Tuesday, November 27, 2007

History, interrupted in Calico Rock.

The approach northbound into Calico Rock on Highway 5 is one of the prettiest sights you'll see, especially when
the leaves are just starting to turn. The highway parallels a cliff face on the White River for nearly a mile before swinging due north and crossing into town on a high bridge.

There's a rail crossing right as you come off the bridge -- and then Calico Rock's commercial district sprays out in front of you, a canyon of progress impossible to ignore.

But if you take a right when you pass over that crossing, or even at the next block, you can travel a whole 75 years or more back into the past.

No time hole here. Calico Rock isn't keeping this secret. It has a very unique standing. It's the only place in America
where you can find a real ghost town, inside of a living town. Anywhere.

The town was named for that cliff face -- it was all sorts of different colors, so it was named Calico Rock, just like a calico cat. Back in the 19th century this was another port on the White River with its own ferry.

And what a port. Fellows would come down from the hills or up from the Delta or in on a riverboat and have a time for themselves in Peppersauce Alley. The street grew a musty reputation for all the drunken brawls and debauchery over the years.

Just across Calico Creek, businesses flourished. A blacksmith shoed horses just over the bridge, and the city jail was across Walnut Street. A saw and grist mill and a cotton gin brought business to the area. Then the railroad came to town in 1903, and another burst of life came in.

As the years passed, businesses came and went. There was the grocery store and a barber shop and a theater. Competing car dealerships went up, with the Chevy dealership over on Rand Hill and the Ford place over on Rowden. Manufacturing was a big deal in the early years of the 20th century, and lumber came in big. There was a planing plant over off east Walnut, and the Hayes Brothers had a flooring place half a block away. And business was good.

But somehow, this little section of town was forgotten. Main Street stayed busy, but the town grew up to the west and north, and eventually a six or eight block area of town died off.

In many towns, developers would have loved a chance to seize onto the cheap, abandoned property -- level everything and start over again. But that's not the case in Calico Rock.

A group of citizens who called themselves CORE (for Calico Rock Organization for Revitalization Efforts) got together and decided this part of town needed saving. After all, how many ghost towns are in walking distance of where you're at?

It's not an easy project, but it is unique. Unlike many preserved areas, where homes and businesses are restored to their original glory -- Calico Rock is simply preserving what's there. That means don't expect to see windows reset in the frames at the funeral home, or weed-eating around the dead forklifts at the old flooring plant. This is how it is, and this is how it will stay.

My traveling companion and I went up on a moderately warm November afternoon to find out more about the ghost town. Outside of a few mentions here and there on the web, there's not much information. Sometimes you're just better off experiencing a place with your feet.

And that's what we did.

In broad daylight, the only ghosts you have to contend with are the ones in your own head. And the only visitors we had to contend with were the few teenagers who swiped past in their cars, using the bridge and Walnut Street as a shortcut to wherever more important place they were headed.

We started at the intersection of Caldwell and Walnut, figuring why not start in the middle. While he took off towards the bridge, I wandered up to the old funeral parlor, which seemed to be mostly intact. A large gathering of vines had congregated along the top corner of the old building, but I could peer
underneath and see straight in what had been the window on the front door. Age seems to have disturbed the interior contents, but there appeared to be a good number of original contents inside, including what appeared to be a table saw of some sort. Considering this was a funeral home, I didn't want to think too much of that.

The old ice house and electrical plant was just north of this building, and the facing on the building appeared to be intact.

On the northwest corner of Caldwell and Walnut, there's a big boarded-up two story building. At one point this was the Knowles Grocery Store, and also a dealership for International Harvester. The building appears to be in good repair, but it too stands silent here.

Next door, there's not much left of the old Ozark Theater but the foundation. Then there's the old barber shop, which appears to have been converted into a home. Someone apparently lives here today, as evidenced by the uncracked window panes, curtains, and fresh American flag. A dog barked insistantly in the distance as we passed.






The old pool hall and hotel is nothing more than an empty shell today. Saplings grow inside, the only signs of life in what was once a large crashing space for workers and travelers.
Some of the old windows and doorways have been bricked over, but the other openings reveal little of what was once inside.

