Hometown: Monticello

Playing the name game in Southeast Arkansas


MY HISTORY WITH MONTICELLO goes way, way back. Like, four whole years, I think. I remember living in Italy, learning proper pronunciation by reading every street sign and billboard I came across aloud, then returning to Arkansas for a summer and wondering to myself as I traveled along Interstate 530, Where in the heck is MOHN-TEE-CHELLO? I’ve never heard of a MOHN-TEE-CHELLO in Arkansas, and I’ve lived here 35 years. It took me a good 20 minutes of rolling the name around in my head to realize it was actually good ol’ Mon-ta-sello I was thinking of, which, at the time, represented the entirety of what I then knew about Monticello: how to pronounce it. But maybe, just maybe, learning about a place—and about a people—can begin with the simple learning of a name.

9:57 a.m.

As I drive down U.S. Highway 425, I am struck by the rainbow of greens on the roadside: chartreuses and emeralds and kellys and … forests. The trees are tall and short, and solid and willowy, and evergreen and deciduous. I look for what I always look for in trees along the roadside—that most hated tree-destroyer, kudzu—but, thankfully, I see none. And in the midst of searching for my ivy nemesis, I spot Silvicraft Inc., a brick building standing as an oasis amid a particularly thick patch of mighty-tall pine trees. I park and walk up to the glass door, and just as my hand touches the pull, the door swings out toward me, and a lovely woman with long brown hair, wearing a denim shirt and burgundy pants, steps aside to let me into the lobby. Simultaneously, a man in a blue plaid shirt, Wrangler jeans and brown boots enters the same lobby from an office to the left.

“Mike?” I ask the man.

“Yes’m,” he replies, a shy smile on the face of Mike Pierce, the president of this prominent timber dealership that specializes in timber thinning, harvesting and forest management.

“And you are?” I ask the lady.

“Brandy Pierce,” she says. “I’m Mike’s wife.”

“Well, it’s nice to meet you both,” I say, admiring the richly stained beadboard ceilings above me and the deep earth-tone tile below me.

The couple escort me right into Mike’s office, where taxidermied animals adorn all four walls. “I have a story for every animal,” Mike says, noting my wide eyes and rapidly swiveling head.

I realize I don’t even know what most of these animals are called. “So what’s the story with the squirrel over your right shoulder?” I venture.

“It’s a fox squirrel,” Mike explains, and I take in the reddish color of the rodent’s fur and its extra-long, extra-fluffy tail. “I caught it in Macon, Georgia.”

“And the duck above your head?” I ask.

“That’s a banded duck,” he replies. “When ducks have bands on their legs like that, you can call and find out their sex, age and species. It’s the only banded duck I’ve ever killed, and it was the day I proposed to my wife.”

Above me is some other kind of duck, whose name I’m sure I don’t know. It’s got a bright green bill and royal purple feathers on its wings. “It’s a black duck,” Mike says. “They’re pretty rare.”

“And that buck over there?” I ask, pointing to my left.

“An eight-pointer,” he says. “First buck I ever got. I was about 15.”

“You’re a pretty dedicated hunter,” I comment. He’d told me that he was up at 4:30 this morning listening to the turkeys, whose season opens Monday.

“Actually,” he corrects me. “I’m not BIG into hunting. I could take you and show you a guy who’s BIG into hunting.”

If this isn’t big into hunting, clearly I need to understand what is. Mike escorts me back across the lobby and down the hall to Silvicraft’s former president’s office.

By simply entering Harold Smith’s office, I learn exactly what “BIG into hunting” means. There is a four-by-four grid of framed pictures of Harold standing over a wild array of game: Harold and a hippo; Harold and a rhinoceros; Harold and an elephant; Harold and many, many exotic deerlike animals with straight horns and curved horns and forked horns and striped horns (whose names I clearly don’t know).

“He’s been to Africa, huh?” I ask eloquently.

“A few times,” Mike nods. “Yes’m.”

