Archive for August, 2010

Eureka’s historic hotels

Monday, August 9th, 2010

While writing last week about the Crescent and the Basin Park hotels in Eureka Springs, I was struck by the fact that, more than ever, that city’s future rests on preserving its past.

There likely will always be a place for the motels, restaurants and the pair of music theaters out on U.S. Highway 62, but Eureka Springs’ primary draw must be its preserved homes and buildings from the golden era of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Think about it.

Branson now has a lock on the region’s live music and outlet mall sectors.

Eureka Springs is too far removed from major roads for a large amusement park.

But in this day and time when aging baby boomers are looking for that which is real — not manufactured like some Disney creation — the historic districts of Eureka Springs are as real as it gets. As heritage tourism accounts for more of the overall tourism spending in this country, Eureka Springs must continue to improve its historic hotels and its bed and breakfast inns. The key is to provide all of the modern amenities travelers expect without destroying the historic texture. It’s not always an easy thing to accomplish.

Next, Eureka Springs has to market these facilities effectively. The marketing must be highly targeted.

Eureka Springs is blessed with not only the Crescent and the Basin Park but also the smaller Palace Hotel & Bath House, the New Orleans Hotel and the Grand Central Hotel.

The Palace, in fact, boasts the city’s only remaining bath house (though there are numerous modern spas). A man named George Williams reportedly bought the lots where the hotel sits for $500 in 1900, built the hotel for $1,000 and sold it in May 1901 for $2,500. Limestone was quarried just outside of town, and Irish stonemasons constructed the hotel.

“George was fascinated with European castles and designed the Palace exterior in similar fashion,” the hotel’s website at www.palacehotelbathhouse.com notes. “Eureka Springs drew travelers from both coasts and Europe. In the early ’20s, mobsters were often seen here. The most known notable celebrity frequenting the Palace was W.C. Fields. Can you just see him sitting in that wooden steam cabinet, a stogie in his mouth, a bulbous red nose, saying “keep those children out of here.”’

Baths were 50 cents and what was listed simply as “steam” was $1.

“Each bath stall had a numbered electric button (at the head of the tub) connected to a control board (near the entry) that was visible to the staff,” the website states. “When pushed, the button rang a bell and tripped a brass arrow on the control board. The bath attendant, when summoned, brought soap, toiletries, towels or whatever the patron required. There were only two W.C.s (water closets) on each floor. The double door, manually operated wire cage elevator was one of the first electric elevators in the city.

“Spring water from the Harding Spring was piped under the street, about 200 feet into a cistern in the basement. It was then heated and pumped into two (hot and cold) steel vessels mounted on steel beams between the rear wings of the building. The tanks were two feet above bath house floor level, and water pressure was aided by gravity flow to the baths.”

These days, a mineral bath at the Palace will cost you $16. A eucalyptus steam treatment will cost $16. So will a clay mask treatment. You can get all three of these along with a 30-minute massage for $72 and all three of these along with a one-hour massage for $92. The bath house operates from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. each Monday through Thursday, from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. each Friday and Saturday and from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. each Sunday.

One of my favorite things in Eureka Springs is that neon sign out front. They claim that it was the first neon sign installed west of the Mississippi River. It’s also said that the sign was painted by a popular area painter whose name was Golly. So, of course, he signed all of this works “By Golly.”

The sign looks great at night.

If you’re interested in the history of the city’s historic hotels, you should check out the website www.hostelries.eurekaspringshistory.com. Dan Ellis lived in one of the best spots on the Gulf Coast — Pass Christian, Miss. — prior to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Ellis, who has written a series of local histories of communities in Mississippi and Louisiana, lost almost everything in that storm.

He headed north to Eureka Springs to start over and has been there ever since.

