I’VE TAKEN Exit 55 off I-40 many times, mostly on my way to see my dad when he taught and coached at Subiaco Academy, living out on Lake Dardanelle in the town of New Blaine (population 174). But I’ve not once taken it to get to the wine capital of Arkansas: Altus.
In the 15 miles between the highway and the Altus city hall, I note there is not much to note; there’s a “Meetin” [sic]at 64 Event Center, a VFW Bingo Hall and the requisite Arkansas churches every other mile or so, but with no cars behind me and the clearest blue sky I’ve seen in weeks above, my speed lags and my thoughts meander to the history of the city ahead of me—my personal history, that is. When my mom found out I was headed to Altus, she gave me two instructions: 1) “Look at the piano in the back room of the museum,” and 2) “Find your grandpa’s name on the coal miner’s memorial.”
I told her “Yes, ma’am,” as every good Southern child should. But now that I’m almost in town, I begin to wonder: Just how deep could my roots go in a place I’ve hardly visited?
With its gabled roof and Tudor-style façade, Altus’ city hall reminds me of the architecture I saw in Germany and Austria during my four years living abroad; makes perfect sense to me, as I’m vaguely aware that many Germans settled in Altus in its early days. As I enter the main hall, I see a display case to my left featuring wines and grapes from local vineyards, which again makes total sense as the town is known for its wineries. Yet to my right, in an alcove behind a seating area, I see a little shelf with a mock street sign above it: Coal Miner Blvd. I have to wonder how many folks realize that Altus’ main source of employment for years and years was this dangerous work that caused the deaths of many men, my great-uncle Dave included.
Behind the front counter, a woman with a terrifically bright smile says, “She’ll be right with you.” This is my first hint that in Altus, everybody knows everybody, including anticipated guests. As I sit to wait for my host, from just behind my head I hear, “Heather! How are you? Sorry you had to wait so long.”
I stand up and see Veronica Post, mayor of Altus and wife to Paul Post, vice-president and co-owner of Post Familie Vineyards & Winery. Her cropped blonde hair frames her blue-rimmed glasses that almost exactly match her sleeveless dress. She walks purposefully in her patent nude peep-toe high heels, and I am impressed by both her fashion sense and her stamina. I follow her to her office, a glass-walled square one door down from the police department’s. The phone begins ringing almost as soon as we enter, and Veronica shrugs, saying, “The life of a small-town mayor is never what you imagine.”
I have to agree with her there. I didn’t even realize a small-town mayor was a full-time job. I figured it was a volunteer position, an honorary one at that, but Veronica is known for taking calls, writing grants and, most famously, putting Altus on the national map back in 2003 via Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie’s Fox reality show, The Simple Life. This is Veronica’s fourteenth year as mayor, and many people have asked her why she does it. Is she crazy? “I love it,” she tells nonbelievers. “I tell the employees, ‘At the end of the day, we know we’ve helped someone.’ If it’s Lonnie out mowing the park or Leon and Jeff taking care of street problems, everything is for the benefit of the public.”
But it’s not Mayor Veronica I’ve come to see—it’s after-hours Veronica. It’s Altus Veronica. And she’s only too happy to show me the place she’s lived all her life. But first, she has to get some things out of her car. “Tricia’s moving,” she says, referring to the nice lady who greeted me. “And I just got through moving, so I brought her boxes.” So off she goes, leaving me at the counter with Patricia Salazar, the clerk for both the water and police departments. “I don’t know how she does it,” she says, watching Veronica sprint out the door in her stilettos.
I don’t either, but I do know it’s the perfect time to ask my signature question: “So, Tricia, what makes Altus Altus for you?”
Tricia doesn’t hesitate. “For me, it’s the small town atmosphere and the general friendliness of everyone here. If you need anything, someone’s there to help you. It’s why we’ve stayed here for so long.” And, right on cue, Veronica returns with three huge boxes for her.
