I like to take my time and do my due diligence before I make a judgement call—one way or the other—about a place, but it takes Siloam Springs a mere 15 minutes to turn my head. Two minutes after parking in a public lot downtown, I wave down a fire department SUV to ask for directions to Pour Jons Coffee Shop on East Main Street. Next thing I know, I’m getting a lift to said coffee shop by a handsome, cheerful fireman who seems lifted straight from the pages of a Nicholas Sparks novel (his name is “Daniel Fox,” for pity’s sake), and swooning over a darling goldendoodle by the name of Sophie who’s snuggled under her mom’s table.
Then, in search of the ladies room, I pass through a doorway that’s an exact replica of one of those old red British telephone booths and find myself staring at two doors with signs reading “All Gender Restroom” in big, bold letters. What lovely rabbit hole have I fallen into? I wonder.
Before leaving the restroom, I take a moment to shake off this improbably positive first impression—the hot fireman, the British nostalgia, the dog and human inclusivity—so I can be more objective about the business of figuring out whether Siloam really has anything worthwhile to offer an out-of-towner like me.
However, a few moments after settling down at the table for a conversation with my guide for the day, Casey Letellier, it’s clear that ditching that initial first impression isn’t going to be easy.
“The very first beer that I had was a couple of years after I’d graduated from John Brown,” Casey says, taking a sip from his coffee mug.
“Wait,” I interrupt. “The very first beer you had, like ever?”
After grabbing a cafe au lait and a strawberry muffin, I’ve taken a seat across from Casey at a communal table near the counter (just within acceptable petting-reach of Sophie the dog). Under his spectacles and red beard, Casey bears a striking resemblance to Matthew Broderick circa War Games. A Minnesotan, he moved to Siloam back in the ’90s to attend John Brown University, the Christian liberal arts college located about a mile from where we sit. At the time he attended, JBU asked its students to make a pledge to abstain from alcohol while enrolled—a pledge he’d had no trouble with at the time as he’d grown up in a family and in a faith that eschewed drink.
But after graduation and a bit of soul-searching, he realized the life of a teetotaler was not for him, he says. And that first sip of porter became a gateway brew into the life of a craft-beer enthusiast. In no time flat, he was setting up his own homebrew operation on his kitchen countertop. And shortly thereafter, he found himself falling hard for the pub life in England, where he’d gone to work as a graphic designer for a nonprofit.
“I love making beer,” he says. “There’s so much of that process that I love, but I love what happens around beer just as much as I love making beer.”
“What do you mean, what happens around beer?’” I ask.
“The community, the conversations that happen around beer,” he explains. “There are the conversations that you have that are like the one we’re having now where it’s business-y, where we take notes and we sort of have ideas and plans. And then there’s the conversations that you have that are much more of an intimate conversation that’s about emotional relating and feelings. We need both.”
“And,” he continues, “those conversations are so connected to place. I believe that for a lot of those conversations, if you don’t have the place for them, they’re not going to happen. They need to be spontaneous and they need to be part of normal life.”
When he returned to Siloam, he tells me, he realized it lacked the types of public spaces that germinate these vital conversations. And he hopes to do something about that by opening the doors to just such a space, right here in the very building where we’re having our coffee talk.
The building itself was built back in the 1940s to house a Pontiac dealership, but Pour Jons, which is located in what used to be the dealership’s showroom, is all new paint, freshly exposed brick and shiny steel ceiling beams. (The business just moved into its brand new digs about a week ago from its original downtown location.) Behind the counter, Converse-clad baristas squeak across the gleaming concrete floor of a spacious kitchen that churns out macchiatos, cortados, sandwiches and a variety of baked-in-house sweets.
Casey’s plan is to open his own brewery and taproom with his significant other, Dorothy Hall, adjacent to Pour Jons in the part of the building that once housed the dealership’s service and repair shop. Later in the day, after we make the rounds of the town and before I head home, Casey’s promised to give me a sneak peek inside.
And that’s where Tyler Carroll comes in.
Literally and figuratively, in fact. Clad in a tee shirt and hoodie with a black post earring in each ear and effortlessly tousled strawberry blonde hair, he sidles up to the table. Turns out he’s the one who’s working to develop the building that now holds Pour Jons and will eventually be the home of Casey and Dorothy’s brewery.
For his part, after graduating from JBU, Tyler launched a successful silkscreen and embroidery business out in the Costa Mesa area of Southern California. After selling the business, he and his wife made the decision to move back to Siloam. Here, they run both a silkscreen business and a downtown-development business.
“While it wasn’t an easy decision to move back to Siloam after living in Southern California,” Tyler explains, “enough progress had been made while we were gone that we felt like we could come back and make a life here.”
“How has it changed in the time you’d been away?” I ask.
