The greatest thing since sliced bread
When you tell most Arkansans you’re heading to Leslie, they unilaterally have heard of Serenity Farm Bread. And if you know about making bread from scratch, you know you’re looking at a half-day-long process with repeated series of handling and covering and rising and waiting. But for sourdough bread (which is what Serenity Farm Bread makes exclusively), you’re looking at five days to even create the starter for your dough. Just what kind of people—and what kind of town—has the time and patience and dedication for what can seem like such a prosaic and endless process?
There’s one thing I can say about the drive north on U.S. Highway 65: It. Is. Historic. Originally built in 1925, U.S. 65 connected Vidalia, Louisiana, to St. Paul, Minnesota, a route of about 1,000 miles. And the number of antique stores along this road reflects the history of the thoroughfare itself: You’ve got the Arkansas Peddlers Antique Mall in Greenbrier and Backyard Antiques in Clinton and the Antique Warehouse of Arkansas in Botkinburg. But my favorite store name has to be Crow’s Nest Antiques, Collectibles and Primitives, just 1 mile shy of the LESLIE Pop. 441 sign.
As I pull onto the main street in Leslie (which is, indeed, named Main Street), I see adorable two-story brick buildings lining most of both sides of the road. As cliche as it might sound, it really does feel like traveling back in time.
I pull into the parking lot at Skylark Cafe, a robin’s-egg-blue house where I am to meet my guide for the day. The front porch is overflowing with pink and white petunias, with a table for six tucked in among the flora. I enter the red door (not a combination I’d expect to work with the turquoise, yet somehow it does), and a slim lady in a forest-green dress, hair pinned up and a shy smile playing on her lips, greets me immediately. “Are you Heather?” she asks.
“I am,” I reply. “And you must be Adrienne.”
Adrienne Freeman is, to say the least, a Renaissance woman. She manages a woodworking business, helps another woodworker promote his business (he’s in his 70s and lives in the woods with no electricity), handles social media for Serenity Farm Bakery, has an online art gallery with a friend and does grant writing for a Christian nonprofit. She’s also an excellent chooser of lunch destinations, I learn as we sit down and open our menus.
“There are too many good things to choose from!” I marvel. There’s hummus and pita, a turkey and avocado sandwich, a marinated cucumber salad. But when Joy, our waitress for the day, tells us the special, I know immediately what I’m going to get: a sourdough sandwich of turkey, bacon, spinach, green apple, Monterey Jack cheese and sweet poppy-seed dressing, with a watermelon salad on the side. Adrienne, on the other hand, orders three smoked-brisket tacos: one on a plate and two boxed to go. “I can’t eat all of them,” she explains.
“I’m always impressed when anyone can eat all three,” Joy adds.
“Joy’s actually the owner of the Skylark,” Adrienne explains.
“I couldn’t find anyone else to wait tables today,” Joy shrugs. “It’s good for me, though.”
Almost every table in the cafe is occupied. A steady stream of new diners enters the restaurant consistently. If I were six months pregnant, like Joy is, I wouldn’t have such a good attitude. It’s delightful.
Adrienne is pretty delightful herself. She’s actually from Chimes, an unincorporated community where a lot of hippies moved in the ’70s during the popular “Back to the Land” movement. For the first years of her life, Adrienne lived with her parents in a cabin with no electricity or running water. “I think this area was advertised in Mother Earth News,” Adrienne explains of how her folks ended up here—her mom from California and her dad from Louisiana. “It wasn’t a commune, exactly,” she continues with a smile. “But we all lived within about 5 miles of each other. In fact, there was a crossroads nearby where a man put up an old refrigerator that had a phone in it. It was the only phone in the whole community!”
The big ole town of Leslie (with its booming population of 563 in 1970) served as the hub. Adrienne went to school and graduated from Leslie before the district consolidated with Marshall, the Searcy County seat about 8 miles up the road. It’s a move that was difficult for the community—once the schools left, so did the grocery store and the bank. But the “hippie” base in the surrounding areas still exists: Every year in Chimes, they celebrate the summer solstice.
