“IF WE COULD turn back time … to the good ol’ daaaaaays,” I sing loudly to 16-year-old Avery in the car on the way to northeast Arkansas. I have clearly successfully entertained the kids, if you count causing them to roll their eyes an entertainment success.
As a mom, I often feel like I’m chasing ghosts of the past. “Remember how much you loved dinosaurs?” I’ll ask. “Yeah, when I was 5,” my oldest says. “How about some peaches?” I’ll offer my youngest. “I don’t like peaches anymore,” my little sassy-pants replies. From time to time, I miss the old days, when all my kids wanted was their mommy and an episode or two of Blue’s Clues, when I knew how our days would progress and few surprises took me off-guard.
But you just can’t live in the past without missing out on the present. So today, we are taking a road trip, my oldest and my youngest and me. We will not be reminiscing about the old but looking forward to the new. The New … port—population 7,879 and the seat of Jackson County. I have not thoroughly researched the town, have not worked out what to expect in advance, but instead am letting the day take us where it will, so all three of us can enjoy this town as an experience we’re living together for the first time.
Avery directs me to take exit 82, the first Newport exit off U.S. 67. We spot some potentially interesting stops right away, from the sign directing us to the Newport Farmers Market to the More Old Treasures Thrift Store to 2 Chicks Nursery and Gifts. But from the backseat, 7-year-old Rory makes our priorities clear: “Is it lunchtime yet?”
Yes, Aurora, there is a lunchtime, and it is now.
Appearing on our right—like a specter rising from a fog—is a red barnhouse-style building with the main sign frame sitting empty. But as we slow, we see the customizable letter board below that proclaims:
And under that, another movable-letter sign (this one arrowed) tempting us with
How can we resist?
It’s almost 2 o’clock when we make it inside the wood-paneled dining room, and at least half the restaurant is still packed with patrons. Avery and Rory both order breakfast (because it’s served all day here, and I raised my kids right), and I secure that all-you-can-eat buffet because for me, when there’s unlimited amounts of okra and skin-on mashed potatoes and corn muffins, there’s just no other option. And apple cobbler to boot? Heck yeah.
The three older ladies at the round table to my right have lived here their entire lives. Where do they recommend we go?
“There’s not much here,” one says.
“You could go to McDonald’s to get ice cream,” says another.
“Yard sales,” volunteers the third.
When three longtime residents tell me there’s not much in their town, I really worry that all I’ve got to chase here are ghosts. But the waiter has a different perspective: “There’s an old post office that’s a distillery now. They have tastings there. It’s supposed to be haunted.” Now there’s some ghost hunting I could get behind.
A lady at the table behind me hears my pleas and offers one more suggestion: “There’s a lady here that owns an Emporium—her name is Charee. If anybody knows anything about this town, it’s her.”
We thank everyone at the Smoke House—they holler back a disheartening “Best of luck” to us—and take our leave of the only place we currently know for sure is still in business in Newport.
But luck may yet be on our side, because as soon as we walk into Charee’s Emporium, where we’re met with silver buckets of taffy to the left and washtubs with pitchers of cotton stalks to the right, we’re greeted by none other than Charee herself, standing behind the counter. With her leopard-print sweater and strand of sparkling beads, Charee has a great sense of style, and with her warm smile, she immediately puts us at ease. “I’m actually a member of the chamber of commerce board,” she tells us, so I know we’ve hit the jackpot.
“They’ve spent more than half a million dollars downtown with the Veterans Memorial Park and new sidewalks and the depot. We have outdoor movies with ASU-Newport down there. Also, 2 Chicks Nursery has bought the O’Reilly’s and is making it into a new flower store. And we’re getting a new hotel by the highway!”
“And what do you have going on right here in your store?” I ask, scanning the place for Rory, who has since left my side and begun wandering.
“I’ve got five boutiques with new stuff and other booths with antiques. There’s about 39 booths here total.”
And with 39 booths to choose from, the kids and I find something for each and every one of us. At one end of the Emporium is a booth I love—there’s hundreds of blue Mason jars and a vintage milk can and an old icebox (not a refrigerator, thank you very much). At the other end is a booth Avery loves—it’s got jeans and jackets and the softest sweaters I’ve ever touched. And toward the front is a booth Rory loves—it’s got toys, toys, toys. “Can we buy Fluffy?” Rory asks, having already named the stuffed elephant that’s hanging around her neck. I look at the price tag. “For $4, we sure can.”
We take the newest member of the family to the front to pay. “Anywhere else I might need to go before I leave town?” I ask Charee.
“Across from the chamber is the old post office. It’s a distillery now. It’s supposed to be haunted. They call it Postmaster Spirits.”
The distillery. That’s the second time I’ve been told this. I started off the day worried I was going to be chasing ghosts, and now it seems like that’s exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. And I’m excited about it, to tell the truth.
