Category Archives: Arkansas

Wal-Mart, Art & a Little Bicycling in Northwest Arkansas

I was a checker at Wal-Mart the day Elvis died. That’s where I was 40 years ago today. It was the summer after my sophomore year in college that I spent some time working at Wal-Mart, which recently had opened in my hometown.A fellow employee, or I suppose an associate as we were called, came into work and told that Elvis had died. So it’s not so much Elvis that I am thinking about today but Wal-Mart.

A few days ago I spent some time in Northwest Arkansas, where it all began for Wal-Mart. Bentonville still is the corporate headquarters of the retail behemoth.  I was struck by how much that Walton money has propelled a little-known place in the Ozark Mountains into such a vibrant business and tourist area. It’s one of the Top 25 fastest growing metro areas in the country.

Here’s three Wal-Mart inspired attractions you don’t want to miss.

Walmart Museum. In 1950, Sam Walton opened a Ben Franklin variety store called Walton 5  & 10 on the square of then-sleepy Bentonville. The facade is restored just as it looked in 1950. Inside, there’s a candy & souvenir shop, and it’s full of visitors close to 9 p.m. on a August weeknight. In the back, museum exhibits tell the story of Wal-Mart in an engaging timeline from the 1950s to today, including his 10 Rules for Building a Business.

Wal-Mart timeline
Sam Walton’s bust overlooks part of the Wal-Mart timeline
Sam Walton's pickup
Sam Walton’s 1979 Ford pickup

Driving a humble pickup truck isn’t written in those rules, but his 1979 Ford F-150 is on display there as an endearing symbol of Walton’s humility.

“I just don’t think a showy lifestyle is appropriate. Why do I drive a pickup? What am I supposed to haul my dogs around in, a Rolls-Royce?” is the Sam Walton quote on the display.

The museum complex also includes a soda fountain. A few doors down is a newly-opened War-Mart Neighborhood Store. It  fits into the quaint square look, resembling a Whole Foods more than a discounter.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. There’s no place outside a metropolitan area that has such a diverse collection of art, sculpture and architecture. And, there’s no prettier setting. Art pavilions are nestled around two-spring-fed ponds with forest trails winding through the 120-acre site, about a mile from the Bentonville square.

Original portraits of  George Washington by famous artists Gilbert Stuart and Charles Willson Peale are there. So is Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter oil painting and a Frank Lloyd Wright house that was disassembled in New Jersey and reconstructed there. There’s several Andy Warhol originals including one pop art of the Coca-Cola bottle that museum founder Alice Walton (daughter of Sam) paid $57.3 million for at Christie’s Auction House. Walton outbid the Metropolitan Museum of Art  and paid upwards of $35 million reportedly for Kindred Spirits, a famous Catskills Mountains landscape.

Crystal Bridges Museum
The design and setting of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is just as interesting as the art inside.

Opened in 2011 with $317 million from the Walton Foundation, Crystal Bridges is the first major art museum built since 1974 in America. Admission is free thanks to Wal-Mart  although special exhibits have fees and may be booked so plan ahead. A gallery exhibition of acclaimed Dale Chihuly glass artist just closed, although there are some pieces in an outside setting on exhibit through mid-November. Upcoming 2018 special exhibitions include a Georgia O’Keefe show.

Razorback Regional Greenway. This 37-mile bicycle & jogging path may have a less obvious War-Mart footprint, but it’s there. A $15 grant from the Walton Family Foundation jumpstarted development of this path that connects the growing communities of the area from south Fayetteville to Bella Vista Lake north of Bentonville and near the Missouri state line.

I spent a little over an hour riding a section near Fayetteville, and it should be on the short list for anyone looking for the top places to ride in the South. The  Fayetteville area was busy but not too congested and close to restaurants, coffee shops and micro breweries. Farther north, the path goes to quaint downtowns, through tunnels and over bridges. It connects with about 20 other trails and spurs to such places as Crystal Bridges, three Arkansas lakes and the University of Arkansas campus as well as to shopping and residential neighborhoods.

Those are three Wal-mart-connected reasons to visit Northwest Arkansas. There are many more, including the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, an entertainment venue, and Walmart AMP, a music pavilion in Rogers.

It’s not just Walton money that has made the area prosperous. Tyson Foods and  J.B. Hunt Transport are both headquartered there. In fact, J.B. Hunt founder Johnnie Bryan Hunt has an interesting entrepreneur story of his own as he was often carried a money clip of $100 bills around town, handing them out to people in need.

Sounds a little like Elvis to me.

