Grits and glam in Southwest Arkansas
I now know where Waldo is. It (not he) is in Columbia County, about 8 miles northwest of my real destination, Magnolia. But I see no one at all dressed in a red-striped shirt and beanie, goshdarnit. Instead, I see a handwritten roadside sign for a family reunion and the Cottonbelt Church of God in Christ. And as my Ford putters ever closer to the town named for my favorite tree, I see a Kickin’ for the Future building (a silhouette of a man wearing a gi with his leg extended to the side makes me realize that this must be for martial arts of some sort) and three auto body shops in less than a block. While these are typical businesses in just about every Arkansas town, they aren’t particularly sophisticated, and I wonder just what’s in store for my day in Magnolia: Will I be taken fishing? Off-roading? Hunting? I look down at my sundress, my fringed vest, my black crystal-studded sandals, and I’m just sure I chose my wardrobe for the day badly. That makes goshdarnit No. 2, and it isn’t even 10 a.m.
I am early. Like,half an hour early. But luckily, rains have moved through, and it’s a chilly (relatively speaking) 82 degrees at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia. I park in front of the Overstreet administration building, a Greek Revival-style construction with a long white gable spanning the entire length of the red-brick façade. This, I think, is sophistication. Almost glamorous, even. A pink granite cube sits on a square brick column out front, and engraved on each face is a tribute to the four transformations SAU has undergone over the years: its establishment in 1909 as the District Agricultural School for Southwest Arkansas; its changes to A&M College in 1925 and Southern State College in 1951; its rechristening as Southern Arkansas University in 1976. In the background, a bell tower towers 187 feet high.
The front doors of Overstreet, where I am to meet my guide for the day, are locked. I wander around the sides of the building, occasionally checking for open doors, mostly just taking in the magnolia trees filling every square inch of dirt, smirking at the “Welcome back Muleriders” signage and enjoying the breeze the stormy weather has been kind enough to grant me. Just as I’m arriving back at the front of the building, a white Chevy Malibu hybrid pulls up. The passenger-side window rolls down, and the voice of a Southern belle wafts to me: “Are you Heather?”
“I sure am!” I reply, and a petite redhead jumps out.
Beth Anne Rankin is a former candidate for Congress, a former Miss Arkansas and a true hometown girl. Her copper hair reaches just below her shoulders and is curled at the bottom. She’s wearing a white shirt starburst through with royal blue, a pair of cuffed jeans … and crystal-studded sandals.
“We could be sisters,” she says, noting my red hair and giving me a hug. “Now I’m gonna switch up the schedule today, is that OK?”
“I’m totally flexible,” I reply, and she whisks me away in her leather-interiored chariot. I feel like my wardrobe choice might have been appropriate after all.
Beth Anne drives me by the Magnolia Regional Medical Center, a hospital building that was built in 2010 and funded by the community. “For a town our size to have a state-of-the-art, brand-new facility, it’s a great asset for community and economic development.” It’s another red-brick building, crowned with a double tier of windows that makes the structure look modern and sleek.
Then Beth Anne quickly changes tack. “You should probably snack your way through today, because there really is a taste of Magnolia.”
There’s a reason she had to switch subjects so fast: Another Greek Revival building, this one closer to blonde brick than red, with three arches underscoring the columns out front, comes into view in the center of a square, and suddenly, we have arrived downtown. She parks across the street from the Columbia County Courthouse, and we immediately walk to an unassuming little storefront with a flat white awning, the words “Magnolia Bake Shop” written in cursive just above the front door. “This is the oldest bakery in Arkansas,” Beth Anne tells me. Then she opens the glass door.
The smell of butter fills the air. Glass cases filled with cookies and doughnuts and pies and cupcakes form a “U” for me to walk into. “Order anything you want,” Beth Anne instructs. “Our town, our treat.”