Veronica and I climb into her cream-colored Ford SUV and she immediately marks down some mileage. “You know, I live exactly half a mile from home to work.” She checks her dashboard. “And I have 50 miles to empty, so that will last me several days.”
I can’t help but notice that in a cubby right next to the gearshift lies a plastic travel-sized-shampoo-like bottle clearly labeled HOLY WATER. What on earth does she need to carry holy water around for? I wonder. I then see a rosary hanging from the rearview mirror and feel my Catholic-school roots tugging at me. “Is that made from tiger’s eye?” I ask.
“It is,” she replies shyly.
“I have a rose-bead rosary I got from the Vatican when we lived in Italy,” I share. “It’s blessed by the Pope.”
No longer is after-hours Veronica shy. As we drive past SGL Carbon, a major area employer that makes carbon steel electrodes, heading toward what is now Ozark Middle School, she tells me about her honeymoon in Italy 21 years ago and how she hopes one day to go back. The honeymoon tale pauses long enough for her to point out where the 2011 tornado came through and devastated nearby Denning (as well as Veronica’s own home).
But Veronica doesn’t linger too long on the sad. We park at the middle school and head to a plaque proclaiming this to be the original site of Hendrix College. And that’s cool and all, but instead I am fascinated by a huge oak tree standing in the courtyard to my right.
“That’s been here since I was a child,” Veronica informs me. “My daughter was valedictorian and she even talked about that tree in her speech—about all the generations that must have played on it in their time here.”
I guess it’s not just my own roots that run deep in this beautiful country.
We arrive at the Altus Heritage House Museum, a handsome brick building listed on the National Register of Historic Places that used to house the German American Bank. Mary Darter, president of the museum board, sits outside on a bench, waiting for us to arrive.
Veronica tells her up front: “That piano you’ve got belongs to Heather’s family. She needs to see it.”
Mary smiles and leads us past rocking chairs, past quilts, past the biggest American flag I’ve ever seen indoors, to the back room. And sure enough, there it sits: a black upright player piano that’s in pretty darned good condition.
“The player part doesn’t work anymore,” Mary informs me. “But you can play it, if you’d like.”
“I can play it?” I ask, trying to remember the sum total of four years of piano lessons from ages 6 to 10.
“You can play it,” she nods.
I’ve got one go-to piece when I’m told I can play something, and really I only remember the right hand’s part: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring by Johann Sebastian Bach. It’s one of my favorite classical pieces, and it’s what I chose for my bridesmaids to walk down the aisle to. I lift the keyboard cover and plunk away. Sure enough, it’s held its tune pretty well. And although I’ve never been all that interested in family history—a character flaw to be sure—I literally tear up. Just a little bit.
“Did you see this?” Mary asks when I finish.
On the music rack is a history of the piano’s family—my family. One of the pictures shows my great-grandfather John Thomas with his wife and five kids; one of them is my grandfather, young and blonde. “The wife and two of these children died in a train wreck,” Mary says, perhaps forgetting that these are my ancestors, perhaps thinking—quite accurately—that I don’t know as much about my family as I should.
“They stalled on the tracks,” I add.
The next picture is of all the children who survived, taken in 1966—the same year my mom graduated from high school. “That’s my grandpa,” I say, pointing to the tallest man. Veronica and Mary stay silent, I imagine sensing the reverence in my voice. I’m ashamed I haven’t visited sooner, yet proud that my family has contributed to this wonderful museum in this historic little town. “Now, what else you got to show me?”
A lot, as it turns out. Paintings by locals and newspaper clippings from the 1920s and spinning wheels and old washing machines and a room done up like a one-room schoolhouse. “We just collect a little here and a little there,” says Mary. “Little” is not how I’d describe the museum’s collection, but I can’t argue with a lady whose own father was a coal miner here until the early 1950s when all the coal was mined out and farming came to the forefront. A lady who proclaims, “I’m old enough to be the history.”
So what, to a lady who’s been here longer than just about anybody, makes Altus Altus?
“It’s home. It’s where I grew up—about a block over there on Cedar Street where I let out my first yell. Been yelling ever since. It’s a good place to grow up … if we ever grow up.”
