By: Bob Pest
Calico Rock is one of Arkansas’ most storied communities, dating back to the days of Spanish explorers. The new Calico Rock Museum is a bridge between the town’s heritage and culture and the unique experience of visitors. The museum is located in the historic Bank of Calico Rock Building on Main Street. It was chartered in June 2008. The board of trustees adopted the vision and focus for the museum in July 2009. The trustees set forth three themes for the museum’s collections and exhibits:
- The Development of Calico Rock
- Calico Rock as an Economic Center
- Everyday Living in Calico Rock
The museum was developed with assistance from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Public History graduate program. The partnership combines the resources of UALR and the talent and energy of its graduate students with the enthusiasm and commitment of the community. The new museum also enjoys a partnership with Old Independence Regional Museum in Batesville.
French fur-traders named Calico Rock while exploring the White River because of the uniquely colored bluffs jutting up from the river. While blasting for the railroad in the early 1900s, much of the coloration was lost. Over the past 100 years, the unique coloration has begun to return through natural processes. Calico Rock’s White River location provided a perfect landing for trappers, traders, and settlers attracted by the rolling hills and fertile valleys.
The town developed as a trading and bartering area, steam boat landing, commercial and wholesale center, and railroad boomtown. Ginning cotton, processing livestock, and milling lumber played major roles in the town’s growth. But the coming of the railroad in 1902 changed everything and almost bankrupted an empire. Railroad tycoon Jay Gould was laying rail from Memphis to Kansas City to expand his inland empire. He brought the railroad to Calico Rock, though other routes would have been more direct and easier to build. His decision turned Calico Rock into a boom town almost overnight; unfortunately, the cost of the ambitious and challenging project nearly bankrupted Gould.
Thanks largely to the railroad, Calico Rock became a major force in the economic development of the region. People living in the region brought their livestock, timber, cotton, and other commodities to the landing at Calico Creek to barter and trade. When the steamboats began traveling up and down the river, merchants traveled from around the region to barter, trade, and buy goods to sell in their shops in towns dotting the countryside. The Home was a steamboat built at Calico Rock. Electric power was generated in Calico Rock long before rural electric cooperatives came along. The 20th century brought an ice plant, tractor dealership, movie theatre, cattle processing plants, lumber mills, and other industries and businesses. When industry faltered, the White River helped launch as new era fueled by fishing, hunting, and tourism.
Calico Rock served as a location for a number of films. Parts of Bloody Mama (1969) and The Bootlegger (1973) were filmed in and around Calico Rock. The cotton gin in John Grisham’s novel, The Painted House, was apparently inspired by a gin in Calico Rock. Legend also has it the Jesse James once taught school in the area and lived in a local boarding house.
The museum’s current collections and exhibits celebrate the town’s colorful history, from pre-historic times to the late 20th century. But the best is yet to come; the museum’s trustees have purchased the building next door to the present museum. The new building will celebrate the town’s river heritage with a boat dock, a vintage steering wheel, wheelhouse, smoke stacks and other artifacts from the riverboat era. The museum also houses a miniature version of the Ozark Queen, the last of seven steamboats that navigated the White River until the early twentieth century. All seven boats will be recognized in the museum.
The Calico Rock Museum, located 102 Main Street, is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission is free. The Calico Rock Visitor Center is located in the museum building. It is well-stocked with brochures and maps to help you better enjoy your visit.
While you are visiting Calico Rock, be sure to check out the historic River View Hotel, built in 1923. Better yet, spend the night in this quaint, comfortable hotel, built on a bluff that provides excellent views. RV travelers and tent campers should head straight for the Cedar Ridge RV Park, with awesome views of the White River.
Calico Rock is home to one of the best restaurants in the region, Don Quixote’s. The restaurant, located across the street from the museum, has established an outstanding reputation for hearty lunches and unmatched desserts and pastries. Equally impressive is the Friday and Saturday dinner menu, an ambitious array of classic favorites and inviting specials. Factor in reasonable prices, excellent service, and a friendly, almost festive atmosphere and it’s easy to see why Don Quixote’s has become an institution that invites frequent visits and rave reviews. Restaurants in small rural communities don’t last sixteen years and counting by accident. Family Shoe and Dry Goods, housed in a 1918 building, is also home to an old fashioned lunch counter complete with vintage soda fountain. The one “must visit” attraction is the Peppersauce Ghost Town, a six block area of abandoned historic structures just across Calico Creek that includes the haunted remains of a funeral parlor, city jail, barbershop, grocery, and the Ozark Movie Theatre.
The Calico Rock Music Hall is currently being restored; plans are to reopen in early summer with a full slate of musical events and films on Saturday evenings. Local history enthusiasts are also busy restoring the 1854 Trimble Log Cabin. The Trimble family founded the Trimble Campground Church in 1850. The cabin has been dismantled, repaired, and is in the process of being rebuilt in a small park across from the Calico Rock Presbyterian Church. Like the music hall, it should be ready for visitors by early summer. Spurred on the by development of the museum, work on the music hall, and the moving and restoration of the Trimble Log Cabin, Calico Rock is enjoying something of a renaissance. New cedar cabins are being built and a campground for bikers is in the planning stages.
Calico Rock is one of the Ozark Gateway region’s most attractive “get away from it all” locations. The natural beauty of the bluffs overlooking the White River is incomparable and the easy pace of the community invites the visitor to relax, unwind, and appreciate the scenic landscape, historic downtown, and especially the new museum.