THE DAY WE drive to Berryville is gray, and the kiddos are restless in the back of our van. We have two boys—an 18-month-old and a 3-year-old—and they spar with plastic swords across the gap separating their seats. As we crest each Ozark hill, more and more dead trees appear, poking like finger bones from the Earth. We arch through Arkansas towns: Goshen, Marble and Metalton, a small community gathered around a sprawling scrapyard.
And then: Berryville.
The town is one of Carroll County’s two county seats. The other is Berryville’s quirky little sister, Eureka Springs. Yet where Eureka Springs is outwardly facing, beckoning tourists, Berryville feels much more like its own community. Even its largest attraction and our first stop, Cosmic Cavern, operates like a family affair. Forty feet from the gift-shop entrance, goats bleat and nose the wire fence keeping them at bay. When we carry the kids inside, a woman up front raises her eyebrows.
“You’re from out of town,” she says. It’s not a question. She quickly smiles, though, when she sees the boys, and starts telling me about the local parks for children.
I let loose the stir-crazy kids to play, and they immediately trundle to the racks of precious stones, submerging their hands one after the other in the bins of cold malachite, then pyrite and so on. My wife follows in their wake, re-sorting what they unsort and casting apologetic glances at the woman in the front.
After a few minutes, we begin our descent down century-old stone steps into the Earth—a tour party of four, plus the guide.
The first thing the guide points out to us are the bats sleeping overhead. They look like bundles of iron filings congregating on invisible magnets. Their fur, slicked into spikes by cave moisture, glitters in the beam from the flashlight. Watching the tiny bats sleep, it strikes me that although the souvenirs in the gift shop are the typical fare, this cave is truly unique.
Down another flight, the guide picks up a stone the size of a coconut and presses her flashlight to it, turning the whole thing a luminescent orange, like a giant ember. This is cave onyx, she tells us. She sets down the stone and turns to a wall.
“We call this a cave egg,” she says, pressing the light against a bump on the wall. It lights up like the moon. Our kids walk toward it, each reaching out with a single finger.
“Eggy,” they whisper, in wonder.
We keep burrowing, over 300 feet into the Earth. The air is wet and the temperature a balmy 68 degrees. Walking single-file along the wooden bridges between rooms, our guide continues to illuminate formations. They range from awe-inspiring (long tubular stalactites called “soda straws”) to eclectic:
“That’s the world’s oldest toasted marshmallow,” our guide says, pointing to one stalactite formed by centuries of dripping calcium-rich water and colored, indeed, like a toasted marshmallow. She also points out a corn dog, a “cat on a hill,” a candle, a corkscrew and the crowning jewel of Cosmic Cavern, Santa Claus.
“There’s the nose, the beard, the knees,” she says, and my wife and I have to admit, the likeness is uncanny. Meanwhile, the boys strain to find holes in the fenced railings and fling handfuls of muck into the bottomless, blue-blue lakes of the subterranean.
Before we resurface, a radio crackles in what sounds like a rough estimation of language. Our guide leans toward it, then smiles and translates.
“There’s a goat being born up there right now.”
Our second big stop, this time in Berryville proper, is the Saunders Museum, which displays pistols that belonged to Annie Oakley, Billy the Kid and Jesse James, as well as artifacts connected to Pancho Villa and Chief Sitting Bull. I’m excited to wander the small building, which one nearby billboard hails as having “Something for Everyone,” but when we arrive, the museum has been closed until early springtime.
As we begin circling the town square, pushing our kids in a double stroller, we quickly discover that if Berryville has a “season,” this definitely isn’t it. Like the museum, a number of shops are closed for another month; many others have reduced hours.
We pace the sidewalks, peeping into store windows. A TV repair shop displays one of those wooden-legged cathode-ray tube TVs from the ’60s, posed across from a manikin in a red chiffon dress. An antiques shop across the square features a clawfoot tub filled with clear plastic bubbles (perhaps repurposed Christmas ornaments) and occupied by another, this time nude, manikin. There’s something delightfully kitschy about the displays, and at each window, our kids press their hands to the glass, gazing at the spectacles inside.
We pick up some cash from an ATM and head back toward where we parked, planning to pick up food at the Garner’s Drive-in (a cash-only establishment). On our way, we pass what looks to be a toy store—the front windows feature a number of custom-made dollhouses—but there’s no sign out front. On the front door, a sign says the building is closed for business, but to ring the bell for queries. We ring the bell.
After about a minute, a woman who looks to be in her late 70s opens the door. She’s wearing house clothes and slippers and seems to be rubbing sleep from her eyes.
“Sorry,” she yawns. “I took a nap after lunch.”
