Hometown: Morrilton

Taking in a place with vision

WHEN I WAS A JUNIOR at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, I was an RA (resident assistant) in Humphreys Hall (at that time an all-girls, no-air-conditioning dorm) and had it all figured out. I walked up and down seven flights of stairs multiple times a day because I knew the elevator was going to get stuck (it did, and often). I was going to marry my college sweetheart, Dave, and I was absolutely not going to have any children. Well, I married Dave, but as prognosticating the future is about as reliable as the Hogs beating the Crimson Tide (oh, don’t hurt me), I did have kids after all. Three of them, as a matter of fact. Maybe I didn’t know as much about what was to come as I thought I did. Sarah, the RA two floors below me, also had plans for her future: She was going to be a humanitarian doctor in a Third World country, marry her college sweetheart, Jeff, and have both biological and adopted children. Well, she didn’t do the doctoring, but she still became a humanitarian (as I saw from her Facebook posts) and still married Jeff and did indeed have four biological and three adopted children. When I asked her to be my guide through Morrilton, I hadn’t seen her in person in 20 years. Would she still have such a clear vision of the future?

9:30 a.m.

I usually start taking notes for a town when I’m about 20 miles out. It’s super weird for Morrilton, though, because Conway—where I live—is approximately 20 miles away. So today, I actually look at my neighborhood, as opposed to just hightailing it out of there. I see a rosebush with delicate pink buds curling around a mailbox. I listen to NPR telling me there hasn’t been a Nessie sighting in eight months, (where could she be?). I do the one-fingered hand-lift wave to everyone I pass, even though I’m pretty sure Conway is too big a town to recognize this friendly gesture I picked up while spending time with my grandparents in the likes of Paris and Hackett. I roll down my windows as I choose to drive 64 instead of 40, inhaling the heady air of a rainstorm-to-be.

Morrilton comes ever closer. As a resident of dry Faulkner County, I smile when I pass 64 Liquor (and make a mental note of its location). I pause to write down the name of a nearby town posted on a sign: Solgohachia (which, I later learn, comes from a word in the Choctaw language meaning “muscadine river”). Then the Morrilton city-limits sign flashes by. Dangit. I’ve missed the population number. Maybe Sarah will know. I pass Chopsticks Chinese Buffet (its marquee not displaying a daily special, but instead its new function: “FLEA MARKET”). I pass the Conway County Fairgrounds on my right and the railroad tracks on my left, and suddenly, I find myself at Moose Street. I snicker as I turn onto the funnily monikered road.

I arrive exactly on time at her house, a beautiful butter-yellow Victorian with a turretlike bay window on the side. A rock walkway edged in brick welcomes me to her red front door, and I have to admit I’m nervous. I’m twice the woman I was in college (sizewise), and Sarah and I were never particularly close. What will she see when she sees me?

10 a.m.

Sarah Croswell opens the door with a smile. She’s wearing an apron, and her feet are bare. Her Airedale, Sadie, and her collie, Dixie, crowd between us, Sadie leaping to put her paws on my chest.

“Sadie, get down!” Sarah commands. Sadie obeys.

“I don’t want to interfere with your discipline,” I say, “so do what you have to do. But don’t worry about my side of things. I love dogs.”

“OK, then,” Sarah says, smiling.

Sadie leaps again.

“You’ve got the apron on and everything,” I observe, eyeing the grand staircase in the center of her entry hall, where a series of phrases have been stenciled on the risers. Read from bottom to top, they say “In this house/we are real/we make mistakes/we say I’m sorry/we give second chances/we have fun/we give hugs/we forgive/we do loud/we love/we are family.” I marvel at what it must be like to raise such a large brood.

“It’s Avery’s birthday today,” Sarah tells me of her oldest, a senior, who’s graduating in less than a month. “She wanted chocolate-chip waffles, so she gets chocolate-chip waffles.”

“Eighteen?” I say, trying to reconcile the fact that Sarah and I are not still in college.

“Eighteen,” she nods, leading me into her dining room.

Sarah’s house is the third- or fourth-oldest house still standing in Morrilton. It was built in 1881, and there’s a ginkgo tree in her side yard that’s so old and well-known among nature lovers that she’s seen strangers standing on her property snapping photos.