“You don’t have to do that,” I tell her, but my eyes widen as I take in all the possibilities. Beth Anne selects a dozen tiny butter cookies with swirled, tie-dyed frosting (the shop’s bestseller), and I, the doughnut connoisseur, order one of what I know best: a plain glazed. As Beth Anne is checking out, a lady with long dark hair who is wearing jean shorts and brown-suede fringed sandals enters the store. She’s immediately greeted by the clerk, who already knows exactly what the lady has come for: a ham and cheese, a pig in the blanket and a big sugar cookie.
“Do you live in Magnolia?” I ask the lady.
“I live in Shreveport,” she replies.
Shreveport is 90 miles away. “Do you come here a lot?” I ask.
“I’m here once a week, I swear, girl,” the lady tells me.
After tasting a cookie and taking a bite of the doughnut (I decide to hold off on eating it all, per Beth Anne’s recommendation), I can see why.
Stephens Country Store is on the same block as the Magnolia Bake Shop. The brightly colored cut-out palm trees in the window draw me inside, and Beth Anne gladly allows the detour. The store is filled with children’s toys and jams and sorghum syrup as well as antiques (which aren’t for sale, but make the shopping environment unique). With owner Lisa Stephens’ telephone switchboard, crank washing machine and freestanding card-catalog cabinet, “It’s a walking visual history lesson,” Beth Anne tells me.
Stephens is one of many downtown shops that will stay open late for Blue and Gold Day, an event held around the square that works to bring the town of Magnolia and the population of SAU together. It’s an event that draws a big crowd, but it isn’t walk-in traffic like this that brings in the majority of Lisa’s business. Instead, the bread and butter of her store’s income stems from the pool supplies and services the store offers.
“This far down south, I imagine you’d need a pool,” I inject.
“I think everyone has one!” she says. “It’s ridiculous.”
Normally at this point, I’d ask what, for her, makes Magnolia Magnolia. But instead, a different question comes to mind.
“Do you have a pool?” I ask.
“Of course,” she replies, grinning.
On the outside of Stephens Country Store is a mural, one of several in downtown Magnolia. It’s called “The Magic of Movies,” and it features easily recognizable movie images on panels separated by decades spanning from the 1930s to the 1990s. I see Dorothy and Humphrey and Elvis and Clint and Mel and … is that Charlton Heston? And his signature?
“He was here for a campaign event for Gov. Huckabee in 1998,” Beth Anne says, pointing across the street. “Right there in the First Baptist Church parking lot. Then he bopped over and signed the mural. It meant so much to our community. He had such a willing spirit to add a community event to the campaign event.”
And now I get it: Magnolia is sophisticated, indeed. It’s the land of swimming pools and movie stars.
Lois Gean’s is on South Jackson Street just off the square. The storefront is absolutely charming, from its reclaimed-looking wood siding framing the panels of the large picture windows to the multicolored brick behind the black curlicue sign with “Lois Gean’s” written in gold script. A small sign next to the door invites you to “COME IN Enjoy the finest in Fashions and Gifts.”
And they aren’t fooling.
A grandiose chandelier hangs over the center of the store. It has 12 enormous red globes with clear glass tubes coming out of the top—hurricane lamps, I believe they’re called. White wicker furniture is arranged on the red carpet beneath, and just up the stairs to my right, a giant, couch-sized circular button-tufted pouf sits below a more traditional crystal chandelier. Kathy Gean, the niece of the deceased Lois Gean and current owner of the store, walks out from the nether-realm of the back to greet us.
Kathy is a sharp cookie. In addition to running Lois Gean’s, she also has a catering business, Kat’s in the Kitchen. “Her food is fabulous,” Beth Anne says, gushing. And if Kathy’s food is anything like her merchandise, I don’t doubt it one bit. Lois Gean started the store in 1948, and for years, all they carried were brand names—Calvin Klein, Ann Klein, Escada. Celebrities came from all over to shop here, from Lee Iacocca to Jerry Van Dyke. And when Donna Karan left Ann Klein and held her first eponymous style show, Lois was there. (Kathy has a picture of Lois and the designer in an embrace to prove it.)
