A couple of years ago, I had a chance to speak with Stephen Stroope, who owns the bakery with his wife Betsy. First thing I asked him was how long the bakery had been around. “Since water,” he chuckled, and dove right into the story behind the place.
Stroope’s son Joe Franklin Stroope was an adventuresome young man who took to hitchhiking in his youth. He traveled to a lot of different places and discovered the world in this fashion. Back in 1941 he was hitching and a man pulled up in the finest car he ever did see and offered him a ride to Camden. Joe accepted that ride – and when he got in he saw a .45 caliber gun and a pint of whiskey on the front seat. Turns out the man he accepted that ride from – was none other than Sid McMath, who would a few short years later become governor of Arkansas.
Sometime in the late ‘30s or early ‘40s, Joe traveled to Darien, Illinois and enrolled in the Wilton Cake Decorating School. Later on, he headed out to California, where he got to hear the big bands play. He took along his high school sweetheart, Martha, and there they started a family… and two bakeries to boot.
“The square was gravel back then,” he told me. “I remember coming in 1961. I walked in and the doors were black and white – two double doors. There were single light bulbs on the ceiling. The cokes had ice on them. They didn’t use ice on top of the case to keep it cool, but they weren’t far from it. Hassie and May Beaty, they made a good living. They weren’t rich, but they had a lot of money and it was amazing.”
“I’m very lucky, and old enough to realize it,” Stephen told me. “It’s lucky to be born into a business like that.”
Joe Franklin Stroope kept up the bakery and made a good name for it and for his family in Magnolia. He never turned away a customer; black or white, he served everyone. “He taught us how to treat people right, treat your help right too, and boy I see where he was going with that. And that’s the whole reason he did so well, that’s true.”
He grew up during the Great Depression, and he was only broke once in in his life. And Stephen says Joe made a promise to himself never to be broke again. He kept the bakery open seven days a week, every day of the year, getting up in the early hours of morning and going in day after day.
“My mamma said she was his second love, and that the bakery was his first. She’d say ‘go put your baby to bed’ and he’d go piddle and come back home and everybody was happy.”
Joe’s brother, C.S. Stroope Junior, was also in the business. He ran Stroope’s Pastry Shoppe in Camden and passed it along to his son… it closed just a few years ago. The family also tried to put a shop in over in El Dorado – but it didn’t make it.
The way the Magnolia Bake Shop did things, was to keep things pretty much the same. “It’s hard to change something if it’s working,” Stephen states. Joe tried to introduce Danish cookies at one point. They just wouldn’t sell, until one of the local ladies bought up a bunch and served them at a party. Then they took off.
“We have pretty much everything same as it was then,” Stephen says. A lot of our clientele has died off – but now we got new ones. We have customers from Dallas and Shreveport… during the Christmas holidays we can’t keep up with it – you can’t make it quick, not enough room to store but that’s when we make our money so we do what we can do.”
He takes to heart the old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Just about anything on the shelves is what you would have found decades ago. That’s a bonus for all of us, since it’s good stuff. And Stephen says it’s all thanks to his dad.
“I got one young man come in now, he works in the oil fields, his mother works in the bakery. I tell him ‘you won’t find an opportunity like that.’ It’s hard to find someone you can depend on. I’ve gotta do something. I’d hate to see it just fade away.”
And here’s where the story harkened back on the past… for me. I’m listening to Stephen’s story, and he shares this with me.
“This lady called me one time, and asked if we wanted to come to Little Rock, this morning show… and my brother said ‘no thank you’ and that lady about had a stroke.” And when he shared that, I just smiled to myself. Because, dear readers… that lady was me. I wanted to share this story back in my TV days, back at Today’s THV… and yes, I was surprised at the time that someone wouldn't want the publicity. But now I understand.
A couple of weeks ago, I was in town to talk with the Friends of Magale Library at Southern Arkansas University. I dropped in at the bake shop before I left town and took home an Italian cream cake that was just ridiculously perfect. The girl behind the counter told me some folks just wanted that frosting, it was so good.
Magnolia Bake Shop is, as far as I've been able to tell, the oldest bakery in Arkansas still in continuous operation. While others such as Klappenbach in Fordyce and Myer's in Little Rock have passed with time, this little spot on the square is still making great baked goods and serving its community well. I hope it survives into a hearty future.
Magnolia Bake Shop is open Tuesday through Friday 6 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Saturday 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call (870) 234-1304 or check out the bakery's Facebook page for more information.