Helena: An Historical Gem on the Mississippi River – Helena, Arkansas

Helena: An Historical Gem on the Mississippi River
Helena, Arkansas

Mark Twain, widely recognized as an expert on the subject of the mighty Mississippi River and its environs, wrote, “Helena occupies one of the prettiest situations on the river.” Adorning the banks of the mighty Mississippi River and tucked along the wooded hills of Crowley’s Ridge, Twain’s description of Helena remains as true today as when he penned those words well over a hundred years ago.

Founded in 1820, Helena is arguably the quintessential Mississippi River Delta town. Possessing a heritage as rich as the fertile Delta soils surrounding the city and an impressive number of historic homes, museums and historic sites, Helena provides visitors with an insightful glimpse into the remarkable history and heritage of the storied Mississippi Delta. From Old South mansions to the lonesome strains of a Delta blues musician, Helena showcases all of the diversity of the Mississippi Delta and makes for a wonderful getaway.

Telling The Story of the Delta Everyday – The Delta Cultural Center
Perhaps the best place to begin your Helena experience is at the Delta Cultural Center, which has taken upon itself the ambitious mission of preserving, interpreting and presenting the heritage and culture of Arkansas’ Mississippi River Delta. The Center, through a wide variety of permanent and changing exhibits, provides an excellent orientation to the Delta and depicts the people, history, and the geography of the area from pre-settlement times to the present.

The Delta Cultural Center’s Depot, located at 95 Missouri Street in downtown Helena, is a restored 1915 Missouri-Pacific train depot and the larger of the two complexes composing the Delta Cultural Center. It was at this same depot in 1948 that Delta Cultural Center tour guide Juanita Russell first came to Helena, aboard the Delta Eagle passenger train. “Back then, Helena was a thriving town,” recalls Russell. And it was – one of the Delta’s most important centers for agriculture, commerce, industry, entertainment and politics.

Just as the Depot introduced Russell to Helena over 50 years ago, the Depot today continues to introduce visitors to the magical Mississippi Delta through a wonderful array of exhibits on the area. Although visitors can tour the Depot and its exhibits on their own and have an enjoyable visit, the Depot’s tour guides are a wonderful, knowledgeable resource and add tremendously to the experience.

“I just love Helena,” says Russell. “I’ve lived all over the United States and prefer Helena to all the other places I have been.” And her love for the river city and the Delta is contagious. Eyes gleaming, Russell recollects to visitors her own first-hand experiences of the joys and challenges of life in the Delta, truly bringing to life the exhibits’ storyboards.

One of the Depot’s larger exhibits is “Old Man River,” which explores the importance of rivers to the Delta, especially the Mississippi River. While serving as the foundations for the Delta’s agriculture and livelihood, rivers were at the same time a persistent bane to the region with rampant floods and water-borne diseases. This exhibit also examines some of the more romantic aspects of the Delta’s rivers such as the Age of the Steamboats, America’s “floating palaces.”

If you have kids, they will really enjoy the Depot’s unique “Children’s Caboose” exhibit housed in a restored train caboose with several activities geared for youngsters – and the young at heart. Other exhibits in the Depot include topics ranging from the Civil War’s Battle of Helena to life in the modern day Delta.

Delta Sounds – The Music of the Delta
Over the years, the Delta has become synonymous with music – blues, gospel and rockabilly all have their roots in the deep Delta soil. To learn about the Delta’s rich musical heritage, next stop is the Delta Cultural Center Visitor’s Center, located just one block from the Depot, at 141 Cherry Street in the heart of Helena’s historic business district. The Visitor’s Center is home to the Delta Cultural Center’s “Delta Sounds” exhibit, an exhibit with wonderful interactive displays on Delta music and the area’s famous musicians, ranging from bluesman Robert Jr. Lockwood to country superstar Conway Twitty.

One of Helena’s biggest tourist draws is “‘Da Biscuit,” what locals affectionately call the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival. The three-day festival held each October has grown into one of the largest blues festivals in the world, attracting over 100,000 people annually to the river city. Although nothing can compare with actually visiting during the Festival, don’t fret if your travel plans will not allow you to visit during this time – the Visitor’s Center features a fabulous video of the Festival with performances by some of the biggest names is blues music.

Like to watch history in the making? The Visitor’s Center is home of the Peabody Award-winning “King Biscuit Time” radio show, one of the longest running daily radio programs in the country. Since 1941, “King Biscuit Time” has been airing over the Mississippi Delta and showcasing the Delta’s finest blues musicians. Every weekday from 12:15 – 12:45 p.m., host Sonny “Sunshine” Payne continues the King Biscuit tradition on KFFA AM 1360 from the show’s studio in the Visitor’s Center.