I’d be lying if I said I’d never had encounters with the supernatural. One time at the King Opera House in Van Buren, I even heard a ghost call my name. So when we pull up to the red-brick two-story building that reminds me of so many other small-town post offices I’ve seen on my Arkansas journeys, I can’t help but smile. And when we walk in and are greeted by a sweet little Chihuahua, I can’t help but laugh.
“His name’s Chico,” the man at the bar—which clearly is where the post office’s counter used to be—tells us. “His Star Wars name is Chico Calrissian. He’s also got a Mexican wrestler name: Macho Camacho Chico. But my favorite is his Cirque du Soleil name: Chique le Freak.” This man’s smile is mischievous, and his wit is razor sharp. I can already tell this is gonna be my favorite stop of the day.
“I’m Heather,” I offer, figuring if I know the man’s dog, I might as well know the man.
“Ross,” Ross says, extending his hand.
“I hear the place is haunted,” I say.
“Let me give you a tour,” he responds.
First we head to the postmaster’s office. “We came in this morning to a light on that was most certainly turned off. And a refrigerator shelf had fallen.” He opens a wall cabinet filled with keys. “A lot of the action seems to be centered around keys. My wife and I have heard keys being jangled, and this office’s key went missing. About two months later, it showed up on my wife’s desk.”
Ross then leads us upstairs and along a tunnel to a bathroom. “This here’s Italian marble and terrazzo floors. Supposedly, hard stone houses spirits, and ‘sensitives’ say this bathroom is the most active place in the building. We’ve even had a paranormal team come to investigate.”
But the only spirits I’m able to detect on this visit are in what used to be the mailroom, where a two-story bottling machine stands massive in the center of the hard stone floor. “We bought this bottler from Hiram Walker in Fort Smith. Three hundred bottles a minute was too slow for them.”
For now, at least, it’s a good speed for Ross Jones’ product: TRUMP TONIC. That R, Ross’ materials tell us, is the last letter of the Russian alphabet and is pronounced “RY”—so if you like Trump, you can call it Tryump Tonic. And if you don’t, HELLO IT’S A RUSSIAN R. “This is the bigliest inaugural launch of an orange-flavored vodka in Newport, Arkansas,” Ross explains. “And it’s orange, because, you know, he’s orange.”
Ross’ satire doesn’t stop there. He’s created signature shots like the No Collusion, a Jell-O shot made from Trump Tonic that comes with a choking hazard warning (“May be impossible for a Democrat to swallow”) and signature cocktails like the Alabama Hurricane, which comes with its own sharpie (“If you don’t like it, you can change it”).
I laugh so hard my belly hurts. “You’re a terrible human,” I tell him.
He smirks and nods.
Ross has three more flavors planned for release: a salted caramel-flavored vodka he plans to call Assaulted Caramel Caravan, a peach flavor he plans to call MMM Peach, and a berry flavor he plans to call the Border Berryer (tagline “Mexico Will Buy This Round”).
Avery and I laugh until we almost cry at Ross’ bipartisan humor. Rory pets Chico to her heart’s content. And, I realize, Newport isn’t a ghost town at all, as I began the day fearing. In fact, Newport is very much alive with energetic folks who are doing cool things that resonate on a spiritual level with a lot of people.
As we leave, Ross and his wife give just about every last drop of the contents of their candy dish to Rory. I’m guessing there’s a couple dozen fun-size treats she’s got in her possession now.
And if that’s not gonna come back to haunt me, I don’t know what could.
The Import of Newport
What’s on deck for your next visit
Craft breweries may’ve been all the rage in the early 21st century, but as we enter the 2020s, craft distilleries are where it’s at. Located in the historic Hazel Street post office, Postmaster Spirits offers an orange-flavored vodka called Trump Tonic, a variety of cocktails made from the Tonic (like the Mueller Mule), and—if you’re lucky—a ghost sighting or two. (facebook.com/postmasterspirits)
With a combination of booths such as Delta Gal (where you can get multicolored snakeskin-backed boots for your Mississippi River miss) and the Birdcage Vintage Market (where you can snag that perfectly refinished dresser for your guest room), Charee’s Emporium is the place to shop in Newport. (facebook.com/ChareesEmporium)
2 Chicks Florist & More
Newport’s 2 Chicks Nursery has hatched into 2 Chicks Florist & More with the move into the old O’Reilly’s building. From in-store floral arrangements to custom-made bouquets to gourmet jarred foods and gifts and home decor, if you’re stopping at Charee’s, you’d better traverse the tiny half-mile to 2 Chicks Florist as well. (facebook.com/2chicksfloristandmore)
Lackey’s Smoke House BBQ
If there’s one thing a true Delta restaurant has to have, it’s tamales—and Lackey’s Smoke House BBQ has them. And skin-on mashed potatoes. And apple cobbler. And all-day breakfast. … Tell you what: We’ll just meet you there. (facebook.com/lackeyssmokehouse)