She beckons us inside, then excuses herself while we look around. The front rooms were once home to a toy store, and hundreds of action figures, plastic animals and other toys fill them. Most prominently, dollhouses ring each of the two rooms—old Fisher Price, Calico Critters, Winnie the Pooh and custom-built houses are displayed on the floors, shelves and tables.
“My father was an architect,” the woman says, returning to the front, refreshed. “I like to add details to the interiors.”
Sure enough, inside some of the houses are tiny pieces of model furniture. The walls have been papered and the floors carpeted with minuscule tile. My kids are in heaven.
Chatting, we learn that the woman ran the store for many years in the early aughts. She shows us half a dozen of her favorite toys, ones that are out of production these days. When the kids get overeager, she hands them cheap rubber insects to play with (which, as Spider-Man fanatics, they gleefully accept).
Toys, it seems, have long fascinated the retired shopkeeper. Kids, less so. Making a business out of a passion, she tells us, is a good way to take the fun out of it.
“Kids would come in and rearrange all the stock,” she says, shaking her head. So she closed the business. “Since then, I don’t sell much. I gave one of my [favorite houses] away, and I’ve regretted it ever since. It was that Dreamland one, you know?”
I nod, although I don’t know the house she’s referencing, and begin rounding up the boys before they make too much of a mess. We ask if anything in the shop is for sale, and she sells us the plastic spiders for a dollar.
We end up grabbing some jalapeno poppers and chicken tenders from Garner’s and snack on them in the car. Before we leave, though, I decide to grab a milkshake from the local ice-cream shop. I leave the rest of the family in the car and jog back to the square.
Hometown Scoop is one of the newest establishments in town, by the looks of it. The cashier, a junior in high school, recommends “Digging for Treasure,” a vanilla ice cream with caramel and peanut butter cups. I say I’ll take it.
While I’m waiting, I ask her about her plans after graduation.
“I’m going to study nursing,” she tells me, pouring milk. I ask if she plans to come back to Berryville once she has the degree. She shrugs.
For her, it seems a bigger town would offer more what she’s looking for—“the grosser stuff” as she puts it. I look around at the shop—empty save a table of high-schoolers in the corner—and realize this is the youngest crowd I’ve seen all day.
Before driving to Berryville, I’d read about the town’s history. Surprisingly, this town of just over 5,000 has been growing slowly but steadily for 150 years. In the past 10 years, though, Berryville has grown by barely 1 percent. People are moving away at nearly the same rate they’re moving in and being born.
I watch this cashier, who plans to leave town within two years, blend my “Digging for Treasure” shake, and I realize Berryville is like so many other small towns around America, in Oklahoma or South Carolina or Kentucky. The town is built less like the gift shop and more like the cave below: not easily packaged or sold, but beautiful in its own honest way. Berryville requires a little digging, but pay attention to the details, and treasure isn’t far under the surface.
My ticket comes up. I grab the milkshake and head for the door. In the 10 minutes I’ve been inside, the sun’s dropped, and the town’s turned dark. I hike back to the car and drive to a gas station on the edge of town to fuel up before departing for home. Pumping, leaning against the car and looking up into the night sky, I think the moon, with clouds drifting across its face just so, looks like a piece of cave onyx, an egg lit from behind.
Take your pick in Berryville
Some berry, berry good options
Drawn largely from the collection of Colonel C. Burton “Buck” Saunders, the museum housed in Berryville’s one-time city hall boasts 400 firearms—or should we say, pieces?—purportedly used by gunslingers on either side of the law, from Annie Oakley to Billy the Kid. (Reopens for the season April 15.) (berryville.com/saunders-museum)
It’s a Mystery BookStore
Though somewhat vaguely titled, this bookstore on Berryville’s historic square is, rest assured, very much the real deal. With 20,000 titles—both new and gently used—IAM is where you’ll fine well-worn chairs, old-book smells and a place to hunker down for a while. (itsmystery.net)
Look, it’s a little tough to put this place into words—because when you’re walking through a place that’s existed for upward of 400 million years, looking into the blue-green waters of a bottomless subterranean lake and marveling at the sculptural cave formations, you don’t say anything. You just take it in. (cosmiccavern.com)
“Every day should start with coffee and end with ice cream.” Those words, which sit atop Hometown Scoop’s website—well, they might just be the best words we’ve ever read. Stop here for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Or better yet: ice cream, ice cream and ice cream. (hometownscoopbv.com)
For nearly 44 years, Garner’s Drive-in has been a Berryville fixture. If you’ve ever visited a small town in Arkansas, you’re likely familiar with Garner’s fare—cheeseburgers, jalapeno poppers, banana splits and so forth. But while it’s decidedly lacking in frills, we wouldn’t have it any other way. (Search Garner’s Drive-in on Facebook)