Back to Belleville: A Pilgrimage to Carol Burnett’s (and My own) Roots

A Review of Carol Burnett’s latest writing endeavor, and it’s unique connection to me.

That may seem a little strange to read.  “Why would someone make that particular pilgrimage?”  Well, the answer is simple.  I am absolutely in love with Carol Burnett.  Her talent, her incredible personality and kindness, the whole package.  She is phenomenal.  When I read her first memoir, One More Time, I was delighted to find we had something in common.  Both our ancestors come from western Yell County, Arkansas!  Hers come from the beautiful beyond description Belleville, Arkansas…Mine come from the equally beautiful–and slightly larger–Danville, Arkansas, located just a few miles down Highway 10.  I had been to Danville before, not often, but on occasion.  My family visited a popular Arkansas State Park in the County, Mount Nebo State Park, every year when I was growing up.  On our visits to that lovely place, we would often venture away from the coziness of our stone cabin and venture down the mountain for a drive through the Ozark and Ouachita mountains.  The area is beautiful beyond description.

The area is known as the Arkansas River Valley, as the Arkansas River carves a path straight through these mountains, creating a spectacular sight to say the least.  Knowing we had some ancestors from the area, we enjoyed making the 20 mile trek from Dardanelle, Arkansas–location of our vacation spot Mount Nebo–up to Danville.  The drive between Dardanelle and Danville is beautiful.  Lovely farmland, picturesque homes, cattle and horses grazing peacefully in the fields.  The occasional farm outlined with a white picket fence.  It’s the stuff of legend.  What one thinks of when they think of the South…well, that and the old cotton plantations you hear so much about in historical southern lore.  Suffice it to say, the area is beautiful in a way that words can hardly do it justice.

As you make the short drive between Dardanelle and Danville, all these lovely farms and open pastures are presided over by the majestic Mount Nebo and Chickalah Mountains in the distance, keeping watch over the serene landscape below.  Growing up an only child, constantly surrounded by people older than myself, I learned from an early age to appreciate the beauty of nature and all it had to offer.  I would often wonder as a child if the animals living in these pastures realized how lucky they were to be living right in the middle of perhaps the most beautiful place God ever created–at least in my mind at the time.  I have since done a lot of travelling across this massive country.  I have seen the Rocky Mountains, the Appalachian Mountains, and the Santa Monica Mountains and other gorgeous peaks found throughout the Los Angeles area.  While they are all beautiful, my heart will always remain partial to the gorgeous Ozarks and Ouachitas of home.  They are unique and hold a special place in my heart.  I grew up there, and Lord willing, I plan to get married right in the heart of them–on top of my beloved Mount Nebo.

As you continue this drive, Highway 27 dead-ends at Highway 10 and you are met with a crossroads.  You can turn left and enter Danville proper, the place of my ancestors (only a few of them hail from this area).  Turning right will take you directly into the middle of Belleville, Arkansas.  Home of the legendary Mae Jones, the “Belle of Belleville.” Birthplace of Ina Louise Creighton, mother of the incomparable Carol Burnett.  In the past, I have made the hasty decision to turn right and just see what Belleville had to offer.  I knew it existed after reading One More Time, and I wanted to see it for myself.  That particular trip was almost disappointing.  Don’t get me wrong, the scenery is absolutely beyond description.  One of the most beautiful places in the state of Arkansas, if not the entire South.  Mountain vistas that will take your breath away.  But I simply drove down Highway 10 straight through Belleville, looking at the breathtaking scenery but seeing nothing of particular interest.  I then turned my car around and headed the opposite direction toward Danville–the intended destination.

Then Carol wrote another book, a magical book entitled Carrie and Me: A Mother Daughter Love Story.  An unbelievably warm and touching tribute to her oldest daughter, Carrie Louise Hamilton.  I read the book in two days.  Not even two full days.  Two nights after work.  I could not put it down.  That’s how it always is for me when I read any of Carol’s books.  She has the most easy, down-to-earth way of writing that you can’t help but read it all in a hurry.  It leaves you dying to know what happens next.  And her stories are so heartfelt and real that you feel you are sharing them with her…and, in a sense, I suppose you are.

There was never any question that I was going to buy Carrie and Me when I learned it was coming out.  I pre-ordered it almost the very day it became available to do so.  I waited anxiously for its arrival, excited to read the next story Carol was willing to share with us about her incredible life journey.  Then I followed a link provided by none other than one of my top ten favorite social media friends, Libby, who provided a link to an excerpt from the book.  It talked about a little about Carrie (who tragically died way too soon from metastasized lung cancer) and her journey across the United States to visit Graceland–Home of “The King” in Memphis, Tennessee as a means to connect with a writing project she was working on.  Along the way, she planned on stopping at her family’s ancestral homes of San Antonio, Texas (Birthplace of Carol Burnett) on the way to Memphis, and stopping in Belleville, Arkansas (where her Nanny and Grandmother originated) on the way back.

I don’t want to spoil the whole book for you, but I was beyond pleased to discover that Carrie felt a special connection to the town of Belleville and thoroughly enjoyed her visit to the small farming community.  One of the locals later told Carol that Carrie had “a smile as big as a barnyard door,” which pretty much sums it up–albeit in very simple, southern terms!  Carrie’s smile is absolutely one of the first things you notice about her.  She was gorgeous, yes, but that smile would soften even the hardest of hearts.  It seems the locals took to Carrie right away, and were helpful in showing her where her ancestors lived and were buried.  An experience that apparently resonated deeply with Carrie.  In the book, Carol says Carrie mentioned “Mama, I want to go back to Belleville.”  It is obvious in her reaction to the town and its people that she felt a deep, almost visceral connection to the place.  No doubt the family ties run deep.  I am not surprised by this.  I honestly believe many people do have another “sense” within them. A way of sensing where they originally come from.  Carrie may never have actually lived in Arkansas, but her very soul felt a connection to it, much like the way my soul will always feel a special connection with this beautiful state I call home.