It’s not a leap to understand why foresters are often interested in hunting. Forestry is the science of caring for systems of woods, and that includes managing the species that populate those woods. And Silvicraft, in particular, has a reputation for excellent forest management. Mike himself has a degree in forestry from the University of Arkansas at Monticello, and he’s proud to be Arkansas Registered Forester #719.

I totally had to look up exactly what “forestry” is. You might think I’d know, but everything Mike explained about harvesting and land management and resource conservation actually surprised me. Why did I imagine a lumberjack walking among the trees, swinging his ax periodically while whistling a Disney tune? So when I learned how complicated forestry really is, I began to wonder where the name of Mike’s company came from. “Silviculture” is the practice of controlling the establishment, growth, composition, health and quality of forests to meet diverse needs and values, and “craft” is the exercise of skill. Just what is it Mike does? He skillfully takes care of forests. And, I’m learning, forests are a big part of what Monticello is about.

10:36 a.m.

We’re taking the Hunger Run Access (I have no idea where that name came from) to Lake Monticello, a man-made lake that opened for fishing 20 years ago. The road winds and rolls through thick forests of pines, and Mike tells me about the fireworks display that happens on the lake on the Fourth of July. As we pull up over a small hill, and I get the full view of the lake, I gasp. When I think of a “man-made” lake, I guess I think more of a large pond.

But Mike laughs good-naturedly at me. “Yes’m. It’s a surprise. You’re up in these rolling pine hills, and then you just have this lake in the middle.”

This 1,520-acre lake, that is. Not a large pond at all. Then I ask yet another brilliant question: “I guess there are quite a few fish in there, huh?”

“Oh, yes’m,” Mike replies. “Crappie, bass, catfish, bream … a little bit of everything.”

Now the names of these fish I actually know. Both of my grandpas were fishermen, and there’s little more my dad likes to do than to head out early on a summer morning and throw a line in somewhere. But just as I’m feeling better because I actually know the names of some things, we pass more trees, and I’m again at a loss. It turns out that the existence of a “little bit of everything” in Monticello applies to tree species, too. Mike says there are oaks, maples, persimmons and, of course, the ubiquitous pine. “Pines grow quickly,” Mike explains, “and do well in most soil types, but near water, you’re looking at mostly hardwoods.”

“Hardwoods?” I ask. “I know pine is a soft wood because in my mom’s Victorian house, I always heard her floors referred to as soft pine planks, but what, exactly, are hardwoods?”

“Anything that’s not a pine is actually considered a hardwood in the forestry industry,” he tells me. “And even in hardwoods, there’s only two kinds we talk about: oak and miscellaneous. Anything that isn’t an oak is just classified miscellaneous.”

Well, that seems easy enough. But to be honest, I couldn’t tell a maple from a persimmon from an oak. There’s only two kinds of trees I know: magnolias (my favorite) and cypresses. We’re lucky enough to pass both as we drive away from the lake, and I point them out with the pride of a kindergartner showing off her finger painting. “You know what a cypress represents in southern Italy, don’t you?” I ask.

“No’m,” Mike replies.

“They represent death,” I answer. “Neapolitans plant them in their cemeteries. If you happen to have a cypress tree in your yard in Naples, your friends will tease you about living in a tomb when they come to visit you.”

“I actually have family from Cingoli, Italy,” Mike tells me.

I have no idea where that is, but I know how to say it. Cheen-goh-lee, I pronounce in my head. Cheen-goh-lee and Mohn-tee-chello.

11:06 a.m.

We pass a billboard proclaiming “Monticello: No place like it!” and cruise along Main Street, a moniker that makes me think of brick-front mom-and-pop shops. But, again, I learn that names don’t always have one single, unchangeable meaning. Here in Monticello, the lengthy Main Street is actually populated mostly with residential houses. At the top of North Main Street, there’s the new Southeast Arkansas Regional Library, a modern design with lots of windows and a slanting roof. But go just a block south, and you’ll see sprawling antebellum homes, the most famous of which appeared on the Syfy channel’s Ghost Hunters—the Queen Anne/Gothic/Neoclassical Allen House. (No joke, that place is HAUNTED.) Another block past that, and there’s the Trotter House, an 1896 Greek Revival home that UAM utilizes as a B&B, where students can get real-life hospitality experience. Another block south takes you to the town square, where thrift stores and antique shops share prime real estate with Juanita’s Candy Kitchen.

