Nod to the odd

The origin stories behind a few peculiarities in central Arkansas.

The Cave’s clock in Little Rock was erected during Main Street’s heady shopping days.
The Cave’s clock in Little Rock was erected during Main Street’s heady shopping days.

Not long after you turned 3 or 4, your parents grew weary of hearing the question “why?” from you on a near constant basis. And, yes, maybe you were abusing the word at the time, but even into adulthood, it remains one of life’s most leading questions. Though it usually begins phrases uttered by philosophers, it’s also useful in an everyday sense, as in, “Why do I have to pay for parking?” or “Why is Arkansas better than other states?” or “Why do people keep giving their daughters masculine names?” and so on and so forth.

Look around, and you’ll find plenty of reasons to ask “why?” The area is full of little oddities like concrete steps that lead to nowhere or buildings with fading murals, the origins of which have long since passed into forgotten history. This story was inspired by why — more specifically the question, “Why is that here?” Maybe some readers will remember, but for those who don’t, the history can be enlightening.

This week, we look into the origin stories of local oddities.

Cave’s clock: Main Street’s steel sentinel
The Cave’s clock — call it a steel sentinel that doesn’t keep watch. Sure, it stands in downtown Little Rock, positioned over the Capitol Avenue and Main Street intersection, but it is less a guard, and more a watch that keeps time, ticking up each minute of the day.

The clock is a current fixture of Main Street Little Rock. But why? What is the relic’s link to today’s Main Street? How old is the clock? Questions, questions, questions and some answers.

The Cave in question is Thomas M. Cave, owner of Cave’s Jewelers, a business Cave opened in downtown Little Rock on East Capitol Avenue in the early 1930s, according to the Downtown Little Rock Partnership. By 1946, Cave’s had moved around the corner and down the street to 619 Main St. Sometime after Cave’s moved to Main Street, the clock was also erected. No one is quite sure of the date, but it was a heady time for Main Street, then the shopping hub of Little Rock with its big department stores. The Cave’s clock is similar in style to the clock that once stood outside of the Pfeifer’s Department Store building on Main Street, just north of Cave’s. (Where did the Pfeifer’s clock go?)

But by 1972, Main Street and downtown Little Rock were both ailing, as downtown workers fled after work for shopping closer to their homes in west Little Rock and the suburbs. Plans were launched in the mid-1970s for the Metrocentre Mall, a pedestrian shopping and business mall meant to revive fading Main Street. The Metrocentre Mall plan called for closing a number of blocks along Main Street to vehicular traffic, and the Cave’s Jewelers clock was moved in 1978 to its current location due to the construction. But the pedestrian mall never took hold. After a dozen years, Main Street was reopened to vehicular traffic in January 1991.

By the 1980s, Cave’s had moved out of downtown, into the Heights on R Street, and has since closed, with the store’s oval-display case, thought to be 80 years old, now refurbished and in Jones & Son Diamond & Bridal Fine Jewelry in west Little Rock. The clock remains at its present location though and underwent extensive repairs in the summer of 2005.

“The clock is one of downtown’s historical treasures that will have its permanent home at the corner of Main Street and Capitol Avenue,” said Sharon Priest, executive director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, the organization that oversees upkeep of the clock and manages the Metrocentre Improvement District.

“Its presence will always give those who remember Main Street over the years the opportunity to fall back in time with moments of reflection as we spring into the future with Main Street revitalization.”

The clock is a reminder of the former grandeur of Main Street, a time when this part of downtown Little Rock bustled like the River Market does today. Now, the clock stands alone, awaiting the reinvention of Main and a return of the street’s glory. Perhaps it won’t wait too much longer, as discussions surrounding the reinvigoration of Main Street are humming louder.

Celebrity sidewalk: A forgotten project
Sometimes things are hidden, even in plain sight. Consider that most people probably don’t realize Little Rock has a Celebrity Sidewalk, a commemoration of famous names that have come through or called the city home. And hundreds, maybe thousands, of people pass by it every day.

Sure enough, on the east side of Main Street, just in front of the parking garage in the 200 block, there are a handful of cast concrete blocks recessed into the pavement, each engraved with the name of a famous visitor to or resident of the capital city.

Civil rights leader Daisy Bates is there. So is former first lady Rosalynn Carter. Musician Itzhak Perlman, ballerina Cynthia Gregory, boxer Big John Tate. They’re all there, along with a crop of former Arkansas governors like Frank White, Bill Clinton, David Pryor, Dale Bumpers, Orval Faubus and Sid McMath. Even fictional characters and animals are in on the act, names like Bert and Ernie of Sesame Street, Yogi Bear and Jeckle the Schlitz Malt Liquor bull, who naturally left a hoofprint.

A little historical digging finds that the cavalcade of stars was the result of a long-term project undertaken by Little Rock Unlimited Progress, the precursor to today’s Downtown Little Rock Partnership. Back in 1979, Tom Steves Sr., then on the board of directors of the organization, was looking for a way to spark interest in downtown and had the idea for the sidewalk, modeled on the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. The group began approaching luminaries who happened through the city and getting signatures cast in concrete.

