There’s a giant pink barge in Van Buren. It’s the only one in the world, and it’s there to raise money for cancer research. Marty Shell helped bring it to town, and he’d work to turn the whole damn Arkansas River pink if it would end a disease that killed his dad ten years ago.
The barge, Big Hope 1, is owned by East St. Louis, Ill.-based Ceres Barge Line. The barge was painted pink and launched in May 2012 to raise money for cancer research. At the time, it was a tribute to Ceres’ employees who faced cancer, and Dallas-based Mary Crowley Cancer Research was chosen to receive funds raised by the big pink barge. To date, Ceres has raised more than $1 million to help Crowley researchers “expand treatment options for all types of cancer and all cancer patients through an investigational vaccine, gene and cellular therapies.”
Big Hope 1 is tied up at the Five Rivers Distribution docks on the Van Buren side of the Arkansas River. Shell, president of Five Rivers, said the barge delivered 1,650 tons of ore, which equals 70 truckloads, or 16.5 railcars. It also carries a heavy memory for the Shell family.
Buck Shell, Marty’s father, was born in Pine Bluff. His dad was a warden at the Cummins Prison near Pine Bluff but died of a heart attack when Buck was just nine-years-old. Forced to live with another relative, Buck joined the U.S. Army to escape his world. When his enlistment ended, he began in 1968 working as a forklift driver for Pine Bluff Warehouse Co., which managed port operations at several locations in Arkansas and on the Mississippi River.
Buck moved up quickly through the ranks, and in 1970 was promoted and transferred to Fort Smith to expand infrastructure and build business at that city’s port. He also continued to help manage Pine Bluff Warehouse operations at other ports, with Marty saying there were many months he’d only see his dad a day or maybe two each week.
It was an excellent job for Buck until the mid-1990s when Pine Bluff Warehouse sold. The new company didn’t keep Buck employed. Marty was about one year from graduating from the University of Arkansas with a transportation degree. But when his dad was laid off, money for that last year of college was no longer available.
“Dad called me to come home. The fun was over, and it was time to go to work and make ends meet,” Marty said.
LAUNCHING FIVE RIVERS
Buck incorporated Five Rivers in 1996. They bought a small warehouse near MacSteel, which is now Gerdau. Shortly after, Buck was able to buy what is now the Van Buren port property through a bankruptcy auction. It took about three years to get the Van Buren port operational.
“We started by building warehouses. We got the (Van Buren) port active, and now it is what it is today. It just took us 25 years to get there,” Marty said with a chuckle that belied a complex history of hard work, successes, failures, and other inherent risks and rewards of entrepreneurial engagement.
Part of that history includes a return of sorts by Buck to the port of Fort Smith. Five Rivers was granted operational rights to the port by the city in 2008.
“He came in when there was nothing here back in 1970. … So that was very nice for him, that he could go back over there and be involved with what he started,” Marty said.
Five Rivers, with operations in Fort Smith and Van Buren, became a recognized leader among other river operators. Buck would be named in 2008 to the Arkansas River Hall of Fame for his “outstanding service to the development of the Arkansas River.”
Buck Shell was diagnosed on Feb. 5, 2010, with bone marrow cancer. It was his birthday. He died on Dec. 21, 2010. He was 67.
“I put my hand on his coffin on Christmas Eve. I was the last person to touch him before we buried him,” Marty said.
For the past eight years, Marty has tried to get Big Hope 1 to Van Buren to honor his father and raise money for cancer research. He had no preference for when the big pink barge would make the trip up the Arkansas River but is happy the arrival marks the 10th anniversary of his dad’s passing.
“It just happened to work out that way. I’ve been trying for years to get that barge up here, and for it to work out like that, well, it’s just meant to be,” Marty said.
‘ALL I REALLY KNOW’
The barge showing is set for 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Dec. 24, at Five Rivers dock in Van Buren. Marty said it’s open to the public for anyone who wants to get their picture with a big pink barge. Kathy Coleman, a cancer survivor and director of Single-Family Marketing & Design for ERC Holdings, will dress up as Mrs. Claus. Marty said his goal has been to raise $100,000 related to the barge visit. As of Dec. 16, the tally was at $76,000.
“We’re going to get there,” he said.
Marty initially wanted to keep the donations local, but Ceres requires funds raised to support Crowley Research. And that’s good with Marty, who said he is proud to be part of a national effort to raise money for cancer research.
“I think everybody has been affected by cancer in some way, shape, form or fashion. And what I went through with my father I would not ever want to wish on anybody. So if there is anything I can do to help make it easier for that next family, I’ll do anything in the world to do that,” Marty said.
Big Hope 1 might be loaded with grain at Van Buren, or it may be towed upriver to the Port of Catoosa near Tulsa to be loaded with another product, Marty said.
The past ten years have not been easy for Marty. In addition to running a business after losing his father and mentor, there have been recessions, an ongoing downturn in the manufacturing sector, historic floods and global pandemics. There are eight people now employed by Five Rivers. Employment was up to 17 prior to the May 2019 flood. Marty says they are rebuilding, and hope to in a few years return to pre-flood business levels and employment.
But there are no regrets.
“It’s all I really know. When I worked with my dad for 15 years, all I wanted to do was work hard and make him proud of me. … And that’s what I’ll be doing until the day that I die is to work hard and make him proud.”
(Donations to Crowley Research can be made at this link.)