In the center of the square is a fountain, and being this close to Louisiana (about an hour away), I can’t help but think of the animals our neighbor to the south has over 2 million of. “You aren’t far enough south to have gators, are you?”

“Oh yes, ma’am,” Mike replies. “I can take you to some of Silvicraft’s land and show you some gators if you like.”

Now, I like gators about as much as I like kudzu, but my desire to see all that Monticello has to offer has me conflicted. “We’ll see if we have the time,” I answer. And by “we,” I really mean “I,” and by “time,” I really mean “intestinal fortitude.”

Farther south on Main Street, the century-old homes turn to bungalowlike cottages reminiscent of the 1940s. Then on the very next block, a small rolling field with some nice trees (hardwoods, since they’re obviously not pines) dotting the meadow. “This is Rough and Ready Hill,” Mike explains. “It was one of the last few Civil War battles.” He turns the corner, and just past the green—a view the trees shaded just moments before—a large building with stacks and stacks of cut logs behind it comes immediately into sight. “That’s the Price Companies. The world headquarters! You’ve got the old and the modern right next to each other.”

Close by Price is Interfor, a Canadian company that’s a sawmill for pine timber. And close to both is Southland Trucking Co., a line that trucks chips to pulp mills. Pulp, Mike explains, is an extremely valuable commodity in the forestry industry. It’s used for paper, diapers, paper plates, cardboard … “and in Parmesan cheese, right?” I interject. “Didn’t I read that somewhere?”

Mike and Brandy both laugh. “More like tissue and toilet paper.”

I sit corrected.

The number of products made in the forestry industry in and around Monticello is actually pretty staggering. To me, at least. And it’s not just what’s made that’s important, but who makes it.

“We buy Tropicana juice because that carton is made in Pine Bluff,” Mike says. “Sparkle paper towels are made at Georgia Pacific in Crossett, and refrigerator packs of Coke and Pepsi come from Graphic Packaging in West Monroe. If you know what to look for on the wrappers, you can see where each was produced.”

In this case, names are extremely important. And, it occurs to me, buying these kinds of paper products must be more responsible than always going for plastic packaging, since paper tends to be more recyclable than plastic.

“We take it serious,” Mike says of being good caretakers of the forest resource. “First, if we weren’t good stewards of the resource, we’d put ourselves out of a job. And by keeping the forests healthy, we’re actually helping use carbon dioxide. It’s called ‘carbon sequestration.’ It’s like using the forest as a huge filtration system.”

The Forest: A Huge Filtration System. I’m liking learning new terms more and more.

11:21 a.m.

The Music Building on the UAM campus looks fresh out of Hogwarts with its square tower and stone facade, but it’s the nearby Weevil Pond (named after UAM’s mascot, the Boll Weevil) that Mike looks back at with fondness. “The Forestry Club does the Polar Bear Plunge there every year,” Mike explains. “And every year, the club competes with all the other forestry clubs in the southeast in a competition called Conclave. We practiced our log birling in that pond!”

“Is that like in Pete’s Dragon, when Nora walks on the barrels on top of the bar?” I ask.

Brandy laughs. “It’s where they have logs on the water, and they run on them,” she responds.

Yup, I think. Helen Reddy on a bar.

Conclave also consists of competitions in ax throwing, crosscut sawing, pole climbing—all stuff old loggers had to do back in the day before everything became mechanized.

