I’m touring the Arkansas Delta with Jack Sundell, who operates two of Little Rock’s best restaurants (Root Cafe and Mockingbird Bar & Tacos). We’re racing to Cherry Street in downtown Helena so Jack can see Thomas Jacques of the Delta Cultural Center hosts the “King Biscuit Time” radio show live.
One of the few things to remain constant in the Delta as the population has steadily declined since the 1950s is this radio show, which first aired on a November day in 1941 just before the United States entered World War II. Sonny Payne became part of the show in 1951 and hosted it until shortly before his death in February 2018 at age 92.
Several weeks after my trip with Sundell, I’m conducting my Delta food tour and stopping at the trailer on the way into town so we can buy tamales from Joe St. Columbia. He typically sells his Pasquale’s tamales on Fridays and Saturdays along US 49.
St. Columbia was born at Helena in October 1938, the second of three children of Sam “Pasquale” St. Columbia and Mary Fazio St. Columbia. Cotton was king, and Helena was hopping as a key Mississippi River port city.
“Our home was upstairs over the grocery store that had served as our family business, along with the motor parts and taxi business,” Joe says. “The building had many secret doors and passageways. I also remember a cellar with a trap door in the garage where the car was kept. I was told Grandpa and Daddy would make wine and keep it hidden in the cellar during Prohibition. We had a wine press, and I remember Daddy ordering 10 or more crates of grapes from California. He told them it was for the store.”
Joe’s mother was born in the south Louisiana city of Thibodaux in 1902 to Italian immigrant parents. On his father’s side, Joe’s grandfather Pedro Santacolumba departed his home in Sicily in 1892. He left his wife and new son “Pasquale” behind, hoping to make enough money in the United States to bring them over. He later boarded a boat on the Mississippi River and came as far north as Helena.
We visit with Joe, then take our tamales to the Arkansas tourist information center near the foot of the Mississippi River bridge to eat at a covered picnic table.
Soon after that, I’m back in Helena again, this time to introduce my wife and son to Delta Dirt Distillery on Cherry Street. For 13 months, I was off the road during the pandemic, putting off travel until I could get my entire family fully vaccinated. I resumed Arkansas travels in late April 2021. The favorite column I’ve done since then is one I wrote last summer on Delta Dirt.
We started the 2021 trip at the Williams family farm near Rondo. Harvey Williams’ great-grandfather was a sharecropper on this land. On Nov. 5, 1949, Harvey’s grandfather purchased the farm. In 1977, Harvey’s father took over and began to diversify. The thing that made this unusual is that the Williams family is Black, and Black-owned farms are increasing rare across the Delta.
On the day we visited the farm, the family was raising squash, corn, wheat, soybeans and 100 acres of purple-hull peas.
“You’re always looking at how to better diversify,” Harvey’s brother Kennard told me. “The crops you grow change from year to year. On a small farm like this, you’re constantly searching for new markets.”
Delta Dirt is the fulfillment of a dream for Harvey and his wife Donna. After earning a degree from the University of Arkansas, Harvey worked his way up to managing food plants, most recently in Jonesboro. When he returned to this area of the state, Harvey decided to use sweet potatoes off the family farm to make vodka.
Since I wrote the column last year, Delta Dirt has begun producing gin and bourbon. The bourbon, which uses corn from the family farm in addition to sweet potatoes, is being aged and not yet ready to sell.
Harvey and Donna’s son Thomas is the distiller. Thomas went to school in Kentucky in 2018 to learn the craft, and began production at Delta Dirt in 2020. The building at 430 Cherry St. was built in the 1940s and had been empty for years. Now the Williams family is looking to add a pizza restaurant and an upscale coffee shop in adjacent buildings, moves that could revive what once was the busiest street in the Delta.
Since last year’s column, Delta Dirt has won a number of national and international awards. Its products are being carried in more Arkansas restaurants and retail outlets. On this Saturday afternoon, the tasting room is full, including a lady in her 90s.
“She comes in with her family every few weeks,” Harvey tells me.
The atmosphere is upscale and fun, the kind of “I didn’t expect this here” feeling that keeps bringing me back to Helena despite the many problems outlined in last Sunday’s column. What the city needs now is more entrepreneurs like the Williams family. I think of someone such as Roger Stolle of nearby Clarksdale, Miss., who runs that city’s Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art.
After a 13-year marketing career, Stolle left corporate America and moved to Clarksdale in 2002 with a mission to “promote the blues from within.” He helped organize the Juke Joint Festival, the Clarksdale Film Festival and other events. His store on Delta Avenue in downtown Clarksdale is open every day of the week. Stolle also made it his goal to ensure that live music could be heard somewhere in Clarksdale seven days a week.
Clarksdale began capturing far more of the international blue tourism than Arkansas, even though few places were more important to the evolution of the blues than Helena. The Arkansas city was so important, in fact, that the state of Mississippi placed two of its Mississippi Blues Trail markers on this side of the river.
A marker on Cherry Street reads: “The town emerged as a major center of culture and commerce in the Delta during the steamboat era and maintained its freewheeling river port atmosphere well into the mid-20th century. Cafes, nightspots and good-time houses flourished , and musicians flocked here to entertain local field hands, sawmill workers and roustabouts who came off the boats ready for action. Many bluesmen ferried across the river from Mississippi or later motored across the Helena bridge. Others came from elsewhere in Arkansas, up from Louisiana or down from Memphis.
Helena was at one time home to Mississippi-born blues legends Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2 (Rice Miller), James Cotton, Honeyboy Edwards and Pinetop Perkins, as well as to Arkansas natives Roosevelt Sykes, Robert Nighthawk, Robert Lockwood Jr., Frank Frost, Jimmy McCracklin and George ‘Harmonica’ Smith, all of whom became influential figures in the blues.”
Williams, Lockwood and Nighthawk were among the first blues artists to play their instruments through amplifiers. That paved the way for the transition from acoustic to electric music.
“Soon after KFFA went on the air in 1941, Williamson’s broadcasts on ‘King Biscuit Time’ brought blues to an audience that had seldom if ever heard such music on the radio,” the marker reads. “Up-and-coming bluesmen BB King, Albert King, Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters all tuned in to the lunchtime broadcasts from the KFFA studios, or on occasion WROX in Clarksdale, advertising King Biscuit Flour and promoting their upcoming shows at local juke joints and house parties. The sponsor, Interstate Grocer Co., even introduced a Sonny Boy brand of cornmeal.
“During Williamson’s extended stays away from Helena, drummer James ‘Peck’ Curtis kept the program going with an assortment of band members. The show eventually switched to records instead of live music and continued with deejay Sonny Payne at the helm. Off the air only from 1980-86, it still ranks as one of the longest-running programs in radio history. The Delta Cultural Center began hosting the broadcast in the 1990s.”
A separate Mississippi Blues Trail marker a block away on Biscuit Row in downtown Helena is dedicated to Williamson. It notes that he played in Helena venues such as the Owl Cafe, Busy Bee, Kitty Cat Cafe, Mississippi Cafe, Dreamland Cafe, Silver Moon and Hole in the Wall.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.