WHEN I TELL BOTH my mother and my husband—on two separate occasions—that I’m headed to Lake Village, they each say, “Down close to Hot Springs?” No, I inform them. You’re thinking of Hot Springs Village, maybe, and Lake Hamilton, conflating the two. Shift your perspective more than 155 miles to the southeast, where if you go just about any lower you’ll end up in Louisiana, and if you go any farther east you’ll end up in Mississippi, and there it is: Lake Village. Right along the banks of Lake Chicot, the largest natural lake in Arkansas and the largest oxbow lake in all of North America, Lake Village is one of those towns I have to admit I know next to nothing about. I know it’s in the Delta; I know it’s a hop, skip and a jump from Greenville, Mississippi, where you can find gambling and the blues; and I know it’s home to the Paul Michael Company, a home furnishings store that not only carries what’s in but creates what’s next. But, lucky for me, sometimes a destination and a point of arrival are all you need to go on a trip that changes what you didn’t know into what you won’t forget.
I told Debbie Michael, wife to Paul of the eponymous Paul Michael Company, that I’d arrive in Lake Village sometime between 10:30 and 11, depending on what Little Rock traffic looked like after I’d dropped my kids off at school in Conway. So when I arrive early, I decide to do a little reconnaissance—check out this award-winning company that’s been featured on BuzzFeed. After all, how long could it take to see one home-furnishings store?
I’m not kidding. When a trio of smiling young women greet me at the door with a “Can we help you?” in unison, I don’t know how to answer because I am amazed not only at the breadth and depth of the store, but at all of the furnishings, both large and small, that occupy the labyrinthine space.
Do you need a multicolored Adirondack chair made from repurposed snow skis? To your right. Cutting boards the size of your grandma’s kitchen counter or tiny enough to fit in that little drawer between your stove and the corner cabinet? The room just beyond. Hanging lamps made from Italian demijohns or tables made from driftwood or mirrors crafted from windows saved from torn-down houses and churches and commercial buildings? You’ll find them all if you keep looking. Before I know it, any lead time I thought I had to explore incognito is gone, and I work my way back to the front of the store to inquire the whereabouts of my hostess for the day from one of the three lovelies who first asked me if I needed help.
“Oh! You’re here!” says one of them, practically indistinct from the other two, as all are wearing a Paul Michael Company T-shirt, jeans and that same welcoming smile, and she darts off to the office located just to the left of the cash register.
Debbie comes out of the office, and she is just that same mix of fashionable and quirky that has made the Paul Michael Company such a success: gold filigree earrings dangle just below her blonde bob, layered necklaces of hammered gold circles sit atop the same dove-gray Paul Michael Company T-shirt, and her brown, patterned skinny pants stop right at the tops of khaki suede wingtips with yellow soles and shoelaces. “Heather,” she says, smiling, and extends her hand for me to shake.
I nod. “Your store is beautiful,” I offer, a clear understatement.
Debbie takes the time to show me around, pointing out things that I had missed on my initial go-round, and I am even more stupefied than before. Paul, her husband of 34 years, is actually quite the designer—he’s the one who thought to salvage those windows for mirrors. He’s the one whose workshop makes candlesticks from staircase spindles and tables from 18-wheeler tractor-trailer flooring, and turns chicken feeders into lamps. But repurposing isn’t the company’s only focus; they also focus on antiques as well as featuring the newest, hottest things on the market. Basically, the Paul Michael Company is just one big bastion of “cool.”
“Home fashion is like clothing fashion,” Debbie tells me as I stand with my mouth agape. “Some things come in, some things go out.” And they obviously ride that wave very successfully.
“So what’s on our agenda today?” I ask.
“Have I got something to show you,” Debbie says, and my mind whirls, feeling like it’s already been shown plenty.