“What do you do at a summer-solstice party, dare I ask?” I ask.
Adrienne laughs. “When you’re a kid, there’s the Red River to play in. And one of my friends was a drummer in a band. Adults make root beer and give it to all the kids. So you run around, drink root beer, swim and eat watermelon,” she says.
“Is that one of your favorite things about living here?” I ask. “This kind of good, old-fashioned fun?”
“I love how it kind of operates behind the times of everywhere else,” Adrienne confirms. “It’s like an oasis in the modern world.”
“The thing about Leslie is—about 5 miles out, you come down the valley. There’s no better drive in Arkansas.” These are the first words David Lower, owner of Serenity Farm Bread, says to me as I shake his hand. He’s wearing a plaid short-sleeve Oxford, army-green shorts and Birkenstocks. “I got snowed in in Marshall in the winter of ’72.”
“David is one of the Back-to-the-Landers,” Adrienne fills me in.
“You ever hear of Mother Earth News?” David asks.
“I told you,” Adrienne says.
“Yes, you did,” I say, smiling.
“A group of Vietnam vets and my wife and I were looking for land. Fairfax Abraham—do you know him?—bought land around here and advertised it in Mother Earth News and sold it. He makes violins for $35,000.”
I shake my head, too late to indicate that I don’t know Abraham.
“All the rest of my group left—me and my wife are the only ones left,” he continues. “We live out in the boondocks. My dad lived in Germany and all around the world and everywhere, and when he visits us, he says, I’ve never seen a more beautiful sky. That’s the number one thing we have here: clean air. And pretty good water.”
We’re standing on the sidewalk next to David’s red-brick bakery, and the summer sun is h-o-t. But it doesn’t slow David down a bit.
“I worked at a bakery and one of the first health food stores in D.C. in ’71,” he says. “I bought the bakery here in ’93. You have to ferment the grain for sourdough. If you ferment it long enough, it breaks down the gluten. That’s why people with celiac disease eat my bread.”
David is definitely a font of knowledge when it comes to sourdough. He tells me how the word “sourdough” doesn’t mean the bread will have a sour taste; it’s just the process of using fermented wheat in the making of bread. He’s into fermenting in a serious way: He can tell you how sourdough is really a microbe farm (“we feed them flour and water three times a day. You can hear them celebrating!”) and how he uses only organic flour (“it makes our prices higher, but it’s worth it”) and how if your wheat or rye isn’t fermented, you shouldn’t eat it (because “what’s going on in the human gut is connected to what’s going on in our minds, and doctors are even performing poop transplants with some amazing results”). In fact, plain ole loaves aren’t the only thing Serenity Farm Bread makes with sourdough—they also make banana-nut bread and pastries. “You could write a whole article just on sourdough,” he informs me. “You’d be doing the world a favor.”
I nod. “And Leslie?” I ask. “Why have you stayed in Leslie after all your buds have left?”
“I’ve spent hours upon hours thinking about where I’d like to live,” David responds. “The Smoky Mountains are the most beautiful place on Earth, but the air quality is no good. Used to you could see 110 miles on a clear day. Today it’s 15. I’m a mountain guy. The Ozark Mountains aren’t too hot or too cold. And the air quality is amazing.”
“Well, I guess we need to head on now,” Adrienne directs us. I realize David and I have been chatting for over an hour.
“Thanks for your time, friend,” I say, sad to leave him behind. “I bet we could talk hours more.”
“I’m sure we could,” he replies. “Who’s your favorite living American author?”
And thus the conversation about Dave’s favorite—Tom Wolfe—begins.
Adrienne and I walk down Main Street, just as Leslians from the 1940s surely did, stopping to say “hi” to folks along the way. Randy Rose—whose wife has run beauty shops around town for 15 years—is the first we encounter.
