Paul Greenberg

LITTLE ROCK — The old boy walked his bike out the front door in the morning light and realized: The weather’s turned cool. He felt it, but he couldn’t believe it, not at first. It had been hot, hot, for so long. The way it is every summer in these latitudes. So that “Hot enough for ya?” is by now almost a standard greeting during the summer months.

What a relief: October, real October, had finally arrived.

A little late, maybe, but all the more welcome for that. October in Arkansas would give Heaven a run for its money — and then some.

The sun shone off the leaves, which hadn’t really begun to turn yet, although little leaves from the pin oak in the front yard were already making their appearance in the oddest corners around the house. How they did it, how they managed to get in such numbers and in so many places so early … it was a mystery to him. Every fall. He didn’t mind picking them up, not yet. They were still a minor novelty — a welcome sign the seasons would indeed turn in these parts. For a while there, he’d begun to doubt if fall would ever arrive.

He knew it’d been fall for some time up in the northwestern corner of the state: Fayetteville/Rogers/Bentonville/Lowell — aka The Midwest. Fall may still not have come to the southern reaches of Arkansas: Texarkana/El Dorado/Lake Village — aka the True South.

He’d driven through Lake Village just the other day, and in the midday sun the heat still shimmered off the new/old plantation house that was being restored at Lakeport. It rose just off the highway like a throwback to the 1859, when the original house had been built just in time for the ruination called The War.

Those who built it could not have foreseen the devastation shortly to come.

In the late 1850s, cotton was bringing an average 11.4 cents a pound, the highest it had been since the boom years of the 1830s. Optimism was as endemic along these swampy banks of the Mississippi as malaria. Old Man River flowed past the plantation like a super-highway to New Orleans and the world’s markets. All good things beckoned, at least for the cotton aristocracy. Cotton was king and its kingdom swelled with pride.

The high, two-story house set in the midst of the cotton fields is testament to the Delta’s long-ago prosperity and promise of more, with its 17 high-ceilinged rooms, two-story portico in front, tapered white columns, eleven-foot-high wood-paneled doors, all supported by great cypress beams from the adjacent wetlands, complete with 26-foot-long entry hall. … Lakeport could have been used as a setting for “Gone With the Wind.”

How could its master, the good Lycurgus Johnson, have foreseen what the near, disastrous future would bring?

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.