“I HOPE I get to see foxfire,” my mother says on our way to Winslow. Apparently, one evening when my grandmother was walking home from a Winslow church with her grandmother, they encountered a mystical glow coming from the woods nearby: foxfire. It can be defined as a forest fungi that emits a bluish-green bioluminescence, but it’s more fun to think of foxfire as fairy fire, another name it’s known by—those little lights that are hard to find but always seem to guide you to adventure.
I hadn’t taken my mom on a Hometown trip yet—I’ve been doing them now for, gosh, three years and counting—and she is about to come right out of her seat, she’s so excited. Her great-grandmother lived in Winslow, and my mom spent many Sundays and summers exploring the mountaintop town. I dare say she left her heart there.
“I’m trying not to tell you too much,” she says, positively thrumming with joy. “But did you know that Winslow’s mascot was the Squirrel?”
I laugh out loud. “And what was their fight song?” I ask.
“Well, you’d holler Crack ’em, Squirrels!” she grins.
I’m glad to be taking this trip with my mom. Like so many Arkansans in times gone by, she is an absolute encyclopedia of family history, which, in our case, is inextricably intertwined with Winslow.
“See that long concrete building over there with the windows boarded up? That used to be a snake museum. You’d pay a nickel, and they’d have all these rooms filled with snakes.”
“There was a lady named Maud Duncan who lived in Winslow and ran the newspaper—the Winslow American. She was part of the all-female government that … you’re gonna find that out from the museum lady.”
“You know how they say something tugs at your heartstrings? Winslow tugs at my soul strings.”
We haven’t even arrived in Winslow proper yet, and I can already see what she means. Leaving slick Interstate 49 behind us and zigzagging over to the old Scenic Highway 71, our ears pop as we ascend higher in the Boston Mountains. Tar spiderwebs the road, filling in the cracks left by winter each year, and trees a brilliant green hang overhead, the canopy creating a private paradise and highlighting the side gravel roads that branch off every couple of hundred feet. It makes me wonder just what escapades lie down each of those paths. Somehow, even kudzu is enchanting here.
And there’s the sign: Winslow, population 391—zero of whom are my relatives nowadays. But in the old days, my great-grandfather was a judge in these parts, Mom tells me. He fought for the Union in the Civil War and fathered his last child at the age of 73. All of this can be learned, I hear, at the Winslow Museum, a storefront located along what’s left of a Main Street, a street that was absolutely hopping when the town was a stagecoach stop, then a train stop.
Beverly Simpson, town water clerk and unofficial museum curator, meets us at the door. She grew up on a big cattle ranch outside Houston, Texas, and when she and her husband went to Flippin on vacation in 1985 (they saw an ad for it in Mother Earth News), they went back to their big-city home, packed up their belongings and moved to The Natural State within two weeks. “I love Arkansas!” she says, the pink of her shirt highlighting the roses in her cheeks. “I love the Ozark Mountains. And I love having four seasons.”
She also specifically loves Winslow. “I’ve never been to anyplace like Winslow. It’s very eclectic here. We have all kinds of people with all kinds of beliefs—and everybody knows it takes all of us to make our little community work. It’s a joy to live here.”
Seems Winslow’s been eclectic for as long as it’s been Winslow. Even before then, as a matter of fact. In 1876, a post-office application dubbed the stop on the Woolum-Brown Stage Line “Summit Home.” It was renamed in 1881 for the then-president of the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway, Edward F. Winslow, and the Winslow railroad tunnel that was built a year later opened many economic opportunities for the town. The late 1880s saw an incarnation of Winslow as a resort town, the 1920s saw a female pharmacist and the area’s Petticoat Government (where Maud Duncan herself was voted mayor and cut along with an all-female town council), but the 1930s ushered in a decades-long decline for the town, beginning with a drought that affected the economy even more than the Depression. Folks moved elsewhere, and in 2005, Winslow Schools consolidated with Greenland. But the wild stories remain.
“Pearl Starr had a home in Winslow,” Beverly says with a mischievous grin. “She wanted her kids in school someplace besides where she ‘worked.’” And Tim West, a local artist, supposedly lived in a cottage with his cats and coons; never wore shoes in his whole life; was arrested for stealing kettles, jugs and a shingle-maker; and had works of art accepted at the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. And even Maud Duncan—town mayor, pharmacist and newspaper editor—had her skeletons in the closet … in a sense. Her skeletons were in her living room, where she kept the coffins that held the bodies of her two deceased daughters. Rumor had it she even got them out from time to time and changed their clothes and braided their hair.