Debbie is full of stories. As we drive through the Delta lowlands in her white station wagon, she tells me about how Lake Village just recovered from a giant flood of something like 26 inches of rain in 24 hours. Fields and boat docks were underwater, and even the Arkansas Tourist Information Center, located on a pier extending over Lake Chicot, found itself perilously close to the rising water. With the economy being so squarely centered on agriculture here, weather like that can be devastating.
She tells me about how much of Lake Village was settled by Italian immigrants from Ancona, Italy—a city on the Adriatic coast about halfway between Rome and Venice. According to Debbie, an ad ran in a local paper in the late 1800s over in Ancona describing the Lake Village area as paradise, but when the Italians got here, it was swampland, owned by Northerners, and the most the Italians could aspire to (at the time) was sharecropping. As a result, though, much of Lake Village’s culture was influenced by the influx of Italians, resulting in a plethora of good cooks, lots of Italian surnames and a strong Catholic presence that led to the construction of Our Lady of the Lake, a beautiful, red-brick Gothic church that overlooks scenic Lake Chicot.
She tells me about the new bridge that spans the Mississippi River: “An incredibly beautiful work of art. People come to just take pictures of it.” She drives me close. “See? It looks like sails on a boat.” She’s right.
And she tells me about the lake from which the village derives its name: “There’s a legend that DeSoto came through here and that in his journal he said it was the most fertile land he’d ever seen, and that the ears of corn were the biggest he’d ever seen. He supposedly got sick here in Lake Village, and they took him out on Lake Chicot and burned him.”
So Fernando DeSoto is buried in Lake Village?
“The woman who founded our art museum supposedly found an old buckle of his.”
I’ll never look at that oxbow lake the same.
Just as I begin to wonder why the long driveway to the Lakeport Plantation isn’t lined with towering live oaks like a good antebellum should be, I become entranced with the butter-yellow clapboard and Confederate-blue shutters of this fine example of Greek Revival architecture. The towering front door stands open wide, and as Debbie and I walk into the 14-foot-high foyer, the heady scent of magnolia wafts from a welcome table, a single bloom scenting the entire cavernous room.
Sarah Long, the museum manager, wearing a stylish asymmetrical top and flip-flops with her brown hair pulled back in a clip (a necessary staple for these muggy Delta summers), walks in from the room just to the rear of the entry.
“That’s a gorgeous instrument,” I say, noticing a square grand piano that Sarah passes.
“The piano shows up in tax records in 1870 with a gold watch and a pleasure carriage,” Sarah tells us, then goes on to explain that the piano is one of a very few pieces of furniture we’ll find in this house, which has undergone $6 million of restoration.
It turns out that Lakeport Plantation, the last remaining Arkansas antebellum plantation home on the Mississippi River and an Arkansas Heritage Site, isn’t dedicated to preserving the trappings of the times in which the house was built, but rather the legacy of the people and the culture that shaped plantation life in the Mississippi River Delta.
So, for example, instead of perhaps displaying antique vases on the fireplace mantels, it is the mantels themselves that are of interest. “Faux finishing was what was in at the time,” Sarah says, and points to the marble fireplace mantel which, as it turns out, is not marble at all, but a painstakingly painted illusion. Same goes for the rosewood doors, which are not at all rosewood.
The amount of scholarship put into understanding this house astounds me. As we enter the kitchen, Sarah points down and says “It’s the most worn threshold of the house,” which I never would’ve noticed or thought about, but makes perfect sense. She shows us the cisterns—one big that could hold 15,000 gallons of rainwater and one small that could hold 10,000—that above ground look like relatively average-sized wells. And she shows us the last remaining 16-by-16-foot log structure that was once slave quarters. “It was built by a left-hander,” she says. “You can tell by how the saw was used.”
I certainly wouldn’t have been able to tell by how the saw was used. To me, this log structure looks like something my grandpa would’ve kept his tools in. But I have to shift my perspective as Sarah explains there were typically nine slaves per each of these houses, and there used to be 15 of these houses on the property—that equals 135 slaves total that once worked up to 4,584 acres on this plantation.
