Cruising up Highway 67 to Piggott, with my iPhone telling me turn by turn how to navigate the way, my mind is free to wander. I find myself pondering the 35-page Piggott Community Guide my host, Shawn Parker, fourth generation Piggott resident and loan officer at Piggott State Bank, sent me in advance of my visit today. I think about how Piggott was settled 125 years ago by “hardy settlers [who] battled Native Americans,” where logging became the base of economics and a sawmill attracted folks to the area. I remember that the town was named after Dr. James Piggott, who relocated here from his home in Dow, Illinois. And I recall that the Pfeiffers, a prominent local family that none other than Ernest Hemingway himself married into, also came down from Illinois.
And then I start wondering just where Piggott is, anyway. I’ve been driving for a long time now. How much farther do I have to go? I reach for my phone and zoom out, zoom out, zoom out, and see that the Piggott/St. Francis area is as close to Illinois as you can get and still stay in the state. In fact, if you go north, you hit Missouri. If you go east, you hit Missouri. And, believe it or not, if you go south, you still hit Missouri. This seemingly paradoxical reality reminds me of a quote from my favorite author, the man whose studio is a must on today’s tour: “There’s no one thing that is true. They’re all true.”
Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another. —Ernest Hemingway
When I make my way inside Piggott State Bank, I immediately see Shawn Parker’s nameplate on a desk to my right. A tall man enters the lobby from a door just to the right of that, and he smiles. “Shawn Parker,” he says, extending his hand.
“Heather Steadham,” I reply, returning his smile and extending my own hand for a hearty shake. His enormous hand envelopes mine.
Shawn is tall, with salt-and-pepper hair, a clean shave and the curliest eyelashes I’ve ever seen. He offers me a seat, gets me water and pulls out a piece of paper with a spreadsheet listing important spots to hit. “I don’t have an itinerary, exactly,” he says. “Just some places I want to make sure to show you.” First on the list? The Chamber of Commerce. He wants to introduce me to Jan Glover, the Chamber’s secretary, who is a Piggott girl through-and-through. “My mom said never discuss a lady’s age,” Shawn says, “but [Jan] was a Piggott cheerleader.”
The Chamber of Commerce is an old railroad depot, painted a sunny yellow. As soon as we walk through the door, Jan stands up from her desk to greet us. Her brown hair is piled up on her head, her black, heeled mules are fashionable, and I am so jealous of her figure I’m certain I’m turning green. Her knowledge of Piggott, combined with Shawn’s, seems boundless. They know history: Piggott is located in what was originally Clayton County (named for State Senator John M. Clayton), but folks didn’t like that the area had been named for the brother of Governor Powell Clayton—a reconstructionist (gasp!)—so they changed the name to Clay County in honor of Secretary of State Henry Clay.
They know characters: Herb, who owned a cafe, was cantankerous and only did hamburgers one way. “You ordered one or two—that was your only option!” Shawn says. And there’s Fred Ort, insurance agent, real estate broker and tax preparer extraodinaire, who’s a tad magical. “He’s one of those guys who just has the Midas touch,” Shawn explains.
But, more than anything, they know their roots: “My grandparents came here from southern Illinois,” Jan tells me.
“Like the Pfeiffers?” I ask.
“My grandpa was a groundskeeper for Mrs. Pfeiffer,” Shawn says. “I even ended up with one of Mr. Pfeiffer’s pocket watches.”
The Pfeiffers were well-known in the area even before Hemingway married in. Originally from Illinois, Paul Pfeiffer made his money in his family’s pharmaceutical business. But when the company was being relocated to the East Coast, Paul sold his stakes in the company and bought 63,000 acres of land in Piggott, largely due to his asthma and his desire for clean air. When Hemingway joined the family, the Pfeiffer family vaulted from local fame to international notoriety. After all, Hemingway was no shrinking violet.
“They didn’t want [Hemingway] here,” Shawn says of the Piggott folks. “He got an indecent exposure citation.”
Jan agrees. “They always said he sat under the bridge and drank himself silly.”
While Shawn and Jan seem almost embarrassed to relay these stories, I delight in them. In fact, their reactions, rooted in real life and conveyed to me personally, make me feel much more a part of Hemingway’s story than any of my reading of his work has made me feel.
There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow men. True nobility lies in being superior to your former self. —Ernest Hemingway
I expected the Pfeiffer property to be way out in the country, considering it once consisted of 63,000 acres. But I was wrong. Only about a half mile from the Chamber of Commerce—through town!—lies the Matilda & Karl Pfeiffer Museum and Study Center and the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center. Yes, these are two different homes converted into two different museums on the same property. And actually, it totally works, because they exist for two totally different reasons.
