I HAVE A slight toothache. I need to go to the bathroom. I’m at the edge of a headache. I’m tired from working 40-plus hours this week and taking care of a husband and three kids and finishing up my novel, and gosh darn it if my middle child didn’t bring home a stray dog two days ago.
Come to me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest, proclaims Matthew 11:28 on a billboard about 10 miles before I arrive in Searcy.
Searcy. Home of Harding University. Seat of White County, and its largest city at 24,318 souls. Home of Gov. Mike Beebe. Holder of two Arkansas superlatives: the oldest known church building still standing (Smyrna Methodist) and the oldest Arkansas courthouse still being used for its original purpose.
These facts? They don’t exactly portend a people inclined to rest.
I arrive at Searcy Parks and Recreation’s Holiday Craft Fair preview (the full one scheduled for December 2) at the Carmichael Community Center. There’s a mostly cloudy sky today, as a forecaster would call it, and there’s just enough nip in the air to get me into a holiday-shopping mood. A primary-colored playground sits out front, and a little girl—appropriately clad in Santa-Claus red—squeals in delight as her dad goes down the slide with her.
One synonym for rest is “peace.” Stationed just outside the entrance to the Craft Fair is Bonnie Graves, selling wares for Damsel in Defense. She tells me about the “Holla Hers” personal alarms and “Sock It to Me” kubotans and “Junk in the Trunk” auto emergency kits. “I also sell Tupperware,” she informs me. She moved to Searcy to semi-retire, and I ask her what makes her want to live here.
“I wanted to slow down, get out of big-city Texas life.” It seems she found her peace, which, apparently, involves selling “Get a Grip” handheld stun guns.
Inside the community center, I find baked goods from the St. James Ladies Guild and tchotchkes from Porcelain Painting by Glenda and the most amazing two-tone wood cutting and cheese boards from Father and Daughter Creations. But I stop in my tracks when I see a table festooned with whimsical lamps made from stacked teapots and teacups and sugar bowls and all things Alice in Wonderland.
“I get pieces from Goodwill, Habitat, the Humane Society,” Mykila Wages tells me. She has a booth at Family and Friends Emporium in Judsonia, a scant 7 miles from Searcy. One lamp in particular is especially delightful, candy-colored and centered around a flowered owl. “Dreaminess,” believe it or not, is yet another synonym for rest.
Eighteen laps around the community center equals one mile. I walk one-eighteenth of a mile.
On my way out, I see Jenn’s Unique Boutique. Jennifer Gregory’s day job is at Sowell’s Furniture (“It has all the best stuff! And we have decorators, so if you buy your furniture from us, we’ll decorate your room for free!”), and Jenn has no shortage of things I absolutely must see before I leave Searcy: “Dickey’s Barbecue—their brisket is to die for. And Stu’s Brew, if you like coffee. And the town square. And the historic homes on Center Street, and the Black House on Race Road; it’s yellow, but it was owned by the Black Family. And the Rialto! They’re redoing it. And Spring Park! They’re putting in an ice-skating rink. I want to try ice skating.”
It looks like I’d better get moving.
Spring Park sits at the corner of Pleasant and Main. A family kicks around a ball, and a woman walks around the trail, and not one but two rock footbridges span a stone canal that winds through the park. And, as advertised, an ice-skating rink is being constructed under a pavilion. It’s not ready yet, but I, too, want to try ice skating here. After all, another word for rest is “recreation.”
Four blocks away is the yellow Black House. Built in the latter half of the 19th century, this historic home now doubles as the Searcy Art Gallery. “Come in!” a plucky, disembodied voice floats to me as I enter the back door, as family would. I follow the smell of barbecue to a tiny office, where Terri Brannon, Searcy Art Gallery director, is finishing up a late lunch.
“That wouldn’t happen to be Dickey’s, would it?” I ask.
“This is [from] the Rib Crib,” Terri replies, seemingly unfazed that an outsider would make such an informed guess. “The Rib Crib has the best prices, but Dickey’s has the best okra.”
I do love me some okra.
The Art Gallery’s current exhibition showcases more than 100 pieces by retired local elementary school teacher and chain-hotel-name-sharer Howard Johnson. There are acrylics, oils, watercolors—even some pen-and-ink and mixed-media works. His art is charming, with a captivating perspective on local (and exotic) landmarks, and the gallery has sold over $5,000 of his work in the first week alone. I walk through Black House, smelling the old oiled wood of the vintage fireplaces, adoring the white beadboard ceilings and remembering my own childhood home as I look at the wide plank floors and the crank doorbell at the entrance. Even the hinges on the door frames are worthy of attention, with their ornate metalwork singing of older (more restful?) times.
Debbie Higgs, with her magnificent head of blonde, curly hair, shares the office with Terri. Debbie knows exactly where I need to go. “The Boutique on Spring Street,” she declares. She follows up with “Oh!” sighed in the perfect Southern swan.
“They have fabulous things,” Terri agrees.
“They have fabulous things,” Debbie reiterates. She goes on to tell me, stoplight by stoplight, how to get there. “I get in trouble every blessed time. I tell myself I don’t need one single thing! Honest to God, I don’t.”
But she goes anyway, because, I imagine, it’s where she finds her own kind of rest.
I get into my car and cruise the square. I see Glass From the Past stained-glass studio, the spectacularly archetypal Stotts Drug Store, the quaint Quattlebaum Music Center and the art-deco Rialto Theater. Folks are just getting out of a free showing of The Polar Express. I bask in the nostalgia of it all. I feel tranquil, amused and—dare I say it?—rested.
Must-sees and -dos around town
Slader’s Alaskan Dumpling Co.
If you get hooked on Juneau-native Slader Marshall’s dumplings—chicken or beef, mixed with curry, cilantro and Sriracha in a buttered, boiled pasta shell—don’t panic: He also operates a food truck that makes frequent appearances in Little Rock. (301 E. Center Ave; sadcoak.com)
Stu’s Brew Coffee & Espresso
It wouldn’t be a college town without a good coffee shop, and this relatively new spot hits the mark. Good beans and friendly baristas—the kind who remember your order and don’t roll their eyes when you order “the kind with the espresso and the foamy milk.” (304 Beebe Capps Expressway; (501) 593-0343)
When in small Southern towns, here’s a tip for you: Hit up the shop where all the locals do their wedding registries. In Searcy, that’s the aptly named The Boutique, which proffers everything from cream-and-butter fudge to Pine Cone Hill bedding to Le Creuset Dutch ovens. (112 N. Spring St.; searcyboutique.com)
White County Pioneer Village
This step-back-in-time project by the White County Historical Society has preserved a collection of 19th-century buildings including a log home, a blacksmith shop, a schoolhouse and the like. Swing by on Dec. 2 for their Christmas open house with musicians-slash-carolers and sugar cookies made from a 100-year-old recipe. (1200 Higginson St.; (501) 278-5010)
Searcy Art Gallery
Exhibits change often at this gallery housed in an antebellum Victorian manse called the Black House, whose 151-year-old story is as compelling a reason to visit as the art that hangs inside. (300 E. Race Ave.; facebook.com/searcyartgallery)