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.
So our first stop? The Ka-Do-Ha Indian Village, located just over a mile from the town square. An abbreviation of the Spanish word meaning “real chiefs,” Ka-Do-Ha was first excavated by an amateur archaeologist in the 1960s, who found arrowheads and pieces of pottery that were presumably left by the Caddo Indians. In 1978, the current owner of the property took over, maintaining the mounds for the public (and, when necessary, replenishing the supply of arrowheads and pottery for new amateur archaeologists to find) and employing one amazingly knowledgeable young man, Colt Petty.
“I’ve been coming here since I was 5,” says Colt, who doesn’t look a day over 20 to my wizened eyes. “I saw some of the artifacts, and I was hooked.”
And while the majority of what my mom and I spy as we stand in the green-walled entry of the concrete-block building is kitsch (albeit cool kitsch such as shadowboxes of arrowheads and Nuwati herbal teas and a whole wall of Minnetonka moccasins for sale), we have to admit that some of the artifacts in the museum portion of the attraction are pretty darned, well, pretty.
“This here’s a Friendship Engraved Bowl,” he says, pointing to a darkly colored pottery bowl with beautiful grooves circling its remarkably even shape. “Did you go through Friendship on your way here?”
We did. We also went through Social Hill and Hollywood and Delight.
“And look at the complicated designs on the Haley Water Bottles.” He points to a pottery jug with a long neck and a bulbous bottom laced with intricate swirls. “This shows us that these people weren’t just trying to survive. They created art.”
“And you can’t get better than the Quapaw Deer Effigy Bottle.” He points to a pottery vessel that is really, truly shaped and colored like a deer, right down to the spots on its side, the white on its belly and the short tail … that serves as a spout.
He leads us back to the entry area, and I have just one more question I think this smart young guy might have a great answer for: “Any suggestions for where to go for lunch?”
“Well, it’s fish day around here,” he replies.
“And where’s the most Murfreesboro place we can get some?” I ask.
“Southern Dine,” he replies instantly.
“Thank you for your time,” I tell him, and we take our leave.
“He was so smart,” my mom says in the car.
But it’s not until we hit Southern Dine that we realize how smart Colt really is. Because, dang, I haven’t seen any restaurant anywhere that was more town-centered than Southern Dine is, with its secondary “Snake Pit” dining room celebrating the town’s mascot (complete with viper heads painted on two different walls) and its main dining room festooned with wagon wheels and horseshoes and “We Don’t Dial 911” art (that features two crossed pistols).
And Colt proves to be even smarter when our meal arrives— if that’s possible—because, dang, the catfish looks amazing. And the hushpuppies? Delicious. And the fried cheesecake pie that oozes gently out of the homemade, flaky crust that melts in my mouth? Let’s just say my mom hits the nail on the head when she dubs the meal “better than Cracker Barrel.”
Tracy Watts, owner of Southern Dine, just happens to be sitting one table away from where we are. She’s originally from Delight, too (as Colt is—and don’t forget to pronounce it Deee-light, with the emphasis on the Deee, as that’s what everyone who’s from there does). The restaurant’s been here 3 1/2 years now, and she’s awfully proud of her menu (as she should be). “The hushpuppies are homemade. So’s the salsa. So are the fried pies.” They even have a veggie quesadilla on their menu, which makes a vegetarian like me grateful. I didn’t have to dig through their offerings for some pathetic, acceptable-yet-unfulfilling dish like “side salad.”
“What else should we see while we’re in town?” I ask Tracy.
“Have you been to the square yet?” she asks.
We have not. It seems we’ve only scratched the surface of Murfreesboro.
So it’s off to the square we go.
And it becomes obvious that Tracy had our number: Situated around the obligatory centrally located small-Arkansas-county courthouse (Murfreesboro is the seat of Pike County), the town square has a wealth of stores my mom and I are dying to visit. There’s Trunk of Treasures, Caddo Antiques, Britt’s Place, Hawkins Variety Store, the Dusty Attic and the Town Square Gallery. It seems that now we’ve dug a little deeper, we’ve got more choices available to us—a lot of choices, in fact. An embarrassment of riches, so to speak.
So where do we go? How do I make this choice without doing the digging I’ve sworn off for the day? Lucky for us, the Town Square Gallery makes it an easy decision. A shiny metal statue of a Native American shooting an arrow on the sidewalk? Check. A black-and-gold-framed painting of a black-and-gold leopard in the window? Check. A display case full of glass hummingbirds smaller than a nickel? Check, checkity check, check. The Town Square Gallery it is.
Entering the store feels like what I imagine it feels like to head into the study of an old art-collecting, archaeology-loving, slightly insane and absolutely beloved uncle. Framed works occupy every spare inch of wall space, counters are filled with loose gems and jewelry and fossils (oh my!), and an anatomically correct carving of a woman (with an anatomically incorrect gator’s head) stands on the opposite side of the room.