“How many folks lived in the main house?” I had to ask.
“The most was fourteen,” Sarah answers.
“And how big is it?”
“About 8,000 square feet.”
The inequity is astounding.
Sarah leads Debbie and me back past the kitchen to a door I hadn’t noticed on the way in. “Every 3 to 5 miles,” she says, “a plantation owner would have a commissary—a general store. Usually it was its own structure, but Lycurgus wanted his to be a part of his house. This was in operation until 1989 or 1990, according to local legend.”
Sarah inserts a black skeleton key into the lock, swings open the door, and I am in awe. It truly is a little self-sustaining general store. Shelves line the two walls on the sides, all the way up to the 14-foot ceilings. Old cans of Longwood Plantations Pure Cane Syrup and Zodiac Pure Coffee remain on display, and receipts from the 1960s and 1970s are available to help visitors see how the store ran even into the 20th century. As a child, I would’ve loved to play in a store like this. I feel like a kid right now, gazing at Grapette bottles and Lucky Heart Laboratories cosmetics.
“This is Arkansas life,” Debbie says, as taken with the history and charm as I am.
“Yes!” Sarah agrees. “I love my job. You get to share the hospitality with people from around the world and the beauty of the farmland in The Natural State.”
“So is that what makes Lake Village Lake Village to you?” I ask.
“It’s the love of its people and the rich history and its soil,” Sarah says.
I’ve never heard an answer so grounded in time and space. Sarah takes me to the north porch, which still has all of its original ironwork—green and intricate like a New Orleans balcony. “I feel like a need a mint julep,” I say aloud, though I’ve never had one. Sometimes where you are just makes you see what you need whether you knew you needed it or not.
Back in the station wagon, Debbie has more stories.
“You ever driven on a levee?”
Can’t say that I have.
“If you’re real young, this is where you come with your six-pack of beer and your girlfriend.” Debbie and I laugh long and hard. “You can go all the way to St. Louis on this! In 2011 we had what they call the 100-year flood; the water came up within 2 feet of the top here.”
I look down the side of the levee—what must be at least 15 or 20 feet—and try to imagine how much the Mississippi must have risen. Instead, I ask Debbie, “What, to you, makes Lake Village Lake Village?”
“Sarah kind of nailed it,” Debbie says, driving us ever closer to Lake Chicot. “It’s a small community, and it’s a community that’s peaceful. Everybody loves everybody. If something happens, you’ve got your back covered.”
We pass the Hyner Cemetery, established in 1898 specifically for those Italian immigrants who so influenced the town. Just behind the cemetery is a body of water Debbie identifies as Whiskey Chute. “Legend has it that pirates would come up the Mississippi and somehow hide on this offshoot of the river to avoid capture—that’s why it’s called Whiskey,” Debbie tells me. “And ‘Chicot’ is an Indian name meaning ‘lake of the knees’ because of the way the cypress trees come up out of the water. It looks like they have knees.”
I’ve never thought of a tree having knees. It’s another new way of looking at things.
“And there are alligators in our lake,” Debbie adds.
“No!” I say, an unspoken fear of alligators maybe, just a little, leaking into my tone.
“Yes,” Debbie confirms, perhaps enjoying that sensed fear just a little too much.
Debbie lives in a part of Lake Village known as Stuart Island, an area set apart from the rest of town by a stream that flows off Lake Chicot. According to legend, bandit and criminal mastermind John Murrell and his gang used to hide out here. “It’s really more of a peninsula,” Debbie tells me.
We’re headed to Debbie’s house to meet Dorothy, who, as Debbie fondly explains, “raised my children.” Dorothy and her family moved onto Mr. Billy Hunter’s plantation back in 1948 when Dorothy was 9 years old, and Debbie tells me that Dorothy is old Lake Village personified.