 

Farmers Market Spotlight: Fayetteville, Arkansas

The farmer’s market in Fayetteville, Arkansas is known for its colorful flower bouquets as much as it is for fruits and vegetables.

Most of the vendors who sell heirloom tomatoes are also selling zinnias and dahlias in a rainbow of colors.

Colorful peppers and flower bouquets
What’s more colorful — the peppers or flower bouquets?
Happy Flowers
Flowers make me happy

Around since 1973, the market on Fayetteville’s historic square has grown into a hip place on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings. I was there last Saturday. Visiting the market helped me get a good picture of what Fayetteville is like.

I saw it this way: A miniature Austin without so much “weird” crossed with Oxford, Mississippi without so much Oxford shirts or Faulkner.

There were many tomato varieties and colors. Some were bicolored. Some of them were even red. Actually, Arkansas is known for pink tomatoes. It’s the state’s official fruit/vegetable. Bradley County’s Pink Tomato Festival is one of the oldest continuously running festival in the state.

Tomatoes come in many colors
Yellow, Red, Pink and Almost Black.Tomatoes come in many colors

The Fayetteville vendors were a mix of:

  1. New urban gardeners with their organic kale and food trucks

2.  Rugged farmers from places like Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove who’ve been working the terraced slopes of the Ozark Mountain foothills for decades and

3.  Many Asian family farmers introducing squash blossoms and edamame to the local food scene.

Arkansas’ growing number of Asian farmer includes Xiong’s Farm in Decatur, Arkansas. They have been selling at the Fayetteville Farmers Market for six years.

 

Arkansas is on the forefront of the growing edamame industry. It was the first state to commercially grow the edamame soybean variety. And, the town of Mulberry near Fort Smith is home to the annual Edamame Festival. Learn more here.

So Arksansas is now home to the Edamame Festival as well as the Purple Hull Pea Festival (Emerson).

It’s National Farmers Market Week, and I appreciate my Shreveport Farmers Market and the smaller markets in my community. But I also enjoy visiting other markets when I’m on the road.

Presidential Libraries Are Worth Visiting

I trace my fascination with presidents with a couple of childhood events. I was in first grade and home sick that November Friday when Walter Cronkite cut into As the World Turns with the tragic news that JFK had been assassinated.

The next year I was home for two weeks with the flu just after my mother bought a set of World Book encyclopedias. Bored, with no videos and only two channels on TV, I began memorizing the presidents in order and the state capitals as well.

Since it’s President’s Day, I’m remembering some of my visits to presidential libraries. My love for presidential history and my tendency to prefer museums showcasing narrow topics (rather than the massive Smithsonian) are reasons why I find presidential libraries so appealing.

I have been to four of them – Bush 41 & 43, Clinton & LBJ and came away with new appreciation for their service, even for the ones I didn’t care for politically. When visiting comprehensive museums such as the Smithsonian, I am overwhelmed, but I can manage presidential libraries since they focus on only four to eight years of history. There are only 13 official ones administered by the National Archives and Records Administration. Texas has three of them.

Here are my brief takeaways from the four that I have visited:

George W. Bush, Southern Methodist University, Dallas: I thought the 9/11 exhibit especially touching with details of the President’s, Vice President’s and first lady’s schedules during that time. The $16 admission is a bit pricey compared to the other libraries visited in the $7-$10 price range.

Since this was the museum we visited most recently, I remember more details about the whole trip. On the day we visited the museum. We opted not to eat at “43,” the museum’s restaurant and went to Rise!, a great soufflé place about three miles away. Rise! has presidential tie-ins as we were seated at the  “Bush” table,  the 43rd president’s regular table evidenced by family signatures on the underside. George W, then the former president, was eating a crab soufflé at this table when advisors called to say Osama bin laden had been killed. Another regular Rise patron is Chandler Roosevelt Lindsley, granddaughter of Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt, who lives in the Dallas area. You can purchase her cookie booklet there.

Bananas Foster Souffle at Rise!

Also, you can include a trip to the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas to learn more about the John F. Kennedy assassination.

Daughter Mary Grace poses by the Presidential limousine at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library on the Texas A&M campus.

George H.W. Bush, Texas A&M University, library in College Station covers the Gulf war, but it was the Bushes public service and their time in China with the CIA that I found most fascinating. A good time to go is in May when the drive leading to the library is surrounded by Texas bluebonnets.

LBJ, University of Texas, library in Austin featured a life-sized mechanical LBJ wearing a cowboy hat sharing folksy stories when I visited 10 years ago. That exhibit has since been replaced by LBJ in a suit in the Oval Office. I haven’t seen it, but I think the former captures his persona better.

