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OPINION | REX NELSON: Back on the road

by Rex Nelson | May 23, 2021 at 1:48 a.m.

The invitation was impossible to resist. With the four members of my family fully vaccinated, the day had come to eat inside a restaurant for the first time since March 12, 2020.

Jordan Johnson, a Little Rock public relations guru, had more than just a simple lunch invitation in mind. We both enjoy the drive down U.S. 165 from North Little Rock to Keo. That short trip is fascinating because the transition is so quick.

Just minutes away from the office towers of downtown Little Rock, you'll find yourself deep in a Delta culture--row-crop agriculture, plantation-era homes, oxbow lakes, pecan orchards, people fishing alongside the road.

It's a shock to the system, but those working in the busy world of Little Rock's government and financial district find it relaxing. I call it "15 minutes and 150 years" from downtown.

Johnson proposed that we skip breakfast so we could start with a cheeseburger at McSwain Sports Center (known to regulars simply as McSwain's), which is just south of where U.S. 165 passes under Interstate 440. Like many Arkansas hunters, I've stopped at McSwain's for years to have ducks cleaned after successful hunts on the Grand Prairie. But the place is so much more than that.

McSwain's is a wonderful combination of gas station, grocery store, sporting goods store, hardware store and restaurant. It's modern, but I consider it the 21st-century version of the general stores that once dotted rural Arkansas. It also serves one of the best cheeseburgers in the state, along with lunch specials. Sit there, eat slowly and eavesdrop on conversations at adjacent tables about hunting, fishing and politics.

The next stop, Johnson said, would be just down the road at Seaton's Scott Place for barbecue. That would be followed by homemade pie at Charlotte's Eats and Sweets in Keo. On a recent day, Charlotte's offered chocolate, caramel, coconut, lemon ice box and cherry pies. There also was banana pudding. And there were the following homemade cakes: lemon, blueberry, pineapple, Italian cream, strawberry, German chocolate and almond chocolate bar.

The restaurant was established in 1993 by Charlotte Bowls. In addition to desserts, it became famous for its sandwiches and lunch specials. Charlotte's is open from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

People come for lunch after shopping for antiques at Keo or for new and vintage gift items at the Shoppes at the Orchards. That store is open from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. each Saturday.

Back at Scott, Seaton's was filled for lunch on this Tuesday. It's a direct descendant of the White Pig Inn, which served barbecue on East Broadway in North Little Rock from 1920 until closing in March 2019. The White Pig first opened in a log structure, and in its final decades was in a building constructed in 1984. Owner Greg Seaton's grandfather purchased the restaurant in the 1940s, and it stayed in the family until it closed.

A photo of the classic White Pig sign has been atop my Southern Fried blog since I began the blog in 2009. Fortunately, Seaton saved the sign, found someone who could add the neon back to it and then placed it inside his Scott restaurant. We sat directly under the sign as Seaton told us about the creative ways he found to survive the pandemic.

In addition to barbecue, Seaton's has catfish, shrimp, burgers and chicken. The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

Next door is the Curve Market, which features fruits, vegetables, pickles, pasta, salsa, seasonings, breads, jams and jellies, Loblolly ice cream and more. Curve Market is open from 10 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. each Saturday and from 1 p.m. until 4 p.m. each Sunday.

Rather than eating as much as Johnson and I did in a short amount of time, I would suggest an early lunch as McSwain's, dessert at Charlotte's shortly before closing time (call ahead to reserve what you want) and supper at Seaton's. In addition to shopping, add in stops at the state's Plantation Agriculture Museum and Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park in order to make a full day of it. Take your time to soak in the history of this area.

"Events such as floods, droughts and most recently human construction have altered the path of the Arkansas River," writes Steve Teske of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. "Remnants of former sections of the river remain near Scott as oxbow lakes, particularly Bearskin, Horseshoe and Willow Beach lakes. More than 1,000 years ago, a complex formation of mounds was created near what's now called Mound Pond. The site was farmed in the 19th century but was later preserved.

"Not only did the river create distinct lakes, it also provided farmland that was attractive to the first white settlers of Arkansas Territory. Chester Ashley was one of the first investors to acquire land in the area now known as Scott. John Scott, for whom the community is named, arrived in 1844. Thomas Steele began his plantation in the area in 1850."

Federal troops invading Little Rock from the north during the Civil War crossed the Arkansas River near Scott on the morning of Sept. 10, 1863.

"The war and its aftermath forced changes in the plantation economy of Arkansas, but the promise of the rich farmland continued to draw settlers," Teske writes. "James Robert Wayne settled on the Arkansas River south of Scott in 1870. The next year, the St. Louis Southwestern Railroad (known as the Cotton Belt) was constructed through the Scott area, although Conway Scott (son of original settler John Scott) had to be taken to court for the railroad to obtain a right of way through his land.

"The railroad depot was called Scott's Station or Scott's Crossing at first, but later the name was shortened to Scott. In 1912, Scott built a large brick building, intending to house a general store. The store later opened with different owners. A post office was added to the store in 1929. In 1885, William Pinkney Dortch married into the Steele family. By 1904, Dortch had established a new plantation, centered around a mansion named Marlsgate, which was designed by architect Charles Thompson."

Another famous house in the area is Land's End, designed by well-known Arkansas architect John Parks Almand in 1925. Both Marlsgate and Land's End are on the National Register of Historic Places.

"Cotton had been the principal crop on Scott-area plantations, but Robert Dortch (the youngest son of William Pinkney Dortch) began to experiment with other crops, especially soybeans," Teske writes. "He developed a hybrid cotton seed marketed as Roldo Rowden. In 1964, he opened a museum of farm equipment that had been used on the Dortch Plantation. The museum was housed in the brick building that had been built by Scott in 1912. Dortch died in 1972, and the museum closed in 1978."

The Arkansas Legislature funded the acquisition and refurbishing of the building in 1985. The Plantation Agriculture Museum opened in 1989.

Lafayette Cobb established a general store at nearby Keo in 1880. The settlement was first known as Cobb Settlement or Cobbs. Six cotton gins operated in the area. When the railroad built its line south of Cobb Settlement, people began moving to be near the line. The new community was named Keo in honor of Keo Dooley, the daughter of prominent landowner P.C. Dooley. The Keo post office opened in 1889.

"Keo weathered the Great Depression, but after the middle of the 20th century, cotton began to lose its luster," Teske writes. "The Morris & Moren cotton gin closed in the mid-1960s, and another gin closed around 1970. The Cobb cotton gin continued to be used into the 21st century and ceased operating in 2008."

In June 2011, the Keo Commercial Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places.


Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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