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"We do it Clarendon style," Johnny Ellis says as we eat barbecue for lunch in the metal building that housed J. Ellis & Co. until earlier this year.

For more than two decades, Ellis has been the public address announcer at Clarendon High School football games. During games, those sitting in the stands can hear Ellis talk about doing it "Clarendon style."

Clarendon's population has declined from a high of 2,551 in the 1940 census to 1,664 in the 2010 census. But those who are from here and those who still live here take pride in this old town on the White River near the mouth of the Cache River. Want to see high-profile Little Rock investment banker Rush Harding light up? Just mention Clarendon, his hometown. When Harding gave money for a new fieldhouse at Clarendon's football stadium, he requested that it be named for Ellis.

I'm here at the invitation of Shane Ellis, Johnny Ellis' son who now works as an environmental engineer for Riceland Foods in Stuttgart. Shane knows of my fascination with the unique culture of the lower White River region and thought I might enjoy an afternoon visiting with longtime Clarendon residents who are steeped in the area's history and traditions.

"The J. Ellis farm store began in September 1970 with my grandfather Jack Ellis and his family," Shane says. "Jack saw the need for a local place for farmers to buy what they needed to raise their crops. Their mantra 'everything for the farm' included tires, oil, fuel, batteries and later explosives to blow up beaver dams. My dad stayed with my grandfather after high school graduation to operate the business. They would work at the store until 5 p.m. and then jump on a tractor until dark to work the land they sharecropped."

Johnny's grandfather, M.A. Ellis, was a respected business leader who died in 1948 at age 66. The building that housed J. Ellis & Co. is now a sort of museum, filled with items Johnny has collected through the decades. He's particularly proud of his father's 1940 letter jacket from Clarendon High School. Johnny was the sixth of seven children. All of the children's names began with a J--Jackie, Joe, Janet, Jerry, Judy, Johnny and James.

"My grandfather passed away in 1991, leaving Johnny the store," Shane says. "I grew up working there on weekends and in the summer. As time passed, the small-town economy caught up with the business. Johnny decided to close the business to the public, hanging around to haul a little fuel and sell dynamite on Saturdays."

"Beavers began to proliferate across the state beginning in about 1971, and so we started selling dynamite," Johnny says. "We kept it in a grain bin on the other side of the highway. We eventually sold dynamite to customers in 50 of the 75 counties. My father would pick up dynamite at a place in Mabelvale and drive it back over here. He kept the caps in a filing cabinet. It was a really great business for us for many years."

J. Ellis & Co. also was famous for the domino games that occurred there.

"The three things this place was known for were dynamite, fuel and dominoes," Johnny says. "We also sold feed, tires, batteries, you name it. We did a lot of things in a small way in order to help out the farmers around here. It was a good ride. We got to know colorful characters, especially the folks who would drive across the state to buy dynamite from us."

We're having lunch in the man-cave area of the building, a room Johnny has dubbed the Cache River Condo. The Ellis family came to Clarendon in 1920 to help move freight between railroad lines. It was a booming place in those days. W.R. Mayo writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: "Industries and cultural development began with a stave and barrel factory in 1889, an oar factory in 1892, and an opera house in 1893. Clarendon continued to develop industries after the turn of the century, including lumber mills and a factory producing buttons made from mussel shells found in the river. Freshwater pearls were sold at the Clarendon Pearl Market. The Moss Brothers Bat Co., which produced baseball bats, was also established. The Monroe County Courthouse was designed by noted Arkansas architect Charles L. Thompson and constructed in 1911. It remains the town's most significant landmark."

The area was hit hard by the Great Flood of 1927. Clarendon was under several feet of water. People took refuge on the upper floor of the courthouse. Community activities and church services were held in the building until the water went down. The onset of the Great Depression in 1929, the Great Drought of 1930-31 and another big flood in 1937 were further blows. By late 1940s, Clarendon was thriving again with a large fish market, a box factory and what Mayo describes as "a bustling downtown with shops and a movie theater. In addition, the town had a thriving public school system."

The widespread mechanization of agriculture, however, meant that tens of thousands of sharecroppers and tenant farmers were no longer needed in east Arkansas. Clarendon is the county seat of a county whose population has tumbled from 21,133 in the 1940 census to just 8,149 in the 2010 census. Monroe County lost a higher percentage of its population between 2000 and 2010 than any other county.

Still, people like Johnny Ellis hang on, giving back to the community at every opportunity and providing a warm welcome for the hunters, fishermen and others who visit. They're doing it Clarendon style.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 11/29/2017

Print Headline: Do it Clarendon style

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