Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper Column for October 24, 2013

Through much of its history, Eureka Springs had a small but vibrant community of African-Americans centered on Cliff Street below W.O. Perkins Lumber. My understanding is that the number of black Eurekans dwindled through the decades until only Richard Banks remained. After the strong response to last week’s column, I have several additional stories about this legendary local man.

Seeing Rich around town was an everyday occurrence and everyone knew him. Tori Bush remembers walking home from school, seeing him sitting at the bottom of Benton Street whittling. Like others, Butch Berry remembers numerous rides in Rich’s Model A Ford up Benton Street to school.

Several mentioned that Rich enjoyed his beer but would not go into the Hi Hat. When Butch Berry’s father was home on leave from the Air Force, he’d take beer out to Richard. Likewise, Marc Speer remembers his father taking beer to Rich sitting on the steps outside the Hi Hat. He said that at the time you could buy beer to go, and Rich would ask men he trusted to buy him five cans of beer instead of a full six pack, since five cans is what he could drink. As Marc Speer said, “The man knew his limits.”

Working off my father’s recollection of men wagering at the feed store on how much weight Richard Banks could lift, including feed sacks with his teeth, I asked about his physical strength. Turns out he was even stronger than I imagined, especially for a man of medium stature. When Rich would have been about 24 years old, McKinley Weems watched him unloading a truck at the wholesale grocery. He lifted 100 pound sacks of sugar and put one on each shoulder and then with each hand carried another 100 pound sack, moving 400 pounds of sugar at a time. He could also unload a 50 gallon wood barrel of vinegar by himself.

Gayla Wolfinbarger tells how Richard Banks often had dinner with the Mullins family at Pivot Rock, and while in the hospital at the end of his life they visited him daily.

Even though he was living out west by this time, when Tommy Hughes read in Virginia Tyler’s column in the Times-Echo that Richard Banks was hospitalized he mailed him a get-well card. It was returned advising that the addressee had died.

Send your comments to steve@steveweems.com or P.O. Box 43 in Eureka Springs.

Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper Column for October 17, 2013

Richard Banks never married and was for several years the only African-American in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Born in 1913, he grew up on Cliff Street, had four years of education and was raised by his mother, Hattie Fancher, and later his Aunt Mattie. Both women were laundry workers. In 1939, Richard Banks worked 36 weeks for an income of $200. That information came from U.S. Census records.

I learned more talking to a handful of the many people who knew him. He bought hamburgers and Camel cigarettes at Vicie Pinkley’s Bus Stop Cafe across from the courthouse on Main Street. Even when invited in, he would extend his arm in through the door, the rest of him staying outside.

Richard Banks worked many years as groundskeeper for the Freemans at the Joy Motel. Tom Hughes said that before Rich had a car, he worked out an arrangement with Norman Tucker, owner of the taxi company, for cab rides up the hill to work. He also mentioned that if a black lady was staying at the Basin Park Hotel, Rich would show up looking sharp.

Several people mentioned he later drove a fine Model A Ford. Thomas Black recalled that Rich would give him rides up Benton Street to school, the car easily climbing the hill. He’d want to ride on the running boards, but Rich always insisted he get in the vehicle.

Others told me of Richard Banks taking aside African-Americans who came to town and giving them advice about what businesses and people to avoid. He did not want trouble for anyone.

I heard of Richard Banks fishing with Tommy Colvin and others. Once hunting out in the Hillspeak area, Duane O’Connor met Richard Banks in the woods. Duane, hunting with a single-shot .22 rifle, noted that Rich was carrying a shotgun. “Some do it for the sport, I do it for the meat,” Banks said.

The remains of Richard Banks’ house are on Barrel Spring Curve west of town. People said he’d stand at the window waving at the passing cars. He died in 1973 and is buried in the Eureka Springs Odd Fellows Cemetery.

Just a fraction of the stories I heard about Richard Banks are included here. If you have a story, comment or correction, let me know at steve@steveweems.com or P.O. Box 43, Eureka Springs AR 72632.

