A fond farewell to Klappenbach

It’s bad news.

Bad news indeed.

This is the final week of business for the Klappenbach Bakery at Fordyce, which for the past 36 years has graced the downtown of the Dallas County seat. After Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, it’s among the most famous things to come out of Fordyce.

I first learned of the closing early last week when I opened my copy of Arkansas Business. The drive through the pine woods of south Arkansas will never be the same.

Today, the editors at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wisely decided to start a lengthy feature story on the Klappenbach Bakery on the front page. I say “wisely” because there are certain places that can define a town, a county, a region.

The bakery was one of those places.

I understand the situation. Honestly, I do.

Norman and Lee Klappenbach are tired.

Norman is 80.

Lee is 77.

A bakery is the kind of business where you need to arrive at work by about 3 a.m.

John Worthen writes in today’s statewide newspaper: “The Klappenbachs’ son, Paul Klappenbach, 47, grew up in the business and has been working full time at the bakery for the past seven years. The 65-hour workweeks have sapped his energy, he said, and he has been unable to find an assistant baker.”

Paul Klappenbach told the newspaper: “You can’t sustain yourself working these kinds of hours. I’m going to find something else to do.”

The Klappenbachs moved to Fordyce in 1975 from Walla Walla, Wash. Lee Klappenbach was originally from the area.

John Worthen called me yesterday when he was working on his story. Here’s what I told him: Often, you identify a place by a restaurant. When I think of DeValls Bluff, I think of meals I’ve enjoyed at Craig’s. When I think of Brinkley, I think of Sunday nights in the back room at Gene’s. When I think of Pine Bluff, I think of Bobby Garner’s cheeseburgers at the Sno-White Grill. When I think of Fordyce, I think of the Klappenbach Bakery.

You get the idea.

Often, though, when the hard-working owners of these establishments pass away or decide to retire, there’s no one to take their place. The kids have no interest in the long hours and limited revenues. And buyers can be hard to find, especially in areas of south and east Arkansas that are losing population.

Once they’re gone, they’re gone.

That means we better enjoy these independent establishments while we still can. In large parts of rural Arkansas, we’re left with only convenience stores with fried chicken and “tater logs” under heat lamps.

A case in point is Shadden’s near Marvell. I’ll never forget that Thursday afternoon in the spring of 2010. I was on my way to Mississippi on U.S. Highway 49. As I passed the Shadden’s store just west of Marvell, I noticed that one of my favorite places to eat barbecue in the Delta was closed.

I hoped nothing was wrong.

I had no way of knowing at the time that it was Wayne’s Shadden’s final full day of life. He died the following day at age 77.

Shadden’s was a place people heard about and then drove many miles to visit. The Klappenbach Bakery also was such a place.

Wayne Shadden’s wife, Vivian, said she was tired and had no plans to keep the store open. The kids were far away. One son was in Washington state. The other was in California. One daughter was in Texas. Another daughter was in Virginia.

Sixteen months later, Shadden’s remains closed, a black wreath still on its front door.

The wooden building that housed Shadden’s is almost a century old. Inside, the walls were covered with newspaper clippings and photos. I have several bottles of Shadden’s barbecue sauce at home, bottles I pull out like fine wine on special occasions.

Turkey Scratch native Levon Helm would have Wayne Shadden’s barbecue sauce shipped by the case to his home in Woodstock, N.Y.

I’m also reminded of an interview I did with Bobby Garner at the Sno-White a couple of years ago. The Pine Bluff landmark first opened in 1936, one year before Walt Disney produced his first full-length animated classic, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Garner purchased the restaurant in February 1970 from Roy Marshall, who had owned it the previous 27 years. Though he’s not sure how the restaurant got its name, Garner once had figures representing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs attached to the outside of the building. Those came down the day Garner received a visit from a local lawyer who had been hired by the Walt Disney Co. to ask for royalty payments.

There are still some notable things at the restaurant — one of the few remaining Lou Holtz dolls and even a cardboard cutout of John Wayne that looks out over the dining room.

“I haven’t been broken into since I hired him,” Garner says, grinning slyly.

The chances are that if you’re in Sno-White, so is Bobby Garner. He’s there six mornings a week at 5:30 a.m. and even comes in on Sunday mornings to clean up.

“I’m the only one who has a key,” he says.

Bobby is now 75.

“I checked with my board, and they said Sno-White doesn’t have a retirement plan,” he jokes.

But what happens when Bobby Garner decides he has had enough?

Will it be what happened when Wayne Shadden at Marvell died and the Klappenbachs at Fordyce retired?

I suspect so.

Here’s part of what I wrote about Sno-White for Roby Brock’s Talk Business magazine: “None of the coffee mugs match, which is part of the charm of a place like Sno-White. On the table where Garner sits down to visit, there’s a mug that says ‘Sparkman Sparklers,’ the name of a girls’ basketball team from Dallas County that was nationally known in the 1930s. It’s as if Sno-White has become the repository of south Arkansas history.

“There used to be quite a few locally owned, full-service restaurants in Pine Bluff like Sno-White. But as the city has lost population and economic vitality through the years, their numbers have declined. Garner rattles off the names of the competitors that are now only memories. There was John Noah’s Restaurant over by the Norton Lumber Mill. There was the Wonderland. The Country Kitchen out on the Dollarway Highway is about the only comparable place to Sno-White these days. Restaurants aren’t the only thing disappearing in southeast Arkansas.”

This is what Bobby Garner told me that morning as I sipped my cup of coffee: “Most of my friends have either died or moved. There’s a void there.”

Just as there will be a void in Fordyce at the end of this week.

There are still independently run restaurants scattered in small towns across our state that have been around for decades.

Enjoy them while you can. You never know when the end will come.

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