And that, I suppose, is where good taste and good company part ways. As much as I’ve enjoyed hearing about Winslow’s characters, it’s time to say goodbye. We thank Beverly and climb back into my mom’s Razorback-red Explorer and head up the hill toward the Collier-Yoes Cemetery, where our folks are buried.
On the way, we see my great-grandmother’s house—at least, where it used to stand. “The house was burned down a while ago. But a nice man built that beautiful cabin on the foundation. He brought in builders, and they said they couldn’t build a better foundation than what was already there.” She points to a giant oak in the front yard. “See that tree? That’s my favorite tree.”
It’s a big one, too. Takes up most of the yard, except for a patch at the front occupied by a tall wooden box on a post. “It’s a free little library!” I exclaim, delighted in this unexpected find.
We travel on, headed ever farther into the hills. The air is just slightly cooler. The roads turn to dirt. My phone loses its signal. I worry we won’t find the family burial ground—what will we do if we get lost and have no GPS? Will there be fairies to guide us on?
But we arrive. Most of the headstones are so old they’ve been worn clean. My mom takes me to her favorite marker, the grave of one Alfred W. Caughman. His stone has been broken and put back together, so we can’t see when he was born, but he died in 1875. There’s much text to read, but we can only make out a tiny bit of his epitaph: “killed over a thousand deer.” I wonder if the fairies guided him.
We descend the mountain, our adventure over. But as we leave town, a sign written in curlicue script reads “Ozark Folkways: Art, Gifts, Music,” and we must, we MUST turn in.
Outside, to the left of the front porch, is a free little library.
Inside, amid the handmade cedar furniture and the delicious-smelling natural soap and the locally crafted ceramics and paintings and aprons and cutting boards shaped like Arkansas, is a man.
A nice man named David Holcomb, who built his retirement cabin on a former resident’s solid foundation.
A man who was advised to cut down a certain oak tree but just couldn’t bring himself to do it.
A man who’s running a store so dedicated to preserving the culture of a certain town that they host mountain-music classes for beginners and offer weaving equipment to local artisans who don’t have any and guide forays into the forest to forage for mushrooms. And every so often, there’s a Winslow Squirrel Jam, where you can bring your instrument or your singing voice, or just be prepared to do a little toe-tapping and hand-clapping with the fine Squirrel community.
Foxfire, it is believed, glows like it does in order to attract insects that will then carry its spores with them when they leave, effectively ensuring the propagation of the species. I guess, then, that Winslow is foxfire itself: Ozark Folkways sends it out in a myriad of ways, my mom has always carried it with her, and now its glow has been spread to me. I can’t wait to keep it going.
You Sure Kin
Finding folks with roots in Winslow
Formerly known as the Ozark Native Craft Association, this gallery and folk-art education center features work by notable Ozark Mountain makers like the Gibson family (baskets), Cheryl Buell (pottery) and even paper houses made by Arkansas Life contributor Sabine Schmidt. Expect workshops covering the likes of mushroom foraging and raku pottery firing this fall. Open Thursday through Sunday. (22733 U.S. Highway 71; ozarkfolkways.org)
GRANDMA’S HOUSE CAFE
Here’s everything you need to know in one word: pie. OK, a few more words: six types of pie, on the regular, and well worth the drive. See also: fried chicken, meatloaf that would make Granny proud and that peculiar Ozark delicacy known as “chocolate gravy.” Open Thursday through Sunday. Bring cash! (21588 U.S. Highway 71; (479) 634-2128)
THE WINSLOW MUSEUM
Wanna know more about that Jill-of-all-trades, Maud Duncan? Curious how the Frisco railroad shaped the course of the town? Swing by for a chat with folks who know at this temple to all things Winslow history. Open Monday through Friday. (108 N. Winslow Blvd.; (479) 634-3901)
GRIFFITH POTTERY WORKS
Spend enough time at Ozark Folkways and you’ll be clamoring to take up a folk art of your own. At Griffith Pottery works, artist-slash-educator Teresa Griffith will show you the ways of the wheel in a one-hour private class (for you and up to three of your friends). Her studio’s not IN Winslow per se, but it’s close enough—and the views on the drive over ain’t half bad either. (55 Pleasant St., West Fork; griffithpotteryworks.weebly.com)
DEVIL’S DEN STATE PARK
It’s fall, y’all, and it wouldn’t be right to swing through Winslow without venturing over to Devil’s Den State Park for a walk in the woods, perhaps along the Yellow Rock Trail. Like what you see? Make a night of it in one of the park’s cozy cabins, or “glamp” in a new camper cabin, which are essentially climate-controlled wooden tents. (11333 W. Arkansas Highway 74; arkansasstateparks.com/parks/devils-den-state-park)