Tuesday, October 28, 2014

North Little Rock, Arkansas: Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame Museum

As tourist attractions go, the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame is an odd one.

The facility is part of Verizon Arena, which is located just off Interstate 30 near the riverfront in North Little Rock. We had some time to kill before heading to the airport, and this was convenient.

Upon arriving, the one employee unlocked the door and seemed very happy to see us. It seemed we were the first customers of the day, and it was early afternoon. Although we figured it was going to be just a display in the arena lobby, we paid our $5 each while figuring it was a good cause.

I asked who played in the arena, and got a lot of "used tos." An Arena Football League team was here, but that league didn't make it. A minor-league hockey team was here, for a while, but not any more. A local college played here once upon a time, and then built an on-campus site. So Verizon Arena is only used for concerts, more or less.

As for the Hall of Fame itself, there's a film narrated by Pat Summerall about Arkansas sports, and some memorabilia about the state's top athletes. Mark Martin even donated one of his old cars.

Learn more about the place by clicking here. Better yet, drop by if you are in the neighborhood. Someone will be happy to see you.

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Little Rock, Arkansas: Big Dam Bridge

This, as you could guess, is one damn big bridge. And it's on top of a dam.

Therefore, it's name is the "Big Dam Bridge." Pretty clever.

This is the largest bridge in the world built solely for pedestrian and bicycle use, at least according to the web site. It's more than 4,000 feet across.

The bridge is about seven miles west of downtown Little Rock, and connects to trails leading back to the city. It's been open since 2006. There are bike and road races in this area.

It could have been called the Murray Bridge, since the southern side is Murray Park, but the name that was picked is much more fun. Here's a video about it:

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Little Rock, Arkansas: Clinton Presidential Center

There aren't many Presidential libraries out there, but they have come to be major tourist attractions when built. The city of Little Rock hit the Presidential lottery when Bill Clinton decided to put his library there.

While there is library filled with all sorts of records about the Clinton years, most people come to see the museum areas. The building in this case is a particularly striking one, built right along the riverfront and giving that part of the city an economic boost.

The facility has three floors. This is a view of the second and third floors from above. The shelves are filled with records from the Clinton Administration and hold a very small percentage of what's in the library. The display down the middle of the second floor reviews each of the eight years of the Administration individually, and there are displays on either side. It's more of the same upstairs, with some personal artifacts of Clinton's (old pictures and documents, letters from celebrities) under glass.

Meanwhile, replicas of the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room are in the far end. By the way, Clinton took a look at the Oval Office just before opening and thought it was a little sterile. So he gave some books and other personal effects to make it look used. That's why visitors can't get past the ropes. It really is oval, though, just like the real thing.

There's a nice plaza outside, leading to a pedestrian bridge over the river. A shuttle ride can take visitors down the street to a gift shop, filled with everything the Presidential collector could use. They were giving away old Presidential campaign buttons when we were there. It's all very well done, no matter what your political viewpoint is.

And here's a video look at it:


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Little Rock, Arkansas: The Little Rock

When visiting Little Rock, Arkansas, the obvious question to be asked is: "Where is the Little Rock?" A piece of it is still there.

It seems when the area was being explored, Benard de le Harpe saw a big rock on the north side of the Arkansas River. He called it the "French Rock," which eventually became known as the "Big Rock."

That left the other side of the river, which had a smaller bit of rock along the river. It was eventually reduced in size to make more room for a railroad bridge.

A piece of the rock found its way to the mayor's office, where it sat for no particular reason. Then, the idea came along to place it near its original home. And that's where it is, just to the east and below a bridge that has been converted to pedestrian use.

By the way, most of the rock on the north side is gone. They dug it out, and used it to build the city on the other side of the river.

Supposedly, not that many residents even know the story of the odd boulder by the river. So you can one-up them by visiting it.

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Little Rock, Arkansas: Little Rock Central High School

At one point in the fall of 1957, this probably was the most famous high school in America - for all the wrong reasons. Little Rock Central became something of a battleground in the fight for civil rights.

Before 1957, the school was considered one of the best in the nation. A 1955 graduate was Brooks Robinson, the Hall of Fame baseball player. The Supreme Court had ordered the integration of our schools a few years previous to Little Rock Central's time of fame. But portions of the South were in no hurry to follow that order.

When some African Americans tried to enter the school as students, they were stopped at the door by the Arkansas National Guard through orders from Gov. Orval Faubus. Federal troops eventually were called in, and the streets around the school turned into chaos. Television cameras filmed all of it and showed it to the rest of the nation, bringing the situation home to millions in a way that wouldn't have been possible 10 years before. The troops stayed for the rest of the school year, and the school later was closed for a while, but eventually integration took place. We really were a nation of laws after all.

The school is still beautiful and huge - it holds 2,500 students. We asked a couple of kids who were outside the school after classes if they had gotten used to studying in a historic place. They said yes. Visitors can't go inside, but they can visit a National Park Service site on a nearby corner. The story of those nine children is told in a variety of ways. This certainly is an odd "tourist attraction," but we should remember what happened on these streets and grounds.

