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OPINION | James Hales: Rogers transformed from sleepy little town to amazing city all within a lifetime

by JAMES F. HALES Remembering Rogers | August 31, 2023 at 2:30 a.m.
Earl Harris was a poor man who started his bakery in 1926 at 107 W. Walnut. Just nine years later, he bought the bankrupt Lane Hotel and built a modern bakery on Elm Street. (Courtesy of the Rogers Historical Museum)

Recently, I asked Pat Harris for an interview and he graciously accepted. Pat was born during World War II and he grew up in the era in which Rogers grew from a little town of 3,500 citizens to a major business and industrial center.

Pat's father, Earl Harris, was the primary leader who was responsible for much of Rogers' growth from the 1930s until his untimely death in 1959. Earl Harris and his sister, Effie, started the Harris Bakery in 1926 and operated it until his death. I asked Pat how the bakery got started.

"My father was the youngest of seven siblings and had to quit school after the eighth grade to support his mother and sisters," Harris said. "At the age of 30, he and his sister Effie bought Kruger's Bakery at 107 W. Walnut and started the Harris Baking Co. (The sign is still on the front of the store). Soon the Great Depression started and many businesses closed, but the Harris Bakery thrived.

"He sold bread for 5 cents per loaf, cheaper than a family could produce it at home. Demand was soon more than the little bakery on Walnut could produce. In 1936, the Harris Baking Company built a new modern bakery at 114 W. Elm Street that could produce 1200 loaves per hour. It was advertised as 'America's Most Beautiful Bakery.' The new Harris Bakery backed up to the Lane Hotel, which my father had just bought in 1935. He changed the name to the Harris Hotel and made it into 'The Palace of the Ozarks.'"

Earl Harris started with a tiny bakery in 1926, and just nine years later built a new state-of-the art bakery and bought the finest hotel between Kansas City and Fort Smith, all during the Great Depression.

"How did your father and mother meet?" I asked.

"My Dad owned the Harris Hotel, and he met Helen Harris Baldock at the hotel in 1938, and they married and lived in the hotel," Harris said. "I was born in 1944 and lived with my mother for a while in Flagstaff, Arizona. We came back to Rogers in 1948, and that was also the year that Dad sold the Harris Hotel to Warren Felker and other business men.

"Next, I lived out on Sugar Creek with my Dad. He had 1,000 acres of farmland, and we lived there until Dad sold it in 1952. Then we lived in Decker Apartments (which is still there by the Rogers Historical Museum) for two years. Hardy Croxton, Charlie Decker and his wife, Elizabeth, also lived there. Dad remodeled a house on S. Sixth Street near the new (at the time) high school, and we lived there until my Dad died in 1959 at the age of 63."

"Where did you attend school?" I asked.

"I went to Central Ward for first, second and third grades, and then to Southside for the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades," Harris said. "I went to junior high at the old high school on Walnut Street for the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades."

"Where did you go after junior high?" I asked.

"For my sophomore year, I attended Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Missouri," Harris said. "Then I came back for my junior and senior year at the new Rogers High School. I was in the second class to attend the new RHS."

"Who were your favorite teachers in school?" I asked.

"I had several," Harris said. "The Reagan sisters, Lois Duty, Blackie Bond, Frank Tillary and Howard Sutton were a few. Lois Duty was in charge of study hall and she got tired of fooling with me, and marched me down to the principal's office and said, 'Howard, he is yours.' So, I spent the whole semester of my junior year sitting on the bench in the principal's office for study hall."

I asked Pat whether he participated in sports in high school.

"I played basketball and was not very good," he said. "Someone asked me if the coach even knew I was on the team. There were 15 players and Mike Smith and I were number 14 and 15. We argued over who was the worst player.

"They bought new uniforms for the seven best players and the rest got the old worn uniforms. Mike and I got some old uniforms that were faded badly and a different style. People laughed at us and asked if we were on the same team as the other guys."

"What do you remember about your dad? I asked.

