By Joe David Rice // Photos by Casey Crocker
Mention Lake Village to an Arkansas foodie, and you’re likely to be met with a knowing smile, a quick nod, and one word: Rhoda’s. A culinary fixture in southeast Arkansas now for 35 years, Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales is known far and wide for its eclectic menu — fried chicken, catfish, barbecue, pies, hamburgers and, of course, the namesake tamales (still packed two dozen to a coffee can for take-out). Don’t let the rough exterior (I’ve heard it described as resembling a bait shop) and casual dining room fool you; the food is nothing short of “legendary” according to Jane and Michael Stern, authors of the popular Roadfood book series. The Sterns are particularly appreciative of the homemade desserts produced by Rhoda Adams and her family, noting the “sweet potato pie and pecan pie are world-class.” Long-time customers were not surprised when the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame inducted Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales into its inaugural class in 2017.
But there’s more, lots more, to Lake Village than delectable eating. History for one thing. Charles Lindbergh, a young and yet-to-be-famous airmail pilot, made an unscheduled stop in Lake Village in April 1923 because of engine problems. Landing on the local golf course, the 21-year-old aviator was befriended by the course keeper, Mr. Henry, and his family. Lindbergh repaired his plane and spent the afternoon taking a few folks aloft for sightseeing excursions. The evening’s clear sky and full moon got Lindbergh’s attention, and he decided to try something he’d never before done: fly after dark. Henry accepted Lindbergh’s invitation to accompany him, not realizing that Lindbergh had never attempted a night flight. But all went well as they soared above the Mississippi River and the surrounding countryside. Later that night in the clubhouse, Henry told Lindbergh he’d “never spent a more enjoyable quarter hour in his life.” Visitors today can see a marker on North Lake Shore Road memorializing Charles Lindbergh’s first night flight, an event that took place four years before his historic solo crossing of the Atlantic.
Lake Village has plenty of interesting history dating before Lindbergh’s unexpected arrival. Legend has it that Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto and his band spent time in a Native American settlement at the present-day location of Lake Village in 1541. Historians haven’t been able to confirm that account, but many are pretty sure that de Soto died in the area in 1542. Since de Soto had presented himself to the natives as a deity, his death created an inconvenient problem for the surviving members of his company. His men allegedly wrapped de Soto’s body in blankets, weighted it down with sand and sunk his corpse in the middle of the Mississippi River at night — a desperate subterfuge they undertook hoping to hide the fact that de Soto had died.
Lake Village is nicely situated on the western bank of Lake Chicot, a fairly young physiographic feature, at least by geological standards. Scientists generally believe this handsome lake, the largest oxbow lake in North America and the state’s largest natural lake, was at one time the main channel of the Mississippi River. It was created several centuries ago, probably after de Soto’s expedition, when the Mississippi changed paths, cutting a shorter course. Some 22 miles long and averaging 20 feet in depth, the C-shaped lake is about a mile wide and covers 5,000 acres. French explorers are said to have named the lake “Chicot,” a derivation apparently based on a French word for “stumps,” a reference, no doubt, to the many cypress knees lining the lake’s shoreline.
Given the rich, deep alluvial soil of Chicot County, it’s no surprise that agriculture has played a prominent role in the history of Lake Village. Cotton was a mainstay of the community in its early days, and production took place on a number of plantations dependent upon slave labor. One of the more successful was known as Lakeport Plantation, established by Joel Johnson in 1831 on the Mississippi River a few miles south of Lake Village. In the late 1850s, Johnson’s son Lycurgus began construction of a plantation house. The two-story, Greek Revival-style structure incorporated some 8,000 square feet in its 17 rooms. Built by slaves using local cypress lumber, the mansion featured 14-foot ceilings and had front doors standing 11 feet tall.
Fast forward about 160 years and the Lakeport Plantation house still stands tall and welcomes visitors. Located at 601 Highway 142, it reopened to the public in 2007 following a painstaking $6 million restoration by Arkansas State University’s (ASU) Delta Heritage Initiative. Sam Angel, whose grandfather bought the property in 1927, said the family was pleased to donate the house to ASU. “We had several groups that wanted it,” Angel says. “The ASU team had a good plan laid out, and that got our attention. They did a wonderful job.” It’s among the most popular tourist destinations in southeast Arkansas, recording guests from all 50 states and a number of foreign countries. When asked what might surprise visitors, curator Ruth O’Loughlin answers, “Being able to feel like you’re stepping back in time to 1860.”
Until the summer of 1864, Civil War action in Lake Village wasn’t much more than the occasional Confederate attack on Union steamboats passing by on the Mississippi River or Union boats shelling the community in retaliation. But things changed on June 6 of that year when 3,000 Union troops engaged 600 Confederate soldiers in what’s now called the Engagement at Old River Lake (also known as the Battle of Ditch Bayou). This skirmish, the last major Civil War conflict in Arkansas, wasn’t decisive for either side. Markers commemorating the battle can be found on the south side of Lake Chicot just off U.S. 82.
