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A World Away

Just across the Mississippi lies a peaceful, flood-prone community.



He used to be homeless. Now, he's got a small house just across the river from Memphis on Dacus Lake in Marion, Arkansas, with what he says is the best view on that side of the Mississippi.

A step out of the front door of his makeshift home a wooden dwelling accented with lime-green paint and a string of Busch beer flags places him in a shady grove with an excellent view of the Memphis skyline. From the right side of his lot, he can see the lights of the M-shaped Hernando DeSoto Bridge, counterbalanced by the gleaming Pyramid.

He calls himself "Ieee!" (pronounced just how it looks and vocalized in a high-pitched scream). He's a gray-bearded construction worker, who, after falling on hard times, got back on his feet with a little help from his friends. They bought him a place at Dacus Lake, a 600-acre oxbow of the Mississippi inhabited by 50 or so permanent and weekend residents.

Ieee! is just one of a peaceful bunch who live in campers or trailers, makeshift wooden houses and converted school and church buses. He claims to enjoy nothing more than freedom and a little peace and quiet and, of course, fishing. From the Memphis side, it's a pastoral scene of towering trees and grass as green as a fresh crayon. From the highway just across the bridge, trailers and tiny houses come into view.

At Dacus Lake, it's hard not to be reminded of times when things were simpler, people were nicer, and days went by more slowly.

The Long and Winding Road

The road that leads to Dacus Lake is long, narrow, and winding. On either side of the four-mile stretch from the "Old Bridge" to the lake, fields of cotton, soybeans, and other crops fan out into infinity. It's easy to forget you're just minutes away from the bustle of the city.

At the end of the road, a white-lettered sign hanging from the side of a bait shop welcomes visitors to Dacus Lake. The bait shop is an unpainted wooden structure on stilts that serves as a hub for the community. It's also the place for visitors to check in and pay the $2 fee for bank fishing or the $6 fee to put a boat in.

As for the fishing: Locals say there's some whoppers swimming in the lake, including some unusual specimens that swim downstream from up north.

"We've seen some fish that we didn't even know what the hell they was," says Terry Clem, co-manager of the bait shop. "This guy came in here the other day with a fish that had big ole bug eyes. It looked kind of like a trout, but when you took him off the ice, it turned black. The river brings all kinds of fish down here."

The prospect of fish o'plenty attracts all kinds of people. While most of the residents might be considered blue-collar types, the lake also draws quite a few more upscale anglers looking to take their bass boats out for a spin.

Most Dacus residents are white males, although there are exceptions.

"There's a lot of guys out here on disability, and they've come out here because they have nothing else to do. They're usually divorced or never been married," explains Lori Glessing, who lives at Dacus with her husband and three kids.

A drive through the community during weekday business hours reveals a ghost-town-like quality. Susie Countryman, who lives in a camper with her husband, says residents are often mistaken for migrants by outsiders, although most of them hold daytime jobs.

But it's the eccentric appearance of their homes that attracts gawkers and is probably the source of speculation that residents live nomadic lifestyles. Most are on wheels or raised several feet off the ground to keep them from flooding when the river gets high.

Mary Lou Branch, Susie Countryman's mother, moved to Dacus from Chicago to live near her daughter and to get away from city life. Countryman owned a yellow school bus, so she gave it to her mother to convert into a mobile home.

Inside Branch's bus, the small kitchen has a dining area fashioned from two school bus seats, one turned backward so that both face a table in between. The rest of the seats have been removed, and a small air conditioner sits in one of the windows. A teal curtain at the back of the bus sections off the bedroom area.

Bus homes are only allowed on one side of the lake. The encampments at Dacus are divided up into two areas one near the bait shop on the south side of the lake and another a few miles down the road on the lake's northwest side. Clem says he's trying to clean up the "bait shop side".

"We're getting rid of the buses. I'm trying to clean this place up and make it look nice," says Clem. "Some of them are pretty nice inside, but the outsides don't look so good."

But when the river floods, those buses come in handy. When the Mississippi rises, it tends to flood out the residents without raised homes, forcing them to flee.

Head for High Ground

A.D. Peden, a five-year resident of the area, lives in a small trailer with a yellow Labrador retriever named Gus. He loves the peace and quiet of the lake and the fact that there's "no fightin' and no loud music playin'."

But if there's one thing he hates about life at Dacus, it's the floods. When the waters start to rise, Peden and several others in mobile homes and buses are forced to move to a farm road that runs alongside nearby Interstate 40, which usually stays above the flood waters.

"When it floods, I have to go stay with friends in Memphis or my family because there's no electricity in my trailer when it's parked out by the interstate," he says.

But some see the floods as an excuse to party. Branch and several others with generators stay in their mobile homes along the highway while the water's high. They grill out, drink beer, and wave at motorists.

"It's a party and a half. We were all out there drinking Budweiser and everything," says Countryman. "The truckers on the interstate liked us. We'd flash them and get honks."

