Arkansas towns offer historic day trip

Sunday, February 19, 2006

KEO, Ark. -- From the antique shops and museums to the way of life, nothing in the Arkansas Delta towns of Keo and Scott is very new. Living in their turn-of-the-20th-century homes and eating food made from recipes generations old, residents like it that way.

And tourists do too.

The old farming communities, not far from Little Rock, boast an old South feel that attracts day-trippers looking for a glimpse into the region's cotton-growing past -- or a $40,000 antique bedroom suite.

"It's like a living history," says Mayor Nancy Cobb Tardy in Keo, where she said all houses are at least 50 years old. "It has just remained the same. The people just wanted to keep it as a quaint little town."

The towns were once the center of a thriving cotton economy based around dozens of plantations. Scott is home to the more historic offerings: the Plantation Agriculture Museum, Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park and the Scott Plantation Settlement.

In recent years, Keo has become a popular antiquing destination, but the town celebrates its history with a monument honoring all of the town's military veterans. Shops include the 60,000-square-foot Morris Antiques, which features rare European and American pieces. Visitors also sample homemade meringue pies at Charlotte's Eats and Sweets.

Keo and Scott are just eight miles apart, and visitors often make a day of seeing the area.

"If you go to the antique store, you'll stay 'til lunch. That's how things got started," Tardy said.

The towns are also an easy side-trip for out-of-towners taking in the Clinton Presidential Library in nearby Little Rock, just a half-hour's drive away. But high-end antiques collectors have also been known to fly in to Little Rock and head straight to Morris Antiques.

Once in Scott and Keo, however, visitors may feel like they have traveled decades to the past.

A basket of picked cotton bolls sits on the front counter at the Plantation Agriculture Museum. Roy Cox, the former mayor of nearby England and museum worker, said visitors often grab pieces and hold them with a bit of wonder, wanting to know if this is the crop they just drove past.

"A lot of people haven't seen cotton before," he said with a laugh.

An old general store-turned-museum, the exhibits and 1930s diesel-operated cotton gin attract about 12,000 visitors a year. The "Field to the Gin" tour demonstrates how cotton was picked, weighed and processed.

The canvas sacks used to pick the cotton hang on the wall.

"Children even had sacks. See that itty-bitty sack up there. That's for a child," museum director Ben Smedley said. He lifts a larger sack over his right shoulder, bending over to demonstrate the back-breaking labor. Workers were usually paid per pound of cotton picked.

In two years, the museum plans to open a demonstration seed warehouse to show how cotton, oat and soybean seeds were stocked, packaged and sold, then shipped as far away as California.

Down the road, the Scott Plantation Settlement lets visitors roam through about a dozen restored and furnished plantation-era homes. Included are an 1868 school house, a cook's house and "shotgun" tenant houses -- houses where, it was said, the rooms were laid out so that you could fire a shotgun from one end to the other and not hit anything.

Cotton is still grown in the area today, but not nearly as much. Soybean and rice fields along U.S. 165 between Little Rock and Keo are more common. In October and November, tourists can watch as locals process cotton at an old gin near the end of Main Street.

The big draw in Keo is Morris Antiques, owned by native soybean and cattle farmer Dean Morris, who started the business out of his garage in 1967.

"I got the house full," he said. "Then I put up a barn. Every year or two I put up another building."

Now he has nine climate-controlled showrooms packed wall-to-wall. He doesn't farm anymore. Instead he takes twice-yearly trips to France, England and Amsterdam, renting 45-foot-long trucks to fill with antiques. The trucks are shipped across the ocean and up through New Orleans or Houston.

"It was just a hobby, you know," Morris said. "I just fell in love with it. I'll buy stuff I think is interesting, even if I can't use it."

His shop showcases bars and bookshelves, bedroom suites and dining room tables. Some pieces are huge, more than 20 feet long and 10 feet tall, most with intricate carvings and all with perfectly polished woods.

Because of the size and rarity, prices can be steep -- tens of thousands of dollars for some pieces -- and the sales are often made to out-of-towners.

"Here we're getting up to real big money," he says, motioning to an exquisite sideboard marked at $65,000. "I have to sell on the Internet."

The other draw in town -- Charlotte's Eats and Sweets -- is owned by Morris' mother-in-law, Charlotte Bowls.

"Sometimes you'll go down at noon, you'll see 100 cars it looks like," said Morris, who makes it a point to eat lunch there on Wednesday for the meat loaf plate special. "Limos, Rolls Royces, you'll think 'My goodness, these cars are not from around here."'

Charlotte's looks just like it did generations ago. Four corrugated metal grain storage bins stand across the street. The place doubles as the site of community meetings; the city budget is taped on the window next to the front door.

Charlotte's famous pies -- 3-inch-high whipped merengue flavored with chocolate, caramel, coconut and lemon -- attract the lunch crowd. But get there early.

"They drive from Memphis and get irate because all of the sweets are gone," said Bowls, who wakes early every morning to prepare the crusts for the 80 to 100 pies she'll make a week.

Bowls and Morris reminisce about what Keo was like before their businesses drew tourists. The town began to lose residents in the 1980s and "by 1992 everything in town closed," Morris said. Now, people who work in Little Rock are moving closer, and the out-of-state license plates fill the parking lots.

"Now they're everywhere," Bowls said. "They came. I don't know where they came from, but they just came."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: