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In one of my favorite photos of my oldest son, he's sitting in an oversized rocking chair in downtown Calico Rock in the fall of 1998 with Janet Huckabee, who was the first lady of Arkansas at the time.

I was the campaign manager for Gov. Mike Huckabee, and we were putting on a weekend event for major donors. It included a stay at Gaston's White River Resort and a charter train trip along the river from Cotter to Calico Rock and back. My wife and I brought along our son Austin, who was 5 at the time. He sang loudly that Saturday on the train, leading me to fear that he was irritating the donors. There is, after all, a fine line between cute and annoying.

Each year, I join a group of college buddies for a weekend of trout fishing and socializing on the upper White River. When we break camp on Sunday, I take Arkansas 5 from Mountain Home to Heber Springs on the way back to Little Rock because I enjoy going through towns such as Norfork, Calico Rock and Mountain View. Calico Rock just might be the most charming of them all.

It was once a boat landing known as Calico Landing. The town's population grew rapidly in the early 1900s because those working on a new railroad were housed there. The railroad came to this isolated part of the state in 1903. It ended boat traffic along the upper White River.

How did the city--which had 1,545 residents in the 2000 census--get its name?

Ed Matthews writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture that the name came about "because of the wide strips of color--blue, black, gray, red and orange--giving the appearance of alternate widths of calico cloth on the bluffs bordering the river on the north. No other city in the United States has the name. Early French explorers took note of the pristine beauty of the river valley. ... In writing of his tours of Missouri and Arkansas in 1818-19, author and scientist Henry Schoolcraft referred to the shore as 'calico rock.' Calico Rock's boat landing was at the river's confluence with Calico Creek, which flows between the two bluff formations on the river's north bank. It was the most popular docking site above Batesville."

Though the soil is rocky, cotton was grown in the area until the early 1900s. The Bank of Calico Rock opened in 1903. In 1923, a spark from a locomotive started a fire that destroyed more than 20 downtown businesses.

"A planing mill, complete with dry-kiln chambers, was part of the town by 1904," Matthews writes. "Robert Hays and his brother converted it to a hardwood flooring mill by the 1950s. It wasn't uncommon by 1907 to see more than 100 wagons arriving daily with timber products. The Benbrook Flour Mill, a water-powered corn-grinding mill, contributed to the region's economic strength. Calico Rock became quite a shopping center as farmers brought their produce and did their shopping, frequently from such distances that they would camp overnight in the wagon yard known still as Peppersauce Alley because of the moonshine whiskey traded there."

The Great Depression was especially tough on this area of the state as it lost population from World War II until the 1960s. Izard County's population fell from 12,834 in 1940 to just 6,766 in 1960. It had rebounded to 13,696 residents by the 2010 census.

"During World War II, the economy of this already struggling town was hit hard," Matthews writes. "There was a great deal of outmigration to Kansas by people seeking employment in an ammunition manufacturing arsenal. After that plant closed, many former residents of Calico Rock stayed in the Kansas City area, and their families followed them there. About the same time, there was a migration of residents to work in the orchards of Washington state, gathering apples, pears, cherries and other fruit. ... Calico Rock has never attracted much industry to sustain itself."

Retirees, however, helped the population grow, starting in the late 1960s. A bridge was built over the White River on Arkansas 5 in 1967 to replace a ferry that had long operated there. Suddenly, it was much easier to get to Calico Rock.

In addition to being lured to the area by trout fishing on the White River, visitors are attracted to the Calico Rock Historic District. It covers a downtown block along the highway and includes the historic Riverview Hotel a block away. The buildings were erected from 1903-24. Wooden buildings on the lower side of Main Street burned in the 1923 fire. They were rebuilt with brick and stone.

The Calico Rock Heritage Museum & Visitors Center was dedicated in April 2014. It was the result of an effort that began in 2007 when residents formed the Calico Rock Organization for Revitalization Efforts. CORE signed an agreement with the city to develop exhibits in the back room of a former bank. The nonprofit Calico Rock Museum Foundation, which was chartered in 2008, was spun out of CORE. Jim Murphy offered in 2009 to sell a downtown building to the foundation at the discounted price of $80,000. Prisoners from the nearby state prison helped rehabilitate the building. Historic exhibits were placed in it, and the facility opened to the public in 2011. The Calico Rock Artisans Cooperative sold arts and crafts there.

In 2012, the city sold a former bank building to the foundation for $1. The various facilities downtown--the Heritage Museum and Visitors Center, the Tomlinson Arts & Science Center and the Printing Press Cafe & Ice Cream Parlor--have made Calico Rock an interesting stop for those visiting this part of the Ozarks.


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at

Editorial on 03/13/2019

Print Headline: REX NELSON: Enchanted by Calico Rock


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  • JohnnyElPaso
    March 13, 2019 at 8:51 a.m.

    Calico Rock's population was helped by Brockwell being consolidated into it. If you ever get the chance, the drive on the east side of the White River into Calico Rock from Boswell is scenic. You just have to take the correct road uphill from Sylamore to exit off Highway 5.

  • JohnnyElPaso
    March 13, 2019 at 9:02 a.m.

    Brockwell was not consolidated. My mistake.

  • GeneralMac
    March 13, 2019 at 10:36 a.m.

    good southern town
    good southern folks

    Thank you, Rex Nelson, your columns are always interesting and informative.