On a cloudy day in early fall, the seniors (SAMs) from First Baptist Church made the journey to the heart of the Delta, Helena, Ark., for a day of fun and fellowship.
Helena is one of the oldest towns in Arkansas. It was an important river town during the Civil War, and the deadly ‘Battle of Helena’ was fought on July 4,1863, when Confederate forces attempted to take the town from Federal occupation. Their efforts failed miserably.
Following the Civil war, agriculture and the river continued to define Helena’s economy and culture for another century. Immigrants from throughout the world came to Helena in the late 1800s and early 1900s in search of a new life.
Unlike many southern towns, whose historic downtowns center around a courthouse, Helena is a river town whose downtown is long and narrow, running parallel to the river. “Helena occupies one of the prettiest situations on the river,” wrote Mark Twain in ‘Life on the Mississippi.’ Although Helena was incorporated in 1833, the town’s history goes back centuries. Hernando DeSoto crossed the Mississippi near Helena inn 1541, finding a thriving native culture. When Sylvanus Phillips settled in the area in 1797, all indications of the flourishing Native American civilization were gone.
Helena is at the intersection of two National Scenic Byways — Crowley’s Ridge and the Great River Bend. It is home to over 30 structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Upon arriving in Helena, the seniors went directly to the Cherry Historic District for lunch at Granny Dee’s. They were met there by some of the city fathers as well as Granny Dees. Lunch was a buffet consisting of baked and fried chicken, turnip greens (the best ever eaten attested Jeanette McGrew), cabbage, both creamed and sweet potatoes, beans, and for dessert, apple cobbler.
After lunch, the seniors were turned loose on Cherry Street to shop. Favorites shops were the Delta Gypsy Caravan, Handworks Boutique, and the Cotton and Kudzu Mail. Then, to work off lunch, the group took in the sites on Cherry Street — anchoring each end of Cherry Street is a Delta Cultural Center. The Visitor’s Center highlights the unique musical heritage of the region, especially the blues, while the beautiful restored red brick Delta Cultural Center tells the story of the river (including the great floods of 1927 and inhabitants from Native Americans to the present day) and the Civil War ‘Battle of Helena.’
Many of the interiors of the Cherry Street Historic District were used in the 2005 movie ‘Walk the Line.’ Bubba’s Blues Center offers the best selection of hard-to-find blues music in the nation. There is also the Malco Theater that was used in the movie ‘Walk the Line.’ After shopping, the group boarded the church bus and made a tour of the city. First stop was the beautiful and historic St. John’s Episcopal Church. The seniors were greeted by Father Travis Frank, rector of St. John’s. Frank was well-acquainted with Father Van Windsor, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Pine Bluff, and asked that the seniors give Father Van his regards. The 156-year-old church contains a beautiful altar as well as many lovely stained-glass windows.
On the bus once again, the seniors took a tour of the city. Some of the sites seen were the old high school, which is being converted into condos, the Pillow-Thompson House, a late 19th century mansion that serves as the location for many parties and other special events, the Helena Museum, which offers an eclectic selection from prehistoric times through the Civil War, the Union’s Fort Curtis, Freedom Park, and the Centennial Baptist Church, which was recently designated as a National Historic Landmark, the designation being the highest such recognition accorded to historic properties. Centennial is the only known example of an African American church designed by an African American architect in Arkansas.
Those making the trip were the driver, Roger Minyard, Linda Minyard, McGrew, the organizer of the SAMS, Pat Bethea, Audrey Borecky, Pat Crain, Sara Cromer, Ann Holt, Peggie Howard, who was born and raised in Helena, Catherine Long, Becky Reed, and Wanda Scruggs.