“Upon arriving in Eureka Springs, I was spellbound by the extant hotels that I found in superb condition due to the many former owners who realized that it took considerable money to maintain such jewels,” he writes. “I became enchanted by the magnificent stonework structure and glorious fourth-floor views from the Crescent Hotel. The odors and rickety narrow stairway of the Basin Park Hotel in climbing to the top. The aged glory of the below-ground nightclub and restaurant at the New Orleans Hotel. The wonderful elegance and refurbishment to the Grand Central Hotel. The cleanliness and wholesomeness of the suites in the Palace Bath House Hotel.

“These are overwhelming edifices each with stories to be told. Countless visitors have stayed at these hostelries, enjoying their honeymoons or anniversaries or for their joyful occasion.”

Check out his website. The history he has uncovered is fascinating.

What’s now the New Orleans Hotel originally was called the Wadsworth Hotel. W.S. Wadsworth owned the facility, which was completed in December 1901. His wife Jennie was a former circus bareback rider and served as the hostess. There were wrought iron balconies on the top three floors, and the popular Wellington Bar was housed in the hotel prior to Prohibition. The name of the hotel was changed to the Allred Hotel in 1908. It became the Springs Hotel in 1948.

The name was changed yet again to the New Orleans Hotel when Gale Reeves purchased it in 1954. The building on Spring Street was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. The hotel now has 21 guest units with 18 of them being suites. Each suite features the work of a local artist. The hotel is the home of the Suchness Spa.

Down on Main Street, the Grand Central Hotel has 14 large guest suites, the Grand Taverne restaurant and the Spa at Grand Central.

The history posted on the hotel’s website at www.grandcentralresort.com reports that by 1881, the population of Eureka Springs had grown to 10,000 and “Eureka Springs had become Arkansas’ fourth-largest city. The Grand Central Hotel was built in 1880 as the stagecoach terminal for passengers coming to Eureka Springs from the north. The nine-hour line reached from the railhead at Pierce City in Missouri to the front door of the Grand Central Hotel. As many as 100 persons a day would come through the hotel seeking the healing waters of Eureka Springs. Many of these new arrivals were well-to-do Easterners. They brought with them discriminating tastes in all manner of living, especially in the architecture of the fine houses that were built soon after arrival.”

It was called the Connor Hotel at the time. The original wooden building burned in 1890 and was replaced with a brick facility. The Grand Central was the first brick hotel in town (the 1886 Crescent was built of limestone) and the first to have running water on every floor. It received its water supply from Onyx Spring on East Mountain.

By the 1970s, the upper floors had been closed and the roof was leaking badly. Restoration began in 1985. By 1987, the top two floors had been redone to produce 14 suites.

The hotel’s website gives a good description of what had happened in Eureka Springs: “By the turn of the 20th century, science and technology had dealt a deadly blow to the magical waters of Eureka Springs. As was the case with most spa towns all across America, their attractiveness waned among the sophisticated visitors that once came. … Next it was the Great Depression. Once magnificent Victorian-era structures went neglected or were torn down simply for the materials that could be recovered.

“In the 1970s, teetering on the brink of disaster, the town’s civic leaders decided to consult with theme park experts to see if some grand attraction could be lured to the area. To their surprise, they came to understand that Eureka Springs is a theme park. Efforts began immediately to preserve what was left of the Victorian village that had been built nearly a century earlier.”

That’s it.

Eureka Springs is a theme park. We don’t need to build one.

The Crescent. The Basin Park. The Palace. The New Orleans. The Grand Central.

They are Arkansas treasures that should be preserved, continually improved and marketed to those aging baby boomers who are now looking to experience that which is authentic.

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Bring back Browning’s, dang it!

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

I was out of town for much of last week and therefore am late commenting on the closure of that Little Rock icon, Browning’s Mexican Food.

Much has been written about the Heights institution since it closed on Tuesday night of last week. There was a wonderful editorial in Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, for instance.

The comments sections of the Arkansas Times’ Arkansas Blog and the Eat Arkansas blog were filled with input from people who loved (and hated) Browning’s.

My thoughts: A spot on Kavanaugh Avenue in one of the most affluent sections of the state’s largest city — a spot that has held a restaurant since the 1940s — can only be described as a great location.

