Arkansas: The End

Photo Arkansas The End

Tourists enjoyed seeing  my employee and I dressed in “old timey” outfits

I didn’t let the rain deter me. Hoping tourists might consider this weather a good shopping day, I happily straightened up the displays in the store, put on the background music and unlocked the door. A young couple, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, came in almost immediately and took a keen interest in the Granny Chicken paintings. We chatted for a while and they said they’d be back later.

When they returned, they asked what kind of deal they could get if they bought all of her paintings. It added up to thousands of dollars (primitive art does not come cheap), so to show some goodwill (and because Granny Chicken had made most of the frames), I gave them a framing discount. A year later, we visited them in Carmel, California, and were awestruck as to how beautiful her art looked, professionally framed in their all white home and art gallery. (with even higher price tags on them).

Mr. Wiz* and I discovered some local, handmade iron products, tracked down the owner and set up a meeting. We negotiated to carry their product line on consignment and Mr. Wiz struck up a friendship with the owner. They started discussing him joining the company and soon after, Mr. Wiz became a partner. The joke around town was that he was the only partner that actually owned a suit. This came in handy when Mr. Wiz successfully secured the company’s first bank line of credit.

This was a real American success story. Stone County Ironworks was a one-man operation started in an old gas station. David, the owner and a self-proclaimed hippy (if you ever wondered where all the hippies went, it was Arkansas) slowly grew the company and was able to hire more blacksmiths. This was tough work and his staff looked like a group of Hells Angels, though they were the sweetest guys. In time, the company became the largest production blacksmith company in the United States and was listed in the Inc. 500, a listing of the top 500 fastest growing U.S. companies.

If all of this wasn’t exciting enough, after five years of married life and wondering if we’d ever become parents, I became pregnant. For this reason, Arkansas will always have a special place in my heart. Weighing in at 10 pounds, 1 ½ ounces, I found out later that if Big A* had been born in Baylor University Hospital, he would have received a full football scholarship.

I had a big decision to make. I loved Mountain View Mercantile, but realized that working 10 – 12 hours a day and motherhood did not mix. We wound up selling the building and the store to Stone County Ironworks and I began working for them part-time in public relations and marketing. My first assignment was to interview the owner, David, in order to enter him in the Arkansas Small Business Person of the Year contest. Very shy and close mouthed, it wasn’t easy to get him to open up, but in the end, he shared just enough so that his story won him the honor. Soon, he’d be off to Washington, D.C. and return home with the second runner-up national award.

With products too heavy for shipping, the Ironworks had a fleet of trucks to travel to trade shows. The blacksmiths welded a special seat up front for Big A’s car seat and off we’d go together, traveling across the United States. Mr. Wiz laughs now to think how he would set up the trade show booths with Big A on his back in a baby carrier.

It was when Big A turned two that we started thinking of the future. The Arkansas schools were rated No. 48 and though we got our fill of traveling and dining out on the road, there would probably come a time when we’d have to settle down. Mountain View had no restaurants to speak of, even the little movie theater closed up in the winter and Little Rock was two hours away.

After many family meetings, we decided to head back to a city, but rather than let a job lead us, Mr. Wiz suggested we chose the city first and then he’d find a job there. We settled on Chicago and as luck would have it, his first phone call to an old friend landed Mr. Wiz a position helping him run his new company.

Though that was so many years ago, I never forgot that little town and still keep in touch with some of the people there. It was small enough so that I wasn’t intimidated to follow my dreams, large enough to show me how important living in a close-knit community was and just quirky enough to make for some great memories.

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

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Arkansas: The Middle

Photo Arkansas Middle 1A

Our store, Mountain View Mercantile (originally he O.R. Case Building) by Granny Chicken

The old pickup truck stopped to let me cross the street. The two passengers smiled and waved to me. Though I had never met these two men, I returned the wave and the smile, as I heard the driver yell out his window “Hey, Linda- If you need anything while your hubby is out of town next week, you just holler at us.” Feeling as if I was living on the movie set of Mayberry, along with Andy, Opie and Aunt Bee, I had officially settled into small town living.

I can honestly say that I never once was afraid to stay in that large building all by myself. Even on dark, rainy nights, I felt as if someone had their arms around me. Granny Chicken said that was probably Mr. O.R. Case, the building’s owner, who was glad it was being looked after.

