Sour Town

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Bledsoe and his wife, Venita "Vee" Bledsoe, are known for putting Ladonia on the maps of tree lovers and environmentally sensitive types everywhere with a plant called kenaf. It is touted as the source of a fiber that can be substituted for wood in the papermaking process. Initially, Bledsoe hoped the plant could replace cotton as Ladonia's cash crop.

"My wife walked into my office one day and said, 'Gee, Bob, look here, farmers can grow paper.' I said, 'Wow, it's a cousin to cotton and it's a cousin to okra, and we're in the ideal place. Cotton was king, and we could bring back what used to be,'" he recalls. "That started our quest 12 years ago. We founded the International Kenaf Association, which is headquartered here in Ladonia."

Kenaf received accolades and attention at first, but despite what appeared to be a perfect solution for Ladonia's farmers and tree lovers everywhere, the Bledsoes met resistance. The papermaking industry, Bledsoe says, has its own supply of forests and has neither the need nor the inclination to change. The newspaper industry, which initially seemed to embrace the idea, has now backed down. The industry is controlled by corporations that are controlled by the paper industry, Bledsoe says conspiratorially. The only people who seem interested in furthering the production of kenaf as an alternative to wood are foreigners who want to grow it in their own countries. Bledsoe isn't interested in letting them steal what has taken him all these years to learn about kenaf production.

While he wages the battle for the train station, the blacktop trail, and kenaf, Bledsoe and a group of others, including U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall, are also trying to turn Ladonia into a resort by creating a 7,500-acre lake around the headwaters of the trickling Sulphur River.

Bledsoe is chairman of the board of directors for the Sulphur Valley Water Supply Corp., which is trying to get money to study engineering aspects of the lake project, he says.

"What we're attempting to do is to build surface water for our area...What it is, is a 7,500-acre lake, 60-foot deep, that will supply 30 million gallons of water a day, 365 days a year," he says, unfolding a blueprint-type map and pointing to the Ladonia area shown beside the proposed lake. "Here is the city of Ladonia."

"We'd be a soil conservation lake, and we would supply water for all of Fannin County, not just for our little town, and we would have recreation, which would revitalize all of this part of the country."

As usual, Bledsoe has met local resistance, he says. He leans back in his chair in an office at his label-making operation. He grimaces, disgusted, and says, "I get the most irate phone calls. 'By God, my grandfather was buried down there, and you sumbitches ain't gonna run water over my grandfather. I'll have you know that right now. I'll shoot your ass off if I catch you on my land.'"

As for his efforts to market the city's underused sewage-treatment plant, he says that so far, nobody's come calling or responded in a big way.

"I contacted one of the chicken processors," he says. "They're not interested in moving west."

Bledsoe, who seems downright pissed off sometimes, says, "We pretty well nailed it down this morning of what the difference is between this community and others. There are 100 percent negative people here.

"The thing that stops you from making real progress is pulling the arrows out of your ass...Everybody thinks you're out to make a fortune. I've spent more money out of my pocket for this town in phone calls, in printing and time and travel, out of my pocket, with no reimbursement, to try to help this community. The mentality here is that because you're successful at something, you've got to be a crook...You understand?"

Orman Roderick, who has lived in the area for 67 years, is not among Bledsoe's fans. He says it's good to have ideas. Bledsoe's problem is that he just doesn't have any good ones. The trail would be too hot to use most of the year, and the lake would remove thousands of acres from the county tax rolls, Roderick says.

"Everything he does, I can't see that it's helping the community," he says. "I definitely get irritated with him, because I haven't seen anything good he's done yet."

Bledsoe steps down from the railroad station foundation and starts toward his shop. He stops to talk to the city's remaining water department employee, who at the moment is leaning out of the driver's seat of an idling backhoe. They laugh about how as a boy, the worker once rode his bicycle on the railway station platform. Walking away, Bledsoe acknowledges that it is a struggle to change a small town.

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Charles Siderius
Contact: Charles Siderius