I follow Debbie into her laundry room/kitchen combination, which houses a washer, a dryer, a stove, a single sink, two standing refrigerators (or maybe they’re upright freezers?) and a work island that must be 4 feet wide by 6 feet long. The floors are brick, and standing at an ironing board that extends from its storage compartment in the wall is a tiny dark-skinned woman wearing a navy-blue apron, a black turban, gold ballet slippers and delicate gold-leaf earrings.
I love her instantly.
She tells me how her daddy used to cure ham and how it was the most delicious thing she ever put in her mouth. It was smoked, you know. Not put in the fire. She was the smallest girl in the family, and she’d wash jars with her little hands, and her mom would make jelly. Her daddy had 200 or 300 head of hogs, and she’d get in there and ride those hogs. He was a sharecropper, her daddy, and on Saturdays he’d give her and her brothers and sisters money to spend and they’d all go downtown and buy candy and her brother would spend all her money and when it was time to go to the movies, he’d make her squat down so she looked little so she could get in free. They had to sit in the balcony, while the white folks sat down below. Her daddy taught all his children how to work and be honest.
What about today? I wonder. “What makes Lake Village Lake Village for you?”
Without hesitation, Dorothy says, “The Michaels. Out of 78 years, those people is the best people. They took me in when I couldn’t do nothing for myself. I love them like my own flesh and blood.” And then she turns around and goes back to work.
As we wind along Lakeshore Drive, we pass the Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh monument. The plaque identifying the short white obelisk explains that in April 1923, Lindbergh, then an unknown 21-year-old mail pilot, emergency-landed here in Lake Village and stayed overnight. While here, though, he took his host for a moonlit flight down the Mississippi, marking the first time the future trans-Atlantic aviator had flown after dark. Just how many legends are in Lake Village, anyway?
All along Lakeshore, I see houses of various styles—bungalows and contemporaries and Victorians, oh my!—and we drive through downtown just enough to see that it’s not near as lively as it was in Dorothy’s time; these days the stone Confederate soldier standing at one end mostly overlooks storefronts filled with government offices. We’d hoped to eat at Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales and Pies, a white aluminum shack that looks more like a bait shop to me than a place that consistently receives 5-star reviews, which it does—but sadly, I’m here on a Monday, and it’s closed. Instead, we grab a sandwich and circle back toward Lake Chicot State Park, where you can camp, rent cabins, go swimming at what Debbie calls their “phenomenal swimming pool,” see a Civil War reenactment, or go on an eagle watch. It’s a lovely state park, but it’s not what captures my imagination. No, what I become entranced with are the live-oak-lined driveways I had been searching for. I want to go down those paths, see what legends lie there. I just know there are human treasures at the end of each and every one of those roads.
Debbie takes me to the Tourist Information Center, where Martin Reese, manager, in a red collared shirt with “Arkansas: The Natural State” embroidered over the heart welcomes me. Flanking him are Norma and Dorothy (must be a popular name in these parts), who wear the same red shirts but black vests over the top, with the same logo embroidered on. When I ask about Lake Village in general, I become quite sad indeed that Rhoda’s is closed.
“I like her fried pies,” Norma says.
“I like her hot tamales,” Martin adds.
“You just like food,” Dorothy scoffs.
“I just like food,” Martin agrees.
I know I have missed a legend by missing lunch. And legends in these parts seem to be about as numerous—and about as large—as the mosquitoes. But unlike the mosquitoes, the legends, you just don’t want to get rid of. They stick in your head, keep you wanting to come back for more.
As Lake Village becomes but a speck in my rearview mirror, one legend Debbie told me about Lake Chicot keeps bouncing around my brain: that the lake was formed 600 years ago when a great earthquake caused the Mississippi River to change course, to meander. That with this one great event, the course of a river, and ultimately a civilization, was forever shifted. I can relate to that, actually. Because when you really allow yourself to relate to a new place, to new people, you feel a sort of quake of your own—your eyes open to new experiences, you learn new legends, you become a part of a bigger whole if only for a day—and your perspective will be, from that day forward, shifted.