When I was a kid, my family and I once crossed the Arkansas River near this point via the Toad Suck Ferry. I remember the barge being wide and flat and long enough to carry two cars and two carloads of people. The pilot's cabin swung on an arm so that the pilot could be at the rear of the ferry on the return trip without turning the barge around.
In 1973, the Corps of Engineers finished the highway 60 bridge and the Toad Suck Ferry lock and dam as part of the Arkansas River navigation project, which was to extend the navigable part of the river as far upstream as possible and extend the season during which the upper reaches of the river would be navigable.
That white thing is an old towboat. Before WWII the barges were unpowered. Towboats like this one, just big enough to float the 1933 Ford V8 that sat like an iron meatball in its belly, pulled the barges back and forth across the river.
The name came from the tavern that sat on the south bank of the river. I assume the ferry operated out of the Toad Suck Saloon, giving rise to the name of Toad Suck Ferry. But, then, we just backpedal to the next question, don't we? How did the Toad Suck Saloon (or Tavern or Inn) get its name?
The story you'll hear from the locals and read in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly is that this place was a popular spot for the bargemen to pull over and drink rum and moonshine. They are said to have "sucked on bottles until they swelled up like toads." There you go. Toad Suck.
Dr. Ferguson of the Arkansas History Commission doesn't buy that story. The first Europeans thoroughly to explore this area were French. Dr. Ferguson suggested that a lot of Arkansas place names are actually english corruptions of french words. For example, Aux Arcs becomes "Ozark," Mamelle becomes "Maumelle," and so on.
So I looked into some of the possibilities. First, I checked with the USGS to see if there was any other place in the US named Toad Suck. Perhaps the origin of that name would provide clues to our own Toad Suck. Surprisingly, Arkansas has the only known Toad Suck in America. The USGS has four references, Toad Suck Ferry, Toad Suck Park, Toad Suck Lock and Dam, and Toad Suck (population 288). All four names are related to the same location.
The most obvious possiblity for the origin of the "suck" part is the french sucre, meaning sweet. Of course, "Sugar Toad" is no less peculiar than "Toad Suck." There are two easy ways to account for the long "O" sound of "toad." One is to use aux, meaning "with." The other is eau meaning "water." Since we're talking about a riverbank landmark, I'm disposed toward the latter choice. Once that choice is made, the interposed "D" sound becomes obligatory -- eau d' sucre.
"Toad Suck" is french for "Sweet Water." Ya reckon? By the way, pictured left is Toad Suck Square in downtown Conway.
I'd be a lot more satisfied with this solution if I could account for the initial "T." The word that obviously suggests itself is the french coté, meaning "river bank." That would give us coté eau d' sucre. I think that's stretching things pretty far, phonetically speaking, and I'm just not familiar enough with the french language to consider anything but the most obvious and rudimentary of possiblities.
What about that tavern, though? It was the building that first held the name Toad Suck and it was the building which gave its name to the other landmarks here. If it was an inn or tavern, a public house, why not incorporate the french word for country house? Chateau d' sucré translates to "house of sugar," perhaps a reference to the ingredients for the rum served at the saloon. Then again, the fields along these river bottoms have long been used to grow sorghum and sugar cane, and a riverside house at a ferry would be a likely place to stockpile sugar or sorghum or molasses while awaiting transport to markets.
"Toad Suck" is french for "House of Sugar." Well, maybe.
I'm bothered by the use of chateau to describe what must surely have been little more than a log shed on a frontier, especially back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. At that time, chateau would have meant "castle." I think the word later came to mean "large country house" or "country estate."
A third possibility. What about the french taudis, meaning "slum?" I don't know if that word is most appropriately applied to a single building, a collection of buildings or a section of a town; but if taudis could be translated as "shack," then Toad Suck could be a corruption of Taudis Sucre.
"Toad Suck" is french for "Sugar Shack."
