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The river people

Documentary filmmakers turn camera on the vanishing culture of the White River’s ‘river rats.’

by and


Maybe as scarce as the ivory-billed woodpecker in the White River National Wildlife Refuge are the human beings who once scratched out an existence on the water.

“They were river people. You didn’t call them river rats, least not around them,” says 80-year-old L.C. Brown, a St. Charles (Arkansas County) native now living in Hot Springs, and whose uncle Albert lived the life of a river person. L.C. hung out with river people. “They toler-ated me because I was related to one.”

It’s said that entire communities of people lived in houseboats on the lower White River near St. Charles and in the backwaters of Baytown and Indian Bay on the eastern side of the White. Men brought in huge hauls of buffalo fish that they sold at market. In the winter they trapped for furs. They donned diving suits or used special tools from their boats to search the river bottom for mussel shells, which were turned into buttons. It’s estimated that in World War II, buttons from mussel shells made up 90 percent of the buttons used in Army clothing.

Children got their education in St. Charles, riding boats from their floating houses to the river bank and walking the rest of the way.

The law of the river ruled. Many took matters into their own hands. “They called it river justice,” L.C. Brown says.

Life on the river and around St. Charles peaked in the Depression. Changing economic conditions drove some families off the water onto land, and government regulations pushed off the rest, starting with the creation of the national wildlife refuge in 1935. River residents were allowed to stay in certain areas, but they died out.

The ivory-billed woodpecker may not be extinct after all, thanks to the Big Woods of the refuge, but the river people are headed that way.

Two documentery filmmakers, however, are trying to film the White River people before the culture has entirely vanished. Ken Mandel of Dallas and former Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute director Melanie Masino have been working for nearly three years interviewing the people who recall the days of river life for a full-length feature documentary.

Mandel, working behind an $8,000 Sony HDV camera, and Masino, with microphone in hand, have talked to dozens of subjects in the past several months. A 25-minute rough cut of the film was shown to about 100 people at the National Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., earlier this year, where, Mandel says, the response “was intense.”

“We had this heated intense discussion, an incredible Q and A about cultural issues, about how it related to other areas. I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, we’ve got something here.’ ”

Mandel has produced and directed a number of independent documentaries, including “America’s Deadliest Storm: Galveston Island 1900,” shown at the Hot Springs Film Festival; one on Mexican painter Frida Kahlo; a history on the blues aired on PBS, and a documentary on polio. The White River story will be his sixth full-length documentary in a 25-year career in film.

Despite the time Mandel and Masino have already spent on the river people project, Mandel’s feeling is that they’ve barely scratched the surface. “I hope in a year that we’ll have a finished film. We continue to meet great people and we’re finding more stories. In my world of documentaries, it’s a slow process, getting to know the people until you find the right ones.”

The more Mandel and Masino show portions of the project, the more people start finding them to tell their stories. L.C. Brown approached them after seeing a 10-minute cut at the Hot Springs film festival two years ago, and directed them to more people and fascinating tales.

Expenses to this point have come from Mandel’s and Masino’s pockets. “They haven’t been too crazy,” Mandel said, since both own film equipment. The Smithsonian visit gave them exposure to people who might contribute financially to the work, and they are looking at setting up nonprofit status for the film.

Life on the river was hard, certainly. One subject told Mandel and Masino about a brother falling off the boat as a child and drowning, and an-other falling but being saved.

But the river survivors also look back longingly on the period. Some have a few mementos of the area, either in black-and-white photo-graphs or in some of the tools they used to find mussel shells. The St. Charles Museum contains a treasure trove of artifacts of river life, includ-ing exhibits on shell buttons and historic photos, not to mention stuffed critters pulled from the waters or killed in the woods.

St. Charles, where the refuge headquarters is now stationed, was a jumping-off site for river traffic. There was no Highway 1 bridge during the Great Depression. There was no ferry service until 1955.

The refuge encompasses 160,000 acres and 90 miles of the White River, from Clarendon south to the Arkansas River canal to the White just shy of the confluence of the White and Mississippi rivers. There are 4,000 acres of water, in 356 natural and manmade lakes.

There’s obviously plenty of territory to hide in the National Wildlife Refuge if one wants to illegally live the river life. But there are few if any of the original river rats still around. Today, people live on land just off the river and take their boats to the water at their convenience.

Just as federal regulations went into effect, life on the White suddenly changed. There was a drop-off in the fish market, and the advent of the easily manufactured plastic buttons to replace those made from shells. The feds would not allow new permanent moorings. (Exemptions on some backwaters allow for houseboats, including those used by hunt clubs.)

Land-living life wasn’t nearly as hard after World War II, and many headed off the water. Still others lived there until they died.

“The law [enforcement] didn’t go down there on the river,” Brown said last month in St. Charles, when this reporter accompanied him and Ma-sino to meet more people who wanted to discuss their days living on the river.