“It scared me at first,” she says, “but then I got used to it.”

I’d say she understands this love of the old, empathizes with it, because she too has an affinity for history—especially the history of Morrilton.

“The original town here was Lewisburg, down on the Arkansas River,” Sarah informs me. “Slowly the town moved up because of flooding, to where Morrilton is now.”

I nod, petting Sadie and Dixie under the 7-foot-long dining table.

“There were two prominent citizens at the time: Mr. Moose and Mr. Morrill. They flipped a coin to see what the town would be named, and Morrill won. To honor Mr. Moose, they named this street after him. It’s the only Moose Street in Arkansas.”

It’s no surprise that Sarah is so knowledgeable about Morrilton—she’s actually starting her second year as director of the Morrilton Main Street Program, a tidbit she didn’t brag about (even once) on Facebook.

“Back in the day, Morrilton was the place,” Sarah says with a smile. “It was Conway before Conway was Conway.” She pulls out her phone, where she’s made a list of everything she wants to show me. “We have one of only two remaining Carnegie Libraries in the state. It closes at noon, so we better see that first. We’ve got the Lewisburg National Cemetery and Walmart No. 8 and the original Harding University, and so many interesting people. Lendell Roberts—he sings bass and looks like Santa Claus—was just inducted into the bus-driving hall of fame. And Morrilton school resource officer Phil Blaylock’s Cop Car Karaoke videos have been shared by Ellen DeGeneres.”

“And then there’s the Croswells,” I interject, observing the constant stream of folks—from ages 7 to 44—making their way to the kitchen. We talk about how her husband is the announcer for the Sacred Heart Catholic School basketball games, and her oldest adopted son, Ethan, will be graduating with her oldest biological child, and how Isabella, her adopted daughter from China who has spina bifida, is just about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.

And then it’s 11:30.

“Don’t you think we better hurry up and get to the library?” I ask. “Didn’t you say it closed at noon?”

Sarah looks at her phone, and her eyes, beneath square, black-rimmed glasses, widen. “I did indeed.” She takes off her apron and slips on a pair of sandals, and we’re off.

11:35 a.m.

The sky is a threatening dark gray. Moisture is even heavier in the air than a normal Arkansas spring.

“Do you want to walk?” Sarah asks.

“I do,” I reply. I haven’t had a walking tour of a town yet.

We stroll down Division Street on our way to the library. “Not everyone was happy Mr. Morrill won the coin toss,” Sarah explains. “The Moose folks settled around Moose Street, and the Morrill folks settled a couple of streets over. Division Street divides the two.”

I snicker, imagining some wild-west Hatfield and McCoy situation.

“But Morrilton really was the ‘it’ town for quite a while,” she says.

“What happened?” I ask.

“There are some theories,” she begins. “Carpetbagging, the decline of the railroad system, but I’m no historian.”

“How many people live in Morrilton now?” I ask.

“Almost 7,000,” the nonhistorian says. “And here’s the Carnegie Library. Last year was its hundredth anniversary. And they have a new bookmobile this year.”

The Morrilton Carnegie Library is a beautiful red-brick building with white double sunburst windows flanking a stately red-pillar doorframe. We go in the back entrance, where an original painting of old Lewisburg and a tiny marquee announcing “Toddler Story Time Every Wednesday 10:30 a.m.” greet us.

Three teenagers sit behind the main counter: Charlie Gilbreath and Brandon Wilson, who are in Ethan and Avery’s graduating class, and Christina Scroggins—Charlie’s girlfriend, wearing blue lipstick and Hello Kitty socks—the only one of the three who actually works at the library.

“So what makes a Carnegie Library a Carnegie Library?” I ask Christina.

“We had to get a grant from Andrew Carnegie,” she answers, “a man who did not like giving out grants. We were originally a Pathfinder group—a group of women who gave out books.”