Also, nostalgia sells. If you don’t believe it, reference my post from earlier this week about the retail success of Dick’s on Main Street in Branson.

When it comes to a restaurant, nostaglia and location aren’t enough. The food and service, of course, matter a great deal.

Here’s my advice for the savvy investor: Bring back Browning’s. Stick as closely as you can to the Ark-Mex menu for fans of the old Browning’s (I count myself among those fans). Keep up the breakfast that had been added by the new owners. Serve it six days a week. Make it, quite simply, the best breakfast in town. In a city that lacks for independent restaurants that serve a full breakfast, there’s a market here. At lunch, have the top plate lunch in town (Browning’s was once known for its lunch specials) for those who don’t want Ark-Mex.

Next, have the most efficient service in the city. Period. I liked to have breakfast meetings at Browning’s but often found the service (or lack thereof) maddening.

Finally, make the restaurant spotless. There’s nothing wrong with old. But it must be clean.

There are few professions that require longer hours than running a restaurant correctly. The owners were quick to say there were some management problems. They suggested that a lack of business wasn’t the major problem. And it appears the tax man was on the way.

So have a top-notch business manager. Location, nostalgia, Little Rock’s best breakfast, great plate lunches, Ark-Mex in the evening, outstanding service, cleanliness and hard work should add up to a profitable enterprise.

I didn’t grow up in Little Rock. But like a lot of Arkansans, my family made frequent trips to the city. So I ate at Browning’s as a child. And when I moved to Little Rock immediately following graduation from college, I became a regular at Browning’s on my nights off (I was a sportswriter and my hours were from late in the afternoon until late at night).

I agree with those who say that the Ark-Mex at Browning’s is an acquired taste. My wife, who was raised in far south Texas and knows good Mexican food, hated the place the first time I took her there. I tried to explain that despite the sign out front that said Browning’s Mexican Food, this wasn’t really Mexican food. It wasn’t even Tex-Mex. It was Ark-Mex. In my family, we referred to it as the platter of orange and brown goo, and I loved it.

Sometimes when my wife would say, “You’re on your own for dinner,” I would drop by Browning’s. If you saw me there at supper, I was usually eating alone. I would get the red punch and the Summer Plate (taco, guacamole salad, cheese dip) whether it was summer or not. If I were still hungry, a scoop of sherbet would serve as dessert. I left satisfied.

Given the strong outpouring of public sentiment since Browning’s closed, I think the foundation is there to keep the place alive.

And if there is no rebirth?

Well, it will serve as a lesson. If we truly love the old places, we have to do more than talk about them. We have to spend money there. I was having lunch recently with two prominent commercial real estate developers, and we began listing the truly old-line restaurants in Little Rock. The list was short — Franke’s, Bruno’s, Browning’s, Lassis Inn. I love them all. And I spend (or spent in the case of Browning’s) money at all of them.

We can take nothing for granted.

I’m reminded of that each time I drive down U.S. Highway 49 and pass the closed Shadden’s barbecue joint near Marvell, the wreath still on its door. When I would make that drive every week during my years of working for the Delta Regional Authority, I took for granted that Shadden’s would always be there. Then Wayne Shadden died and the place closed, likely to never open again.

The Shadden’s legend, however, will live on. I received a nice note yesterday from Liz Williams, the president of the Southern Food & Beverage Museum in New Orleans. She reported that she had read on this blog about the closing of Shadden’s and was able to obtain the sign.

That sign will now be a part of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. It also will help shine a spotlight on the Arkansas barbecue culture, which has never received the national recognition that I feel it deserves.

The next time you’re in New Orleans, you need to drop by the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. It opened in June 2008 and is in the Riverwalk Marketplace, along the Mississippi River adjacent to the city’s enormous convention center.