Sam S. Terry, who owned a St. Charles store, took a day in July 1955 to write down all the murders he could recall in the area. It reads like a cowboy’s journal from Dodge City or Tombstone:

“1887, Joe Smith killed Jim Turner. Mrs. Keness was supposed to have killed Bob Vann. Arthur Bird killed Fread Wilks. Joe Smith killed Martin Billingsley.”

Fast forward a few lines to this:

“1893, June 22, Jerdon Phillips was hung in DeWitt by the law. The only one ever in Arkansas County. Joe Smith did the job.”

“1893, Jack Thompson killed Ben Petis.”

“1894, Welby Parker killed Walter Ballard through a mistake. Bob White killed John Gray and John Berton at the same time.”

Jump ahead 42 years, 50 killings, drownings in the 1897 Little Garrett Flood and a 1906 bank holdup to the Great Depression, when law-lessness prevailed all across the South and Midwest:

“1936, Roberts killed Mr. Binswinger. Cecil Lacotts was killed by the law. Jessie Eason was by Fishlowe. Robert Bostick killed a negro woman on the Arkansas River. Peat Duglas and Harry Simmons killed Johnson Moss. Joe McCowen killed Joe Gordon. Dan Gordon was killed by unknown parties.”

Apparently, folks got all the killing out of their systems that year, at least for a while. Terry’s recollection picks back up with “1951, McGill killed a man by the name of Guill Turner.”

But everyone who lives in and around St. Charles and Arkansas County remembers THE murder, or murders, of 1931 and the eventual tragic end involving pretty young Helen Spence. Writer Bob Cochran wrote of the murderous events in the Arkansas Times in 1981, and filmmaker Mandel wants to tell the story, too:

Spence, who was 18 in January 1931, shot Jack Worls to death in the Arkansas County courthouse in DeWitt, where he was being tried for killing her father, Cicero Spence, nine months earlier. Worls and an accomplice reportedly shot Cicero Spence on his houseboat and kidnapped Spence’s wife, Helen’s stepmother, from the boat. Worls pleaded self-defense in the killing. (Cicero was wanted for murder as well, and offi-cers were planning to take him in when he was shot by Worls, according to Cochran’s article).

From all accounts of his trial, it looked like Worls was about to be acquitted when Helen Spence rose from her seat and fired at least three shots from a .45 caliber.

The story made the front page of the New York Times. Helen Spence became described in national magazines as “The Swamp Angel.” Cochran wrote that Spence was quoted in one about life on the river: “Down where I was raised, in the White River bottoms where we rarely saw the ‘law,’ we took care of such matters ourselves. No one ever killed anyone unless there was great reason for it. I was born to that kind of law, and it seemed alright to me. Anyhow, none of my people or the folks I grew up with trusted officers or the courts.”

The court eventually let Helen Spence off. She’d been found guilty of second-degree murder in killing Worls, but that was appealed successfully on a technicality, and she was freed to await a second trial.

That was not to be the end of her story, however. She quit a job as a waitress at DeWitt’s White House lunchroom and, two months later, became the prime suspect in the death of the restaurant owner, Jim Bohots, who was found shot to death in his car just outside town, at a spot where couples supposedly hooked up. Rumors abounded that Bohots had forced unwelcomed attention on her, according to one account. Claiming innocence, Spence nevertheless was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. Authorities eventually believed her, according to Cochran’s article, and in exchange for dropping the charge in the Bohots killing, she pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the Worls case. That meant two years in the Penitentiary for Women at Jacksonville.

She escaped for one day in the spring of 1933, but still received her parole later that year. “Freedom Granted to DeWitt Girl Killer” screamed an Arkansas Democrat headline on June 8, 1933.

Freedom wouldn’t last. Strangely, according to the account, on June 15 she went into the Little Rock police station and told Chief of De-tectives James A. Pitcock that, indeed, she had killed Bohots, the DeWitt restaurant owner. She had quit the restaurant job because of Bohot’s advances, she said, but he persisted so she met with him and they drove to the spot outside DeWitt, where he assaulted her. “I felt like I had to kill him,” she was quoted as saying.

So, it was back to DeWitt for another trial. Her sentence for the crime was 10 years of hard labor at the women’s penitentiary. She es-caped and was recaptured, and the public that had felt sorry for her earlier troubles turned against her. She was put in a cage-like cell with the afternoon sun shining directly on it, and became deathly ill, only to recover and escape the cell yet again on July 10, 1934, supposedly with a guard’s .44 caliber gun in hand. Spence left a note saying, “To whom it may concern, I’ll never be taken alive!”

A day later, a trusty ambushed her on a country road eight miles from the prison, shooting her dead with his Browning pump. The Arkansas Gazette the next day chronicled the end of “Arkansas’ restless bad girl.” The coroner ruled that the trusty, Frank Martin, was justified in killing Spence.

“We’ll look back on the murder,” filmmaker Mandel says. “That’s a great story. It’s great drama.”

L.C. Brown says he knew Helen Spence, and that some of the facts reported in the case were wrong. He says she was wrongly portrayed as a swamp rat version of Bonnie Parker. “She wasn’t like that at all,” he said. Brown says other filmmakers might look into telling the Helen Spence tale, mentioning that he’s been in touch with an acquaintance, Billy Bob Thornton.