“Well, first of all, it’s no longer a dry county. Also when we first lived here, as far as downtown Siloam, it didn’t exist,” he says. “I mean there were a couple of law firms and a barbershop, but for the most part,the businesses that are here today, the ones that might look like they’ve been here forever because a lot of them are nostalgic, actually didn’t exist.”
And indeed, like most downtowns across the country, highway expansion and suburban migration emptied the streets of downtown Siloam in the ’50s and ’60s. On top of that, Tyler explains, the area received an additional blow in the ’70s when the creek that flows through downtown Siloam flooded its banks and caused massive damage to the area’s already aging buildings. Many were razed.
“Now, we want to help make Siloam not just a place where we want to live and where John Brown students can stay, but where our entire community can come together and interact with one another,” Tyler says.
“This building’s location was a very deliberate choice for development,” Casey adds. “This section of downtown has been mostly neglected when it comes to the revitalization that’s going on.”
Tyler explains that the building borders an area of downtown where a number of Latino-owned businesses are located, including a bakery and a grocery store.
“We wanted this development to be part of the bridge for that gap,” says Tyler. “So we’re trying to stir interest in this part of downtown, and we want to attract a Latino clientele that hasn’t felt included in any of this downtown development.”
I get to see a bit more of that aforementioned revitalization after we’re joined by Matt and Meghan Feyerabend, who are leading us on a walk across town to a shop on Broadway: the location of their soon-to-be-open ice cream parlor, Pure Joy. The couple also owns the photo and design business that’s also about to be relocated to Tyler’s building. Tall and trim, they look like they just walked out of a J. Crew catalog. Matt’s sporting a baseball cap, and Meghan’s got short-cropped brown hair and impossibly large blue eyes.
As we huddle together to ward off the cold, Meghan is pointing out some important Siloam landmarks, like the breathtaking new library on top of the hill (you can’t miss it, it’s the building with the word “READ” spelled out across it). We wind our way through a small park called “Twin Springs Park” after having passed a bend of Sager Creek, the 13-mile-long creek that runs through downtown. Right now, the trees in the park are bare, but soon the dogwoods will be in bloom.
When we enter the Pure Joy space, we’re hit with a welcome blast of warm air and the smell of fresh paint. I can tell that the space has reached the just-about-to-come-together point. A tin ceiling gleams over freshly painted walls and a recently excavated wood floor. Charming old-timey white stools line the window that looks out onto the street. The sun is just starting to peek out from behind the clouds, sending a glint of light through the transom windows, which have only recently been scraped of their paint.
After showing me exactly where the counter, cabinets and the soda fountain will be, Matt explains that the kitchen area has been left oversized. Right now, the couple makes their ice cream in the wee hours of the night and morning at the 28 Springs restaurant down the street. The hope is that they’ll be fully operational in this new space by the end of April, early May—and as the business expands to other locations, this downtown Siloam location will act as the ice cream factory.
With their two businesses, the couple is now committed to Siloam, but there was a time when
they thought they’d be leaving town for the brighter lights of New York City. Meghan, who’s from St. Louis, and Matt, who’s from Kansas City, met at JBU, and thought they’d ultimately leave Siloam to settle in a major metropolis. But, after setting up shop downtown, they got sold on being active participants in a downtown revitalization effort.
“There’s also the pace of a small town,” Matt adds looking out of the window and waving to a passerby. “Really loving the fact that we walk down the street and we’re saying hello to everyone. Not to mention that there’s just something about our community here. The people—I feel like in Siloam we have a great group of people who are willing to see things differently. Willing to help our town grow.”
Meghan takes her leave to attend a meeting. After a bit more chit-chat about ice cream (a favorite topic of mine), somehow, before I know it, the three of us remaining in the almost-ice-cream-parlor are having one of those conversations Casey referred to earlier: a full-on pub conversation, only without the beer (or ice cream, for that matter). In the span of an hour and a half, I find myself talking to two people I barely know about many of the topics that weigh heaviest on my mind these days.
The sun is gone and the temperature seems to be dropping by the minute. Despite the icy wind and the fact that he’s coatless, Casey is gamely pointing out landmarks along the way. There’s the JBU radio station where he once worked back in the day. There’s the old barbershop, where he invites me to peer through the window. Across the street is The Cafe on Broadway, a quaint two-story building with a red awning: Siloam’s first downtown eatery. Then we reach our destination: 28 Springs, unarguably the fanciest restaurant in downtown Siloam, and where for four years Casey served as the eatery’s “head drinks enthusiast.” (These days he’s a brewer at West Mountain Brewery in Fayetteville.)
We take a seat at the horseshoe-shaped bar and order a couple of beers and a couple of burgers. After putting away half my burger, I ask Casey a question that I’ve been dying to ask all day: “What are y’all going to call the brewery?”
“The Ivory Bill,” he says. “After the woodpecker.”
“Are they indigenous to this area?” I ask.
