It's a summer afternoon in east Arkansas, and it's as if I've stepped back in time.
Garth Hardware on Main Street at Des Arc is in a building that was constructed by my grandfather, W.J. Caskey, almost a century ago. The store, which still does a booming business, looks much like the one I would visit on similar summer days when I was a boy five decades ago.
My grandfather, a Hickory Plains native, was the founder of Caskey Hardware and Caskey Funeral Home (that combination wasn't unusual in rural Arkansas). The building that housed his businesses was conveniently located across the street from the Prairie County Courthouse, where he served in elective office as county assessor from 1914-16, as county clerk from 1916-21 and as county judge from 1937-41. My mother was the youngest of five children, and I'm the youngest of three. By the time I had any memories of my grandfather, who was born in 1884, he had sold his businesses to Willis Eddins and they had been renamed Eddins Hardware and Eddins Funeral Home.
My grandfather's morning routine was always the same on the summer days that I would spend at my grandparents' house on Erwin Street. He would gather eggs from his chicken yard and vegetables from his garden before it got too hot, eat a big breakfast prepared by my grandmother (a couple of those eggs that had just been gathered would show up on the plate) and then make his morning rounds. The post office was directly across the street from the house. We would cross the street, check his post office box, stop by Merchants & Planters Bank (where he had long served on the board) and then go to the hardware store. Though he no longer owned the business, he still kept a desk in the back.
The pressed-tin ceilings are just as I remembered them. The freight elevator is still in the back. The store even sells shotguns and hunting clothes, just as my grandfather once did. The Garth family bought the hardware store and funeral home in 1978. The businesses have been in just three families for the past 100 years--Caskey, Eddins and Garth. If folks from other parts of the state go to Des Arc these days, it's usually to eat catfish at Dondie's White River Princess, the restaurant, designed to resemble a riverboat, that opened along the White River in the 1980s. People come from miles around to eat there on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. If you're making the trip, arrive early so you can visit Garth Hardware at 211 Main St. before it closes at 5 p.m. There aren't many stores like it left in Arkansas.
It was on those summer days in Prairie County that I learned to appreciate the unique culture of the lower White River region. I loved few things more than being allowed to walk alone to the fish market on Main Street and watch the commercial fishermen bring in catfish and big-mouth buffalo, which were then placed on ice. I would stare at the old black-and-white photos of the huge alligator gar that had been pulled from the White River through the years. Sometimes my grandfather would advise me before leaving the house: "Make sure they put back some fiddlers [his term for small, whole catfish] for me so we can have them tonight."
Automobile trips across the large suspension bridge--known as the Swinging Bridge since you could feel it move when you crossed--were always a thrill. The sense of anticipation was especially high if we were headed to fish at Spring Lake, Horn Lake or one of the other oxbow lakes across the river. The bridge had been built in the late 1920s as a private toll bridge. According to Guy Lancaster of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, it became "one of the centerpieces of Gov. Carl Bailey's efforts against bridge companies in the state. After a spate of lawsuits, the state was able to acquire the bridge for $50,000 in 1939 and convert it to public use. ... A new bridge opened on March 18, 1970."
The Swinging Bridge was torn down, but the memories linger. On a website devoted to the bridge, Michael Stone once wrote: "When I was a child, I remember being scared to go to my great-grandmother's house because we had to cross this bridge. There were areas where you could wait if some other vehicle was on the bridge, but you couldn't always see well enough to decide if the bridge was occupied. ... I remember one time crossing in a wind, and the boards were rolling up and down in dips. We met two milk trucks in the middle, and their side of the bridge was about three feet lower than ours because of the weight differences. I thought the paint would scrape off the car as we passed them. I must have been around 8 years old, and I thought we were going in the river."
Judy Coker Andrews wrote on the same website: "We loved it, and we feared it. One could observe from any of several vantage points in town the downward sway beneath two heavy loads when two trucks or buses met. In such a small town, that was some real excitement."
Des Arc is among the oldest settlements in the state. Lancaster writes that it takes its name from "the Bayou des Arc two miles north of the city. The bayou's name is derived from a French term meaning bow or curve. Francis Francure, a Frenchman, was reportedly one of the first settlers in the area, testifying, upon receipt of a Spanish land grant, that he had lived on the land since 1789."
Today, like so many east Arkansas towns, Des Arc must battle population decline. A trip to Garth Hardware and a catfish dinner at Dondie's still provide a reason to visit.
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 08/18/2018
Print Headline: Walking in Des Arc