Before our trip up the White River turned into the great adventure that it was, my aunt Donna and I successfully travelled to Calico Rock, a long-ago bustling town whose current distinction is that it is the only city to have a designated ghost town within the borders of an otherwise thriving community.
I’m not sure who defines “thriving” but that’s not the word I would use to describe this small town in North Central, Arkansas – well, the historic part of town, anyway.
Along the banks are two small docks that rent boats and take people out on fishing tours. We went to one of them and asked the burly guy who came out to greet us if we could tie up there. He seemed a little annoyed at our asking, but tied us up anyway then told us to take our time.
When you walk up the hill from the docks, the first street you come to is Peppersauce Alley. It is here where the official Ghost Town is located. Back in the day, the ally is where horses and buggies would park and load up on Peppersauce, the name of the home-brewed illegal hooch sold there that had a hint of pepper to it’s taste. There’s nothing but burned-out, boarded up buildings there now that are privately owned so you can’t go on the properties, but there are tours of the areas and maps giving the history of each building. We didn’t take the tour or even walk through it. We were more interested in eating lunch before the surly guy at the docks untied our boat and let it loose down the river. But here’s a good blog post I found on the ghost town that has pictures of what it looks like.
The next street over, to the west, is Main Street, the center of the Historic District.
Several antique shops line the east side of the street, but good luck finding one that is open for business. My aunt Donna, who drives through there a lot and loves antiquing, said she has never driven through when the shops were open. We were there in the middle of the day on Saturday and still, the shops were all dark.
There was, however, a book shelf on the sidewalk in front of one of the shops with a sign saying “free books.” I guess if you can’t sell ’em, you give ’em away. We both browsed and picked out a couple of things. I’m a sucker for books and anything free, so it was a perfect combo!
We crossed the street to the west side and read the signs in each of the windows that gave the history of each building. One once housed a bank, another housed a newspaper and another still houses a diner with a sign outside that simply says, “Lunch,” and it appeared to be open. There was a man inside and the lights were on, so we stepped inside.
The front of the place had tables, like a diner. The back of the place looked like a garage sale with random items, such as stained-up dolls missing various body parts, old lampshades, coffee mugs, crocheted pot holders and one very large glittery figurine of Jesus’ Last Supper.
“Can I help you,” the man asked.
“Yes, we’re wondering if you’re open for lunch,” I replied.
“Well, I don’t have any help today and I don’t think you girls would want to eat anything I would attempt to make.”
I appreciated his honesty but wondered why in the heck he was open! I then noticed the diner/junk shop was attached to a shoe store that had an entrance on the inside. I assume he was hoping for customers to whom he could sell shoes. He told us to go ahead and “look around for amusement since that’s what everyone else does.” He seemed a little bitter but after talking to him a while, I understood why.
He said none of the shops along Main Street get much traffic and the traffic they do get are people who want to look and not buy anything. When my aunt Donna inquired about the antique stores across the street he said the owners never open them up anymore because it costs more to keep the lights on than what they were bringing in.
Donna mentioned that one store appeared to have new furniture for sale and she was surprised to see it closed, too. He said the folks who own the furniture store also owned the hardware store down the street but couldn’t afford to keep someone at the furniture store with as little as they were selling. “I guess if ya want furniture, ya can go down to the hardware store and summin will come up here and open up fer ya to look around,” he said. It was so small-town charming, but sad at the same time.
There is a revitalization project going on, and we witnessed evidence of some construction happening inside some of the buildings. Although, it’s taking a lot longer than this man had hoped, and longer than most shop owners could afford to wait. He said he would hang on for a few more months but if things didn’t turn around, he’d have to close up, too. His last good year was 2005, he said.
We did end up finding a restaurant that was open called Don Quixote’s, which, despite the name, is not Spanish. The menu – a chalk board with about six things listed for lunch – was your typical burgers, chicken and something called corn noodle casserole. The food was adequate and the service ok. But as the only restaurant open, they drew quite a crowd.
After we left the man and his empty diner/junk shop/shoe store and before we went to Quixote’s, we went to the end of the Main St. where we saw another shop with lights on inside. Donna said it used to be an antique store that was packed so full you could barely get around. She thought maybe they had cleaned it up. It was cleaned up, alright, but no longer an antique store.
On the ground floor, the building housed the Artisans Co-op where local artists rent space to sell their hand-crafted wares. Goods ranged from furniture to jewelry to home accessories. Upstairs was the Calico Rock Museum.
The free museum is very small, it took only about 20 minutes to see the whole thing. But it’s packed with lots of historical information that all point to one conclusion: Calico Rock is a perpetual victim of modern engineering. ( warning-the blog is about to take on the form of a term paper, but I think the history is so interesting. And it won’t hurt you, dear reader, to learn a thing or two 🙂 )
The town was named by French explorers who thought the multi-colored bluffs lining the White River looked like Calico fabric, hence the name Calico Rock. The boom in the town began in the mid-1800s when it became a landing for steamboats traveling up the White River. When the railroad came in, Calico Rock became a major stop, putting the steamboat out of business. The last steamboat, the Ozark Queen, made it’s last stop in 1903 and a picture of the last docking is in the museum.
The railroad brought the town’s biggest boon, establishing it as a major shopping destination where I’m pretty sure the shops sold things other than dirty, used stuffed animals and coffee mugs. Not only did passengers come to Calico Rock to shop on it’s Main Street, visit the barbershop and go to movies at the town’s theatre, but wholesalers bought goods from the town’s cotton gin, sawmills and lumber yards, among others. In 1924, the town started it’s decline when Highway 56 was constructed. Later Highway 5 provided a route out of town when a bridge was constructed across the White River.
The combination of better roads and automobiles meant people were able to drive further to go shopping. Due to lack of demand, the railroad eventually stopped carrying passengers and one by one, the industries that drew the crowds to Calico Rock closed and left behind a ghost town. It’s hard to believe that highways that are still only two lanes in most places had such a devastating impact. Having traveled on Hwy 5 many times, I think I would prefer the train!
The town’s Main Street remained occupied by tenants even after Peppersauce Alley became a ghost town. But, as the shop owner we spoke to said, people stopped coming there to buy things a few years ago. Because it’s a town that has historically been impacted by up-and-coming engineering and technology, I blame the rise of Internet shopping for the recent decline. 🙂
Honestly though, it’s a shame to see those beautiful old buildings so desolate and abandoned. I sincerely hope the revitalization efforts are successful and the Main Street in Calico Rock is once again bustling. It would make a great antique and used book store row. But in the meantime, I hope if you’re in the area you’ll stop by and try to contribute something to the local economy, assuming you can find a place to spend your money … or you’re in the market for a glittery figurine of Jesus’ Last Supper.