Actually, it’s my understanding that very few groups nationally were denied Carnegie Library grants, but the Carnegie Library at Morrilton is special for other reasons. As Christina said, the Pathfinder Club, a women’s organization established in 1897, was the driving force behind getting the library up and running. The women purchased the land for the library and used their own books to stock the shelves. The $10,000 awarded by Carnegie’s foundation in 1915 was mostly used for construction of the building itself, with any remaining funds going toward its furnishings. At the time, Morrilton was the smallest town in America to have a Carnegie Library, and the building is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

I feel guilty that I’ve ignored Charlie and Brandon, so I ask them my go-to question: “So, guys. What, for you, makes Morrilton Morrilton?”

Charlie furrows his brow; I can see the mental wheels turning. “I don’t know. It’s just small and personal,” he says.

“Don’t be fooled by Charlie’s gruff exterior,” Sarah interjects. “He helps with Beta Club stuff, and he’s not even in it. And that’s kind of indicative of Morrilton in itself—everyone pitches in.”

Charlie shrugs and half-grins.

“I like that it’s 30 minutes either way to fun stuff,” Brandon says, “and we’re so close to Petit Jean mountain.”

A gray-haired man nearby has overheard us talking. “Morrilton is up and coming, I guess,” he interjects. “One day we’ll be incorporated into Conway, I imagine.”

Sarah opens her mouth in mock offense, again declaring her clear vision. “No way! It’ll be civil war first.”

“Maybe so,” the gentleman replies. “Maybe so.”

12:10 p.m.

“See that tall building over there?” Sarah tells me as we walk down Broadway, the main street of Morrilton. “It’s the First National Bank of Morrilton. I’m pretty sure it’s the tallest office building between Fort Smith and Little Rock.”

I love the narrow three-window-wide, five-story tall brick structure. “That would make some great loft apartments,” I suggest.

“I was thinking restaurant on the top floor with rooftop dining,” she says “With views of Petit Jean.”

I look behind us and indeed that view would be amazing. It’s cool that you can see the mountain from this street, aptly named Broadway, where one of the most noted destinations in town is the Rialto Theatre. Sarah was president of the Rialto’s board for four years before teaching, grad school, and her seven kids finally demanded more of her attention.

“I like to call it our ‘treasure by the track,’” she says of the old movie house stationed right across from the railroad.

A lot of restoration has been done to the building, but a lot of the original still remains: the marquee, the art-deco doors—even the restrooms labeled “colored” in the balcony are intact. When Sarah and I enter the lobby, two men and a woman are sitting at a table near the door.

“We’re having a workday today,” the lady says. “Don’t we look like we’re working?”

We all laugh, and Sarah happily brags on her former pet project. “The seats in the house are from the Arkansas Repertory Theatre—from when they remodeled. And next door is the Rialto Gallery, where we display art and can have local events like receptions and dinners. We even have a commercial kitchen in the back.”

Debbie Thompson, the lady in the lobby, wears a T-shirt proclaiming “Live the Life You Love.” And it’s pretty clear she loves the Rialto. “It’s a family affair,” she says. “My husband’s mother—who’s almost 99—was on the original board. And I want to say she worked here when it was a movie theater. I help with costumes, I take tickets, I fold programs, and my daughter is now on the board.”

Two doors down from the Rialto, we see people coming and going inside what’s clearly a construction project. We follow the foot traffic, and a sign in the window says “Coming Soon: Big Cuppa Coffee Shop.” Sarah introduces me to the man behind the mission, Marty Krutz. “The thing about this is it’s not really a coffee shop,” he tells us. “It’s a thing we’re offering to the community.”

The walls behind him have been painted an electric blue, a beautiful counter has been made out of different sizes and stains of wood planks, and a small stage has been erected in the center of the shop space. “We want to highlight things in the community, whether it’s art or music or even putting together a V8.”

Like the Rialto is for Debbie, Big Cuppa is a family affair for Marty. His son Joseph, a certified barista, will be making the beverages, and he’s got a serious passion for both community and coffee. “It’s not just snobby,” Joseph says. “I like to take people who don’t know coffee from espresso and make them comfortable.”

“When do you plan to open?” I ask.

“End of May, hopefully,” Marty says.

I make a mental note to come back to Morrilton in late May.

12:50 p.m.

Sarah and I walk up Moose Street. A neat brick building with striped awnings and a sign out front engraved “City Hall” is on our right.