Bill Clinton, Downtown Little Rock, Arkansas: The middle of the first floor has an interesting timeline of important events during the time of the Clinton administration, 1993-2001, with the daily schedule of Clinton’s almost 3,000 days in office. Press the appropriate button, and you get “a day in the life.”  The museum gives great views of downtown Little Rock and the Arkansas River. Through April 2, there’s an exhibit on Beatlemania!

Downtown Little Rock view from Clinton library

Ulysses S. Grant Library at Mississippi State!

Presidential  libraries are 21st century creations, but some earlier presidents have foundations that administer birthplaces, libraries and museums. In an ironic move, Mississippi State University is now home to the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library. Yes, you read that right, a former Confederate state houses the library of the former general of the Union army. After a complicated and fascinating dispute that is still in litigation, a MSU history professor had the Grant papers and artifacts moved from Southern Illinois University to MSU in 2012. Read more here.

Harry S. Truman

A couple of years ago we were traveling and found our hotel in Independence, Mo, just outside Kansas City, and the home of Harry S. Truman.

Truman Walked the Streets
Truman Walked the Streets

There wasn’t enough time to visit the presidential library. However, I loved seeing the silhouette signs around town of Truman to depict how he walked everywhere. I’m also amazed at how just spending 30 minutes in a place where a president lived lived piqued my interest in the Truman administration – so much that I downloaded David McCullough’s wonderful biography of the 33rd president.

A Bit of Presidential Trivia

I’m still fascinated by this information I picked up on a trip to Washington, D.C. last May. Two grandsons of our 10th president, John Tyler, are still living! Read more here.

So on this President’s Day, I think I’ll forgo the furniture store sales and read up on one of the presidents. Can anyone suggest a book or a movie?

Bicycling Trip: Big Bridge, Big Rock in Little Rock

Hubby and I were new to  bicycling when one of the first trips we made was to Little Rock, Arkansas.

I had read that the longest bridge in North America specifically built for bicyclists and pedestrians was the Big Dam Bridge (name explanation to come later). So we loaded up our bikes and headed to Arkansas to check it out.

We made a day trip of it then and just piddled around riding along the Arkansas River Trail on both sides of the Big Dam Bridge. But we’ve been back since for a weekend and will go back again to this bicycling jewel just three hours away from our home in Shreveport, Louisiana.

The Big Dam Bridge, which celebrates its 10th birthday today, spans 4,226 linear feet across the Arkansas River seven miles west of downtown.  As for the name: The story  goes that when funding was an issue, a county judge said “we are going to build the dam bridge” and declared he was talking about its location over the Murray Lock and Dam. Others took it another away.

Whatever the name origin, the Big Dam Bridge has been a beacon of health and fitness activities in a southern state better known for rice and gravy.

Big Dam Bridge
Big Dam Bridge-Photo Courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

Big Dam Bridge is a climax of the 16-mile Arkansas River Trail that connects Little Rock and North Little Rock. Most, but not all, of the trail is a dedicated path with no car traffic. There’s two other downtown Little Rock bridges where you can bicycle over the Arkansas River, including one right by the Clinton Presidential Library. Yet another bridge, west of Big Dam Bridge, is at the confluence of the Arkansas and Little Maumelle rivers and takes you to the 1,000-acre Two Rivers Park. More on the four bridges here.

Riding over the bridges may be entertainment enough, but we discovered there’s lots to see within a stone’s throw of the bicycle trail.  The trail connects to 38 parks and six museums. On the south bank of the river (or Little Rock side), you have the state capitol, River Market (farmers market, shops and restaurants) and the Clinton Presidential Library. On the North Little Rock side, you pass the USS Razorback WWII-era submarine and get a glimpse of the scenery that earns Arkansas the nickname “the Natural State.”

One North Little Rock natural spot is an area known as Big Rock, where the river Delta meets Ouachita (pronounced Wash-i- taw)Mountains just a bit off the trail. There once was a quarry there that made railway ballast for 100 years. A smaller rock outcropping on the south side was named “Le Petit Rocher” or “the Little Rock” by a French explorer.

Checking out the Big Rock on a 2012 ride
Checking out the Big Rock on a 2012 ride

What impressed me on my visits was the mix of people using the trail — overweight individuals  struggling a bit but pushing forward on the Big Dam Bridge incline; families with children in bicycles with training wheels and one or even two in baby strollers; old folks, couples and singles walking dogs (and availing themselves of the dog waste bags provided); and serious cyclists/runners in mesh jerseys or no shirt at all.

