Mrs. Helton’s Martin Box 2/28/19 John Ford Barton
I have told this story many times over the years, and I have set about writing it a time or two without ever getting it right enough to finish. It is a worthy tale of a simple moment in the life of Mrs. Helton, a familiar character to all of us who floated Big Piney Creek in Pope County, Arkansas, back in the day. Opal and Delmar Helton lived on their small farm along the Big Piney, where, as best I could tell, they scratched out a living from their garden and raising a few cows to supplement anything they might have gotten in the way of Social Security or retirement. I likely would never have even heard of them but for the fact that their place lay on a ford of the Piney that had become an access point for floating the creek down to Long Pool.
Some background on my history with the Big Piney
My first trip to the Big Piney took place in about 1977 when my brother Frank Barton invited me along for a “cleanup float” with a group of folks that were to become some of the premier players of Arkansas’ growing whitewater community. Folks like Frank, Mike Beard, Paul Means, Robert and John Booth, Kenny Holmes, and others had started making epic trips east to the Chattooga, Ocoee, Tellico and more.
Beard’s house served as the meeting place and boatyard for this crew, so we had gathered there. Mike loaded up the absent Terry Keefe’s black Blue Hole OC canoe for me to use, along with Keefe’s fine wooden Mitchell paddle. I didn’t know Keefe very well at the time, but I knew how much these boys valued their boats.
“Will Keefe mind?” I asked.” “He won’t know,” Mike answered. Enough said.
On our way out of town, Mike Galbraith and I stopped by the Terminal Hotel and Café at the corner of Second and Victory in Little Rock, in which he was a partner, to load up sufficient beer. He didn’t have his keys, so we pulled down a fire escape and entered through a second story window. After rousing his partner, Paul Black, from his bed in one of the rooms, we loaded up a bunch of longnecks from the bar and hit the road.
Frank had told me that we were headed to Helton’s farm at Treat to launch, a remote place at a dead end off of the Treat Road. I’ve roamed those hills quite a bit over the years hence, but at that time it was all pretty mysterious to me. By this time, Delmar Helton had taken to charging $1.00 per boat to launch from his pasture. As I recall, he’d started off just letting folks put in for free, but after having to gather his cattle a few times too many as a result of his gate being left open, he saw a chance to get paid for his trouble.
It was also to be my first solo canoe experience, and I soon found myself with a load of litter, a half of a shattered Budweiser fiberglass canoe tied over the bow, several beers in my belly, and having a whole lot of fun. I somehow got behind the group, as we were stopping here and there to gather trash and debris, and at some point I turned over. By the time I gathered the boat and re-secured the broken canoe and trash I had spilled, I discovered I had lost the precious borrowed paddle. I paddled that 16’ 90-pound Blue Hole with my hands through the next few rapids, wearing my arms raw on the rough gunnels, and hoping for a glimpse of my companions up ahead, all the while wondering how I was going to come up with $30.00 to pay Keefe for that paddle. That was a couple of weeks of grocery money for me at the time. Soon enough, I came to Surfing Rapid, which I managed to run successfully, to find Frank waiting below in his kayak holding the recovered paddle. Needless to say, I was really glad to see my brother.
That trip was my first of many days boating with these pioneers of the Arkansas paddling scene, and it changed my life. My love for rivers has led me all over the country and beyond, and the shared passion for boating forged my most enduring friendships.
Over the next couple of years, Frank got into the business of selling whitewater boats, and I saved up for my first canoe, a 16’ Perception Chattooga. The Big Piney became my weekend destination from fall through spring whenever there was water in the creek, camping at Long Pool and honing my skills in the canoe before moving to kayaks.
At times when the creek was up, the Heltons would sit on their front porch, rock, and collect those dollars. Floating the Piney was becoming a pretty big thing, as the paddling community in Arkansas was growing rapidly and the Big Piney was seen as a step up in difficulty from the popular Buffalo River. With some supplemental income, Delmar soon replaced the pasture gate with a cattle guard, and would ride a four-wheeler down to check on his cows rather than walking.
