HISTORICALLY speaking, DeWitt’s been a lucky place. In the early 1850s, it won a place as county seat of Arkansas County when Arkansas Post—the first French settlement west of the Mississippi—became too depopulated and too far southeast for residents needing to do county business. By complete and utter chance, the city was quite literally named by luck of the draw, (“DeWitt” was pulled from a hat in 1853). And in 2011, Mud, a film directed by Little Rock native Jeff Nichols and starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew McConaughey, gave DeWitt its big-screen big break when the film’s producers chose to feature scenes at the DeWitt Hospital and Nursing Home. If this kind of kismet has been gracing the area for nigh on 200 years now, I figure fortune just might smile down on me now, this day on which I’m lucky enough to celebrate my 23rd anniversary.
And it is a ridiculously beautiful day, too. It hasn’t gotten too hot just yet, and the azure sky is streaked with contrails that look, from this angle, delightfully like a checkerboard. My husband, Dave, and I smile and enjoy the ride in the sparkling, candy-apple-red convertible Mustang that fate has granted us, and we figure this day just could not get any better.
“Are we there yet?” our 6-year-old daughter, Rory, asks from the backseat. We weren’t able to acquire a babysitter for the day, but luckily, yes, we are practically, essentially, virtually there. And thank heavens, too, because I don’t know if I could brook that question one more time.
We are greeted by two signs: “Population 3292” and “DeWitt—Home of the Dragons.” What a coincidence! we exclaim. With our nerdly love of Harry Potter and our weekends spent participating in preparations for the upcoming Hot Springs Renaissance Faire, we love dragons! This day will be a blessed one, for sure. We are convinced.
Until we begin to see a theme: Public Library, closed. Senior Citizen Center, closed. The restaurant called Kelly’s on the Square and Bridget Lane Boutique with its sharply dressed mannequins in the window and The Registry shop with its candles and collectibles? Closed, closed, closed.
We continue our drive to find that the Piggly Wiggly and Kroger are both open, but that hardly seems lucky at all. It’s not what we had hoped for on our special day. But between the growing possibility that there’s nothing to see here and the fact that Rory needs to hit a bathroom as soon as humanly possible, it looks like Kroger will have to suffice. I’m beginning to suspect the tide of karma has turned, and I can’t figure out why.
A lady parked next to me is loading groceries into her trunk. While Dave escorts Rory inside, I stick my head out my window. “Hey, there! Can you tell me what good stuff there is to do here in DeWitt? It’s a Saturday, but everything seems to be closed.”
The lady smiles and nods. “Just about everything closes down on Memorial Day weekend.”
Memorial Day weekend! There’s the fly in my ointment. “So what would you recommend?”
“You could do the Catfish Shack across the street. That or Subway or Sonic are about your only choices.”
I thank her aloud and silently curse my luck, then head to the Catfish Shack for lunch when Dave and Rory return.
It’s a little wood-shingled building across the road from Kroger that looks like, well, a shack, and it doesn’t take debit or credit cards. Decorations consist of hornet nests hanging from the ceiling and taxidermied turkey and deer populating the walls, and a whiteboard nearby encourages patrons to “Try our Fresh River Fillet and Buffalo Ribs.” But we don’t. We order alligator, because it seems like the thing to do.
While the waitress is delivering heaping plates of hush puppies and fried pickles and a HALF POUND of alligator, I ask her what things I might have the opportunity to see.
“You could try the city park, I guess, but everybody’s gone today.”
And she’s right. The park is abandoned. The gazebo is empty, and no one is fishing on the pier. And the nearby Donut Palace has nary a car in its parking lot. What monstrosity is this? Misfortune has descended upon me, and it has come down hard. Lady Luck has left the Delta.
Downtrodden, we return to our car. It’s not as shiny as it was before, it seems. And that sky? Not nearly as blue. We head back out of town the same way we came in, and by golly, there are almost a dozen cars parked in the town square, clustered around a coffee shop that had appeared closed earlier in the day. “Stop!” I command, and Dave obeys (we have been married almost a quarter of a century, after all).
We find ourselves entering the enchanting chamber of 420 & Turnrow Coffee. It’s a brick-walled, stylized-concrete-floored, delicacy-filled oasis in our bad-break badlands. They have Loblolly ice cream and a display case filled with different kinds of cheesecake. That would be a yes, please.
