Hometown, Arkansas: Southwest



From its new town hall to its plans to send every child to college, Arkadelphia is a small town with a big vision

I’m surprised how quickly off Interstate 30 the sign for Arkadelphia, population 10,714, pops up. I didn’t have to travel very far at all off the beaten path to arrive at this town I’ve never been to, and only really know because of my past career as a high school teacher. I’d watched many kids head off to one of the two institutes of higher education located here: Ouachita Baptist and Henderson State University. These two schools—located literally across the street from each other—are known for the Battle of the Ravine, an annual football game that originated in 1895; it’s the oldest rivalry in the history of the NCAA-Division II.

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Fried apple pie, Grapette and a side of Civil War history

It seems we’re in Grapette heaven, too. The brick and corrugated-tin walls boast the most extensive collection of Grapette memorabilia I’ve ever seen in one place: framed paper advertisements and round metal signs and even delicate, decorative plates like my Granny used to have, only instead of a country landscape bordered by flowers, there’s a Grapette soda bottle bordered by flowers.

“So, do you have Grapette?” I ask the waiter on one of his check-ins.

“Yes,” he answers, as if I’ve asked a trick question, or maybe as if I’m the dumbest human on the planet.

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El Dorado

In El Dorado, the arts have always played a sizable role—but with an impending revitalization, they’re taking the lead

Sitting behind his desk, Jack Wilson can see them all, the seven deadly sins photographed in black and white. Some are crouching, some menacing, all of them blank behind the eyes. They stare back at him, and he regards them fondly, explaining that many years before, as a young man, he was one of them, too—a member of El Dorado High School Troupe 42. In one photo nearest the wall, the actors have dropped their masks for a group photo and smile at the director of the South Arkansas Arts Center through the glass.

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Hopeful for a bellyful

Every time I go to a new town, I always have hope: hope that my guide and I will get along swimmingly. Hope that I’ll see some interesting sights and meet a few fine folks. Hope that I’ll learn something new along the way. But this time, instead of hope, I have … Hope. And, if I’m being honest, as I drive to my destination, I’m worried that Hope (population circling 10,500) isn’t necessarily the kind of town one has high hopes for.

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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.

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Malvern, Arkansas


Making a splash in Malvern, rapid-ly

Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale.

Unclench the jaw.

I have let my husband Dave plan the day. I have dragged him to more hometowns than I can count—visiting antique stores and diners and whatever caught my fancy—and it just seemed like the fair thing to do. To let him have a shot. He has told me to wear something I don’t mind getting wet and, in fact, to also bring a change of clothes.

“You do remember I have to take notes on whatever it is we do today, right?” I ask. Is the grin I’ve plastered on at all convincing?

“So we need to get waterproof paper?” he asks, smirking.

Inhale, exhale.

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A small Ouachita-mountain town rises to the occasion

Mena is a little town, though her residents seem to have forgotten. She sits shirelike at the base of Rich Mountain, just short of where Arkansas 88 becomes Oklahoma 1. With a population that hovers around 5,700, the county seat of Polk County—and the undisputed capital of the Ouachitas—has the feel of a town readying itself for the spotlight. Founded in 1896 by the Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf Railroad, Mena’s had to reinvent itself many times over the past century: first in 1910, when she was abandoned by the railroad that provided the bedrock for her foundation and shipped in her citizenry. And then more recently, and more radically, in 2009, when a devastating tornado laid waste to much of her downtown core.

It’s also a place where my GPS is almost unnecessary.

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Digging the many facets of Arkansas diamond country

Most people go to the Crater of Diamonds State Park hoping to strike it rich when they visit Murfreesboro, but I am old (not really) and decrepit (not really) and cranky (really, truly) and I have no intention of digging for anything—outside of searching my purse for sunglasses on this happily cloudless, Robin’s-egg-blue-skied day. It seems like it might be impossible to skip diamonds completely, though, as my mother and I see signs for the Miner Diner, Diamond Den Nutrition, the Queen of Diamonds Inn and the Diamonds in the Hole mini-golf course, all within what feels like a one-block radius. But if anyone can manage to avoid those radiant rocks so hotly sought after by old and young alike, I believe my mom and I are the folks to do it.

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Toeing the line in this border town

The entirety of what I know about Texarkana could be written in one sentence: It is a town shared by the two states of Texas and Arkansas. Thus the name. I’m a genius, I know. And for some reason, when it came time to embark on this particular journey, my brain was uncharacteristically lackluster in digging up the scoop on the town. Luckily, I got steered toward Dane Peavy, a local coach who took his community baseball team to the national championship—and won.

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