“That’s my least favorite piece,” store owner Robin Dildy tells me. She’s tried real hard to sell it, but it’s been a no-go.
“And what’s your favorite piece?” I ask.
“The ammonite fossil, if I had to pick one,” she tells me, showing me the spiral-shaped, rainbow-luminous, 70-million-year-old treasure.
But she doesn’t want to pick one, I don’t think, because she’s proud of every single find she’s got in here.
“Have you ever seen Arkansas turquoise?” she asks me. “It’s a tightly kept secret.”
She leads us to a display case that houses tear-drop-shaped and rectangular and oblong pieces of turquoise that are far greener than what I expect from turquoise. It’s amazing.
“And here we have Arkansas quartz crystals, cut and polished.” And, dang, if they don’t look like diamonds! Maybe it’s time for a new wedding set for me ….
“When I sign a new artist, I have them give me a bio and a picture,” she says. “When someone buys something, I send the customers home with the information.”
And amazing information it is, too. I could buy some of those Arkansas quartz crystals, and I’d find out that they’re crafted by Lee A. Guenther of Memphis, who cuts each and every stone himself. I could buy a tea towel that says “Gettin’ Diggy With It” and discover they’re screen-printed by design duo Neilann Verdell and Sara Brannen of Sherwood’s Moody Brown. Or I could snag an incredible photograph printed on canvas of the interior of Rock House Cave at Petit Jean Mountain that sets my soul on fire with the red and yellow hues up front and a cool green lurking in the back, just as you would expect a cave to really feel. That one’s by Matt Blaisdell, a Murfreesboro man, who clearly has an eye for the sublime.
But what I buy is a hummingbird in flight carved by Shreveport woodworker Michael Gable. The grain of the wood follows the lines of the bird’s tail and wings, and its beak is so slender and delicate, I don’t know how it didn’t snap in half when being worked on. I also buy a comic book by Natural State-born-and-bred Rick Chandler: Arkansas: The Supernatural State, an adventure following the trail of stolen evidence linked to none other than the one, the only (or the many, depending on your personal penchant for conspiracy theories) Bigfoot.
I could have bought any and all of the things (and my mom almost did), as the crafts and art that Arkansans (and folks right near us) produce are beautiful and intoxicating and personal. And when you really start to look for them—all right, I admit it, if you dig just a little bit—you’ll find all sorts that are amazing and wonderful and wild. We’ve got more precious finds in our region than you can put in a wheelbarrow and haul out of a mine.
“You should come back for our open house,” Robin tells me as she rings me up. “It’s the first Saturday of every December. I invite my local artists; last year, five of them did their craft right in the store. And the whole town participates. There’s music on the square, and if you buy from a local merchant, you get the chance to win Christmas bucks.”
I believe I just might do that.
I know that people love the thrill of the hunt for diamonds. And it’s amazing when someone finds a stone that’s really worth something. But today—with just the smallest amount of digging involved—I’ve discovered a truth more universal and much more easily attainable: It’s Murfreesboro that’s the real gem.
Striking Gold in Diamond Country
We’re taking a real shine to Murfreesboro
Narrows Dam + Lake Greeson
When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finished work on the Narrows Dam in 1950, the Corps achieved what, in technical terms, is called “a double whammy.” In addition to protecting the surrounding countryside from the Little Missouri River, the construction also resulted in recreation-rich Lake Greeson and prime trout fishing just below the dam. (155 Dynamite Hill Road, Murfreesboro; arkansas.com/ murfreesboro/outdoors-nature/ lake-greeson)
Hawkins Variety Store
“Variety” doesn’t even begin to do this store justice. Open since 1943, Hawkins Variety Store offers necessities and cure-alls of every stripe: espresso to alleviate grogginess, Cuban sandwiches for hunger pangs, Lego sets and miniature Etch A Sketches to placate your (inner) child. Also, ice cream sodas, because … well, why not? (51 Courthouse Square, Murfreesboro; facebook.com/ Hawkins1943)
Feed Bin Cafe
Located on the eastern side of the downtown square, the Feed Bin Cafe might strike you as peculiar in shape—long and narrow, with high brick walls, not unlike an alleyway that’s been converted into a restaurant. Which it is. Odds are, however, with family-tested Cajun recipes, your eyes won’t wander far enough from your plate to notice. (61 Courthouse Square, Murfreesboro; feedbincafe.com)
Pike (county seat)
Driving Distance from Little Rock:
Why You’re Going There:
Although the area offers much in the way of outdoor activities (see Lake Greeson on the opposite page) … Realistically, yes, you’re probably heading to the Crater of Diamonds State Park, where for $10 ($6 for kids ages 6 to 12) visitors can spend the day digging for diamonds.
Clain to Fame:
Thanks to a conical volcanic pipe that shot 3-billion-year-old diamonds to the surface 100 million years ago, the Murfreesboro area has a claim to fame like no other, (that, and the aforementioned finders-keepers diamond mine, which has inspired countless prospectors—and exponentially more tall tales).