Kara Ward, the barista, takes me into the adjoining room, where a baby shower is going on, to show me a Rosebud Coffee mural from the 1920s the owners just happened to discover when they were fixing up the place. Then I get lucky enough to snag Julie Simpson from the party, a longtime resident of Little Rock who moved back to DeWitt in 1997 to run the family business—Cormier Rice Mill—with her brother. She turns out to be a wealth of information about this diamond-in-the-rough town.
“Master Gardeners do all the landscaping for the courthouse and the Union Pacific caboose we have on display. We have a community pantry to feed the needy. And we have Phillips Community College out on the bypass!” And as for Turnrow Coffee? “This is just a little gem. The Hornbecks, who own it, have done a lot to revive downtown.” Apparently, the Hornbecks have even gotten hold of the Veterans Memorial Building and are working to refurbish it, already bringing in some cool musical acts and hosting the Dragons’ prom.
Julie says the best part of DeWitt is, indeed, the people who populate it: “These are the most giving people here. Everybody does what they can to help each other out.”
I look at the time and realize I’ve stolen her from the baby shower for more than a fair bit. I thank her and head back to my table, where Dave is drinking some ginger tea and Rory is eating some ice cream, and a slice of cheesecake is calling my name. I sit for a minute and look around. On a nearby display, there are body scrubs for sale by Chick -N- Bee, a local family-owned farm that makes products using raw honey from their own hives. I see a Pay It Forward Tree on the bulletin board, where folks who want to pay for somebody else’s coffee can choose a friend and post their name (or just “whoever needs it”) for them to redeem. I see a Free Little Library out front with a selection of books from early readers to adult thriller novels. And I taste a little hint of something in my cheesecake. Is that nutmeg? Cinnamon? It’s a total surprise, and it’s delicious.
Then I see on the wall the definition of “Turnrow”: “noun. The area at each end of a planted field used for turning around farm implements during field operations.” What are the chances that at the end of my journey, I’ve done just that? That at this fantastic coffee shop and community gathering spot, I’ve made a 180 in my journey? What started off as the devil’s own luck turned into an absolute windfall of wonderful.
“I wish I could thank the girl whose baby shower I crashed,” I tell Dave. “Her lending me Julie made all the difference.”
Dave digs in his wallet and finds a Target gift card he received from a student at the end of the school year for being the awesome teacher he is. He hands it over. This generous spirit, folks—it’s why I married him.
I walk into the party room and hand it to the mother-to-be. She’s having twins.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Julie says, smiling.
Maybe not, I think. But we don’t really need it. I figure if you’re lucky enough to have been to DeWitt, you’re lucky enough.
Get DeWitt It
Need recommendations? To Witt:
On Arkansas.com’s info page for the Catfish Shack, the writeup is as followed: “What to know: Breakfast, fish, gator, burgers and more.” And while that’s indeed good to know—those items are, in fact, on the menu—that’s not the extent of the place. You’ll go for the vittles, but you’ll stick around for the company. (facebook.com/thecatfishshack)
Great River RoadScenic Byway
All told, the Great River Road Scenic Byway stretches some 363 miles along the Mississippi River in Arkansas. Although but a fraction of that runs near DeWitt—Arkansas 1 runs just over 2 miles along the town’s eastern edge—the Big Muddy’s presence, churning some 40 miles to the east, is woven into the place. (experiencemississippiriver.com)
420 & Turnrow Coffee
As part of last year’s Best Of feature, we named 420 Turnrow the “Best New Idea That’s Really an Old Idea.” The reason? Though the venture itself might be new—specifically, fall 2017—Tami and Troy Hornbeck’s efforts on the downtown square aren’t especially novel. At heart, it’s about building a place for the community, young and old. Plus, they’ve got some great sandwiches. (facebook.com/420turnrow)
DeWitt Post Office
The post office might be an odd recommendation, no? However, as home to one of the state’s now 19 existing Post Office Murals—a Depression-era project that hired artists all across the country to lend a splash of color to the community hubs—it’s worth seeing this piece of history while you still can. (uca.edu/postofficemurals/dewitt)