Kathy scoffs, though, at some of the exaggerated legends surrounding Lois Gean’s. Supposedly, helicopters with stars landed on the roof (“How would they get down into the store?” Kathy laughs). Supposedly, the local airport had its landing strips lengthened to accommodate the numerous private celebrity landings (“That’s not true, either,” Kathy says.) But one thing is for sure: Lois Gean’s is absolutely a destination when coming to Magnolia.
“When the town of McNeil was discarding their old post-office boxes, Lois Gean took them and had them built into the store,” Kathy explains. “One little old lady, who lives in North Dakota, grew up in McNeil. She comes back here every other summer and opens her family’s box.”
Another lady, who had read about Lois Gean’s in Southern Living and was driving cross-country, decided to detour down to the shop when she realized she had reached Arkansas.
“She was, like, in Fayetteville!” Kathy exclaims.
“That’s about a six-hour detour!” Beth Anne says.
We all laugh.
Lois Gean’s, obviously, makes Magnolia Magnolia for a great many people. But what makes Magnolia Magnolia for Kathy?
“The people,” she says, unhesitatingly. “That’s what makes our town so special. Generous, friendly, good people.”
Before we can go, I have just one more question: “Do you have a pool?”
“I do,” Kathy says, not even phased by the oddball question. “And it’s like a birdbath for people. But it’s great.”
“I want to hit three restaurants!” Beth Anne exclaims. I do not object.
First up is Mister James Delicious Food. Located in yet another brick building—this one with a red awning—Mister James Delicious Food is known for serving breakfast all day, and Beth Anne just loves it. Once we’re inside, she sees two former piano students of hers (she majored in history and music at Ouachita Baptist University) who jump up and hug her. Then she sees three older gentlemen sitting in the corner, and they wave her over, too. We stay just long enough to absorb the terrific scent of bacon frying. As we leave, Beth Anne hollers out a “Bye, Kenny” to the cook.
“See you later, sweetie,” Kenny replies.
Next up is The Backyard Barbeque Co. It’s a taupe-colored building with the name of the business painted in black on the side, nothing special to look at, but plenty special to eat. Beth Anne orders fried broccoli from Robbie Greer, the owner’s daughter, and blonde-headed Robbie smiles big and chats friendly. She graduated from SAU in 2012, and she knows what makes Magnolia special: “It’s a tight-knit community. Great places to eat. You meet someone on the street, they talk to you.”
But now I have to know the other vital information—does she have a pool?
“No,” she responds, surprising me. “But we have a pond.”
Beth Anne and I laugh at the new angle the question has brought about. As we head to our table, she asks, “Have you ever had fried broccoli?”
“I have not,” I reply, and once I taste it, I know I have been missing out.
At Flying Burger, our third and final restaurant stop, I smell hush puppies. And I see two glass deli cases: one filled with the bright red of meat that is extremely high quality and fresh (both in its original steak and grilled patty forms) and one filled with crab legs, tilapia, shrimp, salmon. Because you expect fresh seafood in a burger place, right? Well, in Magnolia you should.
Kathryn, who takes our order, recommends the fish tacos—saying how she never thought she’d like them, and yet she does—but after seeing that beautiful meat in the case, I just have to order a burger. And hush puppies. After taking our order, Kathryn tells us she started working at Flying Burger when it first opened back in 2008. She likes that Magnolia is a small town: “If something happens, everyone is there. They all come together.”
Yeah, but does she have a pool? “My parents do.”
Beth Anne and I make our way to a table, where she again sees folks she knows. Debbie Arnold and Julia Machen are sharing a booth by the window. When I ask them what makes Magnolia Magnolia, they swivel their heads at the exact same time to look at each other. Debbie speaks first: “Family. I’m part of a family business that’s been around since 1934. And I work for a bank that’s local-family owned that started in 1910.” She laughs. “I always say, ‘I was born here, went to school here, live here … and as far as I know, I was conceived here.’ I said that to my mom once, and she laughed and said, ‘You were.’”
