While I am of Italian descent, my husband is very much of American descent, and given that the United States is my new home I would be cutting my genealogical research short if I limited myself to the research of my own family. Please don’t be too judgmental in my assessment of this town. I’ve been there about three times and only for a short while. (Blues Festival x2, driving through x1) While I don’t have as many personal stories to tell, I have been lucky enough to travel throughout Arkansas where my husband’s family has lived for over hundred years. Like my Italian ancestors, they have moved about from town to town, living in different counties and leaving a trail of records for their descendants to follow. Today I’m going to focus on Helena, the place where my husband’s father Edgar Allen Hardy was born, where my husband’s mother and her parents David Stringfellow and Betty Sue Prince lived for a good part of their lives, and where my husband himself lived and went to school at two points during his childhood. So suffice to say this place deserves a place in our family tree blog.
A Short History
Helena was founded in 1833 as a port town along the Mississippi River. Located in Phillips County, it is counted amongst the 15 Arkansas counties within the Delta region. The Delta refers to the environment within this region: flat delta plains intersected by a narrow band of rolling hills. But history and the effect it has had on the people living there has created a far richer definition for the delta.
The city of Helena was the site of the Battle of Helena fought in 1863. Part of the Civil War, the battle was started by Confederate forces in an unsuccessful attempt to evict the Union Army from Helena and thus relieve pressure on the strategic river town of Vicksburg, Mississippi. As a Union occupied city in the South, Helena was as a safe place for runaway slaves during the war and was the training ground for several colored regiments. Helena also contributed seven generals to the Confederacy, three of whom are buried in Helena’s Confederate Cemetery. We visited this cemetery on our last trip to Helena. You can see them below:
This is a blogpost about a place but places are not distinguishable from land without people. There are too many individuals linked to Helena to name them all, but one stands out because he actually did have an impact on the day-to-day life of this town. David Cleveland Stringfellow wasn’t born in Helena. He was born in Wheatley, St. Francis County, on 17 December, 1937 to parents David Franklin Stringfellow and Naomi Mayes. He was an Air Force Veteran and after he served in the military, was a mail carrier for the postal service in Helena and West Helena, until his retirement.
In modern times Helena is widely known to be a blues hotspot. Helena is home to the longest running blues radio show in the country, King Biscuit Time, which has helped spark the careers of many famous musicians. It is also the host of the King Biscuit Blues Festival, held for three days annually in October showcasing the best blues music from around the country. Thousands of blues fans travel to the historic downtown Cherry Street in Helena. The street vendor food is just as much a part of the festival as the music, with attendees able to get delicacies like gumbo, alligator, barbecued chicken, corn on the cob, and a lot of deep fried anything.
Despite its place in history and in music, Helena has suffered in recent years from a high crime rate and poverty that allowed many buildings, particularly in the historic downtown, to be left desolate and run-down. There are attempts, however, to restore Helena to its former glory days. There are new stores popping up in Cherry Street, selling homemade goods and antiques. There is also a push to bring tourists in to see the historic attractions it has to offer.
I’d like to do a more thorough blogpost about Helena, but I’m afraid I don’t know quite enough to go into more detail. I’m also withholding information so that I won’t be repetitive when I inevitably do feature articles on notable Helena ancestors (such as those I mentioned at the beginning of this post.) To former / current Helena residents I hope I did it justice!