WORDS: Marla Cantrell
Twenty-five years is a long time to teach band in one place. But that’s what Steve Baskin did, in Huntsville, Arkansas, where legions of students now recall the classes he taught, his careful instruction, the camaraderie of playing music together. But last year Steve retired, and suddenly he found himself looking for something meaningful that would fill his days.
His wife, Brenda, felt a shift as well. Until then, her life as a writer had a rhythm of its own. Steve would leave each morning and she would write until he returned. Now, there was little structure to their day, and as much as she loved having him home, she wondered if her work might suffer.
And then, on a bright day in July, 2013, the two went for a hike. Steve snapped pictures along the way. Once home, he looked at the photographs. There was his home state in all its glory. He decided to create a Facebook page called ‘Then There Was Arkansas,’ and post his pictures. “All my life I’d heard comments about us being hillbillies, and the Facebook page was kind of an exclamation point on what Arkansas is,” Steve says, and shakes his head. “I’m an outdoor type, so I’ve seen the mountains and the waterfalls, and I’ve been around the state. I’m a bass player, so I’ve been to Helena and Texarkana and all the way to Memphis, and Little Rock, so I’ve seen the area.”
So he began to post, regularly, scenic photos and tidbits describing the locations. Soon Brenda was looking over his writing, editing here and there, adding details, and just like that she was hooked.
At first, only their friends were following the page, but then momentum built. They started adding historical pieces, posts about odd characters, hardy pioneers, and Arkansas trailblazers who’ve garnered attention across the globe.
With the posts came old photos like the one of “Boss” Burnett, a 600 pound man, seven feet tall, who lived in Nevada County in the early part of the last century and likely traveled with the circus. The photo shows him seated, a wide man in a white sailor suit, staring at the camera, a leaded glass window just behind him.
It’s finds like these that delight the couple. Steve talks about his own family history in Huntsville. His mother wrote a book and painted. As he’s talking, he reaches over and touches his wife’s hand. “Now Brenda,” he says, “is quite a writer. It’s one of the things that intrigues me about her.”
This scene, this glimpse into their lives, is one of the great things about these two. Each wants to tell the story of the other, of the great things their partner has done. They seem energized by just being together, and by their love of ‘Then There Was Arkansas.’
“We bore our friends to death,” Brenda says. “It’s all we talk about. We have people from across the world who are reading about how great Arkansas is. Part of what we like to do is talk about the food here, the old restaurants. There’s Jones Bar-B-Q Diner in Marianna, the oldest black-owned barbeque restaurant in the state. We’d love to go talk to him. People are sentimental about their food. You get into how it got built and its history.”
One of the characters they researched is Big Boy from Hardy, a gentleman who came to the same cafe every Saturday for pie. “They knew not to talk to him,” Steve says. “He was savoring that pie, and then he’d take another piece, and before long he’d have the whole pie eaten.”
And then there’s The Minute Man, a burger chain restaurant that once was a giant in towns across the state in the sixties and seventies. Today there is only one, in El Dorado. “Early on, we wrote a piece about The Minute Man, and all of a sudden we had 20,000 people view that,” Steve says. “So we learned that if it interested us it probably would interest other people.
“I came up with one yesterday about the Chuggabug, which was a cartoon based partly on an Arkansas character,” Steve says, and then Brenda takes over, explaining how they find these little-known pieces of history. “We nerd out,” she says. “We’ll start out on one story and then we research it, mining through five or ten sources.”
Steve jumps in. “I was researching a famous headstone carver, a real famous guy, and a lady was mentioned. I saw who the lady was, and found she was one of the few women stone carvers in the world, and she was from Arkansas.”
Brenda smiles. “He laughs at me because I’ll start the day telling him I’m writing about a cornfield and by the end of the day the story’s turned into one about a brain surgeon.”
The two have begun to keep lists of future ideas, in an effort to stay on course. They post about six times each day and mix it up: something old, something from nature, biography, odd facts. Their fan base has grown to more than 11,000, some from as far away as Italy, Holland, England and Iran. Closer to home, they have a lot of teachers, chambers of commerce, and students following them.
What they love is how interactive Facebook is. Oftentimes they’ll post an old photo and their fans will help them flesh out the history behind it. “We did a story on Black Oak Arkansas (a Southern rock group from the seventies) and we had people telling us they grew up with them. We had 40,000 people view that,” Steve says.
“I grew up with the Levon Helm family,” Steve says. (Levon, who died in 2012, was the drummer and vocalist for The Band, with songs such as “Up On Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” He was also an actor with roles in The Right Stuff and Coal Miner’s Daughter.) “I played with him once. I understand small town life and what goes on there, but he’s made it so big it’s hard to write about him.”
No doubt, someday the two will tackle Levon. Until then, they’ll focus on folks like Old Mike, a traveling salesman who walked with crutches. He sat down under a tree during a revival in Prescott in 1911, and died there. His body went unclaimed and the local funeral parlor preserved and kept him, sometimes propping him up in a car during parades, showcasing him in the storefront, and later devoting a closet with its own light to him. For years, young men would take their dates to see him, and as the years passed, Old Mike’s wardrobe changed, always clothes from the era when he died.
The great thing about the two is that they share the same affection for Big Boy and Old Mike that they do for the big names from Arkansas, like Johnny Cash or Glen Campbell. All the characters matter. All of them fit into the puzzle that makes Arkansas the land they love.
And so Steve and Brenda continue to write and research, learning something new every day, working long after the sun sets, disregarding the time. And each morning they wake, excited to start another day, ready to see what else they can find out about the great state of Arkansas.