"I always wanted to be Atticus Finch, and this is as close as I'm going to get," Joe Cole says as he sits behind the desk at his law office in downtown Piggott.
Finch was a fictional character in Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The small-town Southern lawyer was a font of wisdom and a pillar of his community. Gregory Peck won an Academy Award for portraying Finch in the 1962 film adaptation of Lee's novel.
Finch practiced law, but he never operated a bed-and-breakfast inn or a downtown market. Joe Cole, aided by his wife Tracy, does both. Joe and Tracy were born in Piggott, graduated from Piggott High School and were married at the First United Methodist Church there. They later headed to Memphis, where Joe pursued his law career and Tracy pursued a career in marketing.
The building where they operate the Inn at Piggott was built in 1925 to house the Bank of Piggott. That bank went under during the Great Depression, but the Piggott State Bank was chartered and called the building home until 1974. After the Coles decided they were ready to get away from the Memphis rat race and return home in the spring of 2013, they purchased the building from George Forrest, who had operated what then was known as the Downtown Inn. They changed the name following an extensive renovation project.
When the Coles opened the doors of the renovated inn in July 2013, hundreds of people turned out for guided tours.
Joe, who revels in local history, wasted no time making plans to promote his hometown. He told the Clay County Times-Democrat that summer: "We'll be having a veterans' celebration, which will include a special breakfast event and dinner presentations on what it was like in Piggott during World War II. We'll talk about the story of the P-47 named the 'Town of Piggott, Arkansas,' and the Arkansas native who flew the plane in the European theater. Plus we'll have stories about Ernest Hemingway's experiences during World War II and hear about Piggott personalities who had an impact on the war like Alva Lasswell, the Piggott soldier who helped crack the Japanese code prior to the Battle of Midway."
It was announced that the inn would offer special packages for those visiting the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Education Center at Piggott. Operated by Arkansas State University, the museum incorporates the former residence of Paul and Mary Pfeiffer, whose daughter Pauline was married to Hemingway from 1927-40. Hemingway visited Piggott often, and the Pfeiffers converted their barn into a writing studio for him. He wrote parts of A Farewell to Arms and short stories at Piggott. The Pfeiffer family sold the house to Tom and Beatrice Janes in 1950, and few changes were made through the years. ASU acquired the property in 1997.
It also was announced that the Coles would offer a movie package to mark the fact that the film based on A Farewell to Arms premiered in Piggott in addition to New York in December 1932. The package also would celebrate the fact that the movie A Face in the Crowd was filmed at Piggott in 1956. Dozens of Piggott residents served as extras. It was the screen debut of Andy Griffith and Lee Remick. The film also provided Walter Matthau and Tony Franciosa their first major roles. Based on the short story "Your Arkansas Traveler" by Budd Schulberg, the movie was directed by Elia Kazan. Schulberg and Kazan had worked together on the 1954 film On the Waterfront.
Rather than becoming frustrated at the tough task of attracting visitors to a small town in the far northeast corner of the state, the Coles are working harder than ever four years after purchasing the inn. A year ago, they opened the Piggott City Market on the courthouse square as a coffee shop, bakery and a place to showcase Northeast Arkansas products such as pecans, honey, toys, jewelry, art and even furniture. I never dreamed I would sit outside on the Piggott square and sip a latte early in the morning. One wall of the store serves as a sort of local history museum.
"All of the art on the walls has a Piggott connection and is designed to inspire questions and interest in the incredible history and heritage of Piggott," Tracy says. Earlier this year, the Coles completed renovation of a two-bedroom loft above the market that they rent to visitors.
Joe is finishing a book titled The Piggott Boys that follows some of the interesting people who hailed from Piggott. He recently received several boxes of material related to Les Biffle, who was born in October 1889 in the Clay County community of Boydsville and grew up at Piggott. Biffle moved to Washington, D.C., in 1909 to work for a member of Congress. He later became one of Harry Truman's closest advisers as secretary of the U.S. Senate. Aaron Moulton writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: "Articles appeared on Biffle in Newsweek, Fortune, Life and the Washington Social Register, and magazines credited Truman with saying, 'Les is worth 10 votes on a roll call.' Anecdotes highlighted his offices' direct phone line to the White House and his walking the Senate's aisles while whispering to congressional officials without moving his lips."
"I think Piggott is only utilizing about 10 percent of its potential for tourism," Joe says. "Because of the inn, I get to have breakfast with people from all over the world. They're amazed by the history and culture of this little place. Not enough people know these stories."
Joe and Tracy Cole are doing their best to tell them.
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 10/14/2017
Print Headline: The Coles of Piggott