I hope this note finds you well.
Many of you know that I have spent much of my adult life enamored of an idyllic place called Gum Ridge, Arkansas. This wonderful little place is in East Arkansas and sits on the banks of the Green River. It is peopled with a wonderful group of delightful characters and just normal people caught in the act of being human. Now, in truth, I was raised in a small town in East Arkansas on the banks of the White River, called Augusta. As you might guess, the fabled Gum Ridge and the real Augusta are suspiciously similar. What most of you don’t know is that Gum Ridge is a real place, but it isn’t a town; it’s the farm where I was born and spent most of my youth.
In the midst of the Depression, our branch of the Taggart family of Stuttgart packed up their bags and moved 90 miles north to the river bottomland between the White River and Cache River. At that point the Cache and White Rivers are only about eight miles apart and much of the land is low-lying ground that floods regularly. The topsoil is deep and rich, and just a few feet under the surface is a thick layer of gumbo mud; it is a perfect place to raise rice.
The farm was owned by the Conner company and is about two miles east of Augusta on Highway 64; it is about 2000 acres. The problem when the family arrived was that only about 200 acres were clear of timber and ready for farming. For the next 25 years, they spent their winters clearing land and preparing new ground. In the middle of this low-lying rice land was a sandy ridge that had been deposited in the distant past and on this ridge were several gum trees; that is where the farm got its name.
Looking back through the lens of seventy-three years, it’s clear that we were poor. But we weren’t wedded to that poverty. We had enough to eat and we stayed warm in the wintertime (except for the outhouse—that was very cold).
In many ways our life was idyllic. It revolved around the family. My grandmother and her two youngest children, still at home when Grandpa died, lived just 50 yards to the east. My father’s closest brother and his family lived 50 yards to the west.
I remember thinking as a child that I would probably end up rice farming like my father. But one day when I was a young teen, Dad and I were repairing a levee disrupted by a rainstorm. We took a break, put down our shovels, and Dad lit his ever-present cigar. Out of the blue he said to me, “Do you know what I want for you out of life?” “No,” I replied. “I hope you don’t spend the rest of your life pushing someone else’s mud around.”
Have a good journey,
Dr. Sam Taggart is a retired doctor/ writer/ marathon runner in practice in Benton for the last 35 years. He recently published The Public’s Health: A narrative history of health and disease in Arkansas, published by the Arkansas Times. His two other books, With a Heavy Heart and We All Hear Voices are available at your local booksellers or online at Amazon.com.