I like Mary’s outlook on life, and I appreciate the way she safeguards the history of so many people, including my own. Veronica hugs her goodbye just like she hugged her hello, and off we go.
Kelts Restaurant and Pub is a square metal building on the south side of Altus’ city park; the flags of Great Britain, Ireland, Wales and Scotland (as well as the good ol’ United States) stand out front. “You know Dan’s open if his flags are out,” Veronica informs me.
Dan McMillen, the owner, sits on a barstool near the front door, his long gray hair pulled into a low ponytail and braided, his arm in a sling. “It’s just so I don’t put my arm over my head,” he explains. “I had a pacemaker put in.”
Kelts also had its moment in the sun in the days of The Simple Life. Paris and Nicole hung out here all the time, as did much of the crew. “I’m not afraid of the media,” he tells me, the first of many times he relays that sentiment.
I order the shaved turkey sandwich; it’s Veronica’s favorite and she orders the same, as does her husband Paul, who’s joined us for lunch. “I guess we’re simple,” I say, and I get a few well-deserved eye rolls for my cheesy reference.
When The Simple Life folks were first coming to scope out the town, the Arkansas Film Commission wanted to come through and do hospitality training with the locals. Veronica’s response? “I don’t think our townspeople need to be trained to be hospitable. They’re pretty nice on their own. My thinking was, let them come and meet the people as they are.” Veronica’s strategy worked, and out of many towns scouted throughout five southern states, Altus was chosen for the show’s location.
Dan arrives with three plates, side salads dressed with his wife’s special recipe. Dan and his wife, Jan, first met in Seattle where they both worked at Time Warner. “My wife was my boss and she still is,” he tells me, his eye glinting mischievously. They moved down here to care for Jan’s parents, and realized they needed something to do for a living. He hadn’t really worked in food service before, but he “really enjoyed the idea of pubs—public houses. You open your home and put out your best and invite people in.” They found this building in 1994, and Kelts was born.
“So what makes Altus Altus to you?” I ask.
“Altus is what it is,” Dan shrugs. “They have a wonderful park, some interesting people.”
But soon Dan is back to talking about his food (which he is obviously quite proud of) and his wife (whom he clearly loves dearly) and how he is totally a “media whore” (his words! Not mine!). We finish our meals in boisterous company, and it’s easy for me to see why even out-of-towners come back for more at Kelts.
Altus City Park is on the south side of Highway 64, bordered by Hendrix, Main and Franklin Streets. Every July, the Altus Grape Festival is held here. But today, it’s a just a meticulously manicured piazza that displays a veterans’ monument and, as described by my mom, a coal miners’ monument. The latter has a statue of a life-sized miner, carrying a pickaxe over his shoulder, surrounded by five square, towering columns, engraved with the names of the souls brave enough to burrow into the earth and retrieve what was America’s driving energy source for the majority of the twentieth century.
As instructed, I locate my grandfather’s name—John Clifford Wilson—which is located just above his father’s name—John Thomas Wilson—and below his brother’s name—Dave Wilson. I take a picture of this legacy, and remember my Uncle Dave, and how he coughed into his white monogrammed handkerchief, and I remember my grandpa, who was repeatedly tested for black lung but was lucky enough to escape it. I look at all of the names inscribed here—there must be thousands—and I realize how hardworking the people of Altus have been and how precious their lives were, so many given just to support their families. If I had a hat on, I’d tip it in respect.
In her time as mayor, Veronica has garnered more than $500,000 in grants for the city. The city hall building itself used to be a Simmons Bank, but after Veronica inquired as to what the newly abandoned building was going to be used for, the Simmons folks donated it outright to the town. It seems like what Veronica wants, Veronica gets.
“You’re not afraid to ask for what you want, are you?” I ask her.
Veronica raises her eyebrows. “I figure you have a 50-50 shot going in. It’s either yes or no. And if you can explain your reasoning, you have a better chance. My little motto is, ‘You have to be a turtle. A turtle never gets anywhere unless he sticks his neck out.’”