"He was 48 when I was born and we were inseparable," Harris said. "He would take me to work and I was at the bakery all of the time when I was not in school. He would take me on business trips and I remember one time we went to pick up Governor Faubus at the Fayetteville Airport.

"I was his only child, and he really loved me."

"What was your first job? I asked.

"I started working at the bakery during the summers when I was sixteen," Harris said. "The hardest job at the bakery was working the ovens and it was extremely hot, especially in the summer. We worked six days, Sunday through Friday. We were off on Saturdays so they could clean the ovens.

"Then when I got my driver's license, I drove trucks delivering bread to Russellville, Sallisaw, Tahlequah, Tulsa, Ft. Smith and Ft. Scott, Kansas. We delivered the bread to IGA stores at night and the stores would be closed with no one there. We just left the bread in cardboard boxes on the ramp at the back of the store, then (went) on to the next stop. Then a day or two later, we would pick up the unsold bread and sell it as 'day old' bread at a reduced price.

"During the summers, I also life-guarded for Cactus Clark. It was a good job, just sitting around and looking at the girls."

"Did you get paid for that job?" I asked.

"Yes, I got a dollar an hour and free food, but I would have worked at that job for free."

"What happened to the bakery after Earl died?" I asked.

"I was only fifteen years old at the time," Harris said. "Wiggs Miller ran the bakery with the help of Hardy Croxton, Jr. In 1960, Harris began producing bread for IGA Stores. In 1966, Harris Baking Company was sold to the Independent Grocers Association (IGA). The bakery continued to expand and today is in an ultra-modern complex at 2301 S. First Street."

"Where did you go to college?" I asked.

"I went to the University of Arkansas for three semesters before I got kicked out for bad grades," Harris said. "I partied too much. That was in 1964, then they let me come back in 1965 and I flunked out again. That was during the Vietnam War.

"My guardian, Wiggs Miller, said that I had three choices – the Navy, the Army, or the Marines. I joined the Navy and served from November, 1965 until December, 1966 at Adack, Alaska, the second worst duty station in the Navy. Then I went to Norfolk, Virginia. The Navy had a policy that you could get out early if you went to college. So I applied to the U of A and they said 'No, you have flunked out twice and you don't get a third chance.' However, my base commander called them and convinced them to make an exception for me. I finally graduated in 1970 majoring in marketing with minors in History and Geography."

"How did you get into the real estate business?" I asked.

"When I got out of college, I worked six months for Sanger-Harris Department Store in Dallas," Harris said. "I came back home to Rogers and worked for Wiggs and Cecil Miller in the appliance department of the Goodyear store.

"About this time, I bought a lot that was part of the old golf course on W. Walnut. Then I sold real estate for G. Don Thompson and later, Frank Smith. In 1976, Jack McHaney and I decided to start our own real estate business, so we built an 1800 sq. ft. office on the lot that I owned. We opened Harris/McHaney Real Estate on May 11, 1976."

"You must have been pretty good at selling real estate," I offered.

"Actually, I wasn't a natural salesman, but I did make the 'Million Dollar Club.' Back then the average price of a home was $25,000. You had to sell 40 houses to make that club and there was only six Realtors who sold that much in all of Rogers. Now you can sell one house and get into the club."

"In 2007, you had one of, if not the most successful, real estate businesses in Northwest Arkansas," I said. "What did you do when the bottom fell out and many folks in the housing market went broke?"

"I scurried around to everybody that I knew and raised enough money to weather the storm," Harris said. "Then in 2010, George Faucette and I merged and it was a good fit. Later I bought him out. I had previously bought Jack McHaney's interest in the company, but we kept the name."

Pat had many more interesting stories, but I have run out of space. It must be mind boggling for him to see Rogers transformed from a sleepy little town to the amazing city that it is today, all within your lifetime.

  photo  In 2007, Pat Harris gave a tour of the former Harris Hotel for the Rogers Historical Museum. Pats father, Earl Harris, bought the hotel in 1935 and made it into the "Palace of the Ozarks." (Photo by James Hales)

Print Headline: Son of Earl Harris, leader responsible for much of Rogers’ growth, reflects on change


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