I had a very nice message from Genevieve Head Bowman telling me that she, too, attended the film at the movie theater the evening of Pearl Harbor being bombed. The film was Shepherd of the Hills.

Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper Column for October 10, 2013

Today, after the rain had stopped and the sun had brightened the blue, clearing sky, a Barred Owl called out from the edge of the woods. After what seemed like too long a time, another owl answered and then far down the hollow a third responded. Isn’t that an omen, an owl calling during the day?

In the third grade, I played the male lead opposite Wendy the Witch in the Halloween play. What was odd about the whole deal was that I was even cast as Mr. Owl. I was new to the school and was so quiet that I was known as a barely functional mute. But I still remember my grand entrance with the construction paper feathers taped to my brown long-sleeved shirt, trying to project “T’wit, t’woo, I’m here to help you!” to the back row of the little auditorium. I’ve identified with owls ever since.

I was pleased when we moved into the hollow and would hear the eerie call of the little Screech Owl or the occasional deep hoot of a Great Horned Owl. Once I saw a white-faced Barn Owl in the barn, of all places.

But it is all Barred Owls these days. Barred Owls are pretty big, their wingspans nearly as wide as the windshield on the vehicle I drive. I know this because they sometimes swoop down toward the road as I drive through the woods into the hollow, and then pull up just before they hit the windshield. In the moment that we are face to face with only safety glass between us, the owl looks huge.

A year or two ago, owlets were raised and they sure could kick up a cacophony trying to learn how to do the “hoohoo-hoohoo, hoohoo-hoohooaw!” of their parents. They did this every night in the tall trees behind the chicken house, making the hens and Mr. Crowe very nervous. A group of owls is called a parliament, so we have a parliament of Barred Owls in the hollow.

Some say an owl hooting during the day is a portent of death and doom. I don’t mind.

Eureka Springs Independent Newspaper Column for October 3, 2013

During the last world war, there was an army base two counties over from Eureka Springs that covered more than a hundred square miles and housed 45,000 soldiers at any given time, including the largest WAC contingent in the United States. This post, Fort Crowder, was also the inspiration of the Beetle Bailey comic strip. After the war, it was drawn down and vast portions of it no longer used. Around 1950, surplus gear was being sold, including the equipment out of the post movie theater.

That’s where Eureka Springs comes into the picture. Cecil Maberry operated the movie theater at 95 Spring St. and needed to update his equipment. The antiquated projector system he used often broke the film being shown, resulting in anger-causing delays as the film was spliced together. Mr. Maberry purchased the equipment from the US Army and hired McKinley Weems to haul it. McKinley borrowed Cleo Hull’s new truck and drove the 70 miles to Fort Crowder, and helped install the upgraded system upon returning.

McKinley Weems also installed the first air conditioner in the theater – a 20 horsepower unit that during the hottest part of summer kept the movie crowd temperature down to 90° instead of 110°. The old fan system he tore out of the theater had been built by a blacksmith in eastern Arkansas.

Some find it hard to imagine that Eureka Springs ever even had a movie theater, but, especially before television, it was an integral part of the town. For nearly 60 years the movie theater was open for business under various names. It opened as “The Commodore” and McKinley Weems remembers seeing silent films there before he was in the first grade. For the longest time the movie tickets were only 10 cents each and the line waiting to get in would sometimes stretch down to Pendergrass Drug Store.

I’ve asked people what they remember seeing there. My wife saw Bambi when she was four years old. My brother saw Bonnie and Clyde there with my mother and Brenda Evans. Aunt Terri saw Sandpiper starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The night of the attack on Pearl Harbor, my grandparents attended a movie there. I saw movies there but have no recollection of it, though my mother remembers because I wouldn’t stop crying.

For many years it was the “New Basin Theatre” and when the last movies were shown in late 1976 it was called “The Gaslight.” When it was sold, the new buyers were supposed to keep operating it as a movie theater so the kids in town would have something to do, but instead it was turned into even more retail space.