Our Tennessee Towns, One of a Series
In Reverie, they never know what trick the deadly Mississippi will pull next. Each may be the last one – for the town.
Story and Pictures by Bob Kollar
Like vesuvius at Pompeii, The River is always there, beautiful and dangerous. The River, and its little brother, The Slough.
To get to Reverie, first you must cross the bridge over The Slough.
That’s why some people have never been to Reverie. They refuse to cross the bridge.
This is understandable.
Bridges don’t usually look like a snake on a hot rock. This one does.
Reverie is the only Tennessee town on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River.
It once was on the Tennessee bank. It didn’t move; The River did.
It is the only Tennessee town on an island. The U.S. Engineers call it Island 35.
These things – the bridge, the island, The River and The Slough – combine to either complicate or simplify life at Reverie enormously, depending on how you look at it.
There are the floods.
In 1960, a former resident of Reverie ran out in a boat to look over the damage while the water was still up. He expected to find everybody adding their tears to the muddy Mississippi.
“You know what they were doing?” he asked. “They were out there water-skiing in the cotton fields! They had three boats, and everybody took turns. The men would drive while the women skied, and then the women would drive.”
All of the cotton crop was gone, and most of the soybeans.
But Reverie had something to talk about for a hundred years – skiing in the cotton fields!
“You can’t just sit and hold your head,” one of the Cash family said. The Cashes have 6,000 acres in cultivation on the island.
In the 1927 flood, all but three spots on the island were covered. Until the waters went down, everybody lived in a schoolhouse, a house and a barn on one of the mounds. A large flock of ducks laid eggs every night on top of the schoolhouse, so there were fresh eggs for breakfast every morning.
In 1937, all the land was covered, but some of the Cash family stayed on, in the upstairs floor of their house. Boats came to the second story window.
The snake of a bridge, which is wooden and built on poles like an old-time railroad trestle, crosses The Slough which separates Island 35 from the Arkansas mainland. The pols shift this way and that in the soft mud.
A couple of months ago, two people drove off the bridge and drowned. The jurisdictional problem of whether they died in Tennessee or Arkansas hasn’t been solved yet.
When the bridge is under water, as it is several times each spring, Reverie’s 38 school children cross The Slough in a boat to meet the school bus on the other side. The youngsters attend in Wilson, Ark., through an arrangement between the Arkansas authorities and the board of education in Tipton County, Tennessee, of which Reverie is legally a part.
In 1949, a man and two women – the town’s two school teachers – were returning by boat to Reverie from a funeral on the mainland. It was almost dark on a cold day in January, and the water in The Slough was rough. Something happened. All three drowned. The bridge wasn’t built until 1960.
Sixty years ago, before The River became The Slough and The Slough became The River, Reverie was on the Tennessee side.
In dry weather, when the water was low, you could ford The Slough and drive a buggy through the cotton fields to Covington, the county seat, in two hours.
Today, Covington is still 20 miles away, and it still takes about two hours to get there. You drive down through Arkansas to cross the Mississippi at Memphis, or upstream to where there is a ferry at Cottonwood Point in Missouri.
Back then, the town was known as Reverie Landing. It was a major stopover for steamboats and packets.
“I remember the Robert E. Lee and the Fred Herald,” says Mrs. Ora Cash, 78, grandmother of the Cash brothers and Reverie’s postmistress for 35 years. She now lives in Memphis.
“The big sternwheelers used to tie up at Pennel Brothers General Store. The whole town turned out. The youngsters were thrilled wide-eyed by the shrill whistle.”
In high water, steamers would sometimes take a shortcut through The Slough. One – the Emma III – didn’t make it. She sank in the chute in 1870. The islanders dug into the mud-filled wreckage and salvaged the silverware and dishes. Today these are treasured among the island’s families. The Cashes have the boat’s bell.
The Mississippi moved in mysterious ways. Upstream, it kept licking away at the Tennessee side. A bluff disappeared, letting the current make a direct assault on The Slough.
The Slough began to get bigger!
In the early 1920s, the U.S. Engineers tried to thwart The River by building an earthen dam to hold it in its old channel.
But it was not to be denied. The trickle became the main channel in the early 1930s. A lot of good farmland was destroyed in the process. “It hit us a tough lick,” says John Cash.
Today, almost a mile of rolling water separates Reverie from the Tennessee mainland. Island 35 is crescent-shaped, about 10 miles long and five wide, with concrete revetments on its eastern lip to keep The River from biting deeper.
In the heyday, 300 families – 750 people – lived on the island. But mechanized farming and fear of floods have cut that to 30 families today, about 125 people. Deserted houses are everywhere; the school was abandoned in 1958.
The Cash brothers – John and H. P. – are the only landowners still living on the island. The rest of the land – more than half – is absentee-owned, farmed by resident managers.
“Really,” said John Cash, “we have a model community. There is no crime. We haven’t had a fistfight in three years.”
Good thing. There’s not a law enforcement officer on the island, and it would take forever for one to get there from Covington.
There’s no juke joint, no bank, no stores. You can’t buy a cigaret [sic] or a Coke.
But progress threatens. The telephone company has offered to run in a line for a single phone. So far, there has been no taker.
“It would just be a nuisance,” says John Cash. “If my brother or I had a phone, everyone on the island would want to use it and we’d be taking calls at all hours of the day and night. It’s just not worth it.”
The Cash brothers live across the road from each other in old, comfortable farm homes, each with the main floor built eight feet off the ground because of the floods.
There is electricity on the island – and washing machines, TV and air-conditioning for those who want and/or can afford them.
The mail comes in three days a week – Monday, Wednesday and Friday. H. P. Cash’s wife, Wanda Lee is the postmistress. She has a little window on the front porch of the house, and a school bell to ring when you want service.
H. P. looks back on 1954 with mixed emotions. Two children were born to him and Wanda Lee that year, one in February, the other in December. In between, a log fell off a truck he was unloading and crushed his legs. He now farms from a pick-up truck.
Reverie takes its politics seriously.
At least 90 per cent of the registered voters vote, John Cash says – “we know we can’t do anything if we don’t stick together, but by sticking together we carry a little weight.”
They went solid for Robert A. (Fats) Everett for congress, though he’s never set foot on the island.
Elections are held on John Cash’s porch. He’s a county magistrate. In a close race, there is nail-biting in Covington until the Reverie box comes in – it’s always the last.
There are sometimes medical emergencies when the bridge is flooded. Over the years, a few people have died of a ruptured appendix.
Is Island 35 a “new” island? Some people think not, and point to the discovery of a huge animal skeleton soon after the turn of the century.
It turned out to be the bones of a mastodon, an elephant-like creature which became extinct 17,000 years ago (some say only 7000).
An archaeologist theorized that the body had been washed down the river and deposited in the mud.
But before the scientist could get to the site, all but one piece of bone had been carried away by the people of Reverie.
One lady made a border of bones for her flowerbed.
Nothing was left for the archaeologist but a thigh bone, 2 1/2 feet long.
It now reposes in a museum at Wilson, Ark.
[Between The River and The Slough, The Tennessean – The Nashville Tennessee Sunday Magazine, Bob Kollar, Nashville TN, 23 July 1967 pages 6-7]