Here's a video look back, compiled for the 50th anniversary of the event:


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Little Rock, Arkansas: State Capitol

Is there some sort of cookie-cutter that cranks out state capitols? It seems like most of them look alike - dome on top, spaces for the legislature, lots of columns.

Welcome, then, to Arkansas's version, which will turn 100 in 2015.

This is a relatively simple version as these things go. There is space for the State Senate and House, and the old Supreme Court chamber is now used for hearings. The Governor has an office there and a reception area.

The grounds do have some statues and markers around. One of them pays tribute to Confederate soldiers. Veterans and the Little Rock Nine of Central High School also take a bow.

Most of the building seems to be covered with construction tarps when we were there, which cut down on the visual impact of the place. The person in charge of greeting visitors could have been a bit more friendly and helpful too. Still, it's always worth a trip to see democracy in action.

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Monday, October 27, 2014

Hot Springs, Arkansas: McClard's Bar-B-Q

Bill Clinton seems like a man who knows good barbecue when he finds it. He reportedly says McClard's is his favorite such restaurant, anywhere. Who are we to disagree?

Thus we joined the many tourists who no doubt have dropped by this place to see how it is.

First of all, it's rather small - there are a limited number of booths and tables. When we were there, everyone seemed to know everyone, and the waitresses called the customers "Hon." Perfect.

McClard's goes through lots and lots of meat in the course of a day, and our sandwiches were quite good. According to legend, the restaurant one time took a sauce recipe instead of a payment, and used it. The recipe is still locked in a safe after it proved very popular.

Both political parties can agree that this is worth a stop at mealtime.

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Hot Springs, Arkansas: Bill Clinton's boyhood home

President Bill Clinton usually is associated with Hope, Arkansas, since that's where he was born. Yet he probably has a stronger connection to Hot Springs.

Clinton moved up the road at the age of eight, arriving in Hot Springs in 1954. This is where the family landed - not particularly far from Central Avenue and the National Park area. As you can see by the picture, the current owners aren't anxious to show you around. But that rock in the bottom right does proclaim this to be Clinton's boyhood home.

It is a little tough to park along the road, so turn into a side street and make the quick walk to 1011 Park Ave. He later moved to 213 Scully in 1961, and stayed for three years. There is literature at the visitors' centers in the area about where Clinton went to school, church and bowling.

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Hot Springs, Arkansas: Babe Ruth's Home Run

Baseball teams early in the 20th century liked to come to Hot Springs for spring training. What's more, players often stopped there in the spring even if their teams were slated to prepare for the season somewhere else. So, many Hall of Famers passed through there.

On March 17, 1918, Babe Ruth took his turn at the plate at a park on Whittington Ave. (Street number is 870.)  He connected and sent the ball into deep, deep center field. It supposedly landed in a pond and became legendary for its distance.

The park is gone, but home plate is still honored with its placement in a parking lot of a business. Meanwhile, in deep center is an alligator farm. But the pond is still there, and it has been measured as 573 feet away from home plate. That would make it the longest home run in history. The alligator farm put up a sign to mark the occasion. The story of it is here.

Is it a true story? Hard to say, of course. That's a long way to hit a baseball, perhaps longer than is possible in the scientific sense. But it's certainly ought to be true. Ruth was about to be a pioneer in slugging baseballs, and maybe this showed everyone - including Ruth - the way.

Hot Springs has what it called an historic baseball trail. Players and locations are honored. Ruth's historical sign as part of the trail is in front of the alligator farm. We considered taking a look at the sign about the homer run inside the farm, but it was a little expensive and the man at the cash register didn't seem like he was willing to let us go take a look for free.  Can't say I blame him.

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Hot Springs, Arkansas: Hot Springs Mountain Tower

If you are standing on top of Hot Springs Mountain during a rain storm, the water won't go away. You'll be able to drink it sometime past the year 6000.

It's a bit of a drive to get there. You can reach the road by going down Fountain Street, near Central Ave. where the Arlington Hotel is on the corner. The road up features plenty of switchbacks, but at least it's one way.

Finally, when you reach the top, you pay some money and take the elevator to the top and see Hot Springs from above. The view is quite nice - it goes for miles - and you certainly do see a lot of trees. The picture gives you an idea of what you'll see.

By the way, there are two levels on the top of the tower - one outside for views, the other inside for informational displays. There's even a video about Hot Springs' finest, Bill Clinton. The bottom of the tower has a small gift shop.

Happily, the road back down the mountain is a much more direct and easy drive.

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Hot Springs, Arkansas: Bathhouse Row

This is arguably the oldest national park in the United States. It's also unique.

In 1832, interest grew over a place in Arkansas where the water that seeped out of the ground was always warm and clean. The town became known as Hot Springs. The government decided to take control of the water, which came out of one particular mountain. It was called a reservation, designed to protect a natural resource. Does that make it older than Yellowstone and Yosemite? Guess it depends on who is telling the story.

