I like to think that I know a lot about Arkansas.
But I’ll admit that I had no idea until recently that Searcy County is the Chocolate Roll Capital of the World.
I ran across a photo on a website of a sign in the county that makes that claim.
Then, I picked up a guide to the county published by the Greater Searcy County Chamber of Commerce and — wouldn’t you know it — there was a full page devoted to the subject.
Here’s what the guide has to say: “For generations, people in Searcy County have been baking and enjoying a dessert that few folks outside these parts have ever heard of. Namely chocolate rolls. Searcy County’s glory days with strawberries have faded into the pages of history and the stories of its older citizens, but the chocolate roll remains. Can anyone doubt that Searcy County in the Home of the Chocolate Roll and also the Chocolate Roll Capital of the World?”
The chamber even announced a Chocolate Roll Capital of the World initiative.
“Searcy County is the home of the Chocolate Roll Festival, with the centerpiece being the World Champion Chocolate Roll Contest,” the guide says. “This is a unique competition of local bakers to see who is the World Champion Chocolate Roll Maker. This contest is held in the early spring every year. The contest was the brainchild of the Marshall High School Art Club and teacher Brenda Smyth. Individuals get to pay a small fee to sample and judge the chocolate rolls and get to vote on the world champion. The batch of rolls with the most votes wins.
“Chocolate rolls are also available at several locations throughout the county and are always the biggest hit at local events. As you travel through Searcy County, you have to stop and locate one of the Ozarks’ classic desserts, the chocolate roll. Watch for the chocolate roll signs.”
I’ve always admired the natural beauty of this sparsely populated county.
And I like the people.
My wife and I met when we were living in Washington, D.C. We moved to my home state of Arkansas just after our wedding in October 1989. Melissa is a native of far south Texas, and I was anxious to show her various parts of the state after we moved here. One of the first events I took her to outside of Little Rock was the Searcy County Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Day banquet. Told that it was a dinner banquet, Melissa put on her best dress. She was surprised when we walked into the restaurant at Marshall and she saw that some of the men were wearing overalls.
They were at least their “dress overalls,” I explained to Melissa.
Searcy County’s population peaked at 14,825 in the 1910 census. A century later, it was down to 8,195.
I’ve never failed to enjoy the drive north on U.S. Highway 65 from the southeast part of the county to the northwest corner.
Crossing the Middle Fork of the Little Red River.
Driving through Leslie with a stop at Serenity Farm for bread and a one-block detour off the highway to drive through that scenic old downtown of stone structures.
Visiting Marshall, its square around the courthouse, one of the few remaining drive-in theaters in the state and perhaps even a stop for dessert at the Daisy Queen on the highway.
Admiring the scenery along Bear Creek. Among my favorite views in Arkansas is the view when you round a curve on U.S. 65 headed north and there’s a pasture and old barn on your left with rock cliffs to the right.
Seeing the Buffalo National River at Tyler Bend.
Perhaps making a side trip to Gilbert, the coldest spot in Arkansas (it was a negative two degrees on Friday morning) and the place where my old college buddy Rodney Slinkard now turns out wonderful art.
The Gilbert General Store, built in 1901, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places under the name Mays Store. Gilbert was founded in the early 1900s when a rail construction camp for the Missouri & North Arkansas Railroad was built and named in honor of Charles Gilbert, the secretary-treasurer of Allegheny Supply Co, which was building the railroad.
“Gilbert was a hub for commerce,” the chamber guide says. “Cotton, logs, ore and grain came by rail. Gilbert was eventually the home to a repair shop for the railroad, which ceased operation in 1946. While the tracks were removed and sold as scrap, there are still signs of the railroad where the old concrete supports crossed the Buffalo River. The former rail bed is now a hiking route along the river.
“Today Gilbert contains a few homes, guesthouses and cabins for rent. The Gilbert General Store is still in operation, providing supplies and hunting and fishing licenses. The Riverside Kitchen and Gilbert Café serve diners in the area. Remnants of old homesteads provide a hint of its past.”
Gilbert at one time had four stores, two hotels, three doctors and several sawmills. The 2010 census listed 28 residents.
Writing years ago for National Geographic, Craig Ogilvie said of the Gilbert General Store: “The original mercantile flavor remains unchanged despite the passing years. Everything from buttons and axe handles to crackers and cheese are stocked in the homemade shelves and long glass display cases. … Until 1979, the store had been a part of the Mays-Baker families. Until the 1980s, a corner of the store served as the post office.”
As far as Gilbert being the coldest spot in the state, the temperature is said to have dropped to a minus 24 degrees there one morning during the winter of 1939-40. Then there was the day in April 1969 when it was below freezing in the morning and 90 degrees by that afternoon.
Back on the main highway, a stop for smoked bacon and ham at Coursey’s and a cinnamon roll at Ferguson’s is required.
Michael Stern, the famed “Roadfood” writer, had this to say about Coursey’s back in late 2008: “Coursey’s is a 55-year-old ham house in the Ozarks of north Arkansas. Mrs. Paula Hale, whose father started the business, told us that it began as a dirt-floored cabin (which is still standing outside the new, modern display room).