The lot for the old Chevy dealership is grown up with weeds. Not much left to gaze at, except the still used intersection with Rand Hill Road.

But just down from that is the old City Jail - a unique site, for sure. This cell was built to last - and provided all the amenities a prisoner could ask for at that time. After all this time, I was surprised to see the heavy steel
bar door still hanging on its rusty hinges, the unbroken stone interior, the narrow window that allowed light and air into the cell, and the primitive urinal fashioned into the wall. You can still clearly read the sign that states "$5 Fine for Talking to Prisoners" next to the door, outlined with the only grafitti I noticed on the building. The city has done a good job of keeping vandals out, and the little building is well preserved.

We crossed the single lane bridge across Calico Creek on our way to Peppersauce Alley. The bridge bounces noticeably when cars or even people pass over, but it's a strong steel deck over a narrow crossing.
Looking south, we could see the old wooden rail trestle about a block away.

The buildings that line the west side of Peppersauce Alley also face Main Street. Being on a hillside, there are three floors on this side,
and you can see where additions and renovations have been made over the years. The old stone structures are still in good shape, but allowances have been made for replacing windows and doorways and adding insulation. If you squint your eyes, you can see how the buildings must have looked a century ago.

I wonder what it sounded like, when gangs of riverboatmen stumbled out of doorfronts on loud nights, rumbling and rowdy and looking for a good time. What songs were they singing? Did they head back to the boats or further into town to find a good place to flop?

The old line leading to the abandoned trestle is still there... bypassed at the switch but still snaking out to the old bridge quietly on its own. We walked up to the old line and took a few pictures.

Though the bridge deck seems to have taken its share of weather abuse, the strong oiled timbers below are still performing their duties, a row of angled sentinels holding up a long silent railbed on its way to the also silent planing plant. I considered crossing it on foot, but a couple of loose ties convinced me that, though the fall wouldn't be far, a breakthrough wouldn't be the smartest idea for the day.

Back along Walnut Street on the other side of the bridge, there's an old propane store, and then another of the former grocery stores. I don't know when Batesville Wholesale Grocery was in business, but I wonder if it competed with Knowles Grocery at all, or if Knowles had started selling farm equipment
by then. The dog food advertisement on the window appears to be freshly painted, or at least well preserved.

Across from the old theater, there's a smaller building that the map tells me used to be Suzy Johnson's Cafe. Perhaps this was where the guys at the flooring plant went for lunch, grabbing a sandwich and a soda before returning to the machine shops.

The folks at the Chamber of Commerce told me the ghost town had been used during Halloween for tours and a night-time haunted history romp. But the old plant on the south side of Walnut Street just seemed quiet, in the way open spaces seem to hum with summer's heat. Yet there was a chill in the air from the November wind.

Inside the yard of the old flooring plant, a forklift sat, just like it must have when it was parked for the last time. The tires had rotted, but the old vehicle stood like a guard for the rest of the empty yard.

To the right, an empty warehouse echoed with the "chit chit" of nesting birds. The wide-open doors revealed an expanse of concrete slab and dusty warped boards and old pallets. An abandoned trailer could be seen through the corresponding doors on the other side.

To the left, old steel and wood buildings hadn't fared as well as the concrete block warehouse. Prudence told me I shouldn't venture too close to peer at the old tin roofed structure. Beyond it I could see the roofs of other warehouses on the old site.

Another doorway to the right draped in vines revealed an old machine shop. The ground was squishy underfoot, and I wondered if the vines bloomed in the spring. They'd make a neat photo-op.

Inside, much of the old heavy machinery remains, coated in dust and rust. Pipes hang down from the ceiling, absent their connections from long ago. Old motor assemblies hunker down on the sides of the old cast iron and steel beheamoths, their purpose lost to time.

Outside, the old belt line that hauled scraps to the incinerator still loom overhead. In places, the metal has come loose, dangling like pears to be picked from the line. Everything outside is coated in the protective shield of years of rust.