By 1877, the government opted to add a little order to the area. Licenses were issued for bath houses, which were build along the bottom of the hill. The waters quickly became known for their medical powers, and soon doctors were telling people to go to Hot Springs and soak in the warm water. This became quite a luxury item, and so Hot Springs became a destination for the rich and famous.Bathing peaked just after World War II, but a couple of the bathhouses are still in business.One of them is the Buckstaff, shown in this picture.It's $30 per bath there, with other services available.

By the way, scientists have discovered that the water on top of the mountain slowly - and I mean slowly - works its way deep into the group. Eventually it hits hot earth, and comes to the surface at almost 150 degrees. It takes more than 4,000 years for the water to complete its journey. People brings gallon jugs to the area and fill them up with this special water; there is no charge.

The Park Visitor Center is located in the Fordyce, which was closed in 1962. The building also serves as a museum, since you can see what the facilities were like in their glory days. There are other springs along Central Ave.

Hot Springs is a little out of the way, but it's still only an hour from Little Rock.

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Memphis, Tennessee: Billy Bass Adoption Center

Remember "Big Mouth Billy Bass"? It was a singing wall ornament, in a sense. The toy, which looked like a fish, would belt out "Take Me to the River" and "Don't Worry, Be Happy." They sold a lot of them around 1998.

But now they aren't so popular, just like Pet Rocks. That raises the question, what do you do with it? Luckily, the restaurant chain "Flying Fish" can provide a good home.

Bring in your Billy Bass for the wall, and the restaurant will give you a free order of catfish in return. Each adoption is signed and dated, and other walls are covered too.

There are similar stores in Little Rock, Dallas and Fort Worth, among other places, and the same offer applies. The food there is quite good, and the line when we ate at the Little Rock store was out the door.

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Memphis, Tennessee: Beale Street

It's fair to say you can have a good time on Beale Street.

Back when Memphis was segregated, this essentially was the Main Street of Black Memphis. It was the home for local music, as artists such as W.C. Handy, Elvis Presley and B.B. King learned their craft there.

It's a different era now ... and everyone apparently hangs out here. The music is still around, and the food is mighty good. That has helped make it one of America's most iconic streets.

You can see the best of Memphis' musicians honored on the sidewalk with "notes" done in the style of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It's called "The Brass Note Walk of Fame." We stumbled on Sam and Dave, for starters.

Hardy's house is still intact and available for touring at the end of the district. A. Schwab's is a classic general store, with a variety of odd goods and some displays on the history of the area. King and Jerry Lee Lewis have restaurants; you can see a couple of King's guitars (called "Lucille" when in use) on the wall. Silky O'Sullivans has goats to keep you company during food and drink.

This is only a couple of blocks from the FedEx Forum. It's a fun stop, day or night.

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Memphis, Tennessee: Stax Museum of American Soul Music

Remember Stax Records? It was an recording label from the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies. Stax had a ton of talent come through the door, including Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, the Staple Singers, Ike & Tina Turner, etc. It sold a lot of records.

Sadly, the business end didn't work out so well. Stax made a few business deals that didn't work out, and eventually the business went bankrupt in the Seventies. The home of the place in Memphis soon became an empty lot.

The music, however, lived on. Therefore, someone decided to bring the place back to life in the form of a museum - right on the same spot. There are all sorts of record covers, videos, and audio clips that salute the era. The studio has been recreated as well, almost exactly the way it used to be.

All well and good, you say, but what's the story with the car pictured above.

Yes, the car. That's Isaac Hayes' Cadillac. The detail isn't great because flash photography isn't allowed, but the car is on a slow-spinning carousel. Visitors can get a good look at the solid gold trim and the shag rug that must have been a pain to clean. It's fair to say that when Isaac was on your street, you knew he was coming.

Here's a 2006 report from CBS on the museum:

It's located several blocks south of the National Civil Rights Museum. There's a music academy right next door, and plenty of free parking in the back.

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Memphis, Tennessee: National Civil Rights Museum

For those of a certain age, this location is instantly recognized. It's the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. You've probably seen a famous picture taken from the balcony of King's associates pointing to where the shots were fired, across the street.

The motel, which was famous for catering to anyone who walked through the door (meaning black and white), eventually went out of business. However, people still came to see the site, so someone in Memphis decided that they ought to learn a bit of history while they were there. Eventually, the National Civil Rights Museum was finished. It opened in 1991.

Almost all of the inside of the building was transformed into a museum. The story of the nation's struggle with the idea that all men and women are created equal is nicely told through a variety of exhibitions, sound clips, videos, etc. Near the end of the tour, visitors can look through some glass and see what Room 306 looked like on that fateful day in April 1968. They also can look out on to the balcony; the window is upstairs to the far right. I'm not sure what the correct word is to describe that view. Perhaps that is for each person to decide.

From there, visitors are sent across the street. There they can learn more about civil rights as well as the investigation into the murder. While you can not stand in the exact room in which James Earl Ray allegedly shot King, you can examine the scene from the window a few feet away. It too is chilling.

By the way, there was a small protest (one woman and a sign) across the street from the museum, one that has been going on for years. She apparently wondered if it was appropriate to spend millions preserving the site of a tragedy. It's an interesting position at least.

The building was remodeled in 2014. It's an affecting experience. Here's a video done just before it reopened:

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