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OPINION | REX NELSON: Enchanted by Calico Rock

by Rex Nelson | September 8, 2021 at 3:27 a.m.

I didn't expect to spend so much time at the Calico Rock Museum & Visitor Center. This isn't a typical small-town museum.

The museum's growth matches the amazing transformation of the downtown in this scenic Izard County community. Calico Rock developed as a White River steamboat landing known as Calico Landing.

"Keelboats had worked the upper White River as early as 1820, followed by paddle-wheelers carrying merchandise and passengers from as far away as New Orleans," Ed Matthews wrote for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "It became a boomtown in 1902 when construction began on the railroad. Tracks were laid along the north bank, beneath the bluffs. The settlement was headquarters for railroad construction crews. In 1902, the St. Louis & Iron Mountain opened rail service there."

The museum began 13 years ago in the back room of a building. It covered just 800 square feet.

"We filled the little room with artifacts from the town's train depot, which had been demolished in the 1970s, along with items people had been collecting," Wayne Wood, a founding board member, told an interviewer last year.

Soon after the museum opened, the owner of an adjoining building offered it for sale at a reduced price. Board members took him up on the offer.

"As we grew, we gained people's trust to care for their family heirlooms," Wood said. "As generations passed away, their families didn't know how to care for things they were inheriting. But they couldn't bring themselves to throw them away, either."

Having run out of room, museum officials purchased property on what's known as lower Main Street. Three buildings were connected to form the current facility.

According to the publication Explore Calico Rock: "Buildings on lower Main Street were constructed in the 1920s after a spark from a passing locomotive caused a catastrophic fire. In rebuilding, the town decided to use rock that was quarried near Norfork and delivered by barge down the White River. The walls are 20 inches thick, and each entry that was cut needed to be at least nine feet tall and six feet wide."

The facility covers 14,000 square feet on two levels. In addition to the museum, there's a gift shop, arts center and science center. More than 30 area artisans have their goods displayed in the gift shop. The arts center features works by local and regional artists.

For those who love Arkansas history, a walk along Main Street is a step back in time. Almost two decades ago, residents came together to spruce up the area. Many of them had retired to Izard County from other states.

"We started washing the windows, planting flowers along Main Street, sweeping the sidewalks, placing benches along the street and doing little things we thought might make a difference," said Barbara Carlson, a member of what became known as the 2020 Group.

Businesses again occupy downtown buildings. Calico Rock's rebirth was even featured in a book by Andrew McCrea titled "A Total Town Makeover."

After visiting the museum, I crossed the street for an outstanding lunch, complete with a homemade dessert, at the Printing Press Cafe & Ice Cream Parlor.

Markers on the buildings downtown give their history. Calico Rock gained the reputation as a tough town in the 1800s due to the boat landing and arrival of railroad construction crews.

"Cotton farms were abundant, though small on the thin soil of the region," Matthews wrote. "There were several cotton gins in the area. In addition, the marketing and shipping of timber products was a major industry. A barge building entity operated for a short while on the north bank of the river where the town grew up, though the building of the railroad was the principal factor in economic growth.

"Churches were slow in coming to the reputedly tough frontier, and religious congregations often met in homes. Methodist and Presbyterian congregations used the same building until 1907 when the Presbyterians built their own. In 1898, a fire destroyed the commercial district."

Railroad construction spurred new activity. The Bank of Calico Rock constructed a building in 1903 at about the same time Walter Rodman was building a hardware store. Steve McNeil built a hotel, and Ben Sanders later constructed the Riverview Hotel in a building that still stands.

"In this rebuilding, the center street ran north and south, perpendicular to the White River," Matthews wrote. "The west side was the upper street and the east was the lower street because of the split elevation. Because the west side was much higher, a rock terrace wall was erected down the middle of Main Street.

"On April 7, 1923, a spark from a locomotive on the switch track set fire to a warehouse. Winds spread the flame to Main Street. More than 20 businesses were destroyed--all of the commercial structures on the east side and some on the west side. The brick-and-stone replacement structures remain."

Before Bull Shoals and Norfork dams were built upstream, there were frequent floods. Floods in 1916, 1919 and 1927 were devastating.

"During World War II, the economy of this already struggling town was hit hard," Matthews wrote. "There was a great deal of outmigration to Kansas by people seeking employment in an ammunition plant there. After that plant closed, many former Calico Rock residents stayed in the Kansas City area, and their families often followed them there. About the same time, there was a migration of residents to work in apple, pear and cherry orchards in the state of Washington."

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

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