The old incinerator tower is beginning to buckle after all these years, but its coppery clad base still retains its conical shape.
On top, if you can get to the right angle, you can still see the steel mesh dome cage that topped the structure. It reminded me of a giant salt shaker.

Back further, there's what must have once been a workshop, with a big smokestack next door. But it is covered in overgrowth and hard to get to. The smokestack stands taller than the incinerator tower and still looks sturdy.

Knowing that we had a three hour trip home, we went ahead and headed back to the car. We studied the remnants of what had been another location for the Chevy dealership, and marveled at the old stone. Whether there had been another building material in play or someone had harvested the stone, we didn't know.

Around the corner, at Walnut and Rowden, there's an old intact house. The home was built around the turn of the 19th/20th century, and needs a paint job, but it isn't a far stretch to think about how it would look with a little work.

We decided to head back up to Peppersauce Alley and see if we could see the river. There we found an unusual crossing under the tracks. I guess that makes sense -- since the main line is right on the edge of the top of the bank. There's enough space for one car to pass at a time under the trestle, but you have
to honk to alert anyone who's crossing.

On the other side, we drove down a ramp to the landing. Dozens of trucks were parked along the way -- probably people out fishing along the White River. We parked under the bridge and stepped out.









Above, along the entire length of the bridge, are what appear to be swallows' nests. The mud homes dot the underside of the concrete beast from one end to the other.

The river is wide and slow here. Calico Rock's Main Street was built so far above this point, because flooding was a fact of life. But the construction of the dam on the river's North Fork leveled out the water.

Here you can appreciate the beauty of the riverbend -- rolling hills in one direction, rocky bluffs in the other. Rocky shoals lay on the surface on the north side of the bend. In the distance you can spot the roofs of bluff-top homes.

At the mouth of Calico Creek, deadwood has created a skeleton of trees bleached by the sun. A trickle of a stream eases out from under the rail bridge and the distant trestle.

With the receeding sun reflecting across the water and through the leaves, you could lose yourself in thoughts of peaceful nature.

It was here that something occurred to me. All along our trip up Highway 65 and Highway 9 up to Highway 5, the leaves had all changed over. But in Calico Rock, the barest shades of yellow and orange were just starting to emerge. Somehow, autumn was late arriving here.

Calico Rock's ghost town isn't preserved behind some wall or gate or locked fence. It's still holding out within the boundaries of a thriving little north Arkansas town, holding its breath, holding its place in history, slowly trying not to fade away.

If you have the chance, sneak your way up to Calico Rock for photography and reflection among the ruins of a town gone by. And take the chance to explore the living portion of Calico Rock as well. Duck into the doorways of some of the local shops, or give yourself a treat and retreat to the cool splendor of the park that lies north of Highway 56 and east of Highway 5.

If you need more information, contact the Calico Rock Chamber of Commerce at (870) 297-3772.

14 comments:

  1. Great photo spread ofCalico and especially Peppersauce Bottom!

    Izard County is filled with old buildings like those in Calico.

    There's a lot more than just buildings, too!

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  2. Great article!! I have been to Calico rock many times and after reading this I want to go back. Thanks!!

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  3. funny, but i share your love of old ghost towns. i was in calico rock today (before i read your article) wandering around and imagining what it used to be like. When i got home i discovered your article, and it captures my thoughts exactly. Thanks

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  4. This is a great article. I'm really glad to hear that people actually know that we exist! I go to school in Calico, but I live at Mount Olive. Talk about a ghost town....

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  5. I left Calico in the late 80's.I never thought I would miss it as much as i did , being from the east coast it was quite the change for me! We use to float the river and go to Piney Creek to swim. I even lived in the ole hotel by the r.r. tracks. It was converted into apartments and I had the best view of the river.The eight yrs. I spent living there was great. Thanks for renewing some of the memories.

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  6. I'm about to go to Calico Rock for a weekend, birthday getaway. I've looked all over for something that tells me about Calico Rock. This article/description was the BEST. Thanks for writing and taking the pictures. I'm looking forward to my trip now even more.