Various educational opportunities are pretty central to Monticello, and not just at the postsecondary level. There’s also an older school facility that is now run by Advantages of Southeast Arkansas, which specifically provides services and education to those with special needs. The Discovery Children’s Center is a preschool program serving children ages 6 months to 5 years old who have conditions ranging from autism to cerebral palsy. Students of school age have their choice of attending the Monticello School District (which most town folks attend) or the Drew County School District (while located in Monticello, it’s mostly attended by those living outside the city limits). Unlike most small towns with more than one high school, there is no rivalry, as Monticello High School is a 4A school, while Drew Central High School is 3A. But like most small towns, there is great pride in their schools. Mike himself graduated from Monticello.

“They’re the billy goats,” Brandy says of her husband’s alma mater.

“No,” Mike objects. “It’s the Billies.”

“Well,” Brandy responds, “you better tell that mascot he’s wearing a goat head.”

“So they’re goats?” I ask.

“No,” Mike repeats. “They’re Billies.”

It’s Mon-ta-sello. It’s pines and hardwoods. It’s Billies. Got it.

11:40 a.m.

On the wall at Ray’s, the local diner that’s been open since 1964, are four mascots. The Razorback. The Boll Weevil (nasty little insect). The Pirate (which I’m assuming is Drew Central). And, last but not least … a goat. The little guy has horns and hooves and is coming right at me like he’s about to butt me with his head. But I won’t say that out loud, because I know it’s a Billie. A BILLIE.

Over hamburgers that remind me of the chow I got at burger joints like DQ and Tastee Freeze in the ’80s (in the best way), we talk about some of the family activities available in and around town. There’s a skating rink, a movie theater, a splash pad, a sports complex. There’s good food like the Cajun fries here at Ray’s and the pollo fundido just three minutes down the road at Ameca, the  local Mexican restaurant.

But I’m still searching for one perfect definition—for the right words—that best describes Monticello. “Tell me,” I ask Brandy. “What makes Monticello Monticello for you?”

She thinks for a second. “Living in a town that you know the majority of the people, and you’re all friends and family. You know that down here you have someone who’ll come help you.”

It’s a good answer. But is it the answer? “And you?” I ask Mike.

“I hate to use the cliché,” Mike says, “but you’ve got a bigger town with a small-town feel. You can walk into almost anywhere and see someone you know.”

These are lovely answers, I admit. They’re even similar, but for some reason, I’m still searching for something. “Tell me, Mike,” I begin, placing pen to paper to record his very important answer. “How do you feel about kudzu?”

“Kudzu is one of the lowest life forms,” Mike snarls. “Lower than an amoeba. I. Hate. Kudzu.”

Thusly do I confirm the goodness that I began to see in Monticello a mere two hours ago.

1:14 p.m.

We ride out past the Hollywood Plantation. “Hollywood” is the place of movie studios and celebrities—the ultimate district of American cinema—that attracts millions of tourists a year. The “Hollywood Plantation” is a two-story, dogtrot-style, cypress-log house built on a 10,000-acre cotton plantation, a site that UAM is restoring to its former glory.

We head out past Bayou Bartholomew. “Bartholomew the Apostle” is reputed to have brought Christianity to Armenia in the first century. “Bayou Bartholomew” was, until the construction of railroad lines in 1890, the most important stream for transportation in the interior Delta. These days it’s pretty polluted and stinky (something that the Bayou Bartholomew Alliance, along with many other government agencies, is working to remedy).

We drive off-road, where Typha have taken over. That’s cattails to you and me.

“There’s usually a gator right here at the entrance to this land,” Mike says. “We call him the watchdog.”

Call him what you like; there is no gator today. But it’s kind of cool, I realize, that what you call a thing often directly reflects what you think it is. The gator is a watchdog? He’s a friend. A goat is a Billie? He’s a symbol of school pride. And Monticello is a forest? It’s a living system, an economic boon, a treasure.

We drive farther in, almost getting stuck in the mud twice.

We see ducks and turtles.

We see gator dens dug into bayou banks. We see gator slides, muddy ruts leading to water. And we see a large ripple in the marshes, one that reaches from bank to bank.

“It was a gator. I’m sure of it,” Brandy says.