Publication Note: This column was first published in the December 29, 2016 edition of the Lonoke County Democrat weekly newspaper, linked HERE in its original format. It is the 2nd installment of the “Look at Lonoke” column.
When was the last time you looked at a paper map? You know, the kind of map you might have picked up at Tate’s filling station years ago? I have a collection of antique gas station highway maps from the 1930’s through 1970’s that I periodically remove from their plastic wrap and study. Can you imagine what travel was like in a previous era? That was a time before the terrain of our region was sliced by a double-ribbon of concrete and asphalt creating a high-speed conduit through the landscape. Recently I pulled out an Arkansas-Louisiana-Mississippi map I own that was produced in 1947 by the Derby Oil Company. This old, brittle map is a little snapshot of a region criss-crossed by indirect, narrow routes that wound and jogged to connect communities on a path.
Lonoke is one of those communities. It is situated on a stretch of U.S. Highway 70 once known as the “Broadway of America.” As one of the primary east-west routes across our nation that pre-dates the corridor of Interstate 40, Highway 70 once stretched from the Atlantic Coast of North Carolina, winding its way through eight states, eventually to end up at the Pacific Coast in California. A portion of the highway’s original right-of-way dating back to 1913 is located just a few miles west of Lonoke and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The current path that Highway 70 takes through our area was constructed in the 1930’s and is the route visible on my old gas station travel map from the 1940’s. Of course, before being connected via this paved surface in the early part of the twentieth century, Lonoke was connected to the rest of the region by railroad, the impetus for our town’s founding in the 1870’s.
The idea that a specific piece of ground was selected and determined to be viable as a logistical marker or waypoint over 140 years ago is quite interesting to think about. Have you ever considered that there was a compelling reason to create a new point along this critical infrastructure to establish a community centered on agriculture and rail-driven commerce? At one point in history, a group of leaders determined that it was worth slowing down for this piece of geography.
As part of our conversation about what makes our town unique, I believe Lonoke can still identify a number of geographical realities that contribute to a “local distinctiveness” which we discussed in a previous column. To begin with, Lonoke is a Delta community. Our roots are quite literally in the soil of the culturally distinct region known as “the Most Southern Place on Earth.” Our economic heritage is agricultural. That heritage continues today as our state, and specifically our region, is the largest rice-producing entity in the United States. Row crops are integral to our landscape, and the financial ecosystem that serves and sustains farming is a key to our community’s livelihood. The cultural richness of the Delta is exhibited in the storied artists, musicians, and authors that have come from our turnrows and homesteads. And then, there is our food – not just what we grow, but how we prepare and serve it to our family and neighbors – that is perhaps our most celebrated product! In the fertility of this ground lies the hope of reconciliation and redemption- a reality of which we are perpetually reminded as one season ends and a new season begins.
Lonoke shares in the Delta’s cultural richness by means of our geography and our geology. In a way, Lonoke is like a “front porch” to the Delta. As you leave Little Rock and head east, the landscape changes, and as you arrive in Lonoke, you sense a change of pace and place. Likewise, in the six county region known as the Little Rock-North Little Rock-Conway Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), Lonoke is one of the few non-suburban, agricultural-driven communities which offers direct logistical access to the State’s largest population center. Ours is a unique geographic position, essentially making us a “front porch” to Little Rock as well.
Like Lonoke, a front porch is where multiple generations come together, congregate, and converse. Neighbors of all backgrounds enjoy the culture of the Delta together and share a laugh while embracing the uniqueness of life outdoors. Moments are shared and memories are created on the front porch. Life happens as you slow down, observe, and appreciate what surrounds you. Take a look from your front porch when you get a chance and notice what is in your neighborhood: What do you see that you like? What could be improved? If we, as a community, could build or create something refreshing for Lonoke, what creative solution would you champion? What would be an ideal way to leverage our inherent “local distinctiveness” and create something lasting for our next generation? We have a lot going for us, when you stop and look at Lonoke. Sometimes we just have to remind ourselves! It is worth slowing down for Lonoke. Will you step outside and look at the view from the front porch with me? The view is grand.
Ryan Biles is an architect and a 12-year resident of Lonoke, serving as a Board Member of the George Washington Carver Alumni Association, the Lonoke Area Chamber of Commerce, and former member of the City’s Planning and Zoning Commission. You are invited to join the conversation about Lonoke’s local distinctiveness on social media using the hashtag #LookAtLonoke