On big weekends, well over a hundred boats would launch, and area families like that of Bobby Ledford got into the business of running shuttles. Bobby lived in the first house up the gravel road from Long Pool, along with a couple of his boys and his father, Andrew Jackson “AJ” Ledford. We mostly hoped to get Bobby to drive, as his boys were a little wild and, well, AJ’s nickname among boaters was Stinky. These were hill people and we respected them, but the fact is, I don’t think AJ was real fond of the bath. Somewhere in there, Kerry and Debbie Moore had opened Moore Outdoors, making canoe rentals and commercial shuttles available, and the Forest Service got involved enforcing vendor rules. The Forest Service rules effectively put the Ledfords out of the shuttle business, but there are still some good stories about them told around dying campfires.
As usual, my lead-in is likely longer than my story, but some things just need to be told in order to set the scene.
Back to the story….
I’m guessing this was sometime in the mid-80’s. I have to admit that the years and the stories pile up and overlap as time sends them further back in my memory. In the company of my red-haired galpals Robin Booth (now-Fuhrman) and Mary Orsini, I had headed out to paddle Richland Creek. These women were among the badass boaters of the day and a hell of a lot of fun, to boot. There had been a lot of rain, but it was expected to stop and make for a good day on the river. As we headed to Richland, one storm after the other pounded the area, and we started to rethink our plan. We were counting on meeting other folks at the creek, but the internet was a thing of the future and that was not assured. We decided that rather than risking being caught on Richland in a flood, we would head on over to the Big Piney.
The storms just kept coming, with the sky near black and water running big in the ditches as we drove the Treat Road down to Page Hollow and turned up over the hill and down to the Helton place. The first thing we noticed when we pulled in was Mrs. Helton standing in the bed of their pickup under the martin box on a tall pole in the yard.
I can still see the picture in my mind today—the slate dark sky, the boiling clouds, the lighting flashing like a bad fluorescent light, and the thunder booming like cannon shots around the valley. “Cataclysmic” is the word that always comes to mind to describe the scene.
At the center of that was Mrs. Helton, grey hair soaked and streaming across her face, wearing some kind of bright plaid polyester pants with a mismatched plaid flannel shirt, and in her hand she had a cane pole with what looked like a Lucky 13 bass bait on a swivel at the end. Delmar was sitting calmly on the porch, watching the action. Mrs. Helton appeared to be reaming out that martin box with the Lucky 13 on the end of the cane pole. I think Mary had gotten out of our truck to pay, joining Delmar on the porch as Robin and I sat enthralled with the scene. As we tried to figure out what was happening, a big black rat snake started emerging from the bird box, its head stretched a foot or so out into the air as Mrs. Helton whacked away with her unwieldy weapon. It dawned on us-- that snake was eating her purple martins and she was having no part of it. As we watched the scene unfold, a shot rang out at about the same moment the snake fell to the ground. Looking back to the porch, we saw that Delmar had picked up a single-shot .22 and had popped off a round at the snake. As he hustled back into the house for another cartridge, Mrs. Helton hopped down from the bed of the truck and started trying to beat that snake into submission with her pole. As this was going on, their son Glenn was pulling up in his own truck. He quickly assessed the scene, walked over to the nearby shed and picked up a garden hoe with which he dispatched the snake.
Farm folks are usually glad to have a big rat snake around, but even a good snake can wear out his welcome by dining in the chicken house or the martin box.
I only wish that I could have accompanied this story with lightening and rolling thunder, but I’ll have to leave that to your imagination.
The weather did clear and, as best as I remember, we had a good day on the creek, but what has stuck in my mind over these intervening years is the story of Mrs. Helton and her martin box.
Delmar Helton died in 1994, and Opal Meadows Helton died in 2012 at the age of 97. After Delmar’s death, Mrs. Helton continued to sit on the porch in her old chair, greeting paddlers and collecting the fee of a few dollars. I haven’t been up there in a few years but I understand Glenn tries to be there when the creek is up. If you put in at Helton’s be sure and pay what’s due. I’ve been told that you can pay at Moore Outdoors now. It is hard to scratch a living out of these hills and the Heltons have managed to do so for several generations. *