap; food will be available from a rotating series of local food trucks. The grand opening is scheduled for early this month.
Although he pastors a local church, Camden Mayor Julian Lott has no trouble supporting the Glazes’ project. “This will be a great addition to our town,” he says. “It’s something we can use to attract other young people to Camden.”
Sworn in on Jan. 1, 2019, Lott is an enthusiastic supporter of the community, touting the Trace (a 2.1-mile walking/biking trail with exercise equipment and a playground on an old railroad right-of-way), the popular sandy beach on the Ouachita River, more than 150 churches and a host of nonprofits that have risen to the occasion during the current pandemic.
“Camden,” he says, “is a community that serves its citizens. Our town has the most resilient, hospitable and caring people you can imagine.” When asked about the city’s future, Lott says, “I envision a city that becomes more of a melting pot, a welcoming place, a town that our children will want to return to after going away to college.”
Those returning young people may well end up working in lucrative high-tech positions in the Highland Industrial Park, an amazing complex on the east side of town. This site, known as the Shumaker Naval Ammunition Depot from 1944 to 1957, is the aerospace/defense industry hub of Arkansas, providing more than 3,000 jobs. Within its 15,000 acres are 1,200 buildings used for storage, warehousing and manufacturing. Major employers include Raytheon, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin and Aerojet Rocketdyne. The latter two companies have announced more than $200 million in expansions within the past few months and the creation of about 700 new jobs. Products of the companies include solid rocket motors for missile defense systems, artillery launchers and other military-related items.
“Our Camden facilities are well-positioned for future Defense contracts,” says James Lee Silliman, executive director of the Ouachita Partnership for Economic Development. “The prospects for growth are very strong.”
The Highland Industrial Park is also the home of the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy, the Arkansas Fire Training Academy, the Arkansas Environmental Training Academy and the Southern Arkansas University Tech Campus. Together, these campuses typically serve about 10,000 students a year.
Following a 16-year absence, Beth Osteen returned to her hometown of Camden in 1994 and has been executive director of the local chamber of commerce for well over two decades. When asked what might surprise a first-time visitor, she says, “There’s a sincere sense of hospitality in Camden. And we’re blessed by having folks who are committed to reinvesting in the community.” She’s especially proud of the close relationship between the town’s Fortune 500 companies and its small, independent retailers. “Our people are working together during these difficult times, demonstrating Camden’s great ‘can do’ attitude.”
When you head that way, keep in mind some nearby attractions. Civil War buffs will enjoy Poison Springs Battleground State Park (14 miles northwest of Camden on Arkansas Highway 76). Marking one of the battles in the Union Army’s Red River Campaign, the 85-acre day-use site includes a pavilion with an array of interpretive panels, picnic tables with grills and a one-third mile trail to the spring. Audio tours are also available.
About 20 miles northwest of Camden is White Oak Lake State Park, a 725-acre oasis for anglers, birdwatchers and just about anybody looking for some rest and relaxation. Daniel Shelman, a native of Magnet Cove and Henderson State University graduate, is the proud superintendent of the park. “We have a beautiful, well-maintained forest here with an abundance of wildlife,” he says. When asked about fishing, he says that crappie and bass are favorites, adding, “Trophy-sized bass up to 9 pounds are not uncommon.” Highlights include 13 miles of trails, 45 campsites in the campground (with a “brand-spanking-new bathhouse”), and four “hike-in” campsites requiring a one-mile walk.
Shelman also says there’s a lot of interest in the nearby “Little Grand Canyon,” an interesting geological formation on the other side of the lake (on property owned by the Arkansas Forestry Commission). Here’s how to experience this unusual site: 1) Exit White Oak Lake State Park, turning right at the stop sign onto AR Hwy 387; 2) Travel 2.3 miles to stop sign; turn right onto AR Hwy 299; 3) Travel 450 feet to stop sign; turn right onto AR Hwy 24; 4) Travel 3.2 miles to Ouachita 332; turn right (there is a brown sign “White Oak Lake Public Fishing Area”); 5) Travel 1.1 miles on Ouachita 332 and cross levee; canyon parking at end of road. Make sure to bring your camera!