In addition to the “Delta Sound” exhibit and “King Biscuit Time,” the Visitor’s Center also houses a number of outstanding temporary exhibits. The current exhibit – to be shown through December 2002 – is Dewitt Jordan, Delta Artist: Genius at Work and showcases 20 pieces from Dewitt Jordan, one of the Delta’s most talented and acclaimed artists. Make sure you save time for the Visitor’s Center gift shop – the gift shop offers a large selection of Delta-themed souvenirs and King Biscuit memorabilia, perfect mementos of your Helena experience.

Exploring Helena – An Historic Driving Tour
Now that you’ve been properly introduced to the Delta, it’s time to get out and explore this historic city. To help guide you on your journey, be sure to pickup the “Discover Historic Helena on the Mississippi” brochure available free of charge at the Delta Cultural Center Visitor’s Center. With its map on back showing the locations of the city’s major points of interest, jump in your car and chart your own course to see this beautiful river town.

On your tour, make sure to drive down historic Cherry Street, the main street of Helena. The subject of many a blues song, a drive down Cherry Street and through downtown Helena is a trip through time in the Delta. This is the real Delta – not a “Disneyfied” version for visitors. It’s not hard to imagine the street back in the city’s golden days, booming with business with the soulful sounds of the blues coming from juke joints down a back alley. Many of the storefronts along Cherry Street are empty today and the buildings are falling into disrepair – reminders of the Delta’s economic hardships over the last several decades, hardships that city leaders are still struggling to solve. Yet the street also shows the promise of the Delta’s future, a future that respects the unique history and heritage of the Delta – the foundations of the area’s burgeoning tourism industry.

For Civil War buffs, many of the sites associated with the Battle of Helena can be viewed on a driving tour of this historic river city. One such site is the Tappan-Pillow House, which General Sherman quartered in while in the area. A private residence, the impressive Antebellum home is located at 717 Poplar Street. Another Civil War site of interest is Battery C, the location of a Union artillery battery during the failed Southern attempt to recapture the river city. Atop Maple Hill overlooking the mighty Mississippi River you’ll find the Confederate Cemetery, the final resting place for many of the South’s casualties from the bloody battle. The cemetery is also the final resting place of General Patrick Cleburne, one of seven Confederate generals from Helena.

For most visitors, though, Helena’s beautiful old homes and buildings are the major attractions. Antebellum and Victorian homes are found throughout the city – just follow the blue and white “Historic Tour” signs through Helena’s historic neighborhoods and the downtown district. Be sure to take your camera – the city’s historic homes and churches provide all kinds of wonderful photo opportunities and glimpses into the life of the Old South. Many of the homes remain private residences, so be certain to respect the owners’ property and privacy rights. Others have been restored and converted into bed and breakfast inns, so if you are planning to stay overnight, these inns provide a very unique getaway in a historic setting.

A “Victorian Dollhouse” – The Pillow-Thompson Victorian Home
For a real treat, be certain to save time on your tour of Historic Helena for a visit to the beautiful Pillow-Thompson Victorian Home at 718 Perry Street. The home, built in 1896 by Jerome B. Pillow, is one of the finest examples of Queen Anne architecture in the South and is the only home in Helena available for tours to the general public. Operated by Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas, tours of the home provide a glance at the genteel lifestyle of Victorian-era Helena.

“For years, this home has been a major part of the community,” explains Virginia King of the college. Long a fixture in the city and its social life, Josephine Thompson and her son George de Man donated the historic Pillow-Thompson Home to the college in 1993. Through a joint effort of the community and the college, the home was completely restored and opened to the public for tours in 1997.

“The Pillow-Thompson House is the only Victorian home in Arkansas with ‘full-wood’ construction,” comments King while pointing out the woodwork throughout the home. “Many visitors are impressed by the home’s beautiful poplar and oak woodwork.”

The woodwork, like the remainder of the home, was beautifully restored to its original grandeur. Five generations of the Pillow family have lived in the home and many of the home’s original furnishings remain on display, along with family photographs and personal items reflecting the history of the home and the community.

Another unique feature of the home is its dual purpose. In addition to the tours, the Pillow-Thompson House is an integral component of Phillips Community College’s Hospitality Management program. Besides serving as tour guides, students in the program receive instruction and “hands-on” experience in the state-of-the-art kitchen and classrooms located in a rear addition to the home. Through these efforts the Hospitality Management program is preparing a new generation of residents to take leadership and management roles in the growing hospitality industry of the Delta, ensuring the area’s famous “Southern Hospitality” does not itself become a relic of the past.

In the end, it is this genuine, warm Southern hospitality that truly sets Helena and the Delta apart from so many other destinations. It is reassuring to know that in today’s fast-paced, often impersonal world that there are still some places where authenticity, heritage and old-fashioned hospitality exist. I tend to think that even ole Mr. Twain would still be pretty impressed by this historic river city.

For more information to help you plan your visit to historic Helena, please contact:

Phillips County (Helena) Chamber of Commerce

P.O. Box 447
Helena, AR 72342-0447
(870) 338-8327