“I remember when you couldn’t get down the street,” he says. “We always looked forward to Homecoming.”
It is indeed Homecoming in Leslie this weekend, a tradition dating back to 1954. Tonight there will be a pie auction, a street dance and a team roping competition. This weekend includes bingo, an Arkansas Cowboys Association rodeo, a pancake breakfast, a 5K and all sorts of games, followed by a parade and a banquet. But what Randy likes best about this weekend goes back to his absolute favorite thing about Leslie, period. “I love seeing people on the Main Street benches. When I was growing up, you couldn’t go down the street for all the people on the benches.”
“Nobody whittles anymore!” Adrienne adds.
“I whittled once in front of my wife’s store. Got told not to do that again. People’d track in the shavings.”
“And what is it you do?” I ask Randy.
“Mostly construction,” Randy answers. “Drove some heavy equipment.”
“Most people around here are jacks-of-all-trades, you’ll find,” Adrienne says, and it reminds me of my own folks growing up in small towns around Arkansas. They were coal miners and post-office workers and farmers, when they had the time.
Suddenly, we see David dash across the street to us, a paper bag in his hand. “Come back for a sourdough cookie if you want one,” he says, leaving as quickly as he came in. The smell of fresh bread wafts from the bag, and I see two loaves peeking out.
“You gotta go to Misty’s Shell Station and get one of Sharon’s chocolate rolls, too,” Randy says.
“Sharon Lewis has won the World Championship the last four years,” Adrienne agrees. “Leslie is the chocolate-roll capital of the world!”
“And you oughta stay for the street dance. You’ll get all the old-timers. They’re in their 80s. And they still dance! We used to have a greased pole—it had $20 on the top, and you had to try to climb it. And one time I did the greased pig. That was a mess.”
Randy is a trove of advice. “And check out the Snack Shack across the street. Behind it there’s an albino peacock.”
“ALBINO PEACOCK?!?” I, lover of all things strange, practically holler.
“I think it’s albino,” Adrienne agrees. “It’s white.”
If only I had a hat to tip to Randy for the guidance to an albino peacock. I’m glad he accepts a handshake instead.
The peacock is as white as snow. I’m not sure if it’s an albino, since his eyes are a misty gray-blue, but it’s easily one of the most stunning creatures I’ve ever seen. I wonder how often a magnificent bird like him comes along. The great American writer Flannery O’Connor had peacocks, and I’ve wanted one for as long as I’ve known that. Now I know I want an albino peacock in that mix.
As we continue down Main, I see a walking stick with a morel mushroom carved into the top. “Is that a big thing around here?” I ask. “Morel mushrooms?”
“It is,” Adrienne replies. “People around here hunt them in the spring, but they won’t tell you where they find them.”
Another big thing around here happens every year in October—usually the second weekend: The Leslie Area Merchants Association and the Early Arkansas Reenactors Association put on the Mountain Man Rendezvous. Mountain men were those folks who trapped beavers for fashionable European hats, and every spring, they’d have a rendezvous where they sold their wares and re-supplied themselves; the Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Revenant was about such a man. Well, these days, they re-create that atmosphere right here in Leslie, where they set up tents and put on demonstrations that include crafts, games and the survival skills that would have been necessary to fur trappers in the early 1800s. It’s a real hootenanny.
Adrienne and I turn right onto Oak Street, where Aaron Chadwick, with his thick silver hair and piercing blue eyes, sits under an ivy-covered balcony. Adrienne has made sure he’s waiting for us, and I immediately understand why: Aaron is one heck of a storyteller. “How long have you lived here in Leslie?” I ask him.
“This time?” he replies with a charming smirk. “You spend your time trying to get the hell out of here; then you spend your time trying to get the hell back; then you wonder why the hell you’re back.”