Shawn and I stop first at the Matilda & Karl Pfeiffer Museum, a brick Tudor Revival house situated on a shady, peaceful lawn. Built in 1932, this was the home that patriarch Paul’s son Karl and his wife Matilda shared until their deaths, Karl in 1981 and Matilda in 2002. The entire Pfeiffer family was unbelievably rich, and Karl and Matilda had many hobbies to keep them entertained in the absence of day-to-day jobs. Karl raised pigeons and had a workshop over the garage for his model airplanes (some of which had 6-foot wingspans!). For her part, Matilda was a tremendous collector—of cameras (she loved photography and had a darkroom installed in their home), nests (you read that correctly) and, most notably, mineral specimens. According to Teresa Taylor, the museum’s director, Matilda ended up with about 1,400 pieces of mineral specimens, which were later found all over her house “in boxes, under beds, in bookcases” after her death. Karl and Matilda, Teresa says, “lived a moderate lifestyle, although they sat on a lot of money.” This enabled Matilda to leave the majority of her money to the foundation that operates the museum, a foundation that Matilda herself chose the trustees of.
When I walk into what was once the living room, and is now the main exhibit hall of the museum, I feel my breath catch in my chest. The high wood ceiling of the museum provides a beautiful cap to one wall of built-in bookshelves and the opposite wall of windows. Spanning the room is a wall full of display cases, filled with hundreds of minerals that sparkle under the spotlights. I see azurite and malachite and quartz and galena and pyrite and tourmaline. I love the fluorite, which is a green-blue iridescent mineral, but my absolute favorite is the dioptase.
Teresa sees me staring. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
“It is,” I reply eloquently.
“Not quite emerald, not turquoise, not quite teal,” she says.
“That’s exactly what I was thinking!” I say, and it was. “I just want a dress this color.”
Teresa smiles. “That’s what my daughter said when we were looking for a dress for a church formal. We couldn’t find one, and I was even willing to make one, but there was just no fabric the color of dioptase!”
But the Matilda & Karl Pfeiffer Museum & Study Center is more than just a collection of minerals (though, really, that would be enough for me): It’s a cultural artifact. It houses Native American relics, and it’s the setting of the Elia Kazan movie starring Andy Griffith A Face in the Crowd—and it even showcases that watch of Mr. Pfeiffer’s that Shawn ended up with one day.
“I figured they could use it more here,” he says of his donation.
“And you tumbled rocks with Ms. Pfeiffer, didn’t you?” Teresa asks.
“Once,” Shawn clarifies. “She was pretty reclusive.”
Reclusive, yes. But also generous. She could have left her entire fortune to her kids, but philanthropy ran in the family. Hemingway had it right—Matilda achieved true nobility by opening her hermitage for all to enjoy.
Time is the thing we have least of. —Ernest Hemingway
We spend way more time in the Matilda & Karl Pfeiffer Museum than Shawn had planned. I am dazzled by the minerals (there are ones that glow under black light, for goodness sake!) and by the rustic wood floors of the home, and by the swimming pool-turned-pond outside by the arbor. Shawn practically has to drag me out of there.
But drag me he does, because Shawn has a lot he wants to show me today. As we walk across the lawn, I think about how he represents the fourth generation of his family living in Piggott. He briefly lived in Little Rock, but when he was offered the opportunity to transfer back to his hometown, he jumped at the chance. “I want my kids to know what I know,” he says of his return. Now his kids are the fifth generation of Parkers in town.
The current generation of Parkers enjoy a new shop in an old Court Square building called The City Market. The owners, Joe and Tracy Cole, renovated the building and serve specialty coffees and baked goods. The third generation—Shawn’s dad—loved crappie fishing out at Lakeview Lake. And Shawn’s grandparents enjoyed getting ice cream and sodas on the square at the old Seal’s Pharmacy. I don’t know if we’ll have time to make all the rounds his family would like me to see, but I know Shawn will do his best.
First, though, is a stop I’ve been longing to make.
I never had to choose a subject—my subject rather chose me.
I’m not even going to lie: Seeing the “Hemingway House” is the focus of my Piggott excitement, and Adam Long, director of the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center does not disappoint. When I enter the home, I gasp at the grand, dark-wood staircase, and drool over the Craftsman furniture in the sitting room. He assures me that the chairs are original, signed Stickleys. He points out the Steinway piano, the Catholic altar that Mary Pfeiffer, the matriarch, had installed, and the very desk that Paul Pfeiffer himself worked from. Paul wasn’t just known for being rich, he was also known for being kind. And should you find yourself thinking that this is just the sugarcoated revisionism you’d likely find in an endowed museum, consider the following: When he bought those 63,000 acres, Paul rented to tenant farmers and only required one-third of their crops for payment. In fact, when he wanted to retire, Paul offered the land to his tenants first, and most of them had been so successful that they were able to pay for their land in cash from their savings. And there’s this: When Arkansas State University renovated the house, the ASU folks discovered 41 layers of paint on the exterior of the home that dated just to the 10 years of the Depression. Turns out, Paul employed people who needed money even though he didn’t require their services.
