I pull into the parking lot of the Skylark Cafe at Leslie. The flowers in bloom around the business tell you immediately that this is a good place for lunch. The well-tended gardens show it has owners who care.
The Skylark has earned a statewide reputation. People drive from across Arkansas to eat here. On this day, I visit with the owner of one of Conway's best restaurants as he enjoys lunch.
Darryl Treat, executive director of the Greater Searcy County Chamber of Commerce, meets me in the parking lot. Treat's family goes back eight generations in Searcy County. His father was raised at Big Flat in the northern part of the county, and his mother was raised in the county seat of Marshall.
After attending the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Treat spent 27 years in the U.S. Air Force. He has spent the past 10 years building a countywide chamber in an attempt to put this rural area on the radar screen of more Arkansans.
We're met inside by retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Joe Wilson, who moved to Searcy County after 37 years of military service. Wilson lives in a remote area near Witts Springs (also sometimes called Witts Spring or Witt Spring) and has devoted much of his time since retiring to economic and tourism development.
The other person meeting us is Searcy County native Bob King, director and curator of the Buffalo River Historic Jail & Museum at Marshall, which is quickly establishing a reputation as one of the top local museums in the state.
Through the years, Searcy County has used slogans such as the Chocolate Roll Capital of the World, the Heart of the Buffalo National River, and the Elk Hunting Capital of Arkansas.
Marshall calls itself the Front Door to the Buffalo National River, Gilbert promotes itself as the Coolest Town in Arkansas, and Leslie is advertised as One of Arkansas' Best Kept Secrets.
Leslie has multiple restaurants (in addition to the Skylark, there's Crooked Gate, Ryan's Main Street Grill and Red River Cafe) and antique shops.
King has a museum background. After graduating from the University of Central Arkansas, he worked at the Old State House in Little Rock from 1975-88. Wilson, meanwhile, was assigned to the Little Rock Air Force Base at Jacksonville in 2015.
"We started coming up here and using a cabin on the weekends," Wilson says. "When I retired last year, we decided this is where we wanted to live."
"There's new energy in Searcy County because of people like Joe who have chosen to retire here," King says. "It's exciting to see all that's suddenly happening."
Like many rural Arkansas counties, Searcy County has been losing population for decades. Peak population came in the 1910 census when there were 14,825 residents. The population in the 2020 census was 7,828. Politically, Searcy County was long known as the place where there were numerous Republicans during an almost 130-year period of Democratic control in Arkansas.
"After the Civil War, Union veterans took control of the county, and they and their descendants have held Searcy County for the Republican Party ever since," James Johnston writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encylopedia of Arkansas. "By 1870, the county was attracting families from the defeated Southern states. In addition to new homesteads, a lead and zinc mining boom beginning in the mid-1890s brought money and people to St. Joe and north Searcy County.
"The completion of the railroad to Leslie in 1903 opened the area to agriculture, mining and timber exporting. Wiley's Cove Township was the home of several factories using white oak to make whiskey barrels, wagon hubs and other products. After World War I, the price of lead and zinc dropped, the railroad suffered labor problems that closed it for months, and the 18th Amendment erased the market for whiskey barrels. The population decline began."
As the virgin forests were cleared, timber companies moved to other states during the 1920s. The county's population fell from 14,590 in the 1920 census to 11,056 in 1930. By 1960, the population was down to 8,124. Johnston describes the Great Depression as a time of "stagnation and poverty" in the county.
"Federal assistance programs were adopted with suspicion by some, but Home Demonstration Club projects such as mattress making and tomato canning were welcome, as was the Civilian Conservation Corps for young men," he writes. "The spring 1941 Searcy County Folk Festival on the banks of the Buffalo River was a roaring success. It gained favorable publicity from the Kansas City Star and Little Rock newspapers. Most of the articles were written by retired newspaperman Will Rice, who lived near St. Joe.
"John Paul Rodman, a retired grocer and Presbyterian layman, came to Searcy County in 1937 to spend his last days but was moved by the plight of the local population to establish Presbyterian churches, with the help of his home church in Corpus Christi, Texas. He eventually established Rodman's Chapel and subsidiary missions."
Employment opportunities in the defense industry during World War II took dozens of families out of the county. Searcy County lost another 1,500 residents from 1940-50.
"After World War II, veterans tried to restart the economy," Johnston writes. "Marshall got a shirt factory and library. Strawberry growing in eastern Searcy County helped the economy until the mid-1960s when a scarcity of pickers made it no longer profitable. Veterans tried to resurrect the pre-World War II proposal for dams on the Buffalo River, hoping it would boost the economy. They clashed with canoe clubs, which mobilized opposition throughout Arkansas and adjoining states."
What once was opposed by the locals--establishment of the Buffalo National River by the National Park Service--might be the economic salvation for Searcy County in post-pandemic America.