    I hope that good writers and photographers would keep up with neat little Arkansas places. Maybe it would help tourism. :)

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  7. What a wonderful article. Glad to find this blog! My family is from Arkansas originally (Mammoth Spring and Hoxie), and I love the Buffalo River country. Can't make it down as much as I used to, but long for the day.

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  8. I taught school in Calico Rock, Arkansas in 1962 for one semester. I was only 20 and had finished my degree requirements to graduate from Arkansas State Teachers College (now University of Central Arkansas) that May (and got the job for one semester in January of '62). I had classes in seventh and eighth grade science and two high school science classes as well. It was quite a task preparing for all those students. I organized and conducted the very first science fair at the Calico Rock schools for both junior and high school students. There was a lot of resistance from the school administrators (and parents) but we pulled it off... and the students and parents (and school superintendent) loved it.

    I remember the Hayes Brothers flooring plant (they made beautiful parquet flooring tiles)... dynamic young guys (the brothers) running it. Surely, it didn't fail.. must have moved somewhere else.

    I remember the old doctor Noel "Buck" Copp (he was quite a character in his blue jeans and boots) and Dr. Grasse with his homeopathic clinic.

    I have lots of memories about Calico Rock. which I could share.

    Sam Redman

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  9. Frankly, the "Ghost Town" is nothing more than several broken down old buildings. Spend your time in the downtown at the shops and restaurants, or rent a boat for a nice trip on the river. The people are very nice and helpful, but they don't care for the "Ghost Town" idea either.

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  10. Very nice blog and photographs. We visited the Ghost Town in Calico Rock today and appreciated the fact that no efforts are being made to restore any of the buildings as of yet. What we do consider an improvement is that there is now a free "walking tour" of the area with very informative signs, some with old photographs included adjacent to most of the old buildings. It was slightly annoying that some of the signs are located in places that you would rather have them out of a photo that you are trying to take, but the efforts are greatly appreciated.

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  11. John H. ThompsonJuly 2, 2011 at 12:28 PM

    My father's family lived in Calico Rock from about 1908 to 1915 and went to school there. My grandfather, Daniel Grant Thompson, was the blacksmith there at the time in the old blacksmith shop (later the Philgas Propane shop). He died there in 1911 after he sustained an injury while making repairs on the old cotton gin there. He is buried in Calico Rock. I find these pictures and the history of Calico Rock fascinating.

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  12. To Nancy Ryan, If the C.O.R.E. group had actually consulted with the property owners when they were in the planning process they would have had far more cooperation from property owners. A courtesy letter of some kind detailing their intentions and asking for our input would have been civil.
    Instead, Ghost Town was planned without the consent of the property owners. I in fact found out about this project by looking up Calico Rock on the internet. What a shock to find out that my personal property was to become a tourist attraction without my permission or discussing with me and the other property owners first, I was livid to say the least.
    When I asked Sue Varno and other members of C.O.R.E. as to why the property owners were not notified about this project they simply said "letters were sent out and you received one", I did not nor did the other property owners. When I questioned their response the group called me a liar including a local Mennonite preacher, one of our Alderman told me that Ghost Town is going to be and there is no stopping it, he also owns the local newspaper and is a C.O.R.E. member.
    Talk about making enemies with property owners! Does this answer your question about the signs and their Kodac moment positions?
    The is one question That the C.O.R.E. members refused to answer, I asked them " how would you feel if someone turned your property into a tourist attraction without asking you", to this day the only response that I have been given is, "If you ask again we will have you arrested for harassment"

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    1. I always think of ghost towns as 1880's type structures. Although it's mildly interesting it's not much different than a hundred decaying towns in Arkansas such as the town of Cotton Plant. It is the right of an owner to do what they wish with their private property within city guidelines. It is also a city's right to condemn abandoned and dangerous property. I agree the two parties should have had real communications but apathy tends to bring on situations like this.

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  13. It is true that approaching Calico Rock from the south is one of the prettiest sights you'll see. I did it yesterday and with the prettiest of Springs all around, it was one of the most amazing sights I've ever experienced. You have more pictures of Peppersauce Alley than I've seen anywhere. Nice job!

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Be kind.