Here’s how the museum’s website (www.southernfood.org) describes this exciting, relatively new addition to New Orleans’ inventory of attractions: “The Southern Food and Beverage Museum is a nonprofit living history organization dedicated to the discovery, understanding and celebration of the food, drink and the related culture of the South. … While based in New Orleans, the museum examines and celebrates all the cultures that have come together through the centuries to create the South’s unique culinary heritage. It brings all races and ethnicities to the table to tell the tale, from the farmer and the homemaker to the line cook and the celebrity chef.

“The Southern Food and Beverage Museum celebrates, interprets, investigates, entertains and preserves. A collaboration of many, the museum allows food lovers of all stripes — Southerners and non-Southerners, locals and tourists, academics and food industry insiders — to pull up their chairs and dig into the food and drink of the South.”

In addition to the food and drink, the museum focuses on:

— The many ethnicities that have combined to create Southern food and drink traditions.

— The farmers, fishermen, hunters and gatherers who have produced the food.

— The processors, inventors, chefs and business people who run the restaurants and stock the stores.

Liz, who has been involved in several major economic development projects in New Orleans, is also a lawyer who writes about the legal aspects of food. She’s working on a book about obesity lawsuits and other food-related litigation.

Maybe somebody at the museum can tackle that strange subculture of Ark-Mex enthusiasts. At any rate, the museum is open from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. each Monday through Saturday and from noon until 6 p.m. on Sundays. Pay a visit on your next trip to New Orleans.

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The ghosts of Eureka Springs

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

Having bailed out of our plans to visit the Redneck Riviera in this summer of the oil spill (perhaps we can call it the Year 2010 BP), we chose to shorten our family vacation and head north rather than south.

I’ve been in Eureka Springs for various conferences and seminars in recent years (I also went on an annual search for smallmouth bass in the Kings River for several consecutive summers), but this was the first time in six years that we had spent multiple nights there as a family.

Our destination was the Crescent Hotel & Spa, and it was nice to see that things were hopping atop the mountain.

There were large weddings and receptions on both Thursday night and Friday night. Meanwhile, at $18 apiece, tickets were selling briskly for the nightly ghost tours, which begin at 8 p.m.

“Some hotels, such as the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, are proud of their reputation for being haunted,” Gary Stoller wrote in USA Today back in March. “The Crescent advertises it in hopes of attracting the curious. Other hoteliers dismiss guests’ tales and would just as soon the notion that they’re harboring ghosts be exorcised for fear of scaring guests away.”

In a place as quirky as Eureka Springs, I’m glad the hotel has fully embraced its reputation for being haunted. There also are ghost tours at the Basin Park Hotel.

Stoller wrote: “At the Crescent, paranormal researchers Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, stars of the ‘Ghost Hunters’ show, say they caught on a thermal-imaging camera ‘the Holy Grail’ of paranormal investigation: ‘a full-body apparition’ wearing a hat and nodding. In 20 years of investigating paranormal activity at all locales, a full-body apparition has been captured on the camera only eight to 10 times, Hawes says.”

Bill Ott, the hotel’s director of marketing and communications, told the newspaper that the reports of ghosts have been good for business.

“The haunted reputation gives us awareness,” he said.

I’m not into the ghost fad, but the tour was fun in a kitschy sort of way. Why bother visiting this most eccentric Arkansas town if you’re not going to do something kitschy?

Glen Couvillion, who heads the team of Crescent ghost tour guides, moved to Eureka Springs from New Orleans.

“The response to the new Crescent Hotel ghost tour has been overwhelming,” according to the July issue of the Lovely County Visitor. “The guides will lead three to four tours a night to meet this increased demand. The multiple tours, open to hotel guests as well as visitors to Eureka Springs, allow the size of the tour to be effectively managed, offering a better, more enhanced experience for participants.”

“I have been exposed to the paranormal both in New Orleans and here in Eureka,” Couvillion said. “I have literally been touched by the unexplained and am quite excited to be giving ghost tours here in the Crescent, a very active, very famous resort hotel with many bizarre stories to tell.”