Julia has a similar opinion: “SAU. I have been here 34 years, and my husband was with SAU as director of the physical plant for 35 years. SAU is my family.”
But do they have pools?
“Yeah,” Debbie confirms.
“No,” Julia says. “I have two catfish ponds.”
“I have both,” Debbie replies. “A pond and a cement pond.”
We all giggle. Beth Anne notices that Julia has an SAU Mulerider on the back of her phone. Beth Anne places her phone on the table next to Julia’s, and their logos match. “Wait a minute,” Debbie says, and she places her phone on the table, too, making a complete matched set of Mulerider phones.
Julia can’t help but inform me: “Take note that our softball team is No. 4 in the nation.”
I write it down. And then I bite into a burger fit for a star.
Back on the square. Beth Anne takes me to Murphy’s Jewelers, where Mark Williams has been a partner for 35 years. If you want to know about the surprises individuals in a community have planned for each other, the jeweler is the place to go.
“There was a man who walked through the door once,” Mark tells me. “And he looked at all the earrings we had that were emeralds. And he picked out the pair that he liked. And he said, ‘Are these as fine a quality as there is?’ And I said, ‘No sir, they’re not. I have a pair in the vault that are.’ And he said, ‘Just curious—how much are they?’ And I told him how much they were, and they were way north of what he was looking at. He said, ‘Let’s wrap these up, and I’ll give these to her. They’ll go great with what she’s got already.’ I was wrapping the earrings, and he said, ‘Just for curiosity’s sake, can I see the pair in the vault?’ And I said ‘Sure,’ and I went back and got the ones out of the vault. There wasn’t even a price tag on them. He was holding them up and looking at them, and I heard the doorbell ring, and a woman said, ‘Oh, my gosh! I love them! I’ll be surprised, I promise you.’ It was his wife. And she had them in her hands, looking at them, so she knew what they were. And he turned about three kinds of red and said, ‘Wrap ’em up.’”
Mark turns to Beth Anne. “You see those earrings a lot.”
“Are you talking about my parents? Because that does not sound like my dad. My dad’s an economist, and he lives on a budget.”
“Well,” I interject, “he did say the guy turned three shades of red.”
Beth Anne hoots at the story, but Mark, being the discretionary jeweler, will neither confirm nor deny the identity of the customer (wink, wink). And it’s the customers—the people of Magnolia—who make Magnolia special for Mark. “I had a customer come in a few days ago, and it was her first time in Magnolia. She said every person she’d met made her feel at home, that it felt like she’d lived her whole life here, and she’d only been in town today.”
But does Mark have a pool? “I’ve got a pond. I’ve got three, actually. I’ve got a creek, also.”
We return where we started. My blue Ford Taurus waits in the Overstreet building’s parking lot. But first, Beth Anne shows me SAU’s Greek Theatre, which has hosted homecoming, weddings, potlucks. She drives me to Story Arena, where we meet her dad, David Rankin, a former president of the college. He tells me they’ve had several national rodeo champions attend college here. He shows me the new engineering building, a former National Guard Armory that was released to the school and now provides twice the space than the original plans for the engineering building provided. Lastly, I ask my guide and her father just what makes Magnolia Magnolia.
“The people are a magnet here,” Beth Anne says. “They have open hearts and are abundantly generous.”
Her dad agrees. “It’s the people.”
But do they have a pool? Her dad nods. “We do. And I swam in it this morning.”
Beth Anne smiles. “And my mom wants a pond! She’s trying to talk my dad into it.”
Celebrities. Swimming pools. And generous folks who love where they live. It may not be Beverly Hills, and some of those swimming pools might actually be ponds, but Magnolia has a down-home glamour that’s downright contagious.