“‘My father hung each ham from a nail in the wall and wrapped it in a dry-goods box,’ she recalled.
“Coursey’s meats are now smoked in stainless steel facilities and the wooden cabin out front is only a reminder of days gone by. Now run by a third generation of the same family, the roadside shop maintains its country charm. We spent an educational half-hour consulting with Mrs. Hale and her kids about how to best get a ham and a couple of pounds of bacon shipped to us during a summer heat wave (we finally decided to wait until cooler weather), and we discussed the fine points of making tasty red-eye gravy.
“Mrs. Hale clued us in to the joy of a good ham hock, which should never be thrown away once the ham has been eaten. It makes the perfect pot companion for long-cooked greens or beans. And she reminded us that when we fried Coursey’s delicious bacon — made from corn-fed hogs and slow-cured over burning green hickory logs — we should save the drippings to season our hominy or cabbage.
“Coursey’s is primarily a mail-order and takeout business, with scarlet hams hanging on a rack in cloth bags, flavoring the air with their hickory perfume; an assortment of jerkies in jars; and shelves of interesting local jellies, sorghum and honey for sale. Coursey’s has a small counter in the back where you can have a sandwich made of ham, turkey or peppered beef. There is nothing fancy here. Just meat (cheese optional) on supermarket bread. But oh what good meat. It is lean, sweet and tender with an alluring wood-smoke bouquet but none of the pungency of salt-cured country ham.”
The next town headed north is St. Joe, where the 1902 depot (a stop on the Missouri & North Arkansas, which ran from Joplin to Helena) was restored in 2009 to serve as a museum and information center.
There once was lead and zinc mining in the St. Joe-Pindall area. Pindall was a railroad stop first known as Kilburn Switch.
“In the early 1920s, a colony of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) from Illinois and other states settled in the Gilbert area,” James Johnston writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The failure of the M&NA after World War II and the decline of the economy forced their Bible college to move to Joplin and the area to lose population. The 1972 designation of the Buffalo as a national river left Gilbert as the only private property on the river, and it has prospered. The communities of Snowball and Witts Springs were once commercial centers, but improved transportation in the 1950s sent business to Marshall, and Snowball’s school and post office closed in the 1960s.”
Witts Springs consolidated with Marshall in 2004.
The Legislature first established Searcy County in November 1835, carving it from western Izard County. The original Searcy County also included parts of what are now Marion, Boone, Baxter and Stone counties.
The first Searcy County’s name was changed to Marion County in late 1836 in honor of Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion. A new Searcy County was created by the Legislature in 1838 from the southern part of Marion County. Lebanon on Bear Creek was the county seat until it was moved to Burrowsville (now Marshall), named for slave-owning secessionist politician Napoleon Bonaparte Burrow.
At the state’s secession convention in Little Rock in May 1861, Searcy County’s representative was one of just five to vote against secession. In the 20th century, at times when there were not many Republicans elsewhere in Arkansas, there always was a contingent of ancestral Republicans in Searcy County. These were people whose family roots in the party went back to the Civil War.
At the outset of the Civil War, a group known as the Peace Society was formed in the Ozarks to oppose the Confederacy.
“More Peace Society members are identified in Searcy County than any other county,” Johnston writes. “The organization was betrayed on Nov. 17, 1861, in Van Buren County by John Holmes, and the discovery of the society spread rapidly. Investigations of the Peace Society, first in Fulton County and then in Izard County, led to its discovery in 1861 on the Izard-Searcy County line.”
Eighty-seven men were marched in chains to Little Rock, forced to join the Confederate Army and shipped to Bowling Green, Ky. Some of those men later would escape and return to Searcy County. There were six Union companies made up of men from Searcy County.
“After the war, Union veterans took control of the county, and they and their descendants have held Searcy County for the Republican Party ever since,” Johnston writes. “By 1870, the county was attracting families from the defeated Southern states. In addition to new homesteads, the lead and zinc mining boom beginning in the mid-1890s brought money and people to St. Joe and northern Searcy County.”
The Great Depression hit Searcy County hard. After World War II, Marshall attracted a shirt factory and there was a push to make the county a center for growing strawberries. The inability to find pickers killed the strawberry industry by the 1960s. Civic leaders in the county felt dams on the Buffalo River and its tributaries would help the economy. The nationally publicized battle to keep the Buffalo a free-flowing stream went on for years. That epic environmental battle has been written about on this blog before.
In addition to chocolate rolls, a Searcy County claim to fame is that it leads the state in walnut production. It ranks 11th among the 75 counties in milk and dairy production, 12th in acres of land used to grow berries, 13th in turkey production, 14th in goat production, 22nd in hogs, 25th in cattle and 29th in horses.
There are hundreds of black bears in the county and some of the elk wander down from Newton County.
Chocolate rolls or no chocolate rolls, it remains a wonderful place for those of us who love rural Arkansas.