Aaron was in the film business (“talent,” he replies, when I ask him what aspect of the biz he was in), and he made some appearances on Walker, Texas Ranger with Chuck Norris, as well as a part in Steven Seagal’s Fire Down Below. “We were the dope growers,” Aaron tells me. “We were in Hazard, Kentucky, and they brought in three stunt doubles who were kickboxing champions because Seagal played rough.” Aaron also boasts a credit for Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker.
“But I wouldn’t give the life I live now for all the limos in Hollywood,” he says. “I’ve recently learned I like karaoke. I can go down to Ryan’s Grill and do these songs, and then I’m done.”
Aaron finally reveals he moved back to Leslie in ’92, and for a while, he went back and forth to Dallas for film stuff. But when he and his wife had a surprise, late-in-life baby in ’99, he decided to stick close to the town he grew up in. He’s now remodeling buildings just outside of downtown Leslie, and he and his wife run the Jewel West Gallery—“Where Leslie Meets Art.” The gallery is beautiful, with its exposed brick walls and tin ceiling and paintings on display, but for me, nothing quite beats sitting out front, just like Randy enjoys.
Aaron waves at a man driving by in a truck. “You know, the music scene in Mountain View started here at a place called Hootenanny’s. Thursday nights. And Suzi Quatro—you know her? A friend of hers lives down a couple of buildings.”
I look out at the road. Two concentric circles—one small and filled in, surrounded by a much larger, open one—are painted on the road. “What are those?” I ask.
Aaron smirks. “Those are for the Homecoming turtle races. The turtles start in the middle, and whichever one gets to the outer circle first wins.”
I can imagine taking my children to that event. They would love it. But still, it’s a little silly, isn’t it? “What is it you like about Leslie?” I ask Aaron.
“It’s home,” he replies, staring across the street at a man mowing his yard. “I know that’s corny as crap. But it’s home.”
Adrienne and I walk back down Main. It’s been a fairly long day. A productive day. An interesting day. But a long, hot one. Main Street is a wealth of both businesses and hometown folks. On our right is Old Mercantile Antiques, where owner Laurie Gross has been in business for 15 years. She likes that it’s a quieter life: “It’s like a village. You just feel safe and happy—you’re in some place you just want to be wrapped up in.”
Farther down you can find Dave Watts’ place; he’s proud to have the last independent auto-parts store “for eight miles one way, 20 another, 30 another.” He’s been in the same location for 42 years. His store is so full of merchandise, you can barely get in the door. But if you need something for your car, you can bet he probably has it.
And then there’s the gift shop called Elk and Eagle Trading Post, where owner Darryl Treat has roots in town tracing back to his great-great-great-grandparents—the Raglands—who are buried in the Sulphur Springs Cemetery.
In Leslie, things just seem to stick. There are Sears kit homes still standing and an old Works Progress Administration school building that’s been turned into a heritage museum and it is 99 degrees today and no one has their air conditioning on and I have one tiny dot of cell phone reception. Leslie is strange and wonderful and, in some ways, backward. There, I’ve said it.
Adrienne and I arrive back at my car. “Why do you stay here?” I ask. It sounds like an accusation, a judgment. I intended it to be more of an inquiry as to what Adrienne, individually, cherishes most about her chosen home.
“Well, I transferred to Clinton schools the last nine weeks of my seventh-grade year,” she replies. “And it was just the worst experience ever. I remember one day I was riding the bus home, and I realized I was missing all of the people that I hated from school. Like, I sort of came to this realization that it wasn’t just the people that I liked, but I got to missing the old rivalries—I missed the way I disliked people. I like it here because it’s familiar. My sister moved back several years ago and she has a son, and I take him to school to help her out sometimes. I’m taking him to the school I graduated from. Now the teachers there are people I graduated with. You get to see the cycle of a community. There’s this level of history that transcends generations on a communal level. And I think that that’s really beautiful.”
And I think she’s right. Maybe next time, when I come here again—because I will come again—maybe next time, I’ll stay for the dance.