A little more than six decades later, Lake Village faced an altogether different foe: Mother Nature, in the form of the Flood of 1927. The most destructive natural disaster in the state’s history, the catastrophe inundated much of the town. Although few deaths resulted from high water, property damage was extensive, forcing many people from their homes. One of the casualties of this great flood was Lake Chicot itself as silt from a transformed drainage system poured into the lake, destroying what had been one of the state’s top fisheries. After several failed efforts, success was finally achieved with the installation of the Lake Chicot Pumping Plant in 1985. Housed in an eight-story-tall building nearly as large as two football fields, and using 10 enormous pumps capable of lifting 6,500 cubic feet of water per second, this $85 million dollar facility diverts muddy waters around Lake Chicot. An environmental tragedy was reversed, and game fish populations have recovered.
Fishing is just one of the popular activities at Lake Chicot State Park, a 211-acre oasis nestled in a pecan grove at the north end of the lake. Established in 1957, the park includes more than 120 campsites, 14 cabins, picnic tables and pavilions, swimming pool, playground, a new handicapped-accessible trail and a combination store/marina where various watercraft can be rented. Although the popular barge and kayak tours around the lake have been curtailed during the COVID-19 era, they tentatively were scheduled to resume last month. Superintendent Brandy Oliver, a native of nearby Hamburg, has held her current job less than a year but has been based at Lake Chicot for six years now. One of her recent career highlights was the chance to visit with an excited group from the Netherlands retracing de Soto’s route through the South. It was just one more example, Oliver says, of how “the Delta always surprises people.”
Lake Chicot State Park is also popular with the bird-watching community, especially during the migratory seasons. Bald eagles and a large number of waterfowl can be seen during the winter months. In fact, veteran birders have spotted over 200 different species at the park. Recognizing its prominence in the Mississippi River Flyway, the national Audubon Society designated the entire lake as an “Important Bird Area.”
One of the best resources in the area is the Lake Village Welcome Center. Located right on the lake at the south end of town, this modern facility features public restrooms, picnic tables, an overlook and a fishing pier. It’s stocked with hundreds of helpful brochures, including one on a self-guided levee tour (alligators can often be seen sunning on the levee banks during the warmer months). Martin Reese, who’s managed the center for 22 years, has been known to show up for work an hour or so early and catch catfish, largemouth bass and bream from the pier. He’s also known for his customer service. A good example occurred several years ago when a tour bus from Jackson, Miss., stopped by on its way to Eureka Springs. Reese noticed that an elderly lady seemed distraught as she removed her baggage from the bus. He learned that her grandson had experienced a heart attack during football practice, and she was desperate to return home. Having no luck in helping her locate a rental car, Reese loaded the woman and her bags in his personal vehicle and got her home. A year later, she returned to the center on another tour and was happy to report that her grandson made a full recovery.
Directly across the street from the welcome center is another of southeast Arkansas’ treasures: the Paul Michael Company store. Founded more than a quarter of a century ago in Lake Village by Paul Michael, a third-generation Lake Village merchant, the company has expanded beyond its flagship store to now include retail outlets in Louisiana and Texas. Concentrating on the home decor and accessories market, Paul and his wife Debbie have attracted a wide following. “We want our store to be creative, kooky, and fun,” Debbie says. “We want our customers to find items here that they can’t find anywhere else.”
According to Paul, customers are “surprised to find this much product in such a small town.” It’s not unusual for its clients to drive four to five hours, some coming from as far away as Birmingham, Ala. “I don’t want to sound boastful,” he says, “but our store might offer the best selection of seasonal decorations in the state.” (That’s something to remember as Christmas approaches.) Their store is open from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and from 1:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. on Sundays (with extended hours during holidays).
When Mayor Joe Dan Yee’s father moved to southeast Arkansas as a young man from China, he and other Chinese weren’t allowed to attend the local schools or shop in the stores. Overcoming one obstacle after another and working long, hard hours in their grocery store, the Yees raised six children, almost all of whom attended the University of Arkansas. Yee served for 22 years on Lake Village’s city council and four years as tax assessor before his election as mayor a year ago (when he beat four other candidates without a run-off). Although still a relative newcomer to the position, Yee has enjoyed his time as mayor. “Taking care of the people you love” is the best part of the job, he says. When asked about the reactions from first-time visitors, he had a ready answer: “People can’t believe the beauty of this town and our laid-back lifestyle. Everybody gets along with everybody.”
Yee’s parents made a return trip to China in 1985, their first venture to their original hometown in 33 years. Yee accompanied them on this trip. “It really taught me a valuable lesson,” he says. “They wanted to show me how spoiled we have it in the United States.” Now 66 years old, Mayor Joe Dan Yee wouldn’t live anywhere else.
Experienced Arkansas travelers recognize that half the fun of visiting a destination is getting there, and Lake Village is no exception. Nearby attractions include Seven Devil’s Swamp (located off Arkansas Highway 35 about halfway between Monticello and Dermott); Overflow National Wildlife Refuge (four miles west of Parkdale on Arkansas Highway 8); the Jerome-Rohwer Interpretive Museum & Visitor Center in McGehee; historic Arkansas City; and the spectacular US Highway 82 bridge over the Mississippi (about 10 miles east of Lake Village). Not to be forgotten is the fact that Lake Village lies near the state’s southern terminus of the Great River Road. Designated Arkansas’ second national scenic byway in 2002, this 292-mile route extends from Blytheville to Eudora and is an underappreciated delight.