Arlberg, Jimmy Driftwood and the vineyards of Meadow Creek

It’s down into the 30s at Meadowcreek and the moon is so bright it’s casting shadows.  We came in by the Southern route after great meetings on local food in Conway.  From that direction you get to see the nationally known antique auction house at Botkinburg and the neat and groomed Old Lexington.  Then down Angora Mountain road to the Little Red River at Arlberg.  You won’t likely see the famous Arlberg Arch, also known as Rainbow Rock, because it’s on private property, but you will see the remains of what was once the largest town in Stone County.

145955Floods in the 1930s drove most residents and activity away.  Included in the evacuees was an orphanage called Arkansas Academy.  The orphanage was relocated to Mabelvale just west of Little Rock in Pulaski County.  The orphanage helped launch the career of one of the most colorful Arkansas politicians.

James “Uncle Mac” MacKrell travelled widely from Arlberg to raise support for the orphanage by singing in a quartet and preaching from a stump. At these meetings, he began passing around a milk bucket to collect donations.  Stump preaching and passing the milk bucket became trademarks of his political campaigns.

In 1944, MacKrell took his first active step in Arkansas politics by working for Colonel Thomas Harry Barton in his senatorial campaign against Bill Fulbright. The race was the first of many defeats for MacKrell and jumpstarted Fulbright’s long and illustrious career in the U.S. Senate.  MacKrell found a more compelling cause soon after with a state-wide campaign against an act for school consolidation.  The act was defeated, largely due to his active role against the legislation.

In 1948, MacKrell tried his hand at politics again and came in third in the gubernatorial Democratic primary. Another subsequently famous Arkansan, Sid McMath, won and went on to a resounding victory in the general election.

In 1950, MacKrell ran again, this time for lieutenant governor. He came in second in an eleven-man race, again using his familiar tactics of stump speaking and milk bucket donations.. The latter backfired this time, leading him to be branded by the press as a  “professional beggar.”   The bad publicity reduced donations to his orphanage to such an extent that he closed it and left Arkansas for 16 years.

He took a job in public relations for the Petrolane Oil Company in New Orleans, Louisiana. Uncle Mac began a radio show for the company and became widely known as “Colonel Petrolane.”   After about nine years, MacKrell moved again, this time to Arlington, Texas, where he became the executive director of a cooperative company that built and financed churches. He was part of the company for seven years, during which time fifty-nine churches were established.

After sixteen years away from Arkansas, MacKrell returned in 1966 and established his own church in North Little Rock. From his East Side Baptist Church, MacKrell began to distribute food commodities to the poor through a federal-state welfare program. Food distribution was carried out for a short while before the city planners ordered the program shut down due to illegal use of a storage building as the distribution center.

In 1970, MacKrell once again decided to take on an Arkansas political luminary.  He ran on the Republican ticket against Governor Winthrop Rockefeller, insisting that the Democratic Party was not the one he remembered from twenty-two years before. Just as he had in 1948, MacKrell passed the milk bucket around, asking for one-dollar donations. This remained an effective way for him to finance his campaign and proved that he still had a few followers in Arkansas. However, he did not come remotely close to beating the incumbent Rockefeller in the primaries, and the race was his final attempt at public office.

After the election, MacKrell returned to radio. He began hosting a radio show called Party Line on KVEE in Conway. On February 27, 1972, while interviewing a group of teenagers during his nightly radio show, MacKrell suffered a heart attack and died.

Long before MacKrell came to Arlberg, an even more interesting character darkened its visage.  Bill Dark was a guerrilla in the Civil War, first sabotaging Federal advances in northern Arkansas and then fighting the local Confederates. .

Jimmy Driftwood, a habitue of the Meadowcreek Valley and Arlberg, preserved the Bill Dark story in a 1953 “Voice of the Hills” article for the Mountain View Herald, and in a 1972 recording of a Driftwood original, “The Ballad of Jim Berry.”   According to Driftwood, Bill Dark was a cruel and ruthless jayhawker, who plundered the Stone County region. In 1862, to counter Dark’s threat, fifteen men, led by Christopher Denton, formed what Driftwood referred to as “The Stone County Home Guard.”  By early 1863, fifteen-year-old Jim Berry, who had already been threatened by Dark, had joined the vigilante band, which punished all desperadoes and killed many jayhawkers.

Dark and Berry accidentally met along the banks of the Little Red River between Arlberg and Lydalisk. Young Jimmy had killed a big fat hog by an old log cabin so the widows could be fed.  He was scraping on the bacon, not thinking of defense, when old Bill Dark came galloping up and leapt his horse over the fence into the yard where Berry worked.

Jim Berry fled to the other side of the cabin and, according to Driftwood’s song, said, “If I don’t kill Bill Dark, it’ll be the last of me boys, be the last of me.” He flattened out against a wall of the house and took deadly aim, When Bill Dark came galloping around, the bullet found the Dark brain.  As Dark’s gang scattered in fear, Berry, took the outlaw’s boots, hat, coat, and guns, and climbed a nearby mountain to notify Denton by smoke signals.

Denton, born in 1811, was a farmer from Tennessee who sometime before 1850 settled on Meadow Creek. He was married and had five children. His son William joined the Union army in November 1863.

Some accounts differ from Jimmy Driftwood’s, alleging that the purpose of Denton’s Stone County Home Guard was to protect Union sympathizers from marauders and Confederate irregulars. Denton’ s group apparently exploited the collapse of law during the Civil War and degenerated into a gang of marauders themselves.

Located about four miles south of the mouth of Meadow Creek, the site where Dark was killed, called the Godsey place, is today mostly eroded away by the floods of the Little Red. There are no signs or markers-only small trees and a few scattered stones. It’s not far from where Kenner Slough empties into the Little Red at the Harper Eddy Hole.  Throughout the nineteenth century, several families of Kenners, Godseys, Harpers, Smiths, and Bloodworms raised corn and hogs from there up to the mouth of Meadow Creek, where today there is a well tended vineyard featuring Saperavi grapevines.

Saperavi, the original wine grape according to Russian and Georgian tradition, make a deep, rich red wine that cannot be matched by today’s diluted wine flavors.

Come to Meadowcreek and maybe someone will take you on a tour of these and other sites, including the house where Jimmy Driftwood met his Cherokee bride and began the hootenanny folk song tradition.  The popularity of these picking and grinning sessions led to them being relocated to the more easily accessed Mountain View.  Subsequently, Mountain View became the Folk Music Capital of the World.

But that renown owes everything to the place where we live and work: Meadow Creek.