Treat, Wilson and King realize that people are looking for places like Searcy County--places with abundant outdoor recreational opportunities--not only to retire but also to work if there are proper broadband connections. They hope to capitalize on that trend. Wilson, for example, has worked to improve the Searcy County Airport at Marshall so people can get in and out of the county more easily.
Treat is quick to add that there's more to Searcy County than Leslie, Marshall and St. Joe along U.S. 65.
"Snowball and Witts Springs are launching pads to western Searcy County for the Richland Valley and the Richland Waterfalls Welcome Center," he says. "We have some of the finest roads for bicyclists, excellent motorcycle roads, and our horseback riding is some of the most scenic east of the Rockies. Harriet is home of an agritourism destination and a huge Christian retreat."
For now, small entrepreneurs are leading the way. They're people such as Joy Ellis and her husband Denver. Joy, who grew up at Leslie, bought the former house that the Skylark calls home at age 19, spent seven months renovating it, and opened the restaurant in 2009. She had met Denver in Austin, Texas, where he was enrolled in culinary school. They got married in 2014 and decided to move to Austin. Joy sold the restaurant to her sister.
Joy and Denver later moved back to Leslie and repurchased the Skylark. They also opened a small shop up the hill from the restaurant and are developing what's known as Skylark Farms to grow fruits and vegetables.
After lunch, we walk around downtown Leslie with Mayor Talitha Hardin. We stop in the L.A. Salon, which has a beauty salon on one side with a retail store on the other side of a historic building that once housed a dry goods store. Downtown is home to everything from radio stations to a wild game processor.
Brick House Artisans, opened in November 2021 by another military veteran, features items made by artisans from across Arkansas. The building housing the business was constructed in 1907.
"Leslie originally was named Wiley's Cove," according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "Some sources say this was in honor of Chief Wiley, said to be a Cherokee resident of Searcy County. However, it likely derived its name from one of the numerous families named Wiley, Wilie or Wily who were squatting in northern and central Arkansas in the early 19th century. The first post office in the county was established in 1842. In the 1850s, Henry Begley and his brothers settled in the area, lending their name to Begley's Creek, which runs through the city.
"Early settlers engaged in hunting and subsistence farming as well as the raising of swine, which they drove to Little Rock to sell. Two subscription schools were started, though one source notes that they were primitive structures that compared poorly to a 'respectable hog pen.'"
The Missouri & North Arkansas Railroad laid its tracks through Leslie in 1903. The first train came to town on Sept. 6, 1903. The company later built an engine shed and shop buildings at Leslie. This led to rapid growth. Further growth occurred in 1906 when the H.D. Williams Cooperage Co. relocated to Leslie from Poplar Bluff, Mo. It promoted itself as the largest barrel producer in the world. The Ed Mays Manufacturing Co. later opened a stave mill at Leslie.
The M&NA moved its machine shops to Harrison in 1912. That same year, fire destroyed a large part of the cooperage company. Leslie's population fell from 1,898 in 1910 to 657 in 1930. There were 375 residents in the 2020 census.
In addition to its restaurants and shops, Leslie is known for Serenity Farm Bread, housed in a former bank building downtown. Serenity also has a popular retail outlet about a mile away on U.S. 65. We watch as bakers load the wood-fired brick oven with loaves of bread that Serenity ships across the country.
Serenity describes its bread this way: "Authentic sourdough, a traditional, naturally leavened bread, contains no baker's yeast, sweeteners, oils or fat. Our bread is made with flour, filtered water and unrefined sea salt. High in complex carbohydrates, low in fat, these are healthful, nutritional and delicious breads. ... We bake seven kinds of sourdough bread, all hand-shaped into round loaves. Our breads ship well, freeze well and are easy to revitalize if they become stale."
Serenity has been around for about 30 years. The oven was built in 1993. Scraps of kiln-dried hardwood lumber discarded by a carpentry shop are used for fuel. Sometimes that's supplemented with dried hardwood obtained while thinning area forests. The oven was built by the late Alan Scott, an Australian who built ovens around the world.
That evening, we attend a show at the Kenda in Marshall, one of two remaining drive-in theaters in Arkansas. The Kenda opened in April 1966 and now can hold 200 cars to see movies on its 72-foot screen. Kenneth and Marilyn Sanders already were running the indoor Ken Theatre in downtown Marshall when they decided to build a drive-in theater on six acres on the north side of town. They named the theater for their daughter.
The Ken burned in 1968, but the drive-in lived on. Sons Steve and Bill joined daughter Kenda in picking up trash, mowing, running the projection booth and working the concession stand. Kenneth and Marilyn Sanders retired in 2003 and turned the theater over to daughter and son-in-law Kenda and Todd Dearing.
"I was a year old when my parents opened this place," Kenda says as she gets the concession stand ready for that night's movie. "My mother still lives on the grounds. It's a family operation."
As one of the few drive-in theaters remaining, people come from across Arkansas and southern Missouri for movies. It's yet another thing that attracts visitors to Searcy County.
"I've never been more optimistic about this county than I am right now," King says. "There's a lot going on."