The Big Dam Bridge 100, the largest bicycling event in Arkansas, will draw crowds to Little Rock Sept. 24.  (There are shorter distances in addition to a century ride). I’m not participating that day, but I look forward to enjoying bicycling in Little Rock again soon.

Big Dam Bridge cycling tour attracts thousands
Big Dam Bridge cycling tour attracts thousands. Photo courtesy Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau

Arkansas River Trail website. If you want more than 16 miles, you’ll find extended rides that go out to scenic Pinnacle Mountain State Park or the 88.5-mile Grand Loop traversing  several Arkansas counties on a mix of paved paths, on-road bicycle lanes and rural roads.

Little Rock’s Arkansas River Trail is one of the bicycling spots featured in a new 45-page glossy Arkansas Road Cycle Guide.  It’s a wonderful publication with routes segmented by easy, moderate and difficult. You can download it here or have it mailed to you.(There’s a separate guide for mountain cycling enthusiasts).

Arkansas Road Cycling Guide
Arkansas Road Cycling Guide

Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau

North Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau

Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

Bobby’s Bike Hike in the River Market rents bicycles and offers family-friendly bicycle tours around the city.

Magnolia, Arkansas Day Trip Ends With a Bicycle Wreck

Magnolia, Arkansas, 75 miles north of Shreveport, is an appealing town of 12,000 with retail still going on around the courthouse square.

Today when many  downtowns have turned to payday loan centers and junk stores to fill space, it’s refreshing to see clothing stores, local pharmacies, a jewelry store, bakery and even a boutique hotel on the square.

Central Baptist Church tower as seen from gardens
Cecil Traylor Wilson Gardens and Central Baptist Church tower make a nice addition to downtown Magnolia

I spent a few hours bicycling around town last Saturday, and I’ll just go ahead and say that part did not go well. Hubby David accompanied me but decided it was too hot and better to enjoy the shade of the magnolia trees around the courthouse and the lush pine grove at Southern Arkansas University. A wise choice that day.

I  wrecked and tumbled over the handlebars while riding my bicycle on the path on the campus of Southern Arkansas University.  The path was very smooth and well-maintained, an asset to the campus and town. Purely cyclist error on my part.

Bicycling in Magnolia before the fall
Bicycling in Magnolia

I’m OK now — still nursing a few bruises and considering how this all will affect my cycling. It’s sobering, particularly as this fall came within a few days of billionaire tycoon Richard Branson’s near-fatal crash as his bicycle hit a speed bump.

My thoughts vacillate between “everybody falls now and then, I just need to be more careful next time” to “no, that attitude is too flippant. I could have really hurt myself. I need to find a safer activity to enjoy.” 

Before the fall, I cruised around the side streets of downtown Magnolia.

Magnolia is known for its murals painted on the sides of corner buildings. They are charming and colorful and depict Magnolia’s agricultural and oil and gas roots.  One of the murals pays tribute to the cinema. It’s painted on the side of what was once the  Macco Theater, one of six local theaters plus two drive-ins that once were in Magnolia. Sadly, there are none today since The Cameo closed in 2012.

I enjoyed popping  into the Magnolia Bake Shop, which has been in operation since 1928.  The building looked bland, but there was a line inside, which I figured was a good sign. The pig and blanket and strawberry cupcake that I got were both delicious. I liked the small town prices–$1.19 for the cupcake!

Next door was Stephens Olde Tyme Country Store in the former Macco Theater building. Only the painted palm trees on the front window gave a clue to the store’s bread and butter business–swimming pool maintenance and supplies. I had a nice chat with owners Leesa & Eddie Stephens, who are doing their part in making downtown interesting by adding a large selection of unique toys that you won’t find at the local Wal-Mart, their own brand of jellies and store displays that are worth stepping inside to see–including a large refinished card catalog, a 100-year-old pea thrasher (Emerson, Arksansas just l4 miles away is home to the annual Purplehull Pea Festival)

I didn’t make it to Lois Gean’s, the  store that Magnolia is best known for. The shop carries lines from leading women’s fashion designers and has been written up in Women’s Wear Daily and other publications.  I didn’t figure the store’s owners would appreciate a sweaty cyclist mingling with the haute couture.

Earlier in the summer, there’s a farmer’s market, Le Marche des Lois Gean’s right in the Lois Gean’s parking lot. I’ll come back for that! David and I did wander over to the Fred’s parking lot, where a man was peddling watermelons. We bought one because we have had some good ones from southwest Arkansas before, but this one was a bust.