Workers also discovered an entire attic space filled with quilts. “Rich people like the Pfeiffers wouldn’t have used quilts in those days,” Adam explains. “The Pfeiffers bought quilts made by local women, then gave them away to people who needed them.”
I guess the goodness of the Pfeiffers worked to balance out the tawdriness of Hemingway on the cosmic scale. Besides being a raging alcoholic, Hemingway was also known to be a brawler and a philanderer. But, somehow, he and Paul’s daughter Pauline fell in love and were married for 13 years, the second-longest of his four marriages. Pauline even gave him two of his three sons (one of them, Patrick, is the only child still living). Hemingway’s writing flourished during this time, with Pauline’s Uncle Gus serving as Hemingway’s biggest patron, even funding Hemingway’s famous African safari, which provided material and inspiration for the novel Green Hills of Africa and the short stories “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”
Many of the spoils of the safari are on display in Hemingway’s studio in the barn behind the Hemingway-Pfeiffer House. A barn I get to see. Today. Now.
It’s not a remarkably unique barn, really. You’ve got your basic weathered wood, and an underpass where horses were probably brushed and saddled, and, you know, a loft where one of the most famous authors of all time wrote one of his most famous works. No big deal.
The loft, to me, feels like hallowed ground. The broad plank floors creak when I walk on them. The gallery of Hemingway’s kills, the lions, the gazelles, the warthog, hanging on the wall to my left, watch me, I’m sure of it. The desk, with an old-fashioned typewriter, begs me to sit and write. And write and write and write. Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms here. Right here. He said, “I rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.” I’m not sure I have that kind of discipline. But I want to.
Adam tells me Hemingway lived here longer than he lived anywhere else, barring Cuba, where the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center is planning a trip next year.
“These were citizens of the world,” Shawn tells me about the Hemingway-Pfeiffer clan, “but they lived here in Piggott.”
There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games. —Ernest Hemingway
“Our parks really rival those of a larger city,” Shawn tells me as he shows me Independence Park, where there are four youth ball fields, also home to Piggott’s high school baseball team. He shows me Liberty Park, where each year there’s a Fourth of July celebration, complete with vendors, pageants and fireworks. He shows me Heritage Park, with its tree-lined drive and stocked lake complete with pier, where a vintage car show makes its home each year. And he shows me the adorable white gazebo on the lawn of the county courthouse.
“I can just see a band up there,” I tell him, thinking of a prosaic scene from, say, The Music Man.
“We have a band up there every year for Christmas on the Square,” he says, smiling.
But it’s the inside of the courthouse that houses Shawn’s greatest source of pride: his wife. She works for the Department of Motor Vehicles, and when we enter the room, she reminds me of Snow White, her blue eyes stunning against her dark hair. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she says, and when she says it, I believe it. We don’t get to spend much time with her, but every second is a joy. When we leave, Shawn whispers, “My dad says I out-punted my coverage.” As nice as Shawn is, I kind of have to agree.
Next, Shawn takes me by Sugar Creek Country Club, where there’s a swimming pool, tennis courts and a nine-hole golf course. “And when I say country club,” Shawn jokes, “I mean country. In the last newsletter, there was a reminder to members not to spit their tobacco out on the green.”
And then we’re off to Chalk Bluff, a shaded picnic area, playground and walking trail commemorating a Civil War battle. Close by is Pumpkin Hollow, an old farm that has been converted to an autumn wonderland, with activities like a corn maze and a zip line, and even Zombie Paintball Patrol, where folks can ride an old military “deuce” and shoot paintballs from a turret gun!
I can just imagine my own sons, gleefully spending the day saving us all from the apocalypse. I make a mental note to return as soon as possible.
When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen. —Ernest Hemingway
Sitting in my car, gazing at the railroad tracks, not quite ready to leave the day behind, I think of all Shawn shared with me today. He takes pride in Piggott, and in the continuation of things he knows from his childhood: the VFW/American Legion building he describes as “Americana at its best,” the large house just over the Missouri line that kids joke is an old brothel, the St. Francis River, which contributed so greatly to the logging origins of the community.
Yet he also enjoys seeing how things here grow and change, like the restoration of an old gym into an indoor practice field for junior high football, the introduction of a Chinese restaurant and a Mexican restaurant, the Piggott Diner that used to be a grocery store where he worked as a young man. Even the Hemingway landmark has shifted in significance over the years. “We just used to call it the ol’ Hemingway barn,” he recalls. “We’d say it was haunted, and make up stories just to see if people would say that they’d seen ghosts, too.”
But maybe the idea of haunting is even truer than Shawn realizes. Hemingway said, “The world is a fine place and worth the
fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.” For the citizens of Piggott, and for people like me who chomp at the bit to visit such a culturally and historically rich place,
it’s quite obvious that Piggott is indeed
a fine place worth fighting for, and that Hemingway hasn’t left us at all.