We pull into the parking lot at Post Familie Vineyards and Winery store, where I see grape juice and habanero pepper sauce and peach salsa and sorghum molasses, not to mention port, sherry, chardonnay, pinot grigio and moscato, along with other varietals I’ve never heard of like cynthiana, chambourcin, seyval and delawine. And here I thought I was educated in all things wine.
Under much duress (OK, none at all), I begin tasting the wine. The crisp pinot grigio is followed by the smoky seyval which is followed by the brut (a sparkly pinot grigio, I’m told) which is followed by the Prophecy and the sangria and the Ives and the red muscadine and the Blue Parachute. “Don’t worry,” Veronica says. “I’m driving.”
My cheeks are quite toasty when Paul joins us again to take me to see the works. I float into cool rooms that smell grapey delicious. “It is a winery, you know,” Paul teases as I mention the smell.
Post Familie Vineyards and Winery crushes more than one million pounds of grapes every year. The grapes are harvested in July, and the wine is ready to go by Christmas. But even though the volume is staggering (Paul tells me that Post is among the largest 100 wineries in the country), the portraits and snapshots hanging everywhere remind me that this is still a family operation. An operation run by a family of seven brothers and five sisters. (God bless their sainted mother.)
At the end of my tour, Paul and Veronica kiss goodbye. As Veronica and I return to her car, I marvel at the size of it all. “Paul and I have 21 brothers and sisters combined,” she says. “Paul’s mother helped name me. My mother didn’t know she was having twins and didn’t have names picked out. She suggested Monica, as we were born at St. Monica’s Day, and Veronica. Paul’s a twin too.” Family roots here are truly tangled indeed.
The construction of St. Mary’s Catholic Church as it stands today was finished in 1902. The sandstone blocks of the church were culled from the hilltop on which it was built, and the square tower on one end, with the three arched entries (signifying the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost) is another reminder of my time in Europe.
When Veronica and I enter the sanctuary, my senses overload. Roman arches connect what looks like marble columns, gold-leaf painting adorns the area above the altar and sonorous organ music swells and flows throughout the space from above.
It’s not long before Amy Sexton, the organist at St. Mary’s, looks down from the balcony. “Come on up,” she says. I can’t get there fast enough.
Amy begins to tell me how the organ is made with reeds, classifying it as a “tracker organ,” and sheds some light on the history of the instrument, telling us how it was purchased second-hand in 1925 thanks to the generous donations from the parish members.
I’ve always, always wanted to play one. And never, never have I asked.
Then I remember what Veronica said about being a turtle: You never get anywhere if you don’t stick your neck out. “Could I possibly play it?” I ask.
“Well, sure!” Amy says.
I begin the old stand-by, the right hand part of Jesu, and Amy hollers out “Hold on!”
I stop, and soon Amy has joined me, sheet music for the piece in hand. “You play the right hand,” she says. “I’ll play the left.”
Together, Amy and I fill up the church with our song. My hand is stumbling, uncertain. Hers is confident, accommodating.
When we finish, Veronica tells me “That was my wedding song!”
“Me, too!” Amy says. “Forty-one years tomorrow.”
“Mine, too,” I say, and I am literally astounded at how connected we are, and how we might never have known had I not stuck my neck out.
Amy gives me a tour of the church, pointing out the artwork and what it means and telling me fascinating facts about how the altar is actually supported by sandstone grounded all the way into the dirt of the land. I ask Amy my signature question, and she provides a unique answer: “The bells. They call us to worship, they toll when someone dies. And the land. Working in the vineyard as a child—putting my feet in the dirt.”
Too soon it is time to go, and Veronica returns me to the city hall. I stop once more at the little alcove devoted to coal miner memorabilia. Sitting between a guest sign-in book and a history of the coal mines is a black ball cap. On it is printed the words: Coal Miner’s Granddaughter. I put it on. I take a selfie. I smile.