Interestingly, the same issue of the Lovely County Visitor features an ad for the business Eureka Springs Ghost Tours, making sure people realize that particular business is no longer associated with the hotel.

“We are no longer doing ghost tours at the Crescent Hotel and wish to thank the thousands of patrons who have participated in our tours for the past 11 years,” the ad states. “Watch our website for evocative information and future developments.”

What’s Eureka Springs without a squabble?

While not into the paranormal, I do consider myself a preservationist. Thus I was interested to learn that the Crescent is one of three Arkansas hotels included on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Historic Hotels of America list. The other two are the Inn at Carnall Hall on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and Little Rock’s Capital Hotel.

In many ways, the 1886 Crescent Hotel remains a work in progress. On our first night, the door jammed and we couldn’t get out of the room (maybe a ghost did it). We called the front desk, and the bellman couldn’t get it open from the outside, either. While visions of firemen kicking in the door rattled around my brain, I finally forced it open. We asked to be moved to another room.

Showers throughout our stay led to wild dances as the water went from very hot to very cold. A couple with whom we visited at the pool complained that their room did not cool well (which was not a problem for us during that sultry final week of July).

I also had to avoid staff members who were smoking in public areas — on the back porch and by the pool.

But the hotel has its charms. The water in the pool is clean and cool. The grounds are beautiful with well-maintained flower gardens. The staff is friendly. The couple from Oklahoma City who complained about the hot room also raved about the massages they received at the hotel’s New Moon Spa. And the food was much better than I remember six years ago. Two breakfasts per morning come with each room, and the made-to-order omelets in the Crystal Dining Room left me satisfied. We went elsewhere for dinner on each of our three nights there (Rogue’s Manor the first night, DeVito’s the second night and Gaskin’s Cabin the third night), but lunches at Dr. Baker’s Extraordinary Bistro & Sky Bar on the fourth floor were good (especially the pizzas).

To truly appreciate the hotel, you must consider how far it has come since it was purchased by Marty and Elise Roenigk on May 5, 1997, just two months after they had purchased the Basin Park.

Jack Moyer, the hotel’s general manager, told the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal in a story published last week that the aging resort was in “dangerous disrepair” at the time. He said a bellman named Boyd Pyle developed a routine to attract guests.

“He would walk them room to room, literally, until they found one they were willing to stay in,” Moyer said. “That was how this hotel stayed afloat.”

The Roenigks moved into a penthouse on the top floor and began pouring millions of dollars into renovations.

Richard Davies, who heads the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, told the business publication: “I think the Crescent is a symbol of the resurgence of tourism in Eureka, a sign that people were willing to come in and make an investment — and hang in there — when times were no so great.”

As I said, the Crescent remains a work in progress. Don’t go expecting the Four Seasons. But Moyer told the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal that Marty Roenigk was “totally oppposed to taking a historic shell and putting a new building inside it. He wanted to freeze a period in history.”

Marty Roenigk was killed in June of last year in an automobile accident in Iowa. Elise Roenigk continues to own the Crescent and the 1905 Basin Park.

While many of his dreams were achieved, much remains to be done. In 2006, the Roenigks announced plans for an $11 million condominium project in the woods adjacent to the hotel. The Crescent Park project was to consist of 38 condos in 19 buildings covering 11 acres. David McKee of Fayetteville, who studied under Fay Jones, was hired as the architect.

“It’s very much in the spirit of Fay Jones and started before Fay Jones passed away,” Moyer said at the time. “He makes a point that you build and develop with quality. That’s part of the sizzle here.”

With the real estate market booming in 2006, it was said that condos ranging from 975 square feet to 1,325 square feet would go for $300,000 to $350,000. Moyer told Arkansas Business in October 2006 that he expected to have most of the condos under contract within six months to a year from the opening of a sales office on Nov. 1, 2006.

The first two buildings, which are nestled in the woods at the back of the hotel parking lot, were built in 2007. Incorporating wood, stone and glass exteriors with multiple balconies, they blend in nicely with the surrounding landscape and can be rented as two-bedroom cottages with rates beginning at $399 a night.