Few law enforcement officers wanted to go into the White River boonies for any official business, but V.O. Purvis was willing when the U.S. government needed to serve eviction notices on the river people when the refuge was created in 1935.

His son, George Purvis, who worked more than 30 years at the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, 24 of them as chief of the informa-tion education division, remembers the stories his father would tell about those days as Deputy U.S. Marshal based in Des Arc.

“I would say there were more than 20 and less than 50 houseboats that were in clusters, singles and so on. People had been living there for years,” George Purvis says. “The way he told it, he found the toughest one in the bunch, the one with the toughest reputation, and he said, ‘If you’ll put me up in your houseboat, I’ll pay you for the room and board if you’ll help me serve these notices. And he served all the eviction notices … That was the only way you could do it, to tell them to move. It took several weeks. I remember him talking about it being a real ex-perience.

“The people were in groups and singles and they’d have their own society. They made their living doing trapping, a little fishing, that sort of thing. A lot of it was living off the land. But that was a way of life. They didn’t have houseboats that we have now. They have houseboats on Lake Ouachita that are plush. These were small, simply put together.”

Virginia Hall of Dewitt wishes she could return to a life on the river.

“We moved off the river in 1949 or ’50,” when she was 10 or 11 years old, she said. “My daddy got off the river and built a general store in St. Charles.”

Virginia, her two sisters and brother grew up on a 20-by-60-foot houseboat with a steel hull and lots of windows. Their father, Ed Jackson, brought the boat down in 1931 from Clarendon to near Indian Bay, across the White from St. Charles. It had a Delco generator. “We had a radio, [the boat] was equipped with electricity, we had a bathroom, hot and cold running water, three bedrooms,” says Virginia’s sister, Jewell Griffin, who lives in Helena. “It was the finest houseboat for non-commercial purposes on the White River.”

The sisters recently convened at the St. Charles Museum to meet Masino and relate their histories. They recounted such times as when the river froze over, and ice had to be broken so the children could get to St. Charles for school or their parents could get supplies. The houseboat was specially designed to break ice, too.

“We had no lifejackets, and that scared me to death sometimes,” Griffin said.

“If you didn’t cut the ice, it would tear up the bottom of the houseboat,” Lorraine White said.

The river days were full of fun memories for the Jackson daughters. Ed Jackson fished and trapped, like all the river men. He used a seine to gather in boatfuls of fish to sell at market. “It looked like one time when he was coming in and had fish all around him that if he sneezed, the boat would go under, but he didn’t,” White said. Their mother cooked and made all their clothes.

“We were very lucky,” Griffin said. “The most fun we had, you’d throw your scraps out in the water and we’d catch carp and bream.” Meanwhile the men and women also caught buffalo, drum, and catfish, too. But if a gar got caught in the seine, especially one of those large alligator gars, you’d get a torn-up net, Griffin said.

They didn’t stand out from the other children in school at St. Charles. Hall said, “We were the best dressed kids around. My brother sent my mother an old parachute he got in the service and she made a broomstick skirt and peasant blouse out of it. We had nice clothes.”

They later were bused to Marvell from Baytown for school.

Griffin said, “My mother sold sandwiches off our boat. That’s how I met my husband. He came up the river to eat one day.”

“Our dad was an orphan,” Hall said. “He said he was hungry when he was a child. He said that when he was old enough, he’d never go hungry and make sure his children didn’t go hungry. We didn’t.”

Camp Fagen, Maddox Bay, Indian Bay and Baytown were busy like St. Charles for a while. “Indian Bay used to be thriving community and they even had a saloon in Baytown,” Griffin said. “They got everything shipped in on barges.”

L.C. Brown, standing off to the side at the St. Charles Museum, smiles while the women tell their stories. “They’re really different, aren’t they, those river people,” he says sarcastically.

Ivory-billed woodpecker souvenirs galore can be found at the St. Charles Community Store, on Highway 1 just before the bridge over the White. Every possible sighting or rumor of sighting is greeted with glee by the locals in the store.

Just as people swear the thought-to-be-extinct woodpecker has made a home in the refuge, there is a belief that some people still live quiet lives back in the woods off the White River.

Mandel and Masino are certain of it, and hope to film some of them.

“We went one time and I felt like someone was watching us, they knew we were there and what we were there for, but they didn’t come out,” Masino said.

Mandel said, “We’ve met a couple. We have had contact. There is an old gentleman of a family we interviewed the first time. We met him and the father was an old river rat and his brother is still on the river. We’ve made other contacts, and people have told us there are folks left who are still living off the land. I really want that, and that’s why I say we’ve just scratched the surface. Filmmaking is dominoes, and you hope you’re setting them up and not knocking them down.”

“I think we’ve got four or five more trips to the river to go,” Mandel said. “I see this as a true documentary, not a historical film. … It will be historical, sure, but I feel it’s a contemporary story, and a story about where the river is going.” The film should run 60 minutes when com-plete, Mandel said.

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