Worldly readers are likely to assume this is some sort of unexpected reference to a certain metropolis in southern California. And they will be wrong.
For many Arkansans, L.A. is shorthand for Lower Arkansas — or the south-central section of the state. In rather loose terms, it’s the area bounded by Magnolia on the west, Monticello to the east, and Fordyce on the north. Camden, El Dorado, Crossett, and Warren are the other principal communities in L.A., although some citizens of Texarkana and Lake Village will occasionally claim residence. Dozens of smaller towns with such mellifluous names as Parkers Chapel, Harmony Grove, Three Creeks, Buena Vista, and perhaps Smackover (a corrupted Anglicization of the French phrase “Sumac Couvert,” meaning covered with sumac trees) are scattered across the region. In geographic terms, Arkansas’ L.A. encompasses about 7,100 square miles, a land mass 15 times the size of Los Angeles County.
The L.A. described here is home to roughly 160,000 residents, while greater metropolitan Los Angeles boasts approximately 18 million people. Or, in other words, that’s about one person in Lower Arkansas. for every 115 Angelenos. It’s a ratio we can live with.
Despite its relatively small population base, L.A. has produced more than its share of overachievers. True Grit author Charles Portis and honky-tonk singer Lefty Frizzell were both reared in El Dorado, the birthplace of internationally acclaimed architect E. Fay Jones and singer Ronnie Dunn (of the Brooks and Dunn duo). Other musical talents hailing from L.A. include country singer Jim Ed Brown (Sparkman), pianist Floyd Cramer (Huttig), and singer/songwriter K.T. Oslin (Crossett). Although born in St. Louis, poet and author Maya Angelou spent her formative years in Stamps living with her grandmother. Dee Brown, novelist and author of the best-selling Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, was raised in Stephen.
Among the celebrated athletes from L.A. are Hall of Fame baseball player Lou Brock and All-Star pitcher Schoolboy Rowe (both from El Dorado), NBA All-Star and Olympic medalist Scottie Pippen (Hamburg), and Reece “Goose” Tatum (Calion), the “Clown Prince” of the Harlem Globetrotters. Barry Switzer, who won three national championships as head football coach of the University of Oklahoma Sooners and later a Super Bowl with the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, grew up in Crossett. L.A. also owns the bragging rights to Alabama Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, who was born a short distance east of Fordyce in the Moro Bottoms community in 1913. Nineteen years later and five miles to the north, J.R. (Johnny) Cash was born in Kingsland.
L.A. has also yielded a storied collection of legends and mysteries. Billionaire bigamist Haroldson Lafayette “H. L.” Hunt got his start in the gambling halls and oil fields of El Dorado, using a $50 stake from friends in Lake Village which he parlayed into a world-class fortune. Serious rock ‘n’ roll fans might recall the infamous arrest of the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards in Fordyce on drug and weapons charges. One of the country’s most celebrated disappearances, that of prominent attorney Maud Crawford of Camden, has gone unsolved for better than half a century. Meanwhile, near Gurdon, the strange and inexplicable light hovering above the Union Pacific railroad tracks continues to sporadically shine, defying the experts and fascinating the curious.
You won’t find any orange groves, palm trees, paparazzi, earthquake epicenters, smog alerts, surf shops, Ferrari dealers, or Cartier boutiques in our L.A. What you will discover are oil wells, deer camps, pine trees, armadillos, alligators, fire ants, lots of churches, countless pickup trucks, and some of the most genuine and friendly people in the country.
Joe David Rice, former tourism director of Arkansas Parks and Tourism, has written Arkansas Backstories, a delightful book of short stories from A through Z that introduces readers to the state’s lesser-known aspects. Rice’s goal is to help readers acknowledge that Arkansas is a unique and fascinating combination of land and people – one to be proud of and one certainly worth sharing.
Each month, AY will share one of the 165 distinctive essays. We hope these stories will give you a new appreciation for this geographically compact but delightfully complex place we call home. These Arkansas Backstories columns appear courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System. The essays have been collected and published by Butler Center Books in a two-volume set, both of which are now available to purchase at Amazon and the University of Arkansas Press.