“It will be an intrinsic part of the hotel forever,” Marty Roenigk said in 2006. “It will be a very mixed thing, a hotel suite and a second home. The owner can utilize the condo on weekends or on vacations. Then he has the opportunity to put it back into the hotel rental pool when not using it. The hotel and the owner will split the rent 50-50 so the owner has an income from the property to help meet the mortgage or pay the taxes or whatever.”

As we said earlier, though, it’s just not Eureka Springs without a squabble. The Roenigks wrangled for months with the City Council, the Historic District Commission, the Board of Zoning Adjustment and the Planning Commission. In a compromise announced in March 2007, they eliminated most of the planned roads through the development, established a permanent green space easement next to streets and moved several of the proposed structures. The proposed tree cut was reduced from 27 percent to 18 percent.

“We wanted to do it right,” Marty Roenigk said at the time. “We did everything asked of us. One thing people lose sight of is that this property is zoned for development. If someone else came in and bought this, they could build many more buildings than we are. … We’ve done everything we feel we’re supposed to do. We would prefer not to go to court. The people who oppose it because they think it should remain a vacant lot, I respect their opinion, but it’s impractical.”

The first two buildings were constructed.

Then the bottom fell out of the real estate market.

Then the Great Recession took hold.

Then Marty was killed.

No additional construction has taken place.

But the Crescent Hotel plugs on, ghosts and all.

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A Saturday in Branson

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

It was almost 4 p.m. Saturday when we walked into Dick’s Old-Time 5 & 10 on Main Street in Branson, Mo.

As usual, the store was crowded. We could barely move up and down the narrow aisles. By the dozens, tourists pushed their way through the glass doors. It was stuffy inside.

Those who know me will be quick to tell you that I’m not one to go into stores. But I was here to see a friend from my college days, Steve Hartley, whose father began the business half a century ago.

Wedging myself between the tourists, I looked for Steve. He wasn’t there. But I knew he was working on this summer Saturday. Heck, he’s always working.

Finally, I asked an employee: “Is Steve in today?”

“He’s gone to lunch,” the employee replied. “He should be back in the next 30 minutes.”

So Melissa, Evan and I crossed Main Street (our older son, Austin, was back at the Hilton Promenade working out in the fitness room) to have homemade limeades at Mr. B’s.

We returned to Dick’s shortly before 5 p.m., and I still didn’t see Steve. But then I saw his mom, June, hard at work at age 80.

“Welcome to Dick’s,” she said with a smile as people walked in.

Every other year during the 1990s, when the Ouachita Baptist University football team would play Southwest Baptist University in nearby Bolivar, I would spend a weekend with Steve. On a couple of those occasions, I was honored to have Saturday lunch at the home of Dick and June Hartley.

I went over, said hello to Mrs. Hartley and immediately received a big hug. Then, she went to the back room to retrieve Steve, whose day had become even busier than usual when the air conditioner in the building had given out.

Steve and I attended Ouachita at the same time. He was an excellent baseball player, and I covered the team as part of my job as sports editor of Arkadelphia’s Daily Siftings Herald. Following college, Steve began a career with Dillard’s Inc. Because he was smart and a hard worker, he quickly rose through the ranks, eventually managing one of the chain’s largest stores in Nashville, Tenn.

I have no doubt that Steve would now be a top executive had he remained with the company.

In 1993, however, he had to make a life-changing decision. Branson was booming, and his father asked him if he would come home to help run the family business. Steve chose at that point to give up his Dillard’s career and has never looked back. He has a closet filled with the suits he wore as a Dillard’s store manager. They’re rarely used. In Branson, the dress is casual. But the hours are long.

The Hartley family was in Branson before Branson was cool. Now an anchor of Main Street in the old downtown section of town, Dick’s has become somewhat of a landmark in a place where so much of what now exists is less than 20 years old.