The Mississippi River typically floods at least once a year sometimes just a few feet and sometimes up to 40 feet. Those living in elevated homes usually stay put. They park their cars on the road with the buses and trailers and take a boat to their car if they need to leave.

Residents usually have time to prepare since the water rises slowly. Anything located below porch level, like grills or lawn furniture, must be taken inside or tied up or it will float downstream.

"During the floods, we'd stand on the front porch and see coolers and barbecue grills and everything coming by. My husband would get out in his boat and chase them down," says Billie Babb, who used to run the Dacus Lake bait shop with her husband. She's since moved back to Memphis for health reasons.

Those whose homes are built on stilts are generally safe from the floods, but not always. Glessing, whose trailer sits about 10 feet above ground, said in 1996 water actually got inside. But she says the waters generally stay under her front porch, allowing her 13-year-old son to jump off the front steps and pretend the lake is the "biggest swimming pool in the world."

"When it floods, everything's just gone. There's no fields, no roads, nothing but my trailer sitting here," says Glessing. "The last time it flooded, someone stopped [on the interstate] and was taking pictures with a telephoto lens of my trailer surrounded by water. They think it's so neat because it just looks like it's sitting here floating."

Ieee!'s small wooden home isn't mobile. He has to take a trailer out to the farm road while his home sits covered by water. He says his floor is usually about 12 inches underwater, and it's been as high as the top of his shed.

But he says he's developed a plan that will allow him to stay on the lake through the floods. Anchored to the bank in front of his home is the aluminum base of a pontoon boat. He plans to fashion a home on top of it, enabling him to float until the waters recede.

It may seem like a hassle to have to relocate once a year, but as one Dacus Laker explains, "If people didn't like it, they probably wouldn't live over here." Residents say they've gotten used to having to come back and pick up the pieces. They say the peace and quiet make it worth the effort.

A Piece of History

In 1995, when Billie Babb and her husband Charlie were running the bait shop, a group of Native Americans came through the area as part of a Trail of Tears reenactment. Dacus is on the Bell's Route trail, one of the major routes used in the federal government's forced removal of the Cherokee Indians in 1838 and 1839. The trail ran across Tennessee, through central Arkansas, and ended in Oklahoma.

"They stopped and spent the night here, and they had their fire and ceremonies," remembers Babb. "When they touched bank on the Arkansas side, they had a ceremony with their medicine man. I forget how many there were, but they came from all over from Canada to Florida and they were all dressed in their native dress. We fed them bologna sandwiches at the bait shop, and they started out again the next day."

The Dacus Lake area has a rich history. The lake was once a bend in the Mississippi's course where the river turned southeast, passing the fourth Chickasaw Bluff and Memphis. Over time, erosion severed it from the river, forming the oxbow that it is today.

A settlement was established near the area in 1797 by Benjamin Foy, who was sent from Louisiana as an agent to Native Americans in the Memphis area. The government eventually forced him to leave the east side of the river, so he set up a camp on the Arkansas side known as Camp de la Esperanza, which means "camp of hope." The name was later changed to Hopefield.

It was the second settlement in the state of Arkansas and played a crucial role as a base for Confederate guerrilla forces during the Civil War. Several Civil War steamers were sunk in the area. The town of Hopefield was burned to the ground by Union troops in 1863. An account of the incident from the Memphis Daily Bulletin in 1863 reads: "The little white houses, with their green shutters and little fenced yards so peaceful as we gazed upon them from the bluffs yesterday, are at this moment smoking cinders or red pillars of vengeful fire ... ."

What was left of Hopefield after the war was eventually swallowed by the river, and the bend known as Hopefield Bend formed Dacus Lake.

Today, the area surrounding Dacus is known as the Esperanza Historical and Nature Trail. At one time, 15 historical markers noted significant events in the area's history. They were put there by a Boy Scout troop years ago, but most were grown over with brush and weeds when the Babbs rediscovered them in the mid-'90s.

"They were in a big clump of trees and my son had to go in there and chop to get them out. He stood them back up and washed them off," remembers Babb.

Now only metal poles protrude from the ground where they once stood.

The encampment around the lake was formed sometime in the 1950s, although no one is quite sure how or why it was founded. Several residents remember spending time there as children, and Babb says she used to hear lots of tales from people stopping in the bait shop.

"They'd say they used to go fishing here with their daddy or grandfather, and it would only be like 50 cents to go fishing," she says. "You could camp out, but they didn't have tents back then. You slept on the ground."

Fifty years later, Dacus Lake hasn't changed all that much. The trees and fields and water offer tranquility. It's hard not to think back to grandpa's tales of fishing barefoot on a lazy summer afternoon.

"It's one of the last places the poor man can go fishing," says Babb. "And if you don't like fishing, you can just go out on the lake and enjoy yourself. It's just like you're in another world."

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