But what if the origin is plain old english? There is a geographical feature called a "suck." When a river is high and the water level falls, leaving a pool on a flat shore separated from the river, that pool is called a suck. I can easily imagine such a feature occurring here every spring and filling with toads and tadpoles.
So maybe "Toad Suck" is english for "Toad Suck." But that doesn't explain why the name would be applied to a building.
Any more ideas out there? Write to me at Traveler.
I recently got a couple of notes from a reader, Wayne Wagonner, who offered the following thoughts:
I've just read your discussion of possible French origins for "Toad Suck". I'll have to think on it some more, but you may be on the right track with "eau" as "water" ("aux", by the way, which is plural, means "to the", and is a contraction of "à + les", hence giving rise to the correct spelling "aux arcs" and not the incorrect highway sign on I-40 referring to "Aux Arc" Park - it makes me crazy every time I drive by on my way to NWArk. It's fine with me for the name "Ozark" to descend from "Aux Arcs", in which the "s" is silent anyway, but if they want to take it back to the original French, why not at least ask your nearest junior high French teacher?!!!!! Oh, and the French for "with" is "avec".
"Sucre" is the part that seems more challenging, partly because the "u" sound is normally and emphatically a long "u" sound (as in "you", as opposed to "ya"), but this is the kind of challenge I enjoy. I'll get back to you (or ya) on it......
I mentioned the Toad Suck puzzle at the Arkansas Extended Learning Center French class I am teaching last night. One of my students had the suggestion that instead of "sucre", the word could have been "secours", which means "rescue", or "aid". The unaccented "e" followed by "c" resembles "suc", but then what happened to the "oor" sound at the end?
Later, I also mentioned it to my colleague and Hendrix's tenured French professor, Marylou Martin (who also serves as France's Honorary Consul for Arkansas). She is somewhat dubious about the French having named the place, but recommended touching base with a retired history professor (also from Hendrix) who manages the Faulkner County Museum in Conway. His name is Bob Merriwether (sp?), and she says he's delightful, engaging, and a fount of knowledge. She also wondered if you have checked some of the oldest maps available...?
Meanwhile, I've consulted my dictionary and come up with any number of possibilities that could be conceivable, i.e. - the word for "boat" (bateau) also ends in "teau"; "touage" refers to "towing by means of a chain", and "tou" (pronounced like "too") conceivably could have refered to a "tow"; "tout" (French for "all" or "entirely"), with its finally "t" silent, also is pronounced like "too", and "séc" generally means "dry", more closely resembling "suck" phonetically than "sucre".
A quite common expression for "very soon" is "tout de suite", and phonetically could be represented as "tood sweet". I'll have to ask a French acquaintance or two or three if "tout de séc" might mean something like "all dry". It would sound like "tood seck".
However, these are all highly speculative, absent any distinctive quality of the place or historical reference of some kind.
Another possibly interesting sidebar of which Marylou informed me is that Conway was settled largely by Swiss and Germans during the 1800s.
Two common French words which are pronounced like "toe" are:
- "tôt", meaning "soon" or "early", and - "taux", meaning "rate", as in "rate of exchange (money)", or "ratio" as in "compression ratio", or "price". Another uncommon, nautical term, "taud", means "rain awning"... And then my dictionary says that "tau" means "tau" in English (whatever that is!)
A reader from Belgium suggests:
"What about Tout Sucre? (All Sugar or All Sweet)? That might explain the initial T and certainly the English/Americans probably wouldn't pronounce "tout" the correct French way which would be too... I think "tout sec" (all dry) would be possible, but tot sec (mark on the o as you have on the article page) is also possible--early dry, if that's a part of the river that dries up early in the dry season."
Your Host comments: The fact that the area was used as a ford and ferry crossing does suggest it was shallow and even-bottomed and therefore would have tended to dry up first during the drought of summer. Good suggestions.
RTJ--10/1/2005Arkansas Travelogue home page