My father, who was a downtown businessman in Arkadelphia for decades and a salesman at heart, would stop in to say hello to Dick Hartley whenever my parents would visit Branson. That’s because Red Nelson and Dick Hartley were kindred spirits — both born in the 1920s, both veterans, both hard workers who built businesses from scratch. Dick, who died in December 2006 at age 80, was a natural-born retailer.

Dick was born in 1926 in Springfield. He joined the U.S. Army upon graduation from high school and was stationed in Tokyo following the conclusion of World War II. He went to college at Drury in Springfield and graduated with a degree in economics. In 1950, he moved to Chicago to work for the S.S. Kresge Co. (later Kmart), renting a room at a YMCA and learning the five-and-dime business.

In 1956, Dick accepted a management position with TG&Y and moved to Midwest City, Okla. He and June, also a Springfield native, were married in 1959.

“After being transferred to Norman, Okla., Dick developed a desire to own his own five and dime,” says the store’s website at www.dicksoldtime5and10.com. “Dick and June agreed together that they wanted to take on this challenge. The next big decision, ultimately one of the biggest decisions of their lives, was where to locate their business. There was talk of Abilene, Kan., because of an available building with a favorable lease opportunity. There was also talk of the communities surrounding their hometown of Springfield.”

There was, however, something about Branson on the banks of the White River that felt right. That’s where they decided to open their business. At first, Dick and June were the only employees. Dick even built many of the counters used in the store. The folks in Branson said no one could outwork Dick Hartley. It’s an attribute inherited by his son.

In the 1970s, a competitor closed down and Dick Hartley bought the building that now houses the store. On Dec. 9, 2006, he closed the store at 9 p.m., went home and passed away.

Steve had the pleasure of working daily with his father for 13 years. Following his father’s death, my friend began to work even harder. His brother-in-law, Dave Montgomery, joined the thriving business in 2008.

There are more than 50,000 items in stock at the store.

“My father would have a fit if he knew how much inventory I have,” Steve says. “But it’s moving.”

There also are the collections on the walls — the autographed aviation prints, sports memorabilia, arrowheads, train memorabilia and more. Many of the more than 100 aviation prints are autographed by pilots and crew members. There’s the Memphis Belle, the Enola Gray and more.

In the collection of autographed sports prints, one can find Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Dizzy Dean and many others.

The walls are covered.

Unlike most Branson visitors, I do my best to stay off Missouri Highway 76 west of U.S. Highway 65. I hate traffic, and I don’t really have any desire to attend the shows. We made one futile attempt to drive through that area Sunday morning but turned around in the face of bumper-to-bumper traffic. I prefer to remain downtown.

Steve says the $500 million Branson Landing development has helped his business. More than 7,000 cars go up and down Main Street on an average day. People now flock to the development along Lake Taneycomo, which boasts two Hilton hotels, condominiums, more than 20 restaurants, more than 100 specialty shops, a Bass Pro Shop, a Belk’s department store, a marina and the $7.5 million water fountain show that’s synchronized to music with lights and fire.

Partners Rick Huffman, Sam Catanese and Marc Williams of HCW Development Co. are the men behind Branson Landing, which opened in 2006. In December 2008, the development was given a design award by the International Council of Shopping Centers.

As the economy continues to struggle, the overall tourism numbers in Branson are relatively flat. But east of U.S. 65, in the old downtown and at Branson Landing, the crowds are heavy. Steve said business at Dick’s has been good — very good.

If you’re like me and don’t care to fight the traffic on Highway 76 West, stay east of U.S. 65, visit Steve and June at Dick’s and eat at one of the old-style restaurants downtown — the Branson Cafe, the Farmhouse, Clockers or The Shack.

Had he lived, Dick Hartley might have been amazed at the size of the Saturday night crowds that show up these days down the street at Branson Landing. But he wouldn’t have been surprised by the crowds at his store or the work ethic of his son. Like father, like son, no one outworks a Hartley.

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