Magnolia wasn’t its liveliest on a Saturday in late August, although just days before downtown was abuzz with activity when Blue and Gold Day, a new tradition, brought SAU’s 4,000 or so students to a square for a good time of school spirit and community pride building.

Another busy time downtown is the annual Magnolia Blossom Festival each May with a  steak cook-off  that is so competitive that it has been on the Food Network.

Magnolia is proud of its small university as it should be. The campus  is shaded by a lovely pine grove. There’s the aforementioned pedestrian/bike path, a duck pond, outdoor Greek style amphitheater, spacious rodeo arena and new buildings in a day when many strapped small colleges show no construction going on at all. SAU was recently named by BestValueSchools.com as the 6th most affordable small college in the country. And its mascot, the Mulerider, is  unique, right up there with TCU’s Horned Frogs and Penn State’s Nittany Lions.

The downtown area and side streets are really not conducive to cycling so the best bet is the path and farm road (a little over a two-mile loop) around SAU. You can extend the ride by cycling through the residential neighborhoods on the east side of campus and wind up behind the Flyer Burger Restaurant, which has good reviews on Yelp for its burgers and seafood.

Also, going north from SAU is Columbia County Road 13 to McNeil. It’s part of a 65-mile “Tour of Columbia County” loop around Magnolia included in the Arkansas Road Cycling Guide recently published by the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. You can view it here.

I’d have to be in a large group and fully recovered from my fall to try that. The route, which extends to Highway 98 east of Magnolia, is a bit hilly and curvy in places, and I’m not sure too many rural Arkansans are used to seeing bicycles on the road.

 

Winter Weekend at Arkansas’s Petit Jean State Park

Mary Grace had a long Mardi Gras weekend, but we skipped the parades and the king cake and headed four and a half hours north to Petit Jean State Park in Arkansas. Petit Jean was the first of 52 state parks in Arkansas, aptly nicknamed “The Natural State.”

In winter, it’s particularly calm at Petit Jean. The bare trees expose the rocky bluffs and babbling brooks.  And, it’s much quieter. Sunday morning, we only passed four people on a two-mile roundtrip Cedar Falls Trail,  the park’s most popular. At the end, we had the 95-foot waterfall to ourselves.

Hiked down to Cedar Falls exactly one year after falling & breaking arm on the tennis court.
Hiked down to Cedar Falls exactly one year after falling & breaking arm on the tennis court.
Mather's Lodge at Dusk
Mather’s Lodge at Dusk
Arkansas Rock Formation
Arkansas Rock Formation

Petit Jean, pronounced “PET-ih-gene” by locals is named after a legendary French girl who smuggled onto a boat as a cabin boy in the early 1700s to follow her fiancee to the Louisiana Territory.

After hiking seven miles and watching the sunset, we headed to Mather’s Lodge for dinner Saturday night. I highly recommend doing that, not for the mostly average food, but for the gorgeous view over Cedar Creek Canyon. It’s also fun to explore the rustic lodge, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and recently renovated. The hearth room with crackling fire, jigsaw puzzles and games made for a pleasant wait on a cold February night.

DSCN0952

License Plate Decor

There’s something I like about restaurants with walls of license plates. I don’t know why but I’m fascinated by the slogans that make their way onto plates, the colors, even the county names.

License Plates

Here’s one from Stubby’s BBQ in Hot Springs. (Our family prefers it to the better-known McClard’s, although Stubby’s has a history of its own as its moniker “Serving Que Since 52” says.

My favorite license plate on this wall is Wyoming.

See Spring’s Beauty at Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs

Spring has become my favorite season in the south. Fall is hit or miss, mostly summer morphing into an icky cold winter. In nearly 58 years, I barely need two hands to count the significant snows I’ve experienced. So winter is no good here. And let’s not even mention summer.

But spring delivers every year. Yellow daffodils poke out in late February. Soft pink dogwood blossoms, though fewer than in the past, float in mid-air. Azaleas color the landscape in shades of red and pink. And, tulips in a riot of colors demand attention.  It’s worth it to take a day and seek out the most outlandish display and soak it all in. Today, my daughter and I made a day trip to Garvan’s Gardens just outside Hot Springs, AR to see the Spring Tulip Extravaganza with nearly150,000 bulbs.  It’s supposed to be the showiest display between Memphis and Dallas. Though we were a few days beyond the peak, we were glad we made this trip just three hours north of Shreveport.

We ended our trip with a visit to the beautiful chapel in the woodlands, an appropriate stop to remember what Christ did for us on the cross two thousand years ago!

Garvan's collage

www.garvangardens.org