Turns out that the ivory bill woodpecker is a sort of Bird-Elvis. Among the largest of all the woodpeckers, by the ’40s, the bird was thought to be extinct. (Thank you, logging industry.) Then in the early aughts, there were a handful of sightings in the Big Woods region of eastern Arkansas, which were verified by experts. A paper was dutifully published in the journal Science. But since then, no more ivory bills.
“I love the parallel with how that lines up with where we’ve been in this country. In a moment of hubris, [we] thought we could cure all these social ills by Prohibition. And it wasn’t just that we eliminated beer—we eliminated the culture that went with it and, as a result, the conversations. In Northwest Arkansas, we remained dry for a very, very long time. But [the fact that] we have the chance to bring back not just beer but the culture that goes with beer is this incredibly hopeful thing.”
We’re sitting in Creekside Taproom, a pub that exclusively sells beers (16 on tap at any given time) and wines made in Arkansas, and I’ve just thrown back a gulp of a West Mountain brew that Casey devised with the marriage of cranberry juice and fresh juiced ginger. It’s bright with a burst of citrus in the beginning and a subtle spicy ending. Next up is a mole stout, where ancho chiles, vanilla beans and cocoa nibs all play starring roles. It’s creamy and smooth and ends on the subtlest chocolate note.
Creekside is the second act of Rhonda and Keith Rutledge, retired teachers from Siloam Springs High School. About a decade ago, the couple became craft-beer enthusiasts and began traversing the state trying out local brews. When it was time to figure out what to do after retirement, with a great deal of encouragement from Casey, they decided to open a place to celebrate the state’s burgeoning beer movement. About two years in, the place has become a favorite downtown hangout. Business is helped along by the symbiotic relationship with the neighboring pipe shop, Ash & Amber, with which it shares a wall.
“What do you like best about being a barkeep?” I ask Rhonda.
“Talking to people,” she answers without skipping a beat. “And I mean really talking to people. Not just exchanging pleasantries, but engaging in real, meaningful conversations. They happen all the time here.”
“You can disagree with someone strongly, but when you share a pint with them, you recognize their humanity,” Casey says taking a sip of his Black Apple cider.
“It’s true,” says Rhonda. I see people all the time here, they can be on total opposite sides of a topic and with their beer in front of them, they’re discussing and discussing and then they’re like, Let’s pick this up tomorrow.”
“Or they find a happy medium,” adds Keith.
Dorothy, Casey’s significant other, arrives and sits down to join us. Originally from San Diego, Dorothy, like most of the folks I’ve met today, was drawn to Siloam to attend JBU. And also like many of the people I’ve run into today, she looks like a J. Crew model. A well-known Northwest Arkansas pastry chef—she’s worked both at 28 Springs and The Hive in Bentonville—she now runs the meal program at a local retirement community. She has an incredibly gentle and kind smile.
After a bit more good beer and good conversation, Dorothy, Casey and I begin making our way back to the building on East Main. I’ve just got to see the space where the Ivory Bill Brewery will go before I head out of town.
Although the brewery will share a wall with Pour Jons, the door of the space that will house The Ivory Bill is set back quite a bit from the door of the coffee shop. When we step inside the space, I’m taken aback by the size.
“It’s a beautiful giant box!” Casey marvels.
Natural light fills the space. In a corner, hanging from the impossibly high ceiling, is a strange-looking contraption, a kind of cylindrical shoot.
“We think that thing is how the little beads got inside the hula hoops,” explains Dorothy. (In addition to once housing an old Pontiac dealership, the space was also, once upon a time, a hula-hoop factory.)
The couple excitedly map out all their plans for the space. Neon signage, a topographical map on one wall and the exact placement of all the brewing equipment (the surviving hula-hoop machinery will likely be preserved). Once the space is fully renovated, then the brewing can begin. It’ll take only about three weeks to brew the first batch of Ivory Bill beer.
“That’s the easy part,” Casey laughs.
“Do you have any recipes or names picked out for your beer?” I ask.
“Not yet, but we have a sort of philosophy mapped out,” Casey explains. “I want our beer to be open to anyone, not just people who are part of this specialized subculture. With that, all the menus and signage will be bilingual. And we’ll be working to hire as many bilingual taproom staff as possible. And we’ll do promotions with our Latino community up on the hill. We just want them to know that this is their place, too.”
As I look around the space, I can almost hear the lively conversations that will be had here. Making my way back to my car, I begin mentally planning my next trip back to Siloam, which forces me to make the call.
Not only is Siloam my kind of place, I realize, it’s a place I’ve been in search of. Like many folks these days, I’m anxious about the future of our country. I feel the division acutely in my own life with my neighbors, family and friends. Each day, I wonder if it’ll be possible for us to get past all that divides us. But, today being in this place, seeing all these thoughtful folks actively working on a plan to blur lines, build bridges and bring people together makes me realize that hope does indeed remain.
In any event, I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for a giant woodpecker.