And then they stored them. Though the vision and the idea began in the ‘70s, the sidewalk wasn’t actually installed until almost a decade later, in 1987.

Four years later, however, the man who had overseen the project for most of its time, the Partnership’s Sterling Cockrill, left the organization to become the director of the Metrocentre Improvement District, a post he held for 17 years. That was the death knell.

“It kind of died in 1991, when I left,” Cockrill told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in a 1995 article about the walk, which by then had already become something of an overlooked oddity.

Today it seems even more forgotten. The blocks themselves and plates that date them (and identify illegible scrawls) will likely be found covered in litter and leaves. Some of the plates are missing, or maybe they were never there in the first place. The 15-year-old story notes some were never placed.

And progress, as it were, has caught up with the walk. Once upon a time it included not just the 200 block, but the sidewalk on the west side of the 100 block as well, which was torn out and repaved with the two-year remodeling of the Capital Hotel completed in 2007. No trace remains of that northerly section.

Flagstone sidewalk: Stepping on history
It’s hard to imagine now, but in the 1800s, people were walking on wooden sidewalks through towns, including Conway.

A marker at the west end of Main Street denotes the few remaining flagstone sidewalks in the city. The inscription on the plaque says stone sidewalks replaced wooden ones in 1890, and this portion of the sidewalk is more than 100 years old — built in June 1903.

The approximately 140-foot-long cut-flagstone sidewalk is parallel to the parking lot of a dentist’s office. The original sidewalk extended from the Faulkner County Courthouse to Main and Parkway streets, and was a “heavy traffic area serving the courthouse, railroad depot and hotel.”

The old flagstone sidewalk is east of the current courthouse, which was built in 1936. Lynita Langley-Ware, director of the Faulkner County Museum, said by looking at old photographs, she guesses that the first two courthouses were built about 100 feet south of the current one.

The flagstones, from a quarry at Cabin Creek in Johnson County, were shipped in by railroad flatcar, according to the plaque. Property owners paid for the stone, and the city of Conway provided the labor.

The mayor at the time was William “Bill” Wright; the president of the Chamber of Commerce was Freed Duncan; and Ed Camp Jr. was chairman of the Conway Downtown Marketing Group. Duncan, who turns 76 this month and still lives in Conway, recalled the restoration.

“I think what had happened, some tree roots had got in there,” he said of the sidewalk. “I think what we did is went back in there and leveled things up and got it back where it was usable. I remember we had a little ceremony down there.”

Vivian Lawson Hogue, a Conway native, retired schoolteacher and historian, said she remembers walking to school on the old flagstone sidewalks between College Avenue and Caldwell Street.

“I think they’re all gone,” she said of those sidewalks. “By being individual stones with nothing in between them, they would sink, and grass would grow between them.”

The marker on the section on Main Street was provided by Burger King Corp. in 1986 after the sidewalk was restored.

Seawall mural: Argenta’s arty attraction
Unless you’re driving over the Main Street Bridge into downtown North Little Rock, cruising on the Arkansas River or strolling on the north shore of the river, it’s unlikely you’ll see the historical 400-foot-long mural, sometimes referred to as the “sea wall” mural, that decorates the inside of the flood wall. Take a tour of the 11 (formerly 12) 9-by-12-foot panels and you’ll get a glimpse of Arkansas’ past. In warm, retro tones, scenes of cotton-baling, banjo-picking, steamboats and Confederate soldiers depict the state’s heritage.

The mural, titled “Progress in Arkansas,” was painted in 1962 by Arkansas artist Betty Dortch Russell McMath and her student Marge Holman. It was one of the first projects completed to beautify the then-defunct North Little Rock riverfront and placed fifth in a national Community Improvement Project competition. The mural is overseen by the North Little Rock Woman’s Club, who ordered its restoration in 1986, 2001 and in September of this year.

The September refurbishing of the seawall mural came after the 12th panel was mistakenly painted over by Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum last spring. The last panel, which contained state symbols, was thought to be part of an unrelated mural painted in the ‘90s by North Little Rock High School students. The North Little Rock Woman’s Club and Mayor Patrick Henry Hays approved the paint job, but there was some mix-up as to the borders of the two murals and the last panel was covered in a solid coat of white paint, which was to provide a clean backdrop for the Peace Garden built in the area by the Arkansas chapter of Women’s Action for New Directions.

After considering having the 12th panel restored, the North Little Rock Woman’s Club decided instead to commission artist V.L. Cox to touch up the entire mural except for the painted-over panel. As McMath’s pictorial account of Southern life celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, it may be missing a piece, but it continues to captivate onlookers and inspire the growing Argenta art community.

The more you know ...
We realize this story only scratches the surface of odd local landmarks, plaques or other unexplained things in the area. If you like stuff like this, we think it could become a regular feature. If you’re wondering about “something strange ... in your neighborhood” that you’d like us to research, send an email to melissa@syncweekly.com.

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