“Now that’s the old Walmart No. 8,” Sarah tells me. “Back when Morrilton was in its heyday, Sam Walton would try out all his new things right here. Now Walmart is opening a technology-startup incubator in Silicon Valley, and they’re naming it simply Store No. 8—after this Walmart right here.”

The building also has two long relief panels with Coke bottles and the Coca-Cola insignia, I notice.

“Yeah,” Sarah confirms. “After Walmart moved out of here, it became a Coca-Cola bottling plant for a while. Then it became City Hall, and now it’s district-court offices.”

Sarah guides me to the left—down Commerce Street—and shows me another building that’s been repurposed. “This used to be the Petit Jean Movie Theatre. Now we call it ‘wines and spines.’”

Located in the building now are two businesses owned by Ken and Sherrie Sowers. Ken, a chiropractor, has his office on the left, while his hobby, wines, occupies the right side of the building.

“Initially it was a hobby,” Ken clarifies. “Then it progressed. I’ve done seminars, classes, conferences.”

Ken is the winemaker for Movie House Wines, an endeavor that has recently been recognized with a spot on the Arkansas Wine Trail. Ken gets grapes and juices from around the world, making the wines an eclectic variety of tastes. Movie House Wines has dry reds sourced from Spain and dry whites from Argentina and, of course, sweet wines from Arkansas. He’s even planted some black Ives of his own that originated from Italy.

I can’t get over how clever the company’s marketing is. The wines all have movie-related names: Harvey, My Fair Lady, On Golden Pond. And you can buy the fares in what they call barrels: soft packaging with an easy-dispense nozzle. “There’s lots of lakes that won’t let you take glass,” Sherrie explains.

“Brilliant,” I reply, just seeing myself on a boat with one of the barrels.

We do a full tasting, and I can’t help but buy the Harvey, an Italian Aglianico with a sweet finish that balances out the dryness, and the Godfather Red in the barrel, a cranberry chianti. “Good thing we’re walking,” I tell Sarah, having consumed more than I probably should have on an empty stomach.

“Don’t worry,” Sarah says. “Next stop: lunch.”

1:30 p.m.

At the recommendation of Sarah’s seventh grader, Jude, we go to the Hibachi Express food truck—it’s what makes Morrilton Morrilton for him. And the middle schooler knows his food trucks: It. Is. The bomb. I get the steak, and Sarah gets the salmon, and Morrilton gets some crazy wind. We have to hightail it back to her house, and as soon as we sit down to eat at the dining room table where we started the day, down comes the rain.

“I still have so much more to show you,” Sarah says. There’s St. Anthony’s Senior Living Apartments—which used to be a hospital—that was designed by the same architect who did the original North Little Rock High School. There’s Cherokee Park, where they have the Fabulous Fourth of July, complete with free hot dogs, lemonade and fireworks. There’s the original Harding College that’s now Southern Christian Children’s Home, a sanctuary for neglected, abused and dependent children. There’s the local curiosity called Cotton’s Place, a corner building festooned with old signs and antique toys and even a Jeep on the roof, that’s been featured on American Pickers. Many might think it an eyesore, but I think it’s a fascinating stop worthy of perhaps hours of close observation.

Jude walks into the dining room with a fidget spinner. My son has one, as do just about all of the seventh-grade boys whom I teach. “Do you know how to do a bottle flip, too?” I ask, referring to the middle-school craze of taking a partially empty water bottle and trying to flip it through the air and have it land on its bottom, preferably in an interesting or hard-to-get-to space.

“I’ve got a video,” Jude says, and shows it to me.

It’s interesting, I think, that our experiences are entirely made up of what we, as individuals, see. I look around Sarah’s house, which is so full in so many ways, and I see a happy home, not so different, really, than so many Arkansas families. I look at Morrilton, and I see a close-knit community, with hidden corners to explore and interesting people to talk to. I can even see Sarah’s vision for the town’s future, where outsiders come for wine and dinner with a rooftop view and feel welcome and, perhaps, even stay much longer than they had planned. Using Sarah’s vision as my own, I can see Morrilton again becoming the “it” town.

“Want to come to a pool party this summer?” Sarah asks, grinning.

And now I see a friend.