Named by her grandson since she was the grandma with the chickens, Granny Chicken was a local artist who painted in the primitive style. A bit eccentric and dressed in her signature print dress and straw hat, she wandered into the store one afternoon. Having just read about her in a tourism publication, we struck up a conversation and made a date to meet for lunch. Soon after, I took a crash course in primitive art, started carrying her art on consignment in the store and became her agent.

Together, we traveled to events sponsored by the Department of Parks and Tourism to promote the Ozarks and Mountain View. Granny turned out to be more connected than I had imagined. She introduced me to then Governor Clinton and his family at the Governor’s mansion. At Winrock Farms, the Rockefeller estate, we clapped along as Winthrop Rockefeller sat on a bale of hay and played the spoons, but not before he had welcomed her personally. I remember thinking that the folks back home will never believe this.

It seemed that whatever I needed would just appear. Pouring over old books in the local library, I found just the right logo for the store. Hoping to find some original recordings back from the building’s era, I was surprised to find a collector of vintage music sitting against the building playing just such music and happy to sell me some tapes. Complete with that authentic tinny sound, it made for wonderful background music in the store. I was surprised when, out of the blue, a packaging salesman walked into the store asking if I needed any supplies. Keeping with the theme and my budget, I stamped my logo on brown bags and used bright colored tissue paper and rope as gift wrap.

Between the local cast of characters dropping in (my favorite was the local baker, a New York transplant, who resembled Woody Allen) and the tourists visiting, every day was an adventure. Students from the Soviet Union and China, soil and conservation experts from Morocco, Africa and South America and groups of senior RVers; you never knew what to expect.

Living in a tourist town did have its benefits. Visitors were upbeat, the small community supported each other and, together, worked hard to put their best foot forward. Somewhere between the advice of the other store owners (open when you want, close when you’ve had enough) and my methodical personality, I found my rhythm and enjoyed the ride.

Photo Arkansas Middle 2

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Arkansas: The Beginning

Photo Arkansas Beginning

Mountain View, Arkansas, (population: two thousand one hundred forty seven) was not on the way to anywhere else. You must travel into the winding mountains of the Ozarks to get there. The small town with its historic buildings, built of Arkansas stone and clustered around the Courthouse Square appeared to be frozen in time. Yet, there was a pulse and vitality you could feel.

Most every day, you’d hear music; mandolins, fiddles, dulcimers, guitars. It’s a long-standing tradition that musicians gathered anytime, day or night, and played together on the square. Known as the “Folk Music Capital of the World,” Mountain View was home to musical events such as the National Fiddler’s Competition.

My eyes shut tightly, Mr. Wiz* excitedly escorted me out of the car. I opened my eyes to find him standing in front of a large decrepit stone building, as he explained that the almost eight thousand square feet was once home to a car dealership. Since the wood furniture company Mr. Wiz was running was renting it as a warehouse, he wondered what I would think of trying a little experiment.

What if we cleaned up the first floor and displayed some of the wood products to sell during the upcoming festival? Based on the sales, we might consider buying the building and creating a retail store. What the heck; we had already moved there from Chicago and back then, we were ready for an adventure.

We got right to work, scraping off the black paint that covered the front picture windows and sweeping up the dirt and dust. Just as I was worrying what we might do to hide the large holes in the walls, a shy woman peeked in to say that she was looking for a place to display her handmade quilts during the festival. We made a deal, strung them up on clotheslines, put together some samples of the outdoor furniture (porch swings, Adirondack chairs, etc.) and were open for business.

The three-day Bean Festival brought over fifty thousand visitors to the little town to enjoy the famous outhouse parade, to taste the beans simmering in the big black cauldrons over an open fire in order to judge the best recipe and to play music on the courthouse square. Our cash and carry experiment was an overwhelming success and soon after, we became the proud owners of the O.R. Case building.

Built in 1928, we were excited to return this National Historic Register building to its original glory days. Even the old dust and dirt that stuck to our clothes, as we did some prep work before the construction crew started, couldn’t dampen our spirits.

It is said that because Arkansas rests on diamond mines there is a mystical aura around it. This not only explained the quilter showing up at just at the right time, but also a continuing series of events that to this day, still has me scratching my head in disbelief.

To be continued…

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

Author’s Note:
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