I understand this from another point of view as well.  I am extremely drawn to Mount Nebo, the place I spent so much of my childhhood.  I feel like my spirit partially belongs there.  I think Carrie felt the same way about Belleville.  Carrie’s ashes were divided between Los Angeles, her beloved Colorado Rockies–where she had a cabin–and on the grave of her great great grandfather, F.C. Jones in Belleville, Arkansas, which were scattered there by her Mother Carol Burnett on a visit to Belleville sometime later.

If you haven’t read Carrie and Me: A Mother Daughter Love Story by Carol Burnett, I can’t recommend many books more highly.  I have many favorite authors, and I am not ashamed to admit that while being one of my all time favorite entertainers, Carol Burnett is also one of my favorite writers as well.  Her books are always touching, open, and honest.  She gives her fans a gift with each of her books, and Carrie and Me is no exception.  It is a brilliant, heartwarming story about the journey of a mother and daughter that will leave its mark in your heart, I have no doubt.  It’s a quick read, it’s an easy read, and it’s worth the day, two days, or week it would take you to read it.  It will warm your heart and endear both Carrie and Carol to your heart.

The end of the book—Part II–is a story called “Sunrise in Memphis” which was started by Carrie before her untimely death of cancer in 2002.  The story is missing some parts in the middle–unfortunately she never got the chance to finish the story, but it is incredible.  Her insight and ability to draw the reader in and keep their attention is astounding.  She had a very different, unique way of telling a story, and although the story was never finished, it will still prove to be a very exciting, interesting read.

On a personal note, after finishing the book, I felt the need to re-visit Belleville, considering it’s only about 80 miles from my house.  An easy drive just over an hour.  I wanted to see the town after reading about some of the places Carrie and Carol visited on their separate journeys there.  I guess you could call it a pilgrimage of sorts.  I wanted to see Main Street, The Memory Lane Cafe, and the F. C. Jones house where it all began, because I honestly believe it wasn’t only Carol Burnett’s unmatched talent, but her unique upbringing that resulted in her becoming the force she is today.  Who knows?  If she had not suffered with dealing with alcoholic parents whom she loved dearly, and being raised by a hypochondriacal Christian Scientest grandmother–her beloved Nanny–and being raised partially in the South and partially in the magical world of Hollywood–albeit “a million miles away from Hollywood.”  I believe it was a combination of all these factors that led to creating one of the most beloved entertainers and treasures America has ever produced.

I made the short journey to Belleville this weekend, book in tow, so I could be sure not to miss any of the landmarks discussed in the book…sure enough, there it was.  The house–at least it was a house that looked identical to the house in the book–the Memory Lane Cafe, and the minuscule Main Street of Belleville.  The two different cemetaries.  It is all still there, exactly as Carrie and Carol described it.  Perhaps the thing that strikes me most of all–or anyone for that matter–is the unbelievable view.  Travelling down Highway 27 toward Belleville is lovely in its own right, but once you near Highway 10, the road to Belleville, you drive up a hill and at the top you are met with one of the most incredible mountain views you can possibly imagine.  I am not exaggerating when I tell you it literally took my breath away. It is not somewhere I would want to live, personally.  It is 30 minutes to the nearest Wal-Mart–practically the ONLY shopping facility in the county–and I was born and bred a “city girl” who needs to be near civilization.

When you reach Belleville, whether you look left, right, in front or behind you, all you see are gorgeous mountains.  As far as the eye can see.  It’ll bring a tear to your eye.  I can understand why some people who are born there choose never to leave that magical, beautiful place. I met a couple of people at the gas station, all curious what a stranger was doing in those parts.  I just told them I had relatives from Danville and decided to turn right instead of left and see what Belleville was like.  The people were so friendly, and I learned this by taking the advice of Carrie herself, “When you smile, the whole world opens up to you.”

This beautiful, loving tribute to an incredible human being can be purchased here:  Carrie and Me on Amazon.  I assure you it is worth the small price you will pay for it.  An absolutely beautiful, touching read.  Go buy it, you won’t be sorry.

Some photos from my visits to the breathtakingly beautiful Belleville, Arkansas\

Welcome to Belleville Population 371!
Welcome to Belleville Population 371!
Driving Highway 10
Driving Highway 10
Farmland in the valley of Belleville
Farmland in the valley of Belleville
Belleville
Belleville

belleville2

Mount Nebo, 20 miles from Belleville--My favorite place on earth
Mount Nebo, 20 miles from Belleville–My favorite place on earth
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One thought on “Back to Belleville: A Pilgrimage to Carol Burnett’s (and My own) Roots”

  1. Very interesting. It is a beautiful part of Arkansas. I have very fond memories of visiting there growing up. My Mom and Dad were from Belleville. My Mom graduated high school from there in 1933. My Dad’s relatives owned the filling station there and I have eaten at Memory Lane Café. My Aunt and Uncle lived there all their lives and owned the Log Cabin Antiques between Belleville and Danville. My uncle just recently died. He was 99 years of age. My ancestors are